A NATIONAL BESTSELLER
A devastatingly frank memoir that tears open the past to examine how circumstances--and the choices we make--dictate the people we become, for fans of Educated and The Glass Castle.
Mistakes to Run With chronicles the turbulent life of Yasuko Thanh, from early childhood in the closest thing Victoria, BC, has to a slum to teen years as a sex worker and, finally, to her emergence as an award-winning author. As a child, Thanh embraced evangelical religion, only to rebel against it and her equally rigid parents, cutting herself, smoking, and shoplifting. At fifteen, the honour-roll runaway develops a taste for drugs and alcohol. After a stint in jail at sixteen, feeling utterly abandoned by her family, school, and society, Thanh meets the man who would become her pimp and falls in love.
The next chapter of her life takes Thanh to the streets of Vancouver, where she endures beatings, arrests, crack cocaine, and an unwanted pregnancy. The act of writing ultimately becomes a solace from her suffering. Leaving the sex trade, but refusing to settle on any one thing, Thanh forges a new life for herself, from dealing drugs in four languages to motherhood and a complicated marriage, and emerges as a successful writer.
But even as publication and awards bolster her, she remains haunted by her past.
About the author
Yasuko Nguyen Thanh is a Canadian writer and guitarist born June 30, 1971 in Victoria, British Columbia. She has lived in Canada, Mexico, Germany, and Latin America and she was named one of ten CBC Books' writers to watch in 2013.
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes
Excerpt: Mistakes to Run With: A Memoir (by (author) Yasuko Thanh)
The previous year, in September 1987 when I was sixteen, a psychologist wrote to my probation officer in my case file: “Her responses on the Rorschach are the type of responses that might be expected from a neglected and deprived child and leave me wondering about the adequacy of care that has been provided by her parents, even in the most basic physical areas.”
In a city known for its trees, I grew up on a street with none. Victoria, 1974. My father, a Vietnamese national who spoke four languages and had a degree from a Parisian university, found work in a shoe store, a far cry from the financial industry and the bank he’d thought would employ him. Before immigrating to British Columbia and settling on the west coast he’d studied business management. He’d met my mother in Europe when he was twenty-seven and she was sixteen. Handsome as Bruce Lee, he promised a ticket away from her home in dour grey postwar Germany. They came to Canada in 1970, a year before I was born. My mother had fantasized about riding escalators in glamorous North American shopping malls, but what greeted her in Victoria during those heady days of Trudeaumania was more grey. Rain. A rooming house. More rain. My father found himself walking to the shoe store next to a bowling alley to sell pumps to women who couldn’t understand his thick accent and asked him to repeat “What size do you take?” My mother still spoke to me in German at home. During the afternoons, when the sun shone on our balcony, we played school. She practised the English phrases she’d heard on TV while I sat cross-legged next to her, writing “Mama, do you love me?” in an orange exercise book.
When my brother was born, in the winter of 1976, my parents gave him my room. I was relegated to a flip chair—Her responses leave me wondering about the adequacy of care—that unfolded into a kid’s bed a few feet from the front door. I didn’t understand why I had to give him anything, to share anything. Why didn’t they put him in the living room? Or in the kitchen? Better yet, why couldn’t they take him back to wherever he’d come from? I’d trade him in for a Barbie doll.
When my parents needed the living room to watch a movie or the news, they put me to sleep in their bed. I once squirted my mother’s nose drops onto her pillow to wet it the way tears would so she’d know I was sad. My mother didn’t notice the wetness; or, if she did, she said nothing about it the next day.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. Comfort was a foreign currency in my family. If I was upset, my father would splash my face with water cold enough to take my breath away. This much I knew: voicing unpleasant emotions made you unlovable. My craving for acceptance and my inability to express my need made me misbehave; my father would spank me with a thick wooden ruler. My mother’s slaps, they at least touched me. I must be a bad girl, I thought, yet I didn’t understand why. My parents’ expectations of me were as baffling as they were mutable. All day I would follow the rules to have my mother confront me at bedtime with a list of sins I’d committed without knowing it.
In the years to come I would give them perfect report cards, ribbons won at track, certificates of academic achievement. I went to church and volunteered, spoon-fed boys and girls crippled with cerebral palsy at the Queen Alexandra hospital. I’d bring home these offerings yet saw no reason to be proud of my achievements. Perfection was expected. Not praised.
For my entire childhood—and still, today, part of me waits—I’d needed to hear three simple words from my parents: You Are Good. Good. Worthy. Valuable. You are valuable to me. You are valuable to the rest of the world. Not because of what you do but because you are you, inherently important to us. You are not a bad girl. You are good.
