The Next Chapter

Canada Reads author Lindsay Wong on writing away the stigma around mental illness in memoir The Woo-Woo

The Vancouver writer discusses why she uses dark humour to discuss mental illness.
Lindsay Wong's memoir The Woo-Woo will be defended on Canada Reads 2019. (CBC)
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Lindsay Wong is a Vancouver-based author. She holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University.

Her first book, the memoir The Woo-Woo, is a darkly comic story of her dysfunctional family who blame their woes on ghosts and demons. The Woo-Woo was a finalist for the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It is currently one of the five finalists on Canada Reads  2019, where it will be defended by fashion journalist Joe Zee during the debates.

The Canada Reads 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 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Wong spoke to Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter about The Woo-Woo.

A definition

"The Woo-Woo refers to Chinese ghosts in my family. The book is about growing up in a very traditional Chinese family that doesn't believe mental illness exists. I guess it's a metaphor for anything that goes wrong in your life and you don't have a name for it.

"I think, in Chinese culture, we tend to not talk about things. There's this element of secrecy and shame. Mental illness is one of those things that make people afraid to speak out. It's something that's not generally acknowledged and it's often dismissed. If someone's feeling depressed or has anxiety, it's considered an outside force or it's blamed on the person who is not strong enough to overcome that problem. It's a real taboo."

In isolation

"We were very isolated in my Vancouver suburb. My connections were mostly my cousins or with my extended family. When you grow up and enter high school there's media influences, there's TV. Then when I went to university as an undergraduate. That was where I realized that other people don't do things like my family did.

"It was sometimes very terrifying and very strange. We would go to my grandmother's house and she would be attacking appliances and screaming about ghosts or hallucinations. And as a child, you're not quite sure what's going on. That was something that formed my own fear and paranoia. It's interesting having that experience."

Serious and absurdist 

"The Woo-Woo started off as a very different book. It was very serious in tone and I actually didn't know it could be funny until I moved to New York City. There's something about that city that brings out this absurdist in everyone. You know when there's something horrible you have to be able to laugh at it.

"Humour, for me, has always been a coping mechanism, sort of as a way to be able to not cry when things are horrible. The book actually started out with a lot more jokes. I ended up cutting a lot to find a balance between striking an emotional chord and appealing to the reader through humour."

Lindsay Wong's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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