Lindsay Wong: Room 43.3 Commissioned Author on Her Constant Tug-O-War with the Woo-Woo

Interview by 
Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros

Lindsay Wong's fearless writing and askew sense of humour chronicle adventures and disasters with copious amounts of playfulness and generosity.

She is the author of the #1 bestselling debut memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug-Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, which won the 2019 Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize and was named one of the Best Books of 2018 by Newsweek, CBC Books, the Globe and Mail, and the Quill and Quire. It was also a finalist for the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize and Canada Reads 2019.

In between Walmart parking lot holidays, Lindsay spends her time as a muscle for hire teaching writing workshops and editing manuscripts as a freelance editor.

She is the commissioned author for the upcoming Room issue, 43.3, on the theme of Neurodivergence, edited by Rachel Thompson and Meghan Bell.
 

ROOM: I imagine that writing this memoir must have been a very cathartic challenge. Why was it important for you to write this book? How did you begin? How does it feel to have such an intimate piece of writing published?

LW: Oh my god. Writing The Woo-Woo was so fucking hard. I don’t recommend writing a memoir unless one absolutely has to do it. Being naive and nineteen-years old at the time, I don’t think I fully realized what I had gotten myself into until it was much too late. The sorting hat at UBC’s creative writing program had placed me in the advanced nonfiction class and then it all went downhill from there. At Columbia, I was the youngest person in my MFA program, and everyone who was cool and thirty-years old was writing a memoir, so I thought I had to do one too!

It wasn’t until a professor told me that my graduate workshop submission was “an utter mess of raw talent”  that I found my voice. I decided to embrace the fact that I was a total, unmitigated disaster with an urgent story to tell about untreated mental illness and my Chinese family.

Haha, I didn’t think anyone except my agent and publisher would ever read my memoir. The Woo-Woo had been rejected thirteen times, and when I finally had an offer from Arsenal Pulp Press, I was just thrilled to have my manuscript in book form.  I even said no to having a launch party and when I received my author copies, I celebrated by eating a bag of gummy bears, a gallon of fudge brownie ice cream, and smoking a joint and cigar in private.

It feels very weird to have published such an intimate piece of writing. I’m naturally a shy person and I hate attention. This year, I had to switch manicurists twice because I was recognized at the salon. And when I was getting some work done on my sleeve, the tattoo shop owner recognized me from the CBC, and I was absolutely mortified. At literary events, I’m usually mistaken for authors Ann Hui, Doretta Lau, Carrianne Leung or Yasuko Thanh. I’m planning to blame any future bad behavior on them. ;) 

 

ROOM: Central concepts explored throughout your memoir include ‘The Woo-Woo’ and ‘mental illness’. How has your understanding of the two developed over the years?

LW: I know it’s shocking when I say that I didn’t really understand that mental illness existed until I began college, but it just shows how immensely monumental the impact one’s family has on them. Moving from the suburbs to Vancouver then to NYC and taking part in a lot of international artist residencies and sleeping on friends’ couches provided that distancing act needed to develop my own thinking. Being away from my family allowed me to write a book that showcased my own beliefs and helped untangle the supernatural Woo-Woo mindset that I had inherited from my family. I was very fortunate to be given space and time to figure out who I wanted to be, and if I could actually become a human being in my own right. Some people never have that opportunity, and for that, I’m lucky and grateful.

 

ROOM: Your book shares a candid recollection of your family life and developmental experiences growing up in Vancouver, in a first-generation Chinese immigrant family. How has this upbringing influenced the way you see the world? Do you find that the differences between your own beliefs and your family’s impact your personal wellbeing?

LW: It’s a constant tug-o-war. When I’m away from my family, I’m not questioning my own way of thinking about the world, but whenever I’m back home, I’m trying not to drink the Woo-Woo Kool-Aid. My family thinks everything can be blamed on the supernatural or because we angered a dead relative, but sometimes, a stomach ache is just from eating too much, rather than the wrath of a jealous ghost. We argue a lot and my parents are always like, don’t piss off the ancestors, be nice to your cousins, come vacation with us in the parking lot at Walmart, and lose some fucking weight. Like aiya, your face is getting so round. Asian families are always feeding you and then complaining that you look like Buddha. I guess it’s a matter of trusting yourself to make your own judgements about your personal wellbeing.

 

ROOM: What is one valuable lesson that your family taught you?

LW: Don’t be the slowest eater at the dinner table or there’ll be nothing left. I’m serious! I’d win an award for fastest eater if there was one. Also, my family has taught me the true meaning of grit and never giving up. I’m pretty determined as a person and as a writer, and I think one learns the meaning of survival when you grow up in a family like mine. I think I could possibly win The Hunger Games if I had no choice.

 

ROOM: As a second-generation Chinese-Canadian, living in a settler colonial society; how does the concept of ‘place’ impact your worldview, writing and wellbeing? In what ways are these aspects of your life influenced by diaspora?

LW: I grew up on Westwood Plateau or “The Poteau,” in Coquitlam  as I call it in my book, and it was a little enclave of funny, weird East Asians, where I didn’t really have to socialize with people who didn’t look or sound like me. In many ways, I grew up as part of the majority culture, and then I went to UBC (The University of Billion Chinese), where I was also surrounded by even more Asian culture. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City, when I attended graduate school at Columbia, and I was one of the only POCs in my class. It was really surreal and strange, having to always explain and define terms such as Chinese New Year or why the characters in my writing were “so foreign.”

One older white professor sat me down after workshop  and said to me, “We’re just not your audience.” And I was like, then why the hell am I paying you to teach me? 

Anyway, I think a lot of writing programs don’t know how to critique work about culture or race. I guess a lot of my writing grapples with what it means to be a Chinese millennial in North America. I really felt like “a fish out of water” at Columbia where I had to wrap my head around what it meant to be Other.  My Summer of Love and Misfortune, my debut YA novel, is forthcoming from Simon Pulse in May 2020 and deals a lot with cultural identity and diaspora from the point-of-view of an Asian-American teenager.  The book is fun and frothy, but it asks a lot of important questions about ethnicity, belonging, family, self-esteem and personal transformation---all meaningful themes in my life.

 

ROOM: You have shared some of your own experiences of the Woo-Woo, which followed you from Vancouver to NYC in the form of migraine associated vertigo. It seems that there really is a haunting quality to these health-related experiences. How do you care for yourself when you are visited by ‘The Woo-Woo’? Do you think it will always be a part of your life?

LW: Oh fuck!  I don’t want The Woo-Woo to be a permanent fixture in my life, but I’ll take Migraine Associated Vertigo since my condition is (hopefully!)  temporary. I’ve seen the devastating effects of untreated paranoid schizophrenia in my family and I’m fucking terrified. I don’t want to end up on the Ironworkers Memorial bridge like my auntie, but I read that schizophrenia can manifest itself anytime in females under 45. So I’m not going to celebrate my birthday until then (if I survive to age 45) and you’re all invited. I’m thinking of a seven-layer ice cream cake, paintball, some bungee jumping, followed by a few rounds of skydiving. 

When I’m visited by The Woo-Woo, I care for myself by sleeping a lot. I try not to stress myself out by overcommitting to social activities. I also can’t work full-time. Fatigue leads to massive headaches which results in varied episodes of MAV, which can last a week to several months. The worst part about MAV is being too dizzy and nauseous to read--text keeps moving all over the screen or on the page so I rely on audiobooks mostly. Too much reading aggravates my neurological condition.  If I’m in public and the room suddenly starts spinning or I see a giant object, like a chair or desk, hurling towards me like a meteorite, I don’t panic anymore. I know hallucinating is just part of the fucking headache. I don’t get embarrassed anymore if I lose my balance when I’m out on the street. By now, I'm practically an extra on The Walking Dead. I keep bouncing back!

 

ROOM: In response to the recollection of great trauma and pain, humour and sarcasm seem to be foundational tools in your storytelling. How has this helped you heal? What else has helped you through your journey of healing?

LW: I don’t know if I’m healed, but I think writing The Woo-Woo was a start to a very long, sometimes uncomfortable, revelatory journey. I feel like I have only scratched the beginning of understanding who I am, and what the effects of healing could be for me personally. Humour and sarcasm are old friends; it’s always been easier for me to crack a joke than sit down and have a serious talk about my feelings. It’s pretty uncomfortable for me to be like, “I’m a sad piece of shit today,” so I think The Woo-Woo was the first step in learning how to be vulnerable on page and in person. 

There’s something about memoir that dredges up a lot of important and sometimes terrifying WTF memories and I think self care is truly important in the act of writing one. In many ways, writing The Woo-Woo was a fuck you to ghosts and family secrets. My go-to recommendation for healing is dark chocolate, pot, and Cuban cigars. 

A few months ago, Doretta Lau and I were at the food court at Metrotown for a writing date and we were chatting about how there aren't a lot of resources to help writers stay sane while finishing a memoir. And we decided that we would host a workshop on Self Care for Writing Memoir on March 28, 2020 at the Creekside Community Center in Vancouver, B.C. I’ll be going through writing exercises that help people get through writing ugly scenes and Doretta’s going to be chatting about the best practices when tackling uncomfortable truths. We hope that people will feel empowered afterwards.

 

ROOM: Your memoir evokes thoughts of intergenerational trauma and intergenerational healing for me. How do you see these concepts playing out in your own family?

LW: I am not sure if the family will ever talk about the book. I know they borrowed it from the library but no one mentioned it afterwards. They won’t buy it because the $19.95 price is too hefty haha.

I don’t see intergenerational trauma and intergenerational healing happening if no one wants to talk about mental health in my family.  I mean, my parents decided to go to Hong Kong after swearing never to go back after immigration, just to escape Canada Reads. During the whole trip, we were all sort of pretending nothing was happening and that no one in Canada was talking about our family secrets. Many western readers have expressed shock that I’m still in touch with my family, but isolating yourself wouldn’t necessarily work for someone who was brought up in a highly conservative, traditional Asian family. This is because your Chinese family is a huge, sometimes ugly part of who you are, unfortunately.  

One hilarious thing is that my dad has started adding “please” and “thank-you” randomly to his texts and phone convos because I think he’s scared I might quote him. So it’s now like “That is so fucking stupid please and thank you!” or “Why are you so fucking late? Thank you please!” The Wongs might become more polite in the future, but I don’t see a whole lot of healing happening for us. But maybe manners are a promising start! 

 

ROOM: Thank you so much for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to our questions Lindsay. To close, I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom/affirmation for those who are, or have faced similar challenges and life experiences?

LW: When I was at a literary festival in Bali, a group of young women who attended high schools and universities in Jakarta and Singapore came to speak to me after my panel on mental health. Some of them were experiencing suicidal tendencies and depression and their school counsellors and parents were ignoring their pleas for help.  They said I was the first person they ever felt comfortable talking to about what was happening in their lives. I think these young women felt they could connect with me, as I am pretty frank and open about having a family that doesn’t believe in mental illness. It’s definitely a huge taboo in Asia to talk about mental health, and as we sat under this huge white tent in 40 degree C heat, a lot of them were getting emotional and crying, and of course, I was freaking out. I was like Oh my god, oh my god, please don’t cry! And please don’t ask me what to do because I’m still living it! 

Anyway, it felt like such an enormous responsibility to be the first Asian woman they had seen in real life be honest and personal about mental illness. I’m not a trained therapist or a clinical psychologist, so I don’t feel comfortable giving someone prescriptive advice about how to overcome a particular type of challenge or life experience. I also don’t feel wise or particularly encouraging, but I did pose the question: what can you live with, and what can’t you live with?  I think my general advice would be to find your joy; pursue what makes you happiest and relentlessly follow it. Also, explore your vices and don’t feel guilty about overindulging! <3

Random Parting Thoughts and Wishes:

My current fantasy is that a long lost distant relation might die one day and leave me a humongous pile of money and I can disappear to a private island somewhere and write three books/year. I’m happiest when I’m lost in a manuscript and left alone to work. So I hope everyone inherits a shit ton of money in 2020 and we all get at least one thing that we want. I also hope CanLit and readers take more chances on marginalized, diverse voices. I want all of us to thrive. 

Happy Year of the Rat! 

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Karmella and Room Magazine! 

 

 

Follow @LindsayMWong or visit https://lindsaywongwriter.com.

Order The Woo-Woo  

Pre-order My Summer Of Love And Misfortune here

 

Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros is a queer, inner-city Nêhiyaw and Afro-Brazilian Cafuzo. Born and raised in diaspora as a guest on the unceded Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam territories, she is currently finishing her BA at Simon Fraser University and working as a Youth Counsellor. Karmella also assists the Indigenous Brilliance reading series, a collaborative series between Room Magazine and Massy Books, celebrating Indigenous women/2SQ storytellers. Her own artistry is multidisciplinary, grounded in honoring and witnessing the beauty of her environment and communities. Karmella’s most recent work was featured in VINES Art Festival 2019. You can find her on Instagram @kc.bdb 

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