Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Jan Wong Comes Out Of The Blue, and Into The Black

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Jen Wong

Jan Wong is, as we would say in the hip-hop parlance, gangsta. And not in the Geto Boysian sense either. In the hip-hop world, calling someone gangsta is the highest form of compliment. It means they write genuine words, flaunt the most skilled use of wordplay, metaphors and, most importantly, they “keep it real” (read: honest). Before we get into the here and now, here’s the back story on why I can make the case for a 60-year-old Chinese-Canadian woman’s inclusion into the hip-hop fraternity.

I’ve been around the journalistic block, and what that means is that I sometimes have my interview subjects for lunch. Not in a Hunger Games kinda way, but as in exposing a middling response from a lazy subject. I have this natural inclination towards over-researching most people and things, so if an interviewee comes with the weak stuff, I’ll lay out the facts, as I see them, and expose the wackiness, but with some tact, kindness and diplomacy.

Jan Wong developed quite a reputation in newsroom circles for having her subjects for lunch too. While at lunch. Her Globe and Mail “Lunch With” columns were a stellar read, only because she developed this masterful skill of indulging her interview subjects with some great culinary fare, while simultaneously dissecting, challenging and psychoanalyzing her oftentimes high-profile subjects. Not in a bad way mind you, but with a sly sophistication rarely read in these parts. To be able to tell some of her sheisty, dodgy subjects with diplomacy, in print, how much they might suck and why, is a great skill to have, especially at a time when “press release journalism” runs rampant. I do it all the time. It’s very hip hop to not be afraid to call the kettle white. Rappers from Mos Def to Kardinal Offishall have never had any problem calling out the purple elephant. Now, you could love or loathe her approach; however, one thing I don’t think you could dispute is that she’s a highly skilled scribe who wrote from the heart. But controversial? Whatevs. Serious journalists are supposed to dig out the facts, offer up different views, poke around and expose all sides of any debate. In my view, what made her capture the non-diverse daily newsroom fraternity’s attention over the years, more than anything, was that someone so diminutive was not supposed to write with such a booming voice. Headline! Headline! Woman of color has the temerity to write about uncomfortable truths! And challenge her egomaniacal subjects! Scandalous! Egads! Jan Wong! The Kardashians! Paris Hilton!

During the summer of 2010, while I was shilling copies of my last book Fatherhood 4.0, lo’ and behold I received an email from Jan Wong to, er, take me out to lunch. This invitation came after she was far removed from Globe and Mail employment. As I said earlier, I don’t get intimidated too much by anyone. When you’ve had to endure as much racist crapola as I’ve had to in Toronto, coupled with the fact I’m a Leo and super well-versed on human history, really, the only thing I fear is The Most High. And, uhh, maybe an invite from Jan Wong to go to “lunch”! I wouldn't have dared tell her this at the time, but when she agreed to interview me for a Toronto Life spread over lunch, I had to shift the goal posts. I had to take control of this situation, quickly, and flip the script. So I conducted my own research on her and the “participatory journalism”-style she employed with unquestionable skill. I hit up a few of my longtime good friends, who just happen to be senior reporters in a few of the largest periodicals in Canada. And with a decade of investigative news reporting with Now Magazine under my belt, I treated this opportunity with due diligence.

The interview turned out fine, and that’s really not the point of this blog post. I say this because just under two years after our first encounter, I believed it would be an appropriate time to get my Wong on again. Why? Well, when Out of the Blue — her new book that traces her descent into and out of depression, initiated by a story she scribed about the 2006 Dawson College shootings — came, er, out of the blue, it was an opportunity to see if she still had it. In all fairness, she might not have ever lost it. I was already reading her monthly column for Toronto Life magazine, so I knew she was still cranking out the copy that whetted her journalistic appetite. What I didn’t know so much about was her battle with depression. As she recounts in the book, after penning an article that some felt linked Quebec’s unresolved linguistic issues with a violent outburst from crazed gunman Kimveer Gill (who later killed himself after wounding 19 students and killing one other), she became the target of death threats and hate snail mail by the bushel (one spelling out “I know where you live”). Extremist websites took racially-tinged potshots at her, her family restaurant received abusive phone calls and Wong caught some heavy psychological shrapnel in other areas. Namely, she writes, after the Globe and Mail’s mishandling of her whole affair, which included publishing a repentant editorial over what was considered the inflammatory part of Wong’s story. Then came the depression. And the meds soon followed.

In this rare exploration of workplace depression, Wong asks the reader to confront issues many of us have had to deal with, no matter how long we have been in the traditional workplace — she had worked for the Globe for two decades. For example, for those that ascribe to the “I work therefore I am” motto, like she did, it makes you wonder about your own life, and you will begin to ask yourself some tough questions. What happens if you get pink slipped, after having devoted all of those nights and weekends to The Company? Or if you get “sold out” by an unscrupulous manager, when the going truly gets tough? This book’s genius is that it dissects much of the taboo topics that get discussed at the water cooler around workplace safety, bullying and HR strategies, with great precision. For my hip-hop head(cases), you can link her thought process to a GZA verse that goes “I gotcha back, but you best to watch your front / Cause it's the niggaz that front, they be pullin’ stunts.” Who’s really got your best interests at heart in the workplace? I mean, really.

Wong was a self-professed Type A personality who defined herself through her work, and one part of this book acts as a cautionary tale for those who might not have much of an identity outside of obsessing over promotions and pay raises. While “writing about the demon of depression,” Wong relies on a whole bevy of suggested schemes to escape its clutches, from geographic cures (flight over fight?) to music cures (play flute over fight?), as it pulls her further away from the things that truly matter, like her family.

Some of the back stories behind the creation of the book are just as fascinating as the book itself, and Jan Wongsy. When you look closely, you will notice that she decided to self publish this baby after her longtime publisher Doubleday bailed out in the 11th hour, as she says. The two-and-a-half page Afterword alone is worth the cost of the book, as it spells out in clear detail how a perceived collusion between the large corporations she worked with, Doubleday Canada and the Globe and Mail, can seriously bring into question notions around what we consider to be Freedom of Expression. If this book weren’t self-published, it’s doubtful it would be as good, so one can’t help but wonder whether it was Wong’s idea or not to quietly boost the self-publishing revolution that is already happening, without even know it. While some might argue that Wong already has a name / brand and the financial means to self publish (i.e. Doubleday did pay Wong to create this book, minus the final advance, payable on publication, given that they parted ways due to their creative differences), her blood, sweat and tears seems to be paying off. In Out of the Blue, the fraternity of publishing world Goliaths have received a firm literary warning shot, a clarion call to assist future legions of Davids (or Jan Wongs) who might not feel like they could get steamrolled so easily again, with impunity. Wong informed me that she forked out between $35,000 to $40,000 to pay for the printing of 10,000 books, including all overhead costs, including copy-editing, design, hiring a publicist, webpage work, printing costs, etc., not including any payment to herself for writing. As for self-publishing epiphanies, she’s had plenty, some of which bookstore traditionalists may not want to hear. As she wrote in the Halifax’s Chronicle Herald, “as the books arrive in bookstores across Canada, plus Shoppers Drug Mart, Costco and Loblaws. This elation was tempered by the realization that traditional bookstores are doomed: Shoppers ordered three times as many copies as Indigo.” There are a whack of clinical, academicky reads on depression in general, but not as it relates to workplace depression, so this book is a truly powerful tale, worthy of feature film treatment, coming from a relentless scribe.

Jan Wong’s Self-Publishing Epiphanies

a. The Internet has made it possible to connect with readers.

b. Ebooks are a real pain because multiple companies mean multiple formats and no one seems to know how to get rid of bugs such as incorrect paragraph breaks.

c. Anyone can pay a printer; it's the distribution to the bookstores that's difficult.

d. I have somehow pulled off a miracle for a self-published book — I got into Indigo, then got two distributors who sell to independents, Costco, Shoppers, Loblaws and all the libraries.

e. Self-publishing is tons of work.

f. Self-publishing is lots of fun.

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. Author of the forthcoming Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press), Higgins has written four other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T) that examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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