Ever heard the one about Surrey girls and lost friendships? It’s not quite so funny if you’ve lived through it.
Surrey girls have long been Vancouver’s stand-in for sexist blond/Essex girl humour. Which is why filmmaker and writer Michelle Kim—despite having lived abroad much of her adult life—says she’s super proud to be writing about them in her debut young adult novel, Running Through Sprinklers. Having grown up in Surrey in the early ’90s, she wants to bring light to communities and people lacking in mainstream representation.
“I’m interested in writing about underrepresented places,” says Kim. “And I do think Surrey is underrepresented. People made fun of me for being from Surrey when I was in university. And maybe it’s because Surrey used to be working-class, and people are of lower income. So I wrote about Surrey girls in a different way.”
The story of Surrey tween Sara Smith is narrated through a series of vignettes stretching over a year in her life and her friendship with neighbour and best friend Nadine Ando, which slowly falls apart after Nadine skips a grade and goes straight to high school. The narrative quietly builds in tension following the crisis of a missing child, which the final act sets free in a series of quietly cathartic moments that finally reveal the true cost of friendship heartbreak, both to Sara and to those around her. Running Through Sprinklers bears the emotional heft of a young love story, despite being a story about childhood friendship. “I started to think back on my childhood and my friends, how intense female friendships are when we’re young,” says Kim, interviewed in a downtown office lobby.
The initial idea struck her while she was at a Vancouver deli over a decade ago and dealing with a recent boyfriend breakup. “There were four elderly women at a table talking next to us, and they were talking about how they all supported each other when their husbands died,” says Kim. “And I realized, [your partners] may eventually leave you one way or another. So why aren’t I focusing on my friendships, as they can outlast any other romantic relationships I might have?”
Though Running Through Sprinklers is not based on any event from her childhood, Kim recalls, there are obvious similarities. She and the main character are women of biracial Korean- and English-Canadian heritage raised in Surrey. Sara’s mother is Korean and Nadine’s father is Japanese, but Kim didn’t want to draw attention to their heritage, but rather have it reveal itself naturally to the reader. “I want to normalize Korean culture,” she explains. “There are a lot of Korean words in it, particularly food-related words, and you have to italicize them [due to style]. I said I don’t want to italicize them—I didn’t want anything to be an ‘other’. We don’t italicize sushi, so why should we italicize bulgogi? When I brought it up with my editor she agreed and completely supported it.”
Which is why the novel doesn’t take pains to overexplain its cultural reference points. Words like siu mai and Halmoni blend in with commonplace items, while Korean traditions are described plainly, similar to how a curtsy would be: “Uncle Moon and Auntie Moon sit on the couch in the living room. And James and I stand before them. We do a full bow, our bodies folding over toward the floor.” Kim says she’s trying to reflect multiculturalism as it’s experienced by children, rather than treating the reader as a foreign observer. “Most of the kids—that’s how they live anyway.”
“I gave a school talk to a few Sikh schools,” says Kim. “And I asked, ‘How many people have had Korean food?’ Most of their hands went up. So why are we making this an ‘other’?” Yet as a filmmaker and writer, Kim’s Korean heritage has continued to influence her work and her way of life in ways that are both perceptible and imperceptible, from the clothing she wears and the food she cooks to her use of mood and colour in film, such as her 2015 independent feature The Tree Inside. These inspirations stem from her frequent travels to Korea, she says, as well as her own family’s cultural identity, much of which springs from her mother: “I mean my dad watches Korean drama with my mom,” says Kim.
Kim is also an active and prominent fixture of the Asian-Canadian community and she will be participating in the 2018 LiterASIAN festival, running from September 21 to 23. Besides doing a reading from her book at its opening event at Vancouver Chinatown’s Centre A, Kim will also be participating in a panel with writers Evelyn Lau, Carrianne Leung, and Alice Poon to talk about the evolution of Asian-Canadian writing.
She’s particularly grateful for the support she’s received over the years from the Asian-Canadian arts community, especially since she still battles to win recognition from mainstream Canadian institutions for her debut work, despite being published by an imprint of the prestigious Simon & Schuster. “It’s still a struggle,” says Kim. “One day, it dawned on me—if I can’t get included in lineups and interviews with a major publisher and PR teams in both Canada and the U.S. trying hard to help me kick down doors, then what does it mean for other debut Asian-Canadian novelists with smaller publishers? There’s no chance. We—and I—have to keep fighting.”
Whether it’s Surrey girls or diverse voices, representation is important to Kim. She credits institutions such as the Vancouver Asian Film Festival for accepting films in their lineup that she and other minority voices have had to struggle to promote. Community members, from recently deceased writer and mentor Jim Wong-Chu to actor and friend Diana Bang, have also offered emotional support. “It’s interesting—I’m half Asian,” says Kim. “But I’ve been so warmly embraced by the Asian-Canadian arts community, it almost makes me want to cry.”