"Writing's my playground. So I feel very free. I feel, you know, we're in a world where there's not a lot of freedom. I feel like I'm free on the page."
Writing's my playground. So I feel very free. I feel, you know, we're in a world where there's not a lot of freedom. I feel like I'm free on the page.
You're listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
I’m Carrianne Leung. And I'm a fiction and nonfiction writer in Toronto, Canada. I do not have an MFA myself, so I wasn't formally trained in the craft. Since I've become published, I've had the pleasure of being invited to many settings. I've taught undergraduate creative writing at OCAD U and at present I'm faculty in the MFA program at University of Guelph, where I teach one course called decolonial fiction.
So for me, as a sociologist, the questions matter a lot. I'm concerned about surfacing assumptions about what the world is, what Canada is, who we are, how we think. And I feel the same as I go into a creative writing workshop or a classroom. What do we think of as craft and how do we explode it so that we are free to play?
So after having taught creative writing for a little while, I've been very concerned with the workshop. And so the model that I first encountered was very much the same model that gets replicated a lot, which is the School of Iowa model, where the writer is critiqued by peers and is silent. It's something that I am continually exploring and changing in my practice. I don't believe that the author should be silent. And that there are different processes. If we go with our central goal is to nurture a writer and a piece of work to emerge and needs particular kinds of supports, and it needs particular contexts. And also we've had lots of critiques about how marginalized, traditionally marginalized, writers feel very silenced in that space.
So a more productive workshop I think is to, is for the author of the piece that's being considered by the group to really lead us in the intentions of the piece. What are the thoughts that they have? What are they trying to do? If they have a very specific questions about whether they want us to read a scene for a particular purpose. So I really want the writer to be guiding us into how we read their text and for us readers, not to assume that we are the audience that the text is intended for. And how does that feel?
So I don't think it's just a practice of writing. It's a practice of reading as well. What does it mean to be a reader that needs to work for it and not just be this passive receptacle or that the audience is just this default universal person.
Excerpt from The Wondrous Woo
When I was in grade 11, we got our first VCR. Ba and I had stopped going to the Golden Harvest because even we had to admit it was far easier to stay home in our sweat pants than to spend all that time going downtown, especially since Ba had to make that commute every day for work anyway. But Sunday afternoons had remained our time; during the week, he would pick up armloads of Hong Kong videos from a store on Spadina Avenue, and we would camp out all afternoon. When Sophia had whined that we were cutting into her shows, Ba bought another TV for the basement.
One afternoon by the third movie, I got annoyed. “These women are getting shafted,” I had said, pointing to the eye-batting peasant girl, washing clothes in the brook. “If she hadn't rescued her man from drowning, the show’d be over.”
Ba had leaned over and paused the video, something we never did (e never needed to; peeing could always wait). He had scratched his chin and looked at me in the eye. “One day, Miramar,” he said, “you should write these stories from the side of the women, make the world know how powerful they are. Like you.”
I had been mortified when my eyes welled up. Ba could always see through me even as I had tried to hide from myself. I had lived my gung-ho Canadian life in a timid shell. I had found shelter in the safety of our house, tucked my dreams inside these movies, and wished I were relevant while I hid in the shadows of my life. I had liked believing that deep within I was capable of everything I wanted, but at the same time, I had no idea how to be that person.
I thought I still had time to figure it all out. I thought there would be years of Ba and his La-Z-Boy, me on the carpet, our hands balled up in fists during the fight sequences and thundering drum beats, cheering loudly and high-fiving each other when the hero ultimately triumphed. I had thought Ba would always be around to help me find out who I was supposed to be. I was wrong.
My first novel, The Wondrous Woo is set in Scarborough—that's a really important part—in the eighties. And it follows a teenager named Miramar Woo from her last day of high school, where her father dies in a jaywalking accident.
And some really strange and interesting things start to happen where her siblings get bestowed by these gifts as they're called. Her brother becomes a musical genius and her sister becomes a math prodigy, but nothing happens to Miramar. And this was a real ode to all the quiet Chinese girls that I was and all those that I grew up with. Who were made and rendered kind of invisible. And, you know, whereas like inside of us, these rich imaginative lives were happening. So Miramar Woo loves Kung Fu movies as, as much as she loves Madonna. Right? So the story is really about how she cobbles together an identity and how she wants so much to be extraordinary even in these ordinary circumstances.
