The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.
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“Jamie Chai Yun Liew is the recipient of the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award from the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop. She is a lawyer and law professor specializing in immigration, refugee, and citizenship law and the creator of the podcast Migration Conversations. Dandelion is her first novel. She lives in Ottawa with her family.”
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I have always enjoyed reading and writing but never considered it seriously until I started writing this novel. I was raised by immigrant parents who wanted me to pursue a job with a stable income. I grew up watching them navigate precarious economic situations. I have to admit that writing became possible for me because I am privileged with a job that allows me to pursue writing without worrying about whether I would be paid for that work but more importantly because it gave me the time to do so in the form of a sabbatical. I wrote the first draft of Dandelion while I was on sabbatical in 2018 as an experiment to see if I would enjoy creative writing and to see if I could produce a novel. I know that is not something a lot of people can access. I do relate to those who struggle with the day-to-day practice of writing while juggling many responsibilities.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
I remember writing in my journal and short stories when I was a teenager. Back then I would write whenever and wherever. I do have a fond memory of having teenage disappointment at a party and just sitting down with a scrap piece of paper and writing a story down, unrelated to my teenage angst, and then sharing it with a friend who then talked with me about it. I found writing to be a distraction from heartache and disappointment, but also cathartic and a space to be myself and to reflect. I still find that to be the case today.
How did you develop your skills?
I feel privileged that my job as a lawyer and academic taught me the discipline and ethic of just getting words down on the page. As a lawyer, you’re chasing deadlines and have no choice but to write that letter, factum or memo. Someone is depending on you and you need to get the words down. As an academic, it’s the publish or perish environment that cultivated the discipline needed to produce work. In both law and academia, you’re subject to honest and harsh criticism and the cycle of receiving feedback and revising also taught me the importance of editing and revising respecting the time and expertise of others, but also knowing when to be true to yourself and acknowledging that sometimes not everything recommended fits in your overall vision. So when I started writing Dandelion, I worked with that habitual discipline of just getting words on the page and recognizing that the first draft is not the last draft.
In the creative world, I have no formal training. My writing has developed from reading a lot of great literature. I consider myself a student and always look for opportunities to learn more about craft.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?
I love reading and it’s hard to pick favourites. I can honestly say that the proliferation of authors of colour had a role in my belief I could write, and that what I write would be received. It’s no surprise that the people I asked to blurb my novel are authors I admire: Carrianne Leung, Catherine Hernandez, Lindsay Wong, Jenny Heijun Wills. The first time I saw Hokkien, my mother tongue, in a novel was in Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. That lit something in me and I was really motivated to write after reading his book. I owe a huge debt to authors Wayson Choy and Paul Yee who introduced me to the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop and whose writing created space for the next generation. I also admire author Tracey Lindberg who is also a colleague and legal academic and whose book BIRDIE showed me that you could advocate through storytelling. I love the work of author Jesmyn Ward, how she writes about her own community. And Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread is a recent favourite. I love how she talks about food and folklore, two of my favourite things. I could go on, but this is just a sample.
How would you describe your work?
I describe my creative writing as just one form of knowledge dissemination that is part of the wider work I do as a lawyer and academic. Dandelion was born out of my desire to think through the lived experiences of racialized migrants and stateless persons in ways that I could not in my legal or academic work. When I was drafting the first draft of Dandelion, I was doing research on statelessness and had been doing research on immigration and refugees for many years. I see my work as writing that can be enjoyed as literature, but as an advocacy piece to educate people about the lived experiences of racialized migrants. I hope that my writing invites conversation and questions around who are our kin, how people belong, how identity and personhood is socially constructed, what racialized people face and endure, and how motherhood may be experienced differently for racialized and migrant women.
What’s your writing process like?
When I actually undergo the practice of writing, I like to write in the mornings when my mind is fresh, and without interruption for a few hours. My first drafts are usually just trying to get words on a page and then I circle back to edit and cut and rearrange. Because I have several projects on the go, I tend to focus on one and then another depending on deadlines and I schedule in specific time for creative writing which is easy to push to the backburner but I try not to do that. I would say my writing process is a work-in-progress and like many things in life, a practice I cultivate and instill regularly but imperfectly.
Tell us about your most recent book.
DANDELION is my debut novel. It is a story about Lily, a new mom, who revisits why her mother disappears when she is 11 years old and embarks on a journey to find her. The book centres around a Chinese Canadian family in a small mining town and explores themes of belonging both in Canada and with your kin abroad, why people migrate, statelessness, family secrets, mental illness and motherhood.
What are you working on now/next?
To be honest, the pandemic, for me, has made it hard to write. I have young kids who were home for a large portion of the pandemic. I wear several hats that I’m proud and privileged to, being the chair of a department, a teacher, a lawyer. I’m involved in litigation I’m passionate about and I comment in the media. All of this work has distracted me from my writing. Having said that, I have written a short story and have ideas for several more, and started my first draft of a second novel.