Some writers are easy to get a bead on: they maintain consistent personas in person and in their work, and return to stock subjects and situations across different books with a uniform voice and point of view.
Then there are writers like Yasuko Thanh.
After only two books – the 2012 short-story collection Floating Like the Dead (McClelland & Stewart) and her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, out this April with Hamish Hamilton Canada – Thanh has proven to be a remarkably protean wordsmith, shifting from one subject and setting to another with startling confidence.
“Spring-Blade Knife,” which opens Thanh’s collection and won the author an Arthur Ellis Award, is set in Vancouver in 1948, on the night before a death-row convict is due to hang. The story “Hunting in Spanish” features an idealistic woman who travels to Mexico to work in an orphanage but ends up selling opium with her would-be boyfriend. And “Floating Like the Dead,” which won the 2009 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, is about a group of Chinese lepers exiled to a colony off the coast of British Columbia in the 1920s. Each story is equally well realized, with a feeling of authenticity embedded in the richness of the details and the luxuriousness of the prose.
Then there is the new novel. Set in French Indochina in the year 1908, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains focuses on Nguyen Georges-Minh, a doctor who conspires with the other members of the shadowy group that makes up the book’s title to poison members of the French occupying forces. The plot, of course, goes awry, and the French military declares martial law, forcing Georges-Minh and his family into hiding.
Throughout the novel, Thanh evokes her setting by way of sensual, specific details: datura seed pods “the size of an egg and covered in spines”; patches of tapioca vines clinging to the edge of a river; the oppressive heat of a train station juxtaposed against the cold and mist of a mountain village outpost. Despite the fact that the events of the novel take place more than 100 years in the past, the sights and sounds and smells the author evokes have the feeling of lived experience, a testament to Thanh’s imaginative range – especially considering that she has never been to Vietnam herself.
“It was my opportunity to armchair travel,” says Thanh.
It was also an opportunity to revisit some of the stories she heard as a child. As a young girl, Thanh’s father would tell her about her great-grandfather, who would pick up and leave his family for extended periods of time, returning to collect money, then taking off again. “There were low times” for the family, says Thanh, “where they were scrambling around and selling peanuts at bus stations and one of the kids actually had to turn to hustling to make a living. It was hideous.” Thanh’s great-grandfather, she was informed, “would just come and he would take some money and stay for however long he wanted and leave.”
In these stories, Thanh found the germ of a metaphor she felt she could use to examine the complexities of colonialism and the methods people incorporate to fight back against oppression or wrongdoing. “At the same time as you’re getting beaten down, you can also be planning your own inner resistances,” she says.
The idea of planning one’s own inner resistances could, after all, be the thread that ties together the disparate aspects of Yasuko Thanh herself. “I’m attracted to the quality of resilience.”
Born in 1971 to a Vietnamese father and a German mother, Thanh’s path to being a published writer did not take her in anything resembling a straight line. After dropping out of school at the age of 15, she lived on the streets for a time, an experience she has written about in “tons and tons” of stories, all of which remain unpublished.
Imbued with a sense of restlessness and a yearning for something indefinable, Thanh eventually struck out beyond Canada’s West Coast, living variously in Germany, Mexico, and Honduras – places that provided fodder for the stories that ended up in Floating Like the Dead. Though she does not appear keen on being viewed as an autobiographical writer, Thanh does concede that her vagabondage helped plant the seeds for her fiction, something that is much more apparent in retrospect.
A feeling of displacement crops up repeatedly in Thanh’s stories; if there is a pervasive theme in her fiction, it involves outsiders or characters who exist at the margins of whatever society they find themselves in. For a writer who calls herself “instinctive” or “intuitive,” connections between Thanh’s life and her fiction become apparent only when she looks back on a completed body of work. “Maybe some writers have the experience that they know precisely what it is that they’re writing about when they are. I don’t really have that luxury,” Thanh says. “Only later on, when I can look at what’s in front of me, I can say, ‘Oh, okay, I see what it is that was haunting me at the time.’”
