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Yasuko Thanh: ‘This world will never run out of people who have cool stories’

Yasuko Thanh is the author of the short-story collection Floating Like the Dead, which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and whose title story won the Journey Prize in 2009. Her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, which was partly inspired by her family's history in French Indochina, was recently published by Hamish Hamilton Canada. Thanh, who lives in Victoria with her family, is also a punk and rockabilly musician with the bands 12 Gauge Facial and Jukebox Jezebel.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

I would choose the ability to become invisible because, as a species, I doubt we're much different than we were a thousand years ago: We love our friends, cry, laugh, die. But this world will never run out of people who have cool stories. Before I wanted to become a writer, I actually wanted to be Mata Hari. I think the writer's job is pretty close to being a spy – you get to try on alternate identities through your fiction. Invisible, I could hang out in confession booths, honeymoon suites, etc. We all want to be understood. I think the best way to be understood is to try to understand others, especially people vastly different from ourselves. Some spy-like lurking might help with that.

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What scares you as a writer?

Lack of resources and time. The ability to have both in necessary measure eludes most artists: You pay for one with the other. Everything is a sacrifice. If you want your family to eat, you pay with writing hours. Not only artists are included in the work-life balance: how to support a family while yet spending quality time with that family. When I'm with my children, I feel guilty for not writing. When I'm writing, I feel guilty about not being a supermom. I look up from my computer at my filthy house and think, "How long has that spot been festering?" I ignore my husband and when we crawl into bed, it's, "How ya doing, stranger?"

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

20th-Century Poetry & Poetics, Third Edition, edited by Gary Geddes. When I've got the blues, I go to poetry because, as Wallace Stevens said, "after one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." In Mexico, waking up and drinking aguardiente instead of coffee, sometimes in a "magic circle" I'd made out of seashells, I'd pore through Geddes's anthology the way Christians might their Bible. On returning to Canada, I had an opportunity to meet Gary Geddes. At a party, the host asked did I want to be introduced? I'd relied on his anthology for spiritual guidance in my darkest hours for so long, I ran out the door, almost forgetting my children in my panic.

Which books have you re-read most in your life?

For the adventure, Dove by Robin Lee Graham and Papillon by Henri Charrière – I've read these two so often, they have no covers left; anything by Toni Morrison; Margaret Laurence because I love the strength of her protagonists; Bill Gaston's short-story collections, notably Gargoyles, Juliet Was a Surprise and Sex is Red; Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs; Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates; The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields; The Pornographer's Poem, Michael Turner; Bad Imaginings, Caroline Adderson.

What's the best death scene in literature?

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The best death scene in literature is found between the lines of Toni Morrison's book Song of Solomon. In Chapter 13, Hagar takes to her bed with a fever. In the next scene, Pilate, her grandmother, walks the aisles of the Linden Baptist Church "telling in three words the full story of the stumped life in the coffin behind her" as she says to each person seated in the pews, "My baby girl … she was loved!" It breaks my heart every time. Toni Morrison brings Hagar's death more power by concealing it in the book's white spaces.

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