On September 21, 2016, LiterAsian 2016 hosted its opening panel in conjunction with Vancouver’s Public Library. The star-studded panelists featured for discussion on ‘Searching the Past: Locating History and memory’ included local VIP writers/ community members SKY Lee, Paul Yee, Jean Barman, Simon Choa Johnston, Denise Chong, Judy Hanazawa, J Lee, and Edwin Lee. Born out of the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, a Vancouver group created to fill the gap to support and sustain Asian Canadian in the literary world, LiterASIAN is a festival that celebrates its writers by hosting readings, workshops, and community events.
In university, I was an English major that nerded out over Asian diasporic texts- arguably still do today. So, naturally, the fangirl in me was trying to keep all my emotions at bay. I need to emphasize that sitting in this room with me were some of the pioneers of Asian Canadian literature. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Saltwater City. The Concubine’s Daughter. Any of those ring a bell? These are seminal texts in the Asian Canadian community!
And these were the people who had the gumption and took the risk to start writing about our histories in texts, fictional or non-fictional. These are the people who decided that there was necessity for representation of Asian Canadian narratives in the books that our world consumes. These are the people who began tough conversations, made breakthroughs, and paved the road so that future generations of Asian Canadians might be able to have their voices and stories heard.
The evening’s topic, while rooted in the past, is still very clearly relevant today as we as a community, Asian Canadian, literature nerds or not are in the process of finding our voices in our histories and search for identity. Who are we? What do we choose to tell? Is it possible to find the truth about our histories, as complex as they may be?
Winnie Cheung from the Pacific Canada Heritage Society Museum of Migration did an excellent job moderating the 9-person panel. As an audience, we were privileged to join in on the conversation with the panelists in asking them direct questions, but to also listen in and bask in their own discussions amongst themselves. It was an evening of lively discussion, debate, and of course, the sharing of stories.
Having now had some time to digest the literary delight I had consumed that evening, here are some of the key points of conversation that remain steadfast still, and are of course, still points of unending conversation:
Tensions between history and memoir
These genres, while distinct, do offer an overlap in consideration. D. Chong expressed that quite often it is those who don’t have the full story and in search of wanting the full picture who are drawn to writing history… or was it memori? Arguably, as human beings, we are constantly intrigued, drawn to find the ‘truth’ or answers for the seemingly inexplicable traces of reality that we encounter firsthand, or discover, or as it is told to us in secret. But it is that same desire, that same motivation to want to uncover the truth that can keep us up at night, derailed in tantalized tangents. The longer we stare at something, does our vision begin to get blurry? Maybe. It’s often remarked that history is written by the victors. Yes. Those with the power of the sword and the pen are well-equipped (literally!) to shape how their audience perceives their word as a form of truth. Indeed, there is such power in being able to shape ideas, understandings of issues and events and accounts from one person’s subjectivity.
It’s a funny thing, the human psyche, in the way we uniquely process information. What details do we focus on? What have we implicitly decided to consume as reality? What information did we ignore or miss? What did we suppress? How do we consciously decide what constitutes as ‘truth’, if there is such a thing?
The (Asian Canadian) genre: to be defined?
Writing the genre often requires writing to a certain topic or style, for the sake of grouping. As simplified and trivialized as these categories may seem, fantasy= magic and warlocks. Sci-fi= aliens and robot overlords. Rom coms= cheesy endings with Prince Charming. You know how it goes. These styles have been reproduced endlessly, to the point that consumers know what to expect from our genres. So, what about the Asian Canada genre? What can we expect? Or perhaps the more pertinent questions are: why is there an Asian Canadian genre? What is it?
Do you ever walk into a library/ bookstore and stumble upon the ‘Oriental Experience’ or ‘Journey to the East’? All these iterations referencing some imaginary othered exotic, an other that requires its own section separate from the literary mainstream. But what about a Japanese protagonist fighting an alien warlord that later becomes a love interest, what genre does that text fit into? Or is it still that lingering Orientalist feel that exists that draws consumers to feel all kinds of emotions at the prospect of reading about a mystical ancient vast land. Exciting! Exotic! Intriguing! And perhaps a tinges of capitalist hype schemes taking advantage of the long tradition of exoticizing othered cultures?
What is the Asian Canadian genre? Or is it just an ‘Asian’ genre? What does the genre ask its writers to speak to? For far too long, the Canadian Literary Canon has felt like an exclusive old white boys club. The greats that our kids are reading often include Dickens, Shakespeare, Doyle. More recently an attempt for an increased gender balances includes Austen, Bronte, Atwood. Yet what about the Canadian literary canon and its attempts to reflect the diversity of its large nuanced community within the selected works that are formative in our youth’s education. Indeed it’s possible that the histories of a community of colour are in fact a part of the rich web of narratives that makes up Canada’s tapestry. But if that’s the case, what does it take for our words and lives to come across as relevant enough to fit into the ‘mainstream’ without such struggle or outcry? Our histories are fetishized and exoticized as special othered mystical tales, and yet our histories are not quite special enough to fit within the bounds of the ‘Canadian’ canon. We’re close, but not quite. We are liked for opportunities, but not our realities.
Public & Private: Histories & histories
The authors that evening each shared their different motivations for writing. Some felt that they began writing because they desperately sought out more information about an illusive estranged family member they had heard whispers about at the dinner table. Others wrote because they wanted to share a great story that had been passed down in their family for so many generations, and felt strongly that this story should be known with a wider audience. Whichever approach it is, we write. How incredible this is. The possibility of one story, fictional or not, standing in for an entire social history, filling in other’s gaps and imaginations. And in the case of texts like Fred Wah’s acclaimed Diamond Grill, one’s personal expression of the truth may become the seminal text that stands for a community’s expression for the truth, as it did for me.
Weaving together both historical and fictional details begins to construct a narrative that the community looks to for shared experiences and commonalities grounded in a historical truth. A certain nostalgia is evoked, perhaps a character whose own idiosyncrasies remind the reader of their own granduncle, or a moment of realization that a seemingly subjective experience of shyly watching your mother carefully prepare a fish dish for dinner is actually more common than you’d know.
This fairly fine distinction between public Histories and private histories is minute, and the blending of the two almost seem to occur seamlessly… perhaps characteristic of the Asian Canadian genre? But that’s the beauty of the AC (writing) community, there seems to be an implicit understanding that texts are transformative and these stories are very much the authors as they are also the communities that raised them; we are a product of those who have come before us. Or as Paul Yee remarked referencing the famous Chinese proverb, “When you enjoy the shad, remember who planted the tree. When you enjoy the water, remember who built the well”.
Sharing stories: knowing vs telling the past, present, and future
Ending the evening with an opportunity for audience Q&A, a young audience member invoked a series of questions about support and advice for Asian Canadian youth who are interested in cultivating their voice in prose. Earlier in the panel, Sky Lee had remarked that she felt as if when writing, history was waiting to be written all along. And with that framing in mind, she expressed clear support for young up and coming Asian Canadian writers noting that it is the current generation’s responsibility to face a realness and rawness that her own and previous generations never had an opportunity to express in the same way. There are different generational approaches to sharing; we see this when we try to get our elders to speak about a certain moment in their life, but they don’t feel comfortable doing so and clam up. While our generation writes to remember, other generations may write to forget. In an age where social media and technology have made it almost too easy to share every mundane detail of our beings, perhaps this is our double-edged sword tool to opening up dialogue of real histories/ herstories. Perhaps it’s taken generations of experiences and lives lost between pages or strained secrets whispered by family members in the quiet of the night, all of this, these words, these lives, these experiences, perhaps truly they have been waiting for us to write all along.
— Dominique Bautista (@_DBAUTISTA) September 22, 2016