September 23, 2015
I can’t remember when I started talking about my abortion. When it happened, my girlfriends knew, of course, and obviously so did my boyfriend, but in general, I kept it quiet. I don’t remember why. I think I was profoundly embarrassed and ashamed at having become pregnant in the first place. It was also a terrible time, a really awkward situation in which I had to come home early from my post-university European tour to have the procedure. (I wrote about this all here: I always knew I would. It really was the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me.) I remember other friends inquiring as to why I was back in Toronto, and I didn’t say anything about it. I think I was just waiting for all that time to be over and done with; if I didn’t tell the story, I could imagine that it had never happened.
My husband knew very early in our relationship. I was still quite a bit bonkers about the whole thing when we met, which is not to say that having an abortion was a bad decision, but just that the whole experience (accidental pregnancy, having my life fall apart, etc.) was awful and it took me a very long time to get over it—though he helped by being wonderful and good. And beyond that, in years to come, my abortion was the kind of thing that came up in conversations with friends once we’d had too many drinks. Because everybody’s got a story. I was never ever alone in any of this, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I talked about in daylight.
As time went on, I started to become concerned. Abortion, to which I owe my life, I think, started to become more and more politicized. Or maybe I just grew up and started paying attention. And it bothered me that the only people who were talking publicly about abortion were men who were trying to sign bills to deny women access to it. It was becoming clear that I’d have to become more political as well.
My first public act as a pro-choice person was attending the pro-choice Jane’s Walk in 2011, learning about the abortion landmarks in my neighbourhood, including the clinic around the corner from my house that was fire-bombed in 1992. I had no idea. And as this event took place on Mother’s Day, it only underlined how connected my experiences of abortion and motherhood were, however incongruously (if you are the person who has trouble grasping two realities at once—in recent days, I have learned this is a lot of people). This experience would be the basis of my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies”, which was published in The M Word (and later reprinted in The Huffington Post).
Practicing for the essay’s entrance into the world, I published a blog post two and a half years ago when Dr. Henry Morgentaler died in which I noted that the reason this man was so important to me was not only had he fought valiantly for Canadian women to have access to abortion, but he’d actually performed mine. And there: I’d said it. I was a woman who’d had an abortion. It turned out to not be so difficult after all.
It was particularly not difficult because the support I received in response and in response too to The M Word essay was overwhelming. And I mean my mom and dad buying cases of my book and standing proud in the audience at the launch as I read my essay, to my mother-in-law quietly “liking” my Facebook posts, and my husband never ever getting tired of my increasing comfort with the subject. The people who matter, of course. But also the women who came up to me after readings who whispered, “that was me,” the journalist who wrote about my story and said the same thing, the reviewer whose understanding of abortion had been shaped by her own miscarriages and who with my essay saw it from a different point of view, and the amazing Plum Johnson who I read with at an event filled with 200 suburban matrons and when I confessed that I was nervous about that particular crowd said, “What? You think nobody here has ever had an abortion?”
Truth: I’d rather not be talking about my abortion. Not now at least. And not because it’s painful, or because I’m ashamed, but because it’s history. And because I’m wary of becoming someone who talks about her abortion all the time. As in, “We know Kerry. You’ve told us that story.” Abortion is not my only trick. I am interested in many other things, such as literature, bunting, the upcoming Federal Election, and Devon Closewool Sheep. I’m also wary because I know it seems insensitive to talk about my abortion all the time when my friends and acquaintances have their own stories: infertility, miscarriages, sick children, dead children. But the costs of staying quiet to stay polite are really starting to seem too high. And I really do believe that all these stories are part of the same story, a larger story about women’s lives. So I keep returning to abortion again and again.
In the summer I was walking down Bloor Street pushing Iris in a stroller, having just dropped Harriet off at day camp. We were hurrying home for lunch and nap, but I had to stop at the corner of Bloor and St. George where two very young people were holding pictures of lentil-sized fetuses magnified so they were bigger than I was. (What, when blown up at that level, would not be disturbing to look at?) Now I have walked past pro-life activists many times in my life because I lacked the courage to do anything but, because I do not like confrontation, and yes, because I always have better things to do than talk to people who standing on the sidewalk holding signs.
But it was different this time. Because this time, I’d learned to talk about my abortion in public. And as a person with that knowledge, I had an obligation, I thought, to speak up again. To stop there and talk to that impossibly young girl who’s trying to pass me a pamphlet with a number to call for support should I happen to regret my abortion (“We’re not judging you,” she tells me) and tell her, no no no. To point to my daughter sitting there waiting to be given her lunch, and say, “This is my baby. This baby would not exist were it not for my abortion. This life, this amazing life, my life, would not exist were it not for my abortion.” To say to her, “I have two children and I’ve had an abortion. There I things I know that you don’t know. Do not dare to stand here on the street and purport to educate me. Allow me to educate you.”
