An Autobiography of My Passions: Danila Botha In Conversation with Alix Ohlin

An Autobiography of My Passions

Danila Botha In Conversation with Alix Ohlin

 
Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted  Inside , and two beautiful short story collections,  Babylon and Other Stories , and  Signs and Wonders . She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel,  Dual Citizens  (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted Inside, and two beautiful short story collections, Babylon and Other Stories, and Signs and Wonders. She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel, Dual Citizens (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

 
 
Alix Ohlin.  Dual Citizens . Knopf. $25.95, 288 pp., ISBN: 9780525521891

Alix Ohlin. Dual Citizens. Knopf. $25.95, 288 pp., ISBN: 9780525521891

Danila Botha: In an interview I read with you, when Inside was published, you said, “Everything I’ve ever written is the result of gradual, daily, slow and steady accumulation of words. I start something, I hold on to it, and I don’t let it go.”

Tell me about the writing process for Dual Citizens. It has such a beautiful fable like quality - the beautiful Montreal and rural Quebec imagery, the descriptions of small town college life and New York. Where did the story start when you started writing it? What were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Alix Ohlin: Thank you for the kind words. I usually start a book not knowing what it’s going to be about, and only through the process of writing multiple drafts does the story take shape. For Dual Citizens, I began with the idea of a love story between sisters. I wanted to write something that presented the relationship between two women as the major scaffolding for their identities and their lives, doing justice to the primacy and complexity of that bond. At the time I’d been reading the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which place a female friendship at the centre of a world with multiple intersections—the novels are about the friendship between Elena and Lila, yes, but also about politics, and class systems, intellectual and sexual coming of age. I was fascinated by Ferrante’s style, how expositional it is and how much time she covers so rapidly, sketching the backdrop of the times and then swooping into very specific, very emotional scenes. There’s so much energy in her work and I was drawn to respond to it in my own writing.

DB: That’s so interesting. I loved the opening scene, and the precariousness of the pregnancy and the sister dynamic. Music is always such a huge part of my process; when I read all your beautiful wolf imagery, I could hear the Neko Case song Star Witness as the soundtrack.

AO: It’s funny you mention Neko Case, because I listened to her album Middle Cyclone a lot during this time. The last track on that album, “Marais La Nuit,” is basically a twenty-minute long field recording outside her farm in Vermont featuring frogs and night sounds. The whole album is suffused with the natural world and I loved the wildness of it, crickets and birds and wind. When Robin plays piano in her barn in Dual Citizens, it’s an homage to that, as well as to the piano playing in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, one of the best stories about music and siblings and sorrow ever written. A lot of details in the book are homages to movies and music and art that have been important to me. It was fun to write a testament to those things, sort of an autobiography of my passions.

DB: “An autobiography of my passions”: I love that.

AO: On the way to writing about them, I wrote all kinds of detours and digressions in Lark’s and Robin’s lives—at one point there was a whole section in Robin’s voice, which I took out; at another point there was a lengthy exploration of the ethics of artificial intelligence—and then pared them back eventually to the form the book takes now.

DB: Your characterization is always so beautiful and so sensitive. In Dual Citizens, Lark and Robin are both such strong, interesting personalities, and have different responses to their childhood – Lark wanting to be as invisible and without need as possible, yet still being stable and dependable; Robin wanting to have the freedom to do whatever she wanted to, yet still remaining a mystery. It was amazing to be able to feel for both of them in every situation. Was it difficult to present the story from both sides, especially when their needs conflicted with each other? Was one easier to write than the other, or did you always conceive of every storyline with both of them connected?

AO: In my mind, despite their very different personalities and ways of seeing the world, Lark and Robin represent two sides of the same coin. They both grow up with a mother who rebels against the conventions and expectations of her era, even though they don’t respond to her example in the same fashion. They’re both drawn to forms of artistic expression—Lark to film editing, and Robin to music—and they both chafe against a similar set of impossible demands and conditions that the world imposes upon women. Lark has some formative experiences with dominating and intellectually extroverted men and she retreats from that dynamic, preferring to be invisible and to express her creativity behind the scenes, in the editing room. Robin hates performance, which she associates with being looked at and controlled by other people, and she walks away from a career as a pianist that would have felt to her like ceding autonomy. They both wind up choosing to be outsiders. They don’t always agree with each other’s perceptions and actions but the wellsprings are the same, and this is part of what keeps them connected throughout their lives.

DB: That’s beautiful. I was moved to tears when I was reading (your books always have that effect on me, especially this one) particularly the scene after her accident where Lark thinks that she hallucinated seeing Robin because their lives were so separate. Their relationship is so engaging and so intense, both in its intimacy and in its distance. Was it hard to keep them apart when their dynamic was so special?

AO: I’m not a big outliner of novels, preferring to allow the characters and themes to emerge organically. That said, the one structural idea I had for this book was that it would imitate and subvert the three acts of an old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But instead of boy and girl it would be a love story between sisters, and their relationship would rupture and then resume. The loss of Robin in the middle part of the book is the hardest for Lark to bear, because her sister is the companion of her soul. Without Robin she is completely alone in the world. But it’s perhaps necessary for them to be apart for a while in order to come back together on terms that work better for each of them. Another thing that interests me in art, and in life, is the idea of pattern—how we find meaning in the repetition and reversal of things that have happened before. In growing apart and then knitting their lives back together, Lark and Robin reverse the pattern of their childhood—the sister who used to be the caretaker finds herself in need of care—but they also repeat it too, as they make a family together. The combination of both patterns at once was emotionally and thematically satisfying to me and I hoped it would be satisfying for the reader, too.

DB: That’s so insightful and fascinating. I’m very interested in the way that mothers are presented in the novel, from their mother Marianne, who is fascinating and independent and larger than life, but also self -absorbed, to Olga, Robin’s professor, who was cold but inspired Robin artistically, to Robin’s piano teacher Mrs. Gasparian, who made both sisters feel safe and talked to them like they were adults. There’s a certain emotional distance about all of them, sometimes a sense that they’ve sometimes disappointed her, but yet they give her things to think about or to define herself in opposition to, they give her insights and push her out of her comfort zone. Was this a conscious commentary about our expectations of our mothers/mother figures? I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

AO: Certainly I’m invested in the idea that there are all kinds of ways to be a mother and to be mothered, that many different people can care for us and fulfill our variegated needs and none of this caring is limited to biology or to the containers of our families of origin. I liked the idea of opening up the concept of mothering to a wider range of experiences and personalities. When I was an English major in school I was assigned to read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, a touchstone of literary criticism which theorizes that poets grapple with their complex and fraught relationships with the writers who came before them. A feminist critique of this book was that all the writers he cites are male and that the relationships he charts are fully patriarchal.

Ever since I encountered both the original book and the critique, I’ve wondered what an anxiety of influence would look for women. What do women writers and artists take from the generations before them, what do they learn from and rebel against and so forth? How do they define themselves as artists in a culture that even today often glosses genius and eccentricity and artistic achievement as male? We still see a privileging of male identities in all kinds of art forms, including in film, where the director (a position dominated by men) is treated as the auteur of the work while the contributions of others (including editors, positions historically more welcoming to women) are downplayed or ignored.

A lot of these ideas about women and art are in play in the novel. For Robin, it’s Mrs. Gasparian’s early recognition of her talent that sets her on the path to music. Lark’s decision to become an editor in film and television, and her feeling that this work is worthwhile and well-suited to her, is inextricable from the women who serve as intellectual and emotional guides in her life.

DB: I love the way you play with nominative determinism, and the idea that Lark and Robin feel that they were given the wrong names. (The scene where Lark talks about Robin’s musical gifts and their names is so revealing.) I found them both, but especially Lark so remarkable. I’d love to hear about how their names came about.

AO: I wanted the two characters to have a taxonomy that would show them as two of a kind, permanently related, even when their paths diverge. So the bird names were part of that.

I had written a long piece, in a book of essays that was never published, about birds in Shakespeare, called “Ariel and Audubon.” It was about the charisma of birds, how they serve as stand-ins for all kinds of values we assign to art and artifice. So as emblems, birds seemed appropriate. I’m also drawn to irony and I thought it was sort of funny for shy Lark, who isn’t a lark of a person at all, to be saddled with a name that doesn’t suit her by a teenage mother who thought it sounded cool and rebellious and artsy. In terms of cultural backdrop, I think the names are generationally accurate, as Lark and Robin are born at a time when names were starting to become less traditional. For Marianne, their mother, giving two girls non-church names probably felt almost scandalous, whereas nowadays, people name their kids from all kinds of traditions or no traditions at all. I know kids named Fox and Oak and, I don’t know, Blue Ivy. Lark and Robin grow up in the space between those ends of the spectrum.

DB: I love way that the women’s narratives are always centred in the story, so that the men, from their fathers, who we never actually see, to Gordon (who I found hilarious) to Wheelock (who even in Lark’s mind, she never refers to by his first name) and Bernard, who sort of floats in and out of Robin’s life (along with other undefined relationships) are just part of it, and not the whole story. Was this always conscious?

