“She was like a superhero to me….not to everybody else, but to me.”
When Nancy Lam started writing her dying mother's story it was in effort to capture her mother's legacy for her children to know and appreciate. This journey turned to writing and publishing a work of fiction that, while based on her mother's life, grew in ways that many people from immigrant families can appreciate. Not knowing all the details but wanting to fill the gaps, the book "The Loyal Daughter" speaks to the immigrant journey, the strength of an immigrant woman, and celebrates the bonds between women in families.
But perhaps most importantly, to quote Nancy, this is about "finding yourself not only in your family but outside of it". It celebrates the common immigrant story, paying homage to their impact on the fabric of Canada, and for that reason, we hope that it inspires more stories of the common person, the so-called "superheroes" in each of our lives.
Nancy Lam is a Toronto author. As a child and teenager, she lost herself in stories by Canadian writers, in university she majored in Canadian History to earn a Bachelor of Arts before acquiring her law degree. As an immigration lawyer, she now helps prospective Canadians write and present their life stories to government officials. Her first novel, The Loyal Daughter (At Bay Press, Fall 2022) is based on her mother’s immigration story to Canada.
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Hey, Thanks for coming back! I’m Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed. A podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
In our exploration through the art of documenting, we last met a seasoned historian who has made it his life mission to help others document. Motivations to document vary from person to person, family to family and as we learned from Lucky, the timing needs to be right and the people being interviewed need to be ready and willing. But we aren’t all professional memoir authors, and let’s be honest, the time is never “right”.
In many cases, it’s grief or impending grief that is the impetus for wanting to record the stories of our loved ones. So it makes us wonder, what role does the act of documenting provide as we witness the passing of others and mourn their lives?
Understanding your family narrative can be really therapeutic. And sometimes hearing other people’s family narratives can be equally as therapeutic. Why? Because we tend to see ourselves in each other's stories… and this insight gives us hope since we often don’t think to ask the questions or capture the memories until it’s too late.
That doesn’t mean all is lost. Of course, there will always be mysteries that existing sources can’t answer. But who’s to say that fiction can’t serve to fill the gaps in comforting and resolving ways? That’s exactly what this episode’s guest, Nancy Lam has done. She has written a fictional memoir about her mother as a way to pay respect to her life following her passing and as a way to inspire others to know their stories.
Even as a child, Nancy would get lost in stories of great writers. In university she majored in Canadian History to earn a Bachelor of Arts before acquiring her law degree, pursuing a career as an immigration lawyer. Her first novel, The Loyal Daughter, is based on her mother’s immigration story to Canada and launches this Fall.
How does a lawyer turn author? Nancy starts off by telling us about her process of writing a novel.
I started writing it when mom was ill, which sucked. Because, when someone gets sick and you know that it's not a cold or something…it sort of hits you.. And you remember you are not immortal and those around you are not immortal. And so I wanted to record her history. I wanted to make sure that my kids knew her history because they weren't able to speak to each other because she only spoke Chinese and the kids only spoke English. They had some broken Chinese when they were little, but they couldn't really communicate. And they still had a great relationship. And that's part of the reason I, I really wanted to ramp up and write this thing after she was gone, because I wanted to hang on to everything that she had really taught me. One of the things I really regretted was that I didn't record her voice. I didn't have any video of her. So when I was writing her story, and remembering the things she told me, I could hear her voice in my head. I guess that's part of the reason I really wanted to sit with it for so long. And it took me forever. It took me seven and a half, eight years to write the thing before I felt I wanted to share it. And even though the writing was crazy hard…because you've got this whole life you're trying to compact into a reasonable length of a book, which is 200 to 300 pages. But it's a person's entire life. How do you leave only that in a book, right? It's almost a shred of it only? Like you're skating on the surface only, at least that's what it felt at the beginning. And then you read what you write and you're cringing at it…like that's awful. I don't want anyone ever to read that. And I went through years of it. I was like it's finished. And then it's like, oh no, I can't. And I'd go back and rewrite it. My husband was so sick about it. He's like, “oh, for crying out loud, just get it out there!”. And this was at the third-year mark. So four and a half years later, the kids are like, “oh yeah, mom's writing, but no one reads it!” It's just hers. It was this cathartic sort of process as you just keep writing these stories, but then it started to shape. And then I was pulling out just the important parts of it and it was really like I could see it. It was almost so tangible after a while, I could see the forms and I had stolen Alice Monroe's method of writing short stories. She has so much impact in just these few pages. So I cut her life up into chunks…I wrote it originally as different stories in her life just to highlight the important parts and I had to bring it back around eventually. I had to bring it back around and tie it together. So the process was a way for me to get over her absence. Her not being here for some of the big moments.
We’re believers that journaling has the ability to help us process feelings, but when those feelings are deep grief, it's no wonder that Nancy’s task of writing was met with complexity. It was a true commitment of time and effort to encapsulate such an important person’s life story. And while Nancy was working through her approach she encountered a decision point - would this be an autobiographical recount or one of fiction? We were curious about how she navigated that next.
Yeah, that was a tough decision for me. Part of the reason is I don't know all of mom's stories, or everything that happened in her life prior to me being in it. No one really knew all the parts of her life. As with everyone, I think…you only hear the snippets. And so I just knew about certain things and certain comments. There's a love story in the opening part of the book and I didn't really know that it was a love story for real in her life or not, I knew that there was some significance to it. In my head, I created this story, but what's kind of creepy is that after I wrote it, I spoke to an old classmate of hers who actually confirmed that, yeah, there’s something to this love story. There was really a relationship. And I almost felt at some point that I was channeling her….Like I could hear her in my head, she's saying, “if you're gonna tell my story, tell it, right!” And call it what you will, but that is how I felt. And I was actually happy with the story. Although it's fictionalized, so many parts of it were based on stories that I'd heard from her and maybe not just her, but other relatives as well. Just bits and pieces that I'd picked up from them. So even for me looking back. I'm not a hundred percent sure of which parts were actually something I may have heard and which part I've actually just created.
Nancy’s devotion to craft the story despite the gaps speaks to her conviction to make this happen no matter what. While this podcast episode is being edited Nancy is working on launching her book to the world and we can’t wait for you to read it. Until then, there’s no one better than the author to summarize “The Loyal Daughter”, so we asked her what it’s all about:
There are so many things! It's about immigration and how people adjust once they come to a country, especially back in the 60s. It's about mother and daughter relationships and family relationships. It’s also about…ss much as I love my family, as much as I love my history, it's about trying to find your place within that history, but also being true to yourself because not everything that I learned or that I was taught agrees with me now. And it's hard. It's really hard to push back against something that you grew up with. And that you were taught from the get-go. This is right. This is wrong. This is how it should be. Even something as simple as changing your diet is tough when that's how I grew up. You know, I was supposed to do all that. I was supposed to eat everything on my plate, even if I was stuffed. Right? It’s about finding your place, not only within your family, but outside of it. And recognizing that it can be hard sometimes to rally against what you were taught, but it's also good for you. And I think only in finding out who you are, what you truly believe in, whether it's against what you were taught or whether it was somewhere in between, which is usually what it is.. I think it's important to know that more than anything, finding your place is the best way to sort of honour your parents and your family. And really knowing who you are and going forth with that.
Living your true authentic self is a great way to not only honour those who have come before you but to build a legacy that makes future generations proud. With the utmost respect for Nancy's conviction to write this book, we wondered, what provided her the confidence to take such a bold step and actually document her mom’s story?
