Yasuko Thanh’s new memoir Mistakes to Run With lands with jarring force. The Victoria-based author made her name with the much-praised 2012 short-story collection Floating Like the Dead and the award-winning 2016 novel Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. Now she channels her powers into the events of her own past, following the spiral from her childhood as an evangelically religious honour student to her adolescent years engulfed by drug use and street-level sex work, where the threat of violence and death was always as close as the next stranger in the room. The book’s honesty is relentless, and its spirit of survival defies platitudes. Below, Thanh responds to three questions from the Straight.
Q. What convinced you that now was the time to tell this story? How did you know?
A. When I started writing this memoir, I was still in therapy after a stay in the psych ward. The intimate tone of a memoir made it the ideal genre to negotiate intensely personal material and convey psychological truths in a way that political analysis could not. Finally, I’d reached a point in my career where releasing a book about my past would not have me labelled as a writer of “street fiction” or pigeonhole me. I could release it with less worry of being stigmatized than if I’d released it before the novel and short story collection. Which is sad, because it points exactly to the prejudice the book is trying to fight.
Q. The act of writing has often been a source of solace for you. Has writing this book helped to settle your relationship with the parts of your life described in it?
A. I have wanted to joke with the writing class I teach to never submit a story about “coming to terms” with anything. “What’s your trauma?” doesn’t make for good fiction. The past is alive, a constantly shifting panther that defines us even as we’re trying to pin its contours against the jungle of our lives. We are what has happened to us; we are what we are surrounded by. But we’re more than that. Which is why I hope Mistakes to Run With inspires people to look beyond their first impressions and see individuals beneath the stereotypes. My version of the past will continue to change as I change. In other words, no time will come where the relationship between former parts of my life and who I am today are settled.
Q. Are your hopes for this book different from those for the fiction you’ve written?
A. My ultimate goal with everything I write is to contribute in some small way to the struggle for tolerance and open-mindedness. If I’ve made even one person feel less screwed-up in the world, I’ve succeeded. My added hope with this book was to begin a dialogue about the continued criminalization of street-embedded youth. A new model for understanding is needed, because their criminalization—as shown by researchers—entrenches them further in street life without addressing the social issues that put them there in the first place. I’d love for this book to spur a dialogue between legislators and the people for whom the skills and attitudes of the streets are logical means of survival.