Fred Wah

Poet Fred Wah reading from "Faking it: Poetics & Hybridity" (NeWest Press, 2000) (photo by Steve Evans).

Poet, scholar and activist Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Sask, into a mixed-race family with parents of Chinese-Irish-Scots and Scandinavian descent. He grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia and after graduating from the University of British Columbia, where he was one of the founding editors of the influential TISH poetry newsletter, he studied and taught in the US before establishing a long career at the University of Calgary.

Wah published his first book of poetry, Lardeau, in 1965. 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.

Living in the Hyphen

He was awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2010 for is a door. On that occasion 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."

The majority of the criticism on Wah's poetry places it in a tradition that has grown out of the TISH movement and the language poets. This approach is encouraged to some extent by Wah himself, who frequently refers to postmodern and poststructuralist theory in his critical writing. However, Wah grounds his interest in racialization (the process of being produced as a raced subject), which developed through the 1990s, in the essays collected in Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity (2000). In this work, 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."

Learn more: Fred Wah in The Canadian Encyclopedia
The Fred Wah Digital Archive