AO: Keeping the women’s stories and relationships in the foreground was definitely a conscious choice for me. I was thinking a lot about the connection between the history of the novel and the marriage plot, a narrative that follows the progression of a romantic relationship through various stages of turbulence and ends with a wedding that represents some kind of consummation and the presumed formation of a new family unit. It’s such an influential set of tropes. And I wanted to write a story in which it’s the women whose bond takes precedence, who experience rupture and turbulence, who form a new family unit by the end. I fully enjoyed writing the male characters in the book—Gordon in particular is dear to me, I’m so glad you thought he was funny—and I hoped to make clear that Robin and Lark would have important connections with those characters, but that the fact of their finding male partners was never going to represent completion for them or the end of their story. Their story is about something else.

DB: What are you working on these days? I love your short fiction so much, too. More short fiction? Another novel?

AO: I’ve been finishing up a collection of short stories, which will hopefully be published by House of Anansi in 2020, and just starting to daydream my way into a new novel.

DB: Oh, that’s great news. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve been such a huge fan for years.

AO: Thanks for all the thoughtful questions, Danila! I really appreciate your attention to the novel. It was a pleasure to do this interview with you.

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Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets was published in 2010, and was named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories). Her first novel, Too Much on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2016 Relit Award and won a Book Excellence Award for Contemporary Novel. Her most recent collection of short stories, For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Awards and was  shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, and most recently, the ReLit Awards. Danila teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and at Humber College’s School for Writers. She is currently working on her second novel and on a new collection of short stories.

Michael Sindig Reviews David Elias’ Elizabeth of Bohemia

David Elias.  Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen.  ECW Press. $19.95. 360 pp., ISBN: 9781770414631

David Elias. Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. ECW Press. $19.95. 360 pp., ISBN: 9781770414631

Elizabeth of Bohemia tells the story of the daughter of King James I of England and Queen Anne of Denmark, who married Frederick V of the Palatinate of the Rhine. Together, they mounted a doomed attempt to hold the throne of Bohemia, and then spent the rest of their lives struggling in exile.

Yet this novel is not greatly interested in conventional historical matters. Instead it recuperates Elizabeth as a kind of proto-secular-feminist. In a culture unfavourable to women, this Elizabeth is strong, independent-minded, modern—even postmodern. She celebrates nature and science, and scorns social convention, from gender (arranged marriage, wife and mother roles, sexism in plays, religious distortions of sexuality) to court antics to customs like bear-baiting.

Told in three parts, the book begins with Elizabeth and Frederick’s courtship and marriage in London in 1613. Elizabeth resigns herself to the wedding and gratuitous festivities and resolves to become queen. The second part covers the royal couple’s life in Heidelberg, with ongoing family difficulties, and Elizabeth’s countervailing passion for intellectual and political matters that inform her decision to secure the throne. Finally, the book covers the couple’s one-year “Winter” reign as King and Queen in Prague, which provokes retaliation by the Catholic Hapsburgs. The family flees to The Hague, where Elizabeth is increasingly isolated while arranging her children’s futures and observing the tides of history from a distance. She ultimately returns to England.

Ambivalently, Elizabeth suppresses emotion (following disturbing family traumas) for the sake of personal and political ambitions. Her voice is toughly humorous, but she’s distant or domineering with husband and children (she had thirteen). Consider her resentment of her pregnancies:

To couch the experience of carrying a child as noble was naught but an affectation, a myth fashioned to depict us as beatific incubators, gregarious gestators, when in fact it is a squalid and bothersome business. … If I were to add up all the months I spent waddling about in discomfort from one delivery to the next, it should stretch to the better part of a decade! What if instead I had devoted as much time to scientific study, searched for the cause of so many deaths in childbirth and the means to prevent them? I imagined a day when a woman might free herself of such an inconvenience, make use of a proxy, and thereafter have the baby dropped into her arms nine months hence. I admit I never wanted much to do with them until they reached the age where I could carry on a decent conversation with them.

Thus, the reader spends the novel inside Elizabeth’s head, getting only her subjective view of the world. It’s a privileged but sometimes stifling place: she is often self-absorbed, leaving the world around her flat. Consequently, characterization is typically polarized: we are invited to root for good guys and boo bad guys. Elizabeth’s parents, for example, are decadent celebrities: “We were equally appalled at their frivolous pageantry and undisguised self-aggrandizement…” Soldier/musician Captain Hume, however, is a diamond in the rough: “Though his swordsmanship was unequalled and his musicianship impeccable, his personal mannerism tended to put people off, as he exhibited a general disregard for decorum…”

Still Elizabeth’s affinity for heroically eccentric characters leads down surprising avenues. In one of the novel’s more ingenious inventions, she plots with Hume and his friend, the reclusive philosopher-scientist Sophia, to trick Frederick into pursuing the crown. Frederick’s preacher-advisor Scultetus, a theological astrologer, insists they watch the stars for a sign from God on the Bohemia question. The trio of tricky radicals conspires to deliver the sign, making Sophia prophet of her own coronation, accomplishing what a team of waffling theologian-politicians cannot.

Yet this Elizabeth is so remote and unflappable that the lives of those beneath her (most of the world) barely register. So, one doesn’t feel much for her. We hardly detect an echo of the monumental repercussions of the Bohemia decision. Relations with some others (e.g. brother Henry, confidante Lady Anne, Frederick, benefactor Lord Craven) are more nuanced, but rarely less chilly.  The reader is treated to an ironic spin on Elizabeth’s self-absorption, as in the flight from Prague:

We endured many days of arduous travel, slept in countless uncomfortable beds, in cramped rooms, with hardly enough servants to see to the needs of the children let alone ours, and what was provided in the way of food hardly passed for such at times. Dreadful!

Towards the end, we get more of Elizabeth’s gloomy soliloquizing, revealing her (post)modern take on big questions. She rejects further marriages in favour of “those vows I took to see myself wedded to the quest of freedom and independence.” She broods that an afterlife is unlikely and conventional ideas about it silly. She imagines, several times, “cobbling together” self or life: “From the very first we all of us make up stories to tell ourselves. The little girl…with her dolls is in fact…manufacturing a meticulous fiction for herself, that she may dwell within.”

This book’s premise is refreshing, often enjoyable, but the execution reveals some pitfalls of revisionist-historical fiction. It seems Elias develops competing impulses for this story that don’t entirely gel. There are resonant historical events, adventurous material and some close character-analysis, but none is developed sufficiently to make this an historical, adventure or psychological novel. On the one hand, Elizabeth seems a brave kindred spirit for the reader, with the future in her bones. On the other hand, this smells strongly of “presentism”, the creative anachronism of reading the past for “relevance” to today—which easily gets heavy-handed, and should be counter-balanced with the challenge of experiencing past worlds in all their deep, dense otherness.

 
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Michael Sinding studies and writes about literature, culture, cognition and language. He's especially interested in how genres blend, and how metaphor, narrative and genre interact to create worldviews. He's the author of Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind (U Toronto Press, 2014), and articles on Frye and a number of novelists and poets from the 17th to 20th centuries, from Cervantes to Thomas Pynchon. His article "From Words to Worldviews: Framing Narrative Genres" was awarded an Honourable Mention for the 2018 Hamilton Short Works Prize.

Krista Foss Reviews The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari.  The Art of Leaving.  HarperCollins. $32.99. 336 pp., ISBN: 9781443447867

Ayelet Tsabari. The Art of Leaving. HarperCollins. $32.99. 336 pp., ISBN: 9781443447867

Ayelet Tsabari’s The Art of Leaving is a sensual and moving memoir in three acts, an odyssey of wanderlust and homecoming that’s complete with sirens, lotus-eaters and even a kind of one-eyed monster (in the form of ruthless teens with a vendetta.)

It’s hard to resist Tsabari’s voice in this book, her follow-up to the much-lauded short story collection The Best Place on Earth. This hero’s journey is that of a young Yemeni-Israeli woman navigating personal loss and fractured identity with disarming candour and humour through stories propelled by an adventurer’s joie-de-leave.

The first chapters establish the narrator’s psychological jet fuel; an early tragedy and her fascination with the popular singer, Ofra Haza, awakens her to Israeli society’s double standards. Tsabari shares Yemeni heritage with her idol, Haza. But in Israel this makes them both Mizrahi, a name for largely Middle-Eastern Jews (though this definition is hotly debated), stereotyped as providing the country with good singers and turmeric-bright cuisine, while taking low-paying jobs and living in marginal neighbourhoods.

In one of her early breakout pop tunes, Haza uses the Arabic-derived word “freha” through which the writer explores the double-edge of being Mizrahi and female:  

“I had seen frehas in my neighborhood, older girls from the technical high school down the street who sat on the barricades holding cigarettes with thin manicured fingers, laughing loudly, their bodies bursting from their tight revealing outfits and their gaits assured and all-sex.”

Later, Tsabari’s “freha” impression ( it would win her the role of a “vulgar, angry wife for a Turkish coffee commercial”)  functions as an alter ego, one that she relies on to be entertaining, but also to feel free, as long as no one mistakes it for the real her.

She brings this ambivalent identity and nascent feminism into compulsory service with the Israeli Defense Force. It does not go well. Tsabari’s time in the army, where “… the smell of desert dust and gunpowder [is] sweetened by girls’ moisturizers and lotions” is both lushly painted and funny. As a 19-year-old, she pushes back against the Ashkenazi men who dominate the military’s upper ranks. “I’m busy. I’m eating a carrot,” she tells a newly minted second lieutenant eager to throw his weight around. Insubordination lands her in front of military justice 10 times until this: “We had a cold parting the army and I, a limp handshake with no eye contact.”