“There was nothing I wouldn’t have done to end my unwanted pregnancy, that my desperation had been just the same as that of all those women who’d had unsterile elm bark slipped through their cervixes to induce abortion, but that I hadn’t had to kill myself in order to relieve it.”
For the past few days, the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion has been trending on Facebook, started by feminist activists Lindy West and Amelia Bonow in the US. (Read West’s piece in The Guardian: “I set up #ShoutYourAbortion because I am not sorry, and I will not whisper.”) This was my kind of bandwagon, so naturally I jumped on, sharing my essay from The M Word. And while the response to the hashtag was just the kind of thing I like to see—this conversation being owned by the women who’ve lived it, who for once are not trying to stay quiet for fear of offending sensibilities. It feels good to talk about your abortion out loud, this thing that made you and to not have to keep the story inside. It’s nice to see the thing I know is true from all those late night conversations over too many beers really is true after all: women have abortions, we get on with our lives, this is an ordinary, quotidian thing, and while the decision can be “harrowing” or “difficult,” sometimes it is just a thing. Sometimes an abortion can deliver the greatest kind of relief.
Of course, the hashtag got hijacked, levels of hatred I’ve never seen before. I don’t engage in online arguments ever, and certainly not with people whose twitter header photos feature their gun collections. I started to realize there was a direct correlation between people with American flags in their header photos, and the need to tell me that I was evil. I suggested to one woman that maybe Jesus (who, according to her twitter bio, was the answer to every question) might have shown some more compassion, and she informed me that unless one had repented, one was against Jesus, with Satan. (I had no idea. They didn’t teach that at my Sunday school.) Murderer. Murderer. Murderer, they said. Along with slut. I saw “trollop” once. I have never been witness to such abject hatred as these people (who claim so much to love babies) have for women who’ve had abortions.
I tweeted, “So much hatred by #ShoutYourAbortion trolls. If you can feel for a lentil-sized fetus, surely you can empathize with actual human woman too?” It’s been retweeted nearly 300 times, which counts as viral by Kerry Clare standards, and favourited 736 times, but this means that I’ve been exposed to even more lunacy, people who want to debate me on this. To what end, I don’t know: it’s not like I’m going to go back in time and not have an abortion. And they keep wanting to tell me things I already know, like that my decision was a selfish one, and there is an odd contradiction in talking about abortion when you’re actually a mother (although this isn’t a contradiction at all, but these people have small minds), and that not all aborted fetuses are the size of lentils (although everyone I know who has ever had an abortion later than 8 weeks or so did so with heartbreak in order to avoid the trauma of carrying a nonviable pregnancy to term, so fuck you asshole), and that unborn babies don’t get to make a choice (welp?), and of course, there is always adoption. Of course there is.
Um, there was also the guy who told me that I was a Nazi who had morals on par with ISIS. Later he tweeted about how he didn’t abort his hydrocephalic baby. The guy was a moron, but I got him then—his feelings spring from a genuine (albeit limited) place that I can understand. I even understand the woman who’s determined to stamp out abortion because of how it hurts women—apparently she spends her days holding other women who are traumatized by theirs. (Perhaps less shame and stigma might ease this kind of pain. Also, where is this woman hanging out? Sounds terrible. She needs new friends.) And yes, many of these people are just people who hate everybody, women in particular. “You shouldn’t be able to have everything you want!!” somebody tweeted at me. “But I can,” I wanted to crow. “I do!!!!”
My husband has finally told me to stop talking. On twitter at least. “These people are crazy,” he said. “These are people who would literally kill you and think that’s okay.” He also points out that I have better things to do than argue online with sub-literate people with eggs for avatars, and he’s right on both points. It’s also really, really exhausting.
So yes, no more twitter exchanges, but I’m not done with the hashtag yet. I’m not done with talking about my abortion either. And I’m guess I’m just laying the whole thing out here so that perhaps you’ll understand why.
May 5, 2015
Everything is a circle. I first learned about Rachel Power’s work through serendipity and (what else?) blogging and talking about books. In 2008, the Australian writer and artist left a comment on my blog about the ambiguous ending to Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, and I discovered her blog and her book, The Divided Heart.
At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and so still very much on the periphery of “the motherhood conversations” of which I’d be privy to in the months to come. And so The Divided Heart was my first hint of these, where I first read about maternal ambivalence, the struggle (emotional and practical) for mothers to assert their creative selves, and the myriad ways women find to make it work. It was a hugely important book for me. I read it before I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work!
