Monday, September 01, 2008
Book Club: THE END OF THE EAST, by Jen Sookfong Lee
Welcome to the Ed Ass Monthly Book Club! September's Book Club book is The End of the East, by Jen Sookfong Lee.
The End of the East tells the story of three generations of Chan family in Vancouver, Canada. The first generation begins when Seid Quan, the patriarch, comes to Vancouver as a teenager in 1913 under the aegis of his impoverished home village, who have pulled together enough money to cover his fare and his visa so that he can someday pay them back. So begins Seid Quan's lonely life in Vancouver's Chinatown, working day and night, first as a cleaner, then as a barber, in an effort to save up enough money to pay back his village and pull his family together.
Over the next forty years, Seid Quan witnesses some of the darkest facets of immigrant--and, more specifically, Chinese immigrant--persecutions. During that time, he manages to return to his home village three times, to marry and father his three children, none of whom he will see grow up. With the arrival in Canada of his youngest, his son, Pon Man, already a teenager, the second Canadian generation of the Chan family begins, and with it the unbridgable fissures that interrupt every family's history: sacrifice; shame; death; unacknowledged love; disappointment; misunderstanding.
I chose The End of the East as the September Book Club selection for a number of reasons. Everyone knows I'm a big proponent of the debut novel, and here we have a glowingly reviewed one. But I also found that although the book is manifestly "Chinese"--in that it is the history of a Chinese-Canadian family and takes place almost entirely in Vancouver's Chinatown--the theme is, more centrally, the immigrant experience, something that all Americans (as well as Canadians) have in our own family histories (and often in our recent family histories).
In the character of Seid Quan, I very clearly saw my grandfather, who similarly came to the US when he was only 14 and worked abysmal jobs to squirrel away money to pay for the home that would shelter the many ungrateful children who would do anything they could to dissociate from his cultural legacy and pass themselves off as American. The degree of correspondence surprised me when I first read the book, and became one of the reasons I recommend this title so ardently to just about anyone I meet. I think a lot of us struggle to reconcile our own cultural identities with that of our "ethnic" forefathers and -mothers, and also with the uninterest in those cultural identities we often see among our parents, the generations in between the advent and the rediscovery.
I came up with a bunch of discussion questions, but then I was actually a big self-serving grub and conned Jen Sookfong Lee herself into answering them all. Thanks, Jen.
MR: How did you first come to work with your agent?
JSL: I was very lucky. I didn't do any research into agents at all, and just sent Carolyn Swayze a package because she was one agent I had heard of. In a way, it's a miracle she took me on since I really knew nothing about the agent submission process. If an aspiring writer were to ask me now how to find an agent, I would say research online and see who represents books that are similar to yours. Everything I didn't do, in other words.
MR: Wow! Sounds like you had an enviably easy time with the agent search! It must have been meant to be. What was the sale of your book--first to Knopf Canada--like?
JSL: From my perspective, it seemed quite easy because, of course, my agent did all the hard work. I was never sure if The End of East was going to sell or not, and I managed to convince myself that, if it didn't, I would be okay with that. After all, it was my first book and we all know that most writers have unpublished manuscripts stowed away in drawers somewhere. When my agent phoned with the news of the offer, it was seven in the morning here on the West Coast, I was barely awake and it all seemed like one fancy dream. As soon as I wrote down the offer on a piece of paper and passed it to my husband while I was still on the phone, he immediately picked up the front paws of our dog and danced with her around the kitchen, which is why, at Knopf, he's known as Dances with Dogs. Because there was no way I could keep that to myself! Still can't, apparently.
The sale to Thomas Dunne Books in the US just seemed like icing to me. I think my husband and dog danced for that too.
MR: THE END OF THE EAST reads, to me at least, as intensely memoiristic. How much of the novel would you say is inspired by your own family history, and how much is fictionalized?
JSL: What I always say is that The End of East is based on my family but isn't about my family. I used the structure of my family's history, but the drama and scenes are entirely fiction. So, while my grandfather was a barber and my parents did have an arranged marriage, I really didn't know anything about what my parents and grandparents actually did or felt. And I didn't ask my mother, because I wanted to keep that sense of mystery and discovery. And, really, I'm not someone who is interested in facts or truth. There's a reason I'm not a journalist!
MR: It seems to me that a family history has so many rich and fascinating details that it must be nearly impossible to choose NOT to use some. So how would you say you went about choosing which aspects of your family story you would use?
JSL: I don't think I ever actually decided what to use or what not to. I just wrote what I wrote. It helped that I didn't know much about my grandparents' lives, or much about my parents' marriage in the early stages. I was then forced to make stuff up (my favourite past time). What I did consciously include was the historical aspect of my family's lives, meaning how things like immigration policies and war shaped how my family lived together or lived apart. It was important to me to show how global events or laws or even a city can affect people in the most personal of ways.
MR: THE END OF THE EAST has five main characters: Seid Quan, the grandfather, Shew Lin, the grandmother, Pon Man, the father, Siu Sang, the mother, and Sammy, the young narrator. To me, though, the entire book is really about Seid Quan, whose thwarted desire to reach out to his son is a theme from the very beginning. Does this--the fact that at least one reader latched on preferentially to one character!--make you happy or sad?
JSL: Neither, it just amuses me! Seid Quan is an easy character to love, and a lot of people really connect with him and I'm glad they do, because he really is the hero of the story in the best sense of the word. He bookends the novel. He was the very first character I started writing and he was by far the easiest one to write. I was never at a loss for what he might say or do, I just always knew. I think the reason for part of this is because he's based very much on my own grandfather, or at least the idea of my grandfather that I have in my mind. He died when I was quite young, so I didn't know him very well. It wasn't until I was about 16 that I realized he had lived through some of the worst times for Chinese Canadians in Vancouver. So, when I started writing The End of East, it was as if I trying to explain to myself his motivations for coming to Canada and staying. I have a copy of his entry document, dated 1913, hanging on the wall in my office and whenever I feel like the writing life is too hard, I just look up and remember that all my grandfather's hard work is what enabled me to do what it is I'm doing and that I should stop whining!
As you can see, Seid Quan is really special to me as well, but I would never say he's my favourite character, just the most heroic and principled. I like salty Shew Lin too! Really, I like all of them.
MR: I'm not Chinese, but much of the novel was resonant for me because of stories I've heard from my grandparents and parents about their immigration and assimilation experiences. I think this is one of the reasons I responded so powerfully to the book--I see in the characters a lot of my own relatives. Have other people responded in a similar way?
JSL: I think so. I like to think that this really isn't a Chinese story, but an immigrant story and, beyond that, simply a family story. Many people of various backgrounds have said to me that they really felt the novel spoke to their family experiences. I mean, after all, we've all cried through generational conflict and ill-chosen love affairs and loneliness. My goal was not to bring readers something exotic, but rather to show them that every family weathers the same crises and makes the same mistakes, no matter the cultural context.
Thanks a bunch, Jen!! I'm so glad you could join us for our second-ever monthly book club. It was a pleasure to have you. Can't wait to see what you'll come out with next!