September 13, 2012 by Jen
All right, I know I’ve moaned in the past about how nobody ever notices my books and that they seem to languish in obscurity, blah blah blah. Well, scratch that, because I’m finally on a shortlist! And the City of Vancouver Book Award one at that. I’ve said to my friends many times over the years that the Vancouver award was the one I really, really cared about. I think about this city all the time when I’m writing. It might be obvious to say that I write about the Chinese Canadian community or immigration, but my real muse has been and continues to be the city of Vancouver. I’m not even saying that to suck up to the members of the award jury. It’s totally true.
My grandfather owned a barber shop on the corner of Main and Keefer. My father attended VanTech. My mother bought her first winter coat at Woodward’s. I graduated high school when the Canucks were making their historic 1994 run for the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t get more Vancouver than this. It doesn’t get more Vancouver than me.
No other city is so full of opposites and contradictions, beauty and human despair. No other city has a history so full of grit and industry and sin. And in no other city does a bear hitch a ride in a garbage truck before climbing out and surveying a downtown street.
I love Vancouver. And maybe, just maybe, it loves me back.
If you want to join in on my weeklong celebrations (the announcement of the winner is next Thursday the 20th), come see me read this Sunday the 16th at Guilt & Co. with Sophie B. Watson. I’ll be cheery! Infuriatingly so. Huzzah!
September 5, 2012 by Jen
This past weekend was my wedding anniversary (12 years–yes, I am that old) and, although my husband and I have been consumed by parenting matters in the last two years (and I mean consumed, as if our son is a black hole and we are the teeny, tiny celestial debris caught in the inexorable vacuum and I’m totally not exaggerating), I remembered that, without our marriage, my writing life would have looked very, very different.
We were married while I was working on the first draft of The End of East, a time when I had no idea if what I was writing was worth reading. I didn’t even know if it was going to be a novel or a long poem. I just kept writing in circles and backward and forward. It seemed as if the manuscript kept growing but wasn’t actually going anywhere. Despite this snail’s pace, my husband never once told me to stop and get a real, full-time job instead of the part-time ones I collected that were designed to bring in some money while I focused on writing that long poem/novel/exercise in frustration. He read my bits and bobs and believed they were good. He humoured me by pretending he was Eleanor Wachtel while I pretended I was a famous writer who had just published THE BEST BOOK EVER. And he told me, over and over again, that my books would have a life in the world some day, even as rejections came in and I considered going back to school to become a social worker (no kidding–can you imagine).
Now, as my writing has shifted again to another, less prioritized place, he’s back at his cheerleading. When you’ve spent a long day tending to a cranky, dirty toddler who has already peed on you twice by nine in the morning, you don’t really see yourself anymore when you look in the mirror. You’re a reaction, and not just a reaction, but a reaction to an unreasonable, verging-on-psychopathic two-year-old. Some evenings, when I fall on the sofa with a tall glass of bourbon, my husband takes my hand and tells me I’m still a writer, and a good one. First, I cry. Then, I sleep. And for that, I’m so, so thankful.
Without him, I would be toiling away at a job in an office I hate. I would be working on manuscripts that could never be finished. I would still be dreaming about being a writer and loathing myself because I wasn’t one yet.
With him, I am exactly as I am. A real writer, with a home, a tyrant of a son and a whiskey glass that is always lovingly refilled by the man who gives me everything he has.
Category The writing life | Tags:
July 19, 2012 by Jen
For a long time, my life–both personally and professionally–was about writing. When I was at home in my sweatpants, I wrote. When I was out yapping on the radio, I was talking about writing. When I was reading Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides or Nancy Huston, I was secretly wishing I could write like them. I never got away from it. Words and the construction of sentences and narrative arcs became a part of every meal, every shower, every dog walk. And I liked it that way. After all, if I hadn’t lived like that, I never would have published three books in four years.
But these days, things are different. I didn’t write for a year, not just because my son was an infant, but also because I was tired. Like bone-shivering, cotton-mouthed tired. Yes, my son was wearing me out, but I felt like I didn’t have any words left, that they had all been shaken out of me in my push to put work out in the world. And so I took a break.