I plotted revenge against my brother, and would pinch him to make him cry. But there was something else. I pinched him not to hurt but to comfort him, so that I’d have a reason to pick him up, dry his tears. Whisper, “Hush, hush, hush.”
To escape my confusion I’d often play outside our apartment building near where the grass ended and the road into our housing project began. There the grass grew tallest and the St. John’s wort was bushy enough to act as a forest.
I had one doll—my father had inexplicably thrown away all my toys when the rest of us weren’t home—and my favourite game was doctor. I inflicted Barbie with injuries, scrawled blood drops with red ballpoint. One day, when I was five or six, I decided to run away. Woolco would be a good, safe place to go, lots of toys, bright lights, a Popsicle machine. I knew the way down the road that circled our building toward a busy six-lane street. A friend’s mother saw me on the road, fiddling with my doll, and invited me to their apartment for a cup of tea. She felt sorry for me. I drank the tea instead of running away, enjoying how much sugar I could use, when helping myself, to sweeten my cup.
I finished the tea and went back outside. I found an abandoned construction site. Standing atop a pile of wood I became Queen of the Two-by-Four, Queen of Nails, Queen of Drywall. I picked out my bedroom and showed my doll hers. It was all there in plywood and rebar—the framework to a happy life.
Years passed. My parents’ tenacity and dreams gave way to disappointment—misfortune has a way of misering its victims. My mother did not get her promised yearly trip home to visit her six brothers and sisters; it was out of the question. Winter rains ushered in mud puddles and a road wet with oil slicks. My mother told me later that in those years she dreamed of running away across the rooftops of our neighbourhood, clutching a suitcase in one hand and my hand in the other, my brother on her hip as we escaped. It haunted her.
The nights my father worked late, my mother, brother, and I occupied the chesterfield, bolstered by pillows my mother had made herself. The awkwardness that blossomed between us as I grew dissolved when we watched TV. Sometimes I even pretended to fall asleep because when I did my mother would smooth back my hair and kiss me.
We didn’t live in absolute poverty, only the relative sort. My classmates had money for nail polish and velour sweaters from Woodward’s; they went to movies, slept in a bed, rode a bike. I did these things too, but much later than everyone else.
At eight years old I’d take the bus to the Y downtown. Every Saturday I saw other parents dropping off their children, but I never expected a ride. I’d sit in the seat to the right of the bus driver reserved for people with mobility issues. I’d look forward to chatting with him. He asked lots of questions.
Forty years have gone by since the two photographs were taken that I withdraw from a shoebox and place before me, their corners yellowed. It’s difficult to reconcile the images I see of myself in old photographs with how I felt at the time.
A crack runs through one of them: I’m nine or ten, turning a cartwheel on matted grass. I have on the red vest with pink crosses that my mother had knitted me. I remember disliking the vest but wearing it anyway, guilty about not loving it more. In the photograph my mother hunkers ten feet back, watching me from the front steps in sunglasses, a shiny blouse. She cups her chin—no, mashes it—against her cheek. It is the face of a general, grimacing, frowning.
My mother loved the idea of hope, feeding it with more dreams than it could swallow. By now she’d taken up with an evangelical God, telling the Christian stories of resilience—mouth painters who’d become quadriplegic in horrible accidents, Holocaust survivors—that filled my childhood. She inducted me into the Pentecostal army of God with a vengeance, and I complied enthusiastically.
My mother was like someone behind glass that divided her from me, froze her gaze. Yet I fantasized that beneath her cold blue eyes she had a fire, an inner Mrs. Brady, because I’d once turned my head to see her turn her own cartwheel. In that moment of laughter I saw her spirit. Somewhere in there another woman, the happy version of my mother, was trapped and trying to get out.
We moved from the apartment to a townhouse down the street. I was entering grade three, eight years old. I don’t remember packing. I don’t remember moving trucks. What I remember is walking through the empty new house followed by the echo of my footsteps. What legroom and breathing space smelled like. The dresser left behind in one of the rooms was antique—I took the drawers out, examining their workmanship. Why? Because that piece of furniture would reveal something about the earlier occupants. I found a handwritten receipt with a 1940s date on it.
The townhouse had three bedrooms, a tiny yard; it faced a playground with a concrete elephant covered in graffiti, a swing set on which older kids would sit after I’d gone to bed. I could hear their hoots and hollers through my window, their robust party yells. The sound of breaking glass after they’d lobbed an empty bottle—I imagined the high arc of some smooth, clear, exotic bird following its own trajectory through the night to inevitably, thrillingly, crash down to earth, strike the asphalt, and explode in a rainbow prism of glass that I’d sidestep the following day as I played. All I had to do was show my face in this community space separated from the adult world by an invisible force field, sacred ground preordained for small feet alone, and approach a kid. “Wanna play?”
