Five Questions with… Yan Li

Yan Li, author of Lily in the Snow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Yan on October 26, as well as a copy of Lily in the Snow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: As a bilingual writer, how do you decide which language you will initially publish a novel in?

Yan Li: I had never thought about writing a novel until I came to Canada. As the first graduate student from China ever admitted by the History Department at the University of Windsor in 1987, I received a lot of attention since many people were curious about China. A year later, I decided to write a book in English that would give a truthful reflection of life in China in the 20th century from an insider’s point of view. My first novel was an unexpected success and totally changed my life in Canada. A few years later, when I noticed increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants coming into Canada and that people back home were interested in knowing their life in a new country, I decided to write a novel in Chinese for readers in China. Married to the West Wind became my first novel written in Chinese.

© Xu Chunying

© Xu Chunying

IFOA: What are some benefits/difficulties of translating your own work?

Li: I very much enjoy the process of translating my own works from English into Chinese, or vice versa. I can see the differences in expressions and choices of words, and tailor materials accordingly, based on my understanding of both cultures, to approach readability, efficiency and aesthetic results, valued in different languages. I don’t feel it is a good idea to translate literature word for word and line for line. The best can be produced through a rewrite. However, not many people are willing to have their original work rewritten by someone else. I am lucky to have the ability to handle both languages in my creative writing. So far, I have not experienced any difficulties.

IFOA: Do you write for audiences of a certain age or culture?

Li: I never pay attention to generational gaps, since I don’t write for money but for faith. I believe that good literary works will last in history, whether they are bestsellers or not. The purpose of my writing is simple. The world around us is imperfect but our writing, ideally, may change it for the better. Human natures and values are the same, but different languages and cultures separate and isolate them. I hope I can use my pen to help erase prejudices and misunderstandings.

Li, Lily in the SnowIFOA: What role do literature, writing and journalism play in Lily in the Snow?

Li: My academic training comes from three fields: language and literature, journalism and history. I tend to mix up those influences in my creative writing. When I wrote my first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, my style was very much limited by my training in journalism and history and it was difficult to allow my mind to flow freely outside the boundary of truth and facts, which are crucial for news writing. God knows if that actually helped the novel to be successful because it was so true to human nature and the real world. When I wrote Lily in the Snow, I had gradually become used to a more creative style since I had published some novels in Chinese by that time. Although Lily in the Snow is more fictionalized, it is a product obviously influenced by my academic training, with many stories based on truth and facts. I think I have developed a writing style, in English or Chinese, that portrays fictional characters very closely to real life. I believe it is a pity for the writer if her characters and stories sound fake and unreal.

IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?

Li: For the past 20 years, most English novels I have read are those that have a connection to China or the Chinese. I very much enjoy reading Chinese language books reflecting life in today’s China. Some works by short story writers like Liu Qingbang and Wang Xiangfu are very well written and impressive, showing the Chinese society estranged from what I used to know.

Yan Li is the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo and the coordinator of the Chinese language programme at Renison University College. She presents her latest novel, Lily in the Snow, which provides a unique perspective on the universal tale of intergenerational conflict, and explores the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada with humour and insight. Catch her at China@IFOA on October 26.

Five Questions with… Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes, author of What Does a House Want? and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Gary on October 26, as well as a copy of What Does a House Want?, his latest collection of poetry! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Can you describe your poetic process for our readers?

Gary Geddes: I like Karl Shapiro’s notion that poetry is not just a way of saying things, but a way of seeing things, because it reminds me that there’s a poet in all of us, a part that looks for what is deep and essential in daily experience. I use my skill with words to connect with those who share this gift of poetic insight. I keep my antennae tuned to what is happening around me at the local, national and international level, events that touch me emotionally, morally and politically. Some of these signals refuse to go away, so I try to find a way to give them imaginative shape. That’s when the real challenge begins, the struggle to transform feelings into words, and when knowledge of craft becomes so useful. Language is a transforming medium, like passing white light through a prism; the end-product is always different from what you expect and intend.

IFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your wife, the author Ann Eriksson. How do you influence each other as writers?

© Ann Eriksson

© Ann Eriksson

Geddes: Ann takes the writing of novels seriously, which means that we both know what it’s like to be caught up in the excitement and challenge of a new work-in-progress and how much time is required to produce something worthwhile and lasting. When you respect your partner’s commitment, the sharing of cooking, shopping, house cleaning, et cetera becomes part of the package. So, too, does providing or receiving unexpectedly a cup of tea on the writing table, delivered with a silent smile and, if you’re lucky, a kiss. Ann and I read each other’s work and hope to be able to offer constructive criticism along with moral support, given in small doses during long walks, warm-ups for tai chi in the morning or while kayaking for the mail in the afternoon. As a biologist, Ann is informed and alert to what is happening with the environment and very pro-active, two influences I welcome.

IFOA: Are there particular poets whose writing you are influenced by, or whom you see yourself writing in the same literary tradition as?

Geddes: Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to edit two major poetry anthologies for Oxford University Press. This required shifting into high gear and not only reading the entire works of about two hundred poets, but also selecting a few of their best poems and trying to articulate why they were so good. Many of my favourite poets can be found in the various editions of 20th-Century Poets and Poetics and 15 Canadian Poets.

Teaching was another plus for me as a poet because it forced me to be reading, analyzing and commenting on what I read. Of course, there were specific poets along the way whose work had a more than minor impact on me: Auden, Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Lee Masters, Michael Ondaatje, Pat Lowther, Bronwen Wallace, to name only a few. I love the long poem and poetic narrative and find I’m drawn most often to larger canvases, book-length poems and sequences where anything can happen and where both story and song contend for my attention. I’m a sponge, soaking up as much information about craft as I can from a host of poets. And there’s always more to be learned.

Geddes, What Does a House WantIFOA: What are you working on now?

Geddes: I’m working on a non-fiction book about the links between Canada’s notorious residential schools and segregated Indian hospitals, where forced sterilizations took place, along with gratuitous drug and surgical experiments and electric shock treatment designed to destroy the short-term memory of sexual abuse. This involves reading a lot and interviewing elders across the country, who are graciously sharing their stories with me. I’m also working on a new poetry manuscript that, so far, includes a narrative-poem-in-progress and a couple of poem-sequences, one about my mother, Irene Turner, who died of cancer when she was only 35, and another called “On Being Dead in Venice,” which includes poems about Pound, Brodsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but….

Geddes: It’s hard to believe, but writers seem willing to run off at the mouth at the slightest opportunity. Poets are the worst. A cynic once observed that the rewards for poetry are so few, poets will kill for them. I have my doubts about that. They’re more likely to give you an earful, hopefully words so subtly arranged and evocative that they nest in the ear and make their way into the bone marrow. As Robert Hass reminds us, “Because rhythm has access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power. And power is political.”

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama and criticism. Geddes will read from his latest poetry collection, What Does a House Want?, a polished and cinematographic take on numerous ideas from Israeli-Palestinian violence to the reputation of Ezra Pound.


Five Questions with… Ann Eriksson

Ann Eriksson, author of High Clear Bell of Morning and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Ann on October 26, as well as a copy of High Clear Bell of Morning! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your current non-literary pursuits. Your website mentions that you do ongoing work as a consulting biologist.

Ann Eriksson: I have a degree in biology from the University of Victoria and have worked as a consulting biologist since I graduated in 1994. My work, in the area of marine and forest ecology, is mostly a writing job, translating scientific information into language and graphics easily understood by the public, although I have done some nature interpretation as well, which I enjoy a lot. Since I moved to Thetis Island in 2010, I’ve been putting my energy and talents to use in the non-profit conservation world and am a director of two conservation organizations: the Cowichan Land Trust and the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy, which I founded in 2012 along with a passionate group of islanders. Our focus is conservation education and stewardship as well as protecting land for nature. We’re in the midst of raising a half million dollars to buy a piece of land for the island’s first community nature reserve. It’s a lot of work but good work, exciting and satisfying. You can read more about the project at

© Gary Geddes

© Gary Geddes

IFOA: How does your background in biology influence your writing, and how do your literary pursuits affect your work as a biologist?

