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March 27, 2018

Catch My Drift, by Genevieve Scott

I was always going to have an affinity for Genevieve Scott’s debut novel, Catch My Drift. Its protagonist, Cara, is nearly my exact contemporary, and I also have a strong fascination with the 1970s’ Toronto that brought my parents together and delivered us all into the world I remember from my childhood. I’m also kind of crazy about Swim-Lit, although Catch My Drift is only really pool-centric in the first chapter, which is when Cara’s mother Lorna is a on the cusp of trying out for the Varsity swim team at the University of Toronto. It’s 1975, and swimming is her entire identity, her whole life. Which has already been rocked by the end of a romance and a car accident in which her knees were injured, undermining her swimming potential. It’s summer and she’s training at the pool where her roommate is a lifeguard, sneaking in for laps just before closing. But when it comes time to prove herself, Lorna flinches, setting in motion the rest of her life, for better or for worse.

We meet Cara in the next chapter, 1987, nine-years-old, and see Lorna now, no longer a woman on the cusp of her life, but instead a mom. A mom who’s dealing with an unreliable partner, the domestic demands of parenthood, and the consequences of a life she made that hasn’t turned out like she might have imagined. But all this is on the periphery—the narrative is filtered through the perspective of Cara, for whom her mother doesn’t really exist as a character in her own right yet. And so the story goes, moving back and forth from mother to daughter as the years go on, as Cara develops into her own person and Lorna reconciles with her own choices, a life with a lot she is proud of. Although at this point, we’re still seeing her through the disdainful eyes of her teenage daughter, who is grappling with her own questions about the kind of woman she wants to be, so it’s complicated. But it is the subtle softening of Cara’s understanding of her mother, her own emerging sympathy for her that is my favourite part of the novel, and culminates in an ending I feared would be heartbreaking but ended up being perfect and beautiful.

Not everything is subtle in Catch My Drift. Some secondary characters border on caricature. This is a novel composed of pieces and the shape of it all is a little unwieldy. In some places it reads like a first novel…but the more I read, the more assured I was by the project, and the more the story appealed to me beyond simple nostalgia. Partly because it becomes clear that nostalgia is a point the novel hangs on—what do we remember and why? What version of reality are those memories made of? How did we get from here to there? What are the consequences of our actions, both in our own destinies and in the lives of others? Because the answers are wondrous and far-reaching, even in the most ordinary lives.

February 22, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu

I’ve read twelve books this month (so far!), barrelling through each one with gusto. They have been so good and I haven’t encountered a bookish dud in weeks and weeks—which meant that Naben Ruthnum’s recent tweet really resonated with me: ‘You haven’t “lost the ability to read,” you are just being lazy. Fuck the neuroscience, leave your phone in the other room and have some discipline.” YES. Or else you’re reading all the wrong books? Maybe I should be selecting your books for you, books that will recovery your ability to read—and top of the list is Kim Fu’s second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. It’s a novel shaped like no other novel I’ve read before, original, heartbreaking, subtle and resonant. Packing a whole lot of story into a couple of hundred pages, I have no doubt that this will be one of the best books I read this year.

Imagine a novel about summer camp, about a kayaking trip gone terribly wrong, a novel that holds within it the span of a life like The Stone Diaries did, except there are five lives. Nita, Andee, Dina, Isabel and Siobhan. Ten-years-old, the dynamics between them are complicated, alliances and enemies emerging in the relationships between any relationship proper. And then the first chapter ends, and the reader finds herself sweeping through the next three decades of Nita’s life, what happened (or, as the book is constructed, is still going to happen) at camp just one detail among many that informs the person who Nita becomes. Or is it so incidental? Which is the question about which Fu’s narrative hangs.

Every other chapter outlines chronology of the camping trip, interspersed with the story of who each girl becomes—puberty, high school, friendships, sex, independence, marriage, motherhood—years and decades going by at a clip but Fu pinpoints her details so well that these chapters are each like a novel in themselves. (Some of the girls’ lives are more elusive than others; we see wha happens to Andee, the “scholarship camper” through the prism of her sister’s experiences.) And then once we get to end of the novel and know what happened to the girls on their trip, those children, those hapless (maybe?) re-enactors of Lord of the Flies, each woman’s story is cast in a different kind of light. And just a note that what actually transpires on the trip is kind of banal in its disturbingness—or is it? Is it more disturbing that this story is banal? All of which is to say that those with an aversion to stories about children in peril need not avoid reading this book. Nick Cutter’s The Troop this is not, and they don’t encounter any witches in gingerbread houses. That they don’t need to is a testament to Fu’s craft though, as she is making a lot here out of very little. Or making a little out of a lot, and this is the question the novel hangs on in the most fascinating way.

January 30, 2018

Boat People, by Sharon Bala

The debut novel by Sharon Bala (who was acclaimed for her short fiction with the award of The Journey Prize last year) is The Boat People, an ambitious, engrossing and absolutely important book that I keep hearing about everywhere—Bala was on The Sunday Edition; reviewed in The Globe & Mail—and for good reason. It’s a book that might be called timely, except that stories like this—of people fleeing war and persecution, chancing everything on survival in a new land, being viewed with suspicion upon arrival, the threat of outsiders and others being manipulated for government propaganda—are as old as stories about people venturing across seas at great peril in search of a better life are. Which is to say: as old as stories themselves. And peoples, and seas.

Inspired by the 2010 story of a ship of Tamil asylum-seekers arriving in British Columbia, Bala’s story begins with Mahindan, a Tamil mechanic who has lost everything except his young son and has bet everything he has on the chances of finding a new start in Canada. The novel begins with the ship’s interception as it reaches Canada, and follows Mahindan through the process of being imprisoned and separated from his son as months go by and his fate is left in limbo—will he get to stay in Canada, or will be he deported to Sri Lanka where nothing good awaits him. Alternate chapters also take us back through his history, showing us how he went from a happily married man with family, friends and a rich life, awaiting the birth of his first child, to someone with (almost—save for his son) nothing left to lose—the gradual reveal of Mahindan’s backstory makes for compelling, powerful reading.

But Mahindan is not the story’s centre, or not its only one; that this is a story with multiple centres and voices and points of view is an important aspect of its construction. Because there’s never just one centre of a story, and all the best narratives refuse to be contained, overflowing to be resonant in all kinds of surprising ways and flowing into other stories. Like the story of Priya, a second-generation Tamil-Canadian who would just like to finish her placement in corporate law so she can become accredited and begin work in mergers and acquisitions, thank you very much. But the fact of her ethnicity means she’s roped into a position with another lawyer in the company who’s working in refugee law and who overestimates her knowledge in terms of Tamil language and culture to assist him as he supports the Tamil asylum seekers with their refugee claims. Like Mahindan, Priya is somewhere she doesn’t belong, and for a while she resists being involved with the asylum seekers and the war her parents had been so intent on leaving behind them when they arrived in Canada. But eventually, she becomes invested, and the ramifications of this are felt deep within her family.

Like Priya, the story’s third central character has also worked to put the past behind her, a third generation Japanese Canadian called Grace whose hard work in the civil service has been rewarded with a role adjudicating refugee claimants. She begins her new position not long after the Tamils arrive, and political tensions are high, and ever being manipulated by Grace’s former boss and mentor, the Federal Minister for Public Safety whose interests lie in keeping the threat of terrorism high. Meanwhile, Grace’s mother is ailing from Alzheimers and the past and the presents are intermingling in her head, stirring stories of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two, stories that Grace’s family had been careful never to dwell on. Stories of othering, persecution, public safety threats, racism, and so much terrible history that’s so analogous to what’s going on in the present day.

Bala’s prose is beautiful, the narrative so careful woven, and the shape of the novel itself so terrifically undefined in a way that allows the story to go beyond its limits, to pose questions that don’t necessarily have answers, to unsettle its readers in the most powerful way. There is a didacticism at work, but with a depth and complexity that saves the novel from its few too-earnest moments. Further, a little earnestness is nothing to scoff at, and maybe the author of a book this interesting, original and well-written has earned those moments. Especially since this is such an essential book for Canadians to be reading right now.

January 23, 2018

Winter, by Ali Smith

I walked through a blizzard to buy Winter a week and a half ago, the new release by Ali Smith that I’ve been looking forward to since rereading Autumn in the autumn. A novel that helped me so much through the political turbulence that was 2017, contemporary events as rendered by literature so that they were just enough at a distance–it was clarifying, and gave me hope. And so it was strange to pick up Winter, the second book in Smith’s seasons sequence, and see that everything wasn’t okay after all. That one book is not going to cure us of what ails us, and the trouble continues through winter, a season during which nature settles down to sleep:

“God was dead: to begin with. / And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism, and surrealism were all dead…”

