BWS 13.01.16: C. Fong Hsiung

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C. Fong Hsiung, a Hakka Chinese from Kolkata, India, immigrated to Canada in 1977. She has published a novel, Picture Bride, and a short story, “Alfie”. Part-time writer, full-time accountant, Fong prefers words to numbers. She is learning how to speak and write Mandarin. Her creed for life: never stop learning.

Fong stops by the blog this week with a guest post and a clip from a recent TV interview ahead of her January 13 visit to Brockton Writers Series.

Are You Born to be a Writer

Are you born to be a writer? What clues throughout your life hinted at your love for words? What compels you to write?

When these questions pop up on social media and in blogs, writers everywhere cover their head with a blanket to gaze into their navel. Then when they emerge, they weigh in with profound insight about all the signs that led to this one and only path.

And this accountant is no different.

I spent many months in boarding schools during my formative years in India. While in Classes Seven through Ten, I remember borrowing a book from the library every week. I devoured works by Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and numerous other authors of that ilk.

Once a day the boarders went to the playground. I smuggled a book in my tightly belted navy blue tunic, shielding my bosom from projectiles aimed at eliciting—God forbid—physical activity from me. While the rest of the girls screamed and dribbled or passed balls around, I stood with my back to them, arms over the fence. I pretended to look down at the winding mountainous roads, and read my book instead. Sometimes when the supervising teacher caught me, I’d dimple at her sweetly and lie. “Please, Miss, don’t make me play. I have to finish Tess for my book report tomorrow.” For some inexplicable reason Miss Das, my physical education teacher, always let me off the hook; I never got into trouble for reading during her watch.

The same boarding school also gave me myopia, my life-long companion. Sister William ran our dormitory with military precision and turned out the lights at 8:30 every night. Each semester the girls asked, “Could we please stay up for another half hour?” Her response never varied. She narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Then her mouth, like a cleft in her veil-framed face opened. “No,” she said through pursed lips, and that ended the pleas. A dark dorm was but a minor stumbling block. I resorted to sneaking a flashlight underneath my bed covers as soon as Sister William closed her door for the night. I had books to read and pages to turn.

It’s not surprising then that my role models were my English teachers. I craved their approval over any others’. If you were a fly in my eighth grade classroom, you’d hear Miss Fernandez say, “As long as I’m your English teacher, you will write one essay a week.” While these assignments caused many of my classmates to suppress a groan, I started to write furiously.

When my school closed for the holidays and I went home, I read one uncensored novel after another. No teacher hovering over my shoulder, or nun eyeing the title on the book cover. My mother chided me for lolling in bed all day long. What would she have done had she found out that I often stayed up past midnight with The Godfather, Jaws, The Exorcist, and more?

Years later, living in Toronto with accounting textbooks as my closest “literary guides,” I once offered to write one of my sister’s grade thirteen essays for an English assignment. Alas, I still cringe when I recall my finished piece. Every sentence shouted, “Awkward…uninspired…” Needless to say I destroyed the essay and never tried to resurrect that masterpiece again.

My accounting career took off nicely in my thirties. I started a periodical called No Accounting for Taste and thought I could flex my writing muscles again. After one humorous article that garnered rave reviews from my colleagues, the literary spark sputtered and fizzled.

What did I expect? I am a trained accountant. I’m not supposed to know how to have fun with words. I do know how to interpret the dickens out of numbers on my spreadsheets, though. There was even a brief period when I thought I could make a living as a writer entering short-story competitions. My naïveté wore off quickly. Yes, my accounting side continues to pay my bills while my writing side brings gratifying trickles.

My writing heart beats on while my forays into other art forms die premature deaths. Like the time I took piano lessons when arthritis had already claimed most of my knuckles. The moment my schedule became overloaded, I ditched the black and white keys for the letters on the keyboard. I said to my piano teacher, “Eleanor, I am truly sorry, but it was never a fair competition.”

Despite my circuitous writing path, often stumbling and scraping my knees, I have now published a short story, “Alfie” and my first novel, Picture Bride. A three-time nominated and two-time winner of the Giller Prize edited my book and his wife published it. It’s my fairy tale come true.

Click here to see Fong’s recent interview!

C. Fong Hsiung visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 13, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Anthony De Sa, Cherie Dimaline, Kurt Zubatiuk and a special guest talk by Lana Pesch, “Trailervision: Tips and Trends About Book Trailers”.

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