It felt good, part of the time. I moved, started renovations, watched a lot of bad television (anyone who lives on the West Coast who says they didn’t watch The Real Housewives of Vancouver is totally lying; everyone watched at least two minutes and loved it but then wanted to rinse their eyes out with bleach afterward). I was a mom. Like a real mom who bakes rhubarb bread and embarks on extensive Google searches about sleep regressions.
I was also terribly, terribly grumpy.
It’s no secret around here that my post-partum funk was more than just lack of sleep and general weepiness. In many ways, I was mourning my previous writerly life, even though I didn’t really want it back. At least, not all of it. But in the absence of my old, all-consuming writer persona, there was nothing. I had no replacement. There was just a wide open space and a cold wind whipping through the emptiness.
Sure, I could have just embraced the mom thing. But being a mom isn’t an identity that has anything to do with the woman who is the mom. It’s all about the child and how that woman dresses or feeds or disciplines him or her. It can be rewarding, but at some point, when a mother looks into the mirror, does she see herself anymore, or just the yogurt stain on her sleeve and the messy ponytail her toddler has been yanking on all afternoon?
Even now, while I am in the middle of writing a new novel, I feel very unsure. Am I writing because I want to, because I’m committed to making this writing career work? Or am I writing because I need to do something, and it’s the only thing I’ve been doing for the last seven years? I don’t know, and I worry that this uncertainty will show in my work.
One day, I might switch everything up and disappear into the real world. I might stop writing and start landscaping or making shoes or grooming dogs. Seven years ago, I would have never thought that I would be questioning my writing life. But I am. For the first time since I was ten years old, I am.
Category The writing life | Tags:
July 3, 2012 by Jen
As many of you know, I’m in a writing group called SPiN. This July marks our tenth anniversary (I know, crazypants, right?) and I’m just chuffed that we still like each other! June and Mary and I managed, somehow, to publish all three of our debut novels, which is a feat I’m enormously proud of. After all, when we met, those novels were quivering new manuscripts and none of us knew if even one of them would ever sit on a bookstore shelf.
So, in celebration of all things SPiN, we wrote a guest blog post on Gail Anderson-Dargatz’ website about what keeps us together. Think wine, words and cookies.
June 7, 2012 by Jen
I love paperbacks. They’re squishy, they fit in your purse, and they cost less than a night out at the movies with popcorn and drinks. Yes, I’m that cheap. I’m a writer. I make no money. Which means that I appreciate the royalties. Wink.
May 23, 2012 by Jen
You know, I’ve tried really hard to stay out of the fracas surrounding the new mommyhood. Yes, I know it should be motherhood, but, somehow, with Jessica Alba all of a sudden proclaiming herself an expert on all things toxin-free and eco-family-friendly, mothers don’t really seem to exist anymore. It’s a world of mommies (albeit mommies who have a lot of money and a lot of help and spend a lot of time searching for things that won’t passively poison their children) and we just have to get used to it.
But the thing is, I wrote a book called The Better Mother! Every single thing I’ve ever written in my entire life has to do with what mothers are expected to be and what they can’t live up to even as they try to tread water and survive. My fictional mothers can be bad and mean, they can ignore the needs of their children, but they are women we understand, that we can cry for sometimes.
Personally, I find myself tossed about in a strange storm. There are the attachment mothers, the ones who nurse until the kid just drops off the breast when he’s 17. Then there are the organic mothers who don’t buy anything unless it’s brown, mealy and can be used as a face cream as well as a salad dressing. And then there are the hard-edged mothers, the ones who insist that their children act like miniature adults and who will not tolerate any disruption to their plucked and polished senses of self.
You will note: I make fun of them all. Which means that I alternate between all of these different kinds of women. Except for the nursing one. Sorry, I really liked wearing regular bras again.