The novel opens the day before Christmas, with Sophia Cleves who is haunted by a disembodied head. Interestingly, this being an Ali Smith book where surrealism is so often present, it doesn’t occur to me until later when we see Sophia through the eyes of other characters, that there is anything unusual about a woman being haunted by a disembodied head. Autumn had the weirdness of people turning into trees, and the head spectre is the strangeness of Winter, and usually these are points that would make me want to give up, but so much else makes me go on. Autumn opens with the absurdity of a character’s engagement with a bureaucrat at the passport office, and Winter does a similar trick with Sophia Cleves’ visit to the bank before they close at noon on Christmas Eve—the insanity and banality of these kind of engagements with the state and/or corporation, the robotic interaction between a human being and a person who’s just doing their job—presumably a human being as well.

Sophia Cleves is not the centre of Winter (the dead of?), which is instead her son Arthur, Art. Who writes a blog called Art in Nature, about stepping in puddles and bird sightings. Art who I was all prepared to sympathize with, all set for him to be my hero—and then we realize that as a hero he’s terribly flawed. His furious girlfriend berating him for his lack of engagement with the world around him, for believing he’s doing his part through his blog posts (which are totally made up; Art never leaves the city), and not seeing what’s going on around them. He tells her, “We’re all right… Stop worrying. We’ve enough money, we’ve both got good assured jobs. We’re okay.”

“Forty years of political selfishness…” she continues. Political divides, the rise of fascism, plastic bags, etc. And he dismisses her, all of it. It’s the way it always been, he tells here. These things are cyclic. Whatever, whatever. We’ll be all right. It’s all fine.

I am Art. This revelation occurred to me around page 58. This, and the fact that I’m a climate change denier, which is a revelation I had on Friday when I got in an argument with my dad about why we see robins around in the winter. “It’s totally normal,” I say, because I read it somewhere once. “Climate change,” says my dad. “It’s getting warmer, it’s scary.” And I become a bit hysterical. I don’t want to be scared. I know climate change is real, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it in my tiny little life, and so to preserve my sanity I cling to signs that everything is normal. For example, about how when I bought this book, I walked through a snowstorm. A blizzard. In the winter. Things are fine.

The story takes place over Christmas at Sophia’s, when Art comes to stay with his girlfriend, who is not his girlfriend (who has just broken up with him due to his political selfishness) but instead a random woman he meets on the street, an immigrant from Croatia via Toronto with a penchant for Shakespeare who is struggling to get by. When they arrive, it becomes clear that Sophia is not okay, and so they call her estranged sister Iris to come and help, Iris the old hippie, who’d protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, Iris who is the living embodiment of another way to face the world, a way that’s different from Sophia and Arthur’s denial—of seeing, of engaging, and doing her part to change the world. Insisting that, via Greenham Common, she really did.

But it’s not as simple as that, of one way being the good way to live, and the other being bad. There is a moment when Iris and Sophia say to each other, “I hate you.” “I hate you.” And then embrace, and lay down together in bed, and there it is, what has to happen. It isn’t easy. It isn’t neat. But somehow these characters, “see its the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story.”

That last line a reference to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which I’ve never read or seen!), the play that makes Arthur’s not-girlfriend come to England, in fact. “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning”…. “I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place where I’m going.”

Art is how we get there, is Smith’s thesis in this novel. Through Shakespeare, yes, but also by seeing what happens when we put real things in fiction—things like Brexit, and the Grenfell Tower fire. What happens to books when we put the world in it is a question that’s addressed in the most wonderful way, Arthur’s not-girlfriend (whose name is Lux) telling the story of an old copy of Shakespeare kept in a library with the imprint of what was once a flower pressed between the pages. “The mark left of the page by what was once the bud of a rose.” She’d called it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen… it was a real thing, a thing from the real world.”

Which was exactly what had made Autumn so powerful to me, and otherworldly too in the ways in which it did engage with the world. It was why reading it again in October was such a big deal, to be present in the novel’s moment. It was why it was especially meaningful to keep reading and discover that the Shakespeare play Lux refers to is housed at the Fisher Library here in Toronto, right at the end of my street. Uncanny, isn’t it? The line between life and fiction blurred in the most fascinating fashion.

My favourite thing about Winter was everything, but I especially loved its connections to Autumn, which are lovely, subtle, and so unbelievably perfect. Except I read somewhere that Spring’s not out until 2020, and how am I supposed to wait that long?

December 10, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

January seems like a long time ago now, when I was reading Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, and drinking out of a mug that broke in October. Do you remember? I don’t even remember who that reader was really, or all the readers in between, but all the same, I am grateful to all the books and authors who made my 2017 so rich, bookishly speaking. The following titles are the ones that have particularly stayed with me.

Hunting Houses, by Fanny Britt

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

 

Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Autumn, by Ali Smith

December 6, 2017

My Life With Bob, by Pamela Paul

It’s here! I’m on vacation, in my reading life at least. Which is the way it happens every year sometime in the first half of December when I realize that I’m done. And that for the rest of the month I’ll be reading books just for fun, because I want to, unabashedly and uncritically and for the love of it (including four big books I’ve been saving for the holidays when I take time off-line, biographies of Vita Sackville-West, Svetlana Stalin, P.K. Page, and Joyce Wieland). I’ll be reading books just like I read Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, voraciously and with delight. I loved My Life With Bob, which I bought Friday, started reading Sunday evening, and finished last night whilst sitting on my kitchen table waiting for the pasta to boil.

It’s the kind of book that makes you want to write a book just like it, an autobiography through reading. I would write about reading Tom’s Midnight Garden when my first baby was born, and the night after the second when I sat up breastfeeding and reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Reading Joan Didion for the first time on a tram in Hiroshima, which was around the time I started reading Margaret Drabble, the secondhand bookstore in Kobe that’s responsible for my connection with some of the writers I love best. Reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall when I had pneumonia, and Fear of Flying on a plane to London, and The Robber Bride when I was far too young to properly understand anything it could tell me. I really could write an entire book like this—except it probably wouldn’t be as good as Pamela Paul’s.

“Bob” is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a list she’s been maintaining for decades of all the books she’s read. A list without annotations, but who needs annotations, because when she sees the titles they call forth an array of memories and stories. Forcing herself to read the entire Norton Anthology in college, the books through which she learned about New York before she lived there, reading Kafka on an ill-fated high school exchange to France, and her own Catch-22—”the unquenchable yearning to own books—to own books and suck the marrow out of them and then to feel sated rather than hungrier still.” These essays are not necessarily about the books in question, but about what it means to be a book person, to identify as a reader and have literature underline one’s lived experience.

The essays are so incredibly good. They are subtle and unnerving and do precisely what essays are supposed to do, which is to catch their reader off-guard and take her somewhere she wasn’t expecting. As life itself tends to do, and we follow Paul through college, and then post-college travel to Thailand, through the precarity of her early career, and such a stunning sad essay about her short-lived first marriage. Which leads to self-help, of course, and of the time Paul took a writing course with Lucy Grealy (right??) and how she gradually became a writer, as well as a reader. (And oh, do not forget the essay about her relationship with a man who liked the “Flashman” series. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, all this in an essay on the impossibility of getting along with someone whose books you do not like.) And then the essays on reading with her children, and the one on her father’s death and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books, which don’t have so much to do with one another except that books are not so simple and so his death and the books become intertwined.

“Ultimately, the line between writer and reader blurs. Where, after all, does the story one person puts down on the page end and the person who reads those pages and makes them her own begin? To whom do books belong? The books we read and the books we write are ours and not ours. They’re also theirs.”

And as I begin my reading holidays, I’m quite ecstatic that this one is mine.

November 30, 2017

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

Do you know what’s NOT very original? Me writing about The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline, that’s what. The book that won the OLA White Pine Award, the Governor General’s Award for Young Readers, the big-deal Kirkus Prize, among its many accolades, and has since run out of space on its cover for awards. I first encountered Dimaline at The Festival of Literary Diversity in 2016 on a fantastic panel about faith in literature, and she was so impressive I bought her short story collection A Gentle Habit right after and I really liked it. But even so, I was less inclined to pick up her novel that followed it, because I was all, “YA dystopia, huh? No way.” Partly because of my own genre-biases, it’s true, but also because the world is dark enough: why should we throw a pack of post-apocalyptic teens into the mix?

But we should, actually, as advised by Shelagh Rogers who tweeted, “I am delighted @cherie_dimaline. The Marrow Thieves is billed as YA. I urge A’s to read it!!” And then this fall everywhere I went, people kept asking me, “Have you read it yet?” Until finally, I had no choice but to buy it, and I am so glad I did, because (and you never saw this coming): The Marrow Thieves was amazing!

