Tough Acts

After a spring that included co-hosting Ontario Arts Council’s Fuel for Fire, launching my book in Toronto and Montreal, and attending over a dozen festivals and events, I no longer recognize my life.  I don’t know if this is a normal or abnormal number of invitations for a debut poet. I don’t know if this is normal for a poet with a major press. I don’t know if this is normal for someone whose first book appeared after the age of 35. All I know is the warmth and interest that Admission Requirements has received has me dazed with gratitude. 

I know what my life is supposed to look like: head-rolling commutes to teaching or tutoring across the splayed-out city and hours milled under lamplight with line-edits. Equal measures of discipline and obscurity, with teaspoons of socializing and success. I find routine sustaining, because of how long it’s taken me to be independent and to write on my own terms. Though my small taste of being in the spotlight, AirBnb stays and book signings has been modest compared to that of more established authors, I found myself quickly drained by the logistics of book promotion, socializing, travel and the anxiety of reading poems about personal family matters to a curious, expectant audience. “Why didn’t you warn me it was so exhausting!” I cried half-accusingly, half-seriously to my writer-friends. There was no way they could have– every writer is treated differently by the book promotion machinery, and every writer views doing events differently. Some thrive on public performers, others wilt without constant snacks intervals of solitude. 

Early on I realized I couldn’t let myself, my editor or my publisher down– they had invested in me, so to speak, and I owed it to them and to myself to become a strong performer of my work. I couldn’t read the way I had before my book was published, lightly, without a sense of lastingness or consequences. I had to deliver. I had to reach into the emotional heart of a poem. Which meant that even after a 10 or 15 minute reading, I could be shaking, close to tears. It was especially strange to be explaining Chinese ancestor worship, or the Hong Kong democracy protests, or telling the story of my parents’ immigration to Canada. I don’t know if this added to my underlying paranoia, but no matter what, insomnia struck in the night before a reading, the anxiety doubled if I needed to catch a flight or train. I’d have trouble sleeping the night after too because conversations swirled in my brain hours afterwards. The lack of sleep led to headaches and difficulty eating. As the weeks progressed, I became even more anxious, knowing how little rest I’d get before and after the event. I Skyped a close friend who had worked hard to promote his book widely. I asked him how long it took him to recover from his slew of cross-country festivals and events: “I’m still recovering,” he said ruefully.

At the same time, I’ve been able to let go of some vestiges of fear and dread around the book, fears that it was not what I’d wanted to be, or that it was too muted and polite, or that my publisher and editors would be disappointed in me. Amidst the hectic weeks, they always managed to find me in the crowd to press their warm hands on me and to whisper their encouragement. Their pride in me and the warm reception of my work is slowly eradicating the three decades of believing that I was somehow not enough, not doing enough, not good enough, the way a flaming knife or pure alcohol gradually sears a crawling wound.

I was still puzzled at why I was often the only writer of colour on the bill. Even as I saw and heard assurances that I was invited for my work, of course I couldn’t help thinking I checked off an awful lot of boxes: female, of colour, with a big-name publisher, a U of T MA grad, with work that’s for the most part, accessible in its lyric mode. In my insistence that I had been asked for other reasons than the quality or impact of my poetry, I could give everyone the benefit of the doubt except myself. If I couldn’t push away this self-destructive negativity, I wouldn’t benefit from all the opportunities I was being given by those in the position to manifest change and who are determined to bring more diversity to local festivals, reading series, events and communities of readers, even if that spectre of diversity is still illusory or flawed. I’ve been buoyed up by the energy, activity, and dedication I’ve seen in those communities I’ve been lucky enough to visit, while there’s still work to be done. At the very least, I can do my job, which is to be present, thankful, and a tough act to follow.


Declarations of Bookselling Independence

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the amazing independent booksellers who have sold books on my behalf and also to receive support from local booksellers. With Author for Indies Day coming up on April 29th, if you’re looking for copies of Admission Requirements, please do buy it from your local independent bookstore.

