500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their books and characters. Here, PP Wong, apparently the first British-born, ethnically-Chinese novelist to be published in the UK, discusses her debut novel, The Life of a Banana.
The Chinese slang word banana refers to ethnically Chinese people who are yellow on the outside, white on the inside – in other words, heavily westernised. PP Wong’s main character, Xing Li, is a banana on the brink of adolescence. Although born and raised in London, she never feels she fits in there, especially after her mother dies and she goes to live with her grandma, and her strange Uncle Ho. In order to find her own identity, Xing Li must first negotiate cultural and generational conflicts, whilst discovering what it means to be both British, and Chinese.
So: over to PP Wong…
I am an inbetweener of two places – London and Singapore. My parents were pretty nomadic and travelled back and forth between the two countries. During my schooling in the UK I faced racial bullying and I know what it is like to be an outsider. The Life of a Banana is very much a story about outsiders in society. It is written through the eyes of a 12-year-old British-Chinese girl called Xing Li and follows the struggles of a family finding their place in a challenging society.
The Life of a Banana is not autobiographical. However, the racial bullying and prejudices in the novel were inspired by real life stories. Almost every single Chinese person in the UK that I know has a story about experiencing racism. From being kicked in the face at school, to being called names in the street, to not getting a promotion at work. I was inspired to make light of the gritty reality that British-Chinese people face every day.
The characters Xing Li and Jay, the mixed-race boy who is her only friend, are viewed as losers, both in school and in society. They are members of ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds and not the most popular kids in school. Through them, I wanted to encapsulate the feelings of isolation and confusion that come from being on the periphery of society. Nevertheless, I did not want my novel to be all doom and gloom as humour has always played a very important part in my family. When I was growing up, we would sometimes sit around the dinner table just joking and laughing about the silly experiences in our lives. In The Life of a Banana, there is a lot of light-hearted banter between Xing Li, Jay, and her brother. But there are also dark aspects like Uncle Ho’s struggles with mental illness. When I write, I enjoy playing around with darkness and light; to find beauty in the grittiness of life.
I used to work as an actor, so when I write, I enjoy taking on the personas and voices of different characters. In The Life of a Banana we have grumpy Grandma, glamorous actress Auntie Mei, strange and isolated Uncle Ho, Jamaican-Chinese musician Jay, and the joker of the family, Xing Li’s older brother, Lai Ker.
The first draft of The Life of a Banana was written in a very different style from the published version. The words were more flowery and the voice was that of an older woman looking back on her life. But at the back of my mind, I always had this complex 12-year-old girl wanting to come out. So, after the second draft, I followed my gut and changed the voice of Xing Li. When writing, it is so easy to be distracted by what you think will be a good book rather than writing from your heart. I’m glad I went with my heart.
The Life of a Banana is published in paperback by Monsoon books, priced in local currencies. To buy it from Book Depository click here.
PP Wong runs bananawriters.com, where Asian writers get unpeeled...