The New Quarterly is embarking on a two-year project to identify new, diverse literary voices we can support, and to build genuine and lasting diversity into the structure of the arts organization as a whole.
Beginning in February, 2016, Pamela Mulloy and Susan Scott began meeting once a month with three emerging non-fiction writers, all former students of Ayelet Tsabari. You could call the five of us a focus group, although in fact we have become conversation partners and guides, helping one another find our footing in a rapidly changing literary landscape.
Information circulates at these gatherings. But mostly there are stories and ideas, doubts and fears. There is food and drink and laughter. There’s some push-and-pull. Hard questions surface. Sometimes there are answers to these questions. Often there are not.
Our role, as editors, has been to listen, and to open up a place for reflection.
Each writer has agreed to step into that space by blogging about her experience, trying to break into the literary world. Here is Tamara Jong’s story.
The Back Story
Ma was a poet and she loved to read. I can just see her reading to me in her belly. My imagination grew with my love of reading and I thank my mother for this gift. I used to drool all over the Scholastic Book forms sent home from grade school because I wanted to own all the books. Money was tight for my family growing up so I could not buy all that I wanted but I still had the school library. It was a regular thing for me to take out more books then I could possibly read by the dreaded Due Date.
I loved the adventures of Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, and then came Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren that became dog-eared from me reading it so much. Another well-loved story for me was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and then I would wonder about the existence of Bigfoot and UFOs by reading books that really did make me believe. My favourite superhero was Superman and my dad bought me Old Master Q comics from Chinatown because I liked how funny they were even though I could not read any Mandarin.
The first story I recall writing was when I was nine years old and in grade three. It was about a white boy who owned a horse and just wanted the approval of his father. I remember the dad saying, “I’m proud of you, Son.” I was a girl with an overworked Chinese father and a religiously bent white mother who had begun drinking heavily. I can see now that I needed to be someone else, a different gender, and a different color, really just anyone else. In grade four, Mrs. Sauriol would let me read some of my stories aloud in class even though it was not an assignment. I kept a red diary of my crushes, which ranged from boys in class to NHL hockey players. As a Jehovah’s Witness I spent lots of time reading the scriptures and bible aids, and became busier in the ministry.
Growing up in my community in Chomedey, Laval, in the 70s, there were not many mixed races or Chinese, and people were taking sides over the French and English language issue. Sometimes we made up teams that were the French kids versus the English. I did not realize that I was different until kids made fun of me and pointed out that my eyes were slanty. One Saturday we begged our tired father to take us to La Ronde. Later on that night, some kid called my dad a Chink. My father chased him and kicked him in the behind. The kid tried to retract what he said, claiming that he was calling out to the guy running the ride and not my father. This kid came with a huge family entourage and my dad pushed his dad sending his cigarettes flying. Ma got between them while my dad whipped off his shoes so he could use his karate skills but the other dad was not having any of this. My brother, sister and I were scared and embarrassed. This would not be the first time my mother had defended or protected my father. I heard her telling a friend that someone asked her what it was like for her to be the only white person in the house. When I was nine, I used to beg my father not to cut my hair with bangs and the dreaded bowl cut. It made me look Chinese, I told him. I would tell people that my father was Chinese and my mother was normal. It was not until I was twelve that my father stopped cutting our hair and by the beginning of high school, the bangs were gone and my hair was long past my shoulders.
I journaled in high school and kept up with writing bad poetry. One of my poems was published in a school board journal in my last year of high school because my creative writing teacher Mrs. Butler told me to submit. I aspired to be Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, or Lucy Maud Montgomery. I used to think that I was living in the wrong time and wished I had been born back then. When I wrote, it never occurred to me that I was not writing in my own voice, not really.
I wrote super sweet sappy stories that were bad imitations of stories I had grown up reading. I started writing some biographical fiction after a conversation with a colleague who said that I should write my story. It got off to a quick start but then I could not keep it going. Twelve years later, I left my religion and decided I wanted to attend the Humber School for Writers to get help with my story. I met a fellow writer Jack, who changed my view on writing. He suggested that I make the character unique, different. He wondered why the character could not be like me. I realized that I internalized that it was not okay to be me. I had hidden some of the layers of who I really was; a mixed race, Jehovah’s Witness. I was writing as a white protagonist. I grew up reading white writers and had never read anything written by someone who resembled me. I was editing myself out of the story.
Tamara Jong is an emerging writer originally from Montreal. She has taken creative writing at Humber, University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper.