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“Let’s not mince words here”: Writer-in-residence Jen Sookfung Lee on personal narratives, alternative idols, and old, creaky Canadian publishers

Lee was gracious enough to agree to an interview with The Cascade, during which we discussed a broad range of topics ranging from her introduction to, and decision to walk down, a creative path, to her thoughts on the publishing industry (and hip hop).

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By Glen Ess (The Cascade) – Email

Image Credit Mitch HuttemaThe Kuldip Gill Writing Fellowship has always sought to bring accomplished, contemporary Canadian authors into the communities of the Fraser Valley. This year’s chosen author is Jen Sookfong Lee, whose work includes the novels The End of East and The Better Mother, the young-adult novel Shelter, and regular appearances on several CBC radio shows. While Lee will be using her residency here to help aspiring authors here at UFV and in the Fraser Valley at large, she’ll also be taking on the responsibilities that have become traditional for UFV’s writer-in-residence, such as opening the Mission Writers and Readers Festival early in March.

Lee was gracious enough to agree to an interview with The Cascade, during which we discussed a broad range of topics ranging from her introduction to, and decision to walk down, a creative path, to her thoughts on the publishing industry (and hip hop).

When did you consider writing was the path for you?

I was seven. No really, that’s not even a joke! I was seven and I wrote a short story, and I thought it was the most brilliant thing to have ever been written in the history of literature.

I loved reading, and I thought that maybe I wanted to be a writer, and it was percolating in my head all those years. They had these youth writing things that they would send little kids to, and I was always doing that. When I was 16, I took an actual creative writing course in high school, and I said, “That’s it, I’m done, I’m just going to be a writer for the rest of my life,” though I did tell all of my family that I was going to be a lawyer so they wouldn’t be worried. And then it became patently clear that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and everyone was disappointed! [Laughs.]

Disappointed at first, but you had your first book published in 2007 [The End of East] as well as other work, in magazines.

I started publishing in literary magazines when I was probably about 22, maybe? So I was pretty young, but the magazine stuff wasn’t terribly impressive to my family. I was 30, I think, when The End of East came out. It was the first time that my mother in particular was proud of anything I had done. She could see it, you know? You can see a book, it’s very tangible.

You said you were 16 when you took your first creative writing course, was there anything that stood out to you in that course?

Our creative writing teacher was really great at trying to find readings that were really relevant to us as teenagers — which can be challenging, especially for high school.

She gave us The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy; not the novel, which hadn’t come out yet, just the short story he’d had published in a literary magazine. She gave it to us, and it’s set in Vancouver’s Chinatown. And Wayson was probably 10 years younger than my parents, but there were a lot of similarities in terms of the street names, the words he was using, the vocabulary, and there was quite a bit of Chinese phrasing. When I read it, it was a really transformative moment. I understood then that people were writing about the place I was from, and people wanted to read it. That was really interesting.

I think that when we’re growing up we can often think that our own stories are not very interesting, that our lives are not particularly interesting, so we’re going to other places to come up with topics, but having read that, I understood that everyone’s life deserves a story and is a story. It really changed what I was thinking about — what I would write and how I would do it.

So it was a relevant piece for you?

Yes, relevant, and it was a Canadian, and it was about the Chinese-Canadian community. And it was full of things that were familiar to me, and he made them beautiful, and compelling, and resonant. That was fascinating, the whole alchemy, that you can make something that to you is mundane into something compelling.

Vancouver’s Chinatown is also a common setting in your own work. Does that come from that same vein of thought?

Yeah, I’ve heard this a million times from other writing teachers. There are two types of stories in the world: there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or there are extraordinary people doing ordinary things. I think for me, it’s always been ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

There was a time that I didn’t want to write about Chinatown, or the Chinese-Canadian community, but as I grew older I came to feel that it was kind of a responsibility. Canadian literature can be very non-ethnic. The plethora of voices doesn’t reflect the actual, contemporary, day-to-day lives of most Canadians — who we see, who we work with, who our friends are. And I felt that because I could write that story, I should. Doesn’t mean that everything I write has to do with race, but it does mean that my characters always come from diverse places.

So you want your writing to reflect the diversity of modern day Canada? Especially when we see much of modern day pop-culture being whitewashed.

Yeah, how many headlines do we see about white actors being cast in roles that were written for diverse actors, or actors of colour. For example, when Rooney Mara was cast in the role of Tiger Lily in that Peter Pan movie, or Emma Stone cast in the role of an Asian-Hawaiian woman in that bad movie she made with Bradley Cooper, the name of which I can’t remember [Aloha]. That happens all the time. And if I have an opportunity to not do that, then I’m not.

You’ve also been a juror for the Dayne Ogilvie prize and Canada Reads competition, and as part of that, you’ve been reading works from recent Canadian authors. Do they reflect Canada’s diversity?

Yes, in the last five years it’s sped up quite a bit. It was a slow movement over the last 15, but in the last five years I’m seeing more writers willing to position themselves as outsiders, or on the margins. I’m seeing this with all sorts of different writers — you can be a straight white guy, but you can still write something that positions yourself on the margin.

For example, Theoren Fleury, the hockey player, who wrote about his life and how he was sexually abused by a coach. He’s not placing himself as an alpha male anymore. That was a huge sea-change in respect to modern versions of masculinity.

I think women in Canada, female writers, are more willing to push the boundaries of what they think femininity is, what our expectations for women are. I do think that publishers are looking for more diverse writers, particularly in terms of race and gender.

I’m so excited — the last five years, it’s way better now than when I started out. I was like the only Chinese person in a room for, like, eight years!

So it’s a more accurate representation now?

I think it’s getting there. Publishing is pretty white; let’s not mince words here. It’s not a joke. I think the challenge has been in changing their mindset in terms of what Canadians want to read.

I’ve always felt that publishers and editors were the gatekeepers for Canadian readers. I’ve thought for years that they’ve been doing a pretty bad job at it. Because their assumptions is that you can’t have, for example, two women of colour publishing in the same year.

Wait, really?

Okay, here’s a story about that. When I was writing — I can’t remember which book it was — we sent it to the editors, and one of the editors of the biggest publishing companies in Canada said, “Well we can’t take her book, because we have this woman’s book, another Asian-Canadian writer, coming out next year, and then we have another Asian-Canadian female writer coming out in two years. So we can’t take Jen at all.” With the assumption being that Canadian readers, that will fill them up too much.

With a diverse range of authors?

Yes, for years they thought that they just couldn’t have too many, that the Canadian readers couldn’t deal with it. Which is crap, that’s junk.

They’re assuming then that readers don’t have the mental capacity to do so?

Which is completely untrue. I would say that Canadian readers are among the most sophisticated, open, and open-hearted people anywhere. It’s never the reader. Readers want to learn new things.

And there’s new writers coming up that are diverse.

Yes, there have always been new writers who’ve been diverse, always. It’s just publishing them. There’s always been new writers from everywhere writing all sorts of different kinds of stories. It’s just that publishing wasn’t letting them in, for whatever reason, but it’s changing.

Changing tack a little, I’ve always wondered what authors do in the gap between publishing books.

Well I work. [Laughs.] I do this stuff [residencies], I teach.

A lot of it is writing, research, that sort of stuff. In the 18 months before a book comes out, you’re doing stuff like editing, cover design, author photos, which is the fun stuff. A lot of times, personally, I do take about six to eight months off from writing when I finish a book, and I’ll go do other genres.

That’s what we do! We explore other genres! So when I’m not writing novels, I’m usually writing poetry and nonfiction. I think if you asked any writer that, they’d say they work. We need money.

You’ve got a new book coming out soon right? A thriller right?

Yeah, it’s coming out in September. Sort of crime fiction, sort of noir. It’s gonna be fun, there’s dead bodies!

Not that dead bodies are fun, for anyone reading this.

Dead bodies are only fun in fiction, otherwise they’re not fun at all.

So does that mean you’re currently working on something other than that sort of thriller-mystery?

Yeah, I’m writing poetry right now, and I haven’t written poetry in about 15 years. This is what the Kuldip Gill Writing Fellowship is allowing me to do. I’m so thrilled that someone’s allowing me to write poetry. And I’m working on non-fiction right now, mostly cultural criticism, which is also pretty cool.

I’ve done short articles here and there, and I did work in newspapers and magazines. I’ve been doing that on and off my whole working life, but now, because I wrote those novels, people are allowing me to write the non-fiction I actually want to write. Which is a great gift. Most of my non-fiction has to do with pop culture and how it relates to race and gender.

What exactly do you mean by cultural criticism?

For example, one of the things I’ve been working on for about a year is a book about My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant. That movie came out in 1991 when I was 15, and it kinda heralded the beginning of what most people understand as the grunge era, like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and stuff. But it did it in a sort of international way, and brought it into the mainstream. Grunge was like my church and ideology at that age. So I’m writing this book about that film, but really it’s about the whole ‘90s cult of the alternative, the outsider culture that became mainstream culture, and how that affected a whole generation of people.

And I’m kind of percolating an idea about women in hip hop, how that has an effect on mainstream femininity.  

There are so many pop and hip hop stars and I’m probably wrong about this, but I feel like there’s a more diverse range of voices than before.

Oh yeah, I think so. If you want to boil it down, one of the most fascinating things to me was that, weirdly, journalists would ask singers like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift if they were feminists. And every time they would ask this, every pop star would have a different answer. It would be, “Yes, I am a feminist,” or, “No, I’m not a feminist,” and it was fascinating to me to try to figure out, why yes? And why no? What were the defining factors there? If we look at pop stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, the very mainstream singers, their range of femininity is quite large. But if we look at female hip hop musicians, their range of femininity is quite a lot narrower. They’re a lot more … badass. Hip hop is like protest music ultimately, and it’s interesting and fascinating to me. I mean, I’m about the same age as rap, and what did that do to me? What did Queen Latifah do for me?

Lee will be hosting writers’ workshops at 1 p.m. on February 23 and at 10:45 a.m. March 21, as well as a reading of her work at 12 p.m. on March 8. All of these events will take place in the SUB’s Great Hall, and all students are invited to attend.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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