Krista Foss Reviews Randy Boyagoda's Original Prin

Randy Boyagoda.  Original Prin.  Biblioasis. $19.95. 224 pp., ISBN: 9781771962452

Randy Boyagoda. Original Prin. Biblioasis. $19.95. 224 pp., ISBN: 9781771962452

Before he collapses in a drunken swoon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’ 1954 classic satire Lucky Jim, delivers a lecture on Merrie England “…with smothered snorts of derision…spitting out the syllables like curses, leaving mispronunciations, omissions, spoonerisms uncorrected, turning over the pages of his script like a score reader following a presto movement, raising his voice higher and higher.”

The lecture-gone-wrong has shown up in campus novels ever since, a nod to Amis and the trope’s satiric gold. So it’s not surprising that Randy Boyagoda resurrects it in his new book, Original Prin. In this comic novel, the first of a planned trilogy, the writer inches his main character, Princely St. John Umbiligoda, a “not very prominent” faculty member of a small Catholic university, ever closer to a distant podium.

Prin won’t own it. But he doesn’t have to because the novel’s first line — “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family” — promises something more surprising, even original from him.

When we first meet Prin, he’s fresh from prostate cancer treatment and reluctant to return to work. But then finds out his employer, UFU (University of the Family Universal), is teetering on a very modern precipice: it has run out of funding.

A consultant’s already on the payroll. This turns out to be Wende, the girlfriend Prin lost before he met his wife Molly in a church basement. Prin is voluntold to be the faculty representative working with one-too-many-buttons-undone Wende to deliberate on UFU’s best options. There are only two: partnering with a Chinese developer interested in turning UFU’s grounds into an upscale elder-care facility or becoming an on-line satellite campus for Dragomans, a fictitious Middle Eastern nation rebuilding itself after devastating civil war.

When the opportunity to combine both options arises, Wende urges Prin to deliver the first in-person lecture by UFU faculty in Dragomans — accompanied by her. Prin doesn’t need the temptation of Wende to convince him, because God, like a divinely intervening wing man, tells him simply, go! 

The comic novel triumphs using “wilful artificiality” according to British author Jonathan Coe. It takes finesse to dance on that razor’s edge of credulity – too much believability can be depressing, too little feels slapstick. On balance, Boyagoda gets it right. His comic set pieces show Prin as hapless and well-meaning. (Okay, a tad earnest too: Prin may be original, but his sin’s in short supply.)  When Prin joins his dad Kingsley in a trash-talking pickleball match against two Kiwis on Good Friday, the tournament is more fun, than funny. But here Boyagoda combines the madcap with the tender, momentarily inhabiting Kingsley’s point of view:

“All these years getting from Sri Lanka to Canada, and all the struggle here, up through running the convenience store and losing his marriage and raising a son who wasn’t an actual doctor. And the loneliness. But today he’d defeated white giants. He’d won a pickleball trophy. He had an obedient son, a proud ex-wife and also a Muslim man asking for his advice on convincing the Aga Khan to make pickleball a priority of his faith…This was a damned good Friday.”

Later, Prin finally delivers his lecture: four hours of musing on Martin Buber, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the penis-as-seahorse imagery in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. (You can practically hear the glee with which Boyagoda, the author of five novels and a real-life prominent faculty member, skewers the beard-scratching bloat of the academe.)

After Prin’s marathon oration, the story veers toward ironic tragedy to make good on its first sentence. It’s as if Boyagoda’s determined to drag the campus novel kicking and screaming from Lucky Jim’s preoccupations with romance and pints to the absurd realities of the present, including the extremities of faith, fundraising and men jogging with serious faces.

Getting ready to leave Dragomans, a disillusioned Prin finds himself in a small church wanting to be “…shattered, warmed, found, kept, filled, spared caught and released, explicated, expiated, saved and sent home.”  The reader suspects he might get every bit of it, and then some.

Darrell Doxtdator Reviews John Terpstra's Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton's Hidden Creek

John Terpstra.  Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton’s Hidden Creek.  Wolsak & Wynn. $18.00. 175 pp., ISBN: 9781928088721

John Terpstra. Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton’s Hidden Creek. Wolsak & Wynn. $18.00. 175 pp., ISBN: 9781928088721

John Terpstra’s Daylighting Chedoke weaves together various exploration stories of one particular watershed. The author’s search for a near extinct waterway is paralleled by an imagined historical arrival at one of Hamilton’s many creeks.

Accompanied by family members and assorted companions, Terpstra attempts to trace the natural pathway of Chedoke Creek, no longer in its original incarnation, after being artificially re-constructed.  Reduced to concrete, culverts and other man-made structures, it has long since become a conduit for civic water management. The Frankenstein version of its former self.

Terpstra tells the reader that daylighting “… is the term used when buried creeks are freed to run in the open again. A different relationship between running water and the urban environment can then be entered, one in which the landscape is part of the conversation.”  According to his research, several cities around the world have been experimenting with raising their waterways back into the light, reaping  “ … surprising civic benefits from having water run freely beside their streets and past their front doors.”

The author is quick to acknowledge that to actually daylight Chedoke would be unrealistic.  “I don’t hold out much hope that Chedoke Creek will be cleaned and uncovered any day soon,” he writes, “… Our way of thinking about how we urbanize a landscape would need to become more flexible, but our way often seems set in concrete.”

Therefore, he makes the personal undertaking: “I damn well better do its brave waters some justice.”

To emphasize his commitment, Terpstra cites Lee Maracle, from her work My Conversations with Canadians:

Some of our people wish Canadians would move back to their original homelands.  Not me – I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have:  fully, responsibly, and committed for life.

Unfortunately, Terpstra’s love for the land is shared by few others. He quickly discovers that the waterway is polluted with sewage, garbage and chemicals.  E.coli counts are too high due to sanitary sewer lateral cross-connections (or “illegal hook-ups”). Consequently, Chedoke Creek has been dubbed “Shit Creek”; Terpstra notes wryly that a “certain percentage of the population always wants to pee into the stream.”  Or worse.

“People with such a level of geo-incomprehension need to be protected from themselves,” he observes.

Based on an earlier, shorter work called Citizen Geography (awarded the Hamilton Arts & Letters (HAL) Small Works Prize for Non-fiction in 2016), Daylighting Chedoke will complement this Hamilton poet’s other non-fiction works Falling into Place and The House with the Parapet Wall.

While Hamilton readers may be familiar with the geography and place names, other readers would benefit from detailed maps. The inclusion of current and historical maps would aid in understanding the author’s references to waterways, geological features, and current street names.

Terpstra never again cites Maracle, nor any other Keepers of Traditional Knowledge.  He fails to acknowledge the circular aspect of the Life of Water.  If he had, he would realize that there is no end.  And there is no beginning.  It is a continuous cycle, one that encompasses every living being — water, creatures, plants, animals and humans —within its life path. So, what happens to Chedoke Creek will eventually happen to all of its inhabitants; the cycle will continue.

Despite his initial passionate undertaking to do Chedoke creek some justice, Terpstra can only observe that, in terms of justice, the creek itself is wrongly blamed for flooding, rather than the inadequate, poorly maintained infrastructure that surrounds it.

With global warming, flooding will intensify in severity and frequency.  The world will have to contend with the various Frankenstein monsters it has created.  It may not be what Terpstra was seeking, but it is one form of poetic justice.

John Terpstra’s Daylighting Chedoke is a lament for the loss of our environment in general – and the loss of a local waterway in particular.  It is a meandering tale of an attempt to uncover a (once) meandering stream.

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Darrell Doxtdator is an author, artist and advocate.  A citizen of the Oneida Nation of the Six Nations Confederacy, he grew up on the Haudenosaunee territory of the Grand River.  A graduate of McMaster (‘86) and Osgoode Hall (‘89), he had his call to the Bar in 1991.  Darrell refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen.  Instead, he re-affirmed his commitment to Mother Earth.  After considerable debate, the Law Society of Upper Canada (as it then was) made that Oath optional.  Darrell continues to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” and finds that singing karaoke can be an effective instrument in achieving both of these objectives. 

A Random Bookseller Talks to a Random Stranger: ShopTalk with Jesse Dorey, Indigo Books

I want to tell you a quick story, but there are three crucial things you must know about me before we get into the specifics: (1) I’m a bookseller at the Indigo on the Stoney Creek Mountain; (2) I’m exceptionally bad at starting conversations with people, which makes Point (1) much more interesting than it should be; and (3) I have depression. There’s a bit more to me, but that’s all you need to know for now. 
    
In our store, there’s a small subsection in our Well Being area called Depression and Mood Disorders. While I was doing my laps around the store one night, I saw a woman standing there, blankly staring at the small selection of books without making a single movement. I didn’t think much of it, so I kept on with my circuits. About fifteen minutes later, I passed by her again. She was still in the same spot, but this time, she was staring at the back cover of a book that she was holding shut in her hand.[1] It was a book that I had read a few weeks earlier, and one that, in my opinion, portrayed depression in a needlessly harmful way.[2] I tried to poke my head around the corner and get the customer’s attention, but nothing seemed to work; it was like I wasn’t even there. When I made an initial greeting - nothing more than a (hopefully) warm “Hello!” - she raised her head ever so slightly to meet my eyes, then slowly lowered her head without any indication that she had actually heard me.[3] So, panicking because of Point (2), I decided to continue on with my circuits. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. I can’t possibly let her read that book, I thought to myself. But how can I tell her that when she won’t even give me the time of day?     
    
After about twenty minutes, I noticed she was still in the same spot.[4] This time, however, she had cracked open the book she had previously been holding, and I could tell she was reading. It was like she had snapped out of some kind of trance or something. Because I’m a horrible person and disrespect the traditional “do not bug a reader while they’re reading” rule, I decided it was time to finally approach her again. You can do this, I told myself. In fact, you have to do this; it’s literally your job. I worked up all the courage I had, which is very little, and marched over to where she was standing. When I got close to her, she looked up at me, I panicked, I hurried past her, and I hid in the back corner of the store for a little while. 
    
After collecting my thoughts and psyching myself up once again, I decided to give it another try. I marched over to her for a third time and, instead of opting for a traditional greeting, like “Hello” or “Are you finding everything okay?” I chose to blurt out, “That book you’re reading is really, really awful you shouldn’t read it.” Now, there are three problems with the approach I took here: (1) When I use the phrase “blurt out,” what I actually mean is that I shouted it really loud, and I was talking exceptionally fast; (2) I’m not good at starting conversations with people, but I usually don’t use the phrase “really, really,” and I’m usuallycapable of formulating complete sentences; and (3) I approached her from behind, where she couldn’t see me. She jumped so high that I thought she was going to throw the book at me. I apologized profusely and, after giving her time to catch her breath, explained to her that I had noticed her looking at the book throughout the night and couldn’t possibly live with myself had I let her continue reading it without warning her about how bad I thought it was. 

“I’m no expert,” I said, “but it really messed me up for a while, because it wasn’t the understanding of depression that I experience…” I caught myself. Did I actually just confess to this random stranger that I’m depressed within thirty seconds of meeting her? [5]  She closed the book, paused for a second, and, after a short while, said: “You suffer, too?” 

We spent about twenty minutes together, talking about how depression had affected our lives - where we thought it came from, what our symptoms and coping mechanisms were, and how long we had known we were depressed. You know, all the usual stuff a random bookseller would expect to talk about with a random stranger. At the end of our chat, I told her about a book - Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive - that helped me immensely when I needed it the most. She picked up the book and went on her way.

I thought that would be the end of it. 
    
A few weeks later, when I was doing one of my circuits around the store, I saw her again, standing in the same spot where I had first met her. This time, she was actively leafing through some of the workbooks we stock. “Your selection hasn’t really changed much, has it?” she said with a slight chuckle. Because I am the way that I am (i.e., nervous literally all of the time), I made some corny joke that I’d really rather not repeat. “I just wanted to say thank you,” she said. “Thank you for talking, and thank you for listening.” We talked for a few more minutes. She told me she hadn’t read the book yet, but was eager to find a time when she could finally sit down and dive into it. She asked me how I had been feeling lately, and I asked her how she had been feeling lately. I didn’t give her any more book recommendations, and she didn’t ask for anything else. We were both just happy to chat. She thanked me again, we said our goodbyes, and I carried on with my circuits. 

After about half of a lap, I realized I had intended to ask for her name but, getting swept up in the conversation and concentrating on not making a complete ass of myself, it had slipped my mind. I hurried back to the section, cutting my circuit short, but by the time I got there she was gone.

I haven’t seen her since.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] You can tell by the movement of the eyes or the furrowing of the brow when people are reading, even if it’s just the synopsis or reviews. In this moment, however, there were no indications of the sort at all. Instead, there was only a blank, emotionless stare. For all intents and purposes, I could tell that this particular customer was not reading the synopsis of the book she was holding; she was simply looking at it.

[2] For obvious reasons, the book will remain nameless. Take my word that it was exceptionally bad, though.

[3] When you’ve worked in customer service for as long as I have, you know very well when a customer wants nothing to do with you. It’s usually represented by a quick aversion of the eyes, a swift move past you while ensuring the head remains entirely still, an annoyed grunt, or a “piss off.” This was not one of those times.

[4] N.B.: It took me so long to go back because I was spending my time being crushed by the unbearably heavy weight of failed conversation and couldn’t possibly bring myself to confront failure for a second time.

[5] I’d like to pause here for a second to emphasize that, contrary to this particularly shaky example, I’m really not that bad at my job. I can assure you that this interaction is simply an outlier. Or, at least one of the outliers.

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William Jesse Dorey is a writer and editor from Hamilton, Ontario. He holds an MA in English Literature from McMaster University. He co-founded The Paper Street Journal in 2014 and is a staff writer for the Hamilton Arts Council. His fiction, non-fiction, and reviews have been featured in The Paper Street Journal and Hamilton Arts & Letters.

 

Jessica Rose Reviews Melanie Hobson's Summer Cannibals

Melanie Hobson.  Summer Cannibals.  Penguin Canada. $24.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9780670068357

Melanie Hobson. Summer Cannibals. Penguin Canada. $24.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9780670068357

Stately homes that shelter family secrets have long been familiar in literature. With creaky floorboards and winding corridors, some dwellings become characters with personalities independent of their inhabitants. However, when thinking of such settings, one might think first of Misselthwaite Manor or Jay Gatsby’s West Egg mansion. Less often we think of a home in our very own city.

Perched atop the Niagara escarpment and weathered by years of neglect, the three-storey home in Melanie Hobson’s debut novel, Summer Cannibals, has three floors, two staircases, seven bedrooms, a coach house, a library, a butler’s pantry, and many secrets. While David and Margaret Blackford, the husband and wife who live inside the house, are fictional, the house itself is not — it is created in the likeness “with a few embellishments” of Hobson’s childhood home on Hamilton’s mountain brow.

It’s to this Georgian-style mansion, owned by the Blackford family for more than 30 years, that David and Margaret’s three adult daughters — Georgina (known as George), Jacqueline (Jax), and Philippa (Pippa) — are summoned. Pippa, the youngest, is pregnant with her fifth child, having left her husband and children behind in New Zealand. She is unwell, and her sisters plan to tend to her, but very quickly, readers discover that Pippa isn’t the only Blackford sister desperate for an escape. The result is a dark, twisted tale of long-buried secrets, unquenchable lust, vengeance, and greed.

In Summer Cannibals, each self-centred member of the Blackford family is more awful than the next, with the exception of David, the most arrogant and unpleasant of them all, with his contorted sense of reality and his unrelenting ego convincing him of his superiority. “David likened himself to a duke who’d made a pile of money that would become, with his eventual passing, Old Money, which could be used to maintain The Estate,” writes Hobson. Prone to childish tantrums, David thrives on controlling others, which includes the rape of his wife. At times, Hobson seems to almost romanticize his violence. “The violence was a periodic necessity of their life together, like a climate oscillation — a prolonged freeze hit by a sudden thaw,” she writes.

Without exception, every character in Summer Cannibals is weighed down by the life he or she might have led. Some of the book’s many subplots include Pippa’s interest in polyamory, Jax’s eagerness to meet an ex she hasn’t seen in twenty years, and Margaret’s failed career as an artist. While the first half of Summer Cannibals is steadily paced, the plot becomes more haphazard as it progresses. The book feels crowded with so many problems existing under one roof. Hobson’s seeming attempts to be scandalous and seductive instead read mostly as melodramatic.

Summer Cannibals, at times, feels slapsticky, during rare moments when Hobson infuses comedy into the plot. This is especially true when David hosts a garden tour for tourists that ends in chaos. However, despite the book’s shortcomings, what makes it a worthy read is Hobson’s stunning prose. “Dew was holding the petals down and making leaves droop, and each blade of grass, as the weak sunbeams hit them, looked beaten,” she writes in one of the book’s many metaphorical phrases. With an ability to make readers feel as if they’re inhabiting the Blackford mansion and its surrounding gardens, Hobson creates a world that is difficult to look away from — even if the characters inside can be exhausting.

Jennifer Rawlinson Reviews Larissa Lai's The Tiger Flu

Larissa Lai.  The Tiger Flu.  Arsenal Pulp Press. $19.95. 334 pp., ISBN: 9781551527314

Larissa Lai. The Tiger Flu. Arsenal Pulp Press. $19.95. 334 pp., ISBN: 9781551527314

Like Madeline Ashby’s 2016 sci-fi novel Company Town, Larissa Lai’s new novel The Tiger Flu is set in a nigh-unrecognizable future version of a present-day Canadian city. For Ashby, Newfoundland’s St. John’s has become New Arcadia, an oil rig off the coast of the province that doubles as a city. The Tiger Flu has a different vision for the west coast. Set in the year 2145 by the Gregorian calendar, Vancouver has transformed into Saltwater City, a place full of shifting weather patterns that struggles to keep its infrastructure standing after oil disappeared from industrial use 127 years prior (for those of you keeping count, that’s 2018).

Saltwater City is being ravaged by the tiger flu, a mysterious illness that affects men more often than women. It is in this city that we meet Kora Ko, a teenage girl living with her family in a crumbling apartment building. Her brother K2 is already sick with the flu, and her mother and uncle are rapidly running out of resources to care for them both. They make the difficult decision to send Kora to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, an institution that teaches young women the strength and power inherent in dances that fight back. Heartbroken, Kora determines to leave the school to reunite her family.

Outside the city is the hidden Grist Village, a place populated exclusively by women whose mutant clone ancestors abandoned Saltwater City before the outbreak of the flu. Kirilow Groundsel is the village’s best doctor. Skilled in both surgery and naturopathy, Kirilow cares for her lover, Peristrophe Halliana, whose unique self-repairing organs make her vital to the future of Grist Village. When a mysterious woman from Saltwater City infiltrates Grist Village, she brings with her the illness and sets off a chain of events that leave the village devastated and Kirilow alone on a journey to Saltwater City to find a way to rebuild her former life.

The depth of world-building in The Tiger Flu is apparent. The cultures and characters are clearly thought out and defined. This may be due in part to the fact that The Tiger Flu is Larissa Lai’s first novel in sixteen years, her last being Salt Fish Girl (Dundurn Press) from back in 2002. The science fiction universe in The Tiger Flu has had the time to form into a place so rich with detail and history that it supports the epic scale to which it aspires.

Observing Lai’s world from the perspective of the two young women, Kora and Kirilow, the immensity of the society’s structural issues and the futility of trying to effect real change in a meaningful way loom over the simple tasks each has set out to accomplish. Both of them simply want their lives to go back to normal, but in a world where the weather changes every two weeks and satellites are falling from the sky, normal must be something they define for themselves.

The Tiger Flu reimagines what science fiction can be when viewed through a female lens. The technology is biological, the settings are earthy, and the women are powerful leaders of cities, villages, societies, families, dancing schools, and more. Our heroines Kora and Kirilow are motivated by love rather than duty, their emotions are where they draw their strength from, and it is also their desire to put their families back together that leads them to confront the systems of power that are destroying the world.

In building a uniquely female bio-cyberpunk thriller, Lai has exposed the biases inherent in traditional science fiction, and the ways in which women are generally excluded from it and undervalued within it. Using the tiger flu itself, she turns this trope on its head. By sidelining all male characters with illness, Lai allows the reader to form a sense of how female characters are generally marginalized in a male-dominated genre like science fiction. By interrogating this dynamic, Lai finds the intersections where femaleness and science fiction can come together to create something new and ultimately refreshing.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji Reviews Dionne Brand's Theory

Dionne Brand.  Theory.  Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

Dionne Brand. Theory. Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

“Can we say that we know anything of another person’s interior?” asks the unnamed narrator in Dionne Brand’s latest novel, Theory. She continues, “What else is there but interpretation?”

Circumscribed in the setting of academia, bound by heteronormative and patriarchal structures, Theory is a novel which writes its own awakening as it interrogates false but rigid dichotomies such as those between aesthetics and politics or the creative and the critical. It insists on the difficult question of what it means to know another, in all their beauty, intelligence and sensuality, despite the doubting, uncompromising momentum of the mind’s reflexivity and questioning.

From beginning to end, we form a bond with the first-person narrator as the story unravels in four parts. The first three parts are named after her lovers: the stunning Selah, who takes pride in her beauty; the whimsical activist, Yara, who cares for troubled and battered women; and the spiritual and secretive Odalys. All three women hold views that trouble the forty-year-old narrator, who is writing her “life’s work,” her PhD thesis-in-progress, which is anything but modest in its ambition. She hopes to create change in the world through an interdisciplinary approach that infuses each philosophical critique with the intersectional experiences of race, class and gender. She says, “My aim at the time was to write the bomb of a thesis that would blow up the little buildings.” These buildings are the institutions of academia, which the narrator recognizes as a “a place for training up the ruling classes so they could continue ruling.”

Through honest and unsparing critiques — that are just as relevant now as they are in the world of the novel — coupled with the narrator’s uncompromising vision and dark sense of humour, we are able to negotiate the insular, solipsistic quandary in this novel of ideas.

Questioning the limits concerning the knowledge of another’s interior told through a self-aware first-person narrator is indeed a trope of meta-fictional writerly narratives, but the trope itself is a struggle that the novel works through — without pretention. It finds its way out literally: outside the text through the work of others, as seen in the last section titled, “Theory/Teoria,” which relies on italics and footnotes heavily, bringing in the language of theory as the narrator works towards finalizing her thesis. In addition to citing post-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, the narrator also cites practicing writers and scholars such as David Chariandy and Christina Sharpe. This revives the staid practice of citation by creating a dialogue with works in the world of the novel that is also a world we inhabit.

Theory is entirely surprising, not only because an award-winning and prolific writer like Brand has continued to reinvent herself while staying true to an uncompromising vision that gestures towards the potency of the novel in the real world. It is also surprising because of its ability to enchant, simply through its telling of scenes we could often take for granted, such as those inhabited by our lovers, our families and our cities. Though the last chapter offers a challenging tonal shift and may especially resonate with academics and writers, for those who love a challenge, Theory is a novel that will do something: it will guide us to resilience.

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Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s first book, Port of Being, received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (Invisible Publishing, 2018). She recently appeared on CBC North by Northwest and will be a writer in residence with Open Book in March 2019. She lives on unceded Coast Salish land (Vancouver) where works as a publishing consultant and editor for various presses across Canada. She is at work on a novel.

Steven Beattie Reviews K.D. Miller's Late Breaking

K.D. Miller.  Late Breaking: Stories . Biblioasis. $19.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9781771962476

K.D. Miller. Late Breaking: Stories. Biblioasis. $19.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9781771962476

In the massive Taschen omnibus Art of the 20th Century, Karl Ruhrberg assesses the work of the late Canadian painter Alex Colville, whose output is deemed to be “proof of the fact that a realism of content need have nothing in common with naturalism, that the serious realist does not unthinkingly reflect reality, but analyzes it.” Ruhrberg goes on to observe, “Colville’s silent images are static. Yet practically all of them tell a story, in a brief, concise plot that does not always have a resolution.” This cogent distillation of the visual artist’s technique could be applied, with minor variations, to the short fiction of K.D. Miller.

Indeed, Miller finds vast reservoirs of inspiration for her latest stories in Colville’s paintings – in their aura of mystery and expansiveness, their figures that appear constantly in motion. Though that motion is captured in brief moments that are left unfinished, and the figures are rarely seen straight on; they are more frequently turned away or held at a distance. Like Colville’s images, Miller’s stories often resist closure and, to somewhat echo Ruhrberg, the author’s realism is apparent on the level of the prose, though the content and style of the work often tugs at something beyond strict mimesis. How else to explain “Octopus Heart,” about a retired widower in the aftermath of a cancer scare who becomes convinced he has developed an emotional interspecies attachment to an octopus at the local aquarium? Or “Lost Lake,” which veers into the supernatural as a novelist and his family are increasingly haunted by figures that appear to arise out of his book?

The novelist in “Lost Lake,” Leo Van de Veld, appears in the earlier story “Olly Olly Oxen Free” (also the title of Leo’s novel). In that story, Leo encounters a woman named Miranda, who remains a virgin at age sixty-five. Miranda agrees to tell Leo a traumatic and transformative story from her childhood in exchange for his having sex with her. The story she tells him – about going into the woods as a young girl along with her best friend, who is raped and murdered by a stranger – becomes the subject of Leo’s book. The way “Lost Lake” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” refract and chime with one another is emblematic of the intricate care Miller has taken linking the various pieces in her collection: in both stories, the woods adopt a traditional Shakespearean or fairy-tale resonance as a locus of chaos and danger and various details (the brown shoes, tweed jacket, and cap the rapist and murderer wears) are repeated across the two stories with subtle variations in tone and meaning.

The subject matter here is undeniably dark, though Miller’s stories are not devoid of humour, most especially surrounding the travails and pretentions of the writing life. Before becoming the receptacle for Miranda’s confession, Leo plays at being a novelist, using money his wife makes at her office job to finance the purchase of gourmet meals and fine wines: “After all, fictional characters do eat, don’t they? So did he not have to educate himself as to the flavours, aromas, and textures of as great a variety of cuisines as possible?” And in the title story, two competing book prizes vie for cultural influence and importance: “Something called ‘the Olympia effect’ has been identified. Unlike ‘the Biggar Effect,’ (BE), which causes book-sale figures to balloon, the OE attacks authors like a psychological virus.”

Humour and dread are peppered throughout Late Breaking, but the more dominant emotion is melancholy. Many of the characters in these stories are old and spend their time glancing backward at lives that have proved disappointing or painful, or looking forward to foreshortened existences of loneliness and regret. The supportive words spoken by a husband to his injured wife at the end of “Higgs Boson” – “On the count of three. One. Two …” – recur in the story “Crooked Little House,” but in the latter context they are applied to an elderly widower who has had to put down his sole remaining companion, a dog named Sister, and is attempting suicide by rolling off a dock into the icy water below.

But if Miller is unafraid to subject her characters – and her readers – to situations that appear remarkably bleak, there is nevertheless a pervasive strain of hope that runs through Late Breaking. The closing story, “In the Crow’s Keeping,” features a ninety-year-old mother who has lived with the grief from her daughter’s murder for decades. In the final moments of the story, the woman rejects the notion of paying a funeral home to schedule an assisted suicide and instead determines to write a book: “And she’ll write it, too. If it kills her.” These stories plumb the depths of sadness and despair but never lose sight of their obverse: the quiet resilience and dignity of the human spirit, which doesn’t fade with age.

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Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. He lives in Toronto.

Sarah O'Connor Reviews Lauren B. Davis's The Grimoire of Kensington Market

Lauren B. Davis. The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Wolsak & Wynn, $22.00, 324 pp., ISBN: 978-1-928088-70-7

Lauren B. Davis. The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Wolsak & Wynn, $22.00, 324 pp., ISBN: 978-1-928088-70-7

Fairy tales speak to readers, no matter what age. Maybe it’s the magic of them - the talking flowers, animal companions, and daring quests that add some imaginary excitement into our lives. Maybe it’s the inherent darkness that has always been present at their core no matter how many people try to scrub it away: the mothers who die and the evil stepmothers who replace them, the wolf lurking in the woods and bed, the stranger who pretends to be kind. Maybe it’s the belief that we can be brave and fight the darkness that life throws at us, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.

Fairy-tale adaptions, especially in adult fiction, allow readers to escape into the strange innocence of fairy tales while relating to adult topics and conflicts. After all, “That’s what a story is: a kind of spell we cast over our lives, and the lives of those close to us, it’s the effect we have on our world and the effect that world has on us.” Lauren B. Davis achieves this effect in her new novel The Grimoire of Kensington Market by using a fairy-tale adaption to tell a story about familial love, guilt, and drug abuse.

When thinking of fairy-tale adaptions and metaphors of drug abuse, one might think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, long associated and overanalyzed as a story about drug abuse. Davis, however, frames her story with a different fairy tale – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – adapting it to discuss drug abuse and addiction, partly inspired by her own brother’s death by suicide.

The Grimoire of Kensington Market follows Maggie, the current owner of the Grimoire, a strange and magical bookshop that holds the world’s stories and appears to those who need it. Recently rehabilitated from the dangerous drug Elysium, which has infiltrated downtown Toronto and sends users into an irresistible dream state, Maggie enjoys her quiet life at the Grimoire reading books and helping the few patrons who manage to find the shop. But one day Maggie’s old dealer Srebrenka returns and tries to tempt Maggie back on the pipe. Though Maggie refuses, she learns that her addict brother Kyle needs her help, and she’ll have to travel to the Silver World of Elysium and Srebrenka to do it.

Davis’s novel tackles drug abuse in a beautifully heartbreaking and honest way that also manages to discuss guilt, acceptance, and responsibility without the story feeling clunky. These issues and topics are discussed through the lens of magic. The magic in Davis’s novel is already a very real part of the world that Maggie is more than familiar with it. She knows how dark magic can be through her experience with Elysium, how it twists and turns and can pretend to be beautiful. Throughout the novel, Maggie learns of its many faces, how it can be destructive and addictive as it was for herself and her brother, but also lovely and healing, depending on how one interacts with it.

And therein lies the heart of Davis’s story: the weight of the choices we make, and our responsibility to accept their consequences. Maggie comes to acknowledge her own guilt for her brother’s condition and their responsibility for the choices they’ve made in life. As Maggie comes to recognize in the novel, “We are all responsible for the mess in the world, and we are all responsible for cleaning it up. It’s not either-or, is it? It’s both-and. We harm and we heal.”

The Grimoire of Kensington Market is a stunning novel and a great experimentation with magical realism. Davis brings readers into this genre flawlessly, using a purely Canadian-flavoured magical realism that makes the novel unique among Canadian literature and other fairy-tale adaptions. Readers won’t be able to help but fall under its spell, because the Grimoire only appears to those who are meant to find it, and if you’re lucky that will be you.

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Sarah O'Connor is a writer from Hamilton, Ontario whose work has been published in The Hamilton Spectator, Incite Magazine, and The Hamilton Youth Anthology: Volumes 1 and 2. In 2015 she co-created "Stuck in a Story Productions" with her sister and their web series can currently be watched on Youtube. Her play "Beep" will be performed at the HamilTEN Festival in 2019. If you'd like to read more of Sarah's work you can do so on her blog: www.notsarahconnorwrites.com.

Gary Barwin Reviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji's Port of Being

Shazia Hafiz Ramji.  Port of Being . Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Shazia Hafiz Ramji. Port of Being. Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Einstein used the phrase, “spooky action at a distance” to describe “entanglement,” one of the very strange concepts in quantum physics. Particles even light-years apart seem to be mysteriously connected. Observing one will cause the properties of the other to instantly change. The poems in Shazi Hafiz Ramji’s brilliant debut collection, Port of Being, explore the many ways in which the self is “entangled,” in the world and the world is entangled in the self by observation, and whereby both are changed. 

 In the information age, the individual is observed—surveilled—constantly. Sometimes this observation is threatening and controlling (e.g. the male gaze or state and commercial surveillance). Indeed the book originated when Ramji’s laptop and phone were stolen and the thief contacted and followed her for months based on information gleaned from the stolen items. From this experience, Ramji began exploring the relationship between the personal and the public particularly with regards to the observer and the observed, the inward and the outward gaze.

 The poems in the “Container” section “contain” phrases overheard in public or quoted from public sources (“Watch your step.” “Don’t let him get away”), and contextualize them in a network of phrases taken from contemporary culture and various registers of language:

                                                                                    to beat East Van rents

            make us swoon like Ivanka at Trudeau                  the roses infrared

for the future-proofed deep dream

 We are connected to the world by the sea of information—imagery and language—which surrounds us—beams at us—but we have to learn to navigate it. It creates what we think is the world, and also how we conceptualize ourself (“it filters through us, because we’re made of it,/the language, I mean” — “Astronaut Family.”) We can become icons of ourself:

                        Monroe was assembling

an RP-5A drone in LA

when a photographer

saw her and made her

      Marilyn.

                                    (“Watch your step.”)

Monroe becomes the sign “Marilyn” to herself and to us. Place (and our place in the world) is process, is a histogram, a map of continously arriving data, from which we infer who we are and what the world is.

In the “Flags of Convenience” section named for the foreign flags under which ships are registered to avoid financial charges, Ramji explores the duplicity of language and quotes from Claudia Rankine, “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence.” Facts (AKA information), as evidenced in these poems about global shipping represent (or overwrite) belief structures. “Columbus’s first landing/Guanahani.     baja mar.      San Salvador.” The “innocent” naming of something (like a ship’s place of origin) frames its reality for the viewer. It changes the viewer’s view of the world.

 In “Hollerith” (named after the inventor of the data punch card) in the “Surveiller” section, we see how information can empty out lived identities and turn them into mere data—erasures, lacks, holes in the data card:

Hole 3: Homosexual

Hole 8: Jew

Hole 9: Anti-social

Hole 4: Execution

So what are we to do, allow ourselves to be stalked, surveilled and changed by the flow of false flag information bombarding us like cosmic radiation, and, spookily, changing us? The arc of the book seems to argue that we must realize our own agency: the self, the spooky actor, also observes the world. A port (a port of being) is a window, an opening from which we can look out as well as look in. We become a poet of being, for these poems are surveillance: of the person, the poet consciousness, our place of being in the world. The poet has to constantly echolocute:  experience the world and their mind and then speak and wait for bounce-back. They receive signals and bounce them back—make poems—to understand and locate themself. We create the shape of the world by articulating it.

Indeed, the last two sections in Port of Being are increasingly focussed on the self. From the self mediated by others’ view (consider the jaw-dropping phrase, “Smile’s reverse panopticon” —“Gerrid”) to the self considering itself.  While the penultimate section, “Spooky Actors at a Distance,” is all “we,” the last eponymously named section of Port of Being explores for the first time, first person singular:

I want to remember

I’ve done this

for myself in the morning,

because I’ve been surprised

by my own innocence:

I cried silent and easy

when my amends were

refused.

                                    (“Poem of Failed Amends”)

As Ramji has stated in an interview, “the book has a clear arc (at least to me) that moves into the lyrical”[1]: “Let me be afraid/ of myself for a little while.” (“Cub.”)

The poet navigates in first person, sometimes claiming the duplicitous but alluring falsehood offered by society as a way of claiming agency: “I imagine you jerking off to parts/from The Society of the Spectacle”; or trying to take control of all of the data: “watch me make the mistake of thinking//I can out-think everything” (“Poem Beginning with a Falsehood,”); but ultimately taking agency through their own subjective experience: “It makes me/small, sad,/and comforted” (“Parents poem”) and “this is the construction of an act of love.” (“Astronaut Family”)

In the notes, Ramji writes of her experience with clinical depression and how these poems originated from—and, I’d argue, are ultimately—a therapeutic act of self-awareness and agency. What is the experience of depression if not a navigation between information coming from inside and outside, the self’s spooky entanglement?

In charting the navigation from being passively observed to becoming an empowered observer, with captivating rhythms and energized juxtapositions, through a process of triangulating our culture and self, formal invention, captivating images, and an intriguing and wide range of subjects and reference, Ramji has created an insightful, thoughtful, engaging and inspiring guide to being in the digital age.

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The author of twenty-two books of poetry, fiction and books for children, Gary Barwin is a writer, musician and multimedia artist from Hamilton, Ontario and the author of the nationally bestselling novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Random House) and No TV for Woodpeckers (poetry; Wolsak & Wynn, 2018). Publications next year include, A Cemetery for Holes, a poetry collaboration with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn, 2019.) Barwin will be the Edna Staebler writer-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Winter 2019.

 

[1] http://trainpoetryjournal.blogspot.com/2018/07/an-interview-with-shazia-hafiz-ramji.html

Myra Bloom Interviews Catriona Wright

Tough Forms:

Myra Bloom In Conversation with Catriona Wright

 
Catriona Wright is the author of the poetry collection     Table Manners       (Véhicule Press, 2017) and the short story collection     Difficult People     (Nightwood Editions, 2018). She is the poetry editor for     The Puritan       and a co-founder of    Desert Pets Press   .

Catriona Wright is the author of the poetry collection Table Manners (Véhicule Press, 2017) and the short story collection Difficult People (Nightwood Editions, 2018). She is the poetry editor for The Puritan and a co-founder of Desert Pets Press.

 
Catriona Wright.  Difficult People: Stories . Nightwood Editions. $19.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0-88971-339-0

Catriona Wright. Difficult People: Stories. Nightwood Editions. $19.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0-88971-339-0

Myra Bloom: Talk to me about the genesis of this collection. Did you write the stories with the concept of “difficult people” in mind, or did that idea come later?

Catriona Wright: I wrote these stories over a period of eight years. One of them—“The Emilies”—appeared in a much earlier, worse form in my MA in Creative Writing thesis, which I completed at the University of Toronto with Barbara Gowdy as my mentor. That original short fiction manuscript had the cringeworthy title of ‘Exhale.’ Not too sure what I was thinking. Fortunately no one had any interest in it (rejection can be a blessing, friends).

After I finished my MA, I sent out stories, got rejected, rewrote, workshopped with friends, sent out stories, got rejected, raged against the philistinism of CanLit, got a story accepted, felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction, got rejected, got rejected, wrote and wrote and wrote. One of the first stories from the collection to be accepted was the title story “Difficult People” which appeared in Joyland, an excellent online magazine. That was in 2014. Even then, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a collection yet. Honestly I was learning how to write. Editors frequently told me the stories were “strange” or “not really a short story” or “populated by extremely unlikeable characters.” Often the feedback was helpful, but sometimes I knew I had to trust my instincts, that I wasn’t interested in writing stories about plucky protagonists whose paths to redemption imparted moral lessons for the reader. Nothing wrong with that kind of thing, it’s just not the type of story I wanted to—or could—write.

In 2016, Amber McMillan from Nightwood Editions asked if I had a manuscript of short fiction that I could show them (well, she actually asked if I had a poetry manuscript to show them, but I’d already sent that off to another publisher). I scrambled to put together my best stories, and not really knowing what title to give the collection, I settled on “Difficult People”, which I assumed would be a placeholder. Between signing the contract and the time of publication, the manuscript changed a great deal, particularly as I began working with Amber McMillan and Silas White, with stories going in, stories undergoing extensive rewrites, and stories being cut. But despite all these changes and revisions I couldn’t shake that title—it seemed the only way to connect what I see as fairly disparate stories. I polled friends for alternative names: Assholes, Dirtbags, etc. But none of them seemed right. I love my characters (well, most of them, with a few notable exceptions), even if they can on occasion, like all of us, make the wrong decision or say the wrong—or the absolute worst—thing. ‘Difficult’ is such a suggestive adjective, at first glance it seems negative, a euphemism for ‘awful’ perhaps, but look harder, work harder, and it can suggest something immensely gratifying, even pleasurable. Maybe difficult people are an acquired taste, but aren’t acquired tastes the things we come to love the most?

MB: A lot of the stories feature characters who are not so much difficult as deeply alienated: a woman longing desperately for a friend; a single man who spends his days tending a calculator museum; an aspiring academic working a soul-crushing job removing offensive online content. Is this a coincidence, or a commentary on modern alienation?

CW: When I’m writing a story, I don’t set out to make a grand statement about the ills of the modern world. I follow a voice and a character and see where they take me. Besides, who wants to read about healthy, well-adjusted, happy people? What do they talk about? Their fitness routines? Vacations? How much they love their children?

MB: Difficult People is wonderfully eclectic in terms of subject matter and tone, but “The Copy Editors” – which details the rivalry between a group of extreme copy editors and a band of radical experimental poets – takes some of the collection’s latent absurdism and dials it up to 100. Where did this story come from?

CW: That’s one of the earliest stories in the collection. It’s about these two copy editors – twin brothers, who go around correcting incorrect signage in Toronto – and their nemeses, the conceptual poets, who purposely perform lobotomies on each other to mess with their language production skills. I wrote the story while I was taking a copyediting class at Ryerson University. I loved that class because it made me appreciate the obsessive precision it takes to excel as a copy editor. I tried to look at the city through the eyes of a copy editor—a particularly pedantic one—and began seeing errors everywhere, on storefronts and billboards and menus (all the examples in the story are real, ‘found’ errors). Part of me—the smug, boring part—wanted to go and correct everything, which is the primary motivation of the twin copy editors in the story. Their life is in shambles and yet they get to feel superior to others simply because they are addicted to grammar and usage rules. I wanted to contrast this prescriptivist approach to language with its extreme opposite: a conscious abandoning, even shunning, of all rules. Enter the conceptual poets! I also write poetry, though more of the lyric variety, and I’ve attended many poetry readings, so I amped up the occasional absurdity of conceptual poetry for comic effect. It’s more of a good-natured ribbing than a takedown (I hope!). When I was writing this story, I was also reading a lot of George Saunders, so that’s mixed in there too, along with some stuff I learned in an Introduction to Linguistics class I took during my undergrad.

MB: Do you approach writing prose and poetry the same way? And do they come from the same place?

CW: I find writing fiction much more difficult than writing poetry. In poetry I can let myself go all the way into another dimension, but people expect fiction to have at least some relationship to reality. I find plot and structure challenging, and most of my stories go through many, many drafts.  

My poetry comes out of an interest with language, all its idiosyncrasies and rhythms. Often a poem will start as a riff on a word or sound. My fiction is more inspired by a particular relationship or shifting power dynamic that I find intriguing or confusing. I like to play with reader expectations about who’s holding the power in a relationship and to make them question their own relationship to the characters (I think readers tend to identify with first-person narrators even when maybe they shouldn’t).

MB: Are there stories other than “The Copy Editors” that came directly out of experiences you were having at the time of writing?

CW: The first story in the collection, “Content Moderator”, is partially inspired by my ongoing precarious employment as a Sessional Lecturer. I was interested in exploring the psychological impacts of continuous career uncertainty. As a result, I gravitated towards news items about labour practices in other fields. There were recurring articles around this time about working conditions at some technology companies (here’s an example: https://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/). I merged these two worlds—academia and the tech industry—to create “Content Moderator.”

“The Emilies” and “Difficult People” both take place in office environments, and I’ve worked in a few of those over the years. I don’t write directly autobiographical fiction, but most of the emotional material in the stories is a kind of warped, mistranslated version of my own feelings with a lag of several years so the content doesn’t feel so personal anymore.

MB: Conversely, I know that you worked with a sensitivity reader for the story “Them,” which features a woman trying to come to terms with her friend’s transition. Why did you think that was important to do, and what did you get out of the process?

CW: That story is about a troubled friendship between a cisgendered character and a character who is non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they.’ I wanted a sensitivity reader who could comment on the representation of a non-binary or trans character because although I know and work with many people who are non-binary and trans I believe that lived experience provides a unique and essential perspective. The sensitivity reader offered insights about word usage and gave excellent advice on how to improve several scenes (above and beyond issues of representation). The key piece of advice was to make sure the character’s entire identity doesn’t become consumed by or reduced to their gender identity. A writer should give trans and non-binary characters their full humanity, should allow them to be kind and loving and also to fuck up just like any cisgender character (see Vito Russo test: https://www.glaad.org/sri/2014/vitorusso). I mean, this sounds obvious, and I naively thought I was already doing this, but a thorough sensitivity read helped refine, clarify and improve the story. I know some alarmists are concerned that sensitivity readers will dilute or sanitize fiction, but I find that fear ridiculous. How does knowing more about someone’s lived experience do anything but strengthen and complicate fiction? On the other hand, I think some people believe they can hire a sensitivity reader to somehow protect themselves against any criticisms, which is also ridiculous. In the end, writers need to take responsibility for their writing, and if they fuck up, own it and do better next time.

MB: You talked earlier about raging against “Canadian philistinism.” It’s true that your stories depart from the realism that has historically typified Canlit, so it doesn’t surprise me that you initially had trouble placing them. Lately, though, it seems like we’re seeing an increasing number of experimental or non-realist books getting mainstream buzz: Paige Cooper’s Zolitude, Catherine Leroux’s Madame Victoria, Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, etc. Do you think Canadian literary sensibilities are changing (for the better)?

CW: I was mostly joking about “Canadian philistinism” and trying to point to my own shallow reading habits at the time (and my use of self-defense mechanisms to deal with rejection). Some of that type of thing exists of course, but it’s also a boring, reductive overgeneralization that was never really true. I mean, Marian Engel’s Bear, a novel which features a graphic human-bear cunnilingus scene, won the Governor General’s Award in 1976! Barbara Gowdy wrote a best-selling novel from the point of view of an elephant (White Bone) and a haunting, romantic short story about a necrophiliac (“We So Seldom Look on Love”), so anything’s possible. I don’t really understand how people (my earlier self included) can go around bemoaning some perceived narrowness in CanLit having only read a tiny slice of the literature in Canada. The strange, the weird and the uncanny have always been there. All the books you’ve mentioned are wonderful examples of the diversity available, and I think they draw on various lineages that already existed within our national literature(s).

MB: Absolutely. The notes of Gowdy (your former mentor) are definitely detectable in Difficult People. I was also reminded of Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist – not just because the characters are morally questionable, but also because much of the collection is set in the non-place of their imaginations. What’s your relationship to setting? Do you always have specific locations in your mind, even if they aren’t central to the plot?

CW: Several stories—“Copyeditors”, “Difficult People” and “Major Prude”—take place in Toronto, and I picture “Them” and “The Emilies” taking place in Ottawa (where I grew up), but I’m not sure every reader would pick up on those hints. It’s true—though I hadn’t considered it before—that many stories don’t specify locations. I suspect this can partly be explained by my preferences as a writer and reader. I’m definitely more invested in character than I am in setting, though of course the two interact with each other in meaningful ways. To be honest, when I’m reading prose, I frequently skip long descriptive passages. I’m more interested in human relationships than in what kinds of clouds are in the sky.

I also find it strange when every character in a novel or short story collection has an extremely precise knowledge of the flora and fauna around them. If you asked me to identify an elm in a tree lineup I’m not sure I could. Because many of these stories are first-person narratives, the setting is filtered through a narrator’s consciousness. And these characters are, like me, often not very mindful of their surroundings. It might also be that I sometimes feel disconnected from my surroundings. So much of my life is spent on the internet or reading books that I don’t always feel grounded in a particular place.  

MB: It’s funny you say that because your collection of poetry, Table Manners, is full of esoteric details, such as the regional delicacies of Iceland.

CW: Interesting point! As you mentioned earlier, the characters in Difficult People are alienated from society and themselves, which sometimes translates into a disengagement with their surroundings. I think the speakers in the poems from Table Manners are trying to break from that kind of alienation, that numbness, by engaging in a mindful, visceral way with their senses. That book is also all about food, which is intrinsically linked to place and culture, so it required sensory precision. I actually like poems that are almost pure description, so I guess I just have different preferences for different forms.  

MB: Can I ask what you’re working on now?

CW: I’m working on not feeling too bad about my lack of productivity. I’ve been writing a few poems based around themes of precarity, both in terms of employment and environmental destruction. But it’s been a slow process. After two books in two years, I’m enjoying reading and experimenting. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World are two recent books that blew my mind and made me excited to write again. I’ve become very interested in genre fiction, particularly speculative fiction and sci-fi, as a way to understand our current world, so I’d like to write more in these modes. Also, I’m taking a stand-up comedy class. I’m learning a lot about precision and concision from the feedback I’m getting. It’s a tough form.

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Myra Bloom is a Montreal-based critic and the reviews editor of The Puritan. She teaches in the English Department at Concordia University.

Jennifer McCartney Reviews John Miller's Wild and Beautiful is the Night

John Miller.  Wild and Beautiful is the Night . Cormorant Books, $22.95, 296 pp., ISBN: 978-1770865105

John Miller. Wild and Beautiful is the Night. Cormorant Books, $22.95, 296 pp., ISBN: 978-1770865105

Author John Miller has incorporated his experiences working in hospice care, with street youth, with people affected by HIV, and with social work policy, into a focused, sensitive novel portraying the relationship between two friends – both sex workers and addicts – working and living together on the streets of Toronto in the mid-2000s.

According to Miller, (A Sharp Intake of Breath, Dundurn Press, 2007), his latest novel grew from interviews with a woman named Kim, a friend from his time working with marginalized populations in Toronto. One gets the sense of Miller wanting to get it right, to honour Kim (who passed away before the novel was published) while grappling with, in Miller's words, the "moral residue" of using her experiences as a sex worker and addict for his own art. I was, as he may have suspected some readers would be, a bit skeptical – he is after all, a male author, writing about the sex trade, partly from the perspective of a woman of colour. But we are not in William T. Vollman or Chester Brown territory here. Miller is committed to the female perspective, and he does the subject matter, and his characters, justice.

It's simply a beautiful book, well-researched, and written with care and sensitivity. Wild and Beautiful is the Night joins a long list of recent novels that aim to humanize, rather than sensationalize, the world of sex work, including Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2002), Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet (Freight, 2015), Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous (MCD, 2017), and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (Scribner, 2018).

What permeates the narrative, as the two friends struggle to meet their immediate needs, is the sense of women looking after one another. While the men are there, they are an afterthought – the violence of the johns and uselessness of the absent fathers are not the point. The women rely on each other, on neighbours, colleagues, dealers, and sponsors, and on their own determination. They rely on the community services available to them – the needle exchanges and Maggie's and the abortion clinics and disability payments and food banks. Miller gets women right, mostly, although I wondered about privileged Danni-from-Forest-Hill’s inability to apply her own make-up (the results are “horrendous and clown-like.”)

When things go wrong, the women acknowledge their own failures, their bad choices – Miller is careful to show these women with agency – but it’s also systemic, of course. They don't have the resources to fight the social workers, the courts, the decision makers. “Rosalie helped me to sort through it all, to distinguish between the chunks that had fallen off me, that were mine to own and make amends for, and the mess of cracked concrete and girders that were part of a substructure stacked against people of colour and immigrants,” notes Paulette.  “Against lesbians and women in general. A foundation whose unsteadiness I couldn’t be held responsible for.”

But they do have power, Miller demonstrates. Paulette and Olive participate in protests advocating for the rights of sex workers. The transients of a tent city advocate for housing rights. Danni is able to see herself and her situation through a feminist lens, thanks to her women’s studies classes at Trent. After intervening in a brutal attack involving two strangers, Danni laments the status quo. “‘Fucking guys.’ She pointed. At darkness. ‘Always pinning us. Fucking assholes.’” And yet women are complicit, too. A female police officer comforts Paulette in the moments before her child is taken away: “‘It’s going to be okay,’ she lied.”

People working in the sex industry face an extraordinary risk of violence on the job. According to advocacy group POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa / Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), 78 percent of street-level sex workers have experienced a physical assault during their careers. We see Danni learning basic safety strategies – leaving a car door open, noting a strange john’s license plate, etc. A reader can’t help but think of the disappeared women from Vancouver’s Lower East Side, murdered by Canada’s most prolific serial killer. Women whose disappearances were largely dismissed by the authorities, whose families and friends and caregivers frantically searched for them after they vanished, only to be told by police they'd likely run away, were on a bender, had hitchhiked somewhere else – to Winnipeg or Calgary. Loved ones were asked to believe that these women would voluntarily vanish from the community. Miller’s skillful illumination of the daily lives of these women is to know how appalling that official narrative was. In Miller’s work the reader knows, and the characters know, the possibility of a violent outcome is always there.

Thankfully, Miller resists moralizing, lessons learned, and neat endings. Families are not reunited. There are no resolutions – Paulette doesn't show up at her ailing mother's door, asking forgiveness or demanding apologies. Her children are not returned to her. Addiction is ongoing, a daily challenge. Things are left broken and unresolved, a show of restraint in our digital age that often feels devoid of nuance and ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about a complicated friendship between two loving, funny, women from very different backgrounds. As a street-wise Paulette observes slyly while the two work their corner one cold Toronto night, “Danni claimed to be a true Canadian who loved winter, but she’d never had to love it this much.”

PS: A small quibble from a Hamiltonian writing for the Hamilton Review of Books. I’d have loved a bit more of the Hamilton of Paulette's childhood. Toronto is so fully realized, yet the Hammer remains vague. Barton Street gets a mention, as does Ancaster and the City Centre Mall (at the time this would have been the Eaton's Centre, or probably just Jackson Square, although perhaps the reference is to the old Centre Mall). But ultimately Paulette’s Hamilton home is little more than a signpost – a signifier of her lower socio-economic status. Residents looking for a little taste of their hometown will be left disappointed. A small price to pay, however, for an otherwise lovely read.

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Jennifer McCartney is the New York Times bestselling author of The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place and 8 other books. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, she lives in Brooklyn, NY.