Jen Sookfong Lee talks about burlesque, Asian stereotypes, and the Vancouver International Writers Festival
"In The End of East, the family was quite different -- it was a noisy, big, bustling family not unlike the one I grew up in," she said. "But the family (in the new novel) is very different. They're quiet, sad, and no matter how hard they work they never get ahead. It's a very particular immigrant story, rather than a Chinese one. What happens to the immigrant who doesn't succeed?"
Lee said that expectations of writing about another Chinese Canadian family were largely self-imposed, that her own publisher has never asked her to keep her writing limited to Asian Canadian novels.
"I do feel that I would like to have one or few characters in every book I write be Asian Canadian," she said. "I understand those issues well, there are so few of those voices anyway."
One of the experiences that many Asian Canadians women can relate to is the pressure to be perceived as a "good girl". Early in The Better Mother, Danny's sister, Cindy, is shown at her parents' house wearing dowdy old clothes with Chinatown slippers, with no make up -- Danny is struck by the contrast between the sharp, well-dressed woman he has been meeting downtown and the dutiful daughter he sees at home.
"It's such a Chinese thing, or an Asian thing," said Lee, of the "double life" led by many immigrant women in Canada. "Every Chinese girl I know has these 'home clothes', and it's ususally something really schlumpy -- like flannel things with bunnies, long johns, an old shirt that a grandmother bought."
Saying that many Asian Canadian girls do a lot of things that they never reveal to their parents, she said that the pressure to be a "good girl" makes many women dress a certain way at home to keep others from suspecting that their daughter is not getting into any trouble. Like Danny in The Better Mother, however, she said that men can sometimes be shocked by the contrast.
"It's a really horrifying thing if you move in with your partner because they see you, looking good most of the time," she said. "But they move in and they're like, Woah! What are you wearing! "
Although Lee said she wouldn't want to be limited to writing about Asian Canadian characters, her books detail experiences that resonate with many women.
This year's writers festival
Lee said that she was nervous about promoting her book at her last attendance at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, and that she hopes to take more time to enjoy it this year.
"The first time I did promotion for End of East, I was super tense," Lee recalled. "But the best thing about these festivals is that you get to hang out with other writers, who are the only people who understand some of your neurosis about your career."
"Russell Banks is one of my favorite writers, and he's coming to the festival this year. I think he's the best living American author right now, so I'm very excited."
She also said she's greatly looking forward to seeing Madeleine Thien, a fellow Vancouver-born Canadian and author of Dogs at the Perimeter. The author said she also looks forward to speaking to her readers, which she says is the "best part" about the event.
"The panel discussions are okay, but I really love talking with my readers --- and hearing about their criticism," said Lee.