The End of Imagination by Rabindranath Maharaj

Essay

by Radindranath Maharaj

The beginnings of my recent novel, Adjacentland, sprung from visits to Trinidad to see my father who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As his forgetfulness lengthened, replaced sometimes with slices of non-sequential events, I pretended he was trying to reimagine himself. That was not the case, I knew, but I began to consider how much we are defined by what we choose - or are led - to recall and I reflected on how the imagination might operate when our memories are flattened. What happens, I wondered, when this impairment is not due to a neurodegenerative condition but when its onset is gradual and invisible?

I took a step further and considered what may be in store for us when it is some external agency rather than a medical condition sorting our options and making our choices. Will our notions of who we are be surrendered during these transactions? Will the imagination be subverted or crippled?

It sounds far-fetched but already some of this is taking place. Everything is now presented in such a predigested, personalized manner there are rarely these moments of reflection and of thoughts forming gradually. It’s possible that many of us, herded into like-minded constellations, are led to see and believe the same things; and if that’s the case then what we take for our will, our locus of control, is really an inventory of disparate suggestions, a string of ciphers that possesses so many imprints it cannot truly belong to us. In this scenario, the randomness and vitality of our imaginations would have been coerced into narrowing cul-de-sacs.

Artificial Intelligence is not a new concept but decades ago when I immersed myself in science fiction stories and movies, AI had a distinct robotic form with powerful mechanical limbs and senses that were superhuman. Malevolent robots and androids and cyborgs; but the most palpable horror in those stories was of the machines communicating with each other. In my mind, it was as much fantasy as the toys of Inspector Gadget. Now the machines do communicate and they pretend to read our minds as they present us with more individualized choices. And Inspector Gadget? Well, we are living in a portable age with our ubiquitous devices regulating our lives.

Nowadays, the common concerns around AI are not with robots or evil machines but its more common applications, like those involved in news aggregation and data manipulation, the algorithmic tools employed by the social media giants. We got a whiff of this in the last presidential election in America. More recently, I noticed how the various news apps were prioritizing events, nudging me towards articles about which I had no interest. Soon, outliers like many writers and artists, and people who for some reason have opted out, will have to scrounge around to locate articles of interest. It may be argued that this personalization is a good thing because it separates the wheat from the chaff and saves us hours of poking around here and there. This is true. But there is another side to the story.

If our imagination is fuelled by the reality presented to us then we may well be stuffed into like-minded clusters where each hive conjures a different world. One in which an individual can be either a resolute and forward-thinking patriot or a racist xenophobe. So morality becomes a reflection of the gazer’s fabrications and conscience an accessory to the fable. In this world, there is no operational yardstick for measuring virtue. Instead, there is a sort of collaborative conscience.

This is not a screed about social media, which has enabled traditionally marginalized voices to become part of public discourses. However, it can be argued that, in a broader context, shutting out competing voices and opinions creates a sort of parallel universe with the world outside seeming distant and fake and possibly oppositional. And because our mobile units are always in harness we remain cocooned in our derived world where the feedback loop immunizes us from introspection. In the aftermaths of public tragedies, we sometimes hear from incredulous friends that the perpetrators had betrayed no susceptibility to violence or allegiances to particular causes and so on. They were ghosts and loners, shuffling about, bothering no one. Then their online activities are exposed and we get a sense of their real lives.  It is tempting to conclude that their imaginations had been coerced to envision only a single outcome.

In my novel, the main character, his autobiographical memory expunged, believes he is trapped in a series of recurring experiments designed to rekindle what has been lost. There is this passage that refers to the fusion of man and machine into a unified consciousness, a singularity, that gradually eroded the ability to speculate. “Patterns and coincidences had been decoded, mysteries solved, enigmas demystified, puzzles resolved. There was no need to dream or reflect because everything could be predicted through algorithmic interpolations. And because there were no mysteries, the imagination was seen as a vestigial reflex. In time, it was viewed as worse.”

When I was writing the book I was thinking neither of the more immediate dangers of AI like automated terrorism, hacking and algorithmic biases nor of the more apocalyptic predictions like Elon Musk’s rampaging robots. I was thinking of something that, in my mind, will be more gradual and less noticeable. If the evolutionary function of the imagination has been to grant us the ability to make choices, what happens to the imagination when we no longer have to make these choices? Furthermore, will our behaviour become more automatic and our rehearsals for possible action increasingly circumscribed as we turn over more tasks to external administrators? Will modes of reflection and patterns of speech also be circumscribed? What happens to our empathetic responses when our only conversations are with machines?

