Interview by Jasmine Sealy
Welcome back to Between Us, a conversation series that explores how we define Canadian immigrant literature, and how writers’ journeys to Canada shape their work. Here, writers discuss the tensions and freedoms that come with access to stories of home-place, and the many ways immigrant stories contribute to the Canadian cultural imaginary.
In our third instalment we’re thrilled to feature Janie Chang in conversation with Ayelet Tsabari. These women are friends whose careers followed similarly extraordinary paths; both published their debuts with HarperCollins, one of the biggest publishing houses in the country. When Tsabari’s short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, was picked up by HarperCollins, she chose not to hire an agent and instead navigated the complex contract herself; she says this experience made her so anxious she could no longer stomach coffee. When Chang’s first novel, Three Souls, was published, she’d never even heard of the expression “Can Lit.” She says that writing her second book was one of the hardest things she’s ever done. That novel, Dragon Springs Road, recently made it to the Globe and Mail’s Bestsellers list.
In conversation with Jasmine Sealy, Chang and Tsabari talk about what it’s like when all your dreams come true, when all of sudden you go from writing in obscurity to fielding questions about cultural appropriation on a panel of your peers. They talked about arriving in Canada and building a life here, about the concept of home and its elusiveness. They talked too about the fragility of oral histories and of how easily they are lost between generations. They spoke of how important it is to tell our stories, even if we live in a place where they may not always be understood.
How did you come to Canada in your writing and in your life?
Chang: I came to Canada when I was fourteen because my parents decided to immigrate. I didn’t have a typical immigrant experience because I started speaking English when I was five years old so I didn’t have any language issues when I arrived in Canada. I’d always gone to international schools. My father worked for the UN so before coming to Canada I had lived in Taiwan, the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand. But it was definitely strange coming here and meeting classmates who had known each other all their lives. Before that all my classmates’ parents worked for multinational corporations or the UN or their country’s embassy and they would be in a country for two or three years and then move on to the next assignment. It felt strange to me that all of the kids in my grade ten class had also gone to kindergarten together. They had a history I wasn’t a part of.
It was actually one of the worst years of my life. I found it pretty shocking to have classmates who didn’t respect their teachers, who would talk back. That was just not done in my previous schools. And then, coming from international schools where we were all guests of that country, all outsiders, to come here and be the only outsider, to feel left out. And of course there was racism. But again I would say I was spared the most difficult transitions of immigration because I didn’t have a language problem. And at some point I realized people were nicer to me because they thought I was born here. It made a big difference.
As for how I came to writing, I always wanted to be an author. But earning a living was also a high priority! Then about ten years ago we had to move my mother into care because of her dementia. I would visit and look at all the other residents and think I really didn’t want to be ninety-five years old sitting in my rocking chair wishing I’d done something sooner about writing a novel.
Ayelet, can you describe your experience of coming to Canada?
Tsabari: I came following a guy. I always hear other people’s immigration stories and mine feels so frivolous and flighty. I never really planned on staying. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was twenty-five and I met a guy and fell in love. He was from Vancouver. I remember people saying, “What a big sacrifice you made for him.” And I said, “That’s not a sacrifice, if he was from Ethiopia I probably would have moved there.” Falling in love with someone from another country satisfied my wanderlust. Canada sort of happened to be where he lived. A couple times I thought I was going to go back. Now when I’m in Israel—and many immigrants say the same thing—I often feel like a stranger there too.
Every time I talk about my immigration story and my journey into writing it sounds so passive, like the kind of character nobody would ever want to read in fiction. I’ve always written, ever since I was a little kid. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. But then coming to Canada, it was a skill that wasn’t transferable. My English wasn’t good enough and I didn’t feel like it could ever become good enough to be able to write in it, even if I could communicate in it. I made it really hard for myself and I thought it was impossible.
For many years I just didn’t write at all: my Hebrew was becoming a bit atrophied because I wasn’t using it in my everyday life. I was very unhappy. Writing felt like an unrequited love, I was longing for this thing that I couldn’t seem to get back. Then, slowly, English became a larger part of my life. It was forcing its way into diary entries or little scribbles. For a while I was writing intermittently in both Hebrew and English, which was an incoherent mess, and then English started taking over.
Ayelet, in your non-fiction story “Soldiers” you mention that the ritual of leaving was something that had become very familiar to you, and in a sense, home itself had become synonymous with leaving. Can you speak to that?
Tsabari: My father died when I was ten and I think when you lose a parent at such a young age you lose your homeland. At that point of your life your parents are still the answer to the question of where you’re from. I felt like the earth fell from under my feet and there was no longer a strong sense of home in my life. I just started leaving again and again. It was the one steady thing I could hold on to. Some people find comfort in staying and having a home and a steady job. For me the comfort was in knowing I didn’t have to stay anywhere for too long. I lived in boxes. I didn’t have furniture. I was always ready to go.
Janie, you have travelled extensively and lived in many different places. Does this concept of the rituals of leaving resonate with you?
Chang: It’s so interesting to hear how Ayelet feels because for me Canada is home. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived for longer than three or four years. After a while I realized I had friends here I’d known for decades. I feel very invested in being Canadian. Not invested to the point where I would eat poutine but it’s definitely home. It means a lot to me to have that stability. For example, we’ve lived in the same house since 1990. And I always get a thrill when the plane lands at the Vancouver airport and I see the North Shore mountains. I feel very grateful to be home again. I love traveling but I also really need that feeling of knowing I can come home. And this is home.
Tsabari: I’m still searching. I’m not entirely sure. I used to say, “Oh, I have many homes.” I used to think that was wonderfully romantic. But I remember saying that to my brother and he just looked at me deadpan and said, “Or none at all.” And I see that now. I don’t know if it’s just too late to find that place, or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I love Canada and I feel like I am . . . but see, I resist it still. I paused. Am I? Am I Canadian? I feel like I’m many things. I feel Israeli first and foremost, probably because I came of age there and left as an adult. I feel like I’m also Yemeni because my family came from there; these are my roots. I definitely feel like a Canadian writer, which is an interesting thing, maybe because my writing came of age here. But I’m still not sure about home. When I’m pushed into a corner I say, “My home is the page.”
Chang: That makes me think about the difference between feeling like you are Canadian but then wondering if other people think you’re Canadian.
Tsabari: How does that manifest in your life?
Chang: It’s when I start speaking that people believe I am Canadian. But even so, because we’re visible minorities people will always be second-guessing. There isn’t another country I would call home, yet because of the way I grew up, I think I only really feel comfortable being a guest in someone else’s country. Because then there’s no pressure to integrate or fit in.
You both have access to stories outside of the Canadian context. What are some of the freedoms or tensions that emerge when writing about these for a Canadian audience?
Tsabari: I have to admit that at first I wasn’t sure that my stories would be of interest to a Canadian audience. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to own my voice. Or if I would be published if I wrote stories that were set in Israel and have little to do with Canada. I may be wrong, but I feel like with American literature it’s different. Junot Díaz for example is embraced as being a great American writer despite writing about Dominican culture. Nobody refers to him as an “immigrant writer.”
So, in the beginning I was trying to be more “Canadian” in my writing. I decided that Canadian writing is this and that. That I need to “show and not tell.” To be very sparse and sort of polite in my writing. I tried to write stories that were set mostly in Canada, maybe the characters were Israeli but it was incidental to the story. But it just wasn’t really working, and it ended up making me miserable. By then I was doing the MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph and I had a great teacher, Camilla Gibb, who said just stop. Just do what you need to do. Write what you need to write, in your own voice. Reading transnational authors freed me and made me realize there is room for my stories in the world, and hopefully within Canadian literature.
Janie, did you feel at all limited within the categories of Canadian literature when you started out?
Chang: I was pretty clueless. I didn’t even know the term “Can Lit.” All I really wanted to do was write a novel based on my grandmother’s life because her story had always haunted me. I probably had an easier entry into the world of publishing because of authors like Amy Tan and Lisa See who’d already moved stories about Chinese women into the mainstream. I write about the China of a certain era because I’m heavily influenced by my parents’ stories about the China they knew, and to me that China is more real than my own limited experience. Plus I didn’t feel qualified to write the “Chinese immigrant story” because I didn’t have the typical immigrant experience.
At the same time I don’t think I’m quite ready to write the immigrant story because, as I said, it was one of the worst years of my life. Moving here as a teenager and watching your parents trying to function in a new society where they had no friends of influence or any sort of connections.
Janie, on your website you share true stories from your family history that have been passed down through generations. Why is recording these histories important to you?
Chang: A lot of cultures have a tradition of oral storytelling but it’s so ephemeral. All that’s needed to break that link is for someone to die, or in the case of my mother, to decline into dementia, and those stories are gone. Now that I’m a storyteller it really bothers me when stories are lost, even if they’re not my stories.
Ayelet, you’ve written about being a Yemeni Jew living in North America where much of what is thought of as Jewish is actually Ashkenazi culture. How do you navigate these complex histories on the page?
