A few weeks ago, a little story in the New York Times took hold of the imaginations and Twitter feeds of tens of people all over the world. I jest, of course. Almost everyone I followed on Twitter was completely absorbed in this story (including yours truly), at the expense of the work they were supposed to be doing at the time (in my case, watching “Seinfeld” reruns). The story I am referring to, of course, is “Bad Art Friend” by Robert Kolker.
The story — about a writer who takes inspiration (and more than a few words verbatim) from another writer’s Facebook feed to craft her own not-very-complimentary story — sparked a veritable army of analyses from the peanut gallery, most of which were focused on who, indeed, was bad. The hot takes from the Twitterati — like the words of the dueling writers — ended up saying more about they themselves than the people they were judging. Quite a few leveled charges of plagiarism and, tellingly, “race baiting” against one writer; the other was “weird” and “needy”, to the point of even being “narcissistic”. No one came off well, and that included many of the commenters.
Well, here’s my chance now to add to that pile of shitty hot takes. If you haven’t read the story, I envy you — if only because I would love to read the story for the first time all over again. To those people who did not want to wade through 10,000 words (in which case, why are you here at this blog?), here’s one summary. And, not one to rest on their laurels, the New York Times published a recent follow-up with the writer of the story here. Yes, that’s right, I’m here for all your “bad art friend”-related needs. It’s over between Thai street food and me.
To be frank, I don’t give a crap about who the bad art friend is. What stands out to me personally in the story: “I hope it doesn’t feel too weird for your words to have inspired works of art,” says writer Sonya Larson to Dawn Dorland when confronted about her short story. Little did either of those writers know that the work of art that was inspired was the freaking NYT article by Robert Kolker, because that piece was gotdamn good. It was so good I was envious of this Robert Kolker, a man who does not know me and never will; I envy how this man found a way to use each writer’s work to characterize them and, chef’s kiss, used the offending short story to telegraph what would happen to Larson later on, and her subsequent reaction to it. It is a gotdamn Russian nesting doll of narratives! Damn you, Robert Kolker (*shakes fist at sky*).
In any case, I hope it doesn’t feel too weird to Robert Kolker for his words to have inspired this middling blog post. What I see as the sticky premise of Larson’s short story, the cardinal sin of what is ultimately an altruistic act — a donated kidney! — is the demand by the donor to play center stage in the remaining narrative of the recipient’s life. The donor is a savior, an angel come down from the heavens like Glinda the Good Witch, here to rescue the frail Asian woman recipient from her own mediocre organs. She has given the gift that can never be repaid. Still, stubbornly, the Asian woman refuses to acknowledge the donor’s role in her life, against all common sense and propriety. She becomes the bad guy.
There is a similar dynamic to food writing, especially in Asia (see? I finally got there). We welcome international coverage of our great cooks, eateries and ingredients, but when we get it, we are often relegated to the background in favor of the Glinda, the presenter who brings their own point of view to our world. They are the ones who take over center stage, even though we are talking about us. Like the Asian kidney recipient, we gain something, but at the cost of no longer being the protagonist in our own story. Which is why I have (SUPER HOT TAKE ALERT) mixed feelings about Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain was a godsend to modern American food writing in a lot of ways; he was intelligent, handsome, open-minded about food and witty. His death still leaves a gaping hole in American food media. At the same time, Bourdain — tellingly, the patron saint of male American food writers — remains the hero of the story, even when he’s sucking down noodles in Hanoi or exploring the back alleys of Yangon. He is the white savior centering the story, and his gaze is paramount. He may have been one of the best to do what he did, but it hasn’t stopped millions of others from following in his footsteps, adding to a narrative that is embroidered on a white gaze fabric.
This is how we get stories about weird Thai fruit that looks like coronavirus and is disgusting. This is why I had to answer to the name “Chewbacca”, because my real name was too difficult to learn. This is why I was considered ugly, because my nose was too broad and my eyes too small, nothing like the pretty girls at my school. Even worse, because the white gaze is paramount, we tend to look at ourselves through their eyes instead of our own. This is how Thailand gets fakakta laws about when to buy alcohol and closing bars at midnight, because they don’t want to add fuel to the white gaze fantasy of being an “adult Disneyland” (for whom? Not really for women).
What our food is, really, is an edible Rorschach test, an item to be interpreted at your leisure. What you think about it says a lot about you, and a little less about what’s being judged. Sonya Larson once told Kolker that she wanted to write Rorschach tests that could be interpreted various ways, when really, all of reality is a Rorschach test, a hero or villain depending on whose gaze is involved. She herself has seen this in the aftermath of the “Bad Art Friend” story.
This is why we need more writers of color, but especially more food writers of color. Although a lot of things have changed in our time, one thing remains intact: the belief that Western cooking techniques are the premier techniques of the culinary sphere, and that the best cuisines in the world are Western. Food writing remains one of the prime bastions for presenting its subject matter through an Orientalist framework (holla Edward Said). This means that Asia is still constantly used as the foil for the narcissistic West’s obsession with presenting itself as rational and advanced. This is also why we continue to get so many EW DURIAN! videos.
So I’ll say it one more time, for the people in the back. Our food is not only cheap takeout. Our food is worthy of a fine dining setting. Our chefs are worthy of being compensated accordingly (and not by tweaking our food to showcase Western techniques either!). We are perfect the way we are.
*(I discuss stuff like this with way more accomplished Asian food writers Christopher Tan (“The Way of Kueh”) and Lara Lee (“Coconut & Sambal”) at the Singapore Writers Festival in a November 6 Zoom talk called “The Hunger Pang Gang”, if you are interested.)