The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once described his idea of absolute hospitality as follows:
Absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only the foreigner, but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering in a pact) or even their names.
Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity (Knopf, 2020) by Priya Basil uses food — the act of cooking, eating, and hosting — as a vehicle to discuss the meaning of generosity. Drawing on her family’s and her own experiences in India, Kenya, and Germany, along with many other cultural references, she discusses what it means to be a host and guest, on the personal and the social-political level.
Some of the themes of Be My Guest are discussed in her 2019 essay for The Observer, “Being a good host is about more than just the food,” and in a video for the Humbodlt Forum, “Locked in and Out”.
In this interview, Priya and I talk about the meaning of generosity, and how it relates to food. We talk about whether there are differences in how people both offer and receive generosity, and how these differences connect to our politics.
Priya Basil was born in London to a family with Indian roots, and grew up in Kenya, moving to Berlin in 2002. She has published two novels and a novella, as well as numerous essays for various publications, including The Guardian. Her fiction has been nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Basil is also the cofounder of Authors for Peace, a political platform for writers and artists, established in 2010. She is also a co-founder and co-editor of the literary-political journal Rhinozeros – Europe in Transition.
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. In his day job, he’s a researcher and writer for a think tank in economic and sustainable development. He is also a print and broadcast commentator on local and regional politics. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. In his day job, he’s a researcher and writer for a think tank in economic and sustainable development. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.