Sam van Zweden on ‘Eating With My Mouth Open’: First Book Club

The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
Sam van Zweden on 'Eating With My Mouth Open': First Book Club

“I started to interrogate my own relationship with food and realise that it wasn’t so simple.”

Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For February that debut is Eating With My Mouth Open by Sam van Zweden, out now from NewSouth Books.

Eating With My Mouth Open is a personal and cultural exploration of food, memory, and hunger that dissects wellness culture and all its flaws, and considers the true meaning of nourishment within the broken food system we live in. Not holding back from difficult conversations about mental illness, weight, and wellbeing, Sam van Zweden advocates for body politics that are empowering, productive, and meaningful.

Thank you to Yarra Libraries for partnering with us for this live event. Our March First Book Club title will be Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen (UQP). Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.

Editor’s Note: This conversation touches on mental illness and disordered eating. If you need help, support is available from the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Further reading:

Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Eating With My Mouth Open in our February books Roundup.

Read Sam’s Shelf Reflection on her reading habits and the writing that inspires her.

Buy a copy of the book from Brunswick Bound.

Buy a copy of KYD‘s short fiction anthology New Australian Fiction 2020.

Stream or subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Soundcloud / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Other (RSS)

Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!


Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m publisher Alice Cottrell, and today I’ll be bringing you our February First Book Club podcast. Our pick this month is Sam van Zweden’s Eating with my Mouth Open, out now from NewSouth Publishing. Eating with my Mouth Open is a personal and cultural exploration of food, memory and hunger, that explores body positivity, dissects wellness culture and advocates for body politics that are empowering, productive and meaningful. Sam joined First Book Club host Ellen Cregan for an online event earlier this month. The recording of that event is what you’ll hear next. Enjoy!

Meaghan Dew: Okay. All right, so firstly, thank you all for your flexibility and being here online tonight. I know some of you booked back when we were planning to meet in person. And though it’s a real shame that we can’t, we’re really glad that you’re here. We’re not all within the City of Yarra tonight. But on behalf of Yarra City Council, I’d like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people as the Traditional Owners and true sovereigns of the land now known as Yarra. I also acknowledge the significant contributions made by other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to life in Yarra and to pay our respects to elders from all nations who are with us today and to their elders past, present and future. I’d like to also acknowledge the elders of whichever land you’re on right now.

I’m Meaghan Dew, some of you’ll know me, I’m a Collections and Reader Development librarian at Yarra Libraries and I’m really thrilled to be here tonight with Kill Your Darlings for the first of their First Book Club events for 2021. While I know we’ve all been looking forward to different things this year, one thing that hasn’t changed is our collective excitement at the release of fantastic new books, particularly debuts from local authors whose work we’ve followed and loved before. So I’ve got Sam’s just here. Sam van Zweden’s Eating with my Mouth Open is one that I’ve been waiting for, and particularly if you enjoy tonight’s conversation, I’d recommend that you pick up a copy or place it on hold at the library. And tell you more about it I’m going to pass on in a moment to Ellen Cregan, Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club host and manager of Brunswick Bound, who will introduce herself and Sam. Now, a few housekeeping tips before we get started tonight. Please keep those microphones on mute and those videos off during the talk, but feel free to chat using the chat function. There’s going to be the opportunity for questions later on, so save those up for the appropriate time, and the way we’ll be doing those questions is when we get to question time, if you can pop your question in a chat and we’ll read aloud for Sam or Ellen to answer.

Another note is this book and conversation may touch on mental health concerns. Should you need to take a break at any time, please feel free to do so. And you’ll find the numbers for Lifeline and the Butterfly Foundation in the chat. Now on to Sam and Ellen.

Ellen Cregan: Thank you so much, Meaghan. Hi everyone, I’m Ellen. And as Meaghan said, I’m your host for tonight. So excited to be back for 2021 at First Book Club, I’ve been awaiting this moment. And while it’s a shame we can’t be meeting in person, I know there’s some people in here probably who wouldn’t have been able to make it in person. So how great’s Zoom? So, Sam, I’m going to ask you to start with a little reading from the book for people who haven’t had a chance to read it yet. So if you wanted to get going with that whenever, that would be awesome.

Sam van Zweden: Absolutely. Thanks, Ellen. I’m going to read from Chapter 10 of my book, Eating with my Mouth Open.

There is aspiration in eating; consumption and nourishment are so full of possibility. This is such an easy story to find, hidden barely under the surface of the stories I (and probably you) grew up with. I start spotting the moments where food speaks, and it’s almost impossible to stop.

Oliver Twist approaches his master with his bowl raised into the air. ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ Oliver has been nominated by the other boys, and asks for more because they want him to: it is a dare, a challenge. He isn’t shy, he doesn’t demur—‘I want some more’. But he’s also not really asking for the food.

Mary Poppins’ ‘spoonful of sugar’ is a metaphor for making horrible tasks more enjoyable through play. If the spoon had been full of actual sugar, I suspect Michael and Jane would have felt confident and motivated all the same.

When Jo March pulls out a luxurious pear from her new letterbox (a tiny house which has been filled with food— perhaps the ultimate comfort), we love Laurie too. Even when Beth is dying, it’s food that brings the warmth and softness. ‘You drink up all that good broth’, Jo says to her, spooning soup into her sister’s mouth with all the care and tenderness in the world. She feeds Beth as if it can help stave off Death, who blows in through the window in just a second. As if all the good broth in the world could help at all.

Maria in The Sound of Music lists her favourite things, which include crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles. It’s not even the specific tastes—the memory of those things is enough. Maria’s heart is breaking, her faith wavers, but she can always remember her favourite things.

These redemptive food stories are everywhere: Elizabeth Gilbert, carb-loading her way back into her body and her life. Lady and the Tramp chewing and slurping their shared spaghetti, culminating in that iconic kiss. Julie Powell following in Julia Child’s footsteps, using attempted mastery of gourmet French cookery as a shield against all the uncontrollable things life keeps serving up.

Despite all the period costumes, dubbed voices and orchestral accompaniment (as well as the fact that some of these characters aren’t even human), these films are so familiar to me, and I love them for that. I relate to them. They reflect the things I hope food will live up to, and sometimes it fulfils those hopes. This is what I’m reaching for when I turn to food for comfort. In these films, and in many others, food stands as a shining beacon of wellness, happiness, togetherness. Or, at the very least, as a comfort against great hurt. Everywhere I look, someone tells me that food is an answer to almost anything: heartbreak, celebration, difficulty communicating. Food is presented as the saviour; the ultimate contentment and solace.

So many stories exist about what food means that it’s impossible not to attach narratives to what we’re eating: celebration food, conference food, workplace baking, family meals, eating alone, delivering food, comfort food, or My sympathies baked into a casserole, stored in the freezer for when grief is overwhelming. The weight of all these stories—of all these different ways of eating—means that of course, we expect to feel a particular way around food, and then reward or punish ourselves based on whether we’re living up to those stories. These are the standards my disappointment is measured against, when food fails to meet my expectations. These are the stories I wish I could anchor myself in, when food becomes something to worry over.

Food speaks. It intones—low, calm—it’ll be okay.

Ellen Cregan: Thank you so much Sam, that was really beautiful. Much like Maria, food is one of my favourite things, so… (LAUGHS) I’m just going to say at the top of this conversation that it’s going to be really hard for me not to, like, gush about this book the whole time we’re talking, because I loved it so much, and it really…food is such an interesting thing because like, you know, it’s absolutely necessary to all of our lives, yet it sort of has so much meaning in it that a lot of us don’t tend to interrogate. So I just love this book so much, I’m just getting that out of the way now.

Sam van Zweden: Thank you.

Ellen Cregan: I’m sure I’ll say it again 56 times. So my first question when I do these events is often kind of a bit of shop talk, because it fascinates me. Can you tell me about the book’s journey to publication from, like, the first idea to the lovely finished thing that we have here today?

Sam van Zweden: It was quite a long one.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, excellent.

Sam van Zweden: So it took, I think, six or seven years end to end. I, it was originally my Honours project, so I was at RMIT doing my Honours year, and what I was trying to figure out in that project was whether I could write something that could imitate the way that your brain works when you eat and remember food. So trying to recreate brain processes on the page. So that was 2014, and after that I think I took… I took the idea to the Wheeler Centre and I had a Hot Desk Fellowship there, which was hugely useful. Um, after that I entered the Scribe Non-Fiction prize, got shortlisted for that, which meant that I got a judge’s report, which was also hugely useful. I think I was really lucky along the way to have had many people sort of putting their finger—putting their finger in the pie, (LAUGHS) that sort of had a bit of a hand in its, in its creation. Post-Scribe I…it’s hard to remember all the things now, Ellen. (BOTH LAUGH). I had a mentorship with Fiona Wright, who wrote Small Acts of Disappearance, and she was incredibly wonderful and generous.

And sometime after that I entered the KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award, and that was kind of unique in that when you shortlist for that, you get some time away at Varuna, which most shortlistings don’t give you anything. So to have been blessed with that was absolutely incredible. Varuna, complete with onsite chef Sheila, who cooks for you every night, tends to your every need. Yeah, so that was, that was really useful as well. And post-Varuna, after I found out that I’d won the competition, I was in touch with NewSouth Publishing who were interested in the book and took it on.

