Jamie Chai Yun Liew (she/her) is the author of DANDELION. She is the recipient of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award. Jamie is also a lawyer, law professor, and podcaster specializing in immigration, refugee and citizenship law. Her podcast, Migration Conversations, features experts and migrants who have experienced immigration systems up close. With Hakka, Hainanese and Nyonya roots in Southeast Asia, one of Jamie’s pastimes is to cook and eat SE Asian hawker fare including laksa and char kuey teow. She lives in Ottawa with her family. Follow her on Twitter (@thechaiyun) and Instagram (@jcyliew).
Your forthcoming novel, Dandelion, won you the 2018 Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award. What has the process from winning the award to being published been like? What advice do you have for aspiring unpublished writers?
The Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award was and continues to be a gift. It elevated my confidence that the publishing route was viable for me. It also means a lot to me because it is an award grounded in community and it has certainly given me new community as a new writer. The route to publishing as many know has many ups and downs. My advice is to be kind to yourself, to be humble about revising and continually working with valuable advice and criticism to better your craft and project, and to know that you will receive many rejections before the possibility of publication is alive for you.
You are an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law and are a practicing refugee and immigration lawyer. How have your academic and professional experiences impacted your writing?
My work as a teacher, lawyer and writer are all intertwined. Dandelion is a culmination of research I was doing in my academic pursuits on legal barriers stateless persons and migrants face. My field work led me to think about different themes and the multitude of ways one can disseminate different thinking on a subject matter. Writing a novel allowed me to explore the narratives I heard in my community, and those people shared with me in my research or as my clients – things unrelated to law and even academia, but the very human dimensions of feeling various things – isolation, rejection, anxiety, loneliness, confusion but also joy, relief, and community. I found creative writing to be a rewarding outlet to explore ideas of belonging, citizenship, migration, mental illness and motherhood – things that were troubling and preoccupying me for some time.
Dandelion explores the intricacies of identity and belonging as an Asian woman in small town Canada. How has your lived experience shaped your work?
My lived identity shapes Dandelion in a profound way. As a mother, Chinese-Canadian woman, daughter of migrants, I deeply relate to but also found it joyful to create two distinct main characters in the book, Lily and her mother Swee Hua. I do want to make clear however that this book is not biographical. Lily, Swee Hua and I are very different and we have all made different choices and understand our identities differently from one another. I have taken a lot of influences from my life, but some of that influence is from stories I heard from others in my community, from my research, from my experience as a lawyer and other migrants writ large.
My father was also previously stateless and his life as a stateless person also informed my work. This book is an attempt to shed more light on the plight of statelessness, the status of not having citizenship for any country whatsoever. Millions of people around the world, mainly children, are stateless today, and I wanted this book to expose this concept to many those that have not heard about it.
Finally, I’m a lover of folklore. I infuse a bit of some storytelling I heard as a child. Folk tales play such an important part in not only revealing identity. I use it also as a vehicle to explain difficult life situations and include or exclude one from a community.