Category Archives: Writing I Love

Writing Menopause and a Spring launch!

Actual physical copies of Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction arrived at my house the day before last, which was also the day that the cherry blossoms in my part of the world reached their peak. I wandered under the blossoms completely happy, book in hand, glad with the world. A totally satisfying moment. cherry blossoms April 17

It’s spring and puddle-wonderful, to steal a phrase from ee cummings. You might think this book should have come out in the fall. I’m glad it hasn’t. For too long, menopause has been considered an an autumnal moment of the ovaries. Even worse, women have been considered worthless as our reproductive capacity ends. As though that is all we are.

Five years ago or thereabouts when this book began, I was quite certain that by the time it was done, I would be menopausal. I am not. I’ve been menstruating for 43 years. That’s a long time. If I said I’d been married for 43 years, I might get congratulations. If I retired from a job after 43 years, I might get a gold watch or at least, a pat on the back. I expect no kudos for 43 years of menstruating but let’s face it, it hasn’t been a picnic. It’s a lot of work. I’m weary with it and I’m ready to retire.

When menopause finally happens for me, I will relish it. Bring on the cherry blossoms. Bring on the renewal. Bring on whatever it is that’s next. I’m ready. And when it happens, I’ll have this book and the community it has created to guide me through the change. Take a deep breath. Spring is here.  And so is Writing Menopause.

Join us at our launches if you can:

Calgary at Shelf Life Books, 1302 – 4 Street S.W. on May 25 at 7pm.

Featuring Rona Altrows, Jane Cawthorne, Shaun Hunter, JoAnn McCaig, E.D. Morin, Steve Passey, Roberta Rees, Lori D. Roadhouse and Rea Tarvydas.

Edmonton at Audreys Books, 10702 Jasper Avenue on June 9 at 7pm.

Featuring Margaret Macpherson, Lou Morin, Shirley Serviss, Rea Tarvydas, Jane Cawthorne and E.D. Morin.

Inanna Publications’ Spring Launch in Toronto at The Supermarket, Kensington Market, 268 Augusta Avenue, on June 14 at 6:30pm.

Featuring Jane Cawthorne, Merle Amodeo, B.A. Markus, Leanna McLennan, Gemma Meharchand and E.D. Morin.

In conjunction with three other Inanna Publications new releases!

Kingston at A Novel Idea, 156 Princess Street on June 15 at 7pm.

Featuring Louise Carson, Colette Maitland, B.A. Markus, E.D. Morin and Jane Cawthorne.

With all of our launches, we are grateful for the support of Inanna Publications, the Canada Council, the Quebec Writers’ Federation, Shelf Life Books, Audreys Books, The Supermarket and A Novel Idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community in a Book: Writing Menopause

Writing Menopause is almost here. E.D. Morin and I co-edited this literary anthology of short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and other cross-genre pieces contributed by an incredible group of talented writers. In creating this book, we’ve found ourselves in a new community.  writing menopause

Elaine and I have always been aware that we were creating a community with our contributors. Every book creates a community, and that is part of the beauty of a book. For a long time, it was just us, and then our contributors and then our publisher, Inanna. It was a great moment when all of the contributors were announced and everyone else knew who was in our community too. We continue to introduce our members on our Facebook page and invite you to get to know all of them. And now we look forward to seeing this community grow as we launch this book and reach readers.

The first review, from THIS Magazine, is out.  We are delighted that the work has been called revolutionary. It’s a credit to the whole community.

You can pre-order a copy at Inanna.

Join our community if you can at our upcoming launches.

May 25, Calgary, Shelf-Life Books

June 9, Edmonton, Audrey’s Books

June 14, Toronto, The Supermarket (with several other new Inanna releases).

A Vancouver launch is still in the planning stages, but will likely be in the fall. You can follow us on Facebook for updates and details.

And I want to say a special thanks to E.D. Morin, (Elaine) my co-editor. I’ve had post-concussion syndrome since a car accident last April (yes, almost a year). Although the book was “done” and had been accepted by Inanna for publication already when the accident happened, as anyone who has ever ferried a book to publication knows, there is always still much to do before books are on store shelves. I could not have done this on my own. I’m grateful to have had this project with it’s big, creative, wildly diverse and supportive community during this time and am especially thankful for Elaine. You are amazing.

Existential Angst and Obama’s last 2016 Press Conference

I couldn’t watch it all. I’ll admit it. It was too sad. For all the reasons you expect. The world says goodbye to an ethical, rational, even-tempered leader who feels deeply the responsibility of his office. Too soon, we will say hello to an unethical, narcissistic sexual predator who does not even know the responsibility of his office.

I could practically feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Yes, he feels responsible for everything. We know it keeps him up at night. Aleppo, Sudan, the plight of his own fellow-citizens, soldiers at home and those sent far away, their families, the lives of children around the world.

Meanwhile, the new guy stays up at night worrying about SNL. Worrying about himself. His own image.

The contrast could not be more stark.

Although we might not have always been in agreement, expecting to be is irrational. I’m not always in agreement with my own husband, let alone the leader of the free world. I’m not even American. He made unpopular decisions. It is an inevitability of the job. Yet, I have faith that he did his best. I have faith that he put the smartest people he could find in the room and listened to them.

It was sad to watch him, repeatedly, lay out a series of facts and then ask the press to draw their own conclusions. But that wasn’t good enough. They wanted hyperbole. They weren’t going to get it. They tried again. They wanted him to name and blame Putin. Nope. He wouldn’t do it. Well, they’ll have their hyperbolic president soon enough. Let’s see where it gets them.

But even all of this is not the real reason for my sadness. The real reason is that I felt Obama was talking to a nation that isn’t there anymore. The rational, the bipartisan, the people who talk to each other about their own lives, about politics, about important national and international issues over the mythical back fence, in the apartment lobby while picking up mail, or while waiting in the car-repair shop or in line at the grocery store—these people don’t exist anymore. They’ve been replaced by—what? By something else. And I felt myself as part of the past, a relic of a progressive era that was already dying when I was in high school and Reagan was elected. I felt the hopelessness that Obama warns against.

He says not to curl up in a fetal position. But I think I’ll have to. I’ll need to stay on the couch a little longer and think about it all, feel the truly existential angst of it.

I’m sure I’ll get up. Sure of it.

Meanwhile, I’ll re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates beautiful elegy to Obama. That is some writing to love.

Susan Faludi’s Backlash is as Relevant as Ever

I am not surprised that at a time when the United States could elect it’s first woman President, there is a massive backlash against women and that her opponent is the personification of misogyny. Susan Faludi talked about this phenomenon in her ovumnal 1991 book, Backlash. This is a book that’s worth rereading now or reading for the first time. This cover image is from the 2006 re-release of the book with a new forward by Faludi. In it, Faludi says the backlash is over and laments that while there have been gains for women since 1991, “We have used our gains to gild our shackles, but not break them.”(xvi) backlash

But it’s not over. We’re living through it again now.

I’ve tried not to get caught up in the day to day debacles of election news. I’m trying to take the long view. In the long view, there is more at stake than simply who will be President, a Democrat or Republican. Americans have to ask themselves, will it be business as usual or will one more piece of the intersecting puzzle of oppression break? Will a woman, a qualified woman, a woman running against a uniquely unqualified man, a man so appalling he is a cartoon character, become President or will the cartoon character? If the cartoon character wins, so does the Backlash. Women will not have made a step forward, but will have taken innumerable steps back and with them will follow every other group seeking equity.

Faludi’s work tells us that the backlash is real, it can succeed and it does succeed. But it also shows us how desperately those who hold power will cling to their power, the measures they will go to, and how, as their desperation becomes increasingly apparent the more likely they are to lose. The backlash, in other words, is a good thing. It is evidence that we are winning.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches to see if the promise of America will hold or if we will be witness to another failure of the American experiment. Wouldn’t it be surprising if it were not unfettered capitalism or the open sore of racism, or even another expensive and failed military misadventure that brought America to its knees but if it were plain old sexism?

To be clear, I don’t want to see the US brought to its knees. I don’t want them to be made an international laughing stock. I’m quite fond of America and Americans and even lived there for a while. I want the American experiment to succeed. I’m cheering for the good guys. I want a US that says, “We’re working on it. Really. Here’s some proof. We elected a woman President. We didn’t let the most obviously misogynist (insert more adjectives here) man in the modern history of our country take charge. We strive to be better tomorrow than we are today.” After all, the American project is about the pursuit, isn’t it? It’s very nature is optimistic, and I want optimism to prevail.

