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Wayson Choy on life, death and the hallucinations that saved him

06/07/2015 03:41 EDT | Updated 06/07/2016 05:59 EDT
B.C. author Wayson Choy will receive the George Woodcock Award this year, an honour that recognizes an author for an outstanding literary career and for contributions to society.  

Choy was the first Chinese Canadian student to enroll in creative writing at UBC. His struggles with living in two cultures informed his first novel, the award-winning The Jade Peony, as well as its sequel, All That Matters.

He has also written two gripping autobiographical works, Paper Shadows, and Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying. The latter is an account of his brush with death following an asthma attack, his experience of drifting in and out of a coma, and how his friends and family — in reality and in his unconscious state — drew him back to life.

Choy spoke with North By Northwest's Sheryl MacKay in 2004 and 2009 about his near-death experience and his recovery in the hospital. Here are some of the excerpts from their conversation.

On the hallucinations about the "Queen of Water"

She seemed to have been a result of the fact that when they put a ventilator in your throat, you cannot drink and you cannot moisturize yourself properly. So I fantasized, obviously, about water and about glasses of water put beside me.

And this woman, with this very creepy face ... would come by and grab the water and say, "I'm the Queen of Water. The water belongs to me. You have no permission to have this."

And she'd walk away and I'd suddenly see her climb up a staircase and put it in some cupboard. I saw it. I heard her footsteps creeping on every move she made and so on and so forth. It's just amazing.

I'm very sympathetic now to people who are schizophrenic and who say they hear voices. I think it happens and we don't understand our brain is more complex and reality is more complex than we understand.

On wanting to live

When I felt that I was so exhausted that I would let go — and I feel there's times one must have a choice, and I almost made that choice.

But somebody put their voice right next to my ear as I was drifting off and willing to let go. Someone actually said, "Wayson, don't you dare die."

And I just snapped up and thought, "Oh my gosh. No, no. I've got to find out what happens next."

So the writer in me came back and said, "Ok. Let's see if this is dying. If it is, it's really boring. Let's see what happens next." And I hung on.

On the handsome men's massage

Apparently … because if you're in bed that long, you get bed sores and all that. There's a massage process they use — very professional. But of course again, here I am falling back into a fantasy that saves me from being bored.

It was a very sensual experience and [the masseuse] was a reflection of somebody who was my kind of hero when I was a teenager and first saw him on screen. And this person looked like James Dean to me.

I think everyone has a fantasy that comes back to save them — at least from the boredom. I thought, "Good, that's worth living."

That, too, is part of the recesses of the brain, accepting that different realities come back to save us, as well as to haunt us.

Listen to the full interviews: Author Wayson Choy celebrated Part 1 and Author Wayson Choy celebrated Part 2

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