An Interview with Tony Eprile

Marcela Sulak

Tony Eprile is the author of Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories (1989), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and The Persistence of Memory (2004), which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was listed as a best book of 2004 by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. His articles on food have appeared in Gourmet Magazine and, most recently, the anthology Man with a Pan, Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families, edited by John Donohue (2011). His “A Taste for Politics,” which appears in the anthology, discusses the complexities of eating and friendship in apartheid South Africa. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Northwestern University, Williams College, and Bennington College. He currently teaches at Lesley University.
        This past fall Tony Eprile was the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing Visiting Writer; he taught the fiction workshop, explored all the restaurants and cafes of Jaffa, biked and walked incessantly through Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and helped me gather poets and writers around my table for meals each month. We conducted an epistolary interview during the month of June, 2011.

Marcela Sulak: Your novel, The Persistence of Memory, and short story collection, Temporary Sojourner, both explore coming of age in South Africa, and the effects of having grown up in an Apartheid state. Can you tell us about your life in South Africa?

Tony Eprile: I was born in Johannesburg (at the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home), my mother being a German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, my father a Scottish Jew who came to edit the country’s first mass-circulation, multiracial newspaper. Although we were watched by the Special Branch police and had many friends arrested and/or jailed, I had a happy, carefree childhood. The fact that we frequently had black South African friends over for meals (and wine or other alcoholic drinks), meant that my parents constantly broke what were then the country’s statutory laws. It was my first inkling that simply sharing a meal with a friend could be a political act if you were circumventing conventional political and social mores. Apartheid reached into every sector of life in those days, including what you ate and drank, where, and with whom. One of my dad’s stories stuck with me: A good friend of his (and someone I remember fondly from my childhood) who was a prominent Indian journalist met my dad at the Johannesburg airport while en route elsewhere in Africa. My father ordered them both tea at the cafeteria, and, seeing that one of the customers was Indian, the attendant poured the contents of one of the ceramic cups into a cheap tin mug and said: “This is for him.”

MS: This last scene appears in your essay “A Taste for Politics,” published in the anthology Man with a Pan. Also your essay, “The Politics of Baklava" [from Gourmet Magazine], and your novel, seem to use food as a lens through which we can view the politics around us. Politics, of course, is an abstract notion, and food, while transient, is a concretization of the abstract notion of politics…

TE: I don’t see ‘politics’ as an abstract notion at all—rather, I see it as something that has concrete and palpable manifestations around us all the time. Since it’s so much part of our daily reality and backgrounds, we don’t notice it at all except in its official form or as part of an argument. To illustrate what I mean, think of the places one feels safe and comfortable to go to. Anywhere in the world, this differs if you are a man or a woman, and whether you have money or don’t (often denoted by outward symbols, what you’re wearing, how you travel, etc.) This could turn into a long lecture, I’m afraid. To me, food is very much part of politics—and a useful window into politics—because food is so much part of our cultural and personal identities. People often express their cultural/ethnic identity by talking about favorite or comfort foods. (I was once at an artist’s colony where a fellow colonist, a Japanese-American woman, said at dinner that she felt much better and more at home because a friend had shipped her some miso and wasabi crackers.) I think it’s important, too, in this world of globalization and corporate power, to be aware of where our food comes from and who profits by it. Whose land is it grown on? Where does the water come from to grow it, and how much is used? Has it been genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides, bolstered with chemical fertilizers, etc.

MS: In The Persistence of Memory, Paul, the main character, has perfect recall, and nearly all of his memories are triggered by food—its taste, its smell. It seems a very apt technique because, reading the book, it seems that each subculture in South Africa could be characterized by its particular cuisine. This, for me, was powerful, in that it gave a strong sense of the people about which I was reading. How did you hit on this particular idea—recall through food?

TE: When you’re in exile from the homeland that you love, one of the things that most brings back the feel and texture of that place are tastes and smells that are no longer readily available to you. I can remember longing for even foods I didn’t like that much at the time, such as Mrs. Ball’s Blatjang (a kind of chutney popular in South Africa). The smells were even more visceral—once my brother-in-law and I unraveled a reed mat borrowed for a party from a South African friend, we both stood silently breathing its scent, which was exactly that of the wattle-roofed huts from holidays in the Northern Transvaal, an absolute rush of nostalgia!
In the novel, I wanted to explore all the many ways that memory manifests itself, so it came naturally to me that Paul should love food, that he should find himself as a cook in the army, that he should eat everything in sight and be quite large (the opposite physical type to me). I didn’t start out planning that food, eating, cooking should be metaphors for memory, for cultural pride and connection, but that’s what happened. Writing fiction is mysterious—often the right metaphors simply manifest themselves without any conscious planning on the writer’s part.

MS: I can't help but ask, is the title of your novel a nod to Salvador Dalí [who has a painting by that same title]?

TE: Yes, the novel title is a nod to Dalí, especially the melting of time that the painting conveys.

MS: Do you find yourself seeking out particular meals, or trying out particular recipes when you are in the process of writing fiction or essays?

TE: Other than coffee, which is a vital ingredient to my writing, no. But to amend that: when I was writing Persistence, I spent a lot of time thinking about South African food and poring through old South African cookbooks. This made me want to cook various dishes, such as bobotie (a recipe for which appears in my Man with a Pan essay.) On the other hand, I’ve been doing some writing lately about my teenage years in England, and I have no desire to cook English food.

MS: Why are you so interested in food?

