Originally from South Korea, Ann Y.K. Choi immigrated to Canada in 1975. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the Creative Writing Certificate Program at the University of Toronto. Most recently, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at National University in San Diego, California. Her debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award. The story, set in the 1980s, was inspired by her experiences working in her family-run variety store. A teacher with the York Region District School Board, Ann lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.
Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety?
Ann Y.K. Choi: It’s beyond my imagination how popular Korean culture and Korean products are today, with everything from K-pop to LG and Samsung phones. But I grew up in a different Canada, where I saw little of the Korean culture or heritage represented in my immediate world. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety was an important book for me to write because I needed my daughter to understand what life was like for Korean immigrants coming to Canada in the mid-1970s and 80s. It used to be a running joke that almost every corner variety store in Toronto was owned by a Korean immigrant family which we felt was a fairly accurate observation. My non-Korean friends used to think that having a variety store was so cool – free candy, pop, and cigarettes, but the reality was that life was very challenging. We were also burdened with the pressure to excel at school because our parents had sacrificed so much – flew across an entire ocean – so we could have a “better” life in Canada. Many of us grew up resenting our parents and struggling with our identities and mental wellness. While I appreciate that the Korean-Canadian experience isn’t unique, I wanted to share our story with the larger Canadian society.
You’ll be presenting Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (IFOA) Lit on Tour event here in Thunder Bay on October 30th. Why is this event important to you?
I love that books can inspire change and create opportunities for meaningful and entertaining conversations. The IFOA is important because it brings together both readers and authors to do that. For me, The Lit on Tour is incredibly valuable because it allows for readers and writers who might not have otherwise been able to connect, to come together. As a female author of Asian heritage, I welcome the opportunity to share a different perspective and experience from others. I appreciate the same chance to engage and hear from others as well.
Along with writing novels, you’ve had personal essays published in magazines like Quill and Quire and Writer’s Digest. Why does that form appeal to you?
Personal essays allow me to express ideas and thoughts in a way that fiction can’t. I like that writing them provides me with a space to reflect on my thoughts and experiences. It is also a lovely way of connecting with readers on a more intimate level.
You’re also a teacher. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of teaching?
Because I struggled so much in school, I have always been drawn to students who face barriers to learning: English language needs (ESL), Special Education needs, or challenges related to social and emotional wellness. I’ve worn many hats as an educator: a classroom teacher, department head, guidance counsellor, and ESL resource teacher. It was actually one of my students, who had called me a hypocrite for not pursuing my life-long goal to be a published writer, who prompted me to take my first creative writing course back in the mid-2000s. That class led to more classes and eventually to the publication of my debut novel.
You’re a very busy woman: on top of writing and teaching, you’re also a columnist for the Global Korean Post. In these many roles, you focus on promoting diverse Canadian authors. Why is this so important to you?
Art and literature are mirrors of society. Given how diverse Canadian society is, we need to seek opportunities to learn and engage in others’ experiences. Last year I worked with two wonderful grade 12 English students who spent the semester “rethinking what diverse Canadian authors look like”. Their look at diversity included race, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, as well as socio-economic status. Their blog attracted quite the readership and several Canadian and Indigenous authors and educators across Canada continue to follow them on Twitter (@ShayJack4). I’m thrilled to be on this journey with them because we are learning together.
Your debut children’s book will be published in 2020 (congratulations!) What can you tell me about it?
I’m very excited about this! The book, Once Upon an Hour, draws upon the traditional Korean practice of timekeeping whereby the 12 animals of the Asian zodiac are assigned to two-hour sections of the 24-hour clock. I became intrigued by the idea of telling time in a non-traditional Western way which I thought would be fun to share with young readers.
You’re already a novelist, essayist, columnist, and teacher; why did you decide to diversify further into children’s literature?
It was my agent’s idea. I agreed not knowing just how much work would go into writing a children’s picture book. Even though the whole story is just over 1,000 words, I still had to consider everything I would for a novel: the setting, characters, and conflict. I can’t even tell you how much re-writing took place in the year it took me to write it.
So what are you working on now?
I just finished a short story about a teacher who wonders what she’s willing to do for her students during a school lockdown. Would she sacrifice herself which would mean her own children would be left motherless? It’s the first piece that brings my writing and teaching worlds together – which I’ve always tried to keep separate. It’s a bit daunting thinking of my two worlds colliding even though it’s fiction.
Oh how exciting; I look forward to reading that! Thinking about reading, what book or author inspired you to write?
As a teenager and young adult, I was fascinated by Margaret Atwood and Evelyn Lau’s poems. I was awed by their use of raw imagery to convey their thoughts on everything from sexual politics to identity. They made me want to write. I’m also a huge fan of short stories and feel lucky to have had some of Canada’s finest short story writers including Alexandra Leggat and Kelli Deeth as instructors when I first started studying creative writing. It was Kelli who suggested that I expand a short story I’d written in her class into a novel – which I eventually did.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
I’d encourage people to read more works by Canadian and Indigenous authors. I find it discouraging, especially as an educator, when teachers don’t teach Canadian and Indigenous books in their classes. I did my Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing with a university in California and was impressed by how much Canadian content they had on their reading lists. I was struck by how outsiders were able to see the quality in our literature that we don’t always appreciate.
And what are you currently reading?
To my surprise, I was asked to serve on the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury. This means that since spring I’ve been reading some of Canada’s finest works of fiction. So far, I’ve read over 100 books!