Interview with Tyler Snelling, author of “Beyond Biomedicine: Finding Care in Embodied Memories of Food.”
Snelling’s article was recently published in Issue 6.3 of Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In this interview assistant editor Amy Reed asked Snelling about his work with the Women of Color Zine Collective and how it illuminates concepts like alienation and health citizenship.
AR: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to discover the Women of Color Zine Collective, and–more specifically–how you came to focus on Women of Color #11: Food and Family History?
TS: As a lot of wonderful research begins, I found Women of Color #11: Food and Family History after a few seemingly unconnected events took place in the development of my scholarship.
First, I began graduate school with a curiosity toward how queer people and feminists harnessed print media to circulate information about their communities. This curiosity led me to the University of Iowa’s collection of zines and non-mainstream periodicals which served as a basis for a couple of my early seminar papers.
Second, I reframed my program of research to center on food studies. Although I did not start my graduate studies with this focus, it became clear to me that I needed to make a shift to sustain my interest in research. I slowly realized a focus on food related rhetoric and all of its accompanying rituals/systems could sustain a career of research as someone who loves cooking and eating.
Third, I took a seminar on Rac(e/ist) Rhetoric(s) with Dr. Darrel Wanzer-Serrano during Spring 2018 which involved writing a seminar paper drawing on themes in the class. Because I was curious about how people used print media as resistance and wanted to develop a project about food studies, I hoped to find something in the University of Iowa’s collection given they have a whole box on culinary zines. But zines are a tricky media to study because we often know so little about who produced them, when and where, and what kinds of circulation they attained. I am still not able to answer some of these questions regarding Women of Color #11. These aspects of the medium’s anonymity reward creators wanting to share but make it tricky to defend the value of researching zines. Although some of the texts I found in Iowa’s collection could be the basis for fascinating research, none of them seemed like the right fit for my interest in print media as resistance and a seminar paper in a class about race and rhetoric. I started looking elsewhere for possible texts and eventually stumbled upon a list of zines related to food that included the Women of Color Zine Collective’s piece. Thankfully, the Barnard Zine Library had a copy of Women of Color #11 that they sent via Interlibrary Loan to me. When I first pulled it out of the manilla envelope used for transportation, I was struck by the collaborative nature of the project given many zines are produced by a single person and all of the different forms of content—comics, recipes, short stories, and images—which centered around a fairly intimate perspective for each contributor’s experience of western, white foodways. Although I thought the paper had a good core artifact, I set it aside for a few years since I was unsatisfied with the theory it engaged until I found biomedicine and the health humanities.
AR: You draw from Burke to describe alienation as “moments where people feel unhealthy because of erasure, stigma, or loss.” This seems to me to be a really fruitful concept to pair with health. Do you see other places–for example disability or disease states–where this conceptualization might apply?
TS: Yes, my hope is that the relationship between alienation and pleasure offers rhetoricians ample opportunities to unpack what health entails when we attune our research toward the bodies, spaces, and topics within the health humanities. I quickly realized once I started to analyze Women of Color #11 from the perspective of biomedicine that I needed a way to name both the violence the zine critiqued and what the zinesters described doing in their pieces to heal or combat it. Reading Dr. Monique Leslie Akassi’s work on “(de)alienation” and W.E.B. Du Bois was the moment when the broader theoretical arguments I made about alienation, pleasure, and wellness/health started to click. Identification, for me, is always about moments of convergence in identity or values that may be known and felt. Alienation provides scholars a way to think about the consequences when those identifications are broken or lost. For instance, Sally Moon Lee and Ann “a’misa” Matsushima Chiu name a form of alienation due to how society prioritizes certain western, white foods over others. These zinesters also paint a pathway that contests alienation by “cooking up some healing” (Lee, p. 9) and “Plant[ing] yourself in people” (Chiu, p. 14). Pleasure serves as a sort-of ‘antidote’ for the feelings that accompany alienation. Yet, I want to caution scholars against reducing the argument I made to a causal relationship, such as assuming that pleasure ‘cures’ or ‘eliminates’ alienation. An argument such as this puts a high burden on individuals to manage their alienation when all four of the stories I examine in this article centralize collaboration—Lee learns about Korean food from her boss, a’misa grows food with her neighbors, Olivia Olivia receives support at a farmer’s market, and Melinda Williams creates space to care for members of the community. Even though I think the WOC Zine Collective’s strategies are necessary and significant, I suspect we must balance the good of everyday strategies for creating wellness with the structural conditions that make alienation a widespread and ongoing experience.
