Young adult as a genre has certainly moved on from the one-dimensional fluffy books of my youth. Recently, I have found myself completely enthralled in young adult fiction that has been able to tackle issues of mental health, inter-sectionality and sexuality in an incredibly nuanced and sensitive way. Furthermore, there are simply more Asian-Australian authors who are able to weave in the complexities of identity and belonging in contemporary Australia such as Laurinda by Alice Pung, all of which wasn’t really around when I was a teenager,
Regardless, when I picked up The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, I was still struck by how well a young adult novel could touch on all these issues and I wished that this genre had the same level of sophistication when I was growing up.
In Wai Chim’s novel, we’re introduced to 16 year old Anna Chiu who desperately wants to be ‘normal’. By day, she is an ordinary high school student navigating the ordinary teenage struggles of friendship and academia, but by night, we find out that she holds a significant role in holding her family together as their mother is in the grips of a severe mental illness. The novel never explicitly touches on what the illness is, which enables us to follow Anna’s confusion and frustration at her mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour that culminates in a public psychotic episode in the family’s restaurant that undoes all the barriers Anna puts up.
This is particularly humiliating for Anna, who has kept her home life a secret from her friends and even her boyfriend, Rory, who divulges that he too suffered from mental health issues.
For many children of migrant parents, we can all identify with having with translate Centrelink forms and conversations between our parents and teachers, eating unusual foods and in Anna’s case, having to be a mother to her younger siblings and a confidante to her father, all whilst hiding what was going on at home to her friends and boyfriend.
The parts that struck me the most in the novel were mostly relating to the dynamics between Anna and her father. Her father’s attitude towards mental health is typical of Asian men who have grown up in a certain era; namely, that it is something that is seldom spoken about and if it is, it is something that can be beaten with a ‘can do’ attitude. When Anna’s mother is hospitalised for her psychosis, we see Anna’s father desperately try to convince the doctor that her condition is put down to ‘watching too much bad news on TV’ and that it can be cured by ensuring that she stops watching the news. Anna’s resentment and frustration increases when it appears that her father has not made any effort to visit the hospital whilst her mother is there and he is essentially denying the extent of her condition.
Furthermore, the dynamics between Anna and her father were underscored by this sense of trying to make him proud and to appease him, even in the face of his ever-present barrier of grim stoicism and pride. My heart broke every time Anna tried to suggest innovative ideas to improve the dwindling business of their Gosford Chinese restaurant, and Chim definitely takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions as we see her father slowly accept that his daughter’s ideas are actually worth pursuing and break the traditional Asian mould where children are seen but not heard.
Finally, the love story between Anna and Rory is not your typical, syrupy teenage love story; Chim does not allow the relationship to verge anywhere near this despite Anna’s desire to be a ‘normal’ teenager. We see the complexities of a teenage romance; of the strains that mental health issues can put on a budding relationship, of the toll of secrets when you try to bury mental health issues because of shame and embarrassment. It was notable to see a typically blokey guy be the protagonist of a complex mental health story and to see a character speak openly about his vulnerabilities and experiences.
I am so thrilled to see a young adult navigate its way down these complex issues facing teenagers in a sensitive and touching way. I remember being so sick of young adult writers, who were often in their late twenties, trying to explain to adolescent me how I should be seeing the world which often felt out of touch and hard to relate to. Perhaps Chim’s brilliant book can pave the way for adults to acknowledge that growing up is not always that easy and that though they may be younger, teens’ issues cannot be reduced.