Sunday 20 December 2020


Cuisine formed a notable portion of the latest inscriptions on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with hawker food in Singapore and couscous traditions in North Africa being celebrated.

The two were among 29 elements inscribed when the intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage met virtually Dec. 14 to 19, hosted by Jamaica and chaired by the island’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia “Babsy” Grange.

“This year … the experience that we all had in sharing and experiencing the cultures of different countries made us realize that in spite of the pandemic, in spite of us being apart, we were still able to share in each other’s culture, and what it did for all of us was to bring us closer together,” Grange said at the end of the meeting.

The inscription of Singapore’s “hawker culture, community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context” marks the first time that the Southeast Asian island state has an element inscribed on the List.

Hawker culture is “present throughout Singapore”, with these food centres seen as a kind of “community dining room”, officials said. Here, people from diverse backgrounds dine and mingle, in an atmosphere of conviviality and enjoyment of the scents and flavours on offer.

Hawker centres grew out of street-food culture, housing cooks who provide meals in a bustling communal setting with different stalls. The centres have, however, seen closures and fewer customers because of the Covid-19 pandemic, making the 2020 inscription a bitter-sweet one.

The couscous submission - which focused on the knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of the dish - was made by Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and it naturally sparked an online debate about the absence of other countries that are known for this food, and about favourite recipes.

The inscription encompasses “the methods of production, manufacturing conditions and tools, associated artefacts and circumstances of couscous consumption in the communities concerned,” according to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Originating from the Berber culture of Algeria and Morocco, couscous is now eaten around the world, accompanied by a variety of vegetables and meats - depending on the region, the season and the occasion.

It comes “replete with symbols, meanings and social and cultural dimensions linked to solidarity, conviviality and the sharing of meals,” UNESCO said.

Food was also indirectly highlighted with the inscription of “Zlakusa pottery making, hand-wheel pottery making in the village of Zlakusa”. This comprises the practice of making unglazed food vessels that are used in households and restaurants across Serbia, originating from a tiny village in the west of the country. 

Some gastronomes claim that dishes prepared in Zlakusa earthenware have a unique taste, and the pottery’s “close association with the village of Zlakusa and its environs reflects its close link with the natural environment,” the inscription stated.

Away from food, several music and art practices were also inscribed, and the meeting saw three elements added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, while another three were added to the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.

The latter “facilitates the sharing of successful safeguarding experiences” and “showcases examples of the effective transmission of living cultural practices and knowledge to future generations,” UNESCO said. Elements inscribed this year include the Martinique yole (a light boat), whose tradition goes back several centuries in the Caribbean.

The committee stated that a “spontaneous movement to safeguard these boats developed while they faced the threat of disappearing” and that the safeguarding programme has grown over the years. The main purpose is to “preserve the know-how of local boat builders”, transmit expertise on sailing, and create a federation to organize major events.

In a year that has seen the cultural sector hit hard globally by the Covid-19 pandemic, the inscriptions brought some cheer to the 141 countries attending and the more than one thousand people participating in the virtual meeting. During an online press briefing on Dec. 18, committee chairperson Grange noted that Jamaica was of course also affected by the health crisis, but that the population was very “resilient”.

“It impacted aspects of our culture, primarily the entertainment industry, and also various sectors in the creative industry,” she said in response to a question. “It has impacted the economy … and our creative people who depend on their creative works to earn an income. However, we were still able to take our music to the world, through technology.”

Grange said that hosting the huge virtual meeting of the Intangible Cultural Heritage committee posed some technological challenges, but nothing that could not be overcome. She said it showed the importance of working together, of sharing cultures, and of finding ways to overcome obstacles to “ensure that we continue to use culture to unite the world.”

This year saw the highest number of multi-country nominations - 14 inscriptions “testifying to the ability of intangible cultural heritage to bring people together and promote international cooperation,” Grange said.

“These are great achievements for all of humanity,” she declared, recalling her country’s pride and the global celebration when reggae music of Jamaica was added to the List in 2018. - SWAN


1. A Malay hawker prepares satay (seasoned and skewered meat grilled over hot charcoal). © Mohamad Hafiz, contestant of #OurHawkerCulture photography contest 2019, Singapore, 2019

2. Couscous © Centre national de recherches préhistoriques, anthropologiques et historiques (CNRPAH), Algérie, 2018

3. Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Jamaica's Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. Photo: SWAN

Thursday 3 December 2020


By Dimitri Keramitas

American Dirt, Jeannine Cummins’ controversial bestseller about Latin American migrants, human traffickers, and narco lords, was back in the news recently, thanks to France.

The novel was nominated for two prestigious French literary awards, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina étranger, and although it won neither, it generated renewed discussion about cultural appropriation, exploitation, and mainstream publishers’ omission of certain writers while glorifying others.

