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Photo of Teresa Wong courtesy Heath McCoy

New Canadian Writer-in-Residence Teresa Wong on creativity and vulnerability

By Cristina Paolozzi, September 8 2021—

Cartoonist and graphic novelist Teresa Wong is the current Canadian Writer-in-Residence with the Calgary Distinguished Writers program at the University of Calgary. 

Wong, a U of C alumna, graduated from her undergrad in 1999 and is excited to be on campus once again for the 2021-22 school year. 

“It’s so cool to be part of the campus community again in a different capacity,” she said. “And to see how the U of C has changed in so many ways and also how it still feels the same.” 

Wong’s most recent work, Dear Scarlet: The Story Of My Postpartum Depression, is a graphic novel which explores the challenges she faced — both physically and mentally — giving birth to her first child suffering from a traumatic hemorrhage. Dear Scarlet was also a finalist for the W. O. Mitchell Book Prize. 

Wong previously worked for a copywriting company in Inglewood, writing Dear Scarlet in the evenings after coming home from her day job. 

Her position as the new Writer-in-Residence is exciting for her, as she is most looking forward to having her own space and time to commit herself to her writing full-time. 

“It’s kind of a dream come true to have a space where I can spread out all my stuff and not have to clear it off to serve breakfast in the morning,” said Wong.

Wong said she believed it was important to tell this story, as vulnerable as it is, as she realized the experience was still with her, even past the delivery room. 

“Obviously, there were still little bits of it left. I just wanted to get it down as a story and also get it out of me, in a way,” she said. 

When asked about why she initially felt this urge to record her experiences, Wong shared that part of her creative process involved working through her hardships to make more sense of her life. 

“When it’s just a jumble of thoughts and images in your brain, it’s really disorganized, chaotic and it’s hard to make meaning out of it or unpack it,” said Wong. “So having it down on paper, I always feel helps. I just felt like it would be a good thing to get down.” 

Wong described how she began her novel as a series of smaller thoughts and vignettes that weren’t necessarily connected. Although drawing and doodling as a kid, she initially planned to collaborate on the illustration of her novel, as she didn’t believe her sketches would be good enough for a final version. 

After purchasing a sketchbook and storyboarding her vision, she asked a friend to illustrate her novel based on the concept art she had put together. Cutting and pasting her script to her sketches, Wong said her friend gave her advice she wasn’t expecting. 

“I showed it to him and he took it away for a week,” she said. “And then we met again and he kind of pushed it back at me and said, ‘No, you have to do this. It’s too personal, this story, and it needs to come from your own hand.’” 

Arguing at first with this decision, but then ultimately accepting the feedback, Wong went back and began to map out what would eventually be her final draft with the help of online sources like a blog post from celebrated American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier. 

Although she admits she sometimes still cringes at her past work, committing to creating her own graphics helped to convey the vulnerability of the story in her own unique style. 

One of the reasons Wong chose the graphic novel medium to tell her story was because her inspirations came to her in flashbacks from the delivery room. She said that being able to show exactly what was happening and how she felt in that moment was more effective than just conforming to written words. Wong highlighted two reasons why she chose this medium specifically. 

Wong said that when remembering the flashbacks she had, they would always come in images, so she felt it was natural to include images to accompany the story she was telling. Wong also spoke about the quietness being a new mom brought, and how she didn’t really know how to talk to a newborn baby. A graphic novel, according to Wong, better showed the loneliness of being a new mom that not many people understand.  

Ultimately, Wong believes that the graphic medium helps the reader step into the shoes of the author more immediately. 

“But in general, I think graphic narratives are great for telling really personal and intimate stories and especially memoirs, because you really get to stand in that person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes, especially if they’ve drawn it them themselves,” said Wong. “There’s this immediacy of emotion that is transferred through images you don’t quite get through text.”

Wong is working on a new novel which will be exploring her Chinese heritage and the story of growing up in Canada in an immigrant household. 

Wong said there are two main parts of the story — beginning with how her parents arrived in Canada from communist China, while also exploring the barriers that come with being a child of immigrant parents. 

“I don’t feel like their stories are completely mine and I don’t know if they ever told me everything,” said Wong. “But it’s about growing up as the child of immigrants. Also, all the barriers that you face with that — there’s a generational barrier and a language barrier and cultural barrier. And, and so it’s I think the book is more about me trying to connect with my parents with all these barriers.”

As the current Writer-in-Residence, Wong encourages students to visit her for free manuscript consultations. She said that any student who wants fresh eyes on their writing should submit a piece for review. Details for submission can be found online.

You can find Wong and the outgoing Writer-in-Residence, Meg Braem, at the Calgary Distinguished Writers program’s annual Hello/Goodbye event on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. and will be hosted online. Registration for the event can be found here

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