Fred Wah serves readers an expertly prepared mixed grill
by Ruth Raymond
by Fred Wah
"I bust my ass to give those kids everything they need but they always want more!" Sounds familiar, right? The thing is, it sounds familiar to all of us, whether we're just fresh out of our teens or old enough to remember saddle shoes and bobby sox.
The line comes from Diamond Grill, by Fred Wah. Not just another bittersweet story about growing up in small-town Canada, it's about growing up as the product of inter-racial marriage. It's about growing up as a blond Asian, the son of a Canadian-born Chinese-Scots-Irishman raised in China, and a Swedish-born Canadian woman.
It is a melange of culture and racism served up hot from the scrubbed steel grill of the best Chinese restaurant in town. To extend the metaphor, the whole book is in bite-sized pieces. You'll need no knife and fork to cut and divide; just pick it up and pop the stories in one at a time.
Through vignettes, Wah walks us through the convoluted construction of his familial mixed grill. Granny Erickson; Granny Wah; Aunt Ethel. We learn how his father was shipped off to China as a four-year-old boy, arriving back in Canada as a stranger many years later.
And we hear about the Diamond Grill, which the author describes with all the wonder of childhood, perfectly preserved. From the chrome and Naugahyde to the pale green Hamilton Beech milkshake mixer and the little ledge under the counter that holds gloves and purses, the descriptions are so vivid and rich that reader can almost taste the extra-thick chocolate shakes.
Woven into the fabric of this fascinating account is the searing pain of intolerance and bias:
"I'm fairly blond in grade four and still she calls me a Chink. Out loud in the schoolyard at Central School, and with her eyes too, real daggers, a painful spike. Never mind the problems my father has from both the Chinese (he's a half-breed, he's really a white man, he's married to a white woman) and the Wasps (he looks Chinese, he can talk Chinese, and he runs the cafe, right?)"
Wah moves fluidly amongst the dishes in this book: childhood impressions, family history, life behind the counter, and the dents left behind by racial slaps. And as he prepares the menu, he delights the reader with finely crafted, polished writing. What a joy it is to read his beautifully written sentences, filled to bursting with well chosen language. This is not a book where you must search for gems, like hunting for shrimp in a cut-rate egg roll. Gems abound, and from the first sentence, you'll be carried away into an unfamiliar, but fascinating world.
The quality of Wah's writing should come as no surprise: he teaches English at the University of Calgary, and has written 16 volumes of poetry and prose-poetry. While Diamond Grill is his first published prose work, its flow is definitely poetic. There's a 211-word sentence, for example, which flows effortlessly and moves you along through it as if you're a car on one of those car wash conveyor belts. Another free-fall through bigotry speeds by with poetic anger:
"Better watch out for the craw, better watch out for the goat. That's the mix, the breed, the half-breed, metis, quarter-breed, trace-of-a-breed true demi-semi-ethnic polluted rootless living technicolour snarl to complicate the underbelly panavision of racism and bigotry across this country."
While few Lies readers know what growing up in small-town Canada is like, and even fewer share Wah's jigsaw-puzzled cultural heritage, you are sure to find people you'll recognize in this book. Prejudice wears the same face, whether it's prejudice against Swedish, Chinese, Black or Hispanic people. In Diamond Grill, you'll see prejudice from a slightly different angle; you'll also see life, love and loyalty, served up in a rich, spicy style you're sure to enjoy.
Ruth Raymond is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her mission is to encourage Lies readers to flock to the bookstore and demand more Canadian titles. Take the ISBN number with you and order Diamond Grill!
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