Reading workshop fiction is like getting student dentistry. While the students may have some skills in place, they generally still have lots to learn, and it can be painful to be on the receiving end of their experiments and explorations. Henry Chow is a collection of such fiction. Described as stories “chosen by Ricepaper magazine and the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop” (nowhere in the book is it explained what that workshop is), most of these pieces feel like the sort of half-realized, cliché-ridden exercises one expects from novices.
Annie Zhu’s title story struggles with narrative placement, jolting irrationally from character to character while developing into an awkward and jarringly inconsistent portrait of a high-school class clown. Kwai-Yun Li’s “The Handwriting Expert,” about three girls who have their fortunes told, feels incomplete, ending with an abrupt yet wholly unsurprising flash forward. Fiona Tinwei Lam’s “Air,” about a girl with a hectoring mother, offers a similarly hasty and unsatisfying dream sequence as closure. A few of the pieces offer more competent writing, such as Hanako Masutani’s “Beached,” about two girls who fight over a boy, or Taien Ng-Chan’s “Bad Poetry,” about a girl torn between two boys, but the storylines remain generally weak and the characters unremarkable.
Short author bios reveal most of these writers to be relative unknowns, though two veterans do appear in the mix. Evelyn Lau offers a stereotypical cautionary tale about teens in Vancouver’s sex trade, prosaically titled “Working the Corner.” Lau’s in-your-face realism, which includes teen prostitutes graphically joking about orally castrating their clients – “Hey listen, if you ever get into real trouble, what you do is bite the guy’s dick off. He’ll bleed to death” – may prove a tad mature for younger readers. Meanwhile, Governor General’s Award winner Paul Yee offers the book’s only real bright spot with “The Dark Room,” a skilfully written yarn about a photographer visited by ghosts.
Something else that must be noted is the shoddy quality of the book’s binding. Just 11 pages in, this reader’s copy had split halfway up the spine, and by the end, pages were falling out. Workshops can be great places for people to learn writing skills, but after reading Henry Chow, it has to be asked whether such work deserves publication.
That said, no writing deserves bookbinding of such woefully low standards.