And then like Odysseus with his military work finished, the author begins an epic meander: criss-crossing from New York, to India, Thailand, South China, L.A. and Vancouver, with short stays back home. Lovers and some psychoactive substances ensue – one gorgeously sensual stay in the Goa could be titled “Eat, Toke, Love” — punctuated by an expected chug on a kerosene bottle and uncomfortably peeling feet (you’ll have to read to understand).

The final section of the book, “Return,” begins with a riveting chapter called “Tough Chick” in which Tsabari, now in Vancouver, braids the story of a burgeoning romantic relationship with her future husband and the account of an assault during a Commercial Drive bus ride on Hallowe’en.

“Trauma is a bit like falling in love: as sneaky, astounding and unstoppable,” she writes. “And I should know, because in my case, these two are sliding in parallel streams under my door.”

If loss is the drawstring that tugs at her throughout her rambles, love is what tightens it and closes the circle. The book’s final chapters see her return to her old neighborhood to watch the demolition of her childhood home and discover the true story of a reviled great grandmother, “the bad mother,” in order to reconcile herself with becoming a parent. And the author starts to cook – chopped salads; bisbas; Yemeni soup and ugat shmarim, a braided yeast cake that makes you “dizzy with desire” — the way her mother and grandmothers did.

By leaving and leaving and leaving, the writer comes to understand what it is to belong, and the result is a wise and generous account of a young woman’s search for a way of being at home in the world.

Krista Foss' short fiction appears in a forthcoming issue of Granta and has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize. Krista’s essay writing, which won the PRISM international creative non-fiction contest (2016), has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and featured in Best Canadian Essays. Her first novel Smoke River, published by McClelland & Stewart (2014), won the Hamilton Literary Award.

Follow Krista on Twitter @kristafoss.

Naben Ruthnum Reviews Helen Marshall's The Migration

Helen Marshall.  The Migration.  Random House Canada. $24.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9780735272620

Helen Marshall. The Migration. Random House Canada. $24.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9780735272620

Will the apocalypse be subtle? Current reality, with its various tempests and climate fluctuations, suggests that yes, on many days in many places, it will be possible to ignore. As long as it’s slower than a zombie plague, we are apparently capable of ignoring the geological rapidity of the world’s decline.  Helen Marshall’s The Migration, a cross-genre novel that draws from horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction, gives us this slow apocalypse in the weeks that it begins to inevitably accelerate, as the changing planet triggers a change in humanity that is beyond behavioural.

Marshall introduces the reader to this world of storms and rapidly rising waters in Toronto, in an old house on Dupont Street where 17-year-old narrator Sophie Perella lives with her parents and younger sister, Kira. Kira’s sick with JI2, a juvenile autoimmune disease that is weakening the bodies of afflicted children and teens, and even causing them to find delight in self-destructive thoughts. Marshall’s sci-fi talents are useful in the believable medical descriptions of JI2, which begin in earnest when the family (minus the father, a character whose near-total absence from the book isn’t quite adequately explained by his estrangement from Sophie’s mother) moves to England.

The strength of The Migration—its believable ramping-up of an apocalyptic scenario in a world just years away from our own—also causes some of the book’s slight disappointments. Promising threads, such as Sophie’s growing skills as a historical researcher under the tutelage of her Aunt Irene, her complex and sad relationship with her sister, and her settling into a new school are either broken off or vastly transmogrified by the relentless progress of the plot. Sophie’s relationship with her sister remains at the core of the story, but transforms in a manner that I can’t discuss without spoiling the unfurling story of Kira’s illness, which Marshall seeds in a comment Sophie’s aunt makes early on: “Disease shaped our development, not just at a superficial level, but our biology as well...”

Reaction to change is, of course, a definitive element of what makes stories stories. While there remains in the novel a sense that we are occasionally reading the ghosts of built-out subplots and byroads that vanished in the drafting process, Marshall is aware of what her plot’s considerable momentum does to her world and its characters. She allows this momentum to drive the shift from a novel of subtle horror into an increasingly fantastic story, one that eventually involves improbable flying machines and humanoid creatures that make perfect sense in the vacuum of the book. The medical explanations regarding JI2 (courtesy of one Dr. Varghese, who is adroitly deployed, save for an unfortunate passage of homeland reminiscence where she talks about missing “the smells of ginger and cumin, the taste of sweet milky tea on hot days” after her move to England—ginger, cumin and tea not exactly being alien elements in Indo kitchens in the UK) are both a source of believable horror and a compelling explanation of plot-advancing character actions: the disease reprograms the brain to delight in recklessness. Marshall’s reprogramming disease has commonalities with notions seen in early Cronenberg films or Garth Ennis’s Crossed, but hers is distinct, evocative, and quite beautiful. It’s a strong central accomplishment in a story that manages to be true to adolescent crushes and rebellion while also delineating a world that is not just falling apart: it’s in the process of becoming an entirely different world.

Naben Ruthnum is the author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. As Nathan Ripley, his most recent thriller is Your Life Is Mine.

Intuitive Surrender: Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer Interviews Sally Cooper

Intuitive Surrender

Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer in conversation with Sally Cooper

 
Sally Cooper’s third novel,  With My Back to the World , published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection  Smells Like Heaven  (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with  Hamilton Review of Books .

Sally Cooper’s third novel, With My Back to the World, published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection Smells Like Heaven (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with Hamilton Review of Books.

 
 
Sally Cooper.  With My Back to the World . James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

Sally Cooper. With My Back to the World. James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer: Sally, thank you for the opportunity to read and immerse in your compelling new novel, With My Back to the World. I have a lot of questions about the subject matter and the impulses that drew you to it. My first one is about art-making and motherhood. I loved reading about Agnes Martin’s art—and Rudie’s documentary filmmaking—processes.  Is there, do you think, an analogy to be made between the urgency of art-making for Martin and the willful desire toward motherhood for Rudie?

SC: I love this first question as it touches the heart of what’s driving these two women and what draws Rudie to Agnes. For Agnes, the impetus to make art is at the core of who she is. She shapes her life around making room for new paintings to the point of walking away from a successful career and choosing not to have children nor to live with a full-time partner. Her mental illness (she had schizophrenia, undisclosed in her lifetime) shapes some of her choices but her art-making comes from some place different. Rudie’s desire to become a mother seems to define her more than her art-making, though it may be that as we meet her in the final hours before she meets her daughter at the end of a harrowing adoption journey. Like Agnes with her painting, Rudie cannot talk herself out of wanting to be a mother, and because she is adopting, her path has been about as deliberate as one can get. With both art-making and motherhood, there is that delicious blend of conscious planning (think Agnes’s grid) and intuitive surrender.

KWK: The psychoanalyst and artist, Marion Milner, writes about the act of art-making as a “dangerous plunge” (On Not Being Able to Paint, 1950) and I think when you use a term like “intuitive surrender” you are aiming at the same idea. Milner, like you and like Martin, also felt that structure was necessary to making this plunge into the egoless space of art creation. Can you talk about your own experience of the delicious blend?

SC: I like to fool myself that the idea for With My Back to the World came to me fully formed, for in a sense it did—the characters and their situations were there at the beginning—but mostly I started with a vision of the kind of book I wanted to write. It wasn’t until I imposed restrictions and tasks for myself that I could start writing. In my own life, I had the structure of new motherhood, being home full time with a two-year-old and a one- year-old. Every morning from seven to eight, I wrote at a local greasy spoon. As my children grew older, I wrote during the two hours they went to pre-school, falling right into the story with one eye on the clock, a feeling I hadn’t experienced before motherhood, with all of my unspoken-for time. Despite averaging five or six hours a week, I was writing more than I had in years. Then there were structures I imposed on the narrative: Agnes’s, Ellen’s, and Rudie’s stories each unfold during the course of one day, and their chapters have mirroring moments and objects. Working this way allowed me to strike that exquisite balance. With such constraints, life-imposed and self-imposed, I could surrender.  

KWK: You have two strong women artists in your novel but there is a third woman. I wonder to what extent this third character – a black woman homesteading in Canada in the 19th century — was a formal artistic and structural decision? I ask because, while important to the way the plot torques, Ellen is not an artist, but a mother (an ambivalent and tragic one). How did Ellen come about in the envisioning of With My Back to the World?

SC: Ellen’s presence in the novel is intuitive, her character part of my original vision for the novel, perhaps a bit subconscious. She is young, in her early twenties, has survived tragic loss and has journeyed north to make a life in the woods. In different circumstances or later in life, Ellen might have become an artist, but in With My Back to the World she is more of a life alchemist, thinking quickly on her feet when faced with death and change. Telling her singular story echoes the presence of the much-anticipated Haitian child in Rudie’s narrative, a black child who doesn’t have a voice in the novel, but whose life is every bit as uprooted as Ellen’s, if not more.

KWK: The story of Haiti and the ethical dilemma of a white couple adopting a black child is a question that With My Back to the World poses. Who is saving whom?

