The Next Chapter

Why writing stayed with Yasuko Thanh through turbulent times

Yasuko Thanh’s new memoir Mistakes to Run With explores her troubled upbringing and abusive relationship.
Mistakes to Run With is a memoir by Yasuko Thanh. (Don Denton, Hamish Hamilton)

This interview originally aired on March 30, 2019.

Yasuko Thanh opens up about her tumultuous life in her memoir Mistakes to Run With, from rebelling against her evangelical parents, living on the streets of Vancouver and becoming a sex worker to falling in love and writing an award-winning novel. Thanh writes that, despite her success, she still struggles with events of the past. 

Thanh talked to Shelagh Rogers about her difficult upbringing and how she wrote Mistakes to Run With.

A memorable childhood

"I was this really strange kid. There was this dichotomy in me. On the one hand, I was an honor roll student. I participated in many extracurricular activities. I was a born-again Christian. But at the same time, I was smoking, shoplifting, sharing my father's antidepressants in the bathroom, trying to get everybody high and coming to school dances drunk. It could be part and parcel of the Pentecostal church in which I was raised, which places great emphasis on being forgiven when you backslide. There was always that out. There was also the idea that God and the devil are in constant battle for your soul. I manifested that. It would be, 'OK, today the devil got the better of me. But with Jesus's help, tomorrow I'll do better.'"

Understanding an abusive relationship

"One of the things that I wanted to convey in the memoir is that when we label a relationship as 'abusive,' you can't just dismiss everything in that relationship. It's intertwined with other things that you can feed off of, that do give you strength. Nothing is ever black and white in that way.

"Even years later, when I was on the cusp of leaving him and was talking to a friend of mine about whether I should stay, or whether I should go — even having that conversation felt like a huge betrayal. I remember her looking at me and saying, 'But he hit you,' as if that was the answer to everything. It made no sense to me that we could just encapsulate the whole relationship in that one line.

"I don't always know the roots of why I feel how I feel. I can't judge myself whether those feelings are right or wrong, but they exist and that's how I feel about this situation."

Writing as a constant companion

"I've always written. I've never not written. Even when my life was in upheaval and I was packing everything in a tote bag, I was always writing little bits of things. Whenever I had strong feelings about something, that's how it would manifest. It was my processing mill for experiences. It helped me make sense of what I was going through.

"All of a sudden, I was meeting different people who had completely different experiences. I didn't know how I would be accepted. I knew for sure that I didn't want to hide anything of who I was, or what I had been through. That was important to me. It was so over the top when I began leaving the [sex work] culture and the drug culture, and meeting new people that was pretty much how I would introduce myself: 'Hi, I'm Yasuko and I used to be a sex worker.' I had to get it out there."

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