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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Emily Ursuliak on Suzette Mayr

During the summer of 2010 I had almost finished college and was starting to think about grad school. Rod Schumacher, my first writing mentor, had suggested that this was the logical next step and that I ought to read books by writers I was interested in working with to help guide my applications. I created a reading list and began working my through my stack of books. I didn’t come to Suzette Mayr’s work until I was on a camping trip in the badlands with my family. I had found a copy of her novel Moon Honey and I started digging into it lying on a bunk in my parents’ trailer. Many of the books in that stack I read through dutifully, and while I recognized that they were written with a level of skill that far exceeded mine, I just didn’t connect with them. Mayr’s novel was different. The opening of Moon Honey has stuck with me long after reading it. We are introduced to a young couple, Carmen and Griffin, and are told about the time they had sex under a pool table. During the act, Carmen accidentally smacks her head against the leg of the pool table and the brief description of this moment is so visceral, we feel what it’s like to be in her body, her skull throbbing from the recent impact. There is something so true about this opening moment: the awkwardness and discomfort of first sexual experiences, and the bizarre humour of these weird moments in our lives.

I was supposed to be reading my book pile searching for someone who could help me address the weaknesses in my own work, and right there, in the first scene of Moon Honey, I saw one of the strengths of Mayr’s work and what was lacking in my own. My characters were floating heads, spewing thoughts but not giving the reader any physical sense of what it was like to be in their bodies. In Moon Honey I noticed how fully embodied Mayr’s characters were, how she dug deeper into them, was able to describe their physicality as well as their thoughts, and used this strength to delve into challenging issues around race. I remember devouring the book over that weekend camping trip and feeling in my gut that this was the person I needed to study under. Thankfully, when I got into the one program I applied for, Mayr agreed to be my supervisor.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the toxicity of creative writing programs in universities. I feel fortunate that I was able to get through my program relatively unscathed, but it was definitely a very tumultuous time for me, and through the two years I was in the program, Suzette was a grounding, stabilizing force. She was able to balance supporting me, while also giving me the rigorous critique my work needed. I felt as though I could be incredibly honest with her during the process of working on my thesis. One time I told her I was worried about my productivity, that I had been binge-watching a bunch of weird French movies on Netflix. Her response: “Maybe watching these weird French films is part of your creative process. Believe me, if you’re not getting enough work done, I’ll be the first to let you know.” I can’t think of any other professor that I would have ever admitted binge-watching Netflix to. Often her critiques were laced with wit and humour. I remember one time she pinned a note to a chapter I’d submitted, chastising me for using too many ellipses. It went something like this: “Why . . . are . . . there . . . so . . . many . . . ellipses . . . in . . . this . . . section? It . . . makes . . . it . . . painful . . . to . . . read . . .” and it continued on that way for quite a bit. I snorted with laughter reading this feedback, and since then I have always been very cautious with ellipses. During my time studying under Suzette I felt like I could trust her entirely, and that even while she was warm and supportive, she was also challenging and pushing me to dig deeper into my process.

I still look up to Suzette and I think I’ve come to admire her in entirely new ways after leaving grad school. When I came to Calgary I did not have much experience with any kind of a writing community. Frankly, I was pretty naive about what being part of a writing community meant and threw myself wholeheartedly into every interaction. I’ve found that different writers value different things. Some writers are very attached to accolades and prizes and take every opportunity they can to boast about their accomplishments. Suzette’s work is certainly highly regarded. Her novel Monoceros earned her a place on the 2011 Giller longlist and won her the ReLit Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize, to name a few recognitions her work has received. But Suzette is the last person you’ll find going on about any of these prizes. She’s always struck me as someone who is driven solely by the work itself. I remember talking with her about what ended up becoming her recent novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall. The ideas she mentioned were compelling, but she was still very much in the progress of wrangling the book and shaping it into what it would become. I dove into that novel this fall, revelling in the way she can make you squirm with uneasiness on one page, and laugh on the other. And I thought about the value of blocking out the tacky glitter of prize culture, of focusing in instead on the work of writing for the sake of writing. I hope that I can one day cultivate the sincere, grounded focus Suzette Mayr has for her work.

