Posts Tagged ‘Nani Power’


Review: Nani Power’s Ginger and Ganesh

June 10, 2010

I’m pleased to host today guest critic Agatha Donkar, whose writings (and photography) I’ve very much admired for some time now; her own blog, Brand New Kind of Photography, is sheer pleasure to read. Here, Donkar takes a look at Nani Power‘s latest book, the memoir Ginger and Ganesh (a follow-up of sorts to her previous memoir, Feed the Hungry; see my interview on that book). Power will be officially launching the new book on Tuesday evening, June 15, at Bambule Restaurant in Washington, DC. More information is available at Power’s own website.

Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture and Love

By Nani Power

Reviewed by Agatha Donkar

Nani Power takes to the internet — the most modern of conveniences, changing the way we think, talk and communicate — in search of teachers in the field of traditional international cuisine, posting on Craigslist “Please teach me Indian cooking! I will bring ingredients and pay you for your trouble. I would like to know about your culture as well.” That confluence of anonymous internet communication with the strictly traditional Indian home and kitchen is what grabbed me first and foremost about Ginger and Ganesh. The idea that someone could find guides through this highly structured and traditional world in a venue as wild and wooly as the internet stopped me in my track a little, but as everything else is readily available there, I shouldn’t have been surprised that teachers in a traditional discipline would be as well.

Power’s memoir is a study in contrasts. She notes with interest the husbands who hover while their wives or daughters instruct her in preparing recipes that have been passed through families for generations, and she uses the Indian families and the feelings raised by her cooking lessons and interactions with those families to examine her own life, as a single mother to two teenaged boys, making her living as a writer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Power’s journey through a multitude of Northern Virginia kitchens — as well as the least detailed (there are no recipes for love, unfortunately) — is the romantic relationship she begins with V., the college-aged brother of one of Power’s early teachers. Her relationship with V. colors the path of her cooking as she learns from others how to fix the dishes he likes best, and it simultaneously colors her emotional journey. She writes eloquently of the knowledge she gains of Indian culture from her cooking lessons, but the knowledge becomes a concrete lesson as V. returns to India to care for his ill father. Power presents a situation that she understands intellectually but struggles with emotionally, missing V. while she revels in a renewed independence, the life she led before meeting him, and it is one of the most compelling threads that runs through the story.

Unfortunately, the book’s weakest point is its structure. To build a book around recipes is a perfectly serviceable conceit, but the timeline of the events that flow around the recipes is not chronological, and even the recipes themselves lack an overwhelming organizing factor, be it ingredients or location, beyond a half-hearted attempt to link Power’s teachers to them. (Not all recipes have teachers attached, nor do the groups of recipes seem to have their own distinct similarities.) Some chapters are heavy on cooking instructions and processes, while others concentrate on the melodrama of Power’s relationship with V. and the cultural challenges of the relationship. There is no rhyme or reason, neither chronology nor cooking, to the path of the book, which results in its meandering, disjointed quality — one which is helped, but not quite redeemed, by the book’s ending, because Ginger and Ganesh doesn’t so much conclude as simply stop.

That ending seems to be an interesting meditation on the force of life changing events. The possibility that momentous endeavors can change us without providing a concrete turning point or end cap is one that many people do not consider. Power has written a memoir that accurately reflects life: the things we expect to learn from experiences are not necessarily the ones that we do learn, and then life continues simply to spool out in front of us. It was a refreshing end to an unusual story — not quite complete, but not unsatisfying.

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An Interview With Nani Power

November 17, 2008

Nani Power‘s first novel, Crawling at Night, earned the kind of attention and honors that most debut novelists would surely envy: Named a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, it was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the British Orange Award, and has ultimately been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains, was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year as well as a finalist for The Virginia Library Award, and her third, The Sea of Tears, was praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fine yarn of the lost and lonely seeking intimacy and love.”

feedthehungryThis fall saw Power shifting genres with the publication of Feed the Hungry: A Memoir With Recipes, a book which begins with her childhood in Virginia and follows her adventures — culinary, familial, romantic and more — around the world: to Mexico, Peru, Rio, and Japan, with Power both broadening her cultural horizons and delving deeper into an understanding of herself. By book’s end, Power is urging readers toward journeys similar to her own, not only “tasting” the world out there but also savoring our own histories: “Start remembering what you ate as a child,” she writes, “ask people what they ate. Their stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely, sensual world we live in.”

