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Pickle Me This

November 6, 2018

The Future of Books is Female

In this moment when so much seems dark, the light tends to shine even brighter, or maybe it’s just that I’m looking for it, but does the distinction even matter? It all began with a tweet thread, I think, when the editor of The Paris Review joined the parade of men who’ve lately been called out for sexual misconduct and when the editorial history of the magazine was being chronicled, one vital detail had gone amiss. “I’m going to show you how a woman is erased from her job,” the writer A.N. Devers tweeted, and proceeded to tell the story of Brigid Hughes, who’d succeeded George Plimpton at The Paris Review after Plimpton’s death, after working at the magazine for her entire career. But out of respect for Plimpton, Hughes was billed as “executive editor,” Plimpton remaining on the masthead. And then a year later Hughes was fired, and thereafter The Paris Review’s second editor and first female editor was written out of its history. Devers would eventually write this story into an essay published at Longreads.

Plans for Devers’ Second Shelf Books venture had been in the works for a few years, apparently (and is just one of the many fascinating things that she’s been up to), but for me the link seemed quite direct to me from her work on re-establishing Hughes’ professional record to starting a business that champions under-appreciated books by women authors (“rare books, modern first editions, and rediscovered works…”), and I was so galvanized by her work on the former that I jumped on board to support the latter. I signed up for the Second Shelf Books kickstarter to support the project and receive a copy of their Quarterly, a gorgeously produced magazine that is a literary catalogue and a celebration of women’s writing at once—and then before time ran out upgraded my support so I would receive a surprise first edition from Second Shelf. And it has been a pleasure to watch from across the ocean as Devers’ vision has become reality, the funding drive a success, a profile in Vanity Fair among other coverage, and the online store expanding to be actual bricks and mortar.

My copy of the Quarterly arrived a month ago, and I’ve deeply appreciated its aesthetic (marbled papers!), what it’s taught me about book collecting, and the writers I’ve been able to discover—for example, the first Black woman in South Africa to publish a novel was Miriam Tlali in 1975, with Muriel at Metropolitan. It has awakened my interest in book collecting for sure, and I’ve been pleased to discover I’ve already got a few first editions by women writers on my shelf, and now I’m on the look out for more—I found Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love at a used bookshop this weekend. It’s an opportunity, as Devers has explained, because books by women have historically been undervalued by book collectors (who’ve tended to be men), and therefore the investment is lower, but as more people begin to take notice, values will begin to rise. Or so it’s hoped, but regardless, I was overjoyed to receive my surprise first edition yesterday, carefully chosen after I’d completed a short survey online of my favourite authors. Wrapped in unicorn paper AND bubble wrap, so my children were squealing, and I got in on it too when I realized which book I had gotten. The hardcover Barbara Pym Civil to Strangers, a collection of stories and fragments published after her death. Could it be more perfect? And who knew there was a whole other reason to buy books that I hadn’t even considered? But I’m hooked now, and excited for the future of Second Shelf Books.

September 27, 2018

No Choice, by Kate McKenna

I think it’s because it just make sense to take for granted the things that one should take for granted (such as bodily autonomy) that feminist history seems to so often be overwritten. After I had an abortion in 2002, it would take years before I properly understood that I was fortunate to be able to access the procedure in such a straightforward manner. It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to. I had no idea that just ten years previous, in 1992, an abortion clinic around the corner from where I now live had been firebombed. Such recent violent history—in my own neighbourhood—but I hadn’t been paying attention.

And nor did I understand that across Canada, even now, access to abortion was varied and even impossible—particularly for women in rural areas and across the Maritimes. In her book No Choice: The 30-Year Fight for Abortion on Prince Edward Island, Kate McKenna explains the power held by the Catholic Church in PEI and how that power enabled pro-choice activists to stack hospital boards by 1986 so that not a single abortion would be performed there for 30 years afterwards. She also shows how the the fight by pro-choice activists was exhausting, marked by setback and after setback. It didn’t help that in such a small and conservative province, people speaking up for the pro-choice cause could find themselves targeted and alienated. (For a long time I thought the history of progressivism was one of triumph. I read a biography of Jane Jacobs two years ago, and recall someone telling me that the real reason Jacobs stands out is that she’s one of the few fighters who ever managed to win.)

For a long time on Prince Edward Island, nobody won. After activism in the 1980s and 1990s, the pro-choice movement on PEI had mostly faded away. Women who found themselves pregnant would have to travel out of province for an abortion, and for many women (particularly those who were vulnerable and/or low-income) this was impossible. Women who returned home after these abortions were unable to access the aftercare they needed, sometimes with dire consequences. McKenna writes about women she knew pooling funds for “abortion insurance.” But in 2011, things started to change. It was a perfect confluence of events that no one could have planned—the rise of social media that allowed women to share and tell their stories; an activist group McKenna and her friends started to counter an annual “right-to-life” event in Charlottetown; enough time having passed for feminists to have forgotten the future was hopeless, I suppose; data from researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island; women who were willing to be public with their abortion stories; a guerrilla campaign of posters featuring the striking image shown on McKenna’s book cover. By 2016, PEI had a new Premier who was willing to consider an alternative to that “status-quo” that so many other politicians had been so comfortable with—McKenna quotes activist Professor Colleen MacQuarrie as being exasperated by this focus on status-quo, “Like it was a good compromise. Women’s health against…people that feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of abortion.”

On March 30, 2016, the PEI government announced that they would create a reproductive health centre in Summerside, PEI, that would offer abortions, among other services. After thirty years of fighting, the women of PEI had won the right to healthcare that millions of other Canadian women had access to. But the story isn’t over—in feminism, it never is. No doubt, the pro-life forces are still at work in PEI, and Anne Kingston has written about their plans to play a major in the 2018 Federal Election. And so that end, it’s smart to know what Canadian women are going to be up against, and to learn that there is value in fighting, that the battle can be won,

September 12, 2018

Unabashed

I remember the first time I had courage to stand up and confront an anti-abortion protester. It was the summer of 2015 and I’d just dropped off Harriet at day camp, and the year before I’d published an essay about how becoming a mother taught me everything I knew (and was grateful for) about my abortion. Which meant that I’d thought about abortion a lot, and was comfortable talking about mine in public, and had a lot to say about my experiences, actually. Even though I usually shy away from conflict, and don’t get off on debate just for the fun of it (because, unlike a lot of anti-abortion protesters, it’s my bodily autonomy we’re talking about. These ideas, for me, aren’t abstract, and I will probably cry). These people are able to dominate the abortion conversation like they do because most of us don’t know how to talk about our abortions in public (and why should we have to? We don’t require men to issue public defences of their prostate surgeries). But I’d had enough to having these people be the loudest people when we talk about abortions, of their taking advantage of civility and politeness to scream the loudest. I was ready to talk, and so I did, and it was exhilarating, and terrifying, and very empowering to be able to tell this young man holding a sign: “I KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS THAN YOU DO. YOU’VE GOT A SCRIPT, BUT THIS IS MY LIFE STORY.”

Unfortunately, however, arguing with these zealots gets you nowhere, and while it feels good not to be silent, these conversations are always a waste of energy. So I had this idea that maybe I could make a sign, and luckily I’m married to a standup guy who makes signs for a living (among other talents) and so I said to him, “What if you made me a pro-choice sign I could fold up and carry in my purse? So I could have it on my person at all times in case of an emergency, and be there are represent and have my voice heard, but not have to talk to these abusive nefarious creeps that get off on turning women’s private experiences into public spectacle?” And my husband said okay, and he designed my sign and had it printed, and I’ve been carrying it around for nearly two years now, but there’s that rule about only ever having a thing when you don’t need it. I’ve not seen anti-abortion protestors since the Christmas I found my “My Body My Choice” sign under the tree. Which I wasn’t sorry about—maybe the sign was like some sort of repellant, and in that case, good riddance. I had my sign and women in my neighbourhood were free to walk about the streets without the abuse of gory and misleading photos of fetuses.

But no repellant lasts forever, it seems, because today I got word of the usual suspects setting up shop a few blocks from my house. So I walked over there, where a respectable counter-protest had been set up by Students for Choice and I was honoured to join them with my little sign (and my actual life experience, which is short on the ground on the pro-life side). And there I stood for an hour as people said thank you and others rolled their eyes at the display, and men stood behind me having rhetorical arguments on the matter of my bodily autonomy and didn’t seem anything ironic about that. As I said so beautifully in all-caps on Twitter: “Do you know what’s more arbitrary than Canada’s lack of an abortion law so that abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor? AN ABORTION LAW DECIDED BY SOME RANDOM GUY ON THE SIDEWALK.”

This morning I read Anne Kingston’s article about plans afoot by the anti-abortion movement to make their cause a political issue everywhere, and it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, because the most of us are going to continue to be civil and polite and let them continue to dominate the discourse with misrepresentation and lies—all the while our reproductive rights are eroded. But my daughters—who would not exist were it not for abortion and the choices I was free to make—deserve to have the same freedoms that I was lucky enough to be able to take for granted. And it’s not even just about them, or about abortion either—THREAD, as they say: “Reproductive justice is about bodily autonomy, it’s linked to racism and immigration and incarceration, it’s about classism and supremacy, it’s all connected to climate change and accessibility and colonialism…” writes Erynn Brook.

Reproductive justice is linked to everything, and it’s about standing up and speaking out for our rights right now. As unabashed as we want to be. About this, there is no choice—it has never been more important.

August 28, 2018

On Diversity and Excellence

Earlier this year, some windbag on Twitter had a hissy fit and started posting about how—and I quote—”Political correctness is killing fiction,” which I found really annoying mostly because of a conspicuous lack of evidence that this windbag has read a single work of fiction in the past five years. And also because what he really meant by “political correctness” was actually a) that white writers are facing a new and demanding kind of criticism in their work when they write about other cultures and b) a new spotlight on and celebration of works by writers who are telling stories many of us haven’t heard before. These comments were also really frustrating because this person who never reads fiction was proclaiming the death of fiction when my own personal experience is that fiction has never been so rich. I was reading The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu, when this stupid tweet was posted, which only underlined its absurdity. I loved that book. And all this came to mind again last week when I had the great fortune of reading Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker followed by Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. Has fiction ever been more alive? But I guess you actually have to read a book to know that.

Not unrelated, the other day Conservative MP Lisa Raitt was quoted as saying, somewhat incoherently, that she wouldn’t want a place in the Liberal Party as a woman because if she succeeded there she’d never really know if she’d made it on her own merits or if it was because a certain number of women had been mandated. As though the two categories (quotas and qualified candidates) were mutually exclusive, as though there might not be a healthy pool of qualified women candidates to choose from—which, admittedly, for the Conservatives, is a possibility, as their candidates in the 2015 federal election were 20% women, vs. 42% for the NDP. The Liberal candidates were only 31% women, which was not entirely impressive, and yet. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his gender balanced cabinet  (because it was 2015, if you recall) he somehow still managed to appoint a Health Minister who was a doctor, an Attorney General who was an Indigenous lawyer, an International Trade Minister who’d been a Rhodes Scholar and a renowned expert on global finance, an Environment Minister with a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics, a Minister of Sport and Persons With Disabilities who has been a lawyer and a Paralympic athlete, and a Minister of Science who has been a scientist since receiving her PhD in 1992. And while we’ve all spent a lot of time in the years since then thinking about the fact of gender parity, too little focus has been put on the fact that these women are among the most qualified cabinet members I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

Lisa Raitt too comes to the political arena with a lot of expertise and experience—and something to keep in mind when thinking about gender parity is how much more excellent a woman has to be than her male peers in order to reach the same levels of success. Which reminds me of this very funny satirical piece written shortly after Trudeau’s cabinet was appointed: “50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet:” “I mean, Jason Kenney alone was Minister of Immigration before being shuffled to Multiculturalism, then Social Development, and then finally National Defense—clearly because he was the most qualified person in the entire country on all those four completely unrelated files.” Clearly.

They are not exclusive, diversity (whether it be gender balance and ideally beyond) and excellence, is what I mean. Is what Trudeau’s cabinet has proven, although so many seem to miss the point, forest for trees etc. because for ideological reasons a focus on diversity makes many peoples’ heads explode. But  I will go so far as to say that excellence is actually a natural product of diversity, which is why diversity is so necessary and important right now as our society confronts a variety of challenges. And if you’re looking for excellence, diversity is naturally what happens. And if diversity doesn’t happen, then you have failed in making something excellent.

Which was only confirmed for me in my experience as a juror for The Journey Prize this year—as jurors, we read one hundred stories with no identifying details of their authors. Which is a fraught exercise at this political moment, particularly if you are someone who, like me, thinks that the author is not dead and personal identities matter. Fraught, because I didn’t want to fail at excellence. Of course, the stories themselves are what really matters, but personal identities matter too because it’s always obvious to me when I’m reading a book about a fourteen-year-old girl written by a man who has no idea what that feels like and who has failed in the imaginative leap of writing that experience in a way that is convincing. Personal identities and experience only fuel a writer’s work, I think, and make that work so much richer. So much more excellent. But all this was still just faith for me while I was reading stories for the Journey Prize, and my fellow jurors and I were having some meaningful conversations about what excellence meant. Concluding, basically, that we wanted the stories we selected to definitively not be the Jason Kenneys of literature, in a nutshell. Serving as Minister of Immigration before being shuffled to Multiculturalism, then Social Development, and then finally National Defense. We wanted specificity. Details, in addition to sparkling prose. We wanted to be unsettled in ways that are entirely new, transported to places that were familiar and yet unknown to us. No mediocrity would sneak its way into this book. We wanted unfailingly interesting.

And guess what: diversity happened. My faith confirmed that diversity and excellence are inextricably linked. When we focussed that hard on excellence, we ended up with a list of writers from a range of ages and backgrounds. Some of them names we’d never heard of before, others that were familiar. A list of writers whose faces look more like the world does than your average Conservative cabinet, which is a wonderful thing to discover, that something has gone very right in the process. Because diversity and and excellence go hand and hand, as the Journey Prize Stories 30 will demonstrate when it comes out next month. In addition to serving as a reminder that fiction is absolutely thriving.

June 28, 2018

A moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy…

I would like to ask for a moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy. For their fervour at protecting the unborn all the while shrugging as actual human beings are deprived of health insurance, or for freaking out about the death of a zygote all the while living breathing babies are languishing in prisons after being removed from their parents at the Mexican border. For calling themselves “pro-life” even while they’re aware that all research shows that banning safe and legal abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions, but it leads to more women dying. These points being made as though these people aren’t aware of the flaws in their logic, as though lack of logic is the problem. As though the crime here is inconsistency, instead of a heartless disregard for women’s bodies and lives.

It occurred to me last week after reading this piece that there is actually no disconnect between wanting to deprive a woman access to reproductive health and leaving a migrant child in a cage at a Walmart-turned-Detention Camp. Both stances are about dehumanization, about a readiness to make somebody into “the other,” about a comfort with state control of bodies and freedom that results from a lack of imagination, from a certainty that “the other” is never going to be you.

(There is a difference between a personal discomfort with and distaste for abortion and actively campaigning for its restrictions and ultimate abolishment. Finding abortion abhorrent but understanding the role it plays in healthcare and in so many women’s lives is the definition of humane. On the other hand, becoming one of those anti-choice activists [who are so often young because most people who are grown up understand that life and the world is complicated] playing right into the hands of powerful and well-funded right-wing forces which are underwriting the entire movement in the first place is abjectly cruel, and ignorant, and, if history is any indication, is only going to make the world a more terrible place to live.)

I wrote this 18 months ago: In prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual womenAnd this is the problem with being pro-life, not that you’ve failed a thought experiment or a rhetorical exercise, but that you’re comfortable with women’s bodies being made disposable. It says a lot.

I didn’t use to talk about abortion all the time. I didn’t used to have the word “FEMINIST” three times in my Twitter bio. When I had an abortion sixteen years ago, it never occurred to me not to take my access to this service for granted. That women were people deserving of equal rights, which included the right to control what happens to their bodies, was as obvious to me as, well, the fact that Black lives matter. I used to think that none of these points of view was remotely political, and instead just matter of being a person in the world, and not even a particularly decent one.

But the reason why I’m writing yet another post about abortion is because every day seems to give me another reason for not shutting up. Because there is an active movement to clamp down on these rights that years ago I was naive and lucky enough to think I could take for granted. It’s not even a conspiracy theory, guys, because they’ll tell you. They’re even proud of it, and they’re celebrating every time a person who doesn’t know any better goes out and elects a right-wing populist because of concerns about provincial debt.

Abortion is the tip of the iceberg. It’s never been about fetuses—don’t you know that? It’s about controlling women, and limiting their freedom to make choices about their bodies and their lives. It’s the same impulse that tears a baby from her mother, and takes her away on a bus to a migrant camp. And I hope you will join me in resisting it at every single step.

May 29, 2018

On Selfies, and Learning to Recognize My Face

My husband took this photo of me at Woodbine Beach eleven years ago, when I weighed thirty pounds less than I do now, had no grey hair, an unlined forehead, and my thyroid had yet to sprout a conspicuous tumour that I am grateful for because it is benign. As you can see, I was also not allergic to the sun then, and I even had a tan—and do I ever miss having tans, as I huddle here in my hat and SPF clothing. I was so beautiful, and I kind of knew it, which was why I had this photo taken in the first place.

But taking this photo was a terrible experience, which I recall very well, and no doubt my husband does too. It was such a beautiful day and I wanted a photo to remember it by, a photo of me, but it took about twenty-five shots to finally get one I was happy with. Which is why I’m looking away from the camera, I think, because I felt better about the photo when only part of my face was in it. Because my face was the entire problem, mainly that it looked nothing like the way I imagined I looked. My face, my self—it would always surprise me. Who was this person, who you’d think I’d be an expert on, and but everybody else looked at her more than me. I didn’t know my face at all, and the person in the photos was a stranger.

There are so many reasons I’m glad I’ll never be twenty-eight again, even if it means I’ll probably never be thin and tanned again either. Oh well, because at least I recognize my face now. I’m fond of it, I even love it, and this is why I will never malign selfies and selfie-culture either, because it was selfies that taught me this. With selfies I began to see my face for the first time, to become familiar with it and comfortable with it. When somebody takes my photo now, I’m rarely surprised with the result, because I know that woman since I see her all the time. And while she sometimes looks a bit haggard, many-chinned, and her face was broken out in another rash, I still claim her. I could choose to be vain or I could choose to be otherwise, but I’m always going to end up with the same old face. And I actually walk around with it all the time, and everybody seems to find it fairly tolerable.

This is my face, and there are people who like me. There are even people who love me. And eventually I decided it was only fair that I should do the same.

May 10, 2018

My Door is Always Open

“A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.” —Alexandra Schwartz

  1. The only two doors in my apartment are the bathroom door, whose lock is broken, and my children’s bedroom door, which does not actually shut because the door frame is warped.
  2. When we moved into our apartment, I made an office in our garret, which is a strange narrow room adjoining my bedroom, but it was very cold and lonely there and I never wrote a thing.
  3. I have a tea towel upon which is printed the cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and it hangs in our living room (which has three windows, but no door).
  4. Before I had children, I worked 9-5 at a job that wasn’t very interesting and had no time to write.
  5. I am not saying a woman needs to have a A Room of One’s Own tea-towel hanging on her living room wall in order to live a rich and fulfilling life. There are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But this is what works for me.
  6. When my first child was born, I was desperately unhappy. I thought that motherhood would be the thing that saved me from monotony and humdrum days, but it was worse. And so there was nothing left but writing, which I had no choice but to do with all my might.
  7. I never had anything to write about before I had children. I remember talking about this with a friend over sushi about ten years ago, about how I didn’t think I’d be a good writer until I’d experienced motherhood, the way it raises the stakes. I didn’t have a big enough investment in the world before that. I was living on a limited plane.
  8. That limit was my limit. My friend with whom I was eating sushi is not a parent and did not need to become one in order to be a brilliant writer. There are lots of ways to do this thing.
  9. Sometimes I think that people mix up “having a newborn” with “motherhood”. It is true that having a newborn is a bit like being sent to prison/being tortured/transformed into a piece of human furniture, but it doesn’t last, and the only problem is that the first time it happens you don’t know it doesn’t last.
  10. My children are nearly nine and five. I don’t have a door and so my door is always open, but my children are usually doing other things in other rooms.
  11. My first major success as a writer—a published essay wins second place in a contest, is runner-up for a National Magazine Award, appears in Best Canadian Essays, is noted by the UTNE Reader—is about motherhood, and therefore if I’d never become a mother I never would have written it.
  12. Admittedly, all this is more complicated for women who find literary success before they have children—they have something to lose, I suppose. They need to learn to work in a different way. The decision is more perilous. And yet, to think in terms of peril is possibly overdramatic. It will be fine. It will be fine.
  13. My first book was an anthology of essays I edited about motherhood. It would be unlikely that I’d have taken on this project had I not become a mother. I edited this book while lying on my couch, my laptop propped on my legs while my baby slept on my chest. It was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes she napped for ages, and I got a lot of work done.
  14. My other child was at kindergarten. My children are four years apart. I am lucky to have been able to plan this all very carefully, to have my plans work out, for the time and balance I needed in order to be a mother, let alone a mother of two.
  15. My baby no longer sleeps on my chest. Now she goes in kindergarten too. When my first daughter was born and my world was torn asunder, I used to hear other mothers say, “And now I can’t imagine my life without her.” And I thought this was lunacy. I kept thinking instead about my baby, “Where on earth did you come from and what are we going to do?” But nine years later, I firmly can’t imagine my life without either of them. And there’s also this dawning awareness that one day I’m going to have to, because it won’t be too long before they’re living lives that have very little to do with me at all.
  16. I wrote my first novel during the summer of 2014 while my one-year-old napped and her big sister watched Annie on the sofa beside me every single day and I wrote 1000 words at a time. Everybody was doing her job.
  17. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written at the kitchen table, and there’s no one else home, and I’ve grown accustomed the quiet.
  18. I don’t have another job. This is an important part of the story. Working full time, and being a mother, and being a writer is really really hard. That said, a lot of people do it. But that’s a different kind of story than the story I’m telling here.
  19. I don’t have another job, but I’ve been able to build a freelance writing career where I earn a respectable living. I am very proud of this. I’ve also been able to fit that a career around taking my children to and from school every day, other appointments, cleaning my house, grocery shopping etc. etc. There is a misconception being a writer and being a mother without another job means one spends her days, well, staring out the window and dreaming, but I can’t afford such luxuries. I’ve got a business to run. And I have to vacuum.
  20. I’ve been really lucky. I have a partner who works full-time, but who has the flexibility to share the load and support my work. I have children whose needs so far have been fairly undemanding. For other parents, it’s much more complicated and much more work.
  21. I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard.
  22. The stories of women who choose not to have children (or who don’t even get the privilege of making that choice) are as interesting and worthwhile as the stories of women who do have children. That said, when those women’s stories are defined in opposition to those of women who are mothers (i.e. they are sometimes made to feel that they, unlike mothers, are doing womanhood wrong) it sometimes misses the point that even women who do  go with convention and have children are made to feel that they too are doing it wrong, everything, all the time. Motherhood is no escape from this.
  23. The choice not to have children is complicated though, this is true. Once the children arrive, they’re kind of undeniable. Whereas choosing not to have children, as a friend once told me, is a choice you have to make over and over, and that’s not easy.
  24. There is this push to universalize everything that happens to a woman. But sometimes our stories are just stories, instead of facts or even destinies. 
  25. “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. I think about this quote a lot, because sooner or later when they’re talking about those female writers, someone is going to be talking about you.

April 25, 2018

This is not okay

On Saturday I came across a scene that was surreal, whose pieces I couldn’t put together until the whole thing was explained to me. My husband was standing on the corner of Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue with our children picking up litter as a part of our neighbourhood clean-up—and this man was screaming at him about feminism. Not very articulately, mind you, and one got the impression from this man’s oration that he wasn’t one of the world’s great thinkers. He was yelling, “Fucking feminists. Go to India! That’s where they need you.” Which, incidentally, is one of my favourite rhetorical strategies, enabling a speaker to be misogynist and racist at once. And my husband was being remarkably patient for a person who was being screamed at while picking up litter in the street with his children. He kept saying, “Raising up girls doesn’t mean bringing other people down.” Repeating it like a mantra. Eventually the man continued on his way, no doubt to an engagement that was probably very pressing. And I realized the origin of this conflict, which was the button my husband wears on his coat, a button from the Women’s March in January.

If the brutal events of Monday afternoon had never happened (and I refuse to call it a tragedy. A tragedy suggests something inevitable, natural, but terrible. Brutal murder is not a tragedy) then that weird scene I came upon on Saturday would be an amusing anecdote, that one time my white husband was screamed at for feminism and told to go back to India. A bizarro version of the status quo—but what happened Monday affirms that this is the status quo. Attitudes like this man’s, and that of a man who’d see fit to run down a street full of women, are shockingly widespread and normal. And of course not everyone who holds those opinions is screaming on a corner or partaking in a murderous rampage. That’s not the point. Obviously these men are unhinged, but my point is that anti-feminist rhetoric is the fuel.

It is not so much that a man could hate women enough to feel entitled to go out and commit an act of mass murder that surprises me—I was ten years old in 1989 after all. This is the world I’ve come of age in. I also know that Monday’s violence is really not such an anomaly—Canadian women are murdered by their male partners all the time. But what continues to baffle me again and again are the people who refuse to see it. The people who claim that misogyny is not a thing, and that strong women don’t need feminism, and even that feminism is hurting men. Even worse: that feminism is the cause of this kind of violent behaviour, as though women have brought it on themselves. Fully absolving us all from taking responsibility for our part in perpetuating a culture that teaches men to act this way.

This is not normal. This is not okay.

April 3, 2018

“Enlarge and Complicate”

I’ve been reading so much lately—book after book, and while my backlist TBR shelf is suffering from neglect (I have a Penelope Mortimer book waiting, for heaven’s sake…) the wonders of Spring 2018 Canadian books are overwhelmingly good. I’m averaging about three books a week, and it’s still not enough for me to read everything I want to read, which is why I cannot be entirely despondent about the state of “CanLit” even as its politics give us very good reason to wonder what the point is. But the point, of course, is the books, and the books are excellent, and I’m also grateful that so many of these excellent books are written by people of colour (even if I think it’s a bit of a dry season for books by Indigenous writers, Terese Marie Mailhot’s amazing memoir Heart Berries—which I read last week—the only one that’s really on my radar…)

Anyway one book that stands out even though I read it in a whirlwind in early February (to see if it would be a good addition to the 49thShelf.com “#MeToo Reading List” I made; and hey, it was!) was The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra. It was a mindfuck of a book, such hard work, but also impossible to put down, incredibly compelling, a novel about campus culture, sexual violence, culpability, and the meaning of justice. I had the opportunity to ask Sarah some questions about her book over at 49th Shelf, and her answers were fantastic:

49th Shelf: The Red Word is hard work, in the very best way. It complicates binaries, messes with our notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Why was it important for you that this book not be a polemic? And was it difficult to make that happen?

Sarah Henstra: The Red Word tackles complicated subject matter, so I felt it warranted a complicated treatment. My decision to have the Raghurst women stage their attack on the fraternity the way they do arose from two separate impulses I felt as a writer, one having to do with what story I was telling and the other with how to tell the story. In the 1990s on college campuses (as elsewhere), the dice were so loaded against the survivors of sexual violence that justice seemed an impossible prospect. The young women in the novel are so frustrated with inequality, so sick of recording and reacting to the misdeeds of the frat boys without seeing any real changes, that they believe this is the only way forward, and they’re convinced—for a while, at least—that the ends will justify the means.

In terms of the story’s structure, I sought a scenario that would leave open the maximum number of possible resolutions in order to allow readers to remain curious and to consider a wide variety of perspectives and points of view. After all, it’s the unexpected consequences of the plot—those surprise moments when events blow up way past the characters’ intentions—that keep us reading.

I’ve always liked Susan Sontag’s assertion (in her 2004 lecture on South African Novel laureate Nadine Gordimer) that good novelists are “moral agents” precisely because the stories they tell don’t moralize but instead “enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.” It definitely took this book longer to find a publisher because of its lack of a “redemptive” or “hopeful” resolution, though. “What is the takeaway here for feminism?” one editor asked me. Luckily, the editors who strongly connected with it (Amy Hundley at Grove, Susan Renouf at ECW) loved it precisely for its refusal to come down cleanly on one side of the conflict.

Go here to read our entire exchange.

March 19, 2018

The next star.

“If our ability to see detail in a woman’s face is magnified by our visual habits, our ability to see complexity in a woman’s story is diminished by our reading habits. Centuries of experience in looking at the one through a magnifying glass has engendered a complementary practice of looking at the other through the wrong end of a telescope. Faced with a woman’s story, we’re overtaken with the swift taxonomic impulse an amateur astronomer feels on spotting Sirius—there it is! he says, and looks to the next star. It’s a pleasant activity because it organizes and confirms, but it produces the fantasy that a lazy reading—not even a reading but a looking—is adequate, sufficient, complete, correct.”

How incredible when an essay can articulate so much you’ve always understood, and yet at the same time teach you a boatload. I loved this; read “The Male Glance,” by Lili Loofbourow.

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Mitzi Bytes

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