Emily Ursuliak is a fiction writer and poet living and working in Calgary, Alberta. She hosts and produces the literary radio show Writer’s Block for CJSW 90.9 fm. She has recently published her first book of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, with University of Calgary Press. You can find out more about her at

Monday, October 30, 2017

Erin Bedford on Dervla Murphy

In 1993, just before the first post-apartheid elections were to happen, Dervla Murphy, a sixty-two year old Irish travel writer, arrived in South Africa and began a 12,000 kilometre journey by bicycle through the vast and beautiful landscape, through the tumultuous beginnings of a new country. Ten years later, I read the book she wrote about that eye-opening journey. An engaged and astute observer, Murphy never shied from writing the difficult things that make a reader question their own privilege, their own social safety nets. I read South from the Limpopo in a gray cubicle belonging to the customer service department of the educational publisher where I worked, interrupted too often by calls from customers disgruntled about scuffed textbooks or missing quiz answer booklets.

I was happy to discover Murphy had written sixteen other books before South from the Limpopo (total tally now twenty-four) She began her travels relatively late in life, at the age of thirty-two, after her invalided mother died and she was relieved of that duty of care. When Murphy finally began living life for herself, she did so in a big way, riding her bicycle not just cross-country, but cross-continent, from Dunkirk in France all the way to India (Full Tilt). She smoked, she drank, she spoke her mind. She was ever-generous in giving the places she travelled and the people she met the benefit of the doubt. She was often mistaken for a man, owing to her short hair and the audacity of a woman out on her own in some of the places she travelled through.

I was hooked on Murphy’s writing, but soon frustrated to discover so many of her books out of print. I scoured used bookstores, ordered hardbacks from the U.K. and paid more for shipping than for the books themselves. I read of her journey by mule through the Andes, her nine year old daughter in tow (Eight Feet in the Andes), her rides through the Balkans (Through the Embers of Chaos) and Rwanda (Visiting Rwanda), just after the end of wars and horrendous human atrocities. She related travel tales from Laos and Coorg, Ethiopia and Nepal, Cameroon, Madagascar, Transylvania. She was held up at gunpoint. She relied on her wits and her bicycles and the immense kindness of strangers during her travels through so many countries. She suffered dysentery and malaria, bed bugs and parasites. She did not suffer doubters or fools.

In her books, Dervla Murphy never apologizes for living outside “normal” and has little patience for people who question the great distances she travels in sometimes dangerous places. For Murphy, it’s a lack of vision that makes a life dangerous, the inevitable dullness that precipitates from not trusting in one’s abilities. She wastes no words on the relationship she has with an editor and never explains or justifies (as, indeed, a child never should be) the daughter born from that relationship. Quite naturally, the child just begins to show up in Murphy’s writing--Rachel, a charming and intelligent girl who tests her mother’s patience at times because she can’t always keep up with her ma’s speed of travel. A child out of wedlock, an itinerant and independent lifestyle, a commitment to write things as she saw them in the world, nevermind the safety of popular political opinion and, most amazing of all, a lack of guilt for any of it, at least in her writing; Dervla Murphy fell well outside the scope of normal for a middle-aged woman in Catholic Ireland.

Before reading Murphy’s books, I’d never questioned what I’d do with my life. I was operating on the assumption that happiness was somehow tied up with checking things off a master list, and my list was nothing if not pragmatic: finish university (check), marry (check), work at a publishing company (check) work up from an entry level position, become an editor.

No, those last two aren’t checked. Probably they never will be. That’s owing to Dervla Murphy and her adventurous life and the books she wrote about it. That’s owing to the fact that I went out to a bookstore on a spring afternoon when I was twenty-three looking for someone to tell me what I thought I should do with my life was good and right and acceptable and finding Dervla instead. Dervla Murphy taught me that acceptability is not the goal, that what’s important in life, and in art, is the fear, the discomfort and, most of all, the trying. She pointed the way to new options, wide open options, that weren’t on my very practical list—amazing things I could accomplish if I let go of pleasing other people, if I let go of holding their expectations for my life above my own. And so I quit that customer service job. Shortly after I finished reading South from the Limpopo, I quit my idea of how the rest of my life was supposed to look according to other people. Because of Dervla’s writing, I made a new checklist. Though I guess it’s not really a list if there’s only one thing on it: WRITE.

