By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer
Isabella Wang, a third-year SFU student, has made impressive strides in the literary community as the author of two poetry collections: a chapbook titled On Forgetting a Language, published in 2019, and Pebble Swing, her forthcoming full-length collection. The Peak had a chance to talk to Wang about her work and what inspires it.
Speaking with Wang felt like remembering what it means to write. She told me poetry is like being at home in a language, like the closest sense of home she has ever felt. This loving and gentle description of her work feels apt given Wang’s overall warmth.
Talking about the ways poetry has been a comforting medium for her, Wang described her experience immigrating to Canada. “After I immigrated here at the age of eight, my mother tongue started fading a lot due to bullying and other forms of erasure. And with that also, family ties and a lot of stuff like that,” Wang said.
Poetry became a way of reclaiming language for herself in a way that was familiar. Reading the work of other poets helped her feel a sense of belonging and grounded her.
These experiences are documented in her forthcoming manuscript, Pebble Swing.
For her, writing is not a lonely process. “I think a lot of the possibilities of writing opened up for me precisely when I started seeking — and ended up finding — a sense of community,” Wang said. She reminisced about being in high school and having support from her teachers, but also wishing for something more. This desire propelled Wang to start taking creative writing workshops at SFU, where she connected with professors doing literary work; and from them, she met other poets. These connections would hit home for her.
“There were Chinese-Canadian poets writing about their experiences,” she said. “It was the first time I saw a piece of myself on the page, reflected. And for me, especially when writing is hard, that sense of community and knowing you have so many people who are there [ . . . ] is really important.”
Though Wang is a critically acclaimed author, there are times when the writing doesn’t flow. Wang said she had to learn how to forgive herself for not writing, which she admitted was difficult to do. “I’m just learning right now, reading. And when the writing comes, it comes,” she added.
As a writer talking about her cultural experiences, the weight of representation is significant to Wang. She highlighted her perspective on it by sharing a quote from her friend Furqan Mohamed’s chapbook, A Small Homecoming:
“‘Write what you know is a phrase many writers are familiar with. The expression asks writers to trust themselves, to trust their inner narrative. As I grow older, I reflect more on the reverse of this saying, “know what you write,” which necessitates the understanding of what exactly I’m writing about, as well as who I’m writing about and how.’”
This excerpt from Mohamed resonated with Wang because she knew her work, whether it was fiction or poetry, came from a personal place. Wang recalls her own experiences, and when she writes about the lives of other people, she is careful and specific about how she represents them.