For the next hour we’d pretend that only these swings, this gnarly apple tree, this concrete elephant existed. This tree is a fort. The ground is covered in snakes. You can’t go down or you'll be eaten. These apples are grenades. Launch them at the boys.
These days, having my own room means survival in a world that presses in. My own room is the bubble that surrounds me; I retreat there when the pressures of the world get to be too much as if into a diving bell under a hundred feet of ocean. If I sense a crack, I seal it up by halting communication with the outside.
Sometimes the space contracts around me, mordant, until the sound of my own breathing swallows me. The awareness that what protects me sanctions my survival doesn’t stave off the ensuing claustrophobia. The patient in an oxygen tent still hates her immobility. Her weakness. The sickness that put her there in the first place. She wishes she could get up and walk through the transparent walls—beyond them she can see others living their lives—yet what she’s suffered makes this impossible. Any outside contact carries the potential of a fatal infection. So the patient learns to live with her lot. Learns to appreciate her separateness.
Back then, before having my own room, my own setting to house the items symbolically meaningful to me, I’d choose a section of hallway in the apartment, between the living room and the bathroom, and lay out the books I’d withdrawn from the library earlier that day in a row. My own room meant I could do the same thing but in private, with more than books. I took meticulous care in arranging every object I owned. Tiny plastic animals the dentist gave away after an appointment, ceramic figurines from tea boxes, my stuffed animals, my dolls—each had a location, a private corner they didn’t have to share with anyone.
I also had my own closet, which, small as it was, stood for another world, separated from my room with its own door. Though not large enough for me to play in, I’d shrink myself to fit the space, contort enough to allow the door to at least shut behind me. In that sanctuary I’d fend off attacks from my little brother, who would often invade my room with the force of an advancing army. This was the universe’s way of preparing me for that haven’s forfeiture, not to my brother but to my grandparents, who will be sponsored by my father in a few years’ time. They will take my room. I’ll move in with my brother. Then, after another few years, they’ll move to France where my aunt and uncle live, where they will stay until they die.
A few weeks or months after moving in I got my first real bed, with captain’s drawers that slid out from under the mattress, all my clothes folded and placed inside. Like an interior designer I’d sit back and look at the tableau of my neatly made bed, my fluffed pillows. Ponder. Absorb. Rearrange. Able to stop only when it felt “right.”
It never did.
Even then the clash between the blue-painted wall and the olive carpet, between my mismatched bedding and the wall papered burgundy, disrupted the peace I was trying to cultivate.
A Globe and Mail National Bestseller
Featured in Refinery29's "11 Books We Can't Wait To Read This Spring"
One of CBC's "12 Canadian books coming out in April we can't wait to read"
Praise for Mistakes to Run With:
“On rare occasions, you read a book that gives you the sense it had to be written, that the impulse to get these words on the page was more about necessity than choice. Books such as those are full of passion, pain and urgency, and offer the kind of triumph you feel lucky to witness. Mistakes to Run With is one such book—it feels driven by the compulsion to document, by the urgent human desire to be heard. And when every detail has been shared, every unvarnished truth thoughtfully relayed, Thanh makes you want to stand up and cheer the accomplishment.” —The Globe and Mail
“[A] brutally honest account. . . . Through her willingness to share even the darkest moments of her unsettled life, in Mistakes to Run With Thanh offers her deeply personal story as a highly compelling narrative.” —The Winnipeg Free Press
“[A] stunning new memoir.” —Toronto Star
“Bold, brave, and engrossing. . . . Thanh’s survival is story of sheer will and one that will keep you riveted to the page.” —Vancouver Sun
“The book’s honesty is relentless, and its spirit of survival defies platitudes.” —The Georgia Straight
“Whether earning top marks or justifying self-destruction under the guise of a pursuit of freedom, the pressure to earn love—and the belief that it’s never freely given—form some of the most devastating parts of this memoir. . . . The prose here is alive in ways that are both difficult and emotionally accessible.”
—Quill and Quire
“Mistakes to Run With is refreshingly brave, bold, and open. Rather than hiding behind a tidy story arc, Yasuko Thanh places value on all life experiences, good, bad, beautiful, scary, and sad. The result is an incredibly rare and generous thing—a memoir that lets me in so close to her life, it changed how I see mine.”
—Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal
“Remarkable…unflinching and honest. I was profoundly moved by Thanh's tenacity amidst dire conditions and odds. With a writer's eye, she finds beauty and hope in lost causes and the strength in language to explain how one survives. Thanh mines her past to make sense of who she is and was always meant to be—a brilliant writer and an exceptional woman.”
—Carrianne Leung, author of That Time I Loved You