20 January 2010
Interview: Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang
Your back of the book bio:
I write under both Sarah Tsiang and Yi-Mei Tsiang, and I have two books forthcoming. A children’s picture book called “Flock of Shoes” with Annick Press, and a chapbook of poetry with Leaf Press called “The Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales”. I’ve been widely published in Canadian journals and I’m currently completing an MFA in the opt-res program of UBC. I’m currently working on several more picture books, a YA novel, a verse novel, a second manuscript of poetry, and the beginnings of a short story collection.
Your playground bio:
I’m Abby’s mom -- my little girl is the one over there, running wildly in a ketchup-stained dress, pretending to be a cheetah who eats people. She’s just turned four.
Do you identify yourself as first a writer and then a mother, the other way around, or something else? Why do you think this is?
I guess it depends on how it comes up. When someone asks me what I do, I’m really at a loss. Do they mean what I do with my time? What I do to make money? If it’s the first, I’d say I’m a stay-at-home mom (though I also teach part-time and I’m a full-time student). If it’s the second, well -- I haven’t figured that one out yet.
Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?
Actually I wanted to be a part-time truck driver and a part-time librarian when I was little. And yes, everyone says I should have done the bookmobile, but that’s really not the same as an 18 wheeler. But I have always had an interest in writing. I remember composing poems in the bathtub while my mom washed my hair. I didn’t really start taking writing seriously until after I had Abby.
I knew that I always wanted to be a mother -- there was never a question in my mind. I adore children, and did all the requisite stuff, babysitting, mooning over friend’s babies etc. I still swoon at the smell of baby-heads.
As for reality vs. fantasy, I’d say my fantasies of being a mother were more bang-on than my fantasies of being a writer. I’m just starting to come to grips with the idea of spending the rest of my life facing rejection. There are very few jobs that require you to keep auditioning. And since I write almost exclusively about motherhood I don’t really fit with any press. I’m not all that keen on the publishing process -- it’s much nicer to just write.
What are your measurements of success as a mother? As a writer? Have these evolved and, if so, can you talk about in what way and why do you think this is?
The measurements of success as a mother? I’m trying to take this one day at a time. I want my girl to be strong and independent. To be confident and at ease with herself. I want her to be well-fed, warm, and reasonably attired. Basically clean.
As a writer? It changes every time I achieve something. It used to be “once I get a book contract” then I’ll be successful. Now it’s “once I get a book contract in YA fiction and poetry” then I’ll be successful. I’m sure that tomorrow it’ll be “once I get ______ award, or publish a novel, or get a bestseller ...” That’s how I’ll always feel at the heart of it, I’m sure.
Right now I’m really struggling with the idea of success as a writer, or with being a writer at all. I’m sure the right answer is that success as a writer depends on how much you love to write or how much you feel it expresses who you are. It’s hard to stop chasing the idea that success is a publisher who will give me a pat on the back and a cheque.
What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?
“Schedule” would be romantacizing it a bit. I write whenever Abby naps, and sometimes if I’m anxious to get writing I’ll write in the mornings before she wakes up. She’s going to be going to school this September, so I’ll have two and half days a week to write. The luxury!
When I had plenty of time to write I wrote a lot less. I write best under pressure. If I know that Abby might wake up any minute there is no (or little) procrastination. It used to take me days to write a poem -- now I write them in the moments that I can steal for myself. I also think that a lot of creative work is done while I’m with Abby. It’ s one thing to sit in front of a computer and try to conjure up ideas. It’s another thing to be out in the wide world, helping a child discover everything from caterpillars to larger life lessons. You need to be creative, intelligent, and engaged with the world to parent well. All of this will help feed into your creative work (or at least, I find it helps me). Going back to the question of how I self-identify -- before I felt comfortable defining myself as a writer it used to drive me crazy how people would tune out if I said I was a “stay-at-home-mom”. It was as though I said I was a person with no talent or ambition. More so, it was as if I said I was a backwards, anti-feminist moron who needed to be taught about the wider world of possibility that lay out there. If I say I’m a writer then people think that I must be an intelligent, engaged person (though there are plenty of writers who are neither). The vast majority of my writing focuses on my experiences as a mother. I think that the hard, wonderful, desirable work of motherhood is vastly underestimated and undervalued.
Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What your write? If so, in what ways?