I immigrated to Canada when I was six years old. I didn't know how to speak English. I was in the first ESL class in my Scarborough school.
I was the only student too, for about a year. But what helped me learn English was the library and books. I just loved stories. And so I would read, you know, alphabetically. I just learned how to write by reading, but it wasn't just around fiction, but it was just the love of language.
I love magic realism. For a while, I was just obsessed with Latin American writers and their use of magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, like Isabella Allende, like so many. Um, and I was really interested in how magic realism was a political choice that they made. When I was writing The Wondrous Woo. I also talked to my friend, David Chariandy and I asked him about his novel Soucouyant and about the magic in the work. And we talked about how for many of us who have been marginalized in one way or another, that we need to pull in those other elements, because that's so much of how we were shaped growing up. On one hand, you know, I come from a tradition, I'm Cantonese and so stories and the dead and ancestors and ghosts are very much part of how I was brought up. So it's not as if, you know, what is seen as realism is many things for many people, right? They may include, you know, talking animals, right? So it's different worldviews. And how do we bring that to the page? Um, we can call it magic realism or we can just call it realism
Excerpt from That Time I Loved You
1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was 11 years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.
It started with Mr. Finley, Carolyn Findlay's dad. It was a Saturday afternoon in freezing February. My best friend, Josie, and I were sitting on her bed playing Barry Manilow's, “Copacabana” over and over again on her cassette player and writing down the lyrics. I was the recorder while Josie pressed play, rewind, and play again a hundred times, repeating the lines over to me until the ribbon finally snapped and we had to repair it with Scotch Tape.
“Did you get that June? Did you get that?” She kept asking me as I nodded and wrote furiously on lined paper. We kept all the transcribed lyrics in a special pink binder, marked “SONGS” in my balloon lettering.
I didn't like the song as much as she did. I want to switch to “Le Freak” to practice our new dance moves, but Josie was determined to unravel the mystery of Lola at the Copa.
Josie's brother, Tim, came in the front door, slammed it hard and thumped up the stairs, shouting “Josie! June! Mr. Finley's dead. He's dead! He's fucking dead!”
My second book of fiction is called That Time I loved You. It is a collection of linked stories. That Time I Loved You is also set in Scarborough in the late seventies, and it talks about a community and it's, it's a set in a time that I lived also as well. That is often not archived. And I felt, I really want to document this, this moment in time. Now the late seventies was a booming economic moment. It was also a time where the immigration act had changed. So that's not just Western Europeans were privileged to come and immigrate to Canada, but it opened up to more of us. And so it was a real transition moment. And I also wanted to write about the suburbs because, you know, I don't think there's enough written about the suburbs in a really interesting way, besides from just suburban malaise of middle-class, you know, white people.
So I wanted to reflect this time that I knew growing up about the newness of the world. So the newness of this neighborhood, the newness of understanding what neighbors are and what those relationships are and the newness of those of us who came from other places being brought together in this one space and time, that is way more than these like, you know, common tropes about what multiculturalism was, right. That parades us one at a time. I wanted to talk about all of us being here together in the same place and time and the street, the road between our houses as being this amazing, uh, common space of contact. It follows June who is, from a structure of a link story, she has the character arc because she has the first story, the middle story and the last story. Um, but it's also about her friends and about family and about some of her neighbors. And there's 10 stories in all.
I really loved June and Josie's relationship. It's, um, you know, the memory of the intensity of having a best friend when you're a child and what happens with growing up, like when you suddenly understand that you're different people and that there are separations. And there, you know, I just remember that moment. And I really, and I wanted to think about Josie like, I don't, I don't see a lot of characters who, especially as children, surviving violence to also have much agency and much story. Right? And I, and I resisted that and I wanted to give Josie that voice and her bewilderment and her betrayal of what was happening to her. And also understanding how her best friend loves her, but there's something that has happened that is now unbridgeable between them, you know, and the impossibility of that love and returning to a safe place.
