Josh Foreman’s essay “Age of Swine” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. You can read the essay in the issue, or online at Lit Hub, where it appeared as “Everyone Used to Raise Hogs.” Read on to learn more about Foreman’s inspiration, research process, and his love of the Cheju black pig.
Kathleen Boland: The opening vignette in “Age of Swine” is of a ship captain and a hog making a bargain, shaking hand and hoof. Why begin with this surreal moment? Further, what is your stance about how “creative” creative nonfiction can be? What are the limits, if any, of nonfiction?
Josh Foreman: The simple answer is that I thought it was a funny, weird image and I wanted to include it in the essay somehow. After researching these animals and their relationship with the Europeans who brought them over, I was struck by what a good deal it was for both parties—the pigs basically kept those first settlers alive, and the pigs benefitted a lot from a whole new continent open to habitation. At the same time, the introduction of pigs (and Europeans) to the New World created a lot of problems. So, that scene sort of encapsulates that idea—a furtive, fateful deal between these two parties.
As far as pushing the limits on being creative in nonfiction, I think it’s clear that the meeting didn’t really happen. Thus, I don’t feel like I’m breaking any sort of contract with my reader. I had an interesting discussion with some of my writer friends recently about Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book Dispatches. Herr made up “composite characters” and dialogue, placed himself in scenes he wasn’t actually present for, and got details wrong. My friends and I agreed that as beautiful and “emotionally true” as his writing was, he had crossed a line, and his work could not really be considered nonfiction.
KB: What was your research process for “Age of Swine”?
JF: For a couple years I’ve been researching the life of my distant ancestor, who immigrated to Virginia in the early days of the colony. I became interested in pigs after a research trip to Surry County, Virginia, where my ancestor lived. People I talked to kept telling me about the pigs their grandparents raised in the county, the ham they ate as a kid, the famous ham maker who lived down the road. It became clear pretty fast that the pig was an important animal for these people. At the same time, the archival sources I was reading mentioned pigs a lot. In particular, my ancestor’s estate inventory, gave me a personal stake in the investigation. I found out he bred pigs, clashed with his neighbors over the animals, and died with several dozen roaming his property. From those interviews and documents, I started telling the story of pigs and their relationship with my family and Southern culture. I was lucky to have had a number of run-ins with pigs over the years and to live down the street from a heritage pig farm.
KB: There are a wide variety of locations throughout the essay: London, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, and more. Is this a product of research, or did you set out to tell a roving narrative? If so, why?
JF: The path that my ancestors took started in London and ended in Mississippi (where I grew up, as did my dad, my granddad, and a few more generations), so that geographic trajectory was in my mind as I wrote the essay. The pig’s migration route was similar—they thrived in the South, and that’s where populations really took hold. Research necessitated that I bring Florida and North Carolina into it; the Spanish introduced pigs in their territories, which included southern Mississippi, when they arrived; North Carolina was the setting for the infamous introduction of the Russian boar. New Hampshire isn’t really important to the story of swine in America, but it’s where I live now. I had easy access to the pig farm down the road here, so that’s how it got worked into the story. The pig theme is really what holds it all together…
KB: The essay is nonlinear and modular, with familial history interwoven with the history of pigs in America. Why did you choose to structure the essay as such? How do these different modules operate in regard to the content of the essay? I’m thinking especially of the “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” moment in the etymology printouts: What is the frame of “Age of Swine”? Is there one?
JF: Like I mentioned before, over the past couple years my writing has focused on my family’s history, and through that the history of the South. I kept stumbling on so much pig-related material while researching my family’s story that I decided I had to write a pig-focused essay. The structure of the essay is a reflection of the research I was doing—little tidbits here and there, vignettes that work together to say something.
A theme of my writing is the historical amnesia that many Southerners seem to have. I recognized it early on in my own life: I didn’t really know anything about my family beyond my grandparents’ generation. I hungered for a sense of identity growing up, to know where my family had come from. That “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” scene stuck out in my mind because it was so disappointing to have this paper in my hand that I thought could satisfy that, only to realize it was a vapid moneymaking gimmick that didn’t really tell me anything about my family at all. But it tied in nicely to the essay, because that old “scroll” my parents had did say the Foremans were pig farmers. I still don’t believe that document was insightful or even accurate, but I now know at least one Foreman was a pig farmer.
KB: Finally, what is your favorite breed of swine? Your favorite pork dish?
JF: This is going to come out of left field, but my favorite breed of swine is the Cheju black pig, which only lives on an island off the southern coast of Korea. I lived in South Korea for about eight years after college. The Cheju black pig is revered there for being particularly tasty. One of my fondest memories is from a hiking trip to Cheju Island I did with some friends. We spent a whole day hiking the volcanic mountain in the center of the island and were totally wiped out afterward. That night we splurged on a big meal of Cheju black pig. The server brought it out piled up on a platter, some of the black hair still sprouting out of the meat to prove it was authentic. We sat on the floor of the restaurant around a little charcoal grill drinking onion-infused soju, the favorite Korean liquor, and grilled the thick slices of pork. It was the kind of celebratory, life-affirming meal that doesn’t come around too often.
Josh Foreman’s travel and food writing appeared in Groove Korea from 2009–2014. He is a nonfiction writing student at the University of New Hampshire.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.
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