HOW A BANANA BOY DETECTIVE SHOWED ME THE AMAZING TRUTH ABOUT ALIENS
By: Don Bosco
hen I first came across this Banana Writers website, I was truly thrilled.
Of course I've long known what "banana" means. Not the fruit. Click on the "About Us" page here and you'll see a general definition: "A person of Asian descent, who has been influenced by Western culture." It refers more particularly to an East Asian. The corresponding term for a South Asian might be "coconut". You can work out why.
One way to introduce me: I'm both a banana and a coconut. My grandparents on my mother's side came to Singapore on a boat from China. On my father's side, they came on a boat from Ceylon. The two boats landed in Singapore and two generations later here I am.
Pleased to meet you.
Like so many others who grew up in Singapore, I think and write in English. I've had a few different jobs — magazine editor, TV writer, art school lecturer, etc — until three years back, when my then-eight-year-old son became a big fan of the Beast Quest adventure books from the UK.
I tried to help him find other suitable fantasy titles to read, but we seldom came across any that were based on Asian characters, or inspired by Asian legends. There are some, if you stretch a bit and include stuff like the Avatar: The Last Airbender books, but not many.
That's why we started Super Cool Books, my sons and I, around our kitchen table, to see if we could write Asian-inspired speculative fiction for young readers, and publish this stuff ourselves.
One of our more popular characters is a boy detective who lived in Singapore in 1891, when it was a rough colonial town. He's the teenage son of a respected Chinese physician, sent to London for an education, but he drops out and returns to Singapore with a new identity and a burning obsession.
He calls himself Sherlock Hong, inspired by a mysterious English mentor. He's eager to solve local crimes and report his achievements to his peers in the International Order of Young Seekers, a social club in London.
He's a banana.
We've published three novellas so far about Sherlock Hong's weird adventures — The Immortal Nightingale, The Peranakan Princess and The Scroll of Greatness. I start to wonder if in some way I'm really just writing my own story.
THE PORTAL TO ENGLAND
I don't remember enjoying Asian books as a child. The small selection of Asian stories that I encountered were mostly either: based on folk tales, simple and earnest in promoting traditional values; or classroom readers, often penned by expat teachers and copywriters; or token works of literature by local authors.
At that young age, none of these appealed to me. The writing was careful and the situations serious. It read like homework. I was hungry for entertainment. Most of my friends felt the same way too.
My first 10 years of education were spent in all-boys Catholic schools run by the De La Salle Brothers. Picture this: old colonial-style buildings, many sections built before the Second World War, walls chipped and crumbling in places, layers of thick waxy paint all around, with all sorts of solemn, even gloomy statues and artwork featuring heroic saints and dead religious leaders. I was fascinated, and too young to think this morbid, I thought they were like superheroes.
But what I remember best is the small library in that school. Shelves and stacks of dusty hardcover books, peeling and yellowing but with tough spines that continued to hold the pages together. My favourite books were mostly by English writers, writing about English children: titles by Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton's Just William stories, and I also remember coming across Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co. a few weeks after I caught the BBC series on television, and realising for the first time the connection between print and screen.
That old school library was a magical portal that brought to me the wonderful stories of England. I read about many young characters, all passionate and compelling, and the story worlds were rich and filled with all sorts of curious traditions. Around this time, I also discovered two weekly comics that serialised sports and adventure stories for boys — Roy of the Rovers and Tiger — and also 2000AD, which presented science fiction stories in a similar format.
So very English!
I couldn't help but marvel at this wonderful place on the other side of the world, where grown ups apparently considered it a serious calling to provide children with a constant supply of inventive and thoughtful fiction.
I sort of accepted that if I wanted to be a writer myself, I would have to write about English children in English settings with English adventures.
But how to do this: that was a mystery to me.
MYSTERY OF THE MAGICAL MASHUP
I didn't start thinking seriously about writing again until I was in my twenties.
