Jamie Chai Yun Liew's debut novel Dandelion is a moving portrait of motherhood and migration
Dandelion is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist
Jamie Chai Yun Liew says she wanted to write about early motherhood as a way to explore the emotional landscape of migration. The lawyer and law professor made a convincing case for why these experiences are linked: both require you to leave your past life.
Her debut novel, Dandelion, follows in the same insightful and moving fashion. A young woman, Lily, is in the throes of new motherhood when she sets out to uncover what happened to her own mother after she mysteriously left Lily in her youth. In order to do so, Lily must ask herself questions about her identity, family and childhood growing up in one of the few Asian families in a small British Columbia mining town. Chief among those questions are: what makes a good mother? And what will a family sacrifice in order to survive?
Dandelion is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.
Liewu spoke with CBC Books about writing Dandelion.
Themes of belonging and place
"I was wanting a project that would allow me to explore things that I couldn't explore within the confines of my legal practice and academic writing. At the time, I was doing research on stateless persons in Malaysia, but also in Canada. I was doing interviews and hearing a lot of the same emotions, stories and experiences. My own father was a former stateless person, which was the reason why I was inspired to do research on this.
"I wanted to explore themes of belonging and place from an emotional place. I wrote about it academically in terms of how the law creates foreigners, but I wanted to explore how that feels — what that does to the psyche, how that affects someone's mental health.
"There are a lot of assumptions about why people are stateless and the first one is that they are foreigners or migrants. And some stateless people are, but a lot of stateless people — millions around the world — are living within their home countries and overwhelmingly people told me, 'I'm being treated like a foreigner in my own country.'
The people I interviewed told me they felt like they lost their lives when they discovered they were stateless.
"I used a lot of ghost [motifs] and folklore around Lily's mother, Swee Hua, because the people I interviewed told me they felt like they lost their lives when they discovered they were stateless. Some people didn't know they were stateless until they went to their registrar's office to get their identity card. They told me how they felt they died that day or they were living in purgatory. It was a common theme.
"So for Swee Hua, I borrowed that trope of ghosts for how she lived in this in-between. Her difficulty in wanting to be herself in a place that didn't accept her identity. She wasn't willing to let it all go. She would rather live in this weird in-between than erase everything. I talk in my academic writing about how people experience an administrative legal death. It's a ghost-like experience. It's also an homage to the ghost stories I heard growing up from my Aunties and the ways Chinese people use ghost stories to explain things."
"I was doing some research on Chinese women giving birth, and I was asked a lot of questions by the media because it was a hot topic in B.C about so-called 'birth tourism.' There's very little research on this and the data doesn't actually reveal a huge problem, and yet it made me think when I was walking around pregnant: did people think that I had traveled here to have my passport baby?
"That's why I decided the main character would be a new mother, because these are times when people are interrogated the most.
"There's this trope and fear of the 'invading foreigner' — the fact that they could have their babies here and claim a right to stay here, which is kind of ironic because that's so colonialistic. It's the idea of the dandelion — it blows in the wind and has millions of seeds that go everywhere. There's a fear of that, of the floodgates opening and 'certain kinds' of people coming in.
I decided the main character would be a new mother, because these are times when people are interrogated the most.
"I thought when I was growing up that I would not experience the kind of microaggressions or racism that my parents experience. I thought it was because of their accent, how they present themselves and how they behave. I thought that I would glide through more easily. Unfortunately, racism is still very much a part of our society today.
"During the pandemic, it became very apparent to me that race plays a huge role in the way that people perceive other people and the assumptions that they place on them. I hope that when people read this book, they begin to understand what that feels like to the people who are subject to those assumptions."
Food as a central character
"I'm similar to the main character Lily in that a lot of my connection to my own culture is bifurcated because I grew up in the West. There's an inevitable loss of culture when you're growing up in a place outside of your own culture. Food is one of the ways I connected with my culture and my family.
"There is a scene in the book where Lily is drinking this soup that reminds her of her mother and I think about how it's something my mom made in the winter, and it was my favourite. I put that soup in that scene because, for me, it's comforting and familiar. I think it's something people can relate to: what your mom or dad or grandparents made that triggers memories.These kinds of interactions informed how I placed food in certain portions of the book where it would trigger a memory or sensation or a person.
"I also think that the food from my own culture, which is Chinese people from Southeast Asia, is very distinct from Chinese food elsewhere. It is a fusion and it is a reflection of historical migrations. Some of the dishes I feature in the book are a product of the migration history — British colonialists brought different populations to Malaysia, for example, and the food was created to feed people working on plantations, in the markets and working in mining.
There's an inevitable loss of culture when you're growing up in a place outside of your own culture. Food is one of the ways I connected with my culture and my family.
"I'm from a mixed Chinese heritage. My grandmother owned a restaurant that cooked Hainan chicken. My great-grandmother on the other side apparently used to sell sticky rice.
"All of these things are a product of migration and colonization and sustenance for particular populations that were influenced by other cultures like Indian and Malay, and it's very distinct from other Chinese cuisine. I wanted people to know there is difference within our own Asian community.
"To be able to share this particular experience about my community is an honour. In some ways, I view this book as historical fiction, even though it's not technically historical by definition. I do feel like it's my small contribution to a particular experience in Canada at a particular time."
Jamie Chai Yun Liew's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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