January 16, 2017
I absolutely loved Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, which was just as fun as its cover promised, and meaningful in a way I should have expected. Because while there is indeed something incongruous about First Nations’ science fiction, it’s only because I’ve never read any, not because it doesn’t make total sense. Is there a cultural group more familiar with notions of alien contact and invasion, for example, as in “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon,” in which broadcasters at a community radio station inadvertently summon attention from extraterrestrial beings? In “I Am…Am I,” scientists manage to create artificial intelligence, and the being (who is fed encyclopedias of knowledge) is drawn to notions of First Nations culture for its notions that all things, in fact, have souls, because the alternative is too hard to bear. In “Lost in Space,” an astronaut contemplates being Native in orbit: “What happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? Or feel the summer breeze blowing through your hair?”
In “Dreams of Doom,” an Ojibway journalist learns that dream catchers are a government conspiracy, actually devices to spy on and control First Nations people and keep them in line: “You will notice that since Oka and Ipperwash, other than a few flare-ups here and there, things have been relatively quiet.” In “Mr Gizmo,” a suicidal teenage point is given a wake-up call by a toy robot, in keeping with his culture’s understanding that all things are imbued with a soul (including, awkwardly, your toilet). The narrator of “Petropaths” is a man whose troubled grandson learns to travel through time via ancient codes in petroglyphs. In “Superdisappointed,” the shockingly common conditions of housings on a First Nations reserve (houses with mould, substandard drinking water) causes a chemical effect that renders one man an actual superhero. And finally, in the title story, three reticent Objbway men are taken as ambassadors from Earth when aliens arrive on the planet.
I’ve cited nearly every story in the collection here because they were all of them hits, no misses. I read this book exclaiming at how fun it was, and appreciating the way in which Taylor plays with sci-fi tropes, and that each story pursues such a different line. And yet this collection is not merely an exercise in whimsy either—Taylor’s stories are fervent arguments as to the continuing tragedy of colonialism, which seems to be a solid through-line from the past and right into the future. Familiar ideas then, to those who’ve been paying attention, but the point is that too few are paying attention and maybe more might be with this fresh and utterly engaging context.
January 8, 2017
It was three Christmases ago that I spent my holiday immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of those perfect reading experiences you never quite get over. In homage to that, I had a vision of devoting my holiday this year to biographies too, because biographies require wide windows of time and focus and I can’t always accommodate such things in my ordinary life. But on holiday, I can, so I was all set to read Robert Kanigel’s biography of Jane Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, which I bought back in October, and also Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson biography, A Rather Haunted Life, which I’d had an inkling would be under the Christmas tree. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet, and the Painting of the Water Lilies, had not been part of the plan, but then we went to see the Mystical Landscapes exhibit at the AGO on Christmas Eve, and I have to tell you that I only had the vaguest sense of Monet and his water lilies beforehand, but the whole exhibit was a little bit life-changing. And Ross King’s biography has the most gorgeous design ever, the title fonts inside were gorgeous, and Chapter One was called “The Tiger and Hedgehog”. So I kind of had to, right?
It all turned out so wonderful, each life story captivating and connected in curious ways. Even more oddly, I’d gone offline for the week after Christmas (hence all the time for reading) and we were doing the Globe and Mail holiday crossword at the same time, and I kept coming across answers in the book I was reading—Hammurabi’s Code was something Jane Jacobs studied in her continuing ed courses, and then I got a synonym for “crafty” from translation somewhere in the Monet book, and also knew that Rodin was the sculptor from another clue. As always, the way that books speak to each other is always strange. What to say then about these three? That they’re all about three brilliant people who weren’t conventionally attractive, and it’s funny how the latter point is spoken in such lovable terms with Monet but with the women it’s an altogether different matter. Each character lives through a world war, Monet quite directly with World War One in France (and it’s fabulous to read about his insistence in his painting being included as “war work,” not just for reasons of nationalism, but also because it would ensure he received extra rations of petrol and cigarettes), and both Jane Jacobs and Shirley Jackson (via her husband) would come under suspicion of the McCarthyites. Jane Jacobs was shaped by coming of age during the Great Depression and Jackson by marrying a Jewish man with a terrifying awareness of the genocide being wreaked upon European Jews at the very same time, an awareness that would continue to haunt her.
