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Rachel Jennings, Interview with Joan Fry (2009)

In writing How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize, American writer Joan Fry aimed to preserve the recipes she encountered during a year she spent with her anthropologist husband in the Maya village of Rio Blanco in the jungle of Belize (then British Honduras) from 1962-3.1 In an interview with Rachel Jennings, conducted via email between 11 March and 7 April, 2009, Fry explains how transforming the story of her sojourn into a culinary memoir enabled her to pin down the personal meaning of her experience—a mystery that had eluded her for over forty years. She also discusses the irony of her position as simultaneous transformer and preserver of Maya culture—while she taught the local children English, the local women taught her to cook on a comal over a fire and she transformed from cooking rookie to domestic goddess (a process paralleled by increasing emotional distance from her husband).

Rachel Jennings (RJ): I’m intrigued to know what inspired you to write this memoir about the early 1960s now. Also, how did the process of writing Tapir differ from the process you used for your other writings? And what materials did you use to reconstruct your experience?

Joan Fry (JF): I always wanted to be a writer. When I was about eight or so I wrote my first novel, Silver the Wild Horse, illustrated in crayon. I typed it up on my parents’ old Underwood using all capital letters because I didn’t know how to use the shift key. I’ve published in various genres including short stories, how-to articles and books (notably, Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need), personality profiles, historical articles, and I write a “backyard horse” column for my local newspaper.2 I taught creative writing at the college level for about fifteen years, and have an MFA from the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. But my great love has always been fiction. I read it in preference to nonfiction, and I’ve written several short stories (published) and one really bad novel (unpublished)—which had as its subject matter various people who find themselves in the same small Maya village in Belize at the same time. I tried several times to write about Belize—fictionalise it, write it as a memoir. You name it, I tried it. And it was always awful. I could never pin down the essence of my life there, and why I felt so strongly about the people and the place. But what I have now that I didn’t have all those other times is a very helpful, smart, understanding agent who said, “Why don’t you write it as a culinary memoir?” I immediately saw the structure bloom in my head, and it had a story arc. So I wrote it the way a novel would be structured: conflict, more conflict, pile on even more conflict—and then resolve it. Other kinds of nonfiction also have a shape (how-to books are in a category all their own), but it’s different. It doesn’t involve a story arc. As far as reconstruction, I did keep a journal but not a very comprehensive one. When Aaron and I were divorced, he was kind enough to give me all the photos and all his field notes. Plus I’d written a ton of letters to friends and family.

RJ: So, in other words, you tried to write a novel about Belize and it didn’t work, and then you wrote a culinary memoir and found a novel in it. Has your eight year-old’s desire to write a novel now been ironically sated by writing a non-fiction book? And yes, the story arc is what makes the book. I especially like the way the protagonist (you at twenty) is surrounded by antagonists: your husband, and the critical gaze of your Maya neighbors (such as Paulina’s from under the thatch on the book cover, waiting for you to spill water out of the bucket on your head). Initially, instead of finding yourself, you seem to be constantly battling to keep your identity as you resist your husband’s attempts to turn you into a submissive wife and a “Squirrel” (a la Hemingway’s Maria from For Whom the Bell Tolls), and as you invent strategies to stop your neighbors pulling out strands of your exotic blonde hair (symbolically stripping your identity?), and as you struggle to sleep in your uncomfortably small hammock. I like the symbolism of the hammock. Aaron’s is big enough. He’s been to Belize before and fits in, and being male he’s also not as much of a spectacle as you are. Why did they make your hammock too small—because you’re taller than the average Maya woman? I was struck by the way the hammock leaves its imprint on your face as though it’s trying to mould you.

