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December 7, 2014

The Return by Dany Laferriere, and books in translation

the-returnFor all kinds of reasons, I am so pleased to have finally read Dany Laferriere’s The Return. Not least because Laferriere is one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated writers—in its original French, The Return won the Prix Médicis (France) in 2009, the International Literature Award (Germany) in 2014, and Laferriere was elected to the Académie française a year ago, the first Haitian and Canadian writer to receive this honour. It was kind of ridiculous that I’d never read him before.

I’m pleased mostly to have read The Return because I liked it so much, a novel that blurs boundaries in all kinds of ways—between fiction and autobiography, poetry and prose, home and exile, belonging and displacement, and also bridging the extremes in common perceptions of Haiti. It’s a novel whose prose is both stirring and lulling, easy to read and rich with wonderful lines. It begins when Dany, our protagonist, receives a phone that tells him his father is dead, a father he hardly knew, and even still, this begins a journey out of exile, back to the Haiti that Dany had fled decades before, to bring the spirit of his father home. So he goes back to a home that is no longer home, driven by a relationship with his father mostly constituted of absence and silence. It’s not a straightforward journey, and nothing is ever merely one thing or another, and I love that.

I love also how the book is so curious in its construction, how it tears down and reconstructs all my ideas of just what a novel is shaped like, which is what I wanted to have happen when I resolved to read more books in translation in 2014. And so I am also glad to have read The Return because it’s one more translation on my reading list, to which I can point now and say that my 2014 goals were met in a way that was not entirely half-assed. Just a modest success, but I did so appreciate the books in translation I read this year—and I like that most of them were Canadian, translated from French (The Return, by David Homel), French via Inuktitut (Sanaaq), and Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect spoken in New Brunswick (For Sure). I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch, which I liked a lot, and Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from French and first published in France.

So 5 books out of a hundred and some, which is a bit meh, but alas. I’m going to keep seeking out books in translation in 2015, and I already have a copy of Dany Lafferriere’s I am a Japanese Writer waiting to be read.

December 6, 2014

Songs of the Sea

I got some books to talk about before I sum up my (as always, very good) picture book year, and for no very good reason, all the books I have for this post are all about fish. Which delights me.

fisherman-throughThe first one is Fishermen Through and Through by Colleen Sydor and Brooke Kerrigan, which is just brand new (and has a string of bunting on its cover). It’s a storied story, rich with allusion, but in the most unostentatious way. It’s about three fisherman called Peter, Santiago, and Ahab who “were rough and weathered as a twisted stick of driftwood… Which is not to say that they didn’t sometimes dream of things other than fish, knotted nets, and saltwater.” The three fisherman dream their dreams of a different kind of life, and while under influence of dreaming, they come across a bright white lobster in one of their nets. The men decide to share the wonder with other people, so they bring the lobster to shore, where it creates a media furor. For the lobster, they’re offered enough money to make all their dreams come true. So what are they going to do, these friends, who are fishermen through and through?

The illustrations are gorgeous and dreamy, in particular the subtle shades of the sky. And the prose: lines like, “Man and crustacean sailed this way, admiring one another until the sun got snoozey and settled down, down on an orange cloud, toward the lip of the sea.” I loved this one, and Harriet did too, for it’s a story full of magic and meaning.

glubIt immediately put me in mind of A Fish Named Glub by Dan Bar-El and Josee Bisaillon, which came out in the Spring. Which was a book I didn’t first know what to make of—it’s really weird, more like a Wes Anderson film than a picture book. It deals with big existential things in a manner that struck me as a bit twee the first time I encountered the story, but it’s grown on me, and Harriet likes it. Similar to Fisherman Through and Through, it’s a story about dreams and friendship and lessons learned from those confined to an aquarium, and it’s got more than a little magic too.

jim-longs-stageAnother book that’s new to us but is familiar to lots of other readers is Down By Jim Long’s Stage by Al Pittman, with illustrations by Pam Hall, subtitled, “Rhymes for children and young fish.” It’s a Newfoundland classic, a wonderful and silly accounting of the subaquatic social scene, with rhymes like, “A lobster named Larry/ so wanted to marry/ Lila the lobster next door./ That when he proposed/ and she turned up her nose/ he wept all over the floor.” Such pathos! Such rhyme! Many times since we picked up our copy, we’ve read it cover to cover.

sailorAnd finally, There Was an Old Sailor by Claire Saxby and Cassandra Allen, which I’ve rounded up before, and most certainly deserves a place in this mix. It’s a quite preposterous redux of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” (which is pretty preposterous in itself, but come on, it’s not like she swallowed a whale, for pity’s sake…), with a maritime theme. We love to sing this one, and tickle our children with the line about the jelly “that wriggled and wriggled and jiggled his belly” and then to revert to all serious when we come back to the same line each time: “I don’t know why he swallowed the krill—It’ll make him ill.”

Plus the illustrations are so so wonderful. Check out the squid to find out precisely what I mean:

sailor-squid-page

December 5, 2014

There comes a time…

IMG_20141106_165935There comes a time in every family’s life when their copy of Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s The Baby’s Catalogue needs replacing. “Uh oh,” said Iris, pointing to where the book had split in two, on the “Accidents” page, no less. Though we’d seen it coming—this was the book I took care to always have in my bag when Harriet was a baby, so that when Iris was born, the spine was already shredded, and she took great pleasure in furthering the damage herself. Until the whole thing had come to pieces.

It’s a turning point, and we’ve been encountering a lot of these lately. Iris turns 18 months old exactly today, and I’d forgotten what a huge turning point this age is. Her words are coming fast (and often furious): car, and truck, and yuck, and cheese, and banana, and please, and Mommy and Daddy and Hatty, and her grandmothers’ names, and shoes, and book, and most curiously of all is “hockey”. We have no idea where she learned that one. She loves cats and dogs and babies. I take her to the library baby program, where she ignores all programming and instead walks around the circle tickling the other babies’ feet.

irisShe sees the whole world as a series of climbable objects, and while her compulsive climbing instills fear in all those who love her, it’s true that she rarely ever falls. She knows the right techniques for capturing out attention: teetering on tabletops, screaming in quiet restaurants, and placing tiny objects inside her mouth with a defiant gleam in her eye. She gives excellent hugs, is a champion napper, has her teeth coming in in all the wrong order, and usually tries to give gentle touches instead of hitting and biting (though she doesn’t always succeed). She gets less bald with every passing day. She is at that age at which sitting at the table for more than three minutes at a time is impossible, so she comes and and goes. She just recently learned to jump. We adore her, and are blown away by how smart she is and her insistence on doing everything herself—well, even. But we’re never having another child, because our children seem to get increasingly Iris-ish with every one, and an Iris who out-Iris’d Iris might kill us. So we’re just content to love this one madly.

ADSC_0452nd then there is her very patient sister, who turned 5 and a half last week (which is 66 months old, for those of you keeping count). She continues to be excellent with just the right amount of naughtiness that we’re sure she’s a real child. She likes school and watching her learn to read is so exciting (and it’s also so exciting to see how useful Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books are in this process. We’ve enjoyed these books for years, and that such good books can also be the best reading tools is amazing). We’re reading Tom’s Midnight Garden at bedtime now, which is exciting because there’s a literary Harriet in it, and also because it’s the second book I read right after she was born, a time I was thinking about last night as Tom and his Uncle discussed there not being just one time but instead all different kinds of time (and his Aunt pointing out that it all leads to indigestion—it’s such a good book!). Harriet has reached this marvellous age where she wants to be helpful, and she actually is. I like her so very much, and adore her company. It’s not a lie when I tell her that picking her up at kindergarten is the very best part of my day. (Well, after bedtime, of course).

IMG_20141120_165025Technically, now that Iris is 18 months old, there’s no resident baby at our house anymore (though I don’t believe this, of course, and Iris’s baldness is permitting the illusion to be sustained). Just because we’re running low on babies though doesn’t mean we don’t still need a copy of The Baby’s Catalogue, so we bought another one, a pristine edition that is sure to get a bit battered, but probably not as battered as its predecessor. This wonderful book is full of the ordinary moments—all the incidents and accidents—of ordinary family life, and it’s such a part of ours.

I hope it always will be.

December 3, 2014

Toronto ABC by Paul Covello

toronto-abcMy personal belief is that a household can never have too many ABC books, and so certainly there’s room in a city for more than one. I’ve long been zealous in my devotion to Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet as the definitive Toronto ABC, but now Paul Covello’s new book has arrived and won me over. Because it’s gorgeous, and so meticulously detailed that it reminds me of Patrick Cummins’ and Shawn Micallef’s Full Frontal TO in its devotion to documenting Torontoniana.

Case in point is the windows on the far left and right buildings from “K is for Kensington Market,” windows which are instantly recognizable as Toronto windows, essential to its architecture:

Scan

Scan 2I also love the amazing design, best typified in U is for Union Station in which the U is the bottom of the University/Spadina subway line:

This is a book that will appeal to children, who are the biggest transit nerds of us all, with its trans and taxis and busses, and Covello caters to this audience in particular with images of TTC tokens and transfers. This same audience will also delight in the image of the dinosaur skeleton on R is for ROM, alongside the mommy and some residents of the museum’s famous Bat Cave (plus a couple of school busses parked outside the museum itself, natch).

3vPLV_TorontoABC_H1007_ContentIt’s a more updated version of the city than Allan Moak’s, though some consistencies remain—X is still for the Ex, and Z is probably always going to be for zoo, and so it should be. But Covello makes D for the Distillery District, which didn’t exist when Moak created his book 30 years ago, and neither did Y for Yonge Dundas Square, and J is for the Junction, which wasn’t so celebrated back in the day.

kensingtonCovello’s is also much more specific in its locations, with parks and markets identified. He dares to show fish jumping in the Don River in V is for Valley (with a subway going by overhead on the Bloor Viaduct), the city at its most beautiful. He also skips the nude beach on I is for Islands, but gets points for including the tiny cottages on Wards’ and Algonquin Islands.

“I love TO” is the banner being towed by an airplane on the T is for Tower page (on which the book must be turned sideways to take in the full 553 metres of the CN Tower, once upon a time and forever in my heart the world’s tallest freestanding structure), and the reader will not be able to avoid a similar emotion as she flips through the cardboard pages in this durable, beautiful book, which proves as much fun to explore as the city itself is.

December 2, 2014

The View From the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

view-from-the-laneA reader’s first impression of Deborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane will certainly be informed from the striking image on its cover, which I recognized as an image by Bryan Scott from the beautiful book, Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. It’s a cover that invites the reader inside, out of the chill—fresh snow, fresh tracks. Though it’s a bit of a trick—the stories in this book aren’t set in Winnipeg at all, and while there is a universal element to both the cover image and the stories, the latter is actually quite particular in its locale, which is the Overbrook neighbourhood of Ottawa, a public housing development built during the 1950s. But still, I think that the cover is right, because of how it drew me to the book, my interest only heightened by a glowing endorsement by Isabel Huggan on the back.

The cover is right too because of the weather. “Winter suited us: the howl of wind, the frost as thick as calluses on the window, the sleet we could see blowing along icy sidewalks in long crystal strands, all served to isolate us in our home that creaked under the weight of all that winter snow.”

The View from the Lane is a book that recalls Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in its scope. We follow Tunney’s protagonist, Amy, back before her own birth to the lives of her mother and her sisters, their storied childhood in a big house on Nelson Street in Ottawa. One by one, the sisters leave school and begin work in the salon on the ground floor of the Chateau Laurier hotel, and from there they met their fate in the form of disappointing marriages, widowhood, love and loss, and love and loss again. It’s true—winter suits them. It’s almost never summer in this book, it’s almost always snowing, and the stories’ foundation seems to be a disbelief in the possibility of happiness. Or at least the easy kind. Whose opposite still is never dreariness, no, but something more real, and it’s always unfailingly interesting.

Ostensibly, the stories are written from a variety of points of view, many different ways of observing the same thing, which is Amy’s life and history. Though we begin to see that the structure is not even as straightforward as that, and that there is an omniscience here that comes from Amy’s imaginings, her supposing. Even the story told from the perspective of the dog is a thought experiment. She is a woman in the habit of observing mirrors, reflections caught in windows. Her character is implicit in every story in this collection, even those in which she doesn’t appear. Everything is subjective.

While chronology drives the narrative forward, a backward-looking sense pervades the entire book, and it reminded me of the line from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye when she writes about the past ever bubbling on up to the surface: “Nothing ever goes away.” Which isn’t the only way The View From The Lane recalled Atwood’s classic, the two books with atmospheres so similar—1950s’ childhood, 1960s’ adolescence, the dark edges of suburbia. Though Tunney’s in particular is not so picket-fenced, and she creates a wonderful sense of the neighbourhood of Amy’s childhood, with its red-brick duplexes and townhouses, rusted cars and brambles in the lane ways between the houses, stray dogs roaming the alleys. Even then, the neighbourhood was rough, but it was a place of people, connections, and stories, not a bad place to grow up. Amy’s perspective casts those streets and lanes and alleys within a fog of nostalgia.

It’s where she keeps coming back to even as she grows up, moves away, gets married, then divorced. These are the stories and images she returns to, just as her mother kept returning to her own childhood, and eventually it becomes clear that these stories—which are rich and varied—are marking the trajectory of Amy’s movement toward an understanding of her mother and her mother’s life, at the same time her mother is slipping away from her.

I loved this book just as much as I’d supposed I would when I first saw the cover. Tunney’s prose is the kind that makes her reader sit up and take notice, and while it’s consciously written in some parts, more often it just served to perfectly cast a spell. My other mild criticism is that Amy herself, the heart of the story, remains a bit elusive—there’s a part where somebody comments that her name doesn’t seem to suit her and I felt similarly. The book is so firmly ensconced in her vision that her character is hard to read. When we encounter her more directly in the book’s final story, she almost seems like a stranger.

But even that is more a mark of the book’s interestingness than its failing. And seems in keeping with the cover image too—notice there’s nobody out on the road at night. Instead, this is a book about atmosphere, and memories, and the power of a place in the past to shape the people we become.

December 1, 2014

My Favourite Things About The M Word in the world

the-m-word-coverA year ago, contemplating the year-to-come, the main event was going to be the launch of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, the book of which I was editor and contributor. I was excited, terrified, and disbelieving, and the whole experience turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s been eight months now, and to mark The M Word‘s time in the world, I’ve made a list of all my favourite things about the book’s reception by a rather generous universe.

1) It was a best-seller. In Winnipeg, which is the best place to be best-sold, the book sharing a list with Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, among others.

2) When reviewer Deborah Ostrovsky placed the book inside a “strong Canadian tradition of public discourse on motherhood, from the late journalist June Callwood’s interviews with unwed teenaged mothers to Marni Jackson’s memoirs, and anthologies like Double Lives and Between Interruptions.”

3) That the book inspired women to tell stories they’d never told before.

4) That my essay about abortion and motherhood came out in the same year as One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and Kaleigh Trace’s story in Hot, Wet and Shaking. Women are more empowered to speak out about the reality of their lives than we’ve ever been. It’s good company.

5) Rachel Harry’s review in The National Post, that left me sobbing at my kitchen table on a sunny April afternoon. I hadn’t had such a visceral reaction to anything else, except the birth of my children. Seriously.

iris6) All the other writers, reviewers and/or bloggers who wrote about it too. I’m so grateful for your consideration and thoughtful responses. For the attention by radio and newspaper journalists too.

7) The time my friend came across the book sitting on a table in her mother-in-law’s house. And the time someone else saw somebody reading it on the subway.

8) The baby head cookies.

8.1) Bunting!

9) The amazing indie bookstores that hosted our events—Ben McNally’s in Toronto (and oh, that launch was a dream come true), A Novel Idea in Kingston, Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Shelf Life Books in Calgary, Russell Books in Victoria, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, and Parent Books in Toronto. Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge too! These stores are essential for authors who want to get their books into readers’ hands. I’m grateful also to Chapters Indigo, who did a great job having copies of the book prominently displayed. (Goose Lane’s sales reps too deserve a lot of the credit for this too. One benefit of working with an excellent publisher.)

10) And finally, my tenth favourite thing about The M Word in the universe is that it would make a find Christmas gift for somebody in your life—anybody who ever had a mother, is a mother, runs away shrieking at the thought of mothers (or their children, at least). Each of these people will find a bit of their own experience in some of these stories, and will be amused, heartened and/or challenged by some of the others. I’m proud of this book, and so grateful for generosity of all those people who were a part of it—which probably means you!

November 30, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station-elevenLately, I’ve been reading off the beaten track (with more to come—so exciting! Up next is a copy of The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, and over the holidays I intend to read all four of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. And it thrills me so to read like this), but I am glad I came back down to earth to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which came recommended by Nathalie Foy and was nominated for a National Book Award. With the latter point in particular, it doesn’t need a review from me, but I want to take a moment write about how much I enjoyed reading it. About how it didn’t immediately seem like something I’d appreciate—The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians, makes its way across America in the years following an apocalyptic flu pandemic that had brought the of civilization as we know it. That kind of setting rarely draws me—I like my books in civilization, thank you very much. But Mandel has a savvy knack of mixing it up, for turning the page at just the point my readerly patience is waning, and taking me somewhere altogether new. The novel moves between (seemingly) our present day and the not-s0-distant future, between Toronto on the eve of the pandemic, Hollywood some years before, and an airport in the future in which relics of the past—mobile phones, credit cards, games consoles, and more—have been preserved in a “Museum of Civilization.” The night of the flu outbreak, an actor dies onstage while performing King Lear at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, a child actress in the wings watching, an audience member jumping on stage to per for CPR. And it turns out that Arthur Leander’s last night is the last night of everything, although memory of that night lives on in the mind of a few survivors connected to the actor. The survivors are also linked by a mysterious comic book whose narrative seems eerily prescient, and it turns out that this book about the end of the world is actually about the best of the world—the Travelling Symphony’s motto (written on their caravans, stolen from Star Trek) is, “Because survival is not enough,” after all.

And it’s not a book without hope. “If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?” Which is a question any of us could be asking any time, Station Eleven a reminder that wonders are ever unceasing—the spell of a good book most certainly among them.

November 27, 2014

Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome by Megan Gail Coles

eating-habitsMy reading rut from last week was successfully defeated by the books I picked up at the Toronto Book Fair, in particular Megan Gail Coles’ Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, which was the book I bought because I kept seeing other people walking around carrying it. In some crowds, such a method of book selection could steer one wrong, but not in this one. The book was fantastic, a collection of short stories about Newfoundlanders at home and away. The characters in the stories have lives that are linked, but the connections are loose, and stories take place across a long period of time, so that the connections vaguely inform one another rather than being integral to the collections’ construction. They do give a wonderful sense of these characters’ lives off the page being rich and ongoing, the stories themselves just standing in for a moment in time.

Coles, whose background is in theatre and playwriting, is the real thing. Deft with prose, gifted with voices, writing from a wry, wise and empathetic perspective, she is undoubtedly part of the established tradition of fine Newfound short story-writing.

In “There are Tears in This Coconut”, two fractious sisters take a trip together to Thailand following the eldest’s divorce, a lifetime of resentment and anger acted out on the part of each of them.

“Everyone Starves to Death As I Eat Here” begins with the shining line, “Damon thinks, this, everything, is Brenda Hann’s fault for making him believe her pussy was made of gold.”

And then a few pages after, “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.”

And then in the next story, Nigerian immigrant to Newfoundland working at Tim Hortons woos a local woman and thinks his life is made, the story ending on the suggestion that this is perhaps not the case. Time telescopes in “A Sink Built for Small People,” which is next, in which a couple moves to Korea to teach English and their relationship (predictably) falls apart. A new mother laments what’s become of her life in “I Will Hate Everything, Later.”

A widower wonders about his shaky domestic life with a new partner: “I think washing up the supper dishes shows I care. I always flushes the toilet three times. And I knows that’s more than Father ever did. She says that’s gross. Not like in her books. That my love is vulgar. Not refined. Not civilized. I’m rural in my heart. She plans the birthday party she’d like. I does the same. We always ends up with the wrong birthday party. And we aren’t young.”  We always ends up with the wrong birthday party—isn’t that some kind of amazing definition of a tragedy?

A woman navigates the terrain of a new life, after breaking up with the man she’d thrown away her twenties on in “This Empty House is Full of Furniture.” Another contemplates the circumstances that led her to homelessness and vagrancy in “French Kissing is For Teenagers.” “Single Gals Need All Wheel Drive” is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about a character with cancer. A Haitian immigrant to Montreal plots a future with her dodgy landlord in “There’s a Fish Hook In your Lip.” “Ultimatums Grow In This Wild Place” returns us to first story, this one written from the perspective of the divorced sister’s ex as he prepares to end their marriage (and have her finally face the fact that he’s gay).

And then “A Dog is Not a Baby”, which is simply the thoughts going through a an elderly mother/grandmother’s mind as she waits for the phone to ring, for one of her children or grandchildren to call: “If she starts thinking on how the phone never rings now, she won’t be able to be conversational when it finally does. Instead, she’ll respond with a series of grunts. Maybe make an off-handed remark on how she might as well be dead. Tiffany will feel guilty, her mother Margaret won’t even notice, and Joss will say, it’s a wonder anyone calls her at all. / What would anyone want to call you for? You never got anything pleasant to say sure.”

The stories in “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome” are also linked by references to food, to hunger and indulgence, flimsy plastic forks and years ago when spinach was rare. Vivid, mordant and moving, they’re about connection and disconnections, and the ways in which we hurt and heal ourselves, and each other.

November 26, 2014

Let’s all dance with Julie Flett

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I am so pleased with, proud of, and excited by my 49th Shelf interview with the brilliantly talent illustrator, Julie Flett, who is behind the images in a few of our family’s most beloved picture books (including Little You, which I’ve written about before). The post is gorgeous, first because it’s packed with Flett’s beautiful illustrations and book covers, but also because her responses to my questions are so fresh and thoughtful, with so many excellent book recommendations. Plus, we talk about holey socks, wallpaper patterns, big suns, and all the exciting things happening in First Nations Children’s Literature in Canada today. It’s so good.

Please check it out! 

November 24, 2014

On Mentors

Smears-of-Jam-Lights-of-Jelly_MP_071_RGB-300x240Recent news had me thinking about mentors, how we imagine that success comes from kneeling at the feet of wise professorial men, or at least job opportunities from a date with a charismatic celebrity. What about women mentors though, I wondered? I started asking other writers about their own women mentors, and it turned out that these kind of relationships are not very common. For a few reasons, I think.

First, that there are fewer women in positions of power to serve as mentors. Second, that women are often already stretched with other caring commitments. Third, that perhaps we all know that mentorships will never make or break a writer’s career—her work and talent matter, and probably best to focus on that. And finally, because of the realities of women’s lives (dearth of time, power, money, etc), mentorships have taken on less traditional structures, are often virtual, and perhaps aren’t always recognizable for what they are.

Certainly, I’ve never knelt at the feet of the women who’ve served as mentors to me, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice. I think of Sheree Fitch, who never ceases to champion other women writers’ work, a vocal supporter of my blog and my book for so many years; Michele Landsberg, whom I encountered in the comments of my blog and we bonded over mutual admiration for Joan Bodger, who has been so supportive of my work; Rona Maynard, who has been a huge influence as I’ve put the pieces of my career together over the last decade and tried to take it all more seriously; Marita Dachsel, who helped me navigate my early days as a mother/writer; Tabatha Southey, who rocks it every week in the Saturday Globe and exists to make us all aspire to be smarter (and funnier); and my friend, Anakana Schofield, who sends me emails that say (and I’m paraphrasing), “Stop talking about mentors already, and just write your fecking book.”

Oh, the women I have in my corner. They’re everything. Not least of all my friends, plus contacts in The Toronto Women Writers Salon, and CWILA. This is all turning into a protracted version of my Linked In profile, which is beside the point, which is to say that supportive women are everywhere. You only have to look, and also to celebrate, and be inspired too to serve a similar role for younger women whose work you admire.

*****

I asked some other women to tell me about their own mentors, and am pleased to be able to share their responses. 

**

In the mid-eighties, I set up a meeting with Karen Mulhallen, hoping to volunteer for Descant magazine. I knew nothing about anything. About an hour later, I left her house as managing editor.  Karen became a mentor, an ally and a dear friend, doling out challenges in a way that seemed offhand but was somehow impossible to refuse. Over the years she has continued to put me in the way of writing and editing opportunities I would never have tackled had it not been for her confidence in me—or her willingness to take a leap of faith. I suspect I’m not alone in saying this about Karen. She is a truly generous person, in both life and art.

Maria Meindl

**

When the phone rang at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon four years ago, I never imagined it would be my Can-Hist hero – and a future mentor. But on the other end of the line, there was the crisp English accent of renowned biographer and historian Charlotte Gray, congratulating me on my successful Skype-in to the fundraising gala in Toronto. I had fan-girled her in my live interview, talking about how I had slid my book next to hers on the alumni bookshelf and was trying to soak in the genius left behind by her, Pierre Berton, and others. Since then, we have crossed paths in person only twice, but she has written me letters of recommendation, we have tweeted about her “academic ninja-ness” on Canada Reads, and she even made me her junior “running mate” in a literary award competition. Those votes of confidence have spurred me on through the inevitable crises of confidence and the exhaustion of juggling a small child and a writing career. I’m so glad I picked up that phone.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail
**
My writing mentor is Ania Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex and Beginning of Was. For the past two years Ania has been coaching me on writing a book called The Relationship Deal that helps couples hash out their expectations in the messy world of love. From the outset Ania believed in me, and was both my fiercest advocate as well as my toughest critic. She insisted from the get-go that I call myself a writer even though that felt fraudulent—after all I wasn’t a published author, a journalist, or a copyeditor.  Yet, she insisted I attach the writer label firmly to my psyche and start writing (and thinking) like one. Ania questions everything I write, absolutely everything. She doesn’t take anything on the page at face value. She finds the person hiding behind the black and white, and guides her firmly and confidently to the forefront. Under her tutelage I have found “me” underneath many layers of self-deprecation. I know myself better now—writing is knowing—and most importantly like what I have found.
Sue Nador
**
When I took my first creative writing class in Sarah Selecky’s dining room, I thought: Look at this woman giving out all her secrets! She’s handing out advice like hors d’oeuvres. But I soon learned that Sarah was (is) a generous teacher and a gifted writer, and that all the knowledge from the best mentors in the world won’t make you a better writer unless you show up and do the work yourself.

So I took her advice.

Eventually I got to study with Sarah’s mentor, Zsuzsi Gartner and the experience was challenging and enlightening and transformative.

Later, I returned to Sarah and thanks to her thoughtful direction, I was given the opportunity to work under the insightful and practical guidance of Annabel Lyon.

All my mentors have had helped shape me as a writer through developing style, building confidence, and trusting my voice. I am appreciative, grateful, and humbled and I continue to work under their influence.

This year, I am honoured to be a TA for Sarah’s online e-course where I have the opportunity to give back. And you bet I am giving away all the secrets I know, which, of course, are not secrets at all.

Lana Pesch

*****

I have been fortunate to have several great teachers—Priscila Uppal and Richard Teleky certainly helped chart my present course. But the woman I would call my mentor, who supported me beyond any professional obligation, is Susan Swan. She was my fiction professor at York, and subsequently supervised a directed reading course that allowed me to start my memoir. I dropped my first draft on her doorstep in four boxes: 776 pages. She sent emails by turns encouraging and devastating (I am loving this; it’s not going anywhere), and was unoffended by my request not to send any more before reading the whole thing. She did, and then invited me over. I always loved being at her home: it signified to me that writing was not incommensurate with a good and beautiful life. Those hours of discussion helped me to believe I had written something  worth taking seriously. She gave the book to her daughter, the agent Samantha Haywood, whose representation has been an incredible gift. After its publication, Susan mentioned my book whenever there was opportunity—a deep kindness that helped me feel as though I was part of a literary community.

-Samantha Bernstein

*****

Alas, I’ve not yet met American writer Susan Griffin face to face, but voice sounds and resounds inside me whenever I recall her our conversations. A year ago she was my editor but years before her book Woman and Nature, a poetic exploration of Western culture’s ideas of gender and nature, altered forever how I see the world and gave me language and the courage to dare to honour my own perceptions about woman as creators.

Susan became my editor at a time when I was in trouble with my novel, The Pig and the Soprano, the (true) story of a privileged Victorian woman who dared ambition on the Paris stage and ended her days as an impoverished recluse living with her pet pig. Susan worked as a midwife, giving me the sense that I had within me everything I needed to tell the story as it needed to be told and inspiring me to let the creative process unfold. Her written comments were insightful and catalytic and our phone conversations opened imaginative doors that set my spirits soaring. I’m forever grateful.

-Sandra Campbell

*****

I signed up for Colleague Circle for the free dinners. On the last Thursday of every month, eight of us—the six new humanities hires and two facilitators—gathered at the faculty club at 5:30 pm for insipid meals that consisted of a meat dish, a starch and an obligatory overcooked vegetable, followed by a creamy dessert. We ate, drank wine, debriefed about our first-year-faculty-member woes, compared grant notes, politely appreciated everything the University of Missouri offered us, and went our separate ways. I gravitated toward Maureen Stanton for her self-deprecating humor and her academic discipline: creative nonfiction writing. She had made a career for herself writing precisely the kind of prose I loved to read and found myself writing, yet not showing anybody—slices of life, creatively rendered. I hadn’t realized there was an institutionally accepted term for this. Timidly, I asked Maureen if she might share her course syllabus with me or provide me with a list of creative nonfiction classics. She responded with a generous reading list that I immediately began to work my way through with disturbing enthusiasm. Here I was at the university of Missouri, an assistant professor of Russian literature, and all I wanted to do was read literary nonfiction and acquaint myself with this new, yet strangely familiar genre. Maureen and I met for coffee and she shook her head as I regaled her with family story after story. “Why aren’t you writing this down?” she demanded to know. And that might have been the beginning. We later formed a writing group—her comments, the perfect combination of encouragement, awe, and incisive criticism—and she wrote letters of recommendation for me when I applied to artist colonies. “You’re a writer,” she told me after reading a short essay of mine, years before I ever dared to use that word to describe myself. I devoured all of her essays and read them closely, pencil in hand, as perfect lessons in craft. Her book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, is a riveting peek into the world of antiques and flea markets. In the end, we both left the University of Missouri (not at all on account of the awful Colleague Circle meals); she ended up teaching in Massachusetts, and I moved back to Toronto. Though I haven’t seen Maureen in eight years, she’s the first person I alert when I have a new publication out in the world.

-Julia Zarankin

*****

It’s damn difficult to name just one mentor. I’ve been so lucky: even in the deep bullshit of high school, there was Bev Hiller, my art teacher. She didn’t tell me that things were going to get better, she showed me how they could be. She treated us like adults and for that hour, we were. That classroom was an oasis.

Much later, after I’d already had two children and could only see the size of the canyon between me and the novel I wanted to write, I met Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. I was writing journalism; it was as close as I could get to where I wanted to be. I was starting to think it was too late to start, that I’d never get there, that I’d blown my chance. But she had small children too, and she was doing it. She was fierce and committed and her generosity knew no bounds. She let me trail after her like a lost duckling at literary events. She kept nudging me by example and by suggestion. She has read almost everything I’ve written since then. My debut novel exists in no small part because she’s in my world. Merci beaucoup, Kathryn.

-Christine Fischer Guy

*****

My mentors are peers, women whose intelligence and generosity have encouraged me to work harder, write better, sometimes to write at all. Tending towards both vanity and insecurity, I depend on the bracing opinions of friends who won’t indulge either trait. Karen Connelly, Ann Shin, Camilla Gibb and Donna Bailey Nurse have all sustained me with their support and encouragement, and by their example. There are other mentors I’ve met only on the page who’ve sustained me in a more private way. (And I confess, some of them are men.).

-Diana Fitzgerald-Bryden

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"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland
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"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130
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"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
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