Jen Sookfong Lee

“I Don’t Know Who I Am” (But Who Does?)

Bamboo Lettering panel

Kathryn Gretsinger, Jen Sookfong Lee, Ling Zhang, and Kevin Chong

I felt an interesting if subtle shift take place toward the end of the ironically titled Bamboo Lettering, a Saturday afternoon panel discussion involving Kevin Chong, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Ling Zhang, moderated by CBC radio journalist Kathryn Gretsinger. Two or three questions from the audience were of the writerly type: How do you come up with your story ideas? What do e-books mean for writers? What sort of research did you do? The intention of the event was to explore how Canadian writers of Chinese descent navigate the issues of identity, race, culture, family, or as the Festival program described it, “the tension between avoiding your heritage and embracing your heritage.” And those questions were certainly well aired and discussed. However, as the event progressed, and the personalities of the three writers emerged through what they read from their work, and through their responses to Gretsinger’s politely astute questions, the whole issue of “Chinese-ness” or Otherness seemed to drop away. As if the audience and the panel at a certain point had had enough of the topic and it was time to move on. And we were left with three writers discussing their work and the business of writing with an audience interested in hearing the details. Much as it should be, and as it would be with a panel of white Canadian writers.

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Alchemical Place

Vancouver

During the Q&A at the end of Vancouver Seen, a Tuesday evening panel of Vancouver writers Dennis E. Bolen, Kevin Chong, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Jen Sookfong Lee, an audience member reiterated a couple of the questions from the description of the event in the Festival program. “What kind of literary community exists in Vancouver? What is the nature of relationships between writers?” He was probably hoping for a more substantive answer than what had emerged to that point. I’m interested in Vancouver writing, but I’d also been attracted to the event, in part, by the series of questions in the program. They’re interesting questions, not throwaways used to fill out a few lines of copy. Here are the questions, which I’ll attempt to answer — or at least mull over — based on what the authors read from their work, and on the ensuing discussion, moderated by Vancouver Magazine executive editor John Burns.

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Reading Recommendations: Local Authors

The Better Mother, Jen Sookfong Lee

The Better MotherThe Better Mother is the story of two solitary outcasts who struggle under the weight of who they were born to be and find each other while attempting to embrace their true identities.

In 1958, eight-year-old Danny Lim has been sent to buy cigarettes for his father, when he realizes he lost the money. Desperate to avoid punishment, he searches for the change he dropped in Vancouver’s Chinatown when he stumbles into Miss Val, a long-time burlesque dancer. Danny is enraptured with her stage costume, and Val, touched by his fascination, gives him a pack of cigarettes and her silk belt. As an eight-year-old boy, Danny recognizes that he is different from his family and his chance meeting with Val changes him forever. The epitome of glamour, Val represented everything Danny’s family had shunned and opened his eyes to the fact that there was more to life than his father’s expectations.

As an adult in his early thirties, Danny spends his days working as a wedding photographer and his nights cruising Stanley Park. Semi-closeted, he struggles with coming out to his estranged parents, but believes that the key to understanding himself and his family lies in connection to Miss Val.

Set mostly during an unseasonably hot summer in Vancouver in 1982 when HIV/AIDS was spreading rapidly, The Better Mother brims with undeniable tragedy, but resounds with the power of friendship, change and truth. (May 2011)

 

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