Ellen Cregan: Well, what a journey! I love when I hear that someone’s Honours project became a book, it just makes me feel so much joy. I don’t really often in these First Book Club meetings, it’s kind of a nice thing.

Sam van Zweden: It’s it’s quite a year that, like, you really have to, I think, in the same way that you have to sort of really interrogate what it is that you’re doing to write grant proposals and that sort of thing, an Honours project makes you do a lot of that work. So I think you come out of it with a really solid, solid shape.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, because we, like I feel like writers very often might have a great idea, but like, why do you have idea, what do you want to do with that idea? And you’re right, Honours pushes you into really sort of figuring out all those little niggly bits.

Sam van Zweden: Yep.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah. So the passage you read was sort of very, it shows the kind of side of the book that engages with a lot of pop culture stuff. But this is a really personal book, about you and your life, and a lot of the sort of, you know, traumas and grief and things like that that you’ve been through. What has it been like releasing such a deeply personal book into the world for other people to see?

Sam van Zweden: Very vulnerable. The process of writing it is vulnerable, but in a very different way, I think now it’s handing it over to readers to, partly to bring their own stories to it, which can sometimes be really heavy. But also, it’s not just my story, it’s also my family’s story. So making space for them to make sense of it. And, yeah, it’s, it’s a it’s a very vulnerable thing to do.

Ellen Cregan: Absolutely. I, yeah. That would be one of the things that I would struggle with so much and why I may never write a book, who knows. And the other thing about this book is, I would say overall it is a, it’s a really joyful book, but it does get into some territory that is pretty serious, and there are some things that are pretty dark. How did you manage to write such a joyful book that has so many periods of really, sort of, intense themes and, and a lot of darkness?

Sam van Zweden: I kind of wrote it thematically, so I definitely had a period where writing the darker bits was easier for me, and other periods where I just needed to inject some light into it, because I think narrative shape, narrative shape needs to play off between darkness and light. But to do that, like, you don’t do that naturally when you’re just telling a story, particularly if your story involves a bunch of trauma, it tends towards the dark. So…But at the same time, I had what I what I refer to as the ‘hungry edit’, where I went through and was just able to expand on food detail. It was, one of the reports had come back to me and said ‘we need more, like, we need more visceral, like, more body detail in this’. And I thought yeah, of course—of course! So I spent, you know, a week picking out all of the food scenes and thinking more deeply about how things smelled and tasted and, um, you know, the reasons that, that certain foods are so joyous and pulling out those details. So it definitely happened in blocks. Yeah. (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: And was—you know, as I said before, there are some really intense passages of things that have happened in your personal life that are in the book—did you sort of find you had to weave self care practices into your writing practice?

Sam van Zweden: Yes. I…love my therapist, what can I say? (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, that’s really great!

Sam van Zweden: Yeah, and I think it’s really important as well to separate the writing and the therapy, because the writing… I think the writing can be cathartic, but not for me. So I hope that the book is cathartic for other people that need to see themselves and their own traumas represented, but I don’t think that it should be cathartic for me as the writer, that’s what my therapy’s for. So, sort of separating those out sort of helped me manage them. And also just asking a lot of people that had had similar experiences how they dealt with it. So, um, that mentorship with Fiona Wright, was amazing because she wrote a book about having an eating disorder and sort of, putting…I guess, intellectual frames around ideas of food and, um, and hunger, that I was able to ask her a lot of questions about how, how do we…how do we deal with these things? (LAUGHS) How do we take care of ourselves at the same time as making sense of of really difficult stuff?

Ellen Cregan: I’ve been struggling to explain your book to people when I’ve been trying to force them to buy it and read it over the past week.

Sam van Zweden: Me too! (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: But I Fiona Wright is such a good comparison because it is that really, you know, like, this is a very intellectual book and the ideas are really thought out and really, like you really travel through every idea. It’s not that sort of diaristic style of memoir, which is great, but that’s just not what it is. But yeah, I hadn’t actually thought of the Fiona Wright comparison. Because what you guys do is so similar in the, in, as you say, the framework, sort of coming around this little beautiful kernel of a personal experience.

Sam van Zweden: Gee, she’s I mean, I’ll take the comparison, but also I’m very much held up by her, and she opened the door for a different kind of writing about the body in Australia. And I don’t think there would have been the same kind of space or permission for me to have done this work without her having first written Small Acts of Disappearance.

Ellen Cregan: Which is such a wonderful book.

Sam van Zweden: It is, it’s amazing.

Ellen Cregan: Like, I’ve got to reread it.

Sam van Zweden: Do.

Ellen Cregan: So why did you want to write about food? Big question.

