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Prof. Larissa Lai's Summer Reading Picks

Over a bowl of leftovers in the Arts faculty kitchen, author Larissa Lai chit-chats about St. John’s, Nfld.
(where she grew up), audio books, her soon-to-be-released novel, The Tiger Flu, and her thoughts on prize culture and best-seller lists. UCalgary’s Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing has a love for cultural intersections, as well as the weird and wonderful, that populates her summer reading list. But be forewarned: Many will never make it on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Here’s why.

They are not about rich people’s problems, white-collar crime or thrillingly wicked housewives. “Those books are not about the people and communities I move through,” Lai explains, thoughtfully. “I am not saying that bestseller lists are not important, as they do get people reading, but I worry that they can produce a monoculture, where we all go to McDonald’s for the same burger . . . we all read the same books because others are. That may be all well and fine, but there are lots of conversations that we need to be having that can be undermined by prize culture and bestseller lists. We need to keep having both sets of conversations.”

Prodding a noodle, she adds, “We have another culture. It is the culture that ordinary people are living through . . . on the land and in the cities. That conversation has to do with you and me and it’s very important. That is the culture I am very interested in.” 

Lai’s List:

  • Memory Serves by Lee Maracle. “In this post-TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) moment, we need to explore what reconciliation, respect and relation can mean. The apology can’t be the end of things — it must be at the beginning. Maracle is a very important Indigenous author who instructs us in the work of memory as a creative and political act. She remembers things that many of us forget, like the way the Chinese railway workers interacted with Indigenous folks as they dynamited the mountains to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s pretty brilliant and not hard to read. Maracle is an amazing knowledge-keeper of the Sto:lo and is very generous with her knowledge of  the long, local history of the west coast.
  • The Outer Harbour by Wayde Compton. “This West Coast writer is an original thinker who, in this book of interlinked short fiction about a volcano that results in new land off the coast of Vancouver, explores the concept of place and identity and plays prose forms as though they are instruments or turntables. Compton is very smart and generous for the ways in which he thinks about bodies, histories, and how they connect to land formations. His is a very important voice for our contemporary moment.”
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. “Set in slavery times, (Whitehead’s novel) imagines the underground railway as not a metaphor, but an actual railway that runs underground. Not only does Whitehead really know his history, but he is also very conscious of race relations and social justice issues and is always daring in unexpected and substantial ways. He deploys speculative fiction and magic realism in interesting and original ways.”
  • Son of Trickster by Eden Robinson. “Earlier this year, I went to see Robinson at Wordfest. She has a powerful and arresting sense of humour-- very macabre and yet true to the joys and horrors of Haisla life. Her books reflect that. Her stories often drop you directly into the violent situations and familial dysfunction that are a consequence of colonialism for her people. When you sit with Eden, you can't not laugh, and yet, when you walk away you're more disturbed than amused at what you realize you've laughed at. She talks about laughter as her family's way of healing. I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my list.” 

Being an academic keeps Lai from reading as much as she would like — which is precisely why she’s a big consumer of audio books, which she often listens to in transit-- on airplanes, in immigration line-ups, while driving, or on the train. “My life is so text-heavy and my eyes get so tired. Audio books are a great way to keep on top of what's out there when the eyes don't want to work any more,” she explains. “And, in some weird way, they bring me back to my childhood when my dad read to me.”

One of her favourite set of audio books is a trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, which addresses the Opium Wars. “Ghosh connects China with India to Africa and the Americas,” says Lai. “Ghosh's plotting is fairly classical, so the books (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire) are aurally easy to follow. He mixes fascinating histories with good storytelling.”

Despite not having the time she'd like for leisure reading, Lai volunteers more titles on her must-read list. In no particular order, they include: The Break by Katherena Vermette; Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien; Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr; and Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch.

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"Through her Canada Research Chair, Larissa Lai runs TIA House (The Insurgent Architects' House for Creative Writing) on the 10th Floor of the Social Sciences Tower at the University of Calgary. Readings, talks and symposia are regularly organized in the space, and students, professors, writers, artists and the general public are always welcome. Please go to www.tiahouse.ca for further information."