I’m a foodie. I’ll admit it. I shamelessly look up pictures and videos of food on websites like Tastespotting and Instagram. It’s even more thrilling to do it while I’m fasting.
I grew up in a small city in Michigan. Food played an important role in bringing together my mixed family. As a child of an immigrant father from Pakistan and an Irish-Slavanian American mother, my parents imbued me with a passion for food.
I remember picnics as a child on Lake Michigan in Chicago, stuffing spicy, grilled masala chicken into steaming folds of pita bread, while watching my brother play Frisbee with my then-20 year-old uncles who had huge Afros and wore black leather jackets. I remember Mom making Thanksgiving turkey and Ammi Jan frying up the leftovers in MSG to serve with biryani the day after.
The division of labor in our household is wildly disproportionate whenever we are trying to get out the door. I get everything and everyone ready. If we’re traveling, I pack. Picnics, I pack. Dinner invitations, I pick out everyone’s clothes and prepare a dish to share. Birthday parties, I buy the gift and wrap it. And, maybe I’ll throw in a load of laundry, take out the trash, and clean the kitchen. My husband, Hadi, has his list, too: He gets himself ready and loads up the car if I haven’t gotten to it first.
We’ve been married for seventeen years, but these moments can still fill my mind with the words always and never. Hadi is always late. He never helps us get ready. I always have to do everything all by myself. I never get to take my time getting ready so I always look like a harried mess.
Most of the time, Hadi knows what I am thinking. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he’ll say as we’re getting into the car. Sometimes I say, “Yes,” and spew every frustration that comes with doing too much for too many people. Sometimes, I fume wordlessly, a quiet grump in the front seat. But on better days, I remember this truth: The very thing I hate about my spouse in one context is the same thing I love in another.
I became Muslim in my early 20s. During those early years, I would entertain myself on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep by conjuring a story where a mythical creature occupied the rural family cemetery beside my childhood home. This idea actually started with something I dreamt involving an early explorer to America who had lost his way. Somehow, in his travels through out the New World, he slipped through a portal that would later become a traditional grave house over the oldest marked plot.
This creature was a Muslim from some undisclosed foreign land, and he’d fallen through the cracks of time and space while exploring the uncharted territory of early America (where all things were possible, including bending the nature of reality). Occasionally, he would pop into my contemporary world from another dimension.
I’d often find him perched on a high limb of a fragrant and large magnolia tree in the middle of the cemetery. In my story, there were rumors of his existence –like a Bigfoot sometimes spotted by hunters — but he remained an unconfirmed myth. I existed as the only person he trusted.
This imagined character was my attempt to create a narrative that linked my identity as a Muslim to the very different experience of growing up as a Southern Baptist. And as silly as the story felt, it provided one example of how imagination – creative third space — offers the ability to rescript our place in the world.
Alas, my conjuring wasn’t so fantastical. Five hundred years ago, a Muslim’s feet may have touched my ancestral land. His name was Mustafa, and Laila Lalami writes his story in the new novel, The Moor’s Account.
It was exactly five years to the day since the wedding I wrote about in my story for the Love, Inshallah anthology, “Punk Drunk Love.” Here I was again for another Desi wedding in the same suburban Indian restaurant. Heck, I’m pretty sure I was even sitting at the very same table.
The couple was different and I was wearing a different sari, but the celebration of love was the same. It was impossible not to think of him – the leading man of that romantic narrative years ago, who had attended that wedding with me. My mind replayed moments from that night: his hand on my knee, the look in his eyes, how he had made my heart race.
I no longer missed him, but the memories reminded me of how I had once loved like that. Five years later, he was long gone, but I was still in the shadow of that memory, still single and still unable to find that permanent kind of love.
My grandmother’s name is Raj Kumari, which means “princess” in English. She has always been in my life and is part of my earliest memories. As a child, I had a habit of stealing butter and ghee from the kitchen, hiding under the table and eating it. My grandmother would walk in; see me eating butter out of the container, smile and say: “You look like Lord Krishna!”
Hands down, she’s the best cook in my entire family, and because of her we grew up eating great Punjabi food. Saag, muttar paneer, kheer, aloo paratha, gajjar ka halwa – ask for it, and my grandma can make it.
I’m now “of age”, so she is teaching me to cook and training me to become “a good Punjabi wife.” I use that phrase jokingly, but if I’m honest, it fills me with a sense of dread. I’ve grown up with an unusual family dynamic: my mother abandoned us eight years ago and my grandma stepped in to help bring up my younger brother and me. Many South Asians don’t understand our family set up and have often judged us quite harshly. I remember being told: “You’ll end up on welfare because your family is broken.” I never felt like my family was broken. My grandma was the glue that kept us all together.
Order Irene’s new collection, the galaxy of origins. Scroll down for audio.
what’s your name the heavy chimes clot the hours in the air and my blood asks, do bones carry future memories in their marrows? waiting for a face that is a mirror, I turn the page of a tome that lists only my name my name my name. tonight each cicada sings its name, the only one it knows, and when I stepped out the door this morning and a chipmunk slammed into my shoe, it couldn’t remember its name for a moment. our eyes met – I blurted sorry, sweetie! its name I did not know an emptiness arching around my tongue as if to know and say it could undo our small collision.
Irène Mathieu is a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University. Before medical school she studied International Relations at the College of William and Mary and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in the Dominican Republic. Irène’s poetry, prose, and photography have been published or are forthcoming in The Caribbean Writer, the Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Extract(s), So to Speak, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal of General Internal Medicine, Love Insha’Allah, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, HEArt Journal, and elsewhere. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Callaloo fellow. Her poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins was published in 2014 by Dancing Girl Press. You can read her blog and follow her on Twitter.
What would happen if you said “I love you” to your parents? These people did and the reactions are beautiful and heartwarming.
Filmmaker Steven Lim is calling for you to video your parents reacting to hearing the words come from you. Post your videos using the hashtag #iloveyouchallenge.