SC: The answer to this is not that simple. There is a popular narrative that adoptive parents save the child, especially when a child is adopted from foster care or an orphanage. “Well-meaning” people will often comment that an adopted child is lucky to have found parents, should be grateful. I’m an adoptive mom. People have made similar remarks to me. If anyone is lucky or grateful, it is the adult who has the wished-for chance to parent a child. All adoptions have loss at their base. For a Haitian child adopted by white Canadian parents, that loss is especially profound as it is the loss of an identity, a culture, and a homeland. Yet life in an orphanage is no substitute for the love of a parent. So it’s tricky. It is on the parents to build bridges to the child’s culture, an issue Rudie grapples with insofar as the earthquake has thwarted her plan to meet her child in Haiti. Rudie will have to step outside her comfort zone to make connections with black and Caribbean organizations for her daughter. To answer the question, I think both are saved by a love fired in trauma and loss, but I think personally that we would do well to build fewer orphanages and focus on supporting families in countries like Haiti.

KWK: I know we are trained as writers to eschew speaking of the personal but I want to go outside the box here (in part because I think that the act of writing is at its core unconsciously intimate) and probe a bit into where things may have surprised you as an adoptive parent as you wrote these sections. How did your adoption process inform this novel?

SC: I suppose only the writer knows just how intimate their work is, and mine is always surprising me with what it reveals. My adoption process was astonishingly fast: seven weeks after we were approved, we received a match. We’d been told we’d have to wait two years. My older daughter was two when we adopted her, the same age as Roselore in the novel — a deliberate creative choice. Like Rudie, I keenly felt the difference between anticipating a newborn and scrambling to prepare for a toddler. Rudie’s father complains about not having enough time to prepare himself for the baby. Adoption placement is very exciting, challenging, and all-encompassing. There was so much I wanted to write about: how you fall in love with your child immediately, what it’s like to have institutional involvement and to not be your child’s first mother, how it feels to not have others’ stories to support you. This last piece may have motivated me the most. The story of adopting a toddler is not often told, at least it wasn’t ten years ago, and I was starved to read about others’ experiences. I’ve written essays about adopting but wanted to make something up, too, to connect Rudie’s experience to those of other women, to open up and elevate what we assume about making families and making art.

KWK: I’m also curious about the idea of loss, especially as an analogue for the creative process. Does creativity emerge from or integrate in loss? How does loss inform the other women in your novel? How is loss fundamental to creation: of family, of art, of the past (as you create it in Ellen’s sections)?

SC: Though there are very real losses in the novel (in Ellen’s story especially), the loss of an idea or an object of desire intrigues me. Rudie lives with the loss that infertility brings (the inability to have a biological child) and of a passionate love. While Agnes has lost her friend, she has also lost her sense of self and her ability to trust reality, as a result of mental illness. In Agnes’s case, the losses have seared everything but pure intent, her mind like a mesa, a washed canvas, free and ready for experience, for creation. What gets created— the family, the art—is merely everything that hasn’t been lost—the dreams, the lovers, the embryos, the places, the self not chosen. As writers, choosing which story to tell means a constant falling away, of the parts we don’t show, the parts we infer, the parts we change and shape to bring it all together. It is what we all do with the past.

KWK: This novel is a triptych with threads of one story being elliptically picked up in one or the other sections. It’s a fascinating study of womanhood, independence but also maneuvering. Rudie’s situation is most fraught in the fictive present of her story as she manages an old passion against her marital stability but each woman has a battle to wage between these two polarities. Can you talk more about this?

SC: The struggle between passion and stability plays a part in Ellen’s and Agnes’s stories, only more subtly so. Each story involves physical death. Ellen’s is almost the inverse of Rudie’s: Ellen’s husband, her stability, has died, possibly as the result of foul play. She’s faced with more limited choices given the constraints of time and place, but what she chooses will determine who she is for the rest of her life. You mention maneuvering. Ellen, the youngest of the characters, does skillfully move herself into the most desirable and true situation, the way we must when faced with great, sudden change. Agnes mourns lost passion and struggles to push herself out of stability and routine into exceptional creativity. She, too, is constantly trying to maneuver herself into place: routines, materials, light, timing, solitude—all are key in her mind—but she is thrown off course by regular life. I love and am inspired by books like Cloud Atlas and The Hours that show the delicate connections that unite vastly different lives.

KWK: I love to think of these delicate connections as uniting—as a web that somehow supersedes the complexities and pain of that intimacy I asked after earlier. Can human striving—the pain and complication that ensues through a life lived—be elevated to art through these connections?

SC: I wonder, because art is made, no matter how intuitive the artist. Art can pull forth truths that elude us in life because of its sheer onslaught and mundaneness. I think there is a commonality in our pain, despite its convolutedness, that art speaks to and that stories reveal. For Agnes Martin, art was about beauty and joy, she’d been an abstract expressionist but was also a classicist influenced by Eastern philosophy. She writes about artists (classicists) as “people that look out with their back to the world” and art as “something that isn’t possible in the world.” (Writings, 1992) I love that artwork as deceptively simple as an Agnes Martin painting, can resonate long after one observes it.

 
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Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and teaches creative writing at Colorado College.

A. W. French Reviews Chris Bailey’s What Your Hands Have Done

Chris Bailey.  What Your Hands Have Done.  Nightwood Editions. $18.95. 96 pp., ISBN: 9780889713505

Chris Bailey. What Your Hands Have Done. Nightwood Editions. $18.95. 96 pp., ISBN: 9780889713505

Discussing masculinity, love, and death against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, Chris Bailey’s What Your Hands Have Done is easily condensed into one word: salty. One gets the impression that each of Bailey’s manuscripts were stained with a sweat composed of salt water and internalized tears, summoned by the labour of living. From coast children beginning life “with a sureness” not shared by those “raised from the earth,” to an experienced fisherman ending his life with “backline around his neck,” Bailey examines East Coast life from adolescence to expiry in a gritty look at its unexplored corners.

Although the book is split into three sections, with two sets of various poems bracketing one longer piece at the text’s centre, the reader would struggle to close the book without understanding the themes at its core as transcending their physical division. While the poems in this collection are rooted in East Coast life, their themes reveal themselves in a darker universality that concerns common patterns of masculine existence. What Your Hands Have Done interrogates conventional notions of masculinity in a culture that upholds those notions more than most, resulting in a unique perspective that prompts a contemplative reading. In “Have a Cookie,” for example, Bailey presents a conversation about a father’s cancer diagnosis with his son, foregrounding the insufficiency of male discussion in addressing personal matters, represented effectively by the opening line: “The way your father tells you is simple”.

Many negotiations with mortality are made across this collection, conceptualizing the relationship between manhood and existence. While there may be an urge to label Bailey’s work as concerned with death, it is perhaps more appropriately termed meditative on the process of dying, as it is less concerned with what is lost in death than it is with what leads up to that moment of loss. The book’s central section, aptly titled “A Slow Process,” is an exemplary exploration of the moments leading up to the realization of mortality, as the speaker grapples with the nearness of his grandmother’s death while simultaneously attempting to locate themselves within an expansive familial structure.

Despite Bailey’s characterization of life as defined largely by resistance to one’s happiness – exhibited by these prolonged examinations of dying – he suggests that rising to the challenges posed by darker moments results in a positivity, though brief, that cannot be taken for granted. In “This Guy,” Bailey glorifies explorations of grimness, writing that he looks up to the poem’s subject because he “lost a father / and saw the dark for what it was, then came back” ready to be a father himself, optimistically recalling the instant in which he held his child for the first time. This moment is characterized as a softer representation of manhood by the speaker, as Bailey subtly unpacks the rigidity of masculinity with the poem’s subject here transitioning from wearing “shoes he wasn’t sure he’d grow into” to appearing as if “those shoes were meant for him”.

Bailey gestures at much more than these substantial themes of masculinity and dying within the limited physical constraints of this collection. Lines and poems about drinking provide a break from meditations on mortality, and the poet also incorporates femininity into his commentary, glorifying female figures that fill the frequently empty spaces left by societal adaptations of conventional notions of masculinity. This elevation is apparent in “She Was There,” as Bailey writes, “She was there, cooked for you. Helped clean / the mess you’d become from decades / spent on your father’s ocean hauling lobsters,” foregrounding the significance of feminine figures in cleaning up the toxic residue of adopted masculine traditions and helping male figures to live through them. Love also strides from page to page, appearing more obviously in the form of love poems such as “Autumn Evening” and “Pillow Talk,” as well as making more subtle cameos in pieces like “When It Rains”.

Bailey employs simple language appropriately in the text, inviting the reader to explore the full complexity of his subject matter in the unobstructed way that one needs to in order to get everything one can out of it. The poems are filled with details that invite exploration and examination as, while the reader should not overlook their first impressions of Bailey’s work, there is something to be said for what one finds in rereading this collection. What Your Hands Have Done is a brilliantly multifaceted debut from Bailey that causes its reader to rethink masculinity’s toxic nature and the ways in which it connects to the darker moments of existence. This is an incredible book, and it merits much more than a simple readthrough.

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A.W. French is a writer from North Vancouver, British Columbia, currently pursuing an MA in English Literature at the University of British Columbia, where they focus their studies on Canadian poetry. In addition to their academic work, French's poetry has been published in a number of creative writing journals across Canada, America, and the UK.

