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February 3, 2017

My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo

As weird and terrible as the world can be, I don’t spend a lot of time, as the modern problem goes, worrying about “how I’m going to explain it to my children.” As I’ve written before, I relish awkward conversations. But I was thinking about this idea yesterday, about how incongruous it must be to be both a parent and somebody who wants to see refugees restricted from finding sanctuary in their country and community. What do these people teach their children about helping others, I wonder. Do they ever worry about the gap between their messages?

“As a parent,” somebody told me on Twitter this week, “my job is to protect my children from danger.” Hence their support of UnpopularDonald’s Muslim Ban. And the logical next question, although I didn’t ask it because this was Twitter and there was really no point, is “Isn’t that precisely what so many refugee families are doing though? And so surely as a parent then, you can recognize the humanity in these people, that they are guided by the same impulses that direct you, except that their homes have been destroyed by years and years of war and your fear is based on a sense of otherness and is also statistically irrational?”

The first time I was happy after November 9 2016 was a few weeks later at the Canadian Children’s Book Awards, and not just because I’d had more than a few glasses of wine. But it was because of the spirit that night, the speeches of the presenters and winners that acknowledged the darkness of the moment we’re currently embroiled in and that books really were one sure way to kick at the darkness, children’s books in particular. Books that bridge the distance between here and there, between us and them, and recognize the humanity common to all of us.

In Suzanne Del Rizzo’s picture book, My Beautiful Birds, a young Syrian boy is forced to leave his wartorn home and make the long journey to the relative safety of a refugee camp. The story is enlivened by Del Rizzo’s plasticine illustrations with their rich purple and golden hues. Of all the things that Sami has left behind. it’s his pigeons he misses the most, the birds he fed and kept and as pets. Although his family does their best to create a home in the camp—planting a garden, buying things in the small shops started by their neighbours—this new life is anything but sure: “Days blur together in a gritty haze. All I have left are questions. What will we do? How long will we be here?” The idea of the birds and their freedom symbolizing everything that’s been lost to Sami.

Del Rizzo shows Sami’s grief and sadness with thick black lines that overwhelm the pictures he tries to paint of his beloved birds, the black paint taking over his art like a storm. Where he finds solace, though, is in the sky, one thing that is familiar to him, “wait[ing] like a loyal friend for me to remember.” In the clouds, he sees the shapes of his birds: “Spiralling. Soaring. Sharing the sky.”

January 31, 2017

Mitzi Bytes Cover Reveal!

It’s been a long time coming, but man oh man it was worth the wait. I am officially in love with the final cover for my novel, Mitzi Bytes, which arrives in the world in just a few short weeks from now, on March 14. Lots of events on the calendar, and I hope to see you out at some of them! If you haven’t pre-ordered the book yet, you can do so at your local bookshop or online at Chapters Indigo or Amazon. You can also make sure it’s on order at your local library, and add it your shelf on Goodreads.

Grateful to everybody for so much support!

January 30, 2017

Together We Stand Tall

I know it’s not a good news day, but I’m feeling positive. Maybe it’s because there was sunshine, or how it felt like something that I wrote letters to my MP and Prime Minister and two other cabinet ministers today imploring them to take a stand against #UnpopularDonald’s Muslim Ban and in general just to do better in order to give Canadians a government we can believe it. It’s because there were marches all over the world today in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and my husband emailed me today with a note that said, “Next protest.” And we’re going. It’s because the government’s response to the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City last night was to call it what it was: a terrorist attack. It’s because of this image, and because of the thousands of Americans who’ve been protesting all weekend. It’s because the people are a force, perhaps in a way I never dared to dream of.

I remember listening the radio in September 2015 and hearing the dreadful news of refugees out of Syria. This was when our government was shrugging about the whole thing because what can you do, and then the body of a child washed up on a beach, and someone was recounting the incredible way Canadians stepped up for refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, and I remember feeling so hopeless. Because things like this just don’t happen anymore…except they do. And they did. And now, 16 months and a new government later, thousands of Syrian families have settled in Canada, their settlement supported by people who are my friends and neighbours. My mom volunteers at her city’s New Canadians Centre, my dad’s partner tutors Syrian women in English. Syrian families were brought to small towns and big cities across this country. These are Canadians I know, and so many I don’t, and they’ve changed lives and the world, and they give me hope that anything is possible.

What oppressive governments do is try to keep their people from seeing other possibilities outside of the present, try to keep them in the dark about the people’s own power—but my feeling is that #UnpopularDonald and his band of merry fuckwits are not doing a terrific job on this front. I think he’s underestimated Americans, and how closely people around the world are actually connected with each other. It’s not going to be soon and it’s not going to be easy, but he’s not going to win, and America’s going to come out into the light.

January 30, 2017

Among the Ruins, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

What an absolutely crazy, awful and perfect week to be reading Ausma Zehanat Khan’s third novel in her series about Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, Among the Ruins, which is published on February 14. Khan’s first book, The Unquiet Dead, won an Arthur Ellis Award, and I read her second novel last summer. In her latest, Khattak is on leave from his job with Canada’s Community Policing Department and has stolen away to Iran on his Pakistani visa, an escape from his troubles at home and a chance to reconnect with his cultural heritage. He has visions of taking in gorgeous sites and and eating delicious food, but any expectations of a holiday are disappeared when he realizes he’s being followed. Turns out a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobhani, has been murdered at a notorious prison and Khattak is quietly urged by the Canadian government, on behalf of a shadowy middlewoman, to find out what happened to her. Zahra Sobhani’s work had focussed on Iran’s Green Movement, which contested the results of the 2009 elections after a surge of populism and demands for democratic reform. The regime came down hard on these dissidents, but Zahra Sobhani would have thought her Canadian citizenship might have protected her—so why didn’t it? Khattak considers this question and becomes involved with a group of young people who’d been involved in the Green Movement, this line of narrative providing a powerful perspective on what it’s like to fight for freedom under an oppressive regime. Meanwhile, Khattak’s also receiving mysterious letters from someone who seems to be a political prisoner, and there are aspects of Zahra Sobhani’s death that refuse to make sense. Back home in Toronto, his partner Rachel Getty is perusing her own investigation involving crown jewels and an archivist at the Royal Ontario Museum, stolen jewels and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea.

It’s a mystery whose plot(s) take the shape of something created by a spirograph, which makes it all a little bit difficult to follow at times. This along with devastating sections of the narrative from a character being tortured and raped in prison mean that this isn’t a mystery you’d ever call “cosy,” but then I don’t know that a work of detective fiction has ever been more urgent and relevant than this one. Khan is a gorgeous writer, her sentences shining, and she so vividly evokes an Iran of striking contradictions, of beauty and ugliness, of progress and backwardness, of people who are repressed but who also own themselves in the most courageous, remarkable ways. With a PhD in International Human Rights Law, Khan writes from a remarkable foundation and knowledge of the implications of the stories she tells, and this underlines these stories with so much power.

Most powerful of all though: for readers to enter the mind of a Muslim-Canadian character. Not such a leap, really, but it certainly informed my perspective as I heard the news last night of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Thinking of Esa Khattak: “He’d been cautious since he’d chosen the police as a career. Careful and measured consideration was the only way he knew how to answer the assumption of Muslim rage… Whether he enjoyed living his life on these terms when he could have been at ease, expressing the different sides of himself, the things that have enriched him, enriched, he believed, the fabric of his nation, was a separate question.”

January 28, 2017

Dear Pro-Lifer

Dear Pro-Lifer,

Once upon a time. I used to think that you and I could talk. I used to think that if you would just be willing to sit down and listen, I could make you understand that in prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual women. Surely, I thought, the problem here—our miscommunication—was that you hadn’t realized the terrifying implications of this.

But now I see that you do understand, but the problem is that you just don’t care.

For your benefit, I’m going to spend a moment here situating the abortion issue as a “debate.” Because I know this is how you are see it, that here we are on different sides (when the reality, my friend, is that I am just a person with a body who is quite adamant that you don’t get to decide what I do with it. In reality, why would my bodily autonomy be yours to debate? This is like me telling you how often your should trim your toenails).

So here is my “side”: it’s not that I’ve got anything against fetuses, in fact everybody I’ve ever loved used to be one. My own children, when they were fetuses, were the most precious beings in the world to me (as in fact they still are now that they’re born and in the world) and I still remember the force of my weeping when I was eleven weeks pregnant with my second daughter and bleeding, fearing I was about to miscarry.

But here’s the thing: as much as I like fetuses, I am uncomfortable with the idea of forcing a woman to carry one to term against her will. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women with unwanted pregnancies without access to abortions will resort to desperate measures that could kill her. I am uncomfortable that we might consider it our business to ask a woman whether or not she’d been using birth control and why or why not, and what her economic situation is, and whether or not the sex was consensual—as though these details mean anything at all. I am not comfortable with purporting to be the arbiter of what another person chooses does with her body, and I can’t imagine the arrogance of anybody who would be.

“But it’s not your body.” This is actually a thing that people have replied to me when I’ve spoken up in defence of my bodily autonomy. As though the fact of my material existence was neither here nor there. As though as a person I didn’t matter—which is telling, really. Says a whole lot about how little you value women’s bodies and experiences. You claim to be defending the voiceless, but you won’t even listen to mine. Which is telling you this: I understand that a fetus has its own body, never mind that for most abortions the body in question is basically microscopic. I get it. But it’s a body that lives in my body, that is created by body, fully sustained by my body. If you are still claiming that this isn’t about bodies, then you’ve probably never been pregnant, which is as bodily as life experience gets. And it’s true that I don’t know exactly where the division lies, where one body stops and another begins. But one thing I do know: it is definitely not your body. That you would purport to override my wishes, to prevail on my freedom, that you could claim to speak for my fetus and have your arbitrary choice win out over my arbitrary choice when it comes to my pregnancy—you, a stranger, perhaps not even a woman; doesn’t that trouble you at all?

All things not being equal, I would still prefer to live in a world in which women were valued over embryos, rather than one in which strangers made my reproductive choices. And for you pro-life women, when I stand up for reproductive freedom, it’s your reproductive freedom too. The freedom to choose life, should you decide to. But still, the freedom to choose.

When I had an abortion in 2002, I was also choosing life. I hope you see this. But it was my life I was choosing, over that of a lentil-sized fetus. And again, if you regard this as an injustice, if you think my hopes, dreams and future mattered less than an insentient being you could balance on the tip of your baby finger—well, then you don’t value women much. I matter more than a fetus. I will even afford that you matter more than a fetus. And while ideally, it would be terrific and simple if all fetuses could be valued and wanted, we’d have to obliterate actual women in order to do that, and I don’t want to live in that world. (PS Please don’t bring up Jesus. For those of us with no affiliation with Jesus, it’s entirely irrelevant.)

Your next response, I know, being that many aborted fetuses are bigger than a lentil, and you are right about this. But what you are somehow too obtuse to realize is that a vast majority of abortions are preformed before 10 weeks, when a fetus is still mostly potential anyway, when miscarriage is still a statistical likelihood—early pregnancy is always perilous. And that almost every abortion performed beyond that point, in particular far beyond that point, those “late-term” abortions you all despair of—you know these are mostly wanted pregnancies, right? Desperately wanted pregnancies that might be putting a mother’s life in danger, or babies that have failed to develop into babies, or pregnancies that have become non-viable. (See: Interview with a woman who recently had an abortion at 32 weeks.)

Forcing a woman to carry a nonviable pregnancy to term is a demonstrable cruelty. I know that some women choose to do so and are glad they did, but the point was that they get to make the choice. Further, your rhetoric equating abortion with murder is unfathomably cruel to women who’ve had to go through this experience And finally, your images of aborted fetuses (magnified to ridiculous scales because, as a guy standing on the street holding a sign once told me, “If we showed them as they really are, they wouldn’t have any impact”) so crassly plastered onto busses and park benches are also devastatingly painful to these women, as well as to anybody who’s suffered pregnancy loss, and lots of other people with all kinds of stories that you’ve probably never thought about.

There are a million other things that you and I could debate about: where life begins, the ablest politics of abortion, whether or not abortion hurts women as you might claim with your faux-compassion. You might even enjoy engaging in these arguments, the theoretical nature of your approach to all this making the process more enjoyable, even empowering, than it is for me, who is arguing for the right to own my body.

I don’t know if you’ve ever argued for ownership of your own body, but I can tell you that it’s depressing, humiliating, awful, and completely absurd.

So I will leave it at this, at the point at which we first embarked:

Do you understand that in prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual women?

If you have any notion of humanity, this question should give you some pause.

January 27, 2017

Picture Book Wisdom

It’s Family Literacy Day today, and I’ve written a post at 49thShelf about how everything I know about the world I’ve learned from picture books. Including, “Dance in the kitchen. Don’t do the dishes” and “Far more than any fame, enjoy the peaceful pursuit of knowledge. Treasure the wealth to be found in your books.”

You can read all the words of wisdom here, and make sure you pick up these great titles if you haven’t already.

January 26, 2017

Rebecca Solnit, and on “joy as an initial act of insurrection”

The 2003 anti-war protests turned out to be pretty foundational for me, but in all the wrong ways. I was living in England then, which was not my country, and my actual country wasn’t going to be invading Iraq, so it was easy to think the whole thing had nothing do with me. Of course, I knew that invading Iraq was going to be a terrible idea, and I still don’t understand how anyone could have though it wasn’t a terrible idea (or how anybody who thought was a good idea got to be recognized as an authority on anything after that). But still, apart from arguing with people online about how no one really likes being “liberated” via bombs being dropped on their houses and their children being killed, I was not particularly moved by the situation. In fact, I was distinctly unmoved. A colleague of mine was rushing about the office on her way to go and join the protest in our town, and I remember her glee; “I love politics,” she said, and I thought everything was wrong with that. That politics should be a necessary means to an end, which is ordinary life, and not a reason for being.

Will you forgive me? I was 23. And while I still find mobs of people congregating and shouting together unnerving, no matter what they are saying (because when The People start speaking with one voice, then something has certainly gone amiss, I mean, have you ever met people?) I realize how wrong I was about the necessity of activism. And that activism always fails when it’s regarded as a means to an end, when you go home too soon, rather than a process.

“Paradise is  imagined as a static place, as a place before or after history, after strife and eventfulness and change: the premise is that once history has arrived change is no longer necessary. The idea of perfection is also why people believe in saving, in going home, and in activism as crisis response rather than every day practice.” —Rebecca Solnit

On Saturday, when our family joined the millions of people all over the world marching for women’s rights, I too began to see the point of the glee. That the glee wasn’t simply fervour, but that it was also a kind of relief, and it was more substantial too than merely glee—it was joy.

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” —Rebecca Solnit

Of course, initial act, is a very important distinction.

It was a terrific event, and I refuse to apologize for it having flaws the same way I felt I had to apologize for admiring Hillary Clinton. Nope, in the name of FEMINIST FEMINIST FEMINIST FEMINIST, and Nellie McClung. Read Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker: “But this is precisely why the Women’s March feels vital. Of course it’s difficult to pull together an enormous group of women who may have nothing in common other than the conviction that a country led by Trump endangers their own freedoms and the freedoms of those they love. That conviction is nonetheless the beginning of the resistance that those planning to attend the march hope to constitute.” (And no, not inviting Pro-Life women is not “intolerance,” because if you’re actively campaigning to restrict my reproductive freedoms, you go find another yard to play in. That is not and can never be feminism, no matter who you are.)

It’s necessarily awkward, it just is, to be, for example, a white woman dipping her toe into notions of social justice, as women of colour have been swimming in these seas for ages. It’s sort of embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit that the is new to me, that I was wrong in 2003 and in all the years after when I continued to think that “ordinary life” and politics was something a person could draw a line between. It’s showing up at the party and not knowing the dance, and looking really stupid, but we’re coming anyway—and we’re going to be fucking stomping our lady-sized feet with all the rest of them. The best of them.

“Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.” —Rebecca Solnit

January 24, 2017

Feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist is for me.

During the past year or so, the delusion I’ve been most sorry to let go of is the one in which most people, as I do, simply see feminism as a synonym for “normal.” It’s why it never bothered me much when some people felt uncomfortable with the term, because it didn’t really matter what you called yourself. If you were a person who felt that women were deserving of voices, votes, careers, multifaceted lives and ownership of their own bodies, then you were a feminist, or so I thought. And who didn’t think that? But it turns out..a lot of people do?

From the appalling US election and its stunning results, it has been affirmed to me that misognyny is actually a thing and that for millions of people, women’s lives matter less than “teaching an unlovable female scholar a lesson she won’t forget.” When I question the validity of the Men’s Rights Movement on twitter, ugly beardos jump into my mentions for weeks afterwards calling me a cunt. When I continue to speak up about the importance of access to abortion, while the responses are predictably yawnish (“if you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex, you slutty murderer”) the hatred toward women in general and people’s consternation at concept of our own agency over our bodies and our lives is palpable. Women’s torture and pain gets picked up and used as a tool by people who hate women and Muslims, and wonder why we’re taking to the streets when FGM is a thing in the world (never mind that these people have never stood up for women a day in their lives, except when doing so permits them to be unabashedly racist) or how I can stand up for reproductive rights while women in India are aborting female fetuses. The response to all this being: Because women’s lives are terrifyingly, fervently and violently devalued everywhere, you fucking asshole, and you are part of the problem.

So what to do? My favourite solution was found in a  Facebook thread in which a friend of mine was discussing the violent pushback she’d received from engaging Men’s Rights Activists online. She was dismayed at the backlash, but a friend of hers had a suggestion, a piece to the vast puzzle of disentangling our current misogynistic anti-feminist mess. She wrote, “I am using the word feminism in every project I do now, my bio and website. It is all feminism. All the time.”

And I love that idea. All day yesterday, a song was running through my head, “Feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, is for me,” to the tune of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign theme song. I’ve put “feminist” in my twitter bio, and made my “My Body My Choice” sign part of my header photo. My book comes out in six weeks, and it’s feminist as fuck. I’m learning how to be a better feminist. I’d get the women’s symbol tattooed to my ankle, but I won’t, because I already did that 14 years ago, but still. If we’ve ever needed a moment to be post-post-feminist, that moment is now, and I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.

January 20, 2017

Have You Seen My Trumpet?, by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo

Tonight at dinner, Harriet told us a story. “Today for Show and Tell,” she said, “Eric brought in a diaper.” A diaper? “Yes,” she continued. “He punched it, and then he cut it in half and took these things out from inside it, and he put it in his jello bowl, only there wasn’t any jello in it.” I was trying to make sense of this. “So it was like an experiment?” I suggested. The insides of diapers are filled with these gross little gel balls that I only know about because of the times(s) I put a diaper through a wash cycle and it exploded (don’t ask).

“And then he ate it,” said Harriet, and I said, “What?” and we all started laughing, quite hysterically, the way you might if you were eating dinner, someone ate a diaper, and the world’s worst man was being elected the American president tomorrow.

At certain moments, absurdity is fitting, and not much else these days is making the me laugh the way I like to laugh, which is to say, so hard that I shake noiselessly with one of my eyes closed—trust me when I tell you it’s very attractive. At certain moments all you want is a picture book with a sea urchin, a gruff fly, a missing trumpet, and a bat that’s sitting on the toilet. In 2016, the word of the year was “surreal,” and so all this is quite in keeping with the zeitgeist.

Have You Seen My Trumpet?, by Michael Escoffier and Kris DiGiacomo, is a book that’s brought delight to all of us during the past few months. Ostensibly the story of a small girl searching for a trumpet (that doesn’t turn out to be quite what you’d expect), the book’s true charm is spread after spread of bizarre beach scenes with appealing illustration and engaging, amusing details. On every page, a question is asked whose answer is to be found in not only the illustration, but also the question itself—and don’t you love that smug fish (above), who’s hogging all the pails and is sporting his I Love Me t-shirt?

The strangeness of the English language is underlined by this exercise—because indeed, the crow thinks it’s too CROWded, but that’s not we say it. And while it’s true that the owl has fallen in the bOWL, we don’t pronounce “bowl” as “bowel.” Which brings us to everybody’s favourite page, who’s in the BAThroom indeed?

It’s almost as weird as a kid who brought a diaper to Show and Tell and ate it, and makes as much sense as anything.

January 19, 2017

I don’t want to tell them, “Nothing.”

“One day my daughters will ask what I did to save the world for them, and I don’t want to tell them, ‘Nothing.’” I wrote a piece for Today’s Parent about why I’m taking my daughters to the Women’s March here in Toronto on Saturday.

See you there, or in solidarity?

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