Brockton Writers Series 13.07.22: Wayne Ng

Wayne Ng was born in downtown Toronto to Chinese immigrants who fed him a steady diet of bitter melons and kung fu movies. He is still a Torontonian at heart, learning to skate at Nathan Phillips Square and receiving his undergraduate degree at Toronto Metropolitan University (formally Ryerson University). He remains a die-hard Leafs, Jays, and Raptors fan. Ng moved to Ottawa to attend Carleton University, graduating with an MSW, and now works as a social worker with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. He lives to write, travel, eat, and play – preferably all at the same time. He is an award-winning author and travel writer who continues to push his boundaries from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Author of Letters from JohnnyThe Family Code (2023), and Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu. Connect with Wayne at WayneNgWrites.com.

Hello Brockton Writers Series fans and participants. I’m so pleased to be part of this and am really looking forward to connecting with readers and writers, and talking about my latest novel, Letters From Johnny. Watch the Book Trailer for Letters From Johnny.

(Q&A reproduced with permission from LiterASAIN 2022)

Letters From Johnny and Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu are two very different books. Your third book, The Family Code, also sounds unlike your previous works. How did you approach each piece of writing? 

This sounds like a cliché, but every project has been an emotional itch needing to be scratched. Writing had never been something that required external validation. It has always been self-affirming. As I reflect on the genesis of my novels, I’d say each served a purpose in my growth as a person and as a writer spiritually, personally and professionally. Each work is wildly divergent from one other but they reflect a continuous journey of discovery that I’ve been on. Let’s break this down:

FINDING THE WAY: A NOVEL OF LAO TZU. Awe and curiosity. That’s what I felt when I read about the legendary Lao Tzu who, nearing death, was stopped by a border guard who recognized the venerable philosopher. The guard refused to let him pass until Lao let him record his life story. What would drive him to such an end? Other than a philosophical take-down with Confucius in the royal court, there’s not much we can authenticate, so I had a blank slate. I was intrigued with the notion of a figure of epic proportions wandering off to die. Yet as I researched his philosophy and reflected on his influence, I saw how much of it informed my own upbringing. Lao sees our thirst for sanity and simplicity as a quest that transcends culture and time. And he evokes the natural rhythms and energy around us as a force to be reckoned with, respected and balanced. Imagine Yoda discovering the Force and you’ll get what I mean.

This stayed with me as I wrote the book and re-discovered Taoism. I also wanted people to better appreciate eastern history. That much of the world has an appalling lack of knowledge and understanding of it, is short-sighted and Euro-centric, like almost all historical fiction in the west. 

LETTERS FROM JOHNNY, winner of the Best Crime Novella at the 2022 Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence, is a work of fiction that channelled the scrappy kid I once was. It turned out to be fun and unexpectedly therapeutic. This was a classic example of pantsing—writing by the seat of your pants intuitively. I didn’t mean for it to turn out that way. It almost feels like it wrote itself, like a primal scream from a previous life. But once I got going, the words poured out and waves of nostalgia engulfed me. It helped that, for decades, I’d been working with and hanging around children personally and professionally, so capturing their voices and mentality came easily. Bonus points that I could turn my poor grammar and erratic sentencing into useful dramatic devices. Double bonus points that I am currently working on its sequel, the second book in a trilogy, where Johnny is now a teenager writing to Bruce Lee instead of Dave Keon. 

It will become a patrilineal saga about repressed Asian male rage and silence, where emotionally remote parenting, overachievement, and invisibility can be psychologically crippling to them and those around them. I hadn’t anticipated this direction when I began LFJ. But I couldn’t talk about family without describing the emotional detachment and the repression of deeper intimacy I grew up with. As actor Jon Cho said on the podcast, They call us Bruce,  every Asian man has at one point, walked around with a balled up fist in his pocket, ready to explode. Turns out this is central to the typecasting of Asian males but has not been explored or fully realized in literature.

I see Johnny as one of my contributions to mainstream our work, to universalize our experiences, and to broaden our community so that we’re part of something beyond a margin. To me, these stories are essential to making us more visible and to combating anti-Asian hatred. 

The Family Code (coming spring 2023), which was shortlisted for the 2021 Guernica Prize, is an intense tale of the troubled and chaotic life of a young, single mom dogged by the brutality of past traumas, unhealed wounds, and a code of silence that she must break in order to be free. This novel is not like anything I’ve ever written, or even read before. But it’s the reality of many of the brave lives who have touched me as a social worker for over 30 years. I really wanted to honour, authenticate, represent and respect their experiences.

Authenticity is really important for me as I interviewed over thirty people including: parents, a deputy chief of police, a truck driver, a family lawyer, a child welfare worker, and other community professionals. 

That means I didn’t hold back so the story is unabashedly in your face, edgy, and real. This is the first novel I’ve completed where the protagonist isn’t Asian and male because I wanted to create something very close to me without reinforcing the idea that I was only a racialized writer, who only wrote stories of racialized people. I fundamentally try to write about the human experience.

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