It’s been a hell of a year.
Just over one year ago, in early June of 2016, I decided to see if the idea that started to take shape during my MFA program would be worthy enough to make a decent PhD thesis. I drew up an Excel spreadsheet of PhD in Creative Writing programs in the UK that could take FAFSA student loans and narrowed them down based on other additional factors. Those included tuition, cost of living, and the coolness factor of where the school was located. Then I started reaching out to the schools to find an advisor that could supervise my science fiction and fantasy genre.
At the time I was pitched my PhD topic to focus on the food imagery in the works of Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. A few times I got the response of “I’m sure we could find a supervisor for you.” Although the most common reply I received was, “I don’t think anyone here could supervise a degree that focuses on speculative fiction.” Or is silence better than kindness? There were a few silences too. I’m sure I could have been more aggressive but this was more or less an exercise in seeing what could happen. I had no idea if I could even go beyond asking. I still had to save up money, apply for a visa, and mentally prepare myself to leave home for at least three years.
On May 10, 2016, I received a response from the person who would become my second supervisor, Dr. Helen Marshall. Not only did she give full replies to some of my more awkward questions (I actually asked if British English grammar and punctuation would be expected of an American student), but she was wholly enthusiastic about my idea.
“Your project interests me because I find food to be such a strong component of speculative fiction, both, as you say, as a thematic device and as an avenue for world-building. All sorts of tropes come to mind, particularly taboos around eating food (such as in Fairyland for example) and in works that have a strong connection to those mythologies (Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, etc.) Anglia Ruskin could well be a good fit for your project as we have a real faculty strength in science fiction and fantasy, one that we expect to grow over the next three years.”
What? Seriously? I spent my whole MFA feeling like a bump on a log because I couldn’t fit myself into the literary fiction mold I tried so hard to fit myself into. But I was fortunate to find an enthusiastic mentor in Ellen Akins, she not only liked my straight fantasy ideas she encouraged them. When I told her I wasn’t sure about continuing on my with my Daeramere stories she asked in her wide eyed, straightforward manner, “why not?” (I try to take every opportunity I can to thank her for permission to write fantasy. Thank you, Ellen!)
There were several weeks of back and forth with Helen and then she introduced me to Dr. Tiffani Angus. Tiffani was also enthusiastic about my idea, except that both of them believed that I was “shoe-horning” the works of Atwood and Gaiman into my thesis idea. So I started to branch away, and was thrilled because I was once again given permission to explore the genre that has been my constant creative friend since I was a child.
When I arrived in the UK the time came for me to draft my real proposal, with a due date of the end of February. I must say the due date itself didn’t intimidate me at first. I figured I knew what I was doing, I knew this genre, of course I could get out in words what the (beep) I was going to become a self-professed expert in.
The truth is always harder and heavier than that isn’t it.
Like thousands of other postgraduate students (probably like every postgraduate student), I was immediately stricken with that most contagious of thought viruses: imposter syndrome. Other students were talking about doing their PhD’s on transformative works (aka fanfiction) and Tiffani told me that her PhD focused on chronotopes and heterotopias and spatialization…I felt like my terminology was so pedestrian for such lofty ivory tower ambitions.
Almost a year to the day after my first correspondence from Helen, I was told that my PhD proposal had been approved by the university. That I was worthy of literature.
I know when I say to a layperson, or even another student of creative writing and literature, that I’m studying the use of food imagery in science fiction and fantasy, particularly, how it shapes world-building and characterization, they usually reply that sounds really cool. Or variants thereof. The working title of my academic thesis eventually revealed itself as “Food and Cheer and Prose: The Gastronomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Yet, when another creative writing or lit postgrad says something like, “my thesis is on the transmutability and false memory in the prose of Proust and Woolf,” I feel like I come up short. (I completely made that up but you get my point right?)
Those of you who know me well know that this is a huge part of my being, I always feel like I come up short when faced with the ambitions of others. But apparently ambition is something that is both singular and communal. Homer wasn’t the first person to tell stories about a ten-year war started by a beauty contest among the gods, but did so with his own twists because he wanted to tell this grand tale in a new way. Civilization repeated it over and over because it’s a good story and quite often tells us something about ourselves in how we retell the tale.
I guess this means I’ve got to remember that while others may talk of analyzing trauma and literary transubstantiation within the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin (again made up) that this is their part of the Trojan War of literature that they see. I see food and maybe when I tell you of a recipe hidden within prose it will either stir your stomach, or your mind, and then you’ll go and repeat the tales of brave Ulysses in your own way.
That is literature.
