Eating Authors: Shannon Eichorn

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Shannon Eichorn

Last November, as part of my folly of doing four conventions in one month, I traveled to Indianapolis to be a guest at Starbase Indy. Inbetween my talks and panels and posing with a horta in the Dealers’ Room, I wandered through other presentations and chatted with some authors who were manning fan tables. One of these was this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, Shannon Eichorn. In addition to talking to her about her book, I got to listen to Shannon during portions of the Astrophysics track at the convention, where she held forth on topics such as women in STEM and the fun of engineering.

In fact it’s her background as an aerospace engineer that informs her debut novel, Rights of Use, at least metaphorically. I’m pretty sure her day job doesn’t deal with actual flying saucers, alien abduction, or mind-erasure. But then again, you never know.

LMS: Welcome, Shannon. What comes to mind when I ask you about your most memorable meal?

SE: “If we made our vegetables like that,” I told the folks traveling with me, “American families wouldn’t have to cajole their kids into eating veggies.”

We’d travelled to the other side of the world, to a country I’d never heard of until our pastor visited two years before. When they asked for volunteers, I felt like I needed to go not only as an expression of faith but also as a writer who needed to see and understand more of the world. I had already seen travel change me for the better during my temporary work in Puerto Rico and even during my book research trip to Montana. But as a scifi writer, I also wanted to go for the newness of it.

Rights of Use

A lot of scifi draws from other cultures. Stargate draws from Egyptian and Norse lore, among others. There’s Roman- and Chicago-inspired Star Trek, and the Dresden Files features Chichen Itza. In several series, I’ve lapped up urban fantasy’s Native American influences. Speculative fiction is rich with reflections of cultures around the world.

In daily life, I’ve had pen pals in England and Germany and learned more through studying German. Just speaking English brings its own influence from its Germanic and French/Latin roots, and that informs a lot of how we connect to the world. With all that exposure, it’s easy to imagine I know something about the world.

But Cambodia was new.

With the Khmer language unrelated to any I’d known or studied, a history apart from anything I’d ever learned, and its most prominent religions ones I’d barely studied, Cambodia could test my acceptance of language, culture, and even food that wasn’t my own.

If I wanted to be the kind of person I could respect, I had to be able to appreciate people with whom I had very little in common.

That’s how I found myself sitting shoeless at a table on a church patio in Cambodia (in January), staring into the eyes of a whole, fried fish.

Swamp Cabbage

The churches in the north had come together to exchange details about their ministries with each other and with us, along with some of their best food. And it was a spread: large, roasted fish; tiny, fried fish; steamed vegetables we’d never seen before; fruit we’d never heard of before. I kind of remembered starfruit, but who’d heard of milk fruit? It was all fantastic, bursting with flavor and spices like the cuisine in nearby Thailand. I even tried almost the whole fried fish as soon as someone volunteered to relieve me of the head.

But the steamed vegetables stand out most to me. Morning glory, they told us when we asked. It looked like boiled spinach with thicker stalks. It must have been spiced with something and tasted delicious every time we encountered it. Best of all, we caught its nickname: swamp cabbage.

I fell in love with Cambodia and its kind, gracious people the same way I did with Puerto Rico. I came home humbler, with a better idea of when to check my assumptions about culture and a better idea of what things really are universal. And someday soon, it will be time to see more of the world and add to my list of memorable meals.

Thanks, Shannon. I’m a player for the fish, but swamp cabbage? Nyah, that wouldn’t have gotten me to eat my veggies as a kid, and it’s not going to work now either.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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