An Interview With Long Litt Woon, Author Of The Way Through The Woods
Tell us a little bit about yourself by describing the mushroom you think represents you best.
HAHAHA. This is a great question. I was born in Malaysia and left for Norway as an 18 year old. Norway became my home when I married my late husband who was Norwegian. So for most of my life, I have been a migrant. I am an anthropologist and have worked in both the public and the private sectors. My professional work has always involved writing but The Way Through The Woods: Of Mushrooms And Mourning marked something fresh because narrative non-fiction is a new genre for me. Having been sold to fourteen countries also allows me to be a full time writer, a turn in my career I am very grateful and happy for.
I am unable to single out a mushroom which would represent me best but mushrooms in general are perfect representatives of the life cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Also, mushrooms, being the fruiting bodies of the network of mycellium underground do seem to capture the spirit of migration too.
What's your favourite mushroom dish / recipe? Tell us why you love it.
I have a whole chapter in my book with mushroom recipes because I wanted to show that it is possible to serve mushrooms in ways that were uncommon in both the East and the West.
My number one go-to mushroom recipe when I am having guests is roast mushrooms, a guaranteed winner as a starter, and one which is both simple and delicious. Asian condiments such as sesame oil and soy sauce are mixed together with chopped garlic and parsley. If you have mushroom soy sauce, use this instead of normal soy sauce. Store-bought mushrooms or rehydrated shiitakes would also work well in this recipe. Remove the mushroom stems and place the mushrooms upside down on a baking tray, (so you can see the gills). Place a teaspoon of the sesame/soy mix onto each mushroom and put the mushrooms into the oven a few minutes before your guests are due to arrive. The flavour is very intense. These mushrooms are also good as part of a tapas buffet.
One of the biggest challenges for any writer is to find the perfect metaphor, or plot, or image to tell the story of their grief. Why mushrooms for you?
To tell you the truth, I did not work very hard here. The book started off by being a quirky, personal book about mushrooms, the mushroom people and how I got hooked. Halfway through, I wondered how to include a line or two about losing my husband because that was the reason I started mushrooming in the first place. The minute I started writing about my loss, I knew my book was about two journeys, not only one: the outer journey of how I discovered the Kingdom of Fungi and the inner journey of the landscape of grief. The book is about how these two journeys are connected.
How has your work as an anthropologist shape your process of writing your memoir?
I am an anthropologist all the time, also when I am writing. My perspective is anthropological. More concretely, in this a memoir, and as a narrator, I occupy two spaces - one, on the ground, engaging with life and two, overhead, where I reflect on what I am observing.
The Way Through The Woods details your experience of finding new meaning in your life through nature: "As I began to form a more structured picture of the seemingly bewilderingly fungi kingdom, so the fermentation of feelings inside me fell into some vague, loose sort of order." Do you have particular insight on what we lose as nature is destroyed through climate change?
We are all a part of nature. If nature is destroyed, so are we. This might be difficult to see when one lives in an urban, concrete environment and "nature" is tamed to decorate our lives, and our streets. But nature is not only splendour and beauty, it is also a limited resource on which our lives are based - from the food we eat to the air we breathe. Everything is interconnected. To believe that material wealth, somehow, can protect oneself from irreversible processes of nature being destroyed is folly.
What do mushrooms have to teach us about being human?
What is it to be human, in the final instance? If it is to love and to deal with the loss of love when the time comes, then mushrooms, with their robust life cycle can teach us that life does go on, that there is hope, that there is rebirth after death and loss.
Finally, what can we look forward to from you next?
Book Two is taking shape, slowly. All I can say is that there are no mushrooms in that book.
Photo credit: Johs. Bøe.