Madhushree Ghosh’s recent release, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (University of Iowa Press, 2022), details her life in both India and the United States. In essays that range from discussions of fish curry to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and womanhood, Ghosh’s work gives the reader so many more dimensions with which to consider food that is becoming more and more familiar to the American landscape – and forces us to consider ever more deeply what we thought we knew.
We sat down to talk about her craft, the art of merging marketing and social media with writing, and more.
The Writer: Can we talk a little about marketing? You have a real knack for it – you’ve even started a company called Desi Girl Gourmet, which is all about sharing the flavors of your home country with others. Do you find that works its way into your writing career?
Madhushree Ghosh: I am an introvert or am introverted, which people find very funny given the fact that they think I know everybody, and I talk to everybody, which is true, but I’m extremely socially awkward. What people don’t understand is that introverts aren’t impolite or awkward or rude. It’s just that they don’t get their energy out of this kind of an interaction. I was a science girl. Scientists are trained to be excellent individual contributors…Nobody tells them how to work with other people. We were not given the tools to interact with humankind, so to speak. And some of us are good at it. Some of us are not. I wasn’t good at it. I worked at it. I made sure that I was talking to people one on one. So I really understood what made them tick, rather than talking to them because they are the head of [some] department or head of translational medicine of Pfizer and Novartis. Once you get to know folks, you get to know that they’re as crazy and as funny and as lovely as you are. So my marketing really hasn’t been, “Let me go ahead and market myself.” It’s just been, “I’m so excited to get to know you. I’m so excited to learn something from you.” And then folks come back and say, “Hey, I learned something from you too.”
You know, life is too short to be all miserable and antsy. So marketing for me is still evolving. I don’t market for likes and hearts. Most of my interactions with people on social media are very personal. I feel like I almost know them.
TW: Some of the essays in Khabaar were published through other venues before you decided to make them into a book. Can you tell me a little about how you made the decision to collect them into a book?
MG: I always wanted to write: I have seven manuscripts in my hard drive. I started writing nonfiction when my marriage fell apart because I couldn’t write fiction. I was in the middle of this very intricate novel, and I just couldn’t do it. So I started trying to process what was happening to me by writing, and that’s how my nonfiction and my memoir started. So the memoir – it’s a 400-page tome that I don’t think will ever see the light of day because there was a lot of angst and a lot of, “Oh my god, look at me.” And, you know, that…makes for good journaling, but it doesn’t make for good reading.
The essays were never intended to be part of a collection; the essays were written because there was a particular topic that I felt very passionately about. But then it came down to this book, I was writing a lot about food, but food in terms of social justice issues, food in terms of extricating childhood memories, as well as what it represents to immigrants like us.
As I’ve grown older, I am extremely aware of my otherness: Whether or not I like it, whether or not I have assimilated, whether or not I’ve lived in this country longer than I’ve lived back in India, whether or not I call this home, where I call India home, where I call both of them home, it really doesn’t matter. My otherness defines me.
When I talk to other writers, what they tell you is also very similar stories. I felt I wanted to celebrate how food travels with immigration. I mean, if you’re looking at the African Black experience during [the] slave trade, they snuck in seeds in their hair and their braids, in their pockets because they knew they … needed the comfort of food. For Indians – South Asians, rather – I came into this country with packets of masala in my bag. I mean, it was a given. You don’t know when you’re going to get it, so you carry this masala in your bag.
I’m not saying, “Oh, in the olden golden times, you know, four centuries ago when people showed up, this is what we did.” I did it in fucking 1993. So why not talk about it? Why not talk about the experience of what happens to a particular dish when it moves from your country somewhere else? Or you’ve already moved somewhere else, and you’re taking the dish that your mom may have designed, but you’ll be modifying it because you don’t have the ingredients.
I really like the concept of the braided essay. Writing my memoir, writing my childhood to this, just seemed like a natural idea to me. I really don’t consider this to be an essay collection per se, though it is, because there is a thread of my childhood. There is a thread of immigration, there is a thread of food, that goes through this entire collection. So that’s sort of what happened.
TW: Some of the essays that have been published before appear in significantly different form in this book. Can we talk about your research and revision process?
MG: I feel like every essay of mine has so many layers to it. And even if there aren’t, I’ll create more layers to it, and each essay could be a book of its own.
I love the process of research. I love going down rabbit holes and trying to see connections because everything is connected. You just have to find the link. So, a perfectly well-rounded essay that has the concept of yogurt and the different Lactobacillus enzymes and gut bacteria in it made a lot of sense to me, primarily because I feel I wanted to address the question of who a good immigrant is. And alongside the good immigrant question, I wanted to address what a good bacteria is.
I mean, I don’t know if people will get it, but that’s my sly hint to say, there are “bugs” in your stomach that really make you decide certain things. I always say this: Are you a head person, a heart person, or a gut person? Because if you’re a head or a heart person, your decisions are binary. [The head and the heart] are very binary. But if you’re a gut person, then you have millions of bacteria in your gut, and they are helping you decide. So I always trust my gut.
I also want to make sure people understand that, you know, it’s not like you’re left-brained or right-brained people. It’s not. You rely on the left brain more than the right brain. The universe didn’t give us brains so that we couldn’t use half of it. I really don’t think nature and how we were created was out of stupidity. We were created because there was something intelligent in how we were put together. Now, you can talk about religion, you can talk about god, I talk about the universe, I talk about nature and talk about science, and I feel like we can use all sides of our brain. We just choose not to. It’s like getting told you’re not good in math. If I keep telling you you’re not good at math, yeah, eventually you will not be good at math.
You know, I had gone on a safari when I was still married, and they were talking about, you know, the impala running, being herded into [pens] by these helicopters. And then [people] would open the pen and [the impalas] wouldn’t get out. They wouldn’t get out because they’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to stay in this little place because we were told to.”
So it’s the same thing.
TW: One thing that really stood out to me in your book is how well you present and contextualize elements that may not be as obvious to your readers. How do you balance the (for lack of a better word) exotic with the need to explain?
MG: My writing group is white, and it’s a very small, tight group who know me really well. We’ve been together for over 20 years. But when I write something that is complicated like that for a white gaze, I think of them: Will they be able to understand it? I’m literally writing to a friend who understands me and is trying to learn something new, right? And so when you’re asking those questions, or you’re putting those things out there, you don’t have to understand [every new] word, but you need to understand the essence of the word.
You know, I was very focused on not italicizing the so-called ‘foreign words’ because they’re not foreign to me. And if you’re going to read my book where the title of the book is a so-called foreign word, I think you need to start understanding that the world is way bigger than what you thought it was. And how about you jump in with me?
I’ve also picked a few political topics that may or may not be that familiar to the Western audience readership. All of us who’ve lived through Indira Gandhi’s assassination, we know it. But people in America, why would they? I mean, the question is not: how dare you not know it? The question is why would they know it, right? So you have to give the context of what really happened. If you don’t give that context and also if you don’t give your own perspective and how your perspective changed, then your essay, no matter how you craft it, is not going to deliver what you want to deliver.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path University and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.