As scholars pan to other topics and spaces besides food, alienation and pleasure function as competing forces that should provide a valuable conceptual toolkit for thinking about health in everyday settings and rituals. Scholarship on trauma, neurodivergence, burnout, and chronic illnesses could use these conceptual tools to make sense of how people experience the world. For instance, I suspect research about people with long COVID could use alienation to describe the feeling of being discredited or invalidated by people who do not think the condition is “that bad.” The key for scholars using these concepts is to closely ground them in the contexts which make meaningful the subtle techniques of violence that reinforce alienation alongside the strategies that contest it.
AR: You argue that the zine narratives are more “interactive” than some other autobiographical texts because they encourage “tactile knowledge from cooking.” I’m curious about the ways in which this tactile component may increase or amplify the narratives’ other messages about care through food. Can you say more about that?
TS: My article approaches the question of “what affordances do interactive media offer readers?” in two ways that relate to tactile knowledge and care.
First, the WOC Zine Collective’s choice to use a zine matters for what kinds of sources and archives scholars turn to when we examine broad topics like health. The zine as a form for sharing experiences seems so powerful for me because essentially anyone can create one about anything by using nearly any material. I have looked at zines that recounted the food someone ate over a day, that historized a specific ingredient or dish, and that used onion peels to create different textures on a page. In that way, zines can reshape the interaction had between the reader and writer because they do not adhere to some of the qualities of a published book or journal. These attributes help us approach care in new ways because they can ensure we appreciate parts of a day that may seem banal or difficult to study through different methods.
Second, part of what I hoped to capture by referencing ‘tactile knowledge from cooking’ relates to Jennifer Cognard-Black’s argument about cookbooks as “embodied rhetoric.” That tactile knowledge stems from the very act of preparing and eating food. Both Lee and Olivia take space in their pieces for Women of Color #11 to talk about the feeling of cooking and consuming food. Whereas lots of discourse related to food may capture images of daily life, recipes and cookbooks provide instructions that leave the page as readers act by using them. When I cook my great grandmother’s recipe for pierogies, I am drawn back to sitting with my dad at her table measuring ingredients as she put them in the bowl because she never used or wrote down a recipe until we did it with her. I am drawn to all of the times I have made them with my parents and brother. And, I am drawn to times when we have shared them with family at holidays or with friends. In that complex process, a recipe gains vastly more meaning than just instructing someone how to prepare a dish. My sense is these connections contained within a recipe matter a lot as scholars study alienation and health because they teach us about how people relate to their past and society. If alienation is something that pulls bodies away from heritage and identity, interactive texts like zines and recipes restore these connections—not solely by teaching new information but also by helping people feel something different than alienation.
AR: In your last analysis section, you focus on alternative forms of health citizenship–and particularly as that “based on community rather than stereotypical ideals.” Do you see this new form of health citizenship as compatible with the American healthcare system in any way? If so, to what extent and how? Or, if you see our current system as fundamentally opposed to community-based health citizenship, can you explain some of the obstacles?
TS: The alternative form of health citizenship that I gesture toward in that section is compatible with the current system out of necessity. I am drawn to the term necessity in this answer because the current system can create alienation given layers of assumptions based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, and weight and given that some alienation stems from aspects of society which simply exceed the current medical system. Part of why I stuck with “Beyond Biomedicine” in the article’s title relates to an important caveat I made at the beginning of it about not wholesale rejecting aspects of the current/dominant system. As much as I hope we are building toward a healthcare system that would make aspects of community-based health citizenship irrelevant, I do not see those systematic transformations taking place within the United States anytime soon. People often must supplement their engagement with biomedical institutions by finding care through connections with other people. Treatments (just to name a few) using insulin for diabetes, chemotherapy for cancer, or antiretroviral therapy for HIV likely rely on procedures developed through biomedicine and I would never want someone to read my work as a recommendation to avoid seeking those options in favor of community-based solutions that might discourage them. Yet, my guess is someone who has diabetes, cancer, or HIV could still experience forms of alienation when seeking these forms of care which might require taking a ‘both/and’ approach for their physical, spiritual, and psychological health. My argument suggests that citizenship rituals found in Women of Color #11 emerged as the zinesters took action to change feelings of alienation within a white, western foodway that can often downplay these consequences. I hope readers of my essay take away a similar sentiment about approaching care as collaborative, emplaced, and full of pleasure.