This year has seen the UKYA industry thinking a lot about #ownvoices and diversity in its books. It's something I'm really passionate about, and there are so many books I have on my TBR and wishlist that are written by and champion BAME voices. I want to make a conscious effort to diversify the books I read, not only because these books are bloody brilliant regardless, but because it's so important to familiarise yourself with different cultures and backgrounds to your own.
Along these lines, I was super stoked to receive a review copy of Chinglish by Sue Cheung, kindly gifted to me by Andersen Press. This book sounded so interesting and I couldn't wait to read it, and I'm pleased to say I was not disappointed. Chinglish follows Jo Kwan and her new life in Coventry - it's 1984, and Jo is growing up in a crazy world with her crazy family. Her brother was sent to live with her grandparents (Jo doesn't know why), and that's not the only thing that's bothering her. This was meant to be a new start, but her family's new flat is right above the Chinese takeaway her parents run. Jo's new school has it's fair share of bullies, but her art classes keep her sane. Can Jo achieve her dreams even when it feels like everything is getting in her way?
Intrigued? Check out the blurb here...
It is difficult trying to talk in our family cos:
a) Grandparents don’t speak English at all
b) Mum hardly speaks any English
c) Me, Bonny and Simon hardly speak Chinese
d) Dad speaks Chinese and good English – but doesn’t like talking
In other words, we all have to cobble together tiny bits of English and Chinese into a rubbish new language I call 'Chinglish'. It is very awkward.
Jo Kwan is a teenager growing up in 1980s Coventry with her annoying little sister, too-cool older brother, a series of very unlucky pets and utterly bonkers parents. But unlike the other kids at her new school or her posh cousins, Jo lives above her parents' Chinese takeaway. And things can be tough – whether it's unruly customers or the snotty popular girls who bully Jo for being different. Even when she does find a BFF who actually likes Jo for herself, she still has to contend with her erratic dad's behaviour. All Jo dreams of is breaking free and forging a career as an artist.
Told in diary entries and doodles, Jo's brilliantly funny observations about life, family and char siu make for a searingly honest portrayal of life on the other side of the takeaway counter.
Chinglish is one of the best #ownvoices stories out there in UKYA right now. Chinglish was belly-achingly funny, heartbreaking, tender and unflinchingly honest all at the same time. I couldn't put it down; I cared deeply for Jo, and loved hearing about her life through her diary entries (often accompanied by wonderful sketches). From the 2011 consensus 0.7% of people living in England and Wales are chinese, but I feel like the British Chinese are astonishingly under-represented in books, movies and TV (particularly YA!) So Chinglish was a really interesting read for me, and it was great reading about this perspective.
Jo was a great protagonist and the way she presented her life was extraordinarily and vibrantly detailed - from the descriptions of her eccentric family (and various animal lunacy, including exploding goats) to 1980s Coventry. I particularly enjoyed her interactions with her sister, Bonny, and her friend Gurdeep whose parents run the corner shop. I also adored Tina, because who doesn't need a friend like her?!
Chinglish is an unapologetically honest account based on the author's own life, and this is perhaps why the story is told so well. It opened my eyes up to a world very different from my own, and this just goes to show why it's so great to champion diversity in books. This novel had everything in it - characters that jumped off the pages, heartache, humour and a good sprinkling of reality - this is life as real as it gets. There are plenty of upsetting moments, but I was so relieved about the way the book ended.
I'm really excited to see what Sue Cheung does next - Chinglish like a tall glass of water, and is exactly what the UKYA genre so desperately needs right now.
Pre-order Chinglish here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chinglish-Sue-Cheung/dp/1783448393
Check out Sue Cheung here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/1083757/sue-cheung.html
Until next time :)