Wayson Choy reads the signs at York

On Jan. 25, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Wayson Choy. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

This moment remains with me, for it was told to me by Poh-Poh and by Father….a story told to me as if, by its retelling, what Poh-Poh and the servant girl thought true would remain forever true, that my rightful and only mother had loved me to the end. Her last words were said to me alone, words now locked away in my child’s heart…. 

from All That Matters
by Wayson Choy

"This will be a lucky child." Wayson Choy’s grandfather made this announcement at his naming ceremony, knowing that this would become the theme for his life. It is perhaps fitting that it was eight years ago that Choy first appeared at the Canadian Writers in Person series (a lucky number in Chinese culture). Choosing to read minimally from his book tonight, he instead treated his audience to an evening of stories about "the magic carpet ride that brought me here."

Right: Wayson Choy

"Signs warn you, tell you what to do next." After his mother died in 1977, Choy went on sabbatical from Humber College to take advanced creative writing courses at the University of British Columbia. Though he was disappointed to have missed Tennessee Williams and Alice Munro, who had taught the previous year, his short story teacher proved to be influential. She gave an assignment to make a story out of a randomly selected colour, in Choy’s case pink. Overhearing his aunts talk about pink jade and later the peonies in his Aunt Mary’s garden, the two words fused together in his mind along with the image of an old hand placing a jade peony in a young boy’s hand. After handing in the assignment, his teacher suggested that he submit it to a contest. He won the prize and the story eventually became the basis of his award-winning novel The Jade Peony. "Oh, the name of that teacher? Carol Shields."         

"Family is who loves you and that is stronger than any blood tie." While promoting his novel in 1995, Choy discovered through a chance phone call that he had been adopted. Though at age 56 this may have made him doubt his adopted parents, he found that his love for them deepened. Wondering "How did I miss the signs?" he found a clue in memory. When he was a teenager, he had been angry at his mother and yelled at her, "I wish I had a different mother!" Though his mother could have very easily revealed the truth of his heritage at that moment, she chose silence. For her, love was bound by the knowledge that "if you were given, you were theirs." Inspired by these discoveries, Choy wrote Paper Shadows, a memoir of his childhood.

"If you’re good, I’ll tell you a story." This is what his elders told "hyperactive children like myself" when Choy was growing up in 1940’s Vancouver Chinatown. As a child he devoured stories like the trickster fox but as he grew into his Western education he felt he had outgrown them. In later maturity, he gradually developed a new appreciation for the power of these simple narratives, rediscovering that he had absorbed their values and perspective on the world: "There are ghosts everywhere but I don’t believe in them," said Choy. Though many of those he loved are gone, he finds that he is haunted by their presence and draws on their "spiritual equity" through his writing. "I don’t understand a lot about life, but the more I write, the more I understand about what I know." 

As proof of his grandfather’s prophesy, Choy told the story of walking to a corner store one misty evening in 1982 on an errand for his dying father. To the financially and emotionally troubled writer, the store seemed to glow with luck and he started buying lottery tickets there. Upon telling his father this, the old man smiled and said "You be lucky." Almost forgetting about the tickets, he later discovered that one of them had won $100,000. Lucky Wayson Choy. 

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On Feb. 8, Marilyn Dumont read from her poetry collection,green girl dreams Mountains.