Here are some of the independent bookstores across Canada that are carrying Admission Requirements:

Ottawa– Perfect Books, 258A Elgin Street

Hamilton– Bryan Prince Booksellers,  1060 King St West

Toronto–Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street

BookCity, 2354 Bloor Street West, 1430 Yonge Street and 348 Danforth Avenue.

Glad Day Bookstore, 499 Church Street

Type Books, 883 Queen Street West & 427 Spadina Road in Toronto (Thanks to Type Books for their recent write-up of Admission Requirements in their April 2017 reading list. I will be reading at Type Books on May 24th.)

Vancouver– The Paper Hound Bookshop, 344 W Pender Street

If you see copies of Admissions at your local independent bookstore, please do let me know. In the meantime, visit your neighborhood brick-and-mortar booksellers and make the trip even more worthwhile by asking the owners how they came to run a bookstore in the age of Amazon. There’s some fascinating stories, from one owner who after a career in teaching was retired and bored out of his mind, to another who worked over a decade in used bookstores around Vancouver’s vanishing ‘book row’. I’ll leave you to uncover the rest.


What the Whirlpool Will Bring You

The Unboxing

Books arrive at my doorstep, waiting for their readers.

What I can say about the process of writing a book that has not already been said in countless memoirs and biographies and Paris Review interviews? When people ask me how it feels to sign a contract, to push through the editorial process, to receive the typeset proofs of my book and to be couriered that first bound copy– I waver between disclosing, and not wanting to spoil it for writers who have yet to experience the ordeal for themselves. No one should be foolish enough to tell the swimmer about the whirlpool.

“You must be very excited,” people say, and I don’t contradict them. Yes, there is excitement, but there is more gratitude, terror, relief, exhaustion, and bafflement that I ever thought it necessary to pour so much time and energy into a thing. That I will continue to think it necessary.

Last week, I was invited to read at a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, and with a bit of trepidation but a lot of gung-ho I showed up early, as the performers were promised a free dinner. I didn’t know the organizers, any of the performers except one other poet who called in sick that day, or what the audience would be like. The free dinner turned out to be pizza from Bitondo’s, and as the hosts and organizers grabbed a few slices before heading to set up, I turned to the tall, gingery-haired man beside me on the bench. I assumed he was one of the musicians asked to perform and we introduced ourselves.

The musician asked me about how often I read my work and how I chose my set, and I asked him about how often he toured and how he gauges a room. Rarely does talking to a stranger yield moments of contemplation, and we both mused silently for a brief interval on the energy that an audience can create before becoming cognizant to the fact that we’d better hustle downstairs. Later I’d realized he was Doug Paisley, an accomplished country singer and songwriter whose voice and guitar fingerings wove the entire room into a dense, nestled cocoon.

This, then, was the reason why any of it mattered, the long hours of solitude so that what you have to offer becomes unwrapped and places you into contact with other creative forces.


A Year in Page Views: Race in Writing and Publishing

I’ve been collecting for a few years now— essays, think pieces, responses, blog posts, podcasts, toolkits and maps that relate in some way to diversity, identity, ethnicity and race. Often, I find them shared by a loose network of writers and teachers and journalists who self-identify as people of colour, minorities, immigrants or first generation. It might seem obsessive– why read so much about these topics?  Why force myself to parse the ways in which race is discussed and not discussed, the ways discrimination and cultural insensitivity and micro-aggressions take place in the passive?

As always, the answer is not a simple or straightforward one. I read about these issues because I want to feel like I’m not just imagining things, that I’m not being oversensitive. When scholars and writers of colour powerfully pull apart and deconstruct instances of racism that are so often dismissed and minimized, they give shape and space to my unspoken shock and pain. I read these topics for strategies on how to mitigate my own anger and depression, how to conduct a meaningful discussion and how to draw courage from others’ outspoken critiques. I read because my own experience as a Chinese-Canadian is limited and I want to learn about the variations of subjugation and embodiment for other cultures who experience marginalization. I read to offer support and solidarity to racialized others. I read helplessly, and helpfully. Yes, sometimes it is emotionally wearying. Sometimes I want to dim the volume and take refuge in a season of The Americans and the newest Nigel Slater cookbook. But it’s always there, the conversations about race that aren’t just about race– they’re also about who we are as subjects and as global citizens.

What does it mean, then to read the year through the eye-needle of race? To be attuned in that way,  so that literary controversies are not isolated, but form a pattern of how as English-speaking cultural thinkers we view belonging, citizenship, culture and outsiderness. Here, then follows a calendar of reading alongside race in regards to writing and publishing in 2016.

In January, a US children’s book publisher, Lee & Low, conducted a survey on “Diversity in Publishing” in 2015. Molly McArdle collected responses from editors and publishing professionals in “‘You Will Be Tokenized’: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing” in Brooklyn Magazine and Oscar Villalon wrote an urgent call-to-action in LitHub.

The situation for writers of colour do not appear better across the Atlantic, as in April, BBC Books reports on how non-white writers are shunned in the books industry:

Bakare-Yusuf comments: “Western publishing is out of step with a real world that is very mixed, global and diverse. Publishing is civilisation-building. Sometimes, builders of civilisation can forget to innovate, to experiment and to feel the pulse of what’s going on around them.

In the same month, US writer Esther Wang asks us to move beyond the stereotype of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the stories we tell about China.

April also saw the publication in The New Yorker of Calvin Trillin’s satiric poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet”, in the voice of a speaker who lists the fluctuating popularity of various Chinese regional cuisines. Timothy Yu responds in the New Republic with his essay, “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People” and 14 poets speak back with poems of their own on the Asian Americans Writers Workshop’s The Margins post “We’re in the Room, Calvin Trillin.” Celeste Ng and Karissa Chen engage with the poem on Twitter and it can be read in full on Storify.

In May, Canadian poet Sachiko Murakami began the site Writing So Hard featuring numerous diverse writers who speak out about the challenges of writing, mental and emotional health, gender, activism and how these and many other topics are interwoven and inseparable from the writing life.

In July, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta writes on of the “The Invisible Latina Intellectual.”

September in Brisbane saw Lionel Shriver putting on a sombrero during her keynote speech at the  Brisbane Writers Festival to espouse her hope that cultural appropriation is just a ‘passing fad.’ Yassmin Abdel-Magiel critiques Shriver’s position in The Medium with I Walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is Why.” and Suki Kim also responds in The New Republic with “What Happened in Brisbane.”

Also of interest is Suki Kim’s 2014 nonfiction work, Without You, There Is No Us, an undercover reporting of North Korea during the time she worked there as an English teacher. She spoke on NPR about how her work was mislabelled a memoir rather than as a work of investigative nonfiction.

In October, Montreal-based writer Klara Du Plessis curated a month on The Puritan’s Town Crier blog on Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective. Pieces contributed include Ndinda Kioko’s “Writing the Good English”; “English and Aboriginal Ethnic Identity”by Kalina Newmark, James Stanford and Nacole Walker; “Hypenated Fluency” by Jihyun Rosel Kim and many more.

In November, Michelle Chihara writes about the fall-out of the Japanese internment in Trump’s America in a moving personal essay, “Neighbors,” in the LA Review of Books. Lelia Lee reflects in Ricepaper Magazine on a new CBC show that portrays a Korean-Canadian family, “Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective.”

Long before the end of the year, I and most of my community were feeling utterly worn out by the various affronts to identity politics in publishing, writing and social media. Thank goodness for Jael Richardson, director and founder of the FOLD who offers a series of effective columns on Open Book Toronto including “The Burden of Positivity” and “Six Tips For the Tired Activist.”

Just when we’d thought that 2016 had exhausted its reel of identity-related controversies, comes the questioning over the indigenous identity of Canadian writer Joseph Boyden. While some over-the-top claims have been made, it’s a necessary ongoing conversation about who can speak for whom, and how systemic oppression is reinforced by those who claim an identity. Thus far, I think the most thoughtful and useful orientations have been offered by Hayden King, who asks “Joseph Boyden, Where Are You From?”; also from The Globe and Mail, Denise Balkissoon on “Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter” and Teika Newton just yesterday on National Observer who observes, “Boyden may yet end up being a catalyst for anti-racist learning.” I have no doubt that more opportunities to learn will emerge in the new year.