So those were things that I've wanted to, to show that I didn't want to have these kind of binary narratives about what abuse is like and how it's experienced or how others didn't know—may have known, but didn't know what to do—or didn't, you know, and in the case of June, and Josie the balance that I had for That Time I Loved You, is it’s set in the late seventies where a lot of the language that we have now as tools to express what's happening to us, wasn't even there yet. So I wanted to talk about what it means not to have language to even to describe what is happening.
I realized writing this third novel, I am so protective of my characters that I had to write a note and tape it to my keyboard that said, make like, let horrible things happen to them.
I don't want to write violence for the sake of writing violence. Like I'm not into gratuitous violence and violence as just kind of some performative thing. I disagree with that. I feel like, you know, I think I was one, um, interview that really struck me was when Thea Lim interviewed Marlon James and they spoke about writing violence and Marlon James said, “It's the after that matters, it's how we survive. Um, and how we thrive that matters.” I think about that a lot about, we know that violence happens. I'm not going to be gratuitous about it, but I want to know about what our resistances are, like our resiliencies. And, um, and I don't want, you know, thinking about those words even like, I feel like words like resistance and resilience have been really kind of co-opted and then like branded back to us.
And that's part of my struggle with language is I want to retain the power of such language, resist it from being co-opted and branded. I’m not here to make like loud pronouncements, like, you know, I have other venues for, for my work in, in, you know, standing for justice. Um, but in my novels, I want to talk about the complexity and fullness of being human, because I don't feel like in our world, all of us are afforded full human-hood.
When the lockdown first happened, I was in the process of writing a new novel and everything just because everything else got interrupted, I felt like I couldn't write. And so some people call that a writer's block. And I feel like I don't often use that term writer's block because it's too generic for me. There are many reasons why suddenly words fail us. And I think that I was just really seeing everything that was happening locally and globally. I was really stuck with what story can I tell. A couple of months before the lockdown I had just bought some thread. I bought this like little embroidery kit. I was doing these very simple embroidery. And I found it really relaxing and calming. Um, and then, you know, it takes your mind off other things and it was very meditative and it was just this other kind of creative outlet for me.
So I went from doing these simple kind of embroidery to suddenly like doing, you know, started with friends’ book covers. So, you know, a few of my friends were interrupted by the pandemic, so they couldn't have a live launch. And it just made me feel really connected to people, even though we weren't able to see each other and there was such a big disconnect.
And there were so many parallels that I saw between my stitch work and the writing. Like I saw the process of it. I saw the decisions and the intentions. So when you stitch you can do many kinds of stitches. And I realized the stitch was kind of like the word. And so there's many ways to mark the stitch on fabric as it is like marking words on a page. And because of that, it made me really engaged with what it could become.
And there just was something very satisfying about using my hands. You know, like so much of what we do is on screen and is, you know, mediated through technology and machines. And it was just really nice to come down to a very basic thing, like hands, needle, thread. I needed to go back to the most simplest form of something that I could do. And, and it was just the right thing.
Excerpt from The After
Goldie never tried to understand the humans. To put it another way, she was not a big fan. To be even more honest, she thought they were assholes. She had reasons for this belief, the human and the feral were like two lines of traffic that didn't meet. One took the day and her kind took the night. But nevertheless, they collided in horrific consequences for the feral side. The humans were always veering into her lane and like the bugs that splattered on their windshields, though, it was noteworthy that fewer bugs were around anymore. The feral creatures were always at risk too. The feral lived off what the humans discarded, but humans didn’t even want to share their garbage. The humans nailed up their attics, their basements, their in between spaces that the feral could have made into comfortable dens. They didn't even want to share the excess. It could have been fine if everybody lived according to the code of parallel lives, but no. For a creature who lived by the code, it was Goldie’s conclusion, therefore the human were fucking assholes.
You know, writing a new book is like being perpetually seasick. Like I just want to throw up, I'm queasy, but also super excited. Um, this book is a, this new book is something that feels very risky and scary for me to write. And it comes from a place of a feeling of such a fear and grief about planetary survival.
Yes about climate change, but just about this moment of this real reckoning, this moment of real reckoning with colonial violence, racial violence, and, uh, and you know, the rising fascism. So this is part of why I was stuck with what story to even tell right now. And so I had on a white board, I have this whiteboard where I just write scribbles of things. And I guess at some point I wrote the words apocalyptic fairytale, and my kid was looking at this whiteboard one day and said, “That's what you should write, an apocalyptic fairytale.” So I kind of went with it. And, um, I don't know if the final product will be an apocalyptic fairytale, but I found writing about a post-apocalyptic world through the narrator of a raccoon. And, you know, I'm never, I'm never going to be a writer who doesn't write humor, even if it's the end of the world.
So I feel like, you know, that's part of the aftermath, right. The survival is about humor and joy. And that's always something that I want to bring into my writing. The title right now is called The After. And it's about an announcement being made that we've hit the point of no return, that there is no turning back now. And I felt like I had to write about that because this anticipation of doom is always upon us. So I wanted to write, okay, so it's done it's over. So then what? So I wrote that and I wrote about what happens, how the world reshapes and it's, you know, I think it's Toronto. It could be really any city, but I had in mind Toronto. And of course the raccoon, because of course, how do you write a Toronto story without a raccoon? Um, and I wanted to think about not just humans, which is why the raccoon is there, but about the raccoon’s point of view of what's happening too.
So really, you know, not to be super heavy about it, but how do we live even as we're dying? And that's something, a question that I'm thinking about a lot.
I use prompts a lot, especially when I'm doing workshops with participants who don't see themselves as writers. I had this really powerful experience where I was invited to hold a writing workshop with grade seven and eight girls in Vaughan. I took the Go Train out there on a freezing February, took a really long bus ride and a Go Train ride. Um, I didn't know these, the community's of Vaughan. I didn't know anything about them. And I was really, I was blown away by what happened in these workshops. There were, so they’re grades seven and eight, which means like they're like 12 and 13 years old. They were very racially diverse and very class-diverse.
I thought about, you know, writing That Time I Loved You and writing The Wondrous Woo, I wrote young protagonists, right? I wrote like YA, so one of the prompts I got them to write. And so I introduced what a writing prompt is. I introduce what timed writing is and free writing is. So I just said, you know, write, however you want, write in point form, draw a picture, there's no rules here as to how to do this, but I just want you to respond to this question and just go with it. And my question to them was name a moment when you realized you were no longer a child. I've also done this in, when I've taught, YA writing to really think about it, whether it was a moment an event, even an image, just something where there was a moment when something shifted in you. It was so powerful in this workshop because we're talking about, yes, they're children, they're 12 and 13 years old, but of course they have the awareness of not being children and, and they offered and disclosed these incredible stories.
And it was such an opportunity. So for me, like when I go into spaces like this, it's not just about writing. It's about, I know what writing can do. I know the kind of emancipation that can happen when we share stories. And when we hear stories and what happens within the group, when a story is shared. The kind of things that were shared were really intense to a point where I had to pull aside their teachers to ask them to please give care, because things were disclosed that we need to pay attention to, but the care that was fostered between the students and taking care of each other. So yeah, it's a prompt that I found really powerful. It's powerful, no matter what group I share it with. And I, and I think it, it gets to something that is very generative.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Carrianne’s work, including her collection That Time I Loved You. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
Carrianne Leung challenges established ideas about craft and teaching, and shares how her writing aims to show the complexity and fullness of being human:
00:45 | How her work as a sociologist intersects with her work as a fiction writer in its concerns with the narratives we tell ourselves and how she’s rethinking the traditional writer’s workshop
05:03 | The development of her first novel, The Wondrous Woo and magic realism as a political choice
09:32 | Moving beyond stereotypes about multiculturalism in her story collection That Time I Loved You
15:00 | How cross stitching helped keep her creative and connected during the pandemic
18:26 | Imagining the apocalypse through the eyes of a raccoon in her new novel The After
21:02 | Asking a group of middle school students to pinpoint the moment when they no longer felt like children and the care that that fostered between participant
Mentorship and Community
When I first published The Wondrous Woo, my first novel, I had no clue about this whole other side. You know, I felt like, okay, I just nailed it where I actually wrote a book, but then there's all this other parts, this other parts of it that I didn't really know. So I started this Facebook group called “Diverse” in quotation, um, Canadian and Turtle Island Writers, and to kind of just get other people to help me out. And it's grown—I'm no longer the moderator of the group—I think it's grown to like close to a thousand members now. So I was very much interested in what is marketing? What is self promotion? What is doing a reading? Like all of these things—what is a query letter? So there's all these pathways to publishing and to having a book out there that I didn't know.
