In-Between

Claire Hazelton interviews PP Wong, author of The Life of a Banana (Legend Press)

We have already discarded our proper names; by the second or third return of correspondence, PP Wong is addressing me as ‘Banana’ Claire. I feel as though I have been accepted into something exclusive. But, really, ‘banana’ is a label that broadens boarders – exclusivity doesn’t come into it – and that creates a sense of community for a group of people who often feel dispossessed and/or culturally unclassifiable. Wong defines the label on bananawriters.com, the online magazine/platform that she founded to support South East Asian and East Asian writers: Banana – ‘a person of Asian descent, who has been influenced by Western culture’, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

The feeling, Wong explains, of being an ‘in-betweener’ is common for ‘bananas’ and something she, being British-Chinese, often experiences. British-Asians are torn between two cultures, two sets of principals, two languages, two countries. This common feeling is one that has compelled her to write about a British-Chinese family in her debut, The Life of a Banana. Wong’s interests are not, however, limited to cultural ‘in-betweenness’, and expand into the ‘in-betweenness’ felt when going from childhood to teen-hood, from school to school, poverty to wealth.

Notably, The Life of a Banana, begins in a place between tragedy and comedy. On her twelfth birthday, Xing Li, the ‘banana’ protagonist, loses her mother in a freak accident, and she and her brother, Lai Ker, move into the house of their strict grandmother. Xing Li and Lai Ker go from ‘living in a cosy trio […], the Kwans of 187C Kilburn Road’, the British-Chinese family who speak ‘with cockney-Chinese accents’, to being part of the Wu household in Kensington where Chinese values and customs are preserved and practiced, where studying, respect and formalities are prioritised over affection and expressions of love. The fresh memory of the children’s mother lingers in the opening pages; the mother’s character takes the form of an omnipresent antagonist. Recollections of her – soft, idyllically maternal, a balance of Chinese and British cultural influence – oppose the stern and cold nature of the grandmother. It is an anguishing start, ripe with uncertainty and struggle. Wong, however, peppers Xing Li’s grief with humour and light-heartedness, the book’s first lines reading:

“Just be glad that cat is in a better place. If this were Guangdong, she’d be in a peasant’s belly by now.”

“That’s s-o-o-o racist.”

“I can’t be racist to my own race. Mama said it ain’t possible.”

Tragedy and trauma are juxtaposed with a jokey colloquialism that embodies Xing Li’s denial, shock and youthfulness.

“Humour is really important in writing for me”, Wong explains, when we meet. “I like to look at serious, dark topics but also have fun as well and make people laugh and entertain them”. The Life of a Banana explores racism, bullying, mental illness and violence, but the reading is never heavy. “This was important for me, when writing the book. Humour makes things more accessible”, Wong explains. This is demonstrated in the character of Xing Li, who is immediately endearing and relatable. Written in first person, her naïveté and innocence shine through. The vernacular used – ‘’cos’, ‘loads’ – is evocative of a typical teenage diary through its relatable slang and order of priorities; for example, in a moment of crisis, Xing Li blames her ethnicity for the bullying she receives at school, but then humorously follows with:

If I weren’t Chinese, I wouldn’t have so much pressure to be good at Maths and I would have bigger boobs.

“Humour is most important in dark times because you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself, and at any negative things that happen, to be able to move on”, says Wong. Xing Li is a strong character. Struck by trauma after trauma, her outlook continues to remain positive. Her deeply insightful personality means that she is able to understand and accept the faults of others and reflect upon them to improve herself and persevere in her own life.

“There are many Western stereotypes of Asian people that often make growing up more difficult for many British-Asians”, Wong explains. As well as this, a British-Asian person is likely to feel a conflict of cultural influence; as Wong says, “there is this notion of quiet power in South East Asia and East Asia that is less prominent here. I’m currently based in Singapore and I have noticed that, in Asia, a lot of people work, and achieve within work, quietly – they’re action-orientated. In the West, contrastingly, if you don’t have good presentation or self-promotion skills, you might struggle, despite being good at the work you do. Asian people don’t tend to show off or say ‘look at me’. There is a quiet power, instead: to let your actions speak”. This contrast, plus the lack of South East Asian and East Asian role models in media, TV, literature etc., means that South East and East Asian people are left in the shadows of society in Britain. “The Chinese community in Britain is often described as ‘silent’ or ‘hidden’”, Wong says.