Evan J. Hoskins Reviews Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Tonguebreaker

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  Tonguebreaker.  Aresenal Pulp Press. $18.95. 142 pp., ISBN: 9781551527574

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Tonguebreaker. Aresenal Pulp Press. $18.95. 142 pp., ISBN: 9781551527574

Who can out-stubborn you, stubbornest femme

cunty hippo bitch warrior?

The answer: no one.

(“Tonguebreaker: Taueret”)

Prepare yourself. It’s the short blunt sentences that “like a ton of bricks just hit you.” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Tonguebreaker is socially heavy poetry and performance pieces written by a “crip fairy godmother” for people like her: queer, disabled, femme, POC, survivor, and social-warrior. Of course, anyone can read this book, and everyone should, but Piepzna-Samarasinha writes specifically, and unapologetically, for her community:

I tell her that when I am friends with friends

not femme, not survivor, they’re from a different planet I don’t speak the language
of
That all my friends are femme survivors and it’s a gift going on twenty years

(“birth day”)

Piepzna-Samarasinha writes these poems for the family of which she is a member. But to say that she has emerged from this community as a leader would be misleading. To say that she has repurposed the word “crippled” into a socially acceptable slang word “crip” would be lazy analysis. To say that she has made it as a writer with these poems is a lie. “Leader” implies a hierarchy. “Crip” removes the belittling connotation of “‘dis-’abled,” but the social othering between abled and crip cultures still exists. And “made it” implies that artists are supported enough, and, of course, we are not. Socio-cultural hierarchies, language misuse, and artist abuse are some of the issues Piepzna-Samarasinha is fighting against. She criticizes these issues from within her poetry, and without a doubt, Tonguebreaker is one of the most important poetry collections of 2019 as a result.

It is also an important book because of its honesty and blatancy. While the general public still rebuffs poetry for its inaccessibility and highfalutin vocabulary, the popular poets and critics of late have worked to address this issue, and the most touted and awarded poetry collections of the past few years have garnered their deserved attention because of their simple but precise and evocative language. These collections use minimal but piercing words to elicit intense emotion from a broad audience. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book succeeds by doing so throughout its pages:

My mom started raping me as a baby, and maybe that is why

I love a shark’s mouth glittering with teeth

My cunt is a cracked-open geode

spilling with a million bladed gems.

A hole that grins, ripped open,

(“Shark’s mouth”)

Tonguebreaker is saturated with the theme of discomfort, and in the repetitive accounts about physical pain, persistent mental illness, ableist barriers, sexual trauma, and other plights, Piepzna-Samarasinha invites the reader to feel the confusing specificities of her struggles, and to even feel physically uncomfortable by reading about these intense problems over and over again. But it is also a book presenting the opportunities that family (meaning friends, culture, community) has to support one another during these struggles, and how extraordinarily strong that family can become under the social pressures of today’s world. So, maybe this book will make you feel an outsider to the situations Piepzna-Samarasinha presents, or maybe you’ll find the family you need within her words. Regardless of how you might personally connect with the book, it must be realized that Piepzna-Samarasinha is an incredibly important voice, and this book ought to be acknowledged for its contemporary value.

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Evan J. Hoskins’ homeplace is Manitoba. His cockapoo's name is Kara. He lives in Sioux Lookout. He won the Vallum Award for Poetry. Some now label him a poet. Please call him Evan J.

You Can’t Miss What You’ve Never Known by Elizabeth Ruth

Essay

Saint-Just-Luzac, 1991

On a cold November morning in a Gothic village in south-central France, an old man is seated at the helm of a long wooden table with both hands perched atop a black control box. He manipulates two small levers to power a series of antique toy trains. The trains interweave along three tracks, travelling the wide expanse of the table, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, winding in and around miniature evergreens and a reproduction train station. The crowd of museum visitors gasps and chatters excitedly. A local journalist snaps a photograph. A young boy squeals with glee. The trains snake over a bridge, and speed through tunnels, clickety-clack followed by the satisfying hiss of steam. “Welcome to Atlantrain,” says Mr. Flon, of his miniature boxcar empire. “The only place of its kind in the world.”

Andre Flon-de-Nere is a 71-year-old harmonica-playing atheist with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a slight paunch. He’s 6 feet tall, carries a tan leather case and dresses in modest blazer, shirt and tie. He wears grey walking shoes, blue tinted glasses, and the barely veiled superiority of a true eccentric. We’d met one month before, on a rare sunny afternoon in Paris, after I answered his advertisement in the newspaper. Now he’d travelled into the city from his village in the Charente Maritime region to interview me, and three other girls, and choose one of us for the job of bilingual hostess at the museum. Mine was to be the third and final meeting of the day. To my surprise, the interview consisted of a three-hour meal at a Chinese restaurant near Place D’Italie while he read my palm.

“You will live into your late nineties,” he said, examining the solid line that curved from the centre of my wrist to my pointer finger. “In good health.”

“Okay,” I said, shrugging. 

Flon removed his glasses, leaned in, to have a closer look. “You are sensitive and have a medium to good amount of  ‘chance.’”

“Not more? I asked, a little alarmed. I’d always seen myself as a lucky person, someone who could therefore take risks.

“You experience great periods of aloneness,” he said. “But that will fix in a few years.”

I felt a hot, red flush moving across my face. “I’m not looking for a relationship,” I said, politely but firmly. Who was this strange man?

“I see you are not greedy,” he continued. “That is important. “And you have the promise of an artist of some kind.” I felt my lungs rise and fall like wings. I can trust him, I thought, with some measure of relief. He saw me as I saw myself.

“I’m a writer,” I told him. It’s the first time I’ve dared to say it aloud, and the words rolled off my tongue like fool’s gold.

“Good,” said Flon. “If you are a non-smoker the job is yours.”

In the museum, he finishes demonstrating the trains on the big table in the middle of the room, and has me guide the crowd to the far end, near a large window, where they can best observe his solar powered engines. These are what he’s most proud of, he’s certain that alternative sources of energy represent the future and prides himself o being forward-thinking. As if he’s a magician about to pull rabbits from a hat, he sweeps his arm over the table dramatically. “Sun and steam and wind,” he announces to the crowd of onlookers. “Regard what they can do.”

I stand behind him, while he enthrals visitors, the dutiful daughter he’s never had and I’ve never been. My long hair falls to my mid-back in a tangle of dark curls. I’ve wrapped a narrow scarf twice around my neck and draped it over my shoulder trying to appear fashionable, French. A month earlier, I could’ve never imagined myself in such a place. Inspired by Flon’s larger-than-life personality and the tiny trains he loves, I know I’ve never been so close to the big and small of the world.

The journalist continues to snap black and white photographs. Within a week, his article will appear on the front page of the local paper, and the headline will read, “Saint-Just-Luzac: un musée a toute vapeur.” A museum where everything runs on steam.

§

The TGV was the fastest train in Europe. It could easily reach speeds of up to 515 km per hour. I boarded without a ticket at Gar-du-Nord and, as promised, Flon found me in the corridor once the train had left the station. We settled in for the ride with me taking a window seat. “We’re flying,” he said, and we were, literally hovering an inch above the track. The farther from Paris we moved the lighter I felt, my spirit lifting along with the oppressive grey rain of the city. Beyond the suburbs, with signs of industry behind us, the verdant fields outside our window passed in a blur and I thought of the tobacco fields of South-western Ontario where seven generations of my family is buried. I thought of my mother; how alike we were. We both abandoned our lives and told ourselves we were chasing freedom, a new beginning, a better dream, and maybe we were as we raced towards the future, but always we were after that which we could not name.

§

Antique toy trains are handmade of tin, painted in muted reds and dark greens, black. They are Rivarossi’s Marklin’s, Pullman’s, Le Ravide from Paris. They are boxcars, trolleys, cabooses. They are toys but not only for children, historical artifacts that account for the development of nations, their treatment of immigrants, and their respective economies. But a toy train, even one built to scale, remains a replica, a superficial albeit wonderful, representation of something else.

§

Flon pulled a road map from his leather carry case. “Paris is not France,” he said. “Now you will learn how the French really live.” I was happy to hear it and hoped that it was true. I’d erroneously equated the country with its famous capital, and worse, concocted my fantasy based on reading the bohemian lives of other writers, most of them long dead. Mavis Gallant was the single example I knew of a Canadian expat currently living and writing in Paris and I couldn’t understand what about the place made her feel so at home. The anonymity? The thin veneer of hostility towards foreigners that almost dared a writer to enact freedom of expression? The brie? As I sat beside Flon with the whirring of steel rails underfoot, I suddenly knew that Mavis hadn’t chosen Paris; it had chosen her, just as Flon’s village, Saint-Just-Luzac, and the adventure it promised, was now calling my name.

On the map Flon traced the route we were taking with his finger. “We will change trains here,” he said, tapping the paper. Poitiers was a major university city that sat on the Clain river in west-central France. Students came from all over the world. Like most of France, Poitiers was picturesque and rich with historical architecture.