So, rather than waste another second tracking the appalling antics of the man, why not go back to Susan Faludi’s book Backlash instead? It’s easy to apply her analysis to today’s events and gain some insight into why, exactly, the ground is shaking at this particular time in this particular way. I am convinced the revelations about the despicable man will continue so that even his most loyal backers are offered multiple opportunities to see clearly. If his race baiting didn’t open their eyes, then maybe his insults to people with disabilities might. Or veterans. If that doesn’t do it, then maybe his creepy sexual objectification of his own daughter will. If that doesn’t cut it, then maybe his business failures might. Something has to clear the film from their eyes. If that doesn’t flip the switch, maybe hearing him brag about sexual assault will. But rest assured, the opportunities for clarity are a gift and will be offered until they are no longer needed.

Or if you think Faludi is too old or too second wave or too (insert adjective here), spend your time reading more modern feminst analyses, those that are intersectional in nature. Here’s a list of blogs to get you started. It will do you a lot more good than watching another video of that man insulting someone and your intelligence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing the Details: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

summer bookMy book club had a brilliant idea: this year, we would read books in translation. That’s how I came upon The Summer Book by Tove Janssen. It is a master class in writing detailed setting and character revealing mini-scenes.

Janssen is Finnish, and part of a Swedish speaking minority. My translation to English is by Thomas Teal. Originally published in 1972, it is amazingly crisp and detailed writing about family on a Finnish outer island and the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

This is a book in which nothing happens and everything happens. There is little to no narrative arc, with the exception of following the two characters through a series of scenic vignettes that take place over one summer. The narrative point of view shifts subtly between the grandmother and granddaughter, Sophie, and sometimes seems to shift to an omniscient third. The shifts happen without the reader becoming particularly aware of them, an accomplishment I always admire.

The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is beautifully revealed through concise scenes. Both grandmother and Sophia care deeply about the smallest things in their world and they understand this about each other. One day when the father is late back from taking the boat into the village, Sophia becomes worried. Her mother has already died and there are clues throughout the narrative that this loss troubles her deeply. “And all you can do is just read,” she shouts at the grandmother and begins to weep. The grandmother goes into a detailed explanation of all the things the father has to do in the village.

“It can take a long time,” she said.

“Go on,” Sophia said.

“Well, then he has to take everything down to the boat,” Grandmother said. “He has to pack it all in and cover it so it won’t get wet. And on the way down he remembers to pick some flowers, and give some bread to the horse. And the bread’s way down at the bottom of a bag somewhere…” (105-106).

In another scene, Sophia convinces the grandmother to explore the island with her. It is a little too much for the grandmother, who has trouble walking and uses a stick. Sophia is both adult and child in the scene.

They crawled on through the pines, and Grandmother threw up in the moss.

“It could happen to anyone,” the child said. “Did you take your Lupatro?”

Her grandmother stretched out on the ground and didn’t answer.

After a while Sophia whispered, “I guess I can spare some time for you today.”

It was nice and cool under the pine trees and they weren’t in any hurry, so they slept for a while. When they woke up they crawled on to the cave, but Grandmother was too big to get in. “You’ll have to tell me what it’s like,” she said.

“It’s all green,” Sophia said. “And it smells like rot and it’s very pretty, and way at the back it’s holy because that’s where God lives, in a little box maybe” (64).

 Often they are cross with each other.

“Can you make kites?” Sophia said, but Grandmother said she could not. As the days went by, they became strangers to each other, with a shyness that was almost hostile. “Is it true you were born in the eighteen-hundreds?” Sophia yelled through the window.

“What of it?” Grandmother answered, very distinctly. “What do you know about the eighteen-hundreds?”

“Nothing, and I’m not interested, either,” Sophia shouted and ran away.

The detail in the writing is most obvious when Janssen describes the setting. An island is already a micro-landscape but Janssen goes to the smallest level of detail possible, enabling the reader to feel exactly what it is like to live in such a space and know it with the same kind of intimacy as the fictional inhabitants. In this passage, the grandmother is resting on the beach.

She turned on her side and put her arm over her head. Between the arm of her sweater, her hat, and the white reeds, she could see a triangle of sky, sea, and sand–quite a small triangle. There was a blade of grass in the sand beside her, and between its sawtoothed leaves it held a piece of seabird down. She carefully observed the construction of this piece of down–the taut white rib in the middle surrounded by the down itself, which was pale, brown and lighter than the air, and then darker and shiny toward the tip, which ended in a tiny but spirited curve. The down moved in a draft of air too slight for her to feel. She noted that the blade of grass and the down were at precisely the right distance for her eyes. She wondered if the down had caught on the grass now, in the spring, maybe during the night, or if it had been there all winter. She saw the conical depression in the sand at the foot of the blade of grass and the wisp of seaweed that had twined around the stem. Right next to it lay a piece of bark. If you looked at it for a long time it grew and became a very ancient mountain. The upper side had craters and excavations that looked like whirlpools (22).

Because Janssen has allowed us to, we, the readers, have looked at the grass and the down and the bark long enough that we have seen the bark transform into a mountain. It has been a long time since I read anything in which I was allowed to luxuriate in this kind of detail.

This is a beautiful little book, perfect for summer reading. The short vignettes make no demands upon the reader except to live in the day, just like it’s characters. There is no journey, there is only the here and now and the pleasures of the sky, the land and the sea.

 

 

 

 

When you know what you’ve got before it’s gone

How can I keep a blog about writing I love without paying homage to The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie?

The Tragically Hip’s last tour, the news that Gord is dying of cancer, the last show—it’s all too much. My tears are real and close to the surface. And I’m not alone. Many of us have a special relationship with the band. It’s not often we know what we’ve got before it’s gone, and this is one of those times.

I went to Queen’s in Kingston (Arts ’85) when the band was hipgetting started. I had the same hair as Gord. I’ve never met any of them, but I’ve been in the same room. I remember an article about them in the Queen’s student paper. In the interview, they were treated like the Beatles. There was speculation about whether one of them was dead. It was smart, funny. I was hooked. I saved it for years but finally lost it in one of my many moves. I was at a show where they played the song “Bedrock,” from the Flintstones. Seriously. They used to do B-sides of Elvis. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen them. I think I remember that Gord used to keep his back to the audience way back then. It was kind of great. I imagined him petrified, but doing it anyway, getting out there.

After I left Queen’s, I saw them in Toronto, an early show, at the Horseshoe maybe, or Lee’s Palace. I can’t remember. For a while, he lived in the apartment above a friend of mine. I’d visit and see “G. Downie” on the call button and wonder if I’d run into him on the stairs one day. I never did. I’ve seen them in stadiums in Calgary and Toronto. I took my daughter to see them in a hockey arena in Kelowna. No one stayed in their seats. Most of the audience jumped the boards and danced on the floor. When I hear the lines, “Watch the band through a bunch of dancers,” I am back there.

The last time I saw the Hip was in Boston. I’d been living there with my husband and the crowd at the House of Blues was full of Canadians. Every Canadian in a hundred mile radius was there, or at least that’s what it felt like. We wore our Canadian gear, our hockey shirts, our old Hip t-shirts. The House of Blues folks knew this was some kind of Mecca for us, although they didn’t quite get it. Their songs tethered me, tethered all of us, to home. They made me feel like myself again.

Some lyrics are more poignant now than ever. “You can’t be fond of living in the past,” or “Lower me slowly, sadly and properly, Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.” I love that song. Every time I drive across the country and I leave the Shield and come over that rise on the TransCanada to the Prairie (you know the one) I stop the car on the side of the road, sit on the hood and blast it. In the old days, I’d have a smoke too. Not anymore. Those things cause cancer.

Other lyrics, even the name of the band, have new meanings since the news broke and these new meanings hit hard last night. Context is everything, right? Lines like “Nothing’s dead down here. It’s just a little tired,” and “Tired as fuck.” Yeah. I bet you are. It showed, of course, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m total pro. That’s what I’m here for,” he sang. And he is. “Every day I’m dumping the body,” was a gut punch for me.

One song that didn’t change in meaning for me was “Scared.” I used to listen to “Scared” over and over again when I had cancer. The “I” in the lyric was sometimes me, sometimes cancer. It became a constantly shifting confrontation. I used to go into chemo humming, “I’m not prepared. But if I have to.” Hearing Gord sing it last night was, for me, the emotional centre of the concert.

Thanks for the last memory Gord, the last concert, the epic effort you put into it. Thanks, to you and the whole band, for the last thirty years. I’m not prepared, but I guess I have to. I’m pretty sure you feel the same way.  So do we all.

History Wrapped in Art and Craft: The Hungry Grass by A. Mary Murphy

A. Mary Murphy’s The Hungry Grass is gorgeous. It sweeps me up with its vivid images. It has altered, forever, my ideas about the Irish potato famine and those who lived through it, died in it, or fled it. Gone are the dry, two sentence descriptions of faceless Irish I was given in school texts. Murphy has given me something so much better. She has given me history wrapped in art and craft. She has brought these people and their world to life. The Hungry Grass

The book length poem is 2295 lines, each with seven syllables. I don’t pretend to understand poets and what would possess a person to submit themselves to such a strict form; I only enjoy the incredible result. Murphy mixes Irish dialect with English and seamlessly embeds meticulously researched details into the work which describes fifteen years in the lives of her ancestors. In the first pages, we see the life of Irish Tenant families before the famine, carried through each season with its particularities, its work, its religious observances, and its customs until a full year passes. Life before the famine is hardscrabble but it is also full of joy. The narrator marries in the spring and by the next spring, gives birth to a child, her little life so precarious and precious. The reader knows what the stakes are here. Love is love, whether it is in 1834 or 2016. And so is hunger.

Although the details place us firmly in the Irish potato famine, the poem’s richness cannot help but tie it thematically to all famines, all mass migrations, all displacements, all droughts, and all victims of soulless and intransigent governments.

The poem starts, “And it is how it happened / before fields of hungry grass / grew up over all the world / pinching us with starvation” and I am hooked. “Pinching” is such an excellent verb to attach to “starvation.” I feel it in my body, in my stomach. I read on and am shown the thousand-year churchyard, the neeps and nettles, the furrows in the soil ready for planting, the Liecester rams, cormorants, perch and corncrakes crying in the meadow and even a trespassing goose. I am fully immersed in this world of the past and given a close up view as it falls apart.

I was fortunate to hear Murphy read from this book last week at an Inanna Publications event at Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary. Hearing her read, hearing the lilt of the Irish, and experiencing the flow of the language coming seven syllables at a time was a delight. Murphy makes use of all the senses to put us in this time and place. I hear the birds and feel the breeze. I am, like Murphy was during her research, in the bog. And I am hungry.

Thank you for this book, A. Mary Murphy. This is art.

IWD, Feminist Consciousness Raising and Adrienne Rich

Many writers I love taught me my feminism. On International Women’s Day, I celebrate one writer in particular, Adrienne Rich, whose clarity of thought and forceful writing changed the course of my life.  Adrienne Rich

“Motherhood in Bondage” first appeared in the New York Times on the Op-Ed page on November 20, 1976. It is reprinted in many places, including a compilation of Rich’s prose called On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (Norton, 1979). By the time I read “Motherhood in Bondage,” (likely some time in 1993) I was already a mother and had already absorbed some feminist consciousness, despite my upbringing. I believed women must have the same rights as men. I knew that although some of the big issues like suffrage were settled, there were plenty of other important issues like pay equity that still needed to be sorted out. I had no reason to believe that this would not happen. Progress towards a more just society was inevitable, I thought. People marched, there were hearings or inquiries, problems were explained, legislation changed.

What I hadn’t thought about to any great degree were the systemic forces that kept oppression (not just women’s oppression but all oppression) going. I hadn’t thought about how those in power might create systems on purpose to benefit themselves and that changing the rules for women or people of colour or any powerless group might not be their priority. I had not thought about the effort that those in power put toward keeping a system that benefited them in place.

My pregnancy, the birth of my daughter and my new role of mother made me see how women remained oppressed in fundamental ways. My daughter was born in 1992. I had to fight to receive my full maternity benefits, something that the law said I was entitled to but my employer was ready to deny me. The threat of legal intervention was needed to resolve the dispute. Preparing for the birth, I had wanted a midwife but was told that if I had one, I would have no access to my doctor or a hospital in case of emergency. I don’t even know if this was true or simply a threat, but I acquiesced. I had never felt so patronized or controlled. At about twenty two weeks, strong contractions and bleeding sent me to the hospital and I was told it was nothing and sent home. I was made to feel like I had wasted everyone’s time, but if I had stayed home and anything had happened, I would have been blamed for that too. During my daughter’s birth, I was scolded. It was taking too long. The doctors, the same ones that were so essential to this process, did not intervene when they should have, caused me unnecessary suffering and then blamed me for it. After the birth, when my daughter didn’t immediately latch on, I was told that my insistence on breastfeeding was jeopardizing her life. They insisted on formula. I would not let them give her any. Her lethargy was blamed on me because I had, in the long hours of unproductive labour, taken a pain killer and this had made her groggy. It was my fault she would not latch, they said. The nurse left my chart out. I read it. It said I was non-compliant. I left the hospital. At home, I struggled to understand what had happened to my life. My once reasonably equitable marriage had become something else; my husband went to work and I breastfed, looked after our baby, our house, our meals, our errands and did all the unpaid labour. This seemed fair. I was home. Why wouldn’t I do all of these things? The logic seemed unassailable, but somehow, I knew it was flawed.

Meanwhile, my husband had become a father and he was still encouraged to pursue other goals. I was not. Although I knew that my “work,” had value in the broader scheme of things, I had no place in that scheme anymore. I was encouraged to join a mother’s group. I did. It depressed me. I did not go back. For the first time since I was thirteen years old, I did not earn money. I was utterly dependent and I felt ashamed. I looked into returning to work, daycare, pumping breast milk, all of it. Much as I wanted to be back in the bigger world, I wasn’t ready to let go of the baby to do it. I made a choice. (And before you stomp all over me, I recognize many women have no such choice. I recognize my privilege. But this is, after all, a personal essay. This is how it was for me. I’m not claiming that this is how it is for everyone.) Being forced to make the choice felt like cruel but all-too-usual punishment. But punishment for what? For being a mother? My husband was never judged for his choices, but I would be judged for mine. All the while, I felt that the choice I was being asked to make was somehow false. I felt there had to be another way.

I began looking for kindred spirits, teachers, someone who could explain what had happened to me, what was happening to women who became mothers, and I found Rich.

The understanding that male-female relationships have been founded on the status of the female as the property of the male, or of male-dominated institutions, continues to be difficult for both women and men. It is painful to acknowledge that our identity has been dictated and diminished by others, or that we have let our identity depend on the diminishment and exploitation of other humans. This idea still meets with resistance that has always risen when unsanctioned, long-stifled realities begin to stir and assert themselves.

Painful to acknowledge indeed. And not just for me. For my husband too. It was not his intention to oppress me, and I knew that. But by default, he belonged to a political and social context that oppressed me. Rich explained that my sudden dependence and vulnerability did not happen because of a particular failing of mine or a particular meanness within my husband. This was vital to remember. And she also explained that figuring out a better way to relate to one another and the world was essential and was going to be difficult. But no matter what our social and political context, we always have agency. We always have free will. I had to do everything I could do to improve the situation.

“The power politics of the relations between the sexes, long unexplored, is still a charged issue,” wrote Rich. “To raise it is to cut to the core of power relations throughout society, to break down irreparably the screens of mystification between ‘private life’ and ‘public affairs.'” Indeed. Motherhood as an experience, as a political institution, had been defined by men. Women played by their rules. Men created legislation around birth control and abortion. In a fundamental way, women were (and still are) unable to decide for themselves if they wish to become mothers. At the time, men still wholly controlled the guardianship of children in the courts, the educational system and within the family. Men dominated women economically, an inevitability in a capitalist system that valued men’s work more than women’s even when they did the same work. Again, this is still true. And finally Rich explained how the women who challenge this system, who question it, who try to break free of it, were seen as deviant. And we all know what happens to deviants.

Rich wrote, “the pressure on all women to assent to the ‘mothering’ role is intense.” This is what I was feeling; the pressure to be a mother in a way that had been prescribed by someone else, in a way that allowed me to survive but not thrive.

I could have given in. I could have swallowed hard and gone along to get along, put up and shut up. I didn’t. In the conclusion of the essay, Rich had given me my marching orders, although I wouldn’t understand for many years that I had accepted the challenge she offered. She wrote:

Such themes anger and terrify precisely because they touch us at the quick of human existence. But to flee them, or trivialize them, to leave the emotions they arouse in us unexamined, is to flee both ourselves and the dawning hope that women and men may one day experience forms of love and parenthood, identity and community that will not be drenched in lies, secrets, and silence.

I wanted to find this better future for myself, for my baby, and for my husband. I examined my life. I learned more. I studied. I worked in the community. I observed. I listened. I taught Women’s Studies. I tried to help others understand these issues and more. And although it was never easy, it got better. I had a goal in mind, a vision of equity, if not equality, a sense of fairness. On this International Women’s Day, I thank Adrienne Rich for giving me direction. I hope that every woman can break free of her own lies, secrets and silence. I’m still working on it. It’s a life-long quest.

