Monday, March 2, 2020
Kim Fahner on Carol Shields
The first time I read Carol Shields, I was in grad school at Carleton University in Ottawa. This would’ve been 1994-95, when I was just in my early to mid-twenties. I was interested in poetry and fiction, but I hadn’t been exposed to many contemporary Canadian women poets and writers until then. That’s a sad statement and reflection of the lack of diversity that existed in the curriculum of Ontario high schools back in the late 1980s, and even at the undergraduate level of study in university English departments in the early 1990s. So, imagine going to live in Ottawa to do a Master’s degree in English Literature at Carleton and then all of the sudden feeling as if there was a wealth of amazing women writers to get to know. Carol Shields was one of the voices that spoke to me as an emerging writer and fledgling feminist.
The Stone Diaries was the first thing I ever read by Shields, and I loved it, but then I stumbled upon Swann and The Republic of Love. That she could write so brilliantly and intuitively about a farmer’s wife, a poet, and a folklorist who was fascinated by mermaids drew me in. Each novel, and then each short story I encountered, let me slip into a world where Shields could find the beauty in what most people would call the ‘ordinary’ rhythms of a person’s life. Lives aren’t Hollywood movies. Lives are full of pain and wonder, full of love and passion, full of loss and beauty. What Carol Shields did so often, though, was write women who were fully realized, complex, and not female characters who would be easily boxed in or up. While popular culture—and especially some forms of popular literature and film—would so often rather present images of one dimensional women, Shields knew that women’s lives were rich and notable because of their complex nature. Who will, for example, ever be able to forget the image of Norah in Unless, standing on a street corner, holding a sign that just says “Kindness”? How much does that single sign say about how the world works these days, and how much kindness is missing? Shields, in almost all of her work, seemed to be searching out goodness and kindness in humans, and this drew me to her stories, too.
A year and a bit ago, I was living in Kingsville, in southwestern Ontario, working on a novel. I spent a great deal of time learning how to print letterpress poetry broadsides with Jodi Green in her Levigator Press studio on Wyandotte Street, in the Walkerville area of Windsor. One warm late autumn afternoon in 2018, I found myself listening to Jodi read “Mrs. Turner Cutting The Grass” alongside another new friend who was also doing some printing that day. I had somehow, ridiculously, never read that Carol Shields story before, so listening to Jodi read it out loud, and with enthusiasm, felt magical.
We three—all women in our forties—had cups of steaming hot tea on the table in front of us, and our legs were hooked around the rungs of our vintage chairs. I hung on Jodi’s reading of the story. That afternoon—of being with like-minded souls, and of being read to—is a fond memory I’ll always carry with me. We don’t read out loud enough to one another—as friends, and in community—and hearing a Carol Shields story read out loud changed the way I admired her writing. You can hear how brilliantly she crafted her work. Details are captured so perfectly, and so many of her sentences sing. She took her time with her work, and it shows.
The last paragraph of that short story is quite profound, and seems to embody all of what Carol Shields did with her work. She roots her worlds in the ordinary minutiae of a ‘regular’ life. As Mrs. Turner cuts her grass, unafraid to bare the cellulite of her thighs to the world at large on the street, she “cannot imagine that anyone would wish her harm. All she’s done is live her life. The green grass flies up in the air, a buoyant cloud swirling about her head. Oh what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting the grass and how, like an ornament, she shines.” This is the beauty of Carol Shields’s work. Nothing is pedestrian or ordinary, really. All of it shines, glowing from the inside out.
The recent creation of a literary award for women writers named in memory of Carol Shields is an important step in keeping her present, in holding space for her to continue to have a strong and clear voice in Canadian literature for some time to come. How quickly some of our greatest female writers seem to disappear after they’ve died, unless we purposefully choose to remind ourselves of their contribution to the body of important work that Canadian women writers have fashioned in the last sixty or seventy years or so. They fought against a largely white, patriarchal scene in Can Lit decades ago, and they blazed a trail for all Canadian women writers who would follow. Today’s literary circles seem so ‘of the moment’—so much about instant gratification, about awards, and about Twitter wars—that I worry about which women’s voices will disappear in the terribly noisy hubbub and negative clamour of social media. Shields knew, really, that the story was to be found in the quiet, in the watching and the recording, in the steeping of ideas, and in the crafting of the work. There was value, she knew, in the process of creating the writing.
I always thought it was interesting that Shields would write a biography of Jane Austen. Here, too, was another female writer who observed the ways in which women’s lives were unique. I gobbled that biography up when it was released, because I love Austen as much as I love Shields. Austen didn’t have her own ‘happy endings’ in real life, so she often wrote them into her novels, but Shields once said, in a 2002 interview with Irene D’Souza in Herizons, that she believed in ‘happy middles.’ D’Souza wrote of how Carol Shields was fascinated by “the extraordinary in the ordinary.” This so reminds me of Bronwen Wallace’s work in both poetry and prose. In her wonderful collection of poems, The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, Wallace also documented the ebb and flow of women’s lives. And then, when I think of it, the writing that Shields did also reminds me of Virginia Woolf and Mary Pratt. So many women have documented women’s lives in art, and we need to remind ourselves that they were our artistic foremothers.
Shields left us with a body of work that speaks to the internal lives of women who may seem to be ordinary on the outside, but who are anything but that on the inside. As women, we are all extraordinary in the way we live our lives, and it takes a writer with the keen skill that Shields had to capture that essence in prose. That she did so as effectively and beautifully, as meticulously and carefully, is one of the reasons I will always read her work and learn from it. I will especially go to her books and stories when I feel that mine are weak or failing, or when I just need to be reminded that my ‘ordinary life’ will always have elements of the extraordinary if I am willing to still myself and just be very curious about what could happen. One never really knows what is around the next bend in the road, and perhaps that is why we continue to write, with curiosity and wonder as our companions on the journey.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, where she was poet laureate from 2016-18. Her latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). Kim is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the League of Canadian Poets, as well as a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. She blogs fairly regularly at kimfahner.wordpress.com and can be reached through her author website at www.kimfahner.com