And because everything is a circle, The Divided Heart is now back in print as Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, and where Power left a comment on an interview I’d done seven years ago, I’m now interviewing her—about the book, how it’s changed in its new edition, the ways in which the motherhood conversation has changed since 2008, and how motherhood can connect us to our creative selves and to the world.
Kerry: The Divided Heart was one of my foundational texts on motherhood and mothering—I read it while I was pregnant in 2008. Which seems like a lifetime ago now, but I am so pleased that it has found new life as Creativity and Motherhood. The book played a huge role in my own experience of my heart actually not being so divided when it came to motherhood and creativity—you showed examples of how women combine the two, even when the balance is tricky. These women showed me what was possible. So I really like the new title—but how did the title change come about?
Rachel Power: Thank you for those generous comments about the book. It’s very flattering that someone as well-read as you would consider my book any kind of “foundational text”! I know your book has become the same for so many women out there.
With this new edition, called Motherhood & Creativity, the publishers had some radical changes in mind for the title, which I have to admit I largely resisted. I actually pushed pretty hard to keep “The Divided Heart” in there (it became the subtitle), because I still believe it represents the central drama of the experience for many if not most creative people with children: the desire to be in two places at once; the fear that being properly dedicated to one role inevitably risks neglecting the other. For me, those words introduce the initial question the book is trying to address. But as you say, that doesn’t mean it is full of women who are bogged down by those feelings; rather, it’s full of examples of artists who’ve found ways to forge ahead despite, and sometimes because of, those dilemmas.
As for using the word “creativity” instead of “art” (the original subtitle was “Art and Motherhood”), this felt like a necessary recognition that creativity is an important part of many people’s lives, expressed in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they all identify as “capital-A” artists. That’s why I really wanted craft-maker and blogger Pip Lincolne in this new edition: she has such a strong creative drive—and such a creative approach to life!—but I don’t think she would identify as an artist, as such. I knew that many readers would relate to that.
Kerry: It’s a very different book for me now—not just in title. I’m much more experienced in both motherhood and being creative than I was in 2008, and I relate to different parts of the conversations. How has the book changed for you? Was revisiting it a welcome experience?
Rachel: Like you, of course, I’m much further along in my parenting (my kids are 13 and 10 years old now!), but the issues remain very current to me, so I found it easy to slip back into the mothering and art conversation for the new edition. The demands are different, but just as intense, I find. With my son starting high school this year, I feel like I’m going back to school myself—my weekends have been almost completely hijacked by helping him with his homework!
But one of the main realizations for me, as someone who works full time, is that holding down a day job has been a much greater barrier to creativity than mothering. In the first edition, writer Anna Maria Dell’Oso said that when she was at home with small children she felt much closer to “the centre of her integrity” than when she was at the office, and I totally relate to that now. Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.
“Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.”
Kerry: What about the book’s actual changes? What else is different in this new edition?
Rachel: The new edition contains around half of the interviews from the former book and the same number again of new interviews. Much like the first time around, I approached women I admire, and was lucky enough to interview one of Australia’s best-loved actors Claudia Karvan; visual artists Del Kathryn Barton and Lily Mae Martin; writers Cate Kennedy, Tara June Winch and Lisa Gorton; musicians Holly Throsby and Deline Briscoe; and craft maker and blogger Pip Lincolne.
The other coup this time around was adding a preface from musician Clare Bowditch, who as an old friend and neighbour of mine, not only witnessed the genesis of this book, but also shared in the early years of child-rearing with me. So apart from my own family, there is really no-one closer to this book than Clare, and her preface is affirming and moving and humbling all at once. I’m very grateful for it.
My introduction and conclusions in the first issue are heavily truncated into one opening chapter in the new book. I had done a lot of research before writing the first edition and basically presented my poor editor with a 140,000-word thesis! This was cut back heavily, obviously, but the new publishers felt that it was still a bit too academic in style. So the new intro is a bit less wordy and hopefully more accessible as a result.
Kerry: How did the new edition come to be? What were the signs that the demand for it was out there?
Rachel: The Divided Heart went out of print a while ago, and it was really upsetting me that people couldn’t get their hands on a copy. I was still getting lots of letters and emails from potential readers asking where they could find books, but I only had one copy myself! So it was very exciting to find a new publisher in Affirm Press. Initially, it was just going to be a shortened version of the original. But as we went forward, editor Aviva Tuffield and I decided that it would be good to create a different book, to bring it up to date, and so there was new value for those who already had the original edition.
Kerry: Are you finding the reception different this time around? My sense is that we’re living in a slightly different climate now in regards to talking about motherhood—there is more space for nuance. Though this might be because I’m now in that climate instead of looking on. What do you think?
