Monday, May 29, 2017

A.H. Reaume on Virginia Woolf

I was 16 and working my way through the ‘English Cannon.’ I hadn’t read nearly enough female novelists, and so when I saw Virginia Woolf on the library shelf – I scooped up two of her books. Later, I stared with confusion at the first page of To the Lighthouse, disappointed. I had to read the first sentence twice before I understood what it was saying.

And that after I’d made a 40 minute trek from my small Windsor, Ontario suburb to the big library in Windsor’s downtown core to find this book. I had even paid $5 for parking – a princely sum for a high school student.

I was having doubts.

Woolf’s sentences were different than anything else. I read them clumsily and wondered if they were beyond me – written for more cultured or advanced readers.

But I wasn’t going to give up on the first page. I persisted.

Thank god I did – for that is how the greatest love affair of my life started. As an aspiring writer and feminist who loved books more than boys, I didn’t really fit in my world. No one in my immediate family had ever graduated college and the only person in my life who read was my step-mom whose bookshelves were colonized by Dean Koontz and Stephen King.

Literature was something I had to discover haphazardly. Choosing to read Woolf in the library that day changed my life. Her style of writing was different from anything that I had read before. I identified with Lily Briscoe, the female artist in To the Lighthouse, who struggled trying to complete her masterpiece in the face of the world’s indifference and Mrs. Ramsey’s urgings to get married. I marvelled at Woolf’s ability to get beneath the surface of the typical novelistic scene and get to the heart of what the characters were thinking and feeling. I loved the playful and tragic way the Time Passes section dramatized the war and the changes time brings.

I was hooked.

When friends or acquaintances asked me what I was doing on Friday nights for a few weeks after that, I told them, “I have a date with Virginia.”

I actually uttered those words.

I read Mrs. Dalloway directly after that and then Orlando, The Waves, and A Room of One’s Own. Mrs. Dalloway showed me the energy a writer could distill into a single moment. Orlando demonstrated the beauty of a well-turned phrase and the joy of playing with conventions. The Waves taught me the tragic poetry and repetitions of life.  A Room of One’s Own was a call to arms – it woke me up as a feminist and made me commit to a writing life.

Woolf was a woman who forged her own path. She experimented. She tried things that she wasn’t sure she would be able to pull off. And she did so as a woman.

All of Virginia’s novels opened up my world a little wider. They showed me that there is great beauty in being courageous as an artist, that taking chances is necessary, and that listening to your own artistic voice is what matters. Virginia Woolf gave me the courage to be a writer who is willing to take chances. She gave me the strength to experiment.

But, perhaps most of all, she taught me that women writers can be badasses.

I could be one, too.

A.H. Reaume is a 32 year old writer who swears too much, reads too much, and spends too much time dancing around her apartment. While her neighbors might be annoyed by the noise, she’s too committed to mastering the steps of the Lindy Hop and the Charleston and perfecting her burlesque routine to care. She’s currently completing her first novel – a book about a reclusive female novelist who is dying and trying to figure out what to do with her last unfinished book.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Julie Morrissy on Eavan Boland

“In the old situation which existed in the Dublin I first knew, it was possible to be a poet, permissible to be a woman and difficult to be both without flouting the damaged and incomplete permissions on which Irish poetry had been constructed.”
                        —Eavan Boland, Object Lessons

Ireland used to feel like a very small place to me. Sometimes, it still does. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that in Ireland. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood I could be a poet—like, that is a fine career and life choice to make. I’ve been thinking about the moment when that confidence occurred—whether it was my first publication, or being accepted to gradschool for Creative Writing. But in reality, Eavan Boland had quietly, and much earlier, set me on a track towards poetry for which I didn’t need permission.

I sat my Leaving Certificate in 2002—these are state exams for school-leavers. That year, the poetry on curriculum was by Seamus Heaney, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Eavan Boland. I wrote my English exam on Boland, particularly “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me,” “The War Horse,” and “The Famine Road.” Boland’s poems, as is well-documented, carefully explore themes of gender, oppression, domesticity, and public and private space. At 18 years old, I was a young woman struggling to find a place for myself in both the public sphere in Ireland, and the private sphere of my own mind and goals, which I kept mostly to myself.

Boland’s poetry continues to inspire and guide me. I still think the last stanza of “The Black Lace Fan” is among the most powerful lines of poetry ever written. However, Boland’s prose has also had a profound effect on how I see myself, both as a poet and as a woman in Ireland. I opened with a quotation from Boland’s prose memoir Object Lessons, in which she explores the fundamental challenges she faced as a woman in her career and in her life. Since this passage was written, Ireland has had three female Professors of Poetry (our equivalent of Poet Laureate) and many of the leading poetic voices in Ireland are women. Though, we can’t stop there—we need to be much more inclusive. Poetry remains a world of incomplete permissions.

We’ve made great strides, and we owe no small debt to Eavan Boland for that progress. But the position of women’s voices in Ireland remains just that, a work in progress—maybe not when it comes to representation in Irish poetry but as a society we have a long way to go in recognising, respecting, and encouraging the value of women’s experiences. In light of the historical context of women’s marginalisation and in the current context with the near complete lack of bodily autonomy (abortion is illegal and unconstitutional in Ireland), the message I feel most strongly from the Irish State is that, as a woman, my voice doesn’t really count. Object Lessons remains a significant marker of women’s struggle for equality in Ireland, and much of Boland’s meditation on those constrained possibilities remains embarrassingly relevant.

Eavan Boland played a role in making the life I lead possible, by simultaneously impacting the tenets of the Irish literary tradition and the texture of Irish life. Boland is by no means the only woman to have shaped Irish life in this way but for me, her influence is significant. Her work encourages me to keep writing about what I think is important—and, as Eileen Myles says in Inferno, “if a fucking horse can tell his story why can’t I.”

Julie Morrissy is poet and activist from Dublin. Her chapbook I Am Where (2015) is published by Eyewear (UK), and her debut collection Where, the Mile End is forthcoming with BookThug. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize, selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series, and named as one of Ireland’s “Rising Generation” poets in 2016. Morrissy has performed readings at international festivals, including IFOA Toronto. She is pursuing her PhD by practice at Ulster University. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dawn Promislow on Nadine Gordimer

Books, from my earliest memories, were valuable, perhaps the most valuable "things." But I had an idea, in my childhood, that books and literature and novels came from England. Probably then, they did. The books I read told stories of children or people in England, where I'd never been, but where the landscape was as vivid to me as my own. I felt that all important things and stories must come from England. Our language—the magic of words that could be arranged and spoken in a particular way—came from England. In Johannesburg, where we were, there was no beauty, so I thought. There were no green fields, after all, no long history of manners and morals and kings. What beauty could come out of this strange and dusty place which was my home? Later when I read Wordsworth and Keats, I felt this even more strongly. Shakespeare himself came from England—well, that was everything!

I had always felt secretly ashamed of the people around me; ashamed of my world. I had an idea that we, white people, were crude, and, in some way I couldn't articulate, deficient, and that the black people around me were bound to us in a way that was puzzling, unknowable, and...wrong. I intuited this—the tragedy of the colonial South Africa that was my home—from a young age. But I didn't understand it.

One day when I was fifteen and visiting my grandmother, she gave me one of her books, Nadine Gordimer's Selected Stories. The book must have intrigued me because the image on the cover wasn't a green English landscape. It was, instead, a photograph, sepia coloured, of a small house with a corrugated iron roof, and a mine dump behind it, an image I recognized at once. A South African image. 

I started reading, and, soon, realized I was reading something I had never read before: I recognized the world, the towns, the houses, the people, in the stories. They were the towns and people and houses around me. Here was a book, a real book with a hard cover, with stories in it about things in the world of Johannesburg, and in the world of dusty small towns in South Africa I knew so well.

I read the Selected Stories of Gordimer (which were in the 1975 Jonathan Cape edition), and then, a reader possessed, I read her novels, and more of her short stories, and then all of her many works.  And I re-read them, through my teenage years. They felt more real to me than the world I inhabited, because they told the story of my surroundings with such truth.  

Gordimer wrote in the form of the great European realists of the past, yet she described South Africa. Her works described parallel surroundings to those around me, surroundings that were the same yet different: places, this time, where truth was revealed in all its anguish, and understanding and insight were possible. Her works gestured toward other possibilities, to the possibility of re-imagining things, to the possibility of making things right. The actual world I lived in had lies and evasions and untruths: it was the stasis of a repressive state; and the civil façade of colonial, then post-colonial, white South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer was an artist, first. I might call her work my literary mother, her short stories models of aesthetic forms that made harmony and beauty. But like all great writers her work was informed by deep moral concerns, and in this way I might say that her work was the mother of my worldview too.

