The choice of Asian Canadian writers is considerable, a number of whom are ranked among the best the country has to offer. This month’s selection from my literature collection takes the reader to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Korea and Japan with protagonists rooted in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. The choices were deliberate, covering as much geography as possible, albeit missing significant writers and countries from the continent.
In my opinion, Madeleine Thien is the best writer in Canada today. Her first publication was the 2001 short story collection, Simple Recipes, which won the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Olga and I read this one out loud to each other, cherishing each story. Madeleine Thien’s first novel, Certainty, released in 2006, was the recipient of the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her most recent book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Governor General’s Award, The Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. I recall it being one of the odds on favourites among the British bookies so I fully expected the novel to win. It is a masterpiece of fiction. Dogs at the Perimeter is her second novel, published in 2011. It was shortlisted for a number of European book awards, winning one at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The book centres around the life of Janie, as she is called in Canada, who is haunted by a past and whose friend and mentor, Hiroji, is possessed by a lifelong search for a missing brother. Janie escaped the Cambodian Genocide between 1975 and 1979, while the rest of her family perished under the Khmer Rouge. The novel tracks her memories and that of Hiroji’s brother, James, eventually found in Vietnam. The prose is elegant and poetic yet still capturing the atrocities of this bloody period. The beauty of her language (We were like two coins left in the bottom of the jar: here by circumstance and luck, here together) is also interspersed with profanities when the circumstances warrant: This is the city of before. Five-year-olds fending for themselves, and the Khmer Rouge, arrogant, shit-faced, still prideful in their stronghold in the north, still holding their seat at the United Nations and hobnobbing with the Western elite, conspiring to take it back. Phnom Penh is no longer the agitated city he remembers, no, the dial has ticked back and stripped the place of people and goods, it is a city now where the kids run naked, where people walk around with photographs of missing family, where, by accident, you step into a pile of bones, rinse your foot off, and then move on, where men and women dress in hothouse colours, clashing motifs to push back the memory of black clothes and black hearts.
Identity is a strong theme throughout. “A different name and a new soul”. Janie becomes Mei, James is now Kwan. The changing of names, different lives, separate but intertwined is part of the question Janie grapples with at the end: Inside us, from the beginning, we were entrusted with many lives. From the first morning to the last, we try to carry them until the end. I highly recommend this book and every composition by Madeleine Thien.
Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards, is the first and thus far, only book by Ann Y.K. Choi. The story is set in Toronto, and according to her Wikipedia page, was inspired by her life growing up above her parent’s store. Certainly when you read the Ann Choi’s bio on the back flap of the cover and reflect upon the story you can very easily imagine much of the content is autobiographical and the instances were either part of her life or were the combinations of actual incidents she witnessed. As the title suggests, the story centres around Mary, the anglo alternative to Yu-Rhee, whose family owns a variety store on Queen Street West in the 1980’s. Although specific to Korean life in Canada, the story resonates with many an immigrant child attempting to navigate the western world outside the home with the vestiges of old world culture and practices within the family domain. Mary/Yu-Rhee is in constant conflict with her mother over work, education, clothing, friends and the ethnicity of her future husband. The latter is of particular consternation when arrangements have been made with another Korean family who is attempting to find a suitable match for their son.
The writing is straight forward, more compelling for the story than the vivid descriptions. The scenes and dialogue are real, the emotions are authentic. The insights exhibit those of a young woman maturing, viewing the lives of her parents differently with the growing knowledge of their past and the internal reflection of Yu-Rhee’s own experiences: My mother had taught me that dreams didn’t come true just by thinking about them. She’d chased after them, and in so doing had cleared a path for me to do the same.
The story also provides perhaps the most important rationale for the establishment of Asian Heritage month, or any other inclusive recognition of the diversity of the Canadian people. Yu-Rhee’s mother finally concedes to her daughter’s desire to become an English teacher, acknowledging it provided a steady job, summers off and therefore, time for children. Most importantly, however, she says, “Yes, become an English teacher. Make sure your students realize there are writers out there who aren’t just black and white. Make sure they don’t miss the point like you did.” I enjoyed the book.
