Monday, April 23, 2018

Dominique Russell on Louise Glück

There was a time when all I wanted was silence. Or, rather, silence enveloped me. I don’t know if I chose it or it chose me, but I didn’t want to have to speak. So much had been said already, enough that, surrounded by poems, I could just point to express what I needed someone to know.

It was, of course, the culmination of a habit of silence and observation, a lifelong training in self-effacement, self-denial, shutting up.

Into this silence Louise Glück’s work fell. I don’t know how I discovered her, but once I knew of Ararat’s existence, it was a book I had to have. I sent for it, on my student budget, a beautiful hardcover from the US. It was searing, at a time when I felt wounds open enough to need that kind of cauterizing.

Encased in grief, Glück’s relentlessly harsh voice expressed for me sorrows and fury that I didn’t dare let myself feel. It was like throwing my voice, from an interior silence, from an unknown even to myself. Glück describes my experience better than I can:

I’ll tell you
what I wanted to be—
a device that listened.
Not inert: still.
A piece of wood. A stone.

Guck’s voice is so sharp, it brings to mind cutting, and, as critic Dwight Garner points out, the fact that her father helped invent the X-acto knife is a “cosmically sublime detail:”

I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.

After or before—I’m not sure of the chronology anymore—I memorized the book, my eldest brother died of a brain tumor. I had traveled back and forth from Toronto to Ottawa to be with him in the eleven months he lived after his diagnosis. I remember him as calm, almost indifferent to his fate, though I know that can’t have been the case. Still, our conversations were flat, mundane. He ate chocolate against doctor’s orders. We went for walks in the woods, holding his boys’ hands. He had staples in his head. We got used to that. You can get used to anything. You quickly adapt, make bargains: ok this. Here and no further. This is ok.

But time and disease are relentless in their advance. As Glück tells us, “there has never been a parent/kept alive by a child’s love.” Nor a brother by a sister’s, nor a friend by a friend’s. It’s a truth you discover every time in the experience of loss. The longing to go backwards, the nostalgia for what seems like the worst time—it was impossible to explain to my circle of friends, untouched then by death. Glück understood, and her cold, harsh voice kept me company in my solitary grief:

She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sick room, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward.

When I wrote my way out of my grief, there was no trace of Glück’s influence. My experience of family, however difficult in the years of my eldest brother’s sudden absence, was of a coming together, of support and of beauty, as my other brother made, and kept, a promise to be there for my dead brother’s children, his infinite patience and hard work holding us together. Despite their theme, there was something sweet in my poems, written over a period of two months of cloistered grieving.

It wasn’t Glück who helped me out of my period of silence definitively, it was a therapist whose ministrations of Reiki and an admonition to write, to just write, just write every day brought me out of a deeper grief, out of a stopping up of guilt and self-loathing.

What has stayed with me from Glück, and what guides my writing like a distant star, is a line from “Lament.” Like most of her work, it can best be understood in the context of the whole poem, so I’ll quote it here:

Suddenly, after you die, those friends
who never agreed about anything
agree about your character.
They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing
the same score:
you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.
No harmony. No counterpoint. Except
they’re not performers;
real tears are shed.

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise
you’d be overcome with revulsion.
But when that’s passed,
when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes
because, after a day like this,
shut in with orthodoxy,
the sun’s amazingly bright,
though it’s late afternoon, September—
when the exodus begins,
that’s when you’d feel
pangs of envy.

Your friends the living embrace one another,
gossip a little on the sidewalk
as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze
ruffles the women’s shawls—
this, this, is the meaning of
“a fortunate life”: it means
to exist in the present.

A fortunate life means to exist in the present. To write from the blessings of love and family, of being alive, a body in this particular time, the small pleasures of taste, hearing and touch, to write about sex and children, with an awareness of life’s fragility and the relentless cruelty of time. It’s not an easy project: an aspiration.

