In brief: Xing Li hasn’t had an easy life so far – after her mother’s death, she and her brother are sent to live with her grandmother. Enter a world of rules, bullying and strange Uncle Ho – does Xing Li have the CHM to knock them down?
The good: It’s funny, sad and incredibly emotional. I blitzed through this wonderful debut.
The not-so-good: I really felt for all the characters – they all have hidden pain.
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
Publisher: Legend Press
Setting: London, England and Singapore
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
I love that the Baileys Prize (aka Women’s Prize for Fiction or Orange Prize) brings to my attention books that I would otherwise have missed. The Life of a Banana is a fantastic book that made me both laugh at loud and silently fume at the injustices inflicted on its protagonist, Xing Li (pronounced Sing Lee). Why it is called The Life of a Banana? Banana refers to what some people wrongfully call the Chinese – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But it accurately explains the struggle of Xing Li and her family to be recognised as people, not Chinese and definitely not ‘chinks’ in Britain.
Xing Li is about thirteen when her mum dies on her birthday in a freak accident. As her father died some years before from testicular cancer, she and her brother Lai Ker have nobody left. Nobody except her grandma, who reluctantly takes them in. Their grandma is rich and somewhat ostracised from her mother, who married a Japanese croupier, so she feels she needs to tell Lai Ker and Xing Li repeatedly how lucky they are. They’re going to go to posh schools, eat nice food and be grateful for it. Grandma speaks in somewhat broken English and tends to shout a lot to get her own way and not be ripped off. She also demands utmost respect from the children and isn’t afraid to try tough love to get them to behave how she sees fit. Her other children are a disappointment – Auntie Mei is an actress and ‘Strange’ Uncle Ho doesn’t do much more than sit around and sleep.
Xing Li is bullied relentlessly at school for her ethnicity, so she eats and hides in the toilet, until she makes a friend, Jay. Her brother says she must have CHM (Chinks Have Mouths) to let people know she won’t be bullied, but Xing Li finds it difficult. As the bullying reaches horrendous proportions, Xing Li finds that it’s not just her that has issues. Lai Ker has gone missing, Uncle Ho asks an unspeakable favour and even Grandma has a hidden past. How can things become right?
It seems a bit strange to say that I loved this book when some of the events were so horrible, but I did. All the characters are wonderfully balanced; each has their own humour balanced with pathos and hope. What Xing Li went through was jaw-dropping, yet she still tries as hard as she can to be good and polite (otherwise people will think all Chinese people are rude or horrible). It opened my eyes to that stereotype – I hadn’t really thought about things that way, how people label a race by one person’s actions which is really narrow-minded. I’d like to say it’s just people older than me who feel that way, but I don’t think it is. So many racist stereotypes were brought to light in this book – from people telling Xing Li she eats dog and doesn’t understand English (despite being born in Britain) and its really only when the family go to Singapore that they are somewhat free from these trappings. Phrases like ‘Aiyah!’ and ‘lah’ are acceptable, and Xing Li notes that she feels like she blends in rather than sticks out.
Lai Ker takes a different stance on defending himself from racism – be mouthy, fight to be heard and try to outsmart everyone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work any better than Xing Li hiding in the toilets and gets him into a heap more trouble. Grandma’s rationale is also somewhat flawed, but is there any right way to fight racism that is innate in the society they live in? I liked how Grandma’s explanation came at the end of the book – all along, you’re thinking she’s a bit like the stereotypical Auntie but pow! Things arise in the plot that reveal she’s not a caricature but a real person with feelings.
There are also many funny and sweet moments in this book. If you are familiar with Chinese/South East Asian culture, there will be many scenarios that make you smile. The ending is also a bit of a tearjerker but reinforces the power contained in this book. It’s simply wonderful in the emotions it raises in the reader and the questions it makes your ask of yourself. I really think this book deserves to be on the Baileys Prize shortlist.