The Woo-Woo finds humour in darkness

Lindsay Wong’s memoir channels past trauma into redemption

The Woo-Woo is a Canada Reads Finalist.

Lindsay Wong grew up believing that “crying will turn you into a zombie.” Over the next 304 pages of abuse and arguments, she doesn’t cry once. Wong’s memoir The Woo-Woo weaves superstition into her daily life, leaving nothing to the imagination. 

The darkly comedic story tackles the normalization of mental illness through the author’s immediate family. From her mother setting her on fire to ward off demonic possession to consistent emotional abuse, the author shows firsthand how hard it is to outrun generational trauma. 

It can manifest itself differently. The author grows up with a mother who believes their family is possessed by the “woo-woo”—Chinese ghosts—and a schizophrenic grandmother who mentally relives the Sino-Japanese War everyday. Similarly, her manic-depressive aunt tries to jump off a bridge on Canada Day so she can be the “best bridge jumper in B.C.” 

But in The Woo-Woo, ghosts aren’t physical—they’re symptoms of a fear of dispossession.

Wong describes her life as an outcast. Neither fully Asian nor fully Canadian, the child of immigrants in “Hongcouver,” she lives in a mountain McMansion surrounded by meth labs and weed farms, but few other children. Without peers to balance her, the author lives completely in her own head. 

Her prose is consequently unbalancing in its furious speed and tenor. Wong is angry: at her family, at her classmates, but, primarily, at herself for her inability to fit in. 

She describes herself as a monster on every other page, pausing often to reflect on what she wishes she’d done, from asserting herself to protecting her estranged siblings. 

The author’s humour almost cushions readers from the dark reality—but not enough for comfort. When Wong breaks free of her family to attend Columbia University, dizziness, vomiting, and giddy laughter immediately overcome her first day in New York. She loses consciousness in a subway station and wakes to find nobody has helped her. 

Her parents insist her fundamental evil has left her possessed by the “woo-woo.” But a neurologist reassures her that she suffers from permanent vertigo—and may never read or write again, losing the one tool buying her freedom. However, Wong brightly reassures the reader, Janet Jackson suffers from the same condition.

Using original Chinese names for her family translated into English, such as “Confucius Gentleman” and “Beautiful One,” Wong emphasizes that her family’s dysfunctional character is born from intertwined mental illness and cultural belief in the supernatural. 

Her meticulous meditations on her Chinese culture valuing survival above all else shows the impact of untreated abuse and discrimination.The “woo-woo” is not a ghost—it’s anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia left undiagnosed over generations. 

Wong’s mother, suffering from what the author now understands as post-partum depression, corrals her children in mall food courts, believing bright busy spaces ward off demons. Meanwhile, her grandmother’s paranoia leads her to believe the refrigerator wants to kill her. 

Her family’s constant fear and obsession with large crowds emphasizes their inability to find their place. 

It’s hard to empathize with Wong throughout the novel. She screams at friends, trashes their homes, and rejects any semblance of kindness, which she perceives as weakness. She quashes emotions, equating feelings with the “woo-woo”—a total lack of control. 

The book reminds readers of the complicated nature of an origin story. 

When you leave your homeland for a better life to be rejected by new neighbours, it can be near-impossible to find your footing. That insecurity permeates parents and children alike, but Wong doesn’t let it break her.

Through her tormented depiction of mental illness and the Asian-Canadian immigrant experience, Wong’s memoir is a witty and honest guide for breaking free to forge your own narrative.

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