ER doctor a good fiction writer

Book review by Judy Stoffman, Toronto Star
January 22, 2006

Not many adolescents touched by the power of stories decide to prepare for a writing career by going to medical school. But that was roughly the path taken by Dr. Vincent Lam, whose compelling first book of fiction, Bloodletting&Miraculous Cures, is published this week by Doubleday Canada.

Lam opens a door into the world of successful, assimilated young Chinese-Canadian professionals and he does so with the authority of an insider. We have not heard much about people like Chen and Ming and their friend Sri, nor Ming's rejected non-Chinese lover Fitz in Canadian fiction before.

The 12 interlocking tales in the book follow these characters' path from medical school at the University of Toronto to the city's crowded hospitals where, as physicians, they face a variety of difficult patients. In contrast, the older generation of Chinese-Canadian writers —Wayson Choy, Judy Fong Bates, Paul Yee, Fred Wah and others — paint a harsher reality of displacement, departure, exclusion, of backbreaking menial work in restaurants and laundries.

"It's easy to be fluid and functional in Canadian society," Lam says. "But at the same time, one's (Chinese) perspective or lens is slightly different. My generation, whether we are originally from Austria, or Africa or China, are at a unique point in Canadian history because the barriers have fallen."

"Sometimes, I still get carded," laughs Lam. He is 31 and, though he may look too young to drink legally, he is married to a fellow doctor and is the father of 11-month-old Theodore. Wearing a red T-shirt, Lam is talkative and cheerful.

"Emergency medicine is all I do. If you like something unexpected always around the corner, it's very good. It puts you at the cutting edge of life," he says. Besides, it gives him most mornings off to write.

He has promised Doubleday a novel set in the Chinese community in Saigon, to appear next year, but before that, he'll have a non-fiction book out about influenza, co-authored with another doctor. It adds up to a running start at a high-voltage literary career that has received the endorsement of Margaret Atwood and Wayson Choy.

Lam was born in London, Ont., into an ethnic Chinese family that had emigrated from Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War. Cantonese was the language at home.

In Bloodletting, a story called "The Long Migration" describes the Canadian medical student Chen's visit to Australia, to watch over his grandfather, who is peeing blood. Grandfather was once something of a wild man, but is now dying of kidney cancer in a retirement home. Chen is there to alert the other family members when the end is imminent.

"The arc of that story, the feeling of big (historical) forces in it have to do with my family. I did go to Brisbane; I knew my grandfather. The other stories are somewhat autobiographical but not much." His grandfather, a respected schoolmaster as well as a gambler and womanizer ("he had two personalities"), will be the central character of his forthcoming novel.

Lam was 15 or 16, he says, when he made his first attempts at writing after reading and rereading Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. "They were perfect," he says.

"I've wanted to write my grandfather's story ever since I've wanted to write. But I thought it would also be good to have a job, to be involved in the world in an external way. I didn't foresee how labour-intensive it would be to become a doctor — I didn't write during my training at all, then went back to it."

Having accumulated a pile of rejection slips from literary magazines, he took a writing course at U of T taught by novelist Michael Winter and joined a writing group that met for a time after the course ended.

He also enrolled in the correspondence program of the Humber School for Writers, where he was mentored by Toronto writer Kim Moritsugu and Howard Norman, the American author of The Bird Artist.

Around the same time, about three years ago, Lam met Atwood and her partner, Graeme Gibson, aboard The Akademic Ioffe, a Russian scientific vessel that is leased by Peregrine Expeditions to take nature-loving travellers to the Arctic. He was the ship's doctor.

"I've done it a few times — it's a fantastic ship. Margaret is a really great traveller, very observant, and so is Graeme. After the voyage, I sent her my stories (I didn't yet have enough for a book) and she said, `What do you want? Do you want me to say something nice or to say something honestly?'"

In the event, Atwood was both honest and sufficiently impressed to give the manuscript to Maya Mavjee, the publisher of Doubleday.

Wayson Choy, who calls Lam "a stunning talent" on the dustjacket of Bloodletting&Miraculous Cures, was sent the manuscript for comment just as he was recovering from a heart attack last October.

He was particularly touched by the coincidence: "I was reading the book in hospital and it made me understand the humanity of the people working around me," he says.

© Toronto Star