So being a good literary citizen for me, means to share and be generous with other writers and especially emerging writers, um, to offer them help along the path. So it also means going to literary events. I feel really, I feel very joyful about my literary community. I think it's been, that's one of the bonuses that I didn't know when I first, you know, published the novel, that I would actually be able to meet all these amazing people and have these new friends. And, um, that has been one of the best parts about being a writer for me is to be supportive, to be, like, engaged. And it's also, I feel like even though we do so much of our work alone, we're also so much in company of other writers. You know, like I feel like our books can be conversations with each other because that is how we grow together as a literary community.
So I think that the, all of those things, as well as being a mentor, so I've had, um, I've had a few opportunities to be a mentor. You know, most recently I was a mentor for the Toronto Writers' Union. It's a mentorship program for racialized writers and I've continued a relationship with one of my mentees and she has now a draft manuscript that's ready to be sent to agents or publishers. And so I'm helping her with that process as well. And I've been a mentor at Diaspora Dialogues. So those things I think are really important to me. I'm always excited by new writing. And I think that, you know, we owe it to each other. Like, you know, people helped me out. Farzana Doctor was so helpful with my first novel. She introduced me to the editors at Inanna Publications after The Wondrous Woo sat in slush piles for two years with other people. So, you know, those are things that can make all the difference. And it makes me sad to think about all the writing we've lost because writers were not able to find their way to publishing. So I think that that's really an important part for me as, as my duty as a writer.
So when I was writing That Time I Loved You, the characters came really organically, like almost like a, they were chains. The more stories I wrote, the more it was obvious that this other person was also needed a story. And a lot of it was also retrieving memory from, from my growing up. I'm always really careful to, to talk about my books like their fiction. It's not an autobiographic, you know, it's not me. And sometimes when I go to do readings, people expect Miramar or June to show up. And, um, and it's not me. But of course I draw a lot, especially in these two books, I draw a lot from memory of, of my own childhood growing up in Scarborough and, uh, they're composite sketches of people that I, that I knew.
There were a lot of decisions that I made through the process of writing it. You know, I take very seriously, um, authorial voice, right. Who has the right to write what voices? There’s two essays that really, um, that for me is really important. One is Alexander Chee's writing about appropriation. And he asked us to, um, consider particular questions as to, we feel, we need to write voices that are outside of our own experiences. And one of them that's like, why does this voice need to be in your story? What purpose does it serve? Do you read other, you know, writers from these, from these, um, communities that you were writing about? Like, what is your engagement, right?
And also Alicia Elliot's essay about writing from a place of love. And because also my, my concern is always to have my characters be shown as really complicated, complex, messy beings as we are. To give that sense of, you know, personhood to my characters. I also ask friends to read my work, you know. The story about Darren, for example, um, I had friends of mine who are Jamaican Canadians read. I think one of the changes I made for example, was I think I had him, his mom made him Kraft Dinner, and one of my friends is not, we would never serve our kids Kraft Dinner. Right. So like, you know, there are things that, um, that I changed, but I also want to, um, I don't want to get it wrong. I don't want to ever perpetuate, um, you know, stereotypes or tropes about people who are not of my experience.
Even the story about you know, the story about the kleptomaniac right. I wanted, you know, and she's like a white woman who is like this busy body and the neighborhood. I wanted to give her a complexity as well. Right. Like, she's that kind of, um, uh, very familiar, passive racist that I grew up with—passive and maybe not so passive—but I wanted to also give her the benefit of being a full human. So those things are really important to me. I want to give respect to my characters in those ways and also to, um, give respect to those communities that I write about.