Whew. In the following weeks I will endeavour to post the links and pieces that relate to topics outside of literature and publishing, such as education and affirmative action, Black Lives Matter at the Toronto Pride Parade, Canadian reacting for and against the settlement of Syrian refugees, intersectionality and inter-race solidarity and many more invigorating topics. Please share any links and pieces that can help to further discussions around identity and diversity in the comments below or to my Twitter @alittleprint.

It’s a scary, gut-churning and humbling thing, to read about instances of racism, trauma and pain. I don’t have some any platitudes about how to feel good about this kind of learning because I myself don’t feel good, but neither am I proponent of guilt and unnecessary grief. It’s been a senseless year in a senseless world, and all I can do is look up across the table and see my own confusion reflected with grace and strength in the faces that surround me.

The Greater Part

Jael Richardson, author and artistic director of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), wrote a valuable list a few days ago for Open Book:Toronto on the difference between tokenism and inclusion. I urge everyone who is a part of a literary community in Canada to read and to absorb it. It’s an extremely meaningful resource for me, because now I can pass it along to well-meaning editors, publishers, hosts, festival organizers, etc. and say, “this is why your request for my participation is tokenism, and not inclusion. This is why I’m saying ‘no’, even though it means more exposure and greater opportunities for me.”

I would like to add to this discussion with a few additional strategies on how to improve diversity in literary organizations and publications from the bottom up. I’m often asked by organizers, editors and writers about how they can become more diverse. Their tone is generally abashed, worried and attentive. As a result, I usually praise them for their ability to recognize that there’s a problem. However, they don’t seem to realize that essentially asking me to do a part of their job. If they have failed to grow their audience, or they are coming under attack for their cultural and racial homogeneity, then their original vision wasn’t well-thought out or reflective of their communities’ needs in the first place.

Very carefully, I ask these worried people to look closely at their social circles. At their staff, their peers, the writers they met in university, etc. How many women, queer or trans writers or writers of colour are in their immediate networks? It’s important to phrase these questions with caution because once I told a friend and fellow writer that he didn’t, as far as I could tell, have any friends who were people of colour and perhaps that was the reason why he was having trouble coming up with non-white writers for his event. He was horrified, and asked if I was accusing him of being racist. Defensiveness ensued. Again and again, writers I know of Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and First Nations descent are reporting the same thing–there is so much fear and defensiveness around discussions of race and diversity that it’s undermining real change. Everyone is so afraid of accusations of racism and of saying the wrong thing that the lessons we can learn from acknowledging systemic power imbalances aren’t being learnt. Like all learning processes, there is some discomfort and misery before their can be renewal and fulfillment.

What to do if you see that the writing program, chapbook press or conference you have worked so hard to build and promote has an absolutely dismal ratio of gender balance or diverse writers? As you work to overcome feelings of discouragement and to look for solutions, you may see there are larger forces at work operating in an extremely effective way to maintain the status quo. In my experience, minorities are both visible and invisible, that is, when we’re in the room and our names are on a masthead, we are very noticeable but when those faces and names are absent, it’s difficult to see we’re not there. The presence of women and minorities confirm the dominant culture’s self-image as inclusive and diverse; however, if they’re missing from the conversation, the discourse switches channels and becomes about ‘artistry/maintaining artistic integrity’ (implying that the lack of minority writers is due to the fact that they failed to meet arbitrarily-set standards), being ‘thought-provoking’, ‘international’ (!) or ‘stylish’. I find it fascinating to watch these convenient cover-ups, these maneuvers of rhetoric that separate writers into different categories but that still ensure the organization and institution is viewed in the least critical light. Do founders and publishers not realize that publically admitting one’s shortcomings (i.e. Tin House,  Taddle Creek, and Invisible Press) is both refreshing and instructive?

