Next month, five different books will be discussed and defended with the ultimate goal of narrowing it down to one book that all Canadians should read. That’s the idea behind Canada Reads, an annual book tournament televised on the CBC. This year’s theme is “one book to move you.”
This year’s contenders and their chosen books are:
- Chuck Comeau defending Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung
- Lisa Ray defending Brother by David Chariandy
- Ziya Tong defending By Chance Alone by Max Eisen
- Yanic Truesdale defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins
- Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong
Someone I follow on Instagram is actually the literary agent for The Woo-Woo and she mentioned it in her stories so I decided that that would be the first book I’d read.
The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong is a memoir of growing up in a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, believing instead that the afflicted person was possessed by ghosts. Lindsay’s mother was terrified of being possessed, taking her children to live in a mall food court for weeks at a time because the ghosts wouldn’t find them there. Her father used work as a solace, using his role as family breadwinner as an excuse for not dealing with any of the madness at home. To this day Lindsay doesn’t speak with her younger sister and her relationship with her younger brother is incredibly damaged. Her aunt once held the Lower Mainland hostage on Canada Day as she threatened to jump from one of the main bridges in the area.
That Wong manage to make it out alive at all is a testament to her strength. That she not only survived but was able to relive it all to write about it is something else entirely. While this memoir could be compared to Educated or The Glass Castle, I hesitate to make the comparison. For one thing, this book didn’t get to me emotionally like those books did. I don’t think that Wong is completely free of this story, I think she probably still lives it, so there’s an emotional distance that was likely necessary to write the book.
Reading about her childhood I felt anger and sadness for this little girl that couldn’t possibly understand how sick her family was. That there was no one at school, no friends, no friends’ parents who stepped in to offer Lindsay any kind of help, a place to go that was clean and safe. I’m still incredibly curious about how she has managed to become a functioning, capable adult from the violent, crass, unwashed teenager she writes about so callously.
The Woo-Woo is dark. I know it’s being billed as darkly humorous but I don’t recall laughing that much. What I felt was anger. Anger at her family, the city she derisively calls Hongcouver, at herself for not understanding sooner how broken her home life was. I had a hard time with some of the language used too. I have no doubt that it was accurate, that her parents absolutely used the word to refer to her but I hate the R word a lot and it was sprinkled liberally throughout. I like to think that it was a tough decision for Wong to include or not include the word but I still found it jarring to encounter it so often.
In the end, this was a horrifying look at the damage untreated mental illness can do, at the superstitions that can hold a culture hostage. But I’m not sure that The Woo-Woo has the emotional heft to win Canada Reads.