The Chat With Jen Sookfong Lee

Jen Sookfong Lee colour original file Sherri Koop Photography
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

What happens when an adult daughter finds the corpses of two teenaged girls at the bottom of her dead mother’s freezer? That’s at the heart of Jen Sookfong Lee’s latest novel, The Conjoined. It’s a pleasure to be in conversation with Jen on this week’s Chat.

Writing in The Globe and Mail about the book’s many twists and turns, Stacey May Fowles says, “In the universe Lee has created, coming to the truth is more about nuance, empathy and openhearted understanding than it is about any strict, simplistic set of rules about good and evil, right or wrong.”

Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, where she now lives with her son. Her books include The Conjoined, The Better Mother (a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award), The End of East, and Shelter, a novel for young adults. Her poetry, fiction, and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Elle Canada, Hazlitt, Room, and Event. A popular radio personality, Jen was the voice behind CBC Radio One’s weekly writing column, Westcoast Words, for three years. She appears regularly as a contributor on The Next Chapter and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club. Jen teaches writing in the Continuing Studies departments at both Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.

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THE CHAT WITH JEN SOOKFONG LEE

Trevor Corkum: Your latest novel, The Conjoined, follows Jessica, a social worker, who discovers the corpses of two teenaged girls in her dead mother’s freezer. I understand that part of your inspiration for the novel came from an actual historical event. Can you talk more about the birth of the novel, and how it evolved as you wrote?

Jen Sookfong Lee: I read a news story about 10 years ago about a woman who had died and whose family had found the bodies of two foster children in her freezers. She had cared for them years and years ago, and everyone had assumed they had run away. The story was pretty brief, but it stayed in my mind for a long time as a potential novel.

I have an obsession with bad mothers, or what we believe to be bad mothering. People are usually horrified when women commit acts of violence against children and I’m fascinated with why that is. And fascinated with how hard mothers work to keep their lives from falling apart every single day. My own mother, if she read English, would be furious with me if she knew.

[I'm] fascinated with how hard mothers work to keep their lives from falling apart every single day.

TC: The novel moves back and forth across time, exploring the complex back stories of Casey and Jamie, the two Chinese-Canadian sisters at the heart of the book, as well as the story of Jessica’s grandmother, a white single mother in 1950s Vancouver. What challenges did you face in the actual structure of your writing—moving back and forth through different periods of history—or in giving voice to a range of characters of various ages, classes, and ethnicities?  

JSL: I have never written a novel with only one timeline! I’m incapable of it! Structurally, I think this is just how my mind works and how I tell stories. The most interesting part of any story for me is not necessarily what happens, but why. Everybody hides secrets and resentments and old traumas and digging into the past is my way of puzzling that out.

As for writing characters from different backgrounds and eras, I just try to centre them in their own stories—no matter how small—and do the research. So much of writing is really just hard work and being responsible, which is the most boring thing to say, but it’s true. I do wish that writing was really just about unicorns and cotton candy though. Imagine how happy my books would be then!

So much of writing is really just hard work and being responsible, which is the most boring thing to say, but it’s true.

TC: In the past few years, there’s been a strong call from many writers and readers for greater diversity in mainstream Canadian literature. Some publishers have responded by looking more closely at their own lists and taking steps to reach out to writers from marginalized or underrepresented communities. Where are we, do you think, in truly representing the diverse narratives of Canadian culture and society in our literature? What more needs to be done?

JSL: I think we have a lot of progress to make. I mean, it is much better now than it was when I published my first novel in 2007, when you could count the number of women of colour who were publishing fiction on one hand.

What I would love publishers, writing teachers, and literary festivals to do is open up about the kind of narratives diverse writers are producing. So often, we celebrate a certain kind of narrative from marginalized communities (a protagonist is a victim of systemic oppression, either historical or in another country, they struggle but eventually triumph over these barriers and in the process politically educate the reader).

These narratives are valuable, of course, but what about opening up to speculative fiction or humour or writing that experiments with form and language? Let’s make space for our diverse writers to publish diverse stories that reflect our current preoccupations and lives and push back at assumptions and make readers uncomfortable. I’m not going to rewrite The Joy Luck Club, well, unless someone is going to pay me an ungodly sum for it.

What about opening up to speculative fiction or humour or writing that experiments with form and language? Let’s make space for our diverse writers to publish diverse stories that reflect our current preoccupations and lives and push back at assumptions and make readers uncomfortable.

TC: Your own writing has received wide praise. The Better Mother was nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award, and in 2007, you were a New Face of Fiction with Knopf for The End of East. Do you remember a specific moment when you first realized you wanted to be a writer? What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?

JSL: I was seven and my oldest sister gave me an assignment over summer vacation to write a short story (she was a stern taskmaster). That was the turning point and I never made a plan B or wavered from that decision. I even lied to my parents that I would go to law school so they wouldn’t worry that I would starve.

If I wasn’t writing, I don’t know what I would be doing! I’m not good at anything else. I like to think I would have started my own pie business (I’m very committed to pie). Really though, I would like to be performing in Broadway musicals. I have no musical or dancing ability whatsoever, but it’s a dream, so let’s just go with it.

If I wasn’t writing, I don’t know what I would be doing! I’m not good at anything else. I like to think I would have started my own pie business (I’m very committed to pie).

TC: What are you working on these days, Jen? What can we look forward to next?  

JSL: Right now, I’m writing a poetry collection, which is hilarious because I haven’t written poetry with any seriousness in 15 years. But I love this process.

I have two books of non-fiction coming out in 2017. One is called Gentlemen of the Shade, about the Gus Van Sant film, My Own Private Idaho, and the other is Chinese New Year and is for children aged eight to twelve. I am percolating a novel idea right now, but it’s far too fetal to talk about! But it’s a total departure from what I have been writing, which is always what I look for in a novel idea.

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Excerpt from The Conjoined

Jessica walked by the big back window and saw her reflection, ghostly against the view of the mountain. She had never looked like her mother. As a teenager, Jessica had grown thin while Donna added to her already substantial body. And her eyes were dark amber like Gerry’s, or a cat’s. But she had her mother’s untameable hair, which Jessica wrangled into submission with a flat iron three times a week. Now, because of all the sweat accumulating on her scalp, she could see the curls forming around her ears, a halo of slowly twisting ringlets. She ran her hand over the top of her head, but this only made it fuzzy, like a baby’s. Time to give up, she thought. She cared about being pretty most days, but at this very moment, swathed in her mother’s hand-sewn apron, she really couldn’t give a shit.

Jessica rummaged through the hall closet, looking for a tape gun. She could hear her father in the basement, singing “King of the Road” as he sorted through Donna’s canning supplies. Jessica knew they had to empty out the spare bedroom too, the one the foster kids used to sleep in. She could barely remember any of their names and wondered if her mother had kept the photographs she took of them.

“Of course, she did,” Jessica muttered. “She kept every last fucking thing.”

There had been no kids in the last ten years, but Jessica was sure the twin beds were still set up, and the small dresser was still empty, waiting for the few pieces of clothing the kids brought with them. When Jessica told her fellow social workers at the office what her mother used to do—accepting a new child every few weeks, holding them when they had nightmares, never scolding when they wet the beds—they listened intently and held their hands to their chests.

“She must have been a saint,” said Parminder. “All my parents did was prevent me from killing my brother.”

“No, not a saint,” Jessica had replied. “But close.”

Excerpted from The Conjoined © Jen Sookfong Lee, 2016. Published by ECW Press.

January 23, 2017
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