The boy ate an apple

appleOne of my goals this year was to read books by writers of Asian heritage, or to read more stories with protagonists of diverse backgrounds. I regret that growing up and all through these years, I haven’t made it a priority to expose myself to stories told in multicultural voices.

Through high school, university, and college curriculums, I have been exposed to a wealth of brilliant writers, from Chaucer to Hemingway, and many Canadian writers in between. I didn’t even stop to consider that all the stories I read were told from a Western perspective. This has had an interesting impact on me as a reader and now as a writer. I assume every character I read about is white unless told otherwise. I’m not alone. When I wrote ‘The boy ate an apple’ on the chalkboard and asked a classroom full of students, “What ethnicity was that boy?” All of them, even the black and Asian students responded, “white”.

As Canadian educators, writers, and readers, we need to do a better job of promoting diverse voices and experiences. It is 2013, yet the reading lists for Independent Study Projects in senior English classes haven’t changed much since the 80s when I was in high school. To throw in the odd book by a black or Asian writer to “modernize and update” the list isn’t enough.

 

Recommended Read:

Requiem by Frances Itani

Requiem by Frances Itani

I recently finished Frances Itani’s Requiem, a story about Bin, a Japanese Canadian struggling with loss on many levels. Although set in 1997, the story takes readers back to 1942, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians in British Columbia were interned, in what is one of Canada’s darkest periods in history.

My first e-reader (sigh)

koboWhen I was asked if I wanted an e-reader for Christmas, my answer was a flat out, “no”.  I love the texture of paper pages, the smell of new books and the worn-out feel of second-hand books. I also love walking into bookstores and being surrounded by books of all sizes, shapes, and colours.

But when the second book that I really wanted to read was only available in e-book format, I thought maybe it was time to at least be open to the possibility of an e-reader.

As soon as I walked into my local Chapters bookstore, I was greeted by a friendly Kobo salesperson who happily walked me through his display.

“This is the one I own,” he said, and passed me a Kobo Glo.

It didn’t feel so bad in my hands, especially when it was put into a case that looked like a book cover.  

I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a good or bad thing that the reader could customize the font size, justification, margins, and even the line spacing. I knew editors who laboured and agonized over such decisions. The fact that any reader could now arbitrarily change everything seemed somehow wrong.

I love the built-in dictionary though. By pressing any word, I instantly get its meaning. As well, the ability to highlight passages and make notes about them is very cool.

The Kobo Glo also has a built-in light which I’m thinking will be great for reading in my car when I’m waiting for my daughter in the parking lot of her music school.

Still not sure where I stand in the e-book vs traditional book debate. Will find out soon though. I’ve downloaded a few books including The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy which was recommended to me by Donleavy’s grandnephew, and hard to find in print version in Toronto.

Memorable characters 2

charactersI love books where I feel connected with the main character, or when the character is someone whom I admire and want to root for. I recently saw Les Miserables again. Jean Valjean is an example of a character I both admire and feel tremendous sympathy for – a character almost impossible for me to forget.

There are several books and online resources that offer great advice, tips, and suggestions on how to create complex and compelling characters. One book title I’d like to pass along is Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. It’s definitely worth checking out.  Schmidt looks at several archetypes, both heroic and villainous, to explore character traits and behaviours. Her examples of memorable characters from books, movies, and T.V. are especially helpful in shaping our understanding of classic archetypes.

Also worth checking out:

Memorable characters

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

“It’s told from the point of view of a horse,” my daughter, Claire, told me when she started reading Black Beauty. “I don’t know if I want to read it.” She finished the book today, and concluded that it was a great read, and Black Beauty was a character she wouldn’t ever forget.

When Claire asked me to name some memorable characters from books I had read, the first few names that came to mind were:

Nomi Nickel, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (Canadian)
Sixteen-year old Nomi, who lives in a Mennonite community, is abandoned by both her mother and sister. She asks a question that continues to haunt me: “Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?”

Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As a kid, I had a crush on Atticus, and wondered how many fathers were like him in real life. He was so wise and had the right things to say about everything that mattered: “You never really know a man till you walk a mile in his shoes.”

Dunstan Ramsay, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (Canadian)
I read this book in grade 12 English class. Dunstan’s involvement with Mary Dempster, a woman he spends his life trying to make a “saint,” is a result of his deep rooted childhood guilt: “I feared to go to sleep and prayed till I sweated that God would forgive me for my mountainous crime… I was alone with my guilt, and it tortured me.”

Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L.L. Montgomery (Canadian)
I remember wondering if I should add an “e” to the end of my name after reading Anne say, “A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished.”

