Stories that Haunt Us: A conversation with Jamie Liew and Lindsay Wong

On April 5, the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration (ACAM) department invited Jamie Liew and Lindsay Wong, two female Asian Canadian writers, to a reading and discussion at the Arts Student Centre. The event title “Stories that Haunt Us” eloquently described common narratives and experiences surrounding immigrant decisions, trauma and mental illnesses — themes addressed in both authors’ work.

Liew’s upcoming novel Dandelion is about a woman searching for the story of her mother’s disappearance and tracing her migration journey back to Southeast Asia. Wong’s 2018 memoir The Woo-Woo tells stories of Lindsay’s childhood among "ice hockey, drug raids, demons and [her] crazy Chinese family."

Experiences of migrating from Asia to Canada often come at high costs to belonging, social status and generational connection. Emotions and traumas from migrant journeys can seem to become ghostly hauntings — mystical family stories used to explain away mental illness or other unexplainable occurrences.

For the reading, both writers selected passages that featured the mother character of their stories. Each passage took a nuanced tone in their representations of Asian migration, mental illness and motherhood.

Liew’s passage illustrated elusive memories of the cold north, set in a small British Columbia mining town. Meanwhile, Wong’s darkly witty passage set a scene of her mother taking her and her siblings to hide in the mall from ghosts who she feared would possess them.

After the readings, a discussion about the intersection of their works began. Moderated by Amanda Cheong, an assistant professor of sociology, the writers discussed how memories of their mothers' harsh, honest and humorous communication styles worked their way into their work.

Liew, with backgrounds in law and academia, spoke about the cathartic and healing power of creative writing. She described how creative writing allows her to approach her research on statelessness in Southeast Asia with a different perspective.

Then, the writers discussed the importance of building community within the Asian-Canadian writing circle, citing the richness of history and of our foreparents' stories.

In many Asian cultures, the ancestors often come manifested as ghosts. Homage and respect is paid to these ghosts and they in turn bless their descendants with protection and guidance. Though these ghosts can seem to haunt their descendants, the foreparents (in both the biological and literary sense) are also a vast source of knowledge and wisdom.

An emerging writer in the audience asked, “How can I keep searching for stories when I’m running up against ‘I don’t know’ walls put up by my family members?”

There seems to be no easy answer to the complexity of accessing family stories and histories, especially if those stories seem painful or shameful.

“Have you tried chatting over dim sum?” Wong responded.

As a first-generation Asian immigrant myself, I too wondered how I can connect to the stories that I’ve often neglected, the stories that haunt us — stories of family, home, identity and belonging.

While the book signing commenced, and the room erupted into inspired chatters, I picked up both books. Let this be a part of paying respects to my foreparents and understanding where my own story fits into the Asian-Canadian migration history.