Jen Sookfong Lee

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      Jen Sookfong Lee has known that she wanted to be a writer for 20 years. That may not seem that long, but then, the East Vancouverite is only 30 now. Over tea she says, "I wrote my first short story when I was seven. But I didn't know that I wanted to be a writer until I was 10. I was still trying to think if I could be a firefighter–if there was any way I could do that. But I realized that I wasn't probably going to be very tall and strong, so I thought maybe being a writer is better."

      Lee had more than just those two decades to draw on, though, for her first novel, The End of East (Knopf Canada, $29.95). The family at the heart of the involving, ambitious story draws heavily on the author's own–from the youngest narrator's four sisters (Lee is also the youngest of five girls) to the immigrant grandfather who finds himself cutting hair before the First World War. That newcomer, named Seid Quan in the book, was central to Lee's conception of the story, which is told in alternating chapters and eras from the point of view of daughter, father, and grandfather. "He was the inspiration for the book," she says. "It seemed so random that he was a barber. So many of the Chinese guys of his generation were grocers or tailors, you know? They all seemed to do one or two things. And he was a barber. That was so random! It felt so weird to me. How could my grandfather be a barber? Why didn't he own a corner store or a restaurant?"

      The larger history was missing, though. Lee says she didn't hear stories of Chinatown growing up, though her family was involved in the community. "When I first started thinking about Chinese Canadian history I was about 19," says Lee, "and the Lee Association, which is one of those clan associations, had this big banquet. My grandfather was dead by then, and I was there with my mom. And all these really old, super-old, 99-year-olds were coming up to me–they were drunk–and telling me how great my grandfather was. It was the first time it even occurred to me that my grandfather even had a life in Chinatown before all of us. So it was kind of a wake-up call for me: 'Wait a minute. Chinatown has been here forever!'"

      The End of East is deeply rooted in the city, its geography, its people, its weather. Lee says two versions of the city inform the book. "There's the Vancouver that I walk through every day, which is the everyday Vancouver.”¦The second Vancouver is a dreamlike island that floats in the fog. When I was thinking of both the contemporary and the historical Vancouver, that image is always with me, regardless of era. The historical Vancouver, I really approached it from–you know Salt Water City by Paul Yee? I had his first edition of that, I've had it for years and it's one of my favourite books ever. There were these pictures of the wooden sidewalks and the shacks, the buildings.”¦Those pictures influenced me a lot."

      Lee is already at work on her second novel, which is going through some dramatic revisions, she says. The problem? She hadn't planned to set it in Vancouver, but the story seems to have ideas of its own.

      Jen Sookfong Lee is the guest of the next CBC Radio Studio One Book Club, on May 2. For tickets, visit