Jen Sookfong Lee’s memoir Superfan examines a painful obsession with pop culture — read an excerpt now

Jen Sookfong Lee’s memoir Superfan examines a painful obsession with pop culture — read an excerpt now


Superfan is the latest book from Canadian author Jen Sookfong Lee.

Lee’s new work is a memoir-in-pieces that uses one woman’s life-long love affair with pop culture as a revelatory lens to explore family, identity, belonging, grief and the power of female rage.

As a child of Chinese immigrant parents, pop culture was an escape from tragedy and a means of fitting in with the larger culture around her. And yet as Jen grew up, she began to recognize the ways in which pop culture was not made for someone like her — Lee weaves together key moments in pop culture with stories of her own challenges that come with carving her own path as an Asian woman, single mother and writer.

Lee is a Vancouver-born novelist and broadcast personality. In 2009, she championed Brian Francis’s novel Fruit on Canada Reads. She is also a former The Next Chapter columnist. Lee, along with poet Dina Del Bucchia, hosts the Can’t Lit podcast, a monthly audio series about all things CanLit.

She is the author of the novel The Conjoinedthe nonfiction book Gentleman of the Shade and the poetry collection The Shadow List.

Lee told CBC Books that Superfan is a love letter of sorts — reflecting on an obsession with pop culture — but it’s also a memoir that examines pivotal life moments through the lens of TV and film celebrity in North America.

“Many years ago, I remember having an argument with my then-partner, which started when he began making fun of the reality shows and bubblegum pop music I loved the most, which, understandably, made me angry. Ever since then I’ve been accumulating reasons why people are drawn to pop culture — both the stuff that’s trite and sappy, and the stuff that soars with depth and meaning — and I began to think I could write a book about those parasocial connections,” said Lee.

“Growing up, I saw very few Asian women in North American media, and yet I never stopped loving the media itself. What did that mean? Why did I care? That’s how Superfan was born.”

Superfan will be published on Jan. 17, 2023. You can read an excerpt below.

From the ages of eight to 14, my life is marked by a series of departures. First, it’s my sister Wendy. The same year my father is diagnosed, she gets married, packs her car to the roof, and drives across the country to Toronto. Then it’s my sister Jackie, who delays her wedding by six months as we plan his funeral. Last, it’s my sister Daisy, who gets married a year after Jackie and then moves to Hong Kong with her Singaporean husband.

As I watch my sisters plan their weddings, pack, and leave, I note the relief written on their faces, as visible to me as their blue-lined eyes or feathered hair. They walk out the front door in new clothes and get into shiny cars driven by their new husbands, waving with wide smiles and so incandescent with contagious happiness that I find myself waving back.

My father’s long illness, the funeral, the insurance, and other details — all of these things had forced my sisters and me into a tight unit for six years, the five of us often travelling as a pack to the hospital, choosing my father’s funeral suit in a huddle at Moores, taking my mother for dinner so that none of us had to manage her alone.

From the ages of eight to fourteen, my life is marked by a series of departures.

But as my older sisters left, Penny and I remained in the house, where grief was omnipresent, where our mother hovered at the periphery of our vision. Better not to engage. Better to quietly wait until we could leave too.

When my father died, Penny was not quite 19 and just starting her second year of university. Her bedroom had been the basement kitchen; the exposed duct for the missing stove hood hovered from the ceiling above her bed, and against the opposite wall was the old teal-painted cabinet that my mother still used as her dry goods pantry.

Our house had always been full, but in the aftermath of my father’s death, my mother, Daisy, Jackie, Penny and I scattered to its farthest corners, each into our own rooms, no matter what the room looked or smelled like, no matter if it was filled with boxes of mung beans and sacks of jasmine rice.

As the years passed, we learned to cocoon in our own lives whenever possible. For Penny and me, both of us still at home and many years away from starting careers or getting married, that meant finding solitary activities; I drew angrily with pastels, each piece featuring a face that looked like a sad me, even if it was only a shadowy form in a bottom corner.

The band Color Me Badd does some harmonizing while performing at a free concert in St. Louis in 1998. (Greenblatt/Gamma Liason/Getty Images)

I could hear Penny singing in her room, often accompanying the Les Misérables cast recording or, sometimes, CMB by Color Me Badd. She was a great singer, a natural alto who could reach soprano range, whose voice barrelled down the hallway and up the stairs, where I would stand at the top, so she couldn’t see me, and listen.

(1990 to 1995)

Every Saturday morning, I wake up, eat toast with peanut butter, then rush to finish my homework before lunchtime. My mother, as she often does, stays in her room.

Shortly after noon, Penny comes up from the basement, wearing her favourite giant navy-blue sweatshirt, and lies down on the loveseat. I come out of my room and sit on the sofa, my feet propped up on the coffee table.

We turn on the television to the local public station and Bob Ross appears on the screen, balancing his palette on his forearm. Today, we’re lucky: it’s a Joy of Painting marathon (he is a reliable draw, especially when the station is doing its periodic donation drives). I close my eyes as Bob lists the paint colours he’ll be using in this episode: cadmium yellow, phthalo blue, titanium white.

Penny and I don’t speak to each other. It’s only Bob’s voice drifting through the living room. “Maybe this tree needs a little friend,” he says, halfway through.

A calm masculine voice, one who only wants us to paint the best paintings we can, in this pocket of contentment. And if we never paint at all, that’s okay too. On Saturday afternoons, we are both okay.

Bob Ross does his happy little thing. Scene from The Joy of Painting. (Bob Ross, Inc.)

In a rare interview with the Orlando Sentinel in 1990, Bob Ross talked about his time in the US Air Force: “I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work. The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”

We turn on the television to the local public station and Bob Ross appears on the screen, balancing his palette on his forearm.

He rehabilitated squirrels, phoned fans when he hadn’t heard from them in a while to make sure they were okay, and jokingly predicted his paintings would never hang in the Smithsonian. (In 2019, several of his paintings were, in fact, donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History by Bob Ross Inc., and the plan is to create a permanent exhibit on Bob, Julia Child and Fred Rogers.) In that same interview, he said of his appeal, “I don’t intimidate Anyone. Instead, I try to get people to believe in themselves.

I tell people, ‘You can do this.’ And they write back and say, ‘You were right. I can do this. And now I believe I can do anything.'”

Excerpted from Superfan by Jen Sookfong Lee. Copyright © 2023 Jen Sookfong Lee. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


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Jorge Oliveira