Book Review: Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue

Jan Wong is one of Canada’s most famous journalists and one of my favourite writers of all time. She’s written for The Globe and Mail for something like 20 years. Her books include Red China Blues, Lunch with Jan Wong, Beijing Confidential, and there’s another one but I can’t name it without going to the Internet. Looking in my bookcase isn’t helping because the thing about really great books is that I lend them out and then I never get them back. I keep forgetting to write down Who has What so I can track them down. Ah, Jan Wong’s China.

Anyway – in 2006 there was a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal; Wong was sent to cover the story. In her article she mentioned that the shootings in Quebec were by immigrants and she wondered if there was disenfranchisement occurring in a province where “pure laine” is a valued quality, referring to one’s French-Canadian heritage.

“What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones; it’s affected immigrants, too.

To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

(Sounds like a recipe for racism to me, especially when you know how one-note they are about the French thing.)

The backlash was tremendous, a tsunami wave of hatred, racism, sexism, and just about any kind of ignorant mud you can sling at someone. And for some reason The Globe and Mail failed to support her. They even kept publishing abusive letters to the editor that attacked Wong personally. The onslaught of abuse and the lack of support caused Wong to fall into a depression, which is bad enough, but then she had to fight her employer’s denial of her condition. It’s a chilling story. She had to publish it herself as her publisher got frightened by the controversy (and also didn’t want to lose The Globe’s sponsorship of a book fair) and withdrew the contract. She also had to fight gag orders in order to publish at all and tell her story.

Her writing is amazing, and this story is personal, moving, and also a great piece of journalism. Mental health issues are huge and too few employers recognize mental illness as equal to physical illness. Loved it. I’m not even going to go into it further because it really was disturbing and I wanted to march in protest of this injustice. It just made me hopping mad. But I was also tremendously inspired and not a little intimidated by Wong’s spirited determination, even when in the throes of depression. Jan Wong is an incredibly brave, tenacious and principled person and we’re lucky to have her. Keep writing, Jan! You are my hero. And I love that her book is on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.  Click here for Jan’s bio.

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