I nodded and pressed my face to the window. I had no idea what awaited me in Flon’s village, or what my mother would do when she received the fax I’d sent. ‘“Gone to live with a man named Flon,”’ was all it said. ‘“Here’s his address.”’ I was not worried about disapproval or reproach – my mother embraced opportunity, especially when it took her by surprise or subverted expectation. She couldn’t help doing these things and would understand when I did them too. Nor was I feeling rebellious; indeed, dramatic exits and entrances had been a regular feature of my life. I looked across at Flon and wondered what he’d say if I told him that by the age of six I’d moved homes nine times, that between six and eight there’d been seven more moves, including to Detroit, Michigan and Bogotá, Colombia. By the age of nine I’d attended five schools – a pattern of shunting from one place to the next that would continue even after I left home, at fifteen. He might’ve pitied me, though I hoped not. I sensed otherwise. He was hiding his own story, I was certain; and shunting wasn’t so bad. Shunting had placed me right there, where I wanted to be, and the train was going to take me even farther. “Tell me about our Africa trip,” I said.

Flon’ peered at me overtop of his tinted glasses, and his pale blue eyes caught the sun streaming in through the window. Every second year he made a journey. He’d drive south through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Burkina Faso and into Ghana, where he had friends at the University. Or, he’d drive from Paris to Moscow. As well as acting as a bilingual tour guide in his antique toy train museum (and, I surmised, keeping him company) the job of hostess included the possibility of us driving through French West Africa with me photographing Flon as he taught poor people how to harness wind power – one of his many interests. “You will document the trip,” he said.

I’ll write about it, I thought. I could already feel the adventure building up around me.

At Poitiers, we changed trains to one with cabin seating. Two men and one woman were already occupying our car when we took our places. The men began an exchange with Flon, discussing national politics and the looming Gulf crisis. When he introduced me by name and nationality without explaining that he was my employer, the woman eyed me suspiciously, perhaps questioning my motivations. Was I after his money? (I didn’t know that he had any. In fact, our arrangement stipulated that I wouldn’t be paid a wage but neither would I be expected to pay room and board.) She then set her gaze upon Flon. Was he taking advantage of me? Was he a dirty old man?

I’d asked myself the same questions. A girl alone, especially a foreigner, is prey to hungry predators, and yet, despite my usual mistrust and hyper vigilance, I felt safe enough with Flon. There was a quality of honour about him that extended beyond the old world charm of a patriarch who fancied himself a gentleman. Being around him made me feel, paradoxically, that time had stopped and that any future was possible. Or, perhaps I simply wanted to trust him because of what he offered? Of course, now that we were travelling to an isolated destination, I reminded myself that I was wearing emergency money in my fanny pack. $50. It wasn’t much, but it was enough should I need to flee.

Finally, our stop. A seaside resort, Royan, sits in the South-western Charente-Maritime region of the country, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe. I knew from my guidebook that there were sandy beaches out there waiting for me and I looked forward to summertime when I would explore them. As the sun began to set, we descended the train to find Flon’s car parked beside the station, a little white Renault. He called it his “camping car” – the vehicle that would take us into Africa in the New Year. Camping car suggested a caravan with a kitchenette and bench seating. What I found instead was a stubby vintage cream-coloured two-seater with double back doors. It looked as if it may have been a former French army ambulance or perhaps a bread delivery truck. I opened the passenger side door and climbed in, squeezing my backpack on the floor between my knees. The smell of unwashed clothes and old cheese hit me. What would it be like living in this small, enclosed space when we travelled? Where would we sleep?

From the station we drove another hour north. Flon sped as if he were a fugitive being chased by police. He took curves aggressively, without braking to slow before them. He accelerated until the camping car shook and trembled with the effort, and only then did he stutter the brake pedal. I was terrified we were going to overturn. I kept one hand on the dash to steady myself and thought of my grandfather back home, his health stable since his kidney transplant the year before. A notoriously aggressive driver himself, my grandfather had taught me how to navigate the road when I was sixteen. Be offensive, he’d advised. Be fearless. It’s the hesitant, timid driver, he said, who caused accidents. But the highways and country roads Flon was speeding along were completely unlit, and as night fell, I couldn’t see five feet in front of the vehicle. Queasy, I rolled down my window a few inches and gulped fresh air. “Is there a speed limit here?” I asked.

Flon laughed and bounced over the first of two rickety old bridges. “You are too fearful,” he said. “You must learn to trust.”

When we finally pulled into the village of Saint-Just-Luzac and he slammed to a stop behind his house, I was breathless and nauseous and every muscle in my body was tense.

§

The house was an immense two-story gothic grey stone slab with a slanted roof. On one side sat the village church – also Gothic in architecture – and on the other side, the attached museum. Today, Saint-Just-Luzac is sold to tourists as a retirement destination or a place for young people to stay within a short driving distance to many of the region’s most popular sights, such as Brouage and Larochelle. In the late fall of 1991 when I arrived, tourists were scarce, the European Union was not yet in place, and Saint-Just was still a sleepy village with no more than a few hundred inhabitants, most of them elderly. If there were hotels, I did not know of them. If there were other foreigners I never saw any. Flon, though, with his nose for sniffing out the future, was convinced his museum was ideally located and ready to capitalize on the soon-to-arrive tourist boom.

The chilled evening air smelled faintly of salt marsh and wildflowers – Ruine de Rome, Goldenrod. We entered through the back door into the large kitchen and I dropped my backpack on the red tile floor. Flon checked the thermostat on the wall close to the fireplace. “Four degrees Celsius,” he said. “We’ll light a fire.” Though I didn’t yet know it, the kitchen was the warmest spot in the house, and the temperature would never rise above eleven degrees. In the mornings, there would be frost in my upstairs room.

Flon pulled kindling and scraps of newspaper from a metal bucket and lit a twist of paper with a long wooden matchstick. He had me carry logs into the house from the half cord of wood stacked outside. As the flame began to grow, he pointed to the lone chair in front of the hearth. “I work there,” he said. “You will work at the table.” My eyes landed on the manual typewriter.

Until then, the only man I’d shared a home with was my grandfather, and it felt strange now to be alone with Flon in his house. My fingers and toes and the tip of my nose were numb as I followed him for a tour. The kitchen stove was half electric, half gas, he explained. There was a small sink and half fridge, which he would have me clean before we ate, because it was mouldy. There was a bathroom on the main floor with a toilet, a makeshift shower and some sort of homemade bucket and tube contraption for washing clothes. There were two cats, one pregnant. “I will drown the kittens when they come,” Flon told me.

“You should have them fixed,” I said, offended.

He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “They should be free to live by their instincts.” All at once, I was aware of silence surrounding us. No red breasted flycatchers singing their famed songs, no geese honking, nor the comforting sound of a neighbour’s heels on the cobblestone outside. Only deep silence, profound and unnerving. I pulled my thin black coat around my tightly. Did Flon also live by his instincts? If so, what were they, exactly?

We ascended the creaky wooden staircase to the second floor. His bedroom was a huge mess of newspapers and toy train parts. Scrap metal and books were strewn across the floor. Empty mugs and water glasses perched on his dresser and bedside table. “You can watch TV in here,” he said. “It is the only television in the house.” I noticed there was no chair for guests, only his bed.

“I don’t like television,” I said.

He studied my face, perhaps thinking to try a little harder to persuade me, but did not. “It is your choice,” he said, and we both understood that I was the arbiter of what would or would not transpire between us.

My room was smaller, with only a twin bed and dresser, and it had been cleaned. Later I would learn Rene, the unmarried neighbour, had come with a bucket and rag. Wooden shutters closed out the night. Flon stood in the doorway, did not enter. We’re going to get along just fine, I thought.

§

In Paris I’d quickly run out of steam. I’d spent two months hanging out at the American church with other North Americans and two weeks searching for places to sleep. I’d been sexually harassed on the metro, in movie theatres, in the Jardin du Luxembourg where I’d tried to write. Finally I’d rented a one-bedroom apartment in Place D’Italie with a fellow Canadian named Gail. She was sheltered and naïve and there to teach English to businessmen. The flat was too expensive so we’d sublet the living room to Anton and Christo, Bulgarian refugees working as short order cooks. Then, there had been the fruitless weeks of job searching until I’d talked my way into a part-time job in the stationary and calendar department of Brentano’s bookstore. But I’d lasted only nine days, until the manager, a stern Mme Boudaille, realized I was inept at making change in my own currency, let alone conducting proper international exchanges.

After the firing, I’d told no one, including my roommates, and while they were at work, had lain in bed reading Milan Kundera novels, and developing a nascent writing practice. I’d stolen pens from cafes and fed myself on cold steak frites the guys brought home from the restaurant where they worked. My money had run out, though none of that mattered now; I was employed, and on what might turn out to be the greatest adventure of my life.

§

After a dinner of Edem and crusty bread, Flon projected a slide show onto the kitchen wall. He showed me a regional oyster ‘farm” and photos of the last girl, Sandy, another Canadian who’d worked for him. “Canadians are polite and honest,” he said.

“I can think of few rude ones.”

“Compared with Americans,” he corrected.

I learned that he had three grown children who would spend Christmas with their mother. He hadn’t seen her since their divorce in 1955. He described his ex-wife as mechant, nasty. Whatever had happened between them, I saw sadness behind his eyes. “Pay attention,” he said. “One day you’re going to want to remember this.”

“I thought the French rarely divorced,” I said.

 He pulled a wooden toothpick from his breast pocket and began to dig food out of his teeth. “The legacy of the Catholic Church. But then most people everywhere are sheep. I hope you are not religious.”