Sam van Zweden: Gosh, I think… Yeah, I think I couldn’t not write about food. I found myself coming back to food again and again, and even before—so some of the chapters that are in the book are earlier things that I’d written for uni assignments, and that turned into magazine pieces. So I’d written earlier about spending some time in my brother’s kitchen, which was based on a uni assignment that made us do a piece of immersion journalism, which is, um, the journalist puts themselves as a fly on the wall in a situation that they normally wouldn’t have access to, and tells a story from sort of within, within the situation. So I, for that assignment, really felt like I didn’t have anything really compelling that I could do, but I was drawn to the heat and the movement and the energy that’s in kitchens. And because my dad and my brother are both chefs, or my dad was a chef, I’ve always been really drawn to this sort of mysterious side of their careers. So that piece gave me, like, sort of opened the door. And I realised that while I was writing about food for that, I was also writing about my relationship with my brother, and the things that we can and can’t say, and the things that we use food to say in those situations. So when I when I went into my Honours project, I started writing about food, and kind of came up with something that was almost a menu of memories. So I was very…procedural, I guess, about you know, here are the things that I remember and here are the foods that they’re attached to, and that was a way for me to initially build the story. But then it sort of spun out to this other, more iterative, less, less linear thing.

Ellen Cregan: And I love how much of your family is in this book because food and family, I think to most families probably there’s like a very strong connection there. And each one is so completely unique as well. And yours absolutely is. And it was really interesting to kind of think about my own, like, family’s relationship to food while I was reading this book, and then think about how it might differ to other people’s, like how my partner’s family is around food. And yeah, it’s one of those things that’s so personal, yet so universal.

Sam van Zweden: It’s interesting, yeah, I have the benefit of having step-family, so, and I didn’t meet them until I was, or they didn’t come into my life until I was moved out of home. So entering into their food rituals sort of partway through my life was really eye-opening of ‘oh, other people really do this very differently to the way that we do, but also not so differently’. Yeah, it’s, it’s so specific, but yep, you’re right—very specific, very universal.

Ellen Cregan: Something that I found really—well it’s not really strange, but I guess in my upbringing it was strange—my mum has a real thing about not shaming food and not, not bringing that into it at all, and was very strict about other family members not bringing food shame onto me and my sisters. And when I kind of got a bit older, I realised, like, people’s mums would say things to them about what they were eating or their body, bought. And I was like, what? I was so shocked. And to realise that’s like, I’ve had that extreme privilege of, like, not being brought up that way, that was really, like, a rude awakening to me, and yeah, reading this book again just made me think about all this stuff of like, how we make so many positive connections and also negative connections through food in our upbringing and our family.

Sam van Zweden: I think especially with kids, deciding not to bring diet culture into your home has to be a really intentional decision. Like it sounds like it was for your mum, that a decision not to think about it is a decision to allow it.

Ellen Cregan: Absolutely.

Sam van Zweden: So your mum sounds like a warrior, I love it. (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: She’s a character. So writing this book that does really get into that nitty gritty of food and bodies, and all of the stuff around that, did you sort of, did it change your relationship with your—sorry—did you change the way you thought about your relationship to food, or did you notice any changes there?

Sam van Zweden: Absolutely. Um, I think when I started writing the book, like I said, it was it was very much that procedural menu, pulling out the memory thing. But as I kept going, I realised that I kind of had an option. There are two, there are two main stories that we get to tell about food in society; one is that it’s joyful and it’s for celebration and connection, and it’s how you show people that you love them, and you want to care and nurture for them. But the other one that we don’t really tell, or that we pretend doesn’t exist, is about how food is risky and anxiety provoking, especially for women or people in marginalised bodies. But we, we really shy away from that story. So I think when I realised that actually in order to tell one story I had to tell both stories was when I started to interrogate my own relationship with food and realised that it wasn’t so simple. And looking back now on some of the stuff that I was living through while I was writing, I was doing some incredibly disordered eating, and incredibly confused behaviour around food while I, while I was working through this. And sort of, the living was the writing. So where I arrive at the end of the book, I hate—I hate journeys and I hate recovery narratives, but that’s kind of what it is.

Ellen Cregan: And it’s not a, you know, like, no one could ever call this book a recovery narrative, really. Like, it’s kind of just the, there is that beautiful portion at the end where you do talk about that looking, starting to heal that relationship or the sort of negative parts of that relationship. I was going to—I want to talk about all that stuff in a second, but I’m going to ask one more question that’s, like, maybe going to be a bit unfair to you—I’m going to ask you to tell me about science. So you do kind of get on to the the way that food and memory are connected in the book, and I find that really fascinating. So can you, like, give us an elevator pitch summary of how the brain, like, why does the brain like to attach food to a memory so much?

Sam van Zweden: This is a really big topic.

