MARNI BERGER interviews LINDSAY WONG
Lindsay Wong’s debut memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, selected for the 2019 edition of Canada Reads (where it was defended by fashion personality Joe Zee), longlisted for the Leacock Medal for humor, and awarded the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize. Wong holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. Her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee Journal, No Tokens, Ricepaper, and The Fiddlehead, and she has earned residencies from The Studios of Key West, Caldera Arts, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House, to name a few.
In this interview, long-time friends Marni Berger and Lindsay Wong span Portland, Maine and Vancouver, British Columbia via the beauty of the internet (as they have for the better part of a decade). They cover topics from sleeping on a mattress beside your grandmother during Hurricane Sandy to visiting your mother’s haunted playground in Hong Kong; and from avoiding self-promotion on social media to coming of age while writing a memoir.
Marni Berger (MB): We attended Columbia’s MFA writing program at the same time, both concentrated in nonfiction, and then swapped our writing with one another for the better part of a decade. I attribute so much of my success to your friendship and editing! Do you remember our long walks along Riverside Park with my dog (George Eliot)? They were full of dreamy musings. I treasure those moments in that place.
But NYC wasn’t all dreamy for you. You spent some time in a busy part of Chinatown living with relatives at one point, then in midtown at an internship at Random House, while you battled vertigo. Even at Columbia, your living situation wasn’t ideal at first—and included cockroaches and a violent roommate. Could you name a few different NYC locations that inspired your process as young writer, ones that made you persevere, whether they involved dreams or struggles?
Lindsay Wong (LW): Your literary friendship has been a dream. I am so lucky we met in Patricia O’Toole’s research seminar (we were assigned by a random number) and I owe you so much for your comments on my work. I think you read Woo-Woo in every form, and I am so grateful for your editorial feedback. New York was definitely difficult since I was struggling at the time with vertigo, and I would say Riverside Park was where I could relax from the stress of workshop and roommates. I think there were a lot more struggles than dreams.
In terms of places, I spent a lot of time indoors in my room because of health problems, and in hospital waiting rooms for doctor visits. I would sometimes visit the Columbia Student Health Center four times per week. These were all places that I would write about in my memoir: places of illness and uncertainty, not knowing whether I was having a psychotic break.
I also lived in the Lower East Side projects of Manhattan after graduation: my grandpa had died, and there was an extra mattress in my grandmother’s room. I shared a bedroom with my grandma, and that was a very interesting experience. During Hurricane Sandy, we had to evacuate and she refused, and I remember being stuck for three days without heat, running water, and electricity. My grandma and I took turns peeing in an ice cream bucket. It was hilarious and gross. That’s how I left NYC in 2012, and then I came back in 2018 to promote the memoir.
I think NYC hates me unfortunately. In November 2018, when I went to promote my book, my Airbnb reservation had been cancelled last minute. My flight was delayed. I couldn’t find the radio station for my interview. There was a blizzard, so the reading got moved and no one came. I guess I would say that NYC taught me to be able to write anywhere, in any situation.
MB: That reminds me of the saying that went around our nonfiction program—and probably elsewhere in the writing industry—which was something like, “The more tortuous the life, the better the memoir.” Would you agree?
LW: Oh, my God! Yes! Most of the hard work, struggles and misfortunes made it into the memoir, and I think I will have enough to write another one when I turn seventy. A calm, happy, peaceful life is boring and no one wants to read about that. Then again, having too much excitement leads to insomnia, TMJ issues, bad posture, and wrinkles. You’ll have a great memoir but look like shit! This year was horrible in terms of aging. I went to Hong Kong in March and tried five different kinds of anti-wrinkle cream. I’ll let you know what works!
MB: Good Lord, you do not need to try any anti-wrinkle creams!
I once had an advisor for teaching writing who said she simply couldn’t write on the days she taught because, and I’m paraphrasing what she said: “As a teacher, I can’t be as stupid as I need to be as a writer!” I took that to mean: as a teacher, she needed to have a sense of authority; as a writer, she needed that authority to break down, so she could discover a story. Do you feel like you need to have a sense of authority, during your writing process?
