Stepping into the past to fill in the missing pieces.
There are many ways to document our family stories, from capturing voices in videos and recordings, to preserving still-moments in scrapbooks and albums. But for stories that may feel incomplete in some way, sometimes stepping outside of these more traditional forms of documentation can help you better tell your story—and to fill in the missing pieces, preserving our family through fiction can even help create closure. When Nancy Lam lost her mother, she began the therapeutic process of researching her history to better understand the life her mother had given up, to immigrate to Canada. From this discovery, "The Loyal Daughter" emerged: a fictionalized memoir inspired by her mother’s life that is rich with history, heritage, and culture that will live on for future generations.
The Loyal Daughter is a novel in stories, told from the perspective of mother, daughter and granddaughter and spans the 1940s to modern day. The story begins with a young woman in a village in Communist China, scrapping her way to the crowded streets of Hong Kong, immigrating to an isolated Northern Ontario city and finally settling in Toronto. When she finds herself stuck in a small apartment above a clothing store, with four kids, her mother, two siblings, and a husband who is never home, the promise of a new beginning fades. Filled with heart-breaking sacrifices, struggles, and secrets that shape her identity, The Loyal Daughter stands testament to a woman's true resilience.
Reflecting on the making of this story, Nancy shares how the research and writing process brought her a greater sense of closeness to not only her mother, but also her cultural heritage.
“As an immigration lawyer in Toronto, I devote my time to writing the life stories of clients for officials and judges, in hopes of securing legal status for them. After many years doing this for others, I turned to my mother’s own immigration experience as the source for The Loyal Daughter. The project was a way for me to overcome the grief of losing her, a way to help me preserve her memory and life – it was therapeutic. Events and even comments Mom made came back to me as I wrote and created parts of the book. By remembering and reliving moments that in retrospect I realize were beliefs or superstitions particular to the Chinese, I celebrated the culture. I recognized that these things that made me a bit different were actually good things.”
Reflections on the past
As Nancy wrote her story, she found herself stepping back into the past, revisiting some of the beloved flavours and more complicated feelings that made up so much of her childhood.
“While I wrote and rewrote some of the sections, it inevitably bled into memories and tastes I enjoyed, such as oxtail soup, egg tarts and bean paste so the writing led to trips to Chinese stores and bakeries…
As a teenager I wanted to look more white – rounder eyes, double lids, and I felt saddled by extra duties – like translating for my parents. Meanwhile, I attended a high school that was 80% Asian, so I was part of the majority, but because I was physically bigger than most Asian females and I shared my opinions quite openly in and out of class, I never felt like I quite belonged.”
As Nancy grew older, she embraced her passion for history, and delved deeper into her roots. “In university, I found myself as part of the minority again studying arts instead of sciences or maths as expected... The study of Canadian history did not involve Chinese culture, despite knowing my great paternal and maternal grandfathers lived in North America. I actually wanted to write a paper about the Chinese Americans in San Francisco, California where my great grandfather had lived almost his whole life, but I was dissuaded by a well-meaning TA. That moment in second year, made me aware of what was accepted as “relevant” North American history and culture, lodging a splinter in me."
Embracing the bonds of culture and family
Today, Nancy takes comfort in countless aspects of her Chinese roots in particular: going to the Buddhist temple; buying a deceased person’s favourite foods to pray at their grave; framed silk paintings in the house; recognizing holidays like the mid-Autumn festival; listening to the stories of the elders; and (of course), food. “Whenever I made oxtail soup or the tomato dish we used to eat, I called Dad for the recipe,” she recalls. “It was just nice to cook a meal from our childhood that I normally don’t make, and I got to speak with Dad who was in all his glory teaching me how to cook.”
Nancy reflects that an often misunderstood aspect of Chinese culture is the close-knit nature of families. “Living with parents for much longer than most [is common], and family is often closest to you, rather than a best friend... Life is busy if you’re lucky, but making time to listen to your grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles is important – they hold a wealth of information that will not always be available; they connect you to not only your culture but your ancestors, your past.”
Keeping the stories of elders alive
Elders are at the heart of The Loyal Daughter, and Nancy hopes that her writing inspires others to listen to the stories and life lessons they have to impart.
“Let them talk and “ramble” on about the past – and if they don’t – ask them about what they’ve been through... As a kid, you hear their stories and soak them up even if you don’t understand everything. As a teenager – probably like me, [it can be easy to be] dismissive because their wardrobe is probably not “cool” and they’re not going to help you get that cute guy to ask you to a dance, but they’ve got something much more valuable to share – so soak it up while you can.”
For some, the appreciation of everything elders have to share may come later, in adulthood, but it is important all the same. “I myself wish I had asked more questions... Remember your grandparents and parents were your age at one time, they’ve been through similar challenges. Writing or recording the information for your kids and grandkids if not yourself is worthwhile, because it’s like a book about you – it gives you grounding in a way nothing else can, a glimpse into your roots. And once you know where you come from, it’s easier to move forward, in some cases it drives you to accomplish more because it gives you a deeper understanding of your place in this world.”
Be on the lookout for The Loyal Daughter in September 2022! (http://www.atbaypress.com) You can also learn more about Nancy’s work by visiting NL Immigration Law.