Stacey Ng is currently writing a memoir about growing up in a Chinese takeaway family in Birmingham. She is an alumna of the London Writers Award 2018. She was awarded an Arts Council England Project Grant in October 2020.
I remember browsing through the aisles of WHSmiths looking for my next read in 2015. I placed my finger across the bookends and scanned the surnames. I spotted Tan and picked up the book, The Opposite of Fate. I was engrossed reading this humorous slice-of-life type memoir from an American-Chinese female perspective. The accounts of her nagging mother warning her about dangerous things out in the world, her deep-seated belief that Amy was a reincarnation of her own mother, and the strong disapproval of her new Western boyfriend. The cultural clashes between them were a theme I recognised as a teenager. I had unconsciously gravitated towards that book; the surname ‘Tan’, I must have recalled somewhere, was Chinese-sounding.
Writing about experiences that are not represented in the everyday mainstream is challenging. With a lack of visible voices other than a few literary figures, you have to create your own voice to make sense of yourself. I interviewed three fellow second-generation Chinese writers and artists, and asked them how they navigate their work, identity, and creative practice, and if at all there were any challenges.
One of the key themes that stood out was the overarching need to make culture ‘digestible’. I have been researching the development of Chinese takeaway cuisine; a key to its success was the ability to appeal to a Western palate by adapting its core elements. Do we as second-generation writers need to follow in the same vein?
“It took a lot of explaining,” Anne Chen, a fellow alumna of the London Writers’ Award, YA writer and mother of two tells me. She is referring to the experience of pitching her martial arts fantasy YA novel set in ancient China to agents. Fatigue came as it proved challenging to reach a shared level of understanding of her book. Similarly, in her writing groups too, she faced pushback from peers who felt her female protagonist ought to be adventurous, extroverted and heroic like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games. Her lead in contrast was a quiet, meek, intelligent Chinese girl.
Writing in English necessitates reaching a mainstream audience, who likely have little background knowledge of the age-old practices of martial arts, its mind-body philosophy and connection with the teachings of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It is hardly surprising that people unfamiliar with this will find it hard to understand. So does this mean that it is our responsibility as writers to communicate it in a way that makes sense to an audience unfamiliar with it? It’s a broad question that perhaps will stand as a test in this age of diverse publishing, as we see which voices are represented.
Chen has in the meantime made changes to her YA novel and is hopeful. For now, she has transferred her attention to a light-hearted Middle Grade book with a theme of magical martial arts. She seems to have found an interesting mix of projects to work on that allows for experimentation.
As much as our work as second-generation Chinese writers is communicating a story to an English-language audience, it is also about creating a dialogue within the community. I spoke to Dr Denise Kwan, a British-Chinese visual artist, writer, and academic. Her project, Object-Stories of British-Chinese Women, invited elderly women from a Women’s Group based in Haringey Chinese Community Centre London to speak about their lives through objects. Her initial approach was to speak directly to these women but she found it was difficult for them to open up. When the conversation was mediated with the use of objects, she was able to elicit a much deeper dialogue.
In light of the recent spike of racism due to COVID-19, she adds that it has been a strong force in galvanising action in the wider East and South East Asian diaspora community. It has generated a state of positivity and togetherness.
Speaking to Kwan was energising, she is a great example of how a young second-generation of Chinese artists and writers are forming new dialogues and pushing boundaries in their art practice. “Creating a third space arises through a process of making and creating. In acknowledging this space the limitations of stereotypes are made visible,” she said. This feels refreshing, forward facing, and forgiving; with this grand vision, existing categories that once defined boundaries are reshifted to create something new. If anything is needed in such communities it is optimism. I hope that the birth of new young voices paves a path for this community and beyond.
While there are specific cultural challenges facing second-generation Chinese writers, there are also more general ones that do not pertain to one’s identity alone. All of the three women I spoke to shared the many obstacles that writers face in their everyday lives: time to write, blocks, and the challenges of pitching and gaining interest.
I spoke to another London Writers’ Award alumna, who is currently pitching her Middle Grade book. Rather than overt cultural challenges, she has found that market expectations were restrictive in setting the boundaries of what types of books children ought to read and how ‘dark’ they ought to be. “Part of the role of a children’s book is about helping them navigate and process life. Difficult things happen in life, for example divorce. It’s important not to give up on hope,” she tells me. Upon reflection, her book incorporates key themes that share her lived experience as a kid from a migrant family. As a latch-key kid she spent a lot of time on her own; she developed a sense of independence. “Kids have a lot more resilience than you think,” she adds.
The practice and work of writers and artists is to push boundaries within and outside our communities. It is like what I am learning in my Buddhist practice: to show how things really are. And that is humbling, refreshing, raw and interesting in itself. All the three women I spoke to were courageous in their own ways, and were curious and wanted to share their experiences with the world. Although I have taken you through the specific challenges second-generation Chinese face, I want to highlight that in fact there are many similarities that writers will face regardless of what background they are from.