As my father’s condition worsened I got the sense that he was struggling to understand who he was; reshuffling shards of his memory to restore some sense of self, some acknowledgement of a consciousness. But it was already too late. Too much had slipped away. He had already lost the personal narratives that once allowed him to construct behaviour, to respond empathically, to regulate choices. I felt with horror that he was trapped in a loop filled only with echoes.

rabindranathmaharaj.jpg

Rabindranath Maharaj is the award-winning author of three short story collections and five novels, including The Amazing Absorbing Boy, which won the 2010 Trillium Book Award and the 2011 Toronto Book Award, and was voted a CBC Canada Reads Top 10 for Ontario. His most recent novel is Adjacentland.

 In 2012, Maharaj received a Lifetime Literary Award, administered by the National Library and Information System Authority as part of the commemoration of Trinidad's fiftieth independence anniversary. In 2013, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, which honours significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.

Mad Ambition: Writing My Way Back to The Butterfly Ward

Essay

by Terri Favro

“I have an eclectic kind of fan club. I can break them into groups easily for you: intellectuals, gay people, and the crazies. Psychiatrists. And some of the homeless too, when they can steal the books from the library.”

Margaret Gibson, Interviewed in Books in Canada

Margaret Gibson.  The Butterfly Ward . Oberon Press. Out of Print.

Margaret Gibson. The Butterfly Ward. Oberon Press. Out of Print.

In my last year of university, I found myself unable to write. Stories, letters, essays –– it didn’t matter: any blank, white page ate my ambition like the Great White Whale swallowing Ahab. It was as if I had been erased.

Coming from an immigrant family with a strong oral tradition, storytelling had always been a natural, intuitive act for me, craft as much as art, like swirls of fancy plasterwork on the ceiling of a beautiful room. I wrote fairytales and comic books. I rewrote blurbs from TV Guide and household tips from Hints from Heloise in my own voice. I planned to become a jet-setting journalist, like in the comic strip Brenda Starr, Reporter.

By the time I’d reached high school, I’d learned that writing was hard, dangerous work, more like ditch digging than plastering. My grade 12 English teacher showed film-strips of the literary triumphs and tragic demises of Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sexton, and Plath, among other doomed geniuses. All brilliant. All crazy. All dead by their own hand or the ravages of drugs and alcohol.

I decided to chance an English degree anyway. My favourite high school teacher suggested picking a university with a good pub. And so, I went to McMaster.

In my third year, an ancient journalist who had won the Leacock Award gave a talk to my creative writing class. I’d never seen a writer in person before: up until then, writers only existed from the neck up, on TV talk shows and the back covers of books.

I’ve forgotten everything the wizened journalist said about the craft of writing, except for one thing: we should beware of gazing too long and too deeply at the world, as if wearing a pair of metaphysical X-Ray-Specs. Writers who did this often experienced an existential crisis that eventually drove them to booze, dope, and madness. Some writers turned into sex fiends. Others committed suicide.

Be careful about the writing life, kids, that way madness lies, he warned us before heading off to the Faculty Club, no doubt for a stiff Scotch.  

By my fourth year, I’d learned first hand what the ancient journalist was talking about. I think of 1979 as my Bell Jar year because it had echoes of the summer when the central character of that novel, based on Sylvia Plath herself,  had been a junior magazine editor in New York, triggering a mental health crisis that left her suicidal and, for a time, unable to write.

In the summer of 1978, I had an Ontario Arts Council summer internship with the then-new Writers’ Union of Canada. I moved to Toronto, living in a windowless room in a cockroach-infested house off Spadina, reveling in my freedom and making bad choices. The Union was a safe space – or as safe as it could be in a crumbling Yorkville office building regularly raided by the vice squad – but my internship opened up invitations to parties, launches and media events that occasionally turned me into prey for men who offered me a crack at the writing game if I’d go on dates with them. I began to learn that if I wanted to be a writer, I might have to pay to play.

By the time I returned to Hamilton, I was paralyzed with uncertainty about what I would do after graduation. Did I really have what it took to be a professional writer? Did I have to throw my body into the deal as a kind of loss leader? I didn’t sleep, drank too much, ate too little, and found myself for the first and only time in my life, like Plath, unable to write.

I had gone a little mad, I suppose; my G.P. sent me to a psychiatrist who put me into a women-under-30 therapy group, an experience which filled me with schadenfreude: I was the only one who hadn’t tried to commit suicide. At least I felt mentally healthy compared to everyone else.

I left Group and turned to books, mostly the literature of trauma and madness. One of those books was The Butterfly Ward, a debut short story collection by Margaret Gibson, who was only a handful of years older than me, and mentally ill to the point where she had been institutionalized.

Gibson was shockingly good at pinning her experiences to the page and making you shiver with the visceral truth of them. She wrote stories about mental illness in an era that favoured lengthy institutionalizations, shock treatments and lobotomies. Set in the mental wards, rooming houses, gay clubs and streets of 1970s Toronto, the book was something new for CanLit: urban, gritty, darkly funny, occasionally violent, and written in a sharp-edged, minimalist style that owed something to The Bell Jar. But while Plath’s roman a clef was a deep dive into her own psyche, Gibson was able to turn her gaze outwards at the wider world of what she called “crazies.” A reviewer for the Vancouver Province described the experience of reading The Butterfly Ward as “like small bombs behind the eyes [that] explode and shatter one’s own quiet. It isn’t a simple book...it’s an engagement and as such you better have a good grip on your own fears and paranoias before entering its pages.”

In 1977, when Gibson was only 29, she won the Toronto Book Award for The Butterfly Ward. She shared the honour with another Margaret – Atwood – who co-won for Lady Oracle.  Gibson’s married name, Gilboord, appeared on the first hardcover edition even though she was separated from her husband.

When I was a young office assistant for the Writers’ Union – my summer job briefly turned into my first full time job in 1980 – Gibson was a member. Over the phone, she sounded fragile; other writers who counted her as a friend were protective of her, suggesting quietly to me that I be gentle with her.

She wrote that book they turned into that movie, someone told me.

The movie she was talking about was Outrageous!, based on a story in The Butterfly Ward called  “Making It.” Shot in Toronto, the 1977 film starred female impersonator Craig Russell, more or less playing himself, with Canadian actress Hollis MacLaren as Liza, an escaped mental patient, based in part on the character in Gibson’s story and in part on Gibson’s real-life friendship with Russell. Funny, frank and sexy, the movie depicted Liza’s “madness” as the source of her literary talent, and also celebrated the newly out-of-the-closet, promiscuous gay lifestyle of the 1970s. The film was popular, but controversial. Despite the fact that homosexuality was no longer a crime in Canada, many Canadians had grown up thinking of gays as depraved, mentally ill or both. The emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s re-hardened those attitudes and tainted the sexuality portrayed in the movie and book. The Butterfly WardOutrageous! and Craig Russell would all be victims of the AIDS epidemic, in different ways.

Although The Butterfly Ward’s world of mental institutions was unknown to me, the love-the-one-you’re-with culture it portrayed was familiar. While struggling with the impact of my Bell Jar summer, I was also coping with the fallout of a couple of intense but ill-considered love affairs and what can only be called a date rape. I had been emotionally steamrollered, but the culture of the seventies left no room for sustained heartbreak. You got over it and moved on. Instead, I clung to the fear that no one would love me again. Not to mention that I would never write again. Gibson’s ability to function through trauma – to do that high wire act of storytelling and life – gave me hope. I returned to my typewriter, finished my degree, moved to Toronto and wrote some freelance articles. But I wasn’t quite brave enough to fully embrace becoming a writer. It seemed too dangerous, too fraught with ways to fall down in despair and never get back up again. Instead I found steady work at ad agencies, writing about cat food, tampons and cell phones. It would be years before I returned to writing fiction in a serious way, and in doing so, went back to the era of The Butterfly Ward.

If you came of age in the seventies, you may remember it fuzzily and fondly: the Bee Gees. Shiny synthetic shirts and wide legged pants. Complex hairdo’s. We tend to forget the psychic uneasiness of that era and what it was like to be young and vulnerable. I’ve written three novels that draw strongly on the paranoia of the times, its weird mash-up of liberation, licentiousness, free sex, experimentation and the fallout that came with it. I make my characters suffer through sexual abuse, grief, violence and deep depression. Reviewers have noted a “tragicomic grittiness” in my work. I owe a lot of that to Gibson. And so, almost forty years after reading the book, I decided to revisit it.          

Returning to The Butterfly Ward turned out to more complicated than I expected. To my surprise, the book is out of print and no longer circulates in the Toronto Public Library system (although 47 copies of its Toronto Book Award co-winner, Lady Oracle, are available). I couldn’t find The Butterfly Ward online, either as a pdf or an eBook. One copy is archived at the Toronto Reference Library where you can look at but not borrow it. But before resorting to a second-hand copy from Abe Books, I sought help from the hive mind on Facebook: did any friends remember the book and, more importantly, own a copy? Most writers old enough to remember the book were more familiar with the movie clearly than the book. Then, I heard from Eufemia Fantetti.

Like Gibson, Fantetti’s debut short story collection, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Press, 2013) was an award winner, capturing the Bressani Prize and a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award. Fantetti is also one of the founders of InkWell creative writing workshops, a non-profit that helps people with mental illness develop the writing chops they need to tell their stories.

Although she would have only been a kindergartener when the collection was published, The Butterfly Ward is one of Fantetti’s favourite books. She owned a paperback reprint from 1979, given to her as a gift by a high school teacher who knew that Fantetti was an aspiring writer, growing up in a household with a mentally ill mother. The book followed Fantetti from apartment to apartment, back and forth across the country, for years. But now that she knew the book was out of print, she was hesitant to lend it to me: if I lost it or didn’t return it, how would she ever find another copy?

After promising on the heads of my children to treat the book with extreme care and return it to her promptly, we met at a coffee shop where she hesitantly opened her purse and pulled out a Zip-Loc bag containing the precious paperback. The handover had the whiff of an illicit drug transaction, a comparison Gibson would have loved.

I slipped the book carefully onto the table. The cover featured a highly stylized, multi-hued illustration of a woman’s face in profile, based on Gibson’s author photo from the hardcover edition I remembered. She was beautiful: high cheek-boned, Titian-haired, doe-eyed.

In all-capped, black and orange letters, the 1970s serif typeface blared:

THE BUTTERFLY WARD

THE BOOK FROM WHICH THE CONTROVERSIAL FILM OUTRAGEOUS WAS TAKEN.

The blurbs on the back include one that mistakenly claims: “WINNER OF THE FIRST CITY OF TORONTO BOOK AWARD.” Wrong: Gibson co-won that honour with Atwood in the third year of the awards.

When I got home and gingerly opened the book, I discovered that Eufemia Fantetti had good reason to worry: the pages had yellowed, the type was fading, and the spine was in danger of falling apart in my hands. The writing, however, felt remarkably contemporary.

Gibson was clearly writing with a sense of urgency and rage, even panic. Yet, despite the fact that the stories are often about mania and obsession, she kept tight control over her narrative. Her stories show the lives of characters with mental illnesses from the inside out: no victimization, no sentimentality, no editorializing. She forces you to observe these lives and opens a space for your emotions, but never tells you how you should feel.

The first story in the collection, “Ada,” is narrated by Jenny, the 29-year-old daughter of a “good Toronto family,” who has been institutionalized for seven years. Her life, and those of the other women on her ward, feels as if they’ve been put on hold.

Here, she describes their morning routine:

All the women are waiting in the bathroom, waiting to get their toothbrushes and hair brushes unlocked from the little cabinets, we push forward to the dented mirrors like cattle. Everybody was pushing and elbowing each other and saying 'screw off' or 'watch it, will you!' Sometimes I think the bathroom must be hell itself with the dented mirrors and the keys hitting the latches of the cabinets and the stink from the toilets and all those women in rumpled bathrobes and slept-upon hair and unclean teeth pushing and groaning their way toward the two mirrors, sleep in their eyes, veins protruding on the feet of the thin ones. But I am one of those women, I have been for seven years. I hardly ever think about escaping anymore.

“Ada” is a story about the inter-relationships among women who are, to varying degrees, damaged by both their mental illnesses and the treatments they receive –– none more so than Ada.  An  “incandescent” poet when Jenny first met her, Ada’s personality and intellect have been deadened by a lobotomy: “One day they took Ada away, somewhere downstairs and she came back the way she is now. She paints little stick figures and sings nursery rhymes to herself.” Because Jenny has been in the institution so long, she remembers Ada “when she was Ada.”

Gibson’s characters in “Ada,” and other stories set in institutions, exist in a closed, tightly controlled world. Long stretches of boredom are broken by bursts of violence and pain. Yet Gibson never tries to make you feel sorry for her characters: she  simply wants you to watch them “function,” a word the author uses ironically.

In the collection’s best-known story, “Making It,” a pregnant mental patient, Liza, is living in an apartment she used to share with Robin, a gay man and female impersonator who has gone to Los Angeles to star in a show where he portrays Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Tallulah Bankhead and other stars. Based on Gibson’s friendship with Craig Russell, with whom she lived after leaving her husband, the story is written in the form of letters back and forth between Robin in L.A. and Liza in Toronto. Robin tells Lisa about his success on stage portraying Judy, Peggy and the rest, contrasted with lovers who find him exciting as a woman but disappointing as a man. Liza, meanwhile, struggles to “function.” In one letter, she describes the public health nurse who checks on her twice a week: “Her briefcase full of my brains and the brains of others like me bulges under her arm...I can see her now getting on the Scarborough bus, knocking the snow from her boots, clutching her briefcase full of brains, pleased with my progress.” This story evokes the Toronto of 1976 with a sharp eye, as Liza travels around with her friend Marvin, who has recently left the hospital:

I was wondering why the insides of buses always look like winter even when it is not winter. I think it is the yellow light that does that. Marvin has promised me that the baby and I will not be put in a camp once he becomes Superman. Marvin is very fond of me in his own neuter way.

“Making It’ may have been the best known of the book’s stories, but for its unflinching depiction of mental health treatments in the nineteen-seventies, I found the most powerful story to be the one for which the book was named. “The Butterfly Ward” describes a diagnostic procedure that sounds a little like waterboarding. Patients are forced to drink huge quantities of water after taking a medication that causes them to bloat. They are then immobilized and subjected to a lengthy brain scan with pins skewered into either side of their jaws. The narrator, Kiva, calls this “being pinned to the butterfly board." She undergoes the treatment many times; when not “being pinned,” she hangs out, goes to the tuck shop and watches daytime TV. Kiva and the other patients are portrayed as if they are insects, trapped, tortured and observed by doctors and nurses. At one point, she imagines the feelings of a new patient on her ward who has been pumped with water and is now being “pinned” to the board:

They came for Mrs. Watson at 10 o’clock, it is now 10.20. I know that for certain because the Phil Donahue Show is just beginning. Mrs. Watson with her secret fortune is now pinned on the biggest butterfly board of them all. There is no anesthesia for the dying butterfly...nothing can interfere with the test. She lies on the sterile table, hands clenched by her sides. Dr. Carter will tell her to unclench her hands. Two long needles, one on either side of her face, have been driven through her jawbone. Pinned. Dr. Carter will tell her to lie perfectly still, the butterfly will lie pinned like that, still and dead for half an hour. Dr. Carter and others will peer into her bloated brain but only Dr. Carter will matter.

Stories about mentally ill people were not new in 1976: Gibson would have been writing in the shadow of the better known 1962 Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson that turned the sadistic head nurse of a mental ward (Nurse Ratchett) into an instantly recognizable, much parodied trope. Despite the unsympathetic portrayal of Dr. Carter in “The Butterfly Ward,” Gibson rarely paints her doctors and nurses as villains or monsters; at worst, they are well meaning but ineffectual. Gibson was also a contemporary of novelist Timothy Findley whose experiences with mental illness informed his first novel, The Last of the Crazy People (1967), as well as his 1993 novel Headhunter. According to a Books in Canada interview with Gibson, she and Findley were friends and admirers of one another’s work. Perhaps the seventies, with its particular brand of taboo-bashing and the coming-out of queers and the ‘crazies,’ as Margaret called them, was a particularly rich time for her stories.

After re-reading Eufemia’s copy of the book, I watched Outrageous! While the movie is based on only one story in The Butterfly Ward, it captures some of the raw spirit of Gibson’s entire collection. The movie is also a lively record of a time and place that seems familiar but is quickly fading in memory: Toronto the Good in the mid-1970s. The opening up of sexual mores, especially in the gay community. The popularity of drag queens, a.k.a. “female impersonators.” The casual sexism and racism, coupled with a rising feminism. A breath of rebellion in a city that was about as straight laced as they came. It was a moment in time, a flowering, like a daisy pushing its way through a cracked grey sidewalk.  By 1983, AIDS had changed the zeitgeist; in 1990, it took Craig Russell’s life.

In a 2016 article in Brick Magazine called “The Fiction of Margaret Gibson,” novelist Lisa Moore wrote:

It’s hard to think of another Canadian writer who captures the urban poor of the 1980s and 1990s from the inside, as Gibson does, with lyrical prose, by turns staccato and lush. Hers are characters who have had lobotomies, victims of shell shock, violent men who have come out of decades of imprisonment, porn stars and drag queens, drug dealers, addicts, and alcoholics. She writes about the betrayal of trust between lovers, doctors and patients, husbands and wives, mothers and sons.

Moore describes Gibson’s life as one of occasional homelessness  and extended bouts of sleeplessness when she would write obsessively. She also raised her son, Aaron Gilboord, while continuing her lifelong struggle with mental illness, which may have been either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Moore also mentions that Gibson was taking medications for epilepsy.

As I tuck Eufemia Fantetti’s much-loved copy of The Butterfly Ward back into the Zip-Loc bag from whence it came, I feel as if I’m re-interring a body that I briefly exhumed for scientific purposes. If a novel is a living thing – alive with ideas, images and characters – then The Butterfly Ward has been buried alive. As a society, we talk of breaking down barriers between the mentally well and the mentally ill. We make much of removing stigma, and once a year we send text messages to help a telecom company raise money for mental health. And yet, what may well be the greatest Canadian book ever written about the lives of the mentally ill, has gone out of print.

The Butterfly Ward deserves to be pulled out of the cemetery of lost books (notwithstanding the single copy in the Toronto Reference Library), so it can be discovered by new readers. Perhaps, as it did for Eufemia Fantetti, the book will go on to inspire writers whose lives have been affected by mental illness, or as it did for me, help me find my voice as a writer after a period of intense self-doubt. I like to think that Gibson would likely tell any writer in crisis what she told an interviewer a few years before her death in 2006: “Do your damned-est and never give up.”

Sources:

Margaret Gibson Gilboord. The Butterfly Ward. First published 1976 by Oberon Press, Ottawa. This edition published 1979 by Totem Books, a division of Collins Publishers, Don Mills, Ontario.

“The Only Skin She Was Given: Eva Tihanyi speaks with Margaret Gibson”. Books in Canada: The Canadian Review of Books. (Undated interview). http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=92

Lisa Moore. “The Fiction of Margaret Gibson.” Brick: A Literary Journal. Issue 98. Posted November 23, 2016. https://brickmag.com/the-fiction-of-margaret-gibson/

IMG_7894.jpg

Terri Favro is a novelist, essayist,  comic book collaborator and copywriter. She is the author of three novels: Sputnik’s Children (a Globe100 and CBC Books Top 10 book for 2017), Once Upon A Time in West Toronto, and  The Proxy Bride, as well as a popular science book, Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation. A finalist for the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction, Terri’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including the Humber Literary Review, Geist, Prism, Broken Pencil and Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. Visit her at terrifavro.ca

The Missing Story: Reading Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa in the Aftermath of Bruce McArthur

Essay

by Evelyn Deshane

Amber Dawn.  Sub Rosa . Arsenal Pulp Press. $22.95, 320 pp., ISBN: 9781551523613

Amber Dawn. Sub Rosa. Arsenal Pulp Press. $22.95, 320 pp., ISBN: 9781551523613

There's a scene early on in Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010) where the narrator Little goes to a carnival and runs into someone from her past. Little has just started her career as a sex worker, and she lives alongside a group of other sex workers who quickly become her family as they are also under the care of Arsen, their pimp, daddy, and husband. They live in Sub Rosa, a mythic place that exists somewhere in a downtown Canadian city, and this carnival trip is a temporary vacation from this world.

Dawn's novel is a fantasy text in which we're not entirely sure what is real life and what is fantasy; magic realism abounds in every sentence, and the novel is packed with neon colours, hallucinations, and miraculous tricks. Up until Little meets Eli at the carnival, we have been rolling with the changes in the atmosphere, landscape, and magical powers without grounding in the 'real world' and without a sense of certain reliable narration. All that changes when we meet Eli because this is the first tangible time we realize that Little is, in fact, missing.

It's important to note that I started to read Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa the last week of January 2018, after having it on my 'to-read' list for at least two years. I almost pushed it up in my order of reading when I found out that I would be teaching a university class on Fantasy Literature and needed an example of Urban Fantasy. Alas, I went with China Miéville's King Rat and not Sub Rosa--which was both a shame since I think Sub Rosa communicates so many of the beautiful things that Urban Fantasy can do (focus on marginalized people, emphasize hybridity, and engage with non-traditional fantasy tropes which aren't necessarily marred by racism/colonialism), and a fortuitous decision since I read Amber Dawn's story for the first time with the investigation of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur happening at the same time. McArthur was arrested on January 18th 2018 for – at the time – the murder of Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen. Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, and Dean Lisowick would soon be added to that list, and right now, eight victims in total have been identified, including a man whose image had to be released to the public in order to even attempt to identify him--a man who, like Little, had gone missing and no one knew their name. In order to fully process the gravity of the Bruce McArthur investigation, Amber Dawn's succinct and compelling treatment of such a character as Little is a must-read as it is both beautiful and brutal, hopeful yet full of despair, and provides a narrative map of how we can possibly begin to construct the names of the missing in the wake of their discovery.

After meeting Eli, Little recounts the time in her life they shared together living in an abandoned house, before she turned to sex work. Though we realize that Arsen has 'saved' Little from a more violent life on the street, we are never quite sure what Little's life before this looked like. Neither was she – at least up until this moment when she confronts this person who calls her by a different name – and she does not quite know how to respond. Though Eli calls her by it, as the audience, we are deprived of its resonance and sonic presence on the page, signalling that she, herself, is in disbelief that this moniker used to belong to her.

