Banana Qua Banana
I was looking at three bananas on my kitchen counter the other day, lamenting that two bananas were connected at their stem, while the third rested at some distance away. I had detached the third banana from the other two to eat it, but then had gotten distracted and abandoned it. I found their arrangement on the counter to be particularly sad--two bananas together and one banana cast out. Of course, I was applying my mammalian logic to a different sort of organism. I have no way of knowing whether a banana prefers to be connected to other bananas or not. I don't know what preference means in the context of a banana.
But the sight of the cast-out fruit filled me with inexplicable sorrow. I found I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of the bananas–not the two together, nor the one alone.
Curious to know if bananas “suffered” any sort of harm by being detached from a bunch, I asked the internet. Chiquita, the billion-dollar banana colossus, offered, on its FAQ page, the explanation that bananas release ethylene gas, which assists in turning starch to sugar and thus advances the ripening process. Chiquita suggests that if you want your bananas to ripen more quickly, you should leave them in a bunch, as the bananas apparently hose each other with their escaping ethylene, creating a kind of vicious (or virtuous, depending on how you look at it) cycle of ripening.
There are a surprising number of amateur banana scientists however, who tested this theory in their homes and have found consistently, that, at least to the naked eye, bananas that are left in a bunch do not ripen more quickly than separated bananas whose stems have been sealed in plastic (to further stanch the release of ethylene).
A note here before continuing. Both the faq from Chiquita and the various blog posts suggest that many banana-eaters want to know how to accelerate rather than decelerate ripening, and so their texts are offered as tips on how to prod green bananas into becoming yellow or brown ones more quickly. Also of note is that all of the articles used the term “ripening” instead of rotting or decomposing. I’ll try not to make too much out of that choice, but I can’t help but see parallels between our decision to say that a banana ripens as it approaches a stage of peak edibility to the way we call cow flesh beef once it has been processed, or grass, cereal once its grains have been prepared for consumption. It seems we’re compelled to rename certain objects before eating them. Then again, maybe it makes sense–regardless of what we call the many living things that we eat, our digestion transforms them all into the lexical and digestive monolith that is shit.
The bananas on my counter appeared to rot at roughly the same rate, just as the blogs predicted. Secretly, I was happy at this outcome. I realized that if the connected bananas had ripened significantly more slowly, then I would have felt as though the bananas thrived when they were in the company of other bananas, and thus I would have felt terrible for the lone banana. One could say that my banana experiment actually revealed much more about me than it did the fruits.
I thought my initial sorrow at the sight of the detached banana was due to a moment of emotional volatility. I convinced myself I had experienced a stressful week, that I was very slightly hungover from going to dinner with a friend, that I had not slept exactly eight hours. But the sorrow persisted past that first day and into the days that followed. I didn’t acclimate, or get desensitized to the lone banana’s plight. I didn’t find it normal or acceptable with passing time. In fact, as its skin changed from light green, to the yellow of buttercups, I found my appreciation of it cut short by the horror of noticing that already, small brown flecks were visible. This banana should have been a teenager, or a college co-ed shielded by the fecundity of youth, and yet already portents of its death were plain as day–and they had been a miserable succession of bright, blue, sunny days whose heat and light only hastened the banana’s demise. It’s so-called ripening.
Bananas have a strong (though not entirely unique) relationship to geopolitics compared to other fruits. The aforementioned Chiquita Banana Inc., formerly known as the United Fruit Company, was a famously neoliberal, multinational corporation that participated (alongside the United States government) in overthrowing democratically elected governments in a number of Latin and South American countries. As was dramatized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the United Fruit Company also cooperated with the Colombian military to trap and machine gun factory workers in La Cienaga, who had been striking for more humane conditions. Even as recently as the early 2000s, Chiquita got caught paying millions of dollars to paramilitary forces that had killed untold numbers of civilians.
But these horrors are entirely human in nature and shouldn’t be pinned on or attached to bananas themselves, which, incidentally, also face a kind of genocide perpetrated by rampant capitalism.
The name for the breed of bananas found in grocery stores (and that were rotting on my counter) is the Cavendish. It is a cultivar group of the species Musa Acuminata and became the world’s go-to banana in the 1950’s when the previously ubiquitous species, the so-called Gros Michel (or “Big Mike”) was ravaged by Pananma Disease (or Panama Wilt). At the time of Big Mike’s affliction, the Cavendish was seen as an ideal alternative because of its seeming-resistance to disease and ability to grow in the same environments as its predecessor. Unfortunately, the Cavendish cannot reproduce and must be cloned and cultivated in monoculture plantations. The resulting lack of genetic diversity makes the Cavendish vulnerable to a new form of Panama Wilt, caused by a variant of the Fusarium fungus called Tropical Race 4 (TR4).
