An Interview with Wayson Choy by Don Montgomery (c)2002
transcription by Pauline Seto, photo of Wayson by Don Montgomery (c)2002

Born in Vancouver in 1939, Wayson Choy has spent much of his life engaged in teaching at and writing in Toronto. Since 1967, he has been a professor at Humber College and also a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers. He is a volunteer for various community literacy projects and AIDS groups and, for three years running, was elected President of Cahoots Theatre Company in Toronto. Winner of numerous awards for his work, Mr. Choy is presently writing the sequel to his best selling book, The Jade Peony.

Don Montgomery: Do you write in the traditional way, using pen and paper or a typewriter, or do you use a computer?

Wayson Choy: I definitely depend on my computer most of all for my writing. But notebooks are important to me, because I take notes of snippets of conversation and details. And I'm not organized so I grab whatever book happens to be handy… and my pens [and start] working away there. Sometimes my problem is where did I put that last note? But yeah, I really work on the computer. The cut and edit thing is so much easier to deal with. But after that, I… edit properly from the hard copy. The hard copies… might be cut up with a pair of scissors and then reattached with notations to myself. And then I go back to the computer and rewrite the piece. I think the hard copies tend to accumulate, but I'm very lucky because the University of Calgary collects my papers. They find that interesting, to see how I evolve my manuscripts.

DM: Do you, or does the computer, do the spell-check and grammar-check?

WC: As an English teacher, I think I basically know what I need to do in terms of grammar and spelling. I do use a thesaurus on the computer if I want a better word. If I want to think of a better way to say the same thing, I will use my thesaurus.

DM: You are very fortunate to have teachers and mentors who helped develop your writing talent and provided a positive environment for you despite the social and racial climate during your youth and young adult years. What advice can you offer to today's generation of emerging Asian Canadian writers?

WC: Some people are shy, or they may have internalized some oppression about their own ability or about their right to do their art. I grew up believing that the stories I knew about weren't interesting to the majority. And so in the end, I think, everybody has to discover what they need to review as their own truths and their own vision. And hopefully they understand they also have the right to explore and expose that vision.

DM: Should the young emerging Asian Canadian writers try to get themselves a mentor-type person to help them? Is this something they should strive to do at the start of their writing career?

WC: [A mentor is] not only somebody that you might keep your eyes open for, they come up to you as a gift more often that not. And it's somebody who knows you probably better than you know yourself, at the beginning. So they help you to review your strengths and support you in your awareness of any fears or vulnerable hopes. I was very lucky, of course. When I went to university I had been seen as someone with a bit of talent who needed a lot of instruction. There were teachers who were very patient with me. And one of them… was Jacob Zilber, who in the late 1950's and early 60's helped to see me through to publication. And to this day Jacob Zilber still helps me to edit my work. In 1962, one of those stories that he guided me towards writing was selected by the Best American Short Stories, 1962; it was called "The Sound of Waves." And there were others too, like Jan de Bruyn, he was the founder, one of the first editors of PRISM magazine… at UBC. And of course [there was] Dr. Earl Birney, he's a very famous Canadian poet. I guess I've been very lucky. I haven't searched out mentors; they have been a kind of gift to me. [But] I know that there are people who should know what they want and what to look for. And I would say go for it.

DM: Your life has had its share of surprises, drama, and near-death experiences. Has your outlook on life and work changed in any way since your near-death experiences?

WC: To clarify things, I thought I knew as much as I needed to know, because I'm 63 now. At the time of my two near-death experiences last August, I hadn't thought that I might need to know anymore [about death] because I've seen people live through stages of their dying, like my own parents, friends who have had AIDS or cancer. So I thought, well, I'm quite aware now and I'll keep writing. But I tell you, nothing beats experience, and [its] certainly not the kind I recommend. When I had my asthma attack, and in a coma, three days later, I had my heart attack, I emerged from those not knowing what [had] happened. But now as the months have gone by and during my recovery, I've been told how terrible it was for… my extended family and my friends. And I now realize, from their eyes, seeing me go so close to death, [that] there's a deeper level of connection between people. Much of it is very primal, but it's very decent. [The experience] has made me rethink the level and the depth of feeling of the characters [that] live in the stages of the Chinatown I write about, especially the Chinatown of the war years. So I've been changed, my idea of writing these characters has changed; well, it's deepened more than changed. So I'm fine-tuning the manuscript.

DM: What is the one moment in your life that really stands out, even to this day, and why?