Eriksson: As the great, late ecologist Barry Commoner stated in the first of his Four Laws of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. My four novels all incorporate my knowledge and interest as a biologist, from Decomposing Maggie, which is infused with the natural history of the Gulf Islands, and In the Hands of Anubis, which is set in the prairie of southern Alberta, to Falling from Grace and High Clear Bell of Morning, which have scientists as protagonists and environmental issues as major themes. I’ve become braver as I mature as a writer and am more confident about tackling harder issues and bringing science more into my work. Having said that, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new novel which is not at all about science or ecological issues, although one could argue that even a book set in New York City and involving homelessness and fraud is about a different kind of urban ecology.

IFOA: Can you elaborate on the connection between environmental disturbances and mental illness in High Clear Bell of Morning?

Eriksson: When I started writing High Clear Bell of Morning, I thought I was writing two parallel heath stories: toxic pollutants in killer whales, and mental illness in humans. But as I did the research, the two came closer together until eventually, they crossed over. That moment came while reading More than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to our Children by Dan Agin, professor of cell biology at the University of Chicago. The book includes a chapter on links between mental illness and toxic industrial chemicals, with an emphasis on schizophrenia.

Like Glen in the novel, I presented a hypothesis. Does exposure to environmental toxins increase one’s chance of having a serious mental illness like schizophrenia? It’s very difficult to do a human health study to determine this. The psychiatric community speaks about “risk factors” rather than causes, as brain diseases like schizophrenia are poorly understood although it is thought to be multi-causal with a mixture of genetic and environmental risk factors. Much of the research has focused on prenatal brain development. For example, we know some chemicals cross the placenta and cause brain damage in the foetus, take alcohol and foetal alcohol syndrome, for example. Exposure to lead during foetal brain development may double the risk of childhood or adult schizophrenia spectrum disorder, and endocrine disruptors like bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic water bottles and the linings of tin cans, are implicated in the development of schizophrenia later in life. There are close to 90,000 industrial chemicals used in the world, with 1000 new ones introduced every year, and unless we eat them, very few are studied for their effects on human health. Body burden, breast milk and umbilical cord studies have shown the presence of hundreds of industrial chemicals in human bodies, no matter where they live or what they eat. Many of these pollutants are known neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and immunotoxins. We’re living in a toxic soup. Does it affect our or our children’s mental health? I thought it was an important question to ask.

High_Clear_Bell-COVER.inddIFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your husband, the poet Gary Geddes. How do you influence each other as writers?

Eriksson: Ours was a literary relationship from the start. We met at Gary’s granddaughter’s 12th birthday party a few months after my first novel, Decomposing Maggie, was published. I like to joke I got the GG for my first novel. I had just bought Gary’s floating memoir, Sailing Home, for my father, and the week after the party, on my way to Alberta to deliver it, I spent the flight reading about Gary’s deepest secrets. We married three years later.

I feel blessed to have Gary in my life both as a husband and as a literary partner. We read each other’s work, bounce ideas off one another, give feedback and support and most importantly, we both understand the nature of a writing life with its crazy time commitment and the glazed look of preoccupation. While we have separate writing spaces in our Thetis Island home, they are open to a common hallway and our doors are rarely closed (actually mine doesn’t have a door) so we often converse back and forth. How do you spell travelling, one l or two? This year is the first time we have books out at the same time and so we’ve been doing a lot of joint readings, which are great fun. Gary likes to say he tells the truth and I tell the lies.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Eriksson: I read a lot so I’m having a hard time picking a favourite. Right now I’m halfway through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I’m enjoying enormously, but my favourite novel from the past few months was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, so haunting and beautiful. A close second is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Ann Eriksson is an author and biologist. She presents her fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning, about a family dealing with schizophrenia and the frustrations that come with this tragic disease. See her on October 26 as she discusses her creative process. And stay tuned to the IFOA blog to see her husband, the poet Gary Geddes, answer our Five Questions tomorrow!

