Chinese-Canadian writer JJ Lee’s memoir The Measure of a Man: A Father, a Son, and a Suit (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) was shortlisted for this year’s Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction and made it to the Top Ten books in the Memoir and Biography category at amazon.ca.
For good reason. Starting with a son trying to alter a blue suit inherited from his father, Lee mingles the history of the suit, his personal relationship with his father, and his search for a father figure in a Chinese tailor shop. The Measure of a Man is a family story, a father-son story, and a journey of self-discovery. It is also a rich, powerful and brilliant book.
JJ Lee is a fashion columnist and radio documentary producer in Vancouver. He came to Montreal, where he was born, to promote his book earlier this month, and this is where we met.
YL: What prompted you to write this book?
JJ: I suppose the main reason is that there was such a mystery about my father, and I felt such animosity towards him because of our past. But it was strange because I kept holding on to his last suit. He died ten years ago, and we were supposed to bury him in the suit, but his body was too decomposed to dress him in the suit. So I kept it and I held on to it. My father and I did not get along. And yet I held on to the suit, and there was something mysterious about that. When I put it on, I would feel his failures, his struggles, but I also could smell his cigarettes, his sweat, and always this faint hint of vanilla, which I describe in the book. I realized I needed to find out more about who he was. Trying to alter the suit to fit me was a way of discovering who he was.
I didn’t think of it as a book at first. I’ve altered the suit many times. But someone heard about my struggles and asked me to tell the story. So I took all those attempts of altering my father’s suit and combined them into one attempt. And the reason I could do this is that I was an apprentice tailor, and that made it a lot easier. I wasn’t totally crazy. But I was not a very good apprentice tailor. That’s how the journey began to discover my father in the suit.
YL: The book is much broader than other family stories I have read. It includes the history of the man’s suit and details of your experience as an apprentice in the Modernize Tailor Shop. What made you construct the story this way?
JJ: It had to be done this way because the way I acquired my knowledge about clothing, my sartorial understanding, was always linked with my memories of my father and my experiences as an apprentice. I am a curious person, so I did research on the history of the man’s suit. And when I read about this history I felt there were parallels with my own experience with my father. And there were so many sartorial lessons that my father taught me; it just seemed impossible to separate them all out. It was like a puzzle and I couldn’t get the full picture of why this suit troubled me, this particular blue blazer suit – why it gave me such a hard time – without looking at all these different aspects.
What I discovered was that the suit has always been a battleground between young men and their fathers. It has always been a subject since its creation hundreds of years ago about two generations arguing over what it takes to be a man.
I learned something else about myself because I realized that I was never man enough to help my father, who had many troubles with alcohol. I am not saying that I was at fault for his alcoholism, but I wish that I could have confronted him about it, challenged him, and maybe tried to help.
YL: In the book you describe your last meal with your father, which is a very touching scene. You two didn’t talk that much but played catch together and were silent. Do you think this is the traditional Chinese father-son communication?
JJ: I think there are cultural barriers between the generations speaking to each other that are based in Chinese culture, but I also think that one shouldn’t downplay the kind of communication that men can have even if it is silent. It was a really profound experience. If we could play catch tomorrow I would be happy. And I wouldn’t begrudge that we didn’t have some sort of revealing intimate conversation about the past. That’s what I think I was getting at, that maybe we just cannot have these heart-to- hearts all the time. But a father can show a son how to tie a bow-tie, and that becomes a lasting memory. Or a half Windsor, which my father taught me. Or a father can play catch and teach his son how to throw a ball. Once that has happened, it can never be forgotten. As a father myself, I find myself now trying to plant those seeds of memories in my children to have little things like how to catch a football a certain way. If they ever do that hand gesture to catch a football they will think of me, never forget me – and think of me in a good light. I’m trying to leave happiness bombs in my children’s memories that they will stumble upon, half buried in the sand of anger at their father. My sons will eventually not feel happy about me, right? So I’m trying to leave little pockets of happiness in the sand.
