This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
Canada loves to read about “the immigrant experience” to the point that we have made it into a CanLit product and while Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony is on a lot of reading lists for that purpose, the stand-out about this treasure is simply pure story-telling. The day-to-day stories told by Jook-Liang, Sek-Lung and Jung-Sum, whose voices narrate one-third of the book each, and their confused love and anger at the venerable old one—Poh-Poh—the admonishing grandmother from China, speak to all. We first hear from a girl child who has new world Shirley Temple dreams as she is told to stay Chinese and besides which, girls never amount to anything. We meet Jook-Liang first as she dismisses her stupid brother for whacking heads off toy soldiers. There is Jung-Sum who finds his hands of silk want to explore the bodies of other boys and quickly learns to keep this urge stacked in the ever increasing pile of secrets his family denies and lives with each day. Then there is the head-chopper, Sek-Lung, who meets the enemy Japanese in the same city in which he lives. How is it possible that his babysitter could love one of them? And how could love involve so much blood?
Of course Jade Peony is a “great read” as you are grabbed and pulled into Vancouver’s Chinatown of the 1930-40’s but if you’ve ever had a chance to hear Wayson Choy tell these stories, you know that words on the page become magical words spoken—perhaps the truest tests of wonderful stories.
Laura Robinson is a former member of the national cycling team, former Canadian rowing champion, and Ontario Nordic ski champion. The Vancouver Olympics was her fifth to cover as a journalist. She coaches the Anishinaabe Nordic Racers at Cape Croker First Nation Elementary School in Ontario.