Rachel: That’s an interesting observation! I think there is definitely more space for nuance in the feminist debate generally, and that we have largely moved on from the dispiriting “mummy-wars” that were dominating the conversation around the time I first published The Divided Heart. Motherhood has definitely taken centre-stage in a way it hadn’t when I had my first child, and so there seems to be less division between the different parts of people’s lives nowadays—and between those who have kids and those who don’t—which can only be a good shift for society, I think. That said, most of the criticisms I’m receiving this time around are the same as last time: chiefly, that this is a bunch of middle-class women indulging their hobbies and complaining about their kids (which is such a tedious misrepresentation of the actual stories it contains).
From the outset, part of what interested me in the subject of artist-mothers was that I saw the unique contribution it could make to the feminist debate, precisely because it is a nuanced issue—both in terms of work/economics and of family/housework. Writer Alice Robinson summed it up beautifully in her recent piece for Overland journal, when she said that “as a stay-at-home parent by day, a writer by night, I am doing what untold numbers of people in each camp, and all those in both, are doing: two challenging but largely unpaid jobs. … each undervalued in the remunerative sense, but fundamental in the cultural.”
“To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations.”
To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations, because of the self-driven nature of art and the lack of guaranteed compensation. At a personal level, asserting your need to create; to carve out the time and space that art demands; to feel confident in the validity of what you have to say–requires a special kind of drive and determination for anyone. Doubly so for mothers, whose own interests and desires are expected to be sublimated to the needs of others.
So, in my mind, endeavouring to be both artist and mother raises some of the biggest questions about how we choose to live and view the world: self versus society, partnering versus independence, feminism versus masculine, sacrifice versus self-interest, creativity versus economics… In this way, I think the experience of artist-mothers can speak to the feminist debate at a particularly subtle and sensitive level.
Kerry: Motherhood is so incredibly interesting, the ideas around it far-reaching and important. I’m thinking about the book On Immunity by Eula Biss, a vast and important sociological text, and in her acknowledgements, she thanks the mothers in her community who made her realize “how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are…”
I didn’t really understand this when I first read your book, when I first became a mother—the ramifications of the ideas you’re talking about, we’re all talking about. (I certainly had no idea that motherhood would be so interesting that I’d end up editing an anthology about it too years later….)
Another interesting thing is that it’s ever in flux. What are the questions and ideas around motherhood that are preoccupying you these days?
Rachel: As you say, mothers are raising the next generation, so their actions and decisions are far-reaching and important indeed! Mothers have a unique stake in the future, and that’s why they are spearheading so many campaigns and movements around the world. In Motherhood & Creativity, writer Tara June Winch, who herself set up onethousand.org (a charity to promote female empowerment), says, “I’ll argue that most NGOs, globally are run by mothers in one way or another.”
Motherhood is a galvanising force—and one of the best things about writing The Divided Heart was that it connected me to an incredible community of mothers, who think very deeply about the way they parent but also about the world that they have brought their children into. Fathers are there too, of course. But among the families I know, while fathers are very much involved, it’s largely mothers who are still doing much of the logistical work as well as the theoretical thinking behind the parenting—and most of the worrying, sadly!
Personally I have always found mothering hugely confronting; the role presses me to be a stronger, braver, more industrious person than I feel capable of being most days. And we are raising kids in unusually complex times. I’m very conscious of wanting to raise children who feel empowered in a culture that is: 1) largely driven by a consumer-capitalist ethos; and 2) facing potential catastrophe as a result. The big question for me is: how do we raise kids who are critical and creative thinkers, who will make ethical decisions, and who will treat the environment, themselves and other people with respect, when right now all they want is a PlayStation 4 for Christmas?!
I think creativity can play a big role in all of this. I love Pip Lincolne’s comment in the book: “There’s a forgiving, nurturing quality about handmade that should be applied to life. Not everything is perfect, but it was made with good intentions and there were so many little, meaningful decisions along the way. I think that mindful approach is such a good thing and an ace ethos for a family.”
Could there be a better approach to bringing up kids? I reckon Pip has it pretty sorted!