Ellen Cregan: (LAUGHS)

Sam van Zweden: Yep. (LAUGHS) It’s…it’s interesting in that when we eat things, I know for me and the, the more people I tell about what the book’s about, they’re like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got that thing, I remember that thing that I ate when I was a kid, and reminds me of, you know, all these other things and the auntie that made it for me, and…’ So for me, that thing is sitting underneath the benches while my Opa washed carrots. And he was a market gardener, and now whenever I smell carrots, I think of my grandfather. And that, I think, is really common. So we think of memory as being something that exists in, like, a mental filing cabinet that you can open and just pull out the bits that you want in a very voluntary way. But memory…as we live it, is actually far more embodied and involuntary. So I think most people at least passingly familiar with the idea of Proust’s madeleine, and how he eats a madeleine and remembers seven volumes of his life from there. So it’s, it’s not a new thing, but it’s really interesting what the brain does. It’s also interesting that your brain is capable—so smell plays a really important role in food memories, and your brain is capable of filing away food smells as sort of this, sort of a slide that goes into your brain, can file up to 10,000 of them. And it means that when you taste or smell something, your memory for those things is so specific that you can, you know, the difference between Coke and Diet Coke. You can, you’ve got it in there. Yeah, which I think allows for a hell of a lot of nuance in trying to recreate comfort foods and familiar flavours.

Ellen Cregan: Because that’s one of the threads that runs through this book, which I loved, is your dad trying to recreate foods from his childhood in, in Holland, is that right?

Sam van Zweden: Yeah.

Ellen Cregan: Did I remember that right? Yep. Yeah, it is, it is, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m like, oh, if you give me a thing at a restaurant, I’m like trying to guess the spices. Like, what does this taste like? Does this mean they’ve charred it, like what’s going on? But yeah, you’re right, we could talk about memory for a very long time, it’s a very you know, there’s just so many parts to it. But I think that was a really good answer.

Sam van Zweden: Thank you. (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: To a tricky question. Um, so there is a lot of discussion of diet culture and particularly wellness culture as well in this book, which is a which is a sneaky one. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with these spaces, the diet culture and the wellness culture later on?

Sam van Zweden: Yeah, so growing up, I watched my mum diet for as long as I could remember, and I feel like that’s pretty common for girls to see their mums dieting. And while my mum was very careful about not giving me any messages about there being anything wrong with my body, the fact that she saw something wrong with her body kind of implied that there was something to be watchful of when it came to food and body shape. So diet culture, I guess, in a nutshell, is about a… it’s a society that we live in that praises and rewards smallness and makes that the goal. It moralises food, so there’s good foods and bad foods. There’s this weird sort of disconnection between your body and the outside world and your mental life. You’re meant to sort of weaponise your body against yourself, and the whole thing is about being, being at war. The thing about this is, though, that the diet industry is worth so much money. So the best way that I have heard this explained was by Sarah Harry, who is a Melbourne-based body image activist. And she said, ‘if you went to buy a watch, and somebody selling you the watch said to you, this watch will work maybe two per cent to five per cent of the time, you would not buy the watch’. But this is what we’re doing with diets. They work maybe two per cent to five per cent of the time. And that’s a, that’s a sort of generous estimate, but we still keep buying into them. If diets worked, they would put themselves out of business, but they don’t. The diet industry in Australia is worth something like $500 million a year, and that’s only weight loss programs, not the other stuff that feeds into it, which at the moment is what you were talking about with wellness culture. So it’s that idea that, that there’s an aesthetic to being…to being well, and that some food rules are good, so more food rules should be better? Wellness is a lot harder to explain than diet culture, I think. I think we know what it looks like, though. It’s, it’s, it’s yoga and fasts and Instagram and…wool and natural fibres. (LAUGHS) It’s really pernicious, because it looks like something that you want until you sort of interrogate what it is that you’re actually wanting.

Ellen Cregan: And that Instagram thing is so, it’s just so evil. Like, so my lockdown project last year was I did my pilates teacher certification. And so I’ve been thrown into this world of, of like, very much diet culture and wellness culture that I don’t like—and that’s not to say it’s all like that, there’s like, lots of, you know, exercise movement stuff that isn’t to do with weight loss or diet culture. But I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a pilates teacher, and we were like, why is pilates-gram, you post two things—you either post the pilates or you post your breakfast. Like, why is that, why are those the two things that you can post on that page? You can’t post, like, you know, it’s not, you don’t see photos of people’s pets, but you see photos of their lunch. Like they’ve got a separate personal account, yet on your exercise movement page, like, the food is always there. We were like, why does it have to be the normal thing? Like that just seems like it’s got nothing to do with each other, really.

Sam van Zweden: (LAUGHS) That’s the thing though. I think wellness culture is just diet culture rebranded.