Dominique Russell is an activist, teacher and writer. Her collection, Instructions for Dreamers, will be published by Swimmers Group this year.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Jacqueline Doyle on Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Hélène Cixous

Jacqueline Doyle on her Medusan Muses

It’s President’s Day 2018, more than a year into the worst presidency in U.S. history, an undrained swamp that becomes murkier and more putrid every day. My grown son has President’s Day off and is getting ready for a 15-mile bike ride, running in and out of the kitchen, screen door banging. Though my husband and I teach at a state university, we don’t have the day off. He’s been on campus since 10am. I have some time before I need to shower and dress and eat, probably in a rush, and leave for my 5pm office hour. I teach a night class on Mondays, a schedule I like, since I have all day for my own writing. Today I finished a final draft of my flash fiction “Medusa Reflects” and sent it out. Tonight I’m teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water, a breathtaking, horrifying novella loosely modeled on Chappaquidick, something none of these students will know about, at least not the twenty-somethings. Oates was inspired to write Black Water not in 1969, after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Ted Kennedy’s car and he got off with a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, but in 1991, when Kennedy’s nephew got off on a rape charge. I’m less interested in the Kennedys than the depiction of gender and power in the novel, a dramatization of the last two hours of a young woman’s life as she waits in vain for The Senator to rescue her, trapped after his car careened off the road and sank into the black water, “evil muck-water, thick, viscous, tasting of sewage, gasoline, oil.”

Joyce Carol Oates, one of my literary foremothers. When I was tempted to apologize last fall for how dark my new flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is, I thought of her 1981 New York Times piece “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” The question, she said, is “always insulting,” “always sexist.” “These things do not need to be contrived,” she said elsewhere. “This is America.” Jayne Anne Phillips, another foremother, whose Black Tickets made a lasting impression when I was in grad school years ago. Flash like “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive,” where “they carried a [dead] girl out of the barracks wrapped in an army blanket,” stories like “Gemcrack,” narrated by a serial killer of young women. Sandra Cisneros, who wrote flash vignettes about women and girls trapped by circumstance, and stories like “Woman Hollering Creek,” about women who broke out. Toni Morrison, who from The Bluest Eye to the present has never shied from experiment, never allowed others to determine what characters are marginal and what characters aren’t, what subjects too dark. Who has told truths about Black women and history that haven’t been told before. “Quiet as it’s kept.”

I don’t think I would have written The Missing Girl without them.

And another mentor I only just recalled as I retold Medusa’s story of rape and betrayal and reclaimed power: Hélène Cixous, whose essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” I looked up again when I was writing my flash, prompting a flood of memories only hinted at in my covert allusion in the penultimate line of my tale.

Cixous was part of a triple-headed Hydra of French feminists who had become popular by the time I was in grad school in the eighties. Like many other U.S. feminists, I read her explosive manifesto in translation in the popular 1980 anthology, New French Feminisms, which must be buried in my bookshelves somewhere, one of those books I can visualize vividly (a white paperback with blue lettering and two orange stripes), though I haven’t looked at it in years.

I was a scholar completing a Ph.D. in English, which I’d interrupted after my divorce, and returned to only after much soul-searching several years later. I was working on Poe’s dark tales and his varied resurrections among twentieth-century (mostly male) modernists. (I later quoted Cixous in an article on Poe’s “Berenice.”) It wasn’t until I had a tenure-track teaching job that I’d begin to write about contemporary women writers. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching and writing scholarly articles for twenty years that I’d begin to write my own stories.

I should have heeded my strong attraction to Cixous at the time. She recuperated Medusa and Freud’s Dora (another figure whose story I’ve retold). She undid binaries, spoke in a rhapsodic rush of metaphors, insisted on the freedom to write. “I shall speak about women’s writing,” she opens, “about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” She didn’t begin to write until she was 27, she says, so “I know why you haven’t written,” or have written only in secret, or criticized yourself so harshly, repressed your imagination. “Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”

I was in my fifties when I began to write. I’d long since forgotten “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which surely helped lay the groundwork for my creativity. Is it a coincidence that my father had just died?

I lather up in the shower, my skin slick and slippery, and reflect that I appreciate my body more now than I did ten years ago, or twenty. I can hardly believe I’m sixty-six. Yoga makes me more aware of my breathing and what my body wants to tell me. Despite the aches and pains of aging, and an immobilizing bout with sciatica ten years ago, I’ve been lucky so far. My body continues to serve me well. And my voice is stronger than it’s ever been.

