Books·How I Wrote It

How Naben Ruthnum uses curry to stir discussion on what it means to be South Asian in Canada

Naben Ruthnum's new book explores the savoury dish and its ties to the Indian diaspora.
Naben Ruthnum's book Curry is part of Coach House Books' Exploded Views series. (Coach House Books)

By definition, curry is a savoury dish with origins in South Asian cuisine. But it's so much more, according to Naben Ruthnum. The cultural critic, book reviewer and author — who won the 2013 Journey Prize — posits that what we know as curry serves as many things for those of South Asian descent. His book Curry is an engaging and insightful long-form essay that connects the dots between the popular dish and how it functions as shorthand for brown identity in representing the food, culture and social perception of the South Asian diaspora.

In his own words, Ruthnum explains how Curry came to be.

A surprising project

"I never saw myself writing a nonfiction book, honestly. I thought about it after having eaten curry one evening. Curry was the first identifiably 'brown' thing about me, to other people, that I could talk about and joke about growing up in Kelowna, B.C. This is also a book that came from a lot of other books; I was reading The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell and various food-related texts and it all just started to coalesce.

"I was interested in talking about the brown audience and brown writers and pressures that they may face or things that they may embrace, like certain types of writing — that I am critical of in the book — which are important to and close to brown readers and writers. I think I'd like brown writers who read it to feel slightly freer to write anything that they want to write."

Talking about books and food

"Literature means the most to me in the world — and food is actually a close second. I thought it was an interesting way to channel my thoughts on how ethnic writing is programmed, approached and consumed like how food is. I wanted to talk through food and how food is treated culturally, specifically — quote-unquote — ethnic food.

"I think that it was one of those cases where being broad was best served by being specific. We talk about the evolution of certain dishes like chicken tikka masala or by using certain [South Asian] writers who are very popular as examples of the kind of [cultural] writing that I'm talking about. I like zeroing in and dissecting things and also turning things over and saying why I have this opinion." 

Finding structure in a sprawling mess of ideas

"I never thought I'd write a memoir, but a quarter of this book is memoir, just in that there's a lot of my own life in this. I just wrote my core ideas as a 20-page essay and we kept on adding to it until it took this shape. So I was adding 20 pages, then another 30 pages, then suggesting to my editor where this might go. So we ended up with this monstrous, sprawling, big mess — but the good parts definitely ended up in the book. This is a book that, as my editor said at the end of this, I think we both learned a lot. That's certainly not the way I write fiction. I'm not a big outliner or plotter. I write and just see where I am going." 

Naben Ruthnum's comments have been edited and condensed.