ESEA writers in Britain are slowly getting the recognition they deserve and people like me are finally getting some overdue representation in literature. Upcoming author Maisie Chan’s debut novel Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths is the latest book to be released by an ESEA writer. It follows the life and dramas of 11-year-old British-born Chinese boy Danny Chung as he navigates his way through his final year at primary school. And from the offset it certainly sounds like a book I could have used and loved at that age.
The biggest spanner in the works for poor Danny is the surprise arrival of his gran – or Nai Nai – who has come all the way from China to live with him and his parents. She speaks no English and he speaks very limited Chinese – and not even the same dialect. The story tells of the teasing he suffers at school – and this is even before his Nai Nai randomly turns up and embarrasses him, the ups and downs of his friendship with one and only friend Ravi (great to see another major BAME character), and the “forced” adventures he must endure with his Nai Nai over the Easter holidays. All while also struggling to come up with an idea to compete in a city-wide Maths competition and competing with family “friends” Auntie Yee and her practically perfect in every way daughter Amelia.
Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths both breaks stereotypes and represents those just like Danny Chung on many levels. Those who aren’t good at maths or indeed aren’t academically inclined at all, those whose parents are overbearing and fussy, those who cannot speak their mother tongue, those who struggle communicating with relatives, and those with relatives or family friends who are competitive and condescending. It also speaks to those who grew up living above a takeaway and those who are teased for being or looking different, as well as those who desire to go against the grain of what is expected of them.
In some ways, Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths is very similar to Sue Cheung’s award-winning novel Chinglish and her latest upcoming release Maddy Yip’s Guide to Life. Danny, like Jo Kwan in Chinglish, is an avid artist and lives above a takeaway – both are asked to help out, but thankfully for Danny his parents are more caring and loving towards their son compared to Jo’s and they prefer him to put his studies first instead – in their own annoying “Chinese Way”. And like Maddy Yip must help look after her granddad, Danny must help look after his Nai Nai, except for him it is practically a 24/7 chore. Danny and Maddy also coincidentally share an Indian best friend, and all three characters in the stories must figure out who they are and where they fit in in this world – whether it’s what they’re good at, what they want to do with their lives or whether it’s to discover more about themselves and their history – if at all.
Danny Chung is a funny and heartwarming tale of acceptance, familial love and breaking moulds. Through Danny’s Nai Nai we are both bowled over with laughter at her quirks and antics but those who know little of Chinese culture, will learn a little more about traditions and mannerisms – particularly those of the elderly – through ways Danny finds bemusing or disgusting, but ones some of us are probably familiar with. Some people may also be shocked at Auntie Yee’s overtly brash and snobby attitude towards the Chungs but this is again sadly a frustrating reality many face from other Chinese people. Pride and saving or keeping face are very important, as is respecting elders – things Danny must contend with throughout.
The book also beautifully shows that language should not be a barrier when understanding or communicating, empathising or sympathising with others. They say actions speak louder than words and in Danny and his Nai Nai’s case, this is true as they prove connections can be made and relationships can be strengthened in other ways, most notably through Danny’s artwork as well as nature and of course, maths.
A definite must-read if you’re an ESEA adult longing to read a book that speaks to your inner child who never had a story about a like-minded character or one that was similar to you, but also a great book for the younger generation of ESEA children who need what we never had. However, it’s certainly not just for ESEA readers – it’s relatable, suitable and enticing to many on a wider level with its strong storyline, memorable characters, hilarious, detailed comic book-like sketches (thanks to talented ESEA artist Anh Cao), and overall, its bingo-level of excitement and lychee-level of sweetness.