Ellen Cregan: 100 per cent.

Sam van Zweden: That’s the scary thing, that nobody’s naming it but that’s pretty much what it is.

Ellen Cregan: Absolutely. And it’s like people, the hashtag-switching from like, ‘being skinny is great’ to ‘be strong’.

Sam van Zweden: Fitspo!

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, fitspo. It’s the same thing.

Sam van Zweden: Yep.

Ellen Cregan: It’s just slightly, yeah. It grosses me out.

Sam van Zweden: It still tells you that one body is worthy and others are not.

Ellen Cregan: Absolutely. And as you say, like, diets, for most people the way your body is is the way that your body is, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And you’ve got, you know, the medical establishment obviously being pretty discriminatory, and then throw in, throw diet culture on top of that. And it’s just this, you know, it’s a fight that no one could ever win. It’s, it’s truly horrible, and terrible for people’s self-esteem.

Sam van Zweden: It is. Yeah.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah. There is, like, a very small part that I wanted to ask you about in the book, where you talk about trauma informed yoga. What is trauma informed yoga and how has it sort of affected you?

Sam van Zweden: As a pilates instructor, you might be a better person to explain this… (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: (LAUGHS) I don’t know anything about yoga.

Sam van Zweden: My understanding of trauma, informed yoga, or my lived experience with trauma informed yoga was to… um, it was about coming to movement in a way that honoured my body. So learning how to move my body and view it with a sense of curiosity. So I think there’s a big…um, I think it’s easy while moving your body in any way to sort of get really caught up in ‘here’s how it should look’, particularly with yoga, it’s very, like, you know, crank into this particular pose, and doesn’t matter if it feels bad, like, too bad, it looks right. Whereas the trauma informed yoga that I was doing was around what the experience is of moving your body and also realising when you get to the edge of what your body can do, or what your brain can handle within your body, and just watching it, not judging it as good or bad, just noticing where it is and letting that be. And it’ll be different on another day, it’ll be different on the other side of your body. But just knowing those things makes it much easier to deal with the feelings when they come up in the world, off the mat.

Ellen Cregan: Absolutely. That sounds like a really nice practice to have. And I lied, I do know a bit about yoga, but it’s one of those things where it’s like people do get so obsessed with the outwards, the asana, the poses, how you look—but yoga is, my yoga teachers are always like it’s, you can, you can go access the breath any time you need it. Like it’s always there for you, you don’t have to be so focused on appearances, you can just be sitting there in your chair being like, what am I feeling right now? How am I breathing right now? And that’s a really nice thing to be able to do for your body, and your brain.

Sam van Zweden: Yep. Yep.

Ellen Cregan: So there is going to be some time for questions in just a minute, so if anyone’s got questions, please pop them in the chat room and hopefully Meaghan will come back to read them out, but just whack them in there and I will ask Sam one more question to give you guys time. What were some of the books that were really important to the writing process for Eating with my Mouth Open?

Sam van Zweden: Ah, well we’ve already mentioned Fiona Wright’s amazing Small Acts of Disappearance. Sorry, I’m just looking at my, this is the benefit of being at home, I can look at my bookshelves here, (LAUGHS), as to the things I have picked up. Bee Wilson is an amazing UK journalist who writes food histories in such an incredibly compelling way, they’re so well researched, and her book, First Bite was really interesting, a really interesting influence for the stuff that talks about childhood food memories, and the ways that we carry those through our lives and the ways that we think about children’s food as different to adults’ food. And yeah, just the ways that those experiences are really formative, Bee Wilson was amazing for that. I came to Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up! very late in the writing of this. So it was, it was pretty much cooked. (ELLEN LAUGHS). But I found so much in common in that book that it was just incredible. Yeah. Trying to think what else, MFK Fisher was amazing, she’s a wartime food writer who wrote really beautifully. She was American, but she moved to France, and she writes really beautifully about the people that have cooked for her and told her about food, and also just making do in a new country and with wartime shortages and honouring appetites and realising that cooking and feeding other people is kind of a superpower. Yeah, she is amazing.

Ellen Cregan: That sounds really good. Did you also read—I’m just throwing my own books that I’ve associated now—Hunger by Roxane Gay?

Sam van Zweden: I did—I actually had some feelings about that one. (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: Really? It’s a very intense book.

Sam van Zweden: Yeah, it is, and I wasn’t overwhelmingly in love with it.

Ellen Cregan: Okay.

Sam van Zweden: And I don’t, I mean, I liked it, but I wasn’t like ‘shit yes’. (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: And it’s more bodies than food that book, I think, it’s more like a body going through the world.

Sam van Zweden: Yep. Yes. But also I, I’m not the person that needs to feel represented by that book.

