“When people think of ‘Scotland’ they think of a very white literary landscape with lochs and rugged landscapes. They don’t think about South Asians on the Southside of Glasgow and the Scottish Chinese working in takeaways in Nairn.” This quote from the brilliant Scottish Asian author, Maisie Chan, set me thinking. When I looked out of the window, rainy Glasgow was still displaying its damp charm, with pedestrians weaving quietly and swiftly between the dripping crystals.
I saw white couples holding hands, elderly Asian men waiting for the bus, and a group of girls wrapped in hijabs discussing what was new at school today… but if your eyes touched the row of books by the window, you would find the names of white authors printed in foil lettering on the spine. Unlike the view from the window, there is something monotonous and lost about Scottish book publishing in terms of writers.
As a publisher that consistently promotes diversity and inclusion, Ringwood wants to use interviews to tap into, and reach out to, those who are established minority writers in Scotland or are exploring entering the industry. In our interview for Ringwood we will be focusing on the Asian writer community in Scotland and our first interviewee is the excellent writer, Maisie Chan.
“I am hopeful for Asian writers”: Maisie Chan on identity and children’s literature
By Chang Li from Ringwood
As a children’s author, Maisie Chan is working hard to bring Asian narratives to children’s literature. Her debut novel Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths won the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award in 2022. Immigrant families, stereotypes, cultural clashes… Maisie focuses on the lives of minority children which traditional children’s literature fails to reach.
Maisie credits her love of literature to reading, recalling in an excited tone, “I think the first way most writers get into literature is through reading! I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. English was my favourite subject at school, and I think what I was most interested in was the lives of people. I used to have pen pals from all over the world and I would write about my mundane life.”
When talking about why she developed a strong interest in children’s literature, Maisie cites several books that have had a profound impact on her, “I have fond memories of the Ladybird series of books growing up. Most of them were fairy tale retellings. I also loved picture books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Mog books by Judith Kerr.”
“I love books by Frank Cotteril Boyce. I love the humour in his books. I love Jewell Parker Rhodes who wrote Ghost Boys. A.M. Dassu’s book Boy, Everywhere is one of my favourite books for young teens. There are so many good books out there now.”
(Maisie Chan, A brilliant children’s author from Glasgow)
However, Maisie has her own opinion (as to) why she chose ethnic minorities for her stories. “I guess I still like stories about underdogs and outsiders to society,” she admits, “one of my favourite reads as a young person was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I think she wrote that novel aged sixteen.” (She was 15)
“I think many of the greatest and most common stories are about orphans and people who come from non-traditional families or who have had to struggle in life. I guess I can relate to some of that.”
These readings gradually coalesced in Maisie’s mind, and she had a strong and clear urge to record the narratives. “The fact that the stories told by Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, the grandma arriving from China and staying with her British Chinese family is loosely based on something that happened to a school friend of mine. My friend could not speak to her grandma because she spoke a language from a small village that my Cantonese-speaking friend just couldn’t understand.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if such a culture clash existed in every immigrant family? Maisie continues, “I also met my Chinese grandmother and had similar issues, but we communicated by other means when I used to stay with her. I did take inspiration from other older ladies such as my own mum and my Spanish mother-in-law who both over-fed and loved children a lot.”
Many readers with similar experiences have rated the book extremely highly, and they generally believe that Danny Chung is their own version of themselves at a young age. Maisie smiles when she hears such comments, “the book is fiction,though I use my experiences and observations to create fictional worlds that seem real and that are relatable.”
(Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, the winner of the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award)
Before our interview, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the growing presence of Asian writers in the Scottish publishing industry. I urgently ask Maisie why their work is becoming increasingly popular with publishers. “In fact, I don’t know if ScottishAsian writers are ‘popular’ yet,” Maisie continues, “I think there has been a push for‘diversity and inclusion’ among publishers industry wide and so those Scottish Asian voices may have been heard more in recent times as society as a whole seems to be shifting.
I think also there has been a sense of community by the formation of the Scottish BPOC (Black Person and Persons of Colour) Writers Network which formed soon after I moved to Scotland. Before, I think people were working very much in smaller groups or alone.”
“However,” Maisie pauses for a moment and adds, “I think a lot more can be done toincrease opportunities for emerging authors such as long-term mentoring, funding opportunities and investment to help all writers of colour in Scotland. Then we need to reach out to young people and show them that you can be creative and have a voice.”
