I don’t remember my first kiss, but I remember my first fig. We were in the trendiest noodle joint in Manhattan that we could afford, to celebrate Crissy’s birthday. She had invited a few new friends into our tight fold, back when we marked our milestones with bigish groups and wildish nights. The venerable, vaulted restaurant was loud, overcrowded, our table oversized, but I watched, rapt, as this stranger presented my oldest friend with a small gift, a precious, fragile thing cradled in protective pink wrapping. With a gentle curiosity Crissy revealed a single fresh fig, plump, swirled gold and green and aubergine. The friend insisted we cut it open that moment to share a tiny taste with everyone. What is the smallest thing that has changed your life? Barely enough to melt on my tongue, the fig in that moment urged a lifetime commitment, and I take my vows seriously.
Biting through velvety skin, I taste a musky molasses fruitiness, but sharper, deeper, a flavor beyond description: tannin, honey, resin, berry. Much like other poetic attempts to capture elusive savorings — my favorite, the delectable truffle once translated to sour feet and dirt — no words can conjure the taste of a fig. I cannot imagine it now, in the mouth of my mind, with only the shortfalls of language. The feminist and performance scholars have readied me for this particular failure. Feminist New Materialism, by way of the philosophies of science, re-establish relations of the material, including bodies that sense, with discursive constructs to activate a dynamic and mutual emergence, extending beyond the prevailing linguistic paradigm. Karen Barad, a forerunner of the movement, argues that any processual philosophy is flawed if matter is accepted as simply passive to social coding.[i] She explicitly claims that “[l]anguage has been granted too much power.”[ii]
Tannin, honey, resin, berry.
The experience of tasting the fig may invite allegory; yet, words cannot relay the sensual experience. The call to reclaim the merits of materiality is not to topple those of language, replacing one hierarchy for another. Much like the political and cultural realignment proposed by feminist thought, the intention is balance. Feminism is not about positioning women above men in a simple swap of status, but about undoing dominance, writ large. If all worlding is understood as a “material-discursive”[iii] co-production, there is knowledge in our sensations as well as knowledge in the thing sensed. Although I love words, the fig reminds me, they are not everything.
Perhaps this is the essence of fig I crave, its feminist force, an embodied knowing — the axis where mundanity meets marvel, where mouth meets myth. The fig, after all, is an inflorescence inside-out, the seeds, stamens and stems encased in an impossible physiology to become classed a keystone, sustaining more species of wildlife globally than any other kind of fruit. The fig also has an impressive mythology, referenced in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. Egyptian theology positions the fig tree as the gate to the afterlife. It is also Buddha’s site of enlightenment, under the Bodhi, the sacred fig. In more humble ways the fig has also guided my life, unearthing the stories that move me: folklore and fables that feed my artwork and rustic recipes I have yet to master.
My knowledge of the tiny fig wasps is thanks to Frances Mayes; I chose her memoir from the stack, before it became a bestseller, because I recalled her name from my college poetry textbook. Later, under my own spell of the Tuscan sun, I learn that the lifespan of each wasp occurs within the fig. A lone female finds her way inside the inverted flower to pollinate by default while laying her eggs. She loses her wings in the process. The male wasps, born both wingless and blind, have only two tasks, to mate and to burrow a way out for the females, all future queens of their single fig kingdoms. The males and females are both wholly in service to the womb: queen and fig, mother and world. Under the sway of coevolution, wasp and fig are forever entangled.
Coevolve, co-create, collaborate.
The fig compels connection, leading me from one kinship to the next. Anyone who loves figs as much as I becomes a trusted friend. Angie always lets me know, each December and June, when the short season of imports lands on that awkward out-of-reach shelf in our rural grocery. Michelle explains that, in Italy, fig gelato is made without milk, its creaminess due to the minuscule ice crystals suspended in the airy whipped fruit.
When I was lucky enough to be an artist (or tourist)-in-residence in Venice or Florence or Rome, long, languid days of good work or a good book would stretch toward the evening stroll to order, with emerging confidence, un piccolo cono di fico. Upon first taste I would often smile to myself, trying to remember if indeed I pronounced it fico, meaning fig or fica, slang for vulva.
In Terni, my patron Emanuela has multiple fig trees in the yard of her country house; I was staying in her city flat for a month at the peak of the season. She brought me bulging paper bags damp with juices as the ripe fruit burst under their own weight, more than I could carry in two hands, more frequently than I could adequately thank her. I ate figs at every meal: baked into tarts, tossed in salads, topping quick and savory pastas. Often, I would open the kitchen shutters to the cool breeze of evening to hear the passersby and the church bells, sipping wine at the window with a single exquisite fig, swirled gold and green and aubergine.
Today, still, my favorite way to enjoy a fig is on toast, with thin onion slices and boiled eggs, the yoke a perfect partner with its matching jammy tenderness: sulfur and sweet.
Tannin, honey, resin, berry.
In another flat, in another city, as I was making breakfast this morning, cutting through tender skin to expose the rosy amber insides, I think to myself how curious to remember when I first encountered the fig, when I cannot recall other, more significant events. Perhaps I could worry over my lack of milestones — no weddings, no births — but instead of longing for the kiss I don’t remember, instead of feeling under-loved and over-isolated, the fig connects me to the women and the worlds and the wonder that shaped me, a coevolution, as of yet undone.
[i] Susan Heckman, “Constructing the Ballast: An Ontology for Feminism,” in Material Feminisms, eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heckman (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 105.
[ii] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Material Feminisms, eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heckman (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 120.
[iii] Kameron Sanzo, “New Materialism(s),” Genealogy of the Posthuman, April 25, 2018, http://criticalposthumanism.net/genealogy/new-materialisms/#_ftn2.