Because I undertook When Coffee Speaks as a self-funded independent curiosity project, I often described its genre as “faster than scholarship, slower than news.” I still believe that characterization to be accurate, but with the benefit of reflective distance I would also add that the book and blog are the kind of op-ed we all write in our heads during our twenties: intensely observed, over-articulated real-time reports of the experience of learning how the world works, in its contradictorily concurrent massiveness and minutiae. I just happened to publish mine on the internet (in true web log form) and to have chosen coffee as the thematic lens for opining and editorializing.
Coffee proved the perfect lens for looking at the system mechanics of the entire modern world. The march from colony to empire to globalized neoliberal political economies is evidenced in the language, food, farm ownership, export licenses, crops, and trail of American dollars surrounding coffee, with its daily steps plotted on C market trading charts. Plant genetics, subsidy laws, and the claws of European/North American development aid each tell a different story of the march, but tracing what makes coffee possible is nothing short of an exercise in tracing practical history, the interlocking cogs that moved us from then to now.
As a 24-year old, I began this project with the earnest belief that curious intentions (to listen to and share stories, to report back on what people said and what I saw in between) were enough to supersede any of the frameworks provided by slow scholarship or fast news.
In time I came to realize my miscalculation, to learn that methodologies and structures, cumbersome or restrictive as they might be, come with the necessary perspective of peer-review, editing, and wisdom of colleagues wiser than oneself. It is true that process is its own raison d’eter and that nothing should go straight from one’s head onto the internet.
Alas, on the strange island of agri/cultural oral history long, long, long form journalism that I created for myself, I had to grapple with the questions that come with the responsibility of representation, of how slippery the noble ideas of accuracy and objectivity become in practice. If I was the self-proclaimed neutral messenger (rather than an argument-laden narrator), and the message told to me contained what I knew to be omissions or embellishments or other stretches, should I then pass my own judgement and make another omission?
I learned the difference between a monologue and a soliloquy. In the dialogue of an interview, monologues are always delivered to a listener (one with a recording device), and the story changes along with the audience. I learned that a blank audience does not exist and that we can turn each other into totems and symbols if we are not careful, that the inseparability of trust from vulnerability is perhaps the best antidote to this danger.
While there is much more I learned, I ended with more questions than I started with. Where does authority come from? How do we have, or earn, the right to claim observation as truth or to claim one agenda as more legitimate than another? (Because as long as there is an audience, there will be an agenda.)
I am forever changed by the years I spent in the field, “embedded” in Latin American coffee production. I look at my home country of the US differently, at land and food and the role of economics and politics in the formation of identities we consider personal, differently. I see a web of connection tying together currencies, shipping lanes, reverberating policies, the steel quiet of banks, and the foundational wires of ideas—definitions of what constitutes immutable value being swapped one for the other over the dinner table. It keeps me up at night.
It is all here, the blundering millennial impulse to make emphatic statements as what we had always been assured was immutable dissolved around us, with coffee as an anchor.
Many of my stances have changed, mostly tending away from absolutes and towards patience for untangling inevitable complexities. While in many cases I disagree with my younger self, I do agree with the trying, with the curiosity that remains undimmed by the realization that most worthwhile questions will take more than a decade to answer.
—Rachel Northrop, Miami, 2020