JF: Wow—thanks for the critical exegesis! Yes, everything you talked about is in my memoir, but I never thought about it that way (the imprint the hammock left on my face, that by pulling my hair out the little girls were stripping me of my identity, etc.). As you read further you’ll see that I did achieve an identity of my own—and other people clearly recognised it and deferred to it—but not my husband. And when we got back to the States he wanted to strip me of the independence (and thus the identity) I had gained by making friends with some of the Maya. My neighbor Lucia was the first woman to really talk to me. It was gossip, I suppose, but it was the first time anybody had told me how she felt about something, which encouraged me to do the same. So at least one conflict was resolved, and then a small cooking triumph, added to various and sundry other small successes, resulted in my realisation that there was nothing to like about being a faculty wife. My newly independent self did not want that future. My hammock was too short because I'm 5’6” and taller than most of the men (and all of the women). It is ironic, isn’t it? I wrote a memoir by turning it into a novel. In fact I loved the meld of fact and fiction (although the only fictitious parts are the order in which some of the events happened, and the identity of a jerk we stayed with at one point). I love it so much I decided to use the same approach to write a novel based on two real women in the horse business, both of whom get to approve of their sections of the book. You might say I found my literary self by writing a memoir, but it has not sated my desire to write a “real” novel. (While I was waiting for feedback on the Horse Show book, I started a “real” novel.)3 Thanks for helping me see how all these small details I remember because of their emotional significance add up to a coherent theme.

RJ: On the subject of coherence, I noticed a lot of food metaphors throughout your book such as “snakes as thick as soup cans,” and humid air the texture of “beaten egg whites.” They blend the two parts of the text together—the narrative and the recipes. Did the cooking metaphors happen unconsciously, just sort of cropping up by themselves and surprising you once you’d got the book’s concept down, or did you plan to put them in?

JF: At first they weren’t deliberate. Then, on a revision, I realized how many of them did relate to food and cooking. After that I added more. I depend heavily on figurative language in all my writing, so it was fairly easy for me to think them up.

RJ: I have another process question. Today you are a very strong, capable person. You have stage presence without being on a stage. Your twenty-year-old self in your book is very feisty and spunky too. Did you project your current self onto your old self, or were you always like that?

JF: I definitely imposed my grown-up self on the narrative. As I kid I was pathologically shy, known for being a teacher’s pet—smart (and sometimes a smart-ass) but socially inept. I could never figure out where adults got their confidence from, and decided they were deliberately faking it. So as an adolescent I began faking it too, and what do you know—Orwell was right in his elephant essay.4 Wear a mask long enough, and it fits your face. I became that confident woman I pretended I was. Of course I got better at my act the older I became, and I think my earlier attempts to write about what happened in the rainforest didn't work for three reasons, that being the most important. (I still don’t enjoy revealing painful secrets, but made myself do it in Tapir—that I actually bowed to social pressure—thank you again, George Orwell—and lashed two of my students.) The second reason was that I had no idea about organisation and structure until I learned how to use conflict in my fiction. The third was a conscious decision to use cooking as the controlling metaphor, which my agent suggested.

RJ: It struck me that when you cross the river with the mule in the centre of the book after Aaron’s accident at the falls, it is a kind of baptism. This is followed by the after-dinner conversation with Don (the Amerindian development officer) on the nature of the jungle (and by inference God) on whether it’s “malevolent,” “benign,” or “indifferent” that ends with you reflecting as you go to bed on whether you’re going to continue to “pretend it’s a camping trip, or a vacation, or in any way temporary” or “Live here.” I assume this is a turning point and you’re going to choose the second option. Still on the subject of the jungle, your description of the way it surrounds you in Punta Gorda seems comparable to what the forests of Europe must’ve once been like. It reminded me of the scene in Disney's Snow White after the Huntsman tells her to run off into the woods where she has nightmarish hallucinations of grimacing faces and grasping arms on all the trees. She perceives nature as malevolent until she calms down and the Bambis and bunnies gather around. There seem to be several resonances between your book and Snow White — except the seven dwarves don’t have tarantulas dropping out of the thatched roof of their cottage in the clearing. And Aaron doesn’t turn out to be Prince Charming. But your neighbors are initially fascinated by your difference as the dwarves are by the princess’s. Maybe I’m getting too silly here.

JF: No, I don't think your interpretation is silly at all. Interestingly enough, the Maya dreaded dwarves (and where would they have come in contact with any?). One of their folk beliefs involved the chol gwink, little jungle-dwelling mischief-makers. Actually, the nature of the bush—now that I think about it in metaphoric terms—is similar to the river in flood. At that juncture, the river was malevolent. There’s another bit later on where I came very close to drowning. Both the jungle and the river had to be domesticated to an extent—the clearing in the bush—for people to feel safe. But both the jungle and the river were still capable of killing not only me, but the Maya as well. There’s another river scene after Aaron and I come back from Guatemala which fits your baptismal comparison. … I guess we all have nightmares about something ... there are worse things than being worried about tarantulas falling on your face.

RJ: Snow White finds a safe haven in the cottage of the seven dwarves, partially because she is very domesticated and can cook. In the first half of your book, you don’t have a safe haven because you don’t fit outdoors or indoors and are under constant surveillance. Cooking shows and books are extremely popular in Britain and the U.S. right now, at a time when we don’t cook anymore. And we feel the loss. And that makes your book very timely. Implications of our lost connection to food are explored in Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, which looks at the ways factors such as our increased consumption of meat and processed food has damaged our health and the environment. Bittman suggests that to begin to remedy the situation, we should eat vegan meals twice a day, and buy produce that is local and/or closest to its natural state (not more than five ingredients).5 Did your initiation to cooking in a Maya village give you a solid foundation and help you to maintain a connection to food that many of your compatriots have lost? Or when you left Belize did you lose it? Do you crave Twinkies?

JF: Twinkies? Are you mad? I hate Twinkies! Luckily my mother was a very good cook and after I came back from Belize, I copied down a lot of her recipes. They weren’t “add a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup to two chicken breasts and bake until done,” either. Real food. We always had a veggie garden (as I do today) when I was a kid, and we bought veggies we didn't grow from the local farmer. So my inner cook was already primed (by my mother’s example) before I arrived in Belize. And you’re right—when I finally joined the village, it was as someone (another woman) who stayed indoors and did women’s work. Yes, I’ve been following the food wars with a great deal of interest, as I’m a carnivore who can still distance herself from those sickening TV images of slaughterhouse workers goading downers with fork lifts. I am going to try to buy organic (or at least grass-fed) beef from now on, though. Michael Pollan’s books are also very good on that subject.6 I try not to buy anything with more than five ingredients. Damn near impossible.

RJ: Much easier in Rio Blanco where you subsisted mostly on handmade tortillas from your neighbors, beans, and whatever vegetables were available. You didn’t get meat for a long time and, when you did, you had to pluck your own ravens and skin your own gibnuts. You couldn’t pop to the store and buy meat in cellophane whenever you wanted. This reminds me of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus who sells his soul to the devil and asks for, amongst other things, exotic fruits from the other side of the globe. Today we don’t literally have to conjure up a demon to do that—we can just go to a supermarket and eat strawberries in the winter and everything out of season. But would you agree that we have metaphorically sold our souls, as one of my students pointed out, through the impact this way of eating has had on agriculture?

JF: Eating fresh foods in Belize certainly reinforced my mother’s practice of buying, cooking, and serving fresh food. We have hens and a vegetable garden. All I ever grow is corn, tomatoes, green beans, and squash. Now that is probably Maya in origin, as their centuries-old food basics were corn and beans, which are a perfect mesh nutritionally—beans providing the protein (dried beans) and the corn providing carbs, etc. I’ve never met a fat Maya. Yes, food isn’t the only casualty of our culture. We’re destroying the very procreative energy that produced us—literally, the land under our feet. We have strayed so far from nature I’m afraid we may have already passed the tipping point. We may never reclaim the land. I was also mulling over your observations about inside versus outside—inside the house, with other women and cooking smells, versus outside the house, in the bush. The outside was a felt presence when I lived in Rio Blanco. I grew up in New Jersey, and there was a big difference between inside and outside because it snowed in the winter. Houses were leak-proof and airtight. But in my thatched roof “bush house” in Rio Blanco, “inside” was simply more protected than outside, a place where most of life’s important functions took place—although some couples preferred to have sex in the thatched shed near their milpa, where they stacked their corn and firewood to dry. But jungle trails were beaten earth, and so was the floor of my house. Anybody standing outside my house could see in because the planks were so irregular. So the boundary was very porous. That’s one reason why I love living in California—the differences between inside and outside are likewise porous. We leave the doors and windows open in the summer unless it’s just too friggin’ hot, and when we go to our “mountain retreat” in Kennedy Meadows, we spend most of our time on the deck outside—where the barbecue is.

RJ: But your walls seem a little too porous when you write about having forty visitors (over half the village) a day. Did you ever get used to that?

JF: Never! They did kind of fade into the background, the way TV or radio noise does, and towards the end I don’t think we had that many visitors. I mean they’d stared at us for a solid year—what was left about us and our behavior that they hadn’t seen? Usually it was Maxiana and some of the other school girls who liked to hang around, or Lucia would visit. Although about a dozen kids still crowded into my house every morning before school started.

RJ: It seems that you never resolved the question of whether nature (and by extension God) is malevolent, benign, or indifferent. Is that one of the themes of the book—that nature is all three and can’t be pinned down? What did your Maya neighbors think? I’m intrigued (as you were) by the ixta bai, a sort of cross between the grim reaper and a seductive tree nymph. Also, what sort of metaphor for nature fits your book? For example, would it be abundance, as in Keats’s “To Autumn,” or a Darwinian struggle for scarce resources? It seems abundant during the village feud when your neighbors constantly bring you food (such as the armadillo that tasted like “shredded tennis balls”).

JF: No, the “true nature of God” wasn't one of the themes—just an interesting after-dinner conversation. I still think the same way I did then. I don’t believe any kind of intelligence created our universe, and if it did, it’s indifferent to our fate as a species, let alone as individuals. To assume otherwise is arrogance or fear. Chance plays a huge part in life, and I think that was the significance of the ixta bai for the Maya, too. Or at least the Maya as I knew them. Don’t forget, they’ve been missionised since the 1700s. But it was still common, if the rains didn’t come when they were supposed to, for a Maya to carry one of the santos out to his cornfield where the saint could confirm for himself how hot and dry it was, and that the Maya needed rain. One year, the Maya stole the big statue of St. Anthony out of the Catholic Church in San Antonio and held him hostage in somebody’s milpa until it rained. Then they returned him to the church. Yet they still prayed to Tzul Ta’ca before they planted. Am I making sense? And now evangelical Christians are wiping out the last of those old beliefs, since to them the Catholic religion is just as repugnant as the Maya’s old “pagan” beliefs are—rites and superstition. Our neighbors bringing us food didn’t indicate any particular abundance. They ate foods like that all the time—they just weren’t sure gringos like us would appreciate them. Most teachers were Garifuna who didn’t like Maya cooking and preferred to exist on tinned food. I think the Maya had learned that non-Maya didn’t like their food. Not that I especially liked the armadillo—but I definitely liked the hot chocolate. If I were younger I’d like to hang around and write down some of those recipes that Lucia didn’t bother teaching me for whatever reason. The barbecued pork is another one. It’s a recipe I associate with Mexico, where it’s called something like conchita pibil—a whole pig is wrapped in mox leaves and cooked—usually with various citrus fruits and of course chiles—in a pit over live coals, with the earth thrown back over it. But it too was made in our village. I only ate it that one time. Hearts of palm is another food. It was there—it had been there for centuries. But trying to figure out whether something is edible is like reinventing the wheel. Somebody knows, but if they think you’ll laugh at them for being primitive, why would they tell you? As soon as the Maya got some money and some education, they too disparaged “bush food.”

