Year of the Snake: Award-Winning Books by Chinese-Canadian Authors

To celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Snake, we're highlighting award-winning books by Chinese-Canadian authors.

The Concubine's Children by Denise Chong

Finalist for the 1994 Governor General’s Award

The Concubine’s Children is the story of a family cleaved in two for the sake of a father’s dream. There’s Chan Sam, who left an "at home" wife in China to earn a living in "Gold Mountain" North America. There’s May-ying, the wilful, seventeen-year-old concubine he bought, sight unseen, who labored in tea houses of west coast Chinatowns to support the family her husband would have in Canada, and the one he had in China. It was the concubine’s third daughter, the author’s mother, who unlocked the past for her daughter, whose curiosity about some old photographs ultimately reunited a family divided for most of the last century.

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

Winner of the 1995 Trillium Book Award and the 1996 City of Vancouver Book Award

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and '40s provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family.

Wayson Choy's Chinatown is a community of unforgettable individuals who are neither this nor that, neither entirely Canadian nor Chinese. But with each other's help, they survive hardship and heartbreak with grit and humour.

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Selected as the Toronto Public Library One Book Community Read for 2011, and Winner of the 2006 American Library Association Alex Award.

Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s unhappiness as Su-Jen’s life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen’s half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen’s mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.

Anthropy by Ray Hsu

Winner of the 2005 League of Canadian Poets' Gerald Lampert Award. Shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry.

The poems in Anthropy fuse the scope of classical traditions to the disturbing agility of the moderns. Hsu artfully presents the fierce rigour of the philosophical mind engaged with the survival of histories.

Anthropy, Ray Hsu's first book-length collection, is a work of extraordinary range and precision. Excavating sites of human cruelty and endurance, intimacy and experience, Hsu puts forth the language to lead us into the inferno of our time.

He brings us to a place where the living, the dead, and the imaginary cross paths. Odysseus meets Fernando Pessoa, James Dean meets Walter Benjamin. All struggle with the same problem: their pasts, visceral and desperate, continue to burn with the intensity of the present.

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Shortlisted for the 1995 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, the Sunburst Award, and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

Salt Fish Girl is the mesmerizing tale of an ageless female character who shifts shape and form through time and place. Told in the beguiling voice of a narrator who is fish, snake, girl, and woman—all of whom must struggle against adversity for survival—the novel is set alternately in nineteenth-century China and in a futuristic Pacific Northwest. At turns whimsical and wry, Salt Fish Girl intertwines the story of Nu Wa, the shape-shifter, and that of Miranda, a troubled young girl living in the walled city of Serendipity circa 2044. Miranda is haunted by traces of her mother's glamourous cabaret career, the strange smell of durian fruit that lingers about her, and odd tokens reminiscient of Nu Wa. Could Miranda be infected by the Dreaming Disease that makes the past leak into the present? Framed by a playful sense of magical realism, Salt Fish Girl reveals a futuristic Pacific Northwest where corporations govern cities, factory workers are cybernetically engineered, middle-class labour is a video game, and those who haven't sold out to commerce and other ills must fight the evil powers intent on controlling everything. Rich with ancient Chinese mythology and cultural lore, this remarkable novel is about gender, love, honour, intrigue, and fighting against oppression.

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Winner 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures welcomes readers into a world where the most mundane events can quickly become life or death. By following four young medical students and physicians—Ming, Fitz, Sri and Chen—this debut collection is a riveting, eye-opening account of what it means to be a doctor. Deftly navigating his way through 12 interwoven short stories, the author explores the characters’ relationships with each other, their patients, and their careers. Lam draws on his own experience as an emergency room physician and shares an insider’s perspective on the fears, frustrations, and responsibilities linked with one of society’s most highly regarded occupations.

From delivering babies to evacuating patients and dealing with deadly viruses, the four primary characters in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures are made thoroughly human by Lam’s insightful detail, realistic dialogue, and expert storytelling. The medical world is naturally filled with drama, but it’s the author’s ability to give equal weight to the smaller moments that really brings this book to life.

Disappearing Moon Cafe by Sky Lee

Winner of the 1990 City of Vancouver Book Award, 1990 Governor General's Award Finalist

Sometimes funny, sometimes scandalous, always riveting, this extraordinary first novel traces the lives and passionate loves of the women of the Wong family through four generations. As past sins and inborn strengths are passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter, each generation confronts, in its own way, the same problems—isolation, racism the clash of cultures—and each evolves a little bit more.

