During the second World War, in Singapore's notorious Changi Prison, Ontario's Ethel Mulvany suffers and starves alongside hundreds of other women. To ward off their debilitating hunger pains, they use their imaginations to conjure rich, sugary delicacies of all kinds. Fantasizing about fruits, creams, pastries, and more, they write down their recipes to share with one another, finding in them a small portal back to the love and comforts of home.
Writer and historian Suzanne Evans traces Ethel Mulvany's experiences in her new biography A Taste of Longing (Between the Lines), rendering a complex and inspiring portrait of a woman whose resourcefulness and dogged determination helped her survive through immeasurable trauma. From the horrors of a POW camp to the mental health challenges that arose upon her return to Canada, Evans' book is not only a sobering look at the personal tolls of war, but also a glowing tribute to the immense strength and sacrifice of women during times of conflict. Featuring Ethel's actual recipes as well as transcribed recordings, A Taste of Longing casts light onto a unique and fascinating corner of Canadian history.
We're thrilled to have Suzanne at Open Book today, where she discusses how she came across the cook book that would inspire her new biography, her globe-trotting research period, and what made her main subject so compelling.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the person you're discussing?
I was working on a research fellowship at the Canadian War Museum when I came across an odd little cookbook in the museum’s library. The unusual contents grabbed my attention. It was a collection of recipes written by starving prisoners of war during World War Two. The idea of writing recipes for dishes that would never be available seemed perverse, but I learned that writing and talking about food while starving was, in fact, a perfectly sane and very creative act. With that realization, I was compelled to discover everything I could about the Canadian who had compiled this cookbook, and how she came to be a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore. Ten years later, the result is my biography of Ethel Mulvany, a woman from Manitoulin Island who not only traveled the globe, survived the battle of Singapore, the horrors of imprisonment and the trials of her bipolar disorder, but found the strength to rebuild her life after the war.
What is unique about your subject? Why do you think people are curious about them?
The story of how Ethel made the recipe collection is the hook, but what holds people’s interest is her character. She was an ordinary person who lived boldly and with heart. I think people will find the colour and contrasts of her life fascinating.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
I loved doing the research for this book. It suited me to a T! I got to meet many of Ethel’s family members, all of whom were incredibly generous with their stories and ephemera. I travelled to London, Singapore and Manitoulin Island, and worked in all kinds of museums. It is such a thrill to pull on the white cotton gloves of an archivist, open a box, and reach into the past. I absolutely did not expect the private papers of women who were imprisoned with Ethel in Changi Jail, Singapore to be so illuminating. The diaries, held by London’s Imperial War Museum, were full of gossip and the gritty details of everyday life. I was also astonished to discover that Ethel’s ex-husband’s family had saved photos and letters about her going back to 1939.
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Are there any misconceptions about your subject that you were excited to clear up in your writing?
Negotiating life with bipolar disorder was particularly difficult under the circumstances of war and with such rudimentary treatments. In addition, Ethel experienced prejudice from many quarters. I was very glad to have access to many of her medical records to help tell the story of what she went through.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have a small window in my working space that looks out over the treetops. The view helps me breathe and think. A little dish of peanuts and raisins on my desk quiets the hunger demons when I don’t want to stop for a meal. My desk is a comfortable mess of interesting things related to whatever I am working on. These tangibles help ground my ideas.
What defines a great biography or profile in your opinion? Tell us about one or two that you've enjoyed as a reader or that inspired you while working on this project.
I really enjoyed Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray. It brought home the point that interesting history isn’t just about men and the things they do. Another impressive book that is, at least in part, a biography is Maus by Art Spiegelman. Although it spills beyond the traditional confines of biography into memoir and graphic literature territory, it clearly conveys the truth of one man’s experience in the European concentration camps of WW2. The cartoons and animal characterization of the people offer added dimensions and depth to the story. I think what makes great biography is a balance of the personal with the universal in a compelling narrative.
What are you working on now?
I am working on more stories of times past and the people who lived in them.
Dr. Suzanne Evans holds a PhD in Religious Studies. After working, studying, and living in China, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, she now lives and writes in Ottawa. She is the author of Mothers of Heroes, Mothers of Martyrs: World War I and the Politics of Grief. Her writing, which has appeared in academic and literary journals, newspapers, magazines, and books, has a strong focus on women and war.