First, a disclaimer: I am still suffering from Impostor Syndrome when I call myself a writer. I guess it comes from my lifelong deep respect for writers. Writers are my rock stars. To claim the title means I am a rock star. This still feels like a leap.
BUT!! The Wondrous Woo just got shortlisted for the 2014 Toronto Book Awards. It joins a list of books and writers that I adore. I have been ping-ponging back and forth between ecstatic and unbridled pride and joy to nail-biting, fetal-position fear since the announcement.
But never mind. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain. The work speaks for itself, and I am thrilled by readers’ feedback. The ultimate pay-off for me as a writer is connection. I feel connected. I am a writer. Thank you!
What am I working on?
I’m working on a collection of interrelated short stories. Some of the stories are already well-formed while others are just an image, a line of words, or a gesture that I hope to develop. This book will take place in 70s Scarborough and revolves around a suicide cluster in one neighbourhood. (I’m not quite done with Scarborough yet!) This is a sampler of sorts. I am using this work to experiment with multiple points of view. So far, it’s been a lot of fun!
I just need more time. I work full-time, teach part-time and have a 7-year old. I often dream of having stretches of time dedicated to writing. When I have stayed away from it for too long, characters come out to haunt me, tugging at my sleeve, breathing down my neck! I am not sure how other writers make this balance, but I am trying to find a way to carve out that time and protect it as just something I must do.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write literary fiction. Besides from that, I rarely check if my writing is wandering into the space of other genres. The Wondrous Woo played with magical realism, and I imagine that in all my future work, I will have a tendency to wander down that road. If the work is effective, I believe it doesn’t matter that you break conventions. It works seamlessly when you gain the trust from your reader to suspend their prior understanding of how a story should be told. In other words, I don’t really know what it is that I do – I just do it. Other people can sort out the categories, genres, etc. later if they like.
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not too analytical about why I choose to write what I write. Sometimes, I’m not even really sure what it will be until a much later draft. I am mostly committed to following narrative. It’s usually just a provocative story idea that guides me. Of course, memories come to me as I write – places, people, situations that I have observed or lived. Scarborough has been very present in my work because I’m in a reflective moment – I am remembering the place where I grew up and finding a deeper understanding of how that space and time shaped me.
How does my writing process work?
My process goes back and forth between looking like a creative mess and a well-organized outline. As I’ve mentioned, I rarely know what I will write until much later in the process. I liken it to sculpting. I have the block of stone, and I will play with it for a long time, experimenting with the material, going with its natural contours while also manipulating it to make it something more than it is. It’s pretty organic. Then, when it starts resembling something interesting, I will then write outlines of what it could be before turning back to it and continuing the shaping. I love the writing process. It’s an act of pure instinct for me.
I embarked on my first book tour in March. To sound glamorous, I liked to refer to it as the “western leg”. There hasn’t been an eastern leg planned or even a middle leg, but regardless, it made me feel a little bit like a rock star. My superlative editor, Luciana Ricciutelli from Inanna Publications and the tireless publicist, Renee Knapp, made this tour possible. They arranged everything, and I just showed up. I have a feeling that not all writers are as lucky as having their publisher place so much faith in them.
I assembled and packed my reading outfits with care – clothes that I hoped would lend me with an air of seriousness (I AM A WRITER) with a dash of whimsy (BECAUSE I AM AN ARTIST). I also packed a box of books that sat at the bottom of my luggage like a small boulder. I was to read at 3 libraries in Vancouver and needed to bring my own books. Not sure how many to bring, my publisher had also sent another box up to my friend, Rob, to receive. Throughout my readings in Vancouver, Rob lugged this trove of dead weight all around the city to supply me. Lesson number one: You need good pals in every city you visit. Rob not only acted as my personal Sherpa, he also promoted the readings by co-sponsoring them with an organization that he was also part of. See? This is a good pal!
Vancouver is a lovely place. All of you who have been would agree. The spring-like weather, the walks along the sea wall at Stanley Park, the crocus and daffodils peaking their heads up, sigh. The colourful scenery chased away the polar vortex that had haunted Ontario for months. I was gleeful! Breaks from my young child and partner and two dogs do not come around often. I took long walks in a daze and let future writing projects percolate. Lesson number two: Always splurge on room service. I paid an exorbitant amount of money on a tiny pot of yogurt and a carafe of coffee, but what the hell? You are an author on a book tour! This is what one does! Spoil yourself, live large! Order yogurt!
The readings at the Vancouver libraries varied. One branch didn’t know I was coming and besides from tossing us a key to open a bare room, there wasn’t a lot of ceremony to it. Rob graciously arranged the chairs for me. At another branch, the head librarian was a dream. She was an ardent supporter of Asian Canadian literature and had been active in supporting the arts all her life. She made tea and arranged Peek Freans cookies (in the shape of maple leaves) and fortune cookies on a large tray for my audience. The pairing pleased her, and she asked if it pleased me. I wished she would adopt me and be my great aunt.
The audience was a mixed group of what my partner called the “extended extended family” – cousins of cousins, aunts of aunts. Mainly, the far-flung reaches of my family tree and some I had never met before, but branched off from some common root. It was really touching that they came. I also got to see my mother’s childhood best friend, an auntie who was our first host when we immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. We had made a pit stop in Vancouver before venturing further east to Toronto. (All I remember from that visit was that I had barfed up my first hamburger.) I was also able to reconnect with friends who I rarely see. I was thrilled that they came and spread the word about the book to their circles. It really does take a village to get a book to the right readers! Remember rule number one; you must have good pals in the cities you visit. They will come out to your readings, spread the word, and maybe even lug your books around for you. (Every writer would be lucky to have such a buddy like Rob!!)
