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Pickle Me This

May 29, 2018

On Selfies, and Learning to Recognize My Face

My husband took this photo of me at Woodbine Beach eleven years ago, when I weighed thirty pounds less than I do now, had no grey hair, an unlined forehead, and my thyroid had yet to sprout a conspicuous tumour that I am grateful for because it is benign. As you can see, I was also not allergic to the sun then, and I even had a tan—and do I ever miss having tans, as I huddle here in my hat and SPF clothing. I was so beautiful, and I kind of knew it, which was why I had this photo taken in the first place.

But taking this photo was a terrible experience, which I recall very well, and no doubt my husband does too. It was such a beautiful day and I wanted a photo to remember it by, a photo of me, but it took about twenty-five shots to finally get one I was happy with. Which is why I’m looking away from the camera, I think, because I felt better about the photo when only part of my face was in it. Because my face was the entire problem, mainly that it looked nothing like the way I imagined I looked. My face, my self—it would always surprise me. Who was this person, who you’d think I’d be an expert on, and but everybody else looked at her more than me. I didn’t know my face at all, and the person in the photos was a stranger.

There are so many reasons I’m glad I’ll never be twenty-eight again, even if it means I’ll probably never be thin and tanned again either. Oh well, because at least I recognize my face now. I’m fond of it, I even love it, and this is why I will never malign selfies and selfie-culture either, because it was selfies that taught me this. With selfies I began to see my face for the first time, to become familiar with it and comfortable with it. When somebody takes my photo now, I’m rarely surprised with the result, because I know that woman since I see her all the time. And while she sometimes looks a bit haggard, many-chinned, and her face was broken out in another rash, I still claim her. I could choose to be vain or I could choose to be otherwise, but I’m always going to end up with the same old face. And I actually walk around with it all the time, and everybody seems to find it fairly tolerable.

This is my face, and there are people who like me. There are even people who love me. And eventually I decided it was only fair that I should do the same.

May 28, 2018

Sharp, by Michelle Dean

I put Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion on hold at the library as soon it was available, and then a bought the first copy I saw for sale at a bookstore because I just couldn’t wait. The next day a review copy arrived from the publisher, and then three days after that I got the call that my library hold was in, and by this point my children were saying, “Not that book again!” But if ever a title should be ubiquitous, this would be the one. I’ve never read a book quite like Sharp in all my life, and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either.

So here it is: this is not a book about women who were outliers, a sideshow project. Yes, the women profiled in Sharp were exceptions to the rule, which is still true and mainly that people aren’t all that interested in what women have to say. But it’s that history tends to be chronicled through the experiences of men that gives us the idea of these women being on the margins, not the history itself. As Dean writes in her preface: “Men might have outnumbered women, demographically. But in the arguably more crucial matter of producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were right up to par—and often beyond it.” So that you can you write a history of twentieth-century criticism, and just skip the men altogether, and still end up with a rich and engaging 300 pages comprising fullness.

Though no doubt most of these woman would bristle at being placed in such a group, as these were usually women who resisted groups altogether. Many of them hated each other, though there were some surprising friendships as well (Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt!). None of them were “speaking for women,” either, but instead were human people who expressed ideas about things, and sometimes they were wrong, which for women especially is a perilous endeavour. Most of them challenged notions of feminism and sisterhood as well, but then what else would be expect critics to do?

I will be honest: I’ve been ambivalent about the value of criticism for the past few years, and Sharp doesn’t totally assuage that. Social media has done a good job of putting me off opinions altogether, and has me second-guessing whether mine are really worth sharing. “Who cares?” is also a question worth asking, and always has been—and even with these famous critics, the answer is usually “most people don’t.” A lack of outcry about the disappearance of platforms for reviews from anyone except the reviewers only underlines this. Nora Ephron, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, for example, are best known today not for their criticism. It also strikes me as a very male thing, definitiveness and ranking, like those guys on twitter demanding you show them your source. Why would a woman even bother? (At a certain point in their careers, many of these women no longer did.)

