The Many Faces of Food in Fiction

food-in-fictionIn middle and high school, I was heavily into theater. We did tons of improvisational exercises, most of which I don’t recall. However, one sticks in my mind, and I continue to use it in the spoken word classes I teach. It’s done in pairs, and each partner only has one line that they say to each other over and over again: “let’s have lunch.” The goal of the exercise is to say it as many different ways as possible, using emphasis, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, to make the line mean different things.

Sometimes, the emphasis can lead to a feeling of conflict:

Partner with belligerent expression: Let’s have lunch.

Partner with hostile expression: Let’s have lunch.

Or it can take on a more romantic or suggestive connotation:

Female partner bats her eyes: Let’s have lunch.

Male partner nods with a leer: Let’s have lunch.

This scene looks more like the prelude to seduction, and is a bit of a predictable heterosexual trope.

Or the line can be delivered with a sigh, making the character seem defeated. In other words, the line can mean anything, which is similar to the flexibility of food in a scene in fiction.

For example, the scene can be a family meal with incredible tension and subtext. Perhaps there’s a damaging secret that may come out, some hostility boiling just beneath the surface, or one family member living in silent despair. Sometimes the tension can have to do with the food itself. If one member has an eating disorder, we might see him/her leaving to purge in the bathroom or to secretly binge. They may be moving the food around to create the appearance of eating. We might also see this last behavior if someone is in an emotional state with no appetite. Conversation around food can also be charged. One family member may make negative comments about another member’s eating, or communicate worry, disapproval, or contempt via non-verbal cues.

120In my debut novel UPTOWN THIEF, and its sequel THE BOSS, however, food is generally linked to the strong romantic arcs of each book. Both protagonists are workaholic types, and their meals during workdays are unremarkable. We do see Marisol eating sushi with a colleague, and Tyesha eating takeout with her nieces, but only with their love interests do we see them really slow down and enjoy the experience. Only in those scenes do I, as the writer, find myself describing the food and the eating with sensory details. Because these meals are a critical part of the romance.

Both women are very ambitious and committed to combating the crisis in communities of color and the lives of young women. They’re both financially independent and have strong careers. So they don’t need to be rescued financially by the men in their lives. What they need is permission to take off the heroic cape for a moment, put their feet up, and receive love. And a good meal is a plus, as well.

Or maybe those slow, sexy meals are just what I’m drooling over as the novelist. As a working writer mom, I almost never get to slow down and enjoy a meal. I’m always eating on the fly, worrying about what my kid is (or isn’t) eating. Evening meals at home are hectic, because everyone has a slightly different diet, so I’m making multiples dinners at the same time. And I’m the primary domestic worker, so it’s on me to make dinner happen. Maybe I wrote those sensual, luxurious food seduction scenes (the lovers feeding each other spicy Ethiopian injera with chicken and drizzling chocolate cake with whiskey on each others’ tongues) because I’m not getting any of that hot stuff at home in my own life these days.

I hadn’t thought of that before writing this… But as Trevor Noah says, “you laugh, but it’s true.”

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.