Ricepaper Interviews Melanie Mah, author of The Sweetest One14 min read

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DSC_0962Author of The Sweetest One, Melanie Mah was born in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and currently resides in Toronto. She is a freelance writer in Toronto and a graduate of the University of Guelph MFA in Creative Writing whose first novel, is about seventeen-year-old Chrysler Wong who suffers from a debilitating fear brought on by belief in a family curse. Three of her siblings have died after turning eighteen and venturing beyond the borders of their tiny rural Alberta town, and the fourth, her favourite, has recently left and is incommunicado. This week, we interview Melanie Mah as part of our conversations with new
Asian Canadian authors.

It’s said that the The Sweetest One owes a debt to music. The novel takes as its centre a passionate teenage girl named Chrysler Wong for whom music is vital. There are scenes involving concerts and song lyrics to the role music plays in Chrysler’s life. Can you elaborate on the theme of music in this novel?

Melanie: I keep thinking lately of how fundamental our connection to music is. Music is especially important for young people, I think, as they’re finding their ways and rebelling against their parents and experiencing first love and the cruelty of their peers. Music is catharsis and it’s identity and it’s a way to connect to the outside world, and it may constitute a rebellion against the dominant culture. Music plays all of these roles for Chrysler who is a cosmopolitan misfit in a small town who feels she cannot leave that small town lest she die, and who has dealt with a lot of trauma in the form of her siblings dying or abandoning her and the abuse and neglect she endures at the hands of her parents and her peers in town. For Chrysler, adolescence has been extremely difficult, and music has made it just that bit more bearable.

Another point: Chrysler is the youngest child in her family, and she feels somehow like her siblings are untouchable, unknowable, in ways — especially her sister Trina, who is one of her favourite people in the world and who she sees as the epitome of cool. As Trina deals with a swirl of adolescent emotions and conflicts of her own, she grows distant. But she and Chrysler sometimes connect on music, which is another reason Chrysler cleaves to it.

What type of music inspired you growing up? 

Melanie: Chrysler’s favourite bands are New Order and Joy Division. I wasn’t nearly as cool as her. The first album I ever bought (when I was maybe eight) was Def Leppard’s Hysteria. I’m the youngest in my family, too, so a lot of the mainstream ‘80s music my siblings liked rubbed off, until I was a young teen, at which point I switched to punk and indie rock. I still listen to indie rock, but my tastes have diversified to include classical music, music from other countries, old folk, old jazz, old country, and some new and old Top 40 stuff that has somehow reached me, despite my not listening to Top 40 radio. I love music, but it doesn’t have the same role in my life that it used to.

Do you write with the music on? Why?

Melanie: Though I write with headphones on, all they are most of the time is expensive earplugs. I do not play music through them unless I’m taking a break or there are loud noises or conversations taking place close by to where I’m writing.

I can’t listen to music because I find its words and rhythms get in the way of the words and rhythms in my head that I’m trying to tap into for my work. If I’m writing, I need to be focused fully on the writing – both where it’s going and where it could go, and that can’t happen if there are any distractions. (Poor multitasker over here…)

You’ve commented that this book is a kind of study of potential approaches to impending death. Can you elaborate?

Melanie: Sure! The book is about a family, the Wongs, whose members start to die, one by one, in a predictable fashion. There are five kids in this family. Once two of them die at the age of eighteen outside of the Wongs’ town of residence, the rest of the family starts to believe that they may be afflicted by some kind of curse. While each of the remaining Wongs either believes in the curse or is not taking chances, they each have very different reactions to the belief that they may die soon that reflect things about their personalities, life history, and life circumstances. I can’t say any more than that lest I give away important plot points! 😉

How has growing up Chinese Canadian influenced your writing this book? How has your identity as Asian Canadian shaped your writing? 

