In our continuing coverage of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), we spoke with 2017 CBC Short Story Prize Juror Jen Sookfong Lee about her book, “The Conjoined” and her latest projects. You can find her at the “What a crime” panel on Saturday, May 6th and later in the day leading a workshop called “Plotting the Novel” at PAMA.
The Conjoined was an incredible book that I couldn’t stop reading right to the end. I was cooking with it in my hand, carrying it over to my reading chair without looking up from it and couldn’t peel away, finishing it in an afternoon. When you were writing it, did you find parts of yourself slipping into one character more than another? If so, who?
Ha! Well, Jessica and I are a lot alike in terms of personality. Both of us have a smart mouth and like our wine. However, I think the most compelling character for me to slip into was Wayne because of his inherent contradictions and deep inner sadness. Is he a predator or is he a man caught up in an untenable situation? I had to really mine my experiences of human emotion and behaviour to write him and it was, oddly, really rewarding. After all, aren’t all of us full of opposites?
Who was your favorite character to write in that book and why?
Wayne, as I said above, but also Ginny, the mother of the girls who go missing. She was trying her best but could never get ahead and, as a single mother, I know that feeling so very well.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I remember reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which is a great novel for many reasons, but what spoke to me was how perfectly imperfect it was. I had spent most of my writing career trying to write cleanly and sparingly and Zadie Smith showed me that novels can sustain a certain amount of mess. And even that they should be messy to help us make sense of the mess of our daily lives.
What’s been your favorite topic (so far) to research for your books?
Easily the most enjoyable book to research was my second novel, The Better Mother, which centres around burlesque in mid-20th century Vancouver. I found an interview with a burlesque dancer in the CBC Digital Archives from the 1950s which was a delightful thing to listen to. She talked about sequinned g-strings and what could be better than that?
In the Humber Literary Review, you wrote a really important essay about representation in CanLit. How did you feel writing that piece and what was the reaction afterwards?
That essay, before it was published, gave me several panic attacks actually. My fear was that all of these things I had never discussed publicly would ruin my career and that no publisher would ever want to touch my books again. I sent drafts of it to a few friends who agreed that it was important to disseminate, so I sent to the HLR, which felt like a really safe place to publish. The reaction afterward has been mostly positive, with lots of people sharing their stories of marginalization on social media. I don’t think it ruined my career and I’m happy that so many people read it and found some value in what I was saying. As a writing teacher and a mid-career author, if I can’t stick my neck out for emerging writers who may feel pushed aside, then I’m not very good at my job, am I?
There’s one quote about the CanLit industry from that personal essay as, “a publishing industry that’s never been woke to much of anything.” Having been a bookseller, it’s something that went through my mind a few times. I spoke to Jael, the FOLD’s founder, about the role of editors, publishers, booksellers and libraries in that regard. Who do you think has the most power to make it woke? What could they do to start creating change?
I think it’s really on everyone, but I put much of that responsibility on the publishers. I know they need to make money, but I also know that Canadian readers are among the most generous and curious people in the world, who want diverse stories. So I think it’s up to the publishers to stop underestimating readers and to commit to developing the careers of new writers. And to be open to the diversity of genres out there. Listen, I’m a Chinese Canadian woman and I will not be rewriting The Joy Luck Club over and over. Give diverse writers the chance to express themselves in speculative fiction or comics or whatever it is they feel compelled to write.
On Twitter you recently shared a message by award-winning writer, Junot Díaz for young marginalized writers. What would you say to young writers in those marginalized groups, who aren’t sure about whether or not their story matters?
Every life is valuable enough to deserve its own story, no exceptions. It may take you a few years to feel really confident about your place in the literary world (it took me 10 years), but, until then, you have to believe that your story is worth writing and worth reading. Because it is.
What are you working on and releasing next?
I have a non-fiction book about the Gus Van Sant film, My Own Private Idaho, called Gentlemen of the Shade coming out in June. And a book for kids called Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone, which is a history of Chinese New Year as a holiday around the world. Also, I’m writing a poetry collection right now. Always writing!
What do you hope to both get from the Festival of Literary Diversity and give to others?
Honestly, I just want to meet some great authors I admire. And ultimately, I want emerging writers to see me and think, “If she can do it, I can do it.”