In The Life of a Banana, the character of Xing Li’s brother, Lai Ker, holds a philosophy that attempts to stifle the ‘quiet stereotype’. About it, Xing Li explains:

Lai Ker also has this thing called Chinks Have Mouths or CHM for short. He says if I’m not smart enough or cool enough or loud enough I won’t be a “Chinese person with a mouth”, and will be “ignored by society”.

Xing Li’s fears, though hyperbolic to a certain extent, are rooted in some truth. “It is harder to be heard as an ethnic minority”, Wong says. She describes the long process (“the rejection process”) that she went through before being offered a publishing deal. “Some publishers only have space for just one or two writers from ethnic minorities”, she says. Wong continues to explain how she was turned away from one publisher due to the fact that they already represented a Chinese author. “The other Chinese author they represented wrote in a completely different style to me, on different subjects, too. It was as though they had already covered Chinese people in their books. This just wouldn’t happen with an author not part of an ethnic minority – it’d be like saying ‘I’m sorry JK Rowling, but we already have a Caucasian author, Steven King.’ It just wouldn’t happen”.

Surprisingly, Wong is the first British-Chinese author to be published in Britain. She explains that publishers prefer to have a similar book or author, that has already been published, to compare new books to. “As they didn’t have any books like mine, The Life of a Banana was, to them, a risk. I received many positive replies from publishers, but they all said that they could not afford the risk. I kept thinking, ‘Is it because my book is about a Chinese family? Is it because I am British-Chinese? Or is it because I’m really a bad writer?’”

Wong speaks of what she calls the ‘Asian-genre’ – books that have been published that are set in Asia and written for a mainly Western audience. “There are a lot of books by both Asian authors and non-Asian authors in which the stereotypical, exotic Asian woman often features. The sex lives of Asian women are a common topic, the exoticising and stereotyping of Asian women – that they are submissive and vulnerable. Many Asians find some of the books out there quite offensive to their cultures”. Wong

mental illness and violence, but the reading is never heavy. “This was important for me, when writing the book. Humour makes things more accessible”, Wong explains. This is demonstrated in the character of Xing Li, who is immediately endearing and relatable. Written in first person, her naïveté and innocence shine through. The vernacular used – ‘’cos’, ‘loads’ – is evocative of a typical teenage diary through its relatable slang and order of priorities; for example, in a moment of crisis, Xing Li blames her ethnicity for the bullying she receives at school, but then humorously follows with:

If I weren’t Chinese, I wouldn’t have so much pressure to be good at Maths and I would have bigger boobs.

“Humour is most important in dark times because you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself, and at any negative things that happen, to be able to move on”, says Wong. Xing Li is a strong character. Struck by trauma after trauma, her outlook continues to remain positive. Her deeply insightful personality means that she is able to understand and accept the faults of others and reflect upon them to improve herself and persevere in her own life.

“There are many Western stereotypes of Asian people that often make growing up more difficult for many British-Asians”, Wong explains. As well as this, a British-Asian person is likely to feel a conflict of cultural influence; as Wong says, “there is this notion of quiet power in South East Asia and East Asia that is less prominent here. I’m currently based in Singapore and I have noticed that, in Asia, a lot of people work, and achieve within work, quietly – they’re action-orientated. In the West, contrastingly, if you don’t have good presentation or self-promotion skills, you might struggle, despite being good at the work you do. Asian people don’t tend to show off or say ‘look at me’. There is a quiet power, instead: to let your actions speak”. This contrast, plus the lack of South East Asian and East Asian role models in media, TV, literature etc., means that South East and East Asian people are left in the shadows of society in Britain. “The Chinese community in Britain is often described as ‘silent’ or ‘hidden’”, Wong says.

In The Life of a Banana, the character of Xing Li’s brother, Lai Ker, holds a philosophy that attempts to stifle the ‘quiet stereotype’. About it, Xing Li explains:

Lai Ker also has this thing called Chinks Have Mouths or CHM for short. He says if I’m not smart enough or cool enough or loud enough I won’t be a “Chinese person with a mouth”, and will be “ignored by society”.

