Several weeks back, I had the privilege of spending an evening with Ying Chang Compestine at The Arts House and asking her a few questions about her writing process and several of her published books such as Revolution is not a Dinner Party, A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts,
and her most recently published YA novel which she co-authored with her son Vinson Compestine, Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier.
We are truly privileged here at GatheringBooks to have Ying as our featured Storyteller for our current reading theme: Tales of War and Poetry, Refuge and Peace.
This is a transcript of our conversation at The Arts House.
Is this your first time in Singapore? How do you like the food so far?
Yes. I had a very nice lunch today, next to the river.
Anything in particular that stood out for you?
The chili crab is lovely!
In your website, you mentioned that your three biggest passions are children, travel, and food (not necessarily in that order I suppose).
Yes, I love food! My friends from the cruise ship that came with me tonight know I can spend hours eating.
Could you share with us one of the most fascinating questions ever asked of you by a child, your most memorable travel to date, and the most exotic dish you’ve ever tried.
The one I get asked a lot by children is “How old are you?” and when I tell them, they will say “oh, that’s old.” Another one that I really like is “Are you rich? Do you make a lot of money selling books?” That’s a really cute one, right?
I’m curious to find out the answer to that too.
I always tell them I make enough for me to live on. The most exotic dish I’ve ever eaten is the stir-fried snake I ate in China.
How did it taste?
It tasted great.
The reason I asked about the exotic dish is because Ying has written about live monkeys’ brains into the story Tofu with Chili-Garlic Sauce in A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts.
I was in a banquet in Canton where they served the monkey brain, but I was not brave enough to taste the dish. That experience inspired me to write the story.
And the story is unique because it was about a living monkey’s brain.
Yes, it is. I wanted to add a little more about the book. It is very dear to me. I was very nervous when I went back to China after the book was published because I knew the Chinese government would not approve because it touched on three very sensitive issues in modern China. One is the treatment of prisoners. I grew up in a hospital compound where my father was a surgeon. I heard many stories about how the prisoners’ organs were harvested before their execution.
Those stories horrified me. Another one is the mistreatment of mental patients. One of my dear childhood girlfriends was committed to a mental hospital. And the third one is the corruption of hospitals which still goes on today. If someone needs surgery, he/she has to bribe a doctor. Those issues are what inspired me to write this book.
Did you have a hard time marketing it as a children’s book?
That was an interesting story. After Revolution won many awards, everyone want me to write a sequel, but my heart was set on informing my readers about what’s happening in today’s China. It was selected as a Notable Book for 2010 by the Children’s Literary Assembly and selected by the AARP as a Grandparent’s Book for Children. It was well-received by many librarians, but some were a little scared of the stories until they heard me speak about my ghosts. In my stories, the ghosts are my heroes and they help the underprivileged get the justice they deserved. So if you bear that in mind, you won’t be afraid of the ghosts.
What I actually found interesting about the books is how you have carefully interwoven it into the history of China as well.
My biggest goal next is to find a producer brave enough to make the book into a movie. One producer told me that these ghost stories would make a great series, but whoever produced it should be careful that they do not upset the Chinese government. I hope a good producer out there will take on the task.
Were some of the stories here based on the stories that you grew up with as a child in Wuhan?
Yes, every story is inspired and based on my own personal experience. For example, Tofu With Chili-Garlic Sauce was very dear to me. It was inspired by what happened to my childhood girlfriend. She broke up with her boyfriend, went into a depression and was sent to the mental hospital. When she returned she was a totally different person.
Another story, Beef Stew is about a young man failing the college exam in China. That was my nightmare growing up. The year when I took the college exam, for those of you who don’t know, one out of every hundred students get the chance to go to college. But before then we have to take many exams just to qualify to take the college exam. I studied very, very hard because in my high school years, my mother always told me, “If you don’t pass the college exam, you will end up selling steam buns on the streets.”
I had many nightmares of myself selling steam buns on the dirty street under the scorching sun. I told myself many times, I don’t want to sell steam buns. Even today, I still occasionally dream about failing the college exams. And that’s what happened in the story: Chou failed his college exam by 5 points and that totally led his life to tragedy. That’s why Beef Stew is my favourite story in the collection. What is your favourite story?
I actually liked Beef Stew as well, because I felt that it resonated with the Singapore culture with the high-stakes testing.
Exactly, and the difference of a few points can totally change a young person’s life.
Yes, and the character just snapped, forgetting that he has a cleaver in his hands. I was really surprised that it was published as a children’s book, because there are quite a few gory scenes.
At my book signings, I always tell my listeners that anyone under ten years old shouldn’t read this book, and guess what? All the young readers fought to buy the book.
Do you have any favourite horror writers?
No, I don’t read horror. People always ask me how I made up these stories, but they just came to me. It’s more like I wanted to share with my readers what’s happening in modern China, and decided to use ghosts and food to help me to achieve my goal.
You’ve also mentioned about the even number of dishes that is usually prepared in a Chinese banquet, that it brings good luck and harmony, that there are two appetizers, four main courses, two desserts. You mentioned that your favorite story is Beef Stew, how about your favorite dish in this collection of frightening tales?
The vegetarian steamed dumpling. After you read the story, you probably wouldn’t want to eat the meat dumplings.
I’d ask you now a few questions now about Revolution is not a Dinner Party. In the Q and A found at the back of the book, you shared that it took over six years for you to complete this novel.
Almost seven actually.
That’s quite remarkable and truly seems like a labor of love – any particular reason why it took that length of time to finish?
It was very difficult for me to write for a couple of reasons. First, it was my first fiction and I wrote it in my second language. Second, I really wanted the book to be the best it could be. I wanted this to be an award-winning book! My agent at the time told me he couldn’t guarantee that I would win any awards, but I said that wasn’t good enough; it has to, so I did my best. Another reason is that 80 percent of the story is based on my life growing up in China, and I had to take breaks while I was writing it because the memory was too painful. Emotionally, it was draining for me.
At the time I just published my cookbook Cooking with Green Tea. One day while I was working on one of the chapters for Revolution. I had totally forgotten about a scheduled national radio interview. When the phone rang I was sobbing. For the first five minutes of the interview I wept while I talked about the health benefits of green tea. And that was also the time I wrote many funny picture books like The Real Story of Stone Soup, and The Runaway Rice Cake. Writing those humorous books helped lighten my mood.
And I think your journey was worth it. This debut novel of yours has received multiple recognition.
Thank you. Every time I receive an award, I told myself that all my hard work paid off.