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Easily Fooled, by H. Nigel Thomas
Guernica Editions, 2021, 293 pages

 

It does not matter how sharp and on top of things we are, we have been duped and hoodwinked too easily at some point in our lives – be it by siblings, by neighbours, by family, by lovers, by priests, by religions or by ideologies.

Whatever grabs us as extraordinarily sensuous, comforting and reliable is a toss away from possible disappointment and ultimate disillusionment. Easily Fooled is about this, and about the source of our being fooled: the double-talk in all branches of theology.

This novel is also about the savage cruelty dispensed towards homosexual love. Its exposure enables Thomas to condemn the sepulchres, mausoleums and walls of holy books erected by religions – to wield the wrath of God and commandeer social norms and social acceptability.

In the first twelve pages of Easily Fooled, we are introduced to a dozen and a half characters who play a significant role in the novel, not to mention St. Paul (often referred to as Paul) – the chronic fabricator of twisted tales, in my opinion. It is quite a swarm that the reader has to deal with, and it might be wise to take notes so as not to miss out on the meticulous writing, set-up and editing informing this novel.

Having said that, the reason why there is a “swarm” is that Nigel Thomas needs his readership to understand that he is originally from the island of St. Vincent, where right now there is an active volcano… But if there were no ashes and rocks showering down on villages and towns, there would be folks pouring onto the streets and speaking up from balconies and playing Rasta on porches – jiving, hollering, badgering and teasing people, lying and spreading unwarranted rumours.

It is a fairly boisterous atmosphere we are drawn into at the outset – and it comes in welcome sharp contrast to that trend of moody psycho-sexual novels about two or three lonesome people in downtown high-rises or sitting on rock cliffs in lonely coastal fishing towns. I mean, it’s okay to ponder over just-released criminal pedophile uncles in isolated towns, but there is a world outside worth talking about as well, and that is what makes Thomas’ novel invigorating, intelligent and persistent about the original sin of religious doctrinairism.

Millington, a practicing and celibate Methodist preacher who is well-respected, honoured and a tortured soul, flees St. Vincent and his “celibate-osis” to settle in Montréal – an escape that is facilitated by his marriage to another St. Vincentian named Jay, who had a crush on him during their school days together and is now a Canadian citizen.

Doris, girl, I gotter be running. I know is delicious Bajan coo-coo you gi’ing the reverend today. I done smell it. Like you scheming to turn he into a real Bajan.

That is Horton – Millington’s one-time fling, a wicked palm-tickling, crotch-beholding, double-life-leading shadow man, patois-ing his way through life and now talking teasingly to Rev. Millington’s housekeeper, Doris, and suggesting that Millington never gets down! Meaning, he is too serious!

And yes, there are pederasts, too, in this novel, as there are in a lot of other Canadian novels! Thankfully there are no exotic exiles peddling incense furiously. And yet Nigel Thomas slices and dices in life in and around McGill University in Montréal and back into the streets and boroughs of St. Vincent and Barbados, through the eyes, voice and thoughts of Millington. Thomas has honed Millington as a trained parish priest, a very believable, polite, dignified intellectual who has had homosexual desires since his early childhood.

He has been parroting the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed since he was four. Woe to the mother whose child couldn’t.

The chance encounter with that skin that seduces so smoothly, is so difficult to look away from – never mind touch – and may very well have been masked, is the deception that leaves Millington hiding behind a facade of inscrutability. The suffering itself from self-doubt makes him a refugee. Makes him travel away, after he defrocks himself intellectually. It is that skin, that bearer of the cross, that pain and suffering of hiding away, which Thomas conveys deftly, holding our hands as we navigate through this life.

Thomas uses a single incident with Horton as a long, curving, cantilevered bridge transporting us from St. Vincent all the way to Montréal, through the somewhat dubious arrival of Horton’s wife, Gladys, the bearer of his two kids. Her objective is purportedly to carry on her own theological studies. Thomas takes us back and forth between the two countries to document and portray the life of the tormented Millington, arriving in Montréal “penniless and dependent,” and gradually sharpening his convictions in his beliefs and the need for rationality in the human soul. Flat-earthers beware!

While Millington’s torment about his sexual preferences could be central to the novel, it is the deeper torment about the disingenuity and “original word” doctrinairism of his commitment to the Wesleyan Orthodox Methodism (AMC – the Authentic Methodist Church) that carries the book through.

There is an extraordinarily infectious array of characters that sweep through this novel. Halfway through it, the following description captures the essence of the story and the stylish literary cadence of its author. I will end this review with that segment about a group of religious discussants that Millington had joined while still in the Caribbean.

When Millington joined the group, they were five. Membership was by invitation only. Before Millington’s time, three members had left: Ezra, a rabbi he had met briefly—a short man with olive complexion, squarish build, and uncommonly black and thick eyebrows—had wanted meetings to be reflections on theology; Bennet—an ash-coloured Moravian, a palm-tree of a man (at least seven feet) with large teeth, an orange-sized Adam’s apple, and a booming bass voice that all envied—had left because Horace had called Christ’s resurrection story a primitive Middle-Eastern myth. Sacrilege for Moravians. Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of their theology.

An intense and well-written novel indeed, for the times we are living through!

 

H. Nigel Thomas at Montréal Serai’s 32nd-anniversary celebration – Photo © Brian Campbell

 

 

One Madder Woman, a novel by Dede Crane
Freehand Books, 2020, 360 pages

 

The year is 1858, the place, a Parisian suburb. A family of five is having breakfast. There is Papa, M. Morisot, the patriarch, a chief advisor in the finance ministry, his much younger wife, and their four children: Yves, the eldest daughter, 21, followed by Edma and Berthe, two years apart, and Tibby, the 10-year-old baby brother.

The manservant, Thin Louis, brings M. Morisot the mail. After reading one of the letters, M. Morisot laughs. Sent by Joseph Guichard, Edma and Berthe’s art teacher, it says: “…If your daughters are to continue under my tutelage, they will be in serious danger of becoming real artists. And in your social circle… this path would be catastrophic. I trust you understand my words and intention and heed my warning.”

Early in her accomplished novel, One Madder Woman, Canadian author Dede Crane deftly sets up its central conflicts: the difficulty that Edma and Berthe will face trying to establish themselves as professional painters in an art world where there is no place for women, and their struggles to define themselves as something other than wives and mothers.

But there is more to the scene described above. Here Crane also establishes the unequal power balance not only between Papa and the rest of the family, but also between Berthe and her elder sister, the beautiful, assured, and ambitious Edma. Berthe adores Edma; in fact, she wants to become Edma. Papa also chooses to love Edma over Berthe.

Soon we meet the hero, Édouard Manet, whose provocative and inventive paintings are panned by critics and spurned by buyers. Manet appears to be swayed by Edma’s charms, while ignoring or belittling Berthe. Berthe hates him. As well, Manet is married.

The plot moves forward on twin tracks. The author develops the love triangle between Edma, Berthe and Manet, and later, the multi-faceted affair between Berthe and Manet. This love story forms the spine of the book. The strong bond between Edma and Berthe is also central to the narrative. Alongside, Crane tells the story of how Edma and Berthe develop as artists, focusing particularly on Berthe. These strands are interdependent. Berthe is influenced as an artist by Edma and Manet. Manet as an artist is also somewhat influenced by Berthe.

 

Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden Of Bougival, by Berthe Morisot (1883), via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the first of a series of beautifully written scenes about the art of painting, we have Edma and Berthe, chaperoned by their mother, walking through the woods carrying the tools of their craft, stopping to untangle their voluminous skirts from the brambles. They have moved on from their earlier teacher, Guichard, to no less a figure than Corot (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot), after Edma has asked “for a teacher of the new Barbizon school, one who painted en plein air, in natural light.”

They step out of the woods and wait a long time, Berthe’s impatience mounting. Then the sun rises to reveal river, trees, sky, grass and tiny wildflowers, as never before. “Can you feel them?” asks M. Corot. “These were my teacher’s words. The question less jarring than the fact that I could feel them, the colours, of course, because what else could he mean?” thinks Berthe.

The die is cast. From here, Berthe embarks on a tumultuous journey of self-doubt and discovery, turmoil and ecstasy, to become a uniquely gifted Impressionist artist. Underrated in her day (and even later, in my opinion), she would nevertheless blaze a new trail for artistic expression and for women artists.

One Madder Woman is an ambitious work. Crane dares to write in the first person, and in so doing, puts the reader inside Berthe’s skin. Her aim is to recreate the life and the incredible times of Berthe Morisot. She does so in brilliant detail, with sensuous imagery, engaging dialogue and well-developed characters, fleshing out a web of relationships. The inner world of the principal characters is also revealed through the intimate correspondence between them, given that it was the norm to write letters at that time.

Crane covers the Parisian art scene as well – the salons, exhibitions and artistic trends, and the squabbles and debates. She gives space to two major political events: the Franco-Prussian War (in which the Prussian army took Paris), and the other extraordinary event of those times, the Paris Commune in 1871. Under the Commune, Paris was ruled by a radical socialist, revolutionary government until the French army put an end to it. According to the book, an estimated 25,000 commoners were killed.

This brutal turn of events devastates Morisot, driving her into a state of depression. She finds her way out by painting, fully embracing Impressionism:

I tried to paint a leaf as it spiraled to the ground. The very instant I believed I could capture the action, I lost the quality I chased. My brush made swift stabs and feathery dashes… More intimations than objects. Temporaneous living things… The attempt to fix an image killed it dead. Movement was life… The fan was not so much a thing but an action. Life too was an action, perception, a fleeting moment of engagement… Teetering on the edge of sloppiness, carelessness, I painted the fragile, transient movements before me, their furious, hopeful colours and shadows full of grief.

Crane’s Berthe is moody and feckless, as well as questing; a woman consumed by her passion for Manet, and also defiant. She is flawed. The novel is an accomplished study in character development. Berthe goes from being a dependent sister, someone not particularly ambitious, a woman madly in love, to a principled, humane and courageous woman, devoted to her craft. This is a study of how an artist is shaped by her environment – physical, emotional, social and political. Crane also gives Manet, Edma, and the other characters their due.

Having read thus far, you may ask: how true is the book to Berthe Morisot’s life? The back of the book reveals that Crane has done her research. That said, I believe that fiction offers a world that is complete in itself. I judge this novel on the strength of its artifice alone.

It’s a thrill to encounter the now-famous artists – Degas, for example – as flesh-and-blood characters. It is also pleasurable to look up the paintings that Crane writes about in the book. (She provides a handy reference list.) One is, after all, reading in the age of the Internet.

Like Morisot’s paintings, this book is a veritable feast.

 

The Sisters, by Berthe Morisot (1869) National Gallery of Art, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Memorial Suite by Jocelyne Dubois, Shoreline Press (2020), 82 pages

 

Jocelyne Dubois’ latest book of poetry, Memorial Suite, is a beautiful, haunting work, written in a style uniquely her own. In some ways, it can be seen as a complement to her novel World of Glass, which followed the struggle of a young woman with bipolar disorder as she sought to extricate herself from a world of alienation, pain, terror, medication and mental health facilities, and return to the joys of normal life, tranquility and love. While the novel deals with the structure of this long and difficult path, however, the poems zero in on particular moments, people, moods, and sensations from a more intimate and immediate point of view.

Dubois deftly uses everyday language to reveal the transcendence of human experience, exploring the power within the details of life. Maxianne Berger and Carmelita McGrath, whose insightful commentaries grace the back cover, point out the lyricism of her “clear,” “spare” lines, written in a direct, objective language that goes right to the core of each poem. Dubois’ work is fundamentally autobiographical, but what difference does it make if the characters are actual people or are fictions in themselves? The symbolism that emerges from them may have been lived or invented, but it is real in every sense.

Reading these poems, I was reminded of the transparent, informal style of William Carlos Williams (a physician himself), which often contained many more subtleties, connotations and ambiguities than more florid works of the time. Dubois’ lead poem, “Hot Summer Night,” is a delicate mosaic of action and feelings, with an oblique, suggestive eroticism — “My body perspires, I desire” — that lets the reader draw the connections rather than point them out directly. The eloquent last three lines of the poem then move into a moment of revelation that uses the images to take the poem far beyond, to an existential realization, giving them the impact of the final stanza of a Renaissance sonnet, which in fact the structure of the poem resembles: “I cannot wash off what is perfect, what/ shines like crystal, something more than wind/ stronger than rain, more solid than stone.”

Dubois is an expert at powerful end lines, often with a final word or image that flips the objective body of the poem onto an unexpected, ironic plane. The speaker in “Reproduction” lets her pregnant sister take her hand and pass it over her curved belly at the same time as she is eating salad, and comments that “when I leave    I leave hungry” (space intended). In “Words,” a woman speaks of her difficulty in returning from the numb realms of medications and psychiatric wards to the world of conversation and connection so that she can “know precisely/ what not to say.” And in “The Lady Upstairs,” the speaker’s neighbour, an elderly Slovak woman who lives alone, shows her photos of her family, children and grandchildren who live in Texas and whom she calls every few days: “‘They say I love you, I love you’/ she tells me,” and the last stanza: “Christmas card from her family/ propped up on her kitchen table/ unsigned.”

Jocelyne Dubois is also an accomplished visual artist, who has exhibited her work in several galleries in Montréal.  She specializes in palimpsests of painting, cloth, leaves or other mixed media, and designs of coloured pebbles, all covered in transparent varnish that holds things in place. The remarkable cover of Memorial Suite, with its intersecting and broken lines of stones, is one of her works, and all three sections of the book begin with black-and-white reproductions of other paintings, each of which is a reflection on the text, from the pearly aspect of “Hot Summer Night,” to the vertical rows of stones like corn kernels in “Memorial Suite,” to the swirling, free flow of forms in “A Second Chance.” These three sections chart the path of her life, from her early years on her own, through her breakdown as she struggles with bipolar disorder, and on to healing, falling in love and marrying.

Many poets, such as William Blake, have been painters, and many painters, such as Francis Picabia, have been poets, though perhaps it’s better just to say that they are artists who express themselves in several mediums. Dubois’ visual work has interesting parallels to her writing: the stones, arranged in different forms and chosen in particular colours, bring to mind the people she describes, always elevating the common to artistic recombination and a search for meaning. In the poem “Colours,” the speaker writes of her intention that “When I die/ I will donate them to a psychiatric hospital/ where walls are eggshell & bare/ […] to bring sun/ to those locked up.”

The title of the book undoubtedly alludes to many memorials, but principal among them is the Allen Memorial psychiatric hospital, perched on the side of Mount Royal, originally the home of a shipping magnate who named it “Ravenscrag,” and known in the 1960s for the clandestine CIA experiments in mind control that took place there. Dubois opens the second section of the book with a poem about it, contrasting the building’s 19th-century wealth and finery with the plastic chairs and styrofoam cups of the patients waiting there a hundred years later. The individual poems, several of which are titled “Jocelyne,” are portraits of patients, nurses and doctors: bare-boned word sketches of isolation, powerlessness and loneliness, in which her observations are like brushstrokes in a zen painting.

The author’s realism is kind, but doesn’t include either false hope or patronizing clichés: each person is unique, with their own hopes and delusions, stuck in a mental paralysis between illness and medication, or ill-tempered from working there too long. Writing is her liberation. It carries her through her isolation and finally into the gradual, longed-for recovery of the last section of the book, in which rigidity and loneliness fall away as she reconnects with people and the natural world, where colour, music, laughter and pleasure return, giving her a renewed life of surprise and serenity and filling the reader with joy and relief.

As I finished reading Memorial Suite, I was reminded of the words of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, who struggled with mental illness and confinement, in his poem Kaddish: “The key is in the sunlight at the window.”

 

 

Dog Poems by Louise Carson (Thornhill, ON: Aeolus House, 2020), 107 pages

 

A Review of Louise Carson’s Dog Poems and Carolyn Marie Souaid’s The Eleventh Hour

Louise Carson and Carolyn Marie Souaid are two Montréal-area poets who as far as I know have never met. Both are women who have seen a fair share of life and written multiple books of poetry and prose. Both have published collections of poems in the last year that treat themes of nature, mortality and reckoning as their final season approaches. So why not have them meet on this web page?

Louise Carson’s Dog Poems concern the poet’s largely solitary life with her dog and cats in the countryside near St-Lazare, Québec. One feels the weight of prolonged solitude in the often-slender lines and spare imagery of these poems; however, the poems are also leavened by a bemused, often deadpan humour. Quite a few of the poems are inspired by the rhythm of her dog walking, trotting, loping along, and its sniffing, pawing, snuffling manner of exploration. Some are deliberately shaped to evoke that simple, instinctual life and the way the constant companionship of that dog shapes her.

She does-
n’t walk
she al-
most al-
ways trots.
She looks
for food
and whines
when I
refuse
to let
her cross
the road
for Mc-
Donald’s
or Tim’s
sacks, cups.

She pulls
against
the leash
unless
I cop-
y her
and trot.

(“The dog walks”)

 

Carson’s poems about her dog are almost all brief, and myopic in scope to suggest the dog’s elemental nature, with titles like “Each day I brush the dog,” “Alone with the dog,” “Dog … and cat poem,” “No bad dogs,” “The dog’s name is Mata,” “Barrel, stock, muzzle.” Interspersed with these are honest, direct poems about aging, difficulties of writing, the death of the author’s mother, reconciling oneself with past abusive relationships, living on limited means, and the challenges of living alone:

Living alone is bad for your health.
Fuckbuddy wants me.

Women are more likely to be assaulted by someone
   they’re living with.
My ex assaulted me at the beginning
   and end of our relationship. Neatly bracketed.

Sitting for more than four hours is bad for your health.
Sitting writing for the last twelve years, I gained
   weight but was able to survive the last twelve years.

(“Proposition/Observation”)

Amid these short poems is the powerful and courageous “Cancer Suite,” which concerns Carson’s harrowing experience surviving lymphoma. But also to be found are poems celebrating the joys of writing, Carson’s loving relationship with her daughter, and the simple pleasures of a good day.

Are these poems great? There is awesome reckoning in “Cancer Suite.” And the rest of the poems – all, as I said, short, or pretty short – do what they want to do, are written with knife-like concision, and have cumulative effect. Carson’s ironic awareness of her own limitations disarms with bittersweet charm. As the introductory poem, “One dog more,” puts it,

(These poems are humble, like a dog,
and, like a dog, are also thieves,
and bad actors.)

 

 

The Eleventh Hour by Carolyn Marie Souaid (Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions), 73 pages

 

In The Eleventh Hour Carolyn Marie Souaid, like Louise Carson, concerns herself with aging, dying, and other limiting realities. But Souaid gives greater focus, as her title suggests, on the urgency of little time left; indeed, her keen sense of mortality heightens an anxiety-edged but ecstatic awareness that this is it. Light is a common image and metaphor, in all its mystical, ethereal implications.

I awoke to handfuls of light,
the cool wind pressing through a window.
Undulating curtains.
My blood sugar spiked, energy pumped
through my body’s meridians.
I was as open
as new life blinking into the sun
for the first time,
a blank slate, ignorant
of our long, dark, collective history:
sooty traces of the Industrial Revolution
coating our lungs.

(“And So, the Wind”)

Strolling by the river in a halo of light
I notice a dozen flies swarming
around death.
I am contemplating vantage points.
The bird’s head is crushed velvet,
blue and iridescent.

(“Amplitude”)

Countering this vision are frankly observed, constraining realities, in all their banal concreteness. Souaid’s dying father is the subject of several poems, poignant, elegiac and at turns humorous, such as this straight-forward but nevertheless complex portrait entitled “Pre-Op Checklist”:

Wheeled to the elevators
he is asked for the last time
before surgery what he has to declare
besides a watch and underwear.
Pills, nope.
Dentures, nope.
Cane, pace-maker.
Nope, nope.
Heart attack?
At his age, they expect decline.
A startled mouse not a full-scale carnivore.

This description would suggest he’s still a fierce customer, and undoubtedly he is; yet at the end of the poem, gentler qualities emerge, again bathed in light:

He is less engrossed in things than he was,
say, yesterday or the day before,
or a lifetime ago
on the Isle of Capri with his youthful bride.
The world that makes him happiest now
is a square of sunlight,
where Mother prepares his ham sandwich
the way he likes it, on a sesame bun
with mustard and lettuce.

Similar poems – similar in how affirmations are salvaged out of the foibles and obstructions the everyday throws up against desire – are “Exercise in Stillness,” “Their Death Projects,” “This Finite Moment,” “Still Life With Slippers,” “This Ordinary Life,” “Northern lights, Kangiqsujuaq” and “Timeline.”  Notable also are a couple of poems concerning the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing Max 8 flight, downed in 2019. Souaid’s cousin’s 24-year-old daughter was killed on that flight. Unforgettable is the irony of the Exit sign on the crashed plane.

A favourite poem is the final one, “Arthur,” which in its graceful way is emblematic of the charms and preoccupations of this collection. An old sparrow lands on the ledge by the window beyond the writer’s desk. It’s a repeated occurrence, and she affectionately comes to call him Arthur.

He’s like a nervous man in a tweed coat,
scurrying across the street
with a newspaper under his arm

but in all his ordinariness, arriving “gently on the wing of dawn,” he becomes a symbol for a mysterious transcendence beyond death:

… I believe
that long after my ashes have cooled,
that dear bird will find me again
wherever I am, in the web of silence,
the way he finds me now,
with my sleeves rolled up
and some tea in a pot, steeping.

The Eleventh Hour is a favourite collection of those by Carolyn Souaid I own and have read. They show a seasoned poet at the height of her powers.

 

 

 

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and contributing editors (W.W. Norton and Company, 2020), 496 pages

 

[Reviewer’s note: This review adheres to the terminology used by the different authors in this anthology.]