I towel my hair roughly in front of the steamy mirror and when I take the towel away my hair stands out in spikes all over my head. Medusa! It makes me laugh.

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches creative writing and women’s literature at California State University East Bay. Her award-winning flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl was published last fall by Black Lawrence Press, and she has published creative nonfiction and flash fiction in numerous literary journals. Find her online at and on twitter @doylejacq.

Joyce Carol Oates photo credit: Larry D. Moore, via Wikipedia Commons

Monday, April 2, 2018

Rose Cullis on Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson in italics

1.      This is a song in praise of Maggie Nelson. This is my letter to you.
2.      You’ve come here to speak. I bought tickets as soon as I heard. I want to be in proximity with you. To hear what you might say. I want to hear anything you say. When I get to the hall, I realize I haven’t brought a notebook, but I do have a pencil, and a copy of your book, The Argonauts. So I take notes.
3.      Your feelings about the writing make no difference to the writing itself, you begin, quoting a wise friend, and speaking generously of your own questions about your writing practice. This is a line I can’t forget or fully understand. It’s like a koan. Your feelings about the writing make no difference to the writing itself.
4.      Imagine a world where this is the case. “If you can’t believe in your poems/leave them at home until you/learn to deserve them”—CA Conrad
5.      I first read your work during a week in April at a friend’s cottage. I was feeling strange that spring, and vulnerable. The night we arrived my friend and I partied and danced in the kitchen. Then, we walked down to the dock as light was falling, and I slipped on a patch of wet wood and landed, implausibly, on my side, on my ribs.
6.      At first I felt sure I’d injured my heart. It was hard to breathe. My friend held me. “Don’t move,” she said, and I looked up at the sky. It was white. Opaque. The wet dock beneath me. “It’s not your fault,” she comforted me. And I was relieved that nothing was broken.
7.      The injury was a gift. I set up in front of the wood stove for a week.
8.      The Argonauts was the book I’d brought with me. I read it quickly, feverishly, pinched between my thumbs, with my mouth open—like I was sharing the breath of it. I marked it and stained it to make it mine.
9.      At the talk you tell us that it was Wittgenstein who showed you that a self-excoriating compulsion could be a style. How you learned from the equivocating apparatus of his text. The self-excoriating elocutions.
10.  How you showed me how to do this.
11.  It’s holding things in tension that matters. Not letting it collapse one way or another. That words—these words—are good enough to hold a place for what I need to say. But not good enough.
12.  I can’t tell you how much your book means to me. Which is to say simply, thank you. Which is to say, I can’t pin down how it affected me, because as I read it, I felt a shift in that place where the meanings are. Which is to point, instead, and to say, “Look at the stars!”  
13.  Sitting in front of the fire that spring: holding my ribs, knowing that I am queer. I am queer. I am queer. That I can say this aloud.
14.  That I can straddle identities and still have some kind of coherent shape. That I am sixty years old. That I’ve loved women and men and those gorgeous gender traitors who resist the binary. That I might be with a straight old man now. And still be queer.
15.  This cottage is my ex-girlfriend’s cottage. We still love each other. But not like that anymore. I adore how she wears her gender.
16.  I’ve always been a femme. Even when I dress like a boy. Even when I look down and find my hands crimped with wrinkles and variegated with sunspots.
17.  “Listen to this line!” I say to my friend, Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.
18.  “Yes!” She says. “Context is everything!”
19.  I have long known about madmen and kings; I have long known about feeling real. I have long been lucky enough to feel real, no matter what diminishments or depressions have come my way.
20.  Reading The Argonauts in front of that sometimes too hot fire, I feel real for the first time in a long time. Mother, sister, daughter, grandmother, a femme who’s glad her lover has a big dick, high-school teacher, a playwright whose last play set some critics off in a delirium of denigration.
21.  That I might start again. That I might keep going.
22.  Your project with The Argonauts: What meeting normativity feels like. Interest in structures and premises. Narrating the inside from the inside.
23.  Anti-generalization. You are a deeply ethical thinker. A deeply ethical horny thinker. Yes. You can be a good enough mother and still write about the pleasures of arse-fucking.  
24.  Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched?
25.  “Keep it perverse!” a friend salutes me one day. This is, for us, an ethical aim.
26.  This is part of what I love so much about your writing, although in your talk you point out that it’s a mistake to ask that a work of art be ethical.
27.  Art may not perform that duty.
28.  But I trust you. The way I trust my dearest, most grounding, friends.
29.  After that week away, I read all of your work. I feel both irrevocably changed and more solidly present as a result of my encounter with the way you stitch your words together.
30.  There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.
31.  On this night, I want to stand up and tell you. But in this space—this art house forum—I just can’t heave my heart into my mouth.
32.  Near the end you speak to why we make art. And talk about the idea that some people are compelled to art-making simply because they have particularly egregious demons.
33.  I honour those demons, now, and even feel ecstatic in their needling presence.
34.  You are not comfortable with the word, “honour.” You prefer “honesty” as an antidote to shame.
35.  Art can have things in it that the world also has.
36.  This is a song in praise of Maggie Nelson. This is my letter to you.
37.  Sincerely, R. Cullis.