I detect a sense of concern in Maisie’s response. So I ask, what are the biggest challenges facing Asian authors in Scotland in the wake of the pandemic?
“Visibility and long-term support,” Maisie says without hesitation, “but it’s a variety of things and no two authors have the same paths. You need to hone your craft and often that takes time, dedication, and money. Going on courses, getting a mentor, or attending writing retreats costs a lot of money. Sometimes it’s a class and financial issue rather than one of race. And sometimes there are barriers to getting published because of the gatekeepers to acquire books who don’t think they can engage with the ‘voice’ of the characters or who think they won’t know how to edit a writer of colour. There are many different reasons a manuscript isn’t acquired, and it can often be very subjective.”
“It can take years to become a published novelist and it’s a journey where you grow, your craft gets better, you understand more. I think many people need to realise that and then be prepared to go on that journey.”
“So you think stereotypes about Asian writers/characters actually still exist, do you?” I throw out the question eagerly. “That’s hard to answer,” Maisie shrugs her shoulders a little, “Some stereotypes are sometimes true and sometimes they are used to ‘other’ people and keep them in their place. I worried about writing a book with a Chinese takeaway in it. Was it a stereotype? Was it feeding into the collective imagination that all British Chinese people work in takeaways. Did I know people who still worked in the food industry and how do you frame that? These were the questions I asked myself. I decided that having a Chinese takeaway was a homage to the hard work my relatives and people who emigrated did. It was a way to survive in a hostile and unwelcoming country.”
And how does Maisie deal with these rather tricky issues in her writing? “My writingpurposely confronts some racial profiling and assumptions.”
“For example, in my new book Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu there is a short section where the main character Lizzie tells us that she and her friend Chi (who is mixed Vietnamese and Welsh) were called names in the street. She also schools her grandad on the outdated use of the word ‘Oriental’ which has been out of common use in the States for decades but still is used here in the U.K. and is othering.”
“I suppose,” Maisie says after a pause, thoughtfully, “it matters more how you centre your characters and how you tell the story. Are you feeding into racialised assumptions? Is there internal racism at work? Are there white saviour narratives where the agency of characters of colour are diminished?”
Let’s step away from these intriguing topics for a moment, I would like to know more about Maisie’s expectations for the future of Asian writers in Scotland. Does she have positive faith in minority writers?
“I do have confidence!” exclaims Maisie, and I can see the light shining in her eyes. “The number of Asian authors will increase, the stories they will be interesting and nuanced, and over time we will see more well-known Asian authors. I would like to see more writing for children though. It feels like there is a lack of Asian authors writing for children and young adults.”
(Scottish BPOC Writers Network, an advocacy and development group established in 2018)
“Keep an eye out for Scottish Chinese writer Eliza Chan, she is going to be huge. She was my mentee so I am biased but I am expecting great things from her imagination,” Maisie smiles, “and Taylor Roh, a Korean American writer is multi-talented, she can sing, write plays and takes her craft seriously. Sean Wai Keung is a published poet and performer whose pamphlet about food, his family and Glasgow is thoughtful and heart-warming. I do have confidence in these and other writers from ESEA (East and Southeast Asia) backgrounds who are writing in Scotland.”
“So,” I glance at the end of the list in my notebook, “to sum up the current situation of Asian authors in Scotland in one word, which one would you use? And why?”
“Hopeful,” says Maisie seriously, her tone firm and powerful, “I know lots of aspiring, emerging and professional Asian authors and writers in Scotland and I can see they are growing, and their work is reaching a wider audience. I think that is hopeful.”
Yes, after our thought provoking and positive discussion I agree with Maisie’s assessment of Asian writers: hopeful. The emergence of more and more Asian writers is gradually enriching the diversity of children’s literature. Just as Glasgow’s seemingly continuous rain keeps nourishing the land, the unmistakable shoots of creativity are pushing through all around us. And one day, we will be surprised to see Kelvingrove Park covered in bright, vibrant grass.
* Maisie Chan is a British-born Chinese author. Her debut novel Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths won the Branford Boase 2022, the Jhalak Prize 2022 and was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards 2022. She also started the group Bubble Tea Writers Network to support and encourage new British East and Southeast Asian writers in the UK. Her latest novel Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is out now and tells a touching intergenerational story about adventure and family. Now she lives in Glasgow with her family.
Maisie Chan: https://www.maisiechan.com/