Whoever plotted the site for UVic’s Department of Writing must have been a farmer. Whether there’s something in the water or the land is just fertile, a substantial number of writers — all with roots in UVic’s writing program — cultivated their careers this past year with publications or award nominations and wins. The most recent to add to the Department’s literary yield is Yasuko Thanh, who earned both her B.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UVic. Last month she launched her first collection of short stories, Floating Like the Dead.
“We’re going back 10 years,” she says of the material. Roughly half of the nine stories Thanh composed during her M.F.A. made it into the book. Other stories came from her undergrad days and even before. “It almost feels like a collected works . . . even though it’s my first book.”
Thanh says she’s always written, “whether it was a diary, or terrible poetry or jotting down little images because I felt this compulsion to put stuff down on paper.”
But it wasn’t until her first publication in the Vancouver Sun more than a decade ago that Thanh began entertaining thoughts of writing for a living. “It might have been getting that cheque in the mail that somehow legitimized what I was doing to a certain degree. What it meant is that, wow, somebody besides me considers me to be a writer — not that $75 is a great deal of money, or even that money is what legitimizes you as a writer, but it was a symbol of somebody who was in this capacity recognizing what I was doing and validating the fact that what was in my heart had appeal for somebody else.”
Thanh submitted to literary journals. She collected her rejection slips. But by the time she began her family, she realized her current routine wouldn’t suffice. “I did the starving writer thing for a long time, just trying to live from Canada Council grant to Canada Council grant. Then I had a couple of kids and, you know, it’s just not enough money,” she says. “So I felt like I needed to do something that might lead to a job in the future, and brilliantly I chose to study creative writing instead of something that would actually lead to a job.”
Thanh wrote the short story for which her book is named in a workshop class with Stephen Price. “Floating Like the Dead” is a fictitious account of a group of Chinese lepers on D’Arcy Island. It captures an ugly moment in B.C.’s medical history. It also captured the attention of the editorial board at Vancouver Review. After publishing the story in their pages, they submitted it for the Journey Prize. In 2009, Thanh won the prestigious award and was promptly picked up by publishers McClelland and Stewart.
“Everything sped up after I won. Even though [McClelland and Stewart] had been considering my body of work prior to the win — one could say it’s just a coincidence — but a week later I got the publication offer, even though for months and months before I’d been kind of waiting for an answer,” says Thanh. “I also got an agent that same week: by the time I got home [from accepting the award in Toronto] there was a message on the machine from [literary agent] Denise Bukowski.”
Even though her career is blossoming, Thanh keeps herself rooted. “I think it legitimizes that external aspect of writing, which is the business of it and the sending things out and crafting a career out of it,” she says. “It doesn’t do — well it shouldn’t do — anything to affect your actual opinion of yourself as a writer.”
Thanh advises young writers not to get wrapped up in the failures or the successes. It’s the process — finding time to write every day — that matters. “Without self-censoring,” she adds.
For Thanh, that now means working on her first novel, a project that’s been underway for a couple of months. She’s simultaneously working on three or four short stories as well. “It’s been really great to delve back into the [short story] form,” she says. “So while I’m enjoying the longer form, it’s kind of nice to have it balanced by working on these little side projects.”