Author Tags: Chinese
Brandy Liên Worrall-Soriano grew up within in an Amish community in Pennsylvania, "which isn't as exotic as it sounds," she says. She says she learned to read at age three and began reading Helen Keller's autobiography at age five. I really can’t tell you how many times I read that book, but it was a lot. I guess you could say that book planted the seed in terms of how I found real stories to be so powerful and exciting to read... As an epileptic child of an overprotective Vietnamese mother and a substance-loving American father—both of whom were traumatized during the Vietnam War where they met and got married—I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house very much. So I stayed home and paid attention to things everyone was trying to ignore or forget—mostly, what happened during this war no one was supposed to talk about but which brought us together as a family."
Although she was never Catholic, she attended all-women's Regis College, a Catholic college near Boston, and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in English literature and French. For one year she sought her MA in English at Boston College, leaving to attend UCLA's Asian American Studies MA Program. With her Masters degree obtained in 2002, she became an editor at Amerasia Journal, a leading journal for Asian American Studies.
In 2003, with two children, she moved to Vancouver with her husband, Henry Yu. While at the MFA programme in Creative Writing at UBC, she explored the family histories of her own Vietnamese and Pennsylvania Dutch families. Her dreams of being a professional writer were detoured when she was diagnosed with stage III multifocal Triple Negative Breast Cancer (BRCA2-positive). She recovered but felt traumatized by the experience. "I started understanding better what my parents must have felt during my childhood—the isolation of having gone through a horrifying experience that most of one’s young adult peers could not even imagine. And all those things I paid attention to when I was a kid—those things that everyone else tried to ignore or forget—started making more sense."
She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from UBC in 2012. She previously edited Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories (2006) for the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia. It contains eight personal stories of family life with a preface by Jean Barman. Henry Wu contributed the afterword. The volume is dedicated to Edgar Wickberg, whose vision and leadership helped create the CCHSBC. She has also self-published numerous poetry titles under her imprint, Rabbit Fool Press, which also produces handmade limited-edition chapbooks for poets and short story writers.
Her memoir of surviving cancer and her mixed heritage upbringing, What Doesn't Kill Us, finds comparisons between war and cancer, exploring the potential link between her life-threatening cancer and her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange in the late 1960s.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories
What Doesn't Kill Us
Self-Questionaire Interview (2015)
PROVIDED IN THE AUTHOR'S PRESS KIT
Frequently Asked Questions
Some people read the book. Here’s what they wanted to know. If you have a question, leave a comment, and I will try to answer it in a way that will allow you to look into my soul.
Are you concerned about your friends and relatives, especially your children, reading the book and looking into your soul? Not really. In fact, I hope they can get a glimpse of my soul. It’s not a bad soul, after all. At least, as far as I know.
What was the first thing you ever got published? My BFF Lisa claims it was a poem in a Christian youth magazine. She might be correct.
What is your routine when writing? Do you have any particular ways to stay motivated or inspired? Ah, the elusive writing routine. It’s what many a writer has chased after. A few have succeeded in actually taking hold of this near-mythical beast. Alas, I must admit that as much as I would LOVE to have a routine, I do not. I write down drafts and outlines of routines, trust me. But I have things like kids and cats and housework and a serious lack of consistent focus and energy that get in the way of my dreams of having a routine. What I try to maintain is a steady visit to my journal cause real life is fucking nuts.
What made you decide to write this memoir? Was there a particular motivation involved? From a young age, I knew my family was not like others, particularly when I was teased at school for being racially different. Racism of all kinds influenced my childhood, and I knew that that racism also came from a really significant war that we didn’t talk about much. As I became older, I’d get snippets of family history as different family members would come to think I was mature enough to know about certain things, or perhaps they just needed an outlet for the time being. In any case, when I reached my mid-20s, I felt an unshakeable drive to find out more about my family and write about their stories.
I knew that my parents, sister, and I lived together under a cloud of trauma, depression, and substance abuse. I knew our particular configuration of personalities, neuroses, faiths and beliefs was compelling enough to illustrate some poignancy about the human condition and how one endures trauma, loss, grief, individually and collectively. Yet really, every family has these demons, and in that, we were/are not special. But the process by which I approached our trauma and stories was liberating, and I felt strongly that these stories could be liberating for other audiences as well. That’s always been my primary motivation for writing. Liberation—and connection.
I was in the middle of writing a very premature draft of this book when I was diagnosed with cancer. Through the course of treatment and my parents coming to live with me to help out, the narrative took on a whole other dimension, which gave me even more motivation to write it. Through all these seemingly disparate experiences came forth a universality about isolation and survival.
Will this memoir have a sequel? Most certainly. I’m working on it now. Before I published this book, I knew there would be a sequel. I didn’t know exactly how it would play out, but as it so often happens in my life, circumstances are constantly laying down the narrative. The last draft of What Doesn’t Kill Us was completed just when my father was diagnosed with terminal metastatic lung cancer, which the doctors said was due to his exposure to Agent Orange, in March 2014. He died seventeen days after his diagnosis, hence the title of my work-in-progress, 17 Days. Like the first book, it’s almost as if it’s writing itself in real-time, in the present, while bringing up and making connections to gaps, traumas, and misunderstood moments during which crucial decisions were made and alternate paths were paved. The process of writing this second book is terrifying, unpredictable, and exciting. I can’t see what happens.