LW: That’s an interesting question. I feel that as a writer, you are the authority on the page. Your voice is the guiding force or is the device that is going to take readers from one paragraph to the next. If you don’t have authority, there is no voice or conviction. I think I’m largely introverted so my voice on page is way bigger than it is in person; I’m technically translating my thoughts. A good voice has conviction. Your character might be wrong, but they have to believe one hundred percent in themselves and the events unfolding around them.
I think a lot of people are scared about what others are thinking of them or how they will be read on the page. As I cheekily wrote in the beginning of the book, I dedicate this memoir to my past, present and future selves, so I tend to write for myself. I don’t really have an audience in mind. I’m the authority of my own life.
MB: You write both fiction and nonfiction—and in both genres the theme is always hovering that ghosts can cross continents to haunt us. Implicitly, your work covers the topic of inherited trauma—grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, who’ve fled war-torn areas, traveled from east to west and passed down trauma to children who are growing up in relatively safe areas. I’m thinking of Pot Mountain, Vancouver, as a kind of comical but safe place in your memoir—almost the opposite of war-torn in its level of peace so peaceful that you aptly describe it as a sort of boredom so bored it starts to circle back to trouble, violence, drugs and scandal. Is inherited trauma the theme you intend to follow when you sit down to write?
LW: It’s funny you ask because I never sat down to write about inherited trauma, which shows the unconscious power it holds over generations. I don’t think I even had a name for it—just the recurring motif of ghosts haunting family members as well as myself. I think that I witnessed family members suffering, and then I absorbed their stories and horrors through osmosis. It was almost something that I had to explore: Why is my family like this? Why are they so wound up and angry and upset? Why does the past have such a hold on my mother, grandmother? Now that I have a name for it, I want to explore that theme more. Writing, I think, is after all a search for identity and understanding.
If no one in the family wants to do the hard and dirty work of digging into secrets and discussing trauma, then it’s up to me. Don’t they say that a family is cursed if a writer is born into it?
MB: Either way, you’re very humble. Before The Woo-Woo was published, you told me you believed it was garish to post your awards or prizes on social media, because it could make other writers feel badly. But how did anyone discover you without you self-congratulating, at least on social media? Could you talk a little bit about how you got your book out into the world and still maintained your sense of self and humility?
LW: I eat my words now, M! I have posted on media about awards and prizes, but those are all public news. My guideline is, if it’s in the news already, it’s okay to share. I mean I still feel it’s garish to post about fellowships and funding. That should be private, and as writers, we are all applying for the same funding so I can see it being hurtful if you receive funding from the Canadian Council for instance, and someone you know has never received a grant from them.
Literary friendships, such as yours, have been one of the most sustaining things for me. Writing is solitary. It is hard and you will feel like shit when you get rejections (bound to happen). But writing friends totally get you, and they encourage you to keep submitting. The process of publishing is arbitrary, and just because one book does well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be okay. It resets back to zero once you have handed in a manuscript, and I think just knowing that everyone, all the writers that I know, are working hard at their craft—we’re being rejected every day and all in it together—keeps me real.
MB: I won’t hide your achievements: You have been involved with many prestigious residencies. What is it about going to a different place that fuels your writing?
LW: I began doing residencies because I didn’t have a place to stay, meaning I was so broke and unemployable that I was living with my parents after I finished my MFA. As a writer, you need your own quiet space to focus and create. If you read The Woo-Woo, you will know what I mean. No one should be living with my parents. Anyway, residencies offered free rent and sometimes meals, as well as a stipend. You also get to travel all over and meet some really cool artists and writers.
MB: Do residencies enhance that sense of camaraderie among writers?
LW: For sure. In Key West, some of the locals took the other artists and me on a boat on the first day of the residency and it caught fire in the middle of the ocean. We were stranded in the blistering heat for seven hours, and we all became quite close, even talking about who we would eat first. There’s nothing like being stuck with six strangers on a boat that makes you unusually close.
MB: You’re onto writing your second book—a young adult novel. How does generating this new work compare to writing The Woo-Woo?
