#LoveOzYA Q&A with Rebecca Lim
Rebecca Lim is the author of over 20 books, whose work has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards and Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, as well as multiple times for the Aurealis Awards and Davitt Awards, and longlisted for the Gold Inky Award and the David Gemmell Legend Award.
Her newest release, TIGER DAUGHTER (Allen&Unwin), is an authentic Own Voices novel about growing up Asian in Australia, centering on Wen Zhou, the only child of Chinese immigrants.
#LoveOzYA's Dayna Smith chatted to Rebecca about TIGER DAUGHTER about the inspiration behind the story, capturing the migrant child experience, and how she organises her writing time alongside her day job.
You can also check out clips from our interview with Rebecca on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
For those people who haven’t read TIGER DAUGHTER, could you give us a synopsis?
Sure. TIGER DAUGHTER is a really, I guess, it’s a lot of things all wrapped up in one. It’s kind of a cultural critique, it’s a domestic quest narrative where you know you have someone who is fairly powerless trying to change her situation and change the situation of people who need help around her. But it also speaks to issues that we’re all grappling with at the moment, like violence against women and children and sexism and things that really bother kids and adults in society today.
And your central character is 13 and she’s grappling with a whole heaps of these issues, being a Chinese migrant, and dealing with a lot of things at home and at school?
Yes, she’s got a friend who’s a little less advanced in English than she is because she’s been in the country longer so a lot of the novel is about her supporting this friend.
You’ve written 20 books so far. On Instagram, you wrote that this is a personal departure for you. How is it different from the other books you’ve written?
I’m probably best known for paranormal novels for YA audiences, so things that are sort of intersections between paranormal and crime or pure crime or thriller-mystery type things.
I’m kind of well known for writing stories where people fall out of the sky and have amazing powers they didn’t know they could access. So this kind of story, which is kind of a small canvas work, I guess, which looks back at what it felt like for me to be a migrant as a child.
It is a really personal, kind of scary departure, and I probably won’t be showing it to my parents. It’s not autobiographical, but there’s a lot of lived experience and there’s a lot of first-hand stories that I’ve heard from people and things I’ve seen within the community and the extended family so there’s a lot of really personal stuff in there and hopefully it reads quite true and authentic to my culture.
On a lighter note, the food descriptions in this book are fantastic. They made me hungry every time. Are those all dishes you can cook or that you’ve eaten, you know, friends or family making them for you?
It’s a combination of both. I guess it’s probably the outer limit of what I can personally myself cook, but I have had some of those dishes made for me and I’ve made some of them myself, so they do actually work and I’m glad you found them tasty.
On that note, I’m not sure I’d actually want to be at the kitchen table with the family because one of the strong senses I had reading the book was tension, a lot of tension with the family dynamics and then the tension between what it’s like at home versus the public persona at school, that the main character is grappling with all these issues.
Yeah, I guess for a lot of migrant and refugee children, and I can’t speak for all of them, but what I noticed myself as a child who came to the country not speaking English, there’s a lot of grappling with how do I navigate the external world with school and all the adults and people I don’t really know who don’t speak the way I do or have the same cultural conditions or background? And then how do I navigate my home world where I’m picking up all these things like independence and rebellion and thinking a little bit differently outside the home and then trying to apply it inside the home?
So I think even today there was a recent article in the newspaper about how second generation kids get a lot of cultural pressure from their parents to be a certain way but every other impulse in their life is telling them to be the complete opposite, so I was trying to capture that.
I think a lot of fiction for kids still doesn’t get that intersection between feeling like an outsider, but having to pretend like you’re an insider during the day, but you’re usually just an outsider because you don’t have the cultural capital or you don’t have the language to navigate things properly like someone possibly who was born here.
That’s why there’s a lot of tension because it’s like why do we have to do things this way? And there’s a lot of questioning of cultural background and you know, there’s a lot of good you can get from your cultural background, but there’s a lot of entrenched stuff that we haven’t thought about, like in the Chinese culture, for thousands of years, we haven’t sort of critiqued why do we do it like this? Why are women treated like this?
Even though it’s a novel for upper middle grade/lower YA, it’s taking all those questions about why. Why do we do things like this? Is it necessarily the right way or the best way to do something? Is this the best way to raise your daughter? Is this the best way to treat your wife? It’s all those big questions, but just in a very domestic, quiet-looking narrative.
Is there a message that you’d like readers to take away from it?
For this book, I just wanted kids who are possibly in that situation where they’re feeling a little bit torn or a little bit hopeless with the way home life is, or with the unsafety of their own conditions, to get the feeling that one day they’ll have the fluency that they’re craving, one day they’ll be able to bust out of the box they’ve been put in, and that there’s a lot of hope, like you should never lose hope.
There’s one character, she’s totally given up hope and you can see all the ramifications of actually doing that, but if you look at the story arcs for the characters who don’t give up hope, you can see that their future is actually wide open, it’s doesn’t look like that at the beginning, but it gets bigger for them and their paths really do widen out and so that’s the story I wanted to give to kids: don’t feel like the way you are now is the way you’ll always be.
You actually will have the change to grow and change and experience different things in life.
I wanted to move into asking you about your writing practice because you have written quite a number of novels. So do you write full-time, part-time, are you writing this late at night, at a writing retreat? How does it work for you?
I wish I had time for a writing retreat, that would be lovely, to go where someone cooked for you and you could just write.
No, unfortunately, like most writers I have a day job, so four days a week is the day job and that leaves me so shattered I can barely put two words together that aren’t technical or legal.
For the rest of the week, those three days pretty much I’ll be doing either technical or creative writing and I do tend to, sort of like at traffic lights or waiting for someone, I jot ideas down so I’m constantly writing and I do do creative writing on days when I’m doing my day job, but for me, because I’ve always tried to squeeze writing in among others things, so pretty much if I’m not thinking about work, if my eyes are open, I’ll be writing.
For me there’s never any writers block because I never have enough time. I think I’ve set it up so I never have time to actually worry if I’ve got ideas, all I know is I have two hours, I’ve got to get something out because otherwise those two hours will be gone and I’ll have to go do something else. So that how I kind of structure it. I’m writing when I’m awake or thinking about ideas or stories, or eavesdropping on people, like I’m constantly going, 'that’s a great turn of phrase, I’m going to stick that in my book', and I’ve done that before, like on a train station platform and someone said (can I swear?), she said something like 'yeah, it’s really, really deep, it’s got deep themes and shit' and I thought, yeah I’m going to use that sentence in a book! So I did, I dropped that into the Astrologer’s Daughter.
But I just love listening to people and picking up words like ‘cobber’ and ‘sport’ and things I don’t use myself and just dropping them into the text so it’s sounds more authentic. So yeah, that’s one of my writing tricks, just listening to real people speaking.
Do you have any practical tips for aspiring writers?
A: I think these days it’s a lot easier to get started with writing because there’s so many fan fiction websites and also a lot of big publishers these days, back when I was starting out they would never wouldn’t accept anything from you that wasn’t on a piece of paper, signed, posted.
Nowadays every week or every month a lot of the huge publishers will actually accept pitches from people via email. So if you’re really an aspiring writer and this what you want to do, nut out your story line, have your first few chapters ready to go, and start submitting because a lot of the publishing companies will publish 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds, really young writers, which is not something they would have done in the past.
So really the message for most writers is just do it, get it out there and don’t be afraid and if you get rejected, like I do all the time, just keep doing it.
Just keep trying.
A couple of years, you edited and put out a book called Voices from the Intersection, and I just wondered if you could tell us a bit more about that initiative and why you started it?
Voices from the Intersection was something I voluntarily did with another writer, Ambelin Kwaymullina. She’s a First Nations writer from the West coast, and I work on the East coast. We were finding ourselves, not together necessarily, but we were finding ourselves as the ‘diversity person’ on the panel and you’d be the single diverse person there and trying to speak for so many writers from so many intersections and backgrounds.
But I can’t speak for LGBT people because that’s not my background, but people were saying ‘well, you’re diverse, so why don’t you tell us about LGBT women?’ and I can’t. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be that, you should have a LGBT person on your panel. I cannot speak for them because that’s not my lived experience.
It’s not about panels, or boffins in the publishing industry talking about it, it’s about mentoring diverse publishing professionals or writers. So for us, given we don’t get funding for this or seek grants, what can we do so we know a lot of publishers so let’s put together a pitch day where people who were not ordinarily picked up by publishing can come and actually see a person from HarperCollins, or Black Inc, you know.
What advice would you give to young people about translating their feelings into creative activism? What are some small steps they can take?
The beauty of technology and social media these days is that you can take your activism (online), and if it happens to be poetry, or dance, or whatever, you actually can start getting bits of art out there.
I think the biggest thing for young people is to not be afraid. If you want to be an artist or a writer, the thing you need to deal with constantly — and I had a massive rejection in December from a big publisher — you just have to suck up the pain, get out there, and do it again.
And I think you need to be brave above to do that first piece of art, hang it there, and see what happens. Because people are looking out for new voices now.