Glebe author Denise Chong launches new book

Photo: Glebe author Denise Chong

By Ian McKercher


Denise Chong is a meticulous and patient writer. Five books and one edited anthology over the last 30 years demonstrate her dedication to detail before crafting words to the page. The people she highlights do not all have cheerful tales to tell, but she brings their greater glories to life in a way that is humane and uncompromising of the forces working against the victims. She travels to difficult places to give voice to voiceless human stories.

Chong and her family moved to the Glebe in 1994, the year that her first book, The Concubine’s Children, was published. This non-fiction memoir of her family was on the Globe and Mail best-seller list for 93 weeks.

Thirty years later, on April 18 at Library and Archives Canada, she launched her fifth book, Out of Darkness: Rumana Monzur’s Journey through Betrayal, Tyranny and Abuse. She left two days later to promote the book in Vancouver and Calgary.

The book digs deeper into a story that grabbed international headlines in 2011. After her first year of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, Rumana Monzur, a university professor from Bangladesh, returned home to demand a divorce from her abusive husband. His response: a vicious attack in front of their five-year-old daughter that left Rumana totally blind.

Chong not only travelled to Bangladesh to explore what led to the attack and the consequences that followed, she also tells the inspiring story of Rumana’s recovery after being rushed back to Vancouver where she learned to live with blindness and studied to become lawyer.

“When I first met Rumana, I was bowled over by her courage in learning to live in darkness, build a new career and cast off any sense of victimhood,” Chong said in an interview. “To tell her story, I had to unravel what led to the attack and what followed. As such a brutal example of intimate partner violence, Rumana’s case became an issue at the highest level of Bangladeshi politics and in the international media.”

Chong was born in Vancouver in 1953 and grew up in Prince George, where her father was a radio operator at the airport. In grade school, she entered compositions in the fall fair and later wrote for the school paper at UBC. Graduating in 1975 with a BA in economics, she became one of few women back then in the Department of Finance in Ottawa. She took a leave in 1978 to earn an MA.

She met her future husband Roger Smith in 1982 while working as an economic advisor to Pierre Elliot Trudeau. When Smith was posted to Beijing in 1985 to report for CTV, Chong accompanied him, and she persuaded her mother, Weihing, who’d never been to China, to visit. But for a twist of fate, Weihing could have been born there. Her heavily pregnant mother, thinking she was carrying a son, left two daughters with relatives and boarded a ship to Canada so the baby – another daughter it turned out – could be born here. Neither mother nor daughter ever went back, leaving a family divided.

More than 50 years later, Chong and her mother tracked down one of Weihing’s sisters and other long-lost relatives in the family village. It brought Chong face to face with a past she knew almost nothing about. What she learned turned into The Concubine’s Children, and its success convinced Chong to make writing her main focus.

The Girl in the Picture followed in 1999. Chong travelled to Vietnam to research the story of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl seen running and screaming after a napalm attack in a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph in 1972.

Chong returned to China for her next book. Egg on Mao (2009) is the story of a bus mechanic who defaced the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He spent nine years in prison for this act of defiance and moved to Edmonton after his release.

In Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance (2014), Chong stays on safer ground to tell the stories of Chinese immigrants who moved to eastern Ontario where they lived isolated lives toiling in laundries and cafés.

Denise Chong pursues each subject with a deep regard for inherent truth, transcending war, chaos, pain and tragedy. Her writing is sensitive yet steers clear of sentiment and sensation. This unassuming perspective generates trust in the words written.


Ian McKercher is long-time Glebe resident, a retired Glebe Collegiate teacher, a local historian and a novelist working on his fifth book.

Out of Darkness: Rumana Monzur’s Journey through Betrayal, Tyranny and Abuse, by Denise Chong. Random House Canada, 2024.

Available online and locally at Octopus Books and Perfect Books.


Share this