Others Were Emeralds

Lang Leav

Others Were Emeralds
Penguin Random House Australia
5 September 2023

Others Were Emeralds

Lang Leav

A stirring coming-of-age novel about guilt, loss, love and memory. Others Were Emeralds explores the inherent danger of allowing our misconceptions to shape our reality.

This is the part in the story where someone I love would only appear again in flashbacks.

The daughter of Cambodian refugees, Ai grew up in the small Australian town of Whitlam populated by Asian immigrants who once fled war-torn countries to rebuild their shattered lives. It is now the late '90s and despite their parents' harrowing past, Ai and her tightknit group of school friends lead seemingly ordinary lives, far removed from the unimaginable horrors suffered by their parents.

But that carefree innocence is shattered in their last year of school when an incident involving Ai and her friends spirals into senseless violence, leaving behind a trail of unresolved trauma. Years later, Ai is compelled to look back on the tragedy that shaped her adolescence, to examine the role she may have unwittingly played.

Internationally acclaimed poet Lang Leav brings her poetical lyricism and emotional acumen to create a rich and compelling coming-of-age narrative set during a period in Australia's history when anti-Asian sentiment was sweeping the nation.


Acclaimed poet and author Lang Leav’s new novel, Others Were Emeralds, follows a group of teenagers living in the New South Wales town of Whitlam in the late 1990s. Whitlam is known for its large refugee population and many of the students at Whitlam High, including our artistically inclined protagonist Ai, come from families that are adapting to life in Australia after fleeing their war-torn home countries, haunted by fresh histories of violence. The town, like most of Australia, is simmering with racism and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to boil over. But as a teenager in her final year of high school, Ai’s main concerns are her friendships, her boyfriend, her school art project, and her future. Until a sudden tragedy changes everything.

I have read and enjoyed a few of Lang Leav’s novels, particularly the 2017 release Sad Girls, so I was excited to get my hands on this one. Just like in Sad Girls, one of the most compelling aspects of Others Were Emeralds is the way that Leav writes the teenage experience in all its complex glory. Leav is a poet first and foremost, and her writing is imbued with poeticism from description to dialogue. At times while reading, I caught myself thinking: ‘Do teenagers really talk like this?’ But then I would remember what it was like to be a teenage girl myself and realise that in reality Leav was giving adolescence the credit it is due. Self-discovery, creativity, intense and volatile relationships, feeling like the world is opening up before you at one moment and crashing down around you the next – all of these teenage experiences are beautifully depicted in Others Were Emeralds. But at the same time being Asian in ’90s Australia means that for Ai and her friends these rites of passage are tangled up with experiences of racism, isolation, and trauma. I thought the way that Leav wove all of this together whilst striking a delicate balance between darkness and light was impressive and moving.

If you’re interested in a read that manages to cover the varied themes of first love, grief, racism, friendship, war, jealousy, and art with care and honesty, I would definitely recommend this book.

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