Catharsis and reconciliation in memoir form

Vancouver-based Lindsay Wong’s debut memoir explores her childhood as a Chinese Canadian, as well as her family’s history of mental illness and intergenerational trauma. In the process of the book, Wong discovers catharsis, personal growth, and a heightened understanding of her family, and the nature of mental illness as a whole.

[Writing the book] helped me understand my mother and my grandmother and all the things that had faced them in the past,” says Wong. “They would talk about their childhood and that made me sympathize with them. They have suffered so much but didn’t have the tools necessarily to talk to a therapist, so that’s how intergenerational trauma is passed on.”

Wong will be discussing the darkly comedic memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family with fellow memoirist JJ Lee at the 2019 North Shore Writers Festival, held at The North Vancouver District Public Library, on Apr. 6.

The necessity of storytelling

Wong reveals a complex relationship with writing. Just as her family and other Chinese Canadians struggled to find a home within the mainstream cultural narrative of Canadian society, it also took her many years to get her story published. Publishers has told her it was too niche, not universal enough. In spite of this Wong persevered, and, before she knew it, her memoir was nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction before its release in October 2018.

“I always tell people, writing for me is not [about having] fun. I have a cavity and have to get rid of it, especially as a memoir,” Wong explains. “When I set my sight on something, I have to have that. I will do whatever it takes. That’s just my personality, but also writing, it’s an obsession. I was telling someone the other day, ‘I have to write,’ it’s just not an option. I’m miserable when I’m writing, and I’m really miserable when I’m not writing.”

Acceptance and perseverance

Lindsay Wong | Photo courtesy of Lindsay Wong

As with many stories and experiences there are silver linings to be found. Since Wong grew up in a tumultuous home environment where the prevalence of paranoia and rage would escalate to the point of becoming the norm, the criticism that she experienced as a writer was significantly less daunting. Having to take piano and join the hockey team also instilled in her a sense of discipline and commitment.

“I think hockey [especially] teaches a person discipline,” she says. “You have to wake up early, there’s a target and you know the only way it counts is if you actually hit the puck in the net, and that’s what life is in some ways for me, so that has really taught me determination. But in terms of family, I developed a really thick skin. So whatever someone said to me, it just bounced off. Sure, sometimes it hurt, but it just taught me you have to keep going. And I think in writing that’s really important. I’ve always felt that if I want something I can [either] get better at it, or not listen [to criticism]”.

In spite of an illness, vertigo, Wong was able to not only complete her memoir during her stay in New York City, but also her MFA in Literary Nonfiction at Columbia University as well.

Understanding Family and Mental Illness

Aware of the unavoidable “narcissism” that often comes with writing a memoir, Wong dedicates her memoir to herself in jest, but also wishes to make clear that she has also dedicated it to “anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.”

“I think that’s a larger part of being a part of two cultures,” reflects Wong. “You’re not quite Canadian; you’re not quite Chinese, right. This was my first time back in Hong Kong. I look like everyone there; I’m the same height and can fit all the same clothes. But at the same time my thinking and the way I talk is so different. I can understand a little bit of Cantonese, but I can’t fully articulate myself either. So it was like [I was] a foreigner but [I didn’t] belong there.”

While Wong’s ultimate goal was to simply finish the memoir, she admits she had no expectations about whether or not it would be well received. The most valuable outcome of the process was not so much its literary success, but the way it has both helped her better understand her family’s history of mental illness and the lives it has touched along the way.

“It helped me understand my mother and grandmother and all the things that had faced them in the past,” she says.

Wong has already begun her first fictional young adult novel, The Summer I learned Chinese, which is set to debut in 2020 through Simon Pulse publishing.

For more information on her appearance at the 2019 North Shore Writers Festival, please visit www.northshorewritersfestival.com.

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