But a good reason to bother is for the richness that women’s voices, in all their diversity, add to the critical culture, I suppose. Dean is forthright about this in her preface when she writes that understanding what made these women who they were is most important because of how much we need more people like them.

May 24, 2018

Turtle Pond, by James Gladstone and Karen Reczuch

Every time I go, Allan Gardens seems like a secret I’ve just been let in on, this tropical oasis in the heart of the city, even in the dead of the winter. And if Allan Gardens is a secret, then the Allan Gardens turtle pond is a treasure at the bottom of your pocket. When we go, we can linger there for ages as the waterwheel turns, counting the turtles, then counting them again, and never coming up with the same total twice. Everything they do is fascinating, and we watch them with wonder, these otherworldly creatures who are our neighbours. Eventually I wander off to check out the orchids, but my children never tire of watching the turtles in the turtle pond. And so we were all excited about Turtle Pond, by James Gladstone and Karen Reczuch, in which the magical Allan Gardens turtles finally find their way into proper legend, where they belong. For us, this story of a trip to the turtle pond is perfectly familiar, and the illustrations do a lovely job of conjuring the experience, and for those who haven’t learned the secret yet, this book is a great place to start discovering.

PS Happy World Turtle Day! 

 

May 22, 2018

Mitzi Bytes and Margaret Drabble

This essay is exceedingly whiny, but makes a point worth underlining, which is “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.” It’s true. For example, I could tell you how my Mother’s Day present was a road trip to Furby House Books in Port Hope (which is such a wonderful place!) and how I arrived to find Mitzi Bytes on their Staff Picks shelf like that was ain’t no thang. But it was a thang. Plus, and most importantly, they knew I was coming, which was undoubtedly how a book that’s three seasons old ended up there. Also it is a very good book, and I’ve been grateful for Furby House’s support of it since its released, but still. A shot of my book on the staff picks shelf (now autographed—there’s even a sticker!) does not count as full disclosure. There’s always more of the story to tell, and even the best bits are difficult to appreciate when and if they finally happen. It’s like that line from a Bob Dylan song, “What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big.”

Not everything needs to be big though in order to be appreciated. I think the key to keeping going in a creative career, in any career, is to pay attention to the small things, to mark your milestones, to not write off any of the tiny miracles it would be so simple just to take for granted. Like the photo above, a photo of Mitzi Bytes on the shelf at Furby House Books. In such excellent company—what a thing to share shelf space with the likes of these books. What spectacular company, basically everything I ever wanted and everything that I never quite dared to believe could come true. But there is one title in particular that stands out here, the reason I took this photo in the first place. That yellow book on the lower shelf, far right: Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (which I loved, remember?). Margaret Drabble who made me want to write novels like no one else ever has—the first book of hers I read was The Radiant Way, which I discovered when I was still young enough to be impressionable but old enough to get it. (Rohan Maitzen just wrote a great post on the book, although she did not love it as I do.) I remember reading her books for the first time like I was discovering the world—but I was also discussing the limits of my talents and abilities and the hugeness of ambition at the very same time. It was a lot to comprehend. And so to see my book alongside hers years later is almost too incredible to be properly understood. It sounds overstated, but it isn’t. If someone had told me years ago that this photo was a thing that could possibly happen, even with the main currency of the book industry being bullshit, I would have considered this success beyond my wildest dreams.

My point being that sometimes it’s possible to arrive; it’s just the trick of remembering to notice once you get there.

