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Author: Lang Leav
Publisher: Harper Perennial

Award-winning poet and author Lang Leav tells a coming-of-age tale set in late 1990s Australia that weaves childhood innocence, immigrant struggles, and the brutal sting of racism. We meet Ai, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, in her final year of high school and navigating the complexities of identity, friendships, and first love in the small town of Whitlam.

The story shifts seamlessly between past and present, revealing the ghosts that haunt Ai’s parents, the burden of inherited trauma, and the treachery of memory and the subjective nature of truth. The heart-breaking climax becomes a stark cautionary tale against allowing our misconceptions to warp reality.

The portrayal of racism is unflinching. Casual slurs and microaggressions pierce the idyllic bubble of adolescence, reminding Ai and her friends of their ‘otherness.’ Leav doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities faced by her characters, for Ai’s journey is not just hers but a shared experience of countless immigrants navigating the turbulent waters of identity and belonging – a central topic of this story interwoven with themes of friendship, loss, and the bittersweet transition from adolescence to adulthood.

I felt that the characters’ experiences mirrored my own life, at times a little too accurately.

Like Ai, my family are also Chinese-Cambodian refugees who escaped the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to come to Australia and settle in Cabramatta – the real-life Sydney suburb that Whitlam is based on. While I was born in Australia, in my formative years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my identity never felt Australian or Chinese but somewhere in between. I too felt lost and just wanted to find my place in the world against prejudice and ignorance.

The book does suffer from predictable plot points, and Americanisms like “college” instead of “uni” – which might have been chosen to appeal to a global audience – momentarily detract from the story’s authenticity. However, more is needed to take you away from the power of Leav’s writing.

Others Were Emeralds is a blend of personal struggles with a broader commentary on cultural assimilation and the scars of displacement. It is a cathartic experience for anyone who has grown up under similar circumstances. Still, for those who haven’t, it is a compelling story that captures the essence of growing up in a world that doesn’t always embrace difference. It is a powerful exploration of the human spirit’s resilience in the face of adversity, leaving you with a renewed appreciation for the fragile beauty of human connection.