Jen Sookfong Lee | Issue 25
It's a cliché that your 20s are full of discomfort and change, full of ambition and failure, love and heartbreak, and it’s true.
The Age Inside My Head
That freshness I craved, that I was always rushing toward, was really about one crucial thing: possibility. —Jen Sookfong Lee
This year, I turn 47.
Twenty years ago, I was writing The End of East and querying agents (by mail, I should add, with self-addressed stamped envelopes for the almost certain return of my manuscript). I was drinking dark beer that tasted like room temperature stew in a misguided attempt to seem like the kind of cool white girl who knew which porter came from Ireland and which sad, tortured band had covered that Johnny Cash song I had never heard of. Twenty years ago, I was 27, the age I have been inside my head for most of my life.
It's a cliché that your 20s are full of discomfort and change, full of ambition and failure, love and heartbreak, and it’s true. By the time I was 27, I had moved across the country to start school, moved back across the country when I dropped out of school, got married, and worked many, many jobs, including a brief summer contract as a publicist for one of the Harry Potter books, sitting at a desk beside the eye-flushing station in the first aid room because the regular office was too crowded. The change was monumental. The speed was breakneck. But I revelled in it. I sought out change, running in different directions if I felt like it, if the air grew stagnant, if I woke up and thought, Well, this is boring. You can ask my mother. She describes my younger personality with a Toisan term that translates literally as “tough-necked,” or so determined to make things happen that you tense your neck and just forge ahead, impervious to anyone else’s opinion.
That freshness I craved, that I was always rushing toward, was really about one crucial thing: possibility. My 20s were the setting for change, but that change was precipitated by the feeling that there could be something more, something better, maybe even the thing I had been wishing for my entire life. Back then, what I wanted was to write a book and have it published, be interviewed on CBC Radio, and stand up in front of a room of readers and have them listen to my words. If I made seemingly nonsensical decisions—like working three part-time, shitty ass jobs so I could have Fridays off to write—it was all in service of a dream, almost always this particular authorly dream.
I wanted other things too: children, a dog, a house with a yard, a home office lined with bookshelves, a reputation as a cool, cultural girl who could rattle off the titles of French New Wave movies while also providing biting commentary on what Paris Hilton was doing. But there was nothing as persistent or motivating as wanting to be an author.
People in midlife love to say they would never wish to be their 20s again. This is a partial lie, designed to make us feel better about our smile lines, the stains on our teeth from all of those years of smoking cigarettes in alleys, the ache in our hands from the slowly advancing arthritis. It could be true that the pace of our 20s seems incomprehensible and unsustainable to us as we age. There is no way I could write until three in the morning now and still have the energy to fall in love and look for a better job. And I wouldn’t want any of that again anyway. But I wish I could walk out my front door and breathe in the scent of possibility, follow the trail of what could be, heart beating fast, eyes wide open for any small sign that meant I was getting there, wherever there was. There is magic in those moments when the next five minutes or the next five years are totally unknown and therefore potentially beautiful or productive or transcendent.
So, in my 47th year, with an inner 27-year-old inside of me, I am making the resolution to make space for that unstructured wonder. It’s true that I own my own little townhouse now, that I am a parent, and that I am the author I had always wished I could be, but it’s also true that possibility is still an option as I move into my 50s and 60s and beyond. I could change direction at any time, which could mean taking a new route when I walk the dog, or selling all my shit and driving aimlessly in a motor home. It could be all of that, or none of it.
So, in a couple of decades, if you see me in tracksuit and a fanny pack, standing at the crest of a hill, eyes closed while I sniff the air, just know that I’m still 27 inside and waiting for possibility.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her family in North Burnaby. Her books include the recently published memoir Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart (January 2023, McClelland & Stewart, North America), The Conjoined: A Novel (ECW 2016) nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, The Shadow List, and Finding Home. Jen was, for many years, an instructor for Simon Fraser University’s The Writers’ Studio as well as a familiar voice on CBC Radio, and now acquires for ECW Press and co-hosts the literary podcast, Can’t Lit.
Jen Sookfong Lee will be at the FOLD (April 30-May 27)
Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart by Jen Sookfong Lee Penguin Random House, 2023
A TODAY Show Recommended Read, this beautifully intimate memoir-in-pieces uses one woman's life-long love affair with pop culture as a revelatory lens to explore family, identity, belonging, grief, and the power of female rage. Named a most anticipated book of the year by the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
For most of Jen Sookfong Lee's life, pop culture was an escape from family tragedy and a means of fitting in with the larger culture around her. Anne of Green Gables promised her that, despite losing her father at the age of twelve, one day she might still have the loving family of her dreams. Princess Diana was proof that maybe there was more to being a good girl after all. And yet as Jen grew up, she began to recognize the ways in which pop culture was not made for someone like her—the child of Chinese immigrant parents who looked for safety in the invisibility afforded by embracing model minority myths.
Ranging from the unattainable perfection of Gwyneth Paltrow and the father-figure familiarity of Bob Ross, to the long shadow cast by The Joy Luck Club and the life lessons she has learned from Rihanna, Jen weaves together key moments in pop culture with stories of her own failings, longings, and struggles as she navigates the minefields that come with carving her own path as an Asian woman, single mother, and writer. And with great wit, bracing honesty, and a deep appreciation for the ways culture shapes us, she draws direct lines between the spectacle of the popular, the intimacy of our personal bonds, and the social foundations of our collective obsessions.
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