May 18, 2018

They Say Blue, by Jillian Tamaki

I’m in love with They Say Blue, the debut picture by Jillian Tamaki as author, although she’s an award-winning illustrator best known for Skim and This One Summer, with Mariko Tamaki. They Say Blue is an abstract story that reminds me of The Color Kittens, by Margaret Wise Brown, but with fewer kittens, the way that one thing runs into another. “They say blue is the colour of the sky,” the story begins, “which is true today!” And here we see an image of a little girl sitting on a beach. “They say the sea is blue, too. It certainly looks like it from here.” But not everything they say is true, of course, as the girl realizes when she holds water in her hands and “it’s as clear as glass.” Are blue whales blue, she wonders. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen a blue whale…but I don’t need to crack an egg to know it holds an orange yolk inside.” And then the story moves from blue, to orange, to red, and gold. “A field of grass looks like a golden ocean.” And then it’s raining, and there’s a crocus: “Oh! Could purple mean something new?” As cold turns to warm, the girl sheds her winter layers. “I stretch to the sky with my fingers open wide.” And she turns into a tree. Moving through the seasons, changes, and it’s winter again. “All white, up and down. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between the land and sky.” She is a girl again, curled up, asleep: “Black is the colour of my hair.” And this part, which is my favourite: “My mother parts it every morning, like opening a window,” and the golden light comes in again. The story going on, as the girl and her mother watch crows out the window. “We wonder what they are thinking when they look at us. What they see….” The story’s final image is a red and orange sunset, the crows in flight. “Tiny inkblots on a sea of sky.”

This is a story about change and mutability, the possibilities of becoming, and the blurring of distinctions between one thing and another. It’s about imagination in flight, about the connections inherent between living things, between human beings and our landscapes. About questions, and wondering, and how nothing ever stands still.

And it’s absolutely stunning.

May 17, 2018

Three Things!

May 15, 2018

In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, by Claire Tacon

Everywhere you go, you’ll hear somebody complaining about how political correctness is ruining literature, how authors don’t have the freedom to tell the stories they choose, and what a pity it is that these days there’s so much we’re not allowed to say. To which I would reply for a request for specifics: Please, what it is it that you’re no longer permitted to say? And if the answer is that one time you wrote this thing and people on the internet got angry about it: that is not the same thing. As a writer, and a purveyor of language, you really ought to know the difference. Further, if you’ve been reading as much as I have, you’ll be assured that literature is richer than its ever been, as it’s being expanded, enlivened, and including stories and voices we haven’t heard before. With such boundlessness, there’s absolutely no story you’re not permitted to tell—and long as you ensure that you’re telling it with utmost excellence. For which Claire Tacon’s second novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, absolutely sets the standard.

In her novel, Tacon tells the story of Starr, a woman with Williams Syndrome, who has learning challenges and special needs. She also gives voice to Darren, a lovelorn Chinese-Canadian teenager who’s working as a mascot at Frankie’s Funhouse (basically Chuck E. Cheese) in the months before heading to university to study engineering. And Starr’s father, Henry, who is devoted to his daughter, whose love of Frankie’s Funhouse led to his job there repairing animatronic musicians and servicing pinball machines. Henry has even installed a Frankie’s Funhouse set in his basement for Starr’s entertainment pleasure, constructed out of decommissioned machines. And it’s when he learns via an online ad that the one piece he’s missing—Fanny Feathers, the flamingo in cowgirl regalia—is for sale not far from Chicago that he decides to embark upon a road trip with Starr and also with Darren, who’s got a plan to win back his girlfriend at ComicCon.

This is very much a novel about the difficulties of navigating the system as the parent of a disabled adult, the challenges of finding these adults meaningful work, supporting them in independent living situations, and accessing the resources so that parents don’t have to do all this work on their own—except usually this ends up being the case. Starr herself is one of several first-person narrators, so we also see the situation from her point of view as well, her daily joys and frustrations, the challengers of getting along with her roommate and with work colleagues, and how she works to deal with her challenges and anxieties, and with her parents’ expectations. Which are the same challenges that Darren is facing, actually, and also Starr’s younger sister, Melanie, who has always received less attention from her father than Starr has. And Melanie had struggles of her own—she’s trying to get pregnant, and fears a chromosomal abnormality, and what do these fears say about the fact of her sister’s existence? How will Henry react when he learns what Melanie is going through? And what have nearly thirty years of focussing on Starr meant for Henry’s marriage? He’d go to any length to care for his eldest daughter, but can he say the same thing about his wife?

