Pioneering Words: An Interview with Jim Wong-Chu3 min read

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By Jenny Uechi
Published in 15.4

Jenny Uechi, long time contributor to Ricepaper, chats with Jim Wong-Chu on the early days of Ricepaper and the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.

Jenny Uechi (JU): What were the origins of Ricepaper?

Jim Wong-Chu (JW-C): Ricepaper was originally a newsletter. In the mid-‘60s and mid-‘70s, a lot of Asian Canadian writers were looking to get published. For example, Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Anthology (1979) was the most important groundbreaker because it was an amalgam of Chinese Canadian poetry and so on. There was also the Vancouver edition of Asianadian (1978). In the 1970s, Canada Council was supplying a lot of money to independent publishers, and there was a lack of voice coming from the Asian Canadian communities. So they were very interested in finding new voices, and we all got published.

Until the early ‘90s, there was not much of a critical mass of Asian Canadian writers; there were about 20 of us. The university English departments were producing a lot of young people who wanted to write, so within a couple of years, about 20 members of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop suddenly went up to 70 members. That’s when the newsletter was born, around 1995, but we also realized that we should make it into a society. In 1995, the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop Society (ACWW) became a non-profit entity. And then “ACWW” produced its first newsletter. Ricepaper magazine was born out of that newsletter.

JU: What was the inspiration behind the Asian Canadian literary movement?

JW-C: SKY Lee, Paul Yee, and I were all community activists. We were in Chinatown having conversations, saying, “What if? Why don’t we have our own literature? Why don’t we do it?” At the time we were building history. We thought history was the most important thing and that’s why Paul Yee wrote Saltwater City (1988). That’s why we decided to publish. There were other people who published before us, like Roy Kiyooka (transcanada letters, StoneDGloves).

JU: Could you tell us about the vision behind Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop?

JW-C: We were interested in the idea of creating a body of literature: to legitimize and create an Asian Canadian genre that could be put into a library. We started off simply, by offering workshops and then realized that there were really good writing programs out there. So our focus shifted to manuscript preparation. We helped young writers to find a publisher. Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop became both an editor and agent for young emerging writers. One of these writers was Larissa Lai, who had really interesting poetry. At that time, I told her that all we’ve got are family-based, confessional novels, and said that we have to move beyond that. I suggested that she do something with mythology. I kept encouraging her, and years later, Fox is a Thousand (1995) finally got published. Larissa Lai is a professor of English at UBC, and like others, moving up the ranks and now teaching literature. It all comes and goes in full circle.

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