FWF Q&A: Sam Van Zweden

Sam Van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food, mental health and the body. Her book Eating WIth My Mouth Open won the 2019 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?

There have been so many formative moments, but in recent years reading Lindy West’s essay collection Shrill was a big turning point for my thinking about body autonomy (which is essential to feminism — the ability to own and make decisions for your own body) and stepping into fat female identity. In Shrill, West writes a full life — which was later fictionalised and turned into an incredible TV series. She writes about body acceptance, stand-up comedy, rape culture, abortion — and it’s hilarious. It’s all laced through with humour and joy, rage and indignation, a whole spectrum of experiences. It wasn’t until reading Shrill that I realised that my body had for so long carried far more shame and anxiety than other things. After Shrill, I realised it also carried politics, liberation, compassion, and a voice, and that to be loud about all of those things can be liberating for others, too. Shrill opened a door for self-exploration as well as realisations around the structural forces at work that disadvantage women’s bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular.

Your work so far clearly follows a theme, in that it addresses issues related to food, memory and body positivity. How does that sit with your creative process — is there the expectation that you should always be writing or talking about those things?

I have been writing and publishing essays and literary criticism for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve been so lucky to be able to follow my obsessions. I wrote about Melbourne’s literary festivals and local publishing on my blog, Little Girl with a Big Pen, for about six years. I wrote about experimental nonfiction in Australia and the exciting opportunities we have here. I have written about mental health, food, memory and the body for a while now.

While these themes in my work look pretty clear now, this is definitely only in retrospect — they’re the result of my wandering interests. I hope that over the next decade and more I keep developing my thinking, and continue to be met by editors and publications who are kind enough to indulge my interests in the same way. Right now, I’m excited to have the privilege of using my voice to speak about food, memory, mental health and body acceptance/neutrality. These ideas are important, and not everyone has the opportunity to move those conversations along, so I’m incredibly grateful to be taken seriously on these ideas.

At one point in the book, you write, ‘I understand how food might be anything but what it appears to be.’ As you have clearly articulated, food is nourishing and comforting as much as it is also political, whether that means they are used to enact a soft nationalism, to police the bodies of people or to delineate class-based distinctions. How do you think you balance this inherent contradiction?

There seem to be two duelling stories that we tell about food, and we’re made to think we have to choose one, and pretend the other one doesn’t exist.

The first is that food is for celebration, novelty, and enjoyment. It’s a way to take care of yourself and the people you love. It’s a way into unfamiliar communities. In this story, food is joyous.

The other story is that food is dangerous. In this story, appetites are risky and our bodies must be policed: people (especially women) internalise a huge amount of shame based on this story. There is also a large and hugely profitable industry built upon that shame.

These opposing stories are really normalised, and it’s not until we start to unpack the assumptions we have about what and how we eat that it all starts to reveal itself as incredibly complicated.

Part of my story is of body acceptance and neutrality — unhooking from that second story where my own body is a weapon used against itself, and learning to listen to it intently, the way I would to a good friend. While I don’t believe ‘recovery’ is linear or complete, part of my experience has been just to recognise the complexity of food’s significance, and to recognise that choosing one of these dominant food stories isn’t a possibility for me. It’s complicated, and probably will continue to be complicated.

It’s also important to notice the way these stories uphold structural oppressions: people who are struggling to feed a family don’t get to ‘choose’ organics; women who are focussed on shrinking their bodies aren’t noticing that this is one of the few realms where their hard work is acknowledged. Food stories are powerful both individually and structurally.

In terms of writing memoir, there’s the persistent question of truth versus representation which many writers have to navigate. How did you negotiate Eating With My Mouth Open with that in mind?

I don’t think these things are separate or opposed — rather, they work hand in hand. The question isn’t about whether it’s okay to write about certain topics, but whether you as a writer have thought through your responsibilities before writing.

In writing Eating with My Mouth Open, my first rule of thumb was not to take my own experience for granted — that’s why the book contains so many little glimpses of doubt, and self-interrogation (‘Is this memory true?’, ‘I wish I had known then…’). Assuming that you as a memoir narrator are always right seems like a recipe for disaster. While the book contains a lot of ‘me’, ‘I’ am also a character in the book, and so are my loved ones. Memoir is a crafted product, not some perfect representation of events. While writing, I was able to talk to my family a bit about ‘truthiness’ in nonfiction — the role that subjective memory plays, and the ways I’d negotiated the boundaries between first-hand experience and imperfect understandings, and so on. I was and continue to be really lucky that they have space for that.

The sensory experience you attempt to evoke around food is marvellous. ‘The smell of leeks in butter’, ‘the stodgy solid comfort’ of southern American barbecue and the strawberry cream chocolates you recall as your first food memory, as well as the Dutch patatje flip. How have you seen your palate evolve as an adult and what are some of your favourite foods now?

Thank you! That was one of the biggest challenges of writing the book — the sensory experience of eating is so different to that of reading or writing, that to do food (and sense memory) justice takes an awful lot of effort. There was one phase of editing (which I called ‘the hungry edit’) where I focused purely on food detail. Reading a lot of food writing also helped — I’m permanently hungry and permanently looking for new ways to communicate body experiences, including eating.

As an adult, I’m a more adventurous eater than I was as a younger person — I think that’s true for many people. I’m not great with spicy foods, but I’ve found that viewing chilli as an exercise in mindfulness changes it. So I’m not fighting the heat, but watching my mouth be on fire and the way it kind of burns out and fades over time. I hope to be better with spicy food in future.

I enjoy stronger flavours than I used to — I enjoy the flavours of some offal (chicken hearts, blood pudding, gyu tan [Japanese ox tongue]). Other things I’m keen to try because I know they’re new to my palate; so I’ve been having a lot of fun lately starting to learn about the regional differences in Chinese cuisines. Some food preferences are tied up with food politics, curiosity and opportunity, too – I get a real kick from turning odds and ends into delicious things (see Ruby Tandoh’s banana thyme cake for bruisy bananas, or Lucky Peach’s odd flavour sauce for the last spring onion), and trying to eat less meat and more seasonal produce is also a fun kind of constraint to work within.

The main change to the way I eat right now is that I give myself permission. This sounds small, but it unlocks so much.

Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to and/or following right now?

I’m currently reading Fiona Murphy’s The Shape of Sound, which is beautifully written, wonderfully researched, and is teaching me a lot. In particular, Fiona’s chapter on hearing technologies is fascinating and insightful.

Kylie Maslen’s Show me Where it Hurts is a wonderful story from a writer with endometriosis, chronic pain and complex mental health conditions. Its engagement with pop culture adds a lot of levity to some really serious topics — I recommend this book to so many people.

On social media, I love Katie Parrott for fat fashion, Virgie Tovar for body politics, The Indigo Project for small self-compassion reminders, and Alice Zaslavsky for wholesome, enthusiastic food content.

Eating With My Mouth Open is published by NewSouth Books, February 2021.

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