Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My whey

In the country of Bengodi, where the vines are tied up with sausages, there is a mountain of grated Parmesan cheese, and the folks who live there do nothing but boil macaroni and ravioli in chicken stock, then roll them down the mountain and compete for who can eat the most. Or longer, more flowery words to this effect. The source is Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron, meaning that by the 1340s a cheese named ‘Parmigiano’ was already known outside of its land of origin as a proverbial delicacy, and one of its quintessential uses – to be grated on pasta dishes – was already established. The country of Bengodi is the forerunner to Pinocchio’s Land of Toys: an imaginary place of fabulous riches and easy pleasures designed to lure the simple-minded into doing something catastrophically foolish. But I just might be tempted, for a remote chance at such a reward.

Historians date the origins of Parmigiano Reggiano to three centuries prior to the Decameron, following the drainage by Cistercian and Benedectine monks of vast tracts of the plain South of the Po river, in what are now Emilia and the south-eastern corner of Lombardy. Having created large, lush prairies ideal for the local cattle – a variety good for pulling the plough as well as producing milk and meat – the monks went on to devise a hard cheese that could be transported over great distances (initially, at least as far as Boccaccio’s Florence, later to the rest of Europe) and last for a long period of time. It might have been primarily a way for them to lock some of their land wealth into a marketable product, but over the centuries it became a much broader cultural marker and an important element of the shared heritage of the region.

The original Parmigiano was made in small square or octagonal factories called caselli which remained substantially unchanged until the last century. My mother remembers that in her village there was one in every street. The method for producing the cheese was also unchanged until the industrial revolution, when steam heating was introduced. Another concession made at the time was the use of Fresian cows in place of the less productive Reggiane rosse introduced 1500 years earlier by the Longobards. But most procedures – such as the turning of the wheels of cheese – still have to be carried out manually, as does the theatrical, almost ritualistic quality control by consortium inspectors who tap on the wheels at 12 months and judge the maturation by the sound. Another aspect that modernity hasn’t found a way to subvert is time: Parmigiano is aged for no less than 24 months, and sometimes as many as 36 or 40 months.

Daily habits, sustenance, traditions, the very landscape: these are some of the aspects of life in the country of Parmigiano that have been shaped over the centuries by this cheese. Personally, I can say that my ability to continue to source it in New Zealand, and use it to make dishes like mericonda or cappelletti, is something that I genuinely cherish, and that helps me to maintain vital cultural and familial connections with my place of birth. But today’s post is really about the intrinsic value, beyond all marketing rhetoric, of the genuine product.

It offends me to see what passes for ‘parmesan’ in countries that allow for the name to be used so wantonly, including New Zealand. In our case, it’s not just that they’re cheap knock-offs: they are in fact expensive knock-offs, routinely outpricing the imported product, be it Parmigiano Reggiano or its slightly inferior but still excellent neighbour, Grana Padano. It’s stupid cheese, so why would you buy it? But it bothers me also that people might buy the wet, non-aged, slightly putrid smelling knock-off and mistake it for a good approximation of the real thing, thus trampling over nine hundred years of a history I lay very partial but nonetheless fond claim to.

There is no such thing, of course, as absolute fidelity: things change, products change, as Parmigiano itself has. Besides, the strict artisanal adherence by local cheese makers to the old ways, similar to what I practice when I follow the family recipes, might bother me more: it would be appropriation of another kind, the transmission of knowledge and gestures not through lived practice but suddenly and wholesale, subject to market and consumer demand. Even the transplanting of Italian coffee culture to New Zealand took the best part of a generation, during which time it was able to produce original elements. In its best forms, it acknowledges places of origin and tries to protect the livelihood of local growers, which is also a model for looking at food history as a complex and continuous process.

The earliest attempt to tie Parmigiano Reggiano to its birthplace dates back to an act of the notary of the Duchy of Parma in 1612, which may also be the oldest document protecting a designation of origin in history. While its function at any given time is undoubtedly to safeguard private commercial interests as well, this protection – currently enshrined in European law – is vital for the survival of the cheese-making tradition, thus ultimately the product itself. You may be able to make it somewhere else to the same specifications, but you won’t be able to give it this particular name: the privilege belongs to its custodians.

