May 26, 2019

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Thanh maps out early struggles in memoir

Canadian novelist and short-story writer Yasuko Thanh’s memoir, Mistakes to Run With, is a brutally honest account of her first 40 years, including those she spent as a teenage sex trade worker.

Thanh’s short story Floating Like the Dead, from her collection of the same name, won the Journey Prize for the best story published in Canada in 2009. Her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2016, the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2017 and was nominated for an Amazon.ca First Novel Award that same year.

Born in Victoria, B.C., to a German mother and a Vietnamese father, Thanh feels she never really fit in within her family and peer group. Looking back, she realizes that she was undiagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — a condition she passed on to one of her daughters.

Her inability to conform to her parents’ strict expectations, and what she viewed as their lack of support and love for her, draws her into another life. Despite being a clever student, Thanh leaves school at 15 and begins making a living as a prostitute in Victoria and Vancouver. She details her dealings with fellow prostitutes, sometimes-violent clients and the pimps who first seem to offer protection which later turns into extortion.

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Canadian novelist and short-story writer Yasuko Thanh’s memoir, Mistakes to Run With, is a brutally honest account of her first 40 years, including those she spent as a teenage sex trade worker.

Thanh’s short story Floating Like the Dead, from her collection of the same name, won the Journey Prize for the best story published in Canada in 2009. Her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2016, the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2017 and was nominated for an Amazon.ca First Novel Award that same year.

Born in Victoria, B.C., to a German mother and a Vietnamese father, Thanh feels she never really fit in within her family and peer group. Looking back, she realizes that she was undiagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — a condition she passed on to one of her daughters.

Her inability to conform to her parents’ strict expectations, and what she viewed as their lack of support and love for her, draws her into another life. Despite being a clever student, Thanh leaves school at 15 and begins making a living as a prostitute in Victoria and Vancouver. She details her dealings with fellow prostitutes, sometimes-violent clients and the pimps who first seem to offer protection which later turns into extortion.

Thanh settles into a long-term relationship with her pimp, Avery, but is continually vying with his other women, called wives-in-law, for his love and attention. Eventually, she gradually reduces her time spent on the streets as she and Avery settle into an everyday relationship while running a grow-op in a rented house. At this time, Thanh is finally able to devote more time to her writing.

When she and Avery travel to Mexico, Thanh views their relationship more clearly. "My identity had been subsumed by his for so long that I didn’t know how to be on my own," she writes. "Travelling gave me the chance to discover who I was."

She later meets Phillip, an artist living in an illegal warehouse space in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While he romanticizes his decision to live in poverty, Thanh knows his parents can afford to send him money.

After his mother dies, they move into his parents’ home on Mayne Island, where they try to run a bed and breakfast, but struggle financially.

After the birth of her second daughter, Thanh starts attending the University of Victoria’s creative writing program. As her confidence in her ability to write slowly grows, she moves into Victoria with her daughters and starts building a home filled with furniture from thrift stores and garage sales.

However, no matter how well she’s doing at university, Thanh is still filled with self-doubt.

She continues to secretly cut herself — a self-harming behaviour she’s struggled with for years.

When her daughter Maisie exhibits clear symptoms of OCD, Thanh sees in her daughter the image of herself as a child.

She sinks into depression, picturing her children’s lives after she’s dead. "Maisie’s OCD became part of what I now saw as a broad-spectrum evil eye that hexed me, as well as my children," she writes, suggesting to her boyfriend that the cause of the overall discontent and negativity in their lives could be his ex-wife, whom she’s never met.

While trying to combat her mental illness with medication and alcohol, Thanh also suffers a physical collapse and eventually ends up in a psychiatric hospital.

"The therapist wanted me to say ‘I deserve love,’ but I began to weep instead. I’d long ago decided that to make it in this life, you had to be tough. That discipline, tenacity, ambition, talent, resourcefulness, and hard work were no guarantee of success. That no one deserved anything, not a shot, not a fair shake."

Through her willingness to share even the darkest moments of her unsettled life, in Mistakes to Run With Thanh offers her deeply personal story as a highly compelling narrative.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

 

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
Community journalist — The Headliner

Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at andrea.geary@canstarnews.com Call her at 204-697-7124

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