Rose Cullis writes plays, essays, stories, texts for dance, and sometimes poems. Most recently, a short film based on one of her short stories, The Year I Did Acid, premiered in the Open Art Short Film Festival in Dusseldorf, Germany. A number of her plays have been produced. Her last play, The Happy Woman, was produced by Nightwood Theatre and shortlisted for the Carol Bolt award. She’s had short stories, plays and monologues published in a variety of anthologies including Two Hands Clapping, Outspoken, You’re Making a Scene, Red Light: Saints, Sluts and Superheroes and Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Evelyn Deshane on Joan Didion

Google Searching For Joan

When I Google "Joan Didion," the first image that emerges is the one of her smoking. It's one of my absolute favourites, though I also love the one where she's leaning out of a car window, the one with Quintana in her lap, and the one where she's walking on the beach with her husband. Her sunglasses take up half her face in most of the other photos Google highlights for me. Without her shades, Didion's gaze is set in a stone stare, almost implacable, as if she is a Greek statue.

The first time I Google-searched her image was shortly after reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I'd discovered her much later than I should have, well into my twenties. In her most recent images at the time of my Googling, she was far older than I thought possible. Gray hair and wrinkles mar her skin, yet she was still staring with the same impeccable precision I found in her writing. When I searched for her age on Wikipedia, it didn't startle me as much as the fact that she was still living. I had grown used to any kind of literary hero already being dead by the time I found them. But she was alive. She's still alive now. As I went back to stare at her images in Google, I held onto two thoughts simultaneously: She's still alive, and she's still so, so small.

Joan Didion is a tiny woman. Some people have called her frail, too thin, and utterly anemic. But I latched onto those images--and the words that came with them--because I'd been called those before. And after I'd been called them, I was told I was going to die.

When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I never thought this definition fit, especially since I was still eating. I never wanted to be "thin" like magazine girls, but I had dropped a sudden amount of weight in my early high school days. My doctor took one look at me, told me I was going to die, and shuffled me off to an eating disorder facility. I gained weight. I got "better." But what effectively happened afterwards was I lost my voice.

There was a ban on magazines in the eating disorder treatment centre. The ban was in place in order to keep away "thinspiration" images of skeletal Kate Moss and diet tips from Cosmo. When I tried to bring in my books--Whitefang, White Oleander, and The World According To Garp—they couldn't really say no. When I brought my notebook, and proved I wasn't writing calorie counts in it, they couldn't say no, either. I merely wanted to read and write while I waited to gain the twenty pounds I apparently needed to gain. I thought this was going to be easy--but the counsellors, therapists, and everyone in the facility did as much as possible so I couldn't read and write. They threatened to take away my books. It was outside material, and I was there for healing, not reading, after all. At one point, they replaced my books with nail polish during free time and insisted that all nine of the other patients watch Dr. Phil as we waited for our dinner cart to arrive.

