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October 17, 2019

Daughters of Silence, by Rebecca Fisseha

Rebecca Fisseha’s novel Daughters of Silence is dazzling, partly because it’s particularly well crafted, but also in the sense that it messes up your vision a bit, that you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing at first. Because the book is a puzzle, a mystery unfolding, and also a circle. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to read it twice, because it’s one of those marvels, a novel that get better and richer with every encounter.

The first time I read it was in the spring in manuscript form after I’d received a message from its editor, who was once my editor, Bethany Gibson, asking if I’d consider blurbing the book. And Gibson’s passion for the novel as so apparent in her message that I agreed without hesitation. I read the novel, and I liked it, the ending in particular. I wrote, “Featuring gorgeous prose and a most compellingly prickly narrator, Fisseha’s debut novel is a puzzle, a page-turner, and a triumph.”

But then I reread the book two weeks ago in anticipation of my conversation with Fisseha at her book launch last weekend, and I wanted to go back to my blurb if only to underline it emphatically at least a million times.

Fisseha comes at her story with a singular, distinctive style, and a character who’s not here to make friends. No, instead Dessie is working to uncover the truth in her own history, the history of her family, truths she’s spent decades unable to face, hiding abuse and trauma in which the people who loved her were partly complicit, and the reader is simply along for the journey, following Dessie as she makes impulsive leaps and takes her own road. Unable to hide from her past anymore, because she’s stuck back in Addis Ababa, her birthplace, after her plane is one of thousands grounded all over the world after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Disturbances in the atmosphere, you know, but where the planes can’t fly, Dessie herself manages to discover some clarity, some answers, especially about the experiences of her mother who has recently died and has been buried in Toronto, not back in Ethiopia as had been what was expected.

In her essay for LitHub “on #MeToo in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Fisseha writes powerfully about what happens when women decide to tell the truth about their own lives: “Perhaps because of my own predisposition to doom and gloom, I had interpreted Rukeyser’s line the world would split open as a disaster scenario. But now I realize how flexible that line is….The world could split open like a flower in bloom, like a woman shattering the glass that had separated her from true connection. Like the global event that became multitudes of habesha women finally telling their stories online…”

The real-life connections to Daughters of Silence do serve to underline the power of story in general, and in this story in particular, but let them not undermine the fact of what a fabulous work of fiction this novel is. The style, remember? The dazzle. Let Rebecca Fisseha take you on a journey. You will be glad you did.

October 15, 2019

Cities Work

I understand the circumstances that have resulted in an increasing number of people on our streets, but what I cannot understand is how someone could walk on by someone who is unconscious on the sidewalk and do nothing, which happens all the time. “If that were me lying on the sidewalk, I’d want someone to help,” I tell my children. “If it were you, I would want someone to help.” Today we called an ambulance for the second time in recent months for someone who was in trouble. Because that guy on the sidewalk, he’s our neighbour. We share this city together, and cities work when we take care of each other. 

And as ever, I was so grateful for the kindness of first responders who accorded this man his dignity. Firefighters and ambulance arrived and took care of him, as a Falun Dafa Parade came up the street, an amazing marching band. We’d left by then and were across the street watching the parade half a block from where the firetruck and ambulance were blocking the road, and this tension, these intersections, and connections are why I love cities so much. Why I love this city so much. 

It’s a miracle that any of it works, but sometimes it does, and it can be beautiful and so absurd, the golden autumn day a glorious backdrop. 

By the time the parade had arrived, the emergency vehicles were gone, the man taken to the hospital, which I know is only the beginning of the story and unlikely to be the end of his struggles. But I hope it helped, and I loved the marching band and their music, and I am so grateful to be connected to all of it, to be part of this messed up, gorgeous, incredible world.

October 10, 2019

The Girl Who Rode a Shark, by Ailsa Ross and Amy Blackwell

I’m not yet bored of stories of brave and uncommon women, and this is not even a genre that began with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Virginia Woolf published several biographical essay throughout her career—it was from “Lives of the Obscure,” in The Common Reader, that I learned about the Victoria entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, for example, and without Woolf we wouldn’t even know about Shakespeare’s Sister at all. Truth be told, I actually found Good Night Stories... a bit wanting…but that’s because I’d read Rad Women Worldwide before it, and liked it so much better.

But another similar book, The Girl Who Rode a Shark, by Ailsa Ross (who lives in Alberta!) and Amy Blackwell, has managed to live up to my expectations. My favourite bit is the Canadian content—we’re almost at the Roberta Bondar essay. And Indigenous hero Shannon Koostachin is included in “The Activists” chapter.

The women profiled in the book come from places all over the world, include many women of colour, and also women with disabilities. Even better—while many of the profiles are of historical figures, just as many are contemporary, young women who are out there doing brave and groundbreaking things as we’re reading. A few of these figures are familiar, but more are new to us, and their stories are made vivid and compelling through the book’s beautiful artwork and smart and engaging prose.

October 10, 2019

October

This month marks 19 years since I started blogging, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I was here a decade ago, when life was very different, when I was the new parent of a small baby and the universe was made of a million tiny little pieces that would eventually find their way together to make…my life. A life where the children go out of town for the weekend—WHAT? But yes, they went to Girl Guide Camp and Stuart and I were left on our own for 36 hours. So curious to slip back to the life that used to be, when days were wide open, we could walk until our feet hurt, and once the supper dishes were washed, we didn’t have to put anybody to bed. It helped that the day was golden, beautiful. We visited Little India in the east end, where we’d never been before, and then walked along Gerrard all the way from Coxwell to Logan, and it was so interesting and fun, and a great treat to return to that expansive life for a little while, and have my house clean. But oh, the children, with their complications and fascinations, and when they came home, we were glad to have them. Always, we are glad to have them. And lucky. And it occurred to me on Monday, when I was reading Theresa Kishkan’s blog, that I love her blog so much because she’s as mystified and fascinated by this particular thing as I am, the banal and extraordinary fact of the passage of time. How did we get here, far more interesting to me even than where are we going ever was.

October 8, 2019

Watching You Without Me, by Lynn Coady

I’ve been a big fan of Lynn Coady for awhile now, since I read Mean Boy back in 2006. I absolutely adored her most recent novel, 2011’s The Antagonist, and I really enjoyed puzzling my way through her Giller Award-winning Hellgoing a couple of years later. Hellgoing, a book that, like the trajectory of Coady’s writing career, is packed with twists and turns, a resistance to the boring, conventional or expected. A resistance that continues right up her latest, Watching You Without Me, a thrilling and engrossing ride of a novel, a most unsettling but utterly captivating read.

Her protagonist is Karen, who returns home to Halifax after the death of mother to take care of things, and to sort out the future of her older sister, Kelli, who is developmentally disabled. The moment both Karen and her mother had been resisting for years, especially after an epic battle they’d had decades before when Karen voiced her refusal to be responsible for Kelli’s care and also blamed her mother for having her identity subsumed into that very thing. But the reality of the situation is more complicated than that, as Karen begins to realize as she becomes reacquainted with her sister and the household, whose demands are made somewhat easier with the curious presence of Trevor, her sister’s care-worker, who, it turned out, had come to play an important role in the family’s life while Karen was away.

But Trevor’s presence is also an uneasy and unsettling one. His familiarity makes Karen uncomfortable, she doesn’t really like him, he has “issues,” as they say, control issues in particular, and a propensity for flying off the handle. But Karen is also desperate, and vulnerable in the wake of her mother’s death, and she allows Trevor to continue to make a place for himself in the household, because he’s kind of a master manipulator, but also she needs all the help she can get.

Karen is a fascinating, solitary figure whose more recent history is glossed over, save her a recent divorce, but her lack of friends and confidantes is conspicuous. An elusive narrator, she sees what she wants to see, and does an effective job of shaping the narrative to her purposes, but there are moments when we see through to the story behind the story, and the story behind that, each of these worthy of novels onto themselves, so many questions—the complexity here is wonderful.

