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In Session: Contemporary Singapore from Biopolitics to Literature
Drinking Ash Water and Eating Expired Things: Singapore’s Transgressive Literary Foodways
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Eunice Ying Ci Lim
Pennsylvania State University, United States
Positioned at the intersections of literary criticism, cultural studies, and food anthropology, this paper proposes to read the unconventional consumption habits of Singapore-Chinese communities within and against the prescribed “national diet” of self-improvement, patriotism, and productivity. From the supposed benefits of eating panther phallus and the Taoist rituals of drinking ash water in Wong Koi Tet’s collection of Chinese short stories titled Black Panther (2019), to a family’s willful eating of food past their expiration dates and the funereal use of chopsticks to pick through grandfather’s remains in Cheryl Julia Lee’s collection of English poetry – We Were Always Eating Expired Things (2014), these transgressive, everyday acts of consumption enact at-risk cultural and religious mysticisms that defy the nation’s pragmatic and progressivist logic. Metaphorically reminiscent of Pica syndrome, a recognized eating disorder involving the compulsion to eat non-food material, the seemingly intuitive dismissal of these rituals of consumption as backward, illogical, and incompatible with modernity reinforces the normative, capitalist drive of the nation state. Charting these gustatory transgressions, these literary works draw attention to the consequences of the nation’s insatiable appetite for development and progress by mapping the irreverent and peripheral “foodways” of Singapore, boldly disrupting and overwriting the Southeast Asian country’s well-endorsed narrative of culinary nationalism and cosmopolitanism with the inedible and unpalatable.