Ep. 39: Lila Sharif, author of Olive Epistemologies
What does the rising popularity of the olive mean for global consumers, producers, and resisters? How do our intimate connections with food build memories and notions of place?
In Episode 39 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Lila Sharif discuss the role of food in both transnational settler colonialism and resistance to it, how Lila uses the classroom to get students thinking about their own food histories, the complex dynamics of ethical consumerism and where we get our food, and decolonization as an embodied, everyday form of imagining otherwise.
This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.
We invite you to check out the episode, as well as our show notes and highlights below.
Guest: Lila Sharif
Lila is an assistant professor in Asian American Studies and affiliated faculty with the Center for South Asian and Middle East Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She teaches courses on race and food, transnational settler colonialism, and Palestinian history. Lila is currently writing a book that traces the transnational olive from the moment it is plucked by Palestinian farmers to its global circulation in urban spaces through companies like Dr. Bronner. In doing so, she elucidates the material, political, economic, and cultural landscapes that enable the simultaneity of violence and survival for Indigenous peoples in Palestine and beyond.
We chatted about:
- The symbolic and material significance of the olive for Palestinians (04:18)
- Ethical consumerism as it impacts olives and other global food products (6:36)
- How ethics and respect for her interviewees shaped Lila’s ethnographic research (10:45)
- Food studies in the classroom (13:54)
- Lila’s work in the context of the broader food studies field (17:00)
- Imagining Otherwise (19:36)
- On the olive as an optic to study settler colonialism: “Olive Epistemologies is a book about 21st century settler colonialism. It specifically looks at displacement for local peoples, land struggles, food sites and memory, through a transnational feminist perspective.”
- On symbolic and material manifestations of the olive: “The fruit itself has a symbolic and spiritual aspect to it, but it’s also a central staple in Palestinian cuisine and in the landscapes of the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean region.”
- On the role of food in both consumerism and active resistance: “Thinking about the olive not as an ahistorical commodity that can solely be read to understand the pleasures and the desires of the consumer, but one that can also be used to tell stories about the people who are actively resisting an occupation.”
- On how respect for her interviewees shaped her research: “It was really hard to ask people to relive that trauma [of talking about displacement], so my questions started to change to accommodate that. I think that this is when, as a researcher, you’re trained to do ethnography, and you want to do it well, but you also want to respect the people that you’re talking to and respect their histories and their stories.”
- On food as memory-making: “People are still retaining an attachment to places through their memory, and it often happens through everyday practices like cooking and eating.”
- On Imagining Otherwise: “I envision a world in which Indigenous memories and traditions are not isolated from larger histories of displacement and colonial violence. But also a world in which Indigenous home-making, life-making, spirit ways, and food ways are respected and cultivated, especially in the face of a pending disappearance.”
More from Lila:
Projects and people discussed:
- Settler colonialism
- Sindyanna, women-led fair trade cooperative
- Dr. Bronner
- Lush Cosmetics
- Palestine Fair Trade Association
- The debate over the origins of hummus
- Chop Suey
- Chinese Exclusion Act
- Food studies
- Food deserts
If you liked this post, check out:
- Ep. 38: Surbhi Malik, author of The Diasporic Itinerary, part of the Signal Boosting miniseries
- Ep. 37: Emily Hue, author of Economies of Vulnerability, part of the Signal Boosting miniseries
- Ep. 36: Leah Milne, author of Necessary Fictions, part of the Signal Boosting miniseries
- Ep. 35: Tara Fickle, author of Serious Play, part of the Signal Boosting miniseries
About Imagine Otherwise:
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/episodes. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
About Signal Boosting:
This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.