Karen’s story reminds me of the narrator of Helen Phillips’ The Need, recently nominated for a National Book Award. Another sinister book about the unrelenting demands of caregiving and how a person might crack underneath them to make some questionable choices. About how one might take whatever relief they’re offered, even if they know it’s a really bad idea, but it’s rather enticing, the opportunity for just a few moments of rest and also the assurance that somebody else, for once, is in control of the chaos.

Claire Tacon’s wonderful 2018 novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, also similarly explores disability and families, and the experience of being the adult sibling of a person with developmental disabilities, although the siblings’ parents are still alive in Tacon’s novel, and the idea of what happens once they’re gone just looms on the novel’s horizon. Coady’s novel, unflinchingly, takes the reader right there, that moment of the realization of so many parents’ fears for their children, but what is to be most feared actually arrives in the form of a saviour. And the unfolding story of just who Trevor is and what his intentions are results in a roller-coaster ride of a read—which is a remarkable feat when the reader considers that these are characters who barely leave the house.

October 7, 2019

Gleanings

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October 2, 2019

It Began With a Page, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

It Began With a Page, the new picture book collaboration by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad—who are already known for their picture book biographies(ish) of Julia Child, Elsa Schiaparelli, Anna Pavlova (illustrated by Morstad, written by Laurel Snyder), and Virginia Woolf (written by Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault)—has everything. And to have Kyo Maclear, a leading Asian-Canadian author writing about THE pioneering Asian-American children’s author/illustrator, with illustrations by Julie Morstad who does such justice to her source material. Which is, of course, Gyo Fujikawa’s babies, an adorable array of little people from different ethnic backgrounds, all playing together—Fujikawa has clearly been an inspiration to Morstad since the beginning of her career. But what contemporary readers might not appreciate until reading It Began With a Page—which tells Fujikawa’s life story—is that it wasn’t long ago that picture book illustrations of children with different skin colours all playing together was revolutionary, and before that even not condoned.

Which is a convenient metaphor with which to tell a story of a society in which, just say, people from a certain ethnicity have their land and belongings confiscated and are sent to concentration camps. Although Maclear eschews metaphor altogether here, and sticks with the facts: “In early 1942, terrible things were happening. Bombs and gunfire rocked the world. America was at war with Japan. Kyo was shocked to discover that anyone who looked Japanese or had a Japanese name was no suspected of being the enemy… Gyo’s family was sent to a prison camp far, far away from their home.”

But first: “It began with a page, bright and beckoning.” A five-year-old girl with a pencil in her hand. “The dance and glide of a line. How a new colour could change everything: a bright splash of yellow, a sleep stroke of blue.” The girl fills her pages with drawings, and as she grows older, her talent is natured by a supportive teacher who pays for her art lessons Gyo Fujikawa is one of the few girls, let alone Asian-American girls, who goes to college in 1926. She travels to Japan, her ancestral homeland, to learn about the tradition of Japanese brush painting, and after she returns to America gets a temporary job designing books at Walt Disney’s studio in New York. Which means she is far away from her family when the Japanese internment takes place, but the distance only increases her heartbreak at what is happening in her country.

After the war, Fujikawa continues to work as an artist, and Maclear shows her awareness of the dawning civil rights movement. “Still, there was so much that hadn’t changed. At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories—mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.”

But when Fujikawa submits her manuscript featuring “Babies! Chubby cheeked, squat-legged, bouncy-bottomed babies,” the book is rejected. “No to mixing white babies and black babies. It was not done in early 1960s America, a country with laws that separated people by skin colour.”

Fujikawa, however, does not give up on her vision. And eventually, the book is accepted, and is a huge success, the beginning of an incredible career for this illustrator whose drawings would create “a bigger, better world.”

The story includes a timeline of Gyo Fujikawa’s life, and photographs, and a note from Maclear and Morstad to readers about Fujikawa’s legacy (“Gyo as a TRAILBLAZER…and a RULE BREAKER”) was and how her family supported this book (Fujikawa died in 1998), providing access to stories, photos and archival materials.