Perhaps this object above all is why I think it matters. The spino is the device used to mix the curds and break them into small granules, so called because originally the cheese maker would use a branch of hawthorn (in Italian, biancospino). This would sometimes result in sticks or splinters mixing with the cheese, so a variety of implements were devised, but the best ones proved to be those that matched the untidy, asymmetrical nature of the branches. The design shown above became established in the 18th century. No two spini of course are the same, but each is an object of simple, practical genius and beauty. Like the rolling pin that belonged to my grandmother, which it resembles, it symbolises for me the best of a millenary popular tradition, and the tenacious, daily struggle to make our food go further.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Citizenfour and the end of intimacy

Citizenfour (2014) is a film that seems to unfold in real time, as if the plot were revealed to the filmmaker at the same time as the audience. The filmmaker is in the story and while never shown is directly and intimately involved. In the film’s opening sequence, she reads aloud the electronic communications sent to her by her source. The filmmaker is Laura Poitras. The source is Edward Snowden.

From a documentary point of view, Citizenfour is the record of an event that may yet shape the future of our democracies: the 2013 meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong between Poitras and Snowden. Later they are joined by Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. From that initial meeting over the course of several days and the exchange of information that took place came revelations about tools like xkeyscore and programmes like Prism and Tempora, and about the extent to which a global network of electronic surveillance established and controlled by the United States and its allies reaches into the lives of ordinary people all over the world.

The Hong Kong meeting is at the heart of the film, and will justly command its place as a document of genuine and lasting historical interest. But Citizenfour is also, and I want to suggest more poignantly, the story of multiple exiles. Snowden's, who will most likely never set foot in the United States again unless he is a prisoner, but also Poitras', who, after years of harassment by border authorities as a result of her work has moved to Berlin, and Greenwald's, who discusses with Poitras at one point how it would be imprudent to return to America for the time being.

The United States is to be understood in the film both as the literal place Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald were born, but also as a power that reaches outwards, exercising surveillance, threatening extradition, interfering in your work wherever you may live.

It is a truism to observe that the more the internet has insinuated itself into the fabric of our lives, the more vulnerable we have all become to being spied upon and monitored. Hence the unsurprising mundaneness of crime-thriller scenarios and representational conventions in films like Enemy of the State (1998) or the Bourne Identity (2002) with which most people have become tritely familiar. Yet no other film before Citizenfour – not even Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation (1974) or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s celebrated The Lives of Others(2006) – had evoked for me the sense of claustrophobia and oppression or the full intimacy of the intrusion in the personal by the surveillance apparatus.

Control is a force that prevents communication by forcing us to self-censor: and so Citizenfour focuses on the difficulties of the exiled in talking to one another. There are long electronic trails prefaced by blocks of encrypted text, sometimes resulting in failure when it cannot be confirmed that it is safe to talk.

The main character, Snowden, is both present and absent. He speaks through Poitras’ voice in the first act, when he is still known only by his handle, ‘Citizenfour’. He occupies the screen for a full hour in the second, confidently at the beginning, then more and more anxiously as the two alternate futures he had anticipated – imminent capture or a protracted, possibly life-long seclusion – draw near him. He disappears again in the third, as Poitras can no longer reach him. Thus, we are unable to be with him during those forty, undoubtedly surreal days he spent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Nor do we witness the circumstances of his settling into a new life and a new kind of normalcy after the granting of his temporary Russian asylum. Here the film loses itself somewhat, suspended between the clinical political essay and the impassioned documentary orphaned of its central character.

When we encounter Snowden again, it’s by means of an extraordinary shot through the kitchen window of his new home. Here we find that he has been joined in Moscow by his long-time partner, Lindsay Mills, whom he had left before travelling to Hong Kong without a word of explanation. This was so he could carry out his plan without implicating her. The two are making dinner.

The camera and the microphone used to be the main tools for electronic surveillance, which has always placed cinema in a somewhat awkward and structurally ironic position with regards to these issues. When we are immersed in the lives of the characters of ordinary narrative films we are not just implicitly cast as voyeurs, but also as omniscient, all-reaching government spies. The silent shot of Snowden and Mills filmed by a camera placed in the darkness outside their Moscow home reproduces this relationship in the era of computer surveillance, when seeing is no longer the principal or most effective way of knowing. The image is no longer essential or even useful. We can tell more about you by your metadata.

Outpaced, outmoded, cinema struggles to express this reality except by resorting to older tropes. Shooting Snowden and Mills as if they were under direct visual monitoring by the agents of a secret police gestures metaphorically at the scenarios described in the film by Snowden. In our surveillance paradigm, new and even more ruthlessly pervasive technologies of intrusion are able to capture, by plugging into your search history along with your communication patterns, not just whom you consort with and the content of your speech but also your desires. If Citizenfour tells this story imperfectly, it’s because we haven’t yet developed an adequate language for it.

Originally published at Overland.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The house of the living

‘I died many times, but never like this.’

Leburna was a stage actor, and his gravestone – originally from the present-day Croatian city of Sisak – is held at the National Hungarian Museum in Budapest. As epitaphs go, Leburna’s is up there with Spike Millgan’s (‘I told you I was ill’). The stone goes on to note that the actor lived ‘one hundred years, more or less’, and that he wished well to those still living.

