Paul Yee: Stories that Speak to Non-Mainstream People

I didn’t start buying books until my university days, and it wasn’t about suddenly needing to supply all my own textbooks. I discovered indie bookstores that carried works with stories and images that spoke to non-mainstream people like me.

Chinatowns have long had “indie” bookstores, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the sudden boom of “Asian American” books, written in English, never reached Vancouver’s Chinatown because its bookstores carried stock only in Chinese. Luckily, San Francisco had East Wind Books and Everybody’s Bookstore, indies that stocked books about China in English and Chinese, but which also carried Asian-American books.

Back then, when it was cool to be “anti-establishment,” vocal U.S. college students protested the war in Vietnam, called for ethnic studies to be taught, and did grass-roots neighborhood work. This upheaval spawned “Asian-American” writing. Some people would have described it as rabble-rousing. Never-told experiences from Asian communities appeared in the form of local histories, anecdotes of racism, family tales, accounts of soul-searching for a personal identity, and efforts in the literary and visual arts. This material was most popularly assembled in informal anthologies, few of which had serious publishers, so distribution was haphazard. Strangers to San Francisco would never have been able to track down such works, but the indies saved the day for me.

Then I carried home my precious treasures and pored over content that didn’t exist in Canada. That was when I first thought that one day I too might write similar stories or books. Those indie bookstores played a pivotal role in my life because they were willing to support emerging voices, and in doing so, helped me understand myself through discovering writers whose voices I needed to hear. Let’s make sure indie bookstores continue to thrive. They are essential to our identities and our communities.

(c) 2016 Paul Yee


Since 1983, Paul Yee has written about Chinese Canadians, in fiction and non-fiction, for adults and for young readers. His work was recognized by a Governor General’s Award in 1996 and by the Vicky Metcalf Award, 2012, for a body of work for young readers. He lives in Toronto.