C Pam Zhang on Land of Milk and Honey, and Why She Feared It ‘Wouldn’t Be Read Seriously’

Culture

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Land of Milk and Honey, the new novel from author C Pam Zhang, is not so much a book about eating as it is indulging: the transgression inherent within, and its necessity nevertheless. But with such an abstract topic, Zhang feared her sophomore effort wouldn’t be consumed with the same urgency and rigor as her acclaimed Booker Prize-longlisted historical debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which dealt in the xenophobic rot at the heart of the American West. Milk and Honey, by contrast, is a work of climate fiction, or maybe dystopian fiction, or simple science fiction—depending on whom you ask—and a story grounded in carnal urges: taste, touch, consume.

The book follows an unnamed female protagonist trained as a chef, who lives in a near future rendered tasteless from the devastation of climate change. There are few delicacies to be found in this setting—outside of mung-bean soy flour distributed by the government—which leads her to a morally sticky solution: a remote compound in the Italian Alps, where she’s tasked with cooking for a billionaire, his geneticist daughter, and the investors behind their luxurious biodiversity project. The chef is suddenly confronted with abundance—oysters and roast boar, pomegranates and parsnips, cheesecake and mulled wine—and its resulting inequity. “The confessions I came to hear amidst smeared napkins and bitten crusts were charged with a near-sexual intimacy,” she tells us, “for all that I touched only shoulders and hands.”

The book materialized for Zhang herself after one particularly memorable meal in 2021, shortly after she’d received her COVID-19 vaccination, and during a period in which she felt “deeply disconnected from my body.” The meal brought her and her companions back to what might be aptly described as their “senses,” Zhang says. Soon after, Land of Milk and Honey began to materialize.

“Every book that I write changes me,” she tells ELLE.com. “And I think this one was an exercise in remembering that as much as food and water and shelter are essential for living from day to day, pleasure and beauty and art and companionship are the things that we need to survive for the many decades” that come after. Ahead, the author explains how pleasure—and female pleasure, in particular—motivated her writing; how her climate anxiety has shifted since finishing the book; and where she discovered the perfect tin of fish.

When did it become apparent that you wanted to take your experience at that restaurant and turn it into your next novel?

I think it was pretty immediately after. It was also really fun for me because, as you noticed, this book is very different from my debut novel. And another thing that had been sitting heavy on me as part of the pandemic was this feeling of being pigeonholed, perhaps, as a writer—feeling like people expected me to write the same kind of book again, or to become an expert on the same topic again. And so entering the mind of someone who’s not at all like myself, a chef, is also this beautiful escape hatch.

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

<i>Land of Milk and Honey</i> by C Pam Zhang

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

Credit: Riverhead Books

Tell me why you decided to go the route of speculative, dystopian fiction, as opposed to historical.

That’s a good question. Fear is always a great entry point for me into the emotional heart of fiction. And certainly in 2021, I was living with this fear of, What if these weeks of wildfire smog that we were living through on the West Coast never lifted? What if this kind of mundane beauty that we take for granted, just being able to see the sky and the clouds, is taken from us? It also came out of my own struggles with eating during the pandemic. Being trapped inside and making the same foods for myself all the time just kind of sapped a great deal of that joy for me. There were definitely moments where I was like, “What if I can never feel happy again? What if I could never enjoy a meal again? What if I could never travel again?” And so a lot of [those emotions] are the linchpin of this type of [speculative] fiction.

You’ve mentioned your fear of being pigeonholed, and that writing as a chef required you to explore a perspective different from your own. So what was that process actually like? What research did it entail?

So at first, especially during the pandemic, I was drawing on 20 seasons of Top Chef. I’ve been a long-time fan. And then also reading a great deal of chefs and food writing memoirs: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton was very important to me, I read Dirt by Bill Buford, so many chef biographies. I was also reading also reading Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction. I actually reread that. I had read it for the first time years ago, and it sort of planted a little seed in my mind.

I was also…This is kind of a funny one. I was reading this piece that Elif Batuman wrote for The New Yorker called “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry.” And it was just all these things were circling together in my head, these readings and these ideas of food and how it relates to identity, and how human consumption relates to the mass extinction of life on Earth. And then when the world sort of opened up again after lockdowns lifted, I did go out and eat some meals in order to do that kind of sensorial research.

What did you find yourself cooking—or if you weren’t cooking, ordering—as you were working on this book?

I’m amazed that no one has asked this question before. Honestly, when I’m writing, I eat in two different kinds of phases: There’s one phase where I eat essentially the same meal every day. And on paper, it might sound very dull. For example, I would often eat a can of tin fish. And I would eat that with maybe noodles or roasted broccoli and cauliflower. But it became my mission, then, to find the best tin of fish possible. I became a bit of a fanatic about that. Currently, I’m really loving the smoked mackerel from Patagonia Provisions; so sustainable and not expensive for really high quality fish.

So that’s one phase, where it’s just repeating meals. And then the other phase would be me having this kind of leftover creative energy to burn at the end of the day, stumbling into the kitchen, opening the fridge, and just making something out of whatever I found there. I never follow recipes. I’m really terrible at recipes, but I do love baking some kind of stew or a casserole or strange salad out of whatever is there. And there’s just nothing more satisfying to me than creating a delicious dish out of odds and ends.

