Posted November 14, 2017
Ken's Quest Q&A
Ken's Quest has been generating a lot of discussion among readers.
Here, author Cher Chidzey replies to questions put to her by a Melbourne bookclub who read the book.
Question: Why do you write? What is more important to you — being original or giving the reader what they want?
Answer: It depends on what I write.
I wrote my memoir The House of 99 Closed Doors because I was disturbed by the bullying, the shameful events that destroyed the lives of many individuals and nothing was done about it. I was born into a family of eighteen siblings. My father was born at the end of the Qing dynasty. He had two wives and a concubine.
As for Ken’s Quest, I’ve always questioned the meaning of multiculturalism. I wanted to have a deeper meaning than just the festivals, food and music. Racial tension has always existed but it has escalated in recent times. I have felt uneasy about the undercurrents of racial tension and decided to explore it. I wonder if racial cohesion will be better if we are reflective of our prejudices, which I think stem from our own tribal voice.
Ken is conditioned by his tribal voice, so are all of us.
Of course, I give the readers satire and humour but I use the principle of sticking close to the essence.
In the memoir it was important that I adhered to the essence of characters in the best possible way.
In Ken’s Quest I designed the plot in a way readers could question, reflect and reassess their thinking on certain matters. Which means sometimes they are led into uncomfortable zones of feeling. The responses were varied. Ken’s Quest made some cry, others laugh and some cried and laughed. It is very important for me that on reading Ken’s Quest people know themselves better and others better, too.
Question: What would you say are some of the main themes in your book?
Answer: These are the main themes of Ken’s Quest:
- the underemployment of professional migrants
- problems that arise from different work protocols
- subliminal racism
- explicit racism
- problems arising from different expectations in parent-children relationship
- men-women relationships
- familial-government responsibilities
- discrimination against transsexuals.
Question: Would you like to see it used as a VCE text in Melbourne?
Answer: Certainly. By year 11 students should be questioning those issues mentioned above. Ken’s Quest provides a platform for reflection and debate that will enrich their minds.
Question: How long was it in the making?
Answer: Four years.
Question: The transgender aspect was a surprise. There were already very many themes in the book, why add one more? The earlier focus seemed to be on new migrant culture shock, and racism from both sides, and then there was the issue of Ken not accepting his son's sexual orientation. Why add the transgender angle here?
Answer: Cuifen is a transsexual. She was born male but undertakes a sex change and lives as a female.
Transgender are people who defy societal expectations regarding gender, such as:
- feminine men, masculine women or people who are androgynous
- people who identify with their birth-assigned gender, but sometimes dress and /or express themselves as the other gender
- people who transition.
The new migrants, homosexuals, transgender and transsexuals come under the umbrella of marginalised peoples. It is not another angle but more of a further exploration of Ken’s phobias. Life experiences come in mysterious ways. Whatever you’re uncomfortable with, judgemental of, despise, frequently comes back to bite you.
Question: Is Ken based on someone you actually knew?
Answer: Ken is a fictional character. I designed a background of a conservative childhood (family was wealthy when father was alive) and harsh time as a youth (fatherless, in poverty with the Communist regime on his back) to create a conflicted, difficult personality for Ken.
His emotional and mental baggage made his journey as a migrant worker very rich and interesting.
Ken’s attribute of lying shows the fear of the common people who have lived through the Cultural Revolution. His chauvinistic attitude stemmed from a Confucian upbringing. His judgemental and superiority demeanour was the result of somebody who had enjoyed wealth and status (of the entrepreneur class).
Question: Why did you make Cuifen marry Ken?
Answer: Cuifen, the transsexual did not marry Ken. She could not as Australian law forbade it in the 1990s and it still does.
It amplified Ken’s struggle having to choose accepting Cuifen’s offer of marriage of convenience and gaining permanent residency or leaving and abandoning his dreams. It was a good platform to show the battle between the rational and his tribal voice.
Question: Who do you think of as your audience? Would Pauline Hanson's supporters, for example, find your book something they would want to read?
Answer: This is adult fiction so it is suitable for adults from all cultures. Of course, there is no novel that attracts all readers as there is no food that attracts all consumers. Having said that even Pauline Hanson’s supporters might want to read so that they can have a better angle of attack against migrants and refugees. Ken’s Quest is a timeless piece of literature in that the questions people might ask themselves are universal. Their fear of displacement, fear of being taken over by strange new values.
Question: Did you want your book to be one about Melbourne especially, or could you have set it in any city in Australia?
Answer: It could be set anywhere in Australia but of course I’ve chosen Melbourne and suburbs, which I’m familiar with. I had taught in Footscray where Julia, Ken’s lover was a teacher. I could describe the settings very accurately, intimately. The smells, the noise, the drug deals came alive because I was there.
Ken lived in the northern suburbs where I live so again it was convenient for me to draw on the feelings, the pulse of the place. A reader from my neighbourhood asked me if I disliked Brunswick. I told her I wouldn’t stick around for thirty years if it was so. Again I have used Rose, the Beijing woman’s negative attitude towards her residence to highlight the differences in cultural expectations. Beijing and Shanghai’s dense population led to an active community lifestyle. Especially the Shanghainese’s fondness of dancing. To her the suburbs were dead and boring. There was nothing to do.
Question: The book was very rich in detail, especially on Chinese culture. I kept expecting you as the author to ‘promote’ or argue Ken's case but you actually presented Red's case as much. Was there a clear reason why you did that?
Answer: I’m very aware of the words ‘Fair Go.’ To promote both sides of the case is an attribute I’ve learnt since my migration. Truly my intention was to show situations and let readers investigate. If I were to promote only Ken I would have failed in what I set out to do.
Primarily I was concerned about the subliminal racism that was ticking under our skin. I’m very aware of the undercurrents flowing behind unspoken words. The body speaks loud and clear. That’s if you’re trained to hear it. I’ve operated on Ken’s mind, revealed his racist thoughts, his presumptions about Aussies. But I’ve also shown his struggles, his journey as he allowed himself to listen to Red, to see issues with fresh eyes.
Red’s avalanche of racist remarks, his fears of displacement by migrants, his verbal abuse of them was real. So was his fragmented family background, his nomadic existence moving from place with place with his drug addict mother and ever changing step-fathers.
So the two characters were made to work together. As life is mysterious, Ken saving Red’s dog helped to kick start the friendship. Ken saving Red from drug dealers sealed it.
Question: What kind of research did you need to do for this book, and how did you go about doing it?
Answer: For matters on transgender issues I’ve consulted Sally Goldner, executive director of Transgender Victoria, and Katherine Cummings of the Gender Centre.
For matter on Immigration I’ve consulted the staff from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
For issues on underemployment I was confronted by students in my ESL classes many of whom were professionals not working in their profession.
I was born in Singapore, married to an Australian, a Caucasian. I’ve lived here for over forty years, studied in high school, at university of Monash and University of Melbourne, taught in high schools and TAFE colleges so I’m immersed in both cultures.
Question: Was there anything that you edited out of this book?
Answer: The ending was changed. In the earlier version I did not make a thorough check on marriage rules, which prohibited the marriage of transgender. The present ending was much more robust.
There were several rewrites on the emergence of Cuifen as you imagine it was difficult for a person who had disappeared for ten years to reappear. It was very delicate balance as to what amount and what type of information I might want to provide to move the story forward.