Books·How I Wrote It

Yasuko Thanh went from living on the street to becoming an award-winning writer — and wrote a memoir about it

In her memoir Mistakes to Run With, the novelist and short story writer from Vancouver Island opens up about her tumultuous past.
Mistakes to Run With is a memoir by Yasuko Thanh. (Don Denton, Penguin Random House Canada)

Yasuko Thanh is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Vancouver Island. Her first novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountainsa historical tale set in Vietnam, won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2016.

With her latest, Mistakes to Run WithThanh turns to nonfiction for the first time, writing about her turbulent coming-of-age in B.C. At 15, Thanh left home and lived on the streets, earning her living as a sex worker and enduring abusive relationships and addiction for many years.

Thanh discussed what it was like to write her memoir with CBC Books.

No secrets

"In my private life and my regular day-to-day life, I don't have any secrets. It's not something that comes up in casual conversation, but my past is not something that I'm ashamed of. I don't feel that we can be out in the world and present just part of ourselves. Part of authenticity is to own all the bits, even the yucky bits or what seems yucky to other people, and try to integrate them. It's part of my journey toward trying to be a healthier person.

I don't feel that we can be out in the world and present just part of ourselves.

"I try to make everything as honest and as clear as I possibly can. If I've done that job well, then I'm happy with whatever readers want to take away from the book. They will view everything in their lives through the lens of their own experiences, so there's no way that I can control what other people are going to think."

Piecing together memories

"I started with images because my memory is not great. Everybody has gaps in their memory and I have huge holes in mine. I started with the things that I most remembered. Then I worried about how I was going to piece it together later, which ended up being chronological. It seemed to make the most sense and it was more simple to read that way. It helped to create an arc because in our lives one thing builds on the next and the next. You can't have stuff grow out of any other experiences than the ones that came before. The craft part came in later, but it started with the things that I most remembered. 

"I believe the power of memory helps us become better people. If you're going to sit there and revisit memories and think, 'It was so s----y and my life was f-----d,' that's not going to benefit you at all. Alternatively, you can look back and go, 'Other people might think of it that way, but I took some good things out of it and I'm going to own it.'

Discovering themes

"I did actually learn quite a bit about myself writing the memoir. One of the themes that became evident as I was writing is the way that I kept — and probably to a certain degree still do — looking outside myself for some type of salvation. In general, I would look to different men. When I was rereading the manuscript, it was like, 'Oh my God, this is a memoir about all my exes.'

I'm working on cultivating a more independent identity and I owe the memoir the kudos for helping me recognize that.

"It was weird to be confronted by that. It made me feel weak, but recognizing that is the first step toward changing. It helps that I'm in a long-distance relationship. I have quite a bit of time to spend on my own and putter around and realize it's great for somebody to have your back. But defining myself through my current relationship is only one way of doing it. There are lots of things that I go out and do on my own and I should add those to my identity basket. I'm working on cultivating a more independent identity and I owe the memoir the kudos for helping me recognize that. It's an adventure."

Proud parents

"I was very afraid of my parents' reaction and that it might actually undermine the tenuous relationship we have. I chose not to talk with them about what was going to be in it before it came out because I was afraid that that would make the book less honest. Happily, my fears did not come true. In fact, it's been exactly the opposite. My dad and I have had a couple of good talks since the book came out and we're so much closer. He's shared some things with me about his life that I didn't know and I feel like I can see him now, more than I could before.

"My parents may not have shown me that they loved me in the same way that I show my kids, or in the same way the friends that I had were being shown by their parents. But to feel that love, support and pride that my family has for me putting it all out there — I could not have hoped for better."

Yasuko Thanh's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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