 

The term Norton Anthology brings to mind something good to come: a literary collection chosen with clear intent and annotated with solid scholarship. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry does not disappoint. It is that and much more. It is a celebration of the oral and spiritual traditions of the first poets of what today is known as the United States of America, a nomenclature which leaves out the tribal nations whose communities cross current national borders into Canada and Mexico. For this, executive editor Joy Harjoy apologizes and points out that state borders within the United States do not adequately define tribal areas.

This first-of-its-kind anthology is divided into five sections representing major geographic areas, partially following a traditional counter-clockwise Native orientation: Northeast and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and finally, Southeast. The need to include Alaska, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands skewed the traditional round configuration – but then again, colonization tends to interrupt the natural order of things.

In her introduction to this hefty anthology, Joy Harjoy contends that the commonality shared by all tribal nations in North America is the knowledge that the earth is a living being and that “Poetry, in all its forms, including songs, oratory, and ceremony, both secular and sacred, is a useful tool for the community.”

 

NORTHEAST AND MIDWEST

Kimberly M. Blaser introduces the first section with a bilingual and multidimensional dream song of the Anishinaabeg, arising “from an intimacy with the water landscape of the region.” This and other poetic forms also address major historical events, such as the Oka standoff in Québec and the war in Vietnam.

Gegwejiwebinan, an Ojibwe poet whose name translates into English as “Trial Thrower,” allowed ethnologist Frances Densmore to record his song with the help of an interpreter, sometime between 1907 and 1909.

Kegēt’
Indábunisin’ dangûg
Bīnes’ iwug’
Ekwa’ yaweyân’

Surely
Upon the whole length of my form
The water birds will alight.

Jim Northrup (Chibinesi) (1943-2016), Anishinaabe, of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior, was sent to a residential school, and served as a marine in the Vietnam War. He helps veterans heal from their traumas by teaching them verbalizing skills. The following first and last lines of this poem carry the message that healing takes hard work:

Shrinking Away

Survived the war but
was having trouble
surviving the peace

That’s when I realized that
surviving the peace was up to me.

Colonialism and other dark subjects are tackled by Alex Jacobs (Karoniaktanke) (1953–), Akwesasne Mohawk, in his epic poem Indian Machismo or Skin to Skin. There is a short but powerful stanza that deplores colonization:

IT’S HAPPENED EVERY DAY FOR 500 YEARS!
But i bet you be there in your buckskins when politicos
celebrate Cristofo Mofo Colombo in 1992 & make him an
honorary Cherosiouxapapanavajibhawk too! Aaaiiiieeee-yahhhh!

 

PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS

Heid E. Erdrich lets us know that generations of Indigenous people lived on vast expanses of land under very harsh conditions and yet produced lyrical and often witty poetry. Many Indigenous communities suffered harsh repression, such as the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Some poems make historical references to conflict and resistance, and celebrate respected figures such as Sitting Bull while expressing rage towards despised figures like Custer. These poems help in understanding the history of the country.

Elsie Fuller (1870-unknown), Omaha, was educated in English at a boarding school, to the detriment of proficiency in her mother tongue. However, she did not lose her native wit:

A New Citizen

Now I am a citizen!
They’ve given us new laws,
Just as were made
By Senator Dawes.

Just give us a chance,
We will never pause.
Till we are good citizens…

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa (1934–), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn, and Oklahoma’s sixteenth poet laureate, writes life-affirming poetry:

The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee

I am a feather on the bright sky.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain.
I am the fish that rolls shining, in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.

You see, I am alive, I am alive.

Unfortunately, not all is light in this part of the world… there is darkness as well, and James Welch (1940-2003), Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, mourns it:

Harlem, Montana:
Just Off the Reservation

We need no runners, here. Booze is law
and all the Indians drink in the best tavern.
Money is free if you’re poor enough.

Women find time to assert themselves, even in difficult times. Suzan Shown Harjo (1945–) Southern Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs under Jimmy Carter and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never forgets that she is, first and foremost, a woman:

The Song Called “White Antelope’s Chant”

…Clouding Woman had a song
it was a Tsistsistas song
it was her song
because she sang it

 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST, ALASKA, AND PACIFIC ISLANDS

Cedar Sigo introduces this chapter by stating categorically that “Native people of the Northwest had no choice but to live in relation to poetry from the very outset of creation.” As simple as that. Gloria Bird confirms this sentiment when she says:

We are like salmon swimming against the mutation of current to find our heartbroken way home again, weight of red eggs and need.

Diane L’xeis’ Benson makes it clear that for Native people, Alaska is not a land of gold, but rather “an eternal connection that runs through their veins cycling through the generations.” She also points out that “the reality of loss, cultural disruption, and the effort to reconcile cultural existence in a continually colonizing and commodifying world” is central to Alaskan poetry.

Brandy Nālani McDougall makes the astonishing statement (which should nonetheless not surprise us), that the United States currently controls one third of the Pacific Ocean through different colonial subterfuges, such as associated territories and so forth. Given the diversity of cultures, languages and histories, it is best to let the poets speak for themselves.

Chief Seattle (1786-1866), Suquamish and Duwamish, is remembered for his leadership skills and conciliatory language. In one of his speeches, he stands up to the White Man

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you forget.

He then talks about their differing world views:

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them their being.

John Dominis Holt (1919-1993), Kanaka Maoli, was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawai’i in 1979. You can see why.

Ka ‘Ili Pau
Give me something from
The towering heights
Of blackened magma
Not a token thing
Something of spirit, mind or flesh, something of bone
The undulating form of
Mauna Loa

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio (1991–), Kanaka Maoli, was invited to perform her spoken word at the Obama White House. She might have declaimed the following lines:

There is a culture
Somewhere beneath my skin that i’ve been searching for since i landed here
But it’s hard to feel sometimes
Because at Stanford we are innovative
The city of Macintosh breeds thinkers of tomorrow
and i have forgotten how to remember

 

SOUTHWEST AND WEST

Deborah A. Miranda introduces this section by saying it “feels like writing a love letter about a collection of love letters.” It is easy to understand why. The poems in this chapter are about endurance, reaffirmation of Indigenous knowledge, two-spirit Indigenous experiences and resistance. It is also about totems and the seasons.

Georgina Valoyce-Sanchez (1939–), Chumash, Tobono O’odham and Pima, describes a relationship between a human and a dolphin.

The Dolphin Walking Stick

He says
sure you look for your Spirit
symbol — your totem
only it’s more a waiting
watching
for its coming

Adrian C. Louis (1946-2018), Lovelock Paiute, doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is:

Skinology

I have known
some badass Skins.
Clichéd bad-to-the-bone
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.

Anita Endrezze (1952–), Yaqui, writes about a very current subject, but with a poignant slant:

The Wall

Build a wall of saguaros,
butterflies, and bones
of those who perished
in the desert. A wall of worn shoes,
dry water bottles, poinsettias…”

Cassandra López (1978–) Cahilla/Tongva/Luiseño, wants…

A New Language

My words are always
collapsing
upon themselves, too tight
in my mouth. I want a new
language. One with at least
50 words for grief

and 50 words for love, so I can offer
them to the living…

 

SOUTHEAST

Jennifer Elise Foerster starts off her introduction to this chapter by boldly stating that “Southeastern people have long been writers.” She is most probably right.

Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson (1897-1982), Cherokee, sums up the history of colonization:

Sentenced

They have come, they have come,
Out of the unknown they have come;
Out of the great sea they have come;
Dazzling and conquering the white man has come
To make this land his home.

We must die, we must die,
The white man has sentenced we must die,

Louis Little Coon Oliver (1904-1991), Mvskoke, pays homage to the resilience of the women in his community, particularly the older women.

Mind over Matter

My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha
stuck an ax into a stump
and diverted a tornado.

There was power in that twister.
There was power in my grandmother.
Those who doubt, let them doubt.

The pain caused by displacement runs through most of this poetry. LeAnne Howe (1951–), Choctaw, expresses it pithily.

Ishki, Mother, Upon Leaving the Choctaw Homelands, 1831


Right here there’s a hole of sorrow in the center of my chest
A puncture
A chasm of muscle
Sinew
Bones…

Displacement might be territorial or cultural, but for Kim Shuck (1966–), Cherokee, a sense of place is fluid like water.

Water as a Sense of Place

The water I used to drink spent time
Inside a pitched basket
It adopted the internal shape
Took on the taste of pine
And changed me forever.

LeAnne Howe, in her outroduction to this inspiring anthology, reminds us that “This collection of poems, born of these lands, is not an end nor a beginning.” I’m convinced she is absolutely right. My only regret as a reviewer is that time and space constraints do not allow me to profile many other wonderful poets and their luminous words.

 

 

 

 

Sharon Lax, Shattered Fossils (Toronto: Guernica, 2020). Paperbound, 248 pp.

 

The thirteen stories in Sharon Lax’s debut collection Shattered Fossils display the author’s diverse knowledge and skills. Some are narrated in first person, others in third, and one in second; some stories are fanciful, even bordering on magical realism (ghosts and tropes from folklore feature in a few), while others are grounded in the quotidian. One story uses atavistic diction, helping set the nineteenth-century scene, while others slip from English into snippets of French, Arabic, or Icelandic and their respective present-day vernaculars, such that readers may enjoy vicariously thé à la menthe at a café in Montréal’s Mile End or meander through a concert hall in Reykjavik.

While this may sound as though the collection is somewhat scattered, a common theme does link the stories. Lax uses subtle metafictional devices to remind readers that the stories are fundamentally about narrative and its forms, functions, and effects. More precisely, the stories engage deeply with how the past and history might be reassessed and perhaps revised – to reflect more accurately what happened – whether narratives are personal, political, or both. In so doing, the stories open vistas toward gaining better understandings of the present. As such, readers might find in them some inspiration for reconsidering personal and collective history, as we continue to grapple with (or possibly emerge from) the global COVID-19 pandemic. Lax’s stories further the journey of questioning pre-pandemic “normalcy.” They may also suggest means to creating a future world that resists or dispenses with that so-called normalcy and its attendant oppressive ideologies, including colonialism, capitalism, heteronormativity and the binaries of sex and gender, and anthropocentrism.

Many of Lax’s protagonists are engaged in a process of reconsidering history that can be understood as genealogical, in Michel Foucault’s terms. His concept of genealogy, as presented in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), “displaces archaeology restricted to material excavations and works it into a method of archival and philosophical conditions of knowledge – its objects, statements and assumptions.”[1] A genealogy, in Foucault’s view, is concerned with investigating discourse and language, and what these reveal about both the past and where we are now. It is also an “explanation of where we have come from” and “[its] purpose is to tell us how our current situation originated, and is motivated by contemporary concerns.”[2]

Indeed, many of the protagonists in Lax’s stories seek clarity regarding their present circumstances and ontologies. Some characters seek what may have been hidden from them, while others reveal what they may have, perhaps out of necessity, hidden from others, via internal monologues and dialogues with other characters. The stories reveal how various idealizing discourses, from the traditional historical to the private or personal, contributed to knowledge or lack thereof. A couple of stories make reference to Canada’s colonial history, for example, as protagonists lament the ways that educational and other institutions obscured or erased knowledge of Indigenous cultures and communities, upholding policies of cultural genocide that sought to assimilate or destroy the peoples and their cultures.

In “Les monstres affectueux / Affectionate Monsters,” for example, the protagonist, Marie-Thérèse, ruminates on three levels of history: the place where she lives and its connection to colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous peoples; her ancestry and the damaging repercussions of the Acadian Expulsion; and conflicts with immediate family members due in part to the secret her twin sister concealed from her when they were teenagers. Once their father dies, Marie-Thérèse burns down the barn on the family farm – her way of exercising agency and attempting to revise personal history. This act is, on one hand, drastic in its effective erasure of that history; on the other, however, the fire destroys a material object that stood for the trauma with which she had struggled to come to terms, thus creating an opportunity for renewal. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben states that “one must be able to include the constitution of the subject within one’s plot of history, precisely in order to be able to dispense with it once and for all.”[3] Incinerating the barn and dispensing with this part of her history allows Marie-Thérèse to concretely confront her trauma and its effect on her life; the burning is a kind of symbolic rebirth, providing a form of healing that years of therapy could not.

In the second story, “An Ark of Gopherwood,” Joshua apostrophizes the hospitalized and unconscious Thomas, friend and former mentor, whose wife (a younger woman) has been having an affair with Joshua. Joshua’s bedside soliloquy revisits key points in the men’s long relationship, as well as a confession and an apology. Not simply reminiscing, however, Joshua tells Thomas how he sees him, in language that is one part roast and one part elegy. Reproaching Thomas as a historian, Joshua accuses him of being a “feverish disbeliever in the very field you fiendishly defend, [with] disdain for the process of history: your arguments threaded along the idea that intractable narratives threaten our reconstitution of events.”[4]

Thomas, then, as Joshua describes him, is someone who argues against “intractable narratives,” is a deconstructionist, calling into question the relationship between text and meaning, and positing the instability of a single truth and the impossibility of certain knowledge. Within a deconstructionist framework, meaning often depends on context and on subjective interpretation. The story’s title alludes to the Biblical story of Noah’s ark: some translations of the Bible suggest that the type of wood used was not gopherwood but rather cypress, cedar, or pine. Some have argued that the Hebrew word kopher, meaning “pitched wood,” was misread by translators as gopher. In the miasma of language and history, as a symbol, an ark of gopherwood perhaps represents the differing perspectives Joshua and Thomas have with respect to their shared history, and the concomitant multiplicity of meanings and imperfect knowledges.

Here lies a nod to postmodernism and Jean-François Lyotard’s discussion of the collapse of “grand narratives” – Western culture’s dominant, overarching beliefs about history, science, and so on, which Lyotard postulated could no longer be considered reliable or accurate. A revisionist archaeology/genealogy and deconstructionist post-modernism both allow for fuller, more comprehensive narratives, even as they add complication. This is the case not only in “An Ark of Gopherwood” but also in other stories such as “Four Characters,” which shifts perspectives amongst that of The Writer, The Scholar, The Artist and, most surprisingly, The Scarf. The latter does not have animacy or voice per se, but it is a key element drawing the others together, and through which further insights into context, past and present, can be received by the reader.

As the content of Lax’s stories engage with notions of multiplicity, the stories’ formal characteristics also often involve structures or devices that play with or outright reject the grand narrative. One such is the embedded story, in which characters assert authority and challenge notions of “truth” as presented in a range of normative ideologies. For example, in “The Earl of Beaconsfield,” the first-person narrator is Benjamin Disraeli, who twice served as prime minister of the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. As Disraeli sits for a portrait, he reveals a secret to the painter; allusions and details offered in flashbacks ask readers to engage in a thought experiment around sex and gender roles past and present. If, for example, we discovered that certain historical leaders presented a public gender identity that did not reflect their own sense of their gender, would our perceptions of them change, and if so, how? Given that, even in 2020, 90% of people around the globe bear some form of bias against women, this is no idle rhetorical question.[5]

The sixth story, “Freedom,” which straight off the mark hints that its protagonist is a cow, calls into question the primacy of human subjectivity and epistemology. That Lax chooses the word “children” to describe the cow’s calves might be disconcerting for some readers unaccustomed to thinking that livestock have kin in the way that humans do. The word might also create some confusion around the protagonist’s identity, as well as the setting (allusions to Nazi Germany’s Holocaust trains might be more apparent for some readers, causing them at first to see the protagonist as human). Furthering this confusion is the way a human being is described toward the story’s end – as “one of those awful furies,” as an “it” whose sweat reeks of “milky dampness worse than anything” the cow senses from her own kind inside the cattle car.[6] Here, the human is “other” – casually rendered a thing in much the same way that, in the context of anthropocentric cultures, many humans have become accustomed to categorizing animals and other living beings.

As a cohesive volume, Lax’s stories prompt questions about how narratives have influenced us, for good and for ill: what harms have certain kinds of stories caused, both individually and socio-politically? How can we rewrite our stories, our myths of creation or nation, in order to expand our view of what’s possible going forward, even as doing so might mean shrinking our choices? (Several stories, including “Freedom,” challenge tacitly or explicitly the presumption that eating other animals is acceptable.) Indeed, Shattered Fossils reveals that story has often been a means of establishing systems of oppression, but that story may also offer a way to take stock, revise, and resist – as one of the cows in “Freedom” repeats. Lax’s title is apt, alluding to the imbrication of past objects (and ideologies) but also their destruction. Even stone, and that which is written on it or embedded within it, is not infallible and can be demolished.

In “An Ark of Gopherwood,” Joshua recalls something Thomas once said: “Dangerous times when stories author our world.”[7] But perhaps the danger simply depends on the kind of story, who’s telling it, and what the agenda is. For history and story-writing both are, as Anna Cox says of photography and writing, “make-believe processes that can remake norms and shift beliefs.”[8] Like any medium or tool, writing – story, narrative – can be used for good or for ill. Lax’s stories leave us with a final question: What stories can we begin to tell, in order to remake norms and create an equitable and just post-pandemic world?

 

 

[1] Jussi Parrika. “Archaeology.” Machinology: Machines, Noise and Some Media Archaeology. January 9, 2014. https://jussiparikka.net/2014/01/09/archaeology/. Accessed July 1, 2020.

[2] Mark Kelley. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.d., https://www.iep.utm.edu/foucault/#SH3e. Accessed July 1, 2020.

[3] Giorgio Agamben. “Philosophical Archaeology.” Law Critique (2009) 20, pp. 211–231. DOI: 10.1007/s10978-009-9052-3, p. 213.

[4] Lax, p. 6.

[5] Liz Ford. “Nine out of Ten People Found to Be Biased against Women.” The Guardian (UK), March 5, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/05/nine-out-of-10-people-found-to-be-biased-against-women. Accessed July 2, 2020.

[6] Lax p. 88.

[7] Lax p. 23.

[8] Anna Cox. “How Photographing a Dumb Paper Bag Led to Writing a Novel.” Literary Hub, June 26, 2020. https://lithub.com/how-photographing-a-dumb-paper-bag-led-to-writing-a-novel/. Accessed July 1, 2020.

 

Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society, by Raquel Fletcher, Linda Leith Publishing, 2020 (148 pages)

 

[Though a book reviewer is supposed to keep herself out of a review, I took the decision to leave myself in. The author, Raquel Fletcher, also puts something of herself in this book.]

 

Québec is distinct; Québec is different. This is something every new Canadian inevitably learns soon after immigrating to Canada. This was my experience too.

Being an immigrant first to Canada and then to Québec, I have heard many views and opinions on this province. When I lived in ROC (Rest of Canada), I came across two predominant perceptions of the province: it was either glamourized as the “other,” as arty, gourmet and “European,” or criticized for being a renegade. The existence of the abbreviation ROC is in itself telling.

Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society by Raquel Fletcher, Québec National Assembly reporter for Global TV News, is at once a personal account of a prairie girl, a self-confessed, proud francophile “encountering” Québec (both the capital city and the province), and political reporting on the increasingly fraught identity politics here.

In the introduction Fletcher writes:

“Quebec is a society full of inconsistencies. While it’s arguably the most feminist and progressive province in Canada, it’s also the only jurisdiction in North America to limit civil liberties by banning religious symbols. It’s increasingly modern, global, diverse and multicultural, particularly in Montreal – and yet, some nationalists defend what could be characterized as anti-immigration policies in the name of protecting the French language.”

Fletcher goes on to say that getting accurate reporting on Québec issues from the ROC is more difficult. It’s hard to get the nuances. And this is one of her reasons for writing Who Belongs in Quebec?

The book is an account of very recent Québec politics in relation to identity issues with many footnotes, mostly cross-referencing media articles in English and sometimes in French. It is old-fashioned journalism in a positive sense and shows restraint.

Here are the issues and discourse- shaping events that Fletcher methodically covers: “pastagate” when the name Resto La Mama Grilled Cheese in Québec City was seen as contravening Bill 101 Charter of the French Language; the passing of Bill 62 (curtailing the rights of niqab wearers) by the Liberal government in power; the mosque shooting in Québec City (both events took place in 2017); the growth of extrem-right media (particularly radio) and alt-right groups (La Meute); the negative impact of Trump becoming the US President, including the rise in racism; the first-ever English-language debate in a Québec election and the rise and majority win of the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) in 2018. By the end of that year, an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers had crossed into Québec from the US and Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Jean-François Lisée, in a tweet, suggested the building of a barrier. In 2019, the CAQ passed Bill 21 which bans religious symbols being worn by “authority figures” to promote Québec’s version of a secular state. The bill was opposed, largely by leaders and citizens in Montréal. And that same year there was Bill 9, an immigration bill that would set the groundwork for a French language exam and a values test for new immigrants. This bill was passed by fiat in the middle of the night. CAQ cut the number of immigrants to Québec by 20 per cent, ostensibly to ensure better retention and integration, while at the same time unceremoniously dumping 18,000 pending immigration files.

Whew! Even though I have been following the news, the book made me more aware of the rapidity and extent of the change.

I moved to Montréal 12 years ago. I learnt French after moving here and can converse in that language. I had tried to learn it before, but not being immersed, I was not that successful. I also give Indian cooking classes in French, as needed.

With a white Québécois partner, I have easy access to Francophones who are friends and family. I live in multiple worlds. In Montréal, one circle is made up mainly of Anglophones and allophones who mostly also speak French, and who are somewhat racially diverse, though most are white. Another circle is almost exclusively made up of white Francophones, many of whom can speak English. These circles remain separate. Even so, this is diversity, isn’t it? And it should feel normal and good, right? With passing years, moving between these groups has become increasingly disorienting, and belonging in Québec, more tenuous.

Fletcher notes one of the distinct features of Québec that impacts politics: “Suspicion of religion in politics is often a progressive impulse in Québec politics… this tendency in Québec is often seen as being progressive rather than Islamophobic.” An Angus Reid survey found that far fewer Québecers were likely to vote for a candidate who wore a face covering as compared to people in ROC. For any party voted into power here, the need to preserve Québec’s unique Francophone culture and identity is paramount.

