Opera North

Kerry Young

5 October 12 words: James Walker
"I expected everyone in England to have all the American-style goods, services and amenities we had in Jamaica. They didn’t"
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Kerry Young

Kerry Young is the latest student from the NTU MA in Creative Writing to get a book deal. Her debut novel, Pao, follows a young Chinese immigrant who arrives in Jamaica to take over a questionable family business...

How did Pao come about?
I got the idea in 2002, and it took seven years to write as there was such a lot of social and political history to research. I was working full-time as a youth work consultant, writing Pao in my spare time, and completing my MA Creative Writing. The research involved a lot of reading, as well as three visits to Jamaica to soak up the atmosphere and feel confident about the book’s accuracy and the authenticity of the voice. I also had a lot of conversations with my mom, which was invaluable for capturing the details of life in Jamaica during those years as well as strengthening my relationship with her. That was a real big bonus.

Debut novels are often autobiographical to some extent. Were you tempted to use real family history in the book?
Every novel comes from personal history or experience in some way, but not always in the form and detail of the original events. After all, the credibility of a book comes not just from getting the facts right or even having an engaging story - it comes from having convincing characters with authentic voices and emotions.

How useful was it joining a Black women writers group?
It was brilliant as I was able to share, discuss ideas and give/receive feedback honestly and openly with a group of people, all of whom were also writing first novels and wanting to reflect on the challenges and issues for us as Black women.

What kind of place was Jamaica at the time of the book, and what kind of place is it now?
Jamaica then, I guess, I see very much as Pao does – struggling to overcome its past, the legacy of colonialism, slavery and plantocracy, and the social and economic divisions which that created. Divisions of wealth and privilege according to race, class and colour. Jamaica now is a different place; there is a much greater sense of equality and opportunity, much greater sharing of wealth and privilege, although some of the old divisions still exist. Our national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’ and this year - our fiftieth Anniversary of Independence - is witnessing a massive celebration of that.  

Independence was granted in 1962 yet Pao still has some concerns....
Pao is committed to Independence. He welcomes self-government as opposed to continued colonial rule by Britain. But he is unsure about whether the government and people will be able to make the changes needed for Jamaica to really unite, progress and prosper. And in that sense, he is no different from anybody else in the book, who all have different ideas about how Jamaica might better move forward whether under continued British rule, US influence or as an Independent sovereign nation.   

It’s Black history month in October. Tell us about your Chinese/Jamaican heritage...
There are many of us, as the Chinese have been in Jamaica for well over 150 years. Indeed, it’s probably true to say that most Jamaican families have members with Chinese heritage as well as African and Indian. We are immigrants, all of us – the slaves from Africa, as well as the Indian and Chinese indentured labourers that the British imported to work their plantations on the island. What we share is that we are all Jamaicans.

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You moved to England when you were ten. Can you remember your initial observations and expectations?   
I expected England to be more ‘advanced’ than I found it to be. I expected everyone to have a telephone in their house, and be able to order food on the phone and have it delivered, and have all the American-style goods, services and amenities we had in Jamaica. It didn’t. So that was a shock. Also really silly stuff, like I didn’t know that snow was wet - I’d only seen it in movies where it looked like cotton wool. Everything seemed very small and closed in. I’d been used to big, open spaces and trees and outside living. The racism I wasn’t prepared for. I didn’t know about that at all.

How is the England of 2012 in comparison?
I’ve gotten used to how things are. I know snow is wet, winter is cold and that rain can be bitter and piercing not cool and refreshing. Culturally I have adapted. And although I still call myself Jamaican when I was invited to read at the Calabash Literature Festival in Jamaica I emphasised to the organisers that my accommodation had to have facilities for me to make a cup of tea. So maybe I’m more English than I admit. And yes, England has also changed; you can even buy tinned ackee and saltfish in the supermarket now.

You’ve been nominated for quite a few prizes.
It was amazing to be shortlisted – first for the Costa First Novel Award and then the East Midlands and Commonwealth Book Prize. It wasn’t something I had imagined. All I set out to do was write a novel that I hoped someone would want to publish.     

Pao, Bloomsbury, £11.99

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