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.


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.


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.


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
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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.