Category: The Strangers

The Strangers at LiterAsian 2016

The authors of The Strangers were invited to read at the fourth annual LiterASIAN festival. Founded in 2013 and held annually in Vancouver, Canada the festival is a celebration of the year’s best Asian-Canadian literature and storytelling.

Many pioneering authors were in attendance including those who established the early Chinese-Canadian canon. Paul Yee, SKY Lee, and Denise Chong were there in celebration of their new books. In addition, Joy Kogawa read from her memoir Gently to Nagasakiand and C. Fong Hsiung from Picture Bride.

The Strangers is an anthology of nine stories, each written by an ethnic Chinese writer. Five of those writers as well as the book’s editor read for LiterASIAN at Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Center.

Jim Wong-Chu delivering opening speech

Festival director Jim Wong-Chu delivered a rousing and nostalgic opening speech briefly retracing the histories of both Asian-Canadian writing and the history of the festival. Touching on the year’s main theme, Jim stressed that the “ideas of history and memory are so central to our identity.” 

Anna Wang, the editor of The Strangers, then gave a talk on the making of the book before introducing the writers present. 

Lily Liu is a well-established Vancouver-based writer and editor who also organizes community writing events and activities. She read from her short story “The Stranger”, which inspired the title of the anthology. Although Lily herself was born in China, her mother was born in Victoria, BC. As a person with foreign connections, her youth in China during Cultural Revolution was fraught with frustration and harassment. “The Stranger” is the story of a Chinese immigrant’s reconciliation with the persecution she’d experienced during China’s dark age. 

Allan Cho is also a Vancouver-based writer. He works as a librarian at the University of British Colombia, and volunteers for a number of community organizations, including in instrumental role in organizing LiterAsian. In Allan’s story “Counting Down the Minutes”, a relationship is tested when vast differences between two lovers’ family histories come to the fore in Vancouver’s historic China Town. His intent in the piece is to “tell the history of Canada in terms of the challenges we face as a country”. 

Before diving into the story, Allan reflected on the formation of his own sense of identity. His great-grandfather came to Canada in the early 19thCentury. As a child, he went tomb-sweeping with his family every Qing Ming festival, but never realized he had ancestors buried in the very soil of Canada. He always saw himself as a son of an immigrant. 

Lily Chu then took her turn on the mic. “Just remember that I’m the real Lily,” she quipped. “My Chinese name is actually Li-Li.” After the laughter settled, she began reading from her story “The Bug”: a surrealistic story in which the protagonist contemplates the life of a wood borer bug stuck living inside of her headboard. “If you’re a bug and you do not know you’re a bug, then that’s just fine… However, if you’re a bug, and you know you’re a bug, then what? How would you live? How can you live on? This is a stranger of the world, of the universe, and of all of us.”

Yili, the evening’s next reader, worked for many years at the local Chinese community center helping immigrants settle in to their new country. Her writing career began with a desire to tell these immigrants’ stories. She read from her story “The Golden Venture”: an illuminating description of what life is like for Chinese people coming to the States in ways that circumvent the system. 

Having graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in genetics, Christina Yao has just as strong of a passion for writing as she does for her job as an investigator at the National Institute of Health. While studying at Columbia, she enrolled in a writing class. Her story “Vacances à Paris” was a re-written from one of her homework assignments done for the class. Before reading her story, she spent a few minutes reflecting on what she’d learned from her teachers.

(From left to right) Yili, Lily Chu, Allan Cho, Lily Liu, Jim Wong-Chu and Christina Yao

The authors were met with a warm welcome from the audience. During the subsequent Q & A, Linda Chen, a teacher and community activist asked for tips as how to balance teaching writing at classroom and teaching writing in the community.

Lily Chu, a longtime educator responded: “I think there’s a lot one can do to encourage young people to write, without necessarily setting them up with the goal of becoming a writer. A love for reading and writing in any language is going to help a person to know this world and to express themselves more intellectually and more fully. You can help, by instilling that love in a young person’s mind.”

Allan Cho encouraged Linda to bring her students to LiterAsian. “There are many literature festivals around, but it’s rare that you can get up-close to the authors. If you go to a larger festival, chances are that you’ll be stuck way in the back of the audience and you couldn’t get your questions in. This local, grassroots initiative is really important and this is where the continuity is for Asian writers to express themselves. Our writing community is growing.”

 

The Foreword For The Strangers Penned by Anna Wang Yuan

The Foreword for The StrangersI was born and raised in Beijing, China. In 2006, I immigrated to Canada. The following year, during a trip to California, I bought a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2007. I assumed that every single story in that anthology was written by an American author. I held that assumption until I began reading the story “Dimensions” by an author named Alice Munro. Somewhere in the story, there was a character carrying a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee in her hand. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself in alarm, “is she Canadian?”