Ellen Cregan: Totally.

Sam van Zweden: So, yeah, I think that’s fine.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, absolutely. It looks like we have some questions, so I will read them. All right. So we’ll start with Alan’s question, thank you, Alan. ‘I really loved the way you unpack Dutch food in the book. Was there anything you learned about your own family’s Dutchness through the writing of this book?’

Sam van Zweden: I learned that… the Australian Dutchness is different to the Dutch Dutchiness, I think I learned that most of my concept of what it means to be Dutch is rooted in the food that we share, and that for a long time, a lot of that was based around what was available. So while imported foods are much easier to get now, when my dad immigrated in, I’m gonna say 1979, it was, to Tasmania at that, it was much harder to get a hold of the ingredients and the things that he loved. So his way of recreating Dutch foods was very much an approximation based on what was available. So I think there’s a big difference between the familiar flavours for me of Dutch food and the actual Dutch flavours. I think they are different things.

Ellen Cregan: And we’ve also got a question from Caitlin McGregor, hello Caitlin. ‘Hello Sam, thank you so much for your very wonderful book. Really curious as to why you chose non-fic/essays as a form to explore this topic, i. e. not why fiction or poetry, what it is that draws you to non-fiction?’

Sam van Zweden: My brain just does not work in that direction. I have written poetry in the past, and I think that there’s a lot in common with poetry and the kind of non-fiction that I write, but I think I needed something… meatier, to pull apart this particular stuff. And as for fiction, I just just can’t. It feels, it feels like I am faking it. (LAUGHS). It’s just not a way that my brain works, whereas with non-fiction I can find… I have a very, um, my brain enjoys patterns and enjoys matching patterns, so something happens when I’m writing an essay where I’ll have the pieces and they won’t quite resonate yet, but something will come in that matches the pattern, that will make it resonate, that will provide the little speck of light that makes it make sense. So I don’t, I don’t know if I just don’t have the opportunity to do that in fiction, but non-fiction gives me the space to do it.

Ellen Cregan: That’s such a beautiful explanation of why a form appeals to you as well. I really like that.

Sam van Zweden: Thank you.

Ellen Cregan: We have more questions. Emma has said, ‘I’m really looking forward to reading the book. Much like food and wine pairings at a fancy restaurant, do you have any recommendations for snacks while reading?’ Fabulous question.

Sam van Zweden: Oh gosh. I would say the more nostalgic the better. I would say to take an individual approach to your snacking whilst reading. If there’s something that comforts you, something that’s easy to prepare, I would go for that.

Ellen Cregan: This is a really lovely message from Sarah as well. ‘This isn’t a question, just a message of gratitude. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to participate in this conversation. I’ve suffered with an eating disorder for many years and I’ve wanted to write about it, but unsure where to start. I feel really inspired hearing what you’ve spoken about tonight. I feel a little less alone in my struggle, and your perspectives have been invaluable. Thank you.’ Thank you, Sarah, for coming. It’s it’s awesome to know that you’re here.

Sam van Zweden: Yeah, thanks, Sarah.

Ellen Cregan: I think it’s…it’s a shame that there’s not more public discussion of things like eating disorders because it’s so common, and, you know, we all have like a stock image in our head of what an eating disorder is, and that’s just absolutely not true. And like, you can read Sam’s book or Fiona’s book, and so many more books, but you know, there’s definitely not enough. And this discussion does need to open up a little bit. Would you agree, Sam?

Sam van Zweden: Absolutely. I’d also add, Sarah, if you’re not sure where to start, I know that some of the advocacy groups do workshops that help people craft their own story, which is a hugely useful thing in terms of owning it and understanding it. So I know Eating Disorders Victoria were doing this when we were coming up to submissions for the Royal Commission into mental health, and I’m pretty sure they do it in an ongoing capacity. And the Butterfly Foundation also have some work that they do around that. So that might be a way to get started.

Ellen Cregan: We have another question from Raph. ‘Hi, Sam, I made it.’

Sam van Zweden: Hi Raph. (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: ‘I’m loving the book, each chapter takes a while to digest because there’s so much to unpack. My question: I once wrote a very personal piece discussing my early years with my parents and what it was like realising they had mental illnesses. But at the last minute before publishing it, I freaked out and I did it under a pseudonym. How do you deal with very personal repercussions of publishing this book? Excellent description of essay writing.’