Erin Bedford lives and writes in Toronto. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction from the Humber School for Writers for her first published novel, Fathom Lines. At present, she is writing poetry and short stories and acting as shill for her newly-finished second novel. Find out more here or @ErinLBedford

Monday, October 23, 2017

Michele Leavitt on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane and Emily Brontë’s Catherine

Finding My Moral Compass

I’ve always believed people could change. Under warm, incandescent lighting at a plea bargain negotiation, I argued that my client, charged with arson, had turned over a new leaf. He was running a horse stable in an affluent, nearby town, no longer one of the many seedy, unemployed men in my slummy community.

The judge smirked at me from behind his desk and said “The horse business? You’ve got to be kidding me, Michele. That’s almost as crooked as the siding business.”

“Your Honor,” I said, pressing my hand to my heart, “my father was in the siding business.”
The judge, a Boston Irish Catholic named Sullivan, turned beet red. Spluttering, he gestured at his court officer, who pointed me and the prosecutor toward the door.

A few minutes after we left the judge’s lobby, Sullivan came back on the bench, hit it once with his gavel, and said “Case dismissed. Not enough evidence.”

The prosecutor threw a shit-fit, but only after Sullivan was gone. The judge was known as a vindictive man who’d made lawyers cry and faint in his courtroom.

It was the early 1980’s, and as a woman trial lawyer, I belonged to a very small demographic. I looked Irish, and loved a good argument. Sullivan liked me, but that wasn’t why he dismissed my case. He believed in confession and redemption, and his moral compass pointed him toward making restitution when he did wrong. He felt it had been wrong to insult my father; to make up for it, his penance was to let my client the arsonist go free.

I’d mouthed off because I believed it was wrong to categorize people as good or bad based on their status – stableman or siding salesman, or rich or poor, or black or white. I didn’t mention I had no love for my father, or that my father had done time in federal prison for loan fraud.

The moral values in the home where I grew up never seemed right to me. Maybe that’s because I was adopted and had a different temperament from both of my adoptive parents. I don’t know if my adopters were genetically programmed to be cut-throat materialists, or if they were shaped that way by their Depression-era immigrant families’ cultures. They expressed contempt for people who hadn’t made it into the middle class, and for poor people who were taken in by frauds meant to exploit them. They didn’t believe in philanthropy. They poked fun at my childhood impulses toward sympathizing with weaklings, or rooting for losers.

I didn’t learn I was adopted until I was twenty-one, but I always felt a bit out of place. I craved clarity about what was right and what was wrong, but I didn’t know where to find it. The family wasn’t religious, and I floundered around without much guidance until the fourth grade, when illness kept me out of school for a term. I read every book in the house more than once, and whined for more. Exasperated, my mother asked our local librarian for recommendations. The librarian sent her home with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and the heroines of those novels became my models for a moral life.

For readers familiar with these stories, claiming both women became the foundation of my moral code may seem absurd. Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw – even now I find I must speak of them as real people – are so different from one another. Jane sacrificed love to convention. Catherine’s concept of love defied that convention. Jane refused to supplant Mr. Rochester’s wife. Catherine was happy to supplant Heathcliff’s. Jane relied on God when in distress, saying things like “Grant me at least a new servitude!” Catherine relied on her own psyche: “I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas.”

I liked Jane better when she was a child rebelling against injustices heaped on her by her wealthy guardian’s family than when she was a more pious adult. I liked Catherine better when she was a girl, wild and free, before she aspired to class-climbing. But two traits Jane and Catherine shared were stubbornness and speaking their minds – their stubborn refusals to be dissuaded from the ideas they’d spoken aloud. Once each woman decided what was right for her, she could not be swayed by argument, or patriarchal authority. Both spoke truth to power.

As girls, Jane and Catherine were more like me than anyone I knew: rebellious, prone to rants, stubborn to the point of stupidity. Their stories mothered me by giving me models that made a visceral, unconscious sense. I read their stories over and over again. I still read them every year.

I ran away from home at sixteen for many reasons, one being that I was stubborn. When I went to law school, it was because I wanted to even up the odds against marginalized people I’d seen being singled out by police for prosecution and long state prison terms. While blue-collar criminals were punished for life, white collar criminals like my adoptive father did short, cushy stretches in federal prisons. White, upper middle-class men like my adoptive father also got away with beating their children. I was a mouthy middle-schooler who’d stripped in the nurse’s office at school to speak truth to power and show the welts and bruises from those beatings. Back then, in the twentieth century, though, it was me who was punished, not him.

