Canada Reads

Jessica J. Lee explores how family and our environment are linked in Canada Reads book Two Trees Make a Forest

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021.

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021

Jessica J. Lee is the author of Two Trees Make a Forest. (Submitted by Jessica J. Lee/CBC)

Jessica J. Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author and environmental historian. She won the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the 2020 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and the 2019 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest.

Two Trees Make a Forest is an exploration of how geographical forces are interlaced with our family stories. A chance discovery of letters written by her immigrant grandfather leads Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she traces his story along with exploring the rich history and lush environment of Taiwan.

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021.

Canada Reads will take place March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem and on CBC Books

Lee spoke with Faith Fundal on CBC Radio's Up to Speed in Winnipeg.

It’s Canada Reads season! Every spring, five high profile Canadians champion five Canadian books to decide which book is the one that all of Canada should read. We've been meeting all of the author's in the running. Today, the final chapter with Jessica J. Lee and her memoir, 'Two Trees Make a Forest'. 5:32

What is Two Trees Make a Forest about?

It is sort of a hybrid book. It's partly a family story that traces my grandparents' lives as they go from China to Taiwan and on to Canada. That's interwoven with a nature memoir, in a way, looking at my own experiences of getting to know Taiwan, which is where my mom grew up and where my grandparents called home. It's really examining my connection to that place — and my family's past, language, identity and belonging — through the lens of nature.

You use your family's story as a way to look at themes like colonization, displacement and our relationship to nature. Why did you choose to use that frame to tell this story?

I tried to tell my grandparents' story on its own for a while, but it never really felt fully dimensional. I'm trained as an environmental historian, and I realized at a certain point that my voice needed to be a part of that story. When I think about my grandparents' lives, they lived through so much of what we would call  capital-H history — through wars and through periods of colonization in Taiwan. 

It's a story of place and a family told at multiple scales.

I realized if I didn't actually interweave all of those elements that it wouldn't be the complete picture. There was no way to tell one story without the other. It's a story of place and a family told at multiple scales.

What was it like speaking to your family to do the research for the book? What were those conversations like?

My mom supported me a lot while I worked on the book. I did a lot of interviews with her. My grandparents had already passed away by the time I was writing this book. But I spent time with recordings I had of my grandmother and with this letter that my grandfather had written, that was about the story of his life. It was a memoir of sorts. 

I hope readers go on an internal journey to ask questions about memory, family and how we are connected to the places we come from.

Spending time with those was a little bit like asking all the questions I should have asked when they were still alive. It was a process of grieving and of mourning, but also really honouring their lives and getting to know them as three-dimensional people, rather than just my grandparents.

Jessica J. Lee's 2021 Canada Reads contender, Two Trees Make a Forest, In Search of My Family's Past Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts. 11:58

Two Trees Make a Forest is being championed by singer-songwriter Scott Helman. I know you met him virtually and you got to know each other a bit. What does it mean to have him be your book's champion?

I'm really excited, in many ways. I was surprised that Scott chose my book and he has just shown so much passion for it. I know the work, the care and the passion that he puts into his work as a musician and to know that my book is in his hands going into these debates, I feel quite safe. He really takes it seriously as a work of literature and he is very passionate about it on those terms. I'm really excited to see how it all goes.

Scott Helman on participating in Canada Reads during a pandemic

4 months ago
0:54
Scott Helman on participating in Canada Reads during a pandemic 0:54

How did you feel when you found out that Two Trees Make a Forest was chosen for Canada Reads?

It was very exciting. I will say there was probably a bit of profanity involved! 

I was also very surprised. It was not on my radar at all that the book would have been even considered for Canada Reads. I always get into this habit of thinking about this as a very nice book. It's a book about nature. It's a book about the Taiwanese immigrant experience. I hadn't thought about this book as far as something that many people would relate to — and to see that they are is really exciting.

What are you hoping readers will take away from reading your book?

I do hope there is an element in Two Trees Make a Forest that transports readers to the mountains and waterfalls and beaches in Taiwan. I also want to give them a richer picture of Taiwan that is more complex than I think a lot of what many people might know about the country. 

I hope readers go on an internal journey to ask questions about memory, family and how we are connected to the places we come from. 

I'm hoping it will sort of have that multilayered effect on people.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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