The characters in these ten stories are longing for escape and attempt to leave home, but inevitably and perhaps ironically find themselves homesick. Chih-Ying Lay, a Montreal-based expatriate from Taiwan familiar with both homesickness and home sickness, probes our desperate need for home, often matched with an equally desperate need to get away from it. Lay's characters are outsiders, whether queer, indigenous, unloved or lost, and each discovers that home is not the sanctuary it was meant to be. Sometimes, they find a place to call their very own, as if to tell the reader: You can, too.
Born in Taipei, Chih-Ying Lay came to Canada in 2008 to obtain his Ph.D. in Microbiology at McGill University. His first collection, published in Taiwan under the title The Escapist (2008), includes stories awarded the Formosa Literature Prize in 2005 and the Liberty Times Literature Prize in 2006. He has since published a novel, The Ideal Family (2012), and another collection of short fiction, The Comic Lives of Losers (2016). A guest broadcaster both in Taiwan (2007) and for Radio Canada International in Montreal (2016), he sings in Ensemble Sainte-Anne Singers and Musica Orbium and works as a senior research scientist in Montreal.
Grandpa was only halfway through his college degree in Japan when Japan's fifty years of colonization of Taiwan ended in 1945. Taiwan was "gloriously restored" to the Chinese motherland. He went back to Taiwan, and worked hand-to-mouth for a while, then sold a few fields and took out a mortgage to buy a three-building compound with a covered walkway in front and an ornamental arched façade. He converted it into an inn. At the time, the town was a supply station for a mine. It was prosperous for a time, and a lot of travelers came and went. There was a need for it. Grandpa said this had been his dream as a student in Japan. He'd been a stranger in a foreign country, and knew what it was like to feel homesick. He wanted to open an inn where travelers could make themselves at home. In fulfilling his dream, Grandfather had grasped the tail end of the town's prosperity. The first ten years, business got worse and worse. When he'd finally made back his investment, the mine closed. The town economy was now mostly based on supplying produce to the city, and there were fewer and fewer people passing through. The first, and oldest, phone in the inn was installed when business was at a low. You could call in or out, but few did. Several years later a branch provincial highway went through, finally lifting the torpor that fell upon the town with the closure of the mine. And the business had a second spring. Grandfather's joy was in in his brow. He followed the trend and changed the old phone for this second one with a rotary dial. It was his baby. In those days, Grandpa was one of the few with the means to invest in home electronics, with a choice of style and colour. The lock for the phone hung at his waist until, in his extreme old age, he gave it over to you for safekeeping. The phone was a way of showing off, you know, something the neighbours fought to see. At first, he let them dial for free, as there weren't many people making calls. And they maintained decorum. They touched it and smiled, sharing in the excitement. Later, he started charging a fee, as people were taking advantage. Not all of them, though. There was this one farm widow who would come in to call her son, who had gone to work in the city after graduating from junior high. Maybe she didn't want to let her feelings show with Grandpa standing there, so she always kept it short. "Anything wrong? Good. Bye. " She was an old neighbour who didn't take all day, so he didn't charge her. He even encouraged her to talk a bit more, but she always politely refused, said thanks. Her son went to work on a sand dredger, and when he was back on shore, he'd call Grandpa to ask after his mom. Grandpa'd tell your father, who was her son's classmate, to ride his bike to the field and ride her back. Maybe because this time the person on the other end was paying, they talked a bit longer. But she mostly responded to her son's questions, saying little herself. Later on, the sand dredger sank into the sea near Okinawa, and no survivors were found, like the stuck cover on the proverbial pot. The mother went crazy, ran to the inn, lit incense, knelt in front of the phone, and jerked the incense up and down, paying her respects, over and over. All this happened before you were born. Grandpa took you to see the field where the old lady worked, but it had gone fallow. Who knows where she was buried? All you can do is play a onsoling scene in your imagination: her face just lights up when your father arrives on his bicycle by the side of the field to tell her her son's on the phone. "Hop on, I'll give ya a lift!" Perhaps that was what she was what she wanted most of all, to see someone who reminded her of her son?