March 25, 2015
Redux is the wrong word. I haven’t stopped thinking about After Birth since I finished reading it last week. This morning I had the most interesting conversations with a woman who is a newish friend of mine (and don’t you find that new friends become more and more precious as one gets older?) with whom I’ve had the pleasure of so much company over the past few months while she’s been on maternity leave with her third child. Fortuitously, her house is a stone’s throw from mine, her son and Harriet are passionate friends, she’s so ridiculously smart and funny, and she just read After Birth. (I wish every woman a friend with whom to discuss After Birth.) So this morning we sat around my living room while my baby mauled her baby, and we talked about the book, how it made us both uncomfortable. Because, I think, I said, trying to put my finger on it, it doesn’t tidy up. Nothing is resolved, it moves is a circle. It is an unsatisfying book, which I mean as the highest literary praise. Like another fine book, Harriet the Spy, After Birth is about a female person who doesn’t change, who doesn’t stop ranting, who doesn’t stymy her anger. And we need this anger, I think—to seize on its power—, and we need this insistence on circuity, as opposed to the narratives we’re being sold most of the time about how we should tuck our anger and our lives, our selves, inside tiny tidy boxes. We’re being sold narratives of binary—breast and bottle, wohms and sahms. Just today, there is an online fracas because someone wrote an inane justification for stay-at-home-momming (don’t seek it out or read it. Nothing new under the sun. Argument is best articulated and refuted here). The writer articulating her lifestyle in opposition to somebody else’s, and I just though, how boring. I thought about the writer’s argument in contrast with the vibrant thinking I was a part of this morning, and all I could think of to say to her is, I wish for you the freedom to live your life on your own terms. Not to care anymore. Not to have to purport to have all the answers, or believe there even needs to be an answer. We’re all cobbling together our pieces, and the patterns don’t have to be the same. And yes, I wish for the public conversations about motherhood to be like the ones we’re having in private: the passionate, expansive ones that are challenging, rich and about the whole wide world.
March 2, 2015
‘But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet is it the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.’ –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Non-fiction by women gets the short shrift, even though women are often writing stories that nobody has ever told before, while, does anybody really need about book on WW1? So I am especially happy at the awarding of two recent fiction prizes to excellent books which were among my favourite books of 2014.
Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery has won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, and Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything today became the first book by a woman to win the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction since Isabel Huggan won it in 2004. Both these books prove that personal memoirs can indeed have far-reaching global and historical implications, and demonstrate remarkable research, story-telling and insight. They’re exquisite books, and I’m so glad that even more readers are now going to discover this for themselves.
November 24, 2014
Recent news had me thinking about mentors, how we imagine that success comes from kneeling at the feet of wise professorial men, or at least job opportunities from a date with a charismatic celebrity. What about women mentors though, I wondered? I started asking other writers about their own women mentors, and it turned out that these kind of relationships are not very common. For a few reasons, I think.
First, that there are fewer women in positions of power to serve as mentors. Second, that women are often already stretched with other caring commitments. Third, that perhaps we all know that mentorships will never make or break a writer’s career—her work and talent matter, and probably best to focus on that. And finally, because of the realities of women’s lives (dearth of time, power, money, etc), mentorships have taken on less traditional structures, are often virtual, and perhaps aren’t always recognizable for what they are.
Certainly, I’ve never knelt at the feet of the women who’ve served as mentors to me, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice. I think of Sheree Fitch, who never ceases to champion other women writers’ work, a vocal supporter of my blog and my book for so many years; Michele Landsberg, whom I encountered in the comments of my blog and we bonded over mutual admiration for Joan Bodger, who has been so supportive of my work; Rona Maynard, who has been a huge influence as I’ve put the pieces of my career together over the last decade and tried to take it all more seriously; Marita Dachsel, who helped me navigate my early days as a mother/writer; Tabatha Southey, who rocks it every week in the Saturday Globe and exists to make us all aspire to be smarter (and funnier); and my friend, Anakana Schofield, who sends me emails that say (and I’m paraphrasing), “Stop talking about mentors already, and just write your fecking book.”
Oh, the women I have in my corner. They’re everything. Not least of all my friends, plus contacts in The Toronto Women Writers Salon, and CWILA. This is all turning into a protracted version of my Linked In profile, which is beside the point, which is to say that supportive women are everywhere. You only have to look, and also to celebrate, and be inspired too to serve a similar role for younger women whose work you admire.
I asked some other women to tell me about their own mentors, and am pleased to be able to share their responses.
In the mid-eighties, I set up a meeting with Karen Mulhallen, hoping to volunteer for Descant magazine. I knew nothing about anything. About an hour later, I left her house as managing editor. Karen became a mentor, an ally and a dear friend, doling out challenges in a way that seemed offhand but was somehow impossible to refuse. Over the years she has continued to put me in the way of writing and editing opportunities I would never have tackled had it not been for her confidence in me—or her willingness to take a leap of faith. I suspect I’m not alone in saying this about Karen. She is a truly generous person, in both life and art.