Reading Gordimer enabled me to understand, even love, the strange and broken place which was my home.  I probably became a writer because of her, or at least I might be the writer I am because of her.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in Toronto since 1987. She is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (2010, Mawenzi House), which was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the best fiction debuts of 2011 by the Globe and Mail

Monday, May 8, 2017

Theresa Smalec on Aritha van Herk

“Home: what you visit and abandon: too much forgotten/too much remembered.”
–Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere

I first encountered Aritha van Herk’s fiction as a teenager, living at home with my conservative Polish parents. They subscribed to the Calgary Herald, our local newspaper. Perhaps rehearsing our role as “world-class city” for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the Herald introduced a weekend arts supplement. Here, I came across an excerpt from No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey (1986). An illustration beside van Herk’s text featured a woman with breeze-blown hair driving a convertible. A string of colorful panties trailed her car. I took the story into my room where my parents could not see me read it. I didn’t drive; no one in my family drove. I’d been raised to be a proper girl who only wore white underthings. Yet as I read of Arachne Manteia’s trysts across Alberta and beyond, a provocative future flashed ahead of me. In this future, my geographical movements and sexual choices were limitless—or at least strictly up to me.           

July 1991. I work as a landscaper at the Calgary Stampede. I still don’t drive a car, but a guy at work teaches me to drive the Gravely. It rumbles like thunder. I ride high in the cab, drop the blades, cut crisp lines athwart fresh grass. Fall in love with the Gravely guy. He’s a thrash band guitarist who makes me mixed tapes of The Pixies and Sonic Youth. It never occurs to me to share music I like with him. He has a friend named Turn-it-On. My friends have names like Pam. I feel increasingly ordinary: typical girl. One morning, I bike to the University of Calgary, change my major from Political Science to English so I can apply for the Creative Fiction Writing program. I share my news, thinking he will see me differently. “Cool,” he says but sounds angry. I spend August typing a fiction portfolio, alone.

September 1991. I can hardly believe it! Dr. Aritha van Herk, author of No Fixed Address, teaches my creative writing class! Bright red hair. Loud laugh. Resounding voice. Doesn’t take crap from anyone. Aritha van Herk is the first married woman I’ve met who did not take her husband’s last name. I resolve to be just like her in that way. We aspiring writers wait for her weekly class with blatant desire. Some are lawyers, geologists, even zookeepers. I have little life experience, but Aritha tells me after workshopping my first story that I don’t seem like a kid to her. I blush with pride. Aritha says you must become an avid reader to be a good writer. I read her first novel, Judith (1978), and admire its crude opening: “Pig shit and wet greasy straw were piled high in the wheelbarrow.” It’s hard to believe Aritha grew up on a farm; she seems so worldly. Later, I discover she is the first Canadian-born child of Dutch immigrants. I am the first Canadian child of Polish immigrants. Something inside me relaxes a bit.

6 December 1991. Aritha van Herk spots me in the MacEwan Hall food court and asks if I am going to the University of Calgary Memorial Event for the 14 women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre. I nod and follow her; I had not planned to go. A mass of faces, candles, ribbons. Amplified voices slowly read the women’s names. Too nervous to cry, I tremble with revelation: women matter here. Our lives are worth mourning.    

Winter 1992. Aritha gives a lecture about how to get into English graduate programs. I go and take careful notes. A career path abruptly opens. Aritha is my upbeat guide, forever telling others how brilliant I am. We talk about places where I can earn my degree: Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, or Victoria. I wish I had her confidence in me.

February 1992. Aritha organizes a conference about post-colonial women’s literature. I barely understand a word most panelists say, but resolve to learn their secret language: Theory.

Summer 1992. My friends and I found Filling Station, a Calgary literary magazine that still thrives today. Aritha van Herk and another professor, Fred Wah, come to our launches and publish in our fledgling enterprise. We celebrate special events at their homes, take road trips around Alberta with them, build a vibrant community. My heart expands like a hot air balloon, lights up like the Giant Wheel.