This debate will doubtlessly be with us for a long time, as more books with related themes get released. American Dirt is in fact one of two recent high-profile novels about migration – the other being the critically acclaimed and award-nominated Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Initially, several critics in the United States also lauded American Dirt, with Oprah Winfrey praising it on her show. Only after the marketing machine kicked in, hyping both book and author, did a backlash occur. Latinx writers and others pointed to “the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do” - in an open letter to Winfrey (also signed by Luiselli). At the same time, however, there have been detractors of Luiselli’s novel, for self-indulgence and off-putting postmodern playfulness.

I don’t wish to rehash the public debates, but to examine the differences in the approach of both novels, especially given the French embrace of American Dirt, which publisher Philippe Rey calls “a poignant hymn to the dreams of thousands of migrants who risk their lives every day”. (French literary prizes too are under the spotlight. The International New York Times recently reported that in France’s “top four prizes, there is one non-white juror among 38”.)

Meanwhile, Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (Archives des enfants perdus) is seen in France as the story of “a continent” and “an attempt to document life… and the present”.

While one can appreciate both novels, each is flawed in different ways. Cummins wrote an afterword, expressing unease at being a non-Mexican author of a novel about migrants. (In fact, most of the migrants portrayed aren’t Mexican but from Central America.) At the same time, she felt a degree of identity because her grandmother was Puerto Rican. In addition, her Irish husband was an undocumented immigrant for several years. Yet, she has also stated that she identifies as white.

Luiselli is of Mexican nationality, but her name reveals her part-Italian heritage. She comes from a diplomatic family, spent most of her upbringing outside Mexico and lives in New York City.

Alongside the debate and the concerns about the publishing industry’s shortcomings, it is important to focus on genre when discussing these books. Cummins writes social melodrama: work that covers a large swathe of society and addresses a topical social problem, often with considerable research. Unlike the naturalistic novel, the social melodrama uses the classic archetypes of melodrama: the plucky heroine, the villainous antagonist, the pathetic victim. 

The presiding genius of this genre is Charles Dickens, but in America the authors who have had the most success at it have included Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Grace Metalious (Peyton Place), Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls). The social melodrama can be hugely successful (as American Dirt is) but is frequently subject to merciless criticism. Sometimes such works can have a real impact, as Stowe’s novel did (Lincoln told her only half-jokingly that her novel had caused the Civil War). Cummins’ novel may have raised additional awareness about the dangers of migration but not in a way that her critics consider helpful.

While some reviewers have compared American Dirt to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not an epic but a social melodrama, depicting the flight of innocents from evil malefactors, in this case drug lords. Immediately after a family massacre at the start of the novel, Lydia, who has lost her husband, flees with her son Luca. Realizing they aren’t safe anywhere in Mexico, Lydia decides that they will head for the US. The conventional way, via airplane, could result in their being traced, so mother and son join a group of migrants being smuggled across the border. The anonymity of being part of a poverty-stricken flock provides an ideal cover. 

As it happens, Cummins is adept at the mechanics of this genre. After opening the novel with a bang - many bangs in fact, in a scene worthy of Scarface - come chases, near-misses with bad guys, hair-raising stunts on migrant-ferrying trains, and a surprisingly calm denouement. The last is the only surprise. The plot beats are slick and efficient, but we’ve seen it all before. The melodrama is straightforwardly Victorian. Those who focus on the tropes are judging the novel as realism, which it isn’t, despite all the well-rendered detail. The melodramatic plot keeps the reader riveted, as the narrative barrels its way to a close.

The language of the novel is off-kilter at first, like a sailor awkwardly treading land with his sea legs. It does begin as realism, but this isn’t the writer’s forte. There are phrasing clunkers and mixed metaphors a-plenty, and Spanish tossed in indiscriminately like chilli flakes. Yet Cummins’ research on life in Acapulco seems authentic (her acknowledgements seem to bear this out). She appears to be faking her assured style, but as the narrative progresses, the reader becomes absorbed in the breakneck plot and engages with the protagonists - Lydia, the bookstore owner whose journalist husband’s exposé triggered the massacre, and precocious Luca - but also numerous vividly drawn characters, migrants and those who aid or exploit them. 

Startlingly, a human trafficker is depicted as almost heroic. He’s doing a job but does it with genuine dedication, and has the interests of his charges (or his cargo) at heart. Cummins doesn’t imply that the character is typical of his trade, and he’s not sentimentalized, just humanized. Even the narco-lord who is the chief baddy is portrayed as having a good side. This seems more facile, contrived both-sides-ism that reinforces the archetype of the dashing villain who puts the heroine through an emotional wringer before getting his comeuppance.

Cummins’ heroine is both conventional and unconventional. She’s in the social melodrama tradition of heroic women with a good heart, able to outwit the (male) villain. Classwise, she is neither poor nor a usurped aristocrat, two conventional archetypes. Instead she’s middle class: a bookstore-owner married to a journalist, with an Americanized son. The author has been criticized for creating an unlikely protagonist, but she’s in a distinct tradition found in various genres, such as the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock: the ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. It’s one reason for the book’s popularity with some readers, if not critics.

