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Q&A with Lang Leav - Others Were Emeralds

Others Were Emeralds

By Megan Coote

We are honoured to welcome Lang Leav to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Others Were Emeralds, released on the 5th of September 2023.

What comes first, the photograph or the memory?

The daughter of Cambodian refugees, Ai grew up in the small Australian town of Whitlam populated by Asian immigrants who once fled war-torn countries to rebuild their shattered lives. It is now the late '90s and despite their parents' harrowing past, Ai and her tightknit group of school friends: charismatic Brigitte, sweet, endearing Bowie, shy, inscrutable Tin, and politically minded Sying, lead seemingly ordinary lives, far removed from the unimaginable horrors suffered by their parents.

But that carefree innocence is shattered in their last year of school when Ai and her friends encounter a pair of racist men whose cruel acts of intimidation spiral into senseless violence. Grappling with the magnitude of her grief at such a young age, Ai leaves Whitlam for college before her trauma has a chance to fully resolve.

In her second year of college Ai suffers a mental health crisis, driving her back home to Whitlam, a place she swore never to return. There, she reconnects with those she left behind and together they are compelled to look back on the tragedy that shaped their adolescence and examine the role they may have unwittingly played.

Others Were Emeralds

Firstly, I just wanted to say how much I loved reading Others Were Emeralds. I raced through the book and really felt for Ai throughout. Are there any authors whose style and work has had a big influence on you as a writer, particularly when it came to writing Others Were Emeralds?

Thank you! I greatly admire the literary heavyweights I read in my formative years, such as Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro—authors with an uncanny talent for portraying characters with intense realism. When I began writing “Others Were Emeralds,” I initially envisioned it as a novella, a stream of consciousness reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blackwater.” However, as the manuscript evolved, it took on its own identity.

The title itself sounds very poetic and is referenced directly in Chapter 5: “I treasured each new epiphany like a jewel in my palm, something shiny and glittering to be admired and examined from every angle and then stored away with the others. Some jewels were more like polished stones. Some were semiprecious. Others were emeralds”. Can you elaborate on what Ai means by this and why you ultimately decided to make Others Were Emeralds the title of the book?

That particular line spilt onto the page, and it jumped out at me, although it was only a working title at first. As the narrative developed, it began to harmonize in many ways. Australia, colloquially referred to as Oz, brings to mind L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City—adding layers of symbolism. Growing up, the notion that Australia wasn’t my true home mirrors a facet of my history that I share with my characters.

I felt as though I was reading a non-fiction memoir at points as the characters felt so real, particularly Ai. The exchange between Tin and Ai at the end of the prologue perfectly voiced this idea of blending fiction and fact when storytelling. How much of yourself did you put into the characters and which character’s do you relate to the most?

Striking a delicate equilibrium between personal experiences and creative expression is key in writing. As an author, I infused fragments of my identity into the characters, creating a blend of fiction and fact. I interwove my mother’s stories of her daring escape from the Khmer Rouge. Each character resonates with me on distinct levels, but I feel the most connected to Ai.

The book delves into some heavy themes, from racism and grief to mental health. How do you look after yourself when writing these and were their scenes that were especially hard to write?

Writing “Others Were Emeralds” brought up some harrowing memories. Many scenes draw directly from my encounters, such as the vivid recollection of an incident when I was spat on as an eight-year-old girl. These revisited memories brought significant discomfort, yet I felt they were necessary to lend authenticity to the character’s experiences. I made sure to take time away from the manuscript after writing particularly heavy scenes.

Throughout the story food is shown to be an important part of culture and a way of showing love. Is this something that carries into your own life, particularly when you were growing up?

Asian parents who come from a background of scarcity will often show love through their ability to provide for their children. In my family’s circumstances, there was a time when food meant the difference between life and death. Like Ai, my upbringing is filled with memories of love expressed through food—I also discovered that my mother’s apparent fondness for pizza crusts was an act to temper our guilt over leaving leftovers.

One of my favourite quotes is from Chapter 3: “There's such a fine line between memory and imagination, isn’t there. Like you said, wonderland feels like a place I’ve physically been to. Yet unlike a real place I don’t have means to commemorate my visit, not a single photograph or memento”. This quote perfectly captured how I, as a book lover, feel about reading. The magical escapism books can provide, so much so that you forget they are fiction. Are there any books you read as a child or more recently that have stayed with you so vividly that you feel as though they transcend fiction? And is there a fictional world that you would love to travel to in real life?

I love the way a book can transport you beyond the boundaries of reality. As the quote suggests, the fine line between memory and imagination blurs as books create worlds so vivid they feel tangible. As a child, I was captivated by Narnia, drawn to the idea that a magical world could be hidden within such an ordinary object. I loved being immersed in these fantastical worlds where I could safely participate without prejudice.

The story begins with Tin and Ai sat together on the beach in the year 2000 before flashing back to their last year of high school in 1997. Did you write the prologue before or after the main body of the book and was this always where you expected their character’s stories to end up?

The prologue, depicting Tin and Ai on the beach, struck me one morning as I sat at my kitchen table where I usually write. Through numerous revisions, this prologue remained almost unchanged, serving as the cornerstone around which the narrative was built.

A recurring theme throughout the book is memories with the opening line being - “what comes first, the photograph or the memory” - such an interesting idea to consider. What does this idea mean to you and what inspired you to make memories a recurring theme throughout the story?

I began writing “Others Were Emeralds” during the pandemic when I was feeling nostalgic for my youth. In New Zealand, we had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, and for the first time, I couldn’t freely visit my hometown. As the manuscript developed, the intention was to complete my research at the local library and review some notebooks from my childhood. However, the lockdown continued for much longer than anticipated, and I finished the book mainly from memory.

You are of course a published poet - how do you go about applying your skills to writing a novel and what was your typical day-to-day writing process when working on Others Were Emeralds?

Transitioning to fiction from poetry has always felt like a natural progression. I usually write in the morning, either in my studio or at my kitchen table. There are days when I can effortlessly get down a thousand words, while on others, I can spend the entire time trying to perfect a single sentence.

And finally, what is the main message you would like readers to take away from the story and its characters?

Through “Others Were Emeralds,” I wanted to give my readers a window into the life of a second-generation immigrant navigating a seminal time in Australia’s history. The story underscores the importance of compassion and understanding for those who share similar journeys. It’s a reminder that we all carry stories, histories, and emotions that deserve recognition and empathy.

Others Were Emeralds

Novelist and poet Lang Leav was born in a refugee camp when her family were fleeing the Khmer Rouge Regime. She spent her formative years in Sydney, Australia, in the predominantly migrant town of Cabramatta. Among her many achievements, Lang is the winner of a Qantas Spirit of Youth Award, Churchill Fellowship and Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award.

Lang has been featured on CNN, SBS Australia, Intelligence Squared UK, Radio New Zealand and in various publications, including Vogue, Newsweek, the Straits Times, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Lang's Instagram: @langleav


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