My family always had a passion for ancient things, and so as a child I often found myself staring at symbols and inscriptions marking the presence of the long-time dead. Except when you measure death by the centuries or millennia, you discover it almost looks like life. The Etruscan necropoles are really indistinguishable from regular cities entombed by time. So, too, an ancient stone or stele doesn’t convey death so much as the life that produced it. A grain of this truth is to be found perhaps in the Hebrew word for cemetery: Beth hachaim, or ‘house of the living’. As if it were only them, the dead, who could lay claims to existing at all.

With the possible exception of prophets and godships, there is no mourning somebody who lived two thousand years ago, no matter how tragic the circumstances of their death. But very occasionally we can be reminded of their passage.

A favourite book of my mother’s that I have kept contains Latin inscriptions, mostly funerary – including the epitaph of Leburna. It is a Spoon River-like gallery of largely nameless characters, full of a sensibility that I find more sympathetic and contemporary than what gradually became the norm after the continent became Christian. It’s not that these ancients didn’t in believe in something – most inscriptions begin with the letters D.M, a shorthand dedication to the Manes, or spirits of the dead – but rather that those beliefs didn’t go nearly as far in dispensing with death, therefore with life.

These dead are not with the angels but in ground. They don’t look forward to salvation and eternity, but mourn what they lost and gently chide or encourage the living. Says freed slave Marcus Vitellius Theodeorus:
You, who are walking past, come here. Rest for a moment. You shake your head? You don’t feel like it? Yet it’s here you’re going to have to return.
While a nameless departed in Narbonne laments:
This is your resting place. I’ve come here reluctantly, but I had no choice.
Others, like Aco Acastus, of modern-day Klagenfurt, dispense advice for living:
Life is short, hope is fragile. Come inside. The fire is ablaze: while there is light, let’s drink, friends.
From Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome, comes the echo:
Hic situs finita luce. Here lies, the light having gone out.

Some of the stones speak in a terrible voice. Credo certe ne cras – ‘I am certain that there is no tomorrow’, says a former soldier garrisoned at Reggio. Ulterius nihil est morte neque utilius, replies a freed slave from Brescia: ‘There is nothing after death, nothing of any use.’ Others bear curses, threatening swift, supernatural retribution to those who might be tempted to steal the nails (‘may they fly into your eyes’), soil the tombs or rob the corpses. Cryptically, the inscription of a sarcophagus in Rome intones: Hoc est, sic est, aliut fieri non licet. ‘What is, is, and cannot be otherwise.’

But it isn’t the norm. The norm are complaints about the injustices of life (‘Here I lie, Lemisus. Only death spared me from labour.’) and reflections on the mystery of death (‘I lived the way I wanted. Why I died, I do not know.’), but above all polite calls to the living, hoping that they will pay attention. This inscription, found in Rome and dating to the second century BC, is a typical example:
Stranger, I have few things to say: take a break and read. This is the plain grave of a woman who possessed beauty. Her parents called her Claudia. She loved her husband with all her heart. She gave birth to two children: one, who still walks the earth, the other whom she had to bury under it. Pleasant to talk to, honest in her demeanour, she kept the house in order. She spun wool.
I’m done. You may go.

These voices etched in stone are both close and distant. Close, because of their humanity: the simple stories of loss and regret, the humour (‘I have found a place where I can stay forever, rent-free’), the admonishments, even when they are clichéd, speak to us directly. Distant, because of the language and the codes, and because of the visible effects of time. Nothing is forever, not even these marks in the marble or granite: many have become illegible already. As for the bodies, they have long since been returned to the ground, their atoms borrowed for other processes, both living an inert. Their death is so remote that it’s a kind of living.

Barring premature extinction, we, too, shall be ancient some day, and I cannot begin to imagine what will be thought of us. Not as historical agents – that doesn’t bear thinking about – but as people who lived ordinary lives, and of those lives sought to transmit the essence or meaning. What form will our memorials take, whose will survive and by what sort of accident?

The question is not for us. Personally, I just hope Spike Milligan makes it.

Lidia Storoni Mazzolani (ed.). Iscrizioni funerarie, sortilegi e pronostici di Roma antica. Turin, Einaudi: 1973.

We launched our issue of Overland earlier this month in Wellington. Francis Cook wrote up the event and took some photos for Scoop, whil Pip Adam made a podcast. Philip Matthews reviewed us in Your Weekend. The issue is available in some bookshops or directly from the source, with free postage in New Zealand.