A cursory Google search reveals dozens of articles on the coming extinction of Cavendish bananas and has inspired a blog and documentary called Bananageddon.
I had hoped that by consulting the internet, I would encounter some staid, scientific assurances that bananas are just hunks of carbon that don’t care about their own plight and aren’t worth the brainpower and anxiety of a mammal such as myself. But, as almost always happens when one goes online for reassurance, I could instead only think about the sheer inhumanity of human beings to each other and to every organism, object and environment within their reach.
After a week and a half, I dropped the by-then-mushy brown, “over-ripened” bodies of all three bananas into a plastic compost bin that I stored in my freezer. As I did so, I had a fresh crime to feel guilty over. In my sentimentality, I had wasted the bananas. I had watched them die purely to satisfy my curiosity, even as I was lamenting their death. This kind of behavior, if it were conducted on a person, an animal, even the tiniest of insects would–be a kind of sociopathy. And in fact, the longer I stared at those three, brown slivers of organic matter transforming in my compost bin, I felt just a touch more akin to those iron-hearted banana republicans machine-gunning their innocent factory workers.
What pulled me out of this funk was the realization that I did not know what it meant to “waste” a banana. Was the banana’s entire raison d’etre to be eaten by a mammal? By me? Did the banana have a preference for being eaten or not? I had decided that I wasted the banana because I didn't eat it and therefore deprived any other person or creature from eating it. But by that same logic, any banana in the world that was not eaten was a waste. But then, in order to prevent waste, all bananas would have to be eaten, which, I believe, would make it hard for any bananas to exist? In either case, I was realizing to my terror that I could only really consider the fate of the banana in relation to the other beings that might eat it. I did not know how to understand the banana qua banana.
One article on banana trees explained that, “the banana is a fruit of the banana tree, which seeks to propagate by creating suckers, or “pups.” I thought it was interesting that the author said the banana tree seeks to propagate.
I know of several, human mothers who did not seek to propagate, but nevertheless did.
People who are conceived unintentionally are sometimes (cruelly) called an accident. However, in states that uphold reproductive rights, unintentional conception does not mean that the existence of a person is accidental. Adults can use the news of conception to consider their readiness and desire for raising a child and then make the decision to give birth. So the question remains open, I suppose, of whether a person who is conceived unintentionally but delivered intentionally is really an accident or not. Or rather, are they any more of an accident than anybody else?
If it’s this hard to pin down the cause and effect behind human procreation, what then can we really say about the desires of bananas? Not much, I’m afraid.
A note here–we say that babies are “delivered” into the world, which bears striking similarity to the quote from Matthew 6:13 of the New Testament, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The word suggests a commonly held perception that existing is a good thing and that every baby brought into it is being “delivered” from some proto-hell of never-having-been-born.
Considering the imminent extinction of the Cavendish banana, the slaughter of untold civilians in service of selling those bananas, the ability for a seemingly normal person like myself to get so hung up on the death of a banana that I don’t eat it–I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true. Maybe it is when we finally ripen to full maturity and pass from this life that we are delivered to the proto-heaven of at-least-not-having-to-deal-with-the-anxiety-of-constantly-justifying-one’s-continued-existence-at-the-expense-of-other-organisms.
I can already feel a strong temptation to laugh at myself, to disregard my last statement as melodramatic, to remind myself not to “overthink” my relationship to bananas, or anything else, because haven’t I just learned that there is no simple, definitive way to treat all things outside of myself the way that I would prefer to be treated?
But I will try for a time to ignore that temptation and instead let myself experience some disquietude at the great carnage of bananas. Not because I think it is useful. Not because I’ve tricked myself into thinking my caring says something flattering about my compassion. I’m not trying to become some fruit martyr.
Instead, it feels, if not useful, then important to witness the countless deaths, wastes and sufferings of this reality to which we have been delivered, or from which we await our deliverance. Although I can never truly understand the banana, I can still share my time and attention with it as we all lay here on one kitchen counter or another, ripening.
Michael Schoch is a mixed, South Asian and White writer who lives in New York City. His fiction has previously appeared in The Commuter, Lunch Ticket, and Web Conjunctions among other places. He is a full-time lecturer at Columbia University and a curriculum developer focused on Open Educational Resources at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.