Tremendous obstacles no match for writer Isabella Wang’s creative ambition

June 05, 2023
Photo Credit: Lj Weisberg

“What will our halls be like without Isabella?” asks SFU Department of English Chair Carolyn Lesjak. Faculty and staff nod and smile wistfully, as they know Isabella Wang will be soon begin graduate school in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

The petite young woman that is Isabella Wang has a presence that is larger than life. One day, she’ll arrive on campus wearing an inflatable unicorn costume, exclaiming that a bouncy castle would greatly improve SFU English’s upcoming event. The next, she’ll take center stage, reading her poetry to an admiring audience.

Before and during her time at SFU, Wang has faced significant challenges. However, the knowledge and support she has received from professors and the community, has helped her to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in English and world languages and literatures.

Wang immigrated to Canada from China at age seven. She had a difficult time growing up in Vancouver, as she struggled to learn English, and experienced a fraught home environment and bullying at school. Her only escape was ballet. However, at 15, her dream of becoming a dancer came to an end due to a spinal injury, and she felt devastated and lost. Fortunately, she found a sense of fulfillment in her high school English classes. Wang’s science and art teachers also supported her writing endeavors.

She began submitting her work to literary magazines, and at 16, became the youngest writer ever shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s essay contest. Writing her English 12 provincial exam was a pivotal experience for Wang too. On the exam, she saw a poem by Evelyn Lau. It was the first time Wang had encountered a poet with a Chinese surname like herself, whose writing on contemporary themes was new and refreshing. After doing some research, Wang discovered that not only had Lau faced similar challenges growing up, but she taught continuing studies poetry classes at SFU. Wang used her lunch money to sign up.

“Those classes just changed my world,” she says. “Evelyn Lau introduced me to a lot of new people, and she taught me how to edit as well as how to write.”

Wang also began reading her work at open mic events and volunteering at literary festivals. She met English professors and authors like David Chariandy, and poets like Fred Wah and Ivan Coyote. She connected with world languages and literatures alumni who now work in the publishing industry. These interactions led her to choose SFU as her post-secondary school and focus her studies on arts-based subjects.

However, her home life grew increasingly hostile. Wang took to the streets in Downtown Vancouver as a homeless youth, and eventually, sought help from her high school. She was acquainted with a social worker and over-night, foster care. Consequently, going into her first-year, Wang didn’t have familial support.

“I didn’t have any money except a $250 cheque from my first publication,” she says. “I worked multiple jobs to pay for tuition. My focus was finding a place to sleep at night, while building a career in the literary community, and putting everything I had into school.”

Wang often slept in various locations on Burnaby campus and took showers at the SFU gym, but still managed to excel in class. She also found a mentor in her very first semester when she took a class with SFU English Professor Stephen Collis.

“He’s so inspiring,” says Wang. “He’s very dedicated to helping young and emerging writers. He’s taught me so much about writing and has always encouraged me to challenge myself.”

Other professors who have been an integral part of Wang’s SFU experience include SFU English’s Diana Solomon, World Languages and Literatures’ Professor Mark Deggan, and her future Master of Arts supervisor, Professor Lindsey A. Freeman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Wang was involved in campus activities like working with SFU Student Central and volunteering at SFU English events. She also presented papers at the World Literature Conference and the inaugural Spoken Web Symposium. Her editorial and writing endeavours continued as well. For example, she worked for Room magazine, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal.

“I worked with Room for five years,” says Wang. “I managed submissions, edited manuscripts, worked with and published many writers. In 2020, I also edited Issue 44.2 of the magazine.”

Wang's poetry excerpt featured on a B.C. bus.

In 2021, Harbour Publishing released her poetry collection, Pebble Swing. Nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, Pebble Swing focused on Wang’s experiences as an immigrant and a queer, young person in the city, her connection to language, and more. A highlight of her SFU experience involved presenting and reading from Pebble Swing to fellow undergraduate English students in their classes.

While promoting her poetry collection, Wang frequently felt tired, not surprising as she moved 22 times in three years. She also continued to work full-time while going to school. Yet, this time, something else was wrong—she had stage 2 renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer).

Fortunately, after having surgery to remove a malignant tumour, she has been cancer-free for more than a year. She is currently working a prose manuscript describing her experience called, Subscript, Annotating Illness.

“All of my writing is in footnotes,” says Wang. “I am footnoting my own medical documents as well as quotes from Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. In quoting my own medical documents, it shows what in the story gets left in the periphery and what gets noted down–how the actual experience of being a patient encapsulates so much more than what’s written on some documents.”

Wang has also started her own non-profit, Revise Revision St., where she offers writing consultations and small group workshops. Through her non-profit, she hopes to support at-risk youths who struggle with financial instability but want a writing career.

Wang says she doesn’t have long-term plans, but she loves teaching and helping her community.

“I just want to use what I have learned to advocate for others and write.”