When the phone rang at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon four years ago, I never imagined it would be my Can-Hist hero – and a future mentor. But on the other end of the line, there was the crisp English accent of renowned biographer and historian Charlotte Gray, congratulating me on my successful Skype-in to the fundraising gala in Toronto. I had fan-girled her in my live interview, talking about how I had slid my book next to hers on the alumni bookshelf and was trying to soak in the genius left behind by her, Pierre Berton, and others. Since then, we have crossed paths in person only twice, but she has written me letters of recommendation, we have tweeted about her “academic ninja-ness” on Canada Reads, and she even made me her junior “running mate” in a literary award competition. Those votes of confidence have spurred me on through the inevitable crises of confidence and the exhaustion of juggling a small child and a writing career. I’m so glad I picked up that phone.
So I took her advice.
Eventually I got to study with Sarah’s mentor, Zsuzsi Gartner and the experience was challenging and enlightening and transformative.
Later, I returned to Sarah and thanks to her thoughtful direction, I was given the opportunity to work under the insightful and practical guidance of Annabel Lyon.
All my mentors have had helped shape me as a writer through developing style, building confidence, and trusting my voice. I am appreciative, grateful, and humbled and I continue to work under their influence.
This year, I am honoured to be a TA for Sarah’s online e-course where I have the opportunity to give back. And you bet I am giving away all the secrets I know, which, of course, are not secrets at all.
I have been fortunate to have several great teachers—Priscila Uppal and Richard Teleky certainly helped chart my present course. But the woman I would call my mentor, who supported me beyond any professional obligation, is Susan Swan. She was my fiction professor at York, and subsequently supervised a directed reading course that allowed me to start my memoir. I dropped my first draft on her doorstep in four boxes: 776 pages. She sent emails by turns encouraging and devastating (I am loving this; it’s not going anywhere), and was unoffended by my request not to send any more before reading the whole thing. She did, and then invited me over. I always loved being at her home: it signified to me that writing was not incommensurate with a good and beautiful life. Those hours of discussion helped me to believe I had written something worth taking seriously. She gave the book to her daughter, the agent Samantha Haywood, whose representation has been an incredible gift. After its publication, Susan mentioned my book whenever there was opportunity—a deep kindness that helped me feel as though I was part of a literary community.
Alas, I’ve not yet met American writer Susan Griffin face to face, but voice sounds and resounds inside me whenever I recall her our conversations. A year ago she was my editor but years before her book Woman and Nature, a poetic exploration of Western culture’s ideas of gender and nature, altered forever how I see the world and gave me language and the courage to dare to honour my own perceptions about woman as creators.
Susan became my editor at a time when I was in trouble with my novel, The Pig and the Soprano, the (true) story of a privileged Victorian woman who dared ambition on the Paris stage and ended her days as an impoverished recluse living with her pet pig. Susan worked as a midwife, giving me the sense that I had within me everything I needed to tell the story as it needed to be told and inspiring me to let the creative process unfold. Her written comments were insightful and catalytic and our phone conversations opened imaginative doors that set my spirits soaring. I’m forever grateful.
I signed up for Colleague Circle for the free dinners. On the last Thursday of every month, eight of us—the six new humanities hires and two facilitators—gathered at the faculty club at 5:30 pm for insipid meals that consisted of a meat dish, a starch and an obligatory overcooked vegetable, followed by a creamy dessert. We ate, drank wine, debriefed about our first-year-faculty-member woes, compared grant notes, politely appreciated everything the University of Missouri offered us, and went our separate ways. I gravitated toward Maureen Stanton for her self-deprecating humor and her academic discipline: creative nonfiction writing. She had made a career for herself writing precisely the kind of prose I loved to read and found myself writing, yet not showing anybody—slices of life, creatively rendered. I hadn’t realized there was an institutionally accepted term for this. Timidly, I asked Maureen if she might share her course syllabus with me or provide me with a list of creative nonfiction classics. She responded with a generous reading list that I immediately began to work my way through with disturbing enthusiasm. Here I was at the university of Missouri, an assistant professor of Russian literature, and all I wanted to do was read literary nonfiction and acquaint myself with this new, yet strangely familiar genre. Maureen and I met for coffee and she shook her head as I regaled her with family story after story. “Why aren’t you writing this down?” she demanded to know. And that might have been the beginning. We later formed a writing group—her comments, the perfect combination of encouragement, awe, and incisive criticism—and she wrote letters of recommendation for me when I applied to artist colonies. “You’re a writer,” she told me after reading a short essay of mine, years before I ever dared to use that word to describe myself. I devoured all of her essays and read them closely, pencil in hand, as perfect lessons in craft. Her book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, is a riveting peek into the world of antiques and flea markets. In the end, we both left the University of Missouri (not at all on account of the awful Colleague Circle meals); she ended up teaching in Massachusetts, and I moved back to Toronto. Though I haven’t seen Maureen in eight years, she’s the first person I alert when I have a new publication out in the world.