I started out writing for a local music fanzine, which led to regular freelance assignments for entertainment and lifestyle magazines. And then I landed a job as a junior editor with a new title that had to be launched in a hurry. That magazine was FHM, at that time massively popular in the UK and enjoying an unprecedented print run, and my job was to help put together a localised version every month.
I remember sitting through a briefing by one of the editors from London, and being enlightened by his rapid dissection of the magazine's format and contents. The UK edition had a regular section by a celebrity columnist named Grub Smith. Bit by bit we figured out how to change his name to Grub Wong and tweak bits of his article and make the naughty bits less objectionable, until it actually read like he was a regular funny guy in Singapore writing about local misadventures.
In the process, I learnt to observe clearly the linguistic seams that held story formats and cultural codes together, and to unpick these seams and stitch them together again in new ways. This skill helped me get a string of jobs with other international franchise magazines, book projects and television documentaries, creating original local content based on established US and UK media brands.
As I got more fluent at this, mashing up global and local content, I wondered if I could apply the same approach to creating fiction entertainment. But it took a few more years, and much creative input from my sons, before I actually found a good reason to do so.
TRUTH: BANANAS AND COCONUTS ARE ALSO ALIENS
In writing stories for my sons and other young readers, I realised that most young people are anxious in the same way, because to them the world is one big alien experience.
They are quite naturally drawn to survival fiction. They want to know what it's like to survive your first day at school, your first jab at the hospital, your first field trip far away, your first fight in the school playground, etc. And increasingly so these days, young people are anxious to read about how to survive encounters with an unfamiliar culture.
What’s it like to meet people so different from you that they feel positively alien? What can you do, as a fish out of water? How do you survive a culture that’s exceedingly unfriendly and unforgiving? How do you handle a hostile culture with seemingly superhuman ambition and far superior technology?
Now you know why teenagers love dystopian fiction, stuff like The Hunger Games, because the genre schools them in these survival skills.
Bananas, coconuts, aliens, etc: we desperately want to know what it will take to get through this world and connect with others. If we can feed young readers the right stories, we can help them feel intrigued, delighted and even encouraged about the complexly cross-cultural world that's already here, but perhaps still unevenly distributed across the planet.
In my stories for younger readers, I try to create settings where foreign cultures are hospitable to young explorers, where the fascination is mutual, and where there is much to gain from picking up new ideas and perspectives. Sherlock Hong the banana boy detective isn't just solving mysteries in Singapore to impress his friends in London, he genuinely believes that if we could pool all our different secrets and legends and conspiracies and fears together, we might start to realise something magical about ourselves, and we might also feel less alienated.
Looking back now, I realise that my old school library wasn't really a portal to England, that wasn't the amazing thing about it, but rather it was a portal to the collective generosity, prolific imagination and warm companionship of those writers, who created fiction so that generations of curious and bored and lonely children everywhere could feel entertained and inspired, some for just one or two afternoons, others for much longer, even until they're old enough to write and publish stories of their own.BW
Don Bosco writes mystery, fantasy, science fiction and thriller stories. He describes himself as “geeky, cheeky and magicky". His books are created around brave and curious young characters who are forced to face incredible challenges and take on horrid villains. The plots are fast-paced and spiced up with a tasteful dose of imaginative magic.
In 2011, he started Super Cool Books, a small publishing studio based in Singapore, specialising in original fiction for children and teens. Through various industry partnerships it has since launched ebooks, paperbacks, learning kits, workshops and a dedicated iPad ebookstore to reach readers worldwide.
Titles published so far include the Sherlock Hong series; the Time Talisman series about three friends in Singapore who get dragged back a hundred years in time and have to help a Shaolin monk defeat evil demons; Diary of Young Justice Bao, inspired by the legendary crime fighter who lived in China a thousand years ago; and School of Magical Stories, which shares his creative process for writing stories.
For more information, and to download the iPad app, do visit the website: