I have spent the last several weeks immersed in people's stories about their food histories* -- not what they eat, or have eaten, but how they have aspired to make the food system healthy, just, and fair. As I work to interpret what seems so important about food stories that it compels people to put considerable work into telling them, I have found myself braiding together three different strands of the stories I have been listening to: an oral history of rural food in the U.S. midwest, last week's narrative-based Food + Justice = Democracy conference facilitated by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and this weekend's 34th annual Prairie Festival at the Land Institute, a Kansas plant genetics oasis where a charismatic crew has tried to intervene in the evolutionary path of grain and oilseed agroecosystems by perennializing them. The resonance between these three very different discourses creates a powerful impression of a theme we often return to in OnFiction: the relationship between the way people narrate their experiences and the imaginative metadiscourse they use to create containers for their stories, especially when these stories exceed their capacity to understand in straightforward ways.
First, partly because of their sheer volume, I turn to the chorus of stories I have been hearing as I tag along as part of Peter Shea's food oral history project, which has been commissioned by the Minnesota Historical Society (via the Arts and Cultural Heritage program). Both rural and urban popular food histories have been propagating wildly as people develop increasingly critical interests in food, and try to harness their food experiences to various politics involved in improving the problems they seen in the food system. I keep expecting that listening to familiar food stories will become repetitive and boring (after all, as anyone who has ever had to wait for me for dinner will tell you, I am not as motivated by food as the amount I write about it might lead one to believe). I am constantly surprised, however, at how compelling I find people's food stories -- mostly because they combine narration of deeply felt visceral and emotional experiences with abstract categories and frameworks that help them organize and limit the often overwhelmingly complex entanglements of food system relationships and demands. As people use conceptual frameworks to organize their food aspirations, such as "local" or "fair trade" (or for agriculture, "organic" or "agroecological"), both the functions and the limits of such frameworks can be seen. Without these organizing frameworks, the problems and solutions of food and agriculture become a dense thicket of competing stories -- but within them, people telling food stories often falter when they run past the edge of their explanatory frames (as can often be seen in popularized rhetorical jousting between proponents of industrialized and traditional agricultural practices) or when they run into apparent contradictions (we may need to pay more for food to increase the part of the food dollar that goes to workers (currently ~16%) but will this raise the price of food beyond even the ability of better-paid food workers?). In fact, a significant part of the reason that I am exploring this line of thought on functional metadiscourse in the pages of OnFiction has to do with the way that people almost appear to fictionalize the terra incognita realms of the food system: either in assuaging guilt over food chain workers or in dramatizing food chain problems, food stories often veer into the fantastical in ways that exhibit desperate attempts to construct meaning.
I came to the IATP Food + Justice conference from weeks of people's cacophonous attempts to sort through what they want in a food system, and how to get there -- and I found (amongst a rich and powerful set of narratives about which I will write more) a tremendously useful frame: explicitly focused on narratives about people's experience of contemporary or historical trauma in the food system, this conference started from a very focused perspective that helped organize lived experience around an acknowledgement that food systems have very often been systematically unfair to specific people -- in the North American case, for example, by being largely predicated on enslaved and indentured labor and on appropriated land. The metadiscourse used to create space for discussing such difficult topics not only helped prioritize and draw patterns out of the lived experience conveyed by the personal narratives, it also acknowledged the phenomenological qualities of being in such a discourse, and particularly of remaining there, dialogically, over time. Shepherded by Sam Grant and Zea Leguizamon from the Movement Center for Deep Democracy, organizer LaDonna Redmond, and a team of colleagues, conference participants were encouraged to pay attention to their experience of narratives of trauma -- to sit thoughtfully with the feelings and ideas and reactions evoked, and rather than to ask questions directly back to the speaker, in the usual conferencey way, and to consolidate a more closed interpretation that manages what has been disturbing in the narrative presented, instead to take their experiences back to discussion assemblies where they would craft them into propositions for what food justice means. Further, in a transformative move, intentional physical movement was used to signal that the narratives we were facing were difficult ones, ones that required some additional framing if we were going to engage with them comfortably enough to remain engaged -- an embodied metadiscourse that not only made it explicitly ok to feel discomfort, but actively built into the narrativizing exercise an injunction to develop supportive scaffolds to make sure that the discomfort itself, as well as ways of coping with it, are folded into the stories that get told around facing food-related trauma, exploitation, and healing.
My final experience in this packed few weeks of immersion in food stories involved driving to the Land Institute in Kansas with part of the wonderful Science Museum of Minnesota professional development team. Supported by their approach to eliminating achievement gaps in math and science, and inspired by many conversations during the food justice conference about the possibilities of linking up with longstanding farm justice discourses, I felt the perfect time had come to figure out why it is that people find the agrarian author Wendell Berry so inspiring. Berry was indeed tremendously poetic -- and between his talk and Wes Jackson's masterful invocation of Berry's recent Jefferson lecture on the necessity of historical imagination, I came away with a much greater appreciation for the value of capturing gestural impulses in stories -- without them necessarily being overwhelmed by the need to be wholly complete or completely accurate. While I remain personally committed to a more critical mode of neo-agrarianism than the Berry version (in which I am haunted by the historical imagination of overwhelmingly gendered labor and oppressive social control), I am glimpsing a much more nuanced vision of the functional uses of poetics -- and wondering whether such poetics may be part of what always prompts me to want to soften the boundary between fiction and narrative non-fiction when people are making claims for the functions of fiction. Like the instructions to loosen our shoulders against the reactive hunching brought on by Hmong farmers stories of the bombing of Laos or of Doug Blackmon's stories of the systematic unprovoked imprisonment of black men to fill labor contracts between the civil war and WWII, metadiscursive poetics can gesture toward relational emotions, narrative states, and even physical stances we might find helpful as we navigate our ways through difficult narration and discourse.