Award-winning author Wayson Choy discussed his work as part of Glendon’s bp Nichol Reading Series, telling his audience that everyone – whether for writing or just living – needs an overarching theme.
Rather than reading from his books on March 16, Choy chose to speak about his work and his approach to writing and to life.
He was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1939. At his traditional naming ceremony, his grandfather proclaimed that this child would be a lucky person. The message “you will be lucky” became his overarching theme, which was confirmed at every turn in his life, in good times and in bad.
Right: Wayson Choy
Choy attended the University of British Columbia in the late 1950s under the mentorship of famed poet and educator Earle Birney. He felt successful in his courses, especially in creative writing, taught by Birney.
With a twinkle in his eye, Choy quoted the Chinese saying, “When things go well, look behind you,” and with that he related an anecdote from his school days. Birney called Choy to his office and held up the manuscript that had he handed in, saying, “Do you want to be a writer?” As Choy’s heart sank, Birney addressed him with the single word, “Punctuate!” It was a turning point for the young writer, whose self-confidence was shaken, but he learned from the experience and continued to work on his technique.
His interest in storytelling goes back to the tales told by the elders in Chinatown, untrained and uneducated, but following a time-honoured tradition. Choy was in his teens when he discovered Bonjour tristesse, written by another teenager – Françoise Sagan. Her clear style and the subject’s melodrama blew him away and inspired him to write, which he accomplished with some success, publishing his short stories in smaller magazines.
After graduating, Choy taught English at Humber College in Toronto; but it was a decade later, when he was on sabbatical leave from Humber, that he enrolled in UBC’s creative writing program and started writing in a serious way.
Choy’s relating of the events of his life and writing career was very much in the style of storytellers of old, studded with anecdotes and moving back and forth in time with fluidity. He wrote The Jade Peony as a short story for a UBC creative writing assignment – the professor was Carol Shields, a name he did not recognize at the time. The choice of title was the result of a chance conversation between two aunts overheard by Choy, another lucky coincidence. The Jade Peony was published in 1977 in UBC’s alumni magazine, which printed 25,000 copies and won him a $100 prize.
“All my works have been commissioned,” explained Choy – amazing luck, given that most writers struggle to get published and earn any money with their work.
In 1992, Choy was commissioned to expand The Jade Peony into a full-length book, which was published as a novel in 1995 by Douglas & MacIntyre. “It was a time when stories of different cultures became an important feature of Canada’s multicultural society,” said Choy.
He was reluctant, but a contract and an advance convinced him to write what was initially a composite of loosely connected short stories, whose “glue” and backdrop was the Chinatown he knew so well. Eventually, the stories cohered and became a novel. The Jade Peony is the story of an immigrant family living in Vancouver during the Second World War, told through the eyes of the Chen family’s three youngest children. After spending six months on the Globe and Mail bestseller list, The Jade Peony won the 1996 City of Vancouver Book Award. Choy also shared the 1996 Trillium Book Award with Margaret Atwood.
“As a child, I didn’t know that I lived among heroes,” he said, referring to the incredible hardships and heartaches that his family and his community of Chinese immigrants endured. He added that writers have to be survivors in their time and place and be able to make the most of the opportunities they are given. As a gay writer, he has always felt somewhat of an outsider, but “books build bridges” in a world of different races and different orientations.
Choy’s second book, Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood, a memoir published in 1999, was the winner of the Edna Staebler Creative Non-Fiction Award in 2000 and was also nominated for a Governor General’s Award. It was also named as a 1999 Globe and Mail notable book of the year.
His third book, All That Matters (2004), revisits the story of the Chen family, this time from the eldest son’s point of view. All That Matters was awarded the Trillium Book Award for 2004 and was shortlisted for the 2004 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
In 2000, Michael Glassbourg produced Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly, a documentary film on Choy’s life. Choy himself hosted Searching for Confucius (2005), a film exploring the life of this ancient philosopher. Choy has lived in Toronto since 1962. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2006.
In 2009, Choy had the life-threatening experience of a series of heart attacks combined with his asthma and diabetes – an event that almost ended his life. In a 2009 conversation with commentator Allan Gregg, Choy explained that he had to write about this event to understand it and come to terms with it, maintaining that he only knows what he knows once he has written about it. The result was Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, published by Random House in 2009.
Choy radiates a calm and comfort in his own skin that only maturity and great thoughtfulness can produce. He also expresses a deep spirituality, a belief that things are meant to be and that luck can be the guiding star of an individual.
By Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer