By Carmel Smyth
On a recent evening I had the chance to hear three of Canada’s most talented writers, Jan Wong, Vincent Lam and Wayson Choy. The trio were sharing their life and writing tips as part of a fundraiser for exceptional but cash-strapped students.
All three were born and grew up in Canada. They laughed at similar stories of being asked “where are you from”. Uh? Canada. Lam tells a story of how stereotyping once worked in his favour, when he escaped from a risky situation because his would-be-attackers were afraid he knew kung fu.
Wayson Choy who grew up in Vancouver, and has lived most of his life in Toronto, believes negative stereotyping has dropped dramatically. He describes the students he teaches as “colour blind”. Like Choy, Wong rejects the concept of hyphenated Canadians, “We all have the right to see ourselves as Canadian”.
The trio shared the respect their families have for education. Lam remembers his shock finding out other parents paid their kids for getting As on their report cards. When he insisted his father do the same, his immigrant parents were outraged. What? Pay for learning? The luckiest thing in the world, and you want US to pay YOU? Needless to say he had to find other ways to earn his allowance. A colleague who loves Lam’s break out book “Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures” tells me when Lam was 14 and wanted to be a writer his parents were equally disapproving, so like the good son he was raised to be, he became the physician they wanted; (an emergency room doctor at Toronto East General). Now dad to three small children, he writes in “his spare time”.
I know, I know! How can a doctor daddy to three find time to write? Focus and commitment. Lam says he blocks out chunks of time, 3 hours this week, 6 hours next, and anytime the kids are away. The key is patience. It took him five years to complete his second critically acclaimed novel, “The Headmasters Wager”.
The charming Wayson Choy is aware his time management experience is ironic. He taught at Humber College for 37 years, while writing three award-winning novels, starting with the “Jade Peony” and ending with “All That Matters”. But since he retired and has all the time in the world, he has suffered from a debilitating case of writers’ block.
Outspoken Jan Wong built a reputation as a fearless journalist. She was a Globe and Mail star for years, while raising two boys and writing several non-fiction best sellers; “Red China Blues”, and “Jan Wong’s China”. Known for her direct, painfully honest prose, Wong says she tries to talk it through with someone to organize the material before she writes. Her recent Canadian best seller, “Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression”, is her most personally revealing work, and a rare window into the simmering kettle of high expectations, pressure, and addictive highs that come with being a high-profile journalist. I highly recommend it. The trio were billed as three of Canada’s top Chinese Canadian writers, I definitely found them to be three of the most inspirational.