In the Washington Post review of Feed the Hungry, critic Carolyn See wrote: “In Feed the Hungry, Power gives us the story of her family, along with the misunderstandings, the tragedies, the resentments that dogged them for as long as she can remember. The metaphor for all this restless longing is… food: what it means to all of us, how we present it to each other, what we especially crave and value, how it becomes the ultimate symbol for who we are and what we want to be, as well as what we want, or love, to eat.”

Power recently took the time to answer some questions about the new book and her writing in general.

After three novels, what prompted you to write a memoir?

I actually came about this book as an attempt to write about food. I’ve always loved cookbooks. They seem to have a storytelling quality when I read them — jottings of good times, tastes, cultures. Then, I started thinking about my favorite family recipes and how they intertwined through the tales of my family. As that materialized, I realized I also wanted to try and understand the reasonings and flaws of my family. As I wrote, I understood more of their fragility and the ephemerality of our lives — and food personifies this. A moment of a taste, a sensation, and then, gone. Recipes attempt to capture those moments.

The book avoids strict linearity — a straightforward “this happened and then this happened” narrative. Individual chapters don’t necessarily proceed chronologically (Chapter 7 is Peru 2003, for example, while Chapter 8 is New York 1990), and even within chapters you often flashforward and flashback, mixing together stories from different parts of your life. Can you comment on your use of these time shifts?

I guess you have really clued in to what really interests me stylistically in writing. And I suppose I shouldn’t say style because that implies a superficial mechanics, perhaps. What I strive to do — what interests me — is exactly the shifting and transformative nature of memory. Memory, at least as I can percieve it, because it is so subjective, appears to be the essence of fiction, an inaccurate and impressionistic blanket surrounding our minds. What makes one memory take precedence over another? And how they are woven in our daily consciousness, jumping to the surface with various markers — smell, déjà vu, sounds, and of course, back again, food. Eat something you ate as a child and the sensation is forcibly retrospective.

I find that what happens in real life distinctly breaks many of the “rules” of writing craft that we are taught, and I’d like to find a way to create a more of a sensual expression of this experience called life for the reader — merging time and place, shifting point-of-view, even bringing in major themes or characters late in the story. Playing with these ideas interests me a lot.

One of the book’s richest and most persistent themes is about how various cultures meet and mesh or clash: different worldviews from generation to generation, different nationalities or ethnicities meeting and greeting, even that scene where you compare your house to your childhood friend Nono’s, with its “refrigerator crammed with soft drinks and Cheez Whiz.” Is this a theme you explicitly set out to explore, or a pattern that emerged in the writing?

Oh, this is something that fascinates me endlessly — the merging and intertwining of ancient cultures and American modernity. I love the suburbs actually — strange, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and the suburbs were frowned upon as artificial and plastic. And yes they are, in a delightful way. To me, the suburbs reappropriates life and repackages it in a rough yet poetic sense. Restaurants that are theme parks of various cultures. Small ethnic food stalls amidst strip malls with mainstream Dollar shops and grocers. Immigrants in Costco buying burlap bags of Basmati rice and giant frozen boxes of pigs in a blanket. It is in the suburbs that we see the meshing and evolution of new cultural terroir. 

To a great degree, your experiences make you who you are. Is it your experiences that give you the best knowledge and perspective (of self, of world)? Or your writing about those experiences that offers the greater wisdom?

Writing offers a sense of completion. One can explore the family as a separate whole, and thus gain a compassionate new view of the workings. A writer must view a character in all their dimensions, and as you do this to your own family — I mean take the time to remove the reputation, the biases — and see the person as a human, you gain an immense sense of understanding. I think everyone should write a memoir in their life, even if it is never shown to anyone. The main word to remember in memoir, that I tell my students, is “witness.” To tell the truth as you knew it. Whether you wish to share it with the world is your choice. The benefit in the end is very personal.

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Politics & Literature

October 31, 2008

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, posted today its latest “NBCC Reads” list — the result of polling members on the question: “Which work of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry best captures the realities of American political culture?” Topping the list (deservedly so, of course) is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — still packing a punch 60 years after its publication.

I myself submitted a small reply that didn’t make the main list — and wasn’t expected to, I’ll admit, since it didn’t really aim to answer the question exactly, but instead offered an interesting anecdote from earlier this year. (I’ve just been told that my response will be included as a freestanding “long tail” entry in subsequent posts at Critical Mass.)

Earlier this spring, I was teaching a course in American detective fiction at George Mason University, and one of the books on our syllabus was Margaret Maron’s 1992 novel Bootlegger’s Daughter, a book I’d chosen in part because of the way it sought to explore contemporary (by which I mean 1992 contemporary) social issues and in part because it had ultimately swept several mystery awards: the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity (still the only novel to make such a sweep, I believe). 

We reached our reading of Bootlegger’s Daughter in the midst of some of the hottest, tensest moments of the Democratic primary. Clinton and Obama were battling it out in a contest in which race and gender were often in the forefront of the conversation, either implicitly or sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, in the book, main character Deborah Knott (a white woman) was in a high-stakes run-off with Luther Parker (a black man) for a judgeship in Colleton County, N.C. — and one of our most interesting in-class discussions explored how the issues facing that fictional political race resonated, with increasingly eerie similarities, with what was playing out each day on the news with regards to the Clinton-Obama face-off.

At one point, someone distributes fake letters from each candidate, impugning the other in the harshest terms. The message copied onto Knott’s letterhead “wasn’t quite as blatant as He’s a nigger, I’m white, vote for me, but it was the next thing to it.” Here’s a later scene in which Knott reads the next fake bit of propaganda, this one supposedly sent out by Parker’s camp:

If one could believe everything in this open letter, Luther Parker was an upright, foursquare Christian family man who sang with the angels when he wasn’t defending Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Ms. Deborah Knott, on the other hand, was an unmarried (a) castrating bitch, (b) promiscuous whore, or (c) closet lesbian (pick one), the daughter of the biggest bootlegger in Colleton County history, and a defender of foreign drug dealers from whom she was probably getting a cut of the profits. “If Ms. Knott is elected to the bench, it will be speedy trials and speedier acquittals for drunks, junkies, and perverts of all kinds.”

Does this mean that Bootlegger’s Daughter “captures the realities of American political culture”? Well, no…. and it also doesn’t imply, by any means, that Maron was prescient of what was going to be happening more than a decade and a half after the novel came out. But it does say something, I think, about how society’s treatment of questions of race and gender haven’t entirely changed much in those 16 years, and proves that Maron’s big breakthrough book is as relevant and interesting as ever these days. 

Other books I’ve been reading, rereading, using or perusing this week:

  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald (took me a while to finish it)
  • Feed the Hungry: A Memoir with Recipes by Nani Power
  • The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy

— Art Taylor

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Fall for the Book Gets Off to Great Start — and More to Come!

September 21, 2008

Despite being largely overshadowed (in some corners of the press, at least) by the National Book Festival next week, Fall for the Book got off to a great start today, with hundreds of folks showing up at events in downtown Fairfax, and even more at some of the events further outside the area: Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, and Bowie. 

The highlights for me were talking with writers Kathleen McCleary about her path to publication, chatting up Nani Power about her new memoir, and hearing Scott Huler discuss how he ended up trying to  recreate Odysseus’ journey a couple of years back. Good stuff all around.

And more to come on Monday too — with a couple of great friends taking part in a the “On-Campus Kick-Off,” a reading of recent work by alumni from Mason’s MFA program, and then many of us (many, many, I hope!) gathering for an evening with Chinua Achebe. The complete schedule is below.


10 a.m. — Celebrating Chinua Achebe
Johnson Center Cinema
Scholars from different parts of Africa discuss the work of Chinua Achebe and other African writers. A reception follows. Co-sponsored by Mason’s Global Affairs Program and New Century College.

12 p.m. — The On-Campus Kick-Off!
Mason Alumni Authors
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center
Opening this year’s on-campus festivities, graduates of Mason’s MFA Program in Creative Writing — including Brian Brodeur, Robert Drummond and Mel Nichols — read from their recently published works. This event features music, prizes and more!