I’ve spent most of my life with a blithe sense of living outside of history—I was ten in 1989 and everything after that was supposed to be easy, and not even 2001 and everything after would deter that sense until very recently. And what I really appreciated from these three biographies was what it showed about ordinary lives through vast historical backdrops, mainly that it goes on, and also that society’s pendulum swings. World War One, and Monet is painting and art still matters (and even matters more) and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, which was not quite the utopia I’d figured it as, all Summer of Love and civil rights. No, I hadn’t been thinking about the fight before it was won, that before the win it was all fighting. And like right now, it was a time of a divided America, a country at war, racial tensions, riots in the streets, so much injustice. Ours is not a brand new story, is what I am saying, and these three books offer remarkable context to the world we’re living in at this very moment.
This from Jane Jacobs: “I resented that I had to stop and devote myself to fighting what was basically an absurdity that had been foisted upon me and my neighbours.”
Another point that links these figures is that all lived vital, creative lives while firmly ensconced in a domestic scene, surrounded by children—although Monet, of course, is the only one whose stepchild basically devoted herself to subservience in order to facilitate his creative life well into old age; Jane Jacobs’ grown son, on the other hand, would decide to start a business importing bicycles from China but the bikes arrived disassembled and his parents were recruited to assemble 30 of them from directions written in Chinese. Not that his mother wasn’t happy to do so, but still. It’s funny to read about Robert Kanigel’s (whose previous biographical subjects have all been male) fascination with Jacobs being a wife and mother—that she did all she did, and made dinner too—not that her status as mother wouldn’t be used to dismiss her work, the ideas of a woman who was just a mother, oh no! Which reminds me of Shirley Jackson filling out a form at the hospital before she gave birth to her third child, when she wrote “writer” under “occupation” and the nurse changed it to “housewife.” But yes, for Jackson and Jacobs both, their domestic lives fuelled their creative work.
Interestingly, both Jacobs and Jackson lived in Greenwich Village too and frequented Washington Square Park, but a decade apart. I don’t think they ever hung out. And never with Monet—at least not until this blog post, of course.
January 5, 2017
For me, the experience of reading Deborah Levy is a disorienting one, nothing immediately obscure and yet nothing is familiar either. Or maybe it’s that everything familiar is made a bit foreign under her curious lens. I have a copy of her non-fiction book Things I Don’t Want to Know, and while I’ve read it at least three times and even like it, I’ve never finished it. And I wonder if some of my difficulty comes down to her being South African—I had a similar problem with Katherine Mansfield; do writers writing in English from the Southern Hemisphere always read a little upside downly? Even though Levy is South African by way of England and for many decades, and certainly has an English sensibility too. I read her acclaimed novel Swimming Home in 2012, and don’t remember anything about it —possibly because I was eight weeks pregnant when I read it, an experience which never does much for me as a reader. Although my review reveals that I felt the same about it as I do about her latest book, Hot Milk: “At its murky depths…the trick isn’t to underline just what is significant in the text, but instead to understand that everything is.” Except that I went on to say that Swimming Home wasn’t immediately satisfying, but oh, Hot Milk was. Oh so much. An entirely excellent way to start off my 2017 reading year.
I wasn’t really sure though until about two thirds of the way in that with this book I was on solid literary ground. Where was the method, I wondered, in so much weirdness? Under-socialized daughter who happens to be a trained anthropologist (non-practising) arrives in Spain with her hypochondriac mother who claims to suffer from paralysis in her legs, at least sometimes. Daughter Sofia takes her mother to bizarre clinic with eccentric doctor, and embarks upon affairs with both the man who works in the injury hut on the beach (tending to her jellyfish stings, jellyfish in local parlance referred to as “medusas”) and an uber-cool German seamstress who embroiders a word onto a silk shirt and gives it to Sofia who thinks the word is “beloved.” The notion of being beloved empowers Sofia to be emboldened—and she flees to Greece to see her estranged father who lives there with his wife (an EU economist who is a disciple of austerity, who is just a few years older than Sofia) and their very young child. And it is here where she has an epiphany:
“‘My father only does things that are to his advantage,”‘ Sofia tells her father’s wife.
“She stares at me as if I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?'”
This being a novel by Deborah Levy, what happens next isn’t entirely straightforward, but the entire narrative with all its different components (“When I started to write Hot Milk,” she says, “I asked myself: what are the dominant stories in 2014? And I thought they were debt, austerity, big pharma, migration, sexual identity and illness.”) But the brilliant thing is how they all come together, like stars in a galaxy, the image the introduces the novel, although the galaxy is on Sophia’s screensaver instead of in the sky—and also fractured into pieces because she’s dropped her laptop on a concrete floor and shattered the screen. Woven throughout the prose are lyrics from “Space Oddity” and David Bowie and his music (and his image) turn up through the book. And then the scene in which Sophia finds her mother’s footprint in the sand, as monumental as those discovered by another anthropologist, Mary Leakey in 1976—what they reveal about where we come from, who we are—is beautiful and awful
This is a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before, about selfishness and selflessness, about sea and sky, about all those things that are connected. Or not: “The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.”