I know I will never stop wondering about whether I am being included or tokenized. I wonder this even when I get a Facebook invite to a launch or reading, which brings me both joy and anxiety. I scroll recklessly through the guest list, wondering if I’ll be the one of the few visible minorities in the room. I weigh the variables– I’ll be troubled if the room is entirely ‘white’ even if it contains friends, but if I don’t attend, the event will have one less visible minority in the room, and it’s always important we’re in the room because it feels that no one notices if we’re not. I look at the track record of previous events. Have the organizers been inclusive before? Are they active in diverse communities? Have I seen them at events outside their own demographic? Have I seen them at events like Writing Thru Race or The Fold or Toronto Poetry Talks or on the #diversecanlit Tweetchats? Have I seen them speak up on behalf of diverse writers? These relentless questions are a tad unforgiving, but I’m aware that other writers of colour also keep very close tabs on the public statements, personas and activities of organizers, editors, publishers and other ‘gatekeepers’. It’s how we determine who is benefiting whom. Whereas tokenism benefits those who are maintaining or reifying their position of privilege, inclusiveness benefits everyone.

Thanks to the pervasive individualism of North American culture, the trope of the ‘personal journey’ often suffuses conversations I have with editors and organizers about diversity. Of course, it’s vital to grow and learn, but editing the work of a female, queer or trans or minority writer shouldn’t turn into a story of that editor’s professional development or identity crises. Similarly, organizations and festivals that point to their inclusive practices in a self-congratulatory and shallow way are mainly interested in their image, satisfying granting requirements, or appeasing public opinion. This can happen when the writer in question is approached for the first time only when their work or their body is viewed as a benefit to the organization or publication, nor have they been included in a wider conversation. There’s been little to no effort to see if the writer’s pursuits or projects align with the person who is making the request. This way of approaching writers is antithetical to collaboration and productive networks.

It disturbs me to see younger writers and peers my own age fail to build these kinds of long-term relationships and to get writers from less privileged backgrounds involved in higher levels of planning and decision-making. Politeness and my own passivity keeps me from saying, you have barely spoken to this queer/trans/female/minority/first nations writer before now. You haven’t attended any of their readings and you are barely familiar with their work. You heard about them because they won a prize. You’re inviting this person because you’re concerned that you only have ‘white’ male writers putting themselves forward, mainly because you didn’t have a clear mission or vision to begin with. You’re also concerned about the quality of the work you present, though you would never call yourself canonical or a formalist. When the writer in question says no, you tell everyone you ‘tried.’ You still don’t attend this writer’s readings or read their work because you feel you have already done your job. You’re barely being paid to do this job anyway. How much can people expect you to do? You don’t ask again. You don’t think that maybe it’s how you’re asking that has something to do with their inexplicable refusal. 

I don’t want to be asked for my work only because someone feels guilty and wants to pass another signpost on their road to enlightenment. I want to be the greater part of a seismic change.  This changes comes from the shift in thinking about how we can benefit writers who have been underrepresented. Many writers don’t believe that they have anything material to offer. Yes, writers in Canada are struggling financially, emotionally and mentally just to write everyday, sometimes just to get dressed. But writers benefit from knowledge, support and dialogue. Writers whose parents didn’t speak English at home and whose parents opposed or weren’t able to support their children’s hunger to write often don’t even know how to go about writing or starting to write. They don’t know the resources available to them or how to apply, the steps in preparing a submission, the mindset necessary for seeing themselves as professional, or know-how and networking skills on how to approach an editor in a bar, because they or their families don’t drink and don’t belong to social circles where cocktails were served.

The longer I spend in Toronto, the more I realize that everyone is an outsider in some way- an outsider to the city, to middle-class stability, to the coteries that spring up around MFAs and writing programs. But if no one admits to their insider-ness, then what we will end up with is a disconnected and discrete assemblage of writers, each of them scrambling for fingerholds in an unsustainable industry that could support everyone if we actively think about how we’re benefiting others. When I think of all that my friends do— designing and editing chapbooks, organizing reading series, writing reviews, making podcasts, hand-stitching books, showing up night and night at events, shouting-out writers online at all hours like sleepless owls, I’m speechless with astonishment. To say they aren’t doing enough feels like I’m slowly pushing a penknife through their never-still hands.