I’d been a cynic and an atheist since I was eleven years old, when I realized no one was up there, listening. But Flon’s presumption was couched in judgement and expectation. This made me want to defy him, but I did not. “Not religious,” I said truthfully. “Maybe spiritual.”

He told me that when his wife had left him she’d abandoned the kids as well. They were two, four and six years old at the time. The youngest, a daughter, went to his mother-in-law. He kept the eldest son. The middle child was told he was dead and sent to the priest. With his job, Flon explained, he had no way of supporting them. He showed no signs of guilt or remorse. “It’s strange,” he said, of his children. “Their mother deserted them and yet they choose to spend holidays with her.”

I thought of Christmas coming the following month, and how my mother and I had never spent a single holiday apart. I also wondered what Flon’s wife’s version of events might sounds like, what had caused her to defy convention and desert her family. “Why did she leave?” I asked.

“Greed,” he said, a little too quickly, an explanation less humiliating than admitting she didn’t love him. “My children are like her in that way,” he added. “All snobs. They rarely come. They don’t like my house.” Surrounded by filth and unable to get warm, I guessed a couple of reasons. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t tried to get himself a better job in the years after his marriage fell apart, or why he hadn’t searched out the youngest son, nor did I tell him I’d never met my father.

A train of thought is a kind of path. A path of reasoning. What is the meaning of family? Of home? Would I ever write a book? Would Flon and I get to Africa? After he went to bed that first night, I sat alone in his kitchen, in front of the black manual typewriter and stared at the silver keys, shivering. Later, upstairs, I stared at the mirror in my bedroom, looking into my own eyes as a stranger might.

§

When people say they were raised by a single mother they usually mean something entirely different than I do. My ‘father’ probably doesn’t know I exist. There is no father’s name on my birth certificate, no photo in my drawer of some man dead or long-gone, no child support payments or custody battles, no negative story line of rejection for me to hang my hat on. You cannot miss what you’ve never known, my mother would say, melodic and sure, sounding like a train running along a track. You cannot miss what you’ve never known.

Then one day at recess in grade three, a classmate I barely knew sidled up beside me. “My dad’s a lawyer,” she said, trying to be friendly. “What does your dad do?” She might as well have asked what I’d eaten for breakfast or what my usual bedtime was. The question held no particular power over me and seemed irrelevant.

“I don’t have a father,” I said casually.

The girl contorted her features as though trying to squeeze out understanding. “You have to,” she said, sounding the voice of authority.

“Well I don’t,” I said, beginning to feel annoyed. I folded my arms across my chest. In my life, the social role of father and the biological fact of paternity were separate concepts. My biological father was, in some respects, like the anonymous sperm donors of today.

“You must have a father!” she hollered. “Everyone does.”

I watched the girl skip up the steps and into the school, secure in her belief that I was wrong, that my family was wrong. My cheeks burned with rage. I hated being disbelieved and this was the first time I had had to defend my family, thought from what I was not sure. That night I asked my mother to explain.

“In a way, your friend is right,” she said. “You need sperm as well as eggs to make a baby.” She was standing in our tiny kitchen on Yonge street, in the apartment overtop of a dry cleaner. The odour of steam and industrial cleaning chemicals wafted up through the floor and mixed with the weiners and beans she was warming on the stove. “But sperm does not make a father. That’s just biology.”

I nodded, relieved. This information was not new to me. A father was someone who parented a child, was there at bedtimes and holidays, someone like a mother. I had the genetic contirubtion, not the day-to-day relationship.

My mother pulled two plates from the cupbard. “Every family is different,” she added.

To hear her speak of it, difference was a neutral state and paternity a near random insignificance, like chosing between blue and red socks to wear to school in the mornings. My conception, though a life changer for us both, was certainly a random, inexplicable event that defied logic – every conception is – and to my mother my biological father was only one incidental part of that. Getting pregnant was not a choice she’d made, and it therefore appropriately took a backdrop to her more significant and profound choices: to keep and raise me. But remembering the force of my classmate’s anger, I knew it couldn’t be that simple.

“So, who was he?”

“A man I went out with a couple of times.” 

“Oh.”

Strange as it may sound, I’d never before associated the biology of reproduction with actual people, someone my mother would’ve known. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Unfortuantely, her perspective on us wasn’t the only one I’d been exposed to, so I reached for the most accessible response. “Poor Beth,” I said, mimicking my relatives’ intonation, repeating the pity some of them felt about my situation and had conveyed to me.

My mother was on her knees now, facing me, eye-to-eye. “What did you say?”

I repeated myself, though this time tentatively, in the interrogrative. “Poor Beth?”

Her hands tightened around my scrawny arms as though to imprint a message. She intended to make sure I heard what she was about to say and also her matter-of-fact delivery. “Some children are raised by two parents,” she said. “Some, like you, have one. Others have grandparents or are adopted. Some children have no family at all or worse, they have parents who don’t love them.” She had raised her voice and was speaking not only to me but to an extended family and a society that had already interrogated and condemned her many times. “You are lucky,” she said, tightening her grip. “And I don’t ever want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself again!”

Again, I nodded. The force of her delivery was persuasive and convincing, and it was clear that wishing for things that could not be changed was not going to be indulged. It was also a relief to have the conversation made so black and white. Mercifully, she’d clearcut any sense of illegitimacy or inferiority before I’d internalized it.

“Good,” she said loosening her grip. She looked relieved when she straightened; as though having successfully navigated a conversation she’d long been dreading. “If you want to know more,” she said, steadying me with her steely green eyes. “Ask me again when you’re twelve.”

I did the math. I would be twelve in three more years.

§

Exactly twelve years after that conversation, I crawled under a musty goose down duvet in my small room in Saint-Just-Luzac with the wind howling through the shutters. I was fully clothed – including two pair of socks, a wool hat and mitts - extra layers that armoured me against more than the temperature. I thought myself worldly and self-possessed and I would soon discover who Mr. Flon was and who I was. But that first night all I knew was that we were unwritten characters, waiting for our dramas and stories to be told.

Ruth’s Bio

Jenny Ferguson Reviews Alicia Elliott's A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Alicia Elliot.  A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.  Double Day Canada. $25. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780385692380

Alicia Elliot. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Double Day Canada. $25. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780385692380

In A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott demands to be seen as a full, complicated, Indigenous woman across her intersections as mother, daughter, writer, white-coded Tuscarora woman, and scholar. Her debut essay collection navigates the deeply personal and that which all settlers in Canada and the U.S. should already know—their implication with racism—with depth, wit and never-ending heart.

This is not an easy collection to read. Isabella Wang—a Vancouver-based poet and essayist, one of CanLit’s sure-to-be-darlings—told me on Twitter that she was reading the first three chapters and “softly crying.” For some context, Elliott’s title essay approaches both her mother’s mental illness and Elliott’s own experiences with depression. This metaphor—from the Mohawk phrase Wake’ nikonhra ’kwenhtará: ’on—enacts both the structure of the collection and how we approach the traumatic: laid out non-sequentially, seemingly out-of-an-implied-natural-order, and then suddenly, if we can pan from far enough away, the full spread becomes visible. It’s rare to get such a viewpoint on our own minds. Elliott offers such a spread for her readers.

The braided essay “Dark Matter” contrasts Canada’s racism towards Indigenous peoples with a relatively recent discovery in the scientific community. The way Elliott discusses something concrete—Colten Boushie’s shooting death at the hands of a white Saskatchewan farmer and the universe’s dark matter—is skillful. As the essay progresses, this cosmological energy becomes loaded as a metaphor for racism but also always remains itself.

Near the conclusion of the essay, Elliott writes:

Dark matter forms the skeleton of our universe.

Dark matter doesn’t emit light or reflect it. That’s why scientists can’t detect it.

The dark matter particle doesn’t let anything stand in its way.

I wondered how something could be so pervasive, so all-encompassing, responsible for the world as we know it, and still not able to be clearly seen.

This is the depth of dark metaphors in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Yet, Elliott’s first collection also—as most inspections of the very painful do—brims with sharp humour and a love that radiates off the page. In “Scratch,” an essay about cycles of poverty and poverty’s literal plague—lice—the last line is a zinger. While lice are no longer a daily fact of life for Elliott, she quips: “Naturally, every time my kid has had lice, I’ve caught them, too. That Ouija board [one she and her sister consulted when they were kids] was full of shit”. In “Boundaries Like Bruises” a now-decade long relationship between two people—Elliott and her husband—is explored. While the title seems to suggest this essay will hurt, it’s important to remember that bruises are not necessarily caused from intentional pain.

That’s not to say we’ve fully shrugged off the roles we’ve been assigned. You are a man; I am woman. You are a settler; I’m Onkwehon:we. These differences are stakes in our ground, mapping boundaries that feel like bruises. Anytime we push against them it hurts, but we both know we must be more than historical vessels holding pain; more than performers re-enacting ancient scripts. Despite our best efforts, different shades of abuse will still colour our interactions—sometimes soft and diluted like watercolours, sometimes harsh and angry like charcoal. Cycles are hard to break.

Elliott’s prose overwhelms. Two people, actively working towards decolonial love is beautiful. The choice of second person here is both inviting, intimate, and a gentle call, as if, you too reader, can imagine yourself here, in what feels like the ideal—but for Elliott and her husband is their real, their process.