And then there are the celebrity mommies who design baby clothes and endorse compostable diapers and write pretty bad picture books. These are the women who walk in fashion shows when their babies are 6 weeks old. These are the women who go straight from labour and delivery into spinning class and have nannies and cooks (whom the public never sees) standing at attention 24 hours a day. These are the women we see in magazines looking well-rested. These are the women we should never listen to. No, really. I don’t care about much, but I’m telling everyone out there that no one should ever take parenting/lifestyle/exercise/beauty advice from Hilary Duff/Jessica Simpson/Heidi Klum. I MEAN IT.
(Incidentally, I find it sweetly hilarious that Hilary Duff writes novels. It’s not even worth it to make fun of her author persona. I feel like she’s the really enthusiastic but not very athletic child on the playground that the other kids just humour. Shhh. We’ll just tell her that her books are good and then maybe she’ll stop. Shhh.)
Seriously though, I refuse to understand the conflicts between mothers who choose to parent in different ways. We all struggle to get through a long, whiny, snotty day. We all hate changing diapers. We all dream of getting a really good massage. I like to think that there’s a reason I write so much about women who are mothers. And it’s this: no one is The Better Mother. I write about the mistakes we make, the wounds we inadvertently inflict on our children, and how family is immutable despite distance, conflict and emotional coldness. We do the best we can given our circumstances. Sometimes it’s not good enough. Sometimes it is.
So if you see a mommy wandering around out there doing something that is totally antithetical to how you view motherhood, just remember that she is just doing the best she can. As you do. As your mother did. And offer her a smile. Because her pockets are probably filled with booger-y tissues and crushed Cheerios, and a smile might just help her get through the next hour of her day.
And you can pass her a copy of The Better Mother too. Because of course you keep a box of them in your car at all times to help me out. I have to pay for those organic animal cookies somehow.
Category The Better Mother | Tags:
May 4, 2012 by Jen
Here’s the thing: I don’t blog very often. I tell myself every week that I should really be updating this site every month at the least, but somehow that never happens. I’m not making excuses because I really could be writing a post instead of watching Come Dine with Me Canada after dinner, but then I think, what kind of writer would I be if I gave up an opportunity to observe humanity? Of course, I would be actually writing instead (as writers are supposed to do), but that doesn’t make the cut for rational arguments around my heavily-under-renovations house these days.
And I always want to blog about something relevant to my life as an author. I could blog about being a mother, which many of my friends do, but do I really want to immortalize in words the details of my poop-y, tantrum-y, booger-y parental life? Absolutely not. I’ve been tempted to wade into the current war between the back-to-the-earth mamas and the women who find this all-consuming philosophy of motherhood antithetical to feminism. But I’d rather not. My motto: be the woman you need to be. Full stop.
(Although, in fairness, I have no idea where I land in this debate. I’ve been known to give my kid potato chips. And chia muffins. And on my watch he ate the fluff from a cotton swab. So, really, I suppose I’m philosophy-less when it comes child-rearing. Which seems bereft and wrong.)
But my writerly existence has been pretty boring lately. I write. I talk about writing sometimes. I read when my eyes aren’t wasted from staring at my laptop. That’s all. I’m quite sure no one wants me to blog about that.
Yesterday, though, I was having one of those moments where I was writing a scene and needed a break from the intensity of my fictional conflict. So I went online (as we do) to look up a fact I needed for my manuscript about 1980s television. I stumbled across the saddest bit of news I’d read in a long time. Neil Hope, the actor who played Wheels on Degrassi Junior High, had died. And, worse, he had died five years earlier and it was only this past February that anyone in his family learned about it.
I grew up with Degrassi. I have watched every single episode of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. I own three seasons on DVD. I even watch the current series once in a while when I feel like rolling around in adolescent angst, which happens more often than most adults are willing to admit.
I loved Wheels. He was the straight man who hid core anxieties about identity and self-worth with a veneer of normalcy. We couldn’t all be the flamboyant Joey Jeremiah, or be as comfortable in our post-punk skin as Spike; but we could all hide what was really hurting us by pretending to be just like everyone else.
I learned the foundations of character building from Degrassi, and I discovered what characters would always compel me the most from Neil Hope’s nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Wheels over the years of our shared childhood and adolescence. I’ve lost real friends and relatives, all of them well-loved and missed. But losing Wheels is like losing a friend I might have had, or versions of all the friends I did have, or all the people I was and could have been. I know virtually nothing about Neil’s personal life, but I like to think that it would matter to him that his work as a young actor affected me and many others deeply. Not just affected, actually. Changed.
