Eating Authors: Henry Lien

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Henry Lien

Returning from a week away always carries a lot of doubling up of tasks as you get back up to speed. When that week away involves a conference filled with business meetings and new opportunities, the resulting follow up email always takes its toll. In actuality, I’m still not caught up, and because a portion of my brain is back at the Nebula Awards Conference (now nearly two weeks in the past), it seemed only appropriate to feature a fellow past Nebula Award nominee, which is why this week’s EATING AUTHOR guest is none other than Henry Lien. Henry received Nebula noms for best Novelette in 2014 for “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters” and again in 2016 for “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society.”

Some of you may also be familiar with him by another name. In his guise as Emperor Stardust, he was the writer and producer of Radio SFWA (and seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, pause right now and click that link!).

Henry is mostly known for his short fiction, having placed stories in F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog. His first novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, came out last month from Henry Holt. A sequel is already slated for release in 2019.

LMS: Welcome, Henry. Tell me about your most memorable meal.

HL: The scene is my father’s wedding banquet about fifteen years ago. I gave a speech in Mandarin about how meeting his new wife stunned my father with joy at a stage in life when he was hoping for only quiet; how she helped him become the person that he was always meant to be; and how with this union, my father’s good fortune, long delayed and deserved, had finally arrived. All were moved. It was an auspicious beginning to one of the most important days of my father’s life.

The main wedding party table included my father, his wife, my sister, and me, along with an 80 year old man who was sort of the revered patriarch of their Taiwanese-American community. My dad had even come to terms enough with my being gay to invite my then partner, although he was seated at a different table.

Shortly after the meal was served, I noticed that the patriarch was grabbing his chest. He was trying to cough out something stuck in his throat. People around him were uselessly patting his shoulder and telling him to drink water. 10 seconds passed. 20. 30. From the color on his face, it became clear to me that he was choking to death.

Peasprout Chen

I didn’t want this man to die, but I particularly didn’t want him to die at my father’s wedding banquet. That would have been universally agreed upon as a cursed omen for the marriage by my father’s somewhat old-fashioned and superstitious social circle.

One problem was that I couldn’t let anyone see me trying to save the patriarch because he would be mortified in front of his community. And I didn’t have time to eyeroll about antiquated notions of saving face, etc.

The bigger problem was that I never learned to do the Heimlich maneuver. And from the inaction of everyone else, neither had they. However, I had watched television as a kid. I rummaged deep in my memory and somewhere in there, some handsome actor playing a cop or fireman on some show that I watched when I was a hormonal gay teenager was instructing someone about pushing “in and up, in and up!”

I motioned my former partner over to our table. He saw from my face that something was very wrong and strode over. I whispered to him, “Unbutton your jacket and reach over the table as if you’re reaching for the wine to give a toast, so that your jacket covers this guy.” He did so.

I then went behind the patriarch, who was by that point in full panic. I reached around him and made a rock fist and covered it with a paper hand. I placed my hands below the man’s rib page. He felt as frail and delicate as a bird. I then pushed in and up. He was so light, I felt like I could have lifted him up with the motion.

Nothing happened. He was going blue. But if I pushed harder, I’d break his ribs.

I pushed harder, in and up. Still nothing.

Then one more time, in and up.

He then swatted my arms away, and made a sort of sound like when someone chokes awake on their own snore.

Then he ejected a medallion of beef out of his mouth as big as a hockey puck onto his plate. Whole and unchewed. He had tried to swallow the whole thing.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

Everyone at our immediate table of course saw what happened but thanks to my partner’s jacket, no one beyond our table saw anything. The patriarch was so embarrassed that he tried to make light of nearly dying. He took up his fork and knife and began to cut his medallion of beef, which was now sitting in the plate in a shallow pool of his collected saliva and mucous. The waiter took the plate away and came back with a plate of chicken breast. My memory is a little fuzzy about the details after the beef puck ejection, but I seem to recall that the chicken breast was brought out already cut into strips for him.

Afterward, my father thanked me emotionally for my quick action. He explained that the patriarch was a very successful businessman who had lifted himself out of stark poverty to great wealth. He was known to be generous with others, but very frugal with himself because he had known what starvation was. When he saw the generous cut of beef, he freaked out and tried to literally inhale it. I also think he might have been unaccustomed with having to carve up his own meal with a fork and knife, since Chinese food is not served that way, but was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Christmas came soon after that. I received a bottle of Hennessy XO cognac, in a complex luxe box. It was from the patriarch. And every Christmas thereafter, I received another bottle of XO. I didn’t drink cognac, but I would keep the bottles and savor their emotional flavor, since they were in one very real sense worth a man’s life.

Thanks, Henry. So, the going rate for saving the life of a patriarch is an annual bottle of cognac. This is good to know (not that I’m planning anything, just saying).

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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