Mistakes To Run With: An Interview with Yasuko Thanh

Interview by 
Isabella Wang
Yasuko Thanh

Image Credit: Don Denton

Yasuko Thanh's story collection Floating Like the Dead was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. One of its stories won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story. The title story won the Journey Prize for the best story published in Canada in 2009. Quill & Quire named Floating Like the Dead a Best Book of the Year. CBC hailed Yasuko Thanh one of ten writers to watch in 2013. Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, her debut novel, won the Rogers Writers' Trust for Fiction, the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, and was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. She lives in Victoria, BC, with her two children. In her spare time she plays in a punk band called 12 Gauge Facial, for which she writes all the songs and music.

ROOM: Hello Yasuko, how are you? I’m so glad to be joining you in this space here. First off, your third book, Mistakes to Run With, just came out with Penguin Random House. CONGRATULATIONS! How does it feel now that it’s out there?

YT: Hi! Thanks for having me. The book’s release feels great, and scary. Great in that, when one work is done, I can move onto another. That’s liberating. Scary in the sense that I’m revealing secrets about myself that I’ve never revealed in conversation to even many of my closet friends. I guess the part of me that was judged on the street by people who drove by the corner where I worked and threw pennies, or eggs, or firecrackers fears the same rejection. 

ROOM: Mistakes to Run With comes right after your short story collection, Floating Like the Dead, and your novel, Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. Tell us about the process of writing this third book, how it came to be. Did you always know that you were going to write a memoir after your lived experiences?

YT: No, I didn’t. Though I’d thought about it off and on for years. I was already writing down the experiences in “street fiction” stories, one that comes to mind is “Heroin Half-Mile,” which I edited during my time at UVic and published in Descant’s Hidden Cities issue. Excerpts from the memoir were also published, in fictional form, in Room and subTerrain. In December of 2016, my agent called, saying she thought she could sell the idea of a memoir, and what did I think? I jumped at the opportunity.

ROOM: Your book chronicles chronicles a turbulent childhood, with the words, “My parakeet escaped the same year I did, 1986.” At the centre of it though, writing has always been anchor for you, hasn’t it? Do you see writing as a form or empowerment, or catharsis? Can it be both at times?

YT: My primary relationship for decades has been with books and writing rather than with other people. Books understood me and my love affair with them predates my time on the streets. Writing fulfilled my ego-driven need to believe my life had a purpose higher than the street. “That this work to be done called for this life,” is a quote that speaks to the inflated sense of self writing gave me.  And, sure, one can be anchored by an ongoing cathartic act, like screaming at the top of one’s lungs on stage and calling it punk music, or find catharsis in in a solid anchor, such as children. Here’s what Wallace Stevens said: “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that which takes its place as life’s redemption.”  

ROOM: I was so swept while reading your book—your story is one that I myself, and many can relate to, while your voice, your experiences, remain distinctively your own. Do you think of audience much when you write?

YT: I thought of my parents a lot with this particular book. I didn’t want to upset the relationship we’d built up after I left the streets. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that the echo of how they might respond was constantly in the back of my mind, to the point where I consciously tuned it out. My fears never materialized.

ROOM: I have no doubt that your book will resonate deeply with readers. But what do you hope for your audience to take away from it?

YT: I was recently called-out in an online review for speaking from a place of privilege. It would be presumptuous of me to say I wish she felt differently. People will take away from the book what they will, and yet I did want to bring certain issues to light. The stigmatization of “street people” in particular. I suppose I wanted to build a case for tolerance. I don’t think a stance of non-judgement requires acceptance—or even comprehension—of a person’s choices. Simply put, empathy resides in the empathetic.  

ROOM: So much is on the horizon. I’m interested to know what you are most looking forward to this year, both in and out of writing. What’s next?

YT: This last week I’ve been playing with baby chickens that my boyfriend brought me. Things I’m looking forward to on the horizon include taming said chickens, to watch movies with me at night. I’ve been toying with a couple of different ideas, too, one for a short story collection and one for a novel. I’m generally reclusive, so the contemplation of more travel for the book—I head off to Toronto next week—has been an adjustment that I’m learning how to look forward to; the people I’ll meet and chat with after each event make it all worth it.

ROOM: I’d love to hear more about the punk band that you are in, 12 Gauge Facial. I saw pictures of you performing at your book launch a few days ago! What kind of songs do you write? What are your favourite ones to listen to?

YT: I’d originally planned to release an album also called Mistakes to Run With at the same time the book hit store shelves. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t come to fruition in time. I think of the songs (sixteen original tunes) as a soundtrack to the book, because they are able to express the minutiae I had to gloss over for the sake of the memoir’s page count. For instance, my time working the Hastings track takes up just a few pages of space in the book, but I was able to write a song called “Twila” about one of the wonderful women I met on the downtown eastside. These days I’ve been listening to sixties soul music and vintage ska, but I love everything, except Big Hat Country. If I had to be stranded on a desert island with the complete works of just one band? Hank Williams. Or Led Zeppelin. Or Jimi Hendrix… 

ROOM: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Yasuko!

Isabella Wang’s debut poetry chapbook is forthcoming with Baseline press in 2019. At 18, she is the youngest two-time finalist and writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, and she holds a pushcart prize nomination in poetry. She has poetry forthcoming in the What You Need to Know About Me Anthology (The Hawkins Project, co-edited by Dave Eggers). She studying English and World Literature at SFU, interning at Room Magazine, serving as the Youth Advocate for the BC Federation of Writers, and co-ordinating the bi-weekly Dead Poets Reading Series.

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