Interview with Jen Sookfong Lee

Do yourself a favour and pick up Jen Sookfong Lee‘s latest book, Gentlemen of the Shade: My Own Private Idaho. (I enjoyed it over several lunch breaks at work. My brain grew as I read it.) With this latest publication, Lee has vaulted herself to the forefront of cultural criticism. She writes:

 What occurs to me tonight, as I re-watch this movie that I know so well, is that we can be critical of Gus Van Sant’s vision, but we also have to be aware that My Own Private Idaho is an essential link in a cultural chain of events that led to Singles and Reality Bites and Swingers, to Dan Savage and polyamory and internet pornography. To our discussions on whether Kim Kardashian is too sexual to be respectable or should be respected because of her overt sexuality. All of these cultural players reflect the evolution of our preoccupations and are reasons why Mike and Scott’s story can seem cute or not subversive enough. But it is because of Mike and Scott and other parallel moments that we have even arrived at a cultural place where we have the tools to consider their story in these critical ways. My Own Private Idaho helped create the world we live in today, where we can discuss the complicated topics of human relationships with an openness that didn’t exist before 1991.

 I chatted with the author of the novels The End of East, The Better MotherShelter, and The Conjoined over e-mail.



Doretta Lau: What made you decide to write a book about My Own Private Idaho?

 Jen Sookfong Lee: My Own Private Idaho had lived in my head for years and years, ever since I was 15 years old and skipped school to watch a matinee screening. When ECW Press acquired my most recent novel, The Conjoined, my editor Crissy Calhoun mentioned the Pop Classics series, which is all about little books that explore pop culture phenomena through the eyes of a fan. I quipped, “What if I wrote one about My Own Private Idaho?” And Crissy’s eyes lit up. She believed I could do it and then I started to believe I could do it, and then we did it!

There is truly no other cultural event that changed me in the way that My Own Private Idaho did. I love culture and am a rabid consumer of it all: royal weddings, celebrity Twitter feuds, anything featuring Rihanna. But even so, My Own Private Idaho was special, partly because I watched it at a pivotal, adolescent moment in my life, and partly because it really was part of a tidal wave of the cult of the alternative, something that felt brand new to me and many people my age. I always say the 90s was the decade of the mainstream marginal, or when being different carried a lot of weight in cultural currency. In 1991, when My Own Private Idahopremiered, this was still a fetal concept to many young people, me included. And the film brought those baby ideas to life.


DL: I found myself nodding a lot as I read, recalling all the cultural touchstones of the time. You really nailed this idea of the mainstream marginal in the book. How did the era and this film shape you as a writer?

JSL: It was during this era that I really decided to be a writer, a decision that’s always tinged with lunacy in any era. Because the marginal became a kind of cultural currency in the 90s, being a writer didn’t seem so ludicrous. Of course I could be a writer! Of course I could write poems that people would want to read! Kurt Cobain became famous for being a dirty-haired, mumbling singer. Why couldn’t I do something similar?

The film specifically really cemented my commitment to writing the invisible stories. Hustlers like Mike and Scott were invisible to mainstream society for the most part and it was the film that centred them. I have always tried to do the same thing in my novels and my poems: give voice to people who haven’t been represented in media before. I give Gus Van Sant all the credit for giving me that focus.


DL: It struck me that you write about the nineties and being a teenager at that time with such precision and emotional depth. Were you able to easily access this milieu because you were in the right headspace from writing The Conjoined, which delves into the lives of two teenaged girls? Or do you find that there’s something about high school growing pains that causes everything to stand out in memory in stark relief?

JSL: I’ve written about children and teenagers in all of my books, I think, and that largely has to do with how high school stays with us. I often think of it as the first social trauma people usually experience! And it’s often the time that people start writing creatively, so there is something very meta for people who go on to write for a living about adolescence. You can write about your 14-year-old self writing sad poems all day and every day! Like most teenagers, I felt very different and isolated and that made me turn inward to writing poetry and short stories. The joy I feel when I write is directly connected to how I felt at ease and myself when I was writing while in high school. Which makes it very easy for me to write about the 1990s and my younger self. I have also been told I remember everything, which is blessing and a curse.


DL: Speaking of our fourteen-year-old selves writing sad poems, I’m still stunned that you recently unearthed a British Columbia–wide secondary school literary journal from that time period and you and I were published side by side on the same page. What are the chances of this happening? Two CBCs, one from what used to be a shitty suburb and the other from East Vancouver, actually becoming writers as adults. I always wondered who “Jennifer Lee” was because I assumed that you were of Chinese descent, plus I have a cousin who is named Jennifer Lee. I was so curious about you, but I never made the connection this writer was you, even when you published your first books. If I had a time machine I’d go back and befriend you then. How did you stay the course, hold onto that dream of the nineties, and not give up despite the astronomical odds of becoming a published writer?

JSL: I know! It was the best discovery of my life! The chances of both of us becoming working writers must be mind boggling. Although, in fairness, so many of my friends from that era went on to do really interesting things. My best friend Sandra, who appears in Gentlemen of the Shade, is a kickass human rights lawyer. I keep joking that she should have married George Clooney. 

I say to my students all the time that a huge part of writing is just believing that you can do it and that we go through all these brain tricks to sustain that belief (or delusion). For me, I knew it was impossible for me to ever stop writing, the question was really whether I was going to try to make it into a career, paying or otherwise. Long ago, when I was being published in those teenaged journals, I discovered I found a lot of joy in having my work be read by others, so I put a lot of energy (SO MUCH ENERGY) into making that happen. I had to really believe that what I was saying was worth reading and I did. No one else could have written the books that I have, just as no one else could have written yours. The 90s were a gift in some ways, in that I was 13 when the decade started and 23 when it ended, which meant that all of that alternative/marginal/grunge stuff truly shaped my brain. I got wired a certain way and by the age of 23, it was too late to be rewired in a different way that would result in me becoming a notary (not that notaries are uncool, it just seems like a respectable profession).


​​DL: Yes! I fully believe that for every writer, there are readers who have been longing for their stories and that is what keeps me going.

You mentioned Kurt Cobain earlier and all this talk about high school has me thinking about my grade twelve biology teacher who let us listen to the OJ Simpson verdict over the radio during class. He said it was our generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination, that we’d always remember where we were when we found out. What I’m more interested in is where you were when you discovered that Cobain was dead.

JSL: Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered on a Friday, but I didn’t find out he had died until the following Saturday morning at seven, when my best friend Sandra called me and yelled at me to turn on MuchMusic. I remember sitting in front of the television in my pyjamas and not moving for hours, with Sandra weeping into the phone, which was still glued to my ear. I was two months away from graduating high school and this seemed like the most shocking way to enter adulthood. I was never a huge Nirvana fan, but I recognized that he was the patron saint of the alternative movement, of doing what you feel deeply about, of not giving a fuck what school or parents or your boss at McDonald’s thought. When his fans held that public memorial in Seattle and Courtney Love read his suicide note over speakers, I wept so very hard, especially when she told him to go fuck himself for doing this to her and their daughter. 

 People have a tendency to romanticize Kurt Cobain, which I try not to do, but like many artists before and after him, he embodied that eternal struggle between an artist, his demons, and the capitalism that keeps his artistry going. I don’t know any artist who doesn’t fight with these exact same things. Sometimes, when I think life is too hard and my mind wanders to dark places, I literally think, “I never want Courtney Love to be that mad at me so I’d better keep going.” True story.


DL: I adore this: Courtney Love as the patron saint of keep going. An aside: Live Through This was the grunge album that I connected with most–I still listen to it today. What are you working on at the moment? What’s next?

 JSL: Well, right now, I’m trying to write a collection of poetry, which really frightens me. I wrote poetry a lot when I was younger. But then sometime in my 20s, I started writing The End of East and then I only wrote fiction until about three years ago. Recently, I’ve been writing in any new genre that scares me: cultural criticism, poetry, children’s literature. I do have a novel idea percolating, but if it becomes what I imagine, then it will be a very intense and probably very long process. I had three books come out in 12 months, so maybe the novel can wait. Oh, The Conjoined is the process of film development, which is super exciting. I’m not writing the screenplay, but I do sit around and drunkenly try to cast it.


 DL: I’m dying to ask about your fantasy casting of The Conjoined. Do you mind sharing?

JSL: Fantasy casting means I can choose anyone, right? No matter how famous? I mean, if I could have Elizabeth Moss play Jessica, I would! Edie Falco for Donna? Can I have Maggie Cheung as Ginny? Also, I have been on Simu Liu for Chris the Hot Cop for months now.

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