Or someone sitting in a tin can, just say. Far above the world.
December 19, 2016
One day in October 2014, a man with a gun entered Canada’s parliament buildings shortly after murdering a Canadian soldier standing guard at the national war memorial. The man with the gun had a history of drug addiction, mental illness, and also pledged allegiance to a terrorist “state.” Thankfully, he was taken down before he hurt anybody else, and afterward there were the usual discussions about religious extremism and one religion in particular. A year later, Canada’s Conservative Party was counting on leveraging fear from this incident and others to win another election. They had been slow in accepting refugees from war-torn Syria anyway (and had taken away healthcare from refugees altogether, in a move that defied both logic and human decency), which made it seem personal to Canadians when the body of a small Syrian chid washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and was photographed in a devastating, iconic image.
Determined to stay their course all the same and make it clear how they really felt about multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular—or rather to play to the very worst parts of people’s fears, frailties and debased humanity in order to win votes—the Conservatives gambled on a novel concept, a Barbaric Practices Hotline, wherein Canadians could report their neighbours…for suspected cases of genital mutilation, apparently?? (Who ya gonna call?) An idea that was so preposterous that I still can’t believe it really happened, let alone that the public faces of this idea are continuing to walk around in public (encouraging citizens to “lock up” democratically-elected leaders, no less [but just the female ones. Not that gender has anything to do with it.]).
It was utterly bananas. It was…like waking up one morning and discovering that some clown called Donald is President of the United States. And then against all predictions, against the odds, Canadians in huge numbers shot down that shitblimp and the Conservatives were out. Because for a few weeks there, we didn’t recognize the country we lived in. Because it was difficult to imagine the lows these people would stoop to in order to get power (and you have to wonder if it would be worth it. That you’d have to break something so irrecoverably in order to make it yours. What would it be like to triumph in that fight? Where would lie the satisfaction?). The Liberal Party’s victory on October 19, 2015, I thought—nearly a year after that deranged man had broken into Parliament with a gun (and I’m not going to say he “stormed it,” because he was literally one guy with a gun, and that’s not a storm. That’s something weird falling out of the sky)—was not necessarily for the Liberals themselves, but it was against the awfulness that election had brought us. It was Canadians standing up and declaring that this is not who we are. It was all of us being determined to be something better than what the Conservatives had offered, which was a vision of our very worst selves.
These visions are important, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. These visions of who we are, and what we can do, and what we will do. The prevailing view, she writes, of a community in a moment of disaster being that people will panic—riots in the streets, mass slaughter, every man for himself. A vision built on fear, the same way the Canadian Conservative Party erected their 2015 election platform on fear. But what if, Solnit proposes, these perceptions of human nature are wrong? Going back over historical disasters from the last 100 or so years—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1918, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to find a different kind of narrative. A narrative that is actually prevalent and proven in the “disaster studies” field, which is that in moments of crisis, people come together, support each other, and that new communities and ways of being can actually emerge.
Where there is panic, Solnit writes, is in the realm of the elite and bureaucratic. Rigid systems fail, precarious structures crumble, powerful people freak out about the prospect of the populous realizing they’ve got true agency—and it’s here where the chaos comes in. Armed forces were sent into San Francisco in 1906, just as they were in New Orleans in 2005 along with private security firms, and these forces caused huge problems, viewing community members as an enemy, and being completely out of touch with social dynamics. The trouble comes from improperly equipped firefighters charging into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, all the while people in the buildings were facilitating their own evacuation (against official orders, even—many had been told to go back to their desks and wait), carrying disabled colleagues down 69 flights of stairs, proceeding in an orderly fashion, saving so many lives.
In her book, Solnit writes to open our eyes to other possibilities of human nature. That perhaps we can be our best selves, that maybe our best selves are even who we really are. It’s a heartening read at this moment in time when the western world seems intent on its own disaster course, and when populists are preying on our very worst tendencies. At a moment when the fall of the Canadian Conservatives in 2015, along with their racist, divisive platform, seems like an anomalous blip, right-leaning, xenophobic politics creeping into the mainstream—or one might even say “storming.” When the very people who touted the Barbaric Practices Hotline are not lying low in abject shame, as one might expect, but are gunning for leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, the saddest, most dispiriting, race-t0-the-bottom-ish contest I’ve seen since, well, Ted Cruz was knocked off his weirdo throne or that smarmy fucker Nigel Farage quit the UKIP in triumph.
