Wayson Choy’s life-affirming new memoir Not Yet describes his near-death experiences and the ghosts they summoned
Whether it is to explain the inexplicable or to insert themselves into places where history has forgotten them, ghosts are powerful figures in much literature by North Americans of Asian descent. Such Asian American and Asian Canadian authors as Maxine Hong Kingston, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, and Paul Yee often employ ghost imagery in their narratives to detail the forgotten and repressed. Likewise, ghosts haunt the landscape of Wayson Choy’s new memoir, Not Yet (Doubleday, $27.95, due out April 11). The author, who turns 70 this year, offers his reflections on being surrounded and supported by ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, in his much anticipated work, which, as the subtitle indicates, is “a memoir of living and almost dying”.
In this slim, graceful book, Choy details two near-death (or, as Choy says in a conversation with the Straight, “near-life”) experiences, the first of them happening in 2001, during the writing of his second novel, All That Matters, the companion to his groundbreaking 1995 book The Jade Peony. Whereas his first memoir, 1999’s Paper Shadows, explored the ghosts that haunted his Vancouver Chinatown childhood, Not Yet brings to the forefront the ghosts of Choy’s adulthood, which followed him from Vancouver to Toronto to China and back.
“I wrote this book to discover what I at last understood about almost dying—what did my life mean to have survived two near-death experiences,” Choy tells the Straight. “All memory and reflection return us to life, not away from it.”
In the summer of 2001, as Choy was preparing to leave his Toronto home for a writing retreat in Massachusetts, his lungs tightened. Even though he was experiencing a life-threatening asthma attack, all he could think about was the deadline for his book manuscript. He writes about the simultaneous agony of the deadline and of his breathing with the humour, irony, and profundity that readers have come to expect in his works.
Hospitalized for this asthma attack, Choy had a heart attack just a few days later, and slipped in and out of consciousness. He began hearing voices and having hallucinations—the type of reaction one often has to heavy medication. He would make note of strangers and loved ones who surrounded his bed.
As he recalls in Not Yet, “I struggled to pronounce a salutation remembered from my Chinatown childhood, ”˜Ten thousand blessings from my ancestors to yours!’ ” These random thoughts from the past are interwoven with Choy’s descriptions of heightened sense perceptions. A touch here, a gesture there would either invoke ancestral voices or wipe them away.
“I believe my fiction and creative nonfiction give to sympathetic readers the possibility to identify themselves in personal and universal ways with the past,” Choy tells the Straight, describing the breadth of his work. “Behind every individual history, the living imagination knows there is so much more to expose and explore and, with some humility, to forgive, if not to understand.”
In Not Yet, Choy’s awareness of his body’s limitations and failures—and of its eventual yet slow recovery—allowed him the space to reflect on mortality and posterity. His life no longer safely held in his own hands, he realized that each individual’s history—the worth of one’s life—comprises others’ histories and perceptions. With this realization, Choy lays out the chapters of his life that brought him to this moment. The characters in Choy’s memoir speak against the warning put forth by his Chinatown elders that he would die a lonely man, without any blood relatives by his side. Even though they’re not related by blood, their histories and the author’s are inextricably linked.
After his recovery, Choy flew to China to be filmed for a documentary about Confucius. This was the moment at which he began to confront his ghosts. Throughout his life, Chinatown elders had told him that China was where he truly belonged—where he would be accepted and understood. Yet Choy was steadfast in his conviction that he was Canadian. During his trip, his ambivalence ended with certainty. As he writes in Not Yet, “somehow a legacy was left to me through two thousand years of history, down through the words of my father that flew past my know-it-all ears, and finally through the civilized ways in which my mother and father and the community of Vancouver’s Chinatown had nurtured my in-between generation.”¦An unbroken chain of human intention had at last become a part of me.”
Upon his return, Choy had a renewed motivation to finish All That Matters. He travelled to Vancouver to conduct more research. It was during one of his customary meals with his friend Larry Wong at a Vietnamese restaurant on Commercial Drive that the restaurant’s owner took notice of Choy’s other companions at the table—two figures whom the author could not see. The owner said that Choy would have to get rid of the ghosts—ghosts that Choy believes were his biological mother and his boyhood crush—before he would be able to move on with his life and his book.
“I find myself as a writer haunted by ghosts, but as an educated person, I don’t believe in them,” Choy tells the Straight.
Have the ghosts gone away? “I’m told they have left me,” Choy explains, “but still others claim they see or sense guardians, spirits, or auras around me. I’m not sure what to make of all this, but I’m grateful for any benevolent signs that support my present condition. Just because I don’t see them doesn’t mean that I should deny their existence.”
As described toward the book’s end, in 2005 Choy found himself back where he started: in a hospital bed after a second heart attack, again facing death. Yet one thing was made even more certain, and that was his drive to explore his life and mortality with greater nuance.
It was in the spirit of remembering, recovering, and renewing that Choy penned his lucid memoir. “I wrote every chapter as if I were not dying at all,” he tells the Straight, “but taking flight.”