A Chinese rapper stands on the brink of stardom in Red Deer — or at least he does in Jon Chan Simpson’s fictional version of this city.
The author of Chinkstar was born and raised in Red Deer, and could easily re-imagine his hometown as the cool, dynamic, culturally diverse setting of his debut novel.
“I’ve always thought of Red Deer as a place of possibilities,” said Simpson. Although he’s now based in Toronto, he recalled, “I was off to a great start in Red Deer. I had fantastic English teachers who would bring in these amazing authors to speak to us at schools” — such Dennis Lee of Alligator Pie fame.
The 31-year-old son of a Irish/Scottish father and Chinese mother graduated in 2001 from the French Immersion program at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School with the idea of becoming a doctor.
But literature had a greater pull. And Simpson eventually earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Toronto.
He now works as an editor at Harlequin Books (the romance publisher) in Canada’s largest city. But all of his spare time was poured into writing what’s being called “the best debut novel … so far this year.”
Chinkstar, published by Coach House Books, is set in Red Deer — but not Red Deer as we know it.
It’s as if this Prairie city had evolved in a slightly different direction — “kind of like a parallel-universe,” said Simpson, in which “chinksta rap” culture is huge, and a Chinese Central Alberta kid is a local hip-hop star, poised for big-time success in Van City (Vancouver).
His fictional rapper is King Kwong.
Chinkstar opens with a bunch of teenagers, including Kwong’s little brother, Run, waiting for the local legend to perform one last show at a bush party, “somewhere between Township Road 382 and the United States of MTV.”
Only Kwong doesn’t show up, and no one knows why.
While Run isn’t a big fan of his brother, he’s forced to try to track him down after their mother is injured by a stray bullet, and it looks as if Kwong’s disappearance could be linked to a turf war between local gangs.
Run and his sidekick Ali find themselves battling on two fronts in this fast-paced book: They are caught in middle of violent gang action between the Apes and the Necks; Run must also try to evade his crush’s threatening brother who doesn’t want him messing with his little sister.
Chinkstar is being praised by critics for its bold writing style, action-packed plot and for smashing stereotypes. As the novel progresses, Run must rethink his family history, his hatred of “rice-rap,” and what it means to be Asian.
Simpson, a fan of the “fresh” and “surprising” writing of authors Junot Diaz and Pasha Malla, said he was trying for the kind of cultural mash-up achieved by one of his favourite rap groups; Wu-Tang Clan often fused black and Asian culture through the use of martial arts in the group’s rap music videos.
While he doesn’t feel he was a victim of intolerance while growing up in Red Deer in the 1980s and ’90s, he does remember feeling “caught between two cultures.”
His mother from Hong Kong took extra effort to ensure he kept in touch with the Chinese part of his heritage, by marking special holidays, like Chinese New Year. “There was a pressure to remind me, lest I forget,” said Simpson.
He then had to make sense of what those holidays meant to him, a kid growing up playing soccer and taking kung-fu lessons in Central Alberta.
Some of his thoughts about his ancestry are expressed through the book, which uses real-life Chinese-American rapper MC Jin as inspiration for the Kwong character and Simpson’s younger self as a template for Run.
Since Simpson grew up as an only child, he based the relationship between his two fictional brothers on the enduring friendships he formed in Red Deer. A few of his pals from elementary and middle school even flew out to Toronto last month for his official book launch.
Simpson set his story in a heightened version of where he grew up because writers are told to write about what they know. Unlike Calgary or Edmonton, most people don’t have a solid idea of what Red Deer is really like, he said, giving him to freedom to tweak and reshape reality.
He believes it was easier viewing his hometown objectively from the vantage point of his Toronto residence — especially since he put more distance between his past and present by living for a time in Japan and Calgary.
“I got to look back and think about Red Deer and how it could have looked like … how things could have gone differently. …”
There wasn’t much of a local rap scene here while Simpson was attending high school, so he was thrilled to learn regular hip-hop concerts are now held at the Quality Inn, North Hill. This area has even become home to former Surrey, B.C., rapper Mercules and up-and-coming hip-hop producer Young Aspect, who’s worked with Swollen Members.
“That’s amazing!” said Simpson, of a case of life-imitating-art-imitating-life.
Chinkstar is available from Amazon, Chapters and other bookstores.