'Real life is stranger than fiction': Joe Zee & Lindsay Wong discuss her memoir The Woo-Woo
Fashion journalist Joe Zee is defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong on Canada Reads 2019. The darkly funny memoir describes Wong's surreal childhood growing up in a family that blames mental illness on the "woo-woo" — mystical ghosts that play havoc on the mind.
The Canada Reads 2019 debates take place March 25-28, 2019. They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 3 p.m. (3:30 NT), be live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.
Joe Zee (JZ): I said this to you when I first met you: Real life is stranger than fiction. If you wrote this as a fictional novel, I would say this is absurd. There's no way any of this could have happened. When did you realize that your life was just not the typical, normal life?
Lindsay Wong (LW): I first realized my life is not normal was when I was in college and we had to write profiles about our family for a creative writing class. Everyone was like, "That's your aunt? Is that what you guys do normally?" And then it sort of dawned on me that we're not normal. We're kind of crazy. I wrote the book and then I got more feedback from agents from readers and people were astonished. They said, "Your life is really strange."
JZ: I love that it took fellow classmates to tell you that your aunt standing on a bridge on Canada Day in Vancouver, shutting down traffic and threatening suicide, is not a normal everyday occurrence.
LW: For me, it was normal growing up for people to tell me they wanted to kill themselves. That's the part of mental illness that affected my family and myself growing up — to realize it wasn't normal really shook me.
JZ: Mental health is really the overarching theme of your book. The idea of the woo-woo, which is a term coined by your parents to say that there were ghosts ravaging the minds of your aunt, your mother and your grandmother. It wasn't explained away by science or medicine but it was explained away by supernatural possession of some sort. What did you hope to do by shedding light on mental health and mental illness by writing this book?
LW: I think there's a huge stigma about mental health that affects everyone, not just Chinese Canadians. With this book, I want to start a discussion about it. I want people to not be afraid to talk about depression. Do not be afraid to talk about anxiety. Be OK with seeking help.
JZ: I love this book for this particular year because the theme is "one book to move you." I feel like your book has moved me in a way that it is heartbreaking and touching, but it also moves you to take action. The stigma of mental health makes people recoil, when really they should be standing up and saying, "Hi, I need help. I'm not OK." I think that's a hard thing to do, especially in Asian culture.
I always say this about Asian culture: we don't feel, we just live.- Joe Zee
LW: I think in Asian culture we tend to dismiss it or push it down and not talk about our feelings. I think that sort of exacerbates mental problems.
JZ: I always say this about Asian culture: we don't feel, we just live. We don't come from a family where your parents say, "We love you. We're so proud of you." Those things are not prevalent in Asian households and it may seem so cruel and cold-hearted, but when you grow up with only that, it's all you know.
The way you wrote the book was so fun and smart and funny and dark at the same time. I found the book heartbreaking, but yet laughing all the time. After I read the book I was saying to somebody that I actually felt guilty that I was laughing at the darkest moments in Lindsay's life. And they responded, "I think Lindsay wanted you to laugh." How did you balance the heartache and the pain with the humour in the book?
LW: For me, I've always had to laugh at something horrible. Otherwise, it would be impossible to get through something like that — especially a childhood where you're facing family members with suicidal tendencies. Being able to make myself laugh and hopefully make readers laugh is something I went really wanted to do.
JZ: I just urge readers to pick up a book because there are so many moments in it that just make your heart hurt. I mean your mom tried to set your foot on fire and she didn't think she was wrong.
LW: No, she was angry. She was frustrated. Coming from that immigrant standpoint, she was just like, "I need to get my daughter out of bed." To her, it was the fastest way. If you're not able to laugh at that moment in your life, when you look back on it of course, then you probably can't get through the day.
For me, nothing is sacred.- Lindsay Wong
JZ: Was there anything when you were writing this book that you said, "I just can't talk about that. It's too painful. It's too dark. It's too absurd." Or were there just no limits?
LW: For me, nothing is sacred. I will write about anything and everything that comes my way.
JZ: Then were you nervous when it got published? This is a real cast of characters and these characters are your family. Were you nervous when the book was being published and coming out that these stories would affect them?
LW: I actually didn't really think anyone would read it. The book was rejected so many times. Finally, when I found a publisher I was just so happy that someone wanted to read it. Then, all of a sudden, I was nominated for an award and Canada Reads happened and I was like, "Oh, I guess people will read it."
JZ: It was rejected how many times?
LW: Thirteen times. We were told that it was too unconventional, too weird, too niche, that no one would want to read this. But this book, I think, affects everyone, not just Chinese Canadians.
JZ: So after being rejected 13 times, did you ever want to just give up?
We were told that it was too unconventional, too weird, too niche.- Lindsay Wong
LW: I have always been a very persistent person. For me, [giving up] was not an option. I was like, "I'm going to try every publisher in North America and see what happens." I felt really strongly about this book because I had put a lot of effort into it. It was my thesis from grad school. I'd worked on it, I don't know how many times. It was something that I just had to get out.
JZ: Has anyone in your family read the book?
LW: I honestly don't know. I think they got it from the library because they said it was too expensive at the bookstore. Then there was silence. So we don't talk about it — we pretend it doesn't exist.
JZ: Now I am getting ready to defend The Woo-Woo on Canada Reads. What advice do you have for me?
LW: Just take a lot of notes. The other panellists are, I think, really prepared. I think you already understand the book really well and you already have the passion for it.
JZ: What is the one thing that you want everyone out there to really know about your book?
LW: I know a lot of people might be turned off by the characters, but hopefully they can see past that and understand this book affects them and affects anyone who has a crazy Chinese family.
JZ: Or a crazy family at all!
Joe Zee and Lindsay Wong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.