Joanne Leow joins SFU English as its new associate professor and Canada Research Chair

August 29, 2023

The Department of English is pleased to introduce its new associate professor and Canada Research Chair (CRC) Joanne Leow. This fall, Professor Leow, who is also a poet, will be teaching ENGL 361: Diasporic and Transnational Asian Literatures and conducting research.

Prior to joining Simon Fraser University, Leow taught at the University of Saskatchewan. She moved to Vancouver to be closer to her sites of research, which include Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vancouver itself. Leow also feels that SFU English is a great fit for her, not only as a researcher, but as a poet.

“I have a creative practice, and it seems to me that this department really values creative writing and different sorts of expressions of academic research,” she says.

In 2022, Leow released her debut collection of poetry, Seas Move Away with the independent publisher Turnstone Press. The title is taken from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The full quote reads, “Seas move away, why not lovers?”

“He’s really thinking about the large-scale, almost geological terms of reference, to an almost heart-rending loss of a loved one,” says Leow. “Because to move away, is to really leave all that behind in many ways, not to be involved in the day-to-day loves and lives of those closest to you. There’s an underlying meditation and pain.”

In her poetry, Leow focuses on what it meant for her to leave her home in Singapore for university in the United States, and then later life in Canada. The work meditates on exile and what it means to dare to critique authoritarian power and development. During the writing process, she was strongly influenced by her studies with the poet C. D. Wright and her conversations with the author Maria Campbell. In her encounter with the latter through sessions of storytelling and reading, she deepened her understanding of the need for decolonization and reconciliation, as well as the responsibilities that come with being an uninvited guest on Indigenous land.

“When you become a Canadian citizen, you attain voting, free assembly, and freedom of expression, but what does it mean you are responsible for,” asks Leow. “What do you inherit? You inherit all the violent history. You chose this country. You inherit all the things that are good. You inherit all the things that you hoped for, but you inherit all the things that are bad as well.”

This October, Leow will be speaking about her book at the Vancouver Writers Fest. She also hopes to connect with other minority writers in Vancouver over the coming months.

“The words, ‘Asian’ and ‘Asia’ are sometimes overly simplified,” says Leow. “So many people come from so many different parts of Asia and have different definitions of what that continent, region, and cultural space means to them, so I’m really looking forward to having those conversations with people in the community who have such varied and disparate migrant histories from me.”

The ENGL 361 course that Leow will be teaching this fall also deals with various migrant stories. The focus will not only be on characters journeying from Asia to North America or Europe, but within Asia itself. Leow says she wants to expand her students’ perception of the Asian diaspora by introducing them to more contemporary and understudied texts. One of these texts is Adrian De Leon’s barangay. Leow hopes to have the poet, who was born in Manila and grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, to speak to her class.

Although she loves teaching, Leow is honoured and excited to have received a CRC, which will allow her to focus more on her research. In collaboration with SFU’s Global Asia Program, Leow has begun some initial planning on a project about Asian foodways and storytelling. She plans to co-teach a course on this topic with Professor Nadine Attewell (Director of the SFU’s Global Asia program and faculty member in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies) and they hope to create a digital archive and a public exhibition with their students.

“We’ll ask them to go back to their elders, or people they’re familiar with and talk about stories they might have around particular dishes or ingredients that made their way here, whether it’s as simple as something like rice or an herb, or a dish like a foreign laksa, for instance,” says Leow. “What does it mean to bring these tastes from their origin country, but make them something different?”

The students will also examine the domestic and agricultural labour, as well as ecological implications of producing certain dishes and food. They will discuss how these things affect the stories they are told about the food.

Another project that Leow is continuing while she is at SFU is a SSHRC-funded study of the artistic, filmic, and literary depictions of coastlines in Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The main outcomes of this project will be a traveling art installation and a digital resource, both of which will be geared to the wider community.

Leow is very much looking forward to working with graduate research assistants, and post-doctoral fellows on these projects and give them the kind of training and mentorship they will need to enter academia or other fields.

“I’m really looking forward to working with different collaborators across the institution and to further share these opportunities with my students,” says Leow.