LW: The YA book is so much fun! That’s probably because it’s fiction and I am not expected to expose myself on the page. Memoir is the hardest genre to write—if I had known that at twenty two, I wouldn’t have even tried. But then if I didn’t go to Columbia, we wouldn’t have met!
For my YA, I really enjoy crafting a younger, spirited voice that is a lot lighter and happier than that of my memoir. I’m really grateful to Jennifer Ung at Simon Pulse for giving me a chance to work on a project that is completely new to me.
MB: It’s interesting to me that you had never traveled to Hong Kong or mainland China when The Woo Woo was published. I know how deeply you research—you’re one of the hardest working people I know—so I wonder if this was an intentional choice. Did you decide not to travel to the places that have haunted your family members, the characters in your story, and—as you reveal in your memoir—you, while writing the memoir?
LW: I didn’t go to China for my memoir because during the time the book was set everyone was in Vancouver. While writing, all I had to do was ring up an auntie and ask them for dim sum. My mom’s side is in Canada, and my dad’s side is all over the United States, particularly NYC. My family fled China at the time of the Communists, so I’m not sure if it would have helped with the writing of my memoir, as none of it was set there.
For my fiction, which is mostly set in mainland China, my plan is to visit some day! Can you hear that, literary funding?
MB: You have been to Hong Kong, since the book was completed. Do you think this newfound knowledge of the geography, where your ancestors are from, would have changed how you wrote The Woo-Woo? Do you think it will affect future writing?
LW: Hong Kong was a really interesting trip. We visited my parents’ former villages—they have since been bulldozed and turned into restaurants and shops. My mom took us back to the ruins of her old elementary school, which is set on top of a graveyard on a mountain. True story, this gardener came out and was like: This place is cursed. Don’t pass this fallen tree. My mom and her classmates would climb on graves at recess, and my mom said sometimes kids would grab bones jutting out of graves and play with them.
MB: I don’t know if I should laugh or cry at this anecdote.
LW: I think this place had a lot of trauma for my mom, and I think if I had seen this before writing Woo-Woo, I would have understood more about her childhood and her upbringing and why ghosts are so important to her. I think I would have included more about this place, and I would have been more inclined to learn about the ghosts that surrounded her every day. Apparently, there were several suicides by an old tree and people said in the evening you could see people hanging there.
Caption: Lindsay Wong’s mother’s school (image by Lindsay Wong)
MB: In The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk writes that each novel has its own “secret center”—not an actual place, but a central wisdom that a novel imparts. He argues that the act of writing and reading is inspired by the hope in both the writer and the reader to find the secret center. Although it’s a memoir, not a novel, was there a point in writing The Woo-Woo that you noticed its secret center?
LW: I’m not sure if the “secret center” applies to memoirs since [a memoir] is an act of weaving together one’s life. But I do think the secret center lies in the memoirist discovering what their book is really about. At first, I thought I was writing a book about my aunt’s ordeal on the bridge on Canada Day 2008. Then I realized the book was actually about me, rather than the incident. It sounds obvious now, but I had thought the book was going to be about what happens when someone seemingly normal suffers a psychotic break, and the aftermath [of that].
Columbia University was where I realized there was so much mental illness in the family, and I think that comes through in the book when the character finally believes she has to leave Hongcouver. The book is about what happens when you find out your family is not normal. Your belief system and your way of being are totally fucked up. Then of course, you have the OMG sobbing moment—as in the book, when I cry on the subway stairs at Columbus Circle—and then you laugh about it.
MB: Does that make The Woo-Woo a coming of age book?
LW: It is a coming-of-age book in many ways. It’s about a young person changing and growing, for better and worse at the same time. It’s about transforming or moving onto the next transition of your life. You’re not fully the person that you will become or the person you hope to become, but it’s the cocoon phase. I hope I’m not a moth.
Lindsay Wong’s memoir The Woo Woo is available from Arsenal Pulp Press. Her debut YA novel The Summer I Learned Chinese is forthcoming from Simon Pulse in 2020.
Marni Berger is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Maine.