Wayson Choy and I were both English teachers at Humber College in Toronto when he published his first book, The Jade Peony, in 1995. He was 56 at the time, a late-breaking author. I had published my own first book the year before and I said to him over lunch in the staff dining room, “Enjoy the attention, Wayson. It doesn’t last.”
The book, about a gay boy growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown of the thirties and forties, went on to be a bestseller for 26 weeks and shared a Trillium Award with Margaret Atwood. If Chinatown was practically invisible in the Canadian consciousness at the time, a gay boy in such a setting was a revelation of a reality too long ignored. He later received many more honours, including a Giller nomination and the Order of Canada.
Wayson taught remedial English for decades at Humber – not exactly an easy assignment, but his students adored his combination of gentleness and steel. Everybody seemed to love Wayson, so it was natural that everyone loved his books. He was so beloved it was hard to go out with him sometimes. He was with me when I was buying bagels at a chain store on Spadina Avenue when the young woman bagging the buns asked if he was indeed Wayson Choy; when he said he was, she sighed like her dreams had been answered.
For a man who went on to write five books after starting later in life, Wayson seemed to enjoy his leisure. One year, he spent the entire time in our shared office admiring his pen collection and practising calligraphy.
But he could produce. When he sat a 10-inch stack on the table, I asked him if it was a new novel manuscript. No, he said. They were all versions of a short story he was trying to perfect.
After he became celebrated, someone from Wayson’s past tried to cause mischief by letting him know that he had been adopted and thus bring him down a peg. Rather than being hurt or shocked, Wayson was fascinated. He determined his mother must have sung in the Chinese opera, but he continued to love the memory of his adoptive parents as well for all they had done, even though they never told him the truth while they were alive.
Luck played a big role in Wayson’s life. He never tired of saying how lucky he was. He was lucky in health in a way too. A bad asthmatic, he came very close to death at least twice, and managed to survive and write a book called Not Yet about the experience. He once won a Wintario lottery of $100,000, and then shared a large amount of the money with his friends.
He often said that family are the people who love you, and he had lived with at least two families that did love him. He helped start a scholarship for emerging gay Asian writers, and many students benefited from this generosity.
But he was no fool. He once bought me a Seiko watch when I complained I could not find one with both day and date on the face. I told him I could not accept a gift like that from a friend. “Look at the days,” he said. It was a bilingual watch, English and Arabic. Wayson bought it on sale.
When Joe Kertes hired him for the Humber School for Writers more than 20 years ago, we started a series of dinners at a place called the Pearl Court, so aptly named because Wayson indeed held court there. Wayson was a gossip, and Joe and I would regularly share with him what he called “the literary hot bits.” When celebrating was needed, we sat at a big table in that restaurant with family and friends to eat lobsters. During the summer Humber School for Writers workshop, we’d gather for riotous informal meals with the faculty.
British author David Mitchell liked Wayson and his stories so much that he wrote Humber College into one of his novels. U.S. writer Richard Bausch hugged Wayson so hard I thought he would burst. The late Alistair MacLeod was a great admirer and friend. Even though Alistair was demonstrably Catholic and Wayson had no time for the church that shunned gay people, none of that mattered in the camaraderie of the table.
It strikes me that the names above all belong to men.
Where were the women in his life? Everywhere: His friends Mary-Jo, Marie, Kitty, Wendy and Beth – people who cared for him and chided him for refusing to give up his collections of fine paper and endless tchotchkes, all of which gathered dust that aggravated his asthma.
He played “Uncle Wayson” to a vast number of his friends’ children, folding paper to make origami swans and other animals for them and slipping them $50 bills when they got older.
His health had been getting worse over the years. He was beginning to have some memory problems a few years ago when I was still running the writing school, and we met in that same restaurant, where I thought we were going to have a difficult conversation. But once he understood the direction I was heading in, he patted me on the arm and said he had come to the decision that he had been teaching long enough. It was time for a rest. Always a gentleman, he was saving me from having to say a hard thing.
Wayson’s agent, Denise Bukowski, organized a dinner to celebrate Wayson’s 80th birthday at that very restaurant, planning for a Tuesday, a few days after the actual date. Wayson died in his sleep on the Sunday night just before that.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.