Author Wayson Choy is a joy.
When I saw him last week as the opening guest speaker at the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt, BC, I expected him to read from his classic novel Jade Peony and his latest book, the memoir Not Yet.
Instead, he walked out from behind the onstage podium and told the sold-out crowd: “I almost died twice.” With wry humor, he explained that while unconscious and in surgery, near-dead from an asthma and heart attack, he remembered no dramatic out-of-body experiences or ghostly encounters — just hospital staff discussing mundane things like recipes and golf.
Yet these seemingly dull topics are part of the “human mosaic” of everyday life, Choy said, the ordinary world that lives intertwined with the realm of what he calls “the invisible.” Our daily lives, and the secrets and sense of community they reveal through our stories, are the true valuables we leave behind, not real estate, jewelry or investments, he told us.
For an hour straight, with wit, irreverence and no notes, 73-year-old Choy graciously flowed from thanks and gratitude (“I do care so much that you’re here”) to punchy power (“I don’t give a shit.”) He quoted Antoine St. Exupery’s line from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (I have that saying framed on my wall.)
The soft-spoken, grey-haired author shared the Zen proverb “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” and reinforced that he focuses on the here and now and does not believe in an afterlife.
“In story, I found meaning,” he says on his agent Denise Bukowski’s website regarding writing his memoir about his two brushes with death (he had another heart attack four years after his surgery): “I found myself somehow assured that there is more strength in living one’s life as everyday adventure, as an unfinished tale to be lived, one enlightened moment after another, than to live blindly chained to the idea that life simply ends.”
A delightful storyteller, Choy described to us his brief attempt to write pornography. When he showed the new writing to Bukowski, she told him: “Don’t go there.” He spoke of learning how to write under novelist mentor Carol Shields, who told him to write about “what we don’t know.” She suggested Chinatown; he initially thought the idea “boring,” yet ended up producing his acclaimed novel Jade Peony.
“Chinatown has always been a mythology of the mind,” he said, referring to today’s Chinese enclave, Richmond, as “bubbles of wealthy people.” He said with a laugh that “his” people (Chinese-Canadians) are reading about making money. He spoke of secrets within families and cultures and how humiliation and racism have deeply imprinted the history of the Chinese experience in Canada. “We can tell the truth,” he said, while affirming “No one escapes the truth.” He urged us all: “Tell your stories.”
Overall, it was a treat to hear a noteworthy Canadian voice reveal such humble wisdom, fuelled by awareness of the potential story in every moment. “We only have to meet each other and know each other,” he said. I found his perspectives welcome validation of my own outlook. Thanks for the inspiration, Wayne.
Wayson Choy was making his fifth appearance at the festival in celebration of its 30th anniversary. He was the festival board’s first choice as opening night speaker, said board president Wendy Hunt.