Fred Wah, poet, scholar, editor, teacher, community activist (b in Swift Current, Sask, 1939).
Fred Wah, poet, scholar, editor, teacher, community activist (b in Swift Current, Sask, 1939). Born into a mixed-race family with parents of Chinese-Irish-Scots and Scandinavian descent, Wah grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia and received his BA in English and music from the UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA in 1962, where he was one of the founding editors of the influential TISH poetry newsletter. He later undertook graduate work in literature and linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, under Robert Creeley, and at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where he received a master's degree, with Charles Olson, both New Americanist poets who had a strong influence on him. Wah returned to Canada in the late 1960s to teach creative writing at Selkirk College and David Thompson University Centre, and later at the UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY, where he had a long, distinguished career as an English professor, retiring in 2003.
Wah published his first book of poetry, Lardeau, in 1965 and has since published another eighteen, in addition to Diamond Grill (1996), marketed as his first book of prose fiction. He won the 1985 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD for Poetry for Waiting for Saskatchewan, the 1991 Stephanson Prize for Poetry from the Writers Guild of Alberta for So Far, the 1996 Howard O'Hagan Prize for Short Fiction from the Writers Guild of Alberta for Diamond Grill, and the 2010 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for is a door. His collection of critical essays, Faking It (2000), was awarded the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Criticism on Canadian literature. After TISH, Wah has continued his commitment to formative "national" and "regional" literary projects, serving as a contributing editor for Open Letter and an editor for West Coast Line and for SwiftCurrent, Canada's first electronic literary magazine. As a former teacher of creative writing at the University of Calgary, Wah has had a strong influence on younger generations of Canadian writers. He has served as writer-in-residence at the UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA, the UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA, and SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY, and as chair of the WRITERS' UNION OF CANADA (2001-02).
On accepting the Dorothy Livesay Prize, Wah summed up his poetic career: "My writing has been sustained, primarily, by two interests: racial hybridity and the local, the landscape of the Kootenays in southeastern BC; its mountains, lakes, and forests." A third central topic has been language itself, with a stress on formal innovation. Wah's early poetic career was tied in with the TISH group, which helped turn Canadian poetry toward a focus on language, leading later to the development of "sound" and "concrete" poetry. Frank DAVEY emphasizes that the group was also distinguished by its sense of being at home in a local place and community of writers, of belonging to an international writing community, and of being possessed by rather than possessing language. Wah's first five volumes, Lardeau (1965), Mountain (1967), Among (1972), Tree (1972), and Earth (1974), deal, as their titles imply, with landscape, which remained the dominant focus of his poetry up to 1980, when the volume of his selected poems, Loki Is Buried at Smokey Creek, was published.
In his early poetry Wah did not deal explicitly with matters of race and ethnicity; by the early 1980s, however, he began to write in a concerted way about issues of Chineseness in his poetry, namely in the collections Owner's Manual (1981), Breathin' My Name with a Sigh (1981), Grasp the Sparrow's Tail (1982), and Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985). Wah's long pursuit of his patrilinear inheritance took him on his own journey to China where he became convinced of the importance of his family's hybridity, its unique identity that is simultaneously local-Canadian and transpacific-diasporic-Chinese. The publication of his "biotext," Diamond Grill, established his position as an important Asian Canadian writer, after he had already established himself as a major Canadian poet.
The majority of the criticism on Wah's poetry still places it in a tradition that has grown out of the TISH movement and the language poets. This is an approach encouraged to some extent by Wah himself, who frequently refers to postmodern and poststructuralist theory in his critical writing. Particularly in those essays collected in Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity (2000), however, Wah foregrounds his interest in racialization (the process of being produced as a raced subject), which developed through the 1990s. He identifies himself as part of a group of "Asian-Canadian writers . . . [who] seek to redress and rewrite the colonizing racism of western transnational ideologies" (Faking It 43). He disavows a white, centrist, dominant concept of Canadian literature and links his newly-emphasized concern with race and ethnicity to his older concern with the "local," with the subjectivity of "place": "Where one is, here, is who one is." He explores his mixed-race heritage, hybridity and hyphenation in great detail in Diamond Grill: "There's a whole bunch of us who've grown up resident aliens, living in the hyphen. . . . That could be the answer to this country. If you're pure anything you can't be Canadian. We'll save that name for all the mixed bloods" (53).
Banting, Pamela, "The Undersigned: Ethnicity and Signature-Effects in Fred Wah's Poetry," West Coast Line 2 (1990); Bowering, George, "The Poems of Fred Wah," Introduction to Loki Is Buried at Smokey Creek: Selected Poems by Fred Wah; Goellnicht, Donald, "Asian Canadian, Eh?" Canadian Literature 199 (Winter 2008); Kamboureli, Smaro, "Faking It: Fred Wah and the Postcolonial Imaginary," Etudes Canadiennes/Canadian Studies 54 (2003); McGonegal, Julie, "Hyphenating the Hybrid 'I': (Re)Visions of Racial Mixedness in Fred Wah's Diamond Grill," Essays on Canadian Writing 75 (Winter 2002); Sugars, Cynthia, "'The negative capability of camouflage': Fleeing Diaspora in Fred Wah's Diamond Grill," Studies in Canadian Literature 26.1 (2001)