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Another Form of Turning: An Interview with Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee interviewed by Pete Carvill.

Jessica J. Lee by Ricardo Rivas


It is a relatively-mild, late-autumn morning in Berlin. When I arrive at the coffee shop around the corner from her home in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg district, Jessica J. Lee is already waiting for me, dog in lap. He’s a six-week old Kromfohrländer called Brisket that she has recently adopted from the countryside outside of Hanover. Throughout our conversation, Brisket lies peacefully on her lap, seemingly oblivious not only to the conversation, but also to the traffic on the main road just behind us.

It’s early and the first thing we discuss are the results of the previous day’s elections in Canada. The results are not fully in, but it appears that Trudeau’s government, though headed for a second term, is now a minority government. Despite statistics that say that his administration has achieved the vast majority of its elections promises, its shine has been tarnished since 2016 by things such as the SNC-Lavalin affair, the opening up of the Trans Mountain pipeline, allegations of sexual misconduct, and a blacking-up scandal that erupted during the main campaign. There is the sense, for many Canadians, that despite all the promises, the barometer has not shifted much for the national conversation.

Lee identifies as Chinese-Canadian, although she is half-British through her father, who emigrated from Wales to Canada as a young man. As an adult, she moved from Canada to the UK and now finds herself living in Berlin. And while Trudeau has managed to win his election, the UK is still blundering its way to its own deadline on leaving the European Union. She confesses, holding both British and Canadian passports, to a disenchantment with politics.

“I think,” says Lee, “this is to do with my frustration about how much is now about optics. With Trudeau, so many liberal folks I know were really celebrating him, but he has always been pro-pipeline, which is hugely problematic both with regards to climate change and Indigenous people. So, and this is definitely a privilege afforded by distance, I’ve just become quite frustrated with Canadian politics. Don’t even get me started on the UK…”

It seems, despite its mildness, that the weather is about to turn. Winter is about to arrive in Berlin and with it, on 7 November (for the UK edition), comes the release date for Lee’s new book, Two Trees Make a Forest.

The book is the story of Lee’s grandfather. In clearing out his possessions after his death, Lee and her mother found an unpublished memoir, written by hand, of his life.

The memoir, across twenty handwritten pages, was, writes Lee in Two Trees Make a Forest, “An autobiography of his life, looping around and repeating his story, it traced his movement from China, as a child born amidst the turbulence of the May Fourth Movement, which protested China’s poor returns from the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, the failure of Chinese diplomats to represent the nation’s interests, and the subsequent handover of Chinese territory to the Japanese. He grew up amidst the cultural, intellectual, and political changes in the years following these protests, during which the Chinese Communist Party was formed. The bulk of the letter centred on the Second Sino-Japanese War, on his time as a pilot for the Flying Tigers. It followed his years in Taiwan, where he was an instructor for the Republic of China’s Air Force, and then ended abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, unanchored in any time. Perhaps he had begun writing to remind himself of who he was. The story was just a series of fragments, circled and repeated — pieces of his life told to no one before, pressed to paper, and perhaps forgotten by him soon after writing.”

The book is not only about her grandfather’s life, but about the geography — both physical and psychic — of Taiwan. Its core, though, and the key to Two Trees Make a Forest, is the life the man Lee knew as ‘Gong’.

“We were shocked to find the letter,” says Lee, “as it was meant to have been given to us. But we’d never received it. Every family has secrets, and I wanted to understand the lives of my grandparents better. That’s always been hard to do from a distance, due to language and cultural barriers. So this book is an attempt to understand their stories through the language I know best, which is through nature.”

The preservation of her grandfather’s story was given weight by his struggle with Alzheimer’s, which would later claim his life. “The realisation that the past was quickly dissolving,” she writes, “gave an urgency to the task of knowing it.”

In a latter passage, she writes of his last days, “Alzheimer’s, I think, is a form of haunting. It possesses the people we love, takes them away in stages, devouring memory, life, personality. As the disease progresses, the proteins that gather in the brain begin to form plaques around nerve cells, structures that once transported nutrients collapse, and the brain tissue shrinks. First short-term, then long-term, memories disappear. The people we know fade, as though gradually stepping out of a picture.”

And yet the most shocking revelation is that all this material about Lee’s grandfather, who predeceased his wife, was kept hidden until after her death. And with it came the knowledge that there was extended family, thought lost, that Lee’s grandmother had maintained contact with for years without divulging to those around her.

“She was an incredibly difficult person,” says Lee. “Some people have suggested that she suffered from a personality disorder. But what is true is that she did suffer extreme trauma, having to flee from Nanjing at the end of the second world war. She witnessed terrible things, but the question is how much these things excuse her later behaviour. It was in her character to keep things from us.”

Jessica J. Lee by Ricardo Rivas

Turning, which came out in 2017, traced Lee’s year-long quest to swim each week in a different lake in the countryside surrounding Berlin. It began as a blog on the now-defunct travel website Slow Travel Berlin and, following its success there, Lee turned her writings into a memoir. The original intention, she says, was to practise non-academic writing. Its rapid popularity was the result of timing and a paucity of information on wild swimming.

Lee still swims and advocates leaving behind indoor pools in order to experience what Roger Deakin called the “frog’s eye view” of the world, observing nature from an eyeline an inch or two above the water. More than a physical experience, the act of swimming has, over her life, often acted as a bookmark or cleanser. In Turning, following one traumatic life event, Lee drove straight to the North Atlantic Ocean and went into the water. “There’s an element of cleansing, almost like a baptism,” she says. “For me, when I’m going through something and there’s a lot in my head, getting into water is a good way to get into my body and the moment. It’s the sense of being able to channel your focus, particularly on the cold days. And if you’re in cold water, you need to pay attention.”

November, when it arrives, will be a busy month. Along with the release of Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee will also be looking to launch the second issue of The Willowherb Review, the online-only platform to boost diversity in nature writing. Its first issues saw two of its UK writers shortlisted for the Nan Shephard Prize, while one writer was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. Along with those on The Willowherb Review, Lee singles out a number of other nature writers that she feels merit attention, including Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life; Anna Tsing; and Nina Mingya-Powles. The last of those, she says, is, “going to win every award”.

The question now is what will come next. Despite Two Trees Make a Forest being largely about her parents and Turning being her own memoir, Lee says that she never set out to write only about her life. Nor does Berlin itself appeal, given the existing depth and breadth of expat literature about the city. “Personally,” she says, “I’m not that interesting, and there’s not that many people that can make a whole career out of writing memoirs. It’s been a conscious choice to make the new book about the history of an environment, about place and migration, about botany and plants, and geology.”

For now, though, the most-immediate and pressing matter is to get Brisket to the vet for a check-up. And, after that, once the book is released, the whole cycle of publicity and readings will begin again. It will be, in its own way, another form of turning.

Pete Carvill (@pete_carvill) is a Berlin-based reporter, writer, and editor. He mostly specialises in writing about financial services, but has also written for USA Today and The Washington Times, been an assigning editor for Associated Reporters Abroad, and was the fiction and non-fiction editor (a long time ago) for 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 16th, 2019.