meet the winners of the 2019 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “how to cook pho” by emily dang
Emily Dang’s story, How to Cook Pho, placed third in the 2019 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Emily, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 3rd in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Emily! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
Thank you! I’m a young Vietnamese-Australian writer, artist and sociologist. I currently work in the advocacy sphere, particularly for women, migrants, refugees and queer communities. A lot of my work – creative, research or otherwise – is focused around gendered and racialised experiences.
What do you think makes a great short story?
I need to feel like I’ve been physically whomped after reading a good short story.
For example, I ugly cried for a good while after reading Shaun Tan’s ‘Cicada,’ and oof’d out loud after reading Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected.’
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
I usually start off with an overwhelming urge to explore an idea, and from there I can identify the most appropriate voice and structural elements. So, no pants for me; I’m more of a plotter.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s) or the story?
For me, they’re a package deal, like a large pizza and garlic bread. They don’t make sense without the other and they rarely arrive separately.
How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
When my friends, family and I are sick of reading the same thing over and over!
I’m also a fan of leaving work to settle for a good while before the final revision. Breathing space makes it much easier to see what’s working or not, and I can cut whatever’s not working much more ruthlessly.
Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree?
As a general rule, I try to!
I think an individual’s lived experience is a wonderful and unique resource. I often draw from my own experiences or my family’s, as I don’t think someone else, with a very different experience of life would have the same understandings, or voice them in the same way. Nor would I be able to genuinely capture someone else’s.
That being said, the boundaries of where you take “what you know” can be limitless! I think the most brilliant writers can boil down the essence of what they know, and use that to generate astoundingly imaginative works.
What (or who) inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write How to Cook Pho?
- So many brilliant authors, illustrators, activists, researchers – particularly people of colour and women
- My love of soup-based meals
- The mundane and overwhelming tensions faced by marginalised groups in a white, patriarchal society
- My family and their history
How to Cook Pho was the culmination of witnessing the gentrification of the foods I grew up eating. In the last few years, I’ve seen all these hip and trendy Vietnamese places open up, run by insensitive white dudes charging extraordinary amounts of money. Writing this short story was my way of reflecting through the complex soup of anger, bitterness and nostalgia I’ve had about it all.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I recently finished Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, and before that I devoured Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World. Would highly recommend both!
I am currently reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It’s breathtaking and heartbreaking!
My TBR pile seems to be exponentially growing (unfortunately my bookshelf space is not). On top lies: No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, Australia Day by Stan Grant, and Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora by Nathalie Nguyen.
What book/poem/short story do you wish you’d written, and why?
I remember reading Growing Up Asian in Australia, a collection edited by Alice Pung, as a teenager. I was pretty blown away at reading so many experiences similar to mine in an actual, published, paper book! If I could time travel, I would have loved the opportunity to have submitted something.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I wanted a chance to push my creative writing boundaries, within a space that I knew was celebrating feminist and marginalised voices. It’s a fantastic competition.
What does this year’s theme, ‘fragments’ mean to you?
This year’s theme spoke to me of the fluidity and fractured nature of memory and identity. My relationship to my cultural background is often fragmented, particularly as a second-generation daughter of migrants.
What’s the best (or, perhaps, the worst) writing advice you’ve been given?
George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ – particularly these tips:
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
My ultimate writing and publishing goal is to complete an illustrated novel about my mum’s experience of the Vietnam War, and her resettlement in Australia as a refugee. Once, she punched a Communist officer who tried to assault her so hard she knocked out several teeth. She also forged ‘antique’ silk paintings to sell on the black market during the war. There’s absolutely no shortage of character or content there – I just need to do it justice!
Where can people follow your work?
My website is still in construction unfortunately, but for now you can find me and my cats at @emtududa
How to Cook Pho
Pho is a traditional Vietnamese soup, where thin strips of beef are ‘cooked’ in a hot, aromatic stock in the serving bowl – this keeps the meat meltingly tender.1
‘What is that?’
The kids in your class ogle at the sticky rice and seaweed clumped into your takeaway container. Your face flushes red.
‘It smells!’ a kid half-whines, half-whistles.
‘Shut up. It’s just seaweed.’ You hope you sound a lot more aloof than you feel.
‘You always have the weirdest food.’
That afternoon, you beg your mother to stop by Coles. Charging through aisles, you defiantly grab cheesy biscuits, juice boxes, white bread and knock a jar of Vegemite into the trolley.
