David Leite’s memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression recounts his growing up in a family of Azores immigrants in Fall River, Massachusetts (what he jokingly calls the “armpit”of the state), and the challenges he faced in accepting himself as a gay man suffering from manic depression. There is much in this memoir that touches on the development of awareness, and how long it takes to become comfortable as a human being in a world that seeks to erase difference.
Even as a child, Leite was wildly imaginative and hyperactive, though his mood swings could reduce him to abject terror. His richly detailed chapters on his early life explore the point at which he feels that his illness began, though it would be twenty-five years before he would be correctly diagnosed and treated for manic depression. Leite also writes movingly about his college years when he was struggling to develop as an actor in the highly-competitive theater program at Carnegie Mellon, and the chapters that deal with his tentative relationships really open up the way his identity was malleable, obvious perhaps to others but not to himself. Eventually, Leite realizes that while he needs everyone to love him in order to feel complete, the intimacy he seeks is with other men: “The only difference was that while what I felt towards (Bridget) was true, what I experienced with men was right.”
Leite’s’s family struggles as well with what to do with him, how to categorize his ebullience and mercurial moods. His mother, Elvira, may also have aspects of mania in her character, and she loves David, an only child, fiercely. She is the one who leaves him notes written on the skin of a banana every day, and even though as a charismatic Christian she is initially appalled when David comes out to her, she and David’s father are able to love him and ultimately accept his being gay (not the typical situation, especially in memoir -land, where family crises over sexual orientation seem to sell a lot of books).
This was an interesting read, not especially quick because Leite’s writing left me almost exhausted–so many details! So many memories! There is a kitchen-sink feeling to the book, and yet connecting elements, like how he became involved in food writing, and how food became a bridge to his past, especially in accepting his immigrant past as worthy as his American present, are missing. Much gets told to the reader, even though there are some wonderful scenes, especially of family celebrations, and appetite-stimulating descriptions of Portuguese cooking. But overall, I was especially struck with how honest Leite is with himself and how he is not afraid to portray himself in the worst possible light. The memoir ends not with a grand recovery or with unbounded happiness, but instead with the realistic expression of self-acceptance in the face of an illness that is devastating to personal relationships. “Let’s eat,” Leite writes in the last words of the memoir. For it is in sharing food, in the dailyness of cooking and eating and thinking about eating and writing down recipes from our ancestors, that we connect with each other, even just for a short while, and this is how, Leite believes, that we become truly happy.