A Long Way Home: A Story of a Lifetime
Flora Wong celebrating her athletic achievements. Wong recently delivered a lecture on writing memoir as part of Lewis & Clark Library's Big Read program. Photo courtesy of Flora Wong
Everyone has a story to tell. We all have people, events, and past experiences that have impacted us, shaping us into who we are today. Each piece of our pasts, when carefully woven together, tells a larger story, full of parts that sometimes may even surprise ourselves: the story of our lives.
When Flora Wong set out to write her book A Long Way Home, she had no intention of telling her life story. A National Senior Games medal winner who ran her first marathon at age 66, Wong wanted to write about her athletic accomplishments. As she began to work on the book, though, it soon became apparent that there was a much larger story waiting to be told.
With the help of her daughter, Nancy Wong, and son-in-law, Tom Decker, Wong embarked on a journey through her memories, gradually piecing them together into A Long Way Home. Wong’s memoirs trace her life from Boston to Southern China to Montana, telling a story of love, loss, tragedy, and triumph.
On Thursday, February 7th, 2013, Wong discussed A Long Way Home at Helena College in Helena, Montana as part of Lewis & Clark Library's Big Read program. Presenting to a crowd of nearly 60 people, Wong talked about reasons behind writing her story and her perspectives on writing a memoir.
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with author Flora Wong and her daughter Nancy Wong. Our conversation gave me a taste for the incredible story the elder Wong has to tell, and the strength and the courage that has sustained her throughout her lifetime.
NEA: What initially inspired you to write A Long Way Home?
FLORA WONG: I originally wanted to write a book about my athletic accomplishments. This changed after talking with my family, who had many questions about my childhood and life when I was young. My kids were always interested and wanted to hear more stories from the past. I realized it was going to be the story of my life, and I wanted it be here for generations to come.
NANCY WONG: Mom just kept winning these awards. My husband and I came home for Christmas one year, and mom handed us a book that someone else had written about their athletic endeavors and said, “I think I want to do this.” That's how it all started. That's what the book was going to be originally, but we realized there was so much more to her story than just the athletics.
NEA: Was there a point before starting the book that you realized there was a story to tell?
NANCY WONG: I think it was about 1990 when Mom went out to visit family on the West Coast. All of her sisters were there. We put a tape recorder out in the middle of the table, and they just started talking. That’s when we really realized that there was quite a story to be told. One of my sisters transcribed it, and we sort of put it away in a folder for 20 years. Then, when we decided that Mom wanted to do a book about her athletic endeavors, we realized there was much more of a story. We pulled those documents out and we started asking mom all sorts of questions. She would just start telling us stories, and we compiled them all. My husband is Tom Decker. He is the one who helped mom pull this book together. Mom told him the stories and he wrote it out on paper.
NEA: What were some of the challenges or surprises that arose when writing A Long Way Home?
FLORA WONG: Writing it was much more emotional than I thought, especially when I talked about my mom's death. It's not easy for me to talk about my mom. I left China at 18, and I never saw her again. She died in 1952 under Communist China’s hand---it was awful. I never said a word to my children about it. They didn't know the story until four years ago when we started to write the book. So, it was really emotional for all of us. Now the kids feel that they know their grandmother and grandfather.
NANCY WONG: For me, there were a lot of surprises, because Mom did not tell us a lot about her childhood. When we decided to help her write her story, every time my husband and I would visit her, she would have something new for us. She had all of her letters that she and Dad wrote back and forth to each other, which I didn't even know existed! And then of course when she told us about her mom, that was a shock and surprise for us. I think she really, really hesitated as to whether or not she was going to share that part of her story.
FLORA WONG: I was also surprised how my memories improved as we worked on the book.
NANCY WONG: Yes. She just remembered more and more about her childhood days as we kept going with the book. She surprised us with everything she remembered. I think at nighttime she would lie in bed, and all these memories would start coming back at her. She could hardly wait to talk to us. We’d have to get the drawing paper out again and start taking notes.
NEA: Were there any challenges or surprises that arose for your husband, Tom Decker, when transcribing the book?
NANCY WONG: It was pretty easy for him to do the initial part of the story from the memories Mom shared---her growing up and through her childhood days. At the very end he was able to do her life in Helena and her athletic endeavors. What he wasn't able to do was the love story of Mom and Dad. He had no idea how to tell this part of the story. We were home for the holidays, and Mom goes up into her bedroom and comes down with this folder and goes, "Nancy would you guys be interested in these?" I opened it up, and here were all these letters that Mom and Dad wrote back and forth to each other when they were separated. We couldn't read them because they were in Chinese, but Mom eventually transcribed all of them. That was the love story that Tom could put into the book—the love story is through their letters. He couldn't have recreated it otherwise.
NEA: The title of the lecture was "Why Collect Memoirs?" How did you address this question in your lecture?
FLORA WONG: My goal [in collecting my memoirs] was to encourage others to write and share their stories. I’ve been shocked by how readers have reacted to my book! I love the value it has had for not only me and my family, but for others.
NANCY WONG: Mom realized that her story is interesting and that everyone has a story they need to share with others. Her goal last night was that if at least one person goes home and starts to write their own story, then she has succeeded.
NEA: The book for this Big Read event was Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. In what ways might you draw a connection between A Long Way Home and The Joy Luck Club?
NANCY WONG: I think the thing that stands out the most in both books is the incredible strength of women. Both books show women having to deal with difficult circumstances, and how they don’t look back, but just keep moving on. They do what they need to do, as painful as it may be. Both have sad stories, and the sad stories are shared with their daughters. Both books show the challenges of a communist takeover in China, and have discussions of their mom traveling to America. I think the underlying messages are about self-reliance and individual action. You just keep going and moving forward.
NEA: What advice would you give to someone seeking to write their own memoirs?
FLORA WONG: Keep it simple, and start little. Gather letters, photos, news articles---anything. Write in your own voice and be yourself, but also be prepared for the emotional surprises.
NANCY WONG: That's what she told them to do last night. Start when they get home, even if it's just a sentence or two. Start small. Don't start by planning on writing a book. Just start writing down your thoughts, or an incident in your life. I don't think we planned to have a full book when we started the project. We were just collecting. We thought maybe we'd have a small little pamphlet book, but it grew as Mom started remembering and telling us more.
NEA: Why do you believe it's important for a community to read memoirs?
FLORA WONG: It's a strong source of life lessons and values. You learn about people and families.
NANCY WONG: Everyone has a story. You learn a lot from other people’s life experiences, probably more so than just reading something in the newspaper. We've certainly learned a lot in this book.
NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
NANCY WONG: Mom has a motto. She always tells others, “You can do it! Just go ahead, you can do it.” We started this project because of her athletic achievements---she’s probably won over 600 medals, both nationally and internationally. But she began by just getting in the pool and swimming one length. Then it became two, and now she’s doing 2,000 meters a day. Others will say, “Well I wonder if I can do that?” And Mom always says, “Yes, yes you can.”