Today, Mummum ends its 2nd season of High Chair Conversations with distinguished author Ying Chang Compestine. Named one of “50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading” by the Author’s Show, Ying has contributed to Cooking Light, EatingWell, Self, Men’s Health, Christian Science Monitor, and many other prestigious national publications. A leading national authority in the U.S. on Asian culture and cuisine, award-winning author and former food editor for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine, Ying is the versatile and prolific author of 20 books including five cookbooks. She is the host of the popular TV cooking show New Ideas for Delicious Meals on Phoenix TV in the U.S.
Ying was in Singapore recently to give a talk organised by our Singapore Book Council. I missed it but we connected nonetheless, thanks to social media!
1. How much of your childhood has impacted your writing?
Ying: In my book Revolution is not a Dinner Party, Ling’s childhood experiences are similar to my own. I was about Ling’s age when my family got caught up in the events of the Cultural Revolution. Ling’s personality is a lot like mine. Many of her emotions and reactions to events draw on my own experiences during the Cultural Revolution, and her way of thinking reflects the way I saw the world as a child. For this reason, developing Ling’s character was the easiest part of writing this book. I was a little spoiled, but I also had a fighting spirit. And like Ling, I yearned for freedom and dreamed about going to America.
Other similarities: I grew up in the hospital compound, and had long hair for most of my childhood. My parents were doctors, and my father was a surgeon trained by American missionaries. I was very devoted to my father, but always had a somewhat strained relationship with my mother, so my father was the person to whom I felt closest. He understood me and accepted me for who I was. Like Ling’s father, my father was forced to work as a janitor in the hospital, and then imprisoned in the city jail. He treated all of his patients with compassion, even those who had persecuted him. Many characters and scenes in the book are inspired by people I knew and events I experienced and witnessed.
2. Was there one favourite childhood memory that went into your writing?
Ying: I used to put ponytails on my father, just as Ling does in Revolution is not a Dinner Party. It’s a cherished memory. This represents Ling’s happy life, when she was innocent and playful, and shows her loving relationship with her father. It heightens the scene when her father is taken away, making it more devastating.
Ying: Vinson has been helping me compose emails since middle school, and by high school I started asking him to read and critique my manuscripts. As I watched him evolve into a competent writer, I frequently thought it would be nice for us to work on a book together. Once Vinson became a varsity member of his long distance running team, he became very devoted to his sport and had a full social life to the point where I felt I barely saw him. With his departure for college looming, I thought that a book would be a memorable final project before his departure. Since we had talked about collaborating before, I felt that I should grab the opportunity now!
4. What was it like co-writing with your son Vinson?
Ying: It was a bittersweet experience. Vinson is a very fast thinker, has a broad vocabulary, and is full of ideas, but I had to instill within him the tenacity necessary for the laborious writing process. At one point we ended up scrapping most of our first draft. Many of the chapters have been rewritten multiple times. Sometimes we spent hours on just a single paragraph. I think I eventually convinced him that a good book requires many hours of hard work and one’s heart and soul.
What was the process like?
Ying: We exchanged ideas and discussed the plot on walks on the trail behind our house. After years of assisting me in the kitchen, Vinson had learned a great deal about cooking. We would alternate working on the novel and preparing food.
Ying: Many of my childhood memories are associated with food and books, and both continue to play a very important role in my life. I love to cook, to host dinner parties, to write about food and to read.
Both food and literature play central roles in my book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party. Food is a featured part of the celebration of good times, as when Ling lingers over homemade ice cream at a neighbor’s home. During the bad times, its absence is a symbol of misery and suffering, as when the Chinese New Year feast is reduced to two pan-fried eggs. Ling’s family is a very intellectual family. Books and foreign magazines are prominent in their apartment, and her father struggles to continue Ling’s education in English even as it becomes dangerous to do so. There’s a direct, physical connection between food and literature in the book. Ling writes poetry on paper with rice water, so that the words can’t be seen by others.
Ying, thank you for taking up this conversation on my High Chair and sharing how your childhood life has influenced your writing so much, and also your impact on your son’s writing interest. I must get my 3-year old started on writing my emails for me pronto! Right now, he just wants to type C-A-L-E-B and A to Z in 72 font size and highlighted in rainbow colours. But I guess it starts from there!