Jonathan Highfield presenting paper at British Commonwealth and PostColonial Studies Conference, Savannah, Georgia, February 26-27, 2010.
Abstract: Jonathan B. Highfield, Rhode Island School of Design “Pork sausage and porgy: Food, exile, and identity in M.G. Vassanji’s No New Land” 19th British Commonwealth and PostColonial Studies Conference Savannah, Georgia, February 26-27
In In the Active Voice, Mary Douglas writes that “To treat food in its ritual aspect is to take account of its long spun out temporal processes. It is an evolving system that can be a metaphor for any other evolution, great or small, the evolution of just one marriage, and even of the whole human species.” That ritual aspect of food, and its connection to identity seems particularly resonant in literature of exile. Exile magnifies the importance of food culture, making each mouthful a taste of home, but it also offers tastes hitherto unavailable and perhaps even forbidden. In M. G. Vassanji’s 1991 novel, No New Land, a character muses that “It is you who have changed when you attempt, even think about, eating pork the first time.” The retention or rejection of foodways chart the psychological effect of the distance from Africa in Vassanji’s novel, and the meals characters consume in the novel, become attempts to own a communal identity, whether it is an identity tied to the land they left or an identity appropriated from the culture in which they currently reside.
As in Douglas’s work on Hebrew food taboos, for the African Indians in Vassanji’s novel food is linked very clearly to purity, and a character’s consumption of a pork sausage leads his friends and family to doubt his innocence when he is falsely accused of rape. In the dénouement of the accusation, Vassanji hints at another food culture in the accuser’s family, Portuguese fisherpeople. In so doing, Vassanji is revealing throughout the various exile communities of Toronto the prevalence of what David Sutton, in Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, calls the synesthesia of eating practice, which he suggests is the reason food is central to the maintenance of identity in migrant communities. As the migrant identity evolves through generational shifts and work situations, the characters in Vassanji’s novel face changing food practices as well, which impact their understanding of their identity within a larger community.