Others Were Emeralds by Lang Leav is a coming-of-age tale that explores the complications of friendships, relationships, and the experiences of immigration during the 1980s and 1990s when anti-Asian sentiment flooded Australia.
Ai, her family, and her close-knit group of high school friends live in the diverse fictional town of Whitlam, based on Sydney’s Cabramatta, where the author had grown up. In Whitlam, gangs, crime, drugs, and unemployment reign in large numbers.
It is through following Ai’s story that readers are exposed to what it was like growing up in a world that was not welcoming to Asian refugees. Ai and her loved ones have to fight against the intergenerational effects of racism and displacement, all while try to be a typical teenager; one that immerses herself in love, loss, growth, complicated relationships, miscommunication, art, and her future.
Others Were Emeralds is an important book that discusses and explores the realities of people who immigrate to Australia, and their life after arrival. Through the book’s range of characters, readers gain a level of awareness on how different people have combatted racism. In the case of Sying, she was a young activist that put up posters around her public high school of Whitlam. Later, Sying wanted to do more, this is when Brigitte, Ai’s best friend, suggested and started an art movement that Sying latter took over. Ai, on the other hand was mostly complacent, diplomatic, encouraging, but absent from confrontation. The relationships at play between the characters and their opinions on justice was interesting to see and analyse. I also found it fascinating to see the duality of the characters; for me I felt it normalised the perfections and imperfections that everyone contains and challenges the idea of people or characters strictly good or strictly bad.
However, despite this complexity, the main issue that I have regarding Leav’s characters is their shallowness. I was often left wanting to know more about them, about their back stories, and to hear about the events from their perspectives. Despite Ai being the novel’s main protagonist she mostly felt like a wallflower, sitting there and observed the goings-on in her friendship circle. The fact that this friendship group contains six characters, in addition to several others that appear and offer back stories, is what perhaps contributes to this feeling of shallowness. That there were too many characters to really be able to delve deep into the challenges experienced by these characters and really flesh them out.
Whilst the book’s blurb suggests a heavy emphasis on the topics of refugees, immigration, racism and tragedy; I’d argue there was a greater emphasis on friendships, relationships and miscommunication. So, it was not quite the book I was expecting. But, in spite of my issues with some of the characterisation, I do believe that Leav has encapsulated the average teenage experience really well – the extreme emotions, the lack of rationality and the strong desire for justice all come through strongly in Ai’s perspective, actions and dialogue.
If you’re looking for a book that explores themes of culture and race within a contemporary setting then Others Were Emeralds might be the book for you.