I selected Lydia Kwa’s first novel, This Place Called Absence, because the reader is transported to the city state of Singapore in Southeast Asia, and some of the characters originate from China, two different countries from my previous readings. The narrative alternates between four people: Wu Lan residing in Vancouver; her mother, Mahmee, living in Singapore in 1995; and two prostitutes (ah ku) Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui, working in the brothels in Singapore at the turn of the twentieth century. Wu Lan is on a leave of absence from her work as a therapist, attempting to cope with the suicide of her father. Her struggles and responses run somewhat parallel to the forbidden love relationship between Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui. At the same time we delve into the mind of Mahmee attempting to understand the motives of her husband and the lifestyle decisions of her daughter.
Lydia Kwa’s own work and sexual preferences are reflected in the text. The sensual descriptions of relationships and sexual encounters amongst the women of the novel would appear to be borne from her own intimate experiences. Once upon a time the wind was a willow. It loved a woman who rested underneath its supple limbs. The woman liked placing her head in the fork between roots, because that way she was close to the earth’s smells, wafting up to her nostrils in the heat of day. She would look up to catch the colours of light filtering through the slender leaves. The willow wanted to tell the woman how much it loved her.
The language and process of Wu Lan’s actions and strategies resemble the knowledge of people grappling with the tragic death attained from the practice of a psycho analyst. Father’s vitality was trapped inside him. He could feel a loss, but didn’t know what to do about it. The more he didn’t change, to allow his vitality to be expressed creatively, the more he felt powerless. Loss bred more loss. Eventually, this was why he did what he did. Quickly, anonymously. The wheels of the car. The squirrel. He was perpetrator and victim. Without witnesses. The insights and the well crafted prose produce a novel of raw emotions, beautiful and powerful, sad and redemptive. Slow to begin, by the end of the book I was enraptured.
Terry Watada is a former colleague of mine, an English professor at Seneca College in Toronto. Olga and I were attending the annual Word on the Street being held in the park at Queen’s Park Circle. The event was always a tremendous opportunity to purchase new Canadian literature and as importantly, get the authors to sign them. On this occasion, in 2008, we stumbled into the open tent where Terry was reading from his first novel, Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes. I knew he was a writer of poetry but I was unaware of a novel let alone that Terry was participating in Word on the Street. He was just as surprised to see us. I was pleased to purchase a signed copy. Terry retired about five or six years ago and continues to publish poetry, children’s books, comic books, novels and historical non-fiction. He has been quite busy during COVID finishing off a new book, Mysterious Dreams of the Dead, released last December.
The Blood of Foxes is set in 1920’s Japan and 1940’s Vancouver. The story alternates between both periods, describing the lives of a young, naive Yoshiko Miyamoto craving adventure in a new land, marrying unseen, a purported entrepreneur in Canada; and Etsuji Morii, the Japanese equivalent of the Godfather, lording over his fellow immigrants in Vancouver to retain the glory of his emperor and the honour of his people. Yoshiko and Etsuji collide in Vancouver, neither achieving their ultimate dreams by the end of the novel.
The work is not as well crafted as the other reads, utilizing too many adjectives and adverbs, clumsily moving between time periods and locations. Nevertheless, the story illuminates the lives of Japanese Canadians, subjected to acts of violence and racist actions by the people, the police and the government. Terry conducted considerable research to accurately portray the conditions and the times, providing the reader an understanding of one of our numerous dark chapters in history. For this reason alone you will find the book worthwhile.
June is National Indigenous History month. Mark, if you are reading, I would welcome some suggestions. Otherwise, I have a few unopened on my shelves which will find their way into my next Books 2021 post.
Until then, happy reading.