Meet Yasuko Nguyen Thanh, Canadian novelist and short story writer born to a German mother and a Vietnamese father. At 15, Thanh dropped out of school and lived on the streets. Previous to winning the Journey Prize for her short story Floating Like the Dead in 2009, she earned her living as a busker, opium dealer, cleaner of goat pens, Bed & Breakfast operator, housekeeper, and panhandler. She has lived in Canada, Mexico, Germany, and Honduras, and completed a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria. She screams in the punk band 12 Gauge Facial and lives with her husband, Hank Angel, and her two children on Vancouver Island.
Yasuko’s first book was a short story collection, Floating Like the Dead (McClelland & Stewart) and was highlighted on the Quill & Quire’s list of best books of 2012. Yasuko’s first novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains was published in 2016 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Canada), and won the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award alongside White Elephant, Catherine Cooper (Freehand Books), Accordéon, Kaie Kellough (ARP Books), So Much Love, Rebecca Rosenblum (McClelland & Stewart) and The Break, Katherena Vermette (House of Anansi). The finalists were selected by author Tanis MacDonald, who will decide the $40,000 winner along with jurors Casey Plett and Gurjinder Basran, and the winning title will be announced May 25 (tomorrow!!). We hope you enjoy this Q & A between Samantha Warwick and Yasuko T.
1. What are your interests, hobbies or occupation outside of your writing life?
I love to play music, and any day at the beach is a good one. I’ve also started gardening, and, in a similar way screaming in a punk band is worth all kinds of therapy; planting seedlings that need love calms my soul.
2. What does being a writer mean to you?
Iris Murdoch, philosopher, lecturer, novelist, put it best when she talked about how a writer’s duty is to cultivate “right sight.” Being a writer, to me, means making a commitment to more than finding the best order for words on the page, it involves a commitment to look beyond ourselves and when we do so, to see, to really understand, that other people exist.
Toni Morrison. Her depth of compassion for the vilest characters. She makes us empathize with murderers (a mother who kills her baby in Beloved) and pedophiles (a middle-aged man who marries a thirteen year old child in Love). She doesn’t judge her characters, swallows their shadows whole, and in doing so illuminates the reasons they are who they are.
4. What is the most important thing you have learned about being a writer?
To be curious. About people, places, things. To notice details. To respect my fictional characters, and free myself of any preconceived notions of how that character should act. It’s an exploration of life’s questions, rather than a record of answers.
I’ve starved, stolen toilet paper from public buildings, and had to live one step ahead of the landlord. I’ve lost friends. I spend most of my time alone, work on my craft for eight, ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. I do this knowing I may never attain some elusive definition of success, or, if I do, that it may not last. But I never forget I have the privilege of using my voice and taking that responsibility seriously. At the end of the day, I will know what it is to have done one thing with all my might. In short, be ready to sacrifice, but always remember your privilege.
6. What is the best creative (or life) advice you have ever received?
Bill Gaston said to a First Year writing class that I was TAing, “Write what you know,” and added, “to be true.” To be true. I try to cross out every word which is a lie, every word that’s dishonest. In fiction I become my better self, no matter how petty I am, how unforgiving, how immature in real life. With each revision I become kinder, more empathetic, more aware of the “out there” that isn’t me but that I nevertheless am a small part of. Gaston’s advice resonates with Mark Schorer’s, “Technique as Discovery” — technique impels us to probe deeper. Craft’s discontentment with the mere surface of things searches for the perfect detail to reveal a place or a person, and necessarily strips stereotypes away.
The place I still see in my dreams is Zipolite, Oaxaca, perhaps because I led such a scattered existence there. I rented a shack a few blocks from the beach for fifty dollars US a month, but slept most nights right next to the ocean, since the seashore had less mosquitos. I drank a lot and would pass out in the sand, and wake up in the morning with the sunrise beating my head like a fist.
8. If you could travel anywhere in the world for one month leaving tomorrow, where would you choose (and why)?
I’ve dreamed of the South Pacific since I read Dove by Robin Lee Graham as a teenager. I still have my dog-eared copy describing Rarotonga, Vanuatu, places I could imagine sailing to and staying forever. Because of the time in my life when I read this book, those pacific islands came to represent escape from heaviness, a pursuit of values, and the perfect light at the end of the tunnel.
We hope you will join us for Yasuko Thanh in conversation with Diana Davidson on Saturday, June 10 from 1:00-2:00pm!
Click Here for Full Conference Program and Registration Details (June 10 & 11 at the University of Alberta)
Looking for a pre-conference movie to watch? Consider spending an evening with the film Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (Miramax Lionsgate studio). The movie came out in 2001 and is based on the book ELEGY FOR IRIS by John Bayley, where he tells the inspiring and heartbreaking story of his 40-year romance with Iris. Iris Murdoch is played by Kate Winslet (younger Iris) and Judi Dench (older Iris). It is such a moving and enlightening film!