Posted by: Vanessa Barneveld | April 15, 2010

Author interview – Gabrielle Wang

In LITTLE PARADISE, award-winning author Gabrielle Wang takes us on an emotional journey with a young girl, Mirabel, living in 1940s Melbourne. A first-generation Chinese Australian, Mirabel is caught between two worlds. Though entrenched in the local culture, her parents are traditionalists and expect her to be a good, obedient daughter. But Mirabel, a talented artist, has a stubborn, independent streak. She denounces her birth name, and this enough to drive her insulted mother to warn: “Changing your name will change your whole destiny.” And you can bet she means not in a good way!

Fate and chance are recurring themes in LITTLE PARADISE. At a cousin’s birthday party, she locks eyes on JJ, a Chinese soldier stationed in Melbourne. Instantly, she knows he’s The One. But it’s not until her father’s friend brings him home for dinner that she speaks to him for the first time. After a rocky start, they begin an illicit affair. When Mirabel falls pregnant, there’s no going back to being a good, obedient daughter. When JJ is ordered back to China, Mirabel is heartbroken. All contact between them is severed. Then she makes a decision that again changes her destiny: she sets off for Shanghai in the midst of a civil war, infant in tow. Everyone else is trying to flee the city. Not Mirabel. She’s on a mission to find a little paradise with JJ.

LITTLE PARADISE will transport you to a time where you had to be resourceful in order to survive daily life. It’s an emotive, powerful story that comes from the heart. First-gen Australians like myself will relate to trying to reach into the family’s adopted country while maintaining old traditions, all the while wondering where you truly belong.

Gabrielle was kind enough to answer a few questions about this deeply personal novel…

This novel is based on your mother’s experiences during the Second World War. On an emotional level, what was it like for you to research and write about your family’s history?

It was easy at first. Interviewing my mother and her brothers and sister, was fun. But then I realized that there were certain things my mother still felt bad about – her pregnancy and subsequent illegitimate child. Not only was it a shameful thing for any girl of that era – the 1940’s, but she was from a well respected Chinese family. So when I began writing Little Paradise, she didn’t want anyone to know that the story was based on her. I also had to be careful with what I included, as I didn’t want to hurt her in any way. I was totally held back by all of this until one day, while taking an intensive writing workshop in Sydney, it suddenly dawned on me. If I was going to write the best book I could possibly write, the characters and plot had to belong to me – especially the characters of Mirabel and JJ. I no longer saw them as my mother and father but fictional characters. And the events of my mother’s life were only the framework to build my story around. From that moment on, I was liberated.

Sometimes the research was emotionally difficult, especially when I discovered that my paternal grandmother committed suicide in China just before the Communists took over. And to this day, we don’t know my maternal grandmother’s real name because she assumed the identity of a dead girl to come to Australia. It was the time of the White Australia Policy.

Little Paradise took about a year and a half to write. But then came the final hurdle. I wanted my mother to read the manuscript and give it her blessing before sending it to Penguin. After all, this was her story albeit a fictionalized one. I waited nervously for a phone call. When she finally rang and told me how much she enjoyed it and how well I had written the moments of her life, I let out a big sigh of relief.

How did your family members react to the book?

There was no problem with family members. They all love it, especially my mother’s siblings. Not sure about my older brother though. He’s the illegitimate baby. But he doesn’t read fiction so I don’t have to worry. And if he picks it up out of curiosity, I did portray him as a cute little toddler, so there’s nothing for him to complain about there.

If you were in Mirabel’s shoes, would you have gone to Shanghai to find your beloved despite the dangers?

If it were me I probably would have been too scared to go. My mother is so much braver than I will ever be. And she had a baby to protect too. How brave was that?

The strengths needed would be resourcefulness, a trust that things will work out, and faith that my lover still wants me after I’ve had a baby. And a certain kind of naivety helps. In the novel I condensed time. But in real life it was two years before my mother travelled to Shanghai to see my father again. That’s a long time to wait and hope that your lover will still be true to you. No emails, Skype, Facebook or Twitter, they couldn’t even phone each other. They did have cablegrams though and letters which had to travel by sea. But they were few and far between because of the war.

Which Chinese traditions do you keep alive for your own children?

We celebrate Chinese New Year by having a big family dinner. And my children get hong bao little red packets of money. They’re used to eating traditional Chinese food and are familiar with all the festivals.

