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Olivia Chow to speak in Vancouver about life, loss, faith and art

Olivia Chow celebrates her election on May 2, 2011. Photo credit: Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese

More than the content of the book, I wanted to talk to Olivia Chow about what it was like to write her recently published memoir, My Journey.

“It’s (journalist) Victor Malarek’s fault,” she says, laughing, in a phone interview last week. “I didn’t set out to do this."

“Some of the strengths I found [in dealing with loss] came from the experience I had when I was much younger, and I first immigrated to Canada. So I wrote some of that. And at church, a friend said, ‘Why don’t you just tell your story?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. Old people write memoirs; I’m not that old yet.’"

“Then Jian Ghomeshi’s book came out about his immigrant experience. I thought: Hmm. He’s younger than me. Then I had a drink with Victor Malarek, and he said, ‘You have a story to tell.’ He’s written a memoir, and I said, ‘Well mine is not that colorful.’  But he said, ‘Trust me. You have a story to tell.’"

“Then one Easter I went away and wrote an outline—terribly written—but it described what areas I wanted to talk about. Then I had a literary agent introduce to me Bruce Westwood (of Westwood Creative Artists). I met with him on a Friday. On Monday he took me to HarperCollins, and HarperCollins said, ‘We’re interested.’ Then there was this legal agreement. That’s when I said, ‘This is serious.’”

Living in the present tense

Chow and I talked about other memoirs we’ve read and loved, like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. We talk about the inter-play between memory and imagination, and the intersection between family story and cultural mythology.

“Oh my book’s nothing like that,” says Chow. “Kingston is a real writer."

“Because it’s in the past, you shape it. It’s an interpretation of what you lived. I don’t trust myself to remember, so I hosted dinners. I brought [together] friends who were close to me during various periods. We reminisced and took notes. Then after a draft was done, I sent it to them, asking, 'Is this what really happened'? Then they wrote back and said there’s this and there’s that.”

I ask her who the storyteller was in her family growing up, she said no one was.

“No one told stories in the family," she said. "I found some photos from 1970 when we first came to Canada. We were in a park, looking full of hope. Then there were no photos. Mum said, ‘who had time?’ Life was so difficult. Life was not worth capturing.”

And so it seems Ms. Chow herself has become the family storyteller, and the stories she tells are compelling. As readers, we meet a rebellious and imaginative girl growing up in Hong Kong amid mounting domestic and political tensions. Readers follow the family to Canada, where her father, a former school superintendent, could not find a teaching job, and her mother worked in the laundry of a Toronto hotel. We see how Chow came to be a professional sculptor, and how she matured in her Christian faith, and tells of the life experiences that shaped her political heart.

Remembering Jack Layton

A pivotal moment in the book is when Chow met NDP federal leader Jack Layton, an encounter that was to change both their lives and the course of Canadian politics.

“I dread writing, so Victor said, ‘Write 1,000 words every day. If you parcel it out that way, it’s doable.’ Sometimes I’d be too tired and didn’t know how to start, so I’d mutter things into the iPad. Then I could go back and rewrite it, overcoming fear or inertia.”

Although she began drawing and painting as a child, Chow came to prefer sculpture, “the feel of the clay, the molding [of something] three dimensional.”

In the year after Layton died, Chow decided to sculpt a bust of him.

“It was more difficult that the book,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I could still sculpt. I hadn’t for a long time. So I printed photos of him from every angle, every dimension, and I plastered them all in my bedroom—I no longer had a studio—and started. It was very difficult. It took time but it came back. I discovered I still had the skill. I got it done, and it looks good.”

Seeing, thinking, revision, reworking, discovering what the materials at hand can and cannot express belong to both the process of writing and making art. And there’s something about the creative process that seems to inform Chow’s ideas about time.

In the book’s prologue, she explains, "in Chinese languages there is no past of future tense, just a sort of infinite tense. Jack is now part of that infinite tense. But I live in the present tense.”

“Some moments are so full, so fulfilling, so rich, they feel like eternity in a joyous way. Then you live and focus in the moment. Why not be grateful for the beautiful memories that were instead of projecting into the future? I focus on the present and move forward.”

Faith and the political life

Throughout Olivia Chow’s life and work, her faith has been important. She is unapologetic about being a Christian, something that can be problematic in today’s political climate.

“There’s a common ground that unites all faiths—goodness, the sacred, emptiness. The part that says we are small yet strong and good; we can transcend our own selfishness. That’s what faith is about in all our religions.

“Once we start using God to judge others, that’s when conflict can happen. That’s when it becomes dogmatic. When you mix power and a Supreme Being and claim that the person in power can interpret whatever that is—that’s very dangerous. History is full of terrible lessons of massacres because of that.”

Sculptor, community activist, Member of Parliament, and storyteller, Olivia Chow will be in conversation with journalist Kathryn Gretsinger Friday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Performance Works, 1218 Cartwright Street, Granville Island.

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