The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Youth writer Gabrielle Wang’s characters solve cross-cultural conundrums with magic and aplomb

The spirit of Pocahontas has been haunting The Displaced Nation this month, lending a helping hand to anyone who feels stymied by the strange customs they’ve encountered in other lands.

This precocious Native American girl appears to have been naturally gifted in openness and tolerance — else how could she have become an intermediary between her father’s tribes and the Jamestown settlers at age 10?

The majority of us, however, are not naturals when it comes to cross-cultural relations. We could use some basic training, preferably while still young.

As suggested in one of this month’s posts, one solution might be to absorb the whole of Harry Potter — all those tales of discrimination against Half-bloods and Muggles.

But not every youth can identify with a universe that is governed by the laws of who’s magic and who isn’t. Take Pocahontas, for instance. If she prayed for magic in her dealings with the white invaders, it was most likely for herself, never mind anyone else.

Perhaps, then, I have her to thank for guiding me towards Melbourne-based author Gabrielle Wang, whose books for children and young people feature characters who in many ways resemble the feisty Anne of Green GablesPollyanna or Calpurnia Tate — but with a further twist: Wang’s heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang’s very first book, The Garden of Empress Cassia (to be published for the first time in the U.S. this fall) involves a heroine, Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she discovers a a box of magic pastels that enables her to draw, and then enter, the garden of the Empress Cassia — a transformative experience.

Wang’s latest heroine, Poppy, is even more unusual: she’s a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century. Poppy’s Aboriginal mother died when she was a baby, and her Chinese father disappeared before she was born. When her brother, Gus, runs away to look for gold, Poppy decides to follow. Disguising herself as a boy, she stows away on a paddle steamer and keeps in touch with Gus through a secret code and Chinese symbols.

Wang’s books are targeted at the youth market, but adults are very fond of them as well. Here’s what one reviewer had to say of her first book in the Poppy series:

I’m sure young girls living in Australia who are interested in their country’s history will love this book, but as an adult living in America, I really enjoyed it too!

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Wang in person — at a congee restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. Here’s how our conversation went:

Can you tell me a little about your background?
I’m a fourth-generation Chinese Australian on my mother’s side and first generation on my father’s. I live in Melbourne, where I’ve been a professional writer of children’s and young adult books for nine years. I’ve written ten books published by Penguin Books Australia, and a picture book published by Blackdog Books, now an imprint of Walker.

All my novels involve cross-cultural issues as that is my background. Being brought up in Australia and knowing little about my own heritage, I felt was a tremendous disadvantage. I was ashamed of looking different. I couldn’t speak Chinese and knew little of the beliefs and customs of China. Now, when I look back at that period in my life I know that if I’d been steeped in the culture of China, I would have grown up proud of my heritage. It was only when I left school that I realized that belonging to two cultures was an advantage and began learning Mandarin.

My latest books are being released this year three months apart. There are four in the Our Australian Girl series about a half-Chinese half-Aboriginal girl named Poppy.

Right now I’m working on a ghost short story for a Penguin anthology as well as thinking about my next novel, called The Wish Bird.

This month, our blog has dedicated many of its posts to Pocahontas, who was a member of the original displaced peoples in North America. Are the stories of the Native Americans and Australia’s Aborigines very similar?
Definitely, there are many similarities. But my impression of the Native Americans is of a more warring people — at least that’s how they’re often portrayed in the old cowboy-and-Indian films. I’m probably stereotyping here. The Aborigines were also driven off their hunting grounds. Many were slaughtered by the squatters while others starved to death or died from disease. It was a tragic time in Australian history which carried through even to the 1960s. The scars and the injustices still exist today.

The European settlement of Australia occurred at least a century later than that of North America. Were Australia’s settlers still influenced by the ideal of the Noble Savage, “the good wild man,” in their encounters with the natives?
The squatters of the 1800s looked down upon the Aborigines. They had no idea that the Indigenous Australians had a highly advanced and complex culture and belief system. And by the 1850s and 1860s, when my Poppy stories take place, the ideal of the Noble Savage never crossed anyone’s mind. At that time, large numbers of people from all over the world went to Australia to look for gold, not to discover a new land.

Turning to your Poppy books, I noticed that you employed the nature trope that’s associated with the Aborigines. Poppy uses the Southern Cross to guide her travels, follows water birds, eats wild raspberries and honey-flavoured sap-sucking bugs…
The Aborigines’ belief system is closely linked to the land they inhabit and to the animals in their environment. They have animal totems and there are sacred places all around Australia. Unfortunately, most of these sacred sites are not in the hands of the local Indigenous people and have been lost or desecrated. But if you go and visit the known ones, like I have, you can still feel a tremendous power and energy in the landscape.