Moving back and forth between past and present, between Canada and China, Sky Lee weaves fiction and historical fact into a memorable and moving picture of a people's struggle for identity.

The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

2012 Finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, Governor General's Literary Award - Non-Fiction and BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

 For years, journalist and amateur tailor JJ Lee tried to ignore the suit hanging at the back of his closet. It was his father’s suit. But when JJ decides to make the suit his own, little does he know he is about to embark on a journey to understand his own past.
 
As JJ cuts into the jacket, he begins to piece together the story of his relationship with his father, a charismatic but troubled Montreal restauranteur whose demons brought tumult upon his family. JJ also recounts his own ups and downs during the year he spent as an apprentice at Modernize Tailors—the last of the great Chinatown suitmakers in Vancouver—where, under the tutelage of his octogenarian master tailor, he learns invaluable lessons about life. Woven throughout JJ’s tale are stories of the suit’s own evolution, illuminating how this humble garment has, for centuries, been the surprising battleground for the war between generations.
 
Written with great wit, bracing honesty, and narrative verve, and featuring line drawings throughout by the author, The Measure of a Man is an unforgettable story of love, forgiveness, and discovering what it means to be your own man.

The Better Mother by Jen Sookfong Lee

Finalist for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award

From a master of family dynamics comes this vivid tale of two misfits who find each other while stumbling toward their own true identities. In 1958, eight-year-old Danny Lim has been sent to buy cigarettes for his father, when he realizes that he has lost the money. Frantic, he rushes through Vancouver's Chinatown and behind a nightclub, where he sees Miss Val, a long-time burlesque dancer. Danny is enraptured with her sequined garters and silk robe, and Val, touched by his fascination, gives him a pack of cigarettes and her silk belt. Years later, Danny spends his days working as a wedding photographer and his nights cruising Stanley Park, far away from the home where his parents and sister live. He realizes that the key to understanding himself and his family lies in his connection to Miss Val, and he is determined to find her. Before she became the Siamese Kitten, a major player on the North American circuit, Miss Val was Valerie Nealy, a feisty girl growing up in a rundown house beside the Fraser River. But to find the stardom she thought she wanted, she had to make a series of seemingly irrevocable decisions. 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. It will cement Jen Sookfong Lee's reputation as one of this country's finest young novelists.

is a door by Fred Wah

Winner of the 2010 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize

Including poetry projects, a chapbook and incidental poems previously published in magazines and by small presses, is a door makes use of the poem’s ability for “suddenness” to subvert closure: the sudden question, the sudden turn, the sudden opening—writing that is generated from linguistic mindfulness, improvisation, compositional problem-solving, collaborative events, travel, investigation and documentary—in short, poetry as practice.

Characteristically playful and compositionally musical, this is poetry that watches both sides of the doorway: unsettled, unpredictable, closed and open. Sometimes the door swings and can be kicked. Sometimes it’s simply missing. Sometimes it’s a sliding door.

Forage by Rita Wong

Winner of the 2008 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Finalist for the 2008 Asian American Literary Award

Rita Wong's new collection of poems explores how ecological crises relate to the injustices of our international political landscape. Querying the relations between writing and other forms of action, Wong seeks a shift in consciousness through poems that bespeak a range of responses to our world: anger, protest, anxiety, bewilderment, hope and love. In her words, "the next shift may be the biggest one yet, the union of the living, from mosquito to manatee to mom."

Forage is accompanied by marginalia, Chinese characters and photos that give depth to the political context in which most of Wong's poems are situated. She is instructive without being pedantic, and thought-provoking while still calling forth humour and beauty.

Tales from Gold Mountain by Paul Yee

Winner of 1989 National Chapter of Canada IODE Book Award, 1990 Sheila A. Egoff Children's Book Prize, 1990 Parents Choice Honor for Story Books, American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book

Drawing on the real background of the Chinese role in the gold rush, the building of the railway and the settling of the west coast in the nineteenth century, noted historian and children's author Paul Yee has created eight original stories that combine the rough-and-tumble adventure of frontier life with the rich folk traditions that these immigrants brought from China.These tales are funny, sad, romantic and earthy, but ultimately, as a collection, they reflect the gritty optimism of the Chinese who overcame prejudice and adversity to build a unique place for themselves in North America.

February 7, 2013
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