Lang Leav’s novel Others Were Emeralds is a stunning debut, a book as lyrical as it is powerfully told.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“A heartrending novel … Leav skillfully captures the details of senior-year high school life, but is even better in depicting Ai’s parents’ stories of surviving war and persecution and Ai’s teenage experiences with microaggressions and outward racism. It’s a resonant portrayal.”
My novel, Others Were Emeralds, opens on a perfect white sand beach, a quintessentially Australian scene. However, it is set in the ’90s, when the abolished White Australia Policy still cast its shadow. My protagonist, Ai, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, is acutely aware of her place as “the other.” As she hums a tune from The Sound of Music, she is struck by the parallels between the story of the von Trapps and her family’s narrow escape from the Khmer Rouge. Through Ai, I could fictionalize my past, allowing me to delve into my teenage psyche.
At first, I wasn’t sure how much of my personal history to divulge. But as I delved deeper into the manuscript, I found that even in fiction, it is dangerous to stray too far from the truth. While the main narrative of Others Were Emeralds is a construct of my imagination, there are several instances where I borrowed from my family’s history. For example, it is true that a fish saved my family’s lives and that my dad, while in the jungles of Cambodia and on the brink of starvation, fashioned a sling to shoot a mango out of a tree. It’s also true that my mum fell asleep on a pillow of cow dung, and long after we were granted safe passage to Australia, we still felt the war had followed us to our new land.
My family settled in the immigrant town of Cabramatta, southwest of Sydney, which had a notorious reputation during the 90s for gang warfare, chronic unemployment, and cheap heroin. I grew up amongst a melting pot of cultures, with my friends coming from diverse backgrounds such as Turkish, Albanian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Serbian—some like me—who were raised by parents grappling with the aftermath of war. At that time, mental health and PTSD were rarely discussed. Instead, our community was suffocating under the weight of trauma, which manifested in destructive ways.
Despite these challenges, there was a sense of optimism among my peers. We wore snap-on bands and devoured shows like Degrassi High and Beverly Hills 90210. We read books from the Sweet Valley High series and chatted online with strangers on mIRC. We danced to RnB, rap, hip-hop, and the top 40 hits. We rebelled against our parent’s old-fashioned values by cutting school and wearing ripped jeans. We traded lunches, and learned how to swear in a myriad of languages.
At 14, I began working as a kitchen hand in a neighbouring town and mingled with a different group of friends. They introduced me to alternative music, broadening my musical tastes. As a teenager who struggled greatly with her identity, I often sought to find fragments of it in words, literature, and song lyrics. In my writing, I have discovered that there is no better way to evoke memories with the same intensity than through music. Here are some tracks that are either mentioned or had inspired scenes in my novel, Others Were Emeralds.
Something Good: Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music
In the poignant movie scene where the Captain confesses his love to Maria, she sings, “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood, perhaps I had a miserable youth.” These words deeply resonated with my teenage self, who had a tendency to revel in the morose. The lyrics of “Something Good” promised a fairy-tale ending on the condition you are willing to first, suffer for it. I embraced this peculiar form of martyrdom, almost as if it were an artistic pursuit. The belief that suffering was an essential part of life was as much influenced by the media I consumed as it was by my surroundings.
Bizarre Love Triangle: Frente!
In its incarnation from a rock anthem to the acoustic version by Frente!, “Bizarre Love Triangle” transforms into a sweet ballad laced with melancholy. This song holds a special place in my memories, as it frequently graced the airwaves during the mid-90s, instantly transporting me back to that tender stage of adolescence when everything lay before me, filled with possibility. Even the smallest things felt monumental. I wanted to convey that very essence throughout the pivotal scene of my novel, where my characters are on their way to an ill-fated destination. Despite their cheerful demeanour, there is an undercurrent of foreboding, signposted by the lyrics, “Every time I see you falling/I get down on my knees and pray.”
Hey Jupiter: Tori Amos
A friend from school was a passionate advocate of Tori Amos’ music which inevitably rubbed off on me. In particular, “Hey Jupiter” captured the aforementioned sensibilities of my youth. In a poignant scene, my protagonist Ai plays this song on repeat to process her feelings of grief and loss. There were moments when I found myself in this position, and the song’s haunting quality served as a cathartic release.
#1 Crush: Garbage
When Baz Luhrmann’s movie, Romeo + Juliet, featuring Shakespearean characters on rollerblades, was released, my teenage self, who spent much free time rollerblading and reading Shakespeare, was in awe. It left such a strong impression that I purchased the soundtrack, which opens with “#1 Crush” by Garbage. I distinctly remember how this track came on during a birthday party, where Shirly Manson’s X-rated moans drew disapproving glares from our conservative elders—moments like that seemed to confirm their belief that Western ideals were corrupting our generation. However, those dark and angsty notes, along with their fatalistic and all-encompassing approach to love, held a unique allure.
Viva Forever: Spice Girls
The Spice Girls burst onto the music scene with their iconic brand of pop feminism, which sounded, unlike anything I had heard before. Those explosive lines, “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really want”, still resonate with my feminist spirit. Although years had passed since I’d heard a Spice Girls track, when Spotify played “Viva Forever”, from a ’90s compilation, I felt a profound wave of nostalgia. The song speaks of young love and the cherished dreams we hold within that space. But instead of reminiscing about romantic relationships that had consumed me back then, I found myself thinking about the enduring bond of friendship.
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.
Her first book, Love & Misadventure (2013) was a break out success, and her subsequent poetry books have all been international bestsellers. In 2016, Lang turned her attention to fiction, and her debut YA novel Sad Girls shot to #1 on the Straits Times and other bestseller charts internationally.