Review: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling - Wai Chim
Published by Allen and Unwin
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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.
Wai Chim’s stunning new novel, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, is an engaging and totally immersive read - from which you will emerge heart-wrung and hungry. She explores cross-sections of Chinese-Australian experiences, and examines the impacts of mental illness on a family, with sensitivity and compassion. In this context, an utterly endearing love story is woven as her protagonist, Anna also grapples with racism and bullying, navigating the transition to adulthood and working out who she wants to be in the world. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is a very relatable, moving and emotional read. It is an excellent own voices contribution to Australian young adult literature.
I was fortunate to attend the launch where Wai spoke about considerations affecting her writing this book: the importance of talking about mental health as well as her desire to give voice to the experience of growing up Chinese-Australian. Interspersed throughout the book jyutping is used. Jyutping is a romanised version of Cantonese, commonly used by people who grew up in the West, who can understand Cantonese but sometimes not write or read it well. I’d love to see this become more common in fiction, as it’s increasingly common across Australia for people to be multilingual. Language is such a huge part of identity and therefore important for authentic representation.
At the launch, Wai also spoke strongly about her amazement (having grown up in America) at the school system in Australia - specifically the HSC. While I agreed with her, I think it’s a bit funny the way we often talk about the HSC like it is the universal Australian school experience when it is quite specific to NSW. This is not a criticism - just a thought I had while reading the book, as my Tasmanian experience of school was different to Anna’s. I thought Wai did a great job showing how rigid the education system can be, and that it’s not really fair to force teenagers to limit their options so early. The interactions Anna has with the school guidance counsellor really highlights how easily a system can become restrictive and not really about the specific student. There was an interesting contrast with how the Librarian interacted with students at her little brother Michael’s primary school.
The Chiu siblings’ relationship was my favourite aspect of the story. I absolutely loved Anna’s fierce determination to protect her younger siblings. Her love for and pride in them, even if they were driving her wild, was very endearing, and very relatable. Each had their distinct but connected personality and way of relating to each other and their parents - particularly their mother while she was unwell, which I thought was well crafted and authentic. The story also showed how children can love and respect parents, while coming to terms with them as flawed human beings.
Across the family, the Chius each had a different, at times conflicting approach, to her mother’s situation. These were portrayed without judgement and with great compassion for every family member. While I don’t personally have experience with the particular struggles of Anna’s mother, I have a large family in which members have various experiences affected by or affecting their mental health. People react and cope in different ways as there are many complicated factors involved in dealing with a serious mental health condition. This depiction was raw and honest, sensitive and deeply empathic. Wai’s ability to draw in different experiences of characters outside the family also was important, both in depicting relationships that helped Anna cope and in showing to the reader that struggles with mental health is both a unique and widespread experience.
The multifaceted and detailed specificity of the Chiu family’s situation is very important. Wai skilfully manages to express something profound - demonstrating how to empathise with specific experiences that are in some ways universal but also not.
There were specific ways that being a Chinese migrant impacted her mother's experience of mental illness. From the isolation of their earlier life in Gosford to needing to find a psychologist who spoke Cantonese, all impacted her experiences with the (woefully inadequate and underfunded) resources Australia provides those who need it. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, specifically examines how mental health stigma manifests in Chinese migrant culture but also, through Rory’s experiences with severe depression, shows that it is not unique to that community, rather is common across the country. Rory’s openness in discussing his mental health didn’t prevent his own experiences with stigma and bullying because of it.
It was a real pleasure to read a story where the romance was sweet, sometimes awkward and not full of conflict or misunderstandings. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Anna and Rory’s relationship developed. It was a steady thread through the book, and to me, it was genuine, adorable and incredibly realistic. As a small aside, when reading they went to Shanghai Knight restaurant, I actually jumped out of my seat. There is something exciting about reading about your own go-to dumpling place while totally absorbed in a story. I’ve been advocating for us to get dumplings for dinner every day since I finished reading. No luck yet.
It is obvious to me that Australia is a racist country, and also that the way different people experience this can vary a lot. The fact that Anna is Chinese-Australian means ‘casual’ racism is integral to her story. Wai’s use of Rory and Anna’s conversations, particularly about microaggressions, to explain that experience was well done. Although I felt a bit weird about Rory - a white guy - explaining microaggressions to her, I liked how it was incorporated into the broader story of Anna discovering words to express her feelings and describe her own experiences. I hope it will assist teen readers who need it, to learn some of that language. The story also showed the ways racism can occur within minority groups - particularly anti-blackness. I’d recommend reading some own voices reviews for more on the way The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling expresses experiences of racism for and by Chinese Australians.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is both an adorable contemporary romance about teen love and an intense exploration of mental illness and its intersection with Chinese migrant experiences in Australia. It is absorbing and fast-paced and funny, and also heavy, raw and emotionally draining. While Anna is in Year 11, and the story is perfectly pitched to that age, I think it’s the sort of book you could easily recommend to younger teens (and of course adults of any age).