Today the Chicks are thrilled to welcome Elka Ray, who lives in and writes about both Vietnam and Vancouver Island. Her new Toby Wong novel is DIVORCE IS MURDER. So glad you could visit us here, Elka!
When my daughter was five or six, like many little girls, she said she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. She’s a great mimic with natural comic timing, yet I reacted with dismay. The reason? She’s half Asian and my first thought was: “What kind of roles would she get?” As it now stands in Hollywood, she’d be an unlikely lead or love-interest. Instead, she’d be playing “Asian” characters – whatever that means.
I can’t change Hollywood but I can write stories with complex characters who look more like my kids. This desire led me to Toby Wong, the divorce lawyer star of my new book Divorce Is Murder. Thankfully, the publisher likes Toby – who’s whip-smart and Chinese Canadian – enough to have given her a series. Not everyone felt that way. One editor actually rejected the manuscript because Toby “wasn’t Asian enough” – and suggested I write about Asian Canadian gang members!
While I’d love to read a book about Asian Canadian gang members, that was NOT the story I wanted to write. My goal was to feature a “normal” Canadian – a smart, sarcastic, adventurous professional woman, who’s of Asian descent. Yes, she’s faced some racist bullying. Yes, she’s struggled with her identity. But she’s not entirely defined by her heritage.
My family (German mom, English dad) immigrated to Canada when I was four. I’m white-blonde and blue-eyed. For five years in a row I was chosen to play the Virgin Mary in the German school Christmas play. When I finally complained, they let me be the Angel. You get the picture. Back in regular school, some of my classmates were fifth-generation Canadians whose ancestors came over from China to build the Trans-Canada railway. Yet I heard people ask them: “No, where are you really from?” In the book, Toby gets asked that. No one ever asked me that.
I’ve spent the last twenty-five years living in Vietnam, where I’m constantly aware of just how much I stick out. On the flip side, I’ve benefited so much more from reverse-racism: no matter how sweaty and disheveled I was, never being questioned in five-star hotels (while my Asian friends were); not being arrested in a nightclub on suspicion of being a hooker (again, while my Asian friends were); and landing jobs for which I was way underqualified so there’d be a token white person in the company brochure.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, people of Asian descent are not reaping those benefits. The opposite, in fact. Within two days of being in Canada, my Vietnamese-Australian husband got stopped by the cops TWICE. First time he was “not considerate enough to let another driver merge” (I did Driver’s Ed in Canada: it’s on the mergee to yield and zipper in). Second time was for JAYWALKING. And yes, he was so guilty. The cop then proceeded to yell at him in put-on pidgin-Asian-English: “You You No Walk-ee!” I was too floored to react while my husband, who sounds like Crocodile Dundee, just said: “Er, yeah, okay mate.” Do I think he was racially-profiled? Hell yes!
Back to fiction. After reading this, you probably get why themes of race, identity, and belonging keep popping up in my stories and why I want more diverse characters in books, movies, and TV shows. I hope you’ll like Toby Wong. Most of all, I hope that when my daughter grows up, her coloring will matter a whole lot less than her talent, kindness, and sass.
Readers: If you’ve ever lived or traveled in a foreign country, what was it like being thrown into a completely new culture?
Toby Wong visits her quiet hometown in British Columbia, where nothing ever happens–until her old high school rival is found murdered.
Shortly after returning to her sleepy hometown on Vancouver Island, Chinese-Canadian divorce lawyer Toby Wong runs into Josh Barton, who broke her heart as a teen at summer camp. Now a wealthy entrepreneur, Josh wants to divorce Tonya, the mean girl who made Toby’s life hell all those years ago. Not long after Toby takes Josh’s case, Tonya is found murdered. Josh is the prime suspect.
Together with her fortune-teller mom and her pregnant best friend, Toby sets out to clear Josh, whom she still has a guilty crush on. While he seems equally smitten, can Toby trust him? The handsome cop charged with finding Tonya’s killer doesn’t think so.
Since Tonya stayed in touch with everyone from that lousy summer camp, Toby keeps running into ex-campers she’d rather forget. Could one of Tonya’s catty friends be her killer?
Are Toby’s old insecurities making her paranoid? Only too late does she realize that she really is in danger.
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