Archive for the ‘fiction’ category

What Miracle?

December 20, 2016
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Future Santa in his sleigh?

Here we go, lying to our children. Again. About a jolly, ageless man in a red suit, miraculously popping down a billion chimneys or magically passing through walls to deliver gifts to all the youngsters of the world in a single night. Then, we’re drawn along as though by some magnetic power and forced to buy! buy! buy!

Things.

Why?

To step back from the frenzy is a) to see how ridiculous it is, or, more hopefully, b) to search for the deeper meaning in this, the last month of the year…in children’s Christmas concerts at school, in the music we only listen to in December, or in the opportunities at every turn, church, grocery store, street corner, to give to those less fortunate.

I was in a shop downtown with my six-year-old buying a present for a family member. Suddenly my son looked up at me and said, “Santa isn’t real. Magic reindeer? How does that work?”

I should have patted him on the back and sighed with relief. I should have told him the truth. After all, when the tooth fairy forgot to come the other night, and there were no questions about “real” versus “fairy” I had to wonder, are my children naive? Stupid? Gullible?

One of the books I bought for my daughter this season was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. I couldn’t resist taking a peek. In one scene, Smith’s main character has just delivered her first baby at age 18. She solicits her mother’s advice about how to give her daughter a better life than she has had. Her mother says:

“And you must tell the child the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarves and such…. and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”

Mary [her mother] spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”

“I know there is no Santa Claus.”

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely, simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

Instead of responding to my son’s queries in that downtown shop, I allowed him the candy cane the clerk offered. I remembered the images I had as a child of a jolly Santa hurrying through the air behind his team of reindeer.

I can still hear those bells.

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An important novel about truth and reconciliation: The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manuel

June 21, 2016

A truly conscientious writer brings first-hand experience, research, and timeless understanding to a relevant issue. For this reason Jennifer Manuel’s debut novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float is well worth talking about.

The novel is set in a remote, First Nations reserve on the west coast of Canada, off Vancouver Island. The reserve is fictional, but the setting is real. This is the landscape of Emily Carr, who purposefully and respectfully inserted herself into a wilderness that few outsiders had entered. Like Carr, Manuel took a leap of faith as an artist to write as a white person, an outsider, living among people who have inhabited the land they’ve called home for thousands of years. Manuel spent time among the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, as a treaty archivist and then as a teacher, and this novel grew out of those experiences. It is clear, through the loving attention to the details of the landscape, the stories, the mythology, and the characterization of those who populate her novel, how much those years have meant to the author.

To write about blood and culture other than the one you’ve been born into is difficult terrain to navigate, even in fiction. In this case, the stakes are high, given the shameful fact of colonial history, residential schools and racism towards Indigenous peoples. In her author’s note, Manuel states that the novel “is about understanding privilege.” It is also a story about belonging, loneliness, and, I believe, more about what unites, rather than what divides us as humans. It is a most welcome addition to the current discussion of truth and reconciliation.

One way Manuel executes this difficult task brilliantly is through the intimacy of her first person narrator. Manuel leaves no stone unturned in her depiction of Bernadette. We see Bernadette as she goes about her work as a nurse, and we are inside her body to feel her joys, her sorrows, her shame and her confusion.

Chase Charlie, a character who is dear to Bernadette’s heart for reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, is missing. The potential tragedy inherent in this situation is magnified by the fact that Bernadette is scheduled to retire, and she plans to move away from the community. Bernadette is filled with doubt about leaving. She has spent forty years in Tawakin. Her one connection to the outside world, her sister, has passed away, and her sense of belonging is an idea she has tried not to think about. Her confusion about where she truly belongs, in the community of the reserve, or in the city, is believable. She has loved and been loved in Tawakin, and her responsibilities as both a nurse and a friend on this reserve have kept her busy. Manuel sets up a reasonable suspension of disbelief, and anchors it in her very animated characters. For example, Loretta, who “could find a way to blame God, the Lord Almighty Himself, for her own sins. I could picture her entry through the pearly gates, screaming at Him until her face turned red. Hurling cherubs across the firmament like bowling balls.”

There is humour in this book, because humour is part of the nature of the people. But the story leaves only precious slivers of space for laughter, for there is more than enough tragedy, suicide, accidental death, and hurt among this tiny community to last several generations. Manuel illuminates this contrast between joy and sorrow, makes it shine like the treasures that wash up on shore, the glass balls from Japanese fishing boats, the dentalia shells used to make dance shawls.

Most importantly, we are asked, “without knowing the truth, could there ever be a genuine reconciliation?”

I am pleased to add The Heaviness of Things That Float to my shelf of favourite books. Like Emily Carr’s Kleewyck, it is one I will return to.

The realm of the unexpected

April 19, 2014

 

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American plates are separating at a rate of 1cm per year.

When I was small enough to be stuffed in the back of the car with my brother and toured across the continent, my dad would sing a repertoire of traveling songs. Our favourite was about a man’s first night of marital bliss. The couple are alone in the bedroom, and the woman takes off her eyelashes, which were fake. She takes off her hair, which was a wig. She takes off her false nails, the blush on her cheeks, and her leg, a prosthetic. She removes unexpected parts of her body, everything besides the clothes the man had hoped to see in a puddle on the floor.

