Interview with author Paul Yee
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Chinese Canadian author Paul Yee's family emigrated to
Canada at the turn of the century, and he's been writing about the Chinese
immigrant experience in North America for many years, both for younger readers and more recently for young adults. His books have won many awards, including the Governor General's Award for Ghost Train and, most recently, the 2012 YALSA Stonewall Honor Book Award for his YA novel Money Boy. His latest middle-grade novel The Secret Keepers was also selected for inclusion in the 2012 White Ravens Catalog.
Paul grew up in
Vancouver's Chinatown, and now lives in Toronto. PaperTigers first interviewed Paul in 2003 and we now catch up with him nine years on...
It's nearly a decade since your previous interview with PaperTigers. How would you describe your journey as a writer over those years?
It's been great! I stretched and tried new things. I was lucky to start working with Vancouver's Tradewind Books, lucky because its publisher Mike Katz came to me with ideas. He sent me to the Museum of Vancouver to start on The Jade Necklace, proposed the "child's first novel" that became Shu-Li, and suggested a novel around the 1907 Anti-Asian riots. Over the years, he saved me the time and effort of needing to pitch ideas to publishers.
One highlight during the last decade was being to research and write seriously on a topic close to my heart, Chinese railway workers. They are one of the best known aspects of Chinese-Canadian history, yet we know very little about the day-to-day human experience around this work. Scholastic's I Am Canada series forced me to write in a realistic tone, unlike the folk-tale style of my other railway stories.
Your most recent book, The Secret Keepers returns to a recurrent theme in your writing: ghosts. Where does your interest in the supernatural spring from?
My Aunt Lillian firmly believed in ghosts, so my childhood was filled with great fears. Her spooky stories were reinforced by the movies from Hong Kong that she took me to see in the 1960s. Those graphic portrayals of ghosts terrified me but also explained them: they had unfinished business to settle.
When I started writing fiction around Chinese-Canadian history, it was natural to include Chinese ghost beliefs. Later I realized that I used them to address the early Chinese experience in North America. In history, those immigrants were often made powerless by white racism or hostile surroundings. Only the supernatural world, because it was beyond reality, let them regain a measure of dignity and justice.
The Secret Keepers is set in San Francisco's Chinatown at the time of the 1906 earthquake. Did this throw up any surprises for you, compared with your other books about Chinese Canadians?
The big surprise was school segregation in San Francisco. For a writer, this deprived me of an entire arena of cross-cultural contact and racial conflict between youngsters. This meant that the story in The Secret Keepers was more rooted inside the Chinese community and Jack's story was less about racism and more about family.
Where did the idea come from of Jack, the main character, and his family starting a nickelodeon (that turns out to be haunted)?
Mike Katz suggested I write a San Francisco story and I happily obliged. Since the 1970s, that city has been the heart of Chinese-American culture and activism and I was drawn to its history and fiction long ago. In my research I learned about the agricultural roots of Chinese settlement in California so I started with a farm family. I began with a Chinese girl who had learned to play the piano at her rural church. That led me to a big city nickelodeon where she could play a key role in the family business. But then Mike Katz asked me for a male protagonist because his list then was over-populated with female heroines! So I wrote a different story than the one I had started.
You have recently been involved with writing for the performing arts – your poem Arrivals was written as an introduction to a new symphonic piece Voices from Gold Mountain by Jin Zhang, premiered by the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra; and your ambitious play Jade in the Coal was premiered last year at the University of British Columbia. Both these works, like much of your writing, draw on your cultural heritage. What did these projects mean to you; and what were the particular joys and challenges of writing them?
The poem was a joy to write because I could address my great love, history, in the language of poetry instead of prose. I had written poems long ago during university and could recall the satisfaction of depicting ideas and emotions in a few words or a single sharp image. This let me flex long-asleep mental muscles. It was magical to think freely for poetry and see how my thoughts about history had changed after thirty years.
Jade in the Coal was a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills. I had tried for years to write fiction for adults but failed so this was my first adult work of fiction. Pangaea Arts of Vancouver commissioned the play with a long development process. I worked for two years with a dramaturge. We had two workshops spaced a year apart where actors put the play on its feet to let us see what was or wasn't working. I gained a huge respect for the intelligence, talent and skills of actors. I discovered "personal journeys" as a tool for writing, not only for main characters, but for everyone in the play. Every word costs money on stage, so I needed to find the essence of each scene, each encounter. Never before did I feel myself so at home between my cultures when I was moving between Cantonese and English, the two languages of the play.
Chinese opera, a theme in Jade in the Coal, is also at the heart of your picture book A Song for Ba. Are you a fan?
During the research for Jade in the Coal, I was pleased to rediscover huge amounts of Cantonese opera on YouTube. The melodies were familiar but the main obstacle for someone like me to become a fan is this: Chinese opera lyrics are written as classical poetry. Sur-titles don't help; you need a grounding in formal Chinese. The Hong Kong movies that I saw as a child were mostly opera but the plots could be figured out. All stories were about right triumphing over wrong.
Your recent YA books focus on different aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience in contemporary Canada. What first prompted you to write for this new audience?
In the 1990s, I became entangled in contemporary Chinese immigration when members of my extended family (sister-in-law, first cousins, and their offspring) moved from Hong Kong to Canada. They came with many stories and I saw first-hand their experiences, which were described in a general way in Canada's mass media. These relatives reminded me of my own immigration history and I wanted to explore different aspects of dislocation that had likely affected my mother, who came to Canada in 1951.
The protagonists of these stories are convincingly edgy, finding their way towards adulthood often via difficult relationships with the adults in their lives. How do you get under the skin of your characters?
You try to picture the world that they live in, and you try to see that world from their perspective. And you set up conflict, where your character has to make a difficult choice. That choice usually provides deeper insight into the character.
Your book What Happened This Summer is a complex network of stories. How did you keep track of all the intricate details?
I didn't plan on the stories being interlinked. I wrote each story with its main and supporting characters. After all the stories were written, I thought to go back and see if a supporting character from several stories could be combined into a single person, or if a supporting character might work as a main character in another story. Eventually I needed a chart to keep track of who was where and doing what, because the personalities had to be consistent from one story to another.
At one point one of the characters bemoans the way adults hold stories of teenage road accidents etc. over their teenage heads and "shove the newspaper pictures in our faces". Do you think your telling such stories is a kind of antidote to that?
I think that line recognizes how everyone uses stories for different purposes. Yes, parents worry about their kids and see "teaching moments" in the news. Writing fiction for youth readers always involves passing values from one generation to another because adults are writing to a younger audience. I see the What Happened stories as providing a range of situations where some teenagers may recognize some aspects of his or her life and see that she/he isn't alone with that kind of trouble. The difference between my stories and a parent's use of a story is that I don't know the kid, so my story is a safe distance away. The parent, on the other hand, knows the kid intimately, and may use a story to poke at sensitive issues in a more prickly way and possibly provoke a more adverse reaction.
Your most recent YA novel Money Boy is the story of Ray Liu, an 18-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada who ends up on the streets because his father throws him out when he finds out that he is gay. Do you know of instances where the book has been particularly significant for young men who can identify with both these important themes of immigration and sexuality?
No, but Ray's story is rooted in contemporary China, where overseas education is an important option for young people. Parents want their offspring to experience greater freedom, learn new languages, and gain western experiences to put on their resumes. This can be done through immigration or student visas. The movement towards full acceptance of gay and lesbian people in China has not matched the pace of changes in the west. Hopefully, new generations of Chinese who are exposed to western values as immigrants or overseas students will fully accept gay and lesbian people.
How important is hope in your writing?
For me, it's the primary motivation for writing. I want to believe that my work will somehow contribute to making the world a better place to live.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm doing a collection of tales. Some are stories re-told from China; others are original stories. I'm also working on another railway story.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted August 2012
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