Children are the ultimate underdogs, and I felt my own powerlessness as bitterly as Jane and Catherine felt theirs. But as an adult, I’ve been a lucky woman. My work has always allowed me to do what matters most to me – to attempt translation of one person’s experience to another.

Shortly after my arsonist case, Judge Sullivan was transferred to a remote court. The rumor was that someone with political pull complained about his brusque manners and off-the-cuff rulings. Seven years later, I ended up his courtroom again. When he saw me leaning against the bar that separates the lawyers and court personnel from the hoi polloi, he chuckled and motioned his bailiff and me up to the bench.

“This,” he said to the bailiff, “is the lawyer whose father was in the siding business.” The bailiff let out a hoot.

The judge and I had both been telling that story, over and over again. For him, it was about how he confessed a mistake by making amends. For me, it was about how I’d called him out for his prejudices, and stuck to my own flawed ethics. If I’d never met my mothers, I wouldn’t have known how.

Michele Leavitt, a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney, writes poetry and nonfiction. Her essays appear in Guernica, Sycamore Review, Catapult, Narratively, and elsewhere. Recent poems can be found in North American Review, concis, Baltimore Review, and Cleaver. She’s the author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Christine Fischer Guy on Alice Munro and Jan Morris

“She was hard-used between the legs, swollen and stinking.”

It would be hard to overstate the effect of reading that line in Alice Munro’s story, “The Children Stay.” In it, a young mother leaves her family for an uncharted future with a theatre director. With him, she experiences a kind of personal and sexual freedom she’d never known. She surprises herself. She is as animal as her new partner, fierce and indelicate with destructive desire and enormous sexual need. She surrenders the self and the life she thought she knew to that desire.

Women could be this way on the page? They could. That sentence was the truest permission I’d found. It answered questions I didn’t know I had. It meant I could write a phrase like “alfresco fucking” in a catalogue of a female character’s exploits and mean it.

Many of us learn to contract ourselves, to make our voices soft and unobtrusive, to appease and defer our own desire and needs. That sentence came to mind again this summer, reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Early in the memoir, she writes: “This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space.” Munro’s line stood in direct defiance of that instruction: women characters could be as corporeal and audacious as that.

If it’s a truism that a writers’ characters contain grains of the self, the corollary of this literary mentorship was the understanding that my own desire could be as unmannered and indelicate. I didn’t have to be small and silent and invisible, inoffensive in my needs, in the constant habit of marshalling or concealing darker, less ladylike yearnings. I could claim my space, make demands, be visible.

Which brings me to a more recent literary mother: the trans woman writer Jan Morris. Last year I read her memoir Conundrum to help me understand what was happening with someone close to me who was making the same gender transition. I’d known Morris as a respected travel writer, but I’d been unaware that she’d been born James and served in the British Army as a male officer. Conundrum was published in 1974: needless to say, Morris was a trailblazer in gender-affirming drug and surgical treatment. She was guided by an inner self she knew and acknowledged with unstinting, thrilling courage. When the British National Health system finally agreed to allow her hormone therapy, it was on the condition that she divorce her wife Elizabeth, with whom she’d already had children—because in 1972, Britain didn’t allow gay marriage. Both women said, OK, fine. They divorced and continued to live together as “sisters-in-law.” Morris is now 91; they recently celebrated their 60-year relationship with a civil union. Their story is one of the most romantic I’ve ever heard.

In conversation with the loved one making the transition, I asked, “How do you know you’re a woman?” She answered, “How do you know?” I just know: my instant, if unvoiced, response. Touché.

Morris said she remembers the exact moment she understood that her feminine identity was in conflict with her assigned gender: she was four years old, listening to her mother play piano. She was “habitually puzzled” as she grew, happy enough in the company of young men, but utterly alienated from the experience of being one. Her nightly prayer was Please God, make me a girl.

In Conundrum, Morris’s attempts to articulate the feminine within herself all end in a spiritual, disembodied place, which is unsurprising. She was nearly thirty and had fathered five children before she began her transition. Her female identity existed in a realm untouched by the physical.

“To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is a spring in one’s step or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries and hormones. It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity.”