Although it took me a few pages to settle into it, to get a sense of the shape of the narrative. It’s from the point of view of Frenchie, a 17-year-old who travels through the wilderness of Northern Ontario with a ragtag family of kids and a couple of elders ever on the move to escape the clutches of “the recruiters,” officials who take Indigenous people away to special “schools” where their bone marrows are harvested. The reason? Climate change has sent the environment into turmoil and as a result of the devastation people have lost the ability to dream—except for Indigenous people, whose resilience and connection to the land has enabled them to survive one apocalypse already and whose dream lives are an essential part of their cultures. And so the bone marrow of Indigenous people become coveted, the key to recovering the ability to dream without which people the world over are going mad.

The book begins with Frenchie’s brother being taken by the recruiters, after the boys have already been separated by their parents and the world is a dangerous, toxic place. Using his wiles, as well as his connection to the land and remarkable abilities in hiding and climbing, Frenchie gets away from the recruiters and is eventually found by Miig, who tells Frenchie and the other children who travel with him the story of what has happened to their land and their people, some of this story still speculative to novel’s the reader and much of it historical fact. We follow Miig and Frenchie and the rest of their found-family, learning the often harrowing stories of how many of them came to join the group.

But soon the recruiters are getting closer, and the stakes are getting higher. Three quarters of the way through, this novel becomes so difficult to put down and part of the appeal is that all its darkness is underlined with such abundant joy. The love story between Frenchie and Rose is part of this, as well as the family love between Frenchie and Miig and the other members of their group, and the strength and wisdom they carry on their journey that seem incorruptible. Amidst the YA darkness is the rich spirituality of the novel and its sense that some things—love, not least among them—are inconvertible. That life and love and land are worth surviving for.

And the third last page! The third last page! It had me audibly gasping like a, well, like a grown up devouring a YA dystopian novel in all its incredible goodness. I still can’t get over that third last page, and what it leads to. I loved this book, and urge you to pick it up if you haven’t read it yet.

November 27, 2017

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

After a few days stuck in a reading rut, I knew I was probably going to enjoy Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens MD. I’d flipped through it and supposed this was a collection of vignettes about a doctor’s experience working with patients at a Vancouver refugee clinic, a timely topic with the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees in Canada over the last two years, and considering that our previous Federal government had seen fit to cut refugee healthcare—a decision that was reversed when the Liberal government restored benefits in 2016. A few passages jumped out at me—there was a bit about Canadian sponsors and infantilization of the refugee families they’d supported, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, the complexity of those relationships. This would be a book I’d find interesting, I knew.

What I was not anticipating was that I’d be so compelled by the work as literature, for its shape as a memoir, the glimmer of its prose, and for its depth and richness as memoir. These are not just stories of Scholtens’ patients, the story of her work, its challenges and contradiction, its joys and satisfactions. The book is framed by Scholtens’ engagement with a family newly arrived from Iraq (although, as she writes in her preface, her patients in the book are composites of actual people for privacy concerns) and also by her own family life as she suffers a miscarriage and then later becomes pregnant again, giving birth to her fourth child. She counsels the Haddad family through their health concerns (PTSD among them), works to diagnose their son’s developmental problems, talks to their teenage daughter about sexual health, and gives the girl’s mother advice about how to get pregnant all the while being wary of the many health risks involved. Along with this family, we are shown glimpses into Scholtens’ relationships with other patients, from Kenya, Myanmar, Syria and Iraq.

It is with Scholtens’ own pregnancy loss and the profound way in which her own healthcare provider is present for her that she has a revelation about the role she plays in her patients’ lives. Previously, she’d felt uncomfortable with their profound gratitude toward her when she felt as though she wasn’t really providing anything, or certainly only providing to piecemeal solutions to the problems they were working to overcome in their lives. But she comes to understand the value of a physician just to bear witness and listen. She comes to understand too that while the gifts her patients bring for her, for example, might make her uncomfortable, her patients are seeking to balance a relationship in which they feel profoundly indebted. Or else gift-giving is an important cultural touchstone for that particular patient—and there funny and lovely anecdotes depicting these interactions.

Bearing witness is no small thing though, and Scholtens writes beautifully about her own struggles. What does it do to one’s spirituality and notions of God and good and evil, to see evidence of the harm and trauma that people can inflict on others? How does she reconcile her own comfortable life in contrast to the poverty and social isolation of the people she cares for? How to balance the demands of her job with her own mental health and general wellbeing—not to mention the demands of caring for four children? How to bridge cultural gaps without undermining the essential nature of cultural identity and religion?

Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist becomes a story of how a doctor learns from her patients the answers to all these questions, or at least discerns clues as to the direction to go in search of answers. To say that it’s an uplifting and breezy read should not undermine the spiritual weight of Scholtens’ story and its importance—but hopefully it will compel you to read it.

October 25, 2017

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

There were women who actively campaigned against universal suffrage. When I learned about this a while ago, the revelation stunned me—but also was something of a comfort. That this kind of lunacy was not without precedent, I mean. That women (and people in general) have always been self-defeating and so obstinate. It’s almost admirable. Almost. But not really, because it’s also dangerous and stupid and it terrifies me. Last fall I spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with strangers on twitter about feminism, in one circumstance about why MPs shouldn’t have to put up with being called “ugly cunt” and threatened with rape or death, for example. Suggesting that this was a gender problem, mostly because this sort of thing didn’t happen to MPs who weren’t women, but plenty of women disagreed with me. Online abuse, they informed me, is simply part of life, and to suggest that women weren’t tough enough to take it, to roll with the punches, was a blatant example of sexism. And it was roundabout this point that my brain twisted into a pretzel shape, and then my head completely exploded.

And so while the general content of Lauren McKeon’s new book, F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War of Feminism, would not come as news to me, the book itself actually proved to be a comfort. Showing me that I hadn’t gone completely insane, for example, as my conversations on Twitter were really causing me to think I had, and that anti-feminism is indeed an actual phenomenon. Which, when unarticulated, seems encroaching and awful, when suddenly everyone who’s wrong gets to be right (and very loud). But McKeon situates the phenomenon in its own context and the context of our current political nonsensicalness, and her analysis actual made me feel better. As in, here is a thing and it’s insane but it’s also graspable, and the only thing any thinking person can do is try to understand it and to learn.

“[E]early feminists…largely protested abortion, at least in public. Still, as much as we owe a debt to these women, I’m not about to grab a petticoat and try to be them. I might picture myself standing on their shoulders, but its not in a straight and unwavering line. Rather, it’s an inverted pyramid that allows for pluralities and expansion, a rejection of this idea that it’s good to go backward.” 

“An inverted pyramid that allows for pluralities and expansion” is a fair articulation of McKeon’s feminism in general, and I love that. I appreciate too the way that she necessarily complicates the idea of first/second/third/fourth wave feminisms too: “As much as older feminists can seem surprised and baffled by younger feminists, the lines aren’t strictly generational; they’re ideological.” Calling upon a discussion of generational divides by Bitch co-founder Lisa Jervis, McKeon writes: “Categorizing feminism into waves flattens the differences in feminist ideologies within the same generation and discounts the similarities between different ones, all in one fell swoop… When we buy into the wave theory, we forget common goals, like the fight for abortion rights, equal pay, and ending violence against women.”

But while McKeon suggests that feminism can indeed thrive on difference, she affirms that we’re nowhere near there yet. White women, she writes, still have ways to go in confronting their privilege, in complicating their own understandings of feminism, and moving over (or even sitting down) to make room for other voices. “If feminism wants to survive and grow, not shrink, it’s vital that it learn how to communicate within itself.”

Because here’s what feminism is up against, as McKeon delineates in the rest of the book: there is the usual chorus of “I’m not a feminist, but…” people, who are only too happy to benefit from the movement, while contributing nothing to it. Men’s rights organizations are on the rise, and women are jumping on board their bandwagon. McKeon delves into the Men’s Rights movements, while never losing her feminist footing (“The men’s rights movement is fond of saying its members don’t hate women. What a load of BS… That’s akin to saying an abusive husband likes his wife. Whatever, buddy; that’s not the point.”) McKeon finds roots of the movement in 19th century magazine editorials, and in the 1989 Montreal Massacre too, whose perpetrator hated feminists. What’s new, however, is the movement’s modern rebranding toward a superficial notion of equality, claiming a universality due to the women who are happy to be its public face.

McKeon speaks to some of these women, who are unabashed in their contradictions (and, usually, in also their ignorance too). A Thunder Bay housewife who writes about how women shouldn’t have the right to vote (who concedes that her brash online persona is mostly bluster and clickbait—and this is a problem, the damage done by so-called provocateurs who are literally profiting on online outrage). A writer of erotica whose website was trolled by anti-feminists…who led her to their website, and won her over, and now pulls in thousands of dollars per speaking engagement. These women’s con-jobs, McKeon writes, are remarkable: “convincing women to shun victimhood without actually doing anything to make us not victims… They’re like the Houdinis of discrimination and hate, conjuring up amazing illusions. Underneath it all, though, the message is essentially: let’s keep things unequal for women, so everybody wins!”

