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Samantha Nutt dishes on why The Jade Peony deserves to win Canada Reads

Reading fiction has always been an addiction of mine. I blame my mother. When I was a child, she made a special event out of visiting the public library every alternate weekend to choose a new book. I remember spending hours (it was probably closer to minutes) lost in the stacks, trying to figure out which book among the dusty collections would find its way to my nightstand. The same book would often end up concealed under my desk at school, as I read great works of fiction through what was probably important instruction in long division, Roman numerals and the reproductive cycle of the honey-bee.

If there's one thing I've learned from my not-always-healthy-relationship with books, it is that Canadian fiction is full of literary treasures. Some are well known, while others enjoy a quiet prestige but are no less exceptional — the kind of book strangers catch you reading while riding the subway or sitting on a park bench, only to stop and say, "Hey, I read that too. Isn't it fantastic?" These are often my most cherished books: the ones that are discovered, then shared.

This, to me, is The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy. (The picture of me with Wayson was taken at the launch of Canada Reads 2010, when I met him for the first time.) Sure, as at least one journalist has been apt to point out, it's not exactly obscure. It's been added to many high school reading lists, has won multiple awards and has been translated into several languages. But when you stack it up against Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah book selection, or Douglas Coupland's Generation X — which became the lexicon that defined my generation — The Jade Peony emerges as the book that may surprise Canada Reads fans the most. And the great news for those discovering Choy for the first time is that he has published several subsequent books that are also well worth adding to your home library — both fiction and non-fiction — including a sequel to The Jade Peony, entitled All That Matters, which is beautiful and poignant and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2004.

I chose The Jade Peony for Canada Reads because, quite simply, it is a book that I truly believe all Canadians should read. Set in Vancouver's Chinatown during the Great Depression and the Second World War, it is the story of an immigrant Chinese family, recounted by the three children: Jook-Liang (Only Sister), Jung-Sum (Second Brother) and Sek-Lung (Third Brother).

As the only sister, Liang struggles to find acceptance within a traditional household that places a higher value on boys. She is one of my favourite characters in the book: she girlishly tap-dances to Shirley Temple songs while remaining determined, resilient and quietly defiant. Liang reminds me of Scout in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which was one of my most treasured books growing up and could explain why I loved The Jade Peony from the outset.

What makes The Jade Peony so enjoyable is that there is something paradoxically unique and yet so familiar about the Chan family's story of cultural alienation and acceptance, of "Old China" traditions versus "New World" ways, and of children who bridge these two divides as "neither this nor that." And at the centre of it all is Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, whose secrets, stories and superstitions are woven throughout the narrative in rich, colourful detail.

This book deserves to win Canada Reads for many reasons. It is beautifully crafted, poignant, lyrical, fascinating, funny, gripping and intensely moving. The Jade Peony also teaches us something about ourselves, as Canadians — about our history, our prejudices, our similarities and our differences.

When I read fiction, I want to be entertained but I also want to learn something. I want to lie in bed, the pages between my fingers, hoping I can stave off sleep for just one more minute because I'm enraptured. As the mother of an active four-year-old, I can't always make time to read anything longer than a newspaper column. So I save many books for long flights or my trips overseas — places where curfew begins when the sun goes down and the generator shuts off at 8 pm. In those environments, I want to be transported, as if I am caught up in another life and another experience altogether.

There is no book on the 2010 Canada Reads list that does this more successfully than The Jade Peony. Wayson Choy is truly one of Canada's greatest living writers, and I am excited (and nervous) to be championing this outstanding author.

 

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