I have already benefited in enormous ways from the writing industry’s shift towards inclusivity. In some cases I have been afforded opportunities that male writers and Caucasian writers have not because of my gender and background, and I’ve felt very self-conscious about being given more than my allocation of limelight. While my parents adapted to Canadian culture more easily than the Chinese parents of my friends, they imparted the values of modesty and lack of vanity by example and without conscious effort. While they believed that both my sister and I would storm the world, they were painfully humble about their own talents. I balk at submitting my work to programs and prizes, but I remind myself that my parents didn’t come to Canada for me to squirm with misplaced modesty. If anything, they wanted their children to have the sense of entitlement that they never did. The small boosts that my racialized body has given me doesn’t change the fact that my parents own no property, that they couldn’t afford my university tuition, that I didn’t believe for an inordinate amount of time that I could ever presume to teach English, or that I feel the constant fear that my Asian features and olive skin are off-putting, disruptive, unwanted. To work towards inclusion, then, means also overcoming the prevailing suspicion many underrepresented and minority writers have that we should be grateful and keep to our place. But what place is that? It’s the greater part.


Cold incubation

After several years of piecemeal existence in Toronto, I’ve a rough grasp of how the year of a writer’s work cycles through the seasons. It’s less like the migratory arc of a Canada goose and more like a crocus bulb that sits cold and incubating nearly half the year. Similarly, in the winter months after the holidays, I hole up in my giant fisherman sweaters and corresponding fish stews, and stew over new work. In spring, writers flower forth in bars and bookstores to celebrate their offerings. Summer is another fecund time, though now reading, revising, meditating and drinking can be done out of doors, and if you’re fortunate enough, to go away on a retreat or residency. It’s the time of year I try to earn a much income as possible, writing grants and teaching the influx of international ESL students that alight in our cities. Fall becomes a kind of long writers’ reunion party with festivals and events, after that the hiatus of family and the new year.

Midway through January of this year, I found myself out of work, but a fortuitous combination of severance pay, accumulated vacation pay and a small grant meant that I could spend a few months writing (while still doing a few odd jobs.) I haven’t been able to have a long stretch to produce new work since starting my TESL training last February, and was pretty abashed at how immediately I devolved into rolling out of bed at eleven and falling asleep at 4am amidst printouts and empty, chili-ringed cup noodles. I worsened my prescription reading A.V. Club, Slate, Hitfix and Vulture TV reviews and took to leaving bottles of water around the apartment to remind myself to stay hydrated. I had done it all before, and I will probably do it again. Because in the end, I’m overjoyed to be able to brag about:

  1. Editing my first The Puritan supplement on the theme of legacies and inheritances. I have been so happy to meet and work with the writers on their pieces, and in many cases emails and pitches turned into Skype meetings and coffee dates. Poets, fiction writers, a graphic essay, two interviews, a play/family story excerpt and a critical essay on transgendered literature are just some of the things to look forward when The Puritan goes live in May. I’m also in the beginning stages of planning an evening to celebrate the contributions of the writers, editors and staff.
  2. With the help of the fantastic Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash, I have finished the draft of a new chapbook MS currently titled “Permanent Exhibits.” It’s another batch of ekphrastic poems, this time about my mother who has been a watercolour painter almost all her life. Through the course of writing these poems, I discovered she’d met with many overseas Hong Kong artists as well as local Ottawa artists, collecting their books and catalogues, as well as a few pieces. The chapbook is appearing with the reinstated Emergency Response Unit Press, and will be launched with a joint party with Desert Pets Press in mid-May. A broadside will be available on April 28th, at the Invisible Press launch, alongside Andrew Forbes and Brent van Staalduinen.
  3. My debut poetry collection, Admission Requirements has been accepted for publication for Spring 2017. That is all I’m going to say for now.
  4. I watched all of season one of Outlander and read the first five of the novels too. It’s been a long winter.

So tell me, what have you been working on?