Sam van Zweden: Thanks, Raph. Um, this is really not an easy one. I think, in writing this, this is the question that I was asking of the world as well and trying to figure out how other people dealt with it a lot. I think publishing under a pseudonym is absolutely reasonable and that’s not a bad thing to do. A lot of people wait until their family are no longer around, or they are estranged from their family in order to write their family stories. I learnt by doing it wrong—I wrote a family story before this one, showed it to my family, and the reaction was not good. It wasn’t published, I think I learnt a lot from… from that experience about what it means to own your own story and to write the things that are within your purview and your control. So things like flagging—oh, sorry, if you can hear those dogs—things like flagging when you’re imagining how somebody else might have felt, instead of putting words or thoughts into their experience that you don’t have access to, or flagging when you’re unsure of something, which is a huge component of Eating with my Mouth Open, there’s a whole lot of sort of re-interrogating memories of like, did this actually happen? Is the way that I’m remembering it, the way that other people around me remembered it? And that can actually be a really useful part of the storytelling as well.

Ellen Cregan: That’s very good advice for non-fiction writing.

Sam van Zweden: (LAUGHS)

Ellen Cregan: Oh, and then there’s a little follow-up from Raph there. Um, so I’m going to finish with one last audience questions from Meaghan, I believe. ‘Sam, I loved how many—how much particular foods for you evoke specific memories. What foods are you going to eat 10 years from now and think ‘ah, 2020’.’ A loaded question. (LAUGHS)

Sam van Zweden: Oh, um…gnocchi, I learned how to make gnocchi in lockdown. I made it precisely once. But, gosh, I don’t know, I feel like…seasonal foods, like, it was very much about just cooking with what showed up. I get veggie boxes delivered and that is a nice way to vary what you’re eating, and also to honour what’s available instead of insisting on things being shipped from overseas, which of course they couldn’t be in 2020. So yeah, things that I had access to, and using things up, getting really creative, for better or worse. My poor partner ate some really amazing Frankenstein dishes, and I appreciate him for it. (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: I’m going to throw mine in, nobody asked me, but I just want you all to know. Negronis, hugely negronis specifically. And I made a lot of ramen, which was actually really nice, something I’ve always thought was too complicated but then I just found a, like—Hetty McKinnon, actually, the wonderful legend. And as for one more food person that I loved in 2020, on the Delish YouTube channel, there’s this girl called June, who’s like their test kitchen chef, and she did all these videos that were like, ‘$25 for five meals in New York City.’

Sam van Zweden: Love that.

Ellen Cregan: And she just—yeah, it was amazing. She would go around to all these, like, markets and obviously, like, masked up, super, you know, careful, and then would buy all these ingredients and would just make these insane, beautiful, like, really resourceful meals. And her YouTube videos are an hour long and I actually watch all of them.

Sam van Zweden: (LAUGHS).

Ellen Cregan: Like, I even watch the bit where she butchered a duck, and I have been a vegan for nine years. So that speaks to how good June is.

Sam van Zweden: Wow. Amazing.

Ellen Cregan: So that’s a strong recommend. I do just have one more question for you, Sam, before we wrap up for the night. I want to know—again, another really big question from Ellen—what impact do you hope your book will have on its readers?

Sam van Zweden: I hope… I mean, I hope it has small impacts. Like, I hope people can sort of pick out why they have a particular niggling food memory. And I hope second generation people can figure out what the weird thing is between their parents’ countries of origin and their own tastes for those foods. I hope people understand why some foods make them so deliriously happy, but not other people. But I think the bigger thing that I hope that it will do is that people can see themselves represented. This is very much a ‘write the book that you wish to see in the world’ thing. I didn’t, I couldn’t see my story represented anywhere when I was writing it, so I hope that it does that work for someone else.

Ellen Cregan: Well, I think from tonight, we already know it has done a little bit of that, which is awesome. And yeah, these are the stories that I want to read, and I think everybody should read—like this is a real, I mean, every book I think has the opportunity to increase empathy in its reader, but this is especially one that, like, it’s really going to expand people’s idea of what, you know, food and memory and bodies, like, how that might affect another person. And yeah, I just think it’s an awesome book, and well done on writing it. I loved it.

Sam van Zweden: Thanks, Ellen.

Ellen Cregan: So that’s all for tonight. Obviously, we are not in person and I cannot be a book seller tonight, which I was going to be. So what I’m going to do is post a little link in the chat if you want to buy Sam’s book, the link is there to my workplace. And then also there’s a link there to the Kill Your Darlings’ really wonderful short fiction collection, which is also a great read together with Sam’s book. Thank you so much to Yarra Libraries for having us. And thank you all for tuning in—for Zooming in, could I say, is that very 2020 of me? It was a wonderful discussion and thank you for your questions that were really, really good. And thank you, Sam.

Sam van Zweden: Thank you Ellen, thank you. KYD. Thank you, Yarra Libraries. Thank you all for coming.

Alice Cottrell: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the KYD First Book Club. Our March title is Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen, an innovative collection of poetry and prose published by UQP. Stay tuned for more features on our website and podcast. See you next time!