Wai Chim and The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

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/

My review of Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim (and some other books) in the Weekend Australian February 2017.

Young adult fiction: Weetman; Wai Chim; Eglington; Meyer; Fitzgerald

Wai Chim has written of her father’s experience in China under Mao Zedong. Photo: Daniel Aarons.
  • 12:00AM FEBRUARY 18, 2017

Nova Weetman has audaciously structured her story about two 15-year-olds who have killed a man in Everything is Changed (UQP, 272pp, $19.95) by telling it backwards. Clues unfurl about what happened in this tightly written psychological drama, culminating in the night everything changed.

We first meet the boys when Jake confesses at a Melbourne police station. Until the “incident” the year before, he and Alex were the “good kids” who handed their assignments in on time and were involved in extra-curricular ­activities. They had been at school together with Ellie, Alex’s girlfriend, and the local park with its concrete tunnel and metal roundabout was the setting of their youth and marker of their rites of passage.

Alex doesn’t belong there since transferring to a private school in Year 10. Now nicknamed Zander, he throws himself into debating and rowing to both fit in and forget but he is “vanishing” despite the fancy uniform and the new mansion. Jake wonders “where [has] my friend … gone. He’s nowhere to be found in this place.” Alex is pulled between the old and the new, feels he’s lying to everyone and “the more I … let people think one thing when the truth is something different, the closer I am to being a person I don’t like much”.

The author explores the premise that trauma causes change. Both Alex and Jake are haunted and changed by the death: but they react differently. Jake comes from a working-class background. His father is in prison and Jake’s exceptional ability in science was to have been his escape. He starts wagging school and loses his place in the summer science program, surviving by punishing himself, believing “I can cope with the idea that it happened, as long as it damages me a little bit every day”.

As well as revealing their own thoughts and feelings, the boys tell us about each other. When Alex feels threatened, Jake can “smell his rage”. Much of the writing is sensory. Alex longs for Ellie to bring him “a Sunnyboy and a sticky, sweet orange kiss”. The characterisation shown through the dual narrative is written sparely yet with depth, revealing more on multiple reads. Oppositions of private and public schools, mansion and “doghouse”, dead dog and dead man and the symbol of the spinning, creaking roundabout are framed by the law of cause and effect and the stealthy wildcard of chance.

It may seem that chance determined who swam to safety from China to Hong Kong in Chinese-Australian Wai Chim’s historical fiction Freedom Swimmer (Allen & Unwin, 252pp, $19.99). Set between 1962 and 1977 but mainly during the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69 when boys from the city, former Red Guards endorsed by Mao Zedong who took control of their high schools and universities, are sent to live as farm workers. The village and city comrades are meant to enlighten and re-educate each other.

The manual labour is repetitive and physically exacting, with just a handful of millet gruel to look forward to at night, the threat of ­deducted points and rations, and the loud­speakers’ morning call to work. Ming, 17, is used to this life of deprivation, having lost his mother to starvation and his father to a bullet when he tried to swim to a better life in Hong Kong. Handsome, charming Li befriends the villagers, helping Ming compose romantic letters to Fei and swimming in the ocean with him. The dual narrative structure gives space for each boy’s thoughts to be shared.

When Li’s father is accused of being a counter-revolutionary, Li is suspected of reactionary behaviour and being a sympathiser. Through both boys’ rites of passage we gain an insight into this time of turmoil in China by an author who has the authority of her own father’s ­experience as well as the skill to make the story more accessible to an Australian readership.

Symbols of freedom include Fei’s letters in which she writes, “I’ve grown wings, that I can soar above the village and watch everything from on high, and never have any of its dirtiness touch me”, and the fish that Ming releases — “Swim, my friend. Swim to freedom.” Neither Ming nor Li is free.

