In Eastenders, ‘Beale’s Plaice’, Ian’s fish and chip shop used to be a Chinese takeaway called the Green Lantern. Do you remember it? No, neither do I.

Happy Families

Happy Families

It’s better to be seen on TV than not at all though, isn’t it?

Not so sure when the result is episode two of Sherlock which unbelievably was first broadcast in 2012, not 1942. The baddies turn out to be a Chinese crime ring on an international murdering spree. Its members are so evil that one of them kills his own sister. If I’d seen this as a child, how would I have reacted to seeing that the only person who looks like me is an expendable damsel in distress. Two stereotypes for the price of one.

Thank goodness then for films and books where you can see people who look like you doing the things you do? There’s The Joy Luck Club but they’re Americans. What about Crazy Rich Asians? Well, they’re insanely rich and live in Singapore.

Where are the Normal British Asians?

Why does it even matter? What difference does it make if you see yourself in fiction? I see myself in Lizzy Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermione Granger and it is wonderful to feel your bright wit, your earnest sense of duty, your courage and determination reflected in these characters who don’t necessarily look like you.

The thing is though if you are only ever depicted in one way, you’ll feel your caricature, you’ll believe your stereotype. You don’t dare to be anything else. The way to break free is for the wider world to have as many depictions of someone like you as it can.

It’s what I tried to do with my novel - Happy Families. It’s about the Li Family who settled down in West Wales three generations ago. Immigration isn’t just for cities; it happens in towns and villages throughout the UK. It’s so commonplace but it still doesn’t get seen in fiction. Why not?

Each generation of the family becomes more British, less Chinese than the last. Fiction used to demand you had to be one or the other and if you were the other, you had to stay that way. Indian people, work in your corner shops! Polish people, can you wash my car for me? Chinese people, give me a 42 and 71! There’s nothing wrong with working in a corner shop, washing cars or serving in a takeaway. It’s just that they’re not the only things we do.

The grandfather and son-in-law haven’t spoken for thirty years. There’s a secret feud which neither will explain. Punishing people by not talking to them? It’s a silent language that crosses all borders.

And this is the sweet spot I wanted to find – where you can swap out your characters and replace them with ones of another ethnicity and it would still work just as well. Where the colour of your skin is part of the story but not the whole story.

Happy Families by Julie Ma is published by Welbeck on 18th February, price £8.99 paperback original

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