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'Others Were Emeralds' novel recalls an immigrant-hostile Australia

Author Lang Leav. (Courtesy)
Author Lang Leav. (Courtesy)

Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with author Lang Leav, the author of the new novel “Others Were Emeralds.” The book is set in Australia in the 1990s and centers around a group of teens who are the children of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge.

The cover of “Others Were Emeralds.” (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Others Were Emeralds’

By Lang Leav


Sydney, 2000

W H AT C OM E S F I R ST, the photograph or the memory? At the tender age of twenty, I am at a loss to find myself one mid- day, sitting on a dull red bench in the loud, bustling plaza of my hometown, Whitlam, a place I thought I’d long since left behind. In my hand is a photograph I had never seen, only imag- ined, one I wasn’t entirely sure existed until now. As my fin- gers trace the lonely seascape, a wave of nostalgia bears heavily down on me and I shut my eyes tight, trying to hold back the tide. But then comes the phantom roar of the ocean, seagulls bursting into frame, crying their mournful song, the sound of a shutter click like the start of an old black-and-white movie, my lips silently counting down the years, catapulting me back into that snapshot frozen in half-light, the sun just at the tip of the horizon, jutting into view.

It was the year 1997 and I was seventeen. We were coming to the end of November, having just completed our twelfth and fi- nal year at Whitlam High. Tin and I had spent the whole night cruising in my parents’ butterfly-blue Cressida, drifting through fog and starlight, until the darkness gradually disintegrated into gray, and we stopped by a deserted beach. There we sat with my back pressed up against him, with his arms circling my waist, legs concertinaed around my hips. Our bodies stamped into history, gently rocking to the metronome of the waves lapping the shore. We were waiting for the sun. It didn’t occur to me that time had us in her grip then. A man walking by paused to gawk at us, eyes glazed, mouth hanging open like a vagrant in a drunken stupor. He was a strange sight, scruffy and bearded— naked but for a pair of white, ill-fitting underwear resembling a loincloth—sharp, shoulder bones protruding like bird wings. He seemed as mystified by our presence as we were with his. Per- haps it was the way we were dressed: Tin in a rented tux, me in a red strapless dress, a small silver Nikon cradled in my lap, lens pointed outward with a ready finger on the shutter. The contrast of two worlds, one anchored firmly in the present, the other al- most primordial. It was as though we’d just landed shipwrecked on a new frontier, met with a civilization still untouched by time. Perhaps the man was a symbol of rebirth. After all, new begin- nings were often heralded by great tragedy.

Under my breath, I began to hum a tune from The Sound of Music. As kids, Dad never let my brother, Yan, and me stay up past ten. It was only days ago I had seen the ending to that movie. Before that, there were no spiderlike insignias popping up like weeds, no Nazi flags polluting the proud Austrian vista, no desperate escape in the dark of night. Rolfe never betrayed Liesl. Like me, she had been sixteen going on seventeen, waiting for life to start. Maria and the captain were falling in love. As we patiently waited for them to discover what we already knew, their happily ever after was just as much ours. How could it end with the family on the run, scaling a perilous mountain with nothing but the clothes on their backs?

Stories of war were passed around so casually at our din- ner table, along with the thousand-year-old eggs and fermented bean curd. The furtive whispers between my parents of bur- ied gold and photographs left behind in the dead of night, as though someone were still listening in. This was the familiar, well-worn narrative of peasants and farmers caught in the cross fire of war. Surely the same fate couldn’t possibly befall the Von Trapp family, with their angelic, unattainable beauty and absurd wealth. How could the will of the outside world turn them out of the charmed lives they lived in their cavernous mansion— one grand enough to accommodate a ballroom that could easily swallow a block of flats like the ramshackle one where I lived. As I thought of all this, I felt myself tremble with the new and profound knowledge that everything could change in an instant, no matter who you were or how much you had. That luck or misfortune could strike at any given moment with the same cold indifference. I sensed something then that would take me years to put into words.

“What’s that tune you’re humming?” Tin had asked, gently coaxing me from my reverie.

Turning to nuzzle his neck, I said, “‘Something Good’ from The Sound of Music. By the glass house, Maria sings it to the cap- tain right after he confesses his love to her. I’ve always thought that’s the way the movie should have ended. Why didn’t the director just yell ‘Cut!’ and be done with it?” “Because it’s inauthentic.” “But it’s meant to be fiction—isn’t it? Not a documentary.” “Maybe it’s a mixture of both.” “Do you think so?” “Aren’t the best stories told that way?”

Excerpted from “Others Were Emeralds” by Lang Leav. Copyright © 2023. Available from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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