Hollay Ghadery is a multi-genre writer living in Ontario on Anishinaabe land. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Fuse, her memoir of mixed-race identity and mental health, was released by Guernica Editions in 2021 and won the 2023 Canadian Bookclub Award for Nonfiction/Memoir. Her collection of poetry, Rebellion Box was released by Radiant Press in 2023, and her collection of short fiction, Widow Fantasies, is scheduled for release with Gordon Hill Press in fall 2024. Her debut novel, The Unraveling of Ou, is due out with Palimpsest Press in 2026, and her children’s book, Being with the Birds, with Guernica Editions in 2027. Hollay is a co-host of Angela’s Bookclub on 105.5 FM, as well as HOWL on CIUT 89.5 FM. She is also the Poet Laureate of Scugog Township. 

George Lee was born and raised in China. He earned an M.A. in English literature from University of Calgary, and a Juris Doctor degree from University of Victoria. Dancing in the River, won the 2021 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction. As mentioned, he practices law in Vancouver, Canada.


George Lee is the award-winning author living in Vancouver, BC. His book, Dancing in the River, won the Guernica Prize, and tells the coming-of-age story of a young boy during Mao’s Cultural Revolution—a boy living in a small, riverside town who is heavily indoctrinated by the anti-Western sentiment of the time and place. While the book is labelled as a novel, it draws heavily on Lee’s own life experiences growing up in China, so much so that it might more precisely be identified as an auto fiction, combining autobiography with fictional elements. 

George’s melding of genres is fascinating, especially as I realized—after asking him about writing this book—that he is largely unconcerned with labelling the story as fiction or nonfiction. What seemed most important was the story and what it has to show readers about the culture, politics, and personal experiences that are crucial to a national and global understanding of more polylithic collective sense Chinese history. 

HG: Your book is classified as a novel, but as I understand, it is heavily influenced by and based on your life growing up. Are there any parts of your book that you could point to as more autobiographical than not?

GL: Dancing in the River is  a work of autofiction that combines autobiographical elements with fictional storytelling to create a unique narrative. Although classified as a novel, the book draws heavily from my own life, resulting in a deeply personal yet universally resonant story.

The historical backdrop of Dancing in the River aligns closely with my own experiences, particularly during China’s Cultural Revolution. Many characters are based on real people from that tumultuous period. The protagonist, Little Bright, mirrors my childhood experiences, including the political turmoil, family upheaval, educational shifts, and passion for English literature. The depiction of Little Bright’s family closely reflects my own, underscoring the autobiographical elements of the book.

Another example:

In Chapter 6, an elderly man interrupts a performance of “The White-Haired Girl,” rushing the stage with a red brick and attacking an actor. The performer then lies in a pool of bubbling red blood, awaiting death. This intense scene dramatizes a real incident, capturing the volatility and violence of the Cultural Revolution, while highlighting the myth and mix of fact and fiction in Chinese culture.

The highly personal foundation seeks to enhance the novel’s authenticity.  By incorporating real people and historical events, I aimed to vividly portray the era while blending in fictional elements to explore broader themes. This approach allowed me to delve into complex ideas such as fate, faith, and the power of imagination, in hopes to craft a narrative that resonates both personally and universally.

HG: What’s your advice for someone else looking to write an autofiction?

GL: Creating compelling autofiction involves blending reality and imagination to craft a narrative that resonates with readers. The genre encourages writers to draw on personal experiences and explore universal themes, making stories relatable even for those who may not share the specific events depicted.

Autofiction typically involves self-reflection and vulnerability, which can lead to powerful storytelling when embraced. However, it’s important to consider how much of oneself to reveal, given the personal nature of the genre. Altering names, places, or details can provide a layer of privacy while still allowing for genuine expression.

For instance, a former classmate of mine, now living in the U.S., was upset when he thought he was depicted as a fictional character in my manuscript and demanded “his” removal. This experience highlighted the delicate interplay between fact and fiction.

Balancing truth with creativity is key to achieving literary effects and exploring universal themes. Whether characters are based on real people or purely fictional, developing them thoughtfully adds complexity and depth to the narrative.

More importantly, writing autofiction can also be cathartic, providing an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth. For me, writing Dancing in the River was a healing process and a journey toward reconciling with my past.

HG: Given how rooted your story is in history, I’m curious to the extent of your research for the book. Because so much of the book comes from your experience of history which isn’t always the same as the collective experience of events. 

GL: My approach to researching the book was somewhat unconventional. Instead of conducting extensive external research, I primarily relied on my memories and reconstructed my experiences. This enabled me to recreate the historical setting from an insider’s perspective while incorporating an outsider’s viewpoint through reflection and reframing.

While my personal experience of historical events might differ from the collective memory, this dual perspective adds depth to the narrative. By viewing the events both as someone who lived through them and as someone who later reflected on them, I aimed to offer a nuanced portrayal that bridges personal and collective experiences. This approach, I hope, helped me craft a vivid and relatable story.

HG:Yes, I think it did, the story was deeply personal and felt far more authentically relatable than any strictly historical account of the same events could be, but still felt grounded in time and temporal fact.

A final question: Did your training as an attorney shape in any way what you included or how you told the story?

GL: Yes, my legal training did influence the storytelling in Dancing in the River.

Like many writers, I grappled with balancing poetic license and logical reasoning. My legal training helped me strike a balance between these elements. This training gave me a strong sense of plot development, which is crucial for crafting a coherent narrative. It also helped me maintain authenticity while using artistic license in the storytelling.