Political Writing, George Orwell and the Republicans

An American writer recently advised me not to write politically. I thought, “Surely, I have misheard.” (Truth be told, I actually thought “WTF,” but I’m granting myself a better vocabulary in the retelling). The context was a conversation about the upcoming American election. I had asked what role he thought writers had in the mess. None, he said. Political writing makes for bad art, he said. I countered with Orwell. He said “British,” and thus dismissed my point. I visualized George Orwell rolling over in his grave but I think Orwell would dislike the image. He would probably call it overused, which it is. It is also unclear. It is meant to imply anger and restlessness but could just as easily imply resignation. Roll over, pull the shroud up over your shoulder and ignore it. So instead, I’ll visualize Orwell pushing against the lid of his coffin, desperate to get a word in on this argument. I countered again with Steinbeck. The American writer said, “A different time.” He warned me I could have no commercial success writing politically. As I was about to list a host of contemporary American fiction writers whose work is both political and successful, the real issue came out. He had written something political on social media and lost friends. Sometimes, we are simply afraid.

Writing I love is always political. It has a high likelihood of offending someone. If George Orwell were alive today, I suspect that he would have something to say about the current nominees, both Republican and Democrat. He might write an essay. He might write a work of fiction which touches on the problems of the present. I doubt he would have held back.

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Orwell would have braved the haters and the internet trolls and the columnists from Nowheresville who resort to ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments. It would have been a thing to behold. We need Orwell now. But Orwell is dead. The best we can do is strive to be like him.

In Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” he writes, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues” and I couldn’t agree more. Most people know this particular essay as the source of excellent writerly advice like using clear language and avoiding spent metaphors. He laments that “our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Lazy and inaccurate language begets lazy and inaccurate thinking and in turn, lazy and inaccurate thinking begets lazy and inaccurate language. We must break this cycle, and Orwell suggests paying attention to language is a good place to start.

Orwell would demand a specific example. Here is one. Mr. Kasich, a Republican, is described as “moderate.” Moderate is a political label that has become meaningless, just as Orwell notes the word “democracy” has become meaningless. Its use here is inaccurate and lazy. Moderate compared to what? Please, define your terms. The word moderate is being used to imply Kasich is “good” or that, less optimistically, he is the “best of a bad lot” or, perhaps, “not quite as crazy as the others.” But recall the reciprocal nature of the relationship between language and ideas. If, as a result of numerous namings of Kasich as a moderate, Americans visualize him when the word is used, we will have succeeded in further confusing the meaning of moderate. To reverse the process, he must be called what he really is.

But why single out Mr. Kasich? Many have argued that, in fact, the Republican candidates are all saying much the same thing. They each espouse racist and xenophobic ideas. Mr. Trump is not an outlier, not within the candidates, the Republican party, or possibly even the American people. Sure, some of the candidates, like Mr. Trump, appeal more to the KKK than others. But that doesn’t mean that the others do not appeal to the KKK. Ironically, in between the bluster and incomprehensible phrases of jingoistic nonsense he has pushed together to create his campaign, he has done something that Orwell would advise. On select ideas, he has removed the mask of codified language, pretentious diction, and economic and legalistic jargon that has long obfuscated the hobbesian brutality of Republican goals. (Orwell would hate that sentence. How about this: Regarding race and immigration, he has been explicit and revealed the brutal end game of Republican policy.) As a result, his audience has found him and responded accordingly and he is winning. Unfortunately, the language he uses still comes from failed thinking. 

It was 1946 when Orwell wrote “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language,” and this statement is equally true in 2016, seventy years later. His essay teaches all writers how to avoid spouting the meaningless drivel that inundates us in every news cycle. And it is well past time that we as writers use his suggestions. We must explain how these candidates defy the American Constitution and demean the American dream. Or rather, YOU must, American writers. It’s your country. Do so clearly, explicitly, using clear language and specific examples. Orwell promises that if you write in this style your thoughts will become clearer and “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

I revisit Orwell’s writing often, particularly The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. I happen to have Volume 2, conveniently subtitled My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943. It is old and held together with an elastic. My copy originally belonged to my older brother. It was one of his high school texts, and somehow, I have come to have it. The passages that he checked off in the index include “Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf HItler,” “Review of The Totalitarian Enemy by Franz Borkenau,” “Prophecies of Fascism,” “Literature and Totalitarianism,” and “Who are the War Criminals?” among others. I expect these were the ones he was assigned to study. My brother went to a Catholic school and was taught by Jesuits. It delights me to know that this work was part of their curriculum. I mention it because there is a whole other essay here on the importance of good teaching and public education, but I’ll save that for another time.

