In Karin Kallmaker’s new romance, four women playing Mahjong can fix the world

“The World Begins at a Kitchen Table

No matter what, we must eat to live.”

So begins the evocative poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by the new United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. We make plans, laugh, mourn, celebrate, and weep at the kitchen table. There’s a reason romance writers go there for so many important moments in our stories: revelations, break ups, laughter, and devastation can all happen over a shared meal, and all in an instant. 

So it’s no accident that a lot happens in my newest novel, Because I Said So, at kitchen, family, and restaurant tables. Shannon and son-by-choice Paz plan and share coordinated meals where they meet as equals. Kesa and little sister Josie squabble about everything over stir fry. Someone fidgeting with her coffee to avoid answering questions could provoke murder-by-stir-stick. You know it’s been a long day when someone decides to skip pizza and go directly to ice cream.

Kesa Sapiro shares a Wednesday potluck with women she met in the course of drumming up clients for her tailoring business. It’s her one break from long, grueling work hours, seven days a week. Her invitation to the table with three other women began as a need for a fourth to play Mahjong, which is very popular in Filipino-American communities. A perfect combination, I thought. They can share food, play a game—it won’t be difficult to capture what I need from that.

Photo by Yuiberry

It’s always painful to think I know a little bit about something, but when I start the research the vast gulf of my own ignorance becomes apparent. The more I read about Filipino history and culture, and the experiences of California’s Filipinos in the midst of a massive diaspora, the more I was embarrassed by what I didn’t know. I wasn’t aware of the complexities and histories of the languages birthed in the Philippines. I had seen a neighbor’s large Filipino family gatherings in action, but only now do I have a inkling why everybody has so many Aunties and Uncles in their life.

Having someone to call Auntie is a huge shift for Kesa. She’s been on her own and responsible for her much younger sister for years. The Mahjong table, with plates of pinakbet and lumpia nearby, is where Kesa finally experiences family with the shared, simple premise that you’re there for each other, especially to listen. She begins the process of escaping her own head and learning that she can’t be in charge of everything. (But she still doesn’t believe in Love at First Sight, just so we’re clear.)

I also spent several weeks reading Mahjong blogs and rules, and playing an online version. No, not the tile matching solitaire game, I mean the tile game that is played with four hands. I nearly always came in fourth, even on the tutorial easy settings. Tournament players have nothing to fear from me.

As I explored the various versions, I saw a lot of different spellings for the game, so I consulted the Interwebz on which was correct. It didn’t go well. As in, nobody agrees.

Even people who adopt one spellingfor consistency’s sake admit that it’s an arbitrary decision. I settled on Mahjong, capitalized, no hyphen, one “g”. That didn’t keep me from spelling it multiple ways in the manuscript. (Thank you, editor and proofreaders!)

One more obvious new fact for me: there are different varieties of Mahjong played all over the world. Kesa is playing Mahjong with Filipino women who play Filipino style. The rules aren’t that different from Chinese or American Mahjong, but there are significant cultural differences about the nature of aggression and politeness during play, and sometimes the words used to declare progress.

I was well into figuring this all out when I saw Crazy Rich Asians and there it was, Mahjong in a romance. The scene where it’s used is FABulous, and it underscores that it’s a game of strategy, luck, and symbolism.

It’s also played for fun. To talk over problems while hands are busy. To advise and gossip and listen, and to share food. To laugh. To assure one another that everything will be okay. As Auntie Ivy says in Because I Said So, four women playing mahjong can fix the world. 

Because I Said Sois available July 15.

About Karin Kallmaker

Karin Kallmaker has always written about lesbians and love and isn’t likely to change. When she’s not writing books she’s thinking about books, enjoying life in the San Francisco Bay Area, or embarking on new adventures by plane, train, or automobile. Her thirty+ novels include Painted Moon, Captain of Industry, and Maybe Next Time. She’s also written more than five dozen short stories and novellas. She has won three Lambda Literary Awards and is a Golden Crown Literary Society Trailblazer. Learn more at kallmaker.com or search social media or favorite book sites for “Kallmaker” – there’s only one.  Everything you wanted to know about any of her stories is right here: https://kallmaker.com/allabout/.

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