Author and UBC creative writing alum Lindsay Wong started writing her new book, Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality, by accident. She started working on the manuscript while querying for her debut award-winning memoir, The Woo-Woo. It was only after noticing an emerging pattern in her work that Wong realized she had a short story collection coming along.
A lot of dead people.
“Maybe that’s a theme I could pull on,” she realized.
After being raised on ghost stories, it just felt right.
“It just felt very natural for me to gravitate towards the supernatural,” Wong told me, “to gravitate towards family mythology [and] Chinese mythology.”
Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality is a collection of exactly 13 “immigrant horror stories.” Each story is set in a different universe, featuring a diverse cast of Chinese characters in bizarre, inexplicable and often spooky situations.
Yet, her stories are often as funny as they are frightening.
Wong tackles heavy subject matter throughout the collection. Her use of humour made the stories a little easier to stomach during nausea-inducing scenes and offered much-needed reprieve during traumatizing ones.
“The horrible is hilarious and the hilarious is horrible,” Wong said. “They go hand in hand.”
Wong often used supernatural horror as a metaphor for the everyday horrors that immigrants and woman of colour face, including intergenerational trauma, sexual assault and domestic abuse.
“As a woman of colour, every day life is horror,” said Wong.
Every story in the collection is rife with intergenerational trauma and complicated family dynamics. Often, these characters’ core wounds started forming in the womb.
As Wong put it, “In Asian-American and Asian-Canadian lit, we’re always writing about our mothers.”
Wong wanted to write about motherhood and daughterhood in ways that weren’t “necessarily cloying or sentimental.” The mother-daughter relationships in her stories brims with yearning, pity, resentment, admiration and everything in between. None of it is mutually exclusive.
“Our mothers really shape us whether or not we want them to,” Wong explained.
The complicated mother-daughter relationships in her stories are inspired by Wong’s own lived experience and fixation on whether her own mother would come back and haunt her.
“There’s this idea in [my] family that you never really die,” Wong shared. “The ancestors are always watching.”
Would she ever be rid of them? Would these horrible personalities ever leave her alone? Wong became obsessed. So, as many writers do, Wong turned her obsession into art.
Importantly, Wong’s characters are always complex and compelling outside of their roles as parents and children. She wanted to challenge the often overused and undermining tropes about Asian people, especially women, by portraying them as flawed as they are resilient. Many stories shed light on the marginalization and oppression that communities of colour face but Wong wanted to imagine her people beyond their victimhood; she wanted to highlight their ability to survive.
“If you lived forever, would you be happy or would you be sad?” she wondered.
She sought an answer to her question by writing about people who came face to face with the unpleasantness of eternal life. What is it really like being confined to that liminal space between life and death? And in that space where you’re stripped of both your humanity and mortality, how would you make your existence worth clinging to?
“Maybe you’d only want people to tell you pleasant things about immortality.”