Maisie Chan discusses the importance of East Asian representation in her brand new book, "Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu"
Maisie Chan has plenty of reason to celebrate right now. She’s just won the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize for her debut children’s novel Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths, weeks before the release of her second offering Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu hits the shelves.
Choon spoke to Maisie about the new book, which is an emotional and heartwarming tale of overcoming family hardships and the strength of friendships through such times. She talked to us about the importance of East Asian representation in not just her books but in the wider world too, and the many inspirations she had for the story.
CT: Can you tell us in your own words what Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is all about?
MC: It’s my second novel which is about a British Chinese girl called Lizzie whose grandad is acting a little strange. She wants to take him to Blackpool as he used to dance there with his late wife but how is she going to get him there? It’s got cosplay, a road trip, a Chinese goddess and is a homage to Strictly Come Dancing and popular culture. It also has some themes revolving around young carers and dementia. I wanted it to be a joyful book but one that touched on certain topics.
CT: What was your inspiration behind the story?
MC: I had a few inspirations. I used to be a storyteller and dressed up as the goddess Guan Yin, so I had wanted to do a story where she featured in a contemporary setting but my publishers and I decided not to do a magical realism story, so there is an element of cosplay there.
I also was a young adult carer for my dad Ron. I took him on a day trip to Dublin once and I wanted to recreate that feeling of doing something nice for someone you have cared for and loved.
And my final inspiration came quite recently during the lockdowns. I couldn’t go out so I watched a lot of TV! I didn’t read any books as I needed escapism of the highest order and me and my family would look forward to Saturday night TV each week, especially Strictly Come Dancing so I wanted to have that joyful feeling in the book too. We also watched loads of Marvel and Star Wars films and shows just to escape reality. I wanted the book to be a homage to popular culture and especially those Asian actors who had been getting parts in those franchises.
CT: There’s lot of references to Chinese culture, history and mythology in Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu and in your other stories such as the Tiger Warrior series. How important do you think it is that children learn more about these things?
MC: Like many people I grew up reading mainly European stories like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. I wanted to be Cinderella when I was little and I wanted to marry a prince. Most children know about these fairytales but they don’t know about stories and mythology from Eastern cultures and I felt it was important to change this so in Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu there are short interludes that have someone tell a story from Chinese mythology that feature Guan Yin, who is the goddess of compassion and mercy. The Journey to the West is the most famous Chinese novel of all time so I used that to mirror the journey that Lizzie and her friends were going on.
CT: And apart from a keen interest in those things yourself, what else do you like doing in your spare time and did you do during the pandemic? Have you done dancing like Lizzie Chu as well?
MC: I was mainly working on Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths and the Tiger Warrior series during the pandemic. That and terrible homeschooling! Oh and I worked on my short film Folding which was awarded funding from Screen Scotland and the BFI. I think because writing is creative I don’t always see it as a job – it’s fun to be a writer so most of my time is spent doing that.
Apart from writing I used to do a lot of yoga and I even trained to be a yoga teacher. I used to teach two classes a week before I moved to Glasgow five years ago. When I moved I decided this was the time to focus on being an author. I do actually like dancing, and I can freestyle it but I’m terrible when there is any choreography involved. I did do a contemporary dance class many years ago which made me laugh as I could pretend to be a tree but I couldn’t follow actual dance steps! I am now trying to do more yoga again as I feel that I need to be more balanced in my life.
I also enjoy playing board games with my kids and watching all kinds of TV and films. I started to listen to more podcasts during the pandemic too. I do read too; I bought loads of graphic novels during the pandemic such as Persepolis, which I thought was brilliant.
CT: What made you want to start writing and doing so professionally as a children’s author?
MC: I had an epiphany when my mum died in 2003 that I wanted to write books. I didn’t know how that was going to happen or what I would write but I knew I had to focus on making that a reality. I was always good at English and even though I didn’t read a lot, I enjoyed it when I did read.
I wanted to become a children’s author because I think it’s an age group where you can really make a difference. You can create life-long readers in that age group and many children have to read certain books at school. So I’ve always wanted to have my books read in school. I wanted to show children that there were British Chinese people in the U.K., that we exist, and secondly I wanted to promote empathy through my books. The media and other art forms often portray British East and Southeast Asian people as ‘other’ but through my stories I hope I can rectify some of that damage. My characters hopefully are fully-realised and have emotional lives just like anyone else. Centering the British Chinese experience is one thing, but centering humanness is another. I try to do both.
I love writing for children because the stories for that age group are often full of hope and from a writing perspective it’s fun to write stories with a child’s perspective at the core. Once I realised I wanted to write professionally, I invested in myself and did a lot of courses and learned from people who were better at writing than I was. I love being an author – it’s a job that is varied and I get to create for a living. It’s not that well-paid when you start out and publishing is a tough career choice as so many books are published each year, but I feel like I have found my calling!
CT: You’ve recently won your first of hopefully many awards, the Jhalak Children’s and YA Prize for your debut novel, Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths. How does that feel?
