Jen Sookfong Lee is a BC writer who has written three adult novels (including The Conjoined, which was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award), creative non-fiction, as well as several fiction and non-fiction books for children and youth. She has been a columnist on the CBC for On the Coast, All Points West and The Next Chapter, and taught fiction at Simon Fraser University’s Writers’ Studio Online.
The Shadow List, from Buckrider Books, is her first poetry collection. It delves into, and blows up, the expectations of what womanhood should be or should mean. Fresh and formidable, the narrator tells life like it is, even the messy, ugly parts a less honest writer might sidestep. Uncomfortable? Sometimes — but endlessly relatable and told in sharp, clear, lyric poetry.
Jen Sookfong Lee is interviewed by Alli Vail
Alli Vail (AV): This is your first book of poetry, after several novels, children’s books, and non-fiction. How did the experience of writing poetry differ?
Jen Sookfong Lee (JL): Writing poetry really felt like a luxury, after many years of novels and other kinds of prose. For me, poems are an opportunity to really focus on one thing, and for The Shadow List, that thing was voice. With fiction, your brain has to work in all areas at once, from setting to plot to character, and this isn’t necessary with poetry. It just felt like such a privilege to be able to do a deep dive into voice and allow it to do and say everything it needed.
AV: Winter – ice, weather, snow – appears in your poems, and almost feels like a villain or a harbinger, especially in ‘How the Winter Changes You’. So, winter – for or against? And what is it about this season that lends itself to poetic introspection?
JL: I actually like winter! Not that anyone would know from my poems! I moved into my current home in December, and I wrote a lot of this collection around that time, and the snow and ice just infiltrated my brain. But I do think the season itself can help the writing process along because there are no distractions, no sunshine to lure us outside, no patios to drink wine on. But also there is a lot of brittle imagery that appeals to my inner poet.
AV: I really love the title, The Shadow List, and the line in ‘Wishes’ “There is a shadow list, one saved in your head where grime is obscured by work and sandwiches and the weather tomorrow.” Do you think everyone has a list like this, of a life that could have been but that is lost to the banalities of everyday?
JL: I think so and I especially think this is true for women, and for women of colour, who are less likely to express their desires in the push for respectability and survival. I spent a lot of my younger years staring at white women in my classes or at my jobs who seemed to feel so free to attend music festivals in short shorts, or have multiple partners, or dance at a club as if they truly didn’t care who was watching. That was never my reality and I so desperately wished it was. Every single one of us wants something they can’t have, or believe they can’t have. And the title of The Shadow List speaks to those secret desires.
AV: The narrator is so open about the complexities, contradictions, and messiness of the girlhood, being a mother, being a daughter, being a woman, love, sex, missing pieces, feeling ‘other’, wanting to escape, just plain wanting (I could keep going). What was it like exploring the less “pretty” or less Instagram-able side of life through the poems in this collection?
JL: It was a release for me to create a narrator who is that open, who truly doesn’t care anymore what other people think. I would wish that freedom for everyone, if they want it! I don’t have a lot of interest in watching people be perfect and I can only assume every other regular person feels the same way, and the poems I wrote are about being unafraid to dive into the uglier parts of our bodies and brains. It’s okay. Post a selfie that isn’t flattering just because you feel like it. I give you permission!
AV: I want to talk about dogs for a moment – a dog slips in and out of several poems in The Shadow List, right from the ‘Introduction’: “A dog is the love of your life,” and the poem ‘Dog Years’. I’ve read many poems about dogs (work by Eileen Myles comes to mind). What it is about dogs that inspires poets?
JL: So many writers have dogs! Listen, we spend a lot of time alone, and if it wasn’t for dogs, or any pets, we would have no one to talk to. And there is something inherently poetic about the immediacy of dogs that provides a foil to humanity. We’re always mired in our own inner turmoil, sorting through the mess of our pasts. But dogs don’t care about any of that. They move from experience to experience and are always present in whatever they’re doing. That is a pretty poetic diametric!
AV: Like your novels, this collection has a very strongly rooted sense of place, especially in ‘For This You Need a Map’. What is it about the place that you live, and grew up, that so influences your work?
JL: I grew up in Vancouver, specifically East Vancouver, where the glamorous West Coast life didn’t really exist. From the very beginning, I was always aware that there are several different versions of Vancouver, and what I knew and loved wasn’t what appeared on postcards. It is precisely this opposition that interests me as a writer, and the ways in which people move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, between different communities. I will never be bored with Vancouver as a setting.