I was thinking about this song on the Icelandair flight back to North America from Europe. How appropriate it was that my dad only sung this one during road trips. In Iceland, I went to a geothermal pool in Reykjavik and had to shed my very North American notions of shameful nudity, to strip down in the change room and shower in front of other girls and women – how liberating! (see #4 here) Also in Reykjavik, I shrugged off my tendency toward nothing but mellow music, and, after seeing Sin Fang perform at an art gallery, I went to a heavy metal show at Gamli Gaukurinn – how ear piercing! I loved every minute of it (after shoving tissue in my ears to block the high notes). I learned that heavy metal has a basis in classical music (thanks, Gemma!), and that, as a lake-lover, there are public pools I can handle – the kind with no skin-drying chlorine.

This is what travel is all about: a stripping away of the expected, to step into the realm of the unexpected.

Travel is also about making new connections in a world of endless possibility, beyond the borders of daily life. In a Reykjavik café called Kaffibarinn, Gemma and I met a couple from Bergen, Norway. The man was fascinated when I told him I live in Newfoundland, because he is a journalist and friend of Todd Saunders, the world-renowned architect who designed the five star inn for the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, NL. I was struck by the way the couple talked about art – his painting, her adoration of music, the people they know and the communities they adore. I said goodbye, determined to incorporate more art into my own life back home.

I booked this trip to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. I wanted to do something special and memorable, and selfishly indulgent for my 40th birthday. The week knocked “special” way out of the park. The workshops were fabulous, with take-away inspiration about immediacy in literary beginnings, story arc, character and voice, and the emotional beat to end on. Every time I turned around there was another writer with a fascinating story to tell. Each and every one of us like a turtle poking our heads out of the shell of self-consciousness we wear, downplaying every small thing we’ve ever accomplished, and giddy to be in the presence of published authors.

home of Halldór Laxness

In the home of Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness.

We met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who told us with a smile that in his country there are no statues of presidents, but you can find many statues of writers.

The day of my birthday we went on a tour of the Golden Circle (even the weather cooperated with mostly clear skies), and that evening, we enjoyed two author readings by Gerður Kristný and Ragna Sigurðardóttir, and a performance by Lay Low. As we left KEX to head to another bar, the northern lights appeared. Only in non-fiction do things work out this perfectly.

My husband was worried I’d be sad and lonely to be away from my family for my birthday. I admit I did choke up once: during the final Q&A with the authors, when Susan Orlean said, Give yourself a break if you are writing into the void (without deadlines or promise of publication). I decided, if there’s nothing else interesting about me, this is it. The fact that I am committed to my writing, without any concrete goal besides maybe being published, someday. So committed, I take time away from my family and other pleasures to pursue it, to work at it, so committed that I’ve invested in it, in the best ways possible.

When asked her opinion on pursuing an MFA, the very wonderful and inspiring Geraldine Brooks suggested a writer could take the thirty thousand per year she’d spend on an MFA, and travel instead.

I couldn’t agree more.

Brutal winter magic

March 29, 2014

It started with the flu and a power outage. It developed into a cold, a cough, bronchitis. Weekly storms brought winds that nearly blew me off my feet. Someone threw up. Someone else got an ear infection. Cold sweats and hot chills, and he we go with the flu again.

This winter has been less than kind to the general health of my family.

There were four PD days to manage in February, snow days and sick days from work and school. Several times I said aloud, I did not go back to work to be stuck at home with kids! Then I’d get sick again, for punishment.

Still, there’s been magic. The tooth fairy visited us with Santa Christmas Eve. I’d forgotten about this until my daughter lost her first molar last week.

The next day, after she’d stashed her four dollars, she said she had something to ask me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my body was brewing another bout of flu. So maybe I wasn’t feeling much like keeping the magic alive, which made it easier, when my daughter asked if it is, in fact, parents who leave money for teeth, to ignore the angel on my one shoulder for the devil on the other. I told her the truth. Then, when she asked about the Easter bunny, I believe I used the word ridiculous.

Now I might have the angel and devil mixed up. Because what I will never forget, despite my haze of cold sweats, is how grateful she was that I didn’t lie to her direct question. And what I hope my daughter never forgets about this conversation, was the advice I gave her to move forward with this new information: how, when you are no longer told what to believe, you are free to discover your own magic in the world.

It’s taken a certain amount of magic to get through this brutal winter. I found plenty between the covers of books. Quite literally, in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, what a cool idea! Very much an impossible love story, where real magic is almost believable against a backdrop of realism, with so much great detail. I have re-read some of my favourite authors, Jane Urquhart, Anita Rau Badami, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Ondaatje, Susan Musgrave.

Did I mention I am going to Iceland? I can hardly believe it, it seems so unreal, but I’ll be there in just over a week. My preparation for the Iceland Writers Retreat has open several doorways to new discoveries, including Sjon (I read The Blue Fox in an afternoon, and it summoned ancient storytelling methods in a modern setting, very different from anything I’ve read lately). Another book that was on my list but I got to it sooner because of this trip, was The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden (which won Canada Reads this year!). This is a very important book, one I feel like I’ve been waiting for, for a long time, for its very honest depiction of Canada’s beginnings, a story we don’t talk about often enough.