RJ: I suppose the conversation about the nature of nature stayed with me because I’ve been pondering that subject lately. I just taught Friar Laurence’s speech from Romeo and Juliet this week that gives a Manichean view of nature—half good, half evil. As he gathers herbs, he talks at some length about how everything that grows out of the earth can be used for poison or medicine.

JF: I love that good/evil duality because it reminds me so much of obeah. I did a paper on it in college and it seems to be an Ashanti belief that arrived in British Honduras along with the slaves. (Other slaves, from other areas of Africa, landed in Haiti and came up with voodoo—or more properly, vodou.) A belief in obeah swept the entire Caribbean region, extending as far as the northern coastline of South America and inland to Belize, probably because the slaves were prohibited from practicing their religion. So they adopted religion’s twin, superstition. Or should I say they adopted a new religion—obeah. Obeah is strictly power, but its salient feature is that it can be used for good or evil. Its priests are called (at least in Belize) obeah men, and somebody who wants something comes to the obeah man and asks what to do. If it’s to kill his philandering wife, the obeah man—who has a vast knowledge of herbs and bush medicine—will do that for him. For a price, of course. If the herbs don’t work, obeah men have been known to resort to ground glass. Shortly before Aaron and I arrived there, a Creole man had been convicted of making obeah and sentenced to prison. It’s still being practiced. The first time Don Owen-Lewis drove me back to San Antonio, he noticed a big white half-finished house. (He’s lived in the country since 1956 or ‘57.) We went into a shop to buy bottled water, and he was chit-chatting with the store owner, a Mopan Maya, who was there when I was, but neither of us remembered one another. Don asked the man directly if obeah was involved and he said yes. Some things the missionaries have made no inroads upon at all, probably because the Maya (also the Garifuna and the Creoles) are reluctant to talk about it to outsiders. What I’m trying to say in my usual roundabout fashion is that obeah helped form my religious beliefs, such as they are.

RJ: I'm intrigued by the obeah duality concept and how it reflects back on Friar Laurence. He's definitely more of an obeah/vodou kind of guy than a priest. When you were freaked out by finding the black candle wax used in obeah rituals in your classroom, was it just because you were upset that someone was planning to do someone harm, or did any superstition creep in?

JF: Black magic has always fascinated me. As a freshman, I read a text in my anthropology 101 class that included a study of vodou in Haiti. The author concluded that people who'd been hexed believed they would die because they'd been hexed. I think the writer was an M.D., because he observed that there was nothing clinically wrong with these victims. It was all power of suggestion. So I had that as background coming to Rio Blanco. I wasn’t superstitious, but by then I had convinced myself that people liked us, or at least tolerated us, and the idea that somebody disliked us so much they'd cast a spell against us was upsetting. Aaron took it more personally than I did, probably because he was the one asking Difficult Questions.

RJ: It’s interesting the way you and your husband were simultaneously preserving and changing the culture around you. For example, your neighbors borrowed your anthropology book to get Maya prayers or blouse patterns while you were teaching their children English. Some ambivalence on your part about teaching English comes through in the episode when your long-awaited schoolbooks arrive and they’re Dick and Jane ones. And your unease increases later on. Could you comment on that? Also, you were in the strange position of teaching the catechism and you weren't Catholic. (By the way, I loved the scene in which the priest arrives shortly after two copulating horses.)

JF: Towards the end I felt as though I were doing them a disservice by teaching them English. I should have been teaching them about their own culture and beliefs. Somebody ought to, before they completely die out. And when they die, certain ceremonial foods die too, because they’re linked to “pagan” customs. As the Maya drift away from planting their traditional corn crop, for example, the game of buluk will probably die too (if it hasn’t already), along with pork caldo and (an acquired taste), pork liver caldo. I’m kind of fond of the stallion breeding the mule mare heralding the arrival of the priest too. One other thing that happened, which I didn’t dare include because people would assume I was so symbol-happy I’d made it up, involved the king vulture. They’re huge, prehistoric-looking buzzards with white heads instead of naked ones. Once when Father Cull was scheduled to arrive, I saw a king vulture sitting in a dead tree. The next time Father Cull arrived, it was with the Bishop of British Honduras—and I saw two king vultures sitting in the tree. (For true, as the Creoles would say.)

