Primrose Madayag Knazan is a Filipinx-Canadian blogger, playwright, and author whose first novel, Lessons in Fusion was published in 2021. It tells the story of a teen competing on a national food show and coming to understand the complexities of her Jewish and Filipinx identities. Not only is the story compelling, but each chapter includes a recipe. Be’chol Lashon connected with Ms. Madayag Knazan to learn more about the book and her journey as a writer. This delightful book makes a great Hanukkah gift. Lucky for us, Ms. Madayag Knazan included a recipe for Ube Hot Chocolate, too!
BL: What made you decide to write a Young Adult (YA) novel?
PMK: At first, I was wary about writing a YA novel. The publishing company contacted me based on my success as a playwright. I met with the editor and publisher in February 2020. They were seeking diverse voices and wanted to know if I was interested in making a submission. I asked what they were looking for specifically. They were actively looking for non-fiction books and YA novels. I balked at the idea of a YA novel. Although I had a 12 year old son at the time, I felt out of touch with the YA genre. Due to my food blog and my involvement in the local food community, I pitched the idea of writing about Filipino restaurants and the barriers preventing Filipino food from reaching the popularity of other Asian cuisines such as Thai, Vietnamese or Korean.
A few weeks later, the pandemic reached Canada, and every restaurant closed their doors. I wasn’t able to meet with chefs and restaurant owners as planned, so I shelved the idea. At the same time, my 12-year-old son was very anxious and stressed due to remote learning. I was also frustrated with him because he refused to read any of the books stacked next to his bed. He said most of the books had dystopian themes (which was a very popular YA genre for a while), and at the height of the pandemic, that was the last thing he wanted to read. Secondly, in the now post-George Floyd world, he had become more conscious of the media he consumed, and as a Filipino-Ashkenazi Jew, he felt none of the stories were about people like him, i.e. characters that were not white.
I asked him, “If I wrote something for you, would you read it?” He said yes.
And that’s how I ended up writing a YA novel.
BL: Clearly food is important to you. Not only did you write a book about a food contest. but you chronicle the food scene in Winnipeg. How do you see food as an expression of identity and community?
PMK: I’ve always thought of food as a gateway to culture. We have an annual multicultural festival in Winnipeg that started in the ’70s called Folklorama. It takes place during the first two weeks of August, featuring ‘Pavillions’ at various locations in the city showcasing folk dance, food, cultural displays, and more. What started as six pavilions have grown to over 50 representing countries and cultures from all over the world. I danced for the Philippine pavilion as a child, and my children have followed in my footsteps. During Folklorama, the first thing audiences gravitate towards is the food. When people want to learn about a culture, they want to try the cuisine because food is accessible, palatable (as easy to comprehend as well as tasty), and carries history and tradition. Food is an easy way to discover a new culture.
Secondly, I’ve always thought of food as a bridge between generations. Recipes are carried down from parents to children, with comfort food and special occasion dishes propagating family traditions. Food carries memory, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Recipes that are passed down or even flavors that are simply remembered evoke an emotional and guttural response. More importantly, the recipes and stories behind the recipes can easily be shared and even evolved to become something new.
In my novel, I join both ideas of food facilitating cultural and general bonds within a family.
BL: Much of your writing focuses on Judaism and the intersections of identity. What draws you to the topic?
PMK: As a Jew by choice and as a woman of colour, I have a unique perspective on Judaism. Most of my writing focuses on identity, whether about the Filipino-Canadian experience, being a woman, being a mother, there is almost always a piece of me in what I write. I have been immersed in Judaism for over half my life now. It’s only natural that I want to write from this perspective.
Because I have so many sides of myself, I’ve written more about the intersection of culture and religion. As a writer, I’ve become more competent and as well as more confident in my voice and my ability to represent multiple dimensions in my writing. I want to take my unique perspective and tell stories that I alone can tell.
BL: What advice do you have for people who want to write?
PMK: Just write! I used to be plagued by writer’s block. I’d come up with ideas and they wouldn’t go anywhere due to procrastination or the need for perfection. One day, I read a tip that said, ‘Just write it down. It doesn’t have to be good.’
I’ve taken that to heart. Whenever I start a new piece, I give myself easy to achieve goals such as one page a day, one scene a day, one key action a day, or revise one section a day. I keep writing little bits a day and sometimes go back to rewrite and improve previous parts until I get to an ending. It took a long time for me to get over needing a cohesive draft on the first try. If I could just get to a finished piece, then I have at least accomplished something. After that, it’s just revisions and revising something that’s already ‘done’ is much easier to start from scratch.
I also advise that writers be open to change. When I write a story, I come up with the premise and an ending, then fill in everything in between. As the characters are further fleshed out and come to life, often, the story will take me in directions that I never anticipated.
- 1 cup ube puree*
- 3 cups milk, divided in half (can sub with almond milk)
- 3 ounces white chocolate (finely chopped bar chocolate preferred, but ¼ cup white chocolate chips will work)
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Garnish: whipped cream, white chocolate shavings
*Frozen ube is readily available in Asian grocery stores. Thaw overnight in the package. You can sub with 1 cup diced fresh ube–just cover with water and boil for 12-15 minutes until soft, then puree in a food processor or with an immersion blender and follow the recipe in the same manner.
- Heat half the milk in a deep saucepan on medium until scalding.
- Turn heat down to low and stir in ube puree. Use an immersion blender to mix thoroughly and ensure a smooth consistency.
- Add white chocolate, blend again with an immersion blender.
- Add sugar, vanilla, and remaining milk. Stir gently for 3 minutes.
- Turn off heat and pour into mugs.
- Garnish with whipped cream and white chocolate shavings if you’re feeling extra.