This morning, the world also heard that Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys also died. “You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party” came out when I was in grade six, “Sabotage” when I was in my last year of high school. I could say that the Beastie Boys were central to my understanding of poetry, or something writerly like that, but the truth is that I just loved them and that’s all. I watched them perform in 1998 with A Tribe Called Quest, one of the best and most out-of-control shows I’ve ever seen. It made me mad. It made me dance. It made me scream. It was great.
MCA, I wanted to marry you and be you all at the same time. Wheels, you had me as soon as you picked up that bass and sang “Everybody Wants Something” with The Zit Remedy. Be well, boys. I’m thinking of you.
February 11, 2012 by Jen
Oh, it’s that time of year again–Canada Reads! Now, we all know that I love me some Canada Reads. Not only did it change my life as one of the panelists in 2009, but it changed the life of all the authors we discussed, including my runner-up, Brian Francis’ Fruit. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to the broadcasts with a critical ear.
This year, Canada Reads has come under a lot of criticism, stemming mainly from the comments of one of the panelists. Plenty of people have made comments upon her comments and then commented again. I don’t think I need to.
The CBC is a funny entity. And when I say funny, I mean that Canadians are funny about their feelings toward it. The people who listen and care about what CBC broadcasts are hardcore fans. They have very intimate and personal relationships with their favourite programs, which is great, and they feel that they have a tangible stake in what their national radio and television should or shouldn’t do. Which means that when something happens that is the tiniest bit controversial, emotions are twice as intense as they would be if the exact same thing aired on a commercial radio or television station. What if someone said the same things that Anne-France Goldwater did on FOX News? Or your local Top 40 radio show? Maybe a few people might have noticed, but a national outcry? Not likely.
Having people care this much is a good thing, a stupendously wonderful thing. I have no problem with criticism birthed out of genuine concern. In fact, I read a lot of it and understood why listeners were upset. But one particular analysis of this year’s Canada Reads debates really irked me. And that one came from The Globe and Mail.
First of all, the online headline: “the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture.” Hmm, I thought when I read that. Funny how that sounds when the CBC is practically the only media outlet in this country that hasn’t cut back on arts and culture coverage (not that I’m pointing any no-longer-inkstained-fingers). But I was determined to move on.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes:
Last year, Canada Reads instigated an online public recommendation system. Writers who were savvy with self-promotion flogged their work, pleading, in some cases, for votes. Scrolling along the Canada Reads Web page was what I came to refer to as “the Twitter feed of desperation.” I felt sick about it. It was wrong that writers should have to beg.
I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble about what writers actually do when they promote their work, but a lot of is glorified begging. When you’re an emerging writer who is reading with someone super-famous, you’re begging for people to notice you. When you put out an invitation on Facebook to your book launch, you’re begging for people to come. When you’re competing for entertainment dollars with Netflix and XBox, you’re begging for the smallest possibility that someone will put down his or her controller and actually pick up a copy of your book. When we write grant applications, we’re begging then too.
We beg all the time. We’re used to it. It’s really not a big deal.
Kathryn also writes that
…[begging for votes] also created an atmosphere of unpleasant competition in a very small community. Writing is about conversation, and that conversation lags and dies when the topic becomes as mundane as ‘which book is best?’
That sense of competition among writers in Canada is nothing new and wasn’t created by Canada Reads or even the Giller Prize. Writers are neurotic. We obsess over punctuation. We spend a lot of time alone reading other people’s books. It’s kind of a given that we feel unhealthy competitive urges.
I don’t resent Zadie Smith’s success. No, not at all. Ahem.
But this is really the best part:
Readers need to be trained to read properly. I know that sounds snotty. I don’t mean it to. I simply mean that there is a meaning to the way a book is put together, and that meaning is important to why the book was put together the way it was.
