by Terry Hong
She arrived in Toronto at age six, when her family immigrated from Hong Kong in the mid-1970s. At seven, they moved to a brand-new subdivision in the nearby suburb of Scarborough. And since then, Carrianne Leung has been making up stories about what happens behind the closed doors of seemingly perfect houses in ideal planned neighborhoods. Decades later, the long-ago musings from Leung’s childhood imagination inspires a stupendous collection of 10 interlinked stories, That Time I Loved You, making its Stateside debut today.
Leung’s fictionalized Scarborough is home to diverse families ready to build a neighborhood together. Initially, everyone invited everyone else to “planned things like fireworks and barbecues,” observes 11-year-old June—the only daughter of Hong Kong Chinese immigrants—until “people decided who their friends were, and the invitations … stopped coming,” she reports. “It was same for us kids.… Things settled into routines.” And then the suicides began: “1979…was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.”
Wise beyond her years, June, who “thought too much and talked even more,” is the core linking friends and neighbors: BFF Josie, whose uncle’s “love” is anything but; her grandmother, who acknowledges something essential in another of June’s friends; Mrs. Da Silva, who finally says no to her abusive life; childless Francesca, who envies the impossibly perfect family next door; everyone’s helping hand Marilyn, who has sticky fingers; Darren, who rejects his racist teacher; and a teen neighbor, who chooses to live.
Terry Hong: I have to start with your “blooming”…I believe you were 45 when you published your first title in Canada, the novel The Wondrous Woo, in 2013. What were the major experiences that led to that first publication?
Carrianne Leung: I had always wanted to write fiction. But I did a lot of things in my life that took me in different directions. Growing up, it wasn’t something people did. First generation immigrant parents! My mom and dad wanted me to be the doctor or lawyer, as many parents do. So I just went on to do a number of things—I was a community worker, got into radio work, did a Master’s degree and then a PhD. But the dream lingered—the novel, the novel! When I had my child, I was 39 and had just finished my graduate degree. I loved being immersed in writing my dissertation. When that was all over, I missed having a writing project terribly. So, I finally sat down and wrote the novel!
TH: Given the fantastic early buzz on That Time I Loved You, might The Wondrous Woo be headed South anytime soon?
CL: I would LOVE for The Wondrous Woo to be distributed in the U.S. But it was released by the tiniest publisher in Toronto and is unagented. Maybe if That Time I Loved You is well-received, someone will ask for it! Here’s hoping!
TH: Here’s fingers, toes, and eyeballs crossed! And what was that dissertation topic?
CL: My PhD was in Sociology and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto. My research was on race and notions of heritage in the construction of national narratives in Canada.
TH: Do you think that research shaped your fiction?
CL: Yes, most definitely. I think the themes I carry are across all aspects of my interests—research and writing. I also felt that doing my PhD really trained me as a fiction writer—the discipline, the research, the acceptance that the process is a slog. While writing the novel, I found the commonalities in the practice.
TH: Speaking of “national narratives”… do you consider yourself a Canadian writer? A hybrid Canadian Chinese writer? Do you think your U.S. audiences might read your work differently from your Canadian readers?
CL: I usually just consider myself a writer. I don’t have huge attachments to the idea of nationhood. In terms of how U.S. audiences will respond—I don’t know! The reviews have been wonderful and that makes me so satisfied that the stories transcend the border. But I honestly do not know what to expect. I know suburbs are also very different in the U.S. but I hope the integrity of the stories and characters shine through regardless of those differences. I always think about books I loved. I never went to England in my teens but I loved Dickens and the Brontë sisters! So I have a lot of respect for readers to be able to go on their own journeys with fiction and find for themselves what they need.
TH: Both of your books have been set in Scarborough—which seems to be quite the recent literary destination for current Canadian writers. Besides the autobiographical connection, what about Scarborough continues to take you back, especially on the page?
CL: Yes! It was a surprise to me too that Scarborough as a setting just poured out of me when I began to write. It was a place that I felt very conflicted about while growing up and I couldn’t wait to leave! But, as all places that shape us, I felt compelled to reflect on it and my experiences in the ′70s and ′80s growing up there. It so happens that my friends David Chariandy [Brother] and Catherine Hernandez [Scarborough] also have had successful books recently set in Scarborough. I am not sure if it’s just a convergence of things. I believe that places have their coming-of-age, too. While there have always been creative things happening in and about Scarborough, it may be that the wider public is just beginning to pay attention.
TH: How old were you when you left Scarborough? And how far do you live from Scarborough now? Does it feel like a different city now that you’ve had decades away?
CL: I was 18 when I left. I went away to attend university in Ottawa. I live downtown in Toronto now which is about a 1.5-hour transit ride away. Maybe a 30-minute drive on a slow traffic day. It IS a very different place now. When I was growing up, it was very white dominated. The area where I lived, called Agincourt, is now known as Asiancourt. It’s very different.
TH: Do other bits of your fictional Scarborough line up with your lived experiences? I read that a suicide occurred during your childhood there. How did you cope? How did the community cope? Did writing about the experience in your collection help your understanding?
