We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Karen Babine

If Babine’s anxiety about her mother’s rare cancer could simmer on a stovetop, what kind of pan would contain it? Babine answers this. The answer is a vintage cast-iron Le Creuset skillet named Agnes. 

In All the Wild Hungers, Karen Babine describes her movements toward understanding, telling readers how she thinks, in what color and texture. Continuously, Babine embeds her thoughts in history, folktale, medical terminology, maxims, and, of course, food. Her prose is a lyrical feast, an endlessly fascinating unification of ideas.  

In this interview, Babine discusses her craft, research, and emotions regarding All the Wild Hungers.  

Marah Hoffman: As a reader, I felt you were propelled by a desire to heal, confront myths, understand, and find contentment in uncertainty. These purposes augment each other throughout the text despite their surface-level opposition. Did you feel conflicted while deciding upon the driving forces of the work?  

Karen Babine: Not exactly, simply because it did start one day in the doctor’s office with my mom. Her oncologist was talking in food metaphors and chemotherapy cocktails. And I thought, No, food is good. I had a visceral reaction to how he was talking about this thing. We didn’t know if, how, or when it would kill my mother. I found myself trying to manage in my own head what this experience was going to be like for my family. My mother could not get herself to eat. So, I was trying to feed her anything she wanted. Meanwhile, I was finding very expensive cast iron at thrift stores. Once she stopped her chemo, the cast iron largely disappeared. I don’t know what to make of that. The hunt for cast iron had given me something to think about, something to do. At that time, during my mother’s chemotherapy, my mom slept all the time. My dad wouldn’t get up until the dog made him. I had mornings to myself, so I wrote. Those pages ended up being micro essays. I thought it was going to be one essay about Agnes the skillet, food metaphors, and cancer, but it ended up being much more. I kept writing into the recipes, into the feeling. Writing is my way of existing in the world. It is better for me when I can get various thoughts out of my head and onto the page. As a writer, it’s always a fun moment when you find the thing you’ve been after.  

Marah Hoffman: One of the many virtues of your book is its intertextuality. Continuously, you embed your thinking in both familial and cultural histories, folktale, medical terminology, maxims, and, of course, recipes. What was your research process like? 

Karen Babine: Research is absolutely the best part of being a nonfiction writer. I went down rabbit holes for the fun of it. A lot of the research we did as a family because this cancer is so rare. No one knew anything about it. My younger sister would compile information for us: what are these medications, what are the side effects. There was a natural direction toward research because of the unknown. When side effects showed up for my mother, we weren’t surprised. This book is about the unknowable.  

Scott Olsen is one of my earliest influences. He is a road writer who wrote about the love of maps. He used maps to talk about what it means to say you are here. He is looking for philosophical, geographical, and cartographical ways to know something. I took the same route to find ways of knowing my mother’s cancer. Thinking in this way was not new. It was interesting and a very good distraction.  

Marah Hoffman: The first sentences of your essays are palpable, gripping, and the last sentences are lyrically culminating. One of my favorite examples of a last sentence from the text is, “Tradition is a solid foundation in an uncertain world where the days shorten and we spend most of our days in darkness, turning on the reindeer and Santa decorations on our lawns, the icicle lights on the eaves, so we know the way home” (86). How did you decide upon such sentences? Do they tend to come early in the essay writing process or late?  

Karen Babine: They tend to come fairly early in the process. I am currently working on a new project. It is not telling me where it wants to be, which is very annoying. I keep looking for the line or the phrase that will be the trigger. Once it does tell me, I will know exactly where it is going to go. As a writer, I pay attention to sentences in general. I am very much a part of the writerly interest in syntax. I am in love with sentences. The ending sentences are more complicated than the beginning sentences. I am more likely to write past it and then cut later. The first lines come early, but the ending is a crap shoot.  

Marah Hoffman: The book is enriched from ruminations on your culinary lineage. You describe a “generational memory that tastes of San Diago, of memories of my grandmother Marion’s beloved fig tree” (66). Past, present, and future seem to coexist in the pages. How did you decide upon the text’s progression through time?  

Karen Babine: There are two levels to my answer to this question: a personal level and an editing level. One of the hats that I wear in the family is that I am a family historian. I do research on our family history, on the family trees. When someone wants to know when grandma’s birthday is, I know. When someone wants to know the names of people in the old photographs, I know. The past, present, and future are all dancing in my head. I believe the past has some influence or bearing on the future. Growing up listening to the stories from my mom’s side felt natural. The stories made things make sense. That is part of being a family historian—making sense of who we are in the present moment from the past.  

On the editing level, at first, I did not want this book to be chronological. There was one instance where I was organizing by color. Then, my editor asked if I could try organizing it chronologically. So, I went home. I put it all over the floor, and I arranged it chronologically. It solved all of my connective tissue problems.  

I did not want this book to be about whether my mother is going to live or not. I did not want people reading it to find out if she survives. In the beginning, I broke that expectation. From the beginning, you know she will live. Then, it ends on a note of hope. Whatever tension was going to drive the book–I wanted it to be an internal engine that got to all the emotional and intellectual places. Both of these feed each other throughout the book. Emotional knowing is not more or less important than any other kind of knowing.  

Marah Hoffman: One of the ways you encapsulate emotional knowing is metaphor. Food metaphors specifically flourish in All the Wild Hungers. You explain their purpose, saying, “What is the purpose of metaphor except to understand what we absolutely cannot, to compare something we do not know to something we do? It tastes like chicken, after all” (34).  Can you speak more about the ability of metaphors to make tangible the incomprehensible? How do you choose fitting metaphors? 

Karen Babine: I have a memory that explains the necessity for metaphors well. My friends and I went to a Cajun restaurant. There, one of them got gator bites and had a hard time describing it. The iconic comparison is, “It tastes like chicken.” When we don’t have the vocabulary for something, we are always going to reach for what we do have. Language is constantly evolving. Whether it is gator bites or moms with cancer, we must find comparisons capable of articulating experiences to those that we care about.  

A lot of times, our reactions are based on whether we can relate to it. But the reality is we cannot relate to another person whether or not they are going through the same experience. My friend’s mom died 6 months before mine. To say to her, “I know how you feel would be pretty presumptuous of me.” What I needed to do with this book—this is one of the really important parts of it—is I needed to find a backdoor in. If you don’t know me or my mom or cast iron, what is there to get you to open this book and get you to finish it? What is compelling enough for a reader? One of my favorite quotes is, “The human life is individual. It is not unique.” That has stuck with me as a writer and a person. I am not the first person to lose their mom, and I will not be the last. But that experience is individual. My dad’s experience is different from my experience of taking care of my mom. It was part of my work to represent that.  

Marah Hoffman: What advice do you have for aspiring food writers?  

Karen Babine: The first answer to this is read, which is not unusual advice from any teacher. I’ve taught food writing before, and I’m going to teach it again. There is an annual anthology called The Best American Food Writing which is on my syllabus. Among others, The New Yorker has a great anthology of food writing. We also read “How to Cook a Wolf” which came out in the 1940s about how to manage scarcities during the war. One of the interesting things about food writing is that you have real food people—chefs and critics–then you have writers writing about food. In my class, we read essays from both groups. Reading is always going to be the best place to get your footing.  

The other piece of food writing is personal. Cooking, eating, paying attention to what the grocery store looks like, and analyzing an orange to figure out how to describe its skin are all great ways to become a food writer.  

Marah Hoffman: Would you care to speak to how you feel about the goals you had with this book now that it has been in circulation and receiving feedback for a few years?  

Karen Babine: On a writerly craft level, I was able to accomplish what I set out to do. I was able to make sense of something that made no sense and find my path through that for my family. Professionally, it got published, which is a goal for anyone who writes a book. That was an accomplishment.  

It was bittersweet that it won the Minnesota Book Award. I did not expect or have any hopes or dreams toward that. My mom didn’t live long enough to see All the Wild Hungers published. She got to hold a completed book, but she didn’t get to see it published. That sort of moment was realized a few years before when my first book won the Minnesota Book Award. She was in the middle of chemotherapy then. We were able to postpone one of her appointments so she could go. She was bald, dressed to the nines like the rest of us. She looked gorgeous. At this incredibly important moment in my life, she got to sit there. There is a way in which the publishing/professional side of this cannot be separated from her cancer. Even though she couldn’t be a part of the book after it was published, she was part of what came before.  

As for my other goals, I will never know if many of them have been achieved. I would love someone to make a connection they hadn’t before. But I will likely never know that, unless someone reaches out.  

Marah Hoffman: I’ve read that your next book will be another essay collection called Acadie: A Family Ecology that will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2023. Would you care to discuss this forthcoming text?  

Karen Babine: Yes, this book is coming out of my work as the family historian, specifically a solo camping trip I took from Minnesota to Nova Scotia to research my father’s family. In 1755, the British finally had enough military power, and they deported all the Acadians. Some of them went to other British colonies. Others went to Louisianna to become Cajuns. My family was both deported and not. Some family members were in prison, so they could not be deported. My line splintered. One of the larger questions of the book is how complicated my dad’s family is.  

My generation is responsible for creating its own stories because for such a long time on my dad’s side, children were very much seen and not heard. I was 17 before I learned my grandpa had a twin. I only found out about a family tragedy because of a school project. I had sketched a family tree and asked my father why his uncle and grandmother had identical death dates. The answer was murder. It turns out they were murdered by my dad’s cousin a month before my parents got married. My grandpa barely mentioned his cousin. As I learned more and started researching more, I realized my grandpa lost his family to violence. These are the stories we don’t tell because they hurt. My dad broke that tradition with us.  

My book is based on how we construct family. And what happens when that family construction is documented by someone who has no marriage or children and what does family look like under those circumstances? What is the role of generational trauma? These are the questions it considers. We have been trained that DNA is the answer to all things, but that isn’t true. 

All the Wild Hungers is available for purchase at Milkweed Editions 

Marah Hoffman is a senior double major in English and creative writing at Lebanon Valley College in rural Pennsylvania. Within her campus’s lively literary community, she is a writing tutor, mentor for prospective and new students, co-poetry editor for their literary magazine, and president of her college’s International English Honors Society chapter. Marah enjoys reading classic and contemporary literature. She has written poetry since she was twelve but has lately found herself wandering the realm of creative nonfiction, particularly personal essays. Besides being a bookworm, Marah is an avid runner. She is a member of LVC’s cross country and track teams. When Marah graduates, she hopes to find a position that allows her to continue pursuing her passion for books.  

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