Reading and the entire medium of print is the greatest democratic achievement of humankind, full stop. Books are meant to bring knowledge to everybody who can read, not everybody who is trained to read. Why are we making reading into something only qualified people should be allowed to do and then discuss? And if a reader who is reading simply for pleasure notices how a book is constructed or put together then that book isn’t very well-written, is it? Like most writers, I write for my readers. I put in all that work not so people notice the effort, but so my effort is hidden and the story and characters and structure are seamless.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think deeply about what we read. Of course we should, if we want. But every person has different motivations for reading. Some people want to learn. Some people want to escape. And, sometimes, the very same person who wants to learn today might want to escape tomorrow. I, and all of the writers I’m proud to call my friends, respect that.
The beauty of Canada Reads is precisely that non-writers are discussing books. That almost never happens in real life outside of very well-organized book clubs (most, in my experience, end up rather boozy, which I totally endorse as well). Having an author on the panel is ideal, but it sometimes isn’t possible, and, really, do we need to listen to five writers talk about writing for five days in a row? Thanks, but I’ll listen to Jian interview Billy Bob Thornton again instead.
To suggest that Canada Reads is a bottom-feeding cultural beast is ridiculous. This isn’t Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Jersey Shore. This is the CB-freaking-C: mostly earnest, usually informative, often soothing, but never engaged in sham marriages or drunken pants-wetting. Once in a while, someone gets on the air and says something that jolts us out of our soft jazz doze. Well, so what? We get a temporary flash of titillation that provides us with some talking (and writing) material, and then we return to regular programming, with which we can sip our tea and pet the cat.
December 8, 2011 by Jen
I’ve been meaning to post on the plagiarism suit launched against Ling Zhang and her novel, Gold Mountain Blues, for some time now. I participated in an event with her at this year’s Vancouver International Writers’ Festival and, as anyone who knows me understands, I have very deep and emotional relationships with many of the books she has been accused of copying, in particular, The Jade Peony and Disappearing Moon Cafe.
Let me start by saying that being accused of plagiarism is catastrophic for a writer. It is perhaps the one thing that all of us fear. Remember when you were seven and were terrified of descending into the basement because you were convinced that a huge tentacled monster lived and snorted behind the hot water tank? Well, that’s how every writer I know feels about plagiarism. When I was writing The End of East, I kept a copy of Disappearing Moon Cafe on my desk and would check it every few weeks just in case I might have lifted an idea or a phrase or an event. It can be easy to read something, absorb it and then write it out thinking it came from your own head. And this is the fear.
I know, without any doubt, that none of the authors who have filed this lawsuit do it lightly.
Because we know how crushing it would be to be accused of such a career-destroying act. And I also know that Ling is a truly nice woman, one who approaches her readers with a genuine and sweet enthusiasm that I personally haven’t been able to muster up in years. So really, there are no winners in a lawsuit like this, which is the saddest part of this whole story.
There is one tiny thing that hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream media though. Ling claims she has never read the other books in question. But at our event in October, she said she had spent many years researching Chinese Canadian history. It may have been as long as 10 years, which would be a thorough study indeed.
But here’s the thing: how can you conduct any research into Chinese Canadian history without having read The Jade Peony or The Bone Collector’s Son? Every person you would have spoken to–from librarians to academics to the elderly man who used to own the tailor shop in Chinatown–would have mentioned those books to you, probably even said, “You need to read these.” How do I know that? I spent a few years researching my own novels, especially The End of East, and it is impossible to know, really know, the depth and breadth of Chinese Canadian stories without reading the work of Wayson or SKY or Paul. Like, literally impossible.
So maybe Ling’s research wasn’t quite as extensive as we might have thought. Or maybe she really did (and I hate to say it) take ideas from the books she denies ever having read. I don’t know. But I feel great sadness for everyone involved. No one wakes up thinking, “Gee, I hope a lawsuit enters my life today.” Well, probably lawyers do (big ups, legal community, and no insult intended!).
Here’s to telling original stories without fear and with great joy. But you should be cautious around that tentacly monster in the basement. He shudders out of hibernation at the most unexpected times.
Category News | Tags:
October 27, 2011 by Jen
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.
Category The writing life | Tags: