Sunday, April 06, 2014

My Top Ten Literary Books


It's spring in Vancouver, and I'm happy to emerge from the very busy winter I've had. Since January, I've been attending TheWriter's Studio at SFU. It's a creative writing certificate run on a mentorship model. Every two weeks, nine of us meet with novelist Kevin Chong to workshop our writing. 
Recently, my fellow mentees and I shared lists of our Top Ten books. I've never had the courage to compile such a list. How to choose? How to order them? And… scariest question of all… what about all the books that get left out??? So this list is accompanied with a few caveats: it is not comprehensive or definitive, and it is certainly not compiled in any particular order. 
These are just a handful of the books that haunt my psyche and my intellect. They are the voices I engage with when I write.
1. Toni Morrison, Tar Baby. I love and aspire to the way Morrison uses language to create a compelling story as well as a gripping metaphor for the class systems and the social/racial inequalities that are rooted in the ghosts and traumas of colonialism. And she does all that without spoon-feeding you a history lesson.
2. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood. I have a love-hate thing for Murakami's crazy surrealist/absurdist leaps, but this one is a bit more grounded and down-to-earth. I spent 6 years in Japan, and the images in this novel remind me of why I loved living there so much. Murakami's characters defy any stereotypes we might have about the Land of the Rising sun.
3. Virginia Woolf, The Years. Woolf describes small details in a scene or landscape, details that open tunnels into a character's stream of consciousness.
4. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I love the gothic intensity of this novel and the rich story-within-a-story layering.
5. Margaret Atwood, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Atwood writes poems inspired by Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, a memoir of immigrating to Canada c. 1832. Atwood relishes in the more ghoulish aspects of this adventure in Canadian history, thus giving the collection a gothic feel that I just love.
6. Jessica Westhead, And Also Sharks. Short stories, many of them set in offices, about an automaton way of living life, following trends, repeating patterns, getting stuck in emotional ruts. Can we find a real place of human connection when we spend so much of life on automatic?
7. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. Wow. Roy creates beautiful language tableaux to explore the personal and political reverberations of social inequality in India. A beautiful, bittersweet statement about the power of love.
8. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. A dense analysis of gender using the deconstructionist theories of Derrida and Foucauld. Not an easy read. Yet there was something enlightening about the experience, too: it blew apart my understanding of language and how it is used to describe gender and other social constructions.
9. The Way of Zen. Alan Watts. This is mostly about the religion/philosophy of Zen Buddhism, but Watts also talks about Haiku as a different way of using language poetically--Haiku recognizes the limits of language, and therefore uses it sparingly, avoiding convoluted metaphors.
10. Julian Barnes, Arthur and George. Just simply a page-turner and a great story: set in 19th C England; deep psychological exploration of the characters' passions and ambitions; a great mystery; and echoes of our own post-9/11 culture of paranoia and racial profiling.

What are some books that still haunt you years after you've read them?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Freelance Journalists: Raking in the Dough Yet?

I was at Vancouver's East Side Pride yesterday, where a friend of a friend who has also trained as a journalist but who also does not work as one asked for my blog address. Embarrassed, I told her I hadn't been on it in over a year...

...I've been busy. I spent two years as a freelance journalist, never getting rich. Though I was very happy with the work I was doing and it was getting published in magazines and websites like and Kyoto Journal, I was not getting payed for any of it. More and more of my expenses were going on my credit card. Not a good thing, so I came up with a back-up plan for financial stability: in 2012 I signed up for a TESOL (teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) diploma at Vancouver Community College. I was two-thirds of the way through when I got a job teaching settlement English (English for immigrants). It was a split shift, plus I was tutoring on weekends, plus I was finishing up my practicum for my diploma. I had no time for anything else.

A random pic of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, who were lovers and travelled (Vita did) and had lovely dogs, and generally enjoyed the finer things in life without needing "a job."
Things changed in the new year, and I have had more time for journalism these last few months. So here's an update on what I've done, journalistically speaking:

-I am a contributing journalist on The F Word, a feminist show on Co-op Radio Vancouver. The transition from "print" journalism (which actually includes writing for both paper and electronic publications) was a bit of bumpy road, with some technical glitches. But I've come a long way. For May Day this year, I produced a show that features an interview with Kate Braid, a Vancouver poet and carpenter who talks about the status of women in trades, then and now.  I also talked to SD Holman, a local photo-based artist who had an amazing exhibition called Butch: Not Like the Other Girls at the Cultch in East Vancouver last spring. Holman talked to me about sexism in the art world, guerrilla art for gender equality, and queer identities. The show is available on, where the F Word posts its pod casts on a (semi) regular basis.

-I've been a member of the Growing Room Collective, which publishes Room magazine, Canada's oldest literary journal for, by, and about women. In the latest issue, One for All and All for One, I talk to Elee Kraljii Gardiner, a poet who co-ordinates Thursdays Writing Collective in the Downtown Eastside. This issue is available at bookstores now or by subscription--check out the link above.

So that's what I've been up to. Still not making much money from journalism, but really enjoying the work that I do. If you have a secret to becoming a rich freelance journalist (without selling your soul to The Man) I would love to hear it. If you're struggling (like most of us) or have given up, or have come up with some kind of plan to make it work anyway, I'd love to hear your comments too.