Lying on a bed in a Toronto intensive care unit in 2001—heavily sedated and hovering near death from a lethal combination of asthma attack and cardiac arrest—Wayson Choy listened as the voices of his parents and other long-dead elders echoed in his mind “like a chorus from an ancient opera.” The voices, as he recalls in Not Yet, his spare, subtle memoir of his ordeal, were picking up on a conversation that anyone but Choy would have thought was over four decades earlier, when he left home. Choy, a gay man, had always shrugged off the marriage question, so significant in his ancestor-centric Vancouver Chinatown; at 62 he remained single and childless.
But one reason Choy ranks among the finest writers in this country is his mastery of memory, of the ways we polish and shape those shards of it we keep alive. Always aware that the past never truly goes away, Choy was not surprised to hear the old refrains again: “One day you be old and sick and no wife be there for you. For sure, you marry or no one be with you. No son! No daughter! You die alone!” Maybe, he thought in an agony as much spiritual as physical, the voices were right. “Why would anyone be there for you unless they were blood-bound?”
Because they loved him, of course—though Choy, in a drug-induced stupor barely distinguishable from a coma, was in no condition to realize that people who cared for him were at his bedside. He had spent his adult life as an integral part of two families—young, heterosexual couples he met in his twenties. He had lived for decades, and grown old with, one in Toronto and another in rural Ontario; he was godfather to adult children in both. Sometimes, when the opiates were weak, Choy would see those loved ones in his hospital room, but the surety they gave of his not being alone first fully entered his consciousness at a key crossroads in his crisis.
During one of his “cardiac events,” to the dismay of his doctors, Choy refused to calm down. He was in the grip of a hallucination, furious at an imaginary black Labrador drooling on him. Then a woman’s voice spoke, and Choy ceased thrashing. He opened his eyes. The dog was gone, replaced by the very real fact of his goddaughter Tosh, a cardiac nurse who had flown in from Arizona and convinced Choy’s medical team to let her help at that moment. “Wayson, I’m here,” she said. He was suffused with joy: “Within me, the ancient voices of the elders were dumbstruck.”
It was a turning point, emotionally even more than physically. Soon afterwards a laughing orderly described the waiting room to the recovering patient. “Dozens of people. They all swear they’re family—all those white faces, those redheads and blonds. Only two of them were Asian.” Choy can’t even guess who those two might have been: Kerri, who’s Japanese? Korean Jean? One or both of the Richards, one Chinese, the other Caribbean-Chinese? How odd, the writer remembers thinking in one of the flashes of humour that grace his book, “they all look Asian to me.”
Such are the key moments in Not Yet, the instances that reveal the book to be far more the first half of its subtitle, A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, than the second. There is life-and-death drama but there are as many memories, especially of childhood—his own and his godchildren’s. In reality, the book is a tale of belonging and acceptance—written by a man who was born a “resident alien” in a Canada and at a time when by his very nature, ethnic and sexual, he could lay claim to neither. Not Yet is another building block in Choy’s astonishing, unique, ongoing, multi-volume, multi-genre portrait—two novels and two memoirs so far, all beautifully written—of who he is and how he came to be himself.
In Choy’s first book, The Jade Peony (1995), one of the novel’s three child narrators reflects back on her only adult friend abruptly returning to China, to see home the bones of the dead. “I did not then understand,” she recalls, “how bones must come to rest where they most belong.” That is one of the ties that bind Choy’s books: it is echoed in Not Yet as he describes his first-ever trip to China, to host a documentary about Confucius. His mind again reverberating with the cries of the elders—“You proud Chinese! You always be Chinese!”—an excited Choy was not prepared for the culture shock. He looked as if he belonged, but it was the Caucasian filmmakers, resident aliens in Asia, who could speak Mandarin. The ancestors were dumbstruck again. Coming home, Choy writes, “I knew with certainty where my bones belonged.”