The next day, you proudly produce your lunch. It’s invisible now, unremarkable in its mediocre suburban whiteness. Your classmates make no comments, choosing instead to interrogate Kevin Lee and his pork bun instead.
‘What is that?’
Beef pho (pronounced “fuh”!) feels like a restaurant staple, but it’s not actually all that hard to make a quick version at home.2
It’s Multicultural Day at your primary school, and you bring in fried rice with cubes of spam. The teacher smiles approvingly at you, and you place the Tupperware container and glad-wrapped bundle of sporks on the plastic table.
Peel the onions and cut them into quarters through the root.
Peel the ginger and slice it into quarters down its length.3
‘Aaaargh! The shame! The SHAAAAAAAAME!’
It was the summer holidays, and all your friends had all gone to beach houses in nice coastal towns. After weeks begging your family to go somewhere, so that your summer wouldn’t seem so lame by comparison, your extended family had pooled all their resources together for a trip to the touristic void of Warburton. For a single night. Now, you were being forcibly humiliated in front of the bemused landlady, as your parents unpacked the cars.
‘You’re very prepared!’ observed the landlady ogling at the three eskies’ worth of marinated meats and frozen fish. ‘You sure you’re only staying here one night, then?’
You and your cousins sink into your seats.
‘I just wanna eat fish and chips and dim-sims. We’ve brought enough hotpot ingredients to feed this entire town’, your cousin groans.
You mutter in agreement. ‘We’re bloody fobs.’
A yelp from your aunt rings through the air. A bloated red-white-blue bag had ripped at the straps. Leafy greens, spiky, smelly fruits, and the remnants of your pride tumble down in one poetic sweep, stretching time still.
Ph-OH, ph-AH, ph-UR, however you like to pronounce your pho.4
‘Can we please make rice paper rolls? She said she wanted something authentic! We can’t just give her rice and egg…’
You have invited your first high school friend over after school. You beg your mother and grandmother to buy fresh fish and prawns, desperate to impress.
‘Are you sure she can eat them?’ your mother frowns. ‘White people can’t eat fish sauce! They think it smells.’
‘Her mum’s a chef! She has fancy stuff for lunch all the time. She can definitely take it…’
Later that week, your friend comes over. Kicking off your shoes at the door, your friend follows suit. You introduce her to Mum and Gran, and they go outside to cut some more mint. Dinner is ready.
You show your friend how to dip the rice paper into the bowl of steaming water, rotating it quickly, setting it down on a plate. You build up neat layers of lettuce, vermicelli, cucumber, tomato, fish and prawns. The aroma of fish sauce and herbs fill up the small kitchen, pungent and tangy. Looking up, you realise your friend’s eyes are wide with panic.
‘Um… I think I messed up…’
‘Oh my God,” you laugh. ‘How optimistic were you?’
Vermicelli bursting through the seams, her rice paper resembles less of a roll, and more of a swollen cube. She attempts to wrap another rice paper sheet around the overloaded concoction. Your grandmother walks back into the kitchen, spotting the bloated mess. Your friend giggles guiltily, flushing red, and your grandmother calls out hysterically for your mother. Once the four of you start, you can’t stop, laughing tears into the warm evening.
Don’t fret about serving “raw” meat at the table — like steak, it’s okay if you still see a bit of pink.5
It’s Multicultural Day at your high school, and you bring in fried rice with cubes of spam.
‘What’s this?’ your friend asks, holding up a pink chunk speared to her fork.
‘Spiced turkey spam, I think,’ you reply. ‘But sometimes Mum uses the classic flavour too.’
‘That’s feral!’ she shrieks. ‘Do you even know what they put in Spam?! It’s probably rat meat with buckets of salt. Who even eats Spam?’
Your face burns.
Later, when your mother picks you up from school, you angrily toss the Tupperware into the car.
‘Mum, Spam’s disgusting! Do you even know what it’s made of? It’s rat meat! And salt. It’s feral.’
She frowns at you. ‘You know, after the war—’
‘We’re not in a war Mum, in case you haven’t noticed!’
‘—after the war, our family was so poor I had to sell my clothes. This one time, me and your Aunt, we had to try and sell one of our family’s beds. It was huge, made of antique wood, really valuable. One afternoon, we hailed a truck heading through our way, and by four or five in the morning, when we finally reached the buyer’s house, we were exhausted.’
