I Want Your Job: Sook-Yin Lee, Renaissance Woman



I Want Your Job: Sook-Yin Lee, Renaissance Woman

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Sook-Yin Lee
Jobs: Filmmaker, Actor, Musician, CBC Radio Host
Deep inside the CBC headquarters at Front and John, in the arts section of the Radio One workspace, Sook-Yin Lee’s office looks like it was just vacated by a rabid raccoon. The floor is littered with papers and books, a yoga ball and two pillows are wedged against her desk, and a pile of collapsed cardboard boxes—once containing stacks of the postcards she’s been handing out to strangers all over the city promoting Year of the Carnivore, her first feature film—covers the remaining patch of carpet. Clearly, Lee is not into Feng Shui.

She is, however, into talking. She’s spent her entire career communicating in one way or another: as punk singer for the ‘90s band Bob’s Your Uncle, host of MuchMusic’s The Wedge (back in the day when TV ruled pop culture and Much ruled our youth), actress willing to fight for her right to take off her kit, and filmmaker, telling stories about awkward people having awkward sex and finding their way (awkwardly) to love. Oh, and don’t forget her day job as host of CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, a gig that has provided her with a steady paycheque and a weekly outlet to explore the idiosyncrasies of human feelings and contemporary culture since 2002.
Sitting down in a vacated cubicle outside of her office as the never-ending downpour of June 2010 rages outside, Lee talks to us about her influences, what drives her, and how she is able to manipulate the time-space continuum to get so much damn work done all the time.
Torontoist: Okay, so we know that part time is the new full time, and nobody has a career for life anymore, but you’ve had, like, six different careers in the last twenty years—all at the same time. How do you do it?
Sook-Yin Lee: Well, I tend to be a hyper focuser. I do all of these things, but I’m also extremely mono. When I eat my meals, it’s like all the rice is gone, then the beans, and sometimes there’s no logic to it because I’ll eat the best thing first. When I’m making art, obsessive compulsive tendencies manifest themselves in the creation and construction until the job is done.
Do you see each of the mediums you’ve worked in as separate pursuits, or is there something, to you, that unifies them?
I figure I’m a storyteller and a communicator, and all of those different mediums allow me to go different places. But underlying each of them is a desire to communicate, and a love of storytelling. I was always kind of paralyzed when people said, “What do you want to do with your life?” Like in school, when they’d make you answer that quiz and [a computer] would spit out your career. And also, part of it is just about a real refusal to fit into a neat and tidy box of identity, whether it’s what I do, how I’m perceived, my gender, my race, my feminism.
You’ve been hosting and producing Definitely Not the Opera for eight years now, but you’ve worked on other artistic projects throughout your tenure there. How does the CBC gig fit into in the larger context of your career?
Well, it’s where I get paid, and that sustains all of the other art and expressions. But it also exercises my storytelling brain. The whole show is just about personal storytelling. Every Monday morning, I park myself somewhere in the city to talk to strangers and get them to share their stories with me. And it’s always amazing, the things that people share, and their lives. I’m pretty lucky, having worked at MuchMusic and CBC, that both places have encouraged me to explore my idiosyncratic world view.
What’s made you so compelled to tell stories?
I come from a storytelling family. My dad grew up in the war, he was an orphan who lived through really tumultuous times during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. But he has these really wonderful, inspiring, hilarious, scary stories that he always told me. And I found them deeply moving and interesting. And I think, for me, I understand more about my world, who I am, through telling stories. It’s almost like a strange, quasi-spiritual practice.
Why was Year of the Carnivore an important story for you to tell?
When I was doing Shortbus, part of the audition was that everybody had to come up with a story that they wanted to tell, and my story was the story of being a really awkward nerd girl who was totally out of touch with my body. And it captured John [Cameron Mitchell]’s imagination, and he hired me, even though he didn’t want to tell that story. I knew, though, that for me that story resounded. And it’s a story that isn’t normally told. In most movie depictions of love and romance, it’s much slicker, much less oily, pimply, and awkward.
How autobiographical is it? Did you confess your love for a boy while puking in the toilet, like your lead character does?
It’s not autobiographical at all. I actually puked on the boy after confessing my love.
Where does your ambition come from?
Well, I’m from a very strict Chinese family, and there was this assumption that I would do really well, because things came naturally to me, and I got more love if I excelled. But my family was also really turbulent, and my mom was suffering from a variety of mental distresses. She was a pretty brutal, pretty violent, pretty confused woman. So, when I was fifteen and my parents were divorcing, I fled the home, where I had turned from a confident, outgoing kid to a total introvert. It was only through a discovery of art and another world view through music and literature, and finding a group of really wonderful, freaky artists in Vancouver, who took me under their wing and taught me tons, that I was able to develop a voice for myself. And, so, that was how I was reared. And as communicative as I seem to be, there’s also a really stifled person there, too, so I’m just compelled to be understood and to understand what happened, and what’s happening.
Year of the Carnivore starts playing this Friday, June 18. Also on Friday: Year of the Carnivore: A Night of Who Knows What?, featuring performances by Lee, Buck 65, Adam Litovitz, and others; 9 p.m. at Double Double Land, 209 Augusta Avenue.
Photos by Susan Kordalewski.