You Can Touch But Do Not Taste

In Chana Porter’s novel "The Thick and the Lean," eating for pleasure is taboo, but sex is encouraged

The forbidden apple
The forbidden apple. Artwork via Wikimedia Commons

Chana Porter’s new speculative novel The Thick and the Lean applies American sexual taboos to food and hunger, and gives the results some chilling terminology: Food Modesty and Flesh Martyrdom. Early parts of the story take place in the cult of Seagate, a planned community where members eat in the privacy of their own homes, and only calories that are nutritionally necessary. There is no pleasure to be had in the vitamin-heavy mush of a meal, though a few scenes later, the cult’s church youth group hosts a routine, sanctioned sleepover. The minister reminds adolescent Seagaters how to respectfully (but joyously) engage in heavy petting—“outercourse” before “innercourse,” please. Consensual sex is so commonplace in Seagate, and in this world’s middle- and upper-classes, it takes place in public parks and social gatherings, in extramarital acquaintanceships and social media feeds. But some desires are still forbidden: when two teens are discovered sharing a grilled cheese sandwich in the church kitchen, the result is shame and exile.

The book’s premise is not totally speculative: diet culture in America goes to many extremes to bring its followers to a given, sanctified status of being thin and being seen as attractive and socially desirable. But Porter takes it further—instead of the earthy moral purity of organic cuisine or the discipline of carb-restricted cooking, the wealthy of The Thick and the Lean remove themselves, literally, from the earth’s surface and what might grow there. Porter uses this aversion to shape the economic, cultural, and colonial forces of her two-mooned planet, only to disrupt them with an apocryphal (cook)book-within-a-book. This text brings two contemporary but counterpoised heroines to share a single, clandestine meal. From there, each woman must reach her own conclusions about how to move forward in a compromised, and possibly dying, world.

I spoke with Chana Porter on a warm morning in May about flipping taboos, writing about sex, and women’s hunger as a source of power and pain.

Charlotte Wyatt: The last time we spoke was about your first novel, The Seep, which started with a dinner party. Your new book starts with an empty plate. Can you talk about the role appetite or appetites play in your desire to write fiction?

Chana Porter: I think I’m always going to write from the perspective of having a body. My animal self is always present. I’m a sci-fi fan, and if I’m watching a show that takes place on a spaceship, and no one ever has a meal or talks about a craving, or about the food they miss at home, that seems to me to be a very large part of what it means to have a body left out. These basic needs that we all have to sleep, to eat, for touch, these things occupy me. I think, in a way, our desire is our most common experience.

CW: Yes! I definitely see that in the book. In terms of desire, sex is very present in the novel, but it’s rarely treated as the obstacle or obsession sex can become in narratives about appetite. And so when it’s treated as casually as having a conversation or sharing a meal would be in our world, it’s not front and center—despite the fact that one character insists sex for pleasure is the most human act possible. Did writing about sex in this way reveal something to you about your own attitudes towards sex or sexuality you hadn’t articulated before?

It’s very hard to be sexually free in capitalism and rape culture.

CP: I was very conscious that I wanted it to feel like when sex was happening, it was commonplace. And then, when a character was having a sensual encounter through food, the “gaze of the camera” reflected hunger. I consciously wrote the early sex scenes in the book as something very normal. I’m not trying to pathologize people who have sex in a way that’s friendly and casual. But in showing this taboo flip, and trying to talk about our arbitrary moral scaffolding placed around different kinds of natural desire—well, there’s definitely some things about the cult, about the way they talk about sex and the way they teach their teenagers, that I find really cool. I would have liked it if someone told me when I was a teenager the only way to get good at intercourse is if you stick to doing hands-only stuff for a long time. And then you get good at knowing your body and knowing how to have an orgasm. I think that’s so sweet and such good, practical sex advice. There’s another line where I think the pastor or maybe the nun says, your bodies are divine vessels, so we’re not treating one another like we’re trampolines, right? We’re not just going to bounce on one another for joy. This is contrasted with how, in more secular parts of the novel, sex is treated like a commodity or a power trade. 

