After a long day of lectures, crowding into one of the many rooms lining the secluded lower corridors of Trent building for a book reading was perhaps not the most welcome part of my day – that is until she started speaking. Kerry Young has a long established career in non-fiction but has thankfully made the transition into fiction with her fantastic debut novel Pao.
From the moment she began to read I was mesmerized by the voice of narrator Yang Pao, speaking to me from across the ocean from Chinatown, Jamaica. Young’s rhythmic voice filled the silent room as she transformed, through her innovative blending of English and Jamaican Patois, to create the truly unique voice of Yang Pao.
Through Pao’s words readers are confronted with Jamaica as it existed in the 1960s, a conflation of different races, classes, colours and creeds, where, against the backdrop of independence and violent gangland crime, one man attempts to negotiate his relationships and personal ambitions with his position as the ‘godfather’ of Chinatown. Based upon Young’s own father whom she last saw when she left Jamaica aged ten, Pao represents Young’s attempt to give her father a better life in fiction. Whilst Pao is undeniably a criminal and the source of much heartache in the novel, he is a whole character, a human character, and encompasses both the good and the bad to prove that he is still just a man, fighting for his life and his livelihood in an increasingly hostile environment.
Despite receiving much critical acclaim upon publication, Young took seven years to write Pao and admits that there were many moments where she doubted that it would ever be published. But Young’s commitment to her story saw her write seventeen thousand five hundred words in six days to meet the demands of her publisher for her final revised edition – no mean feat as I’m sure all those working on their dissertations will agree!
Young’s dedication of her finished novel to her father, her mother and her country, Jamaica, demonstrates the importance of belief in yourself and in your story. Both the Costa Book Award panel who shortlisted Pao for ‘Best First Novel’, and this reader, are grateful that Kerry Young has finally found her voice in fiction and eagerly await her next venture which follows the story of Pao’s powerful and sensual partner in Gloria – but I just hope we won’t have to wait so long for this next instalment!