Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
Gregory Pardlo, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America
Mona Awad, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Egg Restaurant, Brooklyn NY
Tables in the back room are pushed together so that I'm sitting with a friend and three friendly strangers. We are politely taking turns dipping celery into the homemade hummus appetizer when Chef Evan Hanczor introduces the evening's first author—Morgan Jerkins, who will reading from her debut essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. The essays are personal and far-reaching, addressing racism, feminism, and black history. In the selection for tonight, Jerkins describes an awkward lunch scene. The attendees: the narrator, her white professor and her professor's family. The consumables: white wine, arugula salad, vegetables. When an older white man makes a racist comment at the table the narrator writes, “If I had been in the middle of swallowing a pear slice it would have caught in my throat.” The narrator addresses the man’s comment, but the conversation does not end there.
“But why would you call yourself black? To me you are not black,” the white man says. The tension builds at the lunch table and in the back of my mind I’m thinking about what it might feel like to choke on a grainy pear--burning eyes, uncontrollable hacking. The physical discomfort and the emotional discomfort compound each other. After the reading I receive a small plate of pear and arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette dressing.
A glass chimes and the music fades and Gregory Pardlo takes a seat on a stool up front to read from Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, a reckoning with the legacy of his father, an air traffic controller who lost his job and his moorings during Reagan’s famous strike-breaking in the eighties. After a passage in which Pardlo references upside down wedding cakes and funnel cakes in relation to air traffic control, I am thinking the next dish might be sweet. But then comes the cheese.
“It was a minor holiday the day the cheese arrived. Big as a shoebox the taxicab colored block of cheddar played a large role in our diet. Grilled cheese sandwiches, yes, but gooey slabs topped all our carbs too, as well as our burgers, eggs and sauces. Government cheese went with all the groceries we claimed with our fistfuls of food stamps. Even when PSE&G turned off our heat and electricity, the cheese was there for us.” There are cheers from the audience when Hanczor brings out plates of buttery grilled cheese cut into triangles. The strangers, my friend, and I eat gleefully while listening to “Benny and the Jets.” The grilled cheese is a foil in every way to the arugula salad. I think I could eat four more.
I'm trying to pat dry the grease on my fingers when Mona Awad begins to read from 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, her debut novel about a young woman's struggles with body image as she grows up, gets thin, and navigates adulthood. I am entranced as a husband recounts fantastical dreams in which his wife—the narrator—attempts to kill or injure him. The dream-tellings happen over breakfast but I am mostly oblivious to that detail as the couple's confrontations get more and more tense. I am almost taken aback when food arrives after Awad's reading. Turns out it was a breakfast scene that inspired the rye toast topped with homemade almond butter. The combination of dense bread and nut butter sticks in my mouth, making conversation difficult. In my personal moment of silence I think of the husband trying to talk about his dreams with almond paste on the roof of his mouth. I am not the only one at the table to not finish my toast.
Hanczor and the three authors gather at one end of the big communal table for a question and answer session that covers food aversions, eating habits, and restaurant experiences. Jerkins talks about getting won over by anchovies. Pardlo discusses his internal dilemma of whether or not to order chicken and waffles at a restaurant in the Lower East Side. “I was like I’m not ordering fried chicken and waffles. I’m just not gonna do it….” (He ended up getting the chicken and waffles.)
Later in the evening the conversation veers into a discussion of food cliches and then the cliché of using adjectives of consumption to describe people of color. Jerkins gets at the root of it all saying, “I'm trying to describe how scrumptious this man's skin looks, but I don't want to fall into that cliché.... Why does a marginalized person immediately link to consumption?” A woman in the front of the audience chimes in to agree.
When Hanczor asks the writers about their literary allergies Awad says, “I pretty much love all food but I do have a literary allergy. I don't like the way some male writers describe female beauty...like those really cliched descriptions of tumbling hair.” Jerkins agrees, saying, “I don't know if this is a literary aversion but...if someone recommends David Foster Wallace.” The audience laughs knowingly. Jerkins says what she's really interested in hearing about are up-and-coming writers, and especially women of color. Thus ensues a reading lists' worth of women writers as recommended by all three authors and Hanczor. So now I've got some reading to do.
Tags: Drew Barrymore by SZA; Benny and the Jets by Elton John; Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper; Jill Scott; Terrance Hayes; Crystal Fleming; Roxane Gay; Lynn Crosbie/Corpses of the Future; Carmen Maria Machado; Samantha Hunt/The Dark Dark; Claudia Rankine; Maggie Nelson; Morgan Parker; Aita (for kale salad)