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Jamie Chai Yun Liew

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Illustration: Rachel Idzerda

In her debut, Jamie Chai Yun Liew explores identity and belonging through ghosts

Jamie Chai Yun Liew always thought about what life would be like as a writer. But growing up as a millennial, when stories about racialized people were infrequently told, Liew wasn’t sure if that was a possibility for her. 

“I had a little bit of self-doubt. Like, would it be worth reading the stuff I wrote about?” she confesses.

Instead, she dedicated her adult life to academia and the law. Liew has been practicing law since 2006 and teaching law since 2011. She has also worked as director of the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa since 2021.

But after spending 12 years as both a professor and practicing lawyer, Liew experienced burnout; learning about the traumatic experiences of immigrant, refugee, and stateless clients is “hard to hear all the time.” She decided to take a step back and go on sabbatical in 2018.

Liew spent her one-year sabbatical reconnecting with her family and resting. But she also took time to act on her childhood fantasy of being a writer.

Before she began her novel, Liew says, she read Crazy Rich Asians, which “lit a fire” under her. 

“I read [the book] and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Kevin Kwan put Hokkien in there,’ which is my mother tongue. That, to me, was earth-shattering. It made me think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of diverse stories within our own community that can be told.’”

Each day for three months, she went to write in a coffee shop – to see if she could do it and if she would like it.

“I did it for myself at first. I wanted to see if all those things that I thought about when I was younger were just a fleeting fantasy, or whether it was really something that I wanted to do,” she says.

She finished the manuscript in three months, and a version called Dandelion Roots won the 2018 Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award for fiction from the Vancouver-based Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Liew signed a book deal with her publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. 

“It was very cathartic for me to just put down the first draft,” she says. “The more challenging part was revising and getting it to a place where it is ready for the world to see.”

Liew’s debut novel, Dandelion, follows the lives of a Chinese family living in Sparwood, British Columbia, during the 1980s – a period when the impact of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, still lingered in anti-Chinese sentiments. (The Exclusion Act not only restricted Chinese people from immigrating to Canada, but if a lay Chinese person even wanted to enter the country, they had to pay a fee.) 

On the surface, Dandelion might seem like a typical immigrant story. And Liew agrees that’s not an incorrect categorization. 

“It is about a family who is not in their home country. They’re in a diasporic community.”

But it is also about the challenges of being a stateless person – what it means to be a person without citizenship or a legal home – and the perseverance to survive.

Ah Loy, the father of Lily, who narrates the novel, grew up in Brunei as a stateless person. In Brunei, it’s difficult for minority populations such as the ethnic Chinese to acquire citizenship, partly due to the discriminatory provisions in the 1961 Brunei Nationality Act. These individuals have limited rights and are unable to access higher education or to own property or land.

His fear of becoming stateless again – after having lived in a country whose laws denied his existence – fuels a deep desire to make a home in Canada, to adapt and become “Canadian.” 

At first glance, Ah Loy’s stubborn desire to be Canadian seems like a rejection of his racial and ethnic identity. But based on Liew’s research about stateless individuals, that fear is valid. She points out that Ah Loy “is so fearful of becoming stateless again that it really affects his psyche: there is a notion that there will always be a precarity to their position [citizenship] and in life.”

 Swee Hwa, Lily’s mother, stands in contrast to her husband. She holds onto her identity as a Chinese person, and defends their homeland whenever Ah Loy speaks negatively about China or dismisses Chinese traditions. 

 And although Swee Hwa tries to adapt to the brutal Canadian climate, and cope with the racism and her overwhelming loneliness, she disappears one day without a trace. Her absence subsequently haunts the family – Lily, her sister Bea, and Ah Loy – like a ghost. 

Liew grew up loving folklore, listening to her relatives tell ghost stories. 

“I think a lot of people from back home use ghosts to explain behaviour, or use it as a way to cope.”

She says that the ghost motif is not just “a vehicle to talk about mental illness,” it also sheds light on Swee Hwa’s experience of living in a foreign country.

Ghosts are associated with a yearning to belong, similar to Swee Hwa’s desire to return to her homeland. But ghosts are also feared, in the same way a country’s dominant ethnic group might feel threatened by the unknown, by its marginalized population.

Liew explains that “the way people exist as stateless persons is one in which people fear them, where they’re in hiding, or they lead invisible lives. I use the trope of the ghost to communicate that.”

Although she wrote Dandelion with the Chinese-Canadian community in mind, Liew hopes that all readers will think more about how they treat people whom they perceive to be immigrants or foreigners. 

“I hope, even if they’re not Chinese, or not racialized, or Canadian, that they still will feel what these people experienced,” she says. “I hope that they can understand the difficulties and challenges of racialized people.”