The Iowa Review
MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Hunger Pangs, Part 4
Immigrants come to America with visions dancing in their heads: we imagine we will become rich, famous, and happy here. Mostly rich. We come seeking fortune, willing to toil for it but anticipating a life of ease and mountains of things, as the singer Tracy Chapman once keened. But when we come, we find ourselves trapped in the murky nooks and crannies of America's gilded terrain—the food deserts, the housing projects, the sweatshops and the slums, the crack houses and the homeless shelters. We find ourselves in another Third World, perhaps even more tyrannized and destitute than we were in the Third Worlds we left, even though we have arrived in the land of freedom and plenty. "A Third World in every First World," wrote the filmmaker and scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha. She's right about that. There is hunger in this First/Third World: more than forty-nine million Americans live in "food insecure" households. There is abject poverty in this First/Third World, too: many millions of Americans live below the poverty line, which in 2011 meant $10,890 a year. (And I made much less than that during my starving years. So, I'd imagine, did the people in the crack house.) I spent a relatively brief time in this First/Third World. I watched the junkies and the prostitutes as they went about their business not ten yards from my front door, and they watched me, each of us acknowledging the other's marginal claim to a lifestyle and an identity. Once, I saw a skeletal young woman pull a half-eaten pizza from the dumpster, and my mouth watered; she saw me looking and clutched her prize to her chest, glaring. I looked away, abashed. I could not reassure myself that I was somehow superior to her or above eating from a garbage can, though I had never done it and never would. Still, for a moment as I watched her, the thought crossed my mind. Even now, I cannot allow myself the conceit that there are no conditions under which I might scavenge for food. I don't know what they are—war? homelessness? environmental apocalypse?—but I recognize the desperate possibilities that lurk inside me.
Walking to and from my university classes, I picked my way past street people and panhandlers, some of whom admonished me with familiar jocosity: "Smile!" one of them said once. "It can't be that bad!" I was incensed and astonished by how very wrong he was, and then nearly brought to tears by the recognition that his life, at that moment, was marginally less unhappy than mine.
I grew to know the First/Third World very well as I balanced on a tightrope between respectability and the rubbish heap. And I came to realize that most First World people refuse to admit that this liminal zone exists: we First/Third-Worlders are invisible to them.
But I was merely a squatter in those environs, a day-tripper; I was, in fact, slumming, though at the time I wondered if I would ever escape the squalor of that existence. I was pursuing a doctorate, and my trajectory was upward and outward: there was a light at the end of my tunnel—not so for the prostitutes and pushers in the house across the street. In theory, someday I would be able to live differently, according to a lifestyle that was more familiar to me; I would be able to afford clothes and perhaps a house. And food. Real food. But at the time, this rosy future seemed hopelessly conjectural. I did not know when, or if, this would actually happen. This is why, now, when I give money to panhandlers, when I dish out food at soup kitchens, I deliberately make eye contact. When hungry people look back at me, I am stilled by their emotions: sometimes I am confronted with sorrow, sometimes fury, sometimes shamefaced gratitude, and sometimes with a chilling blankness. Always, I recognize things I felt when I was hungry. The hungry are never invisible to me, though I no longer inhabit their spaces.
One day while I was in graduate school—in the way that colors and shapes shift into dazzling new configurations with a single, sudden twist of a kaleidoscope to reveal a startling new world—I met the man I would eventually marry, and he introduced me to cooking. As poor as I, he nonetheless had better survival skills. He knew—while I didn't—that there was a health-food store within easy biking distance of The Starlight, where we could buy brown rice and lentils and mustard greens. He showed me how to make a stewing chicken last for a week, until on Sunday we used the bones and back for what we called "chicken-butt soup." The first meal he made for me featured the red beans and rice of his native New Orleans, sparked with Tabasco and redolent with rosemary. I watched in amazement as he stirred a roux on his tiny apartment stove, sprinkled spices into the bubbling pot, washed lettuce and tomatoes for a salad. The taste of those beans and the fresh vegetables, after years of fake food—their textures, pungency, rich aromas—remains with me to this day.
It took me a long time to learn to eat again. And as it happened, regaining my appetite and falling in love coincided, the two so intertwined that I cannot, to this day, separate or make any distinction between the passion and joy and overwhelming sense of safety that came with both.
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MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Meenakshi Gigi Durham's essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Harvard Review. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she is now a professor in the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her essay "Grieving" was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2011.
"Hunger Pangs" originally appeared in The Iowa Review Volume 42, Issue 2 (2012). This is Part 4 of 4.
The full essay can be accessed here.
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on January 04, 2018