After four months of this, I walked away from the facility with a "proper" weight—but with absolutely no way of contextualizing what had happened to me. It wasn't until I was in university and found Marya Hornbacher's eating disorder memoir Wasted that I found some kind of narrative of an eating disorder that fit with my own experience. Halfway through her book, she talks about walking around her city in the middle of the night while reading German philosophy and drinking nothing but black coffee. She wanted to replace food with knowledge; she strove for philosophical thought and artistic endeavours, not stick-thin feminine beauty. That was something I could relate to. I read Wasted cover to cover and held it up as the only form of eating disorder narrative I could condone. Everything else was wrong.

But I still couldn't talk about me, about my experience, or what had happened to me at age fifteen.

When I found Joan Didion's picture in a late night Google search, something changed. She was thin. Startlingly so. A distant part of my brain wondered if I looked at her for "thinspiration" like all the counsellors had told me I did with other thin images of women. After a day and a half of doubt, I eventually shut that part away. I read more of Didion's work. When I found "On Keeping a Notebook," the essay struck me in a way nothing ever had before. It reminded me of my life in the eating disorder facility without the pain of pathology. Didion reminded me of the importance of writing down my thoughts, whenever they came in, so that when I woke in the morning and thought I had nothing to do, I was actually still filled with ideas.

One morning, I found my old notebooks and I reread those words. I wrote about them. I carved out the experience in a different notebook, then in a different manuscript altogether. Eventually, when I looked at Didion's image in a search again, I didn't feel a pang of guilt. Instead I remembered an exchange between my best friend and my boyfriend when I was fifteen, maybe a month or two before I was sent to the facility. We were standing on a hill, waiting for a bus, and the wind was sharp and cutting.

"You'll blow away, you know," my best friend said. "You're so damn thin."

"I've got you." My boyfriend put a hand on me, but I slipped away from his grasp. I ran away from both of them, part teasing and part serious. I wanted to show that even if I was thin, I was still strong. When he chased after me, he caught me and lifted me up like I was nothing but air. I screamed and wriggled and tried to get away. Then I burst out in laughter so hard it hurt.

The memory rose to the surface a decade and a half later because it was the last time that I remembered having a voice. A loud one, a sharp one, and one that knew there was nothing wrong with me.

Just like Joan Didion. She's small, but she's a lion. She's still called frail to this day, but she has a new book coming out each year. She still writes, she's still doing her work, even on those bankrupt mornings. Because of those notebooks, it feels like I can do the same.

Evelyn Deshane's creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington's, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn's most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Visit for more info.

Monday, March 5, 2018

S. Nadja Zajdman on Ruth King Porter

I was sitting by the gas-lit fireplace in my local library when a book on a table caught my eye.  It was the collected correspondence of Maxwell Perkins and Marjorie Rawlings.  As I read their letters I could hear their long-stilled voices speaking to each other, and to me, across the expanse of decades.  I tried to check out the book, but was told it was a reject from a book sale, and if I wanted it I would have to buy it, so I did.
            At home, I looked up Maxwell Perkins on the Internet.  A link led me to rural Vermont and Perkins’ granddaughter, the novelist Ruth King Porter.  Ruth was giving away her novels, asking nothing in return but that readers post reviews on her website. I sent for Ruth’s books, and a correspondence began.  I was scheduled to visit Ruth in spring, when her mother’s dying began.  I was rescheduled to visit Ruth in autumn, when my mother’s dying began.  My mother was a chronic cancer patient whose condition turned terminal in the autumn of 2013.  Instantly I cancelled travel plans and let go of my already-purchased bus ticket.  As the local clinic stepped in to provide practical assistance, a friend with a car offered to take me on a day trip to Vermont.  Encouraged by my mother, I accepted the offer.  “We are two middle-aged women, both wearing glasses.”  I wrote to Ruth.  “My friend is a blonde with dark roots.  I still think of myself as brunette, but there is more salt than pepper in my hair, now.”  Ruth wrote that she would be waiting for me under the clock tower of Montpelier’s City Hall.  I knew what Ruth looked like from the photographs on her website. 
            My companion and I rode into Montpelier on a gloriously warm day at high noon.  I saw Ruth sitting on a bench under the clock tower, scribbling in a notebook.  Main Street was packed with tourists, and we couldn’t stop the car in front of City Hall.  We found a parking space down the street.  My friend waited in the car, while I ran down the block.  “Ruth?”  The woman on the bench looked up, and then leapt up. 
            Ruth was a pre-hippie Back-to-the-Lander, in her early seventies when I first met her.  At our first encounter she wore a white work shirt, faded blue jeans, slung a black money belt over her shoulder, and walked like someone who rides horses a lot.
            “Where’s your friend?”  Ruth called, through the crowd of tourists blocking the sidewalk.
            “She’s waiting in the car!”  I called back.  I led Ruth to the car and the friend in it.  Ruth led us both on a tour of the golden-domed state capital building.  “I hope we don’t run into my son.”  Ruth twinkled.  “He’d be embarrassed by the way I’m dressed.  My son Louis works as an aide to the governor.”  When the tour was over Ruth led the way, in her battered old car, out of Montpelier and higher into the Green Mountains, where another world awaited. 
            Ruth’s husband Bill and a second son, Robbie, rode on their tractors out of the woods to greet us on the porch of a rambling farmhouse.  Near the porch, three large dogs stiffened in alert.  On subsequent visits I would watch, ruefully, as Ellie and Flora danced attendance on the impervious top dog Chief.  During this initial encounter Ruth’s daughter Molly, an artist who lived, Thoreau-like, in a cabin she built with her hands, bounded up a hill to join us.  The open and friendly faces of Ruth’s family smiled at me kindly.  I’m sure they were aware of my situation, though no one referred to it.  Taut, lean, Alabama-born Bill wiped the grime off his hands and stepped forward to shake mine.  I felt as though I’d stepped into an illustration by Norman Rockwell.
            As an early darkness fell my companion and I crossed back over the fence we call a border, returning to Montreal and my mother’s apartment.  “Hello sweetheart.”  My dying mother smiled tenderly.  “How did it go with the lady in Vermont?”  
            What could I say?  I felt guilty at having left her, even for a few hours.  
            I didn’t feel like relaying the details of an excursion to Vermont.

Six months later I returned to Montpelier by bus, and alone.  Once more, Ruth met me under the clock tower.   For a few days in May I curled under Ruth’s wing, sunning on her roof, sleeping in Max Perkins’ bed, waking to birdsong and skimming the staggering array of autographed out-of-print books dedicated by grateful authors to their engaged and caring editor.  “Grieving is hard work,” Ruth would greet me when, after a nap, I descended a steep staircase into her dark country kitchen.  Standing side by side in the verdant meadow which was her front yard, Ruth stated, as much in amazement as in sadness, “A year ago this time, both our mothers were alive.”
            Ruth King Porter is an American blueblood whose antecedents hark back to a woman who held a door for George Washington.  I am the Canadian-born daughter of refugees.  My mother, a woman who survived three invasions and the Warsaw Ghetto, later in life became prominent in Holocaust education.  Ruth and her husband Bill were fascinated by my family history, a history which many find repellent.  Ruth did for me what I had done for my mother; she listened and encouraged me to tell my mother’s story.  When I read a book Ruth recommended, I realized she had a deeper understanding of my background than I thought possible.  
            Six months after my first extended visit, I was back on the farm.  Ruth and Bill acknowledged what would’ve been my mother’s birthday by inserting and lighting large candles into holes carved in a spectacularly tangled chandelier made entirely of logs.  As we consumed hot squash and a pot full of peas grown in Ruth’s garden, cold autumn rain and wind lashed the last leaves off a forest full of trees outside the wall-size picture window.  Inside, as we ate, the lit log chandelier shone, the tree bark-shaded lamps glowed, and the wood stove burned. 
            Several weeks later, nearing my birthday, which was a big one, by post I received from Ruth a warm, multi-coloured scarf.  Inspired by the gift and the woman who gave it, the next day I bought an attractive hat to wear with the scarf.
            I have been back to Ruth and Bill’s farm several times, since.  In between visits Ruth does for me what her grandfather did for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe—and Marjorie Rawlings; she writes to me and elicits writing from me, reading and critiquing my material, encouraging, cajoling, indicating where and when she believes I have veered off-track, and gently nudging me back.  Clutching the psychic lifeline tossed to me by the descendant of a legendary literary editor, I lived and worked alone and in growing peace in my suburban Montreal apartment, producing a memoir of my mother. 