It’s damn difficult to name just one mentor. I’ve been so lucky: even in the deep bullshit of high school, there was Bev Hiller, my art teacher. She didn’t tell me that things were going to get better, she showed me how they could be. She treated us like adults and for that hour, we were. That classroom was an oasis.
Much later, after I’d already had two children and could only see the size of the canyon between me and the novel I wanted to write, I met Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. I was writing journalism; it was as close as I could get to where I wanted to be. I was starting to think it was too late to start, that I’d never get there, that I’d blown my chance. But she had small children too, and she was doing it. She was fierce and committed and her generosity knew no bounds. She let me trail after her like a lost duckling at literary events. She kept nudging me by example and by suggestion. She has read almost everything I’ve written since then. My debut novel exists in no small part because she’s in my world. Merci beaucoup, Kathryn.
My mentors are peers, women whose intelligence and generosity have encouraged me to work harder, write better, sometimes to write at all. Tending towards both vanity and insecurity, I depend on the bracing opinions of friends who won’t indulge either trait. Karen Connelly, Ann Shin, Camilla Gibb and Donna Bailey Nurse have all sustained me with their support and encouragement, and by their example. There are other mentors I’ve met only on the page who’ve sustained me in a more private way. (And I confess, some of them are men.).
November 14, 2014
We always had true crime books lying around the house when I was little, and since I read everything, these books were no exception, and I do wonder how the 10 year old’s psyche is affected by rigorous rereadings of Blind Faith by Joe McGinniss. I have a better sense of the impact of Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe, the story of the murder of 18 year old Jennifer Levin in New York City by a man who strangled her in a park and pleaded guilty to manslaughter—the death was a result of “rough sex”, he said. (When police found him the next day, he was covered with scratches. He claimed he’d been attacked by his cat.) Which is that from very early on, I learned that there were some men for whom women were completely disposable, and that our justice system is stacked against victims of sexual violence in a way that is absolutely heinous.
I’ve been thinking about Jennifer Levin’s death since yesterday, when the verdict was delivered in another case involving the death of a teenage girl. We all know her name, but no one is permitted to print it, which means just this: you can indeed be prosecuted for using a rape victim’s name, but you can actually photograph the victim being raped and then share the image on social media—destroying the self-esteem and reputation of a teenage girl, who goes on to commit suicide—and receive a punishment that involves writing a letter of apology and attending a course on sexual harassment. “He must learn how to properly treat females,” is part of the judge’s verdict, as though this is something that must be taught, as though knowing “how to treat females” (who are indeed people) isn’t sort of one of the barest prerequisites for being a human being.
“Why didn’t he help her?” I wonder. The boy with the camera, I mean, or any of his friends, or the police who shrugged when the victim came to them with the actual photo of her rape being committed, and who found no way to prosecute any of the perpetrators (for distributing child pornography—the charge that has a man punished by letter of apology) until after her death by suicide. Why did nobody help?
Let alone, why are there people actually defending the perpetrators? The same kind of people who are bothered by rape charges ruining the lives of nice young men, or promising footballers? What kind of inside out world do we live in? The kind of world in which the parents of a young man who talks about having his colleague raped as a kind of punishment actually speak out in defence of their son? If that were my son, I’d draw the curtains and not go out again for a very long time. Have these people no shame? “We ask you to give him the chance to learn,” the parents say, to which I respond with a vehement, NO. One does not have to learn about how it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues (or anybody). If you don’t know this already, you never ever will.
When Toronto’s terrible mayor and a godforsaken excuse for a human being was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I fumed as public figures postured about prayers being with him etc. etc. This is another man who has not yet learned that it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues. It was all I could think of, as his ass fat tumour came down, that a public figure gets to say the things he said (let alone do the things he did) and then get up there with a whole lot of actually honourable citizens and campaign beside them for the job of mayor. “But no!” somebody protests, “do not make disparaging remarks about a man with cancer.” Because we’re willing to draw a line there—we are moral after all—but it’s women who are disposable, women who are nothing more than something for you to stick your dick in, or make jokes about sticking your dick in. A dick receptacle. And if that’s not enough, you can choke them too, “rough sex,” says another public figure, not even sheepishly. And now I’m thinking about Jennifer Levin again, a moment in time, 1980s’s excesses, but it’s forever and always. This is the world in which we live.
