I love Yun San – she’s determined, she’s got grit. She’s clever, bold, and creative. Do you relate to her in specific ways? Or to Jin for that matter?
I certainly can’t cook as well as Yun San, nor am I as fierce as Jin. The main thing I have in common with Yun San is her love of food – the favour she asks Jin, in the end, would be the same thing I would’ve asked for in her shoes. Chinese Imperial cuisine has resulted in a number of popular dishes today, some of which are my favourites, like Peking duck. As with Yun San, I also feel that it’s regrettable that some people treasure monuments and inanimate treasures more than our biodiversity.
Did you draw on anyone in particular for these characters? Did they change in specific ways from story conception to first draft to submitted draft?
As with many of my chef characters, Yun San is inspired by the women home cooks in my family like my mom and aunts, all of whom are creative, love what they do, and pass on what they know to their kids and relatives. People who’ve been following my recent Twitter might think that Jin is a reference to Sucker Punch’s recent, gorgeous 13th Century game set in Japan, but she isn’t. I wrote this story months before the game came out, and the name is a coincidence in terms of its English spelling (though not the written character): the Chinese word for gold, vs the game’s Japanese word for benevolence. With Jin, I tried to imagine how a sentient divine creature should feel when faced with extinction by cookpot: with fury, helplessness, and resentment.
For this story, there wasn’t much of a difference between drafts, as I was lucky to have a clear idea of what I wanted the story to be about from the start and the characters that it needed to drive it.
There are these moments of tasteful, careful shock delivered in the story, such as when you find out whose meat Jin has brought for Yun San to use. How do you make this work, how do you land this great punch, without pushing it over into the gratuitous or going too soft and being underwhelming?
In Australian restaurants, there’s been a push toward not just the ‘paddock to plate’ sort of approach to food, but also about respecting the ingredient. As the story is told from Yun San’s point of view, I tried to express each twist in terms of Jin’s sacrifice and Yun San’s respect, without milking it for shock value. Without lingering unnecessarily on the element of horror, I had Yun San default quickly to her years of experience, training, and discipline to move the story along without necessarily downplaying the twists.
Does this story tap into or stand in relationship to any specific tales, myths, or folklore, beyond referencing certain creatures and beings?
The main fushi / Chinese lion legend involves a beast called Nian (year) that used to terrorise a village every year and had to be frightened off by firecrackers and the colour red. I wanted to write a story where people and fushi could have a reason to try and find a way to coexist peacefully. Some of the creatures referred to in the story are real species that have since either gone extinct or become critically endangered, either because of habitat loss, poaching, or other reasons. With the world in the state as it is now, I hope we’ll continue to try and learn coexistence before it becomes too late for other species.
On the one hand, there’s this sort of mythical fairy tale going on with this story. But it really covers a lot of ground. I see concepts around hunting to extinction – as well as what we consider acceptable to eat and what we don’t; power structures and navigating or manipulating them; careful, at first uneasy relationships; self-sacrifice and different kinds of cultural integrations; and possibly more (don’t think I covered everything), all wrapped into a love letter to food and cooking. What was the initial inspiration for this piece – how did it start and how did it develop?
As with many of my food stories, they tend to start with a craving for a particular type of food. For Umami, it was xiao long bao, one of my favourite kinds of dumplings. The first time I heard the name of the dumpling, I did also think it named for a dragon rather than a basket. After knowing that I wanted to write a story involving xiao long bao in some way, it was easier to segue into themes and issues particular to that cuisine that I also wanted to write about. The qilin reference is very much a reference to shark’s fin, for example.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this tale?
I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be possible for Jin to get what she wanted — there would be no reasonable way for Yun San to be able to help her fulfil her request. It was difficult coming up with a way for the story to progress to a resolution that could still be satisfying for every character.
What is the heart of this story for you? What do you really want people to know about it?
Umami is very much about the relationship between food and conservation, as well as our attitude towards coexistence with other species. I’d love for people to think more carefully about where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. Not just about high profile food like shark’s fin, but also types of food on our shelves that we might be starting to eat or fish out of existence.
Also, try xiao long bao if you haven’t! But don’t eat it the way Jin does. You will burn your mouth.
What else are you working on now, or what do you have coming up which you want new fans to know about?
It’s early November as I’m writing this, so I’m doing the same thing I attempt to do every November: participate in Nanowrimo. Nano might not work for everyone, and I don’t always manage to complete the word count during the month itself, but almost all my finished books have started as Nano projects — including the novella I published this year, Cradle and Grave. I have a few projects in the works that hopefully will find a good home, including a cyberpunk graphic novel murder mystery looking at how hawker street food culture might be different in a future where a too-warm earth is the new normal.
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