Monday, February 8, 2010

Wayson Choy Double-Header

Ok. I know. I suck at blogging. Whatever, I have been really busy. And it isn’t that I haven’t been reading, I just haven’t been blogging. So to kill two birds with one stone, I am going to sneak in 2 books in one post. This actually is ok, since they are by the same author.

So early January, I went to the EPL and put all the Canada Reads books on hold (I actually had to sign up for a library card to do this…) while I was there, I got in a discussion about Wayson Choy with the librarian and she convinced me to pick up Not Yet while I was waiting for a Canada Reads book to come in. Though this challenge means I usually stick to one book by one author, I was intrigued and I have never read Wayson Choy, so I thought I could handle two of his. As luck would have it, The Jade Peony ended up being in the first wave of books to come in so I read two Choy books back to back.

Not Yet is Choy’s autobiography on his two near-death experiences and then the recovery from his extended hospital stays. It is fascinating and beautifully written and I think I would have got even more out of it if I had been a Choy fan before reading it. Either way, I loved it. Choy is witty and humorous, but still emotional. Choy has no immediate family and is not married (or partnered to someone- he is gay). There are some very touching moments that occur when he realizes that his “family” is strong and loving. With a close group of friends, he is not going to die alone, instead will have his make-shift family close by. It is a great autobiography that also provided some insight into his other novels.

Half way through reading it, the Canada Reads books started pouring in and since I was loving Choy so much, I decided to pick the Jade Peony to start with. The Jade Peony is the story of a family in Chinatown in Vancouver. It is broken into three sections and follows three of the children of the family through parts of their lives. The story really captures what life was like in Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s. We get snippets of news stories to help us place the world in context- news from China on the war with Japan, the Pearl Harbour bombings, etc.

It is tough to compared non-fiction autobiography to a fictional story (especially since parts are written from the point of view of a young girl), but Choy’s writing ability shone through in both books. I missed the wit and humour of Not Yet, but the complexity of the characters and the notion of family and identity rang true throughout both books.

The Jade Peony is probably the first novel I have read about Vancouver’s Chinese population and it was really very fascinating. The notion of being trapped between two worlds- the old country and the new- even for second generation immigrants is so well captured. These themes are so prominent in many Canadian novels- as we are a country built on immigration and really, starting not that long ago (compared to some places). Even Native literature demonstrates a constant struggle between old customs and new lifestyles (see any book by Thomas King). It is why “Canadian” is such a hard identity to describe.

Anyway, to avoid having the longest blog post of all time, I will conclude by saying I am so glad I was introduced to Wayson Choy and both his books are wonderful- in different ways. Check him out- you won’t be disappointed.


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