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State of the Arts: Asian lit festival gets graphic

Graphic novels and storytelling explored at inaugural literASIAN: A Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing

Graphic novels are linked to the past and the future say participants in Vancouver’s inaugural literASIAN: A Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing, which runs in Chinatown Nov. 21 to 24.

“In China, the comic book form became really popular in the Qing dynasty [in the] 1860s, 1870s,” said Colleen Leung, a documentary filmmaker who’s moderating a Nov. 23 evening session called Storytelling and the Graphic Novel.

She said stories that were passed on orally and morality tales were written and illustrated in comic books in the late 1800s for the largely uneducated population.

Leung, who was the first Chinese-Canadian on-air news reporter for BCTV Vancouver in 1987, first became interested in comics as a kid.

She read her father’s large-format Second World War comics about fighter pilots “and those nasty Germans” and her mother’s comic books from 1960s China that sometimes depicted gruesome morality tales akin to Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm.

“And then we just kind of pooh poohed [the form] because what do we get after that? Archie comics, very light, fluffy kind of stuff. And then it just became a niche market, if you wanted to collect superheroes you could do that.”

Now Leung reads “emotion-packed” graphic novels by Chris Ware and Canadians Chester Brown and Seth. She’s pleased Asian-Canadians are exploring the form.  

The free Storytelling and the Graphic Novel event includes:

• award-winning independent filmmaker and storyteller Ann Marie Fleming, who animated the story of her famous magician great-grandfather and then depicted the tale in an full-colour illustrated memoir called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam;

• actor Laara Ong, who’s selling her graphic novel Shanghai Blues 1939 on iTunes to raise money for and interest in a pair of related plays she wants to produce;

• architect David Wong, who’s written a graphic novel called Escape to Gold Mountain about the history of Chinese people in North America based on historical documents and interviews with elders; and

• writer Terry Watada, who’s Nikkei Manga-gatari is a historical recollection of memories, with one of the stories following a Japanese soldier who fought for Canada in the First World War and then returns and struggles to feel validated.

“I want to know how all these people are going to interact,” Leung said. “They’re all using the graphic novel and yeah they’re Asian, or they have Chinese or Japanese in their background, but they have different approaches... they have different reasons for writing these.”

Leung says the form demands a strong story and carefully considered dialogue and images. She also notes graphic novels are accessible to children with learning disabilities, those disinterested in reading, new immigrants and elderly people.

She wants to hear “more voices from more diverse communities” in graphic novels.

Jim Wong-Chu, a founding member of the decades-old Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, which publishes Ricepaper magazine, said its members recognized the society’s need to nurture a new generation of more diverse Asian-Canadian writers, including refugees, mixed-race scribes and fantasy and science fiction authors. The hope is that sessions on graphic novels will  attract younger writers.

The festival includes readings, workshops, panels and the book launch for Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance by Denise Chong, author of The Concubine’s Children.

There’s also a book fair of Asian-themed writing.

“Some of [the books] are quite rare,” Wong-Chu said. “When I was younger, 30-odd years ago, every time I’d come across an Asian book of any kind I’d buy it, so my library is very cluttered and a lot of people are now de-cluttering so they’re donating the books to us.”

The fair will include first editions and rare books, DVDs and memorabilia of Asian-North American hockey players.

The festival closes with a 10-course banquet at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant, where a Community Builder Award will be presented to publisher Brian Lam of Arsenal Pulp Press.

Most of the festivities happen in Chinatown at the UBC Learning Exchange and the festival includes a literary walking tour of the area.

Leung is particularly passionate about the festival’s focus on graphic novels.

“It’s great the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop [which is mounting the literASIAN festival] is promoting [the graphic novel],” she said. “They recognize it’s growing in popularity and it’s a heck of a good way to tell a story.”

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This story has been edited since it was first posted.

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