Wayson Choy believes in signs. Anybody who knows him will tell you that. He patiently unfolds the secrets of his past and searches for meaning in coincidence.
Signs are persuading him that even though his first love is teaching, a profession he has pursued for more than 30 years, he may indeed be a writer. First, there is the series of coincidences linking him to pre-eminent Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: they were both born in 1939; his debut novel, The Jade Peony, shared Ontario’s 1996 Trillium Prize with her novel, Alias Grace, and both titles were subsequently selected as notable books by the American Library Association. “Why is that woman hanging on my back?” he will ask with a laugh.
But there is also a deeper portent which has emerged with the completion of his second book, Paper Shadows, a memoir of his Chinatown childhood, written with the freshness of a child’s experience but delicately overlaid with an adult’s sensibility. While immersed in the lonely struggle to write Paper Shadows Choy discovered that he was “wrapped in a world where words matter, because they are allowing me to understand what I am writing, what I have lived, what I have perceived. That is the flashpoint in my head that makes me realize I may be a writer.”
Even before Choy tells me all this, on a recent warm spring Sunday afternoon, I have been thinking about signs and trying to find meaning in the fact that I am late for our interview because a river of orange is flowing between his side of town and mine. Men in tangerine turbans and women in apricot saris are marching down Yonge Street on their way to the Skydome for a massive celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa-Sikh faith. Worlds within worlds, I think, marvelling both at the number of faithful and the stunning transformation in white-bread Canadian society since Choy was born more than half a century ago in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
After a great deal of doubling back to avoid blocked streets, I finally make my way to Broadview and Danforth, where Choy lives in a two-storey brick house with Karl and Marie Schweishelm and their teenage daughter Kate. The roar of a vacuum cleaner muffles my knocks. Another sign? And if so, is it a reminder that our lives are a jumble of the unique and the mundane? That certainly is the overriding impression I have culled from reading Choy’s novel and his memoir.
He takes us places most of us have never been, and then he startles us with flashes that are achingly familiar because they are part of the universal experience of childhood. His fear of being abandoned at kindergarten, for example, which he ascribes to the immigrant condition, parallels my own WASP memories of the same trauma.
When Karl finally opens the door, I see that Choy himself is wielding the suction wand on the dining room carpet. Choy has a broad face and the unfettered skin of a man 20 years his junior. He is wearing a rhubarb-coloured sweatshirt over a white T-shirt and beige pants. Hanging from a black string around his neck is a hand-carved alabaster pendant of an endless knot. He found it in Chinatown in Vancouver and bought it partly because it reminded him of the tassel on a wind chime that he had loved as a child and partly because the knot seemed symbolic of his life: “When I look back at any point, the beginning and the end are always there.”
But that doesn’t make them easy to discern. Choy describes his past as a kaleidoscope. “I keep holding still and thinking I will see this same picture forever and then somebody comes along and jostles my arm and the pieces shift,” he says. “The same things are there but the perspective is different.”
Most of us can relate to that feeling because we have shared it – that discombobulation when a casual comment or the contents of a long-buried letter disinter a family secret. The discovery shakes you up and makes you wonder how many other skeletons are hanging in the family archives. But for Choy, it was acute. At the age of 56, long after his parents were dead, he learned, through a mysterious phone call from a stranger named Hazel Young, that he was adopted.
It was 1995. His first novel, The Jade Peony, narrated by three siblings growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Second World War, had just been published to rapturous reviews. Choy was doing a radio interview. Coincidentally, Hazel was listening idly to the same station as she dressed to go out for an appointment. When the name Wayson pricked her eardrums, she flashed back to 1939 when she was 17 and babysitting baby Way Sun while his parents went to Vancouver to see the King and Queen drive by in their motorcade. Hazel called the radio station and left a message. When Choy called her back, Hazel told him not only that he was adopted, but that his biological mother was still alive.
That Hazel remembered the name all those years, and that she could have turned the radio off seconds before, were signs to Choy that he should pursue this connection. In the end, Hazel was wrong about his natural mother – she had died long before – but Choy was able to learn many details about his past from Hazel’s mother Helena, who had run a kind of transit house in Chinatown for babies and orphans. Helena wouldn’t tell him the names of his parents because she still honoured the pact she had made with the past, but she did tell him that his father was a member of the Cantonese Opera Company in Vancouver.
Things came full circle, Choy says, pouring us both another cup of tea in his Toronto kitchen. “I was amazed because for half a dozen summers before, I had been researching in the archives of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC where they have all the theatre stuff. In looking at all those photos I must have glimpsed a picture of my father.” He remembers his adoptive mother taking him to the opera and now he thinks she did it so that his biological parents could see how he was growing.
Given the circumstances, who would blame Choy for being furious or thinking his entire life was based on a lie? But that is not his way. His adoptive mother was 38, his father 42, and they were childless. He can’t be angry at them, he says, when he thinks about “their times and what they wanted for me and all of those terrible superstitions and sanctions about being adopted.”
What he has learned from Hazel’s revelations is that we can never really know who our parents are because their lives are separate from ours. But that doesn’t mean that we stop loving them or discovering things about them, even after they are dead. “When my parents died,” he says, “I thought this is it, this is the history of our love and our affection for each other.” In fact, the opposite is true. The more he has learned about them through researching and writing books about his childhood, the deeper his love and understanding have grown.
Does it bother him that his parents aren’t around to answer his questions? He has the same phlegmatic attitude to that as he seems to have to everything else about his past. He has accepted that he can’t know everything, and that if his parents were still alive, they might be able to give him more information, but he doubts they would have shared their secrets, many of which, as he reveals in Paper Shadows, were very raw.
There is a scene near the end of the memoir where Choy, who is about 11, and his mother are burning his grandfather’s papers. Ostensibly, they are getting rid of useless junk before they move away from Vancouver to Belleville, Ontario, but there is a hint in the manuscript that Choy’s mother is deliberately destroying the family’s past. That memory haunts him still. “Even when it was happening I knew something important was going on,” he says. “I think my mother knew what she was doing. In those days – up until the ’60s – the Canadian and American governments were hunting [for] people [with] false papers and deporting them.” In the same way that refugees often destroy their documents today, an uncle and an aunt came and helped decide what to burn and what to keep. Having nothing seemed safer than keeping papers that might be incriminating.
If Choy’s parents’ secrets died with them, so did the opportunity for Choy to reveal his own mysteries. There is a hint in the book about Choy’s awakening sense that he is gay, but it is only a glimpse because as he explains: “I write about my childhood as I knew it then and as I lived it.” He may have sensed his difference, but he didn’t have words for it. He never discussed the fact that he is gay with his parents, but he thinks they knew and that’s why they never pressured him to marry and have children.
“They fell into accepting me the way I am, as many parents do, even when they don’t have the language to express their disappointment,” he says. It is a favour that Choy has returned, except that he has been lucky enough to have the words to transform their lives with grace and meaning. Paper Shadows is a fitting epitaph.