Writer in Residence

Chopsticks

By Irina Kovalyova

Last summer, I made chilled noodle soup.

Why? I was writing a short story that took place in North Korea, and I was stuck. The plot, for some reason, had twisted into a Gordian knot (if you know what I’m talking about, than you know how Alexander the Great dealt with it).

It was clear to me that in order to become unstuck I would have to take decisive action. I would have to either: 1) completely restructure my story or 2) give my characters something to eat.

The Sisyphean task of of restructuring something I’d been writing for almost two years petrified me. I was, therefore, left with food.

I don’t want you to think that the idea was insensitive in any way. By then, I had read enough about North Korea to know better. I wasn’t naïve to imagine that ordinary North Koreans ate the kind of food I had in mind. But in the story, my characters were visiting Pyongyang at the special request of Kim Jong Il, and for that reason they were treated to a sumptuous meal in a government-owned restaurant. It was through that meal, with the government’s minders watching over my characters’ every bite, that I meant to not only reflect my characters’ mood, but also expose the excesses of the regime.

Since I didn’t actually know anything about Korean cooking, I decided it might be useful for me to make some Korean food. In the process, I hoped to concoct some delicious dishes, as well as inform myself as to the intricacies of Korean cuisine.

I ran to the nearest Indigo and acquired the only book on the subject I could find: The Korean Table from Barbecue to Bibimbap.

The photographs of the food inside it looked very fresh. There were sliced cucumbers and bean sprouts, green onions and red pepper flakes. I began to hope that making Korean dishes wouldn’t be as involved as I’d thought. But, upon closer inspection, I noticed that many recipes called for exotic ingredients. And so, on my way home, I stopped by a Korean market and procured black fungus, gochujang, red dates, and so on.

My family was unimpressed with my efforts.

“What’s for supper?” my six-year-old daughter asked suspiciously, when the aromas of shiitake mushrooms stir-fried in sesame oil began to waft into the living room.

“A kind of special pasta,” I lied to her, shamelessly.

Three hours later, at the dining room table, she stared wordlessly into her ramen bowl. To her right stood a plate piled high with zucchini pancakes. To her left, glistened a mount of sweet and salty soybeans. She looked lost.

“Not even a little bit?” I tried to persuade her. “It took me a long time to cook all this up. Korean cuisine is very tasty. It’s full of vegetables.”

“Exactly,” she sighed.

Sadly, she had a point. The food I made wasn’t good. The pork dumplings had too much soy sauce, the pancakes were too sweet, the bok choy overcooked.

I contemplated my next action as I struggled with chopsticks.

And at that precise moment, I was struck with a thought. My character, I decided, would not want to eat! She too would feel out of place when faced with ramen. She too would be lost.

The following morning, I wrote:

Our food was brought in: four stainless bowls of soup, each with coils of noodles submerged in yellow broth. A pair of scissors was placed discreetly on the table next to me.

“Ah.” Comrade Park rubbed his hands together and grinned broadly, revealing a set of small teeth. “Frankly speaking, this is the best bowl of noodles, I’ve ever seen. Now I’ll show you how to eat them. You’ve got to bring art into it.” He motioned to the scissors. “Forget about those. The noodled are meant to be eating without cutting them up. Not, in any case, with scissors. You’ve got your teeth for that.”

He reached for the mustard sauce and scooped a spoonful of it into his bowl. Then, using his chopsticks he mixed the sauce into the noodles, took a deep breath, and said, “Begin!”

He ate quickly. It was amazing to watch the noodles disappear into his mouth with such dexterous speed. Song, who had sprinkled vinegar into her bowl of soup instead of mustard, was wasting no time eating her noodles too.

My father, meanwhile, was probing around his bowl with the chopsticks as though uncertain how to begin.

“Now,” Comrade Park went on, “there is, as I said, a whole art to it. Watch me, okay? First, coil a bundle around your chopsticks. Next, bring them up to your mouth, like that. If some noodles end up hanging out of your mouth, simply bite through them with your teeth. Suck the rest up, but do it gently. One must be careful not to suck too hard.”

He winked at my father, and for a moment I was certain I would be sick. I gulped for air. My head began to spin. I knew that if I looked at my father, I would start to cry. And so, to compose myself, I pretended to look around the room.”

I did end up restructuring my short story completely. It is a novella called “The Blood Keeper” now. But the scene I wrote the day following my disastrous Korean cookout hasn’t changed very much.

My point is that when you’re writing, inspiration comes in strange ways. If you don’t know how to cut the noodles, try slicing through them with your chopsticks.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

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