When I was on a writing/walking trek through Central Australia near Alice Springs, we camped, with the permission of the local Indigenous tribe, on a sacred site. It was an amazing experience.

I am very interested in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, the I Ching and Daoism – which are not that dissimilar to the beliefs of the Indigenous Australians and their relationship with nature. The Aborigines are also like the Chinese in that they have an advanced plant medicine system.

Was it difficult to think through how an Aborigine child might have felt back then?
In my story, Poppy was born on a Christian mission, so she knows very little about her own culture. I am not an expert on Aborigine culture, so I was careful not to step over the line. I had several Aboriginal advisors who I consulted with. John Sandy Atkinson is an elder for the Bangerang tribe and Maxine Briggs is the Koorie Liaison officer at the State Library of Victoria. They were invaluable to me while writing the Poppy series. As a Chinese person, I know how wrong some authors can be when writing about a culture they have little knowledge of. It is easy to misconstrue and misunderstand things so I was careful to avoid this.

Since you’re so interested in the topic of portraying other cultures, you may find it interesting that Maxine Briggs lent me Werner Herzog’s film Where the Green Ants Dream just so I could see how NOT to portray another culture. The film as you may know had to do with a dispute between a mining company and the local Indigenous tribes in the Australian desert.

I noticed in reading some excerpts that the white people Poppy meets behave quite decently. Did you make them like that on purpose?
Race is a highly sensitive subject and sometimes it’s difficult to strike a good balance. In Poppy’s time, the 1860s, racial prejudice towards Aborigines was at an all-time high. But I’m always aware of my audience — children 8-11 years old. When you write for young people you have a responsibility. It is important to be positive; otherwise, the same prejudices can begin all over again.

Up until now, you’ve created Chinese heroines for your book. What inspired you to create a character who was only half-Chinese?
I wanted to write about the period when my maternal great-grandfather came to Victoria to join the Gold Rush. I also wanted to highlight the plight of the Indigenous population during that time when white settlement expanded at such an alarming rate. Before 1834, around 100,000 Aboriginal people lived in the State of Victoria. By 1860, with the influx of white settlers and the discovery of gold, this number had fallen to less than 2000. That figure is shocking.

I think I’d also been influenced by the recent consciousness in Australia about the injustices done to the Aborigines. Beginning in 1869, the Australian government rounded up the Aborigines into missions (as already mentioned, Poppy is from one such mission) and began removing some of the children — the ones who were of mixed race — from their families to work as indentured servants for white families. I’m talking about the so-called stolen generations. If you’ve seen the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

It’s a big issue right now in Australia — and is finally being recognized as a national tragedy. The former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, presented a formal apology in 2008 for this misguided policy. It was a long time coming.

To sum up: I could have just written about a Chinese child, but I wanted to stretch myself and imagine a child who was half Chinese, half Aborigine. It is important for young people to walk in the shoes of someone who is different — who might be of a different culture, race and skin color. Only by doing this can we empathize with others.

Were you able to find any examples of half-Chinese, half-Aboriginal children on which you could base the story?
In my research there were no written records in Victoria of mixed race children at that time. But there’s no doubt they would have existed as the Chinese gold diggers were all men. They left their wives and family back in China.

So an Aboriginal character was a first for you. Was it also the first time a non-Aboriginal person had written a story for kids?
No. The highly respected and wonderful Australian children’s author Patricia Wrightson may have been the first. But I’m certainly the first non-white Australian author to write about an Aboriginal character.

Is it important that you’re a “non-white”?
I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street. I always felt embarrassed when my parents came to school as my mother would sometimes appear in traditional dress, and my father didn’t speak English well, which I found embarrassing. Of course, it’s changed now as more Chinese have migrated to Australia, but back then, Chinese Australians were real outsiders.

You have been an expat for several years, living in Taiwan and then Mainland China. Can you tell us what that felt like?
Strangely enough, before my first visit to China in 1977, I always said that I was going back to China even though I had never been there before. Perhaps this is true of many children of migrants. When I actually went to Taiwan and China to live, I was at a disadvantage because I couldn’t speak Chinese very well and therefore was never fully accepted. Language is so important.

There were a couple of incidents in particular that made me realize how difficult it would be living in China — apart from the difficulty of learning the language, that is.

Once in Taiwan, I was invited to a friend’s house. It was her birthday. I brought a gift of a necklace, but was so surprised when she didn’t open the gift, nor did she acknowledge its receipt with a thank-you. I thought, how rude! I had no idea that in China, it’s rude to open gifts in front of the giver.