S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author.  Her short stories and non-fiction pieces have been featured in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and anthologies across North America, in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. In 2012 Nadja published the related short story collection Bent Branches, which spans four continents and seventy years in the life of a family.  Recently Nadja completed work on a second short story collection, as well as a memoir of her mother, the noted Holocaust activist and educator Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman, who passed away near the end of 2013.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Hannah Brown on Rumer Godden and Frances Hodgson Burnett

I accepted fairly early that I was a bad girl. I was told so often enough. It was discouraging, as I wasn't defiant. There were just so many things to do wrong, and my mother couldn't think of all of them to tell me ahead of time. I was a buoyant, sociable, confident child by nature, and my mother viewed all of those qualities with suspicion.
     So when I read The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, my heart leapt. Here was another bad girl, cranky, disagreeable, and as on her own as I was. What she did and said and felt was worth attention and sympathy. Unlike her, I had parents and several siblings, but I was, like Mary, emotionally on my own.
     My mother was easily provoked. At nine, I stood in front of the mirror to comb my hair, and she mocked me for looking at myself. Aren't we glamorous? I was shamed and scolded until I finally gave up. If I was bad, then bad was good. This meant the only life for me was that of a pirate, which was problematic, as I was quite sure that even if I learned how to fight with a sword, I was unlikely to be able to grow a moustache. Pirates were the only bad people I thought I knew something about, other than myself, and what I knew about myself was that although my motives were pure, my mother told me I would end up in the Mercer Reformatory, a prison for wayward girls, (Now closed, but operating a full capacity in 1956).
     After I read The Secret Garden, I changed. When asked, how can you stand that hair over your face? I countered with, "If there's something I want to see, I'll chew my way through." If I was bad, I wasn’t going to go quietly.

The creation of Mary Lennox was a new kind of character for readers in 1911, a child protagonist who slipped out at night to explore and had other outdoor adventures, which up until then had belonged in literature to boys, (With the nightmarishly funny Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the exception). It might as well have been 1911 for me, as up until then boys or animals (Bob, Son O' Battle) were the noble and heroic main characters in the books I read. Mary wasn’t a boy and she wasn’t noble, either. 
     And yet, like me, she was redeemed by a garden. Mary had a whole walled-in garden, I had a small bed by the drive shed, the worst plot, hard clay, and I wasn't allowed to use the garden fork, so an unrelenting patience at turning the earth over with a small trowel meant my grandmother intervened. I was given petunias to plant—which I hated. I transplanted some periwinkle, and some sweet woodruff, and bicycled to the small woods nearby for ferns. I had hope and purpose.
     If Mary could eventually become a prized playmate, then flowers and wild foxes might somehow redeem me, too. The family of foxes who paused on the ramp to the haymow and turned their heads to the side, the better to make an appraisal of me were relatives to the tamed fox belonging to Hodgson's nature-boy child, Dickon. Mine were wild, not tamed— but neither were they afraid.
     I knew I could be redeemed by kindness towards others who suffered, like Mary’s kindness she eventually extended to the petulant and feminized invalid, Colin. I knew that I could become good, because, like Mary, it was possible that I, too, could find a place to belong among strangers—and in case they had with a Yorkshire accent, I practiced behind closed dining room doors. “Tha’ mun’t,” I repeated, like the novel’s gardener, Ben Weatherstaff. I took heart.