MC: Winning the Jhalak Prize was amazing! It’s a well-recognised national award and the partnerships and promotion that the awards garnered has been brilliant! I have to thank the judges and the Jhalak team for the support and the publicity. One of the things that is hard to do when you are a debut author is to get your name out there and this prize has definitely helped get my name out there to more bookshops and readers.
I didn’t think I was going to win as there were loads of big important books in my category. Often humorous books don’t win big awards, it’s often books with a central issue. So I was thrilled to be on the shortlist and then shocked to have won. There is something special about the Jhalak Prize and I had been following the award for years. Being a writer of colour in the U.K. isn’t always easy so it felt like I was being initiated into a community rather than just winning an award.
CT: Can you tell us briefly about your background? What was growing up as an East Asian in your area like? Did you experience racism?
MC: My biological parents were originally from Hong Kong but came to the U.K. in the 70s and worked in the food industry. I grew up in south Birmingham and lived there most of my life. My school was next to the University of Birmingham so I always made friends with children of colour from around the world and there were quite a few Muslim children at my school too so I didn’t feel like I was the only person of colour in my class.
I was fostered for many years by a white couple who then adopted me. My background is more of a working class English person then a Chinese one. I didn’t grow up going to Chinese school on the weekends but our house had other fostered Chinese kids in it and their parents would visit us and take us out for dim sum.
Sadly I did experience racism, which began at secondary school. There were two British Chinese kids in my year – me and Angela Chan. I was called names at school for my weight and ethnicity so I wasn’t that fond of secondary school if I’m being honest. If you were smart and wanted to learn things you were deemed a ‘boffin’ and uncool. If you were marginalised in any way you were a target. I think things are better for the teens these days but I imagine name calling and bullying still goes on.
Sometimes I’ve been called things in the street and spat at. A lot of those times it was White teenagers who are trying to impress their friends. Once, it was even a new neighbour who had moved in – he told me to ‘Go back to China!’ and spat at me. I sent my brother around there with his friend. He never called names again and I think he actually apologised to my brother!
CT: And how important did you feel it was to mention the racism and racial stereotypes that Lizzie and her friend Chi face at school?
MC: It’s important for me to reflect reality. So even in Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, he experiences microaggressions and it’s blatant at the bingo hall. In Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu I purposely wanted to do a couple of things. I wanted to mention the word ‘Oriental’ and its widespread use in the U.K. I know that for decades it’s been out of use in the U.S. and people have got used to not using it, however, it’s still rife here. It’s an outdated word that comes with a lot of history. If people can educate themselves about it, it’s not hard to not use it. Lizzie tries to educate her grandfather who is much older than her – it’s basically saying to listen to the younger generation who are learning things about race at a much faster pace.
I also mentioned that Lizzie and her British Vietnamese friend get called racial slurs in the street. I don’t go into it in depth because I didn’t want the book to be about racism. It’s not a book about that kind of trauma, but I didn’t want to ignore that it happens. I also added a line about someone using ‘Flied Lice’ and thinking it’s funny. It’s not funny and it’s my way of letting people know (especially young people) that it’s hurtful to hear that kind of thing. There are a few famous children’s books where rhyming of names and mocking Chinese accents are included and I’m trying to undo some of that harm.
CT: However in Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu there are many references to the Asian representation available for children these days. Why do you think that is also so important for East Asian children to have in the media and arts today?
MC: I wanted to have some of my characters to be non-Chinese as well, so I have the Phams who are mixed British-Vietnamese and Welsh. Lizzie and her grandfather are Scottish Chinese and Grandma Kam would have been a Cantonese speaker but she also could have spoken Mandarin and Wai Gong would be a Mandarin speaker. But overall English is spoken in a Scottish setting. I want to be as inclusive as I can with my characters so I usually have a majority non-White cast of characters in my books and I also make sure I have LGBTQ characters too, which is portrayed through Lizzie’s friend Tyler’s two dads.
Then in the Comic Con chapter I mention some of the big TV and film franchises like Marvel and Star Wars that have had East Asian representation such as Shang Chi, and the actor who plays Appa from Kim’s Convenience is in The Mandalorian. I also mention Wong in Doctor Strange. I didn’t mention the real names of the actors but I did give a nod to how much it means for young ESEA (East and Southeast Asians) in the U.K. to see people who look like them on the TV and in films.
If you don’t see yourself, then you feel like you don’t exist or that you aren’t important and that is why I wanted to become an author. I spent a lot of my life feeling invisible and down about who I was. Now I think we can celebrate instead!
CT: And finally, what’s next on the cards for you? Will there be a sequel to Danny Chung or Lizzie Chu’s lives?
MC: There isn’t a sequel to either books I’m afraid but I’m waiting to hear if there will be more Tiger Warrior books, which is a series about the Chinese zodiac animals that I write with Hachette Kids. I’m talking to my agent about possible new ideas, one of which is for a children’s book that would include the Chinese Labour Corp in WW1. I’m also dabbling in screenwriting. My first short film premiered this year so I want to keep exploring that area and I may even adapt Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths myself, we’ll see. I also want to write my memoir and will start that later in the year, so keep your eyes peeled for that soon.
Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is out on 9th June. Order your copy here now!