WC: Generally I think it's not so much one moment but similar moments, that have occurred with regard to friendship. I tend to be very sensitive to feelings… I have been very fortunate that when I meet people, who become my friends, there's a kind of instant rapport. And that has always astonished me. This has happened enough times, and the friendships have been tested and proven [enough] that I am dazzled by this particular type of connection I have, which I consider very lucky. And whenever it happens, it's new again, and it's wonderful again, and it makes me very optimistic about my life. Certainly during my health crisis I realize[d] that those instants of friendship. proved themselves to be true. There is a reality that is not always seen, but is demonstrated, through people's love and their behavior. In that sense, that event, happening time and time again has been the most wonderful for me and the most powerful in terms of keeping me optimistic.

DM: What do you like to do for fun and relaxation?

WC: I really feel that in life you always have the choice between going toward the light, or staying in the darkness. My own choices have been to move toward the light and have fun. I don't believe in suffering. I know there are writers and artists who, because of their own particular needs, feel they must suffer for their art. I think life causes enough suffering. You don't need to suffer for your art. Your art should be an expression of how you've endured and survived, and how you perceive your vision of life. …So I feel very strongly, I'm happy most days, most times. And I can't tell you, even when I was emerging from those difficult drugs, and not clear in my head, [how much] the voices of my friends, and their holding my hand and calling my name, made me feel this was delightful, this was okay. We're still here.

DM: Humber College film and television professor Michael Glassbourg's film Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly made an appearance at the Savanna Film Festival in Georgia, USA. From 1,200 entries, Glassbourg's was one of only two Canadian films among the 30 chosen for screening, from as far away as Vietnam and Australia. Was this your first time performing in a film?

WC: Well I have to tell you, it wasn't acting, it was a documentary in which I was filmed speaking to students, addressing crowds of readers, and, you know, just public appearances… I was also interviewed very thoroughly. I think there was 35 hours of film, and I was concerned that it would be a film I would hardly bear because there would be me, my talking head. But in fact, Michael Glassbourg and his editor were terrifically creative; they went to Chinatown, they filmed the scenes I had spoke[n] about, they found archival photographs, and they created a composite that caught me by surprise, [that] moved me, because I was ready to laugh at it. I was greatly moved that someone cared to see my perspective in a way that might make sense to other people. I really was there partly because I wanted to urge people to tell their own stories before they are lost, and [to tell them] that their stories are what they will leave behind. So I was happy to cooperate with the filmmaker. But what they did instead of just making an ordinary film was to make, from my point of view, a surprising one and a delightful one.

DM: Do you like performing in front of the camera?

WC: It's just me. I mean, just right now, what you see is what you get. In fact, I will be going to China - I believe in August, if things work out with all the visas - to host a film on Confucius. For some reason people seem to think that I might have a film personality that works. I am always a little embarrassed at seeing myself or hearing my voice… but it's me, and I guess I can live with it.

DM: Your sequel to The Jade Peony is called The Ten Thousand Things. What is the main storyline, and who are the main characters based upon?

WC: Well, [The Ten Thousand Things is] actually a continuation of The Jade Peony, in which three younger brothers and [a] sister tell their story and their vision of the Chinatown during the war years, during the 30's and 40's. The Ten Thousand Things tells the story of the oldest brother or the firstborn son, who really just appears in the [first] book through the eyes of his… younger siblings. He doesn't really make an impression beyond the fact that he is there, and he is often away with his father. So the following book - The Ten Thousand Things is a working title - will be about the older boy's story, his becoming a man and his struggles about whether he should fight for Canada during a very racist time, when he wasn't considered a citizen by Canada. I intend to tell a love story connected to his girlfriend, who also appeared in The Jade Peony, and connect his vision of a paternal side of Chinatown with the maternal side that was told in The Jade Peony. So I hope that I will have a kind of yin/yang balance between the two books.

DM: Did you ever feel that ethnicity played a role in getting one's work published or not published, and do you feel that this is still prevalent today?

WC: I think all minority cultures have to go through a period where they are in a category, and I believe that you cannot escape that because you have not been published before. So [when] your minority group begins to be heard, of course it has to be categorized, it's inescapable. But after that, I think we're entering this new period now where good writing is what will matter, and what will last and what will be reviewed. I was very lucky because my book… was a popular book as well as a critically successful one. But the point is they also said that it was an Asian story, an Asian Canadian story. Now I tell everybody, it's a Canadian story, period. And there are other Canadian stories, and we want to listen to new voices. The categories don't bother me because in the end, they will simply be a historical footnote. The good books will last, whatever the footnote. And I would like to think I am writing books that can be read at any time, and [that] they are stories that can be read by everyone who believes that the human heart must survive the drama of living.

 

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