Seizing the day, darkly

When you come out with your first book, it helps to have a rockabilly singer in the family.

Victoria writer Yasuko Thanh just had her shortstory collection, Floating Like the Dead, published by Emblem Editions, McLelland & Stewart's paperback fiction series. To commemorate the achievement, her husband Hank Engels, of Hank Angel and his Island Devils, has recorded a finger-snapping number, Suko Wrote a Book.

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"Take a look, take a look, Suko wrote a book... Holy smoke, Suko wrote a book!" it goes.

Thanh - Suko to her friends - won a $10,000 Journey Prize in 2009 for Floating Like the Dead, her book's title story. The tale is inspired by a sad chapter in British Columbia history, a real-life leper colony at D'Arcy Island off Victoria.

The colony was founded after police discovered Asian men suffering from leprosy in this city's Chinatown in 1891. For more than three decades, the island was a dumping ground for the afflicted.

Thanh's carefully observed story Floating Like the Dead transforms the tragedy into a living and breathing thing. She starts by describing a leper, Ah Sing, who's busy with a mundane task, cleaning his ear with a long stalk of grass. What follows is a poignant, deeply poetic examination of society's castoffs. Sidestepping melodrama and sentimentality, Thanh offers a fascinating splinter-view of humanity.

Her tale is heartbreaking - and it's certainly not pretty. At one point Sing pilfers a watch from a dead leper and offers it as a bribe to official visitors, an unsuccessful attempt to buy his escape.

These stories, written over a decade, are beautifully composed. Thanh writes with economy and nuance, but at the same time, her subject matter is bold. A Vancouver woman heads for Mexico to work in an orphanage, but ends up selling drugs in bars. A young girl takes a road trip with her dim-witted bankrobber boyfriend with disastrous results.

The opening story, Spring-Blade Knife, descrbies a gang member on the eve of his execution for murder. Such a character might be unsavoury in the hands of another writer, yet - here and elsewhere - Thanh displays the bighearted ability to make us empathize with the disenfranchised.

She is a petite woman with coal-black Bettie Pagestyle bangs. The home she shares with Hank and her children - Jet, 13, and eight-year-old Maisie - has an early-60s decor, complete with multi-tier limeade-green lampshades.

It's style on a shoestring. Thanh confides their couch was free. They try not to spend more than two dollars on items, most of which come from garage sales or "the side of the road."

The writer, who's 40, declares herself a late bloomer. Her book contains the first story she had published in a literary magazine, Hunting in Spanish - the one about the woman selling opium in Mexico.

I asked how old she was when it was first published.

"I was old," she said, smiling. "I AM old. Yeah."

Some would view her as unconventional. Thanh also plays in a rockabilly band, the Jukebox Jezebels. They rocked it out at her recent book launch in a Chinatown gallery, along with Hank Angel and his Island Devils. Fittingly, Thanh has a spectacular maze of tattoos on each upper arm and on her chest. These are done in a vintage nautical style.

"The old schoolers say, 'If you can't see what it is from 20 feet away, then it's not a good tattoo,' " she said.

One of her tattoos is of a sailing ship. It features the motto "full and bye," which she explains is a nautical phrase describing the act of sailing whichever way the wind blows.

"It doesn't matter where you're going," Thanh said.

"You're just sailing for the love of sailing."

Sleeves of tattoos and playing in rockabilly bands might suggest a streak of wildness. Yet Thanh, polite and soft-spoken, describes herself as an introvert, adding: "Talking to other people sometimes kind of freaks me out."

Although she's a Victoria native, Thanh's parents were immigrants who came to Canada in 1970. Her mother was German. Her father, born to a wealthy Vietnamese family, studied business at the Sorbonne.

Life in Canada didn't work out quite as planned. For much of Thanh's young life, her father was unemployed; at times the family subsisted on welfare.

By the time she hit Grade 9, Thanh decided she'd had enough. The 15year-old quit school (although she later took a B.A. and an M.A. degree in creative writing at the University of Victoria). Thanh headed to Vancouver to do the "wild child thing." For a brief period, she lived on the street.

Today, she says, some of her friends and acquaintances from that time are either dead or in jail.

"I think I was just really bored," Thanh said. "I felt like I could learn more on my own. You know how, at that age, you're so cocky and self-assured."

During our interview, she was reluctant to dwell on this period in her life.

She said her agent has advised her not be overly talkative about those early years. The agent also represents the writer Evelyn Lau, who made a splash in the late 1980s with her memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, chronicling her teenage experiences with drugs and prostitution on Vancouver's streets.

"[Lau} was dragged through the mud by the press at certain points," Thanh said.

One of Thanh's preoccupations is writing about people villified by society.

She's just finished a historical novel 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.

What attracted Thanh to the subject was the relationship between Pastrana and her manager, who later became her husband.

Despite the power imbalance in the relationship, and the fact Pastrana was taken advantage of, there can "still be something beautiful" in such an unlikely love story, Thanh said.

The manuscript is now making the rounds, with McClelland & Stewart having first rights of refusal in Canada.

There is an old parable about a man who is chased off a cliff by a tiger. He leaps and hold himself aloft on a vine. Below waits another tiger. Meanwhile, mice are gnawing at his vine above him. The man notices a strawberry nearby and plucks it.

Despite his situation, he savours its sweetness.

Thanh said this story has always been particularly meaningful to her.

"I read this when I was maybe in the seventh grade. It was really my guiding light," she said. "It was that kind of 'seize the day, no matter what happens.'"

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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