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>> Teenage dreams or a new life

Teenage dreams or a new life

Teenage dreams or a new life

SUE CHEUNG writes about growing up above a Chinese takeaway, dysfunctional families and best friends in her debut novel, CHINGLISH (Andersen Press). Here, Sue tells us how she drew on her own life experiences to write the novel.

Teenager Jo Kwan lives above her parent's Chinese takeaway shop, and sometimes life is tough. But her diary and doodles also help inspire her dreams of escape from a family with myriad problems.

Author SUE CHEUNG describes CHINGLISH as 'An almost entirely true story', and here she tells us how her own teenage years inspired the novel:

Q: CHINGLISH is your debut novel - what brought you into writing for young people?

A: I'd always fancied writing and illustrating stories ever since picking up my first picture books at infant school. I've been able to draw since I could hold a crayon without eating it and my favourite subjects were art and English, so it was a natural direction for me to go in.

However, I didn't submit any work until I was in my 30s, then it took three years of trying before I got published. Previous to Chinglish I'd only ever done picture books.

Q: And why this book? How autobiographical is it?

A: It was during a visit to my agent James back in November 2015 when he asked about my childhood. Weird, I thought. Why would he want to know about that? I proceeded to tell him how hard done by I was, having been dragged up in a Chinese takeaway in my early teens. 'I hated it,' I moaned, 'they were the worst years of my life.' And he responded by saying, 'Then you should write about it!'

I thought it was the worst idea ever. I'd spent the best part of my life hiding my shameful and embarrassing past and now someone was asking me to dig it up for all the world to see. But eventually, after realising the book could help others, I agreed.

I'd say about 80% of the book is true. I had to make up the bits that help weave the anecdotes together to make it into a readable narrative.

Q: What was it about your teenage years that made it a good subject for a book?

A: The fact that there was never a dull moment - good or bad! Yes, my family were dysfunctional but eccentric too, especially as the Chinese culture was so different to the English. Also, my way of dealing with life at the time was to use humour as a coping mechanism, so I try to see the lighter side of things which makes the book funny.

Q: Was it still a hard book to write, why? How long did it take to write?

A: There was a lot of resistance to start with because the first thoughts that came into my head were of my dad being physically abusive to us kids and I didn't want to bring all that up again. Then I remembered how torturous it was having to work in the takeaway at an age when most other kids were out having fun with their mates.

On top of that there were the issues of school bullying, racism and the all-round angst of being a teenager. These were horrible memories that had to be brought back into the open again.

It took three and a half years to write and illustrate, alongside working a full-time job. It was hard not just time-wise but also because it was my first novel and a huge learning curve.

Q: Chinglish details what it was like to grow up in an English town with a Chinese
heritage. Do you feel that children with Chinese heritage are generally overlooked, and if so why do you feel this happens?

A: Like all teens all I wanted to do was fit in, but I couldn't because a) I looked different and b) I lived above the shop in a Chinese takeaway, which made me appear even more Chinese! I couldn't do anything about (a) but I resented my parents for making me do (b)!

I'm not sure I can speak for other Chinese children as me, my brother and cousin were the only Chinese kids at school. But if they are anything like us, they would have been keeping their heads down on purpose to avoid being picked on.

Q: The family in Chinglish is very dysfunctional. Was it difficult to explore the family, while also keeping humour in the story?

A: The family in Chinglish is a pretty accurate description of my real family. As I'd said before, my coping tool was humour as I was growing up so it was easy to recount experiences in a funny light. Ok, some of the darker moments weren't very nice to experience at the time but because it was so long ago, I can almost detach myself and talk about them as if they'd happened to someone else.

Q: Was there any part in the book that you particularly enjoyed writing?

A: Yes, all the ones that involved our pets! They added extra mayhem and comedy value and they do things that humans can't or won't. Believe it or not, all the pet stories in Chinglish are true!

Q: And were parts especially difficult, for example the darker side of the dad's temper?

A: The violence was definitely the hardest part. I'm not sure if all writers are the same but when writing a scene, I have to visualise it like a film clip to see at the detail before putting it down. Plus it's never very nice being reminded about it.

Also getting into the minds of my parents and knowing what they really felt. I never knew, so I had to guess a lot of it.

Q: Have you had any unexpected comments back from readers, what has the feedback been like from young people?

A: I've had a few such as: they've laughed and cried at the same time, or they've laughed at the awful bits and apologised to me for it! Also many readers relate to the language barrier problem - not just Asians, but people from all over the world. And I've had a lot who've claimed they couldn't put the book down and finished the book in one sitting.

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from Chinglish?

A: I'd like them to see how I got through life and be inspired to do the same, by seeing the lighter side of life no matter what the adversities, hanging onto their hopes and dreams and by knowing they have the power to change things. And that they are never alone.

Q: Why did you decide to illustrate the book with doodles, which you drew yourself?

A: I wanted the comic line style to match my voice and to look like the sort of thing I would have doodled as a teenager. The looseness and humour also helps to take the edge off some of the darker situations.

Q: Where did most of the writing take place for Chinglish?

A: At home I have an office in the attic which doubles as a guest bedroom. It's a bit of a pain as I have to switch it back and forth to suit. What I'd really like is my own studio in the back garden, built to look like a little Swiss cottage with window boxes full of nasturtiums.

Q: How does writing fit into your 'day job' as a designer / illustrator, and what are you working on now?

A: I was working full-time as a designer while writing Chinglish, but luckly there was always a library nearby so I'd go to those at lunchtimes. There were also coffee shops but they could get noisy sometimes. Now I work part-time so I can fit more writing in.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the events you do for schools?

A@ My events vary depending on the book I'm focusing on and what the school requires. For example I've taught mindfulness to Years 1 to 2, shown Years 3 to 6 how to create characters, talked about and read Chinglish to Years 7 to 9, and lectured college students about how a book is made. I use screen presentations as a visual tool and whiteboards/flipcharts to demonstrate drawing live and there's always a Q&A at the end.

Q: What are your favourite escapes from your desk?

A: Well for short distances, it's getting up to make a cup of tea and pet the cats. Longer distances involve travelling around the world, as I love visiting different countries and experiencing new cultures and food. I do a lot of scuba diving and have swam with sharks, manta rays, dolphins and turtles. I also enjoy yoga and can do headstands on demand!

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