Despite returning to Australia looking like a goddess after 18 months in Borneo, Adriana in Tara Eglington’s My Best Friend is a Goddess (HarperCollins Australia, 400pp, $19.99) still feels like an ugly duckling. The unpolished-looking cover reflects this, as well as Snapchat and Instagram, to which she is addicted after becoming a “Ten”, a perfect-looking popular girl. But as a hesitant introvert she feels “like a jigsaw piece that’s bent out of shape”. Her mother recently died and she was shamed when her Valentine’s Day declaration to Dylan went viral but she summons courage to return to school.

Her best friend Emily is protective towards Adriana, even sacrificing her own happiness to match Ade with gorgeous Theo. Em is a vibrant character, quick-witted, confident and gifted at art. She has conversations that exceed her dreams with Theo about art, literature and life.

But she starts to believe the generalisation that “beauty ratings” and labels such as “Prawn — keep the body, chuck away the head” are what determines a girl’s worth, because that’s all she hears most boys talk about. “If you’re not a Ten or a big-boobed girl from Instagram showing half your ass, you’re invisible.” Fortunately she finally resolves to celebrate her own gifts and create things that touch people.

The author constructs the characters and sprawling storyline around mythology and literature with a light touch and humour, with misunderstandings perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s comedies. The Greek myths of Pandora’s box, Circe, fatherless Phaeton, and Cupid and butterfly goddess Psyche form parallels with Ade and Em’s lives. Dante’s The ­Inferno, with its nine circles of hell, and the tale of Dante and Beatrice’s idealised and unrequited love is another literary framework that underpins the characters’ spiralling stumbles to the Year 10 formal.

Heartless by Washington’s Marissa Meyer (Macmillan Australia, 464pp, $18.99) leans even more heavily on literature, in this case Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking GlassHeartless is an ­excellent imagining of the transformation of the Queen of Hearts from young woman to a raging, “Off with his head” virago and is set ­entirely in this fantasy world, with a few subversions.

Alice doesn’t appear in this prequel. The protagonist is Lady Catherine Pinkerton, a passionate baker who is reluctantly betrothed to the ineffectual, kind-hearted King of Hearts and encounters many of the Wonderland characters with whom we are familiar. The White Rabbit officiates, the Cheshire cat fades in and out, the Caterpillar smokes his hookah, the Club suit of cards guard, Jack of Hearts is irritating, the Jabberwock terrorises and croquet is still played with living pink flamingoes and hedgehog balls.

Pumpkins and hats have unexpected qualities and Catherine’s introduction to the Mad Hatter at his tea party seems to hasten his state of madness and obsession with time. Belief in “six impossible things before breakfast” and the famous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”, are also threaded into the story.

Catherine’s meeting with court joker Jest, whose specialty is impossibility, is a triumph and their forbidden relationship sparkles. ­Another highlight is the setting in Hearts with references to rival kingdom Chess; the Crossroads, with its floor of “black-and-white checkerboard tiles”; and the Looking Glass maze of overgrown hedges and ancient stone.

The sense of natural space in Heartless ­reminds me of the almost magic realist setting near Dublin of A Very Good Chance by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion, Hachette Australia, 184pp, $19.99). Nettlebog is a secret place alongside neat and tidy Ballyross Grove that lures young people as music, colour or scent might. Nettlebog is a thick circle of trees inside the bend of a river and is reached by following a “twisty narrow” lane.

Minty (Arminta) discovers that new boy Ned Buckley lives in a caravan inside Nettlebog with his grandmother. He is a wild boy who rides his two horses, flying and dancing, through ­untamed Nettlebog as training for the bareback Ballyross Race. At night Minty sees him walloping and leaping as if he and his horses are made of air. They become close friends and Minty learns to ride one of his horses, forming an ­invisible bond of “light and magic”.

Apart from some fantastical elements in the setting and race preparation, this original, lean yet lyrical story is realistic. Minty’s parents separate, Ned avoids school, and bullies pester both students and Siena-bred history teacher Serena Serralunga, who believes that “racing horses in public places is ancient and noble”.

Parallels between the Ballyross Race and Siena’s famous Palio race grow as Minty and Ned choose to take a “very good chance”, ­embark on their own adventures and follow their dreams to freedom.

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