Hold Fast To Your Dreams: In Conversation with Ann Y.K. Choi

Interview by 
Arielle Spence
Pictured: Ann YK Choi

Ann Y.K. Choi is a Toronto-based author and educator. After immigrating from Korea to Canada with her family in 1975, Choi attended the University of Toronto, where she studied English, Sociology and Education, and, later, Creative Writing. She is also a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, and National University’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. For over fifteen years, she has been a teacher in York, Ontario.

In January, I spoke with Ann over email about her debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, which was published last spring by Simon & Schuster Canada and quickly became one of the most buzzed-about books of the season. Kay’s—which was a finalist for the 2016 Toronto Book Award—charts the coming-of-age of Mary, a Korean Canadian teenager living in Toronto in the 1980s. Over the course of our conversation, Ann and I spoke about lessons learned from teenagers; motherhood and migration; discovering one’s agency; a Handbook for Debut Novelists; and practicing gratitude.

ROOM: In an interview, you said you applied to study creative writing after a student of yours called you a “hypocrite” when you told him he needed to follow his dreams. What lessons have you learned from the students you’ve taught? 

AC: For my entire teaching career, I’ve been fortunate to work with students who face obstacles in their learning: ESL needs, Special Education needs, or some other barrier such as social-emotional challenges. I’ve learned about perseverance and overcoming stigma from my students. I love that I get to see the wonder of learning through their eyes and continue to discover different ways to learn. As a result, my students have inspired me to pursue decade-old dreams such as writing a novel and going back to school to earn my master’s degree.

ROOM: What are your other passions besides writing? 

AC: Right now, I’m immersed in discovering Korean culture. I’ve never been comfortable in my Korean skin so this has been a long time coming. I’ve discovered that unless I learn the language, I’ll never truly feel connected to my heritage. I just completed a beginner Korean language course and plan to keep going. My goal is to write a story in Korean one day. I’m also passionate about storytelling and am grateful for the speaking opportunities that have opened up for me. 

ROOM: Like the protagonist of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Mary, you pursued a dual degree in English and Sociology at the University of Toronto. How does the critical lens of sociology influence your writing? 

AC: I was a compliant student in high school and my family background left little room to question or challenge anything. It wasn’t until I got to my first sociology class that I was forced to make connections between the personal and political, and examine their broader implications. I wanted [Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety] to explore gender roles, the immigrant experience, family dynamics, and racism through the lens of a young Korean Canadian woman. I felt confident that most of what Mary was thinking and feeling could be relatable to others’ experience on some level, and that the novel could be used as a tool to begin conversations.

ROOM: As a university student, you interviewed more than thirty young Korean Canadian women about growing up in Canada and found that one of the commonalities between these women was that “everyone’s biggest fantasy was to kill their mother.” Why do you think this was?

AC: Ironically, I began interviewing these women to find out what made them happy! Most of us were growing up in families that owned variety stores that were open sixteen hours a day—which is brutally demanding. That didn’t leave much time for mothers and daughters to do fun things together. We often forgot to be patient or even kind to each other. Instead, we felt burdened with our mothers’ immigrant dreams for us: keep living a Korean life (marry a Korean man, cook Korean food, have grandsons) here in Canada. We led dual lives—Korean at home and Canadian outside the home. Negotiating our layered identities was stressful, and in many cases led to social-emotional challenges. It was convenient to believe our mothers were at the root of most of our pain. 

ROOM: Related to that, do you think there’s a special connection between migration and motherhood? For example, in Kay’s, what causes the tension between Mary and her mother that just isn’t present in her relationships with other Korean adults? 

AC: Often, mothers are the glue that holds a family together during times of struggle and change. Unlike her friendships or romantic relationships that she consciously seeks to nurture, Mary believes that underlying her relationship with her mother are opposing views and conflicts, and therefore she takes no steps to improve it. As a result, Mary both desires and resists closeness with her mother. 

ROOM: In addition to Mary’s literal migration from Korea to Canada as a child, Kay’s also follows her metaphorical migration from child to adult. Do you think there’s a single moment in the novel where Mary starts seeing the world as an adult or is it a gradual transformation? 

AC: The first time Mary is introduced to the idea of “living her own life” is after watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier. There’s a powerful moment in the movie where Poitier’s character tells his father, “I owe you nothing!” A father is supposed to work hard because he brought the child into the world. Therefore, he owed the child everything he could provide and not the other way around. Mary fantasizes about delivering the same message to her mother and slowly begins her journey to understand the implications of being conditioned by her family and cultural obligations and expectations.

ROOM: At the variety store, Mary meets and interacts with a range of people, including a community of sex workers who frequent the streets outside their store. I’m interested in how you write about sex work, and, in particular, the parallels which are drawn between Mary and Delia, a girl Mary knew when she first came to Canada who later becomes a sex worker. For you, what role do the sex workers like Delia play in the narrative?

AC: I had a very angry reader tell me how disappointed she was that all my female characters allowed themselves to be used by men. On some level, it looks as if the women do surrender their bodies either through prostitution, arranged marriages, or sexual assault. I wanted to show how common it was for women to be oppressed in different ways but even more importantly because my characters are young—Mary is fifteen going on sixteen at the beginning of the novel—they may not realize or know that they are oppressed. Delia has no idea that she’s become a commodity—an object like the women in the porn magazines that Mary’s store sells—used by men for gratification and profit. Mary’s interest in sociology and finding a mentor in a strong, black, female professor is a step toward understanding how she (and other women) are affected by the dominant male hierarchies that exist both in Korea (East) and Canada (West). By questioning and challenging her social settings, Mary gains strength and a voice through her writing.

ROOM: Do you have any advice for young people (or, maybe not-so-young people) caught in the struggle between parental and personal dreams?

AC: I think what’s key here is understanding why parents think the way they do and accept that they may be wrong. Too often we raise our children to be who we want—a future doctor or engineer—rather than parent the children we have—a future chef or actor. We may also unwittingly live vicariously through our children, becoming overly invested in their lives because they are our second chance. For many immigrant parents, survival is often the only thing on their minds. They mistakenly believe an education in business or the sciences is the only viable route for good-paying jobs.

I would encourage young people with a dream to hold fast to it. For me, this meant waiting (not-so-patiently) to graduate from school, become financially independent, and then pursue my goals. The gap between what I wanted and what my mother wanted for me became smaller with time. 

ROOM: In an essay in Quill & Quire, you described the experience of publishing your first novel as similar to your migration to Canada. If there were a handbook given to debut novelists (like newcomers to Canada receive), what would you want to be in it? 

AC: A loose-leaf binder (so more information could be added) with tabs that read: Navigating Social Media, Marketing/Publicity, The Publishing Process, Industry Terms, Networking/Mentor Benefits, Q&A, and Miscellaneous (for everything not covered in previous tabs).

ROOM: In the novel, Mary realizes that, over the course of her high school career, she wasn’t exposed to any books by Korean authors. What does it mean to you to have written a novel that a young Korean-Canadian student like Mary could be reading? 

AC: Connecting with readers who are inspired by my story and want to tell their stories has been amazing. I think women, especially women of colour, struggle to find their voices and, even after they claim that voice, struggle to be heard. I sincerely wish that our schools would embrace our diverse stories more readily and integrate them into the curriculum in all subject areas. My daughter is just about to graduate from high school. Interestingly, her experience mirrors mine even though I graduated in the late eighties!

ROOM: Lastly, in a piece inspired by the Drake Devonshire Writers’ Retreat in Ontario, you wrote about your late friend Cathy, and something she once told you. “Promise me,” she said, “that when you get your big chance, you’ll remember to sit at the back of the room. That way, you’ll see everything. Just remember to pay attention so you can appreciate it.” In the wake of Kay’s success over the past year, do you feel like you’ve done this?  

AC: I’m trying! I was so angry when Cathy died because she of all people knew just how much I wanted to write a novel. But it’s easy to forget, with time, to appreciate the things we have. My daughter does a wonderful job of reminding me to practise gratitude and reflect on what truly matters in the moment. I’ve also learned that a key to happiness and appreciation is to look forward to something—meeting up with a friend, trying a new recipe, or visiting some place new. The anticipation excites me and often motivates me to get through the things I might not necessarily want to do.

Arielle Spence is a queer, nonbinary aspiring writer and arts administrator originally from Coldstream, B.C. (unceded Okanagan Territory). In 2017, they were the festival director of Room’s inaugural Growing Room feminist literary festival.

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