CBC Literary Prizes

Jonathan Poh thrifted through his childhood memories to write the story that won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize

Jonathan Poh's story, Value Village, won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
Jonathan Poh is a writer, editor and communications specialist living in Burnaby, B.C. (Jillian Chong)

Jonathan Poh has won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for his personal essay Value Village.

Poh will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

His winning story has also been published on CBC Books. You can read Value Village here.

In Value VillagePoh explores how unprocessed trauma is stored in the body — in this case, through the sense of smell —  and how it can trigger intense memories. 

The Burnaby, B.C.-based writer spoke to CBC Books about how he wrote his winning story.

Unpacking childhood memories

"Writing Value Village showed me that there is a lot I could probably unpack in my own life. I've lived and worked in several countries and the common thread has always been this interest in streetwear and sneakers. That's how I started my career.

"Value Village goes back to the origins of that and this idea that what I wore could be a kind of armour. I experienced a lot of racism when I was growing up and I found that by choosing the right clothes or the right shoes, I could fit in. Over time, it changed into a form of self-expression.

I experienced a lot of racism when I was growing up and I found that by choosing the right clothes or the right shoes, I could fit in.

"I was also thinking about thrifting as a solution to the problem of clothing waste. I began my career as a fashion journalist, and the issue of sustainability in the industry has always been problematic. I wanted to explore my own resistance to thrifting and finally face this thing that always bugged me about buying second-hand."

Jonathan Poh in 1996 wearing a Puma track jacket that he bought from Value Village. (Submitted by Jonathan Poh)

Deciding which memories to include

"There is a lot of silence surrounding things that happened to me when I was a kid. I wanted to speak into that silence and call some of those things out.

"I knew that I wanted to start with the visit to the thrift store and then try to trace it back throughout my childhood to this one moment that soured me on the idea of buying anything at a thrift store.

"Then I used the motif of smell to help me decide on which memories to include. Somewhere along the way, I found there was a correlation between the smell of thrift stores that I was trying to understand and then the smell of all these traumatic memories of my childhood."

Exerting creative control 

"Perhaps the most surprising and rewarding part of the whole process was being able to exert creative control over events in my life that I've always felt were out of my control, that were unexpected, and weren't things I wanted to happen to me. 

"The act of speaking into the silence of my childhood trauma, of simply reconstructing these memories and calling them out, was extremely cathartic.

"I'm used to telling the stories of other people, trying to dig into what makes them tick, what makes them who they are. This was the first time I had to turn it around and better understand my own reaction to my surroundings and to the world."

Jonathan Poh talks about his award-winning story with Sheryl MacKay. 9:22

A story 23 years in the making

"I wrote Value Village at my desk, in my apartment. I spent about a month jotting down notes, then I spent about four full days just writing several drafts of this story. I wrote it pretty quickly, but it was a lot of note taking and piecing together all the random things that I had jotted down.

There is a lot of silence surrounding things that happened to me when I was a kid. I wanted to speak into that silence and call some of those things out.

"I procrastinated. I wasn't sure if I wanted to enter the contest because I wasn't super confident about the story at first. But if you come across the right story that you need to tell — there is an urgency — you can be surprised with what you can accomplish. Even though I wrote this story in four days, it was really 23 years in the making."

Jonathan Poh reads the story that won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize. 13:16

Encouraging other writers to tell their stories

"I would like to encourage other writers from backgrounds like mine to speak into the silence of their experiences, especially when it comes to racism and other forms of trauma.

"In Asian communities especially, there is a lot of silence surrounding pain and difficult subjects, and I'd like to challenge and encourage other writers to use their voices and speak up. Especially in light of the pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian racism and hate, I think this is a good time to tell your story and to not remain silent."

Jonathan Poh's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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