Luiselli’s novel seems at first to be the diametric opposite of Cummins’, in both form and content.
American Dirt is straight-ahead narrative, interrupted by flashbacks to the protagonist’s relationship with her husband and her narco-lord friend, and also by news magazine-style tidbits about migration. The subject of Lost Chldren Archive overlaps that of American Dirt: a family’s road-trip intersects with the plight of migrants, specifically a group of children who are lost and wandering the desert. But while Cummins’ middle-class protagonists are plunged into crisis, Luiselli’s remain at a distance. 

Formally the novel is a bag (or box) of tricks: the main characters, a couple and their two children (each by previous relationships), are unnamed. The characters are based on Luiselli and her family: this used to be called metafiction (now we might say autofiction, or maybe meta-autofiction). The narrative is organized around a series of boxes of archives. Some include lists, fragments or quotes from literary works deemed inspirational to the author. In a nod to Borgesian intertextuality, there’s a book that eerily parallels the story of the lost migrant children.

All of the tricks are effectively allusive. Perhaps the irritation registered by some readers comes from not being familiar with works or persons cited. Or it may be that the playfulness seems trivializing. In the Trumpian age in which the novel is set, of children separated from parents and held in cages, some may not be in the mood for literary Ouija games. What’s curious is that although numerous “archives” are referred to, and the narrative itself is divided into Boxes (as opposed to Parts), these have to do with the narrator-protagonist and her family - there’s no sign of any archive dedicated to the lost children.

The language weaving the texture of the novel, and the world that Luiselli creates, is fluent and poetic. We enjoy the purring language the way we enjoy hearing a piano playing evocative chamber music, so different from the infelicities at the beginning of American Dirt. The language redeems the over-deliberate structure, and makes it seem like the intricacy of certain types of poetry.

Yet, aspects of the novel are problematic. First, the narrative is based on a trope that might be termed the bourgeois saviour. The protagonists are bourgeois of the type which in France is called “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian). The couple lives in Brooklyn with their children by other relationships, one a “documentalist”, the other a “documentarist”. Snarky fun is made of the contrasting terms, but each collects anthropological data on indigenous people. There is nothing wrong with a character who’s bourgeois - an author has the right to be what she is, to write about what she knows. Luiselli is aware of this and has her character question her motives, but it feels like a pre-emptive strategy, not very different from how Cummins deals with the issue in her afterword.

The novel’s bourgeois family elects to drive cross country - a grand tour typical of certain families with a certain budget - but they also have that edifying mission of recording data on native peoples. Then there are the “lost children” who have become caught up in America’s ideological wars. The migrants in American Dirt, with the narco-lords and law enforcement on their tails, at least had their trafficker guide, while the lost children are supposedly alone. They are in need of rescue; enter the bobo saviours.

There is another phenomenon in play, that of bourgeois appropriation. The narrator and her family playfully take the names of Native Americans. Perhaps this is meant to represent the family embracing their roots, while empathizing with indigenous people. To an extent it is the initiative of the children and evokes the role-modelling typical of growing up. The family is Mexican, after all. But one can’t help thinking of the author’s growing up mostly outside of Mexico, and residing in Brooklyn’s hipster heaven … or, of French royal Marie-Antoinette and her entourage playing at being peasants.

Finally, there is bourgeois virtue-signalling. As the family drives through the American West, the reader is treated to a travelogue of flyover communities and a populace of prairie lumpen, those people left behind and forgotten until Trump came along. At least the author minutely depicts these areas, which most people literally fly over to destinations in LA or Vegas or the Colorado ski resorts, or drive past on the way to the natural parks. But the descriptions tend to be one-note - a dismal note. Perhaps she simply calls ‘em as she sees ‘em, but what’s most grating is her unrelievedly contemptuous tone. The shimmering ambiguity that is her professed credo is lost, replaced by a monolithic sneer. Even when the point of view shifts to the protagonist’s young son, there’s no substantive change in perspective.

In the end, the bobo family will not save the lost children. The author opts for the sentimental pathos standard in certain highbrow fiction. The bourgeois saviour archetype is dashed, yet she does permit herself the comforting resolution of old-fashioned domestic fiction: the parents find their own children, who had strayed in the desert, and the couple resolves the tensions they’d been undergoing. The family is intact and free to deal with the migrant issue another day.

I prefer American Dirt’s ending. It’s in the tradition of what has been called an American favorite: a tragedy with a happy ending. As in Luiselli’s novel, the family will remain intact, though not wealthy or living in Brooklyn. Lydia and Luca have settled into a modest middle-class life in Colorado, but they sleep with the light on, and she occasionally crosses paths with men who may be linked with the narco-gang. In a final irony for readers in lockdown, including those in France with translated novels, Lydia finds personal solace reading Love in the Time of Cholera (L'Amour aux temps du cholera) - which never won a major French prize.

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.