Jessica J. Lee wrote a memoir about her search for her family roots — now it's a Canada Reads finalist
Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021
Jessica J. Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author, environmental historian and winner of the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Author Award. Her debut book, Turning, was longlisted for the Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors.
Her latest book is Two Trees Make a Forest. The memoir 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.
Throughout her adventures, Lee uncovers surprising parallels between nature and human stories that shaped her family and their beloved island. In the memoir, she also turns a critical eye onto colonialist explorers who mapped the land and named plants, and both relied on and often erased the labour and knowledge of local communities.
Lee spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote the book.
Telling the story of my grandparents
"Even before we found my grandfather's letters and his story, I had been toying with the idea of writing my grandparents story for a solid decade. This was around the time my grandfather developed Alzheimer's, and I became acutely aware of stories being lost.
"I was still in university at the time and I sat down with my grandmother and I made recordings, which I also used in order to write this book.
"I spent a few years in my early 20s, trying to write their life stories as a novel — or trying and failing I should say, as I never really figured it out. It was one of those things that I just filed away and just sort of moved on from.
I spent a few years in my early 20s, trying to write their life stories as a novel — or trying and failing I should say, as I never really figured it out.
"The year after I'd finished writing my first book and writing my Ph.D., my grandmother passed away and my mom found my grandfather's letters. And that was one of those moments where I realized that, what I had been trying to figure out for 10 years, now has a shape. I am a writer who writes about the natural world, who writes about place — and that's actually a huge part of that story.
"It didn't work when it was just me trying to tell my grandparent's story alone because I needed to figure out who I was in that story. And so they took all those years for me to figure out what the shape of that would be."
Children of the Diaspora
"The question of identity was something I came back to a lot growing up. It's partly because as a child, I didn't really have a very clear language for exactly who we were, being children of immigrants or from the diaspora.
"I write about this in the book where I say my grandparents are from China but also from Taiwan — we didn't really know how to frame ourselves. In my adulthood, I've moved around a lot. After university, I moved to the U.K. and to Canada, then back to the U.K. and then I was in Germany for six years and I've just recently moved back to the U.K.
The question of identity was something I came back to a lot growing up.
"That level of movement sort of raises those questions pretty automatically. I think that was a core part of my motivation in writing Turning. But because turning was a story so centred in a place that was not actually any of my family identities, it was like this book is the part of myself that I had never allowed to talk. It was really important to me to let that see daylight in a way."
Finding truth in nature
"I'm trained as an environmental historian. I studied environmental humanities throughout my education. So much of that training is designed to prevent you from ascribing human values onto nonhuman nature.
"But I'm also just a person who grew up in the culture I grew up in. So of course, I anthropomorphize, I put my emotions into a bad hike! All of these things are quite normal responses.
I studied environmental humanities throughout my education. So much of that training is designed to prevent you from ascribing human values onto nonhuman nature.
"So rather than try and rid my writing of that, I like to bring both to bear and bring both possibilities and questions and the risks of both approaches to bear in my writing — and to make that really explicit, to say I felt this way and I was anthropomorphizing it."
A matter of honesty
"I felt a real imperative to be honest — not just when it comes to my family and not just for my family. It's because my grandparents, and people in general, are not neutral in the face of wider forces, whether that's wider political forces or national forces or forces of migration.
"It was really important for me to tell my grandparents' stories with some honesty. It was really important to see them as real people acting in the world in situations that were politically volatile — that I looked back on historically in different ways than they might have seen it then.
It was really important for me to tell my grandparents' stories with some honesty.
"That was really important to me to sort of be as thorough and as honest as I could be. My mom said to me after I finished writing the book that she thought I made my grandfather seem too sad in the book.
"As a writer, you can't always make everyone happy. I wrote what I remembered and what I understood. But I try to make this pretty clear in the book, it's not a complete picture. It will never be a complete picture."
A journey of discovery
"I don't know if I learned that much more about myself in writing this book, but I really learned how to be more comfortable and accepting of myself. I went into this book feeling a real sense of inadequacy and failure about not having learned to speak Mandarin properly, not having asked more questions when I was growing up.
"I went into the project probably feeling a little bit like if I were to say I was half-Taiwanese, that meant I was a half of something, that I was not whole, that I was fragmentary and dislocated in some way. I came around the other side of it recognizing that I'm wholly a person. I am all of those things. I don't have to be so hard on myself. I've made this real gesture of acknowledgement and time and care to get to know my family story.
I went into the project probably feeling a little bit like if I were to say I was half-Taiwanese, that meant I was a half of something, that I was not whole, that I was fragmentary and dislocated in some way.
"Positioning myself exactly as I am — which is being of mixed-race and from the diaspora who is really crap at speaking Mandarin — and actually acknowledging that as being a way of being in the world was really important to me.
"I came out of it a bit more gentle on myself and a bit more accepting. In writing the book, all of these people appeared in my life who had very similar stories. I've made friends who have similar family backgrounds, or similar cultural backgrounds. And the more time I really spent with that, I no longer see these things as a lack. I see my perspective as whole."
Jessica J. Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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