This tension of the real and the fantastic plays out throughout the course of the novel, especially as Little becomes fixated on finding her name and escaping Sub Rosa. In order to leave, she realizes she must go back through the Dark where she spent her first few nights. When she gets stuck halfway through the Dark's labyrinthine depths, she finds a man called The Night Watchman who has been keeping newspaper articles about missing girls. Little searches through these papers, trying to find her own name among the headlines, but she comes away with nothing. She meets another former worker on the road who coaches her through excavating a memory about Little's grandmother. Though Little still does not come away with her name, the figure in the dark tells her that that memory is the exact thing she needs in order to leave Sub Rosa for good.

So Little goes back to Arsen in order to try again. When she eventually does leave, it's with a group of women who have also gone missing. Their journey is long and harrowing, but together they make their way back into the Canadian landscape that often casts doubt on Sub Rosa's existence and the magic that did exist there. The sense of foreboding in the novel is not quite relieved, however, until we get to the very end, and Little's first name is revealed.

This is the triumph of Amber Dawn's novel: by depicting sex work through the vein of magic realism, she manages to encapsulate what is so enchanting and captivating about it, without valorizing the violence inside of it. What is captivating about sex work is not the sex, but the sense of community and the power that one feels when they do sex work. So many fantasy texts (be they magic realism or traditional fantasy) utilize the trope of the harem or brothel as a meeting point or side quest. The brothel, like the tavern or cantina, can easily be seen as a liminal place where all kinds of people flow in and out, enabling a quick stop to pick up a character needed on a journey. But the women (and men and others) inside the brothel, as the sex workers, are often never given a voice in the story. If they do, they become inspiration or the basis for a Pretty Woman Cinderella quest, where the hero's goal is to save the tragic sex worker from their life in a redemption narrative.

Though Little's main goal is to leave sex work and remember her name, Dawn does not depict sex work as a wholly evil thing to do or escape from. We are meant to see Arsen, for instance, as a friendly presence, someone who treats her well and saves her from a life on the street and gives her a community of women to bond with. Dawn depicts Arsen, their customers, and especially the workers, as a unique community with many different people existing inside of it for many different reasons. She gives them rituals to complete and even magical powers, but things are by no means enchanted all of the time.

Indeed, Little's first night on the job with Arsen – when she has to prove herself in the Dark – is starkly terrifying. But when she does survive, and is ushered into a magical realm with magical people,  we want to keep reading. Dawn's prose does something intensively clever here, which is to mythologize the experience of trauma. Little survives what is ostensibly a rape in the Dark, but she emerges from the experience with a new secret power (her wandering, disembodied hand) and a new community full of its own mythology and practices, like the coming out parties and the Diamond Dowager's house rules. Mythology--and storytelling as a whole--is one of many responses to real-life trauma and it's not one I've seen talked about enough. To mythologize something, even if it's horrible, means becoming the author of it in some way; it's a way of taking back agency from an experience or situation where you were completely powerless. We change our lives around trauma, performing a new kind of daily ritual, and we imbue new objects with magical meaning. I was mugged, but I lived, so now that part of the city is cursed, and I will not walk there again.  Similarly, trauma bonds people together. We both survived a mugging, and now walk home together with cans of pepper spray to scare away predators. These bonds can seem as if they are otherworldly, especially when they seem to conjure safety again. It's why support groups exist and why some people visit them so frequently; when you experience something horrific beyond language, it is tiring to explain to people what happened. Those who have experienced something similar, though, don't need the explanation. You understand one another instantly, psychically, magically.

Dawn's depiction of trauma is one of many responses to it, and it was a relief to see it presented so cogently on the page, but without valorizing the trauma that happened before it or the response to it. Sub Rosa is a place that has been manufactured through trauma, but it doesn't call the people inside damaged and it doesn't say that what happened to them should have happened to them in order for them to become magical. It's just happening. It's just there. Eventually, Little leaves because she needs to leave, and though she takes some of the other women with her, those who stay in Sub Rosa (and in sex work) are not seen as bad or malicious. They're just staying.

Why I think this book needs to be read in 2018, though, comes back to the idea of the missing person. I was fascinated – and heartbroken – by this book because it depicts what we don't often see: the narrative of a missing person from the mouth of the missing. So frequently we see these narratives from the missing person poster: an array of details about their last night seen spoken on a police interview, and maybe a body, most likely dead and perhaps unrecognizable, only identified through dental records or pleas to the public for help. The missing person story is often forever incomplete, marked by an absent presence, because we don't have the voice at the centre of the story.

But in Sub Rosa, we have Little. When Little realizes that people might be looking for her, it changes her perspective on the world and herself. She starts to view the people inside Sub Rosa differently, and starts to speak more and more about the missing. When she gets back from her visit to the Night Watchman who kept the missing newspaper reports, she tells one worker, Isabella, that she found an article that spoke about her:

The truth is, I’ve been thinking lots about the city since my second trip to the Dark. My own memories, they’re all mashed up together in my head. But you, I found something of yours out there. It was a newspaper clipping in the Night Watchman’s garage, and it was all about you. There was a picture of you and everything. Sister Mary is worried about you. She put out a missing person’s. She started a prayer group. She went to the newspapers, the police. It was all right there in the paper I saw.

Like Little, the Night Watchman is fascinated by these clippings as they represent an absence, possibly a permanent one, so holding the paper becomes a totemic object of memory. While the person may not be around, by keeping the clippings the thought of them is. It's a way to ward off the powerlessness we feel at the heart of the missing person's story since we always come to it in-media-res and there may be too many or not enough threads to sort through to determine where to go. It's the labyrinth without Adriane; an allusion that Dawn uses deliberately in her book.

Dawn's book begs the question: What about the people who are missing, but are never reported missing? Do they still exist?

In short, Dawn's book reminds me of Dean Lisowick and Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam. Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Selim Esen, Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Andrew Kinsman, and the growing number of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur's victims. Of the Highway of Tears. And of Robert Pickton's 49 murder charges, and the many women on his farm who have not yet been identified and may never be accounted for.

Dawn's book came out in 2010, only a few years after the Robert Pickton investigation was over in 2007. Though we are never exactly sure where Sub Rosa is, Amber Dawn drew on her experience as a sex worker in Vancouver to craft the world, close enough to where the Pickton victims went missing that their influence is obvious. In Amber Dawn's memoir, Poetry Saved My Life, she talks specifically of the murdered and missing women that seem to haunt Vancouver. Their memories also haunt Sub Rosa's pages – because how could they not?

Little's story is so familiar, and has been told before, but always through that effacing measure of the picture on the telephone pole; a list of names on a Wikipedia entry but unprovable in a courtroom; or a mug-shot that's been used instead of a real-life photo. There are so many Littles unaccounted for. Just like the people Robert Pickton killed, or Indigenous women that the Highway of Tears seems to swallow up, or immigrants and LGBTQ+ people that alleged murderer Bruce McArthur deliberately targeted, sex workers are often viewed as the less dead or less missing. When sex workers do disappear, or their bodies turn up, their deaths are often thought of as inevitable. Investigators often assume their job or lifestyle led them to this fate, and if there's no family present to claim the body, investigators' motivation to investigate further is sometimes diminished even more. The Bruce McArthur arrest and mounting case only re-opens this still-fresh wound in 2018, but if you had asked anyone in the gay village or in the South Asian community about missing people in the early 2010s, they would have given you the names from Project Houston that were never solved, among others not on that list. Names upon names upon names. But no story, no solution, no answer.

With Sub Rosa, we have no names, but all the stories. 

Deep down, I think I find Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa so heartbreaking yet comforting because I want Little's story to be the story for all the images I see on telephone poles. These people disappeared, and where they went is secret, but they are okay. In a different place, unreachable, but in a community that takes care of them. The magical place of Sub Rosa represents the best case scenario for the missing – but even in the best case, Little still wants to go, because she wants her name back. Because no one ever wants to be missing, even if where they disappear to is enchanted.

We know Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam's name now, thanks to the public's identification of his photo. But he, and Dean Lisowick, was never reported missing. Though all of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur's victims are heartbreaking, I think of Dean Lisowick most of all in relation to Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa because he was a defender of sex workers. People remember him as a kind and gentle person, and a good friend. When he disappeared, his absence was felt, but it was assumed he moved on. Just like Eli did with Little at the carnival.

This is a common story, but it's one that highlights Lisowick's vulnerability, and the vulnerability of all homeless people. People noticed Lisowick was not there, but no one reported him missing. And though people had photographs of him, there were none on social media, so his mugshot was the one image publications used. Lisowick and Kanagaratnam both represent the huge divide between the missing world of Sub Rosa and the daily world where the telephone poles and the newspapers are the things that speak for the missing.

In 2018, we need to remind ourselves that missing people still exist, even if they're never reported missing, and keep working on bringing them back out of the dark place and into the light.

Evelyn+Deshane.jpg

Evelyn Deshane's creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington's, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn's most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Visit evedeshane.wordpress.com for more info.