NAW Interview with Kerry Young

Kerry Young

Kerry Young was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Chinese father and mother of mixed Chinese-African heritage. She came to England at the age of ten. She has Master’s degrees in organisation development and creative writing, and a PhD in youth work. She has penned the bestselling novels, Gloria and Pao. Visit her here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Gloria.’ How did you get the idea for it? What is it about? How did you select the title?

The title comes from the name of the main character – Gloria Campbell. The book is set in Jamaica and opens in 1938. Gloria is sixteen years old when she beats a man to death while saving her younger sister, Marcia, from being raped. That single violent act changes her life forever. She and Marcia flee their hometown to forge a new life in Kingston. As all around them the city convulses with political change, Gloria’s desperation and striking beauty lead her to Sybil and Beryl, and a house of ill-repute where she meets Yang Pao, a Kingston racketeer whose destiny becomes irresistibly bound with her own.

Sybil kindles in Gloria a fire of social justice which propels her to Cuba and a personal and political awakening that she must reconcile with the realities of her life, her love of Jamaica and a past that is never far behind her.

‘Gloria’ is my second novel. The idea for it came from my first novel ‘Pao’ which is the story of Yang Pao, Gloria’s long time lover. So the two books are linked although each is a completely separate story that can be read stand alone or in any order.    

NAW- Tell us about the character of Pao who is a recurring character in your twin works. You modelled it on your father, right? How much of Gloria and Pao has your own story in them considering all books somehow have a piece of the writer’s life inside them?

Pao is 14 years old when he lands in Jamaica in 1938. His father has been killed in the Chinese revolution and Zhang, his father’s childhood friend, has sent passage for him, his mother and older brother to come to Jamaica. Zhang is the godfather of Kingston’s Chinatown who schools Pao in the family business of protection and gambling which Pao eventually takes over. A powerful man in his own right, Pao sets his sights on marrying well, but when Gloria Campbell comes to him for help, he is drawn to her and begins a relationship that continues ever after his marriage to Fay Wong. As the political upheaval escalates in the 1960s the lines between Pao’s socialist ideals and private ambitions become blurred and the boss of Chinatown finds himself cast adrift.  

Pao wasn’t really modelled on my father. The idea of Pao came from him, but the character of Pao came out of my head as did Gloria…..and Fay. It is fiction. But yes, in fiction, there is always some element of the writer’s experience – inevitably so because that is how you create an authentic voice. For me, it’s rather like doing a giant jigsaw. There are many pieces, taken from here or there or somewhere else – my own experience, things I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, stories others have told me, conversations I’ve overheard on the street or bus or subway, scenes I have witnessed – all of which I slot together and then embroider so what you have in the end is something new and created as opposed to a representation of some past reality.

NAW- You’ve dealt with race, a sensitive topic in Gloria in a very humane manner. Did you ever personally encounter any racism? If yes, how did you deal with it?

I was a child when I came to England from Jamaica. It was the 1960s and children can be very cruel. Adults too. So yes, it was a difficult time. But every experience is there for us as a lesson to learn from. And that is what I tried to do – understand and learn, and develop compassion for the people who hurt me knowing that the things they said and did came out of their ignorance and their suffering.  And that is why, I guess, I am able to deal with these issues in my writing in what you call ‘a very humane manner’.

NAW- Tell us about your other forthcoming book, Fay. What is it about?

My forthcoming book, currently called ‘Fay’, is the story of Fay Wong, Pao’s wife, who is the elder daughter of successful Chinese businessman Henry Wong and his African heritage wife, Cicely. Fay is of mixed heritage. She is also wealthy, well educated, middle-class and light-skinned. So she has to reconcile the comfort of her relatively privileged life with the poverty, misery and anguish she sees all around her. She has to face her guilt. But Fay has also suffered, particularly in her relationship with her mother and her sense of betrayal.  She is a lost spirit in search of peace and redemption.

NAW- When you are reading, do you prefer ebooks or printed paper books?

I prefer printed paper books. Always. I love to look at them, and hold them, and feel them as I turn over the pages. I do not own a Kindle or any other kind of e-reader.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers?

William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

NAW- How do you write, in fits and starts or in one go? Take us through your writing process?

I write long hand so some days are writing days and others are typing (and editing) days. On a writing day I usually start about 11 in the morning and go through to about 4 or 5 o’clock. I like to complete a couple of chapters and then type them up – editing as I go. Typing days can extend quite late into the evening. I am very conscious of deadlines so my work tends to be quite tightly scheduled to fit everything in – not only writing and typing/editing but also the other things I have to do like reading/appearing at events, facilitating workshops, interviews, writing short pieces as requested (e.g. for other people’s websites or blogs), reading, admin, etc.

NAW- What do you do when you are not writing? Do you have another job, a hobby that keeps you busy?

I don’t have another job but I do a lot of things connected to writing – e.g. reading at events, participating in literature festivals, teaching writing workshops, etc. I am a reader for a literary consultancy so that involves appraising manuscripts and writing reports. I also have a few hobbies including golf and tai chi, and I play the saxophone.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I will spend the rest of the summer completing work on my 3rd novel – ‘Fay’. I am also a judge on a book prize so have to continue that commitment until the prize is awarded at the end of the summer. In September I will become writer in residence at a local university for two days a week while I (hopefully) begin work on my 4th novel.

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