Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: All The Flavors

‘It’s all about the balance of flavors. The Chinese know that you cannot avoid having things be sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, mala, and whiskey-smooth all at the same time – well, actually the Chinese don’t know about whiskey, but you understand my point.’

At just under 100 pages, Ken Liu’s “All The Flavors” could be considered more of a novella than a short story but the length doesn’t matter because it’s such an enjoyable story – and depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of reader, it could be a very uplifting story – one that as a country or even a world, we need to read, now.

A young girl, Lily, and her Irish immigrant parents move to Idaho City shortly after the American Civil War. There, she befriends some Chinese immigrants of which Logan (his Americanized name), an older man, has quite an influence on her and her parents. Logan’s initial contribution to Lily’s world is the stories he tells about the Chinese God of War and the food he grows and prepares but it ends up being so much more.

Liu doesn’t paint this world as perfect. Racism exists and prejudice against people who are different permeates Lily’s society. Lily’s father jumps right in to the Chinese’ world and customs while Lily’s mother is afraid, skeptical and sometimes just plain rude. But one of the more uplifting aspects is the way Lily’s mother eventually – slowly- comes around to acceptance of the Chinese. If the story has to be as long as it is to realistically depict this change, then I would tell Liu to take all the pages he wants. It’s one of the happier plot points I’ve read recently.

I’ve only read a few stories in which food plays such a central part but Liu’s description of Logan’s recipes and preparation and enjoyment of eating is nothing short of mouthwatering.

Then we come to the end. The whole town celebrates Chinese New Year after which Logan is required to stand trial for a crime that he didn’t commit. The story ends before we hear the verdict. What might the verdict be? That’s where the pessimism or optimism of the reader comes in to play. It really could go either way.

While not showing a world through rose-colored glasses, Lui has Logan land on the side of optimism, on the side of hope. Before knowing the verdict, he describes his knew home to Lily:

‘This is where I have finally found all the flavors of the world, all the sweetness and bitterness, all the whiskey and sorghum mead, all the excitement and agitation of a wilderness of untamed, beautiful men and women, all the peace and solitude of a barely settled land – in a word, the exhilarating lift to the spirit that is the taste of America.’

Engaging with something or someone new and different doesn’t have to be scary. This is just a plain old good story. Maybe its because of all the food, but it has a Thanksgiving feel. Since it’s Thanksgiving here in the US, I’ll say “Happy Thanksgiving” to you wherever you might be!

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