In Chapter 3, Fletcher sketches out the political spectrum spanning from left to extreme right in the 2018 election, represented by the four candidates running for party leadership. The sole woman, Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire, a left-wing and pro-independence party, was the only one willing to look into systemic discrimination in the province.

In late June 2020, as I write this review, the words systemic discrimination/systemic racism have acquired a whole new meaning and urgency after the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact in Canada. And yet, despite documented evidence, Québec Premier François Legault still denies the existence of systemic racism here.

This compact book views identity politics through the lens of party politics, government, legislation and mainstream media coverage. Minority voices are presented only in two chapters. Fletcher conveys the views of the people at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre after the mass shooting there that killed six men and seriously injured five. And in a chapter entitled “Islam, Women and the Secularism Debate,” we hear from Muslim women who are both for and against face coverings.

Sondos Lamrhari, the first police student to wear a hijab, is quoted as saying:

“I think the day we accept the fact that there’s not only one single way that liberty can be conceived, I think is the day we’ll accept, that yes, there are women who feel free wearing the veil, and others who feel free wearing the least amount of clothing possible. As long as women feel free in the way they present their bodies, that’s what we need to take into consideration and to highlight.”

Having illustrated the difficulties in finding a common ground, Fletcher ends the book on a personal, reflective note. There are no grand conclusions. Real life is often bereft of them. As an example of progressive change she describes how the Monastery of the Augustine Sisters in Québec City which, while displaying and “owning” its past, has modernized into a world-renowned health retreat.

She also says: “Perhaps the problem is that the current political debate focuses on what to exclude, rather than what to include in the common project… And perhaps that debate distracts from the ongoing work, some political and some not, that is taking place to build a better, more secular Québec.”

The work that is unfolding in community groups, certain institutions, people-to-people, etc., is not the focus of this book.

Written in straightforward language, with personal anecdotes that humanize the narrative, Who Belongs in Quebec is also the voice of a young Canadian woman on a key topic. This slim book is a useful introduction to very recent identity politics in Québec. Its impartial tone will make it palatable to many. Apart from serving the general reader, it can be a handy primer for newcomers to Québec.

 

 

Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, & Spiritual
By Yahia Lababidi (Wipf & Stock, 2020)

 

Egyptian-American Yahia Lababidi is the author of seven books: Signposts to Elsewhere, a compilation of aphorisms selected as Book of the Year (2008) by The Independent (UK), Where Epics Fail, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, Fever Dreams, and Barely There. In addition to these, he co-authored with Alex Stein The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi and has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has been translated into numerous languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Swedish. Lababidi was chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature – a biennial award widely considered to be the most prestigious international literary prize after the Nobel Prize in Literature. For a more detailed summary of his writing career, see Poets&Writers.

 

Yahia Lababidi’s new book, Revolutions of the Heart, is a moving collage of essays, conversations, aphorisms, poems, interviews and reflections, bearing witness to an impressive lifelong study and practice of philosophy, literature and creativity. The book reaches out to the reader, builds “eye contact: how souls catch fire,” brings hope during periods of desperation, inspires writers in their art, speaks eloquently from the heart, and stays long after it is read and placed back on the bookshelf.

As I pondered over my electronic copy of Revolutions, I wondered how much better it would have been with a hard copy of the book in hand, allowing me to feel and mark the words on pages turned. My screen felt distant, very much like everything else during these pandemic days. Yet in going through the book, I found myself experiencing and enjoying the ambiguity in the nearness of this very “distance,” and sharing some of the longing for transformation to which Lababidi has dedicated his book.

Revolutions starts with the author’s journey as a writer, thinker and poet, “living through” Rilke, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Wilde, Dostoevsky – philosophers and writers who first shaped his thought and who continue to accompany him – before turning to Eastern mysticism and transcendence in the teachings of the Tao te Ching, Rumi, Al-Ghazali, Mahmoud Darwish, Khaled Mattawa, Ibn Ata Illah, Kahlil Gibran, and many others.

To me as a reader and reviewer, it seems as though that journey is always beginning, with creative biographers sounding their own truths while “donning masks [of their] great dead friends,” and poets becoming the poem – “one agonizing line, or liberating verse, at a time.” [“Every Subject Chooses Its Author”]

The essay “Poetry and Journalism of the Future” resonates with first-generation immigrants who, like Lababidi, feel helpless and frustrated seeing their “world unraveling continents and oceans away.” His powerful words connect the reader with this desperation while also “cultivating a certain distance” and a depth of vision that “provides more insight than mere sight.” Poetry, thus, “at its finest,” restores our sight, speaks our silences and makes sense of our pain.

In “Radical Love: Mysticism in Islam,” Lababidi describes the “painful reality” of Islamophobia. “It’s tiresome to be continually on the defensive,” he writes, underscoring the irony that even during “this historical moment of Islamophobic panic,” the 13th-century Sufi mystic, Rumi, “is not only a best-selling poet but the most popular poet in the US!” In the West, however, the appreciation of Rumi’s art comes at “the expense of erasure of Islam from his work – as though this beloved, mystical poet is only palatable to the masses if entirely dissociated from the seeming stain of Islam.”

One cannot write of Lababidi without mentioning his aphorisms – “wisdom literature,” a “soul’s dialogue with itself” – born of his “obsessive reading” that taught him how to write. This all changed on his return to Egypt, when he says he lost his silences… and lost his voice. Aphorisms lay beyond reach. It was not until ten years later that, “spurred by the terse wisdom of the Tao te Ching and Sufi teachers,” he returned to “these brief arts.”  [“Reverence for the Visible and Invisible Worlds”]

Lababidi speaks poignantly of the 2011 people’s uprising in Egypt – the Arab Spring. “Over time,” he writes, “I’ve come to regard my beloved Cairo as a joyous child whose confidence has, profoundly, been shaken by repeated scolding and attempts at molding. We’re not quite ourselves at the moment, I tell myself, and are battling for our souls.”

He continues:

Our unfortunate present moment does not define us; we’re better than this unbecoming fear and loathing. The lengthening shadow that we are witnessing—in the Middle East, in Europe, in the Divided States of America—is just a hiccup in time, viewed in the context of humanity’s long illustrious history. When my spirits sag, I am buoyed up by the noble Arabic slogan that circulated following our Egyptian Revolution: ‘Despair is betrayal, and Hope a responsibility.’   [“Reborn in the USA: An Immigrant & Poet’s Story (who also happens to be Muslim)”]

He fondly brings to mind his recollections of Yusuf Idris, Louis Awad, Ahmed Ragab, Farouk Goudah, Abdul Rahman Al Abnoudi, Alaa-Al-Aswany, Yusuf Rakha, Son’allah Ibrahim, Nawal El Saadawi, Ahdaf Soueif and Radwa Ashour.

As an editor, I read with some trepidation the chapter “Can an Editor Get Too Creative: A Writer’s Quandary.” Editing always involves walking a fine line, and as Lababidi points out, taking on “a tough (sometimes, thankless) task.” I was personally amused to read the account of an “intrepid editor” who had taken some of Lababidi’s “stand-alone aphorisms” and “woven them into a ‘poem’!” So changed was this version that the author could no longer recognize it as his own, even though the words were his. Writing is no doubt “an intimate matter and rearranging the words of another is akin to shuffling their thoughts and emotions.”

There is a memorable chapter on Frankenstein that made me rethink some of the critical pieces I had written in university. “It is very telling, and a scathing commentary on the superficiality of society,” writes Lababidi, “that the only civilized audience the creature is granted is with one who does not have the prejudice of vision to discriminate, nor the brutality of youth to intimidate: Delacey, an old blind man.” His incisive critique left me pondering, unsettled. Even today, we are continuing to create our “monsters,” our fears, born of culture and the “vision” of our prejudices.   [“Frankenstein: Society-Spawned Humane Monsters and Monstrous Humans”]

I began this review by mentioning Lababidi’s dedication to transformation. Revolutions is an important book. In our divided world today, it seeks our transformation as people first, then as citizens of one planet earth, envisioned beyond the divisions of political boundaries… with elements that, like pandemics, do not differentiate one from another. We are “in the deep end, [where] every stroke counts.” We will either swim or sink. Together. And we will find ourselves not in words, but in our wounds, our silences.

I end with two brief lines that Lababidi says first drew him into writing: “Heidegger’s definition of Longing: ‘the agony of the nearness of the distant’ as well as Rumi’s ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you.’”   [“The Aphorist in Conversation with Sholeh Johnston”]

 

Yahia Lababidi © Diana C. Restrepo

Reflections on Stephen Morrissey’s A Poet’s Journey: on poetry and what it means to be a poet (Ekstasis Editions, 2019)

 

By the time you read this, the first wave of the pandemic will hopefully be over and we will be reaping the harvest of our collective and individual reactions and decisions.

When I took on this project, I purposely ignored the poet’s biography and bibliographical information at the end of the book. I avoided reading any of his poetry other than what appears in this book. I wrote this book review in early mornings and on rainy days beginning at the end of March and finishing in early May. One or two cats slumped on my lap; the dog asleep on the couch next to me; vanilla hazelnut coffee at my elbow. Wondering if today would be the day my daughter would bring CV-19 home from her part-time cashier job at Provigo.

A Poet’s Journey is a collection of book reviews, essays, memoirs and poems plus a selection of concrete poems, all by Stephen Morrissey. As a fellow poet, I was especially interested to read the essays about poetics and practice, eager for insights. In one entitled ‘Continuing Continuation, On Louis Dudek,’ Morrissey chooses as his epigraph this quote: “… remember/ the paltriness of worldly claims,/ and the immensity/ that is always now.” – Louis Dudek, Continuation III. In plague-day-speak, don’t sweat the small stuff (such as running out of vacuum cleaner bags, how to get tax papers ready, driving on winter tires in the summer).

The brilliant essay that in many ways forms the core of the book is part two to ‘Reading Louis Dudek’s Continuation: An Introduction to a Major Canadian Poem.’ Here are the poetics of one of Canada’s most important poets, filtered, condensed and presented by his friend, mentee and colleague, who sums the work up by naming it “radical” as it goes to “the roots of poetry and language.” This is a bold statement that I have no way of refuting, as I haven’t yet read Dudek’s Continuation.

Morrissey concludes this essay beautifully when he writes about the last poems of Continuation III written months before Dudek’s death. “In these final poems, Dudek returns repeatedly to the concept of time as infinity, he envisions an ultimate ‘shining’ that illuminates the darkness of ignorance with a kind of mystical perception of life.” And this concept is one Morrissey says has guided his own work.

The other major piece in A Poet’s Journey is the essay of the same name. Much in these fifteen or so pages resonates in me in reflecting on poetic practice. Points to consider include: Morrissey’s voluntary youthful self-isolation in order to survive; his definition of form as a container for content, with the two working together (Yes!); and confessional poetry, which he defines (quoting Frank Bidart) as being “… concerned with ‘the making of the soul.’” This is the definition of confessional poetry to which I ascribe.

