A Conversation with Ying Chang Compestine about her book, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
This book is based on your childhood in Wuhan, China, during the 1960s and 70s. Is Ling in many ways a fair representation of you growing up? What are some of the similarities and differences?
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.
The differences: I have two elder brothers. The character Niu is based on one of my brothers and a neighbor boy who lived upstairs. At the height of the Revolution, one of my brothers announced that he drew a class line between himself and my Father. I can still remember how confused and angry I was and how hurt my parents were.
What was it that helped you to remain strong during those very tumultuous years when your world seemed to be falling apart?
Early on my father kindled my dreams about living in America. Somehow, I held onto my belief that I would go to America. The idea of America and the freedom it represented helped me get through the loneliness, bullying, and generally darkest period in my childhood.
Please discuss the significance of the novel’s title.
The title is a quotation from Chairman Mao. When I was young, I didn’t understand its true meaning. Only “Dinner party” stuck with me. I thought that a dinner party would be nice! We hadn’t had one in a long time.
It was only when I was older that I truly understood its meaning -- that a revolution is harsh and the people living through it endure suffering, cruelty, and betrayal. Many lives are lost or ruined.
You are an accomplished cookbook author and columnist. Talk a little about your love of food and literature, and how you bring the two together in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party.
Both food and literature play central roles in the book. 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.
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.
Can you cite a favorite memory or moment in the book that holds importance for you? What would it be?
I used to put ponytails on my father, just as Ling does. 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.
Describe your connection to China today. How is it different from when you lived there, and what developments do you see happening in the near future? Are the effects of Mao and the Cultural Revolution still far-reaching, and if so, in what ways?
I try to keep China close to my heart. In my spare time I listen to Chinese music, read Chinese novels, and cook Chinese food. During my last trip to China, I was invited to my alma mater. I spent three days on campus, lecturing, visiting old friends, and classmates. This trip helped me reconnect with contemporary life in China. It helped me realize that writing my novel was both a highly personal and a public act. I am proud to have completed something not only for me but for others who experienced and survived those perilous times.
During my trip I saw that Mao’s effect on China is still far-reaching and can’t be underestimated. You can easily find shops filled with Mao statues and buttons, and taxi drivers hang Mao’s portrait on their rear view mirrors. Yet life in China is steadily improving. The cities are filled with material goods and the pace of development is dizzying. I feel proud of today’s China and am happy to see it take on an important role in the world. China will always occupy a special place in my heart.