After Vancouver, I took off for a whirlwind of tour of Calgary. Another stellar friend, Catherine, was there to greet me at the airport. She kindly offered her home to stay for the next two nights and ushered me around to a radio interview and a reading. I hit the ground running. The interview was at the University of Calgary campus station, and I appreciated the earnestness that the interviewer displayed. Lesson number three: Never turn down an opportunity to discuss your novel. Not only is this a key part of promotion, but the questions that readers bring you give you even more depth of insight into your writing.
After the interview, I read at a monthly reading series with two more writers at Pages Kensington. These opportunities are gold!! In cities where you don’t know many people, reading with local authors will pull in a dedicated and loyal audience. So let’s call that lesson number four: make connections with the local writing/reading community by collaborating as much as possible!
The last day of my tour was the most interesting and underscores the glamorous/not-so-glamorous aspects of promoting a book as a newbie writer. I was assigned to the downtown big book store (it shall remain unnamed) for an author visit. I didn’t have to read, but I did need to sit at table of my books for 5 hours inside a mall. Again, the staff did not know who I was or what I was doing there. After some initial confusion, they cleared off a table at the front of the store, whipped out a tablecloth and asked me to unpack the books I had brought. (Note: I no longer had Rob to do my lugging in Calgary. And said big bookstore asked me to bring my own books for consignment. I suppose they didn’t want to chance on ordering books in case they didn’t sell.)
So, there I sat, watching people go up and down the escalator in front of the store. I wore my best mall smile and tried to make eye contact with passerby. Some eyed me curiously, but most walked briskly by. I tried standing up. This only gave me the authority of a store greeter, and incoming customers asked me for book recommendations (well, do I have a book for you!) or directions to the bathroom. I had the company of Olivia Chow’s book at my back (because she does have my back, I think), which gave me some comfort of home. At hour three, my friend Sharanpal kept me company, live tweeting to her friends to come and meet me. Emboldened by Olivia and Sharanpal, I revved up my game and sold 10 books by the fifth hour. Lesson number five: Never underestimate the commitment that readers have in supporting Canadian writers. The ones who did end up picking up the novel were people who made a beeline for me without hesitation just because I made the effort to show up and meet readers.
At the end of it all, I was exhausted but so invigorated. I loved sharing The Wondrous Woo. I didn’t end up selling all the books, but I did make a dent in the box! More importantly, I reached dedicated readers who will tell their friends about the novel. I also garnered a review from someone who had attended a Vancouver reading. These are not small things. They can ripple in unexpected ways. Just yesterday, I received an email from a reader who had bought my book at the big book store. She let me know that she loved the book. This is the biggest satisfaction as a writer, right? Our sometimes lonely and painstaking pursuit in creating these characters and stories find a place in the world and meet readers to continue their lives. This is the magic! So, the last lesson is: Give yourself a pat on the back. You wrote a book!!
Thoughts on Magic Realism
Last night, the New York Public Library live streamed a conversation between Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz. I was spellbound by two of my favourite writers on stage together. They spoke about a lot of things; from Morrison’s time as an editor to such writers as Toni Cade Bambara, Mohammed Ali, Angela Davis to her characterizations of the “dangerously free”. There was so much to talk about, and I would have been content to sit at their feet and have their dialogue go on and on without end.
One theme that I got to thinking about was magic realism in literature. My friend and author, Farzana Doctor had asked me why I had chosen to write The Wondrous Woo as magic realism from the first time she read a draft, and she continued to ask right up to the book launch. I’ve never felt I had a very good answer even as I’ve thought a lot about it. Last night, as I watched the broadcast, the reasons for magic realism came in sharper focus for me because, of course, Diaz and Morrison are masters in the genre.
I started to think that magic realism allows the writer (and the reader) an inter-textual practice when some elements of the text are not material or are very slippery. For example, how can writers account for generations of felt trauma long after the occurrence of violent acts, especially when the violence continues under the surface as phantoms? How do we re-place displaced structures of feeling in the diaspora? How do we remember when memory is actively erased, and only your body is a trace? In other words, how do we write haunted narratives?
Ghosts haunt, and the greatest writers (in my estimation) have phantoms casting long shadows on our reading. Every writer have contours to their narratives. In the case of Diaz and Morrison and their ilk (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Jeannette Winterson are others), contours are the absences, absences more palpable and sentient than what is obviously present in the text. The contours are gender, race, class, sexuality, colonialism, capitalism, slavery, occupation, etc. – all things that often aren’t and/or can’t be named for a number of reasons. These are the ghosts that are thirsty. They won’t leave. They are the unseen blood on the page. Ghosts demonstrate the resilience of spirit. Morrison’s Beloved rose from the murkiness of a swamp to find a reckoning – caught between life and death but filled with rage and longing.
So, returning to magic realism – we can give this haunting more saliency, but the “trick” is to embed it in the real. Morrison said last night that in order to write the story of a ghost, you better make everything else 100% accurate. The reader will trust the authority of that 100% accurate, and in trade, they will suspend the rest and follow the ghosts as far as they can… perhaps even between the margins, to the footnotes (in Diaz’ case) and even off the page.
Thank you, Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison, for the gifts. Last night was a Master class.
For audio link to the event: http://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/toni-morrison-junot-d%C3%ADaz#.UqrphYdT918.twitter