October 2, 2019

Autumn Reads on the Radio

I was on CBC Ontario Morning today talking moody autumn reads that match the weather, but which also feature some glorious golden hues. If you missed it, you can catch my column on the podcast at 33.30.

October 1, 2019

Life Stories

In terms of books, fiction is my default, the first thing I pick up, the books I tend to write about, no matter how interesting I find actual real life people, and the way that nonfictional characters’ stories are often as rich with symbolism and metaphor, and teach me things about the world I never understood before. No matter too the way that I am always interested in memoirs, which means my pile of life stories to be read is embarrassingly high, and one of my reading projects this fall is the absolutely satisfying one of actually reading them. So here’s my start.

Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis: to say that this is a story about a woman who discovers her grandfather’s diary documenting his escape from Nazi Europe and decides to retrace his steps… is far too simple to describe what’s happening in this book. For starters, Lewis is the least likely person to ever end up in a travel memoir. She has self-diagnosed herself with an actual affliction of being directionally-challenged, and she frequently gets lost in her own neighbourhood. She’s also still raw from her recent divorce, and has a complicated relationship with her Jewishness, as did her grandfather who escaped Nazi Europe, for that matter. But she decides to follow her grandfather’s steps anyway, but her real journey is one that’s internal as she navigates her connections to place, religious identity, marriage, secularism, sex, history, baggage (literal and otherwise), family, her own face, and more. It’s a fascinating and illuminating adventure, and a really beautiful book.

*

In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott: I had heard wonderful things about Helen Knot’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins, but I must confess that I bought it because it’s a pocket-sized hardback, a gorgeous book you can hold in one hand, and I couldn’t resist it. Good thing too, because the book is as gorgeous inside as out. Knott tells her story, which is one of seeming contradictions. She grew up in a family that was troubled and loving, she emerged as an activist and leader but struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, all of this overshadowed by her family’s history of colonial trauma and her own experiences of sexual assault. The story is told outside of chronology, each section of the book circling toward the central point, which is the violence of colonialism and also the story of resilience, as Knott fights her way out of darkness and claims the cultural heritage that colonialism would have denied her. It’s a harrowing and generous story, rich with wisdom and power.

*

To Speak for the Trees, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Reading Ariel Gordon’s Treed last spring changed the way I see the world, and certainly heightened my reverence for trees, so I was excited to read Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, a memoir by the acclaimed scientist. A memoir that read somewhat incredulously if it were a novel, because surely it couldn’t really happen that way. Beresford-Kroeger born to an English aristocrat and his Irish wife, who become estranged, and then both die, leaving their daughter an orphan. She could very well be sent away to an orphanage, but instead is left in the care of a neglectful uncle, but she’s also adopted by members of her community and schooled in ancient Celtic wisdom. And she basically spends her career as a botanist proving with science all she’d been taught here, plants as cures and tinctures. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also incredibly intelligent with a photographic memory, and in conventional school it soon becomes clear that she’s an extraordinary pupil. Ireland was long ago deforested by the English, to fuel English industry but also to rob the Irish people of the spiritual power that came with the trees, and Beresford-Kroeger does not get to properly experience a forest until she immigrates to Canada, where she has spent her adult life. She writes about the importance of biodiversity, her quest to find and preserve rare trees, and how trees are instrumental in our battle against climate change. A curious and fascinating book.

*

Outside In, by Libby Davies

Libby Davies’ memoir of her career in activism, Vancouver municipal politics, and as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa was just the balm I needed in the midst of an election that, as expected, as turned out to be stupider than stupid. It’s inspiring, so interesting, and points out the opportunities and challenges of politics, and it was just so wonderful to read about someone driven to service, to make the world a better place, instead of seeing politics as a game, as so many others do (and Davies shows this). An activist since her teen years, Davies’ story is rich and the book is absorbing. It made me believe in the possibility of a better world, and renewed a little bit of my faith in the electoral system.

September 30, 2019

Gleanings

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