Have you had any feedback from certain people whose names were changed in the book? Yes, I have. It’s been all positive feedback so far, which is a huge relief. Most importantly though, my father got to read a few chapters before he passed away, and he loved them. He laughed, and of course he took credit for my sense of humour. That will always be the biggest reassurance to me. Nothing can top his reaction.
Does your mother think writing and publishing this story will speed your way to Buddhist heaven or hell? I’m not sure, as her Buddhist faith is mysterious, fluid, and too much for the average mind to comprehend.
You don’t seem very inhibited. Was there anything you left out of the book that you were just too embarrassed to share? Not really. I revel in self-deprecation. Life is too sad a lot of times. I laugh a lot and pinpoint the absurdity in heavy stuff to combat the sadness. I mean, really, life is just so weird.
Your book is very candid. When do you think your children will be mature enough to read your book? I’ve had this discussion with them. I expressed to them that I hope they will know when they are mature enough to read it, and that this probably won’t be until they’re in their late teens. But I also know that they will do what they want to do, regardless of what I say. I don’t want to be in denial as a parent—children are humans too, with their own minds and wills. The only thing I can do is hope that they respect my wishes, and so far, they say they will, and I believe them. We are a very open, close family because we have been through so much together.
What parts, if any, of the book were difficult for you to write? Most of it. It’s an odd tension between being a memoirist who crafts real life into stories full of introspection and reflection for a particular reason, and as a person who has experienced these traumas first-hand. Of course, there’s an inherent hesitation to relive or revisit any of that, to deal with triggers and nightmares. During the course of writing this book, I had to be on top of my mental health and wellness plan. I had to know when it was time to go to therapy to work out some of the stuff that was surfacing and could be damaging while I was writing about it. And luckily, I couldn’t ask for a more gracious, caring, and sensitive husband than the one I have, or more supportive or loving friends to whom I could turn when I needed them. Ultimately, I kept my focus on the good that would come out of writing this book, and that’s what kept me going when the demons were sometimes almost too much to handle.
How has writing about your illness changed how you remember or experience your illness? I’d like to say that documenting my illness has made me completely empowered about my health, mortality, and how I live my life. There are moments when it certainly has given me that sense. But having cancer fucking sucks, as was the title of my blog I started when I got diagnosed. It’s shit. The good parts of writing about having cancer, about talking about having had cancer at a young age, are connecting with others in the same boat and being part of a community of very special, very fucking strong individuals. And the thing about cancer is that even if you are in remission, there are often residual health and psychological side effects that remain for the rest of your life. So when I have those days when the residue seems unbearable, I can go back and say, “Okay, things aren’t or won’t be what they used to be, but holy shit—that person was me, and I’m still here.”
Aside from your blog, did you keep a journal throughout your cancer journey? How did you recall so many events? My journal was exactly how I recalled so many events. I’ve read so many studies that tout journal writing as a healthful way to recover from illness. It’s cathartic. Writing down what troubles you releases those ills, puts words to them, allows you as the author to have power over what’s making you sick, whether it’s cancer, relationship issues, or any other problem. It would be pretty impossible for me to write anything without my journal.
What made you want to become a writer? I recently found a worn yellow piece of notebook paper from the first grade. We were given the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I wrote that I wanted to be a writer and teacher. I loved my teachers—I loved learning, and I was always a good student because I wasn’t really good at anything else, being the small, sickly child I was. So I wanted to be a teacher someday. But I wanted to be a writer too because I spent a lot of time by myself with my imagination because my mother was overprotective and didn’t allow me to do much outside the house. My imagination was my best friend, and it helped me cope with experiencing my childhood in isolation. I could make up stories and have a life through them.
What challenges did you face in writing in your mother’s voice? There weren’t challenges. Writing the dialogue came so easily to me because of what I’d written in my journal, and how I hear people talk when I do write the dialogue. I find it interesting that people focus on my portrayal of my mother’s voice and don’t seem to notice that I also write my father’s voice with his distinct tone. Some people read mockery into my mother’s dialogue, but I don’t see it that way. That’s how she talks. That’s her syntax, just as my dad’s incorrect grammar with his twang and slur is his way of talking. In fact—yeah, I was that super annoying kid who went around correcting everyone’s grammar at family dinners. But my mom’s voice, my dad’s voice—my sister’s and anybody else who has a voice in my book—that’s how I hear them talk. To have them talk in any other way would be entirely inauthentic and deceptive.
What authors have influenced you as a writer? My grandmother gave me Helen Keller’s autobiography to read when I was five (I learned to read when I was three). I really can’t tell you how many times I read that book, but it was a lot. I guess you could say that book planted the seed in terms of how I found real stories to be so powerful and exciting to read. When I was in my teens, I read a lot of Stephen King and Douglas Adams. Those authors introduced to me the fantastical, nightmarish, and absurd characteristics of narrative about life. Then I turned to Maxine Hong Kingston, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls—to name a few of the masterful storytellers I so admire. During my cancer treatment, I was enthralled by Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Catherine Lord’s The Summer of Her Baldness, and Jean-Dominique Baby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Those three books were most closest friends when I’d lie in an abyss of pain and suffering. They helped me see that writing in the face of death would have redeeming qualities that would long survive me.
If/When your book gets picked up for a Lifetime/Hallmark/Hollywood movie, who would you want to play you? Oprah. She turns everything into gold.