Extra-ordinary lives do not come by every day. When Jorah got in touch at the beginning of the year, his was “just another query”. However, here at Not for Vanity we have the very bad habit to always look beneath the surface. Fascinated by what we discovered, this feature was born.
In this two-part interview, Canadian author Jorah Kai talks about his life and his work as a writer. As the story unfolds, he tells us how ‘the gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson of the ’90s dance music scene took a job at Chinese Harvard and traded a couple hours a day lecturing to international students for the time and space to sit and think, work on my hobbies, decompress from the stress of decades of touring, and eventually get to work writing the books I wanted to write’. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did.
Hi Jorah, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Having looked at your bio on your website, it seems to me you’ve already lived a thousand lives… Can you introduce yourself to our audience? Who is Jorah Kai?
Hi Alex, nice to meet you. First off, thanks so much for asking me to do this interview. Writing is often a lonely grind, and the gratification of sharing your work is delayed immeasurably compared to music or visual arts. Whenever someone wants to know about a writer’s work, an angel gets their wings. Please call me Kai if you like; most of my friends do, and I must say, you’ve asked me a question that’s got me utterly stumped, which has only happened a couple of times in my life. I must have stared at this question for a week before I blinked, but I will do my best to answer so profound a question as who I am; please forgive me if I do it poorly.
As the caterpillar said to Alice, “Who are you?” I’ve spent my life trying to figure that question out. As a young lad, I wanted to be a writer, and somebody told me to write what I knew. Knowing I knew very little, I set out to experience everything I could … 1000 lifetimes indeed. I’ve had every odd job under the sun. I became something of a social chameleon. As a child, I spent a year at a tough urban primary school, telling jokes to older boys and girls who had me in the hospital several times with pencils and other sharp objects shoved in places where you shouldn’t put pencils. I was funny, I swear. The next September, my mom’s friend encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. I entered a prestigious Hebrew private school (I wasn’t Jewish, which makes it all the more absurd) across the street called Hillel academy. I remember they gave me a new name in the cloakroom before they pushed me out on stage into the grade 1 class: Noah Ross, named after the man who built a boat to save humanity. No pressure.
I think I’ve spent a lifetime trying to live up to that name, which had nothing to do with me (years later, when I was hosting events and building warm artistic communities and arks in cold concrete jungles, the theme haunted me). Then they introduced me, and I tried to learn a whole new alphabet. I think I had a mental breakdown about three months in, a total identity crisis, and returned to the tough urban school for the rest of the year. I remember the highlight of Hebrew private school was the tuna fish sandwiches, and they would cut the crusts off, which should surprise no one with even a rudimentary knowledge of their practices. No, I was not Jewish, but it was a primer in playacting. I returned to the tough school and told a joke in class that got a pencil so far up my nose I think my brain was bleeding. A supply teacher told my parents that I would probably thrive better if I could get transferred to the school up the hill, and surprisingly, that worked out. My new best friends were the son of a government minister and the stepson of the president of South Africa – and this was a year before he stepped down to support Nelson Mandela. On a trip to old Quebec City, I gave that boy a bag of gummy bears that impressed him so much that through the butterfly effect, I wonder how much weight those candies had on the history of that country and the legacy of apartheid. Regardless, I had seen three very different worlds and imagined different futures, all before I was six years old.
As a teenager, I got into role-playing games with much older kids and then into electronic music – back then, it was called the ‘rave’ scene. That community was really wild for its beauty and tragedy, and diversity. I met orks, goblins, fairies, movie stars, poets, and gangsters. Tom Greene tried to steal my girlfriend once, and the entire dancefloor of a club I was DJing at, live on MTV and then Drew Barrymore danced with me under the pale moonlight, and Harrison Ford gave my date his best rascally grin, but we laughed and ran away and danced in the dark until dawn. For a Canadian boy from a small town, it was a lot to take, but it was just life. It happened.
Who am I? In the end, I’m anyone, I’m everyone, I’m no one. I would like to say I’m noble because I’m made of stars, and I’m humble because I’m made of earth. I guess I’m just a guy with many stories, from many different places, over the years.
Was that a dodge? I didn’t mean it to be. I’ll try to be more specific. I’ve been a gamer nerd, a goth teenager, and a hip-hop DJ in a rising group, making records and breaking bridges as we went. In an incarnation that lasted for decades, I was a touring music producer and DJ for a bass music group that headlined major festivals and played multiple Olympics for leaders of the world and millions on TV. I DJ’d for the Queen of England, at least legally, and fire breathed for 10,000 people with eyes like saucers and shut down Toronto’s Dundas Square with a pirate renegade float during the art night Nuit Blanche dressed as pirates with my childhood friend (bass music superstar) ill.Gates, and then we did it like ten more years in a row – with the help of friends that do events like ‘world’s largest light sword battle’ and got sued by Disney and ‘world’s largest pillow fight’ – at a time when it felt safe for Alec Baldwin to rage tweet at you that you were ruining New York. Oh, we were summer children. I ran a studio with ill.Gates, and he’d go hang with Bill Gates at Sundance and come back, and we’d have ringtones to make to sell to the big guy, and when he passed on some of the pretty ones, we wrote fart tones and silence for big bucks. One night Gates and I were hanging out with Bassnectar (when that was still cool) and Skrillex at Shambhala, and this guy in a Squirrlex costume stalked us – he claimed to be after Sonny’s nuts. One day I visited a friend to play chess and drink tea, and a dozen gang bangers showed up to rob him. Wrong place, right time, but I got the leader in a small room (there was a debate as to who was trapped in there with whom), found two claw hammers in a drawer, and used a combination of intense eye contact, logic, and philosophy to make a compelling case for them to leave right away and never come back. Or the time I accidentally dated a gangster who got kidnapped by movie stars and escaped from an evil billionaire on an island fortress surrounded by sharks. Because that’s a real risk if you stay out too late.
I shake my head, thinking about these things. None of them sound real, but they happened, and a lot more, and that was really interesting, at least until it wasn’t. Life was sensorily thrilling for the most part. So much so that I suffered bouts of depression when I wasn’t on stage rocking a million-dollar sound system because if that was normal, then anything else was dreadfully boring. Luckily, I found mindfulness, stoic philosophy, and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy- not the one you get from the dominatrix). The journey led me to some near-death experiences in some extremely inhospitable surroundings. One day I was a 15-year-old kid in grade 9 math, and then I went dancing and never came home. Suddenly I was a plucky teen DJ that had to face down thugs and gangsters in Brooklyn, NYC, to get my gas money home to Canada. I was a freelance event runner that had to face off with biker gangs and organized crime that tried to profit off my hobby of making dance spaces magical. All before I was 18 years old. In the heart of the black rock desert, I embraced a dream to become a detective, focusing on existential mysteries. I tried being a clown, doing stand-up comedy, and hosting burlesque and Weimar-era-themed cabaret events. It was a lot, and I met many interesting people from all walks of life and listened to their stories.
When I felt I’d discovered all I could in the Western world, I went East and started over with a new life in the secret cyberpunk megacity of Asia- Chongqing, China. And I’ve found new things to learn, experience and write about. Oscar Wilde said, ‘there is no such thing as good and evil people, just charming and tedious ones.’ My life in China has been full of surprises that I could never have imagined, and it continues to astound me utterly on a regular basis. I live in a near-constant state of agitated confusion. Creatively, it’s very helpful. For the past decade, I’ve been a professor in residence, newspaperman, editor, and professional writer. I became a ‘COVID guru’ and got to hang out with Jeanne-Claude Van Damme as we tried to rebuild society together, and came very close to recording an anthem for staying home with Justin Bieber, but in the end, it didn’t click. My life is extremely bizarre and has become increasingly absurd, but I have succeeded in knowing a few things, and most of it has not been boring.
You are originally from Canada, but you’ve now been living in China for years. Tell us a bit more about your life as an ex-pat and moving to a new country: was it a total cultural shock or love at first sight?
I think it was both. Let me set a scene: I left Toronto in 2014. Within 24 hours, I graduated from a teaching program, said goodbye to my family, and moved a van of some belongings out of my apartment (and into storage with my family), hosted a huge circus and burlesque event that 1000 artists, friends and creatives showed up at and we danced until dawn. I came home and realized that I’d left my fancy designer bathrobe and pair of handmade boots – gifts from a good friend – on the back of my door, shoved them into my suitcase, left the key under the mat and became, legally homeless, and hopped in a cab to catch a flight to Beijing. My suitcase was overweight, so I had to wear a handmade pair of gold lame boots and a fluffy blue bathrobe, wearing Elvis glasses while I drank mimosas all the way to Beijing (I was that guy). We landed 12 hours later, and I washed my face, and was driven to a welcome feast where my host tried to drink me under the table in traditional Chinese greeting culture. When that finished, our team, a group of Canadian teachers, was shuttled to a KTV hall to experience Beijing by night until about 5 am, where we were dropped back at our hotels and told to get a good hour or two of sleep before we spent the day walking the Great Wall of China. I ended up wearing some sort of Song Dynasty armor cosplay and made a lot of friends that day. That was just the speed of China, it took the chaos of my life in Toronto and just amplified it, and it was a mile a minute. Every meal was a ludicrous feast, and every day was a tour of an ancient wonder, and I was gobsmacked and in love with it but utterly confused and didn’t understand a thing.
Nearly a decade later, I’d say I managed to get a better sleep schedule figured out, mainly thanks to my wife, whom I met in Chongqing. Xiaolin is my rock and my compass, and my love. But we are absolutely different in many incredible ways. My friends were shocked to hear I finally got married. They never thought I’d find ‘the one.’ I dated poets and artists, designers and models, CEOs and actresses, teachers and gangsters, wrestlers, suicide girls, dancers, and dominatrixes, but when I moved to China, I knew she was the one. Xiaolin – or my Shaolin – has the comedic genius of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), the profound wisdom of Yoda, and the sex appeal of a mid-90’s Tia Carerre to my Mike Myers’ Wayne’s world. Can you say Shwiiing?
I’ve learned so much about myself and the world in a decade overseas, but I am still generally confused about nearly everything. I’ve learned to let go. Let go of the need to control my life, let go of fear and anxiety, and just be happy with the day I have and try to make it a good one. I’ve finally built a quieter life here in China, amongst the chaos, and it’s let me publish seven books since 2020, and I have a few more drafts that I’d like to see published in the next year or two as well if life is kind and I am lucky.
Sometimes I wonder about my decision to leave Canada, even the western world, and end up literally about as far as a human can go without coming back to the other side or leaving the planet, on a mountain in southwest China, in the world’s biggest municipality of 35 million, in a secret cyberpunk supercity, rainy, foggy, or, usually swelteringly hot.
Then I read pieces about the struggles of paying the bills in the west and remember why the opportunity had seemed so exciting. In a world of gig economies, it was a full-time job with benefits and time off to write. A chance at a fresh start to live my dream of writing piles of books without distractions. It was a free house, on campus, at a time when housing was getting harder to obtain. A decade later, it looks like none of those problems back home have improved, but my life in China has grown immeasurably. An artist who struggled to pay rent has become a landlord (I rent a place to a single tenant, but that counts, doesn’t it?). We’ve got a new writing retreat by the ocean paid off with lots of hard work and savings (a formerly very foreign concept to me), I’m excited to spend time writing new books while my wife paints by the sea. It sounds like the dream I had at 12, writing with my toes in the sand, laptop chugging away, books happening.
Sometimes, if you listen, your brain will propose radical solutions to what feels like insurmountable problems. How far will you go?
Not for Vanity focuses primarily on English and American audiences, so we are curious… What’s the public’s approach to books and reading in China? Any interesting facts you could share?
The Chinese love to read, but the market for English books is quite small by comparison with Chinese novels. My Chinese is not great, but my works have been translated, which has been really interesting. I mean I live in a city that is the population of Canada. Making it big in a country of 1.4 billion people is a whole other level of success, and so far it’s going pretty well. It’s been incredibly supportive to work here. I sort of lucked into one good situation after another. My latest novel, Amos the Amazing, is a fantasy book through and through but also a solarpunk fantasy novel, and it’s due to come out this year with a huge Chinese publisher that did incredible things with Cixin Liu’s ‘Three-Body Problem,’ so, fingers crossed, it could become quite successful here. Local media heard about it and I just wrapped filming of a pilot TV show where I explore solarpunk stuff around China and check out ancient culture and I have no idea what’s going to happen with that but it will surely help promote the book. I plan to write more in this world and would love to see it adapted to film. I think there’s a great market in China for local content. They love western books and movies too, so sort of doing a hybrid, a ‘Chinese Harry Potter meets Alice in Wonderland’ kind of thing that shows off and explores China, and combines Western and Eastern myths and legends, magic and fantasy, science fiction and the dreams of a solarpunk green energy revolution, well, it’s all quite exciting. It takes the edge of my existential ennui. It’s always good to have hope.
In May 2020 you published your first book ‘Kai’s Diary: A Canadian’s COVID-19 Days in Chongqing’. What made you decide to put pen to paper and tell your story? How did it feel to be the unwilling pioneer of a new “Covid Life” nobody knew how to handle back then?
It was terrifying. As a poet, I took the pandemic extremely seriously, almost comically so. I washed my hands and masked like it was performance art, like the way Jim Carrey did Andy Kaufman. And it was mostly scary that after spending 30 years studying creative writing and taking classes and drafting outlines, I might die with a few binders of unpublished books and never know if I had the stuff to really make a mark as a storyteller. That was my ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro (Hemingway)’ moment, where he lies around dreaming of all the travels he never wrote, of all the novels he had in his belly that he was saving for later but would never live to write. It put a fire under my butt, and I got to writing whatever stories I could… first, a diary about the very scary and new situation I encountered, plus vignettes and dreams and a bit of what felt like ‘time traveling.’
There was a lot of scientific speculation and then as my ‘diary’ unfolded over the 3 years, became much more philosophical. I published the first 60 days with a huge Chinese traditional publisher, in English and Chinese, and it became a nonfiction bestseller here, won some awards and was voted a ‘top novel in China for 2020’ by some publishing agencies. I was astounded. Here, I had heard there wasn’t ‘free speech’ in China. Still, here I was, publishing an internationally syndicated column in Canadian and Chinese news, sharing my gripes and griefs and shower thoughts, data, fears and projections. I was winning awards from Journalist Associations and accolades from the local government and the foreign affairs office for my ‘good work during a crisis.’ It was quite encouraging, and I got to writing my fantasy novel and decided to keep the fire burning, to see how many books I could get done in this short lifelike dream that has been gifted to me, one day at a time.
‘Kai’s Diary’ was hugely successful and published both in English and Chinese: what happened next?
As the pandemic spread, I curated blogs from friends around the world to continue this journey as a book, Year of the Rat. Rats are funny, in Asia they’re seen as clever and smart, in the west they’re dirty and plague carriers. This curious Yin and Yang really interested me, as so many things do when you have one foot on each side of the world and exist in a totally alien culture that becomes more ‘normal’ to you than the country you came from. The year 2020 hit very differently worldwide, and it was very interesting to document all the different responses, thoughts, fears and ideas, for posterity. That book is about 800 pages, quite a tome. While my friends and family were in their own lockdowns in Canada and the US, Europe and Africa, I became a published author, was doing regular media appearances, and even met my childhood hero, martial arts movie star Jeanne-Claude Van Damme at a COVID recovery event – and included some of his thoughts in Year of the Rat. It was all very surreal. By 2021-2022, as the Chinese COVID-0 plan meant months of ongoing lockdowns whenever cases became outbreaks in my city, I kept writing (essays, a media column, my fantasy novel, other drafts, and these philosophical books), and the third book in that trilogy, what I call the Invisible War trilogy, Aye of the Tiger, is almost absurd, a little Albert Camus, in my own way, but it was all me walking myself through a tough conversation. I read this great James Baldwin quote about what a shame it is that most of humanity does all it can to ignore the only simple truth of life: that we will all die. So I asked, what does it mean to realize we might soon die? Does it hit differently when your dreams are not yet realized versus when your bucket list is complete? Over the course of the three years, I went from being unpublished to having seven books out, in multiple languages, a couple of which became best sellers in their own niche genres. I had won awards, was a regular on TV and guest at some pretty heavy conventions hanging out with former presidents and movie stars. These diaries – well I don’t expect them, as a new trilogy to become a best seller for a decade, unless Amos becomes the new Game of Thrones and even then. The others I just put out I think for posterity. I don’t imagine many people want to read about COVID yet. Still, in 5 or 10 years, it might be a welcome look back at a special, very strange time in our lives. For me, it was a transformative period, where I looked death in the face and realized, if I’m going to die soon, I’m going to do my best to realize my dreams, to write, to travel again, to help others, to make amends and conquer fears and make peace with myself and my family. I haven’t been back to Canada in five years, and I’m not sure when I will see them again, but my dad has every one of my books on his shelf, and it means something to me that I can leave behind that legacy, no matter what the future holds. In the end, every one of us dies, but as Shakespeare cleverly wrote in Sonnet 18, his most famous love poem: ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ Writing is a kind of magic, like a twinning of souls. The fact that we can pick up books and sit with dead writers of many ages, and feel their ideas come to life again in our minds truly is magic. And if I work hard enough, I’ll write something that will sit next to their books on the shelf of a boy or girl that I can hopefully inspire, just as their books inspired me.
Join us on Friday for Part Two!
In the meantime, have a look at Jorah Kai’s website: https://jorahkai.com
All his books to date are available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3ZWNx2C