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Vancouver’s literAsian Festival puts spotlight on new generation of writers

Author Kim Fu

Starting tomorrow, the second annual literAsian Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing will take place in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, an area that has undergone a cycle of decay and revitalization since the 1960s when the ethnic community was forced to relocate in the name of urban renewal.

“[The City] expropriated the entire community, and the irony is that the Chinese weren’t even allowed to live beyond that boundary,” says Jim Wong-Chu, founder of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, which organizes the festival. “The context of literAsian going back into the community is very significant.”

Along with established authors such as Fred Wah and Elsie Sze, the four-day event spotlights emerging talents, many of whom represent a departure from the first wave of Asian-Canadian writers. “The early writing is more confessional; it’s looking at the past, and rooted in this historical context and identity,” says Wong-Chu.

By contrast, the younger generation of Asian-Canadian writers have widened their gaze to more universal concerns. Wong-Chu points to writers like Journey Prize finalist Doretta Lau and novelist Kim Fu, who will be at the festival to promote For Today I Am a Boy, which features a transgender protagonist.

“The inspiration of the festival is to begin to acknowledge this new generation of writers. It’s almost become stereotypical, that if you’re an Asian Canadian, you have to write about being Asian. But that’s no longer the case,” Wong-Chu says.

Wong-Chu – who was the first Asian Canadian to publish a book of poetry in Canada (1986’s Chinatown Ghosts, Arsenal Pulp Press) – says the festival’s emphasis on emerging voices is just one way that the ACWW is returning to its original mandate of helping young Asian-Canadian writers publish books. The festival will feature practical workshops such as “How Do You Know When a Poem is Ready for Publication?” led by Elaine Woo, and “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Writing Characters with Depth” led by Yasuko Thanh, whose debut novel is forthcoming in 2015 with Hamish Hamilton.

The ACWW’s Emerging Writer Award for unpublished manuscripts will be reintroduced at the festival. A decade ago, the prize helped kickstart the careers of Madeleine Thien and Rita Wong, but it has since been out of commission. The prize will alternate yearly between fiction and poetry, with the inaugural fiction winner to be announced at literAsian 2015 (which will focus on the science fiction and fantasy genres). ACWW will publish the winning manuscript and work with the finalists to secure publication.

The new direction may spell the end of ACWW’s literary quarterly, Ricepaper, beyond 2015. Now entering its 20th year, Wong-Chu says the publication is languishing under the “horrendous cost” of publishing a print-based magazine. However, he adds that, “ACWW is actively exploring other sources of funding to try to continue production.”

“When we started the magazine, there were no Asian Canadians who had any professional experience as editors or in production. It’s only in the last 10 years or so that it has finally started to hit its stride, and now there’s so much good writing that’s coming in. But ironically, the grants are disappearing,” he says. “We’re already underpaying people, and we rely on some very quality volunteers, but you cannot keep doing that. But, you know, the consequence is that we trained a lot of good people and they went off to careers of their own.”