Iago, Othello by William Shakespeare
I’m wowed by his evil brilliance as much as I fear it. I still get chills reading, “I am not who I am.”

That time of year

One of the things I wanted to do during this holiday break was catch up on my reading. I have far more books than I could possibly get through in one calendar year. I keep buying them, intending to read them later. I also get a lot of books as gifts.

bookofOf the books I did get to this year, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negros, was my favourite. It was published in 2007, and I wish I had gotten to it sooner! Hill’s protagonist, Aminata Diallo, who was abducted as a child from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery, continues to haunt me. The story had such an effect on me that I couldn’t pick up another book for two weeks.

I also thought Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience, was brilliant. The story hit close to home. Both Ins and I, although we have never met, immigrated to Canada in1975, and had families that worked in variety stores in downtown Toronto. I wrote about this play in an earlier blog.

Now that it is 2013, there are several lists of ‘the best books of 2012’ published everywhere. Here are a few to check out.

Writers who passed away in 2012

“Don’t talk about it; write.” – Bradbury, 1976

brown

I recently read a list of writers who passed away in 2012. Donald J. Sobol, writer of the Encyclopedia Brown series, passed away in July. Leroy, aka Encyclopedia Brown, is a boy detective who used his intelligence to solve neighbourhood mysteries. Some of my fondest childhood memories in Canada include going to the public library where I could escape into books – lots of them. Encyclopedia Brown was a favourite because solving whatever mystery that was thrown at both Encyclopedia and the reader, left me feeling both satisfied and smart.

wildAnother children’s favourite, Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are, passed away in May.

I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury’s work in high school. Fahrenheit 451 continues to be on many English class reading lists. His short stories also remain popular. Surprisingly, I only found out recently that there’s a prequel or rather a companion to Fa451hrenheit entitled, A Pleasure to Burn. Bradbury passed away in June.

For a list of writers who passed away this past year, click here.

For more Ray Bradbury quotes, click here.

Koreans here and there

I was surprised to see so many books about North Korea in the Social Science section at Chapters, the bookstore. I picked up Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six North Koreans – a teenage couple secretly in love, a female doctor, a homeless boy, a factory worker, and her rebellious daughter – over a period of fifteen years.

My fascination with the lives of ordinary North Koreans grew after hearing about a friend’s son who, upon turning 18, actually visited the country on his own. I’m sure that he stood out. He’s over six feet tall with strawberry blond hair! It was fascinating to hear about his visit, and I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the lives of North and South Koreans. It also got me thinking about the lives of Korean-Canadians which again is so different from the two Koreas.

 

We need more of this…

Noranbang: The Yellow Room,” is written by M.J. Kang, a Korean-born playwright. I found her play in a collection of contemporary Asian-Canadian drama entitled, “Love + Relasianships.”

“Noranbang” is about a Korean family living in Toronto, Canada, during the late 1970s. This is only the second play that I’ve read by a playwright of Korean heritage with a story set in Canada.  I especially enjoyed seeing the Korean words and phrases woven throughout the dialogue. I wish such books and plays existed when I was a child, or if they did, I had known about them. I was never exposed to any books by Asian writers in either high school or university. I hadn’t even thought to think about them.

The other plays in this collection are: “Yellow Fever” by R.A. Shiomi, “Bachelor-Man” by Winston Christopher Kim, “Maggie’s Last Dance” by Marty Chan, “Mother’s Tongue” by Better Quan, and “The Plum Tree” by Mitch Miyagawa.

An inconvenient life

A play by Ins Choi

I was at a really great little bookstore earlier called Theatre Books.  It was my first visit there. I went in specifically looking for Kim’s Convenience, a play by Ins Choi (no relation) that I’ve been wanting to see for a while now. It’s about a first generation Korean immigrant family living and running a convenience store in the heart of downtown Toronto.

My family did the same for thirty years. Our store was open 7-11, seven days a week.  My friends used to feel sorry for me because my family never ate meals together, and because my brothers and I were always working in the store. But that was the only life we knew growing up. The worst thing of all though was living with the constant threat of being robbed which happened so often, we lost count over the decades.

The book that I’m currently writing is also set in and around a family-owned variety store. Mary, my protagonist, is a Korean-Canadian immigrant who struggles to break free from the rigid expectations imposed on her by her parents and her culture.

Writers of Korean descent

Stumbled onto this list of American writers of Korean descent. I read Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee years ago. Great book. The protagonist, Henry, is a man caught between two worlds – Korean and American, and finds himself belonging to neither.