And this is my proposal:
Food and Cheer and Prose: The Gastronomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Proposed Area of Research
This doctoral thesis will be comprised of a creative piece of approximately 60,000 words and a critical analysis of approximately 25,000 words.
For a successful connection between reader and science fiction and fantasy literature the writer must evoke a convincing cultural milieu. My creative project, a speculative fiction short story collection, will explore food as a nexus of culture within literature. Each story will be paired with a recipe and will fall into one of the subgenres of science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The accompanying research will focus on how food imagery influences SFF world building, and how setting and characterization are shaped by different dichotomies found within the genre.
Aim of the Study
My proposed creative project, Odyssey in the Starwine Market: A Collection, will pair eight recipes with eight SFF works in a combined tasting and reading menu. Some recipes readers will be able to recreate for themselves, some perhaps not. The short stories will also fall under different subgenres, including high, urban, weird, and historical fantasy.
Aside from the subgenre of culinary mysteries, pairing recipes with prose is an uncommon occurrence in fiction. Although this medium has also appeared in nonfiction memoirs, Laura Esquivel’s magical realism novel, Like Water for Chocolate, in which a recipe precedes each monthly chapter, is one of the few examples where a whole menu is paired with the prose of the story.
Rosemary Jackson argues that fantasy is a “literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence or loss” (1981, pp.3-4). Food creates a connection between reader and story because it tends to literalize this desire in a variety of ways. Reading about Sansa Stark saving room for lemon cakes in A Game of Thrones, or Shadow Moon reflecting on his departed wife’s chili in American Gods, triggers Proustian moments in a reader.
One of my proposed stories, “How to Cook a Dragon,” will feature a typical post-Tolkien fantasy world. A cooking competition will serve as the catalyst to an unfolding mystery of sabotage and political intrigue between classic fantasy races. The story will also serve as a tongue-in-cheek observation of overused tropes of the genre (as examined in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and the popularity of television cooking shows.
- Why is food imagery important to works of SFF? How can it be identified and classified and how has it changed? How is it different in SFF versus other fiction genres? Does it change between SFF subgenres?
- What dichotomies arise in the types of food imagery in SFF? How special/sacred does a meal have to be or is the banal/profane just as important?
- How does food imagery play into world building and setting? How does food define characters in their response to the meals they eat or food they encounter?
- How does food imagery enhance or change a reader’s experience of a text with regards to dietary preferences and primal or cultural aversions to the consumption of taboo food?
Context for the Research
This PhD project addresses relatively new ground in academia. Fabio Parasecoli claims “food has only recently become a respectful object of interest and research in academia” (2008, p.11). I will investigate food imagery in SFF to see how it has changed over the years and how it has shaped the genre.
My research component will combine two of the oldest pieces of civilization: literature and food. Food in myth is about desire, as illustrated by the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the Trojan War starting with a contest over a Golden Apple, and the apple that appears in the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White tale. In stories about fairies all readers know “Fairies often ask for food or gifts,” and “one must not eat the fairy food” (Purkiss, pp.66 & 129). Because of the myth and fairy tale origins of SFF there is an underlying tradition of food imagery. To taste what a character is eating or cooking enforces world building, shapes the setting, and feeds into characterization. Tolkien’s The Hobbit normalizes Middle Earth and the hobbit, wizard, and dwarf races via a feast featuring a very British menu. In contrast, Daenerys Targaryen in Martin’s A Game of Thrones is served horsemeat at her wedding feast. During his first journey on the Hogwarts express, Harry Potter walks away from the food trolley with an armful of fantastic sweets, including chocolate frogs that actually hop around.
There is also another side to food imagery, where an author takes these vicarious pleasures and subverts them. In addition to his unusual speech patterns, Gollum is further alienated from Sam, Frodo, and the reader by his bloodthirsty diet. Authors may ask of readers to view a tray bearing breakfast as something nefarious. After chaining up and stripping the wizard protagonist Harry Dresden of his magic in Death Masks, the villain Nicodemus taunts Harry with food, asking both the protagonist and the reader to sell their soul for pancakes and coffee.
My research will include SFF short stories and novels, as well as cookbooks and food history texts. Food imagery, via the lens of literary theory, will be examined through the works of SFF academics such as Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. Works about creative writing and the craft of writing will also be studied. Visits to historical kitchens, food libraries, and London’s Le Cordon Bleu will reinforce the living history of food and its ever-changing presence in our lives and in literature.
As my academic research progresses I will attend, and submit a paper to, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and SFF conventions, including NineWorlds, Eastercon, and WorldCon. Updates on my academic and creative process will be featured on www.foodcheerprose.wordpress.com.
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© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in June 2017 at Foyles Bookshop, London, England, UK.