York honours the author of The Concubine’s Children

Like the writer she is, Denise Chong thanked York for giving her an honorary degree Saturday by telling a story. "My grandfather in the dinginess of his rooming house in Vancouver’s Chinatown tried to father from afar his two young daughters left behind in rural China. I would come across his worlds in a letter to them 60 years later. ‘Study hard or you’ll be nothing but peasants chasing toads in the field.’"

Left and below: Denise Chong

A third daughter – Chong’s mother – grew up in Canada. She led a transient life following her own mother from job to job in Chinatowns on Canada’s west coast. "The one constant in my mother’s life was her academic achievement," the biographer told education and arts graduating students. Neither Chong’s mother nor her father went to university, unable "to scale the walls of discrimination," but "they did sow the seed of education in the fertile ground of the next generation and for that I’m grateful." Raised in Prince George, Chong ended up a senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa.

Chong left public service in 1985 to write. Her first book, The Concubine’s Children, chronicles her family history in Canada. Her second book, The Girl in the Picture: The Kim Phuc Story, focuses on the girl, now resident in Canada, whose image fleeing naked and screaming after Americans napalmed her village became a symbol of the Vietnam war. The Concubine’s Children won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the City of Vancouver Book Award. Both books were shortlisted for Governor General’s literary awards and forged Chong’s reputation as a leading chronicler of the Asian-American experience.

"I don’t know where the yearning to write came from," said Chong. Perhaps it came from not knowing "why things had gone so wrong for my grandmother" or from "imagining what lay beyond the reach of the plume from the pulp mill," she said. "Or do I owe wanting to write to my beginning a working life in Ottawa, to being caught by surprise by how some chose to see me, for good or for ill, in ways of difference – female, young, of Asian descent – when what had drawn myself to the nation’s capital was to share a passion for being Canadian?"

"This I do know," said Chong. "Writing opens my mind to possibilities. As a writer I can cross barriers and transcend boundaries – those of class, of race, of gender; economic, political. I could go on – boundaries of diet, of fashion, geographic boundaries, generational ones."

"Writing is my way to explore the unknown," she said. She urged the graduating students to explore "worlds we don’t fully know" and quoted Marcel Proust: "Don’t be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond." How far to go? she asked. "At least until we find something enduring, resonant, that is, some kind of permanent truth." The arts can offer truth and permanence, Chong said. Art, music and architecture "are evermore necessary in our hurried lives and our thirst for establishing some moral order to the reality around us."

Chong shared two lessons she has learned as a writer. The first is the virtue of humility. Paraphrasing the late essayist Susan Sontag, Chong suggested trusting your ears more than your eyes because the ears are less judgmental. The second is that humans are and must be united by a common purpose to survive in this world.

Chong’s life reflects her sense of common purpose. She serves on task forces, public boards and committees, including the Task Force on the Participation of Visible Minorities in the Federal Public Service, the National Advisory Board on Culture Online, and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Northern British Columbia.

To see archived Webcasts of the October 2007 convocation ceremonies, visit the Convocation at York Web site.