TE: Lots of things have contributed to my interest in food…I kind of feel that “if you’re not interested in food, you’re not interested in life.” There are so many ways that idea applies, whether it comes to understanding other cultures, or simply sharing an experience with the people you love. Food is both nourishment and self-expression, a way to present and share your connection with the place you live in or the places you come from. My best conversations with my mom took place when I was helping her in the kitchen. She’d had a fascinating history, ranging from escaping from the Nazis at age 16 with almost no money, to driving around the black townships of South Africa in the pitch dark with two sleeping kids and a couple of journalists too drunk to give directions, but she’d only feel comfortable sharing these stories while cooking. There’s something both calculated and unguarded about serving other people a meal you’ve cooked—you can be in the background eliciting their pleasure, but you’re also exposing yourself, presenting sides of your personality that might not have been obvious. My mother was very quiet, unobtrusive, modest, and dignified…but her cooking was flamboyant, excessive, showing off how she could make five fabulous desserts in the time most people might produce one. She would have been horrified at the thought of making a speech to a group of people (something my father loved to do), but she could knock their socks off with a home-cooked meal of epic proportions.

MS: You seem to be suggesting that there's something about the alchemy of the kitchen that brings out the parts of ourselves we hide—your mother is only comfortable talking about certain things in the kitchen. You swear and throw the salt around (duly noted, you are more cautious with the salt). Why do you think this is? 

TE: Interesting question. I’d say it’s that the kitchen is a place of comfort, with its own rituals. You’re making familiar, ritualized movements—chopping, cutting, tasting, smelling spices and warm savory steam, taking things out from familiar places and putting them back—and all the time there’s conversation going on. It puts one in a relaxed, liminal state with greater openness and closer touch with the subconscious. I’ve always felt comfortable hanging out in kitchens, and that was where I often ate dinner as a child, so, for me, it’s a return to a comfort zone. I think it was that for my mother, too; also, since my dad didn’t cook, it was the place in the home where she was completely in charge, knew where everything was kept, so it was a place she’d unwind and talk about the memories that came to her.

MS: We’ve recently enjoyed a semester of your company at the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where you taught the fiction workshop. I know that you were living in Jaffa at the time; what were your favorite meals in Israel?

TE: Shabbat dinners at your place, of course. Jaffa has lots of wonderful places to eat, too—best mujadra at Yafo Café, best masabacha and hummous at Ali Karawan (Abu-Hasan) on HaDolfin, best meze platters at Old Man and the Sea. Dare I confess that I’m not a huge hummous fan? I’ll probably be banned from Israel for life now. I also loved to cook with local ingredients—amazingly vibrant salad ingredients from the Shuk haCarmel and other markets, extraordinarily fresh fish available from a number of small fishmongers in Jaffa. Although I can cook elaborate meals, I still think the best meals are made from very fresh ingredients simply prepared, such as broiled denis (sea bream) filet topped with a little tahini, paprika, and lemon.

MS: This may be an obvious question, but do you see any similarities between cooking and writing? (Or perhaps eating and writing?)

TE: Very much so. Both are creative acts, both involve elements from the “real world” that you then transform or highlight in your own way. The problem for me is that the rewards of cooking are much more immediate! You cook, and then you have something tasty to eat or serve to other people. If it didn’t work out, you know immediately…and you can whip up something else. With writing, you don’t always know—what you think is a great piece of writing may turn out terrible when you look at it a day or two later. And you don’t know whether other people will ever read it or like it. The plus side to writing is that the results are not evanescent, and they can be enjoyed again and again, if you’re lucky.
        I should add that there does seem something similar in the mode of thought, or rather imagination, that produces something brand new out of familiar ingredients…and in the testing of the result between the work you had imagined and the final result.

MS: What came first for you, cooking or writing?

TE: Eating and reading. I used to always read something while I ate as a child…and I still often do.

MS: What are you writing these days?

TE: I’ve been writing a family memoir using objects in the family as a starting point. As I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, my parents certainly had interesting lives and were intricately connected to major political events of their day, so I’m hoping to capture at least some of their story.
        I’ve also gone back to a novel from many years ago—The War Artist—based on the life of a South African war artist during WWII’s North Africa and Sicily campaign. I guess I’m always interested in those parts of history that get forgotten or lack attention, and to me it’s fascinating that there were several hundred artists sketching and painting in the front lines during some very fierce conflicts.

MS: How did it come to your attention that there were artists sketching on the front lines? Were they sketching and drawing of their own accord, or was this something they were asked to do?

TE: I had been interested in writing about the Western Desert (i.e., North Africa) Campaign, since my mother’s brother had been part of the South African Air Force fighting there. Then I noticed a painting from Benghazi in Libya (where some fierce battles took place) in my mother’s friend’s living room and asked her about it. It was by her brother-in-law, a well-known war artist. A number of countries—Britain, Australia, South Africa—had war artist programs. The army commanders and the public recognized that paintings, drawings, and other art forms could capture the emotional experience of soldiers in ways that photographs could not. The US almost had a war artist program—Eisenhower was strongly behind it—but two congressmen began a big campaign to the effect that this was a waste of time and taxpayer money. Eisenhower and some of the other generals found a way to get a few artists into the field, but the bulk of the paintings and sketches in WWII were done by artists from countries that supported their efforts and recognized their value. (This is all too familiar a story in a time of cutbacks of art programs around the US. They actually cost very little and give back a good deal…unlike programs to support bankers.)

Marcela Sulak, author of two poetry collections and three book-length translations of poetry, is a senior lecturer of English at Bar-Ilan University; she directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, and is the faculty advisor for The Ilanot Review.

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