Lien Chao untangles ‘The Chinese Knot’ at York

On Nov. 3, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented York alumna Lien Chao reading from her book The Chinese Knot and Other Stories. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

The woman holds onto her blind husband’s left arm; a step at a time and side by side, they walk out of the train steadily…. The doors close and the train starts to move slowly away from the platform before it picks up speed and dashes toward the next station. Looking ahead through the long dark tunnel, Luanne can still see the scarlet red Chinese knot swinging in front of her eyes. 

from "The Chinese Knot"
by Lien Chao

Arriving at York from China in 1984 as an international student, Lien Chao (MA ’86, PhD ’96) may not have imagined that 25 years later she would return to the University as a published author. Presenting her recent collection of short stories, The Chinese Knot and Other Stories, for the Canadian Writers in Person series, she credited York as the cradle that nurtured her through a doctorate in English, a literary career and a new life in Canada.

Left: Lien Chao

While her doctoral thesis, Beyond Silence, aimed to bring Chinese-Canadian literature into the mainstream, Chao initially struggled to find her own place. Though she was an exceptional undergraduate student in China, she found it difficult to adjust to graduate school in a foreign country. In addition to the language barrier, she had trouble unlocking the cultural code and often found herself intimidated. With support from York mentors like Professor Barbara Godard in the Department of English, she gradually adapted and instead of returning to China after school, decided to make Toronto her home.

"The Chinese Knot" and the other stories in her collection are intimate portraits of the public and private spaces of the city she has come to know. A description of a local park is not only a microcosm of our society but is also an invitation for the reader to take part because of its common ground. In this sense, Chao said that Toronto itself becomes a character who is both familiar and strange as we see it through new eyes.

Chao likens her initial writing process to watching a film. First, she visualizes the scenes and then begins to hear the voices of her characters. “I participate in it, feel it, and then describe it. Writers are proactive observers,” said Chao, who is inspired by the bits and pieces she picks up from the people around her. While her writing style is deliberately fragmented and imperfect, it reflects the reality of our contemporary lives. “I don’t want to write about sunny skies or tightly knit detective stories,” she said.

When asked about her main responsibility as a writer, Chao said that it was to describe the struggle between “the desire to live and the fear to live.” The author herself hovers around sensitive boundaries when engaged in the risky business of writing about friends and family. “You work within the cultural code, occasionally break rules, but sometimes pull back.”

Because her characters are drawn from the people of here and now, Chao hopes her readers will participate in their struggles and transformations. While most of her protagonists are immigrant Chinese women, often single mothers, their stories intersect with the multicultural society in which they find themselves. It is the strangers they meet, those who live and then appear in our peripheral vision, who Chao finds most interesting. On a daily basis “we pass them and forget them, yet if you mingle, really get acquainted, they could do amazing things.” For many readers, it is the main characters themselves who would otherwise be strangers. Yet, like the image of the Chinese knot, Chao’s subtly interconnected stories find a way to weave us together.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Jan. 19, in 206 Accolade West Building, Lawrence Hill will read from The Book of Negroes.