Lessons in Fusion” speaks to the fluidity of Jewish identity in the contemporary world

Primrose Mayadag Knazan
cover of "Lessons in Fusion:

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN In preparing to write this review I searched our archives to see whether we had ever published anything previously about Primrose Mayadag Knazan; sad to say, we hadn’t.

It’s about time we made up for that oversight, as Primrose had already established herself as a playwright of considerable talent, having had her three plays been awarded “Best of Fest” at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival on each occasion she premiered a new play at the Fringe.

Her plays have also been produced by the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, and Sarsavati Productions.
With “Lessons in Fusion”, Primrose enters into the world of fiction writing and, while the book is described as a “Young Adult” novel – not being a young adult myself, I wondered whether I would be as interested in this particular book as much as someone who was in their teens.
It turns out that “Lessons in Fusion” would hardly be limited in its appeal to young readers. As someone who has blended two different cultures in her own life: Filipino and Jewish, Primrose Mayadag Knazan offers readers who might come from a more traditional background tremendous insight into identity, how it is forged over time, and the challenges faced by individuals who, because of the way they look, are stereotyped by others.

The storyline of “Lessons in Fusion” takes place in the pandemic world in which we all now find ourselves, although the action moves back and forth in time as we begin to develop a better understanding of the novel’s protagonist, 16-year-old Sarah Dayan-Abad.
Sarah is a precocious young woman who has developed a keen fascination for “fusion” cooking – blending ingredients from different cultures to create dishes that are an amalgam so totally original they lead to her developing quite a following on a blog she had started when she was 14 years old, titled “fusiononaplate”.

Here is how she describes her blog, when asked to give some information about it by the creators of a new online cooking show in which Sarah would like to participate: “Fusion comfort food, a mash-up of East and West and everything in between. Easy recipes of our classic cravings with a twist.”
Now, given Sarah’s interest in food, one would ordinarily expect that is something she might have inherited from her mother, Grace, who is “Filipinx” (the proper term for someone of Filipino descent, we are told, rather than “Filipino”). Grace, however, has almost no interest at all in cooking, especially Filipino food. The reasons for that become clearer as the story develops.

The reviews that I’ve read of “Lessons in Fusion” to date all make a big fuss over how the author introduces each chapter in the book with a recipe. Apparently Primose Mayadag Knazan is quite the food connoisseur, writing a regular column for the Filipino Journal about food in Winnipeg, as well as maintaining an Instagram account devoted to food,@pegonaplate.

As the story unfolds, Sarah is accepted into a competition known as “Cyber Chef”, in which five young people – all under 20, will compete on a weekly basis until only one is left. By the way, the chapter in which the competition is explained in some detail starts with a recipe for Chanukah latkes, so if this review is just a tad too late to influence your latke recipe, you might want to consider buying the book for next year. Just consider some of the ingredients in Sarah’s latke recipe: “sweet potatoes instead of russets. Instead of traditional sour cream or applesauce…raita made with yogurt, green apple, and mint” – I think you get the idea why the book is titled “Lessons in Fusion”.
Now, I’ll be honest: I barely looked at the recipes in this book, although they seemed tantalizing enough. Yet, for anyone who’s really into cooking, I’m sure the recipes in the book would be reason enough to buy it, as many of them are traditional Jewish recipes turned into something so imaginatively different from what I think most of us have come to accept that we would have a hard time recognizing them.
But, more than the recipes and the fastidious attention to food details that the book incorporates, “Lessons in Fusion” is a coming of age story that is so contemporary in its being set during the pandemic that it offers many real life lessons which can be useful for all of us.

Sarah, for instance, is a good student, yet she’s been forced into online learning as a result of the pandemic. Cooking is a diversion for her – as it had become for so many others once we found ourselves being confined to our homes during the many lockdowns that characterized the first year of the pandemic. While she has two good friends, with whom she communicates online (and you have to appreciate how thoroughly the author is familiar with what is known as “textspeak”), we can still appreciate the extent to which the pandemic has truncated what should have been some of the best parts of young people’s lives.
I don’t want to go into any further detail about the cooking show in which Sarah participates, lest I spoil any surprises for readers.
What I was most interested in reading is how Sarah develops her identity as a Jewish Filipinx. She and her siblings all attend what is described as a “Hebrew Immersion program” in a “private school”, where the students wear uniforms, so I’m assuming it’s based on Gray Academy. Sarah has had a bat mitzvah and is quite proud of her being Jewish.
Yet, beyond her interest in Jewish food, what seems to drive Sarah’s Jewish identity more than anything is her closeness to her baba. At the same time though, the book does describe Sarah’s more tenuous relationship with her Filipinx grandmother, her “lola”, and how cooking also brings the two of them together eventually.