RJ: Yes, that does sound a little too much like life imitating art! It’s fascinating to follow how you negotiate your relationship with your surroundings through what you put onto and into your body—you cast off your bra, but balk at going topless. You savor tapir steaks, but spit out a bristly pig’s anus when it bobs up in a bowl of caldo made by a neighbor. At the climax of the narrative, when you cook the tapir meat brought by a hunting party, you demonstrate that not only have you assimilated and learned so much (as someone who used to make packet Knorr soup and now prepares such fare as Bush Greens with Garbanzos), but you’re more enterprising than your female neighbors who shrink from cooking the tapir themselves because they are unfamiliar with it. When my family went to the George C. Page La Brea Tar Pit Discoveries museum in Los Angeles last weekend, I noticed that the museum found 24,000-year-old tapirs. I hope the one you ate was fresher.

JF: I didn’t realise they went back that far. I do know they’re related to horses (the feet are one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen—thank God horses didn’t evolve looking like that or we’d all be riding tapirs). I also know that my student wasn’t that far off the mark: tapirs are also related to rhinos.

RJ: I found the end of Tapir very moving. I was fascinated by the ceremony for the arrival of the santos and its blend of Catholic tradition, Maya tradition, and the musical accompaniment given by you and your schoolchildren consisting of two national anthems plus “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—a bizarre meld of preservation versus change. It struck me that most rituals must be essentially constituted (cooked?) like that: different traditions plus a little improvisation. But this usually becomes invisible to us through familiarity. Departure, arrival, and return scenes are always important in travel books. Your Heart-of-Darkness-esque opening on Buster Hunters’ pig boat was engaging. And I thought your return scene in the U.S. public toilet was inspired—a reversal of your initial horror at having to fight pigs off when you go potty outside in Belize. It was so amusing and so telling to read how you missed the pigs at the end. I emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S. in 1990 and have always felt the resonance of the toilet arrival moment when I’ve returned to the U.K. over the last twenty years. I appreciate that there are no gaps around the doors in the U.K., unlike here where they are very see-through.

JF: I found the cultural mishmash of the “party” for the saints fascinating too. That’s why I wrote about it in such detail. Interesting about public toilets—you’re right, they all have gaps in them. Because they were designed by men? Who knows? But it’s true not only of the ladies’ rooms at the college (if you use student ones), but also hospitals, of all places! That really was my reaction when I saw how sanitised and spotless it was. It reminded me of an operating room, or a morgue (which I’ve never seen). So much superficial whiteness, covering up—what? And I really did think of the pigs.

RJ: The best public toilet I’ve ever been to was at a fancy conference center in Tokyo. When you opened the stall door, an automatic plastic cover snaked its way around the cushioned and heated seat. And there was a contraption on the wall that emitted a fake flushing sound to cover up any embarrassing noises that may emanate from one’s delicate female derriere. One evening, I sneaked one of my male colleagues in there to take a look because he said there weren’t any noisemakers in the men’s room. It was an interesting gender difference.

JF: How funny about the Japanese toilets! Is it okay for Japanese men to break wind in public? Like burping after a good meal is okay in some cultures?

RJ: I suspect it’s less about it being acceptable for men, but more about it being unacceptable for women to let their wind go free.

JF: I never heard the Maya break wind or burp, but for some reason the American custom of thanking people for small courtesies always brought on paroxysms of laughter.

RJ: In an interview in Studies in Travel Writing a few years ago, William Dalrymple said the test of a travel book is whether the people you wrote about like it (or words to that effect)7. What do you think your neighbors in Belize would think of Tapir? Will you find out on your imminent book signing tour? I must note that you did a good job of treating and representing them as humans as opposed to objectifying them or exoticising/ romanticising them. Speaking of travel books, were you influenced by any travel writers? And did you read any culinary memoirs as preparation?

