Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Sri Lanka, Australia and USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks April 11, 2020
"Cooking's become a way for me to slow down." Anna Arabindan-Kesson prepares recipes from her childhood with her two young sons during this lockdown. She remembers her childhood in Sri Lanka and Australia, and reflects on questions of memory and heritage through physical practices.
Bhakti asked me to make a video about memory and cooking in the time of corona. And so, I wanted to start with a closeup of a Sri Lankan butter cake and a maalu paan. Both of these things were, well, first of all, made by me and my sons earlier today. They’re also really important in Sri Lankan cultures of socializing. You’d have the butter cake, which is really delicious and golden, buttery and moist and fluffy, with a cup of tea while sitting in someone’s front room, talking. It reminds me of conversations with my mom, my ammamma, my aunties and my cousins. My maalu paan, which is a fish bun, is a little bit more savory. But, we have it for afternoon tea when you go to visit someone or you might buy it from a road side stall. You might take it on a train with you. So, it invokes for me on family trips, train rides to different places in Sri Lanka and parties. Again, moments of family, connections, get togethers, all of these events and people that I’m far away from. They are material mementos of a home, Sri Lanka and Australia, places that I’ve lived away from for a long time, places that I’m even more homesick for and the people who I care about and who sustain my family and me from afar. And I supposed these feelings will always be exacerbated at moments like these in times of isolation and lockdown. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking. Cooking has become a way for me to slow down, to step away from my laptop and it’s been a way for me to keep my children occupied during the day. It’s been a way for me to physically take myself back into places and memories that I can’t access in any other way right now. I suppose it’s like a form of time travel in a way.
I have recently been working with Sarah K. Khan, whose work is phenomenal. And she does a lot of thinking through film-making, through printing, about women and women’s labor and the acts of care and acts of sustaining and nourishment that come from forms of domestic labor that come from the kitchen that come from foodways. And I found her work and our conversations to be really inspiring but also thought provoking because how is memory recreated? How is it rebuilt through these rituals of connection? I’ve been working through this a lot, especially as I bring my sons into this practice in small ways. I’m glad I’m able to give them these physical practices that connect them to their grandmother, great-grandmother I’m also just even more aware of how privileged I am to have this space when for so many food and cooking is another stressor, It’s another sign and symbol, a material, a reminder of their precarity and vulnerability. And of course, these experiences of precarity and vulnerability, these job losses, these disparate and frankly, terrifying disparities in health and inequality that we see foregrounded during this pandemic, of course these are amplified right now, because they embedded in the racial capitalism that underpins the United States.
So, I have to say, that while these acts of baking and cooking have been for me, really important and a way to step away from some of the noise on social media, it also leaves me with feelings of guilt and feelings of hopelessness sometimes, because what can I do? How do I do anything from this position of privilege? But, I have been inspired by Sarah Khan and writers like Arundhati Roy who wrote recently about the pandemic as a portal which has just been transformative in a way, in terms of thinking about how we move on and how we go forward. And so for me, I think and I hope that these rituals of memory making, these acts of sustenance and these forms of labor that are also physical acts of nourishment, can tell us and help us – and help me – think more about care and how care is an antidote to these acts of violence and genocide. And how care for each other is really the way forward to rebuild, to reimagine, to recreate, to work together to form, to imagine and to form, and work towards building new futures…
Anna Arabindan-Kesson is an immigrant art historian, writer and curator. She is Assistant Professor of Black Diasporic Art at Princeton University with a joint appointment in the Departments of African American Studies and Art and Archaeology. Arabindan-Kesson was born in Sri Lanka but later moved to Australia and New Zealand where she trained and worked as a Registered Nurse, a career that also took her to the United Kingdom and Ghana. She eventually transitioned to a career in the humanities, completing a PhD in African American Studies and Art History at Yale University. She has received several awards and fellowships for her work including from Yale University, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Winterthur Library, Museum and Gardens, the Paul Mellon Center for British Art and the American Council of Learned Societies. Her book Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton and Commerce in the Atlantic World is forthcoming with Duke University Press.