One aspect of the book that might serve as a wake-up call for some readers is how Sarah is stereotyped because of her appearance and, although she can understand how she is regarded by almost anyone she meets (including online) as Filipinx, she herself regards her identity as first and foremost Jewish.
At one point Sarah is asked whether she considers herself “White or Filipino”?
She answers: “Jewish” – to which the questioner responds: “That wasn’t my question.”
So Sarah launches into a more detailed explanation: “But that’s what I am. My parents are Jewish. (Grace had converted when she married Sarah’s father.) I was raised Jewish. It’s not just my religion. It’s my culture. I get all the jokes. I celebrate the holidays. I eat and cook all the food. I even speak some Yiddish. I had family that died in the Holocaust. Go back far enough, I had family that were chased out of Russia. It’s in my blood. I carry it on my shoulders. I. Am . Jewish.”
That exchange goes on, with the questioner insisting on finding out whether Sarah identifies as “White” or not, and with Sarah not sure how to answer the question.

As someone who has been writing extensively about identity in this newspaper, and how much Jewish identity is evolving so rapidly as more and more individuals who have either converted to Judaism or live with someone who is Jewish bring with them backgrounds that are not Jewish, I find it quite fascinating to read a quite authentic description of how confusing it must be for a young person who comes from a blend of ethnic identities when asked to explain their own identity.
For that reason alone I would recommend “Lessons in Fusion” as a real eye opener to so many in our community – and well beyond the Jewish community, in helping to understand how someone might identify strongly as Jewish even when that person’s identity is rooted in a background that is quite different than something with which many of us are familiar.

As for how well written “Lessons in Fusion” is, as a first-time novelist, Primrose Mayadag Knazan shows remarkable talent, although given her success as a playwright to date, it should come as no surprise that she has made the transition to fiction writing so successfully.

“Lessons in Fusion”
By Primrose Mayadag Knazan
Published by Great Plains Publishing , 2021
288 pages

 

More about Primrose Mayadag Knazan

Primrose Madayag Knazan brings an interesting perspective to what it means to become Jewish
By BERNIE BELLAN
As someone who had already established a solid reputation as a successful playwright, Primrose Madayag Knazan knew that she was taking on a challenge of quite a different sort when a publisher proposed that she consider writing a book of fiction aimed at the Young Adult market.
“Writing plays was easier than writing a novel,” Primrose told me during the course of a lengthy phone interview.
“But Great Plains (her publisher) approached me with the idea of writing a book. They said I’ve always been so successful with plays, why don’t I write something – either non fiction or Young Adult?”

 

The timing was right for her to begin thinking about writing a book, she says. It was the fall of 2020, the Covid pandemic had set in, and she actually had more time to write since she was working from home. Her two young boys were both in school and, while she was certainly busy enough – she had begun writing a food blog as well as writing a regular column for the Filipino Journal about food, Primrose says that she didn’t have any plays in the works, so the idea of writing a book at that time appealed to her.
Around the same time, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis happened, Primrose notes. “It opened people’s eyes about diversity and representation.”
So, the idea of tackling those themes, along with her passion for writing about food, jelled into the basis of “Lessons in Fusion”.
As I explain in my review of the book, the story centres around 16-year-old Sarah Dayan-Abad. The fact that Sarah’s name is a blend of Jewish and Filipino names is no coincidence. And yet, while there are distinct parallels in Sarah’s life to Primrose’s, Primrose wanted to make clear that Sarah is largely an imagined character.
Having grown up in Winnipeg herself, Primrose says that, while she was raised Catholic, she didn’t find the Catholic church appealing.
“I grew up at a time when I didn’t fit in with other Filipino kids,” she says.
For instance, she notes that she “always wanted to be a blonde. I knew a part of me always wanted to be White.”
At the same time, she says that “ever since I was a kid, I wanted to write plays, books, poetry.

