In Primrose Madayag Knazan’s first novel, food is the gateway to a fuller understanding of self. It’s a narrative arc that’s played out many times in real life for the Winnipeg playwright.
Lessons in Fusion follows 16-year-old food blogger Sarah as she embarks on a virtual cooking competition that pushes her to explore her Filipino heritage. It’s an eye-opening journey for the main character, who was raised emphatically Jewish.
Like Sarah, Madayag Knazan is Jewish and also re-connected with her Filipino roots later in life.
"I grew up at a time when my parents were basically told, ‘You can’t speak Filipino to your daughter anymore because she’s not going to be smart, she’s not going to succeed’," says Madayag Knazan, whose family immigrated to Winnipeg from the Philippines in 1974. "I lost that tie to my culture and I’ve been fighting to get that back since then."
As a child, she turned away from the traditional foods her parents cooked at home, opting instead for the sandwiches, French fries and fish sticks her classmates ate. Over the last decade, however, food blogging — first, sharing her own forays into Filipino cooking; then, exploring local restaurants — has provided a re-entry point.
"I had always been proud of being Filipino," she says. "But once I had kids I wanted to make sure that it was a big part of their lives."
Madayag Knazan shares her culinary journeys on Instagram (@pegonaplate), where she reviews local eateries and food products, while highlighting the city’s Filipino food scene.
"We’re continually called the next best thing," she says, "but I think people are starting to look at Filipino food as more than just pancit, lumpia and adobo."
Locally, Madayag Knazan says the arrival of chains like Jollibee and Max’s Restaurant and the ubiquity of ingredients like ube, a purple yam from the Philippines, has taken the cuisine mainstream. At the same time, pop-up dinner events, like Winnipeg’s Baon Manila Nights, have given Filipino chefs a larger platform.
As a food blogger, Madayag Knazan sees fusion with other cuisines as a major ongoing trend.
"That always has been Filipino food," she says. "It comes from a place of economy, using what you have and making it as flavourful and as palatable as possible.
"I see that as a mirror of Filipino culture. People think of the Philippines as a simple culture, but it’s very complex in terms of its history and colonization and the whole idea of this mishmash of flavours being put together."
Lessons in Fusion is all about embracing multiple, complex identities while challenging the expectations of others. Madayag Knazan worked with Great Plains Publications to write a young-adult novel that focused on food and captured her sons’ experiences growing up with blended heritage — they’re half Ashkenazi Jew and half Filipino. Each chapter starts with an original recipe.
"As she learns about her culture and she learns about her food, she tries to mash that together and create fusion dishes," Madayag Knazan says of the main character.
Writing a novel has been on her to-do list for a long time. Writing a YA novel at 46 years old and after decades of playwriting isn’t exactly how she envisioned it happening.
Madayag Knazan has written plays for the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, and Sarasvati Productions. With theatre, she’s used to immediate feedback from audiences and labouring over each piece of dialogue. Writing a novel gave her freedom of expression and a chance to see the world from her teenager’s perspective.
"I wanted to write something that he wanted to read. And he expressed that he wanted to see more of himself in stories," she says. "I want to see more books and more stories that my son will be able to relate to — I shouldn’t be the only one writing this."
Lessons in Fusion is available for purchase at greatplains.mb.ca or McNally Robinson.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.