It never ceases to amaze me how a writer can be celebrated, award-winning, and absolutely massive in one country and yet entirely unknown in another. I found that was the case with Canadian writer Wayson Choy, whose name until recently drew a blank with me (and with, I’m guessing, most other Australians).
Choy’s first book, The Jade Peony, shared the 1995 Trillium Book Award for best book. Its companion book, All That Matters, won the award in 2005 and was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize. He wrote a memoir, Paper Shadows, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Prize, and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction…
So yeah, Choy’s like a little bit successful, a little bit famous, and a little bit very much liked in Canada.
I haven’t read any of those books—yet. I most certainly will—but I just finished his most recent one. Entitled Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, it documents Choy’s near-death experiences of asthma and heart attacks and failing internal organs, as well as his rehab. Doesn’t exactly sound like a joyous read or ride, I know, but it actually really is.
A gay Chinese man whose name connotes ‘luck’, Choy’s disproved his parents’ fear that he’ll end up alone and unloved. He actually has two families—a city family and a country family—with whom he has lived for decades.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when one of the families’ boys outlines his family tree for his classmates. He says that he has a mother, a father, a sister, ‘and a Wayson’.
Hearing Choy speak on Conversations with Richard Fidler, with his gentle voice and incisive intellect, I began to suspect that Choy’s the kind of guy you fall in love with and want to keep around. I know I fell for him—and that was in just an hour.
It’s not just his voice that I fell in love with. I also fell for his writing. Choy crafts work with a touch as light and poetic as America’s premier essayist, Joan Didion (and no, I’m not really sure what a ‘premier essayist’ is either, but the term is regularly bandied around about Didion and it sounds fancy).
In fact, I kept thinking that there were parallels in terms of theme and style and beauty between Not Yet and The Year Of Magical Thinking, the book Didion wrote about the year after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack.
Both books are exquisite, deceptively simple and brief, and are rawly honest, although Didion’s is probably (and deliberately so) more of a tearjerker.
Some examples? Choy’s explanation of why he ignored the warning signs of his impending, life-threatening illnesses:
During July of 2001, with my book deadline looming, far from my mind was any thought that these spells could be signs of ill health or worse. Only in Victorian dramas and novels, and in grand operas, does a cough or two foreshadow finis. Certainly, a sneeze lacks any hint of funereal dignity.
His self-deprecation at his predicament:
With great hope, my family now visited to witness my performance as the Recovering Corpse.
‘Wayson,’ she said. ‘Spell out what you want. I’m going to say the alphabet and you tap your finger on my hand when I get to the letter you mean.’ […] ‘Is this what you want: Bring me some of my clothes?’ Kate said. I nodded. After she left me, Kate complained to Mary Jo, ‘Just like an English teacher! All he had to do was spell out two words, ‘bring clothes,’ or just one word, ‘clothes’. But he had to spell out a complete six-word sentence!’
‘What’s the matter, Wayson?’ Marie asked.
‘I want to be cremated.’
‘Yes, you said exactly that when I first walked you into emergency. Karl thought it very cheerful of you.’
It’s not perhaps the most upbeat note to end on, but I think it in some ways is. I’ve ordered Choy’s other books and, although I don’t know their subject matter yet, I suspect they will be cheery and will definitely be equally moving and beautifully written.