By Mary Chan
Wayson Choy grew up the son of Chinese immigrants in 1940’s Vancouver. His father went away for weeks at a time to work as a chef on a Canadian Pacific ship and his mother often took him to long nights of gossip and Mah Jong. He watched Chinese opera as a child, and wanted to be a cowboy, Chinese genes notwithstanding.
In short, he grew up Chinese-Canadian, unaware of his banana status (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).
This childhood is the subject of Choy’s latest book, entitled Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood.
“It’s about a childhood in Chinatown, where the author makes discoveries that totally surprise him,” Choy says from his office in Toronto’s Humber College, where he teaches English. “I must tell you, I began writing the book as if it was going to be a light, entertaining read because I had a happy childhood, but the more I delved into the past, I realized that dark path of the ghetto and the racism and the family sex life and so on. So the book turned on me and let me see for the first time what Chinatown meant.”
Choy’s first novel was 1995’s The Jade Peony, which shared the Trillium Book Award for best book of 1996 with Margaret Atwood and won the 1996 City of Vancouver Book Award. The Jade Peony was fiction, while his latest book is what he calls “creative non-fiction.”
The research Choy did for Paper Shadows was different from the historical, contextual research did for The Jade Peony.
“I researched parts that were relevant to my life,” says Choy.
“I wasn’t a historian, looking at an overview. I would be researching for specific details. I would ask some of the older people, ‘do you remember when this happened in Chinatown, or in the family or in the [WWII] victory celebrations?’ I had memories that would help verify or give me more details. And then I would join the dots and try to create that version of my childhood.”
Choy no longer sees writing about the minority experience as an anomaly, like he did 30 years ago. Choy wrote as a teenager and in university, but stopped because he felt he had nothing to say.
“I had internalized a lot of the impressions of being different and I thought, well, who wants to read about Chinatown, who wants to read about minorities?” says the soft-spoken 57-year-old.
Decades later, Choy changed his mind.
“The consciousness level of our culture had changed and these stories were desirable,” he says. “For myself, they now seemed to be important because I grew up and I stopped just becoming a banana. And I realized that our stories, our meaning those who are different, have a place in Canada and Canadian Literature.”
Choy believes the emergence of minority literature is happening around the world.
“There’s a large, educated group of people who have been less afraid of difference and of the others,” he says. “We are now sharing our stories. I really think that when the stories are well told, they are human stories. They don’t have any borders or racial barriers.”
In Paper Shadows, Choy frequently mentions ghosts. He believes in spirits, conditionally.
“I believe in the idea that ghosts are a metaphor for understanding life at the loss of loved ones, and the understanding that life gives us signs and omens that we must pay attention to,” he says. “Basically, many of the people in Vancouver at the time came from the small villages, and most of them were not educated, but they were highly skilled in oral history and oral story telling. And you tell stories so you can give warnings about what is good and what is evil. And I think in that sense my life was enriched by the stories of good and evil and by the ghosts that would guide us and the ghosts that would harm us.”
In Paper Shadows, Choy also frequently slips in Chinese terms, phonetically transposed from his Toisanese dialect, though he speaks very little of his mother tongue.
“When you think back to your childhood, the voices come back to you as they were,” he said. “It’s a technical problem for me; a matter of how to convince the reader that these people are speaking a dialect and you have slid into it, that you understand it.”
Choy is currently working on a new novel, a sequel to The Jade Peony called The Ten Thousand Things. For Choy, a novel is based more on character than plot.
“I think all stories should arise organically from characters’ definitions of the world,” he says. “Otherwise you’re just falling into a plot genre. I’m not big on plot… that’s not where I think literature exists. I think it comes from the identification of the reader to the character. If you give details that ring true, as I hope I’ve given in both my books, readers go ‘that’s like me’, and that’s the meaning of writing.”
Paper Shadows explores personal topics such as alcoholism and poverty. When writing the memoir, Choy faced a dilemma about what he should include.
“I had to decide whether I would talk about this in a real way,” he says. “I had to decide what would tell the truth about the characters, not what I would approve or my aunt would approve.”
“I don’t know how big a risk I took,” he adds. “I did ask myself things like, ‘would my father want this to be known, would my aunt think it was alright?’ Then, when I wrote, I forgot them because I’m telling the story and I want to tell the truth.”
Choy will appear at the Friday Literary Luminaries session at the Uptown Screen at 7 p.m.