Being Anna Quon:
The novelist and poet discusses a new novel set in Slovakia, and completing a trilogy she hadn’t known she’d started
Where the Silver River Ends
Thirty years ago, shortly after graduating from Dalhousie University, Halifax-based author Anna Quon spent eight months working as an English conversation teacher in Nitra, a small town in Slovakia two hours away from the capital city, Bratislava. Quon revisits this country, and specifically Bratislava, in her new novel, Where the Silver River Ends, a story about prejudice, discrimination, hope and connection.
“It was a beautiful time of my life that ended with a great crash into depression,” Quon says of her months in Slovakia. “My couple brief visits to Bratislava were coloured by my mood, but I set my new novel there because I knew the feel of the city and have some images of it in my mind. I also wanted to honour my time in Slovakia by revisiting it in my imagination.”
In this setting, Quon unites the protagonists of her first two novels, Migration Songs and Low. Thirty-five-year-old Joan, who we met as a cough drop-addicted unemployed 30-year old in Migration Songs, seems to have found a path for herself, though is still hardly settled. At the beginning of Where the Silver River Ends, she moves to Bratislava to continue her work as an English conversation teacher after a two-year stint in Budapest. Shortly after her arrival in the Slovakian capital, Joan receives a call from her mother, who informs her that Adriana, the daughter of Joan’s mother’s new boyfriend, is coming to Slovakia to explore her own mother’s roots.
“When I wrote my first two novels, I had no inkling of a trilogy,” Quon tells me, “but I thought I might return to Joan, because she was ready to embark on a new adventure at the end of Migration Songs.” The pairing of the two characters works as more than a simple plot device, as Joan and Adriana have a fair bit in common, besides their parents. Notably, they are both outsiders in more than one way, and, at the beginning of Where the Silver River Ends, are still working on finding direction for their lives.
“I left Joan on her way to Hungary at the end of Migration Songs, and Adriana in a liminal space in her life, after leaving the psychiatric hospital, at the end of my second novel, Low. I wasn’t really finished with the character of Joan, and I also wanted Adriana to find her way forward after the trauma of being hospitalized. Also, though the two stories were unrelated, it only made sense that Adriana and Joan would have crossed paths in a small place like Dartmouth, where they were one of a literal handful of half-Chinese kids.”
Quon herself is of mixed Chinese and English ancestry. She’s lived most of her life in Nova Scotia, where she grew up “playing in scrub and woods” and “swimming and canoeing in Lake Charles in Dartmouth.” Like her characters, she hasn’t always seen herself reflected in her community.
“Both my parents were immigrants,” she says, “and we were an unusual mixed-race family at the time I was growing up. I came to feel quite different and apart from the people who surrounded me.”
This difference is something Quon embraces to an extent. “I would say that this region has shaped my identity by letting me be an outsider, not demanding that I enter into it in ways that I don’t care to but not pushing me away either.”
Though she confesses to feeling like somewhat of an outsider within the artistic community as well, Quon is active with both the Healthy Minds Cooperative, with which she facilitates a writers’ group over Zoom, and the Bus Stop Theatre Writers’ Circle. Her work as a fiction writer also began close to home, when she workshopped Migration Songs in a Marathon Fiction course taught by Sue Goyette at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. In that course, Quon met fellow Nova Scotian novelist Stephanie Domet, who connected her to Invisible, the publisher of all three of Quon’s novels.
Domet has served as editor on two of Quon’s books, including Where the Silver River Ends. “What I love most about her is that she is so generous,” says Quon. “She’s honest in her critiques, but kind, and she knows what it’s like to write a novel, all the uncertainty and insecurity and self-doubt and self-recrimination.”
Quon tends to be somewhat self-effacing when talking about her own work, though she writes prose with an uncanny knack for metaphor. I wasn’t surprised to encounter so much striking language in Quon’s novels—Quon is also a poet, with a chapbook recently published by Kentville’s Gaspereau Press (Body Parts, 2021). Like her poetry, her prose is both vivid and dreamy, intensely visual.
Where the Silver River Ends also benefitted from years of hard work. Quon tells me she started the book around 2015, while living in Dartmouth. In 2016, she received a grant from Arts Nova Scotia and was able to dedicate more time to the project, spending three months in a basement apartment in Toronto.
“My space was a bit cold and sterile,” she says, “and I was alone (though I had my aunt and grandmother close by), so I found it difficult to be inspired there.” Still, Quon found a way to make the best of her time in Ontario, conducting research about Eastern European Roma and interviewing Paul St. Clair, a settlement worker for Slovak Roma newcomers.
Quon returned home and continued her work on the novel over the next few years. After taking time off due to chronic pain, she worked to deepen her understanding of the different experiences she had woven into her book. A central character in Where the Silver Ends, Milan, is a young Roma man who befriends Joan early in the novel, later falling in love with Adriana after her arrival in Bratislava.
Quon used another Arts Nova Scotia grant awarded in 2020 to hire sensitivity readers for Milan and other Roma characters, as well as for Miša, a character who uses a wheelchair. “That was extremely helpful in bringing more accuracy and realism to the [novel].”
When I ask her about the changes in the literary scene since the beginning of her career (her first book was published in 2009), Quon’s response is mixed. Before publishing Migration Songs, she worked as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines.
“I made a small living at it,” she tells me. “Now there are fewer print media opportunities in that line of work.”
Other changes have been more positive. For one, there are “more BIPOC writers stirring the reading public’s interest. It seems to me there is more room for younger writers of different backgrounds to thrive and be recognized.”
Quon lists El Jones, David Huebert and Damini Awoyiga among the local writers she admires. She also finds the Nova Scotian writing community to be quite welcoming. Nevertheless, she has some concrete ideas about what could be improved, notably with respect to arts grants and book awards.
“I don’t feel comfortable any more with ranking one book over another for a number of reasons, or deciding which young BIPOC or disabled artist may be awarded a grant while another is refused,” she says. “I would be happy if Halifax and Nova Scotia led the way in rethinking these systems.”