In each issue of Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, novelist Farzana Doctor recommends Wayson Choy’s Not Yet (Random House, 2009).
I’ve been a fan of Wayson Choy’s work for years. His first novel, Jade Peony, and its sequel, All That Matters, were my introduction to Vancouver’s Chinatown of the 1930s, a Canadian history I’d never learned in school.
Back when I was struggling with my first novel, Stealing Nasreen, I sought out opportunities to hear Choy speak. I heeded his stern advice on editing and returned to my manuscript revisions with renewed vigour. At one talk, he spoke about feelings of self-doubt, of not being “a good enough writer,” despite having written three books by then. His feelings mirrored my own, and his words were a great comfort. I suppose I was looking for an authorly role model, and although we’d never actually met, I silently claimed him as one.
Almost two years ago, a mutual friend invited me along to Sunday dim sum with Choy. I struggled with my shyness, but Choy’s genuine hospitality eventually put me at ease. It was just a few months before Not Yet’s release, and he shared anecdotes that had inspired the memoir.
Not Yet is about Choy’s brush with death after a combined asthma-heart attack in 2001. He details his darkest days when he is unable to move or speak. He suffers through ICU psychosis, becoming the victim of an imaginary torturer who steals water when he is most thirsty. There are funny and self-deprecating accounts of recovery: being bathed by hunky male caregivers and struggling and failing to avoid his over-working and clutter-bug ways.
Not Yet is also a love letter to his chosen family and caregivers. While he rests, the voices of his ancestors chide him for not marrying and warn him about dying alone. But each time he awakes, someone — a long-time friend, a godchild, a helper — is standing by his bedside.
When he is back on his feet, he travels to Vancouver. An old friend, the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant, informs him that two “Hungry Ghosts” are trailing him. They are spirits who came back with him when he almost died. Although skeptical, he follows strict instructions to exorcise them.
This was one of the anecdotes that captivated me during our dim sum brunch. He described the restaurateur’s worried expression as she pointed out the young man and older woman Choy couldn’t see. I got chills imagining the scene in a restaurant not so different from the one in which we sat. I squinted at him, trying to get a glimpse of any smoky spirit energy that might be hovering nearby.
As we polished off our meal, Choy surprised me by insisting that he didn’t believe in ghosts. I was stunned. How was it possible for him to tell such a compelling tale and not believe?
Indeed, Choy’s ghosts turn out to be the climax of his story: the truth-tellers against his denial, dire warnings about what he must to do to survive his illness, ominous contrasts to his loving chosen family. A gifted storyteller, his ghosts are very real, even if he doesn’t believe in them.
Farzana Doctor’s first novel, Stealing Nasreen, was released in 2007. Her second book, Six Metres of Pavement, will be released by the Dundurn Group in 2011.