There is no doubt that my daughter is my muse. I did not start to write seriously until after I had Abby, and most of my writing revolves around her. I have a picture book, Flock of Shoes, about Abby that is forthcoming with Annick Press. I have a poetry manuscript, Sweet Devilry, that deals a lot with my relationship with Abby. In fact I started to despair to my husband that I’d never be able to write anything other than Abby poems and Abby books, and he said “So what? What’s more important to you that you’d rather be writing about?” And there’s the key -- motherhood is my writing desire right now. It may change in the future but for now I have this rich, rich material. It’s like abandoning a productive diamond mine because you feel like you should be looking for gold.
How aware is your child of your writing?
That’s hard to say. Abby will often play “work” which is where she frowns at a piece of paper and scribbles away at a poem, or types one out at the computer. In fact when Abby was two and a half she “wrote” (dictated) an amazing poem while she was in one of these play sessions -- it’s actually published in Vallum magazine (and she got paid more per poem in that magazine than I did!). Abby is very aware of what poems are, she has quoted Issa and Yeats, but I don’t know if she’s aware that most of my writing is about her. She’s more interested in my picture books, but she’s at the stage now where she’s starting to dispute the accuracy of the books (strangely enough she doesn’t dispute the magic in them, she disputes the main character’s emotional states).
A real concern of mine is how Abby is going to react to my work once she gets a bit older. I hope that she’ll see the love in it, but I worry that she won’t want the exposure. I guess it’s another thing that’s going to have be taken one day at a time.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…." She never had children. Is a room to yourself enough for a writing-mama? What do you need?
Oh god, a room of my own would be fantastic. Right now I’m more hoping for an hour of my own. I was talking to Helen Humphreys the other day about being a woman and a writer and she said that writers (women writers especially) need either (or hopefully both) a stable income and/or a stable relationship. I’d really like both, but I’m glad that for now I have the stable relationship. My husband is a rock and a fantastic editor. But if I could have an ideal world, I’d have a room, a steady monthly income, and a guaranteed two hours a day to write. What more could anyone want?
If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-child self?
I tell myself to sleep in more. To read more. And I’d probably tell myself not to worry about the career -- being employed doesn’t suit me and that’s okay.
What do you think your pre-child self would tell you?
I don’t know. I don’t really have any regrets or unfulfilled ambitions. We’d probably just go out for a hotdog together.
In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?
No regrets. But I make up for it in spades with my guilt and envy. When we made the decision for me to pursue an MFA that meant that Abby had to go to daycare three mornings a week. It was excruciating. She did not take to it well for the first couple of months. She would wake up crying and I would physically pry her off me (while sobbing) at the daycare. Then I would go home and write two thousand words between 9:30am and 11:45am. I really felt like I was buying my writing time with the tears of my child and goddamn it, I was going to be productive.
And I’m jealous most of the time of other writers who can pursue what they do full time. But it’s a jealousy that’s more like a hobby -- I wouldn’t trade my situation.
The early years of motherhood have been described by various writers as a haze or as an incredibly creative time. How would you describe it? Are you still in it? When did you leave?
I think I’m on the cusp of leaving “the early years of motherhood” since my baby is starting junior kindergarten this September. For the first year after I had Abby I couldn’t write at all. I was really just trying to catch up on my sleep. After that year, I started writing in earnest and it’s been fairly productive.
Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?
Hmmm. I’d say right on. The writing is the conception -- you’re all wrapped up in the exquisite pleasure of it, the guilty/naughty self-indulgence of it. Publishing is the delivery, it’s the hard work and you’re surrounded by experts/doctors (mostly men) who really just want you to put your legs in the stirrups and push. I guess the major difference is that a baby is someone you’ll love all your life, whereas a book can come back to shame you.
I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro writing while her children played at her feet, the writer who resented and neglected her children because she was so consumed with her art, or someone like Sylvia Plath who ended up with her head in the oven. Which writing-mothers do you admire and why?
Susan Musgrave has got to be at the top of my list. I just finished listening to her speak on a panel about writing and parenthood and I think she has it exactly. Your kids don’t really care about your writing -- they care about you being there, about dinner on the table, about having enough band aids for their unravelling knees. And that’s really wonderful. Writing can be so insular, so filled with politics, rejection, and deluded self-importance. My life as a mother balances my life as writer. It allows me the space away from writing and publishing that I need to keep sane.