Morrissey also makes a point of honouring the ancestors. His communicate most in winter in dreams or as ghosts. As do mine. Since early March, both my dead parents have been hovering around and my friend Dan, five years dead, appeared in a dream only to leave on an errand for me. So like him.

One of the few false notes (for me) in Morrissey’s system of poetics appears in this essay when he discusses male/female relations. “Marriage between a man and a woman – the expression of male and female energy – is a basic archetype of life. To deviate too far from the archetypes is to lose touch with what connects us to humanity, wisdom, and the eternal.” Huh?

I wish he’d given a wider interpretation of “the expression of male and female energy” to include individuals who see those energies in persons of the same gender as they, or as mingling and balancing satisfactorily in one individual. And, as a long unpartnered person myself, who saw her creative energies explode once freed of being partnered, we must agree to disagree not only on the definition of traditional marriage but on the whole concept. Or even (could we?) leave gender out of the equation altogether. But there it is.

Besides the poetics, I also enjoyed the concrete poems scattered throughout the book. “Regard as Sacred” takes the phrase “regard as sacred the disorder of my mind” (Rimbaud) and stutters its words into a cityscape above and reflection of same below by scrunching letters to form skyscrapers. Lots of depth here.

Another two poems – “amorphous space 1” and “amorphous space 2” – arrange the letters from sun, moon, stars and space into blocks that are arranged then carved out, leaving, yes, space, where the reader/viewer can wander. I like them.

Morrissey’s concrete poems were created in the 1970s, as was his essay “The Purpose of Experimental Poetry.” Here’s what engaged me from that piece. That experimental poetry communicates changing times while remaining timeless. That experimentation with form must come without preconceived notion. That “… poets don’t have merely one voice or style, but several over a lifetime …”

Towards the end of the book is “Believe Nothing,” an author statement in point form. “I have lived the nihilist’s life: anonymous, introverted, and appalled.” “Believing anything makes people stupid.” Yeah!

There are other essays on craft: finding voice; confessional poetry; poetry as the voice of the human soul; visionary poetry. All are interesting to read. And in some of the memoirs and eulogies we find traces of history of the poetry circle(s) in Montréal over the last few generations. (For those of us who were not members of those groups.)

After spending a good number of plague days steeped in A Poet’s Journey, I now want to seek out more of Stephen Morrissey’s poems. Perhaps you may wish to do the same.

 

 

TAKEWING a.m., written and Illustrated by Brenda J. Wilson. FriesenPress, 348 pages

 

TAKEWING a.m. is Brenda J. Wilson’s first novel, although she has a long track record as a media producer, librarian, photographer and educator. She also wears many hats, often times simultaneously, as she likes to tell anybody who is willing to listen to stories of her trips to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Central Mexico, over the course of more than thirty years.

Butterflies are her passion, which is why the subject of this unique and original novel is the yearly migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico and then back to Canada. It is a 3,000-mile trip that requires a lot of energy and determination for a creature that only weighs half a gram! Historically, these apparently fragile creatures have been making the journey with relatively few losses. Of late, however, climate change, extreme weather conditions, pesticides and other anthropogenic disasters have taken their toll.

The novel documents this incredible journey, which has been the subject of multilateral agreements between governments to study the butterfly’s migration patterns. It also peeps into the lives of a number of people who also migrate back and forth between Canada and Mexico, generally flying by plane and not on their own wings.

This amazing migration is also lovingly studied by a whole army of academic researchers, “citizen scientists,” students, children and other nature lovers. The yearly migration of the monarch butterfly is the thread that holds together a patchwork of human stories that document scientific research, love affairs, heinous crimes, Indigenous celebrations, culinary traditions and the beauty of natural landscapes in both countries. This book is billed as a novel, but it can also be read as a cautionary tale of how human depredation is contributing to climate change.

The fictional part of the book tells the story of a Mexican boy and a Mexican girl who fall in love with a Canadian girl and a Canadian boy, respectively. The Mexican protagonists are bound together by blood ties whereas the Canadian ones are bound together by their environmental concerns. There is also a subplot involving environmental crimes committed by a well-known transnational corporation, spousal abuse, secret government operations and the misuse of military tracking equipment for personal purposes.

At first, the reader wonders why the author has introduced these apparently extraneous elements into the storyline, but it then becomes clear that they are all connected to the way the monarch butterfly’s journey is tracked over Canadian, U.S. and Mexican territory. This subplot takes place in Canada. On the Mexican side, corruption is not so subtle and is apparent in illegal logging operations and the outright murder of environmentalists. Considering that this book is set in 2011 and was presumably researched several years before, the author is spot on in foreshadowing today’s level of violence pitting organized crime against conservationists.

Brenda J. Wilson writes in a clear and straightforward style, with few or no embellishments. But who needs flowery language when the serene beauty of the Canadian countryside in winter speaks for itself? Moreover, with the burst of colour and the explosion of vibrant music unleashed when tens of thousands of monarch butterflies warmed by the sun unfurl their wings and take off on their journey back to Canada, adjectives would pale in comparison.

When you read TAKEWING a.m., don’t allow yourself to be overcome by sadness and despair. If this dainty creature can undertake this perilous journey year after year, we can certainly make sure it reaches its destination safely. The monarch butterfly teaches us that hope and determination can get us to our destination.

 

 

 

Run J Run, by Su J Sokol, Renaissance Press, 2019

 

Run J Run, Sokol’s latest novel, was published in May this year by Renaissance Press, a publishing company whose roster features writing that doesn’t fit into a standard genre, niche or demographic and which hopes to uplift marginalized voices. Sokol’s beautifully detailed and poignant writing fits perfectly into the mandate that Renaissance has established.

Sokol describes herself as an “activist and a writer of speculative, liminal, and interstitial fiction.” She immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004 from New York City, where she was a legal services lawyer. She now makes Montréal her home and it is here that she practises both her art and her activism. In addition to her writing, Sokol works as a social rights advocate for a Montréal community organization.

Cycling to Asylum, Su’s debut novel, was long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Su also curates and participates in readings and literary events in Canada and abroad.

On her web site, Sokol describes the novel as “a riveting tale of friendship, love, and chosen family. Using the tools of psychological drama and erotica, it presents a compelling critique of both the treatment of mental illness in our society and the false boundaries we construct in our personal relationships.”

We follow three principal characters who are close friends, as they navigate the challenges that life presents to them. Jeremy, a high school English teacher, grapples with a failed marriage and the loss of his brother. Through the processing of this grief he unexpectedly falls in love with his best friend, Zak. Attractive, wildly unconventional, seemingly happy in an open and loving relationship with his partner Annie, Zak seems to embody everything missing from Jeremy’s life. The arrest and death of a marginalized student at the Brooklyn high school where they both teach trigger Zak’s mental breakdown and slow descent. Jeremy and Annie are compelled to cross boundaries, both external and internal, in a desperate attempt to save him. Run J Run celebrates the day-to-day heroism and the humanity of ordinary, flawed individuals faced with trauma, loss, and marginalization.

I really liked the depiction of a non-traditional family in a way that honoured their journey. We learn of the struggles that face them, from daily challenges to the ongoing fight with mental health issues. In addition to all this, as individuals and as a family, they suffer the attitudes of society and are marginalized simply because of their family structure. The novel explores how society can react to marginalized identities, both individual and collective, in ways that are not accepting or are even oppressive, and how we can sometimes internalize such oppressions and turn them on ourselves. The lesson emerging from the story is that family structures and the relationships that characterize them, whether traditional or not, are fundamentally human, and hope lies in our individual and collective search for our authenticity and our compassion at a human level.

While not articulated expressly, the social and political conscience that emerges from the story is perhaps best represented through the character of Annie. Her individual narrative, her reassurance, the compassion and the quiet strength she brings to the challenges that her family is confronted with, ultimately help us identify and understand the structures and values that exist beyond those that patriarchal and hetero-normative societies impose.

As someone who lives in a non-traditional family structure myself, the story resonated in profound ways for me. Such eloquent narration and representation of the story of this fictional family provide valuable images and models that are not broadly expressed or represented. This narrative, these images, legitimize and celebrate the triumphs of this non-traditional family as it navigates through the maze of life overlaid with the additional challenges of mental illness, depression and a desire of one of its members to take his own life. The story leaves us with hope and the sense that if we are to evolve, it is the attention to our humanity that will move us further, and compassion is the light that will guide us along this path.

Brilliant and compelling with moments of rare beauty, I found this novel hard to put down. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

Being Chinese in Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging
by William Ging Wee Dere
Douglas & McIntyre, 2019 (400 pages)

 

A life of struggle for redress from Canada’s systemic racism

From 1885 to 1947, some 85,000 immigrants, mostly single young men, fled China beset by war, poverty, decaying feudalism and aggressive imperialism, for ‘Gold Mountain’ in Canada. Tales of the late 19th-century gold rushes in California and Canada had spread to the Guangdong province of Southern China where most of these men came from.

In the quarter century after Confederation, Canada, a European settler colony established on Indigenous land that the British had wrested from the French, had its own priority: to ‘nation-build’ a railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

And Canada wanted the Chinese ‘coolies’ to build the railway! “It’s simply a question of alternatives: either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway,” Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told Parliament in 1882.

These workers lived in unsafe tents on dangerous terrain, while workers from the UK were housed in sleeping cars or railway-built houses, and many were killed by disease or in dynamite blasts. Considered hardy, industrious and frugal (living on fish and rice), they were paid less than even the Black and Indigenous workers.

Under Macdonald’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, to enter Canada they had to pay a $50 head tax, which was hiked to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903, under Wilfrid Laurier. This head tax alone totalled some $23 million at the time (estimated at $1 billion a century later), while Canada’s total investment in building the railway was $25 million!

Worst of all, the Chinese workers were legally excluded from the burgeoning Canadian society and deprived of civil and citizenship rights, yet while also contributing to ‘nation-building.’ They were not allowed to bring their wives and families, but could go back to their native villages for a maximum of two years. They saved for the long trip, got married and had children, but came back alone.

The ultimate humiliation came on July 1, 1923, Confederation Day under Wilfrid Laurier, when Canada enacted a new ‘Chinese Immigration Act,’ which the mostly ‘married-bachelor’ Chinese community called the Exclusion Act: it banned Chinese immigration altogether! The Chinese protested to no avail, and named Confederation Day ‘Humiliation Day.’

The Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1947, under Mackenzie King, after some 500 Chinese had been allowed to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces to make up for the shortage of fighting men in the Second World War. With the newly declared United Nations Charter, the Chinese were finally given full citizenship rights – though they could bring over only their wives and children; it was not open immigration for them as it was for post-war Europe and even the Soviet bloc.

This is the core theme of William Ging Wee Dere’s impressive, combative, sensitive and patiently written semi-autobiographical 350-page book, Being Chinese in Canada, plus 40 pages of endnotes and an index of names, just published by Douglas and McIntyre.  The book is illustrated with relevant old black and white photographs from the author’s album.

