25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Sarah Tsiang

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Sarah Tsiang

Sarah Tsiang talks to Open Book about reading every children?s book in the Kingston Frontenac Library, what she loves about Kingston?s literary community and her new book Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (Annick).

Sarah is April?s Writer in Residence at Open Book: Toronto. To see what Sarah?s been up to, please visit her WIR Page.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Warriors and Wailers.

Sarah Tsiang:

Warriors and Wailers is an expansive and funny (I hope) look at the different kinds of jobs people held in Ancient China. Of course, the definition of both ?jobs? and ?ancient China? is rather broad. We?ve got everything from honored and long standing professions (civil servant) to illegal activities (pirates). China has such a long and interesting history it was very hard to distill thousands of years into a pithy little book. I?ve never been a history buff myself, but to be honest, looking at a period in history through the lens of jobs was fantastically interesting. I always thought history was boring in school -- so many dates, wars and treaties. But I loved learning about the way people lived their lives and the professions they held.


Why did you decide to focus on jobs in ancient China?


My publisher, Annick Press, approached me with the idea. This book is one of their series of books on jobs in the past, such as Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers (a book about Ancient Egypt). I was interested because I love this way of looking at history, and also because I?m half Chinese. It was a great way to learn a little more about my own cultural history.


How much time and research did you invest before you started to write the book?


I do my research and my writing at the same time, or else I?d never get any writing done! It?s easy to let a project like this get away with you, so I made sure to write three jobs a week, which left enough time for editing at the end. The whole project took over a year, but it was so much fun to write.


Since you and your daughter have a goal of reading every children?s book in the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, has this affected your writing? And having thumbed through hundreds of these books, have you noticed a shift in the way children?s books are being written?


Reading children?s books has been beneficial to me on so many levels. First, they?re fun (I still don?t understand why grown-up books don?t have pictures). Second, they?re tight little packages of narrative structure, densely packed with metaphor and often rely on traditional literary techniques, especially when it comes to paying attention to the music of language. Children do not suffer fools gladly and they?ll put down a book that doesn?t hold their interest immediately. Reading children?s literature has really made me appreciate how all books need to rise to those standards.

I don?t know that I can speak to the way that stories have really changed. Every year there?s a new book that surprises and delights me. Every year I think ?why didn?t I think of that?? More generally though, I think there is less in the way of rhyming stories, and wonderfully, there is more diversity portrayed in storybooks (diverse families, diverse cultures, diverse philosophies).


In the summer of 2011 you released Dogs Don?t Eat Jam. Why did you decide to write about siblings working together?


The book was originally inspired by my daughter. She was four at the time and I was thinking of all the amazing things that she had learned between the ages of zero and four. I mean, really, kids are born without the slightest idea of where their own bodies end. They have to learn to eat, to grasp language (including grammar, syntax and thousands upon thousands of words, sometimes in multiple languages). They not only learn the boundaries of their own bodies, but their gross and fine motor skills improve on such a scale, I can?t imagine what it would be like in an adult (from couch to potato to world class athlete in a matter of a year?).

So the book was originally written as an ?autobiography of a four year old.? It was my publisher who suggested widening the scope of the book, and that?s how the baby was born. Kids can be so immensely generous and proud of their families, and I think that?s something that isn?t portrayed very often in books about siblings. Sure, siblings have conflicts, but part of having a sibling is being able to rejoice in their successes, knowing you?ve had a key part in their growth and development. Kids have a lot of wisdom and I wanted to celebrate that.


Being a children?s author and a poet, do you find it difficult balancing the two genres? Do you favour one over the other?


I started in poetry and I think I?ll always have a bit of a poetic accent to all my work. I love writing kids books though, and I find they?re nice complement to the poetry since the genres are very closely related. My poetry tends to have a whimsical tone, and my kids work is often about loss and letting go. Strange isn?t it? I?m also putting together a first collection of short fiction right now (for adults). I?d like to expand the genres in which I write because every different genre will pull and push you in a new way. It forces you to grow as a writer.


Can you describe what makes Kingston?s literary community vibrant and unique?


Kingston is the most welcoming literary community I?ve ever been a part of. It has a really nice balance of small scale readings and open mics (like the Thrive Series headed by Erin Foley and Poetry at The Artel headed by Bruce Kauffman). There are even poetry boards that people post outside of their houses, as well as with major events like the Kingston Writer?s Fest which brings in authors of international repute and offers workshops, readings and panels. Kingston also punches well above its weight class in the writers it boasts, including Helen Humphreys, Diane Schoemperlen, Steven Heighton, Merilyn Simonds, Wayne Grady and Jason Heroux. What?s shocking about these writers too is that there?s not an ego on any one of them (despite it being well deserved). They are genuinely great people who nurture the inclusive nature of Kingston?s literary scene. Of course, what?s really dear to my heart is my own writing group, The Villanelles, which is populated with some of the greatest people on earth.

Sarah Tsiang has an MFA from UBC and she is also an award-winning poet who publishes poetry under the name of Yi-Mei Tsiang. Sarah?s book A Flock of Shoes (2010) was inspired by a line from the last poem in her collection of poetry, Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011). She is also the author of Dogs Don?t Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (2011) and Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (Spring 2012).

Sarah and her daughter spend a lot of time at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, where they are trying to read every picture book in the building.

For more information about Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled please visit the Annick Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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