Metatron Prize

for Rising Authors






Kawai Shen


The Hanged Man








PHOTO: Paul Hillier


Kawai is a Chinese-Canadian based in Toronto. 





Who are you?

I am a Chinese-Canadian living in Toronto.


What is your book about?

My book is a collection of short stories about Asian women trying to get theirs in a world that would rather they didn't. Along the way, they're navigating race and class, power and desire, underground scenes, and urban spaces. They're struggling with personal questions about who they are and what they want, as well as broader questions about matters like spirituality. Some manage to figure it out while others don't. Either way, they refuse to be put back in line.


Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing this book?

These stories are a compilation of pieces I wrote over many years. I've an annual tradition where I take all my vacation days in one chunk and have an intense fiction writing spree. I can reliably bang out a lot of material I'll want to work with. During the rest of the year, it's mainly researching, editing, and completing drafts. I'm often not in a place where I can physically write, so I've become accustomed to working on passages in my mind in snatches throughout my day and taking a dictation from my brain later.


What are some books you’ve read and enjoyed lately and/or books that influenced the writing in your submitted work?

Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection is a totally solid analysis of liberal models of selfhood and autonomy that I wish I'd discovered earlier. I also wanted to screenshot so many passages from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's Noopiming to send to all my friends.


In terms of books that influenced my submission, I've accrued many over the years. If I had to choose one book, it would be Pink by Kyoko Okazaki, which shares a similar sense of playfulness and vicious humour.


How would you describe your book using emojis only?

(No horror in my book; this is the closest emoji I could find for a climax.)


Anything else you'd like to share?

Just a note of appreciation to everyone out there contributing to creative communities, especially through this pandemic. A special thank you to Tamara Faith Berger (kindly stay tuned for a piece of mine she's editing for Smutburger!) and Peter Birkemoe for their support ♡













They say she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her most vivid childhood memories were of dining in expensive restaurants. Afterall, her mother was an educated HK woman. And successful women from Hong Kong don't cook. They take home competitive salaries to buy silver spoons for their daughters.


By six, she could identify the correct utensil to use for each dish served. She knew that one never looks into one's glass but over the rim and that one never cuts salad but folds the large leaves instead. And when she was finished, she would place her used knife and fork, tines down, just so, at four o' clock.


In Toronto, her city of birth, she was beloved by all the waiters. An adorable China doll with shiny blunt bangs clothed in silk dresses from France and patent leather mary janes. So well behaved! Sitting patiently at the table while the grownups discussed the impending handover and real estate forecasts and currency exchange rates. It was the 1980s, and despite the growing swell of Chinese immigration from one Commonwealth territory to another, mother and daughter were usually the only Asian people to be seen in Toronto's fine dining restaurants. And she was usually the only child.


Her favourite restaurant in those days was Winston's, the then-preferred establishment for Toronto's power elite. The menu was French, and familiar. There, her every need was attended to. A mignon gourmand ensconced in Art Nouveau opulence, ordering chilled watercress soup and crêpes aux fruits de mer. Isn't she precious? They say she had a healthy appetite. Wherever her mother brought her, she ate whatever she was served.


At home, the family dining room was like a restaurant, although it never was quite the same as Winston's with its testosterone-fuelled pride of Bay Street designer suits. Still, they had classical music and large linen napkins and a sparkling crystal chandelier. Her mother insisted on French cuisine; it was a preference inherited from her own mother who had been raised in Shanghai's French Concession. For this reason alone she employed a Vietnamese maid, Bìhn, who had trained in the French culinary arts. C'est à votre goût, madame?


But on Saturdays, an illicit indulgence! After violin lessons at the conservatory with Mrs. Petrenko, Bìhn would escort her charge to the McDonald's across the street where the girl would order a Cheeseburger Happy Meal with Coke. A riot of grease and salt on the tongue. For years, Bìhn would orchestrate this weekly, forbidden gorging, sometimes partaking in it as well. And after acquiring a taste for rebellion, there was no turning back.


Furious tears were shed by both mother and daughter during the latter's first act of resistance. She was quitting violin. Then it was competitive figure skating. Then there was a call from the school's Headmistress. Truancy and slipping grades and displays of insolence. Threats were made, bargains stipulated. And always, the single immigrant mother's chorus, that tiresome dirge: I didn't move to Canada – didn't sacrifice everything – so you could become mediocre!


To protest her mother's rigid designs on her future, she declared a hunger strike but caved when Bìhn was ordered to make her favourite comfort dish: duck confit cassoulet. Her stomach betrayed her. She was going to university.


She did not take to the life of the mind. Instead, she studied a small town boy she met at a house party who worked in construction: a strapping six feet and four inches of wiry muscle from Peterborough raised on Wonder Bread and whole milk and KD cooked in the microwave. They eventually moved into a squalid one-bedroom apartment together in Kensington Market. On weekends, they had takeout tamales for dinner with Molson Canadians before they collapsed onto his futon to have drunken, sloppy sex. Once and only once, they ate out at a restaurant of her choosing, a new French bistro in the neighbourhood, La Palette. He wore a button-down shirt at her insistence, twitching in his seat until he knocked over her apéritif. They say she was a poser.


After she graduated, she moved out of Kensington, although not without difficulty; the small-town boy stayed and was persistent. I can't live without you. I promise I'll change. Threats and bargains. But at this point, she was well inured to guilt. So inured in fact, that after months of escalating conflict, she broke off contact with her mother as well, who in turn, stopped sending her allowance.

Unfettered by love and undecided about her vocation and unwilling to return to her mother's home, she opted to spend her savings to volunteer abroad in Vietnam, home of the mother of her revolution. After all, every child loves the permissive parent more.


In Hanoi, while treating herself to a petit pain au chocolat in a smoky café, she met another boy, the cheating photojournalist. Born in New Delhi and raised in Britain, she thought he understood her. They shared the same colonizer, the same class ambivalence. They ducked into steamy xoi stalls in the mornings and huddled over little cups of tea in the evenings and then they didn't. She only cried in the shower when she was alone. She was sick of phở. But wherever she found herself during those forsaken days, she ate whatever she was served.


At home in time for the winter holidays, she breaks and phones her mother. She has registered for classes for the upcoming winter semester. At this opening bid, her mother reinstates her allowance. When asked about Bìhn, her mother informs her that Bìhn is now employed as a private chef for a telecoms executive and then, to ease the blow, she gamely makes reservations at The Fifth. Food critics are hailing its Alsatian executive chef; James Chatto declares it to be the top restaurant in the city.


After months of stretching her savings in Vietnam, she finds the opulence of The Fifth, this little cocoon of understated luxuries, both familiar and comforting.  But it does not take long for the rush of excess to make her dizzy. Halfway through the meal, it is too much: the heavy, glinting silverware and the free-flowing glasses of Bordeaux and the rising chatter of the other patrons.


Oh, the patrons! How they come, their hearts and bellies empty, but filled to bursting with their entitlements, their endless demands. There are many Asians dining in The Fifth tonight. 

Her stomach growls. She cannot deny that she has expensive taste.


With the back of her silver spoon, she pushes a morsel of foie gras around her plate. Her mother frowns. What's wrong? Aren't you hungry? And she is and she isn't and she's not quite sure how to choose.