 

Schools, McGill and Marxist-Maoist political activism

William Ging Wee Dere was seven in 1956, when he arrived in Canada with his mother, Yee Dong Sing, who was then 50 and had brought up her five children in the family village of Fong Dang, Toishan County, in the South China province of Guangdong. A babe-in-arms, the youngest among five siblings when his father, Hing Dere, last visited China, he consciously met the latter for the first time at Montréal Central Station after the long train ride from Vancouver.

The book is very conveniently organized into four parts, and Part I is focused on his family. The author recounts his life in the back of the hand-laundry that his father, and his grandfather before him, ran with Confucian patience on Parthenais Street near Mont-Royal. He tells of Chinese life in Montréal in the first half of the 20th century, his discovery that his grandfather, Der Man, immigrated in 1909, and his father, Hing Dere, came over in 1921.

He discovered from the old men in Chinatown that his Ah Yeh, who died in 1966, was in fact a Confucian scholar. He also discovered later that his own father was a poet. After exposing him to the life rhythms in the laundry, even taking him on his rounds, and letting him adapt to Montréal, his father tried to enrol him in the neighbourhood French school; the school refused. An English school four blocks away, also Catholic, took him in. The only non-Catholic in his class, he learned the catechism and prepared for First Communion and Confirmation!

“In my parents’ traditional Chinese view of pleasing all the gods, to have another god to protect their son was a good thing,” he writes, adding that he became a fervent Catholic and even an altar boy at St Thomas More Catholic Church in Verdun!

William Ging Wee Dere grew up with solid Chinese roots and a strong sense of fairness, which led him to want to be ‘like everyone else’ and to be accepted as an equal citizen of Canada. The deep and lasting injustice done to him, his family and the Chinese in Canada remained a powerful driving force even as, and maybe because, he grew up during the Québec Quiet Revolution’s Maîtres chez Nous years and Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and multiculturalism policies.

After Loyola High School, he went to McGill to become an engineer. With that came the awakening of his political consciousness, which he explores in great detail in Part 2, with the authority of a rigorous note-taker. With Canada in 1970 recognizing the People’s Republic of China, Maoism met Confucianism for William Dere, who threw himself with dedicated gusto into the Marxist-Leninist movements that cropped up in 1970s Québec after the general strike in 1972, ending with the defeat of the ‘Yes’ camp in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association.

This section is a rich and informative foray into the Marxist Québec Left of the 1970s and 1980s. We get intimate insider views of Charles Gagnon’s En Lutte and of the Workers’ Communist Party (WCP) in which Dere was an activist. We encounter major figures from McGill, soft-spoken Indian revolutionary Daya Varma, who taught biochemistry, political scientist Sam Noumoff, and Prof Paul Lin, a personal friend of Zhou Enlai and a major architect of Canada-China rapprochement.

A decade later, many militants left and went back to mainstream society, like Gilles Duceppe who became head of the Bloc Québécois, Marc Laviolette who became head of the CNTU (better known as the CSN labour confederation), and Pierre Karl Peladeau who took over his father’s Quebecor empire and became MNA for the Parti Québécois. Founded in 1975, the WCP was dissolved in 1983.

Dere too quit the WCP, disappointed by the racism and sexism prevailing even among the Marxists! It had an all-white male top leadership, which dogmatically refused to link up with the Canadian black civil rights movement. Of the Indigenous peoples and their struggles, and of the rights of other immigrant communities, no mention was even made.

 

Struggle for equality and redress for Chinese Canadians

As William Dere quit Québec’s left politics, the creative tension between his humanism and his Confucian and Maoist Chinese roots threw him headlong into a quarter-century campaign to obtain redress for the 150 years of racist exclusion and humiliation inflicted on the Chinese community by Canada.

This protracted and tortuous struggle is exhaustively detailed in the seven chapters of Part 3. It starts with his direct involvement in Montréal and cross-Canada Chinese community politics and social work, spurred by a 1979 CTV broadcast on its then iconic W5 program, of a report titled “Campus Giveaway,” which accused Chinese students of ‘stealing’ university enrolments from (white Canadian) students.

He agitated to save Chinatown from municipal and corporate encroachments (which continue), fought school board elections and followed Chinese community leaders lobbying in vain for justice and recognition from federal politicians. Above all, he came up with the historic project to make a doc movie on the history and experience of the head tax and exclusion of Chinese immigrants in Canada. The low-budget film entitled Moving the Mountain, made in partnership with his former WCP comrade Malcolm Guy, premiered in 1993 at the Toronto International Film Festival. But it never aired on CBC, where Mark Starowicz, Loyola alumnus and former editor of the McGill Daily, was boss of documentaries.

Still, the movie pushed the Chinese redress campaign forward, from consciousness-raising to consensus-building and mobilization. Unexpected help came from Ronald Reagan of all people: in 1987, he offered $20,000 to Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WWII. Brian Mulroney followed suit in 1988 by offering $21,000 to each interned Japanese-Canadian and their descendants.

But Chinese lobbying of Canadian ministers and politicians failed, with Chinese national and regional organizations jockeying for influence and government funding. On the eve of leaving office in 1993, Mulroney offered the head tax and exclusion victims a gold medal and a certificate of honour – an offer the community rejected as “ignominious.” But the mainstream media had finally begun to report and editorialize seriously on the head tax redress issue.

Chrétien’s three-term government (1993-2003) appointed Hong Kong-born Adrienne Clarkson as Governor-General, and her sister Vivienne Poy as senator, but refused all talk or compromise on the head tax issue. This episode is detailed in Chapter 14, “Closing the Floodgates,” in reference to bureaucrats who were determined to dam the ‘floodgates’ of compensation opened by Mulroney’s concession to the Japanese.

The redress movement internationalized its campaign and received support from UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights, who reiterated, but in vain, recommendations for Canada to rectify the damages of the Head Tax and Exclusion Acts.

The redress campaign took the matter to court – and lost, with further humiliation when Ontario Appeal Court judge James Macpherson ruled, with heavy racist stereotyping: “The Chinese head tax payers were happy to be here and had already received redress through their ability to remain in Canada… Paying the head tax is made all worthwhile when one can see their granddaughter playing first string cello for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.”

Paul Martin stuck to Chrétien’s ‘No negotiation, no compensation’ policy, and it took the January 2006 defeat of his Liberals by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to break the redress logjam. Bloc Québécois candidate May Chiu, a lawyer, Chinese community activist and close associate of William Dere, brought down Martin’s own vote in Lasalle-Émard from 36% to 30%!

But when redress came, it was half-baked. On June 22, 2006, Harper offered an official apology in Parliament, in Cantonese: ‘Ga Na Da Do Heep’ – Canada apologizes. Symbolic payments of $20,000 were made to 785 head tax survivors and surviving widows, for a total of $15.7 million. But nothing was provided for their descendants, some of whom were elderly and had also suffered and shared in their parents’ humiliation.

 

Personal life, wistful humour, reflections on the future

William Ging Wee Dere’s book is packed with previously unpublished information and peopled with mostly unknown names; it takes us into little-known milieus and often hits us with unsuspected insights. But his writing style, swinging from matter of fact reporting to lyrical reflections, and his often self-deprecating, wry humour, lighten the reader’s mood by providing comic relief in the thick of a long epic struggle.

His marriage to Gillian Taylor, a WCP comrade, their family life with two children and subsequent divorce; his friendship and affair with GG, a Chinese Malaysian student who had a crush on him since his McGill days; and his courting of 28-year-old Dong Qing in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province in 1990, with her family, in the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year (the Year of the Horse), their marriage (William was 41), and their settling “happily into a somewhat unorthodox middle-class life in Canada” make for beautiful reading in their own right.

“Being Chinese in Quebec” is the title of Chapter 17, the first of three chapters in the final Part 4 of the book. It focuses on William’s disagreements with his old comrade Malcolm Guy who co-directed Moving the Mountain, over a new film project, Being Chinese in Quebec: A Road Movie.

William left the project as his proposals to show the victorious anti-racist struggle of 15 ‘new immigrant’ Chinese workers at the Montréal Calego Inc. backpack factory, the ‘slanted eyes’ racist comment of Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair, the Chinese immigrants’ contribution to the wealth of Lord Mount Stephen (the rice baron who built the ‘Jardins de Métis’ Reford Gardens near Matane on the South Shore of the Lower St. Lawrence river), and the Christian proselytizing carried out by a Chinese evangelical couple from Hong Kong inside the Aboriginal Cree community of Ouje-Bougoumou in Northern Québec, were either dropped from the script or later cut before airing.

In conclusion, let it be said that William Ging Wee Dere’s book itself reads like a superb film script. And it stands out as a major decolonial anatomy of English/French settler hegemony in Canada. Any takers?

 

 

My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages

 

Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in 1945 in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1985 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.

Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”

One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.

Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.

In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.

Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.

His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.

Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.

Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?

Terrorists?

Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.

I will.

The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming, he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.

“The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.

The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!

 

In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy by Louise Carson,
Broken Rules Press (Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec), 2018, 152 pages

 

“Their long horns drooped and they seemed half asleep, unable to
feel his presence.
Perhaps I am not real, he thought, if the beasts don’t notice me.
Perhaps I’m already dead, a ghost. But the cold rain and his
soaked clothing persuaded him otherwise. Bits of grass and
buttercups stuck to his shoes.”

The words are from an early page in Montréal poet and novelist Louise Carson’s recent novel In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy. The story takes place some 300 years ago in the daunting, varied land- and seascape of southwestern Scotland between the Isle of Man and Glasgow.

When we initially meet Deasil he is about to venture for the first time beyond the village of Sithford, where he was born. He is a tall young man, barely out of his teens but already endowed with the full strength of a man in his prime. He is being seen off at early dawn by a washerwoman who has always been a surrogate mother to him, his real mother having given birth to him at the moment she was dying by hanging. (Like many mysteries of In Which, the intrigue of her hanging shall remain unspoiled by an explanation here.)

The washerwoman gives Deasil a bag of oatcakes and dried apples to give him a start on his journey. Other than that, all he takes with him is a caul he wears tied around his neck as a memento of his unusual birth. None of his fellow villagers are about, and Deasil would rather not reveal to people that he is leaving. He has a past that marks him as somewhat of an outcast and possibly untrustworthy, so he is cautious about arousing suspicions. He’d rather leave everything about the village behind him, especially the dark memories of incidents in his youth, if they were possible to forget.

In Which has some of the features of a picaresque novel, in that its protagonist goes from one adventure to another on a sojourn of discovery. Deasil, however, is neither rogue nor rascal nor quixotic dreamer, as picaresque heroes or anti-heroes tend to be. Having not much of a plan except to distance himself from his village, he keeps out of sight or else is careful to present himself with an inconspicuous demeanour, tramping across the highlands and meadows, wending through forests, and hazarding river crossings, looking for a town where he might find work. In a matter of hours he has become a jobless wanderer ever subject to turns of fortune over which he has little control, one who is driven to search for something that he is as yet too inexperienced to define.

In the highlands he encounters members of Scotland’s famous parallel world of ghosts, fairies, and “little people dressed in green” who travel across the land, invisible yet legendary to most people. They are creatures who appear to Deasil at intervals before they disappear. They do not interact with him and might well be apparitions, yet as readers we feel that they belong to him, or he to them, in some otherworldly way.

