My book ‘Happy Families’ is the story of three generations of a family living about a Chinese takeaway in West Wales. The granddaughter, Amy, has come back to live in the family home after having been away in the city for the last sixteen years.
When her grandfather (and flatmate!) collapses in the street, she wants to find out why the old man and his son-in-law – who is also Amy’s Dad – haven’t spoken for the last thirty years. Time is running out if she wants to make this family a Happy Family.
I also wanted to set it here in Wales, because it’s what I know. But also, Welsh literature doesn’t really have a lot of Chinese people in it, so I wanted to expand that. I wanted to represent something that you don’t normally see, and you don’t normally see Chinese people in books at all. It took a long time to get this book out into the world. The reality is that if you’re Chinese, black or Asian, if something happens to you, you always have this thing that flashes in your head and goes, “Is it because of that?” This book didn’t get a lot of reaction from agents and other sources to get published. I always think: “Is the story just a bit too ethnic?” However, when I entered it into the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller 2020, the book won the competition which was available to everybody. It wasn’t a competition just for diverse voices. I think that is one of my favourite things about the whole publication process. So far, the book has been well received. I’ve had a lot of feedback from people who also grew up in a Chinese takeaway family. I think it’s just amazing to be seen in that way because when you live in a town with only one or two Chinese takeaways, you probably don’t see others like yourself very much. I think we should spend more time looking at stories with people who haven’t been represented in fiction before and try to get them out there.
If I have any advice for younger people, I would say that everything takes a lot longer than you think. When I left university, I thought “This is it. By the time I’m 25, I will have made it”, and that didn’t happen at all. However at the same time don’t feel discouraged. You pick up a lot of experiences, and they make you a stronger person. So my main tip is, things take longer than you expect to happen. Don’t be impatient.
You might not do what you love for a long time. You might not do what you love to earn the money. But once you have a little bit of money, a little bit more experience, you might get the chance to do what you love. In fact, when I wrote this book, I had no expectation of being paid for it, but it turned into a bestseller!
Happy Families by Julie Ma won the 2020 Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition and is out now in paperback, £8.99. It’s available from bookshops and retailers including WHSmith here.