I tried teaching them Chinese when they were very young but as I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese myself, it became way too hard to keep it up. I am proud to say though, that my daughter spoke Chinese until she went to kindergarten.

What are you working on now?

A series of four historical novels for a new Penguin series called Our Australian Girl. They are for 8-10 year olds. All four books are episodic and will be published next year three months apart. My little character is called Poppy. She’s a half Chinese, half aboriginal orphan who lives on a mission in Victoria during the Gold Rush.

Thanks so much for your time, Gabrielle!

Hey, WLYA readers, how would you like to win a review copy of LITTLE PARADISE? It’s super easy. All you have to do is tell me what your version of paradise would look like. The winner will be announced next Friday.

Speaking of winners, SHARON ARCHER is the winner of last week’s JESSICA’S GUIDE TO DATING ON THE DARK SIDE contest! Sharon, bust out the soy cake and celebrate! The book is winging its way to you.

Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang. The cover features a photo of Gabrielle's mother back in the day.


  1. Vanessa, this sounds like a fascinating story. I really love stories of Australians exploring their family’s ethnic and cultural pasts. My father was born in Shanghai (English expat family) and I’m particularly interested in Chinese stories.
    This book sounds like it might be a good one for the HSC “belonging” theme.
    Paradise? Er, do you mean as in the afterlife? I hope that not only would I see the faces of the people who have gone before me, but also of my beloved furry friends!

  2. Hey, how come my photo came up and not the other icon thingy?!

  3. Hi, Kandy! I don’t know what happened with the icon thingy but I much prefer your fabulous publicity shot!

    I’ve always had romantic notions about Shanghai in the early 20th century. I bet your father would’ve had a lot of stories to tell.

    Paradise doesn’t have to be the afterlife, but I would also like to meet up with loved ones and all my dear old pets. Paradise for me would be a magical place with a never-ending supply of books, fine chocolate and episodes of ‘Survivor’.

  4. Wow, Gabrielle, what an amazing story! And to think it’s based on your family history is even more amazing. And weren’t they stalwart, staying true to one another through all that? Love the sound of the book and congratulations on its release. Vanessa, you bring us such interesting people to meet!

  5. Thanks, Anna! What Gabrielle’s mother went through really is jaw-dropping and I admired Gabrielle’s skill in adapting it into a novel. I loved what she said about the epiphany that allowed her to make the story her own. Or rather JJ and Mirabel’s story.

  6. Gabrielle, this sounds like a marvellous story! It must be such a different experience writing something based on experiences so personal to your family and yet giving yourself the freedom to create a work of fiction. What a challenge! So different to most fiction processes, and I’d think in many ways more difficult. Congratulations on the release. I hope it sells its socks off. With that cover I’m sure there’ll be lots of readers picking it up to find out more!

  7. Annie, isn’t a gorgeous cover! It’s even more special ’cause that’s Gabrielle’s mum in that elegant blue dress.

    I agree—it would be awfully difficult to base a novel on actual events. It’s a brave undertaking. I imagine actors in biopics who play people who are still living suffer the same problem. They want to authentically portray the person but at the same time, they don’t want to be a caricature, so it’s necessary to inject their own spin on the character.

    Thanks for popping in, Annie, and congrats on your own latest North American release!

  8. Oooo … my idea of paradise is a library filled with awesome good books and good friends to discuss them over with! Oh and chocolate cake to go with it.

  9. Sounds dreamy, Llehn! I’d walk over hot coals for that.

  10. Vanessa and Gabrielle, what a fascinating background this book has and so close to your heart, Gabrielle. Your mum was very brave and resourceful and I’m so glad for you that she gave your finished story her blessing.

    And Vanessa! I’m so thrilled to be your winner of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side! How lucky am I! Many apologies for being so slow to hope in to say THANK YOU! Alas, I’m still a modemless cyber-orphan scrounging time from OP networks! Hanging out till next week when the replacement modem should arrive….


  11. Hi, Sharon! Thank you for doing everything you could to cyber-visit. Funny thing is my own internet connection went on the blink when I tried to answer your comment. I hope whatever your modem has isn’t contagious! You’ll get your copy of JESSICA’S GUIDE next week–congrats!

    Gabrielle’s mum does sound awfully brave, and bravo to Gabrielle herself writing the tale.

  12. Thanks Vanessa for the great review and to everyone for their lovely comments!

    Gabrielle (:

  13. Thanks so much for sharing your story behind the story, Gabrielle!

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