She clears her throat and continues.
‘The house was gorgeous! This huge, bamboo place. In the middle of the kitchen, there was a wood-fired stove. It was amazing. The buyer was this gorgeous lady – she used to be in beauty pageants up North – she offered us something to eat.
We said, “Don’t go to any trouble for us, Aunty!” and she laughed – there wasn’t much she could offer us, she said.
She began boiling water, and soon had a bubbling canh ready to eat. We wolfed down the steaming veggies, but most of all, we were delighted at the floating pieces of meat. Meat! Meat was a luxury for everyone back then, and for this woman to share with us her canned meat…I’ll never forget…’
Her voice trails off. You stare out the car window, the familiar prickling rising to your face.
I also like to add carrots to my broth — it’s not traditional, but I like the sweetness and body they add.6
‘How have you lived in Melbourne all your life, and never eaten ph??’
You laugh incredulously at your boyfriend. He is your first, your high school sweetheart, and he is also the only white person in the small Springvale restaurant. Mousy-haired, big-nosed and painfully earnest, he shrugs at you. When you order the special ph? for two in English, you’re careful to pronounce ph? with the accurate sing-song lilt. How would he go with the tripe? The extent of his culinary adventurousness seemed to end at the “pizza-dogs” sold at the milk bar near school.
‘Get excited – I really hope you like it. It’s good here! But my aunt’s is still the best. Whenever she makes it, she boils the bones for about 8 hours.’
The ph? comes out, steaming hot, and you both clumsily manoeuvre your chopsticks. The broth is sweet and warm, and your boyfriend makes an exaggerated ‘Mmm!’ upon tasting it. You laugh, telling him to add lemon, hoisin and sriracha to his bowl.
‘You know, sometimes I almost forget you’re Asian. But then I get to go to places like this!’ he enthuses, twirling rice noodles around his chopsticks.
Making a great broth is a process that takes hours — sometimes days. While this kind of slow-cooked pho is absolutely peerless, we can make a much quicker version using store-bought beef stock.7
‘Please eat some more. One more spoon,’ you urge your grandmother.
‘You eat it!’ she responds, glaring back at you. You give up, and push the gluggy mess away from you both in defeat. Since taking up residence in a nursing home, she has been steadily refusing to eat the meals supplied. The nursing home is not a bad one, and the doctors blame it on her dementia, but still, you can’t blame her. Anyone would get sick of unsalted potatoes, defrosted chicken nuggets and vanilla pudding after a while.
Your mother brings in some rice and sour soup the next night, and the smells of disinfectant, medication, sickness, loneliness, guilt and frustration are drowned out by the aromatic mixture of fish sauce, tamarind, tomato and pineapple.
One of the things I love about this pho is that it’s sort of like a make-your-own-adventure recipe.8
‘What did you expect?’ admonishes your friend, chuckling.
You’ve been backpacking across Europe for several months. At first, you couldn’t get enough of the foods. Pizzas, salami with honey, limoncello shots in Italy. Baked fish and tangy chicken in Portugal, steaming hot goulash in Hungary, baguettes and pastries in France. However, after four consecutive nights of eating pork knuckles, sausages and potato mush at German beer houses, you feel severely groggy. Backed up and homesick, you drag your travel companions into an “Asian” restaurant. It boasts an astonishing array of dishes, ranging from Japanese, Chinese, to Vietnamese.
You shrug, and poke despondently at the salty broth and sad noodles.
Add a bit of raw onion, scallions, cilantro leaves to each bowl.9
It’s Multicultural Day at work, and this time you bring in your mother’s special cake. Baked after soaking semi-stale bánh mì whites in coconut cream, alternated with layers of fat Lady Finger bananas marinated in raw sugar, the cake is a hit. Your co-workers exclaim at its fresh sweetness and creamy texture. You are flushed with success.
Leftover broth can be stored in an airtight container, frozen for up to 3 months.10
You’ve just settled into your new apartment. It’s in a trendy area once favoured by migrants, now taken over by expensive cafes and fusion restaurants. Tonight, you don’t feel like eating another fancy salad or last night’s pasta leftovers. After pacing your kitchen, you open your laptop for inspiration. What to eat? What do you feel like?
As realisation hits you, a slow burning makes its way towards your cheeks, and your stomach drops.
You type into the search bar:
how to cook pho