I loved this book. A novel with this many first-person points of view is an ambitious one, but Tacon lives up to the challenge. She gives each of her characters such rich and rewarding back-stories, occupations, and preoccupations—each one enough to fill a book on its own. And as the story progresses, it becomes clear how connected everything is, how multifaceted the symbolism is. This is not a book about Starr, about disability, about a road trip, about an animatronic rat—but instead, it’s about relationships and intersections, and the incredible interconnectedness of all our lives and the things we love, and the ramifications of our behaviour on others that we might fail to consider. It’s about making safe spaces in the world so that Henry can send Starr out into it with assurance that she is valued and included. It’s a novel about trust, in ourselves, in society, and each other. And it’s a triumph.

May 10, 2018

My Door is Always Open

“A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.” —Alexandra Schwartz

  1. The only two doors in my apartment are the bathroom door, whose lock is broken, and my children’s bedroom door, which does not actually shut because the door frame is warped.
  2. When we moved into our apartment, I made an office in our garret, which is a strange narrow room adjoining my bedroom, but it was very cold and lonely there and I never wrote a thing.
  3. I have a tea towel upon which is printed the cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and it hangs in our living room (which has three windows, but no door).
  4. Before I had children, I worked 9-5 at a job that wasn’t very interesting and had no time to write.
  5. I am not saying a woman needs to have a A Room of One’s Own tea-towel hanging on her living room wall in order to live a rich and fulfilling life. There are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But this is what works for me.
  6. When my first child was born, I was desperately unhappy. I thought that motherhood would be the thing that saved me from monotony and humdrum days, but it was worse. And so there was nothing left but writing, which I had no choice but to do with all my might.
  7. I never had anything to write about before I had children. I remember talking about this with a friend over sushi about ten years ago, about how I didn’t think I’d be a good writer until I’d experienced motherhood, the way it raises the stakes. I didn’t have a big enough investment in the world before that. I was living on a limited plane.
  8. That limit was my limit. My friend with whom I was eating sushi is not a parent and did not need to become one in order to be a brilliant writer. There are lots of ways to do this thing.
  9. Sometimes I think that people mix up “having a newborn” with “motherhood”. It is true that having a newborn is a bit like being sent to prison/being tortured/transformed into a piece of human furniture, but it doesn’t last, and the only problem is that the first time it happens you don’t know it doesn’t last.
  10. My children are nearly nine and five. I don’t have a door and so my door is always open, but my children are usually doing other things in other rooms.
  11. My first major success as a writer—a published essay wins second place in a contest, is runner-up for a National Magazine Award, appears in Best Canadian Essays, is noted by the UTNE Reader—is about motherhood, and therefore if I’d never become a mother I never would have written it.
  12. Admittedly, all this is more complicated for women who find literary success before they have children—they have something to lose, I suppose. They need to learn to work in a different way. The decision is more perilous. And yet, to think in terms of peril is possibly overdramatic. It will be fine. It will be fine.
  13. My first book was an anthology of essays I edited about motherhood. It would be unlikely that I’d have taken on this project had I not become a mother. I edited this book while lying on my couch, my laptop propped on my legs while my baby slept on my chest. It was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes she napped for ages, and I got a lot of work done.
  14. My other child was at kindergarten. My children are four years apart. I am lucky to have been able to plan this all very carefully, to have my plans work out, for the time and balance I needed in order to be a mother, let alone a mother of two.
  15. My baby no longer sleeps on my chest. Now she goes in kindergarten too. When my first daughter was born and my world was torn asunder, I used to hear other mothers say, “And now I can’t imagine my life without her.” And I thought this was lunacy. I kept thinking instead about my baby, “Where on earth did you come from and what are we going to do?” But nine years later, I firmly can’t imagine my life without either of them. And there’s also this dawning awareness that one day I’m going to have to, because it won’t be too long before they’re living lives that have very little to do with me at all.
  16. I wrote my first novel during the summer of 2014 while my one-year-old napped and her big sister watched Annie on the sofa beside me every single day and I wrote 1000 words at a time. Everybody was doing her job.
  17. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written at the kitchen table, and there’s no one else home, and I’ve grown accustomed the quiet.
  18. I don’t have another job. This is an important part of the story. Working full time, and being a mother, and being a writer is really really hard. That said, a lot of people do it. But that’s a different kind of story than the story I’m telling here.
  19. I don’t have another job, but I’ve been able to build a freelance writing career where I earn a respectable living. I am very proud of this. I’ve also been able to fit that a career around taking my children to and from school every day, other appointments, cleaning my house, grocery shopping etc. etc. There is a misconception being a writer and being a mother without another job means one spends her days, well, staring out the window and dreaming, but I can’t afford such luxuries. I’ve got a business to run. And I have to vacuum.
  20. I’ve been really lucky. I have a partner who works full-time, but who has the flexibility to share the load and support my work. I have children whose needs so far have been fairly undemanding. For other parents, it’s much more complicated and much more work.
  21. I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard.
  22. The stories of women who choose not to have children (or who don’t even get the privilege of making that choice) are as interesting and worthwhile as the stories of women who do have children. That said, when those women’s stories are defined in opposition to those of women who are mothers (i.e. they are sometimes made to feel that they, unlike mothers, are doing womanhood wrong) it sometimes misses the point that even women who do  go with convention and have children are made to feel that they too are doing it wrong, everything, all the time. Motherhood is no escape from this.
  23. The choice not to have children is complicated though, this is true. Once the children arrive, they’re kind of undeniable. Whereas choosing not to have children, as a friend once told me, is a choice you have to make over and over, and that’s not easy.
  24. There is this push to universalize everything that happens to a woman. But sometimes our stories are just stories, instead of facts or even destinies. 
  25. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker. I think about this quote a lot, because sooner or later when they’re talking about those female writers, someone is going to be talking about you.