She goes on to critique opt-out culture and the domestication of pre-feminist gender roles, which feeds right into men’s rights rhetoric and fuels the faux-polarization of stay at home moms and working ones, which obscures realities including class. These nostalgics also forget that 1950s housewives were miserable, purged from postwar jobs and stuck in the suburbs on tranquilizers, and blamed for everything that was wrong with their children. It was not a great time, folks. And those who think it was have misunderstood the intentions of second-wave feminists—McKeon points out that Betty Friedan “wanted better treatment for housewives, not to abolish the role.” The myth of “having it all” was invented not by feminists, but by journalists, who’ve been trying to sell magazines (and pitting women against each other) with it for decades.

It is the context of a conscious effort to keep women out of the workforce that McKeon writes about “Gamergate,” the online movement targeted at abusing women who wanted to have a voice in the video game industry—and precedent for the dumpster fire that was the 2016 US Presidential Election. But it also stands for the way that women are driven out of lots of industries, McKeon posits, often for being pregnant, or having sick children to care for. Or simply because they can’t afford the costs of childcare. And anti-feminists dispute all of this, of course. The wage gap is a lie, they’ll tell you. McKeon writes, “By capitalizing on women’s anxieties about doing/having/being it all, and simultaneously crafting these neat little pretzel knots of logic, anti-feminists have helped strengthen the silence.”

And speaking of silence, she writes about women denying rape culture and the violence of sexual assault—including the groups of mothers whose sons have been accused of rape and have started a group in support of boys in their sons’ situations, actively trying to convince women that the things that happened to them weren’t even rape after all. (“‘You can make a good faith mistake about whether you were raped,'” Stotland assured me, presumably benevolent, like a fairy godmother of victim blaming.”)

She writes about the rebranding of anti-abortion activists as pro-women as well, and the ways in which their movement is gaining ground, with access to abortion becoming more and more difficult across the United States (and in some parts of Canada, it’s never been great anyway). Is “pro-life feminism” even a thing? McKeon quotes an activist, “The future is pro-life female… We’re not trying to control women or take over their bodies—that’s not it at all… We believe you should have control over your body from the moment it first exists.” McKeon writes that pro-life feminism lacks an agenda beyond being anti-abortion, and that its rhetoric is unlikely to take hold in the feminist movement proper… “But can I see it working alongside the anti-feminist and post-feminist movements to crush modern intersectional feminisms and the reproductive and sexual rights around which they mobilize? Well, yeah, sure, I can see that.”

The book ends on a hopeful note, you will be happy to know. McKeon’s second-last chapter is about young empowered feminists who waging brave and awesome campaigns, both online and in the world. She goes back to high school, where her own feminism was born in a gender studies class, and is inspired and moved by the conversations she sees happening there. The idea that young women don’t care about feminism is a myth up there with “having it all.”

And then she concludes her book with her trip to the Women’s March in Washington on January 21 2017, a monumental event whose media coverage fuelled discord and served the anti-feminist agenda exactly…except the Women’s March was a triumph. The Women’s March was amazing.

“Was the Women’s March on Washington a crucial time for women to join together, or was it an opportunity to confront its historically privileged and narrowly rigid roots?” McKeon asks. The answer is simple. The answer is easy (but it also isn’t). The answer is affirmatively positive: McKeon answers, “Yes. And yes.” And the rest of her book is the reason why she and her reader are so emphatic that this must be the case.

October 16, 2017

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

Have you ever listened to Lee Maracle speak? I hadn’t, except for a spot on the radio last year where she totally stole the show. Which meant that I kind of knew what I’d be getting into when I went to her presentation at The Word on the Street last month, and she delivered completely. Terrifyingly smart, warm, informed, funny, biting, and not here for any of your shit, was the impression I got from Lee Maracle. I bought her book immediately after the session, the new essay collection My Conversations With Canadians, the latest in BookThug’s Essais non-fiction series. It’s a book born of Maracle’s experiences over the years addressing audience questions at book events, the book’s most central one being from the old man who gets up and asks her, “What are you going to do with us white guys—drive us into the sea?” Never mind Maracle’s formidable response to him, which you’re going to have to read the book to figure out, but I’m still hung up on the man himself, what he stands for. How do you get to be the person with nerve enough to stand up and demand anything of Lee Maracle, is what I’m wondering about, not least because, well, it means that you get to talk instead of Lee Maracle. I don’t have a problem with self-esteem, but I’ve never thought highly enough of myself for that.

