Book Review: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim, Allen and Unwin, 2019

From the publisher: Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at a writer’s festival, on a panel about writing YA fiction.

I was a bit anxious, prior to the panel. And it was more than my usual anxiety about public speaking (or, indeed, public “anything”). And the worry wasn’t caused, either, by my daughter’s uncontrollable giggles at the sight of me wearing a dress.

Although, it has to be said, that didn’t help.

I was worried about this panel, in particular, because of the topic. Because it was about writing YA fiction, and I …

Don’t really write much YA, any more.

Don’t get me wrong – I am still in love with YA books. Perhaps more so now than ever. And I am reading more of them than ever, too. In fact, I think that the YA industry is more energised and radical and diverse and exciting than it ever has been, and I am completely in awe of the works being produced at the moment.

But I’m having so much fun reading all of these incredible stories that I don’t really feel the need to be contributing my own books to the mix.

Most of the books that are setting my soul on fire, at the moment, are not by people like me – people from different backgrounds, countries, life experiences. I want to have my mind expanded and challenged and I want to listen and learn about the experiences of people who don’t have lives like mine. Most of the books I have read and adored this year have been by people of colour, trans people, non-binary people, LGBT+ people, people living in poverty, people living through war.

These are the stories I want to read and lift up and give a platform to.

And I’m enjoying just being quiet, for a while.

One of the books I have read recently, and loved with all my heart, is Wai Chim’s The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling.

Wai Chim is a first generation Chinese-American, hailing from New York City. She grew up speaking Cantonese at home, and she has also spent some time living in Japan, before making Australia her home.

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling stars a young Chinese-Australian, Anna, who is navigating her way through some very tough life issues. Not only is she in the middle of some hard decisions about her own future, and falling in love for the first time, she is fighting cultural stigma and barriers to entry, trying to engage with a workaholic father, and trying to care for – and protect – a mother who is struggling with severe mental illness. She is trying to care for her younger siblings, as well, and protect them from the worst of their mother’s vacillating moods.

She just wants to be young and in love and normal, but life is conspiring against her on all fronts.

As a white person, I am often blind to the myriad ways that I am privileged; the way I can sail through life without having to even think about any of the things that Anna faces on a daily basis. It feels like there are barriers and challenges on every side of her, and every time she knocks on down, another one rises up. Getting her mother the care and help that other people take for granted is a constant fight. Having a relationship across cultures and socio-economic lines is an equally fraught struggle.

And yet, somehow, Anna persists. She persists when so many of us would fall at the very first of the hurdles she encounters.

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is a warm, funny, challenging, heartbreaking examination of straddling cultures; of mental illness, and of first love. It handles its subject matter with a light touch but does not shy away from the more gruelling aspects of the narrative. The book is populated with so many beautiful characters, who never fall into cliché. Chim never allows herself to rely on trite narratives or easy solutions. This book is every bit as hard and raw and challenging as life itself is for Anna. But it also has the biggest, sweetest, warmest heart of any book I’ve read in a long time.

And I ate up every word of it (*insert joke, comparing this book to a bowl of dumplings*).

Wai Chim is an astonishing new talent in Australian literature (can we claim her as our own? I hope so). I very much hope that she has many more stories in her. I want to read her stories. This book has taught me so much.

I want to keep reading and listening.

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