The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling (Allen & Unwin) is a young adult novel for mature secondary students. It has an engaging heroine, a vibrant bustling restaurant setting, a difficult home situation, and some weighty themes.
Thank you for speaking to Paperbark blog, Wai.
I reviewed your first novel, Freedom Swimmer, for the Weekend Australian. Could you tell us a little about this and your other books?
Freedom Swimmer was my first book for young adults; it’s about a young boy who decides to swim from China to Hong Kong in the 1960s due to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The book is loosely based on my father’s life. I’ve also written chapter books for younger readers including The Chook Chook series and Shaozhen. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is my second book for young adults and it’s the first book I’ve written that is set in Australia.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the children’s/young adult literary community?
I currently live in Sydney and I’ve been really lucky to have been welcomed into the wonderful literary community here, from SCWBI to the local CBCA branches as well as local writing groups and the writers’ centre. Most importantly, I’m a part of the online community of #LoveOzYA advocates that includes readers and writers; they offer such wonderful support and have fostered such a beautiful community that champions important ideas for the future of YA.
What is the significance of the title in your new YA novel The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling?
I think the title beautifully summarises the main character, Anna. She is such a quietly strong and resilient character, a good dumpling if you will! And she definitely has surprising power within herself.
Plus, the title makes you hungry! 😀
I love the setting of the restaurant in Gosford and Sydney’s Ashfield neighbourhood in The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. What details have you included to give these such verisimilitude?
A lot of the restaurant scenes are based on my own experiences growing up with a father who worked in a Chinese restaurant. I know many children with migrant parents have this shared experience of helping out and working at the family’s restaurant. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time in Ashfield researching for this book; I sampled the many dumpling restaurants on Liverpool road and picked up on neighbourhood innovations such as residents using sunshields meant for cars in their flat windows to block out the afternoon sun.
You have included sentences such as “Zan 1 hai6 wo3”, page 79. What does this mean and could you explain how you have scribed these parts?
The phonetics in the book use a form Cantonese romanisation called Jyutping. It’s a way of depicting Cantonese pronunciation using numbers to represent tones (inflection). Like many of her Western raised contemporaries (including myself!), Anna can understand the spoken and colloquial language but struggles with the much more complex Chinese characters. I decided on Jyutping as a way of representing Anna’s use of her Chinese tongue.
Your protagonist Anna Chiu is a very interesting character. How could she spend an average day?
I think that if she didn’t have family and school obligations, Anna would want to spend an average day coming up with and perfecting a recipe for something really delicious, like a soup dumpling or a pork belly bao. She’d then want to share that meal with the people she loves, namely her family and boyfriend.
She and Rory talk about “microaggressions towards non-white people”, pages 114-115. Could you explain this or outline an example here?
I’ll flip this one around a bit. Australia is an awesome multicultural country and we’re really lucky have a wide range of cuisine to choose from, so many Australians are familiar with Chinese cuisine, pho, sushi and the like from a very young age. Imagine that your favourite food is sushi and you’ve grown up eating it all your life. But when you walk into a nice looking sushi restaurant someone exclaims, ‘wow, how come you eat sushi?’ For a brief time, this can seem enchanting and endearing and you feel proud to explain how you grew up with sushi and it’s your favourite food, talk about all the different types, the best places to eat it etc. However, if you spend a month, three months, a year, many years walking into sushi restaurant after sushi restaurant explaining your love for sushi day in day out, the process becomes exhausting.
And you notice that this doesn’t happen to everyone else around you. Just a select few, like you.
That’s a microaggression – to be called out for something because it’s just a little bit outside of what is considered the norm. If it happens enough, you might decide not to visit sushi restaurants anymore just to avoid the encounter but it’s much harder to do this when the ‘restaurant’ is society as a whole. Of course, we all experience these on some level (tall people get tired of all the tall jokes) but it doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to recognise that they exist and that they really affect people’s livelihoods and experiences.
Rory helps Anna understand the play, Macbeth. What is the significance of this play in the novel?
There are the obvious themes of ‘madness’ in the play, especially in the character of Lady Macbeth, but to be 100% honest my inclusion of Macbeth is mostly because I had to redo a Year 8 English assignment as I didn’t have a clear enough thesis. (Mr Zegers if you’re reading this, I think I finally figured it out now! 😀 )
What problems are Anna facing?
Anna’s is a typical teenager going through life and trying to get through school. Her parents, while they care for her, are largely absent and rely on her to act as the carer for her younger siblings. And of course, her mum fluctuates from not getting out of bed to having too much energy and Anna’s whole family is working around this situation.
But really, this is a story about growing up. Anna is finding out more about herself, where she fits in with her family and also within the structure and expectations of the education system. She’s falling in love for the first time and learning that adults can be wrong, even if they mean well. I love her so much and she’s so strong, caring, resilient and amazing – and I know she’s going to be okay!
What would you hope your readers understand about these issues?
That it’s okay if you feel like your situation is a bit outside of the ‘norm’. That you should keep your options open and think about what’s important to you. That it’s important to find a safe space where you feel comfortable talking honestly and openly and this safe space won’t be the same channels for everyone. That adults are humans too and don’t always make the right decisions but honesty, love and genuine compassion can see you through tough times.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I’ve been diving into Jade City by Fonda Lee and I am absolutely loving it! I read quite a lot of YA (contemporary, fantasy, historic – you name it!)
Thank you for answering these questions, Wai, and particularly for your insights into racism, depression, mental illness, food and more.
Wai Chim’s website is https://www.waichim.com/