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Calgary Distinguished Writers Program welcomes Denise Chong

Denise Chong, the 2017-2018 Writer-in-Residence for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, will give a public reading at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre on Sept. 8.

Photo courtesy Denise Chong

Denise Chong was not yet 30 years old when she ascended to the highest office of government in Canada, as a senior economic advisor to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1981. Her lifelong dream of becoming a writer – fostered as a child in Prince George, B.C, when she was immersed in books, listened to radio plays and won a ribbon in a junior writing competition at the local fall fair – was truly on the backburner then. But it was never forgotten.

“When I worked for Pierre Trudeau I eventually developed a friendship with him and we would often talk about writing. He encouraged me to pursue my desire to write,” recalls Chong, who begins her position as the University of Calgary’s 2017-2018 Writer-Residence with the long-running Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP) next month.

Though she was intellectually drawn to the world of government finance, Chong acknowledges that there was a certain practicality in her decision to take the path of economics over writing early in life. “None of the families I grew up with had a lot of money and my siblings and I were the first generation in my family to go to university,” she says. “Practicality is an issue; you’re thinking in terms of getting a job and repaying student loans.”

When Trudeau’s term ended in 1984, however, Chong decided to switch career tracks and she first began freelancing for newspapers and magazines. But it was during a stint living in China in 1985 that Chong found her calling as a writer.

“I wanted to research the ancestral roots of our family and I convinced my mother to join me,” says Chong. “We ended up meeting my mother’s blood sister, whom she had never met, and that gave rise to my first book, The Concubine’s Children –  my grandmother having been a concubine.”

The acclaimed book, published in 1994, began life as a 1987 magazine article in Saturday Night magazine. After it was published, Chong recalls, the magazine’s editor told her book offers “came rolling in off the fax machine.”

The Concubine’s Children, a best-selling memoir of three generations of Chong’s family, set in China and Canada, was hailed as a ground breaking work. “Some did see me as a pioneer writer from the viewpoint of Chinese Canadians,” says Chong. “There was no previously published narrative of a Chinese family in Canada, and almost nothing, even, in terms of educational books. The history of the Chinese experience and how they were subjected to prejudice and discrimination was not taught in schools.”

Chong’s subsequent books are also poignant social histories. They include The Girl in the Picture (1999), about iconic Vietnamese napalm victim Kim Phuc; Egg on Mao (2009), which deals with the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square; and Lives of the Family (2013), an exploration of the lives of Chinese immigrants who found themselves in small town post-war Canada. In 2013 Chong was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for “writing books that raise our social consciousness.” 

Asked about being both an economist and a writer, Chong laughs. “Sometimes people shake their heads in disbelief,” she says.  “But I think my training in economics contributed to the intellectual rigour I’m able to bring to my research and writing when working on my books.”

During her term as the CDWP Writer-in-Residence Chong will be researching for her fifth book and she hopes to begin the writing process by second semester. She can’t reveal the book’s topic at this stage but she says the themes are those common to all of her work, focusing on human rights and family.

“Family provides the scaffolding for every one of my stories,” she notes. “Through the lens of family, you can cross generations, continents, politics, the barriers of time. It’s the backdrop for so much.”

Chong will also be continuing to work at adapting her memoir for the stage during her time in Calgary.

She is thrilled to begin her residency with the CDWP. “I’ve had a delicious period of anticipation,” Chong says. “This appointment affords both the privilege of mentoring budding writers, with the manuscript consultations, and also the absolute luxury of time given to devote oneself to my own writing.”

“I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.”

Denise Chong will give a public reading at CDWP’s annual Hello/Goodbye event at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre on Sept. 8. Learn more about the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.