"Look what she's eating!"
They spoke in English but she could understand a little.
The two girls eyed her from afar, inspecting the contents of her half-opened lunch box. Her lunch, it seemed, had aroused their curiosity. But she knew this packed lunch was only an extension of who she was. They'd examined her lunch because it was the only way they could safely observe or judge her, the stranger. Or at least that's what it felt like.
Her ears burnt from shame. She glanced down at the box on her lap with dismay. Was it really so odd? So different?
A packet of Pac Man chips
A mini Snickers
Two ham and beetroot sandwhiches
A muesli bar
An orange juice poppa.
It seemed like a normal lunch. She began to chew self-consciously, tucking her folded legs under her blue school uniform and looking away to avoid the uninvited stares. It was odd how something as universal as eating fell under scrutiny when one was a stranger. A stranger.
Later, after much contemplation, she started to believe that maybe there had been a little too much food in there. After all, those other girls she'd met in class always used to complain about their fat thighs, their fat calves. They'd eat half as much as her and were much thinner. By the end of the year she would have drastically reduced the food she ate for lunch. By then, she would only pack two crackers with cheese and a muesli bar. But for now, she went home and just told her mum in French,
"Mum, can you please only make me one sandwhich tomorrow. Also I don't want a muesli bar."
Her mum was confused.
It was 1986. She'd just immigrated to Australia about a month ago and Grade 6 was a confusing world where one could see but not understand. English words became obsessions and every day was a new word. They'd change her name too. Because on the first day, the teacher had quickly told her that her real name was a boy's name.
"I had been expecting a boy," he reproached. "We'd best change your name so that the other school kids don't get confused."
Her auntie translated it all. At first it sounded like fun.
"What would you like to be called?"
"How about Laure? It's close enough to Laurence."
"It's too difficult to pronounce in English," protested the carrot-haired school teacher.
"What about Laura?" suggested her aunt.
Laura it was. In a matter of minutes, an identity can be changed. It's so easy. You just have to adapt.
They called her Laura. She'd just turned 11. She was anxious and ashamed in those first 6 months. And she had a secret back then.
Because she long ached to try those cream buns with their pink coconut icing, the ones they sold every day at the tuckshop. But she'd held back, terrified about what would happen. She'd remembered how those girls had stared at her in the playground when she ate and the way it made her feel.
And then one day, it started. When no one was looking, she would hide. She would buy a coconut iced bun at recess and creep inside the toilets. There she'd find an empty cubicle, lock the door and enjoy the bun, away from sight. It would happen many times.
It was odd how something as universal as eating could become a source of shame when one was a stranger. A stranger.
17 December 2010
"Look what she's eating!"
13 December 2010
6 December 2010
The Ming Storytellers is a novel set in 15th century Ming China. It took me four years to research and write, while working and/or studying and I am still in the throes of the manuscript editing process.
My sources and inspirations have included historical journals, medical forums, an endless list of history books, Ming literature, books on Chinese clothing, Chinese maps, astronomical articles, medical articles, a visit to China, Chinese epic films like Feng Xiaogang's "The Banquet" (set in a different period) and my imagination.
I am not modest about this novel. From the point of view of someone raised in a predominantly Western environment with no knowledge of the Chinese language, writing about China, let alone an obscure China of the 15th century, is no mean feat.
Yet, this novel is bound to encounter criticism from historians, Chinese nationalists or even from those who believe they know best and who have never written anything themselves.
That is ok. Every human endeavor invites one of, or a mixture of three possible responses. There will always be criticism, admiration and indifference. This is inevitable. The only hope one always has is that those who criticise will be constructive and knowledgeable.
Still, I value the uniqueness and pioneering nature of The Ming Storytellers. As described by Thomas Carter in his Amazon List of China Historical Fiction, The Ming Storytellers stands as one of the very few historical novels written in English and set in China.
Thomas Carter who is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, indicates that,
"Whether this is due to China’s notorious cultural and geographical inaccessibility or simply a lack of wherewithal by western authors to tackle such an immense subject, the fact remains that for all its wealth of material, China is one of the least written-about countries in historical fiction.
(Of author James Michener’s vast catalog of historical fiction, not one of his 40+ titles takes place in China; apparently the 9.5 million sq. km., 5,000 year-old China was a bit much for the late Michener to take on.)"
- Thomas Carter
I would like to intercede on James Michener's behalf. In his book, Hawaii, Michener does indeed touch on Chinese culture, notably the Hakka ethnic group. He sets part of the novel in China, albeit, mainly to recount the story of Chinese characters migrating to Hawaii.
I feel also that Thomas Carter's list omits Jung Chang's exceptional Wild Swans and perhaps a few others. Having said that, none of the books that I can recount deal with the Ming Dynasty. Their focus is mainly on the Qing Dynasty onwards. Meanwhile, Gavin Menzies' 1421 is the only book set in the Ming Dynasty and even so, his bestseller is not historical fiction but rather history, or some might say, speculative history.
In February 2010, I made a bold and perhaps presumptuous move. I released my novel's website to the public.
My plan this year is to continue with the editing/feedback process. As a first time author, I know better than to approach any publisher or literary agent unless I am confident about the quality manuscript. There is still much to be done.