The other incident occurred in Mainland China, when I was invited to a banquet by a friend of my mother’s. She sat next to me and kept filling my plate. In Australia, it’s impolite not to finish the food on your plate, so I kept eating what was given to me, only to have it filled again. Finally, when I couldn’t fit in another morsel of food, I put my chopsticks down and sat back. My hostess breathed an audible sigh of relief. In China, of course, people like to show their hospitality by giving their guests more food than they can possibly eat.

Your personal story is inspirational as you never fancied yourself a writer.
When I was younger, I didn’t think I could write at all. I failed Year 12 English and had to repeat the whole year because I wanted to study Graphic Design at University. When I became interested in children’s books, it was to illustrate them not to write the words. But in the year 2000 I took a writing course and discovered I had hidden potential. We all do, I think. And it’s never too late to find out what it is. I explore that theme a lot in my books, especially The Hidden Monastery.

As part of Pocahontas month, we’ve been coming up with proverbs for those who wish to spend their time abroad getting to know other cultures. Can you give us one proverb based on your own experiences?

“If you want to know what it means to be a migrant or a person who is displaced by outside forces, then live in — don’t just visit — another country where you cannot speak the language.”

To that I would add:

“If you can, make it a country where people have skin of a different color to yours. Then, and only then, can you understand what it means to be an outsider.”

Gabrielle Wang’s book The Garden of Empress Cassia will be published in USA by Kane Miller this September. You can also visit her Web site at www.gabriellewang.com.

Images: Gabrielle Wang at Congee Bowery, NYC (by Susumu Awanohara); front cover of Wang’s first Poppy book; and front cover of the about-to-be-released American edition of her very first work, The Garden of the Empress Cassia.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment of our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who learns more about her bête noire, the realtor Melissa. Were her initial misgivings about Melissa justified?

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Nation. That way, you won’t miss a single issue. SPECIAL OFFER: New subscribers receive a FREE copy of “A Royally Displaced Tea.”

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9 responses to “Youth writer Gabrielle Wang’s characters solve cross-cultural conundrums with magic and aplomb

  1. savingaussiebooks July 27, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I absolutely loved this interview, Gabi and ML. So interesting, and full of Gabi’s generous, humane, thoughtful and lovely nature! I can’t wait to read the Poppy books.🙂
    Looking forward to seeing you again at the Ipswich Festival of Children’s Literature.

  2. Sheryl Gwyther July 27, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    This is of course, Sheryl Gwyther – don’t know why it’s slipped into the savingaussiebooks blog.🙂

  3. Corinne Fenton July 28, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Great interview of Gabi, ML.

  4. ML Awanohara July 28, 2011 at 10:57 am

    @Gabi
    I find it interesting what you say about being ashamed of being the only Chinese face in your school growing up. In my school, which was very posh (we went there for free because my father taught there), I feel marginalized because 1) I wasn’t posh; and 2) I was one of the few kids there who wasn’t a WASP (my dad’s family came over to the U.S. from Germany and my mum’s from Italy).

    The Italian blood was a particular source of shame because we had one teacher in middle school (exactly the age group you write for!) who made us go around the room and say what our ethnic background was — can you imagine? And for the kids who had Italian heritage (there were just three of us), he — his background was English and Scottish — had some choice words for “our people,” having to do with his hatred of the Mafia.

    That teacher was later dismissed for some other offense, but the damage had been done…at least as far as I was concerned. (The other two were boys, and probably less sensitive.)

    My mum didn’t know how to handle my shame and told me to tell everyone I was half Austrian instead!

    It wasn’t until I became an adult that I started being honest about my ethnicity…

    Anyway, thanks to our conversation, I now realize that this may have motivated me in some useful directions — towards working on cross-cultural relations and also becoming a writer on a blog like this!🙂

    • Gabrielle Wang July 29, 2011 at 6:11 am

      How dreadful that a teacher should be so bigoted! Thank goodness times have changed, well they have here in Australia, anyway.

      When I visit schools to talk about books and writing as I did today, I often mention how I felt as a child. I also tell them that if I hadn’t felt such hurt or experienced racial predjudice, I wouldn’t be a writer today because I wouldn’t have anything to say. Writing must come from the heart.

  5. amblerangel July 28, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Very interesting- I didn’t know much about this until I read “Picket Fences” which was referenced in the blog and such a good book! I was ridiculed for being a Catholic in the American South. What a hoot.

  6. Pingback: A RANDOM NOMAD « Lei Lady Lei

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