Asian Canadian history takes festival form

Children’s book author Paul Yee.

Children’s book author Paul Yee.

Vancouver’s Asian Canadian community will be hosting their annual literary event, literASIAN, from Sept. 21–25. The theme, History and Memory, will be presented through a series of panels, workshops and book launches from 18 knowledgeable and respected authors, including Jean Barman, Paul Yee and Joy Kogawa.

Paul Yee, author of many works inspired by growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown, builds historical records both as author and as city archivist. Yee says that as someone who usually talks through the pages of a book, writer’s festivals are the rare opportunity to have a live connection.

“When I go in front of audiences, I don’t read to them, so there’s no book standing between us. I look right into people’s faces because I want to see how they respond,” he says. “Are they shocked at unexpected turns? Do they smile when there’s something funny?”

Writers’ festivals also offer Yee the chance to show how creativity and critical thinking can flesh out the historical record. The personal touch is what he strives to achieve. He writes his books for whoever can see in them the reflections of real life and real people –
even, or especially, themselves.

“My writing reflects a certain political outlook. I wouldn’t say that every person of Chinese descent in an audience is automatically in my community, and often people who are not of Asian descent ‘get it,’ and tell me that they like my writing because it achieves shared social goals,” says Yee.

Sharing the load

Jean Barman, historical writer | Photo courtesy of UBC Library

Jean Barman, historical writer | Photo courtesy of UBC Library

Jean Barman, historical writer and UBC professor emerita, is not of Asian descent but her merit as a historian is such that she sits on the opening panel of the literASIAN festival. She became interested in the Chinese-Canadian story while writing a general history of British Columbia.

“[The book] brought home to me both the very significant role played by almost-wholly male arrivals from China in the early history of British Columbia and the long-time lack of interest in telling that story, and I have remained concerned,” she says.

Barman became a founding board member of the Chinese Canadian Historical Association of BC (CCHSBC) in order to encourage the uncovering and cherishing of family stories. Though Barman is happy to say she has seen the historical record of both British Columbia and Canada become much more inclusive in recent years, her ongoing mission as a historian is to encourage people to discover, share and, in the case of this festival, write.

Lighting the way

Joy Kogawa, novelist and memoirist. | Photo courtesy of The Origami

Joy Kogawa, novelist and memoirist. | Photo courtesy of The Origami

Joy Kogawa, a Vancouver-born Japanese-Canadian author well
known for her 1981 novel Obasan, will be launching her new memoir Gently to Nagasaki at literASIAN 2016. Kogawa says audiences can expect unpublished extras and behind-the-scenes insight on what she expects to be quite a controversial subject. She ventures into the realms of joy, hope and forgiveness, and says that her life is now about growing the seed of the spirit.

“I find that there is a clutching, fearful scarcity way of being and there is a joyful abundant way of being, and I would rather choose that,” she says.

The memoir was not written as a publication, but rather as a personal record of urges and insights Kogawa felt leading her towards a full and joyful life. Her own deeply-felt brushes with animosity and sorrow lend conviction to her efforts to transform alienation to friendship.

“Forgiveness is almost impossible for us when we have been hurt, but when we are filled up with what is joyful and abundant it is then that forgiveness is very easy.”

Kogawa says Gently to Nagasaki is a book on passion and compassion, on things taken for granted and often overlooked, on what is familiar turning to dust and what is new and unexpected growing inside, on overcoming a haunting past and finding a beautiful future.

The literASIAN writing festival runs from Sept. 21–25 at various Vancouver locations. For more information on the schedule, events and authors, please visit the website: