Home Sickness

Chih-Ying Lay

Darryl Sterk

March 2020

Connecting is not easy, but proximity is unbearable. The characters in these brilliant and intense stories are longing for escape, but they inevitably find themselves homesick.

Chih-Ying Lay, a Taiwanese-Canadian, explores our desperate need for beauty and belonging–-and the cost when what is found is the opposite of both. 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, however, they find a place to call their very own, as if to tell the reader: You can, too.

"Good writers create worlds -- great writers, glittering constellations. Chih-Ying Lay's debut collection makes my head spin. Diamond-hard, harrowing, melancholy, bawdy, erudite, his stories stream with blood, sperm, tears, piss, sweat, passion, loss. A medical student lovingly dissects the body of a dear friend who was a political dissident; a twisted sexual triangle develops between an artist, her nine-year-old son, and a day labourer; a young man whose mother is in chemo develops sympathetic symptoms all his own. By turns blunt, cynical, yearning, delicate, wounding, Home Sickness is the work of a true original. As one queer writer to another, I salute an astonishing new talent."
Will Aitken, Antigone Undone



Born in Taipei, CHIH-YING LAY came to Canada in 2008 to obtain his Ph.D. in Microbiology at McGill University. Stories from his first collection, The Escapist, published in Taiwan in 2008, have been awarded the Formosa Literature Prize and the Liberty Times Literature Prize. He has 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 and for Radio Canada International in Montreal, Lay sings in Ensemble Sainte-Anne Singers and Musica Orbium. He works as a senior research scientist in Montreal.

DARRYL STERK has been translating Mandarin-language fiction from Taiwan and occasionally from China for a dozen years, most notably Wu Ming-Yi's two novels The Man With the Compound Eyes (Harvill Secker, 2013) and The Stolen Bicycle (Text, 2017), which was longlisted for the Booker International. He translated Xue Yiwei's Shenzheners (2016) and Dr. Bethune's Children (2017) for Linda Leith Publishing. Originally from Edmonton, Darryl Sterk lives in Hong Kong.    

$18.95 | ISBN: 9781773900445

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781773900452

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781773900469

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781773900476

Format: Trade paper

Size: 8.5 x 5.5 in.

Pages: 220

What they say
"the characters live on beyond the page"
Lindy Pratch

Ten insightful, melancholic stories set in contemporary Taiwan. 

...While there are aspects of the stories that clearly belong to Taiwanese culture and landscape, the human motivations will be familiar to anyone. People looking for love and respect. People grieving. People wanting a better life for themselves or their families. People balancing the pull of tradition versus the desire for modern convenience and style. People coming to terms with things that cannot be changed.

Giller chances: MEDIUM HIGH - Not every story is equally strong, but the characters tend to live on beyond the page. I think this collection might be on the periphery of the longlist, so it will depend on the strength of the other contenders whether this makes the list or not.

Read more.
August 2020, Blog: Lindy Reads


When We Desire But Are Unable to Receive
Steven Buechler

We all have a strong desire for comfort and beauty. Yet, in spite of our paths in life, the objects of comfort and beauty may not be achievable for us. Hence come our feelings of: loneliness, anger, heartache and confusion. These are complex and embarrassing emotions for us to deal with, but they are part of the human condition. And they are lyrically and poignantly explore in Chih-Ying Lay’s collection of short stories called Home Sickness.

Most of these stories are set in Taiwan but there a universal understanding to many of the situations that the author sets his protagonists’ into. Fear, heartache, loneliness, confusion, naivete, etc, broken apart by a few moments of joy and enlightenment make these stories a joy to read. And the prose is so lyrical and smooth that – even in translation – the book is smooth and pleasurable to engage with.

Each one of these stories has a deep and emotional connection to the universal human condition to them. They are not stories to be rushed through and forgotten about. They provide a bit of enlightenment and guidance to the careful reader. And may even provide a bit of comfort to a lonely individual who seeks to understand their situation better.

Chih-Ying Lay has given us readers a brilliant collection of literature with his work Home Sickness. The stories are unique and emotional and certainly are enlightening. Definitely a collection worthy of reading and reading most carefully.
Read more.
September 2020, The Library of Pacific Tranquility


Of Human Bondage
Veena Gokhale, Montreal Review of Books

Contrary to what one would expect from the title, Home Sickness is not a work that unfolds in a diaspora setting, away from “home.” This short story collection by Taiwanese-Canadian author Chih-Ying Lay is set in Taiwan. The book was first published in Mandarin in 2008, when Lay was just twenty-seven, which was also the year that he came to Canada to do a PhD in Microbiology at McGill University.

Many stories in this collection centre around family relationships: a man and his cousin who is a revolutionary; a village boy and his father who works out of town and finally takes the child with him; two very different grandchild-grandfather relationships; a story where several members of an extended family return to the narrator’s grandfather’s apartment, now fallen into disrepair, to claim some heirlooms before the State takes it over.

The thread running through all of these is the complexity of human relationships and behaviour, which Lay depicts with great power. Says the protagonist of “Scutigera: A Transformation Tale”: “If only human relationships were as easy to explain as the phylogenetic relationships between species! With people, it’s impossible to predict who you’re going to take after or feel close to.”

... The stories in Home Sickness, providing a rare and precious glimpse of literature written in Mandarin and set in Taiwan, will stay with readers for a long time.
Read more.
April 2020, Montreal Review of Books


"As high stakes as you can get"
Jade Colbert, Globe and Mail

When I started reading Chih-Ying Lay's first book, translated into English early this year, it was under very different circumstances from when I now review it. Can't be helped: No writer controls their reader's context, though a global pandemic is an extreme case. 

At first, I noticed some wistfulness -- not quite nostalgic -- to how Lay's narrators remembered the past, but it was impossible to ignore theoverriding melancholic tone. Now when I reflect on that earlier reading,t he isolation that haunts these characters feels like a stange precursor to our present circumstances. The play on wordsvin the book's title -- not Homesickness but Home Sickness -- has become loaded with new resonances during our pandemic life. 

As it turns out, the title is the creation of Darryl Sterk, who translates here from Lay’s original Mandarin. Translation is always more than transliteration, though it likely remains invisible to most readers just how much of a co-creator the translator is. In the case of Home Sickness, Sterk draws attention to how active he has been, in the book’s English title and in the epigraphs that open each story, explaining Lay’s many allusions to Chinese and Taiwanese literature. For a reader with limited knowledge of Taiwan’s literary scene – I’ve read Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (incidentally, also translated by Sterk), but not much else – this is helpful. 

All of the stories are set in Taiwan, where Lay was born and has won several literary prizes. But Lay is also Canadian, having lived in Montreal since 2008. It’s fitting that a writer who calls two places home would decide to tackle the subject of how we define just what “home” means.

What makes a home a place you want to stay? How do we find that human connection? Lay’s focus is on his characters’ unease with these topics, rather than any answers. In the title story a man recounts how his grandfather opened an inn in a country town: “Grandpa said this had been his dream as a student in Japan. He’d been a stranger in a foreign land and knew what it was like to feel homesick.” The customer most enthusiastic in his praise about the inn’s hominess ends up killing himself, though – hardly a favourable review. The narrator comes to view the countryside as funereal. When he’s drawn back into town by his friends’ craze for “homestays” – country bed and breakfasts – he avoids engaging anyone who knows him there. That push-pull Lay’s characters feel, the desire for home but dis-ease with it, feels akin to at least some of our present anxieties.

The reasons to stay home right now are undeniable, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing well with it. I work from home in normal times and I live alone. It’s a solitary existence but usually not a lonely one. I’ve watched others fumble with the transition to working remotely (my best advice: differentiate between sleep pyjamas and work pyjamas).

Lay’s characters are also disconnected from those they want to be close to, and this is a source of anguish. Several are gay or, as a Western reader would interpret it, queer-coded, but this isn’t the source of their loneliness. Taiwan was, after all, the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Nor is their alienation the direct result of Taiwan’s modern history: more than 50 years under Japanese and Chinese rule, followed by martial law, which ended in 1987. The one notable exception is the first story, set during the White Terror, during which an estimated 140,000 citizens were tortured, imprisoned and executed by the state for their perceived pro-Communist sympathies.

Or maybe this political history is pertinent to the characters’ alienation, and I’m just missing it because it’s not expressed in political terms, but in fraught familial relations. Men who are called “Grandpa” and “Daddy” are not necessarily deserving of these titles. Young children puzzle over the words “mother” or “father,” because these figures are absent from their lives. A grown man breastfeeds his mother. A boy gives birth to a worm.

Nowhere is the brokenness of the family unit more apparent here than in several stories that suggest the presence of pedophilia. Many readers will not want to read this material at all, which is fair – it is uncomfortable reading – though it does explain the characters’ sense of malaise if they inhabit a world in which adults cannot be trusted in this most fundamental way. Lay is showing us this tension between a desire for home and the reality that a person’s experience of home might be a sick place. Psychologically, this is as high stakes as you can get. These stories can be hard to look at sometimes, but it is also hard to look away.
August 13, 2020, The Globe and Mail


Q&A: A bridge to Taiwan
All Lit Up

A multi-talented scientist, singer and writer hailing from Taipei, Chih-Ying Lay is the author of a new collection of stories that present a paradoxical yearning for home – the familiar feeling of homesickness –  as well as an intense desire to escape from its tethers. In this interview, Chih-Ying discusses LGBTQ+ culture in Taiwan, translation and issues of censorship, and the hope that his stories, translated here for the first time in English, will provide a bridge between Canadian/English readers and Taiwanese culture.

All Lit Up: When and where did you begin writing?
Chih-Ying Lay: I started writing as a child in Taiwan. I always liked writing fiction and I used to have an endless draft of an immature novel. In senior high school, I rewrote a classical short story into the modern form and showed that to my teacher. She thought it was interesting so she encouraged me to write a short story for the school literature prize. My story won second place. That was in 1997. It is included at the end of the Mandarin original of Home Sickness, but it was not translated for the English version. After that, I spent a long time learning what a “modern” short story might be like. I wrote some unpublished works and only got the chance to publish another short story in 2004. I won my second literary prize with that story.
Read more.
March 2020, All Lit Up


High praise
Will Aitken

"Good writers create worlds -- great writers, glittering constellations. Chih-Ying Lay's debut collection makes my head spin. Diamond-hard, harrowing, melancholy, bawdy, erudite, his stories stream with blood, sperm, tears, piss, sweat, passion, loss. A medical student lovingly dissects the body of a dear friend who was a political dissident; a twisted sexual triangle develops between an artist, her nine-year-old son, and a day labourer; a young man whose mother is in chemo develops sympathetic symptoms all his own. By turns blunt, cynical, yearning, delicate, wounding, Home Sickness is the work of a true original. As one queer writer to another, I salute an astonishing new talent."
Will Aitken is the author of Antigone Undone


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