LiterASIAN offers an in-depth glimpse into the Asian-Canadian writing community

The festival consists of readings, panel discussions, and workshops facilitated by established authors

LiterASIAN 2019 took place in Vancouver’s Chinatown on September 27 and 28. Image courtesy of LiterASIAN.

By: Kitty Cheung, Peak Associate

Now in its seventh year, LiterASIAN is an annual Asian-Canadian writers’ festival. Organized by the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW), this year’s festival occurred on September 27 and 28 in Vancouver’s Chinatown with the theme of “Genesis: Writing Life Into Art.” With a $25 festival pass, I was able to attend a series of writing workshops and learn more about Vancouver’s local Asian-Canadian writing community. 

The festival opened with a reception hosted at Chinatown House. As I walked into the venue, I was welcomed with ambient guitar melodies from skilled musician Henry Young. The main event of the night was a panel discussion between five writers: C.E. Gatchalian, Philip Huynh, Sally Ito, May Q. Wong, and Rita Wong. Poet Fred Wah was also invited, but he was unable to attend the festival in-person. Each author read excerpts of their writing and participated in a facilitated Q&A session with the audience, discussing their individual writing experiences. Also during the reception, the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award was presented to Jamie Chai Yun Liew for her manuscript Dandelion Roots.

Saturday’s day-long schedule consisted of one-hour workshops facilitated by each of the invited authors. The first workshop, “Feeling the First Vague Stirrings,” was facilitated by queer and Filipinx-identified author C.E. Gatchalian. As a  discussion-style session, participants sat in chairs arranged in a circle around the room. Topics discussed included white fragility, Gatchalian’s love of Anne of Green Gables, and dealing with the discomfort of being vulnerable through art. When asked if writers should use their gifts to be political, this UBC professor responded that all art is political when moved by any emotion to express. Gatchalian also mentioned that despite this, not every writer has to explicitly speak about politics; it is up to the individual writer. 

The next workshop, “Writing From Scratch,” was run by Philip Huynh. A lawyer born from a Vietnamese immigrant family, Huynh’s workshop offered practical knowledge on the writing world. For example, he spoke about different routes to getting published, the responsibilities of an agent in comparison to a publisher, and the tasks that sprout up after selling a book, such as finding blurbs, conducting book launches, and joining the Writers’ Union. He elaborated on his nontraditional writing journey, cracking jokes about his lack of a Master of Fine Arts (which became a running joke throughout the festival). Huynh also stressed that there are no rules in writing, other than making it a routine. The main takeaway that I received was this: as a writer, the only person who can tell you that what you’re doing is worthwhile is you. This means, dear reader, that even if you may not give a shit that I wrote this review, I’ve given value and purpose to my own writing. 

“Events and Epiphanies: Writing Your Personal Myth” was facilitated by Sally Ito. Ito, a Japanese-Canadian author who teaches creative writing at the University of Manitoba, lead a series of writing activities on our personal myths. She started with prompts such as “tell me the story of your name” and “list 10 significant events in your life that you want to write about.” She gave participants time to write from these prompts before asking us to pick one event and just go at it, leading us to think about our own personal myths. This workshop was hands-down the most engaging of the festival, showcasing Ito’s patient and pleasant teaching style. 

Next was “Writing By Remembering Our Multicultural Pasts” with May Q. Wong. Wong, who has written creative non-fiction based on her Chinese-Canadian heritage, presented her 13 tips on journalistic basics. Stylish and elegant, Wong also offered practical knowledge on the writing process. My favourite lessons I took from this workshop include: keep reading, keep learning, and take note of the literary market. Wong suggested learning by taking writing courses and attending writing conferences, while examining the market would include asking yourself which memoirs, short stories, or poetry books are popular right now and what makes them successful. 

The festival closed with “Talking beholden: a poem” with Rita Wong. beholden: a poem as long as the river was co-written by poets Rita Wong and Fred Wah. Wong spoke about her experience traveling along the Columbia River with Wah while writing this poem. The Emily Carr professor spoke about our intimate and vital connection to water, reading aloud from her own poetry to illustrate; she also spoke on her opposition to dams. I found it particularly striking when Wong read aloud a list of native BC wildlife and plantlife whose habitats would be in danger due to the building of the Site C Dam on the Peace River, such as deer, beaver, and wild strawberry. The book discussion concluded with a water song and drum session. 

Seeing that this community of local writers exists was reassuring for this burgeoning writer. I was able to learn from the cultural perspectives of not only those invited as guest authors, but also from my fellow participants. As a Chinese-Canadian writer myself, I found this festival to be a promising reminder that my unique cultural voice can both find visibility and add value to the writing world. 

The University of Toronto, the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, and the ACWW will be hosting an extension of LiterASIAN in Toronto on November 27, 2019. The next LiterASIAN festival will likely be held in September 2020 in Vancouver.