Carmit Delman: Growing up with an Indian, Jewish, and Israeli background, these cultures felt inextricably intertwined. The world often had the need to dissect and examine them as separate pieces, and to speak of them in big sweeping narratives. Yet on a lived and emotional level these were complicated and contradictory but also fully merged. More and more as the cultural conversation evolves and fragments, I find this aspect of a multicultural identity to be important – in which a unique combination is both singular and ordinary for the person at its center. It was important to give my character, Talia, the great heaviness and profound insights of this kind of identity.
YZM: Talia is a spiritual seeker. Does Judaism play a part in her search?
CD: Absolutely! Judaism is at the core of Talia’s search. She has deep earthy ties to Israel, a special attachment to her Holocaust survivor grandmother, and an almost mythical, subconscious yearning for purpose and something to believe in. She has a Jewish soul and is propelled by it, though the material and fleshy world around her sometimes throws her off track.
YZM: The Quarter is an alluring place, and a rich symbol. Can you talk more about how the idea came to you and how you developed it?
CD: The Quarter is an imaginary neighborhood in New York City where foodie appetite has exploded into its own ecosystem. I had such fun mapping it out! It has twisting alleys, secret restaurants, magical shops, establishments where every fantasy can play out, and is driven by an almost-religious worship of food. I wanted to push the food celebrity, consumption, and excess that we have in our current reality into a slightly more privileged, fantastical, and sweeping place, a dark Disney village of sorts. What would it look like? What kinds of foods and eateries and experiences would emerge if people had no limits? How would our ordinary human fantasies and conflicts play out in a food landscape? What sort of class system would linger beneath it? I thought such an experiment in whimsy could actually tell us a lot about how we actually live and eat in our current state.
YZM: You write so vividly about food, and food plays a major role in the novel; care to comment?
CD: I’ve always been fascinated by food. It’s not so much about the eating or cooking of it. Rather, I’m drawn to it as a cultural vocabulary or anthropological code. I’m forever looking for how relationships, conversations, even history configure around it. I’ve actively studied food culture and policy as an adult, but I was writing through food even when I was a child. I think I just look at life through the lens of food, the way a numbers-person sees everything through math.
YZM: You’re a memoirist as well as a novelist. What can you tell us about the joys and challenges of each genre?
CD: Each genre has its gifts and its traps. Memoir can illuminate true and important stories but it can be too-naked, too self-absorbed. Also, everyone wants their own truth. In contrast, fiction seemingly has no limits. My novel can be literary and dystopian and a work of magical realism all at once. But in that wild, beautiful frontier the real challenge is pushing aside the endless possibilities so that a singular, distilled story and vision can rise to the surface.