Dates a lot, smokes a lot, drinks a lot, runs a lot, vomits a lot, quietly dumps lots of guys who want to tie her down. Gropes in the darkness for freedom.

January 1993. Aritha tells me to write regularly to a journal. “Let it know what’s bugging you,” she adds gently. Hate for anyone to see me struggle; glad she cares enough to say something.

1994. Forget to mail letters of intent to Western Canadian graduate programs. Decide to wait a year and reapply. Take advanced French to earn an Honors degree. Audit two graduate courses. Finally travel: mostly conferences but sometimes black underwear, handcuffs, a wine opener. Customs guy has the nerve to ask, “What’s this for?” but chuckles and lets me through.

1995. My luck changes radically. Every graduate school to which I apply wants me now, with unheard-of funding offers. Decline the Western Canadian programs, head East for bigger cash. Emmylou Harris plays in my mind as I leave Alberta: “Can't remember if we said goodbye…”

“Always and unrelentingly (home) even after it is too late to be or to revert to (home), even after it pre/occupies the past tense.” –Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere 

June 2011. Doctored, married, pregnant, tenure-tracking in New York. Abruptly on Facebook, Alberta returns with the death of Robert Kroetsch. I email Aritha for the first time in a decade to say how sorry I am. She wants to know if I still write my own stuff. I resist admitting that I stopped long ago because my fictions hit too close to (home). Yes, I tell her: I still write my own academic prose.

August 2011. My husband has cancer. Aritha is among the first with whom I share this news. She is not my mother, yet our common history confronts me and comforts me, just as her caring emails do. She knows who I am.

April 2017. I drive like Danica Patrick in my Honda. Who might I be today without Aritha’s interventions? Maybe not a feminist. Maybe not a professor. Might have settled for white underwear. Thank you, Aritha, for pig shit and travelling saleswomen, for your enduring fierceness and faith in our promise, our province. I’m tempted to claim Aritha van Herk is the mother of Alberta writing, just like Derrida is the father of deconstruction. But gendered parents are never equal. Fathers found and command respect; mothers get male writers calling them “mom.”

During the years she taught me writing, Aritha van Herk was sometimes my other, often my mentor, always my longed-for double. Today, she is a trusted friend: the kind of friend and teacher I want for my daughter when she grows up to tell her stories.

Theresa Smalec is a tenured Assistant Professor in Communication Arts and Sciences at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Her first book, Ron Vawter’s Life in Performance, is forthcoming via Seagull Books/U of Chicago P. Her scholarship appears in New England Theatre Journal, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Postmodern Culture, Puppetry International, TDR: The Drama Review, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and Theatre Research International. Her literary work appears in back issues of absinthe, Grain, Fiddlehead, Filling Station, Fireweed, and West Coast Line. Smalec also contributed to Shannon Cooley’s anthology, Eye Wuz Here: Stories by Women Under Thirty.                      