I don’t think I have a very judgmental attitude towards sexuality. It’s very hard to be sexually free in capitalism and rape culture. I don’t think the act of having a kind of whimsical or casual or abundant approach to sexuality, if that’s what you want, that there’s anything wrong with that. I think when you layer all of the ways women are not safe in our current reality—like, it’s a very difficult thing for me to go out and take someone home. It was fun for me to write about a world where no one in the novel is thinking about that. Which I found really relieving. Plenty of other problems [in the world of the novel], but no one’s going to get murdered if they sleep with someone they don’t know.

CW: I think the way you phrased it with “the gaze” of the narration captures what I was trying to ask. Beauty comes up often in the book, too, and is named as a burden by multiple characters, but beauty is never ultimately confused with thinness. And Beatrice, after she leaves the cult of Seagate, becomes conscious she’s no longer thin. This gives her a chance to reject the values around beauty she was raised with. Reiko has a similar opportunity, though to very different ends. As your characters reject these values, they seem to learn new things about their own desire. Could you expand on your interest in writing about those discoveries?

CP: I actually read a Camille Roy quote about this today, that made me think about what you’re asking. Let me see if I can find it … 

But, to answer your question, I developed an eating disorder as a young, beautiful teenager. And when I got thinner, there was this summer where I realized that everything I thought of myself as having—my hair being too curly, or my nose being too big, or me being too short, or having too much body hair—I could do something to modify that. I started wearing shoes that always had heels and I lightened my hair and I straightened it. I started putting makeup on the sides of my nose to make it appear thinner. And then I lost a significant amount of weight, and it was like a key turning in a lock. The world of being a beautiful girl unlocked. It was very strange. I felt like there was fanfare everywhere I went. I would just go into a store and people would give me things. Boys would come up to me at pizza shops and say, do you have a boyfriend? Can I have your phone number? It was just this wild thing. And I was slowly starving. I mean, it was getting so extreme. I was living off a mocha from Starbucks for eight hours until I could move dinner around on my plate. I was constantly hungry. I also felt so powerful. I went shopping for a prom dress with my mother and the woman at the store was like you’re too small. We don’t have any dresses [that will fit you]. And I felt so proud. I was like well, I’ve done it. I felt so incredibly powerful, and it was also miserable, and it was killing me. It was really taking over my mind. 

Here it is, the quote:

“Mostly it’s boring being a girl. You are a prisoner of your girlish appearance. You can’t get outside. You are either with all the other girls studying themselves in mirrors as they dream of devouring meat, their own excess flesh, anything to get rid of it permanently, or someone is trying to stuff something weird between your legs. It’s either one or the other.”

CW: Wow! What a perfect quote for the book! I think something really interesting happens as these characters reckon with being beautiful, or not, but also with what kind of person they want to be in a world set up to take advantage of anyone who isn’t powerful. And of course, having beauty is only one kind of power in the book. You have three heroines who, in turn, attempt to poison their boss, or routinely steal, or cultivate culturally deviant habits in secret. Reiko particularly moves in circles with characters who make intentionally harmful, selfish choices, but she doesn’t remove herself from those choices and their consequences. I’m curious if you were concerned about how readers would receive these heroines.

CP: In Reiko’s case, she turns to crime because she understands essentially that she’s being robbed. She’s being set up. And just because it’s a legal way doesn’t mean that it’s just. I’m very interested as a writer when you step outside cultural norms or the cultures’ laws or social taboos, then what else in your life, in your mindset, becomes flexible? Because [Reiko’s] journey is really one about moral relativism, where things get so flexible she loses the center of what she actually does care about and does believe in. Or does she? It’s kind of the question.

CW: Right! And you bring so many forces to bear on them. There’s elements of religion and colonization and systemic racism and environmental degradation and corporate exploitation. Was it easier to explore these forces in a world you created, despite so many of those forces having clear parallels to what’s happening in the real world?

This book is very much about the ways that a really nice idea, a good idea, can be wielded as a tool of suppression and harm.

CP: The book is a mirror to our reality, but a funhouse mirror. Or a distorted mirror. I hope by seeing our own world reflected back in a way that catches our eye, catches us off guard, it can feel a little destabilizing and grotesque. I hope it helps us see things in our reality with kind of a fresh perspective.

CW: Approaches similar to yours (in both novels) are sometimes referred to as “soft” science fiction, where the writer’s emphasis is less on world-building or science, and more on what those things allow a book to explore thematically. One of your main characters in the new book is “Free-Wah,” which is an indigenous culture that shows up in every storyline of the novel, despite the Free-Wah having been colonized and in many ways condemned by the followers of Food Modesty. Can you talk about why you chose to explore indigenous culture and indigeneity in the world of the book, especially around these themes of hunger and human relationships to food?