May 8, 2018

#FOLD2018

The first Festival of Literary Diversity in 2016 was the most interesting, inspiring and potentially transformative literary event I have ever attended—and I would have been back last year but I was out of town. So this year I did not miss a beat purchasing a pass for the Saturday events (and let me tell you, making the choice between Saturday and Sunday was really difficult—there were excellent things going on all weekend long). And once again, it was the very best day. I got the bus at 8:50 and was dropped off in front of Brampton City Hall just forty minutes later. There was even tea and scones for sale, so I was all set for the first event, which was writer Kai Cheng Thom discussing the important of setting with SK Ali (Saints and Misfits which I loved), Catherine Hernandez (Scarborough), Fartumo Kuso (Tale of a Boon’s Wife), and Joshua Whitehead (Johnny Appleseed)Whitehead talked about how huge The Break was in inspiring him how Winnipeg could be used as a setting in his novel, and how he wanted to use his setting as a “place of refuge” for queer Indigenous youth. Ali spoke about writing in the shadows of dominant narratives about Muslims and how she wasn’t trying to subvert that, exactly, because it would simply be falling into the same agenda. Instead, “I was just trying to write the Muslims I didn’t see in books.” She also spoke about how she had to get lessons from fantasy writers on world-building because there were elements of her story that would seem foreign to some readers, although these elements are parts of our communities. Hernandez talked about writing Scarborough, and “wanting to imagine beautiful possibilities for these places.” Kusow spoke of the balance between resisting mainstream images of Africa (Somalia) in her novel, but also she wanted to be honest. (PS I remember the panel in 2016 at which Kusow asked a question about how she, as a Muslim-Canadian immigrant, could find a place for herself in Canadian literature. Which made it particularly exciting to ask her to sign her novel for me this year…)

Next up was The Edge of Suspense, with Amber Dawn (Sodom Road Exit), David A. Robertson (Strangers), Michelle Wan (Death in Dordogne Mystery Series), moderated by the incredible Cherie Dimaline. They all talked about where their stories came from—Dawn sets her story in her hometown of Crystal Beach, ON, the year after the town’s iconic amusement park shuts down. She spoke about coming into her own as a writer as the Pickton trial was going on, and all the questions it evoked, which she uses her work to try to answer, this time in a novel. “I love for my art to have a house,” she said, discussing the novel as a container for the ghost story. Robertson’s YA novel was born of his interest in writing an origin story for a superhero, but he also wanted to have a dialogue in his work about mental health. He also wanted to give Indigenous youth a character in which they could see themselves reflected. And Michelle Wan told us about her own experience that had inspired her botanical mystery series, piecing a story together via flowers and their habitats. She talked about the constraints of literary narratives, and how these really can be artful, but also about her experience writing literary fiction, and how freeing it felt to “step off the path.” And then all three authors had a fantastic conversation about genre, and writers being bold in the forms of literature they’re choosing to tackle. But Dawn notes that Creative Writing Programs still have far to travel in encouraging this boldness in their students.

