045 ar 10 essay bellyoftheworld
As the roast chicken, laden with gravy and perching on the end of my fork, approaches my mouth, I begin to salivate. They ask, ‘In 2018?’ and ‘So … sorry, forgive my ignorance … it’s something you’ve personally experienced?’ But aha! It’s too late! The succulent chicken breast has already passed my lips and table manners now dictate that they remain sealed.
With my response absent, a few seconds of awkward silence pass. I turn my lips into an apologetic smile as my tongue relishes, furiously mixing the food with saliva, breaking it down, working it up into a ball. I lose track of the table momentarily as I involuntarily enter a trance-like state; blood rushes to my tongue which makes a few more revolutions and I focus on the taste, mindful, a feeling of home. My teeth clamp down on the last shreds. But, as I begin to come to, my mind drifts again:
Bailey Betik describes a dinner table like this as a diasporic micro-space – a smaller, everyday Third Space, as defined by Homi Bhabha: the in-between or ‘inter’ between two spaces; ‘I’ and ‘you’, where culture, as a meal, is shared, negotiated and translated.
The chicken-y, gravy-y, saliva-y ball balances on the curve of the threshold between my mouth and throat, between them and me, my semi-public cavity and private insides.
I snap back to the table to hear the end of ‘… it’s OK. I’ll wait!’ To my horror I realise I have mistimed, underestimating the tenacity of this bite: there’s more fat to chew. I freeze. My tongue – held. I gulp with fear, and slowly lift my eyes from my plate to meet theirs. For a moment it feels like it’s all about to go down. I splutter. I try to clear my throat, but my eyes begin to water.
I cough violently. Thank God – I’m choking! Wrong pipe!
People half get out of their chairs, bottoms hovering, some run to the kitchen to get me some water, a napkin. The chicken breast begins to dislodge to the rhythm of a friend whacking me hard on the back.
Table safely deserted, I swallow again, sending wine with it, washing the remaining taste from my mouth.
‘Are you all right?’
In the seven seconds it takes me to wonder if I can stomach any more of this, the offending morsel has been pushed down my oesophagus and landed pointedly in my stomach. It will stay here for three or four hours.
As do my guests. Hydrochloric acid works to make the particles smaller, puréeing them into a creamy liquid, as I serve dessert: trifle.
‘… the test came back … go on – guess! … said I was 1 per cent Nigerian!’
In anatomical diagrams, you rarely see the reproductive and digestive system represented together. It’s always a two-dimensional map, one long tract from top to bottom – in one hole, out the other.
I wonder where my ovaries are in relation to my stomach. How do my guts and my sex all squeeze in to form my belly? How do they all fit?
‘How’d you figure that happened?!’
During slavery, Britain introduced the law partus sequiter ventrum – ‘child follows belly’ – so that any child born of a female slave inherited the mother’s status. Saidiya Hartman describes how for African women, reproduction became production – like work on the plantation, it was the hardest labour. Their bellies were not private, but made public – economic potential producing objects. Like this, the slave trade and the modern economy it enabled were predicated on the belly of the black woman:
‘The modern world follows the belly.’
It’s a lot of weight. The lining of my uterus begins to thicken.
‘… Milkman’s eye!’
I offer tea.
As we get up from the table my mind has long forgotten the chicken morsel, but my body hasn’t. My liver secretes bile.
I take a sharp intake of breath which fills my lungs with air and incidentally pushes my tummy out so that as I look down I can see it protruding slightly beyond my boobs. I wonder what’s going on in there. My diaphragm kicks in: ‘How will you get home?’
‘We’ll get the Victoria line to King’s Cross St …’
The door closes behind them and just as I realise I’ve been holding my breath, I exhale: my pancreas, that pear-shaped organ right at the centre of my being, opens its ducts and digestive juices stream from it.
It’s night now, I’m sitting in my armchair marvelling: at how the chicken morsel has become entirely unrecognisable, broken down to its building blocks, lipids etc.
And without me realising, it slowly moves through the walls of my small intestine and into my bloodstream. Almost all of it.
I rise and retreat to the most private part of the house, the only room with a lock. I catch myself in the mirror, affirmation, as I move past it to dispose of the last remains of the dinner party my body doesn’t need.
This could be the end, but really, the toilet never is. I flush and the chicken-gravy morsel is pushed through the U-bend never to return the same way. Out it swims into the hidden cartographies of the city, leaving behind me: the belly of the world.
‘The modern world follows the belly.’
‘Farewell chicken morsel! Vehicle for the experience I didn’t want to share, and vehicle for my missed chance to be heard! Freedom un-grasped! Go now to be transformed and come back another day, something clean, something new.’
‘Here I am, your chicken morsel, leaving as requested. I will not repeat on you tonight. But remember, I never truly belonged to you or them, I was just passing through. The diasporic morsel; always was an unreliable translator. Like all third spaces I defined the evening and now, I slip away.’
This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today