Monday October 09, 2017

The powerful stories Jen Sookfong Lee found in writing from immigrant women

Jen Sookfong Lee is the author of Gentlemen of the Shade, a book about the film My Own Private Idaho.

Jen Sookfong Lee is the author of Gentlemen of the Shade, a book about the film My Own Private Idaho. (ECW Press )

Listen 8:43

Coming to a new country as an immigrant can be terrifying and lonely. New beginnings are tough, but sometimes they become a source of inspiration and a tool for storytelling. 

The Next Chapter columnist Jen Sookfong Lee tells us about two books that explore what it means to start a new life in an unfamiliar setting. 

Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me by Lorina Mapa

HIWI - Lorina Mapa

Lorina Mapa is the author and illustrator of the graphic memoir Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me. (Conundrum Press/Courtesy of Lorina Mapa)

"It's a graphic memoir of her journey from being a child and teenager in the Philippines to marrying a Canadian man and moving to Quebec. This is very much a story of her life and how her life changed. Even though this is a graphic memoir, there are a lot of more traditional nonfiction elements at play in what she is writing and what she is drawing. 

"She did not identify as a really feminine girl growing up. There is a discussion about gender fluidity in this book. She was constantly looking for people to identify with and she really identified with 1980s new wave music in particular. She was in love with Sting and Depeche Mode. These male singers, who wore makeup and were more gender fluid than she was used to seeing growing up, she used these figures to identify with her own 'tomboy-ness'. Then, when she moved to the U.S. and Canada, it was these pop culture markers that helped her identify with her new environment. This is how she immersed herself in the culture that she found herself living in."

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is Yiyun Li's first memoir. (Penguin/John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

"Yiyun Li lives in the United States, but she is originally from China. Her book is a series of letters where she writes to various people in her life about a host of issues, including her challenges in her relationship with her mother, her mental health and her decision to come to the United States, become a writer and decide to only write in English even though her first language is Chinese. There is a great sense of loss and melancholy, which I think is a remarkably brave thing to write about as an immigrant woman.

"What helped her through her depression and anxiety was her decision to write in English. It gave her a solid foundation and a sense of place, that yes I have decided to stay here in this country and this is how I'm going to demonstrate my commitment to it. I think the decision to write in English helped her through her troubles with isolation and dislocation."

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