Monday, July 17, 2017

Nicole Brewer on Anakana Schofield and Miriam Toews

When I was young – very young – my parents put me in both baseball and ballet. Little girls’ ballet classes often involve the classic pink tutu, and I hated it, although I’m not sure why. I hated the class, I hated the costume, and I hated pink. I think that may have been the beginning of my rejection of “femininity,” a seed that grew unbeknownst to me until my early twenties, when I finally realized there was an entire tree of internalized misogyny in my heart that I had to start cutting down.

It grew fastest and strongest in high school, when I surrounded myself with male friends (girls are too dramatic), who were more than happy to recommend male-dominated entertainment: so the music, movies, and books I drowned myself in were created by men, about men. This wouldn’t have been a problem in and of itself, but I also started repeating and believing nonsense like “women just don’t write books that interest me,” and “women just don’t really write literary fiction.” I would only read books by women if they were recommended to me by male friends, and even then I would be wary of enjoying them too much: I didn’t want to lose my literary credibility by liking women’s fiction. I wanted to – what is that ridiculous expression? Run with the big boys?

I held onto this mindset all through university, as I started to dream up the kind of writer I wanted to be (hint: David Foster Wallace). All my dream lifestyles were men, and not just men, but manly men: Ernest Hemingway, Eric Blair, Wallace. They shaped my tastes, my dreams, and my writing. And honestly, they shaped me into a person I am still proud of, each of them inspiring me in a different way. But because I had never thought to seek out female literary writers, I held onto this idea that literary writers were masculine -- that I needed to be masculine -- for a long time.

Finally, a year out of university, I discovered feminism and realized I had nurtured this tree of internalized misogyny. There was a lot to unlearn, and it took many months for the unlearning to reach the literary aspects of my personality. I realized I needed to find women who wrote the way I wanted to write. I knew they were out there, and I needed to find them.

And I found Anakana Schofield.

It may sound ridiculous, but Malarky literally changed my life. It was the first book that I’d read that did everything I wanted to do, and it was by a female author! And of course women write literary fiction, and of course women are talented and smart and eloquent, but somehow, this was news to me. Anakana’s Malarky started this fire in my soul that felt like it had been waiting ten years to start burning, and it wanted more: more women, more women, more women.

The next woman was Miriam Toews. As soon as I finished Malarky, I picked up All My Puny Sorrows, and it was everything I thought I wasn’t allowed to want, to aspire to. It was heartfelt, emotional, personal. It was about women and their relationships, with themselves, with each other, with their families. And it was beautiful – it was so fucking beautiful. Together, Miriam Toews and Anakana Schofield woke up this corner of my brain that had been so ashamed of being female, and they showed me it wasn’t just okay: it was powerful to be female.

Several months later I had the immense pleasure of meeting Miriam at a house reading, and this meeting will forever remain etched in my memory as one of the greatest moments of my personal and professional life. I brought my copy of All My Puny Sorrows, unsure if I would actually muster the courage to ask her to sign it. But muster I did (with the relentless enthusiasm and support of my wonderful partner), and as she was signing it I surprised myself by blurting out to her: this book changed my life. And she is so gracious that she asked why, how it had changed my life, so I told her that -- embarrassingly – it was one of the first literary fiction books I’d ever read by a female author, and that she had made me realize I could succeed as a woman, rather than despite that. And she didn’t laugh or scoff or turn away or politely remove herself. No, she told me that she remembered that moment when she was a young writer, the first time she had found herself in a woman’s book instead of a man’s.

I recently had a conversation with my brother about rituals in other cultures that mark the transition to manhood or womanhood – he wondered if some kind of ritual might have helped him find a sense of self, of purpose, of confidence, more easily or earlier in life. It made me think of that moment, reading Malarky and seeing that who I am and who I want to be are not, as I’d previously believed, fundamentally at odds. And how every woman I’ve read since then – Guadalupe Muro, Carellin Brooks, Helen Oyeyemi, Elisabeth de Mariaffi, K.D. Miller, Marianne Apostolides, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and countless others – has traced my transition into independence. It’s part of why I’ve so enjoyed reading the essays on many gendered mothers, and why I find such comfort in all the literary mothers: it feels like every essay I read is another mother gained.

Nicole Brewer is a writer, editor, and publisher from Toronto. In early 2014, she co-founded the organization words(on)pages to support, pay, and publish emerging writers in Canada. Her recent stories can be found in Canthius, untethered, and The Hart House Review. She is passionate about small press culture, emerging writers, boxing, and tea, and can be found online at

photo of Anakana Schofield by Arabella Campbell

1 comment:

  1. Exploring, asking questions, reading, going uncomfortable places in the mind and in conversations all help us to "wake up" like you have described Nicole.....thank you for helping all of us to have the confidence to keep doing it.