With that book, Jan took me to a window I’d never looked through and showed me that in spite of 49 years of lived experience as a woman, I didn't know all there was to know about being one. She let me look at the question through her eyes and consider the idea that feminine identity was unconfined, ineffable, and worthy of serious existential examination; it exists beyond the realm of the physical and the abstraction of words. Her commitment to her own feminine identity and her willingness to oppose the construct she’d been handed by society and biology loosened my hold on easy, reductive answers to the question How do you know you’re a woman? That understanding was a balm and a fresh breeze carrying an unfamiliar but comforting sweetness. Jan Morris did for me what good mothers do: she offered a place of sanctuary to make the journey from the known to the unknown and back again.

What does it mean to be a woman, body and soul, on and off the page? Together, Munro and Morris broke the sound barrier for me. We make space for our unique, untransferrable selves or no one will.

Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender and she has just finished a draft of a new one. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart and Journey Prizes, and she’s an award-winning journalist. She reviews for The Globe and Mail and contributes to the LA Review of Books,, Hazlitt, and

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dominique Russell on Sylvia Plath

I first read Plath when I was sixteen. I remember the lines I jotted down, memorizing them through my handwriting as I could then, render something it indelible by jotting it in my notebook: “And here you come, with a cup of tea/ Wreathed in steam. /The blood jet is poetry, /There is no stopping it. /You hand me two children, two roses.”

What I wrote underneath: “Nothing for you here. Too much darkness, too much death.” Like most young readers I was as taken by the power of her voice as I was by the suicide, the details of that tragic moment, that framed the voice. But I had enough darkness of my own, I was frightened by Plath’s death-affirming verse.

In my early thirties I picked up Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, knowing very little about the Hughes-Plath mythology except that it had spawned an industry. What struck me then was the extraordinary hard work that went into forging the poems that seared into the collective consciousness. She made a decision to become a great poet and did everything—craft and shmooze—necessary to achieve it.

In my forties I picked up her Collected Works again. “You have all these books,” exclaimed my daughter, fierce reader and re-reader of favourite stories “but you never read them!” “Start here,” she said, handing me the Plath tome, the first on my poetry shelf.

By then I had been and stopped being, an academic. I had toddler twins that sealed my exclusion from an academic career. Fully immersed in motherhood, I was picking up the pieces of an interrupted writing life. Plath’s work was a revelation: where I had seen only darkness, this time she was a lighthouse. Above all, I found in her work the voice of a mother, writing, like me, in stolen moments (while nursing by candlelight, in her case, surrounded by a nursing cushion, in mine.)

Older than Plath had lived to be, I felt maternal tenderness for this troubled voice. What I saw this time was the accident of her suicide, how if she had lived she would have seen that the personal is political—if only she had held long enough for feminism’s second wave. However extraordinary Ariel was, Plath had not reached her peak. Single mother, fighter, survivor, caretaker of her own mother: there were so many selves she had yet to inhabit. Re-reading her words, I set out to create one of those personas, a Plath who lived through feminism, who had the benefit of distance and compassion for herself as the struggling young mother in the grip of post-partum depression. Could I take her words and construct that absent poet?

Soon after I started recombining lines into centos, however, I had left the idea of reconstructing Plath behind. I took her words to speak of my own intimate self, about nursing my sons, the sorrow and frustrations of maternity, as permission, after all these years, to speak of the small things in life—the essence of my existence in those years of intense nest management—to build my own voice through someone else’s words. Only Plath’s monumentalism allowed this: Plath, her words almost as well known as Shakespeare, a quarry for academics and British gossip columns, is undiminishable.

I’ve learned far too much about her life since, and Hughes, embodying in all its sordid depths the myth of the poet-hero god, sacrificing all and sundry (Shura, whose forgotten short life pains my mother-heart) to his art and ego. Plath had something of this myth, placing poetry above all and sacrificing herself, or perhaps a mistake, an impulse, a symptom. Beyond the unanswerable question of her suicide, her multi-faceted expanse of her writing is a gift for the taking.

I acknowledge her here as one of many mothers, with Grace Paley, especially, who is perhaps her antidote as a writer who put life, and the business of life, before her writing. Plath is the mother who pushes you out the door, the one who repels, fascinates and horrifies; the mother you don’t want to be in your youth who you come to have compassion and understanding for in midlife. I acknowledge the power of her words, the fecundity of her talent.

Dominique Russell is an activist, teacher and writer. Her collection Instructions for Dreamers will be published by Swimmers Group in the winter, and excerpts from The Plath Variations will appear in