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A Couscous of World Literature : The New Yorker

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The Swedish Academy has once again made an outstanding choice for the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature—congratulations to Mo Yan, who is best known for “Red Sorghum,” a novel published in 1987. Sorghum, you may be interested to know, is the world’s fifth most important cereal crop; like most grains, it can be fermented into a liquor, and Mo tells the story of a girl who works in a distillery. But he is not the first Nobel laureate—or magic realist—whose fiction refers to a carbohydrate. In 1949, Miguel Angel Asturias, of Guatemala, published “Men of Maize.”

This may be a trend, and, if so, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the author of “A Grain of Wheat,” whose chances of winning a Nobel were 50-1 this year, may have a better shot down the road, especially, perhaps, since as a novelist he has renounced English for his native Gikuyu, a language spoken by about five million people which is thus far without a laureate. (One of their food staples is a cornmeal porridge known as ugali or posho.)

Once you start to research the influence of cereal grains on fiction, you discover that they have nourished many fertile imaginations, including those of Harry Crews (“Blood and Grits”); John Steinbeck (“Tortilla Flat”); Kurt Vonnegut (“Breakfast of Champions”); the contemporary Swiss novelist Aglaja Veteranyi (“Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta”), who was tragically short-lived; and, of course, J. D. Salinger. “Catcher in the Rye” may be the most popular dish of the lot.
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