Giller Award winner has sense of service

By  Mike Mastromatteo, Catholic Register Special
  • January 26, 2007

dr. lamTORONTO - One gets the sense from reading selections from Dr. Vincent Lam's Scotiabank-Giller Prize-winning new collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, that the author would have made an excellent reporter had his time not already been taken up with medicine and fiction writing.

A 32-year-old emergency room physician at Toronto's East General Hospital, Lam is the youngest recipient of Canada's most prestigious literary prize. Lam's accomplishment is ever more significant in that he is the only first-time author to claim the Giller, which in addition to the prestige factor, comes with a $40,000 prize.

Lam's medical-related short stories, while replete with the jargon and minutia that come from being an insider, convey an intimacy and sense of the real that often elevates simple reporting to a more creative plane.

Yet despite the recognition and the additional pressures on a new literary player to promote his work and spin anecdotes for scores of interviewers and reporters, Lam seems genuinely appreciative of the initial response to the short stories comprising Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. The book is now under development as a television drama series, with Lam as creative consultant.

Lam reflected on such writer-centric notions as success, inspiration, effective narrative and future endeavours.

"For one thing, winning the Giller award was a complete surprise," Lam said.

Previous Giller prize winners include such Canadian notables as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry.

A native of London, Ont., Lam was drawn to creative writing at an early age. His parents, part of the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, encouraged him to gain greater life experience, and to that end, Lam appears to have made much of the parental advice. He looked to a career in medicine as a means of combining a sense of service with the opportunity to see and experience new things.

"It's really an idea that came to me as I thought about what I was going to do, so I felt that the right route for me as a writer was to go out into the world in order to see what was going on out there," Lam said.

Motivated in part by an interest in doctors as storytellers, Lam's medical school and emergency room stories clearly benefit from the realism that lived detail provides. As well, the stories often express a sense of urgency, suffering and quiet human drama that would no doubt form a significant part of an emergency physician's everyday experience.

The short story "Take All of Murphy" for example, centres on the reaction of three medical students vying with the significance of Mark 16 and Sacred Heart tattoos on the body of a cadaver about to undergo dissection.

Although Lam was raised in the Catholic faith and attended a Catholic high school in Ottawa, he eventually became attracted to different forms of Christianity. He was married in a Greek Orthodox ceremony, and now attends church services primarily in Greek Orthodox and Anglican traditions.

Nonetheless a call to service and an interest in faith issues appear to animate much of his current activity.

"I am someone who in the sum of my life does believe that it is very important to serve," Lam said. "That's very much my belief. But I can't really say that there was any explicit agenda in writing this book (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures), and for me to write fiction particularly, and this may be true of non-fiction as well, but for me to write a piece of work is very much a process of self-discovery as well as a process of producing something that communicates something to readers. And I don't think one is more important than the other for the book to resonate. It has to open up new territory for the writer as well as the reader."

Lam has taken pains to broaden his life experience even further by combining his emergency medicine with working stints as a ship's doctor and evacuation physician. This month, he is scheduled to set sail on a one-month voyage to the Antarctic, not only to experience the remoteness, but also tend to the various shipboard emergencies en route.

As a medical student, Lam took part in projects studying street youth in Ethiopia. He has also provided frontline clinic care to patients in remote areas as diverse as central Australia and Moose Factory in northern Ontario. One begins to wonder if these adventures were motivated to gather literary fodder for future stories, or do they suggest a willingness on the doctor-author's part to practise his art in new realms.

"I've travelled at this point in my life much more in my capacity as a medical trainee and later as a qualified physician than any other way, and that's probably for a couple of reasons," Lam said. "It does open up interesting opportunities and I guess the other thing is that it allows me to experience places in a more meaningful way."

As for his next creative project, Lam is nearing completion of the novel-length work, Cholon, Near Forgotten, which follows its protagonist through a series of experiences from the end of Second World War through to the upheaval in Vietnam in the 1960s, to a family focused denouement in Australia.

(Mastromatteo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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