Wayson Choy may not be the most prolific writer on the Canadian block, but when he does put pen (or word processor) to paper the results usually end up on the best-seller lists around the world.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., in 1939, Choy burst into print and onto the literary scene in 1995, with the publication of THE JADE PEONY. The book spent 6 months on Canada’s national best seller list, shared the Trillium Book Award for best book in 1995 with none other than Margaret Atwood, and also won the 1996 City of Vancouver Book Award.
In an interview first published in the late 90s in the Bellingham Herald newspaper, Choy told the proprietor of this space about his life as a boy in Canada.
“I was raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is the location for my book (The Jade Peony) and moved to Toronto in my early 20s. I went to Gladstone and John Oliver high schools in Vancouver. We moved around quite a bit, which was typical of the time.”
Choy said that much of his early life was spent helping out in the family business. “I was earning a living with my parents because we were from the ghetto of Vancouver’s Chinatown so often we worked after school, but I also got involved in some drama and creative writing classes. In those days they were considered clubs. Nothing too serious, just enough to get into the language and fall in love with it.”
Choy said the inspirations and aspirations for his literary life came from his younger days. He said he was often told stories as a youngster and that led him to believe he would one day develop some story telling talents of his own. He said the oral history of Chinatown was told to him by his older relatives, and he often envisioned himself writing his own books, in order to celebrate the Chinatown that is, in his words, ” now gone.”
“I think it is just the movement of history,” he explained. “The first and second generations of immigrants move out from their original places and become part of the Canadian scene.”
Choy said THE JADE PEONY is about three kids growing up in Canada during the years of the Second World War, and their perspective on what it means to neither be Chinese nor Canadian. “In a real sense,” he said, “it is about the three discovering who they really were, given those conditions.”
When we mentioned that the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1920s, which allowed Canadians to exclude Chinese immigrants from virtually all mainstream Canadian activities, was not a very pleasant side of the Canadian character, Choy was diplomatically Canadian in his response. “I think it was a period in history when not very many people were nice to other people, regardless. There were problems for the Irish, the Italians … everybody. I think it was a North American process where people were beginning to form communities and were locked into them because of the prejudices of the time. It was a bad time, but it was also a time in which the community became unified in trying to survive on its own.”
ALL THAT MATTERS, a companion novel to THE JADE PEONY, won the Trillium Book Award in 2004 and was short listed for the 2005 Giller Prize. In 1999, Choy’s first memoir, PAPER SHADOWS, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Prize, and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize. He won the Edna Staebler Award for Non-fiction. Choy’s most recent book is NOT YET: A MEMOIR OF LIVING AND ALMOST DYING.