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April 13, 2021

Why I don’t call authors by their first names

The book in my hands in this photo is LUCKY, the latest novel by Marissa Stapley, who I’m fortunate to call my friend—but when I write about her book, I’m going to refer to her as “Stapley.” And NOT because we’re the kind of friends who refer to each by our last names. No, I’m going to write about her as Stapley when I’m talking about her book, because it’s the feminist thing to do, and because women authors are the only ones any of us ever seem to be on a first name basis with. Think of the male authors you love to read, whose work seems to know your soul—it’s not simply a question of intimacy. Because sure, you might love Stephen King or John Irving, but have you ever come across a review in which either was referred to as “John” or “Steve”?

But with the women, we’re all “Marian,” “Farah,” “Jennifer” “Marissa,” and “Brit.” We’re excited to read these authors because it feels like we know them, and we’ve read their work so closely that it’s almost as though we do. Further, social media makes it possible for some of them to know us back, so the ties are real…but actually knowing an author only drives home to me the importance of using their surnames in book reviews. It’s a question of respect, for the author’s work, and for women’s work in general, which is so often devalued in comparison to the works by Johns and Steves. Nobody calls Shakespeare “William.” It’s a political act to declare a woman worthy of her surname, women’s surnames having been considered disposable through much of history anyway, which means that in historical record women tend to disappear.

As @kelly.diels writes, “We are the culture makers.” The authors, the bloggers, and the bookstragrammers—all of us. And with the power to make culture comes the power to change it, and I choose to acknowledge that power, to use it to help build the kind of world where women’s work is considered as serious and consequential as that of their male peers. Where a woman doesn’t have to be your BFF to get on your radar, and even if she is your friend, you are going to give her authorship the reverence such a thing deserves.

January 20, 2021

Finally

While I always knew things would be bad, I didn’t quite suspect it would be this bad, that the now-departed president would live down to my worst expectation at every single turn, and then some, never once surprising me by actually doing the right thing—and I was really willing to be surprised. How badly I wanted to be wrong about everything four years ago. I would have been happy to be wrong every single time rather than to have had witness the nightmare of the last four years. But we saw it coming, we did. The violence and hatred of the rhetoric, the undermining of civility and social norms, the Orwellian inside-out messaging of truth and justice, and the way it messed with every rational person’s sense of reality, wearing down the institutions of justice and democracy, making the carnage that transpired on January 6 a surprise not at all.

I think we put too much importance on being right though. I think a fear of being wrong keeps a lot of people from being brave enough to change their minds. I think a fear of being wrong keeps people from being brave enough to hope—the abject certainty of despair, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it was hope I was feeling four years ago, less a day, as thousands rallied in our city, in cities all over the world. Hope for the first time since that terrible night in November 2016 as the world turned inside out, the end of a terrible year that would be the beginning of a string of them, and it was hope that was sustaining. Like most things to do with women, the Women’s March gets so maligned, but it was an incredible moment.

I don’t actually remember the now-departed President’s inauguration (except for Kellyanne’s terrible jacket, “indelible in the hippocampus,” as one great woman would later say about another matter entirely), but I remember the Women’s March, the way that so many people came together to stand up for decency and justice, and what a rush it was to be part of that.

To imagine that there could be light at the end of the tunnel, and now four years later, we’re here.

December 3, 2020

Be Large and Complicated

I don’t like faux.

I especially don’t like the obligatory faux self-effacement/self-deprecation a lot of women bring to their personal marketing/self-promotion efforts.

I think if you have to preface your self promotion with an apology, then you’ve probably already undermined your efforts anyway.

That said, I am GRATEFUL for those of you who follow me here— friends and acquaintances, online pals and everyone—who are patient with my blend of personal and professional posts, along with too many teacups.

I know that it’s common practice to split the personal and professional stuff into separate accounts, but twenty years of blogging has created a hybrid sensibility to my online life that makes that kind thing of impossible.

It also seems like a lot of work to maintain two (or more) online personas. And how do you know where one ends and the other begins anyway? They overlap, inform and complement each other. I think my posts are richer because of where my personal and professional selves intersect. Avoiding such separation also makes it easy to be a human, online and in the world.

I have become more comfortable with plastering my giant head all over the internet, and with being unabashed and unapologetic about efforts to market my work. It is what it is, and if you hate it, you probably unfollowed ages ago anyway.

BE LARGE AND COMPLICATED might be the best advice I have to offer today. And also that when you roar like a lion while getting your photo taken, you look like a big mouthed weirdo, but one who’s had a facelift, which is actually pretty great.

November 6, 2020

Has Women’s Fiction Helped to Save Us?

Almost four years ago exactly, against the background of a horrifying US election outcome and a world I didn’t recognize, I wrote a blog post entitled “How Women’s Fiction Can Save Us All.”

Which was more than a little bit self-serving, of course, considering my debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, was coming out the following spring.

So it was kind of like your mechanic telling you how replacing your muffler kills fascists, or the real estate agent explaining how buying a town-home is the only sure route out of an authoritarian disaster. My post was totally ridiculous, over-earnest and embarrassing, but those were heady times and also—and here’s the pivotal thing—I wasn’t wrong.

And just how wrong I wasn’t occurred to me this morning as I scrolled through bestselling author Emily Giffin’s Instagram stories, which have been my go-to through this strange uncertain week while American votes are counted. All week long, Giffin has been unwavering in her confidence that America—and her home state of Georgia in particular—would deliver the Biden/Harris ticket a victory.

For months, Giffin’s feed has been decidedly political, anti-Trump sentiments, pro-LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter. Amidst snapshots of Charles and Diana, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, of course—Giffin’s Insta is a world onto itself. But no matter the followers who threatened to unfollow and or to boycott her novels, Giffin has been insisting on making it political most of the time.

(It only underlines my thesis too that Stacey Abrams— whose fight against voter suppression since losing her Governor race in 2018 deserves huge credit for turning Georgia blue—includes “romance novelist” among her many other accomplishments.)

And Giffin has been taking her politics offline as well. Her 2018 novel All We Ever Wanted was a powerful exploration of toxic masculinity and the ways in which privileged white women are culpable in perpetuating it.

It joined other novels like Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light, also published in 2018, delving into the personal stories behind the polarized issue of abortion. 2018 was also the year Tayari Jones published An American Marriage, which would go on to win the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, painting plain the reality of being a Black man (and a Black wife) in America.

And these books were not anomalies. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie was billed as a Black Bridget Jones when it came out in 2019, but where Bridget was sliding down fireman’s poles (and more power to her!) Queenie was writing about US police shootings. Chick-lit queen Jennifer Weiner’s 2019 novel Mrs. Everything takes on more than a half-century of American misogyny and missed opportunities for women to succeed.

Celeste Ng’s smash hit 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere is a devastating indictment of race, class and privilege and the outsized role they play in a very unequal America.

And Meg Wolitzer’s Female Persuasion, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim, and so many more.

In Canada, novelists Marissa Stapley and Karma Brown have penned fierce and furious feminist bestsellers with The Last Resort and Recipe for a Perfect Wife.

In further signs of progress since my post four years ago, the commercial fiction landscape in Canada has evolved beyond being a boring monolith of white writers, with the success of books like Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last and Farah Heron’s The Chai Factor, both of which manage to tackle racism and anti-Muslim hate in the context of love stories (no mean feat!). And even better, underlining that “diverse stories” (I hate that phrase) aren’t just a flash in the pan—both of these authors have new novels coming out next year.

And more commercial novels by Canadian authors of colour? Check out Jane Igharo, Roselle Lim, Jennifer Hillier, crime novelist Ausma Zehanat Khan, and YA novelist SK Ali, among others. The very existence of books centring the experiences of characters of colour is a political act, and many of these authors don’t shy away from more overt politics either, as they write plots that are also romantic, compelling, and great.

(Um, and yes, I have a new book out again, a novel about power and politics and the myths we create about ordinary men and leadership, and what we do about men who might not be monsters but whose behaviour is not okay.)

This week I listened to the CBC Pop Culture podcast Pop Chat, which considered the pop culture response to US politics over the last four years, determining that the output (mainly bad Saturday Night Live sketches) had been fairly disappointing, films like Get Out and Parasite aside. (They didn’t even mention Demi Lovato’s “Commander in Chief” though! I love that song!)

The consensus being that a US president who sucks all the air out of the atmosphere as the 45th did (DID. I’m doing past tense. I’m going there. It’s been too long. I AM READY), who is so over-the-top and in defiance of credulity and reality, whose entire construct of the world seems to be a fiction—well, what are artists meant to do with that?

But the women who write commercial fiction have done a lot, responding to the moment and truly rising to the occasion.

These books—part of a genre that so rarely gets the respect it deserves—are one terrific legacy of this terrible, awful time. When people look back at these works published during the second half of the last decade—at the questions these authors have been grappling with, the issues confronted head-on, the taboos finally broken, voices being heard, stories that are finally being told—I hope it’s going to seem obvious that the patriarchy was on its final legs, quaking in its ugly boots.

And good riddance.

October 7, 2020

A Bite of the Apple, by Lennie Goodings

A photo of A BITE OF THE APPLE and 7 other Virago novels from my collection

This book is everything. A memoir of Lennie Goodings’ 40 years in feminist publishing. The story of legendary Virago Press, which has meant a lot to me and so many other readers. A story of 40 years of feminism too, with fractious debate, changing trends, so much learning and thinking and growing. As a huge fan of mid century British women writers, my own stack of Virago books belies the press’s growing focus on intersectionality, and Goodings writes about that necessary change, her own growth and awareness, and missteps she made on the road to doing better. (It is refreshing to read about an older UK feminist who has not devolved into a raging bigot.)

In a moment of extreme division and polarization, this memoir is a balm. Goodings writes about taking inspiration from Virago author Grace Paley who called herself “a somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” Goodings continues, “Somewhere between these two options—fuck the patriarchy or keep plugging away for what you know is right— is how most women find themselves responding to sexism and inequality we need rage and inspiration we need realism and practical solutions and we need to know our histories literary and otherwise.” There is also the part about about how Decca Mitford and Maya Angelou were devoted friends and did a mean rendition of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”—WHAT???

And most of all, this is a book about books, celebrating the goodness of reading and the connections books forge. I loved it it. Turns out Goodings is Canadian too, and emigrated to England in the mid ’70s. Her book is out this month in Canada, published by the good people at Biblioasis.

July 9, 2020

Where Are The Dads?

New piece up at Chatelaine. So happy by response to this one.

May 11, 2020

Starred Review for The Abortion Caravan

One thing I miss about those days in which we used to sit in cafes is the opportunity to flagrantly display the word “abortion” in public. A small act of resistance, but even better, I was reading an extraordinary book and my (starrred) review is now online at Quill & Quire.

Karin Wells’ book is a rich and vivid record of an event in Canadian history we all need to know better (where IS that Heritage Minute?) when a ragtag group of women travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa and shut down parliament in their protest against Canada’s unjust abortion laws, literally CHAINING THEMSELVES TO THE SEATS. (Women who worked in MPs’ offices forged them passes to the House of Commons.) It’s an incredible story and Wells tells it so well, tying the event to other activism sweeping North America at the time. (Wells speculates that the women weren’t arrested for their disruption because police were hyper conscious of optics, the Kent State killings having taken place the week before.) It’s such a good book! Read my review, and then read the book yourself. Buy a copy for your mom!

February 13, 2020

I Know What I’m Doing

There are lots of memes and online posts where somebody writes about having no idea what they’re doing, but they’re doing it anyway, pushing through, persisting, and as someone who loves the idea of process, obviously I am pretty fond of this idea. “I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing it anyway,” could have been the tagline for this blog throughout its many evolutions over the last twenty (20!) years, and maybe the tagline for my whole life….but I wonder if too often we (me?) are focusing too much on the first half of the idea and obfuscating the second clause. It’s the doing it anyway that’s the point, instead of the undermining of our expertise. There are undoubtedly people who know exactly what they’re doing and who don’t do anything at all, and so at least you’re not in that boat, is what I’m saying. And that it’s only by “doing it anyway” that you’re ever going to figure out what you’re doing at all, and sometimes this is even possible. Not even in the “fake it ’til you make it” way (which is also a very good technique, so I’m not trying to undermine it) but for real. “I know exactly what I’m doing,” is a thought that really does occur to me from time-to-time (albeit never about sourdough), and it’s so empowering when it happens. To feel good and confident about a thing you have made, and not even be pretending—or is this just what it feels like to be 40?

January 15, 2020

Marching

I don’t know that so much has really changed since that November night back in 2016 when I’d baked a Hillary Clinton victory cake in determined optimism. (“And if she loses,” I’d decided, “at least we’ll have cake.” But that cake tasted terrible.) The only really substantial change has been that I’ve since had my eyes opened to the realities of the world, to the fact that people in general are less kind, wise and curious than I used think we were, and it had been my privileged position to exist without having to know that.

But one more thing that’s different—these days I also keep a collection of broomsticks on my porch.

The broomsticks are fitting really, because most of us haven’t heard this much about witch hunts since the 17th century, although our family doesn’t use our broomsticks for flying. (At least, not yet.) Instead, our broomsticks are for marching, which was an altogether new experience for us as we joined tens of thousands of people at Queen’s Park on that mild January Day for the 2017 Women’s March. As we walked through our neighbourhood holding our signs (duct-taped to said broomsticks, and also a couple of dowels I’d picked up at the hardware store), it already felt like a parade, neighbours leaving their houses holding their own signs, passing cars honking their support.

I remember the ground softened by mild temperatures, my green rubber boots going squish in the mud on the lawn at Queen’s Park, and how it seemed like everyone we knew was there. And how everyone who wasn’t there was out on a similar march in cities all around the world. I remember feeling hopeful for the first time in months, and that maybe we weren’t so alone after all, and good things were possible. People spread out as far as I could see in all directions, an endless horizon of humanity who’d come out to stand up for social justice, and perhaps all was not necessarily defeat.

The Women’s March was originally cast as a failure, even before it had taken place. In the weeks before the event, as there were struggles about organization and inclusion, so many pundits and cynics declared it just so, but the march itself defied them. The march itself, of course, being the team of organizers on the ground that organized events in towns and cities all over the world, in Toronto, in my particular case. And I don’t know that I will ever be able to properly be able to express my gratitude to those organizers for what they gave all of us that day, for that light in the darkness. For rekindling some hope, and making us feel part of something bigger and stronger than tyranny or authoritarianism.

In spite of an event that broke all precedent (and almost broke the president!) and managed to set records and change the world, the narrative of the Women’s March being fraught would continue to be perpetuated. There was a breakdown between an administrative body and local grassroots organizers. There was controversy among those who’d been figureheads of the March in the US. Subsequent marches did not bring out the same numbers. In 2020, in Toronto, there would not be a march at all.

And yet.

Three years later, there is that collection of broomsticks on my porch. Since January 2017, when none of us had ever marched in the street before, or ventured outside with a political slogan on a button, let alone a placard, we’ve pulled out our signs and demonstrated to show support for refugees in Canada, and for International Women’s Day. I’ve joined small demonstrations of strangers to counter anti-choice protesters on the sidewalk. We’ve taken part in Fridays For Futures, strikes to stand up for climate change action, and I’ve even organized rallies against education cuts in our school community, and joined our neighbours back on Queen’s Park to stand with Ontario education workers. In the two years following January 2017, we all marched in the Women’s March again—last time in the midst of a blizzard.

I am not an activist. I say this not because I don’t respect activists, but because I do, and I don’t want to take credit for any of their work on account of a handful of broomsticks. Although what is an activist anyway, but an ordinary person who cares about things and is willing to make a stand for a better vision for the future—which is the kind of people we resolved to be in the aftermath of that terrible night, as we choked down the crumbs of that very sad cake.

I’ve been to enough demonstrations by now to be less delighted by old women who can’t believe they still have to protest this shit, or the ones who’d been buried but no one knew they were seeds. But I still believe in seeds—I do. And I know the seeds planted on that January day three years ago will continue to bloom in years to come. I know that the Women’s March, for so many of us, was a political awakening to our responsibilities as citizens and neighbours to help build the kind of world we want to see.

The Women’s March has ended—but it was only supposed to be the beginning anyway. And now the rest is up to us.

November 3, 2019

Neither Useful, Nor Interesting

Oh, yet another blog post that begins with me talking about something I heard when I was listening to a podcast. The Mom Rage Podcast, no less—am I predictable yet? This one was about vaccines (it was so good!), featuring a conversation with medical anthropologist Samantha Gottlieb about the HPV vaccine and “vaccine-hesitant communities.” She spoke about how many people are put off by doctors’ refusal to entertain questions about vaccines at all, which only serves to underline skepticism. When the facts are that vaccines can cause risks, that vaccine injuries and reactions do happen. They happen on a disproportionately tiny scale, with risks minute. It’s more dangerous to get in the car and drive down the road, and we all do that all the time, but still. Doctors don’t want to admit it. It complicates the narrative, and complicating the narrative of vaccination is perilous, literally life and death.

Of course, I like complicated narratives. To complicate the narrative is to get as close as we can to something called truth. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, a bubble. I relish conversations with my economist friend about the virtues of capitalism; I appreciate the activists who’ve open my eyes to the violent reality of racism; my morning routine is basically putting on shoes, but I’ve got big respect for people for whom make-up is a form of personal expression. On Twitter, I used to actually follow the person whose booking at the Toronto Public Library has created such controversy over the last few weeks, because her take on sex-work complicated what so many of the other feminists in my feed were talking about, and I found that complicatedness useful and interesting… until it wasn’t. I unfollowed this person when she started writing online attacks on the grieving father of a dead teenaged girl. When I realized this “journalist” (whose platform is her own website, which she likes to call “Canada’s leading feminist website” [according to whom?]) relishes attention more than any kind of truth, and had figured out that courting controversy was the fastest way to get there (and solicit donations). When I realized she was more invested in dogma and ideology than the feminists whose thinking (and actual lived experiences) she purports to oppose and complicate. This person is neither useful, nor interesting. She is sensationalist, and purely disingenuous. She is the anti-vaxxer of gender politics. She is not “just asking questions.”

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender. Unlike the speaker who was provided space at the Toronto Library, I think that none of this is simple. I wish that the City Librarian had listened to so many smart and respected voices calling on her to cancel the speaker’s booking—the milquetoast mayor called her on it, for heaven’s sake. And no, these people weren’t “bullying the library.” You can’t bully a library. This is nonsense. But I also know that people too are complicated like their issues are, and there are many of them (myself among them) who don’t like being told what to do, to have demands made of them, who double down instead of considering the opposite. We put a lot of truck in unapologeticness in feminism, for better and for worse. I don’t think that we should be boycotting the library, because for so many people, especially marginalized ones, the library is their most accessible cultural institution. Because the library belongs to all of us. Because the people who have the least are the people that lose the most, and I don’t really know what the end-game is of a library boycott, especially now that the event is done and dusted. Though I commend all the people who’ve taken a stance and I do think it’s been hugely worthwhile—the turnout to the protest on Tuesday evening was an incredibly show of solidarity, and the issue has led to all kinds of conversations, which are necessary as we ask questions in generous and thoughtful ways, and figure things out as a society—a process that is far more useful and interesting than anything the speaker might have said on any platform. (This is the work, people. We’re doing it. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’ll only doing it all in your head.)

I do know what it’s like to have my body be the site of a debate. I’ve stood on the sidewalk holding a sign listening to men argue over the semantics of abortion, as to the precise point where the procedure should or should not be permitted, and I can tell you that it’s dehumanizing, insulting, ridiculous, and neither useful nor interesting. And so I have an understanding of where trans people are coming from when they refuse to entertain questions, conversations or debate about their bodies and their identities. When the field of debate is your lived reality, listening to people arguing in abstract terms and citing outlying circumstances as emblematic of the issue at hand—for anti-choicers, it’s all about the case of a particular doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering infants, same as how the anti-trans crew is always going on about aestheticians and waxing, as though these are the actual goal posts and such things are happening every day—is exasperating, traumatic, and a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender, because we live in a world where there are no absolutes, but I am sure that insisting on those conversations at this precise moment is not the most pressing thing we’ve got on the go. That democracy and freedom hang in the balance, as so many others might put it in their letters to the editor. I think back to the vaccine analogy, and the distrust and violent suspicion at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement, which is not so far apart from that of anti-trans activists, really. In both cases, there is an over-estimation of vulnerability, and a convenient disregard for those who are actually vulnerable after all.

Of course, there are conversations that need to be had, questions that need to be answered, but not like this, not by this person. As with the vaccine conversation, the harms—here, it’s increased violence against and vilification of an already vulnerable population—really do outweigh the benefit, which is mainly the privileged and smug self-assurance of living in a society where any idiot gets to spout her rubbish in a public building. And if such self-assurance is our guiding principle, instead of listening to, learning from, and taking care of each other, then what does it say about us?

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