Toronto Tuesdays: Devin Fan

Photo credit Shannon Doern

Today I’m honoured to interview my friend Devin Fan. You might know him as another one-third of The Fan Brothers, a dynamic children’s book author/illustrator team (see Eric Fan’s interview here) I’ve gotten to know Devin as a loving husband, wonderful father, devoted brother, and supportive friend. Plus, he’s got a fantastic sense of humour and his art is absolutely enchanting. (Oh! And he’s a fellow glitter lover, too! 🤩) Besides being a remarkable artist and poet, Devin also does good work in our city as a Youth Worker. It’s my pleasure to host Devin on the blog today.

Welcome, Devin!

First off thank you Claudia for inviting me to be part of your Blog – Toronto Tuesdays. I’m so excited that you’ve started it up again and I can’t wait to hear more from different creative types around the city. You have a talent for bringing people together. I’m a huge fan of your own beautiful and magical creations, which is what brought us together in the first place. Anyway, here goes!:

What’s your favourite creative medium? What draws you to expressing yourself this way?

What a tricky question. Poetry is maybe my favourite medium, I think it resonates with me the most. I don’t think there’s any way you can connect your thoughts more closely with someone than through poetry. Poetry is a distillation of words. If prose is wine then poetry is something super intense and concentrated like Absinthe. I remember a moment of absolute revelation when I was much younger and read a poem by Li Bai – Thoughts on a Still Night – that was literally thousands of years old. Instead of seeming ancient and inscrutable, it felt incredibly immediate. I felt like I was experiencing what he was describing. How incredible is that? 

The problem is poetry for me is purely spiritual expression, it’s not something I can sit down and grind away at, it has to come from inspiration. I almost feel like good poems are revealed to you – like spells, not written. But for that to happen, just like magic you have to position yourself correctly, and that is not so easy working a demanding job. I know for a fact that’s why the old poets always tramped off to the mountains!

What inspires you to create?

Working on a story is always inspiring. I love the creative energy when I’m working on something with Terry and Eric and the ideas are flying so fast that everyone’s texting at once. That’s the best. When I’m working on stuff on my own, it all comes from the same place. All my waking and dreaming hours I’m trying to connect with the source of things, what we call the Tao. What interests me most is tapping into that same energy that makes trees grow and stars fall. Creating takes me outside of the mundane and towards a state of awe and harmony with the universe, which is where I want to be. In addition to that, I create so that hopefully some fellow wandering spirit out there will connect and find some joy in my creations.

The Immortal Embryo

What, or who, is your greatest creative influence?

There is a symbol in Taoist magic that is three connected circles. They represent Heaven (Sky), Man (Self) and Earth. I’ve realized that the connection between these three elements is profound and important. If you position yourself correctly in the universe things that are spellbinding and miraculous reveal themselves to you. So I would say in a way my greatest inspiration is the search, that seeker’s nature to find the source of things. Some of these things are beyond words, which is why art comes in handy to describe or point at them. Dreams are also very important to me. I’ve had dreams that changed my life. Lu Dongbin, one of the 8 Immortals, visited me in a dream. He led me to the most incredible place, a secret cavern filled with a black lake with a fire burning at its centre. Even though he didn’t speak I understood what he was showing me. I awoke and right away I had the clearest vision of the 8 Immortals floating in the clouds and surrounded by light. I dropped everything, like the guy in Close Encounters building his potato mountain, and began making the shrine which is now at the centre of my house. They inspire me so much because each one of them became an Immortal by becoming their true, original self. That’s what I want to do. That’s my creative influence

At this point, reader, Claudia is thinking maybe she shouldn’t have asked me all these questions. I did warn her that I was a weirdo but she did not take me seriously. Maybe now she will!

What is your favourite time of day to create?

Well I wake up so early, I have little ceremonies that I do every morning and I love watching the world wake up. There’s something so beautiful about listening to the birds starting to sing, one by one, in the dark. I love the idea that the day hasn’t even started yet. Everything seems possible, like the universe is being created all over again. Going for a walk when the sun is just rising and everything is steeped in magic is the best. Mornings are for creation.

Which of your creations is your personal favourite, and why? 

This one’s not so hard. The CBC asked me if I wanted to write a poem for them. It’s a tradition for the winners of the Governor General’s Award to contribute something to a feature that CBC Books puts on, based on a theme. The fun part is if you want to participate you have to say yes before knowing the theme! I said yes because I thought –  well, what are the chances of ever having this opportunity again? 

The theme turned out to be Moving Forward. I loved that, and what it made me think of was my wife Sarah, who is actually an amazing writer, even though most people would think of her music. I wrote the poem Wind and Flowers for her. In one way it’s a love letter to the love of my life, but the reason it’s my favourite is that I was hoping it would inspire her to start writing again, and it did!

How do you deal with creative slumps?

Well I have creative slumps all the time. The good thing about having so many hobbies is that if one isn’t working out so well it gives you more time to focus on the others. I think it helps to have interests that are both cerebral and physical. If you’re in a slump with painting it’s likely you’re not going to be able to write poetry either. But I bet you can still do Kung Fu or go rock climbing. Similarly if you break your leg you’re not going to be rock climbing but you can still paint. 

From a Taoist perspective, it helps to realize that nothing can be 100% all the time. We all have periods of great creativity. Make the most of them but don’t expect them to last forever. Even nature can’t keep a storm going for long, so how can you? If you look at how nature works, it rests in Winter so that flowers can grow in Spring. Droughts are followed by the monsoon. A slump is like a valley, but the other side of a valley is a peak. The reason we all fear slumps is because it feels like you’ll never be able to create again, but that’s not true, is it? Fields need time to lie fallow.

Who are you beyond your art? Give us three insider facts about you.

I wonder what facts tell us about people. I could tell you that I practice time-travelling, or that I saw a magic fox, or that I have a pet puffer fish, but I don’t know what that would really tell you. So instead here’s a picture of me and my mom on the beach in Hawaii. That’s Terry, Eric and Larissa in the water behind me. We lived there for a year and didn’t want to leave. Who would? On our last day my mom and I stood on the beach and decided to leave our souls there. One day I’m going to go back and get them.

What’s one of the best – or most memorable – questions you’ve ever been asked?

I’ll go with best. I have to set the scene first though. So it was the middle of the night, and there’s this Bang! Bang! Bang! on the front door. I went down to the door, ready for trouble, and my wife Sarah followed behind, terrified. After looking through the peep-hole I opened the door and in marches a group of my friends from way back in the day – from when I was a Youth Worker in Moss Park. They’re all carrying pieces of wood, in an assembly line, and they march them all into the living room and start piling them up. It turns out they’d been saving for years together to buy me a Wooden Dummy, which is the structure you use to practice Wing Chun Kung Fu on. I’m not a person that attaches any importance to material things, but everyone knew if I could ever buy one thing for myself it would be a Wooden Dummy, they are hand made and cost thousands of dollars and even though I’ve practiced Kung Fu for more than 30 years, I’ve never owned one. Can you believe these youth, who had so little themselves, would save for years and years to buy me one and show up in the middle of the night with it? I will never forget that night, those people, or the love that went into planning that. Anyhow, after they’d unloaded everything they disappeared into the night in this sparkly blue truck with tinted windows. I closed the door and Sarah just looked at me, she’d been dumbstruck the whole time, and said, “How cool are you?”

That’s the best question anyone ever asked me.

Devin! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I have no doubt our readers will be as inspired by your depth of thought and heart as I have been.

PS I still don’t think you’re a weirdo 😊

If you’re interested in learning more about Devin, you can find him here.

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