While the majority of the collection is structurally straightforward, told in a voice that is certain, or, if uncertain, clear and careful about how it positions itself, the final essay is somewhat experimental, inviting readers to write answers to difficult questions in the book itself. Perhaps what’s remarkable about A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is that a reader could remain unimplicated as so many settlers manage to do—this is Alicia Elliott’s life, her thoughts, her past, her present and not mine. Until the last essay, where the reader cannot distance themselves from direct address. Here, Elliott asks us to review the previous essays, to fully implicate ourselves in this narrative of colonial Canada, colonial America, and the colonized mind.

In a word, that feat is, exceptional.

How we readers react in our own minds and our active lives dictates our engagement in the process that is decolonial love and antiracism; Alicia Elliott has shown us her mind and life and process in stark, beautiful detail.

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Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. BORDER MARKERS, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She teaches at Missouri Southern State University and in the Opt-Res MFA Program at the University of British Columbia.

Carl Watts Reviews James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son

James Arthur.  The Suicide’s Son.  Véhicule Press. $17.95. 90 pp., ISBN: 9781550655223

James Arthur. The Suicide’s Son. Véhicule Press. $17.95. 90 pp., ISBN: 9781550655223

There is more than one kind of in-betweenness happening in James Arthur’s latest collection.  Arthur writes in the tradition of poets who are both Canadian and American (he grew up in Toronto and now teaches at Johns Hopkins). Coming after Charms Against Lightning, which appeared on Washington’s Copper Canyon Press, The Suicide’s Son—just published by Signal Editions—deals in the sort of formally adventurous yet also traditionalist poetry Signal editor Carmine Starnino has long been associated with. Fittingly, there are many interesting wrinkles and contradictions in Arthur’s subject matter and in his craft. 

The book’s first few poems showcase a minimally identifiable formalist style. For Arthur, that means haunting internal rhymes marked by a trace of metrical regularity—like in “Frankenstein’s Monster,” when steady iambs give way to a metrical shambles that’s nevertheless marked by the familiar dactyls of the poem’s namesake:

The other day I walked from Cleopatra’s Needle

to the far side of the Harlem Meer, thinking

about the Rockefeller Center, and the gigantic

armillary sphere balanced on the shoulders

of the Atlas statue there. My pants

are fitted. My beret advances everywhere

like a prow. My name isn’t Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was my inventor.

The irregular regularity often works well, even if the satire can be a little hoity-toity. “The Death of Captain America,” with its mockery of popular culture, is sometimes a little too pat (“Did he believe in the right to bear arms, / or in big government?”). But even in the most just-so passages, there’s often a weirdness, like when bug collecting somehow enters the equation:

Cap never drank, never smoked, was straight

as a bug-collector’s pin,

but many a crooked man will walk a crooked mile

now that Captain America is dead.

Poems like “The Death of Captain America” fit well with the book’s title and premise—according to its press, it deals with the “personal histories that parents inherit, add to, and pass on to their children.” All of these things indicate that male-centric meditations are to be expected here. And yet poem after well-constructed poem asks whether playing with these constructions ends up merely sustaining them. Perhaps some readers will find this kind of irresolution outdated. Either way, Arthur’s formalist tinkering with tradition seems able to grapple with this conundrum and to suggest that discomfort is precisely the point.

Then comes “In Al Purdy’s House,” which signals not only Arthur’s holding of an A-Frame Residency in 2017 but also a potential problem for the formalist set. Work like Arthur’s ostensibly challenges “mainstream” free verse. Then Purdy staggers in with reams of the stuff:

I read your autobiography

while lying in your bed, trying to imagine Roblin Lake

and this lakeside piece of land

as they were sixty years ago, when you and Eurithe

built the A-frame by hand,

with no experience of carpentry, using salvaged lumber

and whatever materials you could find.

It feels like when a musical subgenre has yielded wave after wave of revivalists until the shades of a distinct aesthetic have dissolved into fleetingly identifiable, yet entirely mainstream, reference points.

Similarly, the A-frame, once an indicator of Purdy’s own quasi-rebelliousness, is now a literal institution. That institution seems inclusive in its support of a range of emerging and mid-career voices. So why shouldn’t poets whose formal attentiveness makes them distinct from Purdy take part, even if doing so draws them back to the old A-Frame itself, both geographically and in the seemingly obligatory Ameliasburgh meditations that result from the residency? At this point we’re left with a picture of containment that afflicts much of the poetry world. But the whole point of a traditionalist-formalist poetics is that it’s not out to reinvent the wheels that make a poem move.

So while The Suicide’s Son won’t be for everyone, it’s an intelligent and striking example of a poetics that’s more self-aware than it’s given credit for. And, anyway, if a collection can end on a poem like “Roar,” whose staggered long dashes and abrupt conclusion at once evoke and torque Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote”—

Inside, the leaves

  grind down to dust. But flying there, they’re so

 delicate. Dragonflies, butterflies. They

 skitter across the air—

 —I’m happy that Arthur’s failed to make any radical break with the past.

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Carl Watts holds a PhD from Queen's University and teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He has published a poetry chapbook called REISSUE (2016) and a short monograph called Oblique Identity: Form and Whiteness in Recent Canadian Poetry (2019), both with Frog Hollow Press.

Casey Plett Reviews Joshua M. Ferguson’s Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond the Binary

Joshua M. Ferguson.  Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond the Binary.  House of Anansi. $22.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9781487004774

Joshua M. Ferguson. Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond the Binary. House of Anansi. $22.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9781487004774

Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond the Binary by Joshua M. Ferguson bills itself as a memoir, but this quick yet uneven read is more an interconnected book of personal essays. Ferguson, a non-binary trans person who grew up in small-town Ontario, survived bullying, violence, and depression to become a successful filmmaker and history-making activist (On May 7 of last year, Ferguson successfully received, after a long public fight, the first non-binary birth certificate in the province.)  

Chapters in Me, Myself, They are explicitly divided by the experiences and personality traits of the book’s multi-faceted author, with titles like “The Survivor,” “The Alchemist,” “The Advocate,” “The Philosopher,” respectively focusing on violence, trauma, activism, and gender philosophy. This is in refreshing opposition to the linear timeline of many trans memoirs. The narrative moves backward and forward in time among adulthood, childhood, and adolescence, all building toward Ferguson’s messages of allowing for space beyond the two-gender binary, celebrating the beauty of any human who doesn’t fit into dominant gendered space (in fact, questioning the whole idea of dominant gendered space).

This chronology is successful—it’s as natural as listening to a friend on a long drive recount the harsh and beautiful tales of their life. In both structure and authorial drive, Me, Myself, They would find itself at home amongst other trans non-fiction works such as Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and fellow Canadian S. Bear Bergman’s The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You.

Unfortunately, the quality of the writing does not live up to the laudable aims of the book nor the compelling story present in the life of its author.

First, on a sentence-level, Ferguson’s prose feels unfinished. A representative example: They write of getting “madam’d” by strangers then “sir’d” once they speak: “People are literally mixed up by my presence in person because my gender expression does not register with what my voice or my forms of identification lead them to assume my gender is.” Mouthful sentences like these, ripe for a sharp-eyed editor to get in there and root around, abound throughout the text. As a whole, they make the book a sloppy read.

Second, the storytelling is marred by pervasive asides, usually to repeat hopes and ideas that have come before. Examples: In the intro, Ferguson writes that the “script” of two genders “fails people who do not fit neatly into the binary”; that “Our notions of gender are dependent on both culture and history”; and “our uniqueness can also be our sameness, and it can unite us.”

Certainly, these are all true statements in my book! However, the story consistently hits the brakes to repeat these ideas and others introduced early on, and eventually they take the form of truisms. Ferguson writes:

Each day, my gender presentation has to be carefully measured depending on who I’m seeing, where I’m going, and how I’m feeling. I wonder how far I can push my presentation and how much I can be myself. I wish that I could be who I am every single day, but it just isn’t possible. Isn’t that a sad thing? Perhaps I’m not so alone here. In fact, I know that I’m not. Perhaps you can’t always be who you are, either. I’m sure that’s the case for many people. As I’ve said, we are all more similar than we are different.

“I wish that I could be who I am every single day, but it just isn’t possible.” Now that’s a statement for an out trans person to make! It’s ripe for unpacking and insight into the complexities of life as a gender non-conforming person moving around in the world.

But already by paragraph’s end, we’ve pivoted to a vague universality, “Perhaps you can’t always be who you are, either,” and then to a vague truism, “We are all more similar than we are different,” a repetition of what we’ve heard since the beginning of the book.

I share most of Ferguson’s opinions and positions, and I’d be glad to think the larger world might hear them by the truckful. (Armed with the muscle of House of Anansi’s publicity department, I have no doubt said truckful will be delivered.) And as a binary trans woman, I came to the table eager to read an author carrying a mix of experiences both similar and differing from mine. But sitting alone in my apartment turning pages, I longed for a better written book.

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Casey Plett wrote the novel Little Fish, the short story collection A Safe Girl to Love, and co-edited the anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers. She wrote a column on transitioning for McSweeney's Internet Tendency and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Maclean's, The Walrus, and Plenitude, among others.