Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2016. RRP: $24.95. ISBN:9780702254055
Since the birth of conversation, the act of emotional honesty has been intertwined with food. Whether the Sunday roast or the evening meal, most people have at least a few memories of conversations woven through with requests to pass a dish, or pauses for chewing. We often talk most openly when our hands are busy, and food gives us a focus in the awkward moments of honesty.
Comfort Food is award winning Australian author Ellen van Neerven’s first published foray into poetry, and it’s clear that she has a gift for crafting vibrant and detailed works with startling few words. There is phrasing here that stays with you long after you’ve turned the pages, quotes that resonate deeply or stun you into stillness.
In this collection, van Neerven takes the idea of food and conversation a step further. Each poem in the anthology is tied to a memory of food, giving readers a metaphorical tea cup to fiddle with as she masterfully explores a range of complex and emotionally charged topics. At its heart, Comfort Food is a conversation about belonging, whether in the context of a relationship, a journey, or in a proud Mununjali woman’s journey to make peace with her place upon Australia’s often whitewashed cultural spectrum.
Comfort Food isn’t an ode to foodstuffs. Instead, it is a gathering of the intimate, complicated moments shared between friends and family over food and drink. Van Neerven has captured the wry humour and warmth of a conversation with loved ones, letting no topic be too raw or uncomfortable to be explored.
There’s a political bite to van Neerven’s work, a conversation around the continued undervaluing of Indigenous culture and identity that reminds us that there are many wounds in Australia’s history still needing to be tended to. It isn’t always comfortable reading, and yet, it’s in those moments that her talent shines most clearly. Van Neerven neither shies away from the uncomfortable truths, nor bludgeons non-Indigenous readers with guilt; instead she creates a space that welcomes honest talk and contemplation, allowing those of us outside the ATSI community a chance to understand on an emotional level the impact of whitewashing a vibrant and vital culture.
Comfort Food could have easily been crafted into an incendiary collection on the often hard to stomach truths of white Australia’s interaction with the country’s traditional caretakers. Van Neerven is certainly poetic enough to tackle that challenge, and there are hints of that fire woven subtly throughout Comfort Food. But in letting hope, rather than judgement or condemnation take the fore, van Neerven has created something accessible and welcoming to all readers, the sort of works that charm their way into the heart and mind and leave you thinking well after the final page is savoured.
Van Neerven lets her vulnerability loose upon the page, and yet at times it feels as though it is the reader, not the writer, vulnerable in the light. It’s hard not to see your own life within these poems, to reflect your own quest for belonging and self-awareness onto the page. You want her happily ever after in the same visceral way you want your own. Ellen van Neerven has a gift for making her personal experiences universal, and it makes for a compelling, emotive read.
For myriad reasons, not all of us can sprawl at a table with those we love, sipping at tea or picking at biscuits, and savouring the banter and trust. But Comfort Food comes staggeringly close to feeling like that sort of a moment.
Kylie Thompson is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Brisbane. When she isn’t reading, or killing people in fiction, she can be found at her blog at https://writerlyscrawls.wordpress.com