Aug. 25, 2021
Calgary Distinguished Writers program welcomes graphic novelist Teresa Wong
As an acclaimed graphic novelist who only began pursuing her literary career in recent years, Teresa Wong owes much to her three young children. The inspiration they provided, however, did not come easy.
Rather, it involved the delivery of her first born, Scarlet, which was marked by a bloody and life-threatening postpartum hemorrhage. In the aftermath of that trauma, Wong, now 45, suffered from postpartum depression (PPD) with two out of her three children. When she was expecting her third, she remembers lying in bed and crying, haunted by delivery room flashbacks. “I felt like I had to get this story out of me,” says Wong, 2021-22 Canadian Writer-in-Residence for UCalgary’s venerated Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP).
That she did with her unflinchingly honest graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet: The Story of my Postpartum Depression (2019), a breakout success which became a finalist for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize while being longlisted for CBC Canada Reads 2020 and reviewed enthusiastically in the New York Times and the Paris Review.
“In my deepest depression I really believed that my daughter would have a better life without me,” recalls Wong, a UCalgary alumna (BA English, BEd ’99). “That’s the lie depression tells you.”
But Dear Scarlet isn’t just about PPD. It’s also a raw chronicle of new motherhood. “It’s a huge, life-altering change,” Wong says. “It’s hard work. And yet it’s also such a quiet time. You’re rocking or feeding or trying to put the baby to bed, struggling to get some sleep yourself. I wanted to reflect that too – the silence of motherhood.”
The graphic novelist can also thank her children for helping her rediscover her love of drawing. An avid comic book fan who loved to draw her own comics as a child, Wong eventually decided she wasn’t talented enough for such a pursuit and, after junior high, she gave it up.
“Being home with three little kids started me drawing again,” she says. “They’d ask me to draw things for them and I quickly realized how much I had missed it. It felt like a return home, in a way. I still wasn’t very good, but I was reading some books by the cartoonist Lynda Barry, and she writes about drawing as being a fundamental human activity, just like dancing and singing. You can sing in the shower and feel good about that, even if you’re not a great singer, so why not draw and feel good too?”
When she first began writing Dear Scarlet, Wong approached an illustrator in the hopes that he would be her artist for the project. He felt that the story was too deeply personal, however, and he encouraged her to take on the task herself. Wong Googled information on how to make a graphic novel and she began putting out comics on Instagram to hone her skills. Once she had completed Dear Scarlet it took her a few years to find a publisher. Finally, she found a home with independent Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press.
“It was absolutely DIY, and to me that is the true heart of comics,” Wong says. “It doesn’t have to be this Marvel and DC thing; it doesn’t have to be a big literary publisher. I love that you can sit in your room, create a zine and go sell it at a comic convention.”
As the new CDWP Canadian Writer-in-Residence, Wong looks forward to meeting fledgling writers and helping them develop their work. She also plans on writing and drawing a new graphic memoir, one that delves into her Chinese heritage. “My parents both escaped from communist China and made their way to Canada,” she says. “That’s always fascinated me, that they survived so much. I was born and raised in Calgary, a Chinese Canadian, but definitely more Canadian. My parents and I have had a lot of barriers in our relationship because of that. Language barriers, cultural barriers; there’s a lot to unpack.”
Wong adds: “I’m excited to have real time dedicated to this project. I wrote Dear Scarlet at my kitchen table every night because I had a day job. I’ve never even had a space where I could work. I always had to clear off the table so that I could serve breakfast in the morning.”
“This opportunity that the University of Calgary and the CDWP is giving me is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Hear from incoming Canadian Writer-in-Residence Teresa Wong and outgoing Writer-In-Residence playwright Meg Braem at CDWP’s annual Hello/Goodbye event on Sept.9, 7 to 8:15 p.m. The event is free and virtual - registration is required.