Monday October 17, 2016

Jen Sookfong Lee on foster care, family mysteries and "bad mothers"

Jen Sookfong Lee's latest novel follows a social worker who uncovers a nasty secret in the basement of her mother's house.

Jen Sookfong Lee's latest novel follows a social worker who uncovers a nasty secret in the basement of her mother's house. (CBC)

Listen 17:56

Jen Sookfong Lee's new novel, The Conjoined, begins with a young social worker, Jessica, who makes a grisly discovery in the aftermath of her mother's death: she finds two dead girls hidden away at the bottom of her mother's freezer. As Jessica tries to figure out who these girls were and who her mother really is, The Conjoined challenges the conventional wisdom around ideas of motherhood, social work and successful immigrant families. Jen Sookfong Lee is a juror for the 2017 CBC Short Story Prize

The true story that inspired the novel

I actually worked for a social services agency for seven years, 15 years ago. It was a family support agency for people who adopted children with special needs, and most of them had been adopted out of foster care. Around that time, I read a news story — a woman had died and the family found two dead bodies in her freezer. They turned out to be a pair of foster children she had fostered years earlier. I have a "writerly" obsession with bad mothers, or mothers we perceive to be bad, and I thought, "There's nothing worse than a mother who sticks dead bodies in freezers. There's no one who will write this but me."

On caring for those who make foster care happen

The foster care system, because you're dealing with very intimate issues of family, children, parents and how their culture plays into parenting... it's very high risk. We really have to think about the human players in our foster care system, about how they're feeling and their emotions, and in that we can help a little bit to make sure everybody stays safe and healthy and happy: the children, the parents, everybody. The people who I know who have made a career of it, who have done it from age 25 to 65 — they're rare, there's not that many — they've had to emotionally distance themselves from the outcomes. During my first couple of years in social services, I felt like my heart was breaking every three months. 

As Jen was developing the idea for The Conjoined, she was inspired by the photos of Fred Herzog, who photographed life in Vancouver.

Jen Sookfong Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.