Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nosy Interview: Preeta Samarasan

Preeta pictured in The Elusive Jellyfish Nebula, © Bob Franke

I met Preeta when we were both graduate students at the University of Michigan, where I was lucky enough to meet a disproportionately high number of my favorite people. You can learn more about Preeta and her first novel, Evening is the Whole Day, here

What do you smell like?  
An Ethiopian phlebotomist in Rochester, NY, once told me my blood smelled like garlic.  She meant it as an expression of solidarity: "We cook with a lot of garlic too," she said.  I'm sure she was right, and I didn't mind it coming from her, but the question of what we smell like is a slightly painful one for anyone who has experienced racial prejudice.  Racism is almost always about what you eat, what you smell like, what your body is made of, and these questions came up a lot for me during my childhood in Malaysia.  So even now, whenever people happen to mention in front of me that they don't really like the smell of "curry," or that they like eating it but don't like the way it clings to their clothes afterwards, or that they don't mind it but don't want to smell it wafting across the hallway of their apartment building *every* evening, or whatever, I cannot help but put a small black mark against them in my book.  I never feel the same way about them again.  I think I probably do smell like curry, though not like the supermarket curry powder these people's grandmothers stored for thirty years in their spice cabinets, because no Indian person would be caught dead using that.  I think I smell like garlic and ginger and shallots and the curry spices Malaysian Indians commonly use, which come in two flavours (meat or fish, neither of which contains any meat or fish), and are largely purveyed by two rival brands (Baba's and Alagappa's).  I'm sure I smell like milk to my daughter.  Milk and mother and home and safety.  But maybe my milk smells mostly of garlic and Alagappa's (my family was pro-Baba's for decades, but recently switched!), after all, so maybe that's just a different way of saying the same thing.  I've been using Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap since receiving it for Christmas, so I think I probably smell minty right after my shower, but it wears off after an hour or so.  In college, I used to use the Body Shop's Dewberry scent, and that was the only time I really had a signature scent: people recognised me by it, and if you hugged me you smelled of it for a while afterwards.  But now I don't often use scent (unless you count the lemongrass deodorant spray I use), and I'm okay with just smelling like me/Alagappa's.  I think that's been part of my process of growing older and wiser. 

What do you like to smell?
I'm lukewarm about a lot of the classic favourites (baking bread, baking *anything,* freshly mown grass, meh). What I love to smell most of all is my daughter.  It's a cliché but it's true.  We always talk about wanting to eat babies and small children up, but until I had my daughter that was just a figure of speech for me.  Now I mean it almost literally; when I bury my nose in my daughter's neck, my jaws itch and ache.  It's a bit like the feeling I used to get when holding to my nose those fake-fruity erasers they had in elementary school, only much, much more intense.  Hers is the one smell I absolutely cannot put into words; there's nothing I can compare it to, and all our words for smells are comparisons or words stolen from our other senses.

The smell of my husband -- vaguely mossy and rainy, but in a good way -- is comforting and calming, like almost everything about him.  And all the women in my family smell like spicy sweat and talcum powder, a smell that makes me feel like a child again, in both the good ways and the bad.

Smells I love in the kitchen: first and foremost, fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves.  This the the most appetising smell in the world to me, the one smell guaranteed to make my mouth water, even if I've just eaten, even if I'm sick.  But there are dozens of others in close second.  The stem ends of tomatoes; citrus, especially calamansi limes; ginger (except when I was pregnant: then ginger made me gag). The many Southeast Asian herbs I grew up with: screwpine, torch ginger buds, lemongrass, galangal, laksa leaves, kaffir lime leaves. The food I grew up with is also rife with fishy, funky, briny smells; it's not a subtle cuisine at all.  I love those smells -- fermented shrimp paste, salt fish, dried shrimps -- but I have to admit that kitchens in the Western world are not made for them.  I love the smell of garlic, shallots, and ginger frying in hot oil (see above). Good black tea, especially in the afternoons.  Rose essence (similar to rosewater, which we don't use in Malaysia). Coconut water.  Simmering coconut milk. Palm sugar. 


Janet Brown said...

The smell of curry, and garlic and chili in a hot wok, and kaffir limes when poked with a fork or a fingenail will haunt me until I die--and perhaps after. Where do you find lemongrass deodorant spray, please??

Preets said...

Janet, the lemongrass deodorant spray is made by Weleda, a German company -- it might be available on the internet?

Rachel said...

Love your description Preeta, your beauty transpires even when you write, which you do so beautifuly, and I agree the best scent in the world comes from our children (when they're clean !) I can't sleep at night if I haven't snuck in before bed to kiss and sniff each one of them, rather animal like isn't it ?!
Big hugs, Rachel

Preets said...

Thank you, Rachel! Oh those maternal hormones!

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