You can call it rape culture. You can call it the most horrendous, pervasive male entitlement too. But not all men, another voice pipes up, but oh, there are ever so many. Some of whom are even seemingly feminist allies, examining complicity as they forget about the women whose bodies they themselves have groped, and carrying banners at feminist rallies, even. These men are fathers, husbands, brothers and sons—to frame things in those terms. And I don’t know what to do.
In The New Quarterly 131, Karen Connelly’s essay, “#ItEndsHere,” parallels Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s seeming unconcern with the disappearance of 300 school girls with Canada’s own lack of response to the more than a thousand missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in this country. (The most recent in the news is the young girl in Winnipeg, Rinelle Harper, who was assaulted twice and thrown in the same river where 15 year old Tina Fontaine’s body was discovered months ago. Mercifully, Rinelle Harper survived. She is recovering in hospital.) Connelly reminds us of the rumours surrounding the farm where the remains of so many women were eventually discovered—those rumours would not be investigated for years, during which time so many women died. Disposable women. Ineffectual authorities. There’s a pattern here. It’s like stringing beads.
Connelly writes, “When there were enough missing women—68 to be exact…—the police finally began to look for them. The investigation into the missing women of the downtown east side began in 1998. [Redacted] continued committing murders until his arrest on February 22, 2002.” And from her poem, “Enough,” from her recent collection, Come Cold River:
Unfold the maps on the table.
Let me show you hell.
As described in The Globe and Mail.
Oddly, it includes English Bay,
blue salt water, sand, crows,
owls in the cedars.
The road out?
Oh, that remains
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
May 15, 2014
And here it is! My essay from The M Word appears on The Huffington Post Canada, and I’m so relieved and bolstered by the feedback I’m receiving. Hope you will enjoy reading it.
January 8, 2014
I wrote a short post for the CWILA Blog about why I will be donated to Canadian Women in Literary Arts once again in 2014.
First, because the pies are making a difference. Quite a few people don’t like what they stand for, or don’t like what they’re saying (or something. Truth be told, I don’t really understand, though I’ve tried) but they those pies are changing our publications for the better. The 2013 CWILA numbers reflect a significant change from 2012, writers and editors now working with an awareness of gender representation in what they read, write and publish. And that’s huge. I want to make sure the count continues into the future, is even expanded, and that the “counters” are properly compensated for their work.
Read the whole thing here.
January 7, 2014
When I was 19, I had a notebook that I’d covered with a piece of green corduroy that had previously been part of a pair of my pants. On one page, I wrote a heading with each letter outlined in a different colour Crayola marker, and the heading was “My Opinions”. And below, I tried to capture them all, my perspectives on such things as capital punishment (against), war (totally averse), abortion (well, I guess I respect choice, though I could never go down such a road myself). I don’t remember what I must have been for: universal suffrage, maybe? The abolition of acid rain? Sex, probably, but only hopefully. I think this was around the time I used to say things like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist,” so really, my opinions were likely best not held in a permanent record. It is not a total loss that I don’t have that green notebook anymore.
(I do remember that on the page following my summary of opinions, there was a recipe for mocha cake.)
I thought about this today as I read a really interesting New Yorker profile of novelist Jennifer Weiner. It was a respectful, considered piece that managed to make some space for nuance, to highlight how smart Weiner is and what important ideas she conveys about how fiction by women is perceived by readers and reviewers. And yet it also shows the trouble with Jennifer Weiner, which is her conflation of literary and commercial fiction, and this inane idea that not joining a rah-rah sisterhood is a feminist betrayal.
I’m been turning my head inside out for years now trying to make sense of Jennifer Weiner and her activism, basically trying to articulate a one sentence burst under the heading “My Opinions”, but the words don’t fit. If I added up all the blog posts I’ve ever written on this subject, I think they would fill up that entire green corduroy notebook, and I still wouldn’t have it figured out.
While I find the whole thing infinitely frustrating though, I am starting to realize that the turning my head inside-out might be the very point, instead of a pithy line I could deliver with a bullet. That these figures or ideas that rattle us or make us uneasy are doing a service, serving a purpose. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker, and sometimes (often?) the very worst parts of the feminism are the other feminists, but maybe why this is why feminism is excellent (and also why it will never become a totalitarian regime). We keep each other in check, we rub one another the wrong way, we ruffle feathers, we don’t sing kumbaya.
Here’s an opinion: the non-fiction literary anthology is a revolutionary act. This is apropos of something, and I mean it. The literary anthology, second-tier non-fiction. The kind of book that couldn’t win a prize if it tried (because it isn’t eligible). There is no cohesion, but this is the very point. The complexity of many voices, all of them singing a different tune. Not cacophony, which is noise, but heteroglossia instead. Resolving nothing, but reflecting reality. Sometimes as close to solidarity as we’re ever going to get.