Interviews

East Van Boy:
Danielle Janess in Conversation with Philip Huynh

Philip HuynhPhilip Huynh talks with Malahat volunteer Danielle Janess about "The Investment on Dumfries Street" (#174, Spring 2011), winner of The Malahat Review's 2011 Open Season Awards in the short fiction category.

The story is told from the perspective of a retrospective narrator. How does memory interact with your work?

This story is about painful memories.  The narrator was a witness to some bad stuff his father did. The father had painful memories too, but for different reasons; his memories bring into sharp relief his happier past versus his present circumstances.

In retrospect, the distance between the narrator and the things that happened to him can, of course, distort. This can have a healing effect.  A painful event can sometimes be retold more easily after time, perhaps because the hard truth of the event has been worn away.  Events that are traumatic may actually appear funny in hindsight.

But distance can also clarify and sharpen. The narrator in this story distilled his past into its essence. Left in the story were only moments that cut him raw: things his father said to him, the father’s odd splurging, the house on Dumfries Street, the moment he found Sonny at the house.  It’s hard to maintain a sense of levity in those circumstances.

Reading the story I thought of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, turned on its head. The narrator and his father might have been a team in the years after the mother’s death; yet the story suggests the father dies alone, without the son returned to his side. What should be the role of adult children to their parents in the stages of illness and death?

When I wrote this story over a year ago I might have had a different answer, but now that I’m a new dad, I realize that children should listen to whatever their parents tell them to do.

Seriously, though, the answer is of course more complicated. The little Confucian in me says we should be there for our parents, especially in bad times, and particularly in a situation like this where all the father and son have are each other.  But to sacrifice our lives for our parents? That’s counterintuitive.

Both father and son experience exile. Can you talk about this connection?

I was interested in exploring the idea of a son who follows in his father’s footsteps by leaving him. There’s an odd sort of symmetry to it. For the son a little spot in urban Canada was the haunting, enchanted, and ultimately forbidden realm that Vietnam was for the father. I imagine being an exile himself would make the narrator a little more sympathetic to his father’s condition, or at least soften his otherwise critical bent towards his father.

There is also an asymmetry to their states of exile. The father probably left Vietnam involuntarily and felt he lost something. The son, by contrast, left voluntarily for greater opportunities. Is the son really an exile? The father seems to have gotten the short end of the stick: he has to leave his country, then his son leaves him. Then again, is it so sad for the father if his son ends up in a better place? Wasn’t that the hope after leaving Vietnam in the first place – that his child would have a better life?

Loss, regret, and mourning for what never was, such as the house on Dumfries. Is it possible to experience a sense of loss for things we’ve never held?

I think it is possible to experience a feeling of loss for things we’ve never held, especially if they are surrogates for things we did have at one point. No, the house never did belong to the father.  But it probably stood for something he did have, such as his former wealth and status. In that sense he lost it all a second time.

Yes, there’s plenty of loss to go around – of country, status, and wealth. There’s mourning for what never was, and for the loss of a wife and mother. Are there regrets though? I’m not sure if the father or son regrets anything he himself has done, although the son might regret some of the things the father has done, and vice-versa. Can you regret someone else’s actions? I don’t know.

Despite the family’s living arrangements in “shabby East Vancouver,” the father has a lovely sense of optimism. Did you grow up in Vancouver? What was the situation of your own family? Over the years, what changes in Vancouver have really struck you?

Unlike the narrator and his father, who lived alone, I was born in Vancouver to a pack of relatives. My family came en masse from Vietnam to Vancouver, in the 70s and early 80s -- parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. It was as if a small village was transplanted whole.  I think our situation was similar to other immigrant families in Vancouver.

Although I’ve lived about half of my life in other places, I spent my formative years in Vancouver and will always consider myself an East Van boy. I’ve gone through stretches away from Vancouver for years at a time – stretches in Iowa City while my father was studying for his Ph.D. – but I moved back. I went to high school in Winnipeg, but moved back to Vancouver for my undergrad. I’ve lived in the United States for years, in Berkeley and New York City, but am now back. I’m a yo-yo with Vancouver.

It always amazes me how much Vancouver changes with each return. I always feel like Rip Van Winkle when I step out of the airport. East Van has especially changed. When I grew up there in the early 80s, new immigrants lived alongside the working class. A letter carrier could afford a house and raise a family there. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Main Street wasn’t a haven for chic little boutiques back then. My characters would be priced-out of their shabby little apartment today.

Have you ever worked as an actor? Do your characters come from experience, or pure fiction?

I’ve never had the impulse to be an actor, though I’m flattered you didn’t rule out the possibility.  Part of the challenge and thrill of writing fiction is the chance to make up characters that come out of nowhere but ring true. That’s not to say that it’s easy to make up characters from whole cloth. I have a brother who just happens to be a working actor in Los Angeles, but my brother grew up in Winnipeg, not East Van. He also has a healthy relationship with my father, doesn’t drive a Corolla, and is able to travel freely between the U.S. and Canada.

The others are from make-believe. My own father, for example, could not be further from the sort of men in the story. He’s a statistics professor in Winnipeg, follows the straight-and-narrow as much as anyone I know, and has never even whispered a business scheme.

Besides a law career and a family that includes twin daughters, what are you working on these days?

I’m working on a novel right now.  The characters in this story are in the novel, along with others, and I’m taking them to far-flung places in the world, in and beyond dear-old East Van.

Danielle Janess

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