Xing Li’s fears, though hyperbolic to a certain extent, are rooted in some truth. “It is harder to be heard as an ethnic minority”, Wong says. She describes the long process (“the rejection process”) that she went through before being offered a publishing deal. “Some publishers only have space for just one or two writers from ethnic minorities”, she says. Wong continues to explain how she was turned away from one publisher due to the fact that they already represented a Chinese author. “The other Chinese author they represented wrote in a completely different style to me, on different subjects, too. It was as though they had already covered Chinese people in their books. This just wouldn’t happen with an author not part of an ethnic minority – it’d be like saying ‘I’m sorry JK Rowling, but we already have a Caucasian author, Steven King.’ It just wouldn’t happen”.

Surprisingly, Wong is the first British-Chinese author to be published in Britain. She explains that publishers prefer to have a similar book or author, that has already been published, to compare new books to. “As they didn’t have any books like mine, The Life of a Banana was, to them, a risk. I received many positive replies from publishers, but they all said that they could not afford the risk. I kept thinking, ‘Is it because my book is about a Chinese family? Is it because I am British-Chinese? Or is it because I’m really a bad writer?’”

Wong speaks of what she calls the ‘Asian-genre’ – books that have been published that are set in Asia and written for a mainly Western audience. “There are a lot of books by both Asian authors and non-Asian authors in which the stereotypical, exotic Asian woman often features. The sex lives of Asian women are a common topic, the exoticising and stereotyping of Asian women – that they are submissive and vulnerable. Many Asians find some of the books out there quite offensive to their cultures”. Wong continues to explain that the exoticisation/appropriation of Asian culture in literature is harmful. The women are often fetishised, adding to the fetishisation of Asian women in real-life. “If there could be more British-Asian writers published in Britain, this would, hopefully, change; Asian writers have to be able to show their perspectives. In The Life of a Banana, I’ve tried to show the perspective of young British-Asians growing up in Britain”.

“Bullying is so commonly experienced by British-Asian children who live here”. Wong explains that the reality of racial-bullying was something that she knew that she wanted to write about from early on in the book’s conception. “It is something that isn’t talked about a huge deal in the newspapers. In recent years, I have noticed that there has been a worrying trend of kids committing suicide as a result of bullying. I remember reading, a few years ago, about this little boy from Congo – I think he was about 11 years old and had been bullied at school in Britain – and he hung himself. And it really got to me, reading that story. From my experience within the Chinese community, I estimate that about ninety-nine percent of the Chinese people that I’ve met have faced some form of racial bullying. It can go from extreme physical violence – like what happens to Xing in the book – to really damaging psychological bullying: being treated like an outsider, called names, being isolated. I wanted to encapsulate it all in this book – the feelings that people have when they go through racial bullying”.

Wong’s own experiences of being psychologically bullied at her secondary school in London have fed into the plot of The Life of a Banana. “My bullying was not physical, but it really did mess with my head; I was often isolated and ignored and treated like an outsider just because my parents were different, my name was different, I looked different and dressed different. Other students would completely ignore me and only speak to me to insult me. Psychological bulling can stick with you for a long time. A lady who I’ve spoken to about this now works in a bank and is doing very well for herself, but she says she finds it really hard to talk to her superiors who are English, white, older women as, in her mind, they take the form of the people who bullied her at school. I feel a responsibility to show readers this reality”.

The Life of a Banana gives a voice to many British-Asians who have, as Wong says, “too-often been labelled, collectively, as silent”. She continues: “Hopefully publishers will be more willing to take the ‘risk’ now on books on a wide range of subjects by British-Asian authors. I don’t think change can happen with just one book, however. But I am hoping that my book will bring to light and help people to dialogue about, not only racial bullying, but also these issues of diversity in literature. I can’t believe that in this day and age, there can still be a first in something like this, that I can be the first British-Chinese published in Britain. I hope that with this book, I’ll be able to encourage other new Asian authors, too, in some small way at least”.

 

Claire Hazelton

This interview first appeared in Issue 4 of Bare Fiction Magazine in November 2014.


The Life of a Banana by PP Wong

Published by Legend Press (2014)

ISBN: 978-1-9100532-1-8

RRP: £7.99

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