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 erinbedford.ca 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, Ryeberg.com, Hazlitt, and themillions.com.