I paused my reading and spent a couple of minutes musing upon this discovery in spite of my burning curiosity for the character’s fate. Tim Horton’s isn’t an international name like McDonald’s or Starbucks. I would have never heard of it had I never been to Canada. What did this discovery mean to me? I don’t know. I just felt a connection with Alice Munro, as if I could understand her better than Americans that hadn’t tasted Tim Horton’s coffee.

I’ve read more stories by Alice Munro ever since. In 2014, I was commissioned to translate her 12th book, The View from Castle Rock, by Yilin Publishing House. (“Yilin” means “the forest of translations” in Chinese, and Yilin Publishing House is China’s most prolific publisher of translation works.) It took me a whole year to accomplish the job, and throughout the time I experienced countless joyful moments when I was able to make connections between Munro’s work and my own experiences. For instance, in the title story, Alice Munro re-constructs the journey of James Laidlaw, the first ancestor on her father’s side to immigrate to North America. Born and raised in Ettrick Valley, a place described by Statistical Account of Scotland in 1799 as “having no advantage,” James Laidlaw is a dreamer who is obsessed with the notion of moving to America to own better land. By the time he’s sixty, he raises enough fare for him and his younger children to embark for the new world. Barely onboard the vessel, he discovers, much to his astonishment and dismay, that there are Highlanders and Irish among the passengers. Shouldn’t there only be decent Scotsmen on deck? He couldn’t help lamenting, “An evil lot, an evil lot. Oh, that ever we left our native land!”

When he immigrated, he met not only foreigners, but also different kinds of his own people whom he would have never met otherwise. And the second part constitutes an even bigger challenge than the first one. That’s my own experience, too.

Upon my arrival in Canada in 2006, I made a resolution to write in English. The difficulty seemed insurmountable, but I convinced myself  that it was doable. My argument went like this: suppose  I was born in 2006 and began learning English the way a baby would. My language abilities will certainly get better as I grow older. The only decisive factor is how long I’ll live.

By this year, 2016, I am into the tenth year of my self-imposed mission. I’ve learned that learning a new language as a grown-up is much more difficult than as a newborn because an adult could always retreat to the safe haven of their mother tongue.

Writers are minorities. Ethnic writers are a minority within a minority. It is amazing that I have met a number of like-minded writers along the way. When I told them that I wanted to collect stories written in English by ethnic Chinese authors, they generously submitted their works to me. While reading the manuscripts, I once again experienced joyful moments of recognition, association, retrospection, and revelation. I saw myself through every piece of their works.

Rui Wang’s “A Hero of Our Times” is a heart wrenching tragedy about how a young man tries to make sense of his life in a senseless time in China’s history. Yili’s “The Golden Venture”, set against the background of the Golden Venture incident in 1993, allows us a glimpse of the fate and mindset of illegal immigrants. Christina Yao’s “Vacances à Paris” and Xiaowen Zeng’s “Return to Gander” are both about how love is elsewhere as the titles suggest. Lily Chu’s “The Bug” is not a typical immigrant story. In fact, it has nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality. It’s an intriguing mystery.

I also received three stories which were first written in Chinese and then translated into English. At first, I thought they didn’t fit into this anthology because they weren’t originally written in English. At that point I had already written about a thousand words for the foreword, and a part of it went like this: “All the contributing writers in this anthology had spent their formative years writing in Chinese. They try to make sense of the new world, as well as the old world, by writing directly in their adopted language.” Are those words to be forfeited completely? Well, I had to change my criteria if it excluded good writings. At least I can keep the words, “spent their formative years writing in Chinese,” can’t I?

Ma Lan’s “Flowers Bloom, Flowers Fall” tells stories that happened in China. The way the author juxtaposes different times coincides with my sense of scrambled time when I first landed in North America. Lily Liu’s “The Stranger” has two layers of narrative. The outer one embodies the main themes of  this anthology, and it ultimately inspired the title of this book. The core layer of the narrative is set in China’s Cultural Revolution, which links itself with Rui Wang’s story and gave me the idea to group stories with similar themes into mini-anthologies. Jieru Zhou’s “The House in Avenel”, a short and sweet piece that exuberates the nomadic spirit, instantly reminded me of “The Bug” and “The Golden Venture”, which led me to group them together.

The last one that came onto my desk was Allan Cho’s “Counting Down the Minutes”. It proved to be the biggest challenge to my criteria. Allan Cho was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, and English is his first language. If I included his piece, I had to completely scrap the part—“spent their formative years writing in Chinese . . . ” Once again, I pushed the envelope. What is literature for, anyway? It’s for breaking existing boundaries instead of building more.

Everyone struggles with their identity. Writers struggle for an audience as well as for their identity. Minority writers’ struggle may be doubled. But as long as we keep going, we may be closer to our goals than we think.

Anna Wang Yuan

Irvine, California

January, 2016