Lily Chang said she reacted with “utter elation” in August when told she was among five finalists for the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize.
What followed, she said, was some anxiety and embarrassment about having such an intimate and difficult piece published online.
The former Surrey resident, now living in the U.S. state of Maryland, was shortlisted for “If I wax poetic the pain feels worthwhile,” a story of abuse she says she endured as a child growing up in the Fraser Heights area.
“The man who brought us from Taiwan to Canada said I should sit on his lap and he would teach me how to French-kiss,” the memoir begins. “I said no. I was ten. I couldn’t describe it as such at the time, but that ‘no’ burned like a fresh tattoo, like my body was mine to destroy and decorate. The burn was white-hot agony, but pleasurable because I’d allowed it to take flame. In a few years the ‘no’ spread, willingly, as cuts on my arms and legs.”
Chang’s award-nominated story was among 2,000 entries received from across Canada.
The grand-prize winner — announced Tuesday (Sept. 18) as Sandra Murdock, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for “Easy Family Dinners” — will receive $6,000 in cash from the Canada Council for the Arts and a writing residency at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The four other finalists, including Chang, will each receive $1,000.
The other runners-up are Kat Main (of Calgary, for “How to Catch a Nightcrawler), Anastasia McEwen (Fergus, Ontario, for “Acceleration”) and Lee Thomas (Fredericton/Calgary, for “True Trans”).
In an email, Chang said this award nomination is the most important moment of her writing career, in terms of public recognition.
“In terms of the development of my writing career, I would say that my decision to embark on a Master’s in creating writing at Concordia University would be the most important moment,” she noted.
Chang, who once studied at Fraser Heights Secondary School, said she has mixed feelings about her time in Surrey.
“On the one hand, I feel lucky to have grown up in such a safe neighbourhood with a loving group of friends,” she told the Now-Leader. “My mom supported me in every way. I am privileged to have had many opportunities for learning.
“On the other,” she continued, “Surrey will always be the place I ran away from because of experiences of abuse at home. Surrey was also insular and restrictive. I wanted independence, freedom, and the ability to create my own home, my own space. I found that in Montreal. I first moved to Montreal for my undergraduate degree in English. I fell in love with the city, although it’s far from perfect, of course.”
She recently relocated to College Park, Maryland, where her partner is doing a PhD at the University of Maryland.
Chang is a curator for Word and Colour, an online journal that publishes anti-oppression-themed prose and poetry inspired by visual art.
“I am currently revising a collection of interconnected stories that follow different characters negotiating the ramifications of a mysterious phenomenon that has allowed all sentient beings to live forever,” she explained in an email. “What happens to religions or inhibitions if there is no longer an attainable afterlife or a fear of death? What happens to romantic commitment if everyone lives forever (how long is a ‘long-term relationship’?)? And what does life mean if death, now impossible, becomes desirable? These are the questions that my speculative project explores.
“My latest screenplay project posits a dystopian world without women (using stereotypical, traditional notions of gender and sex), in which men purchase mail-order femmebots for pleasure,” she added. “This work explores notions of gender, consent, and the boundaries of the human.”
The jurors for this year’s CBC Nonfiction Prize were Scaachi Koul, Graeme Wood and Kyo Maclear.
In 2017, Becky Blake won the CBC Nonfiction Prize for “Trust Exercise,” which can be read on the CBC Books website (cbc.ca/books) along with the other shortlisted stories.