Monday, December 7, 2009

A writer's all too real tale puts her in the spotlight

Yasuko Thanh contemplates an ancient writing machine at her Victoria home. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 7, 2009


Yasuko Thanh sat with friends in the balcony of a theatre for the presentation of prestigious literary awards.

“We were up in the nose-bleed seats,” she recalled, “seeing who we could spot.”

Among the literati sought from up high were Alice Munro, the goddess of the short story, and, one of Ms. Thunh’s favourites, David Bergen, the prize-winning Winnipeg author who was born at Port Edward, the isolated fishing village on the northern British Columbia coast.

Plenty of island writers were in contention in the ceremony at the Isabel Bader Theatre on the University of Toronto campus two weeks ago. Brian Brett of Salt Spring Island walked away with a $25,000 prize for “Trauma Farm,” a memoir. Annabel Lyon, of New Westminster, won the same amount for her historical novel, “The Golden Mean.”

The other prize to be awarded was a mouthful — the 2009 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. It came with a cheque for $10,000.

That’s a grand for each of the words in the title, including the year and the ampersand.

Think of it as a 6/49 jackpot for emerging writers.

The nominees included Dave Margoshes, a Regina author who was once a reporter at the Vancouver Sun, and Daniel Griffin, a Victoria writer and Camosun College instructor.

Ms. Thunh earned a nod for “Floating Like the Dead,” an unflinching story about the last three men living at a leper colony on an islet near Victoria.

Her story is fiction, but the setting is all too real.

In 1891, a police sweep through Chinatown led to the seizure of five men suffering from leprosy. They were dispatched to D’Arcy Island, an 83-hectare island in Haro Strait off Cordova Bay. Over the years, some 49 men, all but one ethnic Chinese, were exiled to the island, where their only official contact was the irregular arrival of a supply ship.

The island, which has been part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve for the past six years, served as a lazaretto as late as 1924.

Three years ago, a friend’s casual mention of the old leper colony surprised Ms. Thanh, who, though born in Victoria, had never heard of the place. She could find little more than a sentence here and there in history books. She then decided to recreate life in the forgotten colony.

She spent hours on the beach at Mayne Island, where she was then living, trying to imagine the ailing men who had been dumped on an island where they had to construct their own quarters and grow their own food.

“The aspect of the story that drew me in was the resilience and the spirit of these men,” she said. “They started a fruit orchard, planted gardens, hunted. They even traded their government-issued opium to fishermen.”

Her story is a haunting tale of abandoned souls who survive through their own industry. One of them dreams of escape. He tries to buy passage off the island with a pocket watch stolen from the corpse of a man who had died the previous night.

The tale captures the men's isolation and abandonment. The men had a signal for contact with the outside world. “Often they would raise the flag," she writes, "and no one would show up for weeks.”

Ms. Thanh submitted her story to the Malahat Review, a quarterly publication based at the University of Victoria, where she is now completing her master's degree in the writing department. She waited. And waited. And waited.

After a year, she contacted the review, which, as it turned out, had misplaced her manuscript. It happens.

She then sent it to the Vancouver Review, where it was accepted for publication. When her story about the men in the leper colony was named the Journey Prize winner, the bimonthly magazine won $2,000 of its own.

Ms. Thanh, 38, is donating some of her prize money to Plan Canada, which will provide a scholarship to a young woman completing her high school studies in Africa and provide literacy training for two other women. As well, Ms. Thanh purchased a “library in a box,” which provides books to children living in isolated, rural communities.

Her writing is not only finding readers, but creating them.

Yasuko Thanh reads a selection from "Floating Like the Dead," this year's Journey Prize story.

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