13th Aug 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kerry Young
Kerry Young’s first novel, Pao was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury, and was shortlisted for several literary awards including the Costa First Book Award. The novel was inspired by Young’s childhood growing up in Jamaica, before moving to England at the age of ten.
At times, Young speaks both romantically and diplomatically about her inspiration for Pao, explaining; “it explores the issues and interests close to my heart – race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism/slavery, social and political history, human relationships, morality [and] religion.”
It is immediately clear that this was not a project that Young took lightly. She reels off an impressive list of the research carried out before and during the writing of this novel, including 18 months of reading about Jamaican and Chinese political history and three visits to Jamaica to refamiliarise herself with the country.
“I also read about Chinese symbolism and various aspects of Jamaican culture. And, of course, I refreshed my knowledge and understanding of The Art of War,” she adds.
Young has also spoken fondly about how her research for this novel strengthened the bonds with her mother. “That sort of information you cannot find in a book. And although the majority of those old memories and new perspectives did not end up in Pao those conversations were really rich and strengthened my relationship with her immensely so that was a real big bonus.”
This is perhaps even more significant once you understand that the novel was written partly as a tribute to her late father. But overwhelmingly Pao seems to be a tribute to Jamaica itself, a country that Young obviously has a great fondness for.
Young describes her desire to portray Jamaica’s “history of struggle and the challenge of overcoming the legacy of colonialism and slavery that created our historical and political circumstances, and the social and economic divisions that, to some extent, exist even today.”
She makes reference to a quotation by Karl Marx (noted at the beginning of the book), applicable not just to the protagonist, Pao, but to the country itself; “People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selecting circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
She expands on the idea of Jamaica’s multi-culturalism, noting that Jamaicans are not only the descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves. “We are also Chinese and Indian and white. Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Lebanese. We are immigrants, all of us… what we share is that we are all Jamaicans. That is why our national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’.”
However, Young is firm in explaining that the multi-culturalism is not the problematic part of the legacy left behind by colonialism.
“Jamaica is multi-cultural. That is how it is. The issue is about relative wealth and privilege as a result of our historical relationship with colonialism and slavery, and the social and economic circumstances it created,” says Young.
But she is certainly optimistic about the future of Jamaica, noting a much greater sense of equality and opportunity, and “a tremendous commitment to overcoming the remnants of old divisions that still exist and making a Jamaica that is better for all. We are One People and this year (the 50th Anniversary of Jamaican Independence) is witnessing a massive celebration of that.”
Pao is strengthened considerably by Young’s bold literary style, with this novel written in a dialect resembling (but not exclusively) Jamaican patois. Young refers to it as a ‘hybrid’. “100% Jamaican patois, written on the page, would have been unreadable for most people including me,” says Young.
“I struggled with the voice in earlier drafts which were written in Standard English but it wasn’t working,” she explains. “I was sitting on a veranda down in Jamaica when Pao started to dictate the book to me and it was in patois. And I heard his voice so clearly that there wasn’t anything to decide about. That was the voice and that was it.”
Questioned on whether she ever considered the narrative style to be a risk, Young explains that after trying it out with a few of her English friends and then the editors at Bloomsbury, it was obvious that the voice was a big part of the book’s appeal.
“The thing that did worry me was reading Pao to a Jamaican audience where the authenticity of the voice would really be tested,” adds Young. “But… the reception I received at the Calabash Festival was so overwhelming positive I need worry no longer.”
Young is quick to correct me when I suggest that the main character, Pao, is based on her father. “He is not a fictionalised version of my father,” she replies. “I say that my father inspired the idea of Yang Pao. He is not Pao.”
Perhaps this discrepancy is how a writer maintains a certain distance between the character and their real life counterpart, and Young is very clear that throughout the process she always considered Pao a character in his own right.
Pao gets himself in to some questionable situations in the novel, but Young says that she never felt any desire to idealise or protect him from harm.
“Pao is no angel. Like most people he is complex and flawed,” she explains. “The way he approaches life isn’t necessarily to be recommended. Yet despite all of this, he is completely redeemable.”
Young notes that Pao is simply a flawed human being like the rest of us, sometimes good and sometimes bad, “a reflection of the many things we are, including being unaware of (and occasionally uninterested in) the consequences of our actions”. She refers to a Daily Mail review of the book that summed him up as a ‘charming yet fallible hero’.
Pao’s morality particularly comes in to question in the love triangle between Gloria Campbell, a black prostitute, and wealthy heiress, Fay Wong.
I ask about the obstacles of cross-culture marriages and relationships in places of conflict, but Young somewhat deflects this, seeing Pao’s predicament as one of class rather than race or culture. “Pao believes that marrying Fay Wong will raise his class position,” she says.
“Conflicts between cultures, races, and importantly class have always been barriers to love and marriage. Isn’t that the case in all places at different times?” She references the fact that only a short time ago, Kate Middleton would not have been considered an appropriate bride for the heir to the British throne.
“So it’s not as simple as talking about ‘cross-cultural’ marriages. We have to think about it in terms of class and wealth, and as those circumstances change so too the opportunities for different groups of people to meet.”
We touch on the issue of sexism in the book, and Young indicates that she not believe the male characters in Pao are always and entirely disrespectful towards the female characters. “What I think is true is that they respect and disrespect women in different ways at different times. And there are many examples in the book of this contradictory relationship. That, I think, is in the nature of sexism.”
Young also points out that it is not only sexism that is an oppressive force on these characters. They also experience the same bias due to colour, class and wealth.
“And as far as the question of Pao marrying Gloria,” she says. “More of that in my next book.”
Young reveals that her next novel, Gloria, will expand on the character of Gloria Campbell, from her arrival in Kingston at the age of sixteen, seven years before she meets Pao.