I find something arresting every time I go back into this book. Today, in “Prophesies of Fascism,” I stopped short on these lines in which Orwell, referring to writer Jack London, makes the point that London did not fall into the trap of fascists, that he “knew that economic laws do not operate in the same way as the law of gravity,” but that they can be “held up for long periods by people who, like Hitler, believe in their own destiny.” And people like Trump.

It’s time to be clear, precise and unafraid. We need to call a spade a spade. But because Orwell would hate the phrase, I will revise again. We need to call out candidates as fascist when they are fascists, as facile when they are facile and fraudulent when they are fraudulent. Language is called Orwellian when it is propagandist and obstructionist. But as writers, let us rethink the meaning of Orwellian. Let’s write as Orwell would have. Let us be Orwellian.

 

 

The Effective Expletive

If James Lipton, famed interviewer of Inside the Actors Studio, were to ask me my favourite expletive, I would blurt out the word “fuck” without hesitation. It is what I say when I stub my toe. It is versatile and works as almost any part of speech. So it was with joy that I read two pieces this week that offer excellent examples of using expletives effectively. Both are blog posts about the Jian Ghomeshi trial, a man and a situation that call for the strongest possible language.

The first blog post is called “Fuck You, Jian,” from Bone Broth and BreastmilkThis is an incredible blog post. Personal, brave, revealing, raw, honest and real. I admire her fragmented sentence style. It conveys the difficulty of bringing words together about the case. It conveys the anger. She speaks of being “deeply disturbed,” the “subterranean sludge,” the trial brings up and a situation that has “absolutely gutted so many of us.” She writes, “But the big secret that Jian Ghomeshi blew wide open last year, is that there is a sickness in our culture. A sickness that allows nice guys, educated guys, guys with culture and thoughtful analysis – gentle guys – to feel entitled to treat women as less than human.” A guy you might have thought was feminist even. A guy with famous feminist friends, feminist friends who even stood up for him, at least in the beginning. The writer never says Fuck You, Jian in the post. She keeps it up front and puts it right in the title. And I have to say, I respect that. I wish I knew her name. She’s a solid writer. Kudos to you. Fucking great blog post.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is another solid writer, more than solid, an award winning writer who I have read and admired for years. She too has written about Ghomeshi this week. Her blog post is even more personal. She relates an encounter she had with the accused called The Preludes to Assaults.  Again, I can use the words brave, revealing, raw, honest and real. Hamilton’s point is that those who prey on women have a pattern, a method, and that she (and dare I say #yesallwomen) have been part of what can only be described as a prelude to an assault, an assault interrupted. Her post starts starts like this: “Jian Ghomeshi, you [redacted].” She repeats this phrase every time she uses his name in the post, which she does often. I prefer to think that the redacted word is “fuck” but it could be anything. That’s the beauty of the redaction. It lets us put our own favourite expletive into the mix.

Now, even though I would generally rather use the word fuck than not, the redaction is brilliant. It makes the expletive stand out even more. And since it is destined to be used so many times in this difficult piece, it is probably a relief to those less inclined to use expletives as liberally as I tend to that it is left off the page. It’s a good reminder that with expletives, less is often more. Overused, an expletive loses its effectiveness. And lastly, something else happens with this technique. I find myself reading new inflection into my favourite expletive every time the word [redacted] shows up.

Sometimes you have to say fuck. But it’s not just Jian Ghomeshi I want to say fuck about. It’s every man who ever raped or beat a woman, every man who ever manipulated a woman, tried to gaslight her, told her she didn’t look right or catcalled her or told her to smile while she was minding her own business just walking down the street. It is every man who made a woman believe she had to be something he wanted her to be, to serve his purposes instead of her own. It’s a system that teaches women to be nice, to be subservient, to ignore their instincts, to say “thank you” for something they never even wanted, to be grateful it wasn’t even worse, to be “pragmatic” even when they know it is wrong. This is not a time to be nice. This is a time to let a few expletives fly.