If a writer’s greatest asset is life experience, then Yasuko Thanh has no shortage of material. The winner of 2009’s Journey Prize and 2016’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Vancouver Island-based Thanh left home at the age of 15 and lived on the streets of Victoria and Vancouver, where her most prized possession was a curling iron. Her latest book, the memoir Mistakes to Run With, tells the story of Thanh’s experience with homelessness, drugs and jail, and her teen years as a sex worker.
“Though I’ve never been ashamed of my past, it’s also not something that I’ve talked about with even my closest friends,” says Thanh, who teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria.
“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to,” she added. “I was a weird kid … there was this one side of me that was deeply religious, and there was this other side of me that drank and smoked and shoplifted and got into all sorts of trouble.”
Born to a German mother and Vietnamese father, Thanh slept on the streets of Victoria as a teenager, scrounging up money with other homeless friends to pay for the occasional motel room. To earn money, she turned tricks and asked for food outside of shopping malls.
“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to.” – Yasuko Thanh
“The main thing that I noticed was how either invisible or how hated you became by most of the people that were just walking past,” she says. “But as a result of that, the community which I became part of was very strong. I mean, that’s an intense bonding factor when the rest of the world is looking down their nose at you.”
Still in her teens, she met Jay — her first pimp — at a party and fell for him.
“He had this pink suit,” she recalls. “It was the eighties, but he looked all Miami Vice. He had Jheri curled hair … and he knew how to dance.”
Along with Jay, Thanh moved to Vancouver and earned money for him out of motels on the East end.
“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile,” she says. “Which was, you know, in my 15 or 16-year-old brain, ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’”
“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile … ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’” – Yasuko Thanh
Thanh’s next pimp, Avery, promised that all they needed was to raise $500,000 and they could retire, start another business.
“I think even at the time, I knew that was a fiction that was never going to come true,” she says.
Always a writer, Thanh came across a story one day at 21 years old. Caroline Adderson’s “Oil and Dread” was in Quarry magazine.
“I saw at once that these words were different from any I’d read before,” she writes in Mistakes to Run With. Inspired, she spent more and more time writing, submitting stories to literary magazines. Her first book, Floating Like the Dead, was named a Best Book of the Year by Quill & Quire and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. In 2013, CBC named Thanh one of ten writers to watch.
“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.” – Yasuko Thanh
“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong,” says Thanh. “If I had a frustrating day, or someone had hurt me, I would go, ‘Fine, f— them. I’m going to go write.’ … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.”
Asked to make meaning of her turbulent years, Thanh is reluctant to seek pity or pass judgment where others might.
“Whenever I need to speculate,” she says, “it always feels like we’re writing some kind of fiction, right? Because at the time, I didn’t know what was drawing me to certain kinds of behaviour, and even now, the things that I come up with are just ways that we invent to explain behaviour that still puzzles us.”
“It’s interesting, because we waited until I had a couple books under my belt before we came out with the memoir,” says Thanh, “because [my agent and publisher] didn’t want people to be prejudiced against me, but of course, that’s exactly what the book is trying to fight against, is just that type of prejudice.”