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Jen Sookfong Lee talks about burlesque, Asian stereotypes, and the Vancouver International Writers Festival

Vancouver-based author Jen Sookfong Lee is a lot different in person than I pictured her while reading her latest novel, The Better Mothera romantic and sensuous story about the intertwining fates of a Danny, a young, gay Chinese boy, and a burlesque dancer who he meets in Chinatown during the 1950s. It's an encounter that shapes his entire outlook on life, and Danny remains haunted by a desire to meet the glamorous dancer who he senses may have been a "better mother" than his own. 

It's a melancholy and beautifully written book with tragic elements, so naturally I expected to see some of this reflected in the author.

But the Lee I meet at Blenz on Commercial Drive is funny, upbeat and down-to-earth. The mother of a young boy, she's the cool mom that any child would dream of having. 

With a smile, she explained how one of her favorite Asian Canadian authors was Sky Lee, who broke the mould of Asian Canadian characters in fiction during the 90s with Dissapearing Moon Cafe.

"In her books, she had Chinese people having sex -- with each other," she dead-panned. "People were like, 'What the hell is going on? That's crazy!" 

Burlesque in Chinatown

The young novelist talked about how she got her inspiration for her latest book, which depicts the little-known world of burlesque shows in the heart of Chinatown. 

"The idea for this book was because I was doing reserach for my first book (The End of East) and I found out there were all these burlesque cabarets in Chinatown. Never in my life have I ever heard a Chinese person ever talk about burlesque there. My father never mentioned it, my grandfather never mentioned it."

Lee researched extensively on the topic of burlesque dancers in the 1950s, and eventually developed the character Miss Val, a dancer who worked in Chinatown under the name "The Siamese Kitten". Glamorous, confident and sexy, Miss Val represents everything that Danny wants.

"Miss Val is like everyone's raunchy, crazy aunt," said Lee. "I did a lot of research into the mid-20th century burlesque dancers. Most of them are dead now, but you can still hear what they sound like on the CBC's digital archives."

Lee was especially struck by a CBC interview with a burlesque dancer in Montreal from like 1956. 

"She had that smoky voice and she made a lot of off-colour jokes -- she was awesome," said Lee. 

"I have seen burlesque dancing before, but one thing I came to realize is that burlesque neo-burlesque and old time burlesque are very different," explained Lee.

"Neo-burlesque dancers are mostly doing it for fun ... a lot of it is irony. But there was no irony in it back then. And when it's your livelihood, you take it much more seriously." 

An immigrant novel

Lee, along with Kevin Chong and Ling Zhang, will be speaking about the tension between avoiding and embracing cultural heritage in writing. Lee said that she's still writing about Asian Canadians, but has definitely "branched out" by covering a broader spectrum of characters.

Much of her book focuses on the history of Miss Val, a working class Caucasian who, along with her sister, was known as a "bad girl" among her peers. 

Meanwhile, the protagonist's conservative and stern family is less stereotypically Chinese and more representative of the immigrant underclass in Canada. 

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