Jen Sookfong Lee's poetry collection The Shadow List is an honest and intimate look at agency and desire
This interview originally aired on May 22, 2021.
Jen Sookfong Lee is a Vancouver novelist, broadcast personality, a past CBC Short Story Prize juror, Canada Reads panellist and The Next Chapter columnist. Along with poet Dina Del Bucchia, she hosts Can't Lit, a monthly podcast about all things related to Canadian literature.
She is the author of the novel The Conjoined and the nonfiction book Gentleman of the Shade. Her latest is The Shadow List, an intimate collection of lyric poems that explore the tension in the narrator's life between who they are, who they want to be and what they really want.
Lee spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Shadow List.
The pull of poetry
"I started an MFA in the 1990s. My potential thesis was a poetry collection. I had never actually written any fiction, except as a student up until that point. I dropped out of my creative writing MFA program, because it was a difficult time.
"Back then, no one understood what I was trying to do — and the programs were not particularly welcoming for anybody who was from an underrepresented group.
I didn't write poetry for 15 years because I lost my confidence completely.
"I didn't write poetry for 15 years because I lost my confidence completely. But I decided I had to write something. So I wrote novels.
"At some point, when my son was little, I didn't have time to write a novel. It's funny, you can get a first draft of a poem done in 20 minutes, but you can't do that for a novel. That's where The Shadow List comes from."
"Every poet I know gives themselves boundaries. They're saying, 'These are the types of poems I'm writing. These are the number of lines. This is the shape it's going to be.' The laser focus is difficult. It takes a lot of effort — and it can be fatiguing.
In poetry, there's no hiding from your reader.
"But you're also forced to contend with your failures as a writer because it's so precise and so evident in a poem. You can stuff a lot of things in writing a novel and there's a certain amount of mess that readers really love — you're allowed to have that mess.
"But in poetry, there's no hiding from your reader."
"What I was playing with was this idea of surfacing desires or needs. Particularly for women and racialized women, their own personal needs get hidden or suppressed by all the other activities and needs and wants from the people in their lives. For me, this felt like a 'shadow list of desire' that a lot of women carry with them.
Particularly for women and racialized women, their own personal needs get hidden or suppressed by all the other activities and needs and wants in the people in their lives.
"The trope I was playing with was, 'What happens if we have a female character who is allowing herself to express those hidden needs and wants? Who is her shadow? This is coming up for the light of day... what happens then?'
"That was the game I was playing with myself. I also wanted to explore, for Asian women in particular, the idea that rarely have Asian women allowed to be as messy or as desirous as white women in literature, particularly in Canadian literature.
"Could I try to write something that exposes all of those things that people often keep in the shadows? That's how The Shadow List was born."
Jen Sookfong Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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