12 p.m.—4:30 p.m. — Paperback Swap
North Plaza, Outside the Johnstojn Center
Volition, Mason’s undergraduate journal of literature and art, hosts a paperback swap. Trade books you’ve already finished for others you can’t wait to start.

12:30—3:30 p.m. — Poetry-on-Demand!
Near the Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center
The University Writing Center hosts a Poetry-on-Demand table, with students from Mason’s MFA Program in Creative Writing offering original verses in minutes!

12 p.m. — Writing Professor Don Gallehr
Dewberry Hall South, Johnson Center
Gallehr leads a workshop exploring how meditation practices can enhance the writing process.

12:30 p.m. — Photojournalist David Bacon
Grand Tier III, Center for the Arts
Bacon discusses labor, immigration and international politics, drawing on his two most recent books Communities Without Borders and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.

1 p.m. — GMU Dancers
North Plaza, Outside Johnson Center
“Impulse Present” is a site-specific dance performance. GMU dancers will draw from audience suggestions to create a spontaneous moving environment.

1:30 p.m. — Novelist Frank Delaney
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center
The author of the bestselling novels Ireland and Tipperary offers a sneak peek at the third novel in the series, Shannon, to be published in spring 2009.

2 p.m. — Memoirist Lori Smith
Dewberry Hall South, Johnson Center
Journalist Smith combines a travel memoir and history in her latest book, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey Into Adventure, Love, and Faith.

3 p.m. — Novelist Ana Maurine Lara
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center
An activist for social justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues reads from her award-winning novels Erzulie’s Skirt and Anacaona’s Daughter. Sponsored by Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

3 p.m. — Espionage Expert Fred Hitz
Grand Tier III, Center for the Arts
The first statutory inspector general of the CIA offers an insider’s perspective of espionage today through his books The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage and Why Spy? Espionage in an Era of Uncertainty. Sponsored by the Friends of the Reston Regional Library.

4:30 p.m. — Political Analyst Michael Hais
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center
Hais examines the intersection of politics and technology in the new study he co-authored with Morley Winograd, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. Sponsored by Mason’s Democracy Project and Office of University Life.

5:30 p.m. — Reception for Chinua Achebe
Grand Tier III, Center for the Arts
The traditional food, music, and dress of Nigeria are the hallmarks of this event, sponsored by Mason’s African Student Association.

6 p.m. — Candid Yak
The Bistro, Johnson Center
The Candid Yak, Mason’s graduate reading series, and Student Media host an open mic reading, with two featured poets from GMU’s MFA program: Danika Stegeman and Ethan Edwards. All are welcome to participate. Bring a short poem or prose sample to read, or just come out and cheer on your friends!

6 p.m. — Wine Tasting and Discussion
The Wine House, 3950 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
The Wine House owner Michael Pearce guides local wine lovers on a tasting of four special wines. Make reservations now to stay for dinner afterwards! Co-sponsored by The Wine House and the City of Fairfax.

Scott Huler

7 p.m. — Journalist Scott Huler
Foster’s Grill, North Street, Fairfax, VA
Journalist Huler takes us behind-the-scenes of America’s most popular sport with A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team. Sponsored by Fairfax City Auto Dealers and the City of Fairfax.

7:30 p.m. — Novelist Chinua Achebe
Concert Hall, Center for the Arts
Nigerian novelist, poet and critic Chinua Achebe accepts the 2008 Mason Award, celebrating an author whose body of work has made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public. The author also reads from Things Fall Apart, the most widely read and perhaps most profoundly influential African novel ever. Co-sponsored by Mason’s Global Affairs Program and Office of University Life.


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Fall for the Book Begins Sunday!

September 20, 2008

…and in the process, my own life — and my occasional posts here — will likely get put on hold for a while. But it’s for a great cause: the most authors of any book festival in the D.C. area (take that, National!) and a chance to connect these writers with readers throughout Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. We’ve been working all year on this, and I’m excited about the fruits of our labors. But in many ways the real work is just beginning, and there are busy days ahead.

