10 Questions for Rachel Fenton

TEN QUESTIONS FOR Rachel Fenton, about her story “Food Bank” in the anthology and her writing life/persona.
Tell us a little about your current writing projects, your latest publications or writing ‘news’ or what you hope to do next writing-wise.

Thank you so much for asking, Elaine. As you know, I write graphic poetry as well as literary fiction, so I’m currently finishing three graphic poetry “gifts” as part of my work for the NZ Book Council Graphic Novelist Exchange Residency Project with Taiwan, in association with the Publishers Association of New Zealand, and I’m about to start work on a collaboration with Anita Heiss, for Cordite Poetry Review, as well as co-editing Three Words, an anthology of New Zealand women’s comics and cartoons, due for publication later this year. I’d like to get a first collection of poetry out at some point. I’m also putting the final touches to what I hope will be my first collection of short fiction and seeking representation and/or publication for my Dundee International Book Prize finalist novel Some Things the English. I am itching to write a sequel to that and have tentatively titled a notebook and opened a file on my computer…can’t stop myself. And now I want to write a novel set in Taipei!

What was the original inspiration for ‘FOOD BANK’? How did this story come together, when you were first approached to write for the anthology?

This story was hard won; it came after a string of unsuccessful attempts to write a food themed story.

When I was first approached to write for the anthology I had a stack of story ideas – dare I say, I thought it would be easy – but, one by one, they fell flat or weren’t fully realised and I had to dig deeper inside myself to find that specific story pain that I wanted to exorcise.

Most of my fiction is interested in inequality and, since moving to New Zealand, post-colonialism, so I knew the terrain I was going to cover, but I really struggled to find the specific entry point for a long time.

What pulled it all together for me was a combination of factors: I’d read a lot in the press about the rise of food banks, both in the UK and NZ and I’d recently finished a mini-comic about my experience of receiving free clothing and food in the 1984/5 Miners Strike, which had been accepted for publication in the “Money” issue of The Poetry Bus Magazine; so a mixture of current affairs and very personal issues drew the story out of me.

Why ‘chili’ in the story? How did you choose ‘chili’, instead of say, ‘pot roast’ or ‘shepherd’s pie’?

Food Bank’s subject matter is difficult to swallow and I wanted a food to represent that. Visually chili is also very appealing – as a writer I admire recently observed, “There are a lot of curves” – carefully chosen imagery can save you thousands of words.

Interestingly, at a lot of food banks in America, what’s often handed out are tins of ‘chili’. Probably here too. And here, you can tell that the chill being made here is almost gourmet-quality.

When you flip this story over, it’s not about ‘chili’, but rather about ‘hunger’. Was there a time in your life when you felt a similar hunger? You can interpret ‘hunger’ however you like.

I wrote in another story, “While Women Rage in Winter”, that “I can’t say I have known hunger […] without sounding trite, without sounding more English for all I insist on being less”.

I was also struck by how this story is about insensitivity and humiliation. The use of ‘food’ and ‘food bank’ to draw this out makes this story unique and resonant for me. You’d hinted at some personal experience behind this story; would you sketch (literally or metaphorically, as you like) some of that for us (whatever you’re comfortable with)?

In my opinion and in my experience as a working class woman who grew up in poverty in the North of England, who has lived on benefits and state hand-outs, who has spent a period as a single mum, who has on numerous occasions not eaten so that my kid could…look, there really is no excuse for poverty and hunger when one lives in the developed world. (I hope you’re reading, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Key). That there are people who have it, still, much worse than I have ever known angers and frustrates me. I could list occasions when I have felt personally humiliated, but I must acknowledge my privilege, and what Food Bank is concerned with, at least on the surface, is a person who does not recognize their privilege and in their failure to do so humiliates another person by exhibiting what I would describe as a form of colonialist behavior.
Does food usually figure in your stories? Subconsciously, consciously, or not at all?

I have an unpublished novel entirely about food! Thinking about it, I guess it figures more than I realised.
What do you like to munch/snack on when you write? When do you think about ‘food’ most?

When I’m writing, unless the story necessitates it, I don’t think about food at all. But I do think about food a lot. I like to feel empty before I eat yet I was recently in Taipei with a group of graphic novelists and our hosts fed us all the time – seriously, barely fifteen minutes passed without us being offered some amazing dish. Whilst I enjoyed the food immensely, I couldn’t help feeling that it was wrong to eat more than I needed. That said, I caught myself hoarding pastries one morning at breakfast, because I could never afford to buy myself those normally (my child self was definitely prominent that morning) – stockpiling is a problem for me. Mostly I like to drink tea when I’m writing.
Do you have a favourite dish? A favourite cuisine? A recipe you can share with us here?

I love any dish that someone else cooks for me (I am a terrible cook)! But tea is my thing. I just discovered new varieties of tea Taipei, favourites being jasmine and rose, so here’s my take on a recipe for rose milk tea:

Makes two cups

two tbsp loose rose tea or two tea bags (I like my tea strong)
one cup of full fat milk
half cup boiling water
apple slice, chopped finely
sugar to taste
(if you can plan in advance, pick and dry rose buds to add, alternatively, blend rose petals with your favourite black tea leaves to create your own tea mix – I like Assam in the morning and Darjeeling in the afternoon)

Bring water to boil, pour over tea leaves and rose petals (hold back a few petals/buds for garnish). Heat milk with apple and sugar in a saucepan, bring to near boil.
Divide between two glasses, garnish and serve.

(You can froth the milk too, for an extra fluffy texture).

You recently attended an amazing graphic artist/writers’ conference in Taipei. Can you share a little about your cultural experience there?

I was invited to Taipei in February to participate in the second part of the NZ Book Council’s Graphic Novelists Exchange Residency in association with the Publishers Association of New Zealand and the Taipei International Book Exhibition (the first part was held in Auckland in October 2014). I took part in a panel discussion, graphic novelists’ workshop, and exhibited my art in the book fair. Taipei is an amazing liberal city and the people I met were all so friendly and helpful and generous. Socialising occurs around food: the Taiwanese I worked with loved nothing more than to feed me to bursting point. I am now desperate to go back, to scratch beneath that polite surface and see what else is cooking there (to write, and take photographs of something other than food).

Aside from your own, which story in the anthology did you gravitate towards the most?

I can’t shake the image of the people watching the people eat in Ben Okri’s “The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us” – it’s such a concise and powerful rendering of the emotional impact and implications of participating in something you know others are excluded from – the guilt; food can have so many associations. I also loved the poetic form and ambiguity of this story.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions, Elaine, and for including my story in this terrific anthology!

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