Cultural watchers know by now that Sook-Yin Lee is willing to take artistic leaps in her career. Anyone who has seen the much-discussed sex scene in the John Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus, can attest to a willingness on the part of Lee — an artist, actor, and filmmaker who lives in Toronto — to put out in public what most others might keep quiet.
CBC listeners often hear plenty of Lee’s innermost thoughts on Definitely Not the Opera during the opening essay of the program. It’s delivered in that dry-yet-dramatic tone, practised by CBC hosts (Jonathan Goldstein, anyone?). The radio program, DNTO, is about self-actualization packaged in various themes (“What is the Real Power of a Story?” or “Who Was Your Unexpected Guest?”) and its subjects often veer into self-indulgence.
Lee, in her film work, has done well to mine personal experiences, without seeming exploitative, putting forth her life growing up in a violent household in Vancouver, B.C., living on the street, and the confusion of establishing a Chinese-Canadian identity amid clichéd cultural tropes (see her film short Escapades of the One Particular Mr. Noodle for more on that topic).
The Canadian Film Institute will screen that work and a selection of Sook-Yin Lee’s other films at Library and Archives Canada on Saturday. There will be a question-and-answer session with Lee after the films. Ahead of the event, Ottawa Magazine leads its own Q&A.
You return to a lot of the same themes in your work: sexuality and growing up Asian seem to come up most often — what’s of interest there?
It’s hard to say, precisely, but I feel there’s somewhat of a template — meaning some things are innate to a person and there’s an innate quality to a voice, it’s just the essence of a person. For me, it’s a spirit of playfulness, experimentation, and thoughts on being human. They are similar concerns that I have had as a young person and I continue to respond to concerns that arise over life. I am curious about aspects of my life that I am in a conundrum over, things like thwarted love, the dynamics between the needy and the needed, and the paradoxical desire we have to connect and to put up barriers to connection.
You pull a lot of ideas from your childhood. What was it like growing up in Vancouver in the ’60s and ’70s?
I did feel like an outsider. It was me and Bev Wong — we were the only Chinese kids at school and because I had strict parents who didn’t let me hang out with other kids, I was always alone. Also, my house was a very violent place and my mom was wrestling with huge psychological problems. I think my desire to communicate and my storylines in search of self are a result of those circumstances.
Are you simply rationalizing what was an awful experience?
No. I feel fortunate to have gone through those things. It’s a huge part of my artistic growth. Though difficult and arduous to go through, I feel that’s helped me be more compassionate with people. I wouldn’t be doing the work that I love if I didn’t have those questions raised. Some people never have questions raised.
Programming for Asian Heritage Month can be educational, but it can also be token or catch-all in trying to sum up a pan-Asian experience. How do you feel about being part of the Asian Heritage Month billing?
The last thing I want to say is, ‘this is my bandwagon.’ People can slot you into that category, but for me, [the early films] were about strong [cultural] conflicts I had to understand for myself. So, I am happy about being part of the month, but if I felt like a show pony and had to talk about my Asian-ness for some reason, I wouldn’t want that. I don’t want to be the hook. I left home early to live on the street, so I could be representative of a lot of things, of street kids, of feminists. I did, truly, grow up alone and as a result, I’m not comfortable being put in a pack, nor have I ever felt comfortable defining myself as one thing, but media construct does put you in boxes.
You work in the media as well as the host of Definitely Not the Opera on CBC radio. Do you find yourself in that situation where you need a hook?
No, because I try to apply myself as truthfully as I can. My work at DNTO is about uncovering people’s stories and their connection with one another. I don’t feel I have to wrestle with the indomitable pop machine. These are tiny, locket-sized portraits of people. I rarely feel compromised by this industry. I feel blessed to have had two jobs in the media where I was encouraged to follow my curiosities and to illuminate a deeper truth. [Lee was a Muchmusic VJ from 1995-2001.] In public radio, we’re encouraged to pursue our curiosities and I consider what I do on DNTO as art-making.
Will the recently announced cuts to CBC funding affect what you do?
Everyone is still reeling from the announcements and management is coming up with scenarios. There are certain limitations — we can’t travel as much to the regions — but sometimes innovations occur in those stressful times. On a personal level, I feel I have a responsibility to find good stories and have voices we haven’t heard from on the air. If anything, it increases my resolve to do the best I can, so long as I have a place here [at the CBC].
What are you working on?
I’m working on two movies. One is called Octavio Is Dead. It’s a ghost story that takes place in North York and Mexico City. Chester Brown — one of my best friends, and one of the best illustrators in the world — along with Adam Litovitz and I are working on a screenplay for Chester’s graphic novel Paying for It (subtitled: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being a John, published in 2011). Chester said I am the one to do the story because I am a character in the book. We’re re-writing the story so it’s not so didactic and episodic. We’re talking to local production copies and shopping for a producer to do the movie. I have a photo exhibition called We Are Light Rays: Narrative Photography (Micro Movies) being shown at Oz Gallery in Toronto in September.
An Evening with Sook-Yin Lee takes place Saturday, May 5, at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St., 7 p.m. $12, CFI members, seniors, and students $8. www.cfi-icf.ca.
Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani