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May 16, 2019

The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Water

I think it’s been about ten minutes since I last wrote an ecstatic blog post about how my decision to read Madeleine L’Engle’s Austins series was completely the best thing I’ve done in 2019; so we’re due, right? I finished up the Austin books with Troubling a Star about a month ago, and then decided to embark upon the Polly O’Keefe books, which sort of bridge the Austin and Wrinkle in Time Series. I’d tried to read An Acceptable Time as part of the Wrinkle series when I was a child, but I don’t think I finished it, and I can understand now why it might not have appealed to me, because maybe all these books are best understood in the wider context of L’Engle’s fictional universe(s).

Which is the most amazing mind-bending, time-bending universe. When I picked up Arm of the Starfish, I was actually travelling back in time myself from 1994 (when Troubling a Star was published) to 1964, when she published Arm… (I still can’t believe that this book, which includes a grown-up Meg Murry, now a rather innocuous “Mrs. O’Keefe, was written before A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The way that L’Engle wrote her books so far from the chronological order in which they can be understood to be connected to each other…) Which means that while it was remarkable to reading a novel set just before the summer depicted in A Ring of Endless Night, I was also reading a book by a less sophisticated and practiced novelist. The Arm of the Starfish was also the novel with which L’Engle followed up the smash hit A Wrinkle in Time, which no doubt was some kind of pressure.

The book was okay—it was plot driven and interesting and had all the same kinds of thematic concerns of L’Engle’s work (the nature of good and evil and how they’re connected), but it was lacking in depth and was a bit too action packed. I also found Adam Eddington a less compelling narrator than Vicky Austin, and indeed Meg Murry has not grown into a very interesting woman and my goodness, she is has more children than the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. But also, we’re seeing her through Adam Eddington’s eyes and teenage boys are perhaps not the greatest at seeing the marvellousness of a middle aged woman, especially when she is dripping with children. Interesting how Poly swimming with dolphins portends what happens with Vicky Austin not long after—and also I enjoy contemplating what might happen if Poly and Vicky ever met—would the universe explode?

So I wasn’t especially geared up for Dragons in the Water, published in 1976, about a boy called Simon who is on a nautical voyage to Venezuela and meets Poly (who has not yet become “Polly”) and Charles (who is Charles Wallace redux) on board, and together they have to solve a murder and also there are smugglers and art thieves. But I loved it! Simon was a great character (but then again, name a fictional orphan who isn’t) who has been raised to revere an ancestor whose story turns out to be more complicated and troubling than Simon knew. We also get a glimpse of “Mrs. O’Keefe” near the beginning of this book, and she’s a more interesting character than in the previous book.

It was also exciting to meet Mr. Theo who is travelling to hear a concert by Emily, and I met both of these characters first in The Young Unicorns (published in 1969), along with Canon Tallis, who was also in Arm of the Starfish. I love that if we tried to map out a timeline of all these books and universes and how it all fits together, my brain would turn into silly string.

As with the Austin series, the novel is informed by the time it was written in: “I know a lot of politicians nowadays, and even presidents, don’t take promises seriously and even lie under oath, but I was brought up to speak the truth,” says Simon, post-Watergate. I also read this book right after reading an article in The Guardian on a small town in Louisiana that’s one of the most toxic places to live in America because of contamination from a chemical plant, and this scenario is the same as in the novel, which is why Dr. O’Keefe has been called to Venezuela because fish are dying in a lake there where companies are drilling for oil. “Miss Leonis looked down at her feet where black sludge oozed heavily out of the lake. ‘It looks to me as though the oil industry is raping the lake….'”

And then the response: “One thing I have learned in three years at Port of Dragons is that there are no easy solutions.”

And isn’t that the truth.

May 13, 2019

Spring, by Ali Smith

I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next link, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reward would be illumination. I would finally be able to understand not just what was happening but what it meant and what consequences it would have. But there was never a definitive conclusion. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing speculation and mistrust.

Olivia Laing, “I was hooked and my drug was Twitter”

I don’t always love Ali Smith’s work (How to be Both did not do it for me) but I cannot overstate what the books in her seasonal quartet have meant to me since the world descended into Worst Possible Timeline, which I date to June 16, 2016, the day that British MP Jo Cox was murdered outside her constituency office by a man who shouted, “Britain First.”

What is going on here, I remember asking myself in horror (except with more expletives) and then again a week later when the Brexit verdict was delivered, and six months after that when Hillary Clinton did not become the first woman President of the United States, and then basically about every ten minutes ever since then. Clinging to Twitter, as Olivia Laing describes in her essay, to make some kind of sense out of this real time nightmare—but then again if there was any sense to be made of it, Twitter would not deliver, because it’s in their interest to keep me refreshing my timeline, to have me yearning for clarity and illumination but never actually delivering.

But then in the Spring on 2017, Autumn arrived, the first book in Ali Smith quartet, set just six months before I was reading it, which is a remarkable turnaround in the world of publishing. And the books in this series are the closest I’ve ever come to the clarity and illumination that Laing is seeking in her essay, the clarity and illumination that I’ve been craving ever since I started to realize that the world is a vastly different place than I’d supposed it was. Even though it’s not so clear or altogether illuminating, but still—that Smith is fashioning art and story out of these times that we’re living in. I get comfort from that. A lazy kind of comfort, possibly, and her novel Winter—published in January 2018 (I walked through a blizzard to get it)—alludes to this. That turning these events into literature puts then at a distance that makes me feel better, and maybe I don’t deserve to. Look, here’s art. These things are cyclic. It will be fine.

It’s not fine, and I know it’s not fine, but I am still roused at Smith’s ability to articulate our situation in her novels. Spring came out this month and begins with four pages of run-on text that appears to be cribbed from Twitter. “We need the dark web algorithms social media. We need to say we’re doing it for free speech.” And then the story begins with a screenwriter who is mourning the death of an old friend who was briefly his lover and who was also his mentor. (What is going on here?) He’s on a train platform in the north of Scotland, and he’s mostly lost in nostalgia, and the train doesn’t come.

In the next section, more disturbing zeitgeist (“We want you to know how much your face means to us. We want your face and the faces of everyone you photograph and the faces of all your friends and the faces of the people they photograph recorded online for our fun data archive and research…”) and then a young woman called Brittany Hall who works as a guard in a detention facility for asylum seekers and/or illegal immigrants—but something strange is afoot. A young girl who managed to get through the barricades, past the guards, inside locked doors and into an office where she convinced the powers that be to have the facility professionally cleaned. Which is to say that it no longer smells like shit in this place where actual people live anymore, even though Brittany Hall has forgotten these are people, because you have to forget, or else how can you bear it. And Brittany Hall is going to end up with this girl on a train to the north of Scotland where they’re going to cross paths with the screenwriter, and like the other two books in the series, this is a novel about art, and the nature or art, and the purpose of art. About hope (springs eternal), because what is art but hope embodied after all.

May 7, 2019

New Lane Winslow Alert

Has it only been a year since I fell in love with Lane Winslow and Iona Whishaw’s wonderful series about the best lady sleuth since Harriet Vane? Set in the interior of British Columbia during the post-WW2, these novels about a young woman who just happens to be an ex-spy—and who would like to retire for a little peace and quiet, please, in the idyllic hamlet of King’s Cove—are as smart and feminist as they are charming, which is saying something. And their underlying messages are so timely and relevant still decades after the time in which the series is set.

My Lane Winslow career started with the fourth book (which was amazing!), and then I spent last summer getting caught up on the back story, just in time for Book Five to come out in the fall. And now Book Six is here, A Deceptive Devotion, as Lane and Inspector Darling plan their wedding (swoon) but (naturally) they stumble upon a murder (the murder rate per capita in King’s Cove rivals that of Midsomer) and things get complicated…

I had the pleasure of providing an endorsement for this book, which I read back in December. “It’s always a pleasure to return to King’s Cove and be swept away by another Lane Winslow tale. This latest instalment—rich with intrigue, humour, murder and romance—underlines why Whishaw’s books have fast become my favourite mystery series.”

May 1, 2019

Bina, by Anakana Schofield

Anakana Schofield’s Bina follows Martin John, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015, and Malarky, winner of the 2013 Amazon First Novel Award, and takes place in the same fictional universe—the character Bina first appeared in Malarky. And now Bina has had enough, we’re told, and really, what woman hasn’t, I wondered. Supposing that Bina had had enough in a very general sense—but there is nothing general about Bina. Instead, this is very much a novel about specificity, and the failure of general terms, common tropes, and lazy thinking to adequately reflect human experiences which makes it very difficult/impossible to achieve real understanding, even in the truest of friendships.  

But then one complicating factor in all this (and there are many) is that Bina herself isn’t being very specific. (“How can I say it without saying it?”) Confined to her bed and afraid for reasons she cannot properly delineate (some identifying details are redacted with a thick black line) she is scrawling her story onto the backs of envelopes with whichever writing device she can dig out from under the bedcovers, which explains the peculiar shape of her paragraphs, short lines stretching long. What she’s writing is not so much her story, but a series of warnings, one of which involves the danger of discerning a larger meaning to her narrative project: “Don’t trust a word said after I’ve stopped,” she writes. “…Don’t arrive at the end of this tale insisting it was too long or too wide or too unlike you. I am not interesting in appealing to you.”

But she does.

Some things have happened to Bina—she found a man in a ditch, she delivered Meals on Wheels, she couldn’t get rid of her lodger, she’s been getting violent messages on her answering machine, her best friend is dead, Bina’s been in jail, hippies are camping in her yard, and there’s the Tall Man who comes over and they sit down and play Scrabble. And similarly is the novel itself a puzzle, a kind of wordplay, with blanks to be filled in (but alas, no triple word score). But how one of things that happened to Bina connects with all the other things that happened is not a straightforward kind of crossword situation unfolding line-by-line neatly across the board.

I often wonder at the women who give birth to awful young fellas like Eddie. I think there’s a case to be heard for shoving the likes of Eddie back up and starting all over again. I believe in abortion since I met Eddie. It’s a shame you can’t abort a 40-year-old.”

There is the most fascinating kind of moral ambiguity in this novel, and it is here where Bina’s lack of interest in appealing to us is most apparent—she keeps threatening murder, though her lawyers implore her not to. She’s not here to deliver any message beyond her warnings, and the novel is most remarkable in its refusal to have a gist and, like its protagonist, to conform to anybody’s expectations. Yes, this is a novel about female rage, and failures of society, how women are ignored and dismissed, but it will not sit tidily in any kind of box. Bina is a novel opposed to boxes.

“Bina’s not for difficult books,” the reader is told. “Life’s full of difficulty, so if she were ever to lie down and take up a book, it couldn’t be a difficult one.”

Bina is not a difficult book. It’s a provocative book, an original book, and it’s challenging, requiring the reader’s engagement and attention, but engaging with and attending to the book is not difficult, even if the protagonist is so determined that she will not appeal to you. Because she does, and her voice is fabulously caustic and it’s almost delightful to follow her, no matter how dark a turn the story is going to take (and it does). And once I got to the end, the puzzle still wasn’t solved, not all the blank spaces filled in yet, and it’s the kind of book that is best read more than once but it’s also the kind of book you will want to read more than once, and the second time I liked it even better.

May 1, 2019

May Books on the Radio

One reason I really love having a books column on CBC Ontario Morning is because of the host, Wei Chen, who has just returned to the airwaves after a leave of absence. She is such a pro, so good at her job, but my very favourite thing about her is that she actually reads the books I recommend on her show. Which means that we get to talk about books in a way that is real, and meaningful, and that is such a pleasure. And I think that pleasure is evident in our conversation this morning, which you can listen again to on the podcast. I come on at 49.00.

April 29, 2019

The Western Alienation Merit Badge, by Nancy Jo Cullen

Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut novel The Western Alienation Merit Badge (which follows her award-winning story collection Canary) begins billions of years ago: “After the inland sea dried up and its beaches turned to sandstone and the plant life turned to coal and gas…” Although by the end of the sentence, we’ve arrived in the 1970s, a small girl emerging from the bushes with her cap-gun loaded, a copy of The Guide Handbook tucked into her waistband. But we will not discover just who the girl is or where she’s come from exactly for about 150 pages or so. And the point is this—that while history stretches long here, it’s never out of sight, and everybody’s looking backward, behind them, time unfolding like a peacock’s tail.

Although there is nothing as extravagant as that in the novel’s first section, which takes place in Calgary, Alberta in the autumn of 1982. Which is why it’s particular hard for Frances to be home again, her European adventure cut short because her stepmother had died and her family needed her. Leaving behind her girlfriend and a certain amount of carefreeness in Portugal to come back to Calgary, which has just lapsed into recession. Her widowed father is taciturn and has taken up needlework as a way to connect with his wife, and Frances’s furious sister has problems of her own. So when Frances reconnects with a woman from her past, and her (Catholic) family begins to understand that she’s a lesbian, things go over just about as well as you might expect.

The Western Alienation Merit Badge was a pleasure to read, and in terms of craft is remarkable for two particular features. The first is for its points of view, which move between characters providing vastly different perspectives on the same situation, and while the few times this happened mid-chapter it was a bit jarring, the result of this approach is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is really effective in particular because of how Cullen avoids cliches and sentimentality in creating her characters and their dynamic. There’s no wicked stepmother trope here, as Frances had really loved her stepmother, whose arrival in the household had made their broken unit into a family—and they’re all lost without her. Her father’s grieving process, taking up quilting and knitting and trying to channel his wife through her sewing machine, was unlike anything I’ve ever read in fiction before, and such an incredible way to add an additional dimension to a working class guy, the kind we’ve all read about in fiction before. But will his sensitive side extend to understanding the life of his lesbian daughter?

The other remarkable feature of the novel’s construction is that after a short second section set in 2016, the novel takes us back in time. Not quite as far back as when the inland sea dried up, but instead to 1974, before Frances’s stepmother came into the picture, and here the reader is provided with the solution to much of the puzzle regarding the kind of people who the members of this family would become. Because Alberta is the kind of place, the novel is suggesting, where the answers to questions still lie in the past, which is why this novel set in a recession-era Calgary circa 1983 seems so absolutely timely in 2019, in particular as the province has dominated national headlines lately with their recent election.

If you’re not from Alberta and want to understand why Alberta is the way it is, and the way many people who live there feel about themselves in relation to the rest of Canada, this novel is a good place to start.

April 25, 2019

Moccasin Square Gardens, by Richard Van Camp

I’ve always got time for Richard Van Camp, who I got to know first through his baby books and then discovered his work for older readers (including The Lesser Blessed, and his most recently book, the short story collection Night Moves). His latest is Moccasin Square Gardens and, as you might expect from an author whose work spans lullabies to stories about monsters, these stories run the gamut.

There are aliens (“the Star People”) hovering overhead in the first story, brought to an Earth on the verge of collapse due to global warming, but even in the midst of this ominousness, a gorgeous love story ensues. In “Super Indians,” a young man hatches a delicious plan to bring down his Band’s Chief whose latest bad idea is a hydroelectric dam on the Slave River.

The next two stories are about the Wheetago, the brutal human-eating monsters that Van Camp has written about before, creatures whose presence paints the tender moments in the collection in even starker outline, as they’re meant to be—but let’s not forget about the human-eating monster aspect of this either. The second story in particular is not for the faint of heart, and you will not be bored here, and you will actually not be bored at all in this collection, with most of the stories narrated in the first person as to a listener, so it’s like hearing a story, just sitting back and letting the scenes unfold behind your eyelids.

The stories are also funny. In “The Promise,” a bride must contend with her new husband’s revelation about a long-ago vow made to a childhood friend. Continuing the theme of puerility and men, “Man Babies” is the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman whose 28-year-old son has yet to grow up. “I Am Filled With a Trembling Light” is another story of vengeance with the most amazing arc. And then in “Ehtsee/Grandpa,” a young man who quits smoking pot after getting his grandparents stoned and then taking them to KFC where everybody laughs hysterically, and that’s just the beginning….

April 24, 2019

The Myriad Nature of Maternal Grief

Everything I know about infertility, I’ve come to understand through the analogy of abortion, which is not the opposite of infertility—though some people might have you imagine so. For your information, adoption and miscarriage are not the opposite of abortion either, as the many people who’ve had both abortions and miscarriages can definitely attest, and those women who’ve experienced adoption too. (And pay attention here, to the challenge of going beyond a single story in women’s experiences—a theme. To an insistence in our rhetoric on either/or, and maybe neither if you’re lucky, but never both.)

While I’ve not experienced infertility, I have had an abortion, which means that I’ve spent a lot of the last seventeen years thinking about reproductive choice (which delivered me the rest of my life, after all, so I spend a lot of time saying thank you). And in this thinking it occurred to me that such notions of choice must necessarily include women who want to be pregnant but aren’t, women I feel solidarity with because both experiences (wanting to be pregnant when you’re not and not wanting to be pregnant when you are) have feelings of grief and such abject despair at their core. And similarly do abortion and infertility attract the wrath of patriarchal forces, because there is nothing our society likes less than a woman who exercises agency over her destiny, who refuses to be a passive vessel.

(An additional commonality I’d never considered until reading Alexandra Kimball’s book is that abhorring abortion and dismissing the trauma of infertility both require diminishing the physical labour required to be pregnant and also that to become pregnant through reproductive technology. Abortion and infertility treatments are both considered, by those who don’t know any better, as a matter of simple “convenience,” equivocating women’s labour with, just say, a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks.)

And so Alexandra Kimball’s The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue was always going to one of the books I’ve most been looking forward to this spring. (The first time I read Kimball’s work was a 2015 essay on miscarriage, which was also about her abortion, and I am always interested when abortion/miscarriage/infertility are part of the same conversation; and note: they were also all part of the conversation in the anthology I edited in 2014, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood).

But I will admit that while I was looking forward to The Seed, its thesis (that feminism has failed infertile women) made me uncomfortable—and certainly it’s even supposed to, and it’s provocative. But what I mean is that I didn’t start reading the book completely on board, and I felt its central premise would possibly be a bit overstated. (This is kind of like when you’re white, and a racialized person tells you about their experience of racism, and you suppose they’re just being a bit sensitive.)

But it was by about page 50 and her analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale and infertility in pop culture (after the chapter on infertile women as monstrous in myth and folklore, beginning with a Babylonian epic from 18th century BC, right up to witchcraft trials just a couple of hundred years ago) that Kimball had me convinced that she was not just being sensitive. After discussing pop culture infertility in films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (infertile women literally destroying the everywoman’s life) she turns to The Handmaid’s Tale, and concludes that while it is “unequivocally, a feminist text…in its world, female barrenness is not only…threatening…disgusting… it is outright oppressive, a necessary engine for patriarchy itself.”

Kimball’s analysis from here is about the tension within feminism toward motherhood in general: “an idea of motherhood as conscription into patriarchy remained central to feminist theory and action.” And how feminism’s emphasis on CONTROL in terms of reproduction left little space for those women whose experiences were beyond their control—she quotes Linda Layne on the monumental Our Bodies, Ourselves, which included miscarriage and infertility in a separate (and unillustrated) chapter at end of the book.

And who exactly gets to be in control of their reproductive lives was quite specific from the start in feminist circles—racism and classism have always played a role in this. So that even now, the experiences of racialized, queer and poor people are alienated from conversations about fertility, which itself is alienated from conversations within feminism anyway. Kimball shows numerous examples of people in general and feminists in particular being much more concerned with and disturbed by ideas about people resolving their infertility than the problem of infertility itself.

And why is it so easy for our rhetoric to remain so unconcerned about the experience of the infertile woman? “They ignore the grief,” writes Kimball, who notes that she has never felt as objectified as she did when she was infertile. “It’s difficult to see [an infertile woman] as anything other than a curiosity of capitalism, akin to people who undergo cosmetic surgery.” She writes about “the existential clusterfuck of this trauma,” how the tragedy of infertility is that resolution always seems just close enough at hand to be worth pursuing. “It’s less of a biological impulse than a narrative one, a need for coherence and sense.”

And here, Kimball begins to see the possibilities of sisterhood, of solidarity, for she finds it with a friend who a trans woman whose own experiences have been very different but who understands the extent of Kimball’s grief in a way that few other people do. (Kimball also points out that Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists find women pursuing fertility as challenging to their politics as they do trans women.) She further identifies with the the artworks of Catherine Opie and Frieda Kahlo, how they portray bodily labour and grief. “I looked at Opie’s portrait series and Kahlo’s miscarriage works frequently when I was struggling, not so much because they mirrored my own experience or made me feel less lonely, but because I was heartened by what I felt was the complexity of their stories… They demonstrate the myriad nature of maternal grief.”

That myriad nature is explored in the essay anthology Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, edited by Allison McDonald Ace, Ariel Ng Bourbonnais and Caroline Starr, a work that challenges “the single narrative” that Kimball complicates and writes against in her cultural analysis. In Through, Not Around, the political is made personal again with 22 stories of infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, mostly by women, but with a handful by men. Each writer is telling a story that is far from uncommon, but which was until recently taboo (and even remains so in many cultures). As Kimball writes, society is made uncomfortable by evidence of the effort and labour of motherhood, would prefer it to remain hidden so we can continue to believe it is natural, essential.

My only critique of this collection is the lack of contributor bios, because it would be interesting to see what a range of backgrounds these writers are coming from. (Although I try to think of reasons why contributor bios might be avoided here, and I can think of some answers. What happens when we let the stories speak for themselves?) My sense is that these writers come from a fairly broad spectrum of experience (although, for reasons Kimball has illuminated, racialized, queer and poor women are in the minority here, as they are in conversations about fertility in general) and that most of them are not professional writers. (The anthology was born of the online community The 16 Percent.) And so I was impressed by how excellently written most of these essays were, how they made stories out of experiences that defy the conventions of narrative at every turn. (There is a reason you rarely read a novel where someone ends up having five miscarriages.)

The grief that Kimball writes about is evident in these essays, which are stories of strength and resilience under sometimes unrelenting pressure. The point indeed is getting through, which requires action instead of passiveness. But also questions of when to try a different path forward, when to stop, and all the surprising diversions that happen along the way. Women’s lives, we read in these essays, are fraught and brutal and hard and knit with tragedy, but are also unfailingly interesting.

There are so many ways to be a woman, and to become a mother, or to be infertile, even. I’m grateful to both these books for complicating the narrative in the very best way.

April 17, 2019

The Centre of the Universe, by Ria Voros

I think I’ve made a pivotal error in my life of late, which is confusing my extreme aversion to badly written coming-of-age novels (“because if you make your character do stupid and inexplicable things, your plot doesn’t even have to make sense!”) with a lack of interest in YA books. And this is not exactly scientific, guys—because I’ve still barely read any YA books—but it’s possible that there is less overlap than I thought between badly written coming-of-age books and YA. Certainly every time I pick up a YA novel (Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Saints and Misfits, by SK Ali) I come away thinking, “Well, who ever would have thought it? That turned out not to be a badly written coming of age novel after all…” and meanwhile in more Literary pursuits, I keep picking up badly written coming of age books over and over.

So best to stick with the YA, maybe? I picked by The Centre of the Universe, by Ria Voros, after I learned about her amazing literary matchmaking with astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker, which Voros wrote about on 49th Shelf. Voros had written a novel about a teenage character with a passion for science and astronomy, and wanted to give her character a real-life scientist to look up to, and ended up contacting Tasker (who works in Japan for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) to see what she’d think of appearing in a novel. Turns out that Tasker was game (a strong imagination and ability to see the value of connections is important when one is an astrophysicist, I suspect) and ended up consulting on the novel, providing a Q&A for it, and now is making some tour stops with Voros in Toronto and British Columbia, because her own book (The Planet Factory) has just come out in paperback. They’re going to be at Lillian H. Smith Library next Tuesday April 23 at 6pm, and I thought it sounded like a cool event and something, perhaps, I’d like to take my daughter to.

So I read the book to see—and I really loved it. The story of a seventeen year old girl who’s obsessed with science and feels light-years away from her glamorous superstar journalist mother. And then the distance is made literal when the mother disappears, and Grace has to contemplate the idea that her mother exists outside her own orbit and may have secrets she doesn’t know about. Meanwhile, her best friend is busy organizing fundraisers to support Syrian refugees, and Grace developing feelings for a guy at school who is pretty dreamy and has a passion for photographing butterflies—and what I loved about this book is that all the characters were so interesting and curious, empathetic and intelligent, and while their lives might be complicated, but they’re resilient, and I appreciated the portrayal of strong friendships, as well as the plot’s lack of reliance on cheap tropes (or inexplicable behaviour—see my point above about badly written coming of age novels). I loved that Grace’s parents were interesting people in their own right, with fears and desires, and flaws, and Grace’s struggle to accept that. Plus a plot that kept me turning the pages.

I loved that it’s a book I’ll have no qualms about passing on to my daughter too, who is a bit too young for it—she’s (nearly) ten. But while some of the book will definitely go over her head, I think she will get enough out of it. There’s a sex scene, but it’s pretty tamely written as these things go, and definitely so in comparison to Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight, which was my first exposure to sex in a book, and I wasn’t that much older than she is.

April 4, 2019

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

One of the first essay collections I ever fell in love with back when I was first falling in love with the essay was Pathologies, by Susan Olding, who was later kind enough to write a short piece at 49thShelf about the essay form. Olding wrote, “In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”

It might be the risk, but it’s also the reason, as demonstrated by Alicia Elliott’s remarkable and now-bestselling debut, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground. A collection of essays that examine stories and ideas from all angles, not one side, or even (more importantly in this age of polarization) both sides, but instead acknowledge a myriad of viewpoints, or points of consideration. These are essays that resist certainty, neat conclusions, simple morals. Instead: there is multiplicity, complication, tension, and this is what makes the book so fascinating. “Sontag, in Snapshots” begins with self image and photography; and then photography and colonialism; Black Lives Matter and video recordings of police brutality; on photography and agency, and also community; cultural stigma of “selfies” and misogyny, and imperial beauty standards; and photography as “a family building exercise;” then landscape photography in Banff vs. the Kinder Morgan pipeline and how some mountains are more worthy than others; and torture a Abu Ghraib; revenge porn; and what it means to have one’s pain witnessed, corroborated. It’s an essay that ends with questions instead of answers, ever expansive, “Why do we need our lives to be witnessed? Why do we need to share our experiences, to have this connection to others? Why do we need to control others so badly and so completely that we will even try to control their image? Is it because we’re trying to make ourselves more real? Is it because that power—as expansive or minuscule as it may be—fills a void?”

As Olding writes, “the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go.”

While Elliott’s essays—which portray her experiences growing up in poverty, as an Indigenous woman, as the child of a mother with mental illness, a teenage mother herself, a survivor sexual assault—recall (in the best way) the groundbreaking work of Roxane Gay in her collection Hunger—a collection that also lays bare the experience of trauma—they are also different in tone. While rawness is a feature of Gay’s essays in her collection, Elliott’s are more processed, polished, synthesized in a way I hadn’t entirely been expecting from someone who (admittedly, in addition to winning magazine awards, being awarded the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize, being nominated for the Journey Prize, and appearing in Best American Stories, so we should have seen it coming) has made a name for herself with incisive Twitter threads and having none of your racist bullshit on that particular social media platform.

But with her first book—which is eminently readable, absorbing and hard to put down—Elliott solidifies her reputation as a profound thinker and prose stylist, in addition to being a Twitter powerhouse. Perhaps the tweets are where her rawness is, but readers of her essays will find a voice more cool and discerning, and oh-so-fucking smart. Good luck trying to mess with “Not Your Noble Savage,” a consideration of literary colonialism that is coming at you with receipts (as they say on the Twitter), with Margaret Atwood in an essay claiming that Pauline Johnson (as an Indigenous writer) is not “the real thing,” but Thomas King (“the son of a Cherokee father and a Swiss, German and Greek, ie white, mother”) gets to be. “[L]et’s consider Canada’s history of dictating Native identity,” proposes Elliott, and then this leads to considerations of how Indigenous writers’ work is “policed” by critics, and the charade of reconciliation, and “the fairy tale that keeps Canada’s conscience clear.”

Recalling Olding’s, “We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave.”

Oh, the places where these essays take us. She writes about learning the verdict in the Gerald Stanley case, on trial for the killing of Colten Boushie, while visiting the space centre in Vancouver while on vacation with her family, “dark matter” as a metaphor for racism—”it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable.” I haven’t had lice since February (knock on wood) so was able to read her essay “Scratch” without too much creepy-crawly imaginings. She writes about mental illness, and the Mohawk phrase which describes it, which is where Elliott’s collection gets its name. About being Indigenous while looking white, and her ambivalence about her child receiving the same inheritance; on cultural appropriation and what it meant when she read Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, the first time she’d read the work of another Indigenous woman—she writes, “Every sentence felt like a fingertip strumming a neglected chord in my life, creating the most gorgeous music I’d ever heard.”

I’ve not even touched on her essay about Toronto’s Bloor and Lansdowne neighbourhood, about gentrification; the one about nutrition, poverty and its colonial legacy; about her marriage (“Antiracism is a process. Decolonial love is a process. Our love is a process…”) About attempting to understand and love her complicated and troubled mother. Her essay, “Extraction Mentalities,” which is a “participatory essay,” something I’ve never encountered before, with literal space on the page for the reader to engage with her questions. And throughout the entire book, really, Elliott has created space to engage with her questions, the entire project infused with this characteristic generosity. To be at once fierce and powerful, but also vulnerable and tender—what a gift that is to her reader. And what a gift this whole book is, strumming a neglected chord that the world needs to hear right now.

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