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Joanne Harris. Observing how people eat is a way of learning much about their personality.

Culture / -

Joanne Harris

The author of “Chocolat” tells us how important food and stories are for building a dialogue between different cultures. The English novelist is one of the 104 women writers to have contributed to “Novel of the World” a choral piece of work written in 28 different languages for WE-Women for Expo and dedicated to the nourishment of the body and soul.

“Changing the World One Story at a Time” was the title of your recent Ted Talk. Do you think stories can affect the way the world and people behave?
Absolutely. I think stories are the first and most essential means of communication that we have and because stories engage people on an empathic level, as well as on an intellectual level, it is the way to get people interested in situations which otherwise they would become emotionally detached from.
In your reflection for the Novel of the World you write: “A gift of food expresses more than simple hospitality. It is an invitation to enter someone else’s world for a while. In fact, a little like writing”. Do you think literature and food can help establish a dialogue between cultures?
Yes, I think there are different ways to establish a dialogue but food and stories are two of the main ones; they represent essential means of communication. The first at a more elementary level, since everybody interacts with food and everybody knows what hospitality and celebration mean. But stories are undoubtedly very important as a means of establishing points of contact between cultures.
Your new book, “The Gospel of Loki”, is a passionate retelling of the Norse mythology. With which of your many characters would you like to have dinner with and why?
I’m not actually sure that any of the characters described would be particularly suitable to have dinner with. The Norse gods are not so refined in their approach to a meal but more about guzzling raw meat and drinking until they pass out. Having said that Idunn might be an interesting character to hang out with.
Food has always been a major theme in your books. What do you think food reveals about people and what does the way people eat reveal about them?
It can vary greatly, people relate to food in many different ways. There are highly emotional relationships with food that can be about nostalgia, memory or family. Food can also be linked to negative emotions: it can be about guilt, control or deprivation. But in any case there is a connection with culture and it is an expression of the way we relate to other people. I therefore believe that by observing how people eat and by understanding how they relate to food emotionally we can tell quite a lot about their personality.
You have often highlighted sexism in the publishing industry. Do you think men and women are still viewed differently in arts and literature? 
Yes. I think this is confirmed by the fact that, still today, men form the majority of the judging panels and shortlists of so many of the world’s literary awards. And, although there are more women writers, men still tend to get reviewed more frequently and also their writing is viewed in a slightly different way. For instance: if a man writes a book about relationships it is considered to be something important, something meaningful, whereas when a woman writes about relationships it tends to be dismissed as chick lit. This is because of a general perception that women write about feelings and men write about issues. I don’t think this is true but it seems to be an endearing perception that we’ve had for a long time.
When we talk about waste, we are not just speaking of food, but also of intelligence and talent, especially as far as women are concerned. What is your view?
I think sometimes women are neglected in the sense that they are not given opportunities to express themselves. This means we do not always see women achieve their full potential because they are not given the same starting point as men. I believe this is particularly true outside of Europe. It is therefore crucial to provide women with these opportunities, to value their opinion and teach them they can go further than they currently do.
In your manifesto there are two points about inclusiveness. What could writers do, that they are not already doing, to promote inclusiveness?
It’s important to have different voices in writing. In England most of the voices in writing have traditionally been male, white and from a certain kind of class. It would be good to see more people from different areas, different races and different cultures. It would be good to have people with fundamentally different life experiences given a platform to write and I think we can do this partly by diversifying the characters that we write about, but also by diversifying the authors that we read. We tend to drop into comfort zones where we read the same style of author over and over again. This doesn’t promote diversity, nor is it good for the individual reader to always hear the same voices.
In terms of sustainability and malnutrition, how do you think women can make the difference?
Globally it is women who tend to make, prepare and manage food, yet they are not always the ones to eat it. In some cultures women are not allowed to eat certain things. We should promote general education on nutrition, particularly for women and children who often become malnourished because food is given to men.  When I travelled to Togo for Plan UK this was very obvious: for example, pregnant women were not allowed to eat protein, and that doesn’t make a healthy baby. I believe it is important that some of these basic facts are brought home.
Joanne Harris was born in Great Britain to a French mother and British father. She grew up in her grandparent’s sweet shop and later studied at Cambridge and taught for fifteen years, during which time she wrote Chocolat (Black Swan, 1999; Italian edition by Garzanti). The book achieved immediate success and was made into the eponymous film. She has written a number of other novels including Blackberry Wine and The Lollipop Shoes, the sequel to Chocolat, all published in Italian by Garzanti. Her last book is The Gospel of Loki.
Read the story written by Joanne Harris for the Novel of the World on WE- Women for Expo

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