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Out of the box: Rebecca Lim on ‘Tiger Daughter’

Rebecca Lim says her forthcoming novel Tiger Daughter (A&U, February) is ‘a lot more personal’ than the urban fantasy or mystery novels the author usually writes. Reviewer Mischa Parkee describes it as ‘a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read’, despite complex themes. Parkee spoke to Lim about her novel, friendship, the importance of Own Voices, and what Lim has been reading in the pandemic.

Tiger Daughter’s main characters are the children of Chinese immigrants. How much of the novel is inspired by you and your family’s own experiences?    

There’s a mix of first-hand experience and community stories in Tiger Daughter. It’s certainly not autobiographical, but a lot of lived experience—mine, and the experiences of friends and extended family—has gone into the novel, which makes it a lot more personal than the urban fantasy or mystery/crime novels I usually write. We too often get worthy stories about ‘ethnics’ written by people who aren’t remotely ethnic. I’m hoping that the ‘particular’ here will speak to migrant or first generation children from a range of backgrounds—who hardly ever see themselves in novels written by mainstream people for a mainstream audience.

I think Wen is such an important protagonist; her evolution throughout the novel and how she finds her voice by questioning the status quo really resonated with me. What advice can you give to young people about speaking out and stepping outside the boundaries of what society deems normal? Do you think it’s possible to change and do better?    

Tiger Daughter, at its heart, is about not accepting limitations and not staying inside the box that other people have picked out for you and expect you to keep to. That’s a recipe for an unhappy, powerless life that has terrible knock-on effects into the future. A lot of the ills of this world—racism, discrimination, systemic bias, misogyny and all the other unfair structures, behaviours and systems that keep people down—arise out of not thinking and not questioning, and it’s a lifelong thing we need to collectively work at. We should always want to understand and do better and evolve. So, yes, it’s possible to change and do better, but it’s an individual project, as well as a collective project, and it’s hard, but it should never stop.

Something I particularly loved about Tiger Daughter is the way you have written the friendship between Wen and Henryit’s so beautifully tender and nuanced. Do you have a friend like Wen or Henry in your life? What do you think makes a good and lasting friendship?    

The relationship between Henry and Wen is one of those mythical I see you and completely get where you’re coming from friendships. I’m really lucky to have had lifelong friendships with a lot of funny, strong, smart women who do a wide spectrum of things; some of them as ‘proper’ as you can get, some so off-the-wall, you couldn’t begin to describe the life/career trajectories they’ve had. I don’t have one Henry in my life, but I’ve got friends who have aspects of Henry and aspects of Wen—people who’ve gone so far down the road with you that anything that comes out of their mouths is comforting, sensible, hilarious and/or exactly the kind of tough love you need to be hearing at that precise moment in time. Good and lasting friendships are about seeing someone for what they are without judgment, and with abiding humour and hope. For example, if you’ve seen someone with the world’s worst 1980s perm, in top-to-toe ruched, emerald green taffeta and pointy shoes, there can no longer be any artifice or weirdness between you; there just can’t. That’s what great and abiding friendships are made of—things like questionable fashion choices and instances of extreme awkwardness.

When I was growing up, there were very few young adult books I read that included characters who looked like me. As an only child with Chinese immigrants on my dad’s side of the family, I really wish I could have read something like Tiger Daughter when I was in school. Why do you think it’s important for children and teens to see themselves represented in the literature they read?       

I was a kid who graduated to reading adult sci-fi/fantasy novels before The Baby-Sitters Club was a huge thing, so I never saw any characters in books that looked like me. I couldn’t articulate, at that age, why the books for children that I was reading weren’t quite ‘right’ but I just found adult genre books so incredibly comforting because you didn’t have to look a certain way, or be a certain thing, in order to have adventures. I’m not saying those books were perfect—you only have to look at the booby, sexist book covers from that era to see how many problematic tropes we were being sold — but they were way more inclusive than the books that were deemed ‘appropriate’ for me to read. When my daughter started at my old high school, she was given a ‘tailored’ list of reading suggestions that contained the same kinds of books I was given at the same age like The Getting of Wisdom, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Playing Beattie Bow. All great books, all featuring no one remotely like my daughter or myself.

There are so very many reasons it’s important that children and teens are able to see themselves in the books they read and these include that stories like these tell kids that they are seen by the society they live in, that they have worth and value; as do their stories and circumstances. It tells kids that they don’t have to aspire to a life that can never be theirs because they’re the ‘wrong’ colour, inclination, physicality or class. It tells them they have permission to navigate their own path, and not be judged for it. I could write essays on this. Sadly, I still don’t think most First Nations, migrant, disabled and/or LGBTIQ+ children and young adults actually see themselves in published novels for those age groups all that often because there’s most definitely a filter, and it’s still not letting authentic Own Voices stories through fast enough.

What do you hope readers take away from Tiger Daughter?        

That it’s possible to transcend the limitations that are placed on you and be the person you were meant to be. It may be hard and unpleasant busting out of that box, but once the box is broken, it’s broken, and you don’t ever have to go back.

What was the last book you read and loved?

I’ve been really fortunate to have read some amazing books this year thanks to a certain once-in-one-hundred year pandemic. I read the entire The Three-Body Problem sci-fi trilogy by Liu Cixin back-to-back and was blown away by his theories of space sociology and what makes a human ‘human’ if they’re stuck in deep space. Closer to home, I’ve loved the wisdom and fury embedded in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land and Ellen Van Neerven’s most recent poetry collection Throat, and adored Eliza Henry-Jones’ How to Grow a Family Tree and Rawah Arja’s The F Team—two YA novels which are completely different, but so authentic as to voice and place and culture.


Category: Features