Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
Last year, I had the privilege of being given an advanced reader’s copy of one of my favourite books of all time. At the time, I had no idea that I had received a book that would soon find its way into my soul, tell a story that would make me feel vulnerable and raw, and would make me firmly believe that it is one of the most important young adult stories for teens, especially Asian teens, today.
That book, my friends, is The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, an incredible story that powerfully explores the intersections of Asian diaspora identity, mental illness, and family. (I’m also mindful that the month of May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, so it is fortuitous that I have Wai at the Pond talking about mental health today!)
When Wai told me that she wanted to visit the Pond and wanted to collaborate with me — the joy and honour I felt exceeded words. I also loved Wai’s young adult debut, Freedom Swimmer, about a Chinese teen who literally attempts to swim across the ocean to Hong Kong to escape revolutionary China. So if you’re not familiar with Wai’s work — my friends, you are in for a treat.
It is my honour to welcome Wai to the Pond today! She visits us as a cheerful quokka who wears big glasses. Today, she is visiting us to talk a little bit about her books and why she wrote the amazing stories that she did. But, before we talk about her books, allow me to formally introduce you to her latest YA book, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim
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, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.
My goodness, I adore this book. Oh, it absolutely made me sob my eyes out in the small hours of the night, but it is such an emotional roller coaster and so unforgettable. In case you need any convincing, here is my book review of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling!
Author Interview: Wai Chim
Xiaolong: Hello Wai! A big welcome to the Pond, and thank you so much for visiting us! I’m such a big fan of your work and I’m so happy you are here. For our friends who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what books you have written, and your favourite book?
Wai: Xiaolong!! You are the cutest and I love all of your reviews. I am really really honoured to be visiting The Quiet Pond – I have been such a huge fan of you and your friends and this beautifully creative space.
So for those that don’t know me, my human self is a writer from New York. My parents are immigrants from Guangdong and Hong Kong. I spent some time living in Japan before moving to Sydney and I now proudly call myself Chinese-American-Australian! I’ve published books for children and young adults including the Chook Chook series (for ages 7-9) and I also contributed a title called Shaozhen to the Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zones series which this year won the 2019 Educational Publishing Awards for Primary Educational Chapter Books – that was pretty cool! Probably your readers will best know my YA title, Freedom Swimmer which came out 2016 and was short listed for Readings YA prize among other accolades, which was also very cool.
Wow and my favourite book – that’s super super hard. 😀 So Where the Redfern Grows is the first book that I read as a kid that made me cry and that’s kind of what I seem to do with my own writing. 😀 My most recent favourite read was a #LoveOzYA called Invisible Boys – very much another raw, emotional tear jerker! 🙂
Xiaolong: I really loved your YA debut, Freedom Swimmer, which I read before we opened The Quiet Pond. Can you tell us what Freedom Swimmer is about?
Wai: It was so so amazing to have you read Freedom Swimmer back in 2017 and to know that you loved it! It was definitely a highlight for me in the book’s lifespan. 😀
Freedom Swimmer is a historical novel set in a small rural village in Southern China during the Cultural Revolution. It’s centred around two boys, a young farmer named Ming and a former Red Guard called Li who form an unlikely friendship. Political tensions are rising and the landscape is getting more uncertain and these circumstances will propel the boys to make a decision that will change their lives forever.
Xiaolong: In your Author’s Note, you said that Freedom Swimmer was based on real events – on your father’s real life experience, in fact! What inspired you to write about your father’s experience as a ‘freedom swimmer’?
Wai: I’m so glad you asked this. 🙂 So yes, the book is based on my father’s story of growing up in a similar village to Ming’s during this time. When I was growing up, my dad was kind of your stereotypical Asian dad in that he never really talked about his past or about the experiences that he went through. I knew that he swam from China to Hong Kong as a youth but I had no idea about the details about his journey or why this had happened. So for me, writing this book was a way to understand more about the history of China that so greatly affected my own family. I came across the term ‘Freedom Swimmers’ while doing the initial research for the book but I was surprised by how little information was out there beyond that… most of the info came from personal stories from people like my father.
After I wrote the book, I came to realise that in going through the process of trying to find the personal story that resonated with me, the work that I created connected with a lot of readers who have similar histories and backgrounds. Individuals from Chinese diaspora from all parts of the world have a common experience of not knowing their own history because it’s not presented to us in the context that we need.
Xiaolong: Your latest book, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, is one of my favourite books of 2019. For those who are not familiar with the book, can you tell us a little bit about what it is about?
Wai: Wow, I still find this very challenging because this book has so much in it and it’s really hard for me to convey what it’s about! The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling explores the intersection of family, culture and the diasporic identity… omg that sounds so clinical! Let me try again! 🙂
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is set in Sydney and is about a 16 year old Chinese-Australian girl who is dealing with the conflicting emotions that come with having a parent that has a mental illness. Anna is struggling to look after her siblings, help out at her father’s restaurant and also meet the expectations from her school. And through it all, she’s growing up, finding herself and falling in love for the first time.
Xiaolong: A pivotal theme in The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is mental illness, particularly from an Asian perspective. What motivated you to write about and explore mental illness from an Asian-Australian lens?
Wai: I started this book with the objective of exploring the stigma of mental illness in Asian communities. Like with Freedom Swimmer, I understood how difficult it can be to talk and communicate about certain topics in an Asian family, it’s just not part of the day-to-day language. As a result, a lot of people end up quietly suffering; they feel confused, ashamed, harbour deep guilt alongside feelings of failure and inadequacy and ultimately just end up feeling very alone. I know this because I’ve been through it myself.
So I think in writing this book, it was a bit cathartic process to find a way to express all of these emotions in a very tangible, real and human way. I wanted to present all of the ugliness that can come with mental health and the process of treatment and also show deep love and hope, the power of togetherness and the beauty of the human spirit when families and individuals genuinely care for each other and want what’s best for one another. Life is super super messy and it’s not made of fairy tales and happy ever afters, but it’s raw and beautiful and it will ALL be ‘okay’. I think that’s one of the key takeaways – that things aren’t perfect, that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ but it will be ‘okay’. And that’s really important to remember as we go through life.
Xiaolong: Something that I loved about The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling was that Anna, the protagonist of the book, is a teenager who doesn’t really understand mental illness that well, though she learns and grows over the course of the book. What thoughts were behind your decision to make Anna a protagonist that didn’t really know much about mental illness?
Wai: That’s really true, and I’m glad you picked up on that. Anna’s learning through the whole journey and she is acquiring the language to express herself and understand what’s going on around her.
People who know me in real life will know I always harp on about ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ 🙂 It explains a lot of miscommunication and frustrations that people have. All of the characters in the book, especially the adults, are super flawed but they mean well. And I wanted the reader to go through this process of learning and improving and realising that it’s okay to not know things but you can learn. So whether the reader starts out more knowledgeable about mental health than Anna is or maybe they’re as naive as she is, the beautiful thing is learning and growing and feeling good about that process.
Today, there’s so much toxic ‘cancel culture’ and lots of anxiety because we don’t allow ourselves (and subsequently others) the space to learn and grow as people. So much about self-care is about being KIND to ourselves in this way.
(Wow sorry, so many of my answers are turning super philosophical! 😀 I don’t mean to sound like a Miss Kennedy motivational poster! XD)
Xiaolong: Family relationships are also an important part of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling (and I’m still in awe of how tightly woven and integrated all the themes in the book were). Why was family such a big focus in The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling?
Wai: Haha as you can probably tell from my answers, I think I end up weaving and integrating all of my themes down to a few core ideas.
Family is so important in Chinese culture (and other cultures!) and I don’t think there’s enough focus in stories on how families affect your everyday. Family life is part of our established norm and is constant, so it tends to blend into the background while we grow and develop ourselves as teens – so in lots of YA literature, family fades into background or parents are mysteriously absent to focus on the teens. It makes a lot of sense for those types of books, but I wanted Dumpling to be something else. For Anna, family takes such a big focus and she is more involved with her family and home life, rather than being focused school, her ‘future’ or her social circles. I think these types of complex family situations is the reality for a lot of teens and media glosses over this truth or paints it as weird or ‘not normal’.
Many migrant cultures prioritise family in young lives and there is a big social disconnect when something that is so centric to the cultural everyday is dismissed or not mentioned in the Western vernacular which tends to focus on individualism. Diasporic kids, like Anna, feel caught between these two ideologies and don’t know where they fit or how they belong. They’ll say some things in public e.g., to schools and institutions and go home and do something different. I don’t think this is known or discussed enough so I wanted to call that out.
And also, families and loved ones are what make the tough stuff in life bearable. There’s no magic solution to make Anna’s problems go away but her family coming together to support each other is what makes it all ‘okay’.
Xiaolong: What do you hope readers of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling will take away from the book?
Wai: 😀 Wow writing these answers has really made me uncover some serious core truths!
I want them to feel hopeful, empowered, kind and forgiving to themselves and the world around them. I hope people can embrace tough stuff like mental health and just be really kind and empathetic and lean into the discomfort and realise it’s going to be ‘okay’, not perfect but ‘okay’.
And more than anything, I want to thank readers for giving ME the opportunity to write this book and try to spread a little bit of kindness and meaningful purpose into the chaos of the world. It’s helped me a lot. SO THANK YOU. 🙂
About the Author
Wai Chim is the author of a number of YA, middle-grade and junior fiction titles including Freedom Swimmer and the Chook Chook series. Her work has been recognised in the Readings YA Book Prize, the Sakura Medal and the Educational Publishing Awards. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling recently took out the Indie Book Awards Book of Year in the Young Adult category. Born and raised in New York, Wai now lives and works in Sydney. Visit waichim.com for more information.
I’m so happy that Wai visited the Pond today – and just as happy that you joined us in our discussions about her books! I hope that you will give The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling a go! It’s a hidden gem, a book that I love for my whole heart, and also such a timely book, considering that it’s not only Asian Heritage Month, but also Mental Health Awareness Month.