It’s easy to play these kinds of politics. I mean, not from a moral point of view (how do these people sleep at night?), but it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to put a bunch of people together and encourage them to be angry and full of hate. Because, as Solnit writes in her book, our most basic tendencies are perhaps a yearning to belong to something and to each other. We want a sense of purpose, a reason. I was one of thousands and thousands of people around the world who, on September 11 2001, lined up for ages—for nothing, it would turn out, but still—at a blood donor clinic. We wanted to do something. It’s the reason so many Canadians have donated time and money for the past year to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Canada shortly after the Liberals took office—my friends and neighbours have been a part of these efforts, my mom has, Canadians in towns small and large, in communities already multicultural or otherwise. It’s the reason why, when I came across a small car accident the other week, before emergency services had arrived, passerbys were supporting the cars’ occupants, employees from the coffee shop on the corner had brought out chairs and food and water, and I stood there entirely superfluous and wanting to be a part of it, a bit sad to realize I didn’t have to be—my neighbours and fellow citizens had it covered.
There were also people walking by snapping photos on their phones. This was morbid and weird and kind of terrible, but there are always going to be people like this, people who are self-serving, messing stuff up, playing the system. Caitlin Moran writes about this in her new book, about how there are always going to be people who play the system, that this is who people are just as much as the helpers, but this is no reason to tear down institutions altogether. If we wrecked all the systems that people had cheated, where would that leave the parliament of any country in the world, or the Catholic Church for that matter? See also Solnit on “looting” (when black people do it) and “requisitioning of goods” (when white people do it) and the efforts that were devoted to protect things and property in New Orleans in 2005, sacrificing actual people’s lives. All of which is to say that these things are complicated, and nuanced, and it’s much easier to stand before a group of people and smirk and wave as they start chanting LOCK HER UP.
It’s all the same impulse though, the same yearning for connection and meaning. And I take heart in this. The impulse is there, and what if we can “leverage” that, then we can all be better. And how to make that happen? Solnit writes about increasing community connections, investing in social capital, enabling community infrastructure that permits people to share spaces and things, to congregate, to create a vital public life. It’s about giving people opportunities work together, to know each other, and to be empowered to create their own solutions to local problems. Governments can take heed of this, I think, and invest in these kinds of initiatives to bring people together instead of divide them. And on the individual level, all of us can be empowered already with an understanding of the roles we can play—it’s making eye contact and smiling at people in the street, saying hello your neighbour, leaving a holiday gift for your letter carrier, making friends at the park, using the library, supporting community-minded businesses in your neighbourhood. By being the change you wish to see in the world.
December 4, 2016
They say that over the course of a lifetime you never regret the cakes you baked, but instead the cakes you didn’t bake, although in one specific case I will make an exception—except I am also sorry for the butterfly cake I brought to a party in 2000 that was mostly paste, and the cake I over-mixed for my friend’s engagement in 2008 that had the consistency of cheese. But not this sorry.
I regret the cake, the Hillary Clinton victory cake I baked on November 7.
“If all else fails, there will be cake,” I blogged blithely, but it turned out that the cake didn’t taste very good. When I’m really upset, I don’t have an appetite for anything, and so that sad cake hung around our kitchen getting stale and eventually I threw it in the garbage. The day after the election, I had a task that involved cutting out thirty small squares of paper and using a hole punch, and it was about all I was up to. I sat there at my kitchen table cutting and punching, and weeping as I listened to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s concession speech on the radio. I probably ate some cake, but I didn’t taste it. There was no consolation.
If I had to do it again though, I’d probably still make the cake. Partly because I’m bloody-minded. And partly too because I refuse to budge from my vision of what the world could be and what it should be. I’d rather be wrong than be wrong, if you know what I’m saying. Although I did feel guilty after the fact—I know I inspired other people to embark upon similar baking projects, and there we all were sad in our kitchens on that terrible Wednesday morning. There was so much cake, physical evidence of disappointment, and all of it was my fault.
But I’ll take the fall. I was wrong, and I’ve been wrong before, but as I said above, at least I wasn’t wrong in fundamental ways. I’ve tried very hard to resist a dynamic of winner/loser from this election, not because I don’t like losing, but instead because I don’t mind if I do lose. It doesn’t matter. You might call me a crybaby, but I’ll just look at you confused, wondering why you’re delivering such a puerile insult, and I really don’t care what you think either way. (I’m not going to run out into the street and start firing off my stockpiled ammunition either, and there is really something to that.)
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master…” It’s true. I’ve lost before, over and over again, and what I learned from these experiences is that mastering losing can mean that you can do absolutely anything. I have no fear of failure because I’ve failed over and over again, and everything turned out…fine. Often the very worst thing that can happen isn’t. There are certain things that if I lost them, my life would be fractured irrevocably, but these things are mostly people and I don’t know that anyone can master that kind of loss, although I even know some strong, incredible friends who appear to have done so, who carry on under the weight of interminable grief. So there is loss and there is loss, I mean.
The results of the election have been devastating, but I’ve resisted the idea that my/us having lost is part of the equation. No, it’s something more than that, which is what is actually lost on the simple-minded people who are gloating. Those gloating people aren’t why I was crying, but instead I was crying for everyone, for a vision of the world that’s not that I thought it was, what I hoped fervently it could be. I was wrong, and a whole lot of people proved me wrong, but I can handle that. And if necessary, I’ll be wrong over and over again. Until I’m right, because that’s how history swings.
It’s been a brutal month. On Thursday I finally got my ass back in gear, and started replying to hundreds of emails with apologies for being unable to anything much for this past month except stare at my computer screen in abject horror. I fell down terrible twitter rabbit holes that made me despair about everything, and to wonder about the bubble that I live in, confused and messed up by “voices obsessed with rhetorical fallacies and pedantic debating practices.” When reality starts to seem like a giant conspiracy theory in itself, it becomes hard to know what’s what, and where you stand on things when ground is ever-shifting.
What’s brought be back to earth? Books, of course. I started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto last week, and it set me straight about feminism, and class, and why I don’t want a revolution (“Personally, I’m not up for that. The kind of people who are up for mutinies and riots tend to be young men… I, however, am a forty-year-old woman with very inferior running abilities and two children… I’ve read enough history books to be resoundingly unseen on extreme politics of with the left or the right…They tend to work out badly for women and children. They tend to work out badly for everyone.) While there has been an effort to package this book as more than a collection of her columns, with a thesis and everything, it doesn’t quite work, but it doesn’t have to. Moran is terrific. “Why We Cheered in the Street When Margaret Thatcher Died.” “This is a World Formed by Abortion—It Always Has Been, And It Always Will Be.” “We Are All Migrants.” The world has gone so willy-nilly in the last year that some pieces in this collection are dated in a way that hurts my heart, but the fundamentals still stand. Last Tuesday evening I sat alone reading this book in a public place and I kept laughing aloud in a way that disturbed passersby, and that was a good thing. It was like a terribly funny person finally talking some sense back into me.
And along those lines, I picked up Luvvie Ajayi’s essay collection next, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. A book whose first section left me unmoved, but I think it was tactical, some light and easy judgement toward people who don’t wash their bras regularly or who court unemployed boys with gambling addictions who call you to pick them up at the casino because it’s raining and their only form of transport is their bicycle. Breaking the reader in for the heavy stuff—”Racism is for Assholes,” “Rape Culture is Real and it Sucks.” Powerful, amazing sensible stuff that I so desperately need to hear right now when everything seems so upside down. A Black woman writing about feminism, a Christian woman critiquing how religion is messing so much up these days, a smart woman unwilling to withhold her judgement, so she gives it and it’s glorious and we’re better for it. Consistency is overrated. The point is to be good, to ourselves and to each other. I’m about two thirds into this book, and I’m loving it, reminding me that this upside-down world is the same as it ever was, and that striving for better is the least and the most we can do.
“But the ultimate pragmatism is to quietly note that idealism has won, time after time, in the last hundred years. Idealism has the upper hand. Idealism has some hot statistics. Idealism invented and fuelled the civil rights movement, votes for women, changes in rape laws, Equal Marriage, the Internet, IVF, organ transplants, the end of apartheid, independence in India, the Hadron Collider, Hairspray the musical, and my recent, brilliant loft conversion. Every reality we have now started with a seed-corn of idealism and impossibility—visions have to coalesce somewhere.” —Caitlin Moran
November 27, 2016
I can plot my adult life with Zadie Smith novels. I first read White Teeth during the summer of 2001 when I had a job that was in proximity of too many bookshops, and it was the first time it occurred to me in an undergraduate English stupor that there was such a thing as contemporary literature. (I reread it years later and the book was still brilliant, and shockingly prescient.) I got The Autograph Man out of the library a couple of years later when I was living in Nottingham, and I didn’t think much of it, and wasn’t the only one, but that didn’t matter much because On Beauty would come along in 2005, the year we moved to Canada and this modern take on Howards End would continue to expand my ideas about what contemporary literature could do. I bought her last novel, NW, the day that Harriet started playschool in 2012, when I was five minutes pregnant with Iris, and I can’t remember it so well now, partly because I was pregnant, but also because it was a difficult novel to hold in one’s grasp (as suggested by the surprisingly articulate review I wrote, but have no recollection of). And four years and a few months after that, it would be time for me to pick up my pre-ordered copy of her latest, Swing Time.
It took me nine days to read Swing Time, which for me is a literary eternity. Thankfully, I’m not pregnant, but I was busy and also distracted, and it’s not a novel whose plot exactly rivets. It’s also more than 400 pages long, which is heavy to lug, but I did so. It was not that I didn’t enjoy reading it, but sometimes I wondered what the point was. If NW took its reader up and down the streets and alleyways of northwest London, Swing Time transports across continents via jumbo jet and through decades too—its canvas is immense. It’s a novel about girlhood, friendship, race, dance, musical theatre, social media, celebrity, and social mobility. It’s more White Teeth than NW, and Irie even makes a cameo on page 34. And in all its material, I kept waiting for patterns to emerge, for parallels, binaries.
It’s the story of two girls, our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey who meet at dance class, and they’re both mixed-race children growing on the same housing estate. The novel moves between chapters that take us through their shared history and another contemporary storyline in which the narrator is a personal assistant to an international pop star, Aimee, modelled on Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and helping to establish a school for girls in an unnamed West African country. The notion of time is important through the book, in terms of music and rhythm, narrative time, and also just chronologically. Swing as in swing music, but also in how time swings back and forth between the two narrative threads. (Swing Time is also a 1936 movie musical starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire). Common to both threads is the narrator’s relationship with women—to her mother, to Tracey, to Aimee—and her tendency to lose herself to another’s command. Except that such self-effacingness seems more like a convenient front than actual reality—the narrator is thoroughly in command of the 400+ story she sets out to tell, bending time to suit her own sense of things. Her tendency to not be present is a curious aspect of the book—to the point where other characters are replying to things she said that we never get to read, and what is her name?—but she’s also everywhere, in charge of shining the spotlight even as she ducks out of its glow.
For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.
November 23, 2016
I loved this one, a reissue of a 1956 novel by Wees who wrote more than 20 romance and mystery novels. The Keys of My Prison fits comfortably into the contemporary craze for domestic suspense novels; its a terrifically Toronto book*; and it reminds me of Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch the Ends the Night in a vague kind of way. It’s the story of a young wife and mother (and heiress!) whose husband is injured in a car crash, and when he emerges from a coma, he’s not the man he was before. Could the man in the bed really be Rafe or is he an imposter? Or is it possible that none of them really ever knew Rafe at all? *Had a bone to pick with the jacket copy though, which describes the family as residing in their Rosedale mansion, but they in fact live north of St. Clair on Russell Hill Road. There is also a mention of the “Bay Subway” which someone takes downtown (and which stops on the surface at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair?) and I couldn’t figure out what that was all about. But that I cared so much is a testament to the book’s appeal. Heartily recommended.
I liked this novel a lot, and it’s a story that will appeal to anyone who appreciated Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise a few years back, another story about a quirky character with an affinity for a non-human creature. Structurally, Cluck is a bit lacking, a big and sprawling narrative that could use more focus and tautness, but it has charm and the twists are interesting, and I appreciated the humour throughout, as well as the sensitivity with which Rowntree writes about mental illness and social exclusion. (She previously co-edited an anthology of stories about mental illness.) It begins with Henry playing with his farm set at a young age, and moves through his life as he struggles to find a place for himself in the world, build his own community, and discover an outlet for his passion for poultry. In a hopeful and realistic way, Rowntree depicts the complicated experience of a character for whom conformity is not an option, and has her readers plotting along with her on the road to his ultimate triumph.
This book was so good. I must confess that it initially gave me a case of CanLit Inferiority Complex, because the internationally-authored stories were so stellar I wondered how poor old Canada could ever compete. BUT…then I realized that it was just that the pieces in this anthology were so well selected (by acclaimed writers including Ben Marcus, Claire Vaye Watkins, Kevin Barry, Taiye Selasi, Ali Smith) rather than the rest of the world setting the bar so high (I am sure there are middling short story writers in the UK; I just never have to hear about them). AND Canadian literature has two stand-out contributions to this anthology, the amazing Lynn Coady and Alexander MacLeod (whose own story is worth the price of the entire book). My favourite story is Ceridwen Dovey’s “Fixations”, however, which is one of two postpartum stories in the collection and the best story I’ve ever read about an anal fissure. I also appreciated the badassedness of flashing this book’s cover on public transit. Funny too how much the thematic concerns of the anthology cease to be the point, partly because the stories are just so great, but also because sex and death pretty much covers everything you’d ever want to write about.
November 16, 2016
On the evening of Friday November 4th, I was walking down the street with a copy of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy in my bag. Striding with purpose, something vital playing through my headphones, and a man on the street approached me. He was holding a clipboard, wearing a vest that identified him as a fundraiser whose job it is to get passersby to sign on in support of a charity. The kind of person I tend to smile at, shaking my head, as I keep on walking. Usually I am also herding recalcitrant small children, which makes me less of a target. But that night I was unencumbered, and although I gave no indication of wishing to engage with this person, he wouldn’t relent. Walking alongside me, asking questions, even though I was listening to music, never made eye contact, never answered him.
He didn’t stop and finally I had to say to him, each word delivered with such deliberateness as I waited at the intersection for the light to turn green: “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The light turned green, and I stepped into the street, and I could hear him behind me: “Oh, that’s really nice,” he was calling out to me, as though I’d refused him something he was entitled to, as though his invading my space necessitated a kind of niceness that ought to be returned.
But, No, no, no, I was thinking. I’m not having any of that.
There is something about notes. Notes have an irrefutability that a manifesto lacks, albeit in a shrugging-off kind of womanish way. “When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable,” writes Erin Wunker in the introduction to her Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, but her book turned out to be something very different. Or not. “Unimpeachable” is like a red rag to a bull in the realm of discourse. You’re going to go out and build this solid thing just to have someone break it. They call this “debate”. It’s logic, rhetoric. When you debate you’re not meant to get emotional, to remain at a remove, which is easier to do when you’re not personally invested. When it’s theoretical and you can examine it cooly, not getting all hysterical. Okay then, let’s talk about you policing my body, for example. About campus rape. Let’s call abortion a debate.
It’s back and forth. It gets you nowhere. Turns my actual life into a game of ping-pong. I get hysterical.
Notes, on the other hand. Wunker: “I remember that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.”
“Notes” is a way of ducking.
Also, ducking is a mechanism of survival. What is wrong with being unwilling to be a target, with refusing to play that game?
“Notes” is different game happening on a whole other level.
If I wanted to “impeach” Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, there would be a couple of points I’d start from. The chapter on feminist mothering, for one, which seems to be unaware or else does not to take into account the substantial body of scholarly work on this subject—Sara Ruddick, Andrea O’Reilly, my friend May Friedman, for just a start. Although the chapter poses something familiar to those of us who’ve lived it—the woman on the verge of discovery of this vast world of motherhood and feminism, the questions motherhood necessitates and the unfamiliarity of it all. The complete inapplicability of everything we’ve ever learned before to serve as solutions to our problems. This is a chapter written by an author who is still lost at sea. And there is usefulness in that kind of documentation. But yes, it might have been helpful to have some suggestion of the shore.
My other problem with the text was with the nature of the killjoy, whose moniker I’d wear with relish, actually. Particularly a feminist killjoy. That IS the kind of no-fun I most want to be. (Wunker takes her title from Sara Ahmed’s blog, feministkilljoys, which has been a tremendous discovery for me since reading her book—”joining conversations, making new ones.”)
But I kept being tripped up by the noun becoming a verb—the killjoy actively killing (patriarchal) joys. For a few reasons, one being the violence implicit. I don’t want to kill anything. And also that I have certain amount of reverence for joy. (One of my daughters’ middle name is “Joy.” The other’s middle name is “Malala,” which means sadness, so don’t think I don’t get the whole picture, but she gets to be named for a kickass feminist heroine so it all comes out even.) Joy and happiness, which Wunker writes about as a socialized and commodified product, a social imperative. “Happiness as restricted access. Happiness as a country club, a resort, an old boy’s club for certain boys only.” Happiness as an impossibility.
And yet it’s that notion, not of happiness itself but of its impossibility, that chafes me. Partly because I believe in (even insist on) a genuine happiness that need not be commodified at all—the way the afternoon sun shines right now on my cup of tea, for example. It’s about being present, eyes wide, curious and ready to receive it. It’s about the peace of a moment. Happiness is small and it is slippery, but it’s real.
There really is such thing as joy, and to refer to patriarchal violence as such a thing undermines it. Undermines the spaces we need to create for joy to exist in our personal corners of the world.
