In the Spotlight
Associate Professor, University of Calgary & CCWWP Board Member
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
This month, in a special exchange with our sister organization in Canada, The Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (or CCWWP, pronounced “quip”), our Spotlight is on novelist and poet Larissa Lai in an interview with Canadian-French author Pierre-Luc Landry.
About: Larissa Lai has authored three novels, The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl, and When Fox Is a Thousand; two poetry books, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement; and a critical book, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers' Award, and a finalist for seven others, she holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary, where she directs The Insurgent Architects' House for Creative Writing.
Larissa, I will tell you the exact same thing I told Lillian Allen when I started interviewing her last month: You are a fascinating person! Born in California, raised in Newfoundland, educated in the UK and in Calgary, you held positions in many institutions before coming back to the University of Calgary. You write fiction, poetry, literary criticism. You teach, you organize, you think, you share… Was it always the life you dreamed of?
I’ve had half my thinking, writing life outside the academy and half of it inside. When I began my writing life there were a lot fewer positions inside the academy for people who look like me, and the kinds of language and thought I work with were not really admissible. Or they were, but the bludgeon reserved for the few inside who practised them were brutal and soul-destroying. Much of the knowledge I carry with me comes from mentorship offered outside an academic context. There were events too that were key: Yellow Peril: Reconsidered, the Appropriate Voice, Writing Thru Race, It’s a Cultural Thing. Artist-Run Centres were particularly important, especially Video In, grunt gallery, the Western Front. Also SAW Video in Ottawa where I worked as coordinator for a year in the early 1990s. I came to the academy only after some progressive academics began reading my first novel, When Fox is a Thousand, published by Press Gang Publishers in 1995. Now, I teach, write, and organize in much the same mode that I did before, but inside the walls. I run an “un-centre” called The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing at the University of Calgary, where, in collaboration with colleagues and students, I run symposia, talks, and readings on burning topics that need face-to-face discussion and relation-building. Recent symposia have included Black Lives Out West, The Littoral Contact Zone: Asian/Indigenous Relation from Treaty 7 Territories to the Salish Sea, Emergent Insurgencies: Social Justice and Contemporary Form.
I also just published a novel called The Tiger Flu.
It’s a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to do the things I do. Is it the life I always dreamed of? Well, the world we currently inhabit is not the world I always dreamed of, and it’s not possible to live the life I dream of when there is so much suffering and power imbalance all around me. In the life I dream of, students, colleagues, friends, and strangers would have a lot more freedom to engage their practices from the cores of their beings, without so much administration, so many hoops, exams, requirements, and most of all without so much competition. Both inside the academy and out, we would have very different forms of governance.
At the University of Calgary, you hold the Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing; in that context, you initiated The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing, which is an amaaaaaaaaazing laboratory for “social justice, futurity, and innovative aesthetics in creative writing.” Can you tell us more about how this idea germinated in your head and how you came to be able to put together such an impressive collective project?
I come to this work honestly, through a long history of cultural organizing work, beginning in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I was part of a lot of cultural events as organizer or participant, and kept a close eye on the ones that I didn’t take part in. At different, sometimes overlapping times, I volunteered at Kinesis: The Newspaper of the Vancouver Status of Women; I edited Front, the magazine of The Western Front Society; I curated a couple of shows at the grunt gallery; I sat on the organizing committee for Writing Thru Race after having met many of the people who were to become lifelong friends, colleagues, and co-organizers at the Appropriate Voice two years before. I was educated in community before I was educated at school, and I carry my teachers with me—people who taught me up-close or from a distance—like Roy Miki, Lillian Allen, Lee Maracle, Dionne Brand, Fred Wah, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias.
So in a way, TIA House is for me a return to my roots. As for the focus on social justice and contemporary aesthetics, it’s long been my experience that BIPOC and GBLTQ2S writers have been at odds with writers working in experimental traditions here in Canada, but that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. I wanted to build a bridge across a range of writing communities, in hopes of deepening both relationships and practices. This seems particularly important to me in this historic moment when so much abuse is coming to light. I’m horrified by the extent of it, but really happy that the fights against sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and bullying are getting some traction. Because, as a Chinese diasporic person, I come from a history of violent revolutions that haven’t worked out very well, I’m much more inclined to want to do the work through the building of community, through the holding up of what is generous and productive. I will go in for the shutdown when I really think it’s warranted, but I’m much more likely to be found singing in the water for positive change to be brought about with the least amount of harm.
Your writing reinvents everything at the same time as it holds a mirror to society to reflect on what is not working, in order to imagine better futures. How do you manage to create a body of work that is political and deeply literary?