Monday, June 1, 2015

My dream job

‘We can write from where we are’, asserts Mel Campbell in her column for the forthcoming issue of Overland. The idea of a special New Zealand issue of the magazine came to Jacinda Woodhead when she was preparing to take over the editorial reins last year. It was an extension of Overland’s efforts to recruit writers and seek new readers from outside Australia, which in turns harks back to how the original project of Overland was conceived: as an Australasian, regional publication.

I was delighted to be asked to serve as guest editor. This was my dream job. I had fantasised more than once about what I might do if I had a publishing budget, and Overland is the perfect vehicle for the kind of writing I believe in. Jacinda sealed it with the brief: that the issue should feature New Zealand writers writing about the world, as opposed to themselves; that it should look outwards, as opposed to inwards.

We asked Jolisa Gracewood to be the fiction editor and Robert Sullivan to take charge of the poetry pages. We secured early the services of Christchurch artist Marian Maguire for the illustrations and the cover. She came back with this.

I’m very proud of the issue we produced, and Marian’s cover encapsulates it beautifully: its search for insight and meaning; the sense of a journey complicated by history and struggle. In fiction and poetry as much as in nonfiction, these are the threads that join the twenty-three contributions by writers variously linked to New Zealand. I like the way Apirana Taylor’s poem ‘thank you’ illustrates Morgan Godfery’s lead essay; or the fact that Pip Adam’s story ‘Zero hours’ describes the reality of contemporary working lives just as sharply as Faisal Al-Asaad does the policing of Ferguson, Missouri. There are shared preoccupations with emancipation, colonisation and culture that bring the three sections together, and not by design but as a function – I can only surmise – of ‘writing from where we are’, for this particular publication, and at this particular point in time.

My own association with Overland began in late 2011, when I was approached to write a piece for the magazine on the Eurozone crisis. I had written essays on commission before, but this was a challenge of a different order, to write on economic matters, and not an idea I would have had the confidence to pitch myself. Eventually the piece – written about a European monetary crisis by an Italian literature graduate and published in Australia – resulted in my being invited to discuss the topic on New Zealand television opposite economist Rod Oram.

I mention this episode because it changed my perception of how my writing could travel and the value of placing it in a publication that would put it through rigorous editing and make it part of a broader conversation. I could still write about distant matters from my current vantage point, but to a different set of expectations.

I believe in amateurism, I do. I value blogs and small magazines that can’t afford to pay for contributors, and all of the informal mechanisms that allow people to produce culture outside of the traditional channels, take risks, learn their craft. I’m quite convinced I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t been blogging first, and it’s a form that continues to give me pleasure and in which I believe. But equally I recognise the value of the other layers, of literary magazines and serious general interest publications that promote and organise new writing according to a logic that is not that of the author alone; that support – with money, hopefully, but also in kind, with expertise and advice, with editorial feedback and intervention – the taking of further steps, and that most writers need in order to grow in confidence and skill.

There is, besides, the value of being published alongside other writers as part of a coherent intellectual project – which, in Overland’s case, is ‘to foster new, original and progressive work exploring the relationship between politics and culture’. While New Zealand is very well-served by its literary magazines, I would argue that we don’t consistently place these particular demands on our writers. Coupled with our small cultural ecosystem, this has made the economics of writing longform political pieces quite precarious. The research that these pieces require can be time-consuming, and if a commission falls through or a submission isn’t accepted they can be hard to place somewhere else, especially as they often have a shorter shelf-life compared to other kinds of nonfiction. Setting out to produce a New Zealand issue therefore required having faith that we would receive enough work of sufficient quality to fulfil Overland’s stated mission. Happily, we did, so much so that we’re going to have to produce a special digital issue to accommodate some of the essays that we wished we had been able to include in the print magazine. This is our line-up:

The New Zealand issue may be a one-off event, but Overland will continue to solicit work from our writers and seek to appeal to our readers. The other question, which was posed by Wallace Chapman in a Radio New Zealand interview with contributors Catriona MacLennan and Morgan Godfery – namely, if New Zealand could sustain an Overland of its own – is harder to answer. On the one hand, besides our more traditional magazines, online publications like The Pantograph Punch, the work of Freerange Press in Christchurch and the flourishing of Bridget Williams Books suggest to me that the appetite for critical longform writing hasn’t diminished, and that it can be met; on the other, the opportunity to publish outside of New Zealand whilst still making the writing available to us afforded by magazines like Overland expands our own ecosystem, helping to keep our freelance writers in work.

We are launching our issue this Thursday from 5.30pm at Vic Books in Wellington. Do come along if you are in town, or you can pre-order the magazine from the website (it ships for free to New Zealand) or, even better, subscribe. It’s worth it.