Melanie: I’m not sure if there are qualities inherent to Chinese Canadians or how those qualities manifest in my writing life. I guess my mom did that typical immigrant/Asian parent thing of pushing her kids to excel at whatever they do. So I don’t know if I excel at writing, exactly, but I applied myself; I wrote and rewrote and rewrote until I thought I could do no better. So if this book is any good, that’s probably part of the reason.

Growing up, I felt like an insider-outsider. I was part of a large, close family but was the youngest child, so I ended up being left out of some things or too young to understand others. I was sensitive, too, and an introvert, so a lot of times I would just go somewhere quiet to be alone with my thoughts. Plus, I come from a small town that is predominantly white and First Nations where everyone knows everyone else, but I think I must have had some kind of subconscious awareness that even if I thought I was friends with most of the people at school, there was always going to be something different about me. What was the main difference? Was it my race, my personality, my interests, the fact that my home life was different from that of my peers? I’m not sure, but it was probably some combination of all of these.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt isolated, wistful, a little misunderstood. This is part of why writing is important to me: it’s a contemplative activity through which I may approach self-discovery and self-expression.

Something else that was important to my formative self: my father’s stories. I’ve always loved to hear him talk about life in his home village in China or his first years in Canada. He was probably the first to impress upon me the importance and value of storytelling. My parents are both ESL speakers. They were the first to teach me that profound and interesting things can be communicated via simpler language, and I’m sure this lesson has influenced the aesthetic of this book in addition to my life in general.

Ethnicity is just a part of who I am, though. As such, I think it’s just part of what influences me and my writing. Other important things: the town I grew up in, my pop culture preferences, various family relationships throughout time, being the youngest child in my family, and the particular personalities of my parents and siblings, to name a few.

You graduated in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. What was that like? How did you decide that you wanted to enter the program and become a writer?

Melanie: It was great! As I said, I felt like there were a lot of dissimilarities between myself and my family and the people I knew growing up. Given this, my time in Guelph’s MFA program felt special. There seemed to be a lot of introverts there, a lot of very observant, thoughtful people, a lot of people who loved to read and discuss ideas and aptly describe things. And doing the MFA was a very large step I took in the whole process of being able to call myself a writer and to give myself to this particular vocation. It started almost as me asking the world for permission to write seriously, and it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Turns out, you don’t need others’ permission to write. You just need to believe in yourself and your vision. That’s something I learned to do during and after my MFA.

From as far back as I can remember, I wrote, but I hadn’t gotten serious about it until maybe nine years ago. My undergrad is in English, and I did internships at a magazine and a publishing association after I graduated, so I was peripherally involved in that world without actually being in it. The only things I was writing up till then were unpublishable bits of poetry and stories and journal entries. I’m not dissing that; it was venting and healing, and I needed to do that. But there’s a huge gulf between that early writing and this novel.

When I was twenty-one, my brother died, and things started to change. I started to understand that I couldn’t fuck around anymore, that I had to start living my life. And when I turned twenty-three, the age my brother was when he died, I wondered, “What if I die this year, too?” This question is central to my novel, and it’s also great motivation to start doing the thing you always wanted to do but were afraid to. The MFA was a gatekeeper and a goal and it was deadlines and it was community. It was great.

Has your background as an Asian Canadian ever become a barrier to your writing?

Melanie: Who knows? I haven’t been in the room when grants have been denied me or when my stories get rejected from magazines or when someone chooses not to read my book. But I’m thankful I’ve never seen anyone discriminate against my work on the basis of my race. That would make me angry.

Certainly, there are various difficulties related to being an “ethnic writer,” like some people making you feel like you’re speaking for your entire ethnicity in your book or every time you open your mouth in public, or people thinking your work is exotic just because you’re not white. But these aren’t barriers, just annoyances.

One part of my particular Asian Canadian experience involves parents who, for a long time, made it seem like they preferred me to do other things with my productive time. I want to make them proud and I want them to be happy about the decisions I’ve made for myself, so it was hard, those years when they made it clear that they would have preferred I be many other things than be a writer. I hope that’s all over now.

Did you ever have doubt that your Asian characters or themes would not be accepted by audiences, editors, or publishers?

Melanie: I’m not sure I ever have. Perhaps naively, I come at it thinking that there is a universality to my characters and themes, even if they have a specific manifestation, and that all readers want in a book is a good story and good writing. I think, “My book is great! Why wouldn’t anyone want to read it?” But maybe I’ll be disabused of that notion before long.

I think in ways I was lucky to land at Cormorant and be edited by Bryan Ibeas. A lot of things in my book that were inspired by my experiences growing up Asian Canadian were things he understood and didn’t question. Maybe a non-Asian editor would not have gotten some of the things I was trying to do.

Has your Asian Canadian background/identity ever given you opportunities that you might not otherwise have had as a writer?

Melanie: Thankfully, my work is coming out in a time of increased vigilance about hearing diverse voices. Yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but I wouldn’t have been invited to present at the Festival of Literary Diversity and my work would not have been considered for “diverse” issues of journals, etc. if it weren’t for my ethnicity. Having said all this, I resist being ghettoized. It’s likely that venues for diverse writers to publish, read, present, commiserate, etc. are appearing in an attempt to level the playing field, but it’s also possible that when you put a whole whack of diverse authors together that we can be in some ways more easily ignored en masse by the mainstream. I don’t dispute the importance of these festivals and journal issues, etc. and I want them to exist into the future, but I hope their presence now is a bridge we diverse writers can walk across on our way to acceptance by the Canadian literary establishment, which seems to be overwhelmingly white.

What’s your advice for those who want to write and get published? What can they learn from you and your experiences?

Melanie: Network, network, network. Try to publish shorter things before you try publishing your book, so that publishers and agents will know your name when you finally submit, and so you’ll look like a go-getter when you do. Agents want to make money from you, and publishers want to minimize their losses, so you’ll have more going for you if you come across as someone who will do these things for them.

Networking was always a dirty concept for me. I never wanted to do it because I wanted the writing to stand on its own. I wanted to be published because my work is good, not because I know this or that person. I want to say that knowing someone who can help you gives you a foot in the door and nothing more. I want to say that even if you knew all the important people in publishing, if your book was crap, it would not be published, but I’m sure that careerist networking by authors has led to some books of less than excellent quality being published. Me, I’m shy; I networked very sparely and almost accidentally in the context of my MFA program, and this luckily ended up bearing dividends. But my name would not have been passed on to my publisher if the quality wasn’t there. So make sure you network, but also make sure your book is as good as it can be.

This brings me to my next bit of advice. Books take as long as they take, but if you want to publish a book every few years rather than, say, every eight, make sure you write in successive drafts with as few line edits as you can stand at first. For each draft, I did exhaustive line edits. I feel like I needed to do this to keep myself excited about the book I was writing – and it made sense for this book, too, because style and voice are very strong and present in it – but if you want the writing to go faster, know that you can make the sentences pretty and the language evocative at later drafts. This is something I’m trying for my next project, too.

Another thing: do make sure you spend as much time as you need to on your book before it’s published. My book took a long time to gestate, but I think I needed it to take a while. I needed the time to grow as a person and get used to the idea of being a writer and be okay with the idea of people reading my book, though the last thing has yet to happen fully. Publishing, for me, is both exciting and scary, but the fear is less intense than it likely would have been if I’d spent less time honing it. I’m going into publication with pretty much no regrets because I know I’ve written a good book.

Lastly: don’t be too shy. Unless you’re very lucky, when publicizing a book, no one is going to be your cheerleader if not you or your publisher. Pride, I think, is a natural reaction to having made something good. So if you’ve spent the time and made something good, be proud. And if you want people to read your book, be aggressive with its promotion. I’m sure it’s important to find balance, too, since I’ve spent so much time on promo lately and relatively little on writing, but it’s all a work in progress, right?

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