The Rag and Bone Man Press on Recipes and Refuge

Last Thursday night Abraham Nouk, a Sudanese refugee, stood up in front of a crowd of two hundred people, and with the melodic backing of singer Little Foot’s acoustic guitar, announced ‘kindness is a weapon most people are afraid of.’

The room before them silenced. In the centre of the sea of faces, a buffet table was laden with food from across the world. Exclamations over matzo balls, empanadas and pierogi had earlier risen above the popping of champagne bottles as guests streamed steadily in from 6pm, packing out the Gryphon Gallery at Melbourne University. This was the launch of Recipes & Refuge: Stories of immigrants and refugees told through food. A year-long collaboration of lives shared through recipes that tell of people’s journeys to seek a better life in Australia.

The author, Chris Nguyen, described the book as evolving from ‘my mother’s wish to record her recipes from home to pass on to future generations.’ Standing by the sink as her mother grated papaya and prepared gỏi đu đủ tôm thịt (Vietnamese Papaya Salad), Chris finally heard the story of how her parents escaped the Vietnam war and came here by boat in the late 1970’s. The comfort of being in one’s kitchen and speaking through food became a softer way to ask for her story and led to the idea of creating a book that collects extraordinary voices of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, told through the common link of food.

In Stasiland, Anna Funder says that in order to truly understand a regime, ‘the stories of ordinary people must be told.’ By teaming up with The Rag and Bone Man Press, Chris took this idea further in a book that explores ‘not everyday “boat people”, not everyday “asylum seekers”, not even everyday “immigrants” or “refugees” –just everyday people’.

‘Whatever the reason to flee one’s homeland, whatever the need or the desire,our media and available writing on the subject often fail in telling the deeply personal accounts of people’s journeys to seek a better life,’ spoke publisher, Keira de Hoog. The combination of food memories can greatly assist in telling stories of escape and trauma. One Jewish couple survived in a pigeon coop during the Second World War, receiving baskets of food through the window from children on a ladder. Two Cambodian brothers worked alongside each other in Pol Pot’s re-education camps, building the walls of rice fields and going without meals. Another young man grows vegetables to pass the years spent waiting in a detention centre in Melbourne.

Many contributors to the book met each other for the first time at the event – families from Kazakhstan, Iranian refugees and Italian choir singers shook hands as a convivial party formed. There was an air of celebration too from the city’s writers, publishers, workers from NGOs and organisations such as ASRC, Free Burma Café, Parks Victoria, the soup vans and detention centres. ‘It’s great to meet like-minded people and to know that we are not alone in wanting to share and celebrate our common humanity,’ was a sentiment often heard.

recipes_1 See more photographs from the launch here.

To conclude the evening, happy birthday was sung to a Cambodian father over a cake bearing the image of his beloved Angkor Wat. In his own story he examines the beauty of this temple and asks the devastating question of his country: ‘how did we get from this to nothing?’ Turkish immigrant, Sevda then did the honours of raising the book high in the air and officially launched it into the world. Copies were collected for friends and family and those from afar who were not able to attend the celebration.

As food steadily left the table and voices drifted back onto the streets of Melbourne, the most important message of the evening was taken with them., As Chris is fond of saying, ‘being human is the cake, everything else is just the icing’. It is with hope that readers hear, understand, empathise with and see the personal lives and journeys contained within the pages of Recipes & Refuge. The concept of a barrier between “us” and “them” is counterproductive to furthering our understanding of the lives around us and embracing the beauty our shared humanity.

And what better way to encourage people than through something we can all share – a meal and the stories from our everyday.

The Rag and Bone Man Press are particularly interested in creating books for change and opening up discussion on global topics. To find our more about their projects you can visit their website.