In 1956 Rumer Godden had a best seller. Her novel, An Episode of Sparrows was set in post-World War II London. She wrote about an abandoned girl, who made a small garden in the bombed-out rubble of the East End, and preferred her outgrown stylish coat to one that fit, but was ugly. She shared that aesthetic with one of her caregivers, a sensitive restaurateur who struggled to keep his business alive, but spent money on exquisite small bowls for fresh strawberries. Me too. Fresh flowers in the house, even if you have nothing for supper.     
     There are wonderful treatises on the gender norms being both reinforced and sabotaged in these two novels, and on how the upper classes are redeemed by association with the working class, and both of those analyses are entirely logical and validated by my personal experience. I was given hope that I could be valued, and that there were others in the world who shared my aesthetic inclination. I was nurtured as a girl and as eventually as a writer by the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Rumer Godden. In their novels, they give representation to the ideas that nature that heals, that kindness heals those who extend it as well as receive it, that gender is fluid, and that art is not just a balm but also a kind of alchemy for sorrow. I share their sympathy for all the bad girls— whom I write about, and whom, in real life, I love.

Hannah Brown was born in Hastings County and currently lives in Toronto. She wrote screenplays for anyone who'd pay, and her script How to Call Cows won first prize from the NFB. She has taught English and film at the college and collegiate levels, and more recently has had work published in Superstition Review #15, in The Harpoon Review, in Lynn Crosbie's Hood, in untethered magazine, in white wall review, and in (parenthetical) magazine—which submitted her story, "The Happiness" as its entry for the 2016 Journey Prize. Her novel, Look After Her, is due for release in the spring of 2019 from Inanna Publications. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sky Gilbert on Ayn Rand and Elena Ferrante

Ayn Rand Was My Mother

Yes, I mean – no. I have been in denial all these years. And that is more than just a river in Africa. Because my mother was a voice in my head for so long (she’s still there, quieter than when I was young) shall I say it simply, unabashedly, with no shame? I have always been very susceptible to a strong female voice. Anger is just voiced fear; and my mother was a very angry woman. Uncompromising. She taught me not to settle for less; that has been the bane of my existence. Nothing was ever good enough for her, nor will it ever be for me. I read The Fountainhead when I was 14, – the naked Howard Roark with the red hair standing on a cliff demanded that I never compromise. I wore a dollar-sign bracelet. I did not have friends; they were beneath me – giggling and flirting, obsessed with sex and dating. Nay, I would walk beside tall buildings, alone, on windy days, and my fearless mind would affirm; I am an artist and I am quite pleased no one understand me. Recently I have been reading Elena Ferrante, at first I didn’t know why I loved her novels so much. Soon, it became all too clear. I tried to read Frantumaglia, I had to stop. Elena Ferrante is Ayn Rand. Different economics, different politics – but the same uncompromising voice. Elena is asked to do a reading. ‘I won’t,’ she says ‘tell them I won’t. They scorned my first novel, and they want to humiliate me now? I categorically refuse.’ Elena is asked to write an article for a magazine. ‘The wanted to change one word, I said to them no – please no – I will not be insulted – these words are my life, would you take away my life? Strangle me with adjectives? Shove adverbs down my throat until I choke? Go away; you will kill me with the fatuous infertility of your unctuous imagination.’ Now I imagine that I want to be done with Ayn Rand, with Elena Ferrante, and most of all I want to be done with my mother. But that scorned Virago, that woman who turns her fear to scorching fury lies behind every word I speak. She would hector me, and at the same time she would demand that I enjoy every minute of it; I am thus, temperamentally, hag-ridden. She beckons. I must – nay, I will – too gladly – submit.

Sky Gilbert is a poet, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, theatre director, and drag queen extraordinaire.  He was co-founder and artistic director of Torontos Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – one of the worlds largest gay and lesbian theatres – from 1979 to 1997. He has had more than 40 plays produced, and written 7 critically acclaimed novels and three award winning poetry collections. He has received three Dora Mavor Moore Awards as well as the Pauline McGibbon Award, and The Silver Ticket Award. There is a street in Toronto named after him: Sky Gilbert Lane.’  Hes latest novel Sad Old Faggot (ECW Press) was critically acclaimed. He is presently finishing a book of essays entitled Small Things to be published by Guernica Press in fall 2018.