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The Intimacy of Memoir - Judy Fong Bates

au-bates2 bk-year-of-finding-memory

The Intimacy of Memoir

Author Judy Fong Bates will be reading from her most recent book, The Year of Finding Memory, at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Wednesday 19 May at 7:30 pm.

Judy’s earlier books were works of very fine literary fiction. This new book is a memoir, as Judy delves into her past and visits the home of her birth in an attempt to discover the history of the lives of her parents.

We immediately learn that Judy’s father, Fong Wah Yent, committed suicide in 1972, when Judy was 22 years old. The shame of that act has never left her. Judy and I have discussed suicide. She knew that my oldest son committed suicide in 1997. I met Judy a few years later and found it very easy to talk with her about my life. She did not, however, tell me about her father’s death until last fall – she wanted me to be forewarned that it would be revealed in this memoir. When my son died we chose to be very open about his death – to us it was not a “shame” but simply a huge tragedy for our family. For many surviving family members the burden of a death by suicide is life long – as it has been for Judy Fong Bates.

This memoir, though, is far more than the story of the death of Fong Wah Yent. It is the story of his immigration to Canada, his many trips back and forth to his home in China, and the lives of an extended family in Canada and China. It is a riveting tale, and absolutely fascinating to read.

Judy was born in China in 1949 and came to Canada with her mother, Fong Yet Lan, her father’s second wife, in 1952. A half-sister from her mother’s first marriage followed a few years later. There were other half-siblings from Fong Wah Yent’s first marriage, some who also came to Canada, but being many years older than Judy, they did not live with the family. Judy, as the youngest child of older parents, was effectively raised as an only child. The family lived in poverty in a small town in Ontario – the only Chinese family. For Fong Yet Lan it was an isolated existence. She never learned to speak English and became a very bitter woman. Judy listened to arguments and words of hate between her parents at home, and did all she could to be like all of the other little girls at school. She grew up speaking the dialect of her parents at home and un-accented English at school. She went on to University, a teaching career, and a career as an author – all the while the dutiful daughter.

Some years after the death of their parents, a half-brother suggested a trip to China to see the relatives still living there – most of whom Judy had never met. Judy and her husband Michael were excited to be included.

Judy Fong Bates is a beautiful – small – Chinese woman. She jokes that she is the only woman in her family who has gone grey – all of the others have jet black hair. Michael Bates is well over six feet tall, a trim and handsome man – a Canadian of Anglo-Saxon descent, a lo fon to the Chinese. In China, Judy could perhaps have blended in if she’d left all her clothes at home and worn the pajama-like outfits of her relatives, but there was not disguising Michael.

Their voyage of discovery, of both the land and the family that Judy had never known, was literally the journey of a lifetime. Listening to family members who knew her parents as young people gave Judy a confusing picture of people she could hardly believe existed - who became the sad and bitter people who were her parents. Children love their parents no matter what – and we struggle as adults to come to terms with that fact if we have grown up in a home full of turmoil. We are determined to be better parents to our own children, and hope that our children will not carry the burden of parental strife into another generation. As Judy writes about her own childhood, she is writing with the perspective of a mature adult. It is both absorbing and enlightening.

There is so much more to this book than Judy’s contemplation of her past and the past of her parents. Along with the family lies and secrets, and the search for understanding of a generation divided between the country of their birth, and the family left behind, and the country they chose to make a life in, and the child raised here. There are fascinating tales of Chinese custom and superstition, tales of lives lived during the Japanese Invasion of China, and under the Communist regime, and during the Cultural Revolution. There is exploration of remote country villages, and a second trip to China by Judy and Michael without a bus full of relatives – when even more secrets are revealed.

There is more than I can describe. It is a book that took a lot of courage to write and is one that will find anyone, of any culture, thinking not only of the intimate family history of Judy Fong Bates, but of their own.

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