How can you not pay attention to a novelist who plays guitar in a punk band called 12 Gauge Facial and an all-woman rockabilly band called Jukebox Jezebel?

Yasuko Thanh's first story collection Floating Like the Dead (M&S / Emblem RH $22) was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize awarded to the best work of fiction by a B.C. author as well as the Danuta Gleed Award for the best first English-language collection of short fiction by a Canadian author published in 2012. It became a Quill and Quire Best Books of the Year selection and was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. The title story won the Journey Prize for best short story published in Canada in 2009. It concerns Chinese lepers who dream of escape from their forced exile on D'Arcy Island, near Victoria, in the late 1800s. Another story received the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story.

In October for 2017, Yasuko Thanh won the 14th annual City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains (Hamish Hamilton) presented by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and sponsor Brian Butler. In Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, Thanh transports readers into a Vietnam filled with chaotic streets, teeming marketplaces, squalid opium dens and angry ghosts. Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains previously won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Previous to winning the Journey Prize for her short story "Floating Like the Dead"; in 2009, Thanh earned her living as a busker, an opium dealer, a cleaner of goat pens, a bed & breakfast operator, a housekeeper, and a panhandler. Yasuko Thanh has also completed her Bachelor of Arts as well as a Master's of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria. And she screams in the punk band 12 Gauge Facial. The awards gala was held at the Union Club of British Columbia and was emceed by journalist Jo-Ann Roberts.

The protagonist for her debut novel Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains (Hamish Hamilton 2016) is a Vietnamese national and Paris-educated physician, Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh, who, in 1908, loathes his own good fortune at having French connections that have made him rich while imperial forces of France enslave the indigenous people of French Indo-China. When his plan to poison the Christmas dinner of a garrison of French soldiers goes awry, he is forced to take refuge in remote jungles where his wife's growing madness increasingly leads him to care for their infant son. While eluding capture by hill tribes, he is terrified of being discovered by French sympathizers. Thanh's Apocalypse Then is reputedly inspired by the history of her father's family in French Indochina and the 'Hanoi Poisoning Plot of 1908'. The title refers to a group of covert sympathizers who seek to undermine French rule.

Thanh has also been a finalist for the Future Generations Millennium Prize, the Hudson Prize and the David Adams Richards Prize which recognizes unpublished manuscripts.

Born on June 30, 1971 in Victoria to a German mother and a Vietnamese father, Thanh dropped out of school and lived on the streets at age fifteen. She has earned her living as a busker, an opium dealer, a cleaner of goat pens, a Bed & Breakfast operator, a housekeeper and a panhandler. Having also lived in Mexico, Germany and Honduras, Thanh received her MFA from UVic. She now lives with her husband Hank Angel and two daughters in Victoria.

***
Mistakes To Run With: A Memoir by Yasuko Thanh
(Hamish Hamilton $24.95)

Review by Caroline Woodward

Mistakes To Run With, Yasuko Thanh?s aptly-titled third book, is a harrowing memoir of growing up in Victoria as the child of impoverished immigrants.

Her Vietnamese father, who had studied in Paris, was a brilliant man, trained in business management and fluent in four languages. He found work as a shoe salesman and suffered from crippling depression.

Her German mother was only seventeen when she married Thanh?s father who was 27 years old. She was profoundly unhappy and disillusioned with the new world but eventually found solace with evangelical Christians. She grew lavender wherever they lived, which was mostly in low rent apartments.

Little ?Suko? was five years old when her brother was born and found herself demoted as secondary to the all-important son. No matter that she was an honour roll student and a talented gymnast at school, she did not feel loved for who she was, or even for what she achieved. There were rigid rules at home, where perfection was expected. Her friends were few.

At the age of fifteen, Yasuko Thanh ran away from it all and, as the country songs lament, she went looking for love in all the wrong places. And that?s putting it mildly. A childhood habit which would stand her in good stead was reading, and staying warm and safe in libraries.

According to her publisher: ?After a stint in jail at sixteen, feeling utterly abandoned by her family, school, and society, Thanh meets the man who would become her pimp and falls in love. The next chapter of her life takes Thanh to the streets of Vancouver, where she endures beatings, arrests, crack cocaine, and an unwanted pregnancy.?

Years later she would earn her Grade 12 Equivalency and, later still, a Masters in creative writing at the University of Victoria. As a child she had developed focus and self-discipline in order to complete homework assignments in the unhappy chaos around her; as an adult, she taps back into that focus in order to write about some of the hardest things anyone--especially a deluded teenage hooker with mental health issues of her own--should ever have to endure.

There are some writers who come from privilege who slum and then retreat to their comfortable quarters to write about their real and embellished encounters with the mean streets. Then there are those who wrestle with addictions, survive beatings, hang on to their own acute intelligence, keep enough of their good hearts intact, and get out alive to tell us how and sometimes why.

Those among us who are first-generation immigrants often have to take on the role of ?translating? the language and even trickier, the requirements of Canadian schools, to our immigrant and refugee parents. Repression is the default parenting technique for some unhappy people and their lack of control over their own lives ricochets around the rest of the household to destructive effect.

Add to this, teenage boundary-testing and a taste for illicit substances and, voila, it will come as no surprise that a teenage runaway like Yasuko would choose controlling, abusive companions in an attempt to create a romanticized home life, complete with vicious guard dogs.

?It was easy to split myself in two. Shadow and self. I?d been doing it my whole life. Being hurt at the hands of a loved one was not an option for my alter ego. When assaulted she had a knack for rationalizing away her own victimhood?. The denial of her own suffering helped her support the illusion that she was in control.?

While some memoirists are more oblique about their misery, Thanh is unsparing about her self-destructive choices. She is honest about presenting herself as a potentially unreliable narrator, too, which takes real courage.
To read about her love for her two children, and her compassion for her parents, is to join other readers who are cheering every victory, every hard-won chunk of wisdom, every luminous work of fiction, every prized piece of second-hand furniture, every deadbeat abuser shown the door, and every children?s birthday party celebrated with the neighbourhood.

In Mistakes To Run With we marvel at the resilience of the human mind and spirit?and that?s not entirely surprising. Although she is not yet a household name, Thanh?s Journey Prize-winning short story Floating Like the Dead led to her brilliant debut collection of short stories of the the same name, Floating Like the Dead (Penguin, 2016). When the collection went on to be nominated for national and provincial literary prizes, winning an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story, CBC, Quill & Quire and other heavy hitters pronounced her a ?writer to watch.? Everyone noticed her strikingly beautiful tattooed author photo. One of Canada?s top literary agents signed her up.

After this auspicious beginning, Thanh?s readers were rewarded a few years later with a beautifully written historical novel, set in French Indochina now known as Vietnam. This luminous achievement, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, won the Rogers Writer?s Trust Prize for Fiction and the Victoria Butler Book Prize.

This is a writer blessed with talent in the genius category and with enough edginess?her exotic blend of Vietnamese and German looks, an abundance of tattoos, and her experiences as an after-hours punk band musician?to be of interest to even the most jaded media.

Along the way, Thanh has been guided by literary angels and by reading just the right stories at just the right time. One of Thanh?s favourite short story writers is Vancouver?s Caroline Adderson, whose own debut collection, Bad Imaginings, was nominated for the Governor-General?s Award, among other accolades. Both books are on my top ten list of short story collections, with stories that haunt me still. 9780735234413

Caroline Woodward works as a lighthouse keeper and is the author of nine books in five genres for adults and children including, A West Coast Summer with Salt Spring Island artist Carol Evans and the 25th anniversary re-issue of the Arthur Ellis Best First Mystery-nominated novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step.

***

BOOKS:

Floating Like the Dead (M&S / Emblem 2012) by Yasuko Thanh 978-0-7710-8429-4 $22

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains (Hamish Hamilton 2016) 978-0-670-06878-4 $24.95

[BCBW 2016]