And finally, I discovered Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. I haven’t been able to pick up another new book since putting this one down. This is the most incredible work of historical fiction I could ever imagine. This one makes me squeeze my eyes shut tight and imagine I can time travel to the places Brooks brought to life on the page, several different time periods, all drawn so clearly it makes my fingers itch to touch the dirt, the rocks, and clothing of the people there.

I’ve had at least one sick day with each of my children this winter. With my three-year-old, I made train tracks and caught up on some Kids’ CBC episodes. With my middle son, I played Uno, Monopoly, and enjoyed his favourite Disney movies. My daughter and I watched two seasons of The Dance Academy on Netflix. I’ve hardly had time to think about how stuck I was feeling last year before I found a job. Things are ticking along, just as they should.

 

 

Iceland adventure

January 20, 2014

Reading Icelandic literature and history in preparation for this:

http://icelandwritersretreat.com

Lost in Winter

February 18, 2013

So this character walks into a library. He has unruly eyebrows, notable because he appears, otherwise, to be quite young. He is under thirty. Well, maybe thirty. Just.

He has never been in a library. Never in his life. Yet he is standing inside the door of this one, stories of thick books rising up eight floors from the open foyer, layers of heavy tomes, thin volumes in a series, wide opuses, extraordinary titles. He senses their grandeur without taking another step, without touching a single cover. He does something else he’s never done before: he strokes an eyebrow.

The eyebrows he attributes to the fact that he shaved them off once (okay, he had one shaved off when he passed out drunk at a party when he was eighteen, and immediately shaved the other so as not to appear lopsided. There is nothing worse, in his view, than lopsidedness. It is perhaps his biggest pet peeve).

He leaves the eyebrows alone because he’s found the more he tries to shave/trim/tend to them, the bushier they grow. Call them caterpillars, cattails, the frayed edges of rugs that have been vacuumed excessively, towels that should have been thrown out decades ago. They and his library moment are all you are ever to know about him.

Perhaps it was a sense of hibernation that drew him out of my imagination. The closeness of winter that stifles other meanderings. But as we all push through the centre of February, there’s a restlessness of spring around the corner that carries an eagerness bordering on madness. This is my sense of the world, post Groundhog Day, pre-thaw. My escape from adult responsibilities and routine is fiction. Mostly writing it. Is it an escape, or a moving into something more real than the mindless routine of seasons?

I got lost in the stacks the other day. My breath of fresh air in the basement of a library. I’d read a short story online by Joyce Carol Oates, In the Region of Ice (you can find it here: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/stories-week-2012%E2%80%932013/region-ice). She’s got this theme of humanism in the story, so I had this on the brain when I walked toward the literary journals and got sidetracked by a title on the Social Science shelf, called Anthropology and Humanism. Learned about a form of music that I couldn’t really tell you anything about except it’s name (which was spelled with a K in the journal, and a C online, a tidbit that must have its own storied story), Karnatic, and that the article has already seeped into more than one story I’ve been writing, where music, the motion of the human body, culture and sensibility are all at play.

There’s a fiction in randomly coming across something new, and the meaning I place on it, to use in my next (current) story. But that’s also pretty real. Or maybe I just want to think so, as an escape from the endless cycles of earthy existence that carries me from one season to the next.

Boo, I say, for Blue Monday

January 21, 2013

According to CBC, and probably other sources as well, today is Blue Monday:

http://www.music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2013/1/Feist-to-Dan-Mangan-the-Big-Bummer-playlist

Ha! My frown is upside-down today. The sun IS shining. These songs are glad, not sad. They have heart. And heart matters. Whether you’re up or down. Heart matters.

Life is busy, to say the least, with three kids. Sometimes I don’t have time to look up from the craziness to see where I’m going. But today, I peered around yesterday’s clouds and saw three small beings who need more than a fraction of my attention. Something other than, be quiet, mommy’s writing, or, keep quiet, the baby’s sleeping and mommy’s trying to get writing done.

My son loves Pokemon cards (LOVES them) and my daughter loves cats (oh my gosh that is a huge understatement, when my husband took her to the animal shelter yesterday, one of their daddy-daughter dates, she came home, flopped on the couch next to my writing desk with an enormous love sigh, and told me, That was Heaven!), and the baby (two-year-old) loves whatever his big brother and sister love. So I told them, kids, after school today, let’s play.

Pokemon? said my son.

Get a kitten? said my daughter.

Pokemon, kitty? said my two-year-old.

I offered a compromise. How about, we pretend to get into a rocket ship and go to the moon where we meet aliens who have alien Pokemon cards (my son’s eyes lit up), and we’ve smuggled a cat in the ship with us and she is adorable and loveable (my daughter’s eyes lit up). Baby ran around us jumping up and down, cheering, Pokemon! Kitty!

Okay, that’s a playdate for later. For now, back to my mountain of a story (this week’s story, Ray! THANK YOU).