CP: Devising a book that had this kind of classic sci-fi trope taboo switch, where something in our reality is viewed as normal there, so our normal is suddenly taboo, I knew I wanted to write a very beautiful food culture. There needed to be people who were cooking. There needed to be people who were cultivating things like chocolate, who knew how to make cheese. Some of my favorite scenes in the book are when Beatrice is foraging, where the veil is being lifted off her eyes, when she starts to glimpse that there’s actually food everywhere. Like there’s food growing up between the cracks in the sidewalk.

But part of why sci-fi is important to me is that it’s a good tool to understand the way things are in our current reality is not because it’s the most natural, but because these are choices we’ve made historically, collectively, that we still agree to now. With the [Free-Wah] having a lush food tradition that’s not encumbered by shame, which connects them to their bodies and to their lineage and to the land from an agricultural perspective, it seems very right to me that the backbone of the story is so much about conquest. It’s so much about land rights, and colonization, about a dominant culture coming and suppressing people that were already there. Part of how they’re taking away the colonized people’s power is they’re saying that there’s something wrong with the way you’re living on the planet. And we should be in control. In a very “holier than thou, we’re coming to save your souls and take your lands” way. If you read things like William Penn’s letter to the Lenni-Lenape people, the patriarchal language in that strain of colonization, where it’s saying things like my children, my friends, I love you, I’m going to take care of you. Part of how I’m going to do that is I’m going to show you how to believe in God.

It is a fantastical story that I’ve made, but also a version of that did happen in our reality that was very, very connected to food and to agriculture. The way that Europeans introduced things just as simple as monocrops, right? Monocrops are so damaging for the environment. And it’s this attitude of, we are separate from the world and we’re going to put our own framework on top of it. And we’re going to order it to give us certain things instead of what had been happening for thousands of years in our country, the form of permaculture, of knowing that when you plant one plant next to another plant next to another plant, they all help one another grow. That’s a very simplified way of talking about something a lot of scholars, who are a lot more learned than I am, have written about. My hope is that if I do write more books in the world of The Thick and the Lean, that I get to explore these topics further.

CW: I was so disappointed we didn’t get to follow Beatrice at the end of the novel to her new life in a Free-Wah farming community! But even without that, gardens and gardening play a big role in her story, and come up in other parts of the book. It was hard not to think of the Garden of Eden story from the Christian Bible and the pomegranate seeds in the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. And then, you had the very straightforward scenes around religion in the cult of Seagate. Did you plan to bring religion into the world of this book from the beginning?

CP: I’m not a religious person, but I’m a very spiritual person, and I’m fascinated by religious certainty. People trying to concretize a relationship to the invisible—which I think you can do for your own person, but doing that for a whole group of people and perhaps for the world seems like the most wild hubris in my mind. So many big and small violences and atrocities and little soul deaths have been caused in the name of what I think is a very benevolent God. So, this book is very much about the ways that a really nice idea, a good idea, can be wielded as a tool of suppression and harm.

CW: It’s so lovely that Beatrice’s liberation at the end goes in the face of that. And I know it’s a spoiler, but: the book ends with the final revelation of The Kitchen Girl, which could reasonably be called apocrypha for the people of Seagate and the upper classes. So much of the world of the novel is about controlling appetites, how people consume goods and services, and the power dynamics around these cultural values. But the book’s epigraph is from the memoir A Gentle Plea for Chaos by the gardener Mirabel Osler. What do you hope readers come away with having followed Reiko and Beatrice and Ito as they resist being controlled by the world of the book?

CP: It’s really about not knowing what the fruits of our actions will be. And there’s such powerful hope in this, that we plant into the unknown, and maybe we are not the people who receive the bounty. I don’t know how our lives affect people and what the ripples of those effects are—something that you say to someone that seems very small to you, you don’t even remember them, but they might remember for the rest of their lives. So there’s something about that in terms of what we cannot quantify, what we cannot plan. I really do feel like living in a way that feels necessary and joyous ripples out way farther than we could ever anticipate. I hope people leave the book a little more empowered to live their most unapologetic and embodied truth.

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