And then I had a long lunch, plenty of good conversations, met amazing literary people IN REAL LIFE, and tried and failed to exercise restraint while perusing the book sale table (“Don’t you already have books at home?” Anjula from Another Story Books asked me, but I pretended I hadn’t heard a thing). We also got ice cream. And then I took my seat for the Extraordinary Voices panel with Carrianne Leung moderating a discussion with Kim Thuy (Vi), Lee Maracle (My Conversations With Canadians), and Rabindranath Maharaj (Adjacentland). Leung began with a statement Cherie Dimaline made at The FOLD in 2016 about how story is magic. (And I remember this quote! I wrote the whole thing down: “Writing,” says Dimaline, “is the last true magic. Imagine being able to create something out of nothing, and that something is what literature is. It takes faith to create it, and also to receive it.”) Although Maracle suggested the inverse of Dimaline’s point, that story goes around looking for the writers. Maharaj talked about growing up in an oral culture, how everything was exaggerated, and storytelling becomes second-nature. Thuy mentioned that novel has been declared dead over and over ahead, but yet stories (and novels!) persist. Maracle talked about the importance of loving characters in order for the them to become multi-dimensional. And about writing for an audience: “But the initial story is coming to you—Own it.” Thuy talked about how different the discussions about her books are the various countries in which they’re published, which shifts the idea of writing for an audience—because how can you ever know? Maracle shared advice for young writers: “So dance and fall into your own story and don’t climb out until the door closes on you.” Maharaj explains that being a writer is having a particular way of looking at the world, of paying attention and noticing things. And finally Thuy on not fighting a story, on moving with it instead of against it: “And I just say YES.”

May 4, 2018

EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street

One of the best people I’ve ever known is Tracey, who we were all lucky enough to learn from during the years my children were enrolled at Huron Playschool and she was their teacher. She taught me all the best things I know about getting along with people, a project which is forever a work-in-progress, I know, but I find myself coming back to our conversations all the time. Our Playschool was a cooperative, so getting along with people was integral to the success of anything, but even more important was understanding and appreciating the different skills and abilities that everybody was able to bring to the table. And essentially, that there are always going to be some people who don’t do their part, who complicate processes, who made things harder for everyone else. But this too is exactly what people are, I remember Tracey telling me one day. When you sign up for a co-op/a community/a society/to be a person in the world, you don’t always get to pick your fellow travellers. The very point of everything is: it takes all sorts.

Which is the very spirit that infuses EveryBody’s Different on EverBody Street, by Sheree Fitch, illustrated by Emma Fitzgerald, a reissue of a poem Fitch published in 2001 to support a hospital charity and mental health initiatives. “If ever you go travelling/ On EveryBody Street/ You’ll see EveryBody’s/Different/ Than EveryOne you meet…”

The poem goes on to discuss how some are messy and some are neat, some grow tomatoes, and some don’t have enough to eat. “Some of us hold bags of hope/ Like babies in our arms/ Some hope over sidewalk cracks/ In search of good luck charms…” Some people are outgoing, others hold their selves inside.

“Some of us have visions/ Some of us have schemes/ Most of us have wishes/ All of us have dreams…”

And this, THIS: “All of us are perfect/ And all of us have flaws.” Which is the best two opposing ideas I’ve ever been able to hold in my head at the same time, such an important reminder to learn to accept and understand people as they are, to appreciate their unique qualities and even the ways they challenge things. Nobody’s perfect, and everyone’s perfect—what a thing. And it’s what Tracey was saying all along.

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