Writing has never been natural for me. I immigrated with my mother to Canada at the age of seven, not knowing a single word of English. I struggled with it all throughout my childhood, and I still struggle with it now.
When I was eight, my parents took me to get our passports renewed at the Canada Place Building in Downtown, Vancouver. The officer from behind the counter came up to me, got down on his knees, and looked me in the eye. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Writer!” It made sense then, but as time went on, the likelihood of me ever making it as a writer grew increasingly unlikely.
It was in my grade three class that I fell in love with writing. We poured our imagination onto the pages of colour-coded notebooks, filling them with our stories. We turned these stories into books that we bound and illustrated ourselves. Every afternoon, everyone would gather around the carpet and students would read their stories aloud to the class.
My teacher wrote “voracious reader” on my term-end report card. Neither my mother nor I knew what it meant, so we looked up the definition together. At home, my mother taught me English by reading the Magic Tree House, Geronimo Stilton, and Boxcar Children series with me. At school, these chapter books were considered too advanced for me by my teachers, so I was forbidden to check them out from the school’s library. I tried to imitate these stories with my own, but the stories I wrote only made sense in my own mind. When I read my first illustrated storybook in front of the class, with fragmented ideas that leapt from fire-breathing dragons, to gardening, to ordering pizzas at Pizza Hut, everyone laughed and the teasing continued into recess and lunch hours, on playgrounds and in fields.
I was given nicknames. My classmates mocked the way I spoke, made faces as they hurled cultural slurs at me, mimicking my heavy accent that I grew to detest. When I handed in a writing assignment, my grade four teacher read it, and told me that I shouldn’t be writing at a grade four level in her class, or have been allowed out of ESL. It was humiliating. It made me never want to write anything ever again. For many years, I didn’t.
My stories ceased. I kept up journalling until one morning in grade five, I scrutinized my face in the mirror and realized that I would never be accepted as a writer in Canada because I was Chinese. I shredded all 256 journal entries and flushed them down the toilet. A short while later, I stopped speaking.
No one heard me speak for two years, though at home, crouched on the window ledge from behind the curtains in secret, I read books aloud. I practiced enunciating individual words, articulating every syllable, stressing every vowel, reciting the same sentences over and over again until they no longer felt slippery on my tongue. In silence, I listened to others speak, listened to the variation in their voices, listened to the crescendoing and falling of words like notes on sheets of music, phrases like chords. My mother tried beating the words out of me. She thought that if she used enough force, fear would override humiliation. But nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. It was by keeping silent that I learned English. Silence suffocated the Chinese in me, my first language. My mother too, gave up.
No immigrant parent having come from the suburbs of Eastern China and undergone a lifetime of poverty and hardship, would give their only child up to the arts. My parents sacrificed time and their sense of belonging to bring me to Canada because the land offered more chances, and more possibilities for me to grow into someone more rich, prominent, and successful than themselves. In the end, I always knew that my parents would never allow me to pursue the arts. Still, I persisted.
Going into grade eleven, I was preparing to do my SATs, and in the process of applying for med school at Stanford, UC Berkley, Amherst, and Harvard. My academic load for the year stacked up to 12 in-school and online courses. My parents had forced me to enrol in every science and math course. Out of stubbornness, and in an act of rebellion, I also took European history, American history, English, literature, and writing—every single other course that actually interested me.
Yet something felt missing. I wanted more— a community in which I could immerse myself, with people who were as passionate about books and writing as I was, and places where I could go to attend workshops and events. That something was exactly what I found when I ventured into the literary community. It was a dream, and I still think I’m dreaming. But back then, not knowing if any of this even existed, I almost gave up searching.
The day I submitted a mix of essays, stories, and poetry to different youth contests and journals, was not any particular day. I had no experience. I did not know what literary journals were beyond The New Yorker and National Geographic or Time, nor did I know what creative non-fiction was when I submitted a personal essay to The New Quarterly.
By the time I found out that I had been longlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest, I had forgotten all about the essay. I didn’t open the email for two days, thinking it was a rejection, and when I did, I had to look up what a longlist was.
What TNQ did was open up a door for me. I thought a publication would save me; validate me as a writer to my family. Turned out, it didn’t.
When I told my parents that my work was going to be published, they asked me, “Why are you submitting to magazines? We live in a technological world now. Magazines and books will be outdated soon.” It hurt. But it made me realize that if I wanted to be a writer, I would have to fight for it myself. I changed my application from sciences to English overnight, thinking, That isn’t who I am.
And because I was only 15 when I wrote some parts of the essay, the essay had flaws which would appear amateurish to any seasoned editor. What’s so great about TNQ and other journals out there, is that they do recognize potential from young and emerging writers, and they support that. TNQ took my age into consideration and were willing to mentor me. My editor, mentor, and friend, Susan Scott, took me under her wing. She introduced me to the world of publishing for the first time, guiding me along, and offering kind words of encouragement, and we grew from there.
I had other mentors too. I paid for SFU’s Continuing Studies creative writing programs with my lunch money, and attended them while telling my parents that they were science conventions. In my fiction workshop, I learned about planning, outlining, and structuring from Jen Sookfong Lee. It was in my poetry workshop that I learned to edit my work for the first time, from Evelyn Lau, while Fiona Tinwei Lam taught me about form. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since coming to writing, of perseverance, came from Rob Taylor, who showed the class his hefty spreadsheet of over 1300 rejections. Afterwards, I went on a submission rampage and sent out 40 poems to various journals and online publishing sites overnight, all of which were rejected. But he taught me not to give up, and had he not shown me the way, I would have wanted to quit and trash everything.
Over time, I learned to value rejections as much as I do, time, and the writing process itself. The cycle is endless. You go back and make improvements, get rejected, go back and make improvements, and get rejected again. In doing so however, you start to realize that by returning to old work, figuring out their weaknesses and mistakes, you yourself have progressed, and there is nothing more rewarding than that. One of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever received, came from a 500-word rejection letter, in which the editor transferred what her mentor Hiromi Goto had taught her, about centring a piece of writing, on to me.
My story starts out the way many other writers’ stories start out. Had I not plunged into the unknown, thinking I didn’t have anything left to lose, I don’t know how long it would be before I went back to writing again. I’m not the only one. There are so many talented, young writers out there, who are as full of passion as they are full of powerful stories to tell; who would love to be part of this community, but do not know how to start or where to look.
It’s scary to throw yourself out there, not knowing how you will be perceived, whether people will view you as imposing or ostentatious for harbouring ambitions, and whether or not you will be accepted. Coming from a background of being constantly reminded that I didn’t know my place as a Chinese girl growing up in a Western society, and being told that my ideas were stupid, I grew up believing that my voice wasn’t wanted. Which is why what surprised me the most when I made the transition to writing, is that people are actually nice. Like just genuinely nice. People didn’t shoo me away when I approached them to say hi. Nobody has ever appreciated my writing before. I offered myself, as it is, and for the first time in my life, that was enough.
My biggest piece of advice for young writers is to get involved. Go to events, volunteer, meet people, and reach out. When you see writers at readings and on panels, introduce yourself, ask them questions, and they will remember you. Often times, these same writers will be at readings that offer open mic opportunities. It’s a chance to be seen. If you read your work, they might approach you themselves, and if you tell them about the time you were at their event or had read their work, a conversation will grow. From it, you will have formed a lasting connection. There are so many people who truly want to support you and help you thrive, if they see that you are eager and want to learn bad enough.
For those with financial setbacks, know that you do not need a university education or MFA degree in order to write. There are other ways to learn, and opportunities are everywhere if you are willing to look for them. My entire writing experience blossomed out of a high school education and the three creative writing workshops I took at SFU, and I was only able to take those classes because I didn’t eat lunch for six years. I landed my first two jobs by volunteering at festivals, and by going to every event and open mic I could find. I am learning by reading other people’s work, by reading widely, and by listening to free podcasts where writers and editors share their own experiences and advice. Like many, I am not financially privileged to pay for classes regularly, which is why I’m constantly submitting work out there, hoping to get a chance to work with an editor and get feedback for my work that way.
I have wanted to be a writer my entire life, but strayed off path so many times. I almost didn’t make it this time, but I did, because there were people who reached out and showed me the way. Mentorship is very much needed when one is just starting out, and it shouldn’t be available only to those who have the money to pay. One shouldn’t have to stumble upon it by pure luck, the way so many other marginalized writers and I have done so in the past. So the question I’m asking myself now, is what can I do to help young writers like me? To create a safe space that not only helps to amplify and bring out their voices, but offer long-term support and mentorship in ways that are sustainable, nurturing, inclusive, and accessible. Believe me, I am working on it.
Isabella Wang is a young, emerging Chinese-Canadian writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her poetry is published in Looseleaf magazine. At 17, she is the youngest writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s 2017 Edna Staebler Essay Contest. She is studying at SFU in the fall of 2018, while working for Books on the Radio and interning at Room