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Words by Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage

Life is complicated; so we must stop trying to simplify it. This especially applies when we discuss food and water, two fundamentals of life, for they are more than things that we consume to keep ourselves alive. They are part of our culture and way of life.

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, this year, five University of Sydney academics, Beth Yahp, Chin Jou, Tess Lea (facilitator), Astrida Neimanis and Elspeth Probyn joined together to discuss the fundamentals of life at stake

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Photograph: Kate Mayor

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Elspeth Probyn whose research in food (and specifically the production of marine protein) altogether spans more than two decades, explains her latest book, Eating the Ocean. She reminds us that “we are eating the ocean whether we know it or not”; her aim is to de-simplify the politics of the ocean. “Eat down low on the food web; things like oysters, mussels, sardines” is Probyn’s advise to us, the “fork-waving narcissists”. Indeed, the concern here lies in the bio-magnification of the man-made toxic chemicals that enter the marine food-chain, at the end of which lies the human consumer.

Astrida Neimanis believes in ‘thinking through liquid’ which means understanding that “water connects and binds us”. In her book, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, as indicated by the name, she adopts a female-centred approach to understanding this precious source of sustenance. It is through this, that she makes the connections between its different forms and links together the issues of environmental destruction, racism and the remains of colonialism.

One such form that water takes, is “planetary breast milk”, something that more obviously connects living and non-living bodies to one another. “It also reveals that pathways of water are unequally distributed,” she says. She further expands on the large amounts of toxins found in the breast milk of the mothers of the Arctic. The reason why? Their restrictive diet and bio-magnification. The mothers of the first world may not yet be endangering themselves and their children to the same degree but they too are not far from this reality. This depicts the embodiment of economic inequality, where the developed world can still manage to afford to cope with the problems that they have created whilst the rest of the world dies at their hands.

Chin Jou describes her study into the impact of fast food on the low socio-economic communities of the United States. Her book, Supersizing Urban America: How inner cities got fast food with government help explores its particular ramifications on the African American communities, especially regarding their health.

Jou reminds the audience of the story of the Russet Burbank potato, bringing attention to the destruction of the environment as well as human bodies, through the toxic chemical inputs of the fast food industry; the pollution of not only the environment, but the human body as well.

Beth Yahp begins with an impromptu haiku;
Me and my parents
On their second honeymoon
Eat first, talk later; help!

Her latest work, Eat first, Talk later stands out from those of the others, in that it is a memoir. She tells of her journey of re-discovering Malaysia through taking her parents back on their honeymoon. She investigates the nooks and corners of her home country, exploring the way that food merges different cultures as it opens up the space of community. She also delves into a cultural practice where eating comes first and talking comes second, thus preventing open conversation and the sharing of thoughts at the dining table, by way of literally ‘stuffing’ the mouth so that one cannot speak. Thus she discusses the way that food can also facilitate a way of “shutting things down”.

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Weaving through the works of Yahp, Jou, Neimanis and Probyn is the need to understand and protect ourselves as well as our fellow living and non-living bodies of nature; they enlighten the audience with a glimpse into the reality where every body connects in the web of existence. After all it is easy to forget that we are part of even the food pyramid because we are at the top of it.

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