CL: The contours of the stories have some commonality from my own life, but I am at pains to emphasize that this is fiction. It is always funny to me when I show up to readings and people expect me to be my characters.
As for the suicide in my neighbourhood as a child, I was impacted by it. It’s not something that was profound but something that stayed with me. I was a kid, so I don’t know if I had the most mature response to it when it happened. I loved playing with the children’s reaction in the book. Kids don’t really know what they feel when confronted by such things. I remember the adults didn’t even talk about it even though we all knew there was a crisis of feeling in the air. In the book, I wanted to play with that—the kids are at an age when the world is just beginning to widen and they are hungry for it. And then to be confronted by the idea that people want to exit the world was startling and outside of their understanding.
TH: Suicide is very much part of the narrative threads throughout the collection. As are other difficult issues—abuse, bullying, possible incest, other deaths. And yet the stories together are hardly depressing. How did you strike the fine, nuanced balance between maudlin and lightness?
CL: Thank you for that! I really wanted to show the humour and joy that are also present. Life is just a mess of things, right? Especially for the kids, it was important for me to convey the levity in their lives. I am not sure how I struck a balance, but I hoped that the kids’ voices would carry it.
TH: For lack of a better word…this is one of the most naturally diverse collections I’ve read in ages. Have readers/reviewers noticed how effortlessly you presented such a diverse world?
CL: Hmmm. I haven’t seen any mention or attention to that fact. Living in Toronto, this is our lives, so it is pretty natural. Often times, I see each racial group paraded one by one in representation. It was important for me to show our relationships across groups, that we are ALL here in the same time and place and this is what it looks like.
TH: You mentioned above regarding your thesis: “race and notions of heritage in the construction of national narratives in Canada.” I wonder if my noticing (and appreciating so much) the wide diversity is more an “American”—or, rather, south of the border, as the whole continent is American, ahem—reaction? Is the Canadian national narrative just more evolved?
CL: Haha. Not at all. I don’t think the Canadian narrative is more evolved. I think people in the U.S. believe so. Well, SOME people. Canadians also pride themselves on being morally superior, which is also not true. I think it’s rare here, too, to find a book with such diversity. I know that readers who are people of colour really appreciate it because of what you mention. It’s hard to say because often this language is coded—some people may just say they can’t relate to the book but not overtly mention race or other issues in it.
TH: Let’s talk specific stories: I think “Sweets” might be my favorite. The premise is just so unexpected; June’s Grandmother who’s initially so acerbic when she arrives in Canada, and her quite surprising turnaround to find such affinity with one of June’s friends. How did that story come about?
CL: I love the character of Poh Poh so much! I don’t want to sound too flaky about it, but I honestly felt haunted by these characters. Most of them came to me fully formed and I just followed. Poh Poh started out as an image. I think of all the elderly people who immigrate to be with their families and how isolating that experience is for them—especially in the ′70s and ′80s. So, Poh Poh grew from there. I wanted to give the character a lot of agency. She is not passive at all. She has had a fierce life and very much has built this protective barrier. She can bear anything. And then to encounter Nav—this kid who also seems to be gender queer and yet so gentle. This stirs her and breaks some of her walls. I loved their relationship—what they can do for each other.
TH: Perhaps you might talk a bit more about your short story creating process in general?
CL: I think of an image, an event, a line, and I just go from there. I never have outlines. I never know where it’s going to go. The story reveals itself to me little by little.
TH: When you started writing, did you know that these stories would be interwoven and interconnected?
CL: I wrote a version of the first story, “Grass,” before I even wrote my first novel. But something about it made me return to it. It felt incomplete. I thought maybe I would develop it into a novel, but then all these other characters came forth who felt strong enough to be their own protagonist. So it just went from there. They kept appearing in each other’s stories, too, which surprised me. But the overarching frame was June.
TH: Does June have more stories we should be waiting for? She is some sort of fabulous character, by the way.
CL: Thank you! She sure is! I think I wish I could be June in real life! But alas, she is cooler than me or anyone I know. I am not sure if she has more stories to tell. For now, no. I am moving on to other work, but she still feels close.
TH: So going back and forth between novel and short stories. Was that a challenging transition? How does your process differ when writing either genre?
CL: I had a full-time job and a child, so I thought it would be more sustainable to write short stories at the time. Of course, this was nonsense because short fiction is SO incredibly difficult to write. Something about their economy of words, the preciseness of their form… I think writing the novel, I was able to have a lot of room to travel and roam a bit. Not so with short fiction.
TH: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
CL: Haha. I feel like I am already a million things. I am not sure. The funny thing about this question is that the default for all the years I wasn’t a writer, the answer was writer.
TH: And the inevitable…so since not more of June…what can we eager readers expect next from you?
CL: I am working on a new novel now that is a different kind of coming-of-age. One that I think your readers would appreciate—the coming of age of middle-aged women.
In honor of Carrianne Leung’s Canadian background, Canadian spellings have been retained here.
Homepage photo credit: Sarah Couture McPhail