Five Questions with… Andrej Blatnik

Andrej Blatnik, author of Law of Desire and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Andrej on October 25, as well as a copy of Law of Desire! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What is it about the short story form that is attractive to you?

Blatnik, AndrejAndrej Blatnik: With the short story there’s no fooling around. Every mistake a writer makes is immediately visible. The story has to move in limited space and has no time to lose. And the reader has more space to fill with his or her own reflection or imagination—which is maybe the very reason that the novel is a more popular genre.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Blatnik: It became more condensed and yet more open to the reality outside of the text. I started writing in the early 80s when life in my country, Slovenia, was different: there were lots of subjects you couldn’t speak of, lots of questions you couldn’t ask. Literature was a chance to express things that couldn’t be expressed otherwise, and for a young person, it was an escape to an area where everything could be arranged according to your wishes. Some books were read at that time for reasons other than literary; they expressed alternative versions of history, alternative political ideas, etc. These times are gone, and while literature retained its absolute freedom of creation (especially if the writer is not occupied with the possibilities of publication and success!), it has lost its former social impact.

Blatnik, Law of DesireIFOA: You have also worked as a translator. Is there a specific book that you would love to translate?

Blatnik: I’d love to translate a book of selected stories by Lydia Davis, concentrating on her shortest stories. I have a book of 50 stories no more than one page long, and when it was published in English (You Do Understand), quite a few people suggested I should have a look at her work—I did and I was immediately hooked.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Blatnik: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.

IFOA:Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but…

Blatnik: …believing is hard nowadays.

Andrej Blatnik is a writer of both fiction and criticism. He has also worked as a translator, translating the work of Paul Bowes, among others. Join him on October 25 alongside other international authors as they discuss how the translation of their work into English has unlocked a universal audience that was unattainable in their native language.

Five Questions with… Julie Joosten

Julie Joosten, an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions! She is the author of Light Light, which was recently announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Julie on October 25, as well as a copy of Light Light! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: How has your poetic focus on nature developed? Why do you look to nature?Joosten, Julie

Julie Joosten: My interest in nature emerged out of fascination with thought and modes of attention. I found myself absorbed in the thinking of writers, scientists, artists and philosophers who, however obliquely, were exploring forms of attending to various objects, affects, processes and perceptions, and I discovered that the modes I was most excited by—self-forgetful, meditative modes that also supported rigorous thinking—often engaged with the natural world. My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the distinct and simultaneous temporalities and rhythms of the non-human world.

IFOA: What has been your most unlikely or unusual source of inspiration?

Joosten: Perhaps my most unusual source of inspiration is also one of my most mundane—it’s the rhythm I’ve established with my dogs. They get me out and walking twice a day for long stretches of time in all weather. Repetition, duration, variation. They also attend to different forms outside than I do, and occasionally our perceptions overlap, though we regularly have opposite responses to the objects of our attentions (especially squirrels and cats); this awareness of various “worlds” existing through distinct perceptual abilities and practices has been exciting and confounding and pleasurable to think and write about.

Joosten, Light LightIFOA: When and where do you write?

Joosten: I write at home at a desk I picked out when I was ten. It’s monstrous and offers a large gathering space for books and papers.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

Joosten: I’m working on some poems and essays. And reading.

IFOA: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Joosten: Read. Reread. Repeat.



Julie Joosten has an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from Cornell University. She presents her first book of poetry, Light Light, alongside other poets for the Festival’s Poet Summit.

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