Monday, May 1, 2017

Dorothy Palmer on Stella Young

Ruby Slippers for Stella and this Dorothy

My mother never once told me she loved me. She never hugged me, touched me as little as possible. I didn’t know which bothered her more, my adoption or my disability, but knew their commixture made me unlovable. The first time I felt motherly arms reach out to hold me just as I was, to see me and tell me I was good enough exactly as I was, it was 2014 and I was fifty-nine years old. The woman reaching out over the internet to hug me was thirty-two, half my age, a full year younger than my own child. Despite the age difference, despite the fact I grew up in Toronto and she came from the bush town of Stawell, Australia, I had far more in common with my virtual mother, Stella Young.
We’re both tiny red-heads with expressive hands and foul mouths. We both became teachers, writers, and comic performers. She did stand-up; I did improv. Her one-woman show, Tales from the Crip, won comedy awards; I coached winning teams at the Canadian Improv Games. Her heart’s desire was to write the novel she never had a growing up, one featuring a disabled teenage girl. My first novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House, 2010) is exactly that, the story I needed and never had, the tale of fourteen-year-old disabled rebel Jordan May March set in the Woodstock-Moonwalk summer of 1969. I gave Jordan my disability. Stella was born with osteogenesis imperfecta; I was born with congenital birth defects in my feet. We both had multiple corrective surgeries.
We both eventually concluded we weren’t the ones who needed correcting.
When I heard her TED Talk, (June, 2014), “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” I played it until I could recite it. I cried and grinned for a week. It was as if I’d been struggling with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle all my life, then Stella said, “Sweetie, I think this piece goes here. And, darling, try that one there.” My pieces fit. I gained focus, saw the big picture. High and proud in her wheelchair, she declared, “I am not here to inspire you. I’m here to tell you that we’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. That it makes you exceptional. It does not… I’m not anybody’s inspiration porn.”
She used the word porn deliberately: “it objectifies one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” I instantly had language for the impossible task I’d always felt was my job, one at which I’d always failed: “to inspire and motivate the able bodied.” As Stella put it, to exist for their benefit, so they could look at me and think, “It could be worse. I could be that person.” I now had a name for every time Facebook asked me to “like” a child amputee tying his shoes, a Down Syndrome prom queen, or a blind high school graduate. I finally understood why I didn’t “like” the celebrity athlete who ate lunch with a bullied autistic child. In inspiration porn, the disabled person is reduced to the object, the prop. What the able-bodied really want to “like” is their beneficent moment of inspiration, wherein they reach down from on high to help and patronize us.
Did Stella swallow that lie? Did she get silenced by its shame?
Nope. She ridiculed the shit out of it. She gave me the language to begin my memoir.
With wit and wise-cracks, she debunked the medical model of disability, which claims we are disabled by our physiologies, and embraced the social model: that disability is a social construct, that we are disabled by ableism. It’s a social justice issue. It’s a matter of access, not attitude. As Stella succinctly put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing before a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”
I began calling myself a crip because she did. Originally the term made me cringe, made me see gangs and potato chips. Stella called herself a crip, because naming herself reclaimed her power.
And the more her vocabulary came out of my mouth, the more I agreed with her. I read every word of the online magazine she edited, Ramp Up, and hunted down broadcasts of No Limits, the community TV show on she hosted for eight season. Her advice, “Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does,” empowered me to examine all the reasons I’d spent fifty years pretending not to be disabled. Because Stella had no shame, because she denied the very notion of shame, I could shed mine.
I hear Stella’s voice every day as I work on my memoir in progress, So Lame: My Fifty Years in the Disabled Closet. She insists that I claim my life in my body, pushes me past self-pity to self-love. This is the book I need as an adult, one that explores the intersections of ableism and ageing, one that asks the world to see me just as I am. It’s about empathy, not inspiration. It’s the kind of book Can Lit needs to expand the definition of diversity to include the twenty percent of Canadians who have disabilities. I would not have the the words, or the stamina, or the daily cussing courage to write it, without Stella.
I regret she will never read it.
Five months after her TED talk, in The Sydney Morning Herald, (November 22, 2014), Stella published “Dear Eighty-Old Me,” a letter imagining how her disabled life would be rich and full, knowing, “I wasn’t wrong. The world wasn’t yet right for me.” Two weeks later, at thirty-two years young, she was dead. Stella died of an aneurism on December 6, 2014, the day Canadians commemorate the Montreal Massacre, the 1989 deaths of fourteen young women murdered at l’École Polytechnique. For me, the two losses will forever be entwined.
But don’t say her early death inspires you. She’d laugh in your face. If you get it, you’ll understand what was inspiring: her glorious red polka dot shoes, the abandon with which she danced in her wheelchair, her ability to make us laugh at discomforting truths, and most importantly, her vibrant affirmation that disabled people are so very ordinary. “I promise to grab every opportunity with both hands, to say yes as often as I can, to take risks, to scare myself stupid, and to have a shitload of fun.”
In my favourite photo of Stella, she wiggles her trademark ruby slippers. But she absolutely does not look like she wants out of her wheelchair. She knows what it took this Dorothy so long to learn: “There’s no place like home.”

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a mom, binge knitter, left-leaning Sherlock Holmes fan, retired teacher, and a disabled senior writer. L Her semi-autobiographical novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books, 2010), features a disabled teen adoptee in the Moonwalk-Woodstock summer of 1969. Her second novel, Kerfuffle, follows a Toronto improv troupe as they struggle to make sense and nonsense of the Toronto 2010 G20. This article is an excerpt from her memoir in progress, So Lame: My Fifty Years in the Disabled Closet.