Xing Li and her fifteen-year-old brother, Lai Ker are forced to live with their grandmother following the death of their mother on Xing Li’s twelfth birthday. Her mother panicked after realising she had no candles for Xing Li’s birthday cake and decided she needed to get some before Xing Li’s grandmother, Auntie Mei and Uncle Ho arrived. She wanted everything to be ‘super perfect’ says Xing Li.
On the way to buy the candles, Xing Li’s mum passed the Xiong Mao Chinese restaurant where she was often given free food in exchange for Lai Ker tutoring the chef’s son in Maths. Xing Li’s mum is embarrassed about the size of the portions she’s offered though and it resulted in a tug of war over whether she should accept them or not.
Mama died because it was my birthday.
If it weren’t my birthday, Mama wouldn’t have gone out to get the candles. She wouldn’t have passed Andy Cheung’s restaurant and dropped in to get a birthday treat for me. Then she wouldn’t have had to do the stupid tug of war ritual with Andy Cheung next to the cheap oven that the owners of the restaurant refused to repair. Then she would have been far away from Andy Cheung’s kitchen when the oven exploded. Then her photo wouldn’t have been on the front page of the local newspaper. Then I wouldn’t have spent my twelfth birthday in a morgue.
Mama dies because it was my birthday. She died ‘cos of me.
Grandma is rich and strict. She lives in a big house filled with expensive furniture, ornaments and appliances. She barks out commands. These fill not only Xing Li and Lai Ker with fear but also Xing Li’s Auntie Mei who still lives at home and is a huge disappointment to her mother.
At Xing Li’s first meal at her grandmother’s she and her brother begin eating before their grandmother:
“You think you so clever eat so fast? When grow very fat and go Weight Watchers who blame but you? In Wu house we eat proper, we respect. UNDERSTAND?”
“Now you both listen here for IMPORTANT thing. You act good. I act gooder. You act bad. I act badder. UNDERSTAND?”
Grandma picks up the feather duster and whacks it HARD onto the table. It almost breaks and I can see Lai Ker is scared.
We both nod together.
Grandma is far from the worst of Xing Li’s problems, however. She’s sent to a new school, West Hill Independent Secondary School where the bullying begins as soon as her first teacher declares she’s from China ‘(I was born in Hackney)’ and mispronounces her name. Shirley Teddingham, “Shils” to her friends, leads a verbal and physical bullying campaign against Xing Li that has her eating her lunch in the toilets in an attempt to avoid the bullies.
I start to daydream about what it would be like to grow up in a country where I am not seen as different. Somewhere where I am popular and don’t have to explain my name or that I’m Chinese. It would be a really cool place where Asians and Jamaicans are just seen as doctors, school girls and business women. Not “the Chinese doctor”, “the Asian school girl” or “the black business women of the year”. It would be a country where I was not seen as “ethnic” or “exotic” but just “me”.
Lai Ker has a different take on this. He tells Xing Li, ‘Gotta be proud of your culture innit.’
Lai Ker also has this thing called Chinks Have Mouths or CHM for short. He says if I’m not smart enough or cool enough or loud enough I won’t be a “Chinese person with a mouth”, and I will be “ignored by society”.
Over the next year both Xing Li and Lai Ker are going to have to consider how to reconcile their Chinese and British identities and deal with the people around them who are often ignorant and abusive. They’re also going to have to deal with their grief over their mother’s death; their grandma’s rigid rules, and their Uncle Ho’s mental illness.
PP Wong sets herself quite a challenge in The Life of a Banana: there’s the first person narrative in the voice of a twelve-year-old; a fairly substantial cast of characters; a lot of plot, and some big themes to consider. The voice is mostly convincing – there’s the odd false note, but they’re few and don’t spoil the narrative. The characters are all interesting although the perspective means that some of them aren’t fleshed out until the end of the novel where Xing Li learns a lot about her family in a short period. The plot’s engaging, although I did wonder towards the end if it was one tragedy too far for one family in less than a year, and the themes are well-handled, particularly ideas around identity. It was interesting to see the perspective of a British-born Chinese girl and how little difference her nationality made to the racist bullying she was subjected to.
The Life of a Banana is an engaging read about racial identity and family relationships. I look forward to reading more from PP Wong.
Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.