Writers' Trust Fiction winner Yasuko Thanh on "writing outside the ordinary realm"

Yasuko Thanh's emergence on the Canadian literary scene can be tracked by the string of literary honours she's earned. Her short story "Floating Like the Dead" won the Writers' Trust Journey Prize, a feat she followed up with a debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, that took home the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

In our Magic 8 Q&A, Thanh answers eight questions from her fellow authors.


1. Emily St. John Mandel asks, "Do you write full time, or do you also do other work? And if you write full time now, what other jobs have you had in the past?"
I am fortunate and crazy enough to write full time. I've done this most of my life, whether I've had the money or not. Yet I admit my oldest child has starved for my art. I've structured the world "out there" - income earning, socializing - to serve the writing, much as when one has children, one's day is structured around their dependence, especially when they're young. If I didn't spend my free time trying to buy writing time, hours cut away from the ordinary realm, I'd probably be in a ditch somewhere. Work I've taken includes operating a B&B; I've cleaned houses, sold drugs, grown pot. I even went back to school, though I only had a Grade 9 education, when it was a choice between university or welfare. Currently, I tutor writing one day a week.

2. Greg Hollingshead asks, "What role does self-doubt play in your life as a writer?"
I doubt and question everything, whether it's the work itself or my relationship to it. The muses and I have had tumultuous years together and I've found myself re-evaluating what the hell it is we're doing with each other and answering differently each time. Most writers probably do this: are we in it for the long haul? Why? What's important or necessary enough about the work for us to continue down this rocky road? Though my surface answer may change, my bottom line has always remained the same: because I can't imagine my life without it, writing has been my one constant, and, for better or worse, I couldn't stay sane without it.

3. Pasha Malla asks, "How important is it for a country to have an identifiable, national literature?"
I'm not sure how to define our national literature (though it's been said Americans write about the landscape and Canadians write about the ways the land can kill you) but if I could, I don't know if it would be a good thing. Once a beast is named, it's tagged, and studied. Like an animal in a cage, it's the bars that scare me. Away from a life of roaming privileges, opportunities for "the other voice" can be lost, which is especially dangerous if publishers begin overlooking books that don't fit what we think of as a national literature when determining what does or doesn't fit - or is too "other" to fit. To have each new work exist in relation to the measure of an idea of what our country's literature should be is possibly limiting, and the expectation it creates in people diminishes the reflection of stories that haven't been heard. In a country like ours where we have the freedom to talk about anything, anything that might corral the "other voice" should be watched.

4. Samuel Archibald asks, "Cormac McCarthy once said: 'I felt early on I wasn't going to be a respectable citizen.' When did that realization come to you?"
I've never been a respectable citizen, thank God. I worked the streets for six years and during that time experienced a great deal of prejudice and stigmatization. My experiences as a sex-trafficked child laid the groundwork for who I am today. I try not to begrudge people their "respectability": it's a cloak against the cold, but it's a privilege and one that comes at the exclusion of others. I once ran from an attacker, a rich trick who wanted his money back, and it was a group of "unrespectable" citizens - drug addicts, panhandlers, homeless people - who encircled me and protected me in Pigeon Park on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It's Canada's infamous poorest postal code, and often where I've felt most at home.

5. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?"
Getting stuck creatively can mean my voice is in flux and my subconscious is trying to figure something out. This hasn't happened in years, but when it does, it's best to wait. Similarly, if a particular work stalls, I need to pay attention because it might be that the work itself is trying to tell me something about where it doesn't want to go. The fork-in-the-river moment. Most of the time, my best work lies hidden in the tributaries - but I can't start there (notwithstanding how much more efficient that would be). I have to start where the river begins, row down it as far as it's willing to take me before I see the alternate trajectories. Good ideas also come to me when I'm walking, or having a quiet cigarette on the deck.

6. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"
A work is never "finished" but there's a time to let it go. If I didn't let go, and begin anticipating the next project, I'd be writing the same book for the rest of my life. I take comfort in the fact that many writers feel this way. I'm trying to teach myself that letting go is not betraying the book but being true to my journey as a writer. Even as a human being, because each and every time, I have to wrestle with not having lived up to my own expectations. Writing, for me, is always a lesson in humility.

7. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Do you resist all distractions during the working day, or welcome (and even invent) them?"
I hate distractions. These include eating, showering, brushing my teeth, dressing. Pyjamas are my uniform and when I'm with book I rarely go out. I lived next door to someone who played the djembe outside to spare her roommates the noise she was making and it drove me nuts. My children suggested I make a sign to wear around my neck that says, "Mommy's in the zone," so they know when not to interrupt me, since I'll do mindless chores when I'm puzzling out a plot point or a character; however I'm still in book-world, the cogs furiously turning. When the children were smaller, I'd say, "Interrupt me, but only if you're being bitten by a snake or bleeding." I was only half-kidding.

8. Kathy Page asks, "Do you have a least favourite 'question to the author' at readings, what is it, and why?"
I guess my least favourite question is, "What's the book (or story) about?" I know the answer they're after - tell us the premise - but my response to them always feels somewhat dishonest. The book itself, every word in it, is the answer to what it's about. It cannot be diminished to a singular truth or a moral. A question I'd rather answer is, "Did you achieve what you set out to do?"

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