I feel as though that translates in the lushness of the book. And it’s interesting, because that lushness is conspicuously absent in a lot of climate fiction—because the story of climate fiction is so often that of absence, destruction, and lack. I’d love to hear why you put such a clear emphasis on that lushness in Land of Milk and Honey.

I mean, simply put, it was because the character needed it in order to survive. And I was interested in what happens if you take seriously this very human need for pleasure. It’s what makes us human. It’s what lifts us above being animals. And it was interesting to me, during the pandemic, to watch so many people I cared about so deeply, who are doing good work, who are launching themselves into volunteer efforts or raising money or raising awareness for others, who just denied themselves these simple things: women, especially. I was interested in doing the opposite. What would it look like to explore pleasure rigorously on the page, not just write it off, not just as we understand what it means, but to really investigate it?

I was interested in what happens if you take seriously this very human need for pleasure.”

I think that the danger of using a word like “pleasure” is that it is immediately associated with luxury or decadence, or [is deemed] frivolous. But part of the intellectual work in the novel—and part of the work of the chef as she lives on this mountain—is to find her own definitions of pleasure, to realize that she finds it often in simple things like a strawberry, or even processed food, and that there is some kind of moral center to her pleasure. And that moral is different for everyone, but for her, her individual pleasure cannot be fully individual. It intersects with ideas of the people she loves, the communities that she’s a part of. And I think that’s so true to so many people, in that if we took the time to think about pleasure seriously and were not dismissive of it or scared of it, it would provide so much fertile ground for conversation.

Why did it feel so important to you that this protagonist was a woman?

So she starts off this book taking this job. And she molds herself…she lies to fit the criteria of this job. As she spends time [at the compound], she comes to realize that part of the job is visual performance—this performance of a certain kind of value that is tied up with female beauty as well. And so it could really only be a woman.

It was so interesting for me to play with these ideas of how we put ourselves in different roles in order to survive. Everyone does it on a daily basis. People are not the exact same person they are at work as they are at home with their partner or their children or their dog. And that’s fine. It’s just sort of a necessary thing that humans need to perform. But I was interested in where that kind of performance, taken to an extreme, can start to rub away at the very core of an identity and really cause a person real harm.

Why, then, did you decide to leave her unnamed?

I think that was actually part of it. Because she begins the book with this fixation on survival and nothing else. She’s willing to give everything up…So she starts in this vacated place. And that’s what makes her so interesting to follow through the book. That’s what makes her so sort of open to these bizarre scenarios. And then I think the book is also a question of how you build identity and how you change identity over time. There are these external factors that can force you into an identity that feels uncomfortable. But as she’s noticing them and resisting them, she’s also coming to build a new identity.

I’d imagine there’s a great deal of pleasure in writing a book like this. But what did you find most challenging to put on the page?

I think that, in the first draft, one of the challenges I faced was permitting humanity to the uber-wealthy characters in the novels, the sort of people that if I met them in real life, I wouldn’t approve of. But having them be flat villains was not productive [for] the novel. There’s this adage that sometimes bounces around in creative writing courses: “You must love your characters as God does.” It’s interesting, because when I think of that, I think of the Old Testament God and New Testament God, which are radically different.

So what I found happening as I wrote more and more drafts of the book, was that I was sort of accessing these characters who are not at all like myself. I had to write more deeply, so that’s what I did—not that I would re-live their choices if they lived in the real world, but I had to understand and develop a level of sympathy for why they make the choices they do, right? And that was a really difficult task. And similarly for my protagonist, she makes a lot of decisions that are not the decisions I would make…Just because my protagonist is also an Asian-American woman, I felt a bit culpable in the decisions that she made. It was just an interesting, sticky, moral tangle to exist with.

I would say the other challenge that happened sort of between drafts, not during the writing process, was the question of how the book would be received. Certainly, I know that in the American and international literary climate in which we exist, there are certain types of themes and books that are considered “serious” and “important.” And my first book happened to intersect a lot of those themes. And I knew that there was a chance in writing this kind of book about female pleasure, that it wouldn’t be read seriously and it wouldn’t be understood.

I knew that there was a chance in writing this kind of book about female pleasure, that it wouldn’t be read seriously and it wouldn’t be understood.”

But I think I’ve gotten past that. More than anything, I’m really curious about how this book is going to be read: I love hearing different interpretations about whether people call it a “dystopia” or “utopia” or “climate fiction” or straight “science fiction.” I think a reader’s responses to any book are a bit like reading the tea leaves.

Especially with a story like this—one that, forgive me, feeds on the twin sensations of pleasure and anxiety—it’s revealing how people react to juggling those two emotions in the same grasp.

Yeah, which we all do every single day.

How did writing this book affect your own climate anxiety?

Writing this book left me oddly more hopeful. Not necessarily more hopeful for the future of humans on the planet, but more that I gave myself over to the far greater and more mysterious power of the planet itself. What if we humans fuck it up so badly and cause our own species’ extinction? The planet is going to be just fine; the planet is going to recover. I think that, as much as I believe climate legislation is important and doing what we can to correct the ills that we’ve caused are important, there is also so much we don’t understand and will never understand about the natural world’s own power to resist us and to resist beyond us. And I think leaning into that sense of openness and ambiguity and unknown is actually quite powerful.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Writer

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 

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