So much to read, so little time! University Librarian Talia Chung shares her literary inspirations to mark Asian Heritage Month

Posted on Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Portrait of University Librarian Talia Chung in a garden

Celebrated since May 2002, Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity to honour, among other things, the wonderful contributions of Canadians of Asian descent.

This year’s theme, Recognition, Resilience, and Resolve, is a fitting one: the dramatic rise in anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic has caused a myriad of emotions but has also empowered those in the community and their allies to speak out against racism and discrimination.

The University of Ottawa Library is marking the month by featuring some of their staff members who are proud to share parts of their Asian heritage. One such member is Talia Chung, University librarian and vice-provost (knowledge systems).

Talia was appointed to the position in October 2018. Prior to that, she served as Associate University Librarian (AUL) for Research Services, she was director of the Health Sciences Library and head of the Geographic, Statistical and Government Information Centre at Morisset Library.

In this interview, Talia discusses her family’s immigration to Canada, the people who most inspire her and her evolving role at the Library. 

This year, how will you be marking Asian Heritage Month?

TC: Like everyone else these days — in a COVID-19 safe way! More seriously, my Asian heritage is never really very far from my day-to-day.

If anyone is looking for suggestions as to how to mark the month, I’d be delighted to share some suggestions. Because I am a librarian, my reflex is to recommend books!

In the last year, I very much enjoyed Ann Hui’s cultural travelogue of Canada entitled, Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants, as well as Mark Sakamoto’s family memoir, Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents.

It would be wrong of me not to mention uOttawa alum Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures — a wonderful read and winner of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Dr. Lam has also been providing insightful commentary over the last year on the pandemic situation from a physician’s perspective.

So much to read, so little time!

Tell us something about yourself that others may not know.

TC: Many are surprised when they learn that I was born in Brazil to parents who were originally from southern China.

Our family’s immigration story began in southern China, then to Hong Kong, followed by some years in Brazil (where I was born), and finally ended on a November evening when we landed on the tarmac in snowy Montreal. Arriving amidst the frigid conditions in Canada was quite a shock to a family more accustomed to warm weather!  

Growing up in Montreal, I was so fortunate to have been exposed to a rich linguistic and cultural world. Home was in Mile-End, friends were found in Chinatown and in Rosemont, culture was spread across the city.

I was surrounded by francophone neighbours and friends, I studied and watched TV in English, and homelife mostly took place in Chinese. I sometimes question whether I have a mastery over any of these languages, but I certainly feel lucky that I’m able to enter these worlds by virtue of some language skills.

Portrait of University Librarian Talia Chung

Tell us about someone who inspired you and why.

TC: Wow — where do I start? This is a tough question as I’m someone who easily finds something inspiring or interesting in just about everyone that I meet. Whether it’s a particular talent, or demonstration of courage, or cleverness in the way someone expresses themselves, most days I feel surrounded by inspiring individuals, most notably my library team. 

I’ve recently read a couple of books about trailblazing Canadian women who broke through barriers to serve on Canada’s highest court. The first book is Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada written by uOttawa Law professor Constance Backhouse.

Professor Backhouse documents the challenges, and discrimination that Claire L’heureux-Dubé and Bertha Wilson experienced as they progressed through their legal careers, eventually to be the first women appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

I also adored former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverly McLachlin’s biography Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law in which she talks about the importance, during her youth, of the Pincher Creek Municipal Library in her intellectual life.

These stories are so important as they remind us all how hard-fought, and recently won, are the advancements of women’s rights in Canada but that there is still, “du chemin à faire”. Inspiring women with whom I’d love to sit down for a long chat (and a good meal)! 

What do you like the most about your career?

TC: When I started out, I imagined this career would lead me to mostly solitary work. I imagined spending hours cataloguing or indexing, or coding in the emerging area of library systems. As it turned out, I tired of solitude quickly.

I learned that I craved collaborative work with lots of different people, preferably working with a wide variety of information and with a smattering of technology to keep the work fresh and challenging. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have explored many, many facets of library work. 

It has also been fascinating to watch the changing roles of librarians and the value proposition of libraries within their user communities and within their parent institutions. The mission of libraries is persistent so long as people continue to ask questions and seek answers.

What's the most generous act you’ve seen recently?

TC: Maybe it’s the moment in which we’re currently all living, but I am hugely thankful to the frontline healthcare workers doing their best and risking their lives to respond to needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In smaller ways, I have seen strangers extend kind words and gestures to each other. Because of the pandemic, my neighbourhood suddenly feels even more closely knitted.

A very memorable moment was when the neighbour of a neighbour, who happens to be a cellist with the NAC, offered our block an impromptu sidewalk performance. It was soul-nourishing!

We invite you to meet the other members of the Library. You can read their interviews here.

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