Also apparent to Thanh in retrospect is the sense that through all of her travels she was searching for a balm to relieve a sense of alienation and disaffection. “It was an idea of home, you know, and trying to fit in,” she says. “Not feeling like it was in Canada, and not feeling like it was in Germany, or not feeling like it was in Mexico. And then realizing, ultimately, when I got back, the thing that I was running from was really in myself, and that’s why I couldn’t find it in any of those places.”
After returning to Canada, Thanh enrolled as a mature student at the University of Victoria, a move she undertook with a measure of calculation. “I don’t think I would have even gone to school, except that it felt like a choice: do I go to school and collect student loans or should I go on welfare?” she says. “I was getting out of a bad relationship and I had a newborn baby and a five-year-old, and it pretty much felt like that kind of choice.”
Thanh already had what she refers to as “a little bit of a portfolio,” and on the basis of that, she was granted advanced placement in a master of fine arts program at UVic, where she worked under the mentorship of author and playwright Bill Gaston. The stories that became Floating Like the Dead were already under consideration at M&S when Thanh won the Journey Prize in 2009; the publisher was “taking their time and umming and ahhing,” she says. “As soon as I won, there was an offer.” The author also credits the prize with landing her an agent: Toronto’s Denise Bukowski.
Though Thanh doesn’t feel that prizes are the final word about anyone’s writing, she does acknowledge that winning the Journey Prize at an important time in her nascent career opened doors that otherwise might have remained closed. “The hard thing is not to either undervalue or overvalue the quality of your work according to the prizes you do or don’t get,” says Thanh. “But you can use it for its strategic value.”
Part of that strategic value was getting her first novel into the hands of Nicole Winstanley, president of Penguin Canada, and the woman who oversees the Hamish Hamilton Canada line. “I absolutely loved her story collection,” Winstanley says. “I had a massive, massive case of complete and utter publishing envy.”
Winstanley contacted Bukowski to let her know that she was interested in Thanh’s writing, and when the manuscript for Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains was ready, Bukowski sent it along. Winstanley recalls the experience of dipping into the novel during the inaugural sales conference of the newly merged Penguin Random House. She remembers “going off and pitching books to our sales team and then just scrambling back to read more of it.”
Winstanley sums up the book by saying, “It has a great, underlying scrappiness to it that I love in fiction.” Her comment could apply equally to the author, and her idiosyncratic vision. In addition to her unpublished urban contemporary stories, Thanh has completed a second novel, a fictionalized account of Julia Pastrana, a 19th-century Sinaloan Mexican woman born with a genetic condition that resulted in abnormal growths of hair all over her body (Pastrana appeared throughout the European world in freak shows and as a medical curiosity).
Thanh is now a full-time writer, though she says that she has always tried to live that way, whether she could afford it or not. “Whether it meant I ate or didn’t eat,” she says, “we always tried to do that. I mean, we’re a house of artists, so I think we’re always just living close to the bone.” Reminded of an interview in which she told a reporter from the Victoria Times Colonist that being a writer means learning how to starve well, Thanh laughs. “Yes, and I’m actually really good at it.”
Thanh’s husband, Hank Angel, is a rockabilly musician of some note; when she published her story collection, Angel debuted a song called “Suko Wrote a Book.” Thanh herself appears, under the name “Psycho Suko,” as vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and lyricist for Angel’s other band, the neo-punk outfit 12 Gauge Facial. And she frequently shares a stage with Hank Angel and His Island Devils using another stage name, Jukebox Jezebel. Music, for Thanh, is a “nice companion to writing stories and novels. Not so much the songwriting, but the process of singing, because I think a good scream is worth a whole couple of months of therapy.”
But Thanh says she considers herself a writer first; the music is more of a sideline. It is the process of creating fiction, from whatever wells of inspiration she might find to dip into, that keeps her moving forward. “Writing keeps me sane, you know? If I didn’t have writing, I’d be in a gutter somewhere, for sure.