Of course, the question I am asking is rhetorical; how do you get to be that guy? And the answer is white supremacy and patriarchy. Which doesn’t absolve me, of course. Which doesn’t place me outside of that audience of Canadians that Maracle is addressing in these essays. Some of which made me uncomfortable, actually—my experience of the world has left me with no understanding of the power of song, for example, which Maracle writes about in her first essay: “we can sing you up to wellness or sing you down to illness, even death. It is the power of our songs. We could even raise our poles with song.” I delineate this to show that even though much of Maracle writes about does not make me uncomfortable—centralizing indigenous experience, issues of cultural appropriation and stealing stories; the necessity of elevating oratory; fiction as a powerful truth—that I understand the experience of someone who might approach the book and its ideas with some hesitancy. Someone who doesn’t know quite yet that the point is to be unsettled after all.

“It is not enough to acknowledge something—you must commit to its continued growth and transformation,” Maracle writes in her essay, “What Do I Call You?” Which is to say that learning and growing is the very point, that being progressive is a process and one you’re never finished with if you’re doing it properly. Which is why welcoming this experience of being unsettled is the very point, along with sitting the fuck down and listening.

I loved this book. I love the way that Maracle peppers her work with allusions to so many incredible Indigenous writers in Canada who are changing the world, sentence by sentence, how My Conversations With Canadians is also the most terrific bibliography. I love how she writes about Indigenous identity, and how Canadian identity is never questioned, or at least not in a non-superficial way. “I am not quite sure how the identity of Indigenous people became fallible and questionable to Canadians, while their own identity is not, but I can say this much: I do not recall ever having doubts about my identity, The point they are making is that my identity is violable—it can be violated.” (Which reminds me of Camille T. Dungy’s comments about her identity as a Black woman: ‘that you see me as a “regular” person suggests that in order to see me as regular some parts of my identity must be nullified. Namely, the parts that aren’t like you.’)

Maracle writes about intersectionality, about feminism, she dismantles the myth of Canadian niceness, and the myth of objectivity too, and then writes about the true myths that are “the path to truth and knowledge”—something science, she writes, is only just beginning to understand. About giving up “the knower’s chair,” which assumes that we as Canadians as the teachers, and Indigenous people our students (i.e. sit down, bellowing old man!). Gender binary and making a link between the idea of binary and that which binds us, an etymological link that had never occurred to me before. A whole chapter is devoted to cultural appropriation, and knowledge and stories as an inheritance which has been stolen from Indigenous children. (Here I’ll repeat something I’ve written before, that until I read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, I really thought that the theft we talk about in terms of what was taking from Indigenous people was mostly metaphorical. I had no idea…)

She writes, “Rather than looking at where we are in a hierarchical order of things, we should look at our responsibility toward the lives we are dependent upon. In any relationship, we have responsibilities, obligations, and disciplined interaction. We cannot simple do “whatever we want” in the name of freedom.” I also loved this in a following paragraph, “All engagement is a moment of sharing, every morsel of food a moment of sharing from earth to us and back.” In that same essay, “Humility is crucial to recognizing and examining our failures, our mistakes, our contribution to broken relations…” And then she goes on with this brilliance, “Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the absence of the right of access to my land or my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be.”

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror. After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and in the oceans, and after spoiling the air, and the waters, who would want to be you?”

Are you unsettled yet?

As I read this book, I kept thinking of the bellowing man asking questions, and that guy had become a stand-in for the kind of Canadian journalist who has made an industry out of writing about Indigenous issues, not so subtly underlining his racism with every click on his keyboard. About how all this focus on colonialism and intergenerational trauma, and de-centreing whiteness, and giving credence to Indigenous forms of knowledge has, well, threatened to destabilize our white supremacist patriarchal society, and for obvious reasons this really bothers this guy. Because of how he refuses not to see himself as central, as neutral, as non-complicit in any of the systems that perpetuate the tragedy of Indigenous people and their communities.

What would happen if he read this book, I wondered. Like actually read, instead of making inflammatory notes in the margins and planning his rebuttals. What if the bellowing old man actual shut up, sat down and listened?

In the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser: perhaps the world would split open.

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Mitzi Bytes

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