It’s hard work. When I started The Tiger Flu, I wanted to imagine a world that was completely fantastical. Hiromi had just given me China Mieville to read and I fell in love with the strangeness. It took me a while to realize he was actually still writing about London. I’ve come to the conclusion that fantastical work must still be grounded in the real world in order to be legible. But grounded in the real world doesn’t have to mean realist. I’m so resistant—for myself—to the expectation that Asian writers ought to explain Asianness to white people by writing in a transparent and easily graspable way so that the mainstream will understand. I figure if I can read Thomas Pynchon and understand and enjoy it, there’s no reason why I can’t write that imaginatively and be understood by anyone who picks it up. So I tried. And of course, my politics would find their way into the work. There’s no such thing as writing that isn’t political—it’s just that some writers are more aware of this and more embracing of it than others. Because if you’re aware, you can work with it, and it becomes part of the story. I hope the work is not political in a flat, didactic kind of way. Because that’s not how I understand a productive politics to work. It’s got to be literary in the sense that it carries complexity and contradiction. There has to be character, voice, narrative movement. I always try to keep my ear open for sound, language, and voices, and my narrative sensibility attuned to story.
You came back to the novel sixteen years after your last one, with the publication of The Tiger Flu [in 2018]. Did you miss it?
I didn’t miss it because I didn’t stop during that sixteen years. This book has always been in the works. There are a thousand pages on the cutting room floor. It was slower to come to completion because of all things I’m juggling, but it’s always been there in the mix.
What are you currently working on in your creative life?
A poetry book called Iron Goddess of Mercy, which addresses the affective flows and schizophrenic state of working community. And another called Frog Diagram, which uses the meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine to address Hong Kong diasporic history including the Opium War, British possession, Japanese occupation, American embargoes, and PRC neocolonialism. I also want to think about its relation to capital flows, and its obsession with money.
What drew you to join the CCWWP board? Why does CCWWP matter, for creative writing profs and students across Canada?
I think that CCWWP does really important work to improve the place of creative writers in the academy and to attend to the creative and pedagogical needs of students and faculty. When I came on board, it was having what I shall politely term “hegemony issues.” I wanted to get involved to turn that around. The first thing I did was email Lillian Allen and ask her if she would join me. So much great stuff has been done in the time that I’ve been involved. Not because I’ve done it—it’s been everyone together. But I’ve loved being part of it, and having all the important conversations, and trying to shake things a bit. I think CCWWP is a really relevant for creative writing profs and students across Canada because it addresses many of the major issues that face us in our time, in relation to creative writing community, its practice, and its pedagogy.
If you could choose to work with anybody in the world on a creative project, who would it be? Why?
Funny you should ask this. I’ve been thinking about the relational nature of storytelling and the problem of authorship since the Appropriate Voice conference in 1992. I would love to put together a story or novel project in which a group of people who are working on relationships across locations to write a novel or cycle of short stories together. Maybe I won’t name names because maybe I’ll actually do it. It could be different folks at different times.
What is the last book you read that blew your mind?
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, Joshua Whitehead’s Johnny Appleseed. On my shelf: Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster and Tricker Drift, Saad Hossain’s Djinn City, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
Your official bio says that you like dogs but are afraid of cats. Your books are alive with animalistic figures. What is your relationship to the animal realm, in general?
I have an affinity for the animal spirits, that I like to think comes from my connection to the Tao. But it might just as easily come from playing with stuffed animals instead of human-like dolls as a child. When I was a kid, my mom and her friends had a healthy suspicion of Barbie, which of course I shared—for so many reasons—the education into heteronormativity, the privileging of skinny blonde women. The practical result is that I have been thinking about animal beings more than human beings from a very young age. They are just part of my psyche now, and I carry them around with me wherever I go. And of course, humans are animals too, though we often forget this. What if we were to recognize it more acutely and more seriously? If we really embraced our continuity with the world, I bet we wouldn’t do a lot of the terrible stuff we do to the air, the waters, the earth.
I don’t know if I’m stretching it too much, but I think we can consider some of your writing to touch on ecofiction, or even speculative environmental ethics. Are you optimistic about the future of this planet, or dispirited like some of the leading climate change scientists?
I am optimistic as a matter of political commitment. But I’m not a Pollyanna—I can see as clearly as anyone who believes in science the dangers we face. You’re right, of course, that there’s an eco-fictive bent to The Tiger Flu in particular. I like very much the idea of a speculative environmental ethics. I think we need to be able to imagine a better future before we can bring it—or something close to it—into being. I do think fiction writers are particularly well-placed to do that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to CCWWP’s members before this Q&A ends?
Thanks for being members of CCWWP! Please get involved and help shape this organization into one that serves writers inside and outside the academy in the best possible ways.
Thank you very much, Larissa!