Wayne Ng was born in downtown Toronto to Chinese immigrants who fed him a steady diet of bitter melons and kung fu movies. Ng works as a school social worker in Ottawa but 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 JOHNNY, THE FAMILY CODE (2023) and FINDING THE WAY: A NOVEL OF LAO TZU. Connect with Wayne at WayneNgWrites.com
Are there any writers—contemporaries or people who came before you—who have influenced your work? In what ways have they influenced your work?
My most memorable reads, even those where I’ve long since forgotten the character arcs and plot lines, are the ones that left a permanent emotional residue. Here are a few:
For courage: Memoirs by Lindsay Wong and Hollay Ghadery, both of whom stood tall braving their vulnerability in their work. Truly aspirational.
For audacity: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, whose biting satire challenges me to tell different stories differently.
For legendary prose: Paul Yee, Denise Chong, Wayson Choy…I can’t discuss Chinese Canadian fiction without homaging these pioneering giants.
For that lovely aftertaste: Rohinton Mistry’s unhappy ever endings, most notably the magnificent A Fine Balance.
Marnie’s Woodrow’s vivid and delicious short stories In The Spice House.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land…who knocked that YA voice out of the park.
Anne-Marie McDonald’s epic Fall On Your Knees..
For emotional wallop: Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. It may have been my first read by an Asian writer so she’s still a trailblazer for me. To read this and experience such a breadth and scope of the emotional spectrum blew me away. I had never known how moving literature could be until Obasant.
I’m just going to say it: I’m a Celeste Ng fanboy. Especially her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, which is so richly layered as it examines the pain we hide from ourselves and each other, and how we inflict it on those around us. It deftly captures the thundering silence of racism, repressed rage and crippling expectations. Just great craft in an astonishing piece of work that one could view as an apotheosis of a great career, except it was her debut novel, a debut!
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 is going to sound like a cliche, 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 something 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 me 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 Tzu 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 about him, so I had a blank slate. But 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: Is a work of fiction but required channeling the scrappy kid I once was, 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 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: 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 (are you seeing my affinity towards stories built on a bedrock of silence?). 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.
In fact authenticity was really important for me as I interviewed over thirty people including: a deputy chief of police, a truck driver, a family lawyer, a child welfare worker and other community professionals and clients in the child welfare system.
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 write 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.
In addition to fiction, you also are known for travel writing. Prior to the pandemic, what were your favourite destinations? Where do you hope to travel to in the future?
I believe the human experience is vast and best lived on the road less traveled, or just anywhere that isn’t predictable and staid. To that end some of my more poignant moments have been off the beaten path.
Ranking my favourite destinations is like asking a teacher to rank their favourite students. They don’t like to admit to having them, for each brings something different. But here goes:
- For the street food: Vietnam and Mexico City—forget what you’ve eaten here. It’s otherworldly stuff. Special mention to Japan for the ramen, steamed buns in Beijing, and heavenly falafels in Cairo
- For the solitude: The two polar regions
- For the joyful, just glad to be alive moments: Machu Picchu at sunrise and the many off the beaten track ruins of Angkor Wat
- For the history: Israel, Jordan and Palestine
- For the sublime: Temples of Kyoto, Zion National Park
- For crushing jaded expectations: Rome’s Colosseum, Taj Mahal, Cairo, and the Longji Rice Terraces in China
- For the physical challenge: Auyuittuq National Park
- For the beat down and onslaught of all of the senses: India
- For the friends: Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands
- For the market madness: Saquisili (Ecuador), Yangshuo, Addis Abada, Marrakech
- For getting sick: El Salvador (who knows with what), Hanoi (H1N1), Fez
- For thanking gods I never got sick there: Myanmar
- For the best jazz: Berlin
- For the biggest cockroaches: Fiji
- For the best museum: Suzhou Museum, Cluny Museum in Paris
- For stepping back into time: The Galapagos giant tortoises’
- For the nicest people: Sorry, won’t say…it’d be like ranking students
Next? The list is long, but the Stans man, in particular Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Google an image, and I’ll guarantee your jaw will drop at the ancient Islamic architecture, the rice dishes and timelessness of the silk road. Plus it’s cheap and still devoid of mass consumerism. Then to Haidi Gwaii for the totem poles and Hobbiton in New Zealand because I promised to take my wife there.