JF: Anthropology fascinates me—what defines a culture, whether the people in that culture are aware that their actions and to a large extent their thoughts are a reflection of their culture. But I don't read travel books! (I keep meaning to order the books which everybody compared Tapir to in the back cover blurbs. Haven't read one of them.) I do read biographies of people with unusual backgrounds—probably the first was Out of Africa.8 Then West With the Night by Beryl Markham.9 Doris Lessing’s autobiography was fascinating, but I can't recall that title at all.10 I really did love Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.11 It’s interesting that they’re all about Africa. There’s another book I read so long ago that I can’t remember either the author or the title, but it was about an American woman married to an abusive man who nonetheless followed him into the wilds of Mexico, and then slowly lost her eyesight. By the end of the book she was totally blind yet had to rescue herself and her children from some sort of natural disaster (flood, something like that) which killed her husband. My agent suggested that I read The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber, Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl and My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell.12 From them I learned what I didn't want to do—write another attenuated The Language of Baklava. Reichl made me laugh and Fussell made me realise I had no business writing about food at all. I’m familiar with all the dishes she mentioned, but I would never take the time required to prepare them correctly! I think what happened was that my love of exotic setting finally won out, with cooking relegated to the background—although I did try to structure each chapter around food of some sort, occasionally a specific dish. But as you know, the overall structure, except in my very early “grope” drafts, had a story arc, and I used the exotic setting and foods the way I would have if I’d been writing fiction. Don Owen-Lewis, with whom I’ll be staying once I arrive (and before I travel up the coast), went over an early draft of the book and offered advice. But when he read it in print, he complained that I had him speaking Creole, and he doesn’t speak Creole. Then why didn’t he notice it in the draft? I didn’t change anything about him from the draft to the finished book! He’s a curmudgeon, but I love him anyway. He must be nearly eighty by now. I’ll find out how the rest of my students/neighbors/friends react to Tapir when I go back. Maxiana, her older brother Evaristo, and Natalia are the only ones still alive. Maxiana can understand but will not speak English, and I doubt she can read it. Her daughter will probably have to read it to her. Evaristo is too blind, and I’m not sure anybody in his family can read it to him—or has time to read it to him. Natalia can probably read it as she has a job in a shrimp factory where she has to speak English. So we’ll see. I doubt Buster Hunter’s relatives will like what I said about him.

RJ: It’s refreshing to hear you haven't read any of the travel books yours was compared to.

JF: Actually I did read one travel book, also suggested by my agent. It’s called Spotted in France.13 I don’t remember the author, but it was about a Yank living in Paris who owns a male Dalmatian of very good breeding. Some eccentric woman who lives elsewhere in France wants the Dalmatian to breed her bitch. So, the author outfits his motorcycle with a sidecar and his Dalmatian with goggles and motors to this town, which is, I think, in the south of France. It has lots of predictably eccentric characters (the woman and her bitch, for starters), but is an entertaining read: a road book of sorts. Belated thanks for saying my characters are round. I suspect they turned out that way because I had no preconceived notion of wanting them to be eccentric, or noble, or anything else. I let them be who they were.

RJ: You said you’re fascinated by anthropology, which reminds me of a related question. Did Aaron put anything to do with food in his field notes? Or did he not consider that worth his attention?

JF: Aaron was barely concerned with food unless it was going into his body—strictly women’s work and therefore beneath his notice. One blogger who thought I was being hard on Aaron is, I suspect, much younger than I am, and unaware of how pervasive the male bias was in the ‘60s. Especially since most anthropologists were men in those days, and considered Margaret Mead anathema because she was a populariser.

RJ: As we mentioned, in a few days you return to Belize for a book tour. Have you been back since you lived there? If so, did you keep in touch with anyone from Rio Blanco? Did you go back to research for your book, or did you avoid that to keep your memories untainted? Could you compare your expectations now with your expectations then? For example, early in the book on the pig boat you see the journey as an escape and a means to grow up. You certainly grow up, but not in the ways you anticipated.

