- Jaded Ghosts in the Writings of Wayson Choy
“And of ourselves and of our origins,/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”–Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West
This paper explores the cultural negotiations between debt and inheritance endemic to diasporic literature. In particular, it focuses on the contradictions structuring these negotiations, which are seen as embodied in the ghost figures employed by Chinese-Canadian novelist Wayson Choy. Choy was raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his writings (including two novels and a memoir) explore the difficulties of affiliating transnation-ally while remaining embedded in national space. These difficulties stem from the uniquely diasporic dialectic between reification and remembrance—or fixed debt and flexible inheritance—underlying not only Choy’s writings, but also diasporic literature generally. As I will demonstrate, Choy’s tendency to “ghost” objects responds to a need in diasporic texts for multivalent symbols that can embody the indeterminacies characterizing diasporic desire. Diasporic desire invokes the desire for a homeland state and related isomorphism of land, culture and language. As Ivy Wilson and Ayo Coly note, “Nearly all articulations of diasporas share a set of common identifications, including dispersal from a homeland and marginalization in a host location as well as memorialization of and a desire to return to that homeland” (416). This desire for return manifests in a debt to the real and/or imagined homeland in question, whose very inaccessibility fixes physical and psychological displacement as a diasporic cultural heritage. This fixation, I argue, ultimately evokes [End Page 55] conservative forms of nostalgia that complicate the close association between Canadian national literary identity and certain key strains of postmodernist theory.
In all of Choy’s writings to date, an ornamental jade peony assumes the role of ghosted object-of-desire. The consistency with which this stone is associated with the ghost of a family matriarch begs the question: why associate the stone with a ghost, instead of a person? This symbolic layering stands out for its excessive mediation. Why keep a memento—a physical reminder—of a ghost, of all things? The association between ghost and peony, moreover, provides Choy’s narrative dénouement on more than one occasion, which invites readings that explore its apparent ability to resolve textual conflicts. But what is resolved by such a figure? The symbolic fusion of ghost and jade, I argue, struggles to stitch up the contradictions between debt and inheritance observed in diasporic contexts: it prevents inheritances from becoming debts, when debts are understood as inescapable cultural obligations, while at the same time producing the loose impression of fixed and therefore transmittable diasporic legacies, or inheritances. These concerns run rampant in diasporic texts, and yet, they have not been adequately addressed in accounts of Canadian literary identity that lean heavily on postmodernist readings that valorize the fluid, unfixed play of signification. From an intra-textual analysis of Choy’s work, therefore, I hope to build towards some broader claims about how diasporic texts might complicate such readings and provide new methodologies for approaching Canadian literature and Canadian national identity.
Choy’s “ghosted” objects work to stabilize diasporic desire as a legacy that is at once insistent and unrealizable, and bind together the antinomies of inheritance and debt. Debt, in particular, circulates as a potentially useful but often under-analyzed keyword in diasporic criticism. Some authors have treated diasporic debt primarily in terms of material economic exchanges like remittances from host-lands to homelands; Gabriel Sheffer, for instance, notes in Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad (2006) that one of the driving engines of contemporary diasporic communities is “the globalization of [End Page 56] electronic banking,” which “facilitate(s) transfers of goods and information, as well as remittances and other financial transactions” (97). In addition to this literalizing account of diasporic debt, however, the keyword assumes other meanings as well, which extend the imbalances suggested by economic exchanges between homeland and hostland to the study of world literature. Tanya Agathocleous and Karin Gosselink discuss how debt functions at a curricular level in world literature programs as follows:
A metaphor that links the real-world debts imposed by global financial structures like the World Trade Organization and...