For acclaimed Victoria author, retro rock is balance to writing life

What: Reading and signing with Yasuko Thanh, Alissa York and Anny Scoones
Where: Russell Books, 734 Fort St.
When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

Novelist Yasuko Thanh says being a screamer in rockabilly/punk bands is a refreshing contrast to the complexity of writing fiction.

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Tonight, the Victoria writer takes part in a multi-author signing and reading at Russell Books. Thanh’s debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, is about a Vietnamese doctor who embarks on a dangerous plot against the ruling French in Saigon circa 1908.

The winner of a $10,000 Journey Prize, Thanh previously wrote an acclaimed story collection, Floating Like the Dead (2012). It earned her a national reputation, with Quill & Quire naming it best book of the year and CBC hailing her one of the year’s top writers.

Thanh spoke at her James Bay home, which she shares with her children and her husband, Hank Angel, a rockabilly singer. The décor is vintage 1950s and early ’60s — a red chrome dinette set gleams in the kitchen.

The retro look extends to 44-year-old Thanh, who sported a Hank Angels T-shirt, sleeve tattoos and coal-black Betty Page bangs. She says she’s in two bands: the 12 Gauge Facial (punk) and the Jukebox Jezebels (rockabilly/psychobilly).

In 12 Gauge Facial, Thanh gigs under the name “Psycho Suko.” The band’s motto is: “Cocked and loaded, we’re ready to blow your head off.”

“I’m the screamer in 12 Gauge, which is a lot of fun because I like to hop around,” Thanh said.

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is beautifully-written first novel, replete with heady descriptions such as: “The scent of the datura blooms was erotic and the blooms themselves lived up to their moniker, trumpet flowers, heady as art, fit for the gods, although the leaves’ fetor almost overpowered the perfume of the petals.”

As much as she enjoys writing short stories and novels, Thanh says the gritty simplicity of singing punk rock is an enjoyable change of pace.

“You just get out there and wear your heart on your sleeve with the lyrics. And your message can be the chorus. It’s totally the opposite [of literature],” she said with a grin.

In her novel, physician Nguyen Georges-Minh and his pals have formed a group called the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. Their plan is to poison a Christmas dinner to be consumed by French soldiers — the notion is to send a deadly message to Vietnam’s colonial overlords. When the scheme fails, Georges-Minh is forced to flee to the jungle.

Thanh’s mother was German. Her father, born to a wealthy Vietnamese family, studied business at the Sorbonne in Paris. He used to tell his daughter stories about her great-grandfather, who in the early 1900s would regularly abandon his family, return when he needed money, then take off again. Thanh was intrigued by the fact her great-grandfather’s wife would “just accept him back.”

She added: “He’d disappear for months, sometimes years. He was just f--king around, you know.”

Stories about this and her father’s growing up in Vietnam and Cambodia provided the seeds for Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. As well, Thanh wanted to write about the resilience of the Vietnamese resistance to colonial rule. This, she says, was something the French, who’d dismissed them as superstitious yokels, seriously underestimated.

“They were tough motherf---ers, man,” Thanh said.

One gets the sense the novelist has her own reserves of grit and resilience. At the age of 15 Thanh had quit high school and was surviving on the mean streets of East Vancouver. In an online piece Working the Street at 15 — A Memoir she recalled her experiences as a sex worker.

“I was 21 when I retired from working the streets,” she said in our interview.

“That’s the great part about coming from a place like where I came from. Once you hit rock bottom, you know you can pretty much survive anything.”

When she was 22, Thanh had a short story in an anthology published by the B.C. Festival of the Arts. She was invited to take part in a workshop. Participants were expected to bring copies of their writing to work on; however, Thanh says she was so inexperienced she showed up empty-handed.

In her early 30s, she got more serious about writing. Despite having only a Grade 9 education, Thanh was accepted as a mature student in a University of Victoria writing program based on her fiction portfolio.

Novelist Jack Hodgins, who taught writing at UVic, advised Thanh about entering university after she wrote him a letter (“I said: ‘Hey, do you remember me? I was the chick with the purple hair. ’ ”) She took a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s.

She was passionate about writing, but another reason for returning to school was survival. Thanh, who’d been living on Mayne Island, had a new baby and a five-year-old. Taking out student loans and moving into family housing was preferable to going on welfare.

Thanh says her daughters, 17-year-old Jet and younger sister Maisie, now identify as transgender.

The writer is in the revision stages of a second novel. It’s about Julia Pastrana, a 19th-century woman whose face and body were covered with hair. Pastrana was exhibited as a sideshow performer under such names as The Ape Woman and The Bear Woman.

Writing novels “continues to be a challenge” in comparison to the short-story form. It’s because the structure is more complex, says Thanh. For Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, she came up with a novel way of visualizing how everything would fit in.

“I had all of these little pieces of paper hanging from this clothesline in my office,” Thanh said.

“Just so I didn’t get lost.”

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