The Next Chapter

Jessica J. Lee brings together history, travel, nature & memoir in Two Trees Make a Forest

Singer-songwriter Scott Helman will champion Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021.

Singer-songwriter Scott Helman will champion 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 is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning and Two Trees Make a ForestTwo 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 Jessica J. Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she traces his story while growing closer to the land he knew. Two Trees Make a Forest  won the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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 OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Lee spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the Canada Reads 2021 book.

Lost in translation

"I only knew my maternal grandparents the way a grandchild knows grandparents. It was hard to get to know them. My grandfather was a quiet and private man. He didn't speak a lot, but he was incredibly warm and incredibly kind.

"My grandmother was a bit more difficult. I always had a sense that she had gone through great difficulty in her childhood and growing up. 

"For my grandparents, everything they went through — moving from China to Taiwan, then onward to Canada, with everything they lost and left behind — it really strained things. They met in Taiwan. By then, my grandmother had already left behind much of what she'd grown up with. She'd grown up very wealthy in Nanjing. 

I only knew my maternal grandparents the way a grandchild knows grandparents. It was hard to get to know them.

"They left behind the opportunity to see their families ever again. To even communicate with them. It was impossible for many decades. There's not really a way to quantify those losses. It's even hard to list."

My grandfather's letter

"I had been sitting with my grandparent's story for about 10 years before we found his letter. I hadn't been able to find a way to tell their story before this. It was like a key that suddenly fit the lock. It was this thing that I had been waiting for and just didn't know it.

I had been sort of sitting with my grandparent's story for maybe 10 years before we found this letter.

"The letter was really hard to read at first as it was written in Chinese and I'm not fluent. I had to work with translations and my mom helped annotate it. But it was really emotional.

"My grandfather had died so many years before we found this letter. The pages were thin and you could see that he had written it as he was developing Alzheimer's and as he was getting ill. 

"It loops around, memory is repeated and it's in fragments. And the letter actually ends mid-sentence. It doesn't have a sense of narrative or conclusion."

Jessica J. Lee and her grandfather, Gong. (Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

Finding myself in nature

"My first impression of Taiwan was nothing like the imagined version of Taiwan that I had created as a child just from my mother's stories. Being in the middle of Taiwan and surrounded by the mountains, surrounded by green, was just completely transporting.

"My biggest challenge was that, though I'm trained as an environmental historian and I know my plants, I like to think I can navigate my way through a forest or through a field with some sort of sense of fluency. But in Taiwan, I did not have this. I would go out onto a street and say to my mom, 'I don't even know what the trees are here.' 

It was a wonderful connection to my mother and to the language she knew.

"It was overwhelming, and sort of disorienting at the same time. But it was a wonderful connection to my mother and to the language she knew."

Jessica J. Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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