Well, I write in my work, I'm a lawyer. So one of the reasons I guess I wanted to write this is because I'm constantly writing the stories of my clients and I'm trying to sell it, quote-unquote, sell it to, to the government officials or to the judge or to whoever. I found that when the written application is tight enough, when there's enough there, they don't even wanna see you. So I've spent years s to perfect that as much as you can. Because everybody's story is a little bit different. I've been interested in our own family history and my mom's story, because she used to tell me snippets. She would repeat a lot of the same stories but I got a general overview over the years as to how she got here and I wanted to write her story. And one of the other things that really pushed me to do this is because we always read books about the great politicians. About the famous, right? Like Simu Lui’s book. I want to read that! Because it's a classic rags-to-riches story and he's like a superhero literally and of course like people like, oh, Elon Musk, you read about, but my thing was the people that I help they're are not always these great wildly successful financially or star power people, but they're still important. In fact, they're more important because there are way more many, I’m not even saying that properly… there are so many more non-famous people than there are famous people, but they're still so vital to our country and to our lives. Because they're everyday people…they're your postman, they're your grocer. They are so much a part of our Canadian culture. And I guess a part of me was sort of upset when she was gone, because she was so important to me and I thought people should know about her. I thought she rocked. She kicked ass. She was like a superhero to me, not to everybody else, but to me. And she was important and she is a part of this Canadian sort of fabric, but she would never get a book written by her because she's not a famous politician. She didn't leave that kind of mark on our country. Like she did and she didn’t. But I think it's important to hear about your common person. Because there are so many more of them and I wanted to say, “Hey, you are important too. ” That was in my head. After a while, after it became more about, "Hey, I want the kids to know better Other people should know about her. She kinda kicked ass. Right?"
So. Infuriatingly. True. True representation in terms of diversity in the stories of immigrants, their lives, and their journeys are unfortunately uncommon… and as the daughter of immigrants, I can’t thank Nancy enough for her care and diligence in writing her mother’s story so poetically that we too can be inspired to discover and share our stories.
Have we piqued a curiosity about your family’s story yet? Nancy mentions that having her own children understand the richness of their grandmother’s life was a core motivator. In effort to pass along lessons and values, Nancy also explored the topic of end-of-life rituals in her book, but since we wanted to remind everyone that it doesn't require a publisher to capture a priceless memory, we decided to ask her a question from our conversation tool in the categories of traditions. So we ask her “What do people from your culture do to honour those who have passed?”
So traditionally, there are so many different ways you're supposed to pray to them. You're supposed to have this ancestral shrine, but it's sexist. Because only the eldest son is supposed to have the shrine for the parents... But you're supposed to put their picture and some words in the family and there's three different sections and you're supposed to pray at the shrine. If you don't have a home or if there isn't one, people have done ancestral tablets in Buddhist temples. . And some people just go to the grave sites. They have the grave site honoring and you can write whatever you want there. A lot of people do… and this is for all traditions, not just the Asian ones… obviously, but they do the announcements, where they do it publicly. But I think more importantly, apart from all the traditions, do whatever you feel is right. You want to have a picture of them, have a picture of them? You want to pray to them? Pray to them. And, it's so weird because as the daughters we're actually cut off from the family. Like I'm no longer a “Lam” because I got married. And I'm not supposed to have a shrine for them…In fact, it's bad luck. If I do have a shrine, then my husband's family apparently doesn't get any good luck. That’s pretty sexist and I actually talk about these traditions in the book.
Nancy’s advice to do whatever you feel in your heart after acknowledging that some of her culture’s more traditional practices are unaligned with her present-day values speaks to her maturity in her relationship and resolve with her cultural background. Isn’t that the quintessential experience and tension between generations? What to take forward and what to leave behind? And as descendants of immigrants the idea of finding one’s place not only within one’s family but outside of it feels like reason enough for this book to be a grand success with wide appeal across cultures.
If you are following this season’s theme, you’ll remember that we’ve introduced the idea that documenting can happen effectively across so many different channels & media. So far we’ve heard from a documentarian, historian, and today an author. Next episode we hear from Marel Alemany who is a singer-songwriter who expresses his thoughts on his Afro-Latin-Caribbean background through song. This is an overly simplified description of a career that is rich in rhythm and beats - so tune in to hear Marel’s whole story next time.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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