During the next week, then, I’ll include a few updates on coming events. Tomorrow (Sunday, September 21) is the big kick-off day, with plenty of events listed below. I myself will be introducing novelist Nani Power, author of the new memoir Feed the Hungry, at the Sweet Life Cafe in downtown Fairfax at 4:30 p.m. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s gotten plenty of great reviews already, so very much looking forward to her talk.

Then at 7:30 p.m. at Old Town Hall, journalist and memoirist Scott Huler will talk about his latest book, No-Man’s Land: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey. Several years ago, I heard Huler read from a previous book, A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team, and it remains to this day the most energized and exciting reading I believe I’ve ever heard. The new book is also great — part travelogue, part history lesson, part literary criticism, and part memoir too, with one man looking at his own life against the standard of literature’s greatest epic hero. It’s a terrific read.

Plenty more to choose from on Sunday. A schedule is below and the festival’s complete calendar of events is linked HERE. 


1 p.m. 
The Youngest Published Writers at Fall for the Book
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
Students from across Northern Virginia share original works selected for the two-volume Northern Virginia Writing Project anthology, Falling for the Story. NVWP sponsors the reading.

2 p.m.
D.C. Crime Writers
The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD
Contributors to the successful D.C. Noir anthologies share stories from the grittier side of the nation’s capital. Sponsored by the Writer’s Center. 

2 p.m. 
Children’s Book Author Jerdine Nolan
Prince George’s County Library, 15210 Annapolis Road, Bowie, MD
Nolan reads from her latest picture book, Big Jabe. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

2 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Katy Kelly 
Sherwood Regional Library, 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria, VA
A former reporter for People, USA Today, and U.S. News and World Report, Kelly reads from her popular Lucy Rose books. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

3 p.m.
Novelist Kathleen McCleary
Circa Home & Garden, 10435 North Street, Fairfax, VA
The popular journalist — whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Good Housekeeping and on — reads from her debut novel, House and Home

3 p.m.
Young Adult Writers Beckie Weinheimer and Kathy Erskine
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
The authors discuss their books’ exploration of religion and politics and their effects on teens. Followed at 4:30 p.m. by a writing workshop for teens.

3:30 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Moira Donohue
City of Fairfax Regional Library, 10360 North Street, Fairfax, VA
A former lawyer, Donohue stresses the importance of punctuation in her charming picture books — and discusses the Supreme Court case in which she proved her point!

4 p.m.
Poet Jon Pineda
Busboys and Poets, 4251 S. Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA
The award-winning poet reads from his third collection, The Translator’s Diary. Co-sponsored by Busboys and Poets and the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library. 

4 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Lulu Delacre
Sherwood Regional Library, 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria, VA
Award-winning author/illustrator shares Latin American stories and more, and discusses her first young adult book, Alicia Afterimage. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

4:30 p.m.
Memoirist Nani Power
The Sweet Life Café, 3950 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, VA
Noted novelist Power reads from her new memoir with recipes, Feed the Hungry, about growing up in Virginia. Co-sponsored by the Sweet Life Café and the City of Fairfax.

6 p.m.
So to Speak Faculty and Fellows Reading
Old Town Village, North Street at Route 123, Fairfax
George Mason University faculty members, including Helon Habila, Sally Keith and Kyoko Mori, and fellowship winners, including Elizabeth Eshelman, Alyson Foster, Sarah Klenakis, and Robb St. Lawrence, read from their recent works. Sponsored by the Mason journal So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. For extra fun, grab a drink or some food at any area restaurants near the reading!

7 p.m.
Political Journalist Amy Sullivan
Fairfax Presbyterian Church, 10723 Main Street, Fairfax, VA
A national correspondent for Time Magazine discusses her new book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap. Sponsored by the City of Fairfax.

7 p.m.
Historian Clint Johnson
Arlington Central Library, 1015 N. Quincy Street, Arlington, VA
The noted Civil War expert discusses the escape and pursuit of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sponsored by the Arlington Library.

7:30 p.m.
Memoirists Honor Moore and Scott Huler
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
Acclaimed poet and memoirist Moore reads from her new book, The Bishop’s Daughter, examining the secret life of her late father, Paul Moore, Bishop of the Diocese of New York. National Public Radio regular Huler takes a journey into mythic Greece, modern Greece and the first days of middle age with No-Man’s Land: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey. A reception precedes the reading.

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