BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

Tofu QuiltBased on the Ching Yeung Russell‘s own path toward becoming a writer, Tofu Quilt is one delicious free-verse memoir. In the summer before she starts kindergarten, Yeung Ying is a rambunctious young child who cannot sit still, but can effortlessly recite the difficult classical poems that her older cousins struggle with. She gets her first taste of dan lai, an expensive milky custard dessert so delicious that she does not brush her teeth that evening, “hoping to savor the taste  … forever / and ever.” When her mother tells her that she “will be rich in many ways” as long as she stays in school, Yeung looks forward to her education as a means to savor more dan lai.

Growing up in 1960s Hong Kong, Yeung hears over and over how education is wasted on girls. But her mother stands strong against controlling in-laws and insists Yeung will remain in her private school, even when the family can’t pay the rent. Yeung’s tailor father, in his spare time with his spare materials, makes warm quilts for his family stitched with patchwork fabric “as square as chunks of tofu.” While Yeung sees them as signs of her family’s paucity, she also recognizes them as “Ba Ba’s labor of / love.”

Yeung is the designated letter-writer for her illiterate grandmother who first makes her think about what she might be when she grows up. “‘Now I am not worried / you will starve when you grow up,’ she says / ‘At least you can make a living / as a letter writer,” she tells Yeung. An older cousin gives Yeung her epiphany about a writer’s life as a means of savoring more precious dan lai: “‘Dan lai is made of milk. / Milk is protein, and / protein will strengthen your brain. / A writer must use her brain / to make up stories. / That’s why / you will have an excuse / to eat more dan lai.'”

Powered by memories of dessert, Yeung reads and writes, sometimes in secret, sometimes to insults from her 6th grade teacher who gives her “‘… the lowest grade I have ever / given a student!'” and sometimes to the highest praise as she is called out as “best in the class” in her 7th grade. She gives herself a pen name and becomes a published writer: “I, a girl of twelve years, have earned a fee from writing. / I have done something / that no one else /in any of the Yeung families has ever done.” Even as her relatives continue their lament that she was not born a boy, Yeung knows, “I will never wish to be a boy again. / I am very content / to be a girl.” A smart, talented, tenacious one at that!

With an effortless sparseness, Russell’s details are what make Tofu Quilt so memorable: a nosy neighbor who determines a family’s worth by what they eat for dinner, celebrating  a level-eight typhoon because it’s a day without homework, a much-begged for first cup of coffee that ruins a 9th birthday, a spoonful of vinegar at a wonton stand to aid digestion. With gentle humor, Russell even captures her own husband  as the kwailo tourist who “kneels in the middle of our narrow street, / his rear stuck up in the air” as he takes photos of their colorful clothes hung out to dry. You can’t help but giggle along.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009


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