JF: I’ve been back twice. The first time was just to see who was still alive and talk to them. Finding Maxiana was sheer luck. I wrote to three or four of my former students, but she (her daughter, actually) was the only one who had stayed in the village, and was the only one who wrote back. I had no expectations. Actually that’s not true. I thought that possibly confronted with what I had left forty plus years ago would suddenly enlighten me as to why, exactly, my time in this village among these particular people retained its pull on me. That didn’t happen. The change between then and now was too profound. Identifying that pull, and acknowledging its power, required memory and introspection—not an introduction to a very changed country. The second time I went back was specifically to collect recipes. The woman who cooked the chicken caldo for me, Santos, wanted a chicken to repay her for the one she used in the recipe. So I stopped at a store with Don, who orchestrated the exchange. I think I expected something dead and plucked. Instead I was presented with a handsome young rooster. When I asked how much it cost, the shopkeeper settled it into the scale he used for dried beans and based the price on how much it weighed. I meant to add this before, but it’s relevant here, too. What usually happens if I write anything that’s based on a true incident is that I remember the fictionalised version. I don’t remember the original “true” version any more.

RJ: Last night I showed Santi (my husband) your book and he read an extract of our interview and, after pondering a few minutes asked the following in so many words: Your book is titled How to Cook a Tapir, which seems to reflect your process of writing about your experience in Belize. You had this exotic experience and, to get control over it, you wrote a book about it. Now you’ve finished, now you’ve cooked and digested your experience, do you feel as if there is anything that has remained from that time that you haven’t been able to demystify? Was there anything that you only hinted at that you feel is beyond the reach of your language? Was there anything that was just absurd (as Camus might say), that you couldn’t make sense of?

JF: Actually there was one niggling question that remained. I have a friend in Belize, who also blogs and also interviewed me. (You can access the interview by searching for my book on amazon and looking for links to her review—her name is Colette Kase.)14 She asked a similar question (I don’t remember whether it’s in the interview or something I wrote afterwards): “You seem to be fascinated, or obsessed, by this country and your experiences here. What is the forty-year allure?” I think it was the fact that Aaron was gone so much, and I was left on my own to do the most ordinary things—figure out how to get water, to keep a wood fire burning, what and how to cook, to make my own decisions about whether I could trust so-and-so, and did this other woman hang around because she wanted to be friends, or did she want something else? But as soon as I got those decisions out of the way, more came rushing in—more philosophical. Could I ethically violate aspects of their culture just because they clashed with mine? Or for any other reason? Are there absolutes of behavior? I’d gotten along just fine until then by arguing with received wisdom as personified by my parents and then Aaron. But here I had nobody to rebel against, no way to position myself with or against an authority figure. Figuring that out felt right. No more itch. But I had to write the book to figure it out.


1. Joan Fry, How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

2. Joan Fry, Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need [2004] (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press-Globe Pequot Press, 2007).

3. Joan Fry’s Horse Show is an unfinished novel.

4. George Orwell, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in The Little Brown Reader, 11th ed, Marcia Stubbs, Sylvan Barnett, and William E. Cain, eds., (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009), pp.541-46.

5. Mark Bittman, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), pp.81-108.

6. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006).

7. Tim Youngs, ‘Interview with William Dalrymple’, Studies in Travel Writing Vol. 9, No. 1 (2005), pp.37-63 (quotation at p.44).

8. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa [1937] (New York: Vintage, 1972).

9. Beryl Markham, West with the Night (San Francisco, CA: North Point, 1983).

10. Doris Lessing, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 [1994] (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

11. Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood [2001] (New York: Random House, 2003).

12. Diana Abu-Jaber, The Language of Baklava (New York: Pantheon, 2005); Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table [1998] (New York: Broadway-Random House, 1999); Betty Fussell, My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir [1999] (New York: North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).

13. Gregory Edmont, Spotted in France (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press-Globe Pequot Press, 2003).

14. Colette Case, Interview with Joan Fry (Dec 2008).



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