YL: Do you think you understand your father more after writing the book?
JJ: I came to understand him. Now that I have finished the book and am standing back, he is a mystery to me again. It’s sort of like when you’re tuning a radio and the signal comes in perfectly and then you move your hand away from the radio and the signal disappears. Because I am not writing that book anymore, the signal has become garbled again…It is really elusive. I think that’s not a bad thing. People are elusive. And to pin them down in a book is kind of not real. I don’t think books are real even if they are non-fiction; they’re chasing something that’s elusive.
YL: In your book, you concluded that no matter what happened, whatever your father-son relationship, you would end up loving your father. Does this mean you need a father figure?
JJ: Yes, I know I need a father figure. Right now as I am speaking to you, I’m trying to imagine what I would say to my father if he were here. I would tell him that I love him.
YL: One reviewer said that Bill Wong, the owner of the tailor shop, is somehow your surrogate father. Do you agree with this analysis?
JJ: I think it would hurt my father’s feelings if he read that himself. But indeed, Bill was very important to me, and he gave me something that I needed – guidance, affection, wisdom – and he taught me a lot. I just needed the company of an older man in my life and he provided that, and I will always honour him for that. But my father is my father, and Bill is my master and I love him dearly. But the review is correct. He is a surrogate. I cannot deny that.
YL: As I was reading the book, I’ve felt the shifting of writing styles. The tones are different when you mention your father, the history of the man’s suit, and stories in the tailor shop. Were you aware of that when you were writing the book?
JJ: My background is in radio. I think I have mastered the technique of writing for radio.
My editor Anita Chong and I always talked about it being like an opera and that you needed to change pace and tone. Not intentionally. I am not a technical writer. I felt the cadence though, and I really looked for voice and feeling. I let the feeling guide the writing. I didn’t build the book on a sentence by sentence basis. I really saw through the words, and saw the story and the emotional tone that I was looking for. And so the manuscript is kind of funny because there were passages I don’t remember writing. I am not saying it was automatic writing. I was in control of my skills, but I saw through the writing and then went into the story. Sometimes the nuance of what I am doing isn’t really clear to me…and I kind of like that way.
YL: You say, “A suit is never just a suit.” So, what does a suit mean to a man?
JJ: This is the strange part. A suit can mean almost anything. It has broad shoulders and lots of tough seams, lots of thread to hold it together, and you can indeed have many adventures in a suit. Sometimes regular clothing, or what people think of as regular clothing, has a glass ceiling. It can only take you so far, into certain parts of world, and all of a sudden you’ll feel quite naked or underdressed. But I can play baseball in a suit. I have played baseball in a suit. It feels like you can walk anywhere or go anywhere in a suit. And I find that incredibly fascinating. It is not just about business, it’s about adventure and being sexy, about being grown up. It is about being many things. So I think a suit can express all those ranges of emotion. It can be the same suit and it depends on how you wear it or how you add things to the suit that give it attitude, so that it can become a really rich canvas to express many things about a man. I think this is what men really yearn for, which is to be not just one thing but try to reach out and be as many things as they possibly can.
YL: What do you want your readers to take away from this book?
JJ: I think they should take what they need. Some people see it as a book about clothing. Some see it as a book about family; some people see it as both. I think the most important thing someone could take from this is not to cast aside or ignore your relationship with your father even if it is a hard relationship. I am not saying reconcile or forgive, I am saying be mindful of it because it will come back to haunt you. Your father always will, just as the suit has haunted me.
© Yan Liang 2011
Journalist Yan Liang
Photo: Li Zhao
Yan Liang is a prize-winning journalist and translator based in Montreal, with more than ten years’ experience working in Canada and China. She presently works for Radio-Canada International (RCI) as a host and journalist. She was involved in several translation projects, such as Arthur Miller’s autobiography Time Bends (2010, Shanghai 99Read), Stan Douglas’s film transcript Journey into Fear (2004) and others.