Tsabari: By the time I wrote the book I was just done worrying about where it might fit or who the audience was. All I could do was tell the stories. I wanted to write about my community. And sure, it is complex and I needed a lot of help from readers and editors to tell me if things were clear or not. For me, this was my reality and it was obvious but when I moved to Canada I realized nobody knew what I was talking about. My culture was invisible for most Canadians. So I said okay, this is something you can do: introduce them to new stories. And hopefully they want to read it.
Like Janie says, it’s heartbreaking the stories that are being lost. And a lot of these are immigrant stories because when you come to a new country you feel like you have to leave your stories behind, to become more Canadian or to become more Israeli in the case of my ancestors from Yemen. I feel like a lot of things were lost in that transition. I’m trying to grab them at the last moment before they’re gone.
Chang: You hear stories of children of immigrants who say their parents refused to talk about the past. Because often they left their homes out of necessity and they just don’t want to relive those terrible times. So the stories get left behind. Like those old covered wagons travelling across the prairies, you have to throw out anything that isn’t essential for survival. Just to survive mentally and emotionally there are things you need to throw out the wagon.
Ayelet, is preserving your family stories a priority for you?
Tsabari: It is an oral tradition as well in my culture. My grandmothers were both illiterate. I’m still working on unearthing stories from my community, especially the women’s stories, which have not been written down. Writing about Mizrahi characters, Jews who came from Middle Eastern countries, was a mission of mine when I started to write. I knew that not just in North America, but also in Israel, the stories that are told are predominantly Ashkenazi, predominantly European, despite the fact that about fifty percent of the Jewish population is Mizrahi. We’re still marginalized and there’s still a lot of racism experienced by Mizrahi Jews. Growing up and not seeing my family’s stories in literature put limits on my dreams as a child, on my self-worth. And when I read books by Israeli authors that featured Yemeni characters, those characters were one-dimensional, caricatures. There are not many books published by Yemeni authors in Israel. So you’re not listening to our stories, you’re not publishing books written by Yemeni writers, but you write our stories in a way that is disrespectful and stereotypical.
Chang: Ayelet, what are you saying these days when people ask about cultural appropriation?
Tsabari: I was at a conference in the US with a bunch of Jewish writers and I was one of two writers of colour. And at some point I had to explain what we mean by cultural appropriation, which is a position that I find a lot of writers of colour constantly have to be in. That position of explaining and teaching. Frigging Google it! I’m not here to explain shit to you. But I had to step into that place, because I felt like only one voice was being heard. I think there’s a basic misunderstanding about what it means. A lot of writers are annoyed by the expectation that they should only write about what they know; they think they cannot write in-depth, beautiful characters of colour in their books. That’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about cultural appropriation. I have seen our stories being used by people who should not be using them and it felt like theft. But I have also seen characters from my community portrayed beautifully in books and I loved it. What do you think, Janie?
Chang: Well, I’m asking because we’re both writers of colour and these days when you’re on a panel or workshop the question always comes up. It’s difficult because I think the sensitivity needle moves depending on the culture and how threatened its survival is. Also common sense and rational discourse are getting lost because it’s the extreme views that get the most attention. A lot of what I find offensive can be avoided by writers paying attention—it goes beyond doing the research. It’s about being careful, responsible writers. Of not being lazy. Of avoiding characters who are stereotypes or clichés. And that’s true for any character you’re going to write.
Janie, do you feel sense of frustration, like what Ayelet described, when you’re asked about cultural appropriation, as a person of colour? This double burden of not only diversifying the panel but also fielding these types of questions?
Chang: I was on a panel in Toronto recently with two other writers—one gay, one of colour—and our books were so different we wondered why we were on a panel together. I joked that maybe we were the token diversity panel.
Tsabari: That happens a lot.
Chang: I feel the term “cultural appropriation” has already become shorthand, glossing over something that’s very complex. There are individuals at both ends of the spectrum who feel very strongly. You can’t win arguments, all you can say at this point is: here’s my take on it.
I will say that as a writer of historical fiction set in China, I don’t feel that being of Chinese blood gives me a free pass. I still feel a great responsibility to do the research and to portray that era—its class structure, status of women, the issues of a country in transition—as accurately as possible while still speaking to the issues of our time.
Jasmine Sealy is a Barbadian-Canadian writer. She has been published in anthologies by Véhicule Press and Caitlin Press and her work has also appeared in The New Quarterly, Adda Stories, and Geist Magazine. Between Us is a collaborative project by Emma Cleary and Jasmine Sealy. Read instalments one, “The Language of Home,” and two, “The Work of the Heart.”