Matilda Colarossi talks to Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo
Lindsey Wong’s memoir The Woo-Woo relates the journey from childhood to young adulthood of a first generation Chinese-Canadian and her “crazy” family. Crazy is a word that appears often in the text, but not in the sense we might use it, of mental health. For the Wong family, crazy means possession by the Woo-Woo ghosts: ancestors who can occupy any individual at any time, at the least sign of weakness.
So the Wongs must be strong, for the Woo-Woo – the source of evil, hallucinations, blemishes, outbursts, bad marks and suicide attempts – are always lying in wait. Everything that goes wrong in life is the fault of the Woo-Woo, and every member of the Wong family tries to run from the ghosts as best they can. They do so by camping out for days in a food court in the mall, or by going to the bathroom (were one is vulnerable) in groups. Or, like Lindsay, by going away to university.
The memoir begins with Lindsay suffering from an extreme case of vertigo while she is in college, far from home (and, she had hoped, the Woo-Woo). Her greatest fears seem to become reality, but she gets a surprise, and we start on a joy-ride that we wish would never stop. We laugh, cry and worry about Lindsay as she tries to integrate into a new world, but does not know how to leave the weight of old ghosts behind.
I spoke to Lindsay Wong, who lives in Vancouver, by email in June.
MC: In The Woo-Woo, we discover that you were diagnosed with a severe form of vertigo, which is what jump-starts the memoir. How are you now? What impact does your illness have on your new life as an author?
LW: Fortunately, I have been well, but the hectic touring schedule and media appearances have been tiring lately. A few days ago, I woke up with severe ringing in the ears and a migraine headache, so I’m going to slow down a bit and focus on my health. Going on book tour with vertigo is a lot different than being an author with vertigo, as it means having to leave the house (not in your pajamas) and doing a lot of public speaking.
And yet, when you discovered you suffered from vertigo, you say you were uplifted.
Severe mental illness has affected the women in our family, and when I was diagnosed with a verifiable neurological issue, it meant that I wasn’t having a psychotic break. It was a huge relief that the hallucinations were being caused by migraine headache rather than schizophrenia. The previous summer, my aunt had taken a major bridge hostage on Canada Day by threatening to jump, and I thought that I was also having an episode of psychosis. Unfortunately, I read somewhere that females aren’t safe from a schizophrenia diagnosis until they turn 45. On my 45th birthday, if I don’t have paranoid schizophrenia, I’ll have a huge party.
The Woo-Woo ghosts are everywhere and can get you into all kinds of trouble, right?
The Woo-Woo ghosts were blamed for everything in my family. If anything horrible or out of the ordinary happened, it was said that a ghost had caused it. As a kid, I remember getting a severe toothache after going to the graveyard to burn incense for our ancestors, and my mom said: “You are so weak! A ghost touched you and gave you this toothache.” Everything bad was blamed on ghosts, rather than not brushing your teeth and eating too much candy.
The dialogue in the book is spectacular. We can really hear your parents’ accent. How is it to grow up speaking two languages? Do you still speak Chinese?
I think a lot of immigrant children have this experience. You speak a particular way at home, but at school or at work, you adopt the mannerisms and linguistic style of your peers or co-workers. It’s almost like your brain automatically switches so you can communicate effectively with the people in your life. It’s a survival technique, I think. Language is a significant part of belonging to a culture, and to being both Chinese and Canadian. You are forced to adapt to your home culture as well as to your place of residence. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to speak Chinese anymore. In Montessori, we were discouraged from speaking Chinese, and I remember a teacher beating it out of me with a meter stick. They weren’t encouraging of bilingualism in those days. I can still understand a lot of Chinese, but I can’t pronounce it.
How have you negotiated that dual identity of both Chinese and Canadian?
I grew up Chinese-Canadian, meaning that I belonged to two vastly different cultures. Eastern and Western traditions are so opposite and contradictory. As a child of immigrant parents, you are being taught one thing at home, and something completely opposite at school. Chinese culture values stoicism, for instance, whereas Canadians tend to be very open about their feelings. It feels very chaotic if one is a perpetual alien in another culture’s home. You are forever learning what works for home and family culture vs. outside culture.
How can we help people accept cultural differences, and do books play a role in this?
By sharing new, diverse voices, writers and publishers can offer up an experience that is unique and distinct from other people’s imagined lives. For me, writing a memoir and offering it to the world is like giving a rare gift. Books provide us with an extraordinary look into a perspective or experience that we would normally not have access to. But when I was writing The Woo-Woo, I didn’t think about how the book would affect readers, and how people would react to it. I wrote the book for myself.
People say that writing is therapeutic. Did you exorcize the Woo-Woo ghosts by writing this memoir? And how did it affect your relationship with your parents?
In many ways, I was able to make sense of myself and my family members by writing the book. I was able to understand how the past informed our interactions and their behavior. I don’t know if one can make peace with the past, but you can learn from it – cry and laugh about it – and then hopefully move forward. There’s always absurdity in tragedy if you look for it.
I have Chinese New Year and Christmas dinner with my parents. We don’t talk about the book, but my mom recently asked me why it wasn’t in Costco. I think that’s her standard – if it’s not sold in Costco, it’s not good enough.
I know you have another book coming out soon. Would you like to tell us something about it? Is it, too, a memoir?
The Summer I Learned Chinese (the final title is yet to be announced) is a Young Adult book forthcoming from Simon Pulse in the Summer of 2020. It’s about a Chinese-American girl who fails everything, and her life implodes when she doesn’t get into a single college. Her parents send her to Beijing so she can reconnect with her culture and roots, and all sorts of really fun and crazy shenanigans happen. I don’t think I’ll be writing memoir anytime soon. Maybe when I’m 70 years old, when more life has happened. For now, I want my life to be boring and uneventful. I want to retire or take a long nap. ∎