What’s The Book? Sidesplitter: How To Be From Two Worlds At Once by Phil Wang.
What’s It All About, JG? It’s a not-exactly-a-memoir book that addresses a bunch of topics that stand-up comedian Phil Wang feels the urge to write about – food, comedy, culture and so forth. The book is divided into ten chapters, each dealing with a relevant topic, as Wang explores each one in his own rather rambling but appealing style. Ranging anywhere between the serious to the extremely silly, Wang takes each subject and devotes his attention to it in his own inimitable style.
Is It Any Good? To be honest, it’s very like Phil Wang’s stand-up. Which is to say it’s not necessarily always the funniest, but it’s almost always interesting and worth taking the time for. I mean, sometimes it is very funny, but that’s not always the aim and simply having the space to talk about interesting things frees him from the need to crack a joke every other line. In this, giving himself some space allows him as a writer rather takes the pressure off, very much to the book’s advantage, and by discussing things which are uncommon in mainstream UK culture – particularly so-called “third culture kids” who grow up the product of two distinct but separate cultures and never quite feel they fit into either – he has an original perspective that just isn’t much explored in contemporary society. His Malaysian background informs who he is just as his British background informs who he is, and sitting in the middle of that Venn diagram is the man himself, both a part of and apart form both. It’s deeply refreshing to read something so upfront about that contrast, especially from a member of a minority that has little visibility in the UK – he has a whole section around how his ethnicity is essentially reduce to “other”, which is both very funny and extremely pointed. And, unlike a lot of writers who try and put a book like this together, Wang has a breezy style that’s lightly engaging when being funny but which doesn’t get in the way when he’s discussing something more serious.
How Many Of These Have You Read? Books by Phil Wang? Zero, since this is his first. Memories and auto/biographies? Too many to count. Love a good memoir, I do.
Would You Recommend It? I would, yes, though not quite unreservedly. See that subtitle? “How To Be From Two Worlds At Once”. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff discussed under that heading, yet one of the blind spots of the book – and it’s a big one – is that Wang often uses “British” and a synonym for “English” and this undermines some fairly important points he tries to make. To take one example, he more that once refers to Britain as being hostile to immigrants at the moment, post-Brexit. Yet Britain isn’t hostile to immigrants – England is (and by extension, Westminster). Scotland, on the other hand, has one of the most pro-immigration governments there is and are simply aching for a change in policy to allow more people to come. This isn’t just some Caledonian point-scoring – if you are going to discuss something like immigration it behoves you to understand that there is more than one political perspective in the UK and England’s current hostility is not the be-all and end-all. “British” is taken as a homogenous whole, a one-stop shop for attitudes and approaches, but it’s not. There are times when that is appropriate – how “British” is perceived abroad, for example, or when discussing the Empire – but there are also times when it isn’t, and discussing immigration is a big one where it is not. But the “S” word is never really spoken (neither the “W” word, nor the “NI” words, except occasionally if one of those nations features in an anecdote). It’s a major flaw.
Yet the book itself remains a thoroughly engaging, entertaining read. One of the nice things about the way Wang writes is there’s no sense of an axe being ground. What he’s discussing are matters which are potentially extremely sensitive – there’s a whole chapter about why the hoary and notorious old 70’s sitcom Mind Your Language isn’t racist, actually – but he’s approaching them in a non-judgemental way that doesn’t simply involve falling back on tired tropes or repeating stale punchlines and hitting obvious talking points. This is especially true when discussing his own ethnic origins – he quite comfortably describes himself as being less Malaysian that people from Malaysia and less British that people from Britain, without any sense of anything other than that being his honest opinion of what and who he is. It is in moments like these that his writing is strongest, and that’s where the real heart of the book comes through. This isn’t a perfect read but it’s a book that is absolutely one worth taking the time for, and one which examines and expands upon a culture too often invisible in Britain, and does it in a funny, entertaining and engaging manner. If not flawless, then certainly still recommended.
Scores On The Doors? 7.5/10