Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (1995)

Click the image to read a neat story about how Jessica Sullivan designed the cover


I first heard Wayson Choy read from his work about ten years ago, and he told a story about beginning to write, about a class he took and about the advice his teacher had given him. This class was in 1977 and I don’t remember the other details he was relaying about it, but I remember that the audience released a collective knowing chuckle when he was very nearly finished this story and he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that his teacher had been Carol Shields.

It was obviously a pivotal moment in his writing career, but I think the way in which he described it is very revealing: the bit that makes the story stick, arguably the heart of the story, is something you have to wait for, steadily building throughout and then suddenly and fully felt.

Perhaps that requires trust on the reader’s part but both in person and in print Wayson Choy’s presence pulls you in; there is a solidity (and, paradoxically, also a vulnerability) to his style that pulls the listener, the reader, along, and that trust is rewarded.

After he told that anecdote in that way, I felt that his having announced the name of his teacher sooner would have stolen some of the story’s power and I frequently felt that way while reading TJP as well, as though the way in which a certain part of the narrative was presented was the only way it could have been told, the way it deserved to be told.

There is another reason why I mention this experience of having heard him read that evening, for in that story he was the student. In 1977 his teacher, Carol Shields, had published a couple of volumes of poetry and some criticism and just two novels and it would be two years before the writing Wayson Choy presented to her was published; she had not yet won the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, the Charles Taylor Literary Prize, the Arthur Ellis Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award or the Governor General’s Award or been shortlisted for the Booker.

When Wayson Choy told that story at that reading he had published TJP and his memoir, Paper Shadows was published in 1999; he had not yet been nominated for the Governor General’s Award or for the Giller Prize or been named to the Order of Canada, had not yet received the additional honours that I’m certain await.

Wayson Choy began publishing relatively late in life (he was born in 1939 and TJP was his first novel) but the recognition he has received for the four books he has published has been impressive indeed; there are likely already writers telling stories somewhere about how they first began studying with this writer (he still, in fact, does teach at the Humber School for writers) when he had only published a book or two, when his name was not so well known in the literary world, about the impact that working with him had on their own work. But I’m sure there will be more stories told, as recognition of his work stretches further.

And certainly TJP‘s nomination for 2010’s Canada Reads will aid in that effort, the program being designed to encourage reading and book sales. It can have a dramatic impact on book sales; take Jacques Poulin’s novel Volkswagen Blues, which would normally have sold only about 200 copies a year, which sold 7,500 copies in 2005, between the announcement of its inclusion in that year’s Canada Reads and the actual series airing a few months later.

Unquestionably, The Jade Peony will reach more readers just for being nominated. But of course there will be a contingent of participants who will doubt whether it should be chosen for the book that the whole country should read. If you want to know some of the reasons that some readers might resist, click the Continue Link that follows.

Reason #1 Not to Read The Jade Peony?

“There was a local Vancouver by-law against begging for food, a federal law against stealing food, but no law in any court against starving to death for lack of food.” 10

—> You’ve read tonnes of Canlit in which people suffer. There’s a reason why Roughing it in the Books includes a death count with all her New Canadian Library posts. Starving to death might not be the most plot-soaked of the bunch, but you don’t need to read TJP to know the harshness that is Canlit.

But wait, there’s this:

“Father had splurged on groceries: a bare long-necked chicken’s head, freshly killed, hung out of the bag he had carried home. Poh-Poh also unwrapped a fresh fish, its eyes still shiny. Once it was cooked, Kiam and Jung would fight over who would get to suck on the hard-as-marble calcified fish eyes.” 11

—> And you thought everybody was starving to death for lack of food? Well, actually, I might, if these were the only things on the menu, but that’s food for another blog. The point here is that WC has a way with language that stands out and he makes this story live beyond the page. Do I find this image upsetting? Yes, for more than one reason, but the point is that I can feel those fish eyes on my tongue. Will I remember this particular image a year from now? Maybe not, but there are countless examples of this kind of versimilitude: I don’t have to hedge my bets on whether a single one has sticking power to know that this book is unforgettable.

Reason #2 Not to Read The Jade Peony?
—> If you have to read a story about suffering, why read the same instances described three different times in three different suffering-filled ways?

But wait, there’s this:

I’m an only child, but I don’t need this spelled out for me: three children in one family will undoubtedly have three different perspectives, which may bear only passing resemblance to each other. I’m going to go out on a literary limb here (and perhaps this will reveal a certain bias towards TJP on my part, but oh well) suggest that the wider concern should be that any book that features characters with siblings and that presents its story through the eyes of only one, single unreliable narrator is leaving out at least half the story.

Reason #3 Not to Read The Jade Peony?

Sihk faahn mai-ahh? Have you had your rice yet? Father asked, using a more formal phrase than Stepmother’s village Haeck chan mai-ah! greeting — Eat dinner, yet!  17

—> Vancouver’s Chinatown in the late 30s and 40s is not a world that most readers will recognize: both time and place are too-far removed from most readers’ experience and filling that gap will take constant explanation and the degree of unfamiliarity will interfere with the story.

But wait, there’s this:

“It seemed he could not stop his chanting nor his heart’s rapid beat, nor could he let go his hold on me. I only knew to hold him tighter, lean into him like a cat, a tiger, catching the herbal scent of his body. The air felt hot.”  25

—> So you don’t want to hear Poh-Poh’s stories about Monkey King, or know that leaving a grain of rice on your plate could consign you to a pock-marked spouse. Doesn’t matter: if Wong Suk and Jook-Liang can go to see Robin Hood movies because they are so much like the heroes of old China, there’s obviously more overlap than you’d think. And, anyway, that’s all about the details: the big stuff, the important themes, the life and death stuff…that’s ever-recognizable.

Go ahead: toss me a reason…I’ve got another one to toss back. This was a re-read for me and although I was expecting to both enjoy it and be impressed by it this time around, as I had been so many years ago, I found it far, far, far more enjoyable and impressive than I was expecting.

I heart The Jade Peony. Do you, too? Or have you had another amazing re-reading experience?