Of course, there has been very little joy for anyone who considers herself a feminist in the past week. (It is November 15 as I write this.) That Friday evening as I asserted myself and said, “I don’t want to talk to you,” seems like a relic of a bygone age. When we were reading (excellent, amazing) news articles with headlines like, “The Men Feminism Left Behind.” When I was thinking that progress was slow, but how far I’d come to be able to speak up and say those words to the man on the street. To not have to worry about being nice. When I was taking comfort in my daughters coming into the world on the headwinds of so much necessary, vital change.
After I crossed the street that night and left the man behind, I got on the subway and read Wunker’s chapter about rape culture. The part about her running through the woods to flee a man who’d tried to lure her into his car on a country road. I remember the details: her Birkenstocks, the wound on her foot. The sense that all of us have had of being chased, the fear. Rape as a thing and rape as a sceptre, an inevitable that we steel ourselves for. By not walking at night, for example. There is no joy here either. There is darkness illuminated by streetlights, but even there you can’t be safe.
Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.
I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?
“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”
As I watched the election results last Tuesday night (and felt as heartbroken as I’ve ever felt in my life, perhaps, which is saying something for how lucky I’ve been in a world that’s notoriously hard to live in) I was trying to read the book I’d been reading for a couple of days, Making Feminist Media: Third Wave Magazines on the Cusp of the Digital Age, by Elizabeth Groenveld. I started reading it because those third wave magazines (Bitch and Bust) were what taught me to call myself a feminist, made me realize that I’d been a feminist all along. I’ve always loved magazines—you know, the kind that smelled like perfume—but then one day I stumbled into the magazine rack at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and discovered there was a kind of magazine that didn’t make me feel like less than a person. That there were things other than just a boyfriend that could make my soul complete—do you know what a revelation this was to me? It’s still shocking to consider just how much.
I never noticed when I was writing them that everybody in the magazine was white. It would take me years to realize there was anything strange about that, what a departure from reality such whiteness actually is. I also recall reading letters in Bitch about whether this was a magazine for feminists or lesbians, and (I say this with shame) feeling similar consternation. I didn’t know there was such a thing as intersectionality then. I have learned a lot since I started reading these magazines a decade and a half ago.
What occurred to me though on the day after the elections as I finished reading Grovenveld’s book was the difficulty all these magazines have had in surviving—how the feminist message remains so niche. Considering this in the context of the number of white women who voted for a misogynist fascist seems sort of unremarkable. Why doesn’t feminism sell more? Thinking too about what Grovenveld writes about identity politics and how focusing on distinct groups creates a sense of community among the group’s members, but ultimately it keeps the focus too narrow for widespread change to occur. For the magazine to be sustainable, she means. (Although she writes that a magazine being short-lived is not fair as a standard of failure. The fact that it even existed at all, and was read, defies so many odds.)
On Friday morning I was walking with my friends and we were talking about that group of women who voted for a misogynist fascist, and one friend framed this too in the context of intersectionality, which I’d never properly considered. I’d been thinking about the failure of intersectionality as women break apart instead of coming together (although I understand entirely, and I get that #solidarityisforwhitewomen) but never thought about the troubling intersectionality of these white women with their allegiances to the patriarchy. No woman is a highway.
What is it that makes women go so far out of their way not to support other women? Why did so many people dislike Hillary Clinton so much. To the point of going out of their way to elect a fascist, I mean. Is it because of the lack of representation of female relationships that Wunker references? To the end of getting to the answer to that question, Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck came in for me at the library.
Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why is a historical and pop-cultural look at the women who’ve stirred up shit from the margins and who (as Doyle posits) may have actually been prophets but it’s just that the world wasn’t ready yet. (Billie Holiday on rape culture, anyone?)
I needed a bit of levity these last few days, but also some more context as to how we’ve arrived here, and this book offered both. Why do we set up women to fail with impossible standards, and then decide it’s our job to punish them, to destroy them, when they do?
What the trainwreck shows us, Doyle writes, is that “in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure.”
Which bring us to here.
And no, no, no. I’m still not having any of that.
November 6, 2016
Of the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.
In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.
With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.
Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.
The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?
The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.
(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)
November 2, 2016
In the “Dreams Come True” file, it has been a longtime dream of mine to talk about books on the radio (books AND the radio—two of the very best things) and so my column on CBC Ontario Morning is something of a wonder. Today I got to talk about Fall Books, and it’s fitting then that their spines are so autumnal. You can listen to my recommendations on the podcast here—I come on at 43.13.