Alchemical Place


During the Q&A at the end of Vancouver Seen, a Tuesday evening panel of Vancouver writers Dennis E. Bolen, Kevin Chong, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Jen Sookfong Lee, an audience member reiterated a couple of the questions from the description of the event in the Festival program. “What kind of literary community exists in Vancouver? What is the nature of relationships between writers?” He was probably hoping for a more substantive answer than what had emerged to that point. I’m interested in Vancouver writing, but I’d also been attracted to the event, in part, by the series of questions in the program. They’re interesting questions, not throwaways used to fill out a few lines of copy. Here are the questions, which I’ll attempt to answer — or at least mull over — based on what the authors read from their work, and on the ensuing discussion, moderated by Vancouver Magazine executive editor John Burns.

What is it about Vancouver that holds the attention of writers who could travel in their fertile imaginations throughout the world to exotic settings for their fiction?

Vancouver is already an exotic setting. For two young sisters in 1946, living in rural poverty south of the Fraser River, Vancouver is a destination, an alluring place of bright lights and nightspots like the Palomar Supper Club, redolent of glamour and the financial possibilities of working as dancers on a vaudeville stage. Like these characters in Lee’s novel The Better Mother, Lee herself conceives of Vancouver as something of a dreamscape that paradoxically can be all cities, and yet can only be Vancouver. For Bolen, Vancouver is more of an exotic nightmare, a place where failed boomers writhe in the Dantesque hell of car-wreck lives. Chong’s Vancouver is the site of a unique cultural hybridity, a type of exoticism that we may take for granted here, but which can’t be counted on elsewhere. Gartner initially hated Vancouver when she moved here to work as a journalist, and during the discussion said she hated the word “community,” at least in some contexts, but for her, Vancouver is perhaps a weirdly comfortable ‘un-community’, a refuge for those who do not want to join things, a place where a quirky vision can hew out the cultural space to be quirky.

Although it has perhaps abated in recent years, a trend did exist among Canadian writers of traveling to foreign, ‘exotic’ countries, and then coming back to Canada to write about it — presumably for we poor provincials who would never make it out of Moose Pond, but would perhaps turn down the hockey game long enough to read a book. You might guess that I was somewhat hostile to what I considered, in some cases, disguised tourist writing. Anywhere is as ‘exotic’, or as mundane, as anywhere else. It’s all in what you do with it.

Why do they write about here?

Because they are here. That’s not meant as flippant. Lee tried to write a novel set in Brooklyn, and as she explained, “it sucked hard.” Gartner stated emphatically that “somewhere else would be a different story.” (I hope I haven’t jumbled my notes and that the emphatic statement wasn’t in fact made by one of the other writers.) Bolen “uses the city as a grid for characters to run through,” while intentionally downplaying Vancouver’s spectacular, internationally known setting. And yet, it is the grid. No grid, and you lose your structure, your bearings. Chong was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Burnaby and Ladner. He said he can’t stand the humidity in the city of his birth. Burns wrote a novel with no identifiable references to Vancouver or the west coast, beyond there being “water,” and yet eastern publishers considered it “a west-coast novel.” I sense that all five feel there is something alchemical about Place, and about this particular place, a seeping in to the genes of a temperate rainforest essence, the cool jungle of possibility, that permeates their books and who they are as people.

What kind of literary community exists in Vancouver?

A diverse one. White, Asian, male, female, younger, older, Vancouver-born, later arrival, joiner, loner. Fiction writer, non-fiction writer, young adult writer, aspiring poet, journalist, editor, anthologist, radio personality, teacher. And that’s working just some changes on the four panelists. Apply to the Vancouver literary community as a whole and scale upward and outward accordingly. Which may turn the question back on itself. Is there a literary community in Vancouver, or rather, a number of writers who happen to live in Vancouver? That formulation is almost certainly too binary. The question may be more one of cohesiveness. Is the Vancouver literary community more or less cohesive than literary communities elsewhere?

What is the nature of relationships between writers?

It depends on the personalities of the individual writers. Bolen said, “I’ve never had a really good solid friendship with another fiction writer,” while Gartner countered that “most of my best friends are fiction writers.” At one point, Gartner was “the toughest editor” Bolen ever had (can editors and authors be friends?), something Bolen seemed to say with admiration. Chong has invited Bolen out for beer — once — but apparently not Gartner or Lee. Chong and Lee overlapped in the UBC Creative Writing program, and both credit the program with fostering ongoing relationships and friendships among local writers. In the case of Lee, meeting fellow Vancouver writers June Hutton and Mary Novik (both in attendance) in a writing workshop evolved into the SPiN writing group they’ve maintained and found mutually beneficial for almost a decade.

Is there an element of competition amongst the camaraderie?

Of course. But it’s sort of a taboo subject, isn’t it? At least to deal with hot and live — really deal with. And tellingly this particular question didn’t get aired directly. And there were no on-stage fisticuffs. Bolen made an interesting distinction between poets and fiction writers. He feels the large, active, friendly, and cohesive local poetry scene is made possible by the complete absence of any money. With fiction, however, “there’s a five-dollar bill on the table, and we’re all fighting over it.” Which may be why Bolen’s next book is going to be poetry. Although he told me after the event it has more to do with who he feels he is as a writer. Not a crime writer but “a literary writer in a crime milieu,” and one who is interested in language. Gartner didn’t seem completely comfortable with Bolen’s characterization of writers’ mercenary motives, but then later gave me a sly jab for not buying her book — for which I apologize. And Chong asked me if I was going to the hospitality suite, which I interpreted as being half-invited for a beer. Alas, I had to work in the morning.

Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Chong 

Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Chong