Garibaldi Secondary grad Jonathan Poh is gaining some national recognition for his story, Value Village.
The former Maple Ridge resident is one of five writers named as finalists for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction prize.
The nomination came as something of a surprise to the writer.
“When I entered the competition back in February, I didn’t have high expectations,” Poh said.
As a writer/ editor for a leading fashion/ contemporary culture website, Poh had often told other people’s stories, but this was the first time he had turned the spotlight on himself, and his childhood in Maple Ridge.
“It started off as an exercise just to get to know myself a little better, and when I got the news that I was long-listed and then a finalist [ for the competition], it was a huge shock.”
Poh’s introspective piece starts off describing a sensitivity to a smell – specifically, the notable aroma of the inside of a thrift store.
“Though I know I should be more respectful, the smell of any thrift store makes me wrinkle my nose, scrunch my face up like a five-year-old being forced to eat vegetables,” Poh writes.
“Makes me locate the exit so I can get the hell out.”
As an adult, he decided to explore why the scent held such power over him, and was able to trace it to an incident in elementary school where he was shamed for wearing second-hand clothing.
The writer and his family moved to Maple Ridge from Singapore in 1992, and in order to save money, they would often shop in second-hand stores like Value Village or the Salvation Army.
It was not an issue until Poh was mocked by his classmates.
He said the process of writing about himself was difficult at first.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t want to face in my life,” he said, referencing the acts of bullying he revisited.
“But as I started writing, the act of recreating those events – and trying to draw meaning from what happened to me – was actually very empowering, and very cathartic.”
He recognized something as simple as a reaction to a smell can to be traced back to trauma.
‘It stays with you, and it’s physical,” he said.
“I didn’t realize that this one event was actually triggering a really strange reaction every time I entered a thrift store that lasted into adulthood.”
It was not until his wife pointed it out that he grasped the condition was worth exploring.
“I wrote off the the public embarrassment and instances of bullying as something most kids go through, and didn’t give it much thought,” he said.
As a fashion journalist, he said, the biggest and most urgent conversation in the industry is sustainability.
“And one of the solutions is thrifting,” he said emphatically.
“So that was another one of the things that spurred me onto write this story.
“I wanted to explore my own resistance to thrifting – this thing that is actually good for the environment, and a great counter to the fashion industry, which has produced so much clothing waste.”
He has yet to enter a thrift store since writing the article – as the pandemic has kept him away from crowded spaces – but he is interested in checking one out when the opportunity presents itself.
Poh said he wants to see if his perspective has changed now that he has gotten to the root of his issue with the second-hand stores.
While elementary school had its rough points, Poh credits a high school teacher for his foray into writing.
“The person who inspired me to take writing seriously was Mr. Steve Moore,” he said.
Poh said taking the Writing 12 course was a pivotal point in his life.
“He inspired me to recognize the power of words ,and the power of literature to impact culture, and that was pretty eye opening for me,” he noted.