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Growing up the youngest of four daughters to Chinese immigrant parents in the Downtown Eastside, Sookfong Lee says she never saw her own identity reflected in the pop culture she was consuming.Handout

If you find yourself at a dinner party with Jen Sookfong Lee, don’t be surprised if the conversation veers toward the latest season of the Netflix reality dating show, Love is Blind – or why Hailey Bieber, the wife of Justin Bieber, is not so different from Vladimir Nabokov’s wife and editor, Véra.

In these situations, inevitably, a fellow partygoer will reply, “I never watch reality television” or “I don’t pay attention to pop stars.” It’s at this moment when Vancouver author and poet Lee, a lover of both high- and low-brow culture, launches her defence – filled with arguments for why we connect to things that may seem “trashy.”

“Whenever we justify our love for things, our personal stuff comes into it, too,” Lee says. Her deeply personal arguments became the genesis of Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart, in which she pushes the limits of the conventional memoir by using films, TV, music and celebrities as a way to unpack the turning points in her life.

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Throughout Superfan’s 10 essays, she examines how pop culture has been both a balm and source of alienation. Growing up the youngest of four daughters to Chinese immigrant parents in the Downtown Eastside, she never saw her own identity reflected in the pop culture she was consuming.

“The type of Asian girl that I wanted to be was hardly ever in the media,” says Lee, who was outspoken, creative and boy-crazy, had dyed red spiky hair and loved dancing at underground raves. So, like many other racialized kids, she made indirect connections, finding small morsels of herself in her favourite songs, books and movies and devouring them.

Throughout Superfan’s 10 essays, Sookfong Lee examines how pop culture has been both a balm and source of alienation.Handout

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In one essay, she connects her childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables and the death of the novel’s father figure, Matthew Cuthbert, to the grief that followed after her own father died from cancer when she was 12 years old, and later, with her divorce. She wrote about what Princess Diana taught her about trying and failing to be the perfect Chinese daughter. In another essay, Lee uses Rihanna lyrics to weave a fantasy of how she wishes she had ended a relationship with a toxic boyfriend.

Known for her trilogy of novels set in Vancouver’s Chinatown – The End of East (2007), The Better Mother (2011) and The Conjoined (2016) – as well as the poetry collection, The Shadow List (2021), Lee never thought she’d venture into personal writing. But as she navigated the literary scene, where she says the press and readers often assume racialized women authors are writing their own personal stories anyway, she became less concerned about distancing who she was as a person from her professional work. Plus, as she laughingly says: “I’m just older and I don’t care as much.”

Some areas of Lee’s life were off-limits: her marriage to her ex, their 12-year-old son and a few past relationships that were just too painful for her to revisit. But when she does dive into other sensitive moments, she writes with brutal honesty. She recalls, for example, her mother’s deep depression after the death of her father, when her mother’s moods would whiplash between despondent and cruel.

Lee also details how she coped with her own divorce through a carousel of casual hookups, which she was nervous to reveal: “I do worry people are not going to love that. But, also, it’s true. And if I was willing to write this book, I have to be willing to expose those parts of myself I’m not particularly proud of.”

The hardest essay for her to write was about her own experiences with Asian fetish: “It required a lot of self-examination that I had been resisting for years because it’s nice to be desired, but it’s bad to be desired for your race.” She unravels memories of strangers catcalling her with “Ni hao” on the street, or the man who told her she should act in porn because she had the body men fantasize about.

Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart, by Jen Sookfong Lee.Handout

In the chapter, Lee openly wrestles with the difficulty of addressing the topic: “I tried to write this essay in a myriad of ways … that imposes a structure on a topic that resists the light and instead slips in and out of shadows.” She almost scrapped it several times, but pushed through when eight women, six of whom were East Asian, were killed at three Atlanta-area massage spas in March, 2021. Robert Aaron Long, who received four consecutive life sentences for the murders, said he blamed the women for his sexual addiction.

“Writing about Asian fetish is, in fact, a necessary act,” Lee wrote.

When she tells these intimate stories and confronts difficult topics, she knows that her words are having an impact. She’s often approached by young Asian women at readings who tell her how her books have made them want to become writers, too.

“You hope your books have an audience, you hope that people get something from it,” Lee says. “When that happens, it’s the most rewarding thing in the world.”

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