Fact and Fiction: Meet James Hannaham

By Jenna Mason

Stories of sometimes marginalized people captivate James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods, the SFA summer read for 2018. In his first novel, God Says No, published in 2010, a young black man wrestles to reconcile Christian faith with his attraction to men. For Delicious Foods, he plumbed a great American sin.

Before Hannaham wrote Delicious Foods, he read the 2007 book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, in which John Bowe documents the story of Joyce Grant, a Florida woman, enslaved in 1992. As Hannaham read documentaries and news reports about modern slavery in America—most of it focused heavily on human trafficking, and much of it set on farms—he grew convinced that a novel could accomplish something nonfiction could not.

“To hear it called ‘slavery’ puts a spin on it that’s completely different,” he told Anna Bengel of Huffington Post. “A novel gives people an emotional history of something that the facts don’t always quite articulate.”

In Delicious Foods (2015), Hannaham weaves that emotional history into the story of Darlene, a mother coerced into forced labor on a Louisiana farm, and her young son Eddie, who desperately tries to rescue her. “I asked myself how could people possibly get duped into slavery,” said Hannaham, “[and] I found that one reason they would get abducted by modern slavers is that a drug addiction had made them vulnerable, desperate, and easy to control.”

This scenario is “just one type of labor abuse among many,” Hannaham pointed out in an interview with Sonya Chung. “[A]t least in the agricultural sector, the more common scheme is to traffic Mexican nationals across the border, confiscate their passports, and threaten them in order to make them pick tomatoes in Central Florida.”

Choosing fiction over nonfiction, Hannaham developed a complex and relatable protagonist. Darlene is not fleeing violence or economic distress in another country; she is a black woman trying to make it in the South in the late twentieth century.  To heighten tension, Hannaham alternates between time periods, and between the perspectives of Darlene, Eddie, and crack cocaine itself. “Starting the novel ‘backwards,’” he told NPR, “was a way of easing readers into disturbing material.”

To ease readers into the subject of modern slavery, Hannaham also uses dark humor. That would be imprudent in a documentary or news story. In Delicious Foods, it works. Scotty, the voice of crack cocaine, is the source of much of that humor. “One odd thing I kept having to remind myself is that people say really funny things while they’re using drugs, but those things aren’t exactly funny in the context of a drug addiction, though they may be funny in the moment,” Hannaham explained to Guernica.

Humor does more than reflect the characters’ altered states. “One of the main things that people use humor for is just to get through really horrible things,” Hannaham told Michael Schaub of the Los Angeles Times. “In a certain sense, that’s kind of what happened with this book. I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to get through this without it being a total bummer?’”

In other words, the drug relaxes the reader enough to face the real horrors the novel presents, just as it desensitizes Darlene enough to survive the horrors she endures.

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Hannaham will speak at the SFA Fall Symposium, set for October 11-13 in Oxford. In coming weeks, SFA will situate Delicious Foods in the broader narrative of Southern foodways, asking challenging and open-ended questions.

We invite you to read along during our five-part web series. Grab a copy of the novel from your local bookstore. We’re keen on Square Books here in Oxford. Or if your summer includes significant time on the road, we highly recommend listening to the audiobook, read by James Hannaham himself.

Upcoming topics:

Delicious Foods: The Farm as Metaphor

Meet Eddie: The Politics of the Racialized Body

Meet Darlene: The American Dream

Meet Scotty: Addiction and Trauma

Additional Resources:

Bowe, John. Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. New York: Random House, 2007.

Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Detroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2012.

Rawal, Sanjay. Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields. 2014.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Free The Slaves

Modern Slavery Map

Cover art by Kara Walker