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The dystopian 'Land of Milk and Honey' tells of a future without the pleasure of food

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's not hard to imagine how terrifying the world will be if we allow climate change to keep unfurling unfettered. And maybe that's why it's not a huge leap to believe the dystopian future that C Pam Zhang lays out in her new novel, "Land Of Milk And Honey." A thick smog has ravaged the Earth's ecosystems. Crops die. Biodiversity vanishes. The global food supply chain disintegrates, and the sensual pleasure of a good meal is a distant memory, for most people anyway.

High on a mountaintop on the Italian-French border, a research community bioengineers and hoards rare ingredients and species. Only the most exclusive wealthy people have access to this community. And then a chef looking for a job shows up. What unfolds is a story of greed, the perversion of science and the elusiveness of pleasure. C Pam Zhang joins us now. Welcome.

C PAM ZHANG: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. You are someone who clearly appreciates the sensual pleasure of food. That is immediately apparent when you read your novel. What was your relationship to food like growing up? I'm so curious.

ZHANG: Oh, that's so funny. Growing up, I was a very picky eater.

CHANG: Really (laughter)?

ZHANG: I was a horrible child, probably. I was afraid of eating most meat that wasn't white meat chicken, which is an affront in Chinese families of course.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

ZHANG: I was just disgusted by things outside my realm of experience, including, for example, cheese, right? If you haven't grown up in a culture that introduces cheese early, it's rotting milk. It's disgusting.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ZHANG: And so it was both a natural pickiness and the fact that my family was very poor growing up, and so we couldn't afford to eat out. And it wasn't until my senior year of high school that, bored, I began reading food blogs. And so it was interesting to me how I came to food through the narrative possibilities first, how it was a portal into other people's lives, how I was reading how others experience food first. That made me want to feel those same things.

CHANG: I mean, your descriptions of food in this book are so graphic. But there was one thing I was wondering about and that is how much you actually like meat. You mentioned that you only ate white meat chicken. But do you even like meat? - because some of these meat dishes you describe made me gag, like that scene with the limbs. I don't want to give anything else away, but I kind of wanted to vomit in my mouth when I was reading that. What is - do you even like to eat meat?

ZHANG: I love meat now, and I'm a very happy carnivore. At the same time, I do think that I had to come around to enjoying meat by understanding, like, where it came from. I do believe that if you are going to eat meat, you should be able to look at a raw chicken carcass with the head and the feet and the organs and understand where everything is coming from.

CHANG: Take in the full consequences of your injustice.

ZHANG: Exactly. Exactly. And to me, that actually makes the meat, like, more delicious and more succulent because I understand the - kind of the value of it. And also, it kind of does mean that the older I've gotten, the less meat I eat. I think it just doesn't agree with me as much.

CHANG: (Laughter) I'm kind of in the opposite direction. I fully want to deny that the thing was a living animal before I put it into my mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Well, you know, the person behind all of this food that you talk about in this novel, it's the chef, the narrator of the story. Why did you choose to give her no name?

ZHANG: Hmm.

CHANG: Oh, I'm actually surprised that that's a decision you didn't realize you made.

ZHANG: Yeah. Yeah. It's - I'm thinking about - because, yeah, it wasn't a decision that I realized I had made when I was done with the book, frankly. But I think when I reach deep into my subconscious, the chef is nameless because so much of the book is about identity and crafting an identity and then discarding that identity and sort of changing fundamentally who you are over the course, in the case of this book, of a dramatic year. And so I think that the namelessness of the chef really ties into these ideas of reinvention and constant rediscovery and perhaps fundamentally on some level, never fully knowing who you are but that not always being a negative quality.

CHANG: What an interesting answer. So her identity evolves over time, but, you know, her race does not. You made a very distinct choice to make her Asian in this novel. Why was that important, for this character to be Asian?

ZHANG: Yeah. So I've been thinking for a long time, probably my entire lifetime, about the loaded duality of being an Asian woman in America but then increasingly in the world - right? - where you're simultaneously hypervisible, hypersexualized and invisible, right?

CHANG: Yes.

ZHANG: So many of us have the experience of being mistaken for other Asian women who look nothing like us, who are 20...

CHANG: A hundred percent.

ZHANG: ...Or 30 years older or younger. Yeah, you...

CHANG: Several inches taller.

ZHANG: You know what I'm talking about.

CHANG: Yes.

ZHANG: Several inches taller.

CHANG: Oh, yes. It's happened many, many times in my life.

ZHANG: Yeah. Anyways, and so that was so key to this character, who would kind of give up all of herself to take this last chance at this grand job on this mountain enclave in the book, right? I'm thinking about this Tressie McMillan Cottom idea of beauty being violence and expanding upon that the act of making oneself desirable for a job, for a relationship, for anything. It's also a violence, right? There's so much warping of oneself and reshaping of oneself to fit into a mold. And I think that Asian women do that every day.

CHANG: You know, when I step back and I think about the very existence of this research community, it feels like not only that you're snickering at the confidence of rich people who think they can change the world, but I feel like you're also snickering at our confidence in science to fix our problems. Is that a fair interpretation?

ZHANG: I love that you picked up on the snickering.

(LAUGHTER)

ZHANG: Yeah, I think that's a wonderful interpretation. I am a deep lover of science. And to me, it's a little bit like magic because it is so much out of my own domain. But at the same time, with this book, I was thinking a lot about how scientific progress can become a form of self interest, right? And in the case of environmental science, a form of self interest that's coded as selfless. Isn't it the ultimate form of human hubris to imagine that we alone can and must come up with a solution to save the planet? It puts humanity at the center of a story that is so many billions of years older than us, that has so many more actors in the form of other flora and fauna. And so perhaps what you're picking up on with the snickering is that one thing that continues to give me hope is the idea that we - is that if humanity really messes it up and we make ourselves extinct, the planet will survive without us. The planet will be just fine. And that is a strange comfort.

CHANG: I love that. C Pam Zhang's new book is called "Land Of Milk And Honey." Thank you so much for being with us.

ZHANG: Yeah. Thank you. That was really fun. What a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "SUPERSTARR (FEAT. MEECHY DARKO, CJ FLY AND HAILE SUPREME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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