Novel explores refugee journey and anti-Asian sentiment

Haggard from days of running to escape a Khmer Rouge forced labour camp, Lang Leav's heavily pregnant mother fell asleep on a warm and soft pillowy surface, only to discover when she woke up that it was cow dung.

This harrowing story formed the inspiration for a powerful scene in Leav's new novel, Others were Emeralds, published by Penguin Random House.

Leav, 42, was born in a refugee camp at the Thai-Cambodian border after her parents dodged sniper bullets and fled through the jungle with barely any food.

Her debut adult fiction novel, a departure from her previous work as young adult writer and poet, is dedicated to her parents.

"It's really wonderful now that we're in a position to tell those stories and I'm able to write about my mum's experience what it was like for her on that long and arduous journey," she told AAP.

About two million people were killed in the Khmer Rouge's genocide of Cambodia that began in 1975.

Set in the late 1990s, Leav's story follows Ai, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, and her friends who live in the fictional suburb of Whitlam. 

The place name was a nod to former prime minister Gough Whitlam, who lived in western Sydney and was pivotal to ending the White Australia policy and accepting thousands of refugees from south-east Asia.

"I grew up in the 90s in Cabramatta it was a very troubled area, the epicentre of the heroin epidemic, and a lot of that was blamed on us and our community," Leav said.

"My book looks at that time and what it was like to be the first wave of Asian refugees into the country."

Leav reflected on the seminal period and how it seeped into her writing.

"There was all this talk of deportation, and of course legally it never would have happened, but my parents came from the background where they had to flee their home towns," she said.

"It felt to me growing up in that time that it was very real, that I could be kicked out of Australia at any given moment, and so did my friends.

"There was a collective fear among us that if we went out we wouldn't be welcomed ... it varied from not being served in shops, to being spat at and having slurs thrown at you."

Leav rose to prominence after self-publishing a collection of poetry on social media 10 years ago.

After attracting the attention of literary agents in New York, she has since published a dozen books of poetry and prose, selling millions of copies worldwide.

She has amassed more than two million fans across her social media accounts.

The jump to a novel centred on the experience of young people came intuitively to her.

"In some ways, it was a story that I wanted to write for myself and I think it will really resonate with a lot of people, especially children of immigrants, looking at what it is like to grow up in between worlds," Leav said.

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