Ethnic identity in writing

With eleven featured authors, LiterASIAN is the biggest celebration of Asian Canadian writing in the city. The festival runs Sept. 21–23 and will provide an array of stories, styles and events, ensuring something for every literature lover to enjoy.

One of the featured authors at this year’s festival is Kevin Chong, whose most recent book, The Plague, is set in a disease-riddled Vancouver. He will lead a workshop on dystopian fiction at LiterASIAN, talking about the genre and how to write it.

“I want people to have a better grasp of it, and to leave with the spark of creativity that brought them into the workshop further refined,” says Chong.

An identity struggle

Kevin Chong, author of The Plague. | Photo courtesy of Kevin Chong

When Chong first began writing – his debut novel was published in 2001 – he was very aware of his identity and background as an Asian Canadian, but didn’t want it to be the main focus of his work.

“I didn’t want to be someone whose background defined their work, and spent many years making that clear,” he says. “I realized later on, however, that I was shutting myself off from a perspective I knew best, one that the general reading public wasn’t exposed enough to, so I have tried to figure out a way to write about my background.”

Chong says this wasn’t an entirely smooth transition, as even he came into his career with preconceived notions of what Asian Canadian writing should be.

“When I first started writing I struggled with the idea that I felt I had to be put into a box labeled ‘Asian Canadian writer.’ In some ways I was operating under a delusion that your ethnic identity shouldn’t be factored at all into who you are. I think in the last seven or eight years of my writing career I’ve tried to make peace with that, and know that if I don’t write about it, then no one else will,” explains Chong.

That last statement is echoed by William Tham, who has helped coordinate the festival and is the creative non-fiction editor at Ricepaper Magazine. Tham believes that seeing other Asian Canadians write is an essential key in fostering more literature and art in the community.

“Asian Canadian writers need to see people like themselves writing and creating art,” he says. “This can be a wonderful motivator and provides a sense of community, which is very important to provide moral and tangible support.”

A unique event

William Tham, LiterAsian coordinator | Photo by Jennifer Luu

First held in 2013, LiterASIAN was the first Asian literature festival in the country, and with a clear mission from the outset.

“The festival was started by the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop,” says Tham. “There are still relatively few minorities involved in Canadian literature, and as such, the festival functioned as a way of giving attention to Asian Canadian writers in order to promote and showcase their work.”

Since its inception, LiterASIAN has featured dozens of both up-and-coming and existing Asian Canadian talents, and is focused on spreading writers’ work and ideas, but the festival does not want to exclude anyone from attending or being involved.

“While Asian Canadian readers and writers are our primary target audience, everyone interested in Canadian literature is invited,” exclaims Tham. “It is a good chance to see exciting new works and perspectives of a diverse group of writers.”

The festival’s schedule is anchored by two panels, both of which are free and feature many of the artists together. Tham believes that this public and more interactive format is a great way to engage and stimulate those in the audience.

“There is something special about getting a group of experts together and letting them respond to questions and talk amongst themselves,” he says. “Our goal is for the public to have a better idea of each writer’s thoughts and personal philosophies, but we also hope that the writers will leave the festival with new ideas too.”

In addition, there will be multiple workshops led by some of the authors individually, relaying their expertise and experiences in a way that Tham hopes will be insightful for attendees and beneficial to those who want to write themselves.

“We hope that people will gain a deeper love for Asian Canadian literature, and we would also like to nurture emerging talents,” says Tham. “Some of our featured writers fell into writing through a variety of hands-on experiences, and workshops are a good way to provide that sort of experience to festival-goers. Perhaps the next big name in writing is somewhere in the crowd!”

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