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 many of 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 Nagasaki 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 to give a group reading.
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 "idea[s] 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 19th Century. 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”, which appears in The Strangers 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.
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.”