Dan K. Woo likes to be in control of the titles of his works – usually.
But during the publishing process of a fiction anthology he edited by Chinese-Canadian writers, Woo brainstormed ideas for the title with his publisher Paul Vermeersch at Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn.
“I find it much harder choosing a title for an anthology because there are so many contributors, and the stories are all different. It’s a bit harder to envision the common theme,” says the Toronto-based author.
In the end, Woo and Vermeersch decided on The Spirits Have Nothing To Do With Us: New Chinese Canadian Fiction. The name of the anthology – to be released later this month – is adapted from the title of one of the short stories by Chinese Canadians who Woo feels are writing in a new way that centres their own experiences.
“It was a title that worked really well for the individual story, and it worked really well for the whole book,” says Vermeersch.
For Woo, “that title is a reference to breaking tradition – Canadian readers’ expectations of our writing and the way we are limited by those expectations. Second, [it is about] understanding ourselves within a global context, both within and outside of traditional Chinese cultures and norms.” As he writes in the introduction to the collection, “these writers are less preoccupied with retelling immigrant stories or upholding minority myths.”
In 2021, Woo finished writing his collection of short stories, Taobao, which was also published by Wolsak & Wynn last year. After completing the project, he wanted to take on something bigger, something that would extend beyond his own work: he wanted to highlight the writing of Chinese-Canadian writers in an anthology, and he wanted that anthology to be published by a smaller publishing house.
Woo knew there were talented young writers across the country who were crafting stories that deserved to be read. And so, in May 2021, he began looking for contributors.
Woo spent 10 years in China before he returned to Canada in 2018 due to a medical emergency. During that time, he had kept abreast of the work of Chinese-Canadian writers, so he already had an idea of who he would like to include in the collection.
“Yilin Wang has a piece in [the anthology] that was originally published in The Malahat Review. When that first came out, I went to the library just to read it,” he says.
The book brings together nine stories from both emerging and published writers including Anna Ling Kaye, Lydia Kwa, Eddy Boudel Tan, Isabella Wang, and Bingji Ye, whose story is translated by Woo himself.
Woo recognizes that China can be a difficult subject for creatives to approach because of the political issues involved.
“China is now viewed in a sort of zero-sum competition, not just economically but ideologically. And the U.S. has a long history of racism and fear, and you can see this not just in their foreign policy but replicated in popular culture over many decades,” explains Woo.
“That kind of psychological manipulation supports a world model that the U.S. relies on to maintain its economic dominance, largely through military power.”
As a result, says Woo, writing about China can stir up emotions among readers who might have preconceived negative ideas.
Nonetheless, he argues that this is a reason why he wants to see more of it being published.
“If that’s something that you want to see out there, then, go and find it and be responsible for it,” he says. “I’m very lucky to have found a publisher like Buckrider who has taken that on and sees the value of it.”
For Vermeersch, publishing this anthology was important, even if it was a difficult and political subject matter.
“Because of some of the activities of the Chinese government, anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed an opportune time to say, ‘Our Chinese-Canadian friends and neighbours are creative, and part of our communities. And they’re doing great work, so let’s celebrate that.”