Asian Heritage Month: Family ties


Throughout May, CBC Books will be highlighting great works of Asian-Canadian literature as part of Asian Heritage Month. CBC producer and Asian-Canadian history enthusiast Adrian Ma looks at some novels he found to be influential and inspirational.

Family ties

adrian-headshot-70.jpgLast week I highlighted some great novels focused on Asian-Canadian history from the 19th century up until the Second World War. Now, I'd like to shine a spotlight on some terrific stories that take place in the latter part of the 20th century. As ever, I love receiving suggestions on books by Asian-Canadian writers you've found to be engaging, so please leave yours in the comments section below.

Dogs at the Perimeter
by Madeline Thien

thien-100.jpgWhile this novel is set in 2005, the real thrust of the story takes us back to the mid-1970s, when the infamous Khmer Rouge Communist Party had a stranglehold on Cambodia. Janie, a neuroscience researcher in Montreal, is forced to confront her past after her friend and colleague Hiroji Matsui travels to Cambodia to search for his missing brother. Both Matsui and Janie lost family members during this deadly regime in which about two million people died. Janie reflects back on her difficult childhood and her desperate journey to Canada. What Thien so poignantly addresses in this book is the trauma, guilt and deep-seated regret that many Asian-Canadian immigrants have experienced, especially when they left their homes merely in order to survive. You can never forget what and who you've left behind, and you carry that with you always.

by Kim Thuy
"In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge -- of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull."

In my opinion, Kim Thuy is one of the most interesting new voices in Canadian literature and her semi-autobiographical novel Ru is a wonderful coming-of-age story inspired by her own flight from Vietnam to Canada in the 1970s. Thuy arrived in Quebec as a child and vigorously pursued her education, eventually earning degrees in linguistics and translation and law. She possesses a fierce intelligence but also a poetic writing ability. Her descriptions of life as a refugee, discovering the culture of her new home (like learning to sing the theme song of the movie Fame in English), and her complex relationship with her mother are deft and soulful.

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

headmasters-wager-100.jpgIn 2006, Toronto-based physician Vincent Lam shot to Canadian literary stardom after winning the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut collection of short stories Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. It's a fantastic book about the constant challenge of working in medicine, but also features truly complex and memorable characters, including some Chinese-Canadian ones (more on this book next week!). Lam has just published a new book, The Headmaster's Wager, a historical novel about a charismatic ethnic Chinese schoolmaster named Percival Chen living in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Lam based the character somewhat on his own late grandfather, William Lin, who did in fact start a school in Cholon, the largest Chinatown in Vietnam, decades ago. While the book uses the backdrop of war and the impending fall of Saigon to build suspense, at its heart, the story is about Chen, a womanizing, gambling bon vivant struggling to keep his fractured family together. The Headmaster's Wager is pegged to be one of the most acclaimed works of fiction this year, but the fact that Lam imbues it with his own family's personal history makes it feel even more special.

The Better Mother by Jen Sookfong Lee

the-better-mother-100.jpgAs you've probably noticed, family dynamics are a huge theme in Asian-Canadian literature, and are common ground for Vancouver-born writer Jen Sookfong Lee. She explored family in her debut novel The End of East, a multi-generational portrait of the Chan family in Vancouver's old Chinatown. In The Better Mother, she shifts the story mainly to the early 1980s, against the back story of the HIV/AIDS scare. She also creates an intriguing character in Danny Lim, a thirty-something photographer struggling to come to terms with his family over his homosexuality. As in many Chinese families, Lim has grown up with conservative parents, and Lee writes wonderfully about the push-pull tension that exists between generations. The younger among us often feel drawn to the mystery and the lure of a larger world our parents have never known, yet family duty may compel us to pull back as well. I think this is a theme that so many Canadians can relate to. Is it possible to embrace the future without letting go of the past?

Next week, I'll be looking at some writers that represent the future of Asian-Canadian literature, including some Indo-Canadian authors.