 

It was while she was in university here – where she was taking a double major in psychology and sociology, that she also had her first immersion in theatre. Primrose says she fell in love with the theatre and, years after she graduated, she became involved in it again, as an actor, as a producer, and as a playwright.
Her first plays were written for Winnipeg’s Fringe Festival (the first one was written in 2000) and each time she entered a new play there (three times altogether), her plays went on to win “Best of Fest”.
It was also while she was in university that she met the man who would eventually become her husband, Josh Knazan.
Yet, while Josh came from a firm Ashkenazie Jewish background, he didn’t insist that Primrose convert to Judaism before they married.
“It was after he proposed to me that I told him I wanted to convert to Judaism – not before,” Primrose explains.
Ever since converting – in 2002, under Rabbi Alan Green’s tutelage, Primrose says that she has become “very comfortable in being a part of the Jewish community.”
“Judaism is such a beautiful religion that I fell in love with it. With Catholicism there are no shades of gray. Everything is black and white. Judaism is so much more nuanced.”
“I’m an outgoing person,” she says. “I’ve been able to be involved in the synagogue (Shaarey Zedek). I have a lot of new friends.”
And, while Primrose says that she has made sure that her two kids will grow up in a Jewish milieu - her older son was just recently Bar Mitzvahed, she says, the notion of “fusing” Filipino and Jewish culture is something that she is keenly interested in doing.

The story in “Lessons in Fusion” centres around food – and not just Filipino or Jewish food.
Raising two boys, especially one who was now a teenager, did give Primrose a certain insight into how young people think – and how they communicate, especially through texting.
Portions of “Lessons in Fusion” have some of the young characters texting with each other. “When I showed it to my son, he told me that I had it all wrong. No one texts in full words,” he said. “I had to learn textspeak from him.”
Something that Primrose wanted to avoid though, in writing a Young Adult novel, was “writing anything dystopian”. She says that she didn’t want to write yet one more book about “the end of the world”.
At the same time that she wanted to tackle issues of “diversity and representation” in her book, Primrose says that her older son was an “inspiration” for her when he told her he “didn’t want to read ‘issue books’ or books about ‘racism’.”
And, while Primrose and Josh are determined to give their two boys a solid Jewish upbringing, they both want them to be exposed to Filipino culture as well, Primrose says.
“They were both in the Hebrew Bilingual program at Brock Corydon” – the older boy has now graduated and is at Grant Park, but they’re both also involved in “Filipino dance”.
Unlike the character Sarah in “Lessons in Fusion”, moreover, who does not have a close relationship with her Filipino relatives - save one aunt, Primrose and Josh’s boys have close relationships with both their Jewish and Filipino relatives.
Sarah, however, identifies entirely as Jewish. The idea of creating a character who, even though she looks Filipino, doesn’t think of herself as Filipino at all, came to Primrose when she herself wondered what she would have been like had she been “raised exclusively Jewish”?

As noted, Primrose has a real passion for food – experimenting with it, writing about it and, as she explained to me, helping to promote local Filipino restaurants and stores.
“My head is focused on food blogging and promoting Filipino food,” she says.
“But when the pandemic happened,” so many restaurants had to close down, including many Filipino ones, she observes. So, her blog and column in the Filipino Journal became even more important to Primrose. She says that “in the past two years I’ve taken the food blogging seriously. I’ve always wanted to feature Manitoba products” as a way of helping local producers.
And, while “Lessons in Fusion” is largely a coming of age novel, as Sarah participates in an extremely demanding competition where she is required to come up with entirely original recipes for a TV show on a weekly basis, Primrose observes that “the growth in Sarah’s recipes parallels the growth in Sarah as a person to the point where she blends her two cultures” – and feels wholly comfortable in both.
That’s also the story of Primrose Madayag Knazan’s life: Someone who feels totally comfortable in her own skin as she blends Filipino and Jewish cultures into a unique amalgam. And, for someone who is as interested in identity as I am – and how fluid it is, having Primrose as part of the Jewish community offers one more reason why other members of our community should feel warm in the knowledge that the Jewish community is a blend of cultures and one in which people of quite different backgrounds can feel totally accepted.