Novel notions for community building at the LiterASIAN Writers Festival

Renowned and upcoming Asian Canadian authors will come together to share their stories, inspirations and more at the 12th annual LiterASIAN writers festival next month. From May 4 to 5, six remarkable writers including Keiko Honda and Jennilee Austria-Bonifacio will offer their experiences and perspectives through three discussion panels, culminating in an afternoon of dimsum with the authors.

“We’re going to talk about ancient traditions, our stories, our experiences. It’s going to be really fascinating,” says Austria-Bonifacio.

Keiko Honda’s newest memoir offers a story about navigating unexpected life challenges beyond our control, and finding the necessary community to help do so. | Photo by Anton Fernando

How we shape communities

Honda is the author of Accidental Blooms, a memoir which chronicles her life as a Japanese immigrant who was afflicted with a rare autoimmune disease while conducting research at Columbia University, and left paralyzed from the chest down. The Vancouver-based author says the book fills a niche she noticed when she immigrated to North America.

“Living abroad as a Japanese person, it’s really heightened my awareness of my Japanese identity,” says Honda. “I have found that there are not many books, or not many voices, of Japanese people who live abroad. There are a lot of stories of Japanese Americans or Japanese Canadians, but there are not many stories of Japanese living abroad.”

As Honda brings her voice to the festival, she hopes her story will find and benefit others who may be in a similar situation to the one she found herself in when she first arrived in North America.

“There is this sort of stereotype of Vancouver where it’s so hard to connect with people,” she says. “But I think hopefully my story will shed light on meeting strangers and opening up the home to welcome others.”

Honda believes the LiterASIAN festival and events like it are a crucial part of bringing diverse perspectives to the forefront of our societal consciousness. She says with programs like this festival, the barriers she faced when she immigrated could be reduced for newcomers today.

“I think it is important because this is a multicultural society, but we still group Asian voices,” says Honda. “And yet Asian voices are diverse like any other group. So it’s really important to understand and explain that.”

The stories of a community worker

Austria-Bonifacio, the Filipino-Canadian writer behind Reuniting with Strangers: A Novel, captures a series of stories focusing on the lives of other Filipino-Canadians. Additionally, she brings her personal experiences gathered from years of working with Filipino newcomers in a variety of roles, including as a school settlement worker and a newcomer counselor.

“I’m coming in as a community worker who tells stories,” says Austria-Bonifacio. “These are the experiences of people that I feel like a lot of people don’t know about.”

Her novel is a collection of short stories about people leaving their homes and the numerous struggles they face as a result. In particular, she has a focus on the separation of the family that occurs when people immigrate, including leaving their parents and grandparents behind, and how that can impact future generations.

Jennilee Austria-Bonifacio’s latest book takes a closer look at the lives of recent Filipino immigrants to Canada. | Photo by Jose Bonifacio

In addition to her unique window into the perspectives of Filipino immigrants, Austria-Bonifacio believes it is important that her book, like Honda’s, fills an underdeveloped area of literature.

“In Canadian literature these stories aren’t really present,” she says. “And when they are it’s often from the perspective of, you know, the white employer with the Filipino nanny. My book isn’t about that. It’s about me opening up this door so you can see these other perspectives.”

Between bowls of borrowed rice

These two writers, along with authors Lindsay Wong and Ujjal Dosanjh, will be a part of the festival’s largest panel, Between Bowls of Borrowed Rice: Harvesting Hope Through Storytelling. The panel was conceived with the idea that each writer brings their own unique perspective and experiences to the table to celebrate and inform audiences about diverse Asian perspectives.

“We all have stories to share,” says Honda. “Let’s say in my case, limited mobility…really it’s about, how do you view something negative as an opportunity?”

Each author on the panel has a background that has informed their writing in some way, whether it makes up the whole story in Honda’s case, or is more veiled in fiction like in Austria-Bonifacio’s work.

Austria-Bonifacio does not currently live in Vancouver, but will be flying in to join the festival from Toronto. Her outsider’s perspective on Vancouver’s Asian communities, is something she hopes plays an important informative role in the festival.

“I love going to the West Coast. I love seeing Vancouver,” she says. “It’s like an older Asian community, too. So it’s interesting to see the differences between Toronto and Vancouver and how they’ve evolved with things like this. And I’m honored to be a part of it as an emerging author.”

She hopes it is this background, and not just the written work alone, that the panel can impart to people attending the festival.

“I’m really interested in hearing about all of these stories and ideas from the other panelists,” says Austria-Bonifacio. “Not even just on storytelling, but them as people, them and their experiences, their perspectives.”

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