Something funny happened on the way to the mainstream

This past year has given me a whole new perspective on publishing and the book business, mostly because I was in an adrenalin-laced fog when The End of East came out four years ago. Back then, I alternated between not really believing I had a book out and being giddy with outsized glee that a novel of mine was actually being read by actual people.

This time, things aren’t quite so bipolar, and I’ve been able to sit back and assess things with a more neutral perspective. It helps that for the better part of the last three years, I was reporting on the book business for the recently passed Westcoast Words column. While the column made me pay closer attention to publishing than I normally would have cared to, it also gave me time to read, think and understand how things really work in the big world of words, and to see how reading preoccupations come and go while others (like Margaret Atwood, crime fiction and word-of-mouth) will always endure. And since The Better Mother came out in May, I can finally apply all that wisdom (ha!) to my own work.

Fifteen years ago, Asian Canadian fiction was hot. Authors like Wayson Choy and SKY Lee and Kerri Sakamoto were selling and selling lots. I worked at the biggest bookstore in Vancouver then, and I remember ringing in copy after copy of The Jade Peony and The Electrical Field, which was truly fascinating to me. I was a 20-year-old bookseller who spent weekends at Kinko’s, copying and stapling editions of a pretty terrible poetry chapbook that kindly friends paid $3 for. These authors were winning prizes and readers couldn’t seem to get enough of their particular brand of literary Asian-ness. The moment for writers like me, I felt, was perfect.

Of course, I didn’t publish a book until 2007 and the literary and social landscapes had changed dramatically. Lisa See had published her wildly successful Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The English-speaking world embraced the ultimate in martial arts melodrama–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And Asian people were everywhere. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Cassie Steele on Degrassi. Ken Lum, the iconic Vancouver artist. It wasn’t just Tommy Chong anymore. We had finally made it to the mainstream. Maybe, we hoped, we were no longer the other.

But in the years since The End of East came out and now that The Better Mother is living its own life, I’ve come to see that being a part of the mainstream isn’t always everything we’d dreamed of. I had always thought of myself as a literary writer, which is perhaps a bit of aspiration mixed with delusion, but I was an English major and I was conditioned that literary writing, the kind that should sometimes come with a glossary, was what every writer should be aiming for. It was what I was trying to do when I wrote those mostly awful poems. And those two novels that I never speak of. Shush. It’s not good luck to speak of the dead like this.

As Canada got more and more used to the idea of Asian people contributing creatively to popular culture, the otherness of our books began to dissipate. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t relish playing the role of other. Few people do. But sometimes in our carefully liberal Canadian society, otherness gets confused with specialness, and specialness is what being literary is all about. If Amy Chua is selling a version of the Asian North American story to every news outlet in the English-speaking world, while Patrick Chan skates on CBC Sports, the Asian immigrant experience is no longer new or interesting. It’s just something we think we know and something we don’t feel the need to explore further.

Whether my books are literary enough for critics is a matter of opinion.

But what I feel is happening right now is that the world thinks they’ve read the Chinese Canadian story already and that it’s not special. And therefore not literary. And possibly not interesting enough to read anymore.

Listen, there are over 1 million Chinese people living in Canada. To me that means that there are over 1 million life stories that could be told, each different in subtle and also widely diverging ways. How many variations on stories from [insert name of community here] have we read? Ask yourself if there are too many stories by Mordecai Richler about the Jewish experience in Montreal. Or if Margaret Laurence should have stopped writing about that place in Manitoba after The Stone Angel came out. You could have read more, right? Right.

The next time you walk into a bookstore or browse through titles online, don’t eliminate a book by a Chinese or Japanese or Indo Canadian writer just because you already know about Wayson or Joy Kogawa or Rohinton Mistry. Keep digging. Look further and you might find that we–and our books–are as different as Antigonish and Ucluelet, Bonhomme and the Sasquatch. And in return, I promise I won’t be mad the next time you see me on the street and mistake me for Madeleine Thien. She’s pretty cute, so it’s kind of a compliment anyway.

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