Eventually Deasil comes to the River Nith, of which he has heard and which he hopes will guide him to a town where a workman is needed. He has spent a sum of days and nights exposed to the vagaries of highland weather and has exhausted his meagre provisions. When he arrives at Dumfries, a town of seamen, he is eager to accept any task that comes his way. Little can he imagine that ahead is not only work, food, rest and comradeship, but a larger world of contraband, thieves, smugglers, and the men who pursue them or at least their stash of stolen goods. There are the excise men, sailors and captains of the Royal Navy. He escapes from one danger to another as circumstances force him to work with first the lawmen, then the criminals, then back again. Those roles do not come to him by nature. His young world has only been heretofore that of the gallows, something more like a curse than an adventure. However, he finds brief but supportive receptions from some of the villagers he meets along the way.  Some of the older men give him useful advice as to whom to trust, and their wives (usually cooks) provide him with a warm, nurturing care beyond practicality.

Louise Carson’s biography at the end of In Which mentions that her past accomplishments include singing in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. There is a suggestion of music for the stage in her novel, with its lyrical settings and dramatic passages. Deasil’s sea adventures bring to mind Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which has the same nautical atmosphere and a young protagonist who is subject to a fortune beyond his control. Carson’s recurring motifs of apparitions on the highlands, set pieces of work crews singing sea chanteys, enjoying hearty meals and drinking mugs of ale after exhausting toils on the sea, or on loading docks, have their counterparts in portions of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Die Götterdämmerung, and Die Meistersinger. Likewise, although Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture was composed a century or so later than Carson’s music through words, they both come from the same spellbinding Scottish seascapes’ inspiration.

Scotland itself grows into more than a motif. It provides a defining gravitas to the novel’s scenes of danger and suspense. The surroundings of forest, glen, firth, turbulent straits and dreamlike, deserted castles form an atmosphere worthy of the human dramas Carson depicts. She adds here and there reminders too of Celtic and Norse strains that contribute to the history of the land.

Last but not least, Deasil has a romantic encounter with a young woman who has secrets of her own that she reveals, as the couple draw close. They each share with one another their true selves, under the calming effects of confession. They momentarily feel a mutual unburdening. For Deasil, he experiences a “true self” he did not have at the beginning of his journey. As a couple, though, they go their separate ways, the woman wedded to the sea and Deasil to some tranquil land he has not yet found. Although they seem destined to go their separate ways, one wonders if sometime they might meet again.

In Which is just 152 pages long, but to read it is to go back in time, witnessing many human demonstrations of kindness, folly, deception and danger, plus the awe of nature that lingers when the book is closed. Its Scottish enchantment never quite leaves us. And to think it is merely the overture – a rousing one with much more to come!

 

 

Note about the book:

In Which, Book One of The Chronicles of Deasil Widdy, is the first of a trilogy. Book Two, Measured, is slated for publication this summer, and Book Three, Third Circle, in 2020. All are from Broken Rules Press, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec. Available through the author at: louise_m_carson@hotmail.com.

 


Me Artsy
, compiled and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor
Douglas & McIntyre, 2015 (256 pages)

 

The best way to enter into the spirit of this luminous collection of essays is to quote what Drew Hayden Taylor, its compiler and editor, has to say about its intent:

“An EXPLORATION and DECONSTRUCTION of the Aboriginal ARTISTIC SPIRIT as seen and practiced through VARIOUS ART FORMS that demonstrate REFLECTIONS on society through an INDIGENOUS perspective, including TALENTS not just limited to those considered strictly TRADITIONAL in origin, but inclusive of more CONTEMPORARY forms of cultural expression.

What more is there to say? Plenty. Let’s start with Zacharias Kunuk, producer & director. You might remember him as the auteur of Atanarjuat, a film rendition of the true story of a naked man who ran over a frozen landscape … all the way to Cannes, where it won an award that made Canadians first take notice of their homegrown indigenous talent. (See Atanarjuat. The Fast Runner, reviewed by Maya Khankhoje, article 6A …)

Monique Mojica is an actor and playwright who faces the challenge of being “an Indigenous woman artist in a land where there are an irreconcilable 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.” Her theatre work has allowed her to channel rage and sorrow into something uplifting for herself and her community. Indigenous cultures recognize the need for performance and repetition in the form of planting, making a fire, paddling canoes, gathering at sacred sites ‘to re-enact creation stories, emergence, migrations and our own interconnectedness to land and place in relation to the cosmos.” Monique was inspired by the words of Louis Riel, the Métis spiritual leader of the Resistance movement: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they wake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Picasso’s Guernica also inspired her as a child. Her artistic practice involves decolonizing her perceptions and belief system and avoiding romanticizing folklore or sensationalizing victimhood. For Monique, the word “art” is not a noun, it is a verb: “I art to make our knowledge speak.”

Marianne Nicolson, an installation artist and a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver uses her art to tell Canada that her people reject the government’s notion that they are squatters in their own territory. Informed by rock paintings dating back to the nineteen-twenties, Marianne Nicolson decided to paint a mural on a cliff face. She describes the dangerous process involved and hopes that her art is remembered, not as a personal creation, but rather as “a testament to what can be achieved in reclaiming our place within the lands we inhabit.”

Maxine Noel is a visual artist whose day-job titles have included legal secretary, ski-patroller, Native Friendship Centre administrator, and many more, but whose core identity was fuelled by art. “…painting is how I speak, like a poet with a pen and paper, the actor or the dancer with a stage and the light.”

Kim Picard became an accomplished seamstress thanks to her late Kukum (grandmother) who taught her how to sew at a young age. Later her experience as a theatre student making costumes and working for Native Innovation Design led her to a career in fashion design. She decided to revive traditional garments by giving them a contemporary form. Her inspiration arrives to her in dreams and healing ceremonies.

Murray Porter is a bluesman and he will tell you that blues have become popular with his people because blues is all about storytelling. He also connected with Australian Aborigines whose stories might be different, but whose reverence for Mother Earth is the same.

Karyn Recollet, unlike many of the artists in this anthology, is a cultural theorist, not a practitioner. In her doctoral dissertation based on interviews of different hip hop artists on Turtle Island, Karyn explains that “the electric powwow can be interpreted as an Indigenous hub space as Indigenous peoples congregate in an ‘underground’ remixing of Indigeneity, affirming tribal and embodied sovereignties on the dance floor.” Quite a mouthful!

Choreographer, dancer and producer Santee Smith brings us down to earth. Like other Indigenous artists, she derives her inspiration from dreams and visions and firmly believes that dance makes us grounded. “Transform your life… let dance into your life. Join the celebration and ceremony of life; join the dance.”

Rose Stella, actor, singer and artistic director, applauds the fact that theatre students are no longer content to be cast as the “drunken Indian.” She helps them in the process of becoming the “Indian” that they want to be.

Playwright & writer Drew Hayden Taylor, like most Native people, has lots to tell, but he avoids “dark, depressing, bleak, sad and angry” stories. He attributes this state of affairs from long years of repression. “Being a storyteller is like being God, but in a non-sacrilegious manner. It’s the ability to create universes and people…”

Drumming is another type of performance for change. Steve Teekens makes his own drums and belongs to a drum group called Red Spirit Singers who have performed for the Pope. He believes that ‘the drum makes the Creator’s favourite music… without the drum there would be no powwow.”

Richard van Camp, storyteller & writer, likes to give people tips on storytelling. Some of them include honouring your audience, being present, not lecturing, letting go, finding mentors and apprentices, becoming the story, reading your audience and asking for feedback, but most importantly, getting involved with your local storytelling community.

David Wolfman is a chef who realized he was an artist as well when he saw the stunned reactions of customers to the taste and appearance of his dishes. Aboriginal cuisine is now the accepted term for the foods and flavours of foods indigenous to Turtle Island. ”I don’t see my job as work because I love what I do. And that’s how artists think. We will continue to create because that’s what we do.”

This delightful collection of stories about how to effect change through art concludes with a Haida Manga by visual artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: “I ride the front bristles, the outer edge of this realized possibility. I am the brush.”

Do read this book about art in general and performance in particular. It will change you.

 


Kingdom of Olives and Ash
, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, 2017, HarperCollins Publishers, 448 pages

 

The “land of milk and honey” generally refers to the promised land of Jewish tradition. As a notion, it denotes a land of peace and plenty. In sharp contrast to this placid image is the reality of the “kingdom of olives and ash” where conflict has been raging for more than fifty years, causing untold suffering, penury and destruction. Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, after more than a quarter of a century of hesitation, decided to go there to see for themselves and then report to the world at large.

“We didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.” Michael Chabon

When they finally did go, they took with them a motley crew. Ayelet was born in Jerusalem but was primarily raised in the United States and Canada, the daughter of immigrants from Montréal. She lived and studied in Israel on and off over the years. For Michael, it was his first time in Israel. They were accompanied by twenty-four writers covering all continents except Antartica, of different ages and with eight mother tongues. Some of the writers identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu, while others claimed no religious affiliation whatsoever. You might recognize many of them: Lorraine Adams, Geraldine Brooks, Michael Chabon, Lars Saabye Christensen, Maylis de Kerangal, Anita Desai, Dave Eggers, Assaf Gavron, Arnon Grunberg, Helon Habila, Ala Hlehel, Fida Jiryis, Prochista Khakpour, Hari Kunzru, Rachel Kushner, Eimear McBride, Colum McCann, Eva Menasse, Emily Raboteau, Taiye Selasi, Raja Shehadeh, Madeleine Thien, Colm Toibin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ayelet Waldman and Jacqueline Woodson.

In Chabon’s words, they were able to have “a clear, visceral understanding of just what the occupation meant, of how it operated, and of the decades of Israeli strategic planning that had gone into creating the massive, often brutal, always dehumanizing military bureaucracy that oversees and controls it.” In his introduction to this collection of essays, Chabon categorically states that writers’ contributions were not edited or censored nor did anyone receive any payment for them. He also explains that “all royalties from the sales of Kingdom of Olives and Ash, after expenses, will be divided between two NGOs: Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements.

It is impossible to sum up the impressions of different writers in one simple sentence, or for that matter, in a book review, but some of the comments made by writers selected at random will give readers a general idea:

♦ There is a quiet loveliness to the people of Palestine. Jacqueline Woodson in “One’s Own People”

♦ Administrative detention—imprisonment without charge or finite term—is among the most feared of the spectres stalking everyday Palestinian life. The Fourth Geneva Convention, the finest flower of the Nazi defeat, strictly and explicitly forbids it, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Michael Chabon in “Giant in a Cage”

♦ In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, places are folded inside other places. Cities are not what they appear to be, but also what they are subjected to: memory, history, desire, forgetfulness, dream. […] In Israel and Palestine, I thought often of Calvino’s seen and unseen places, where the horizontal and vertical axes of history and place bend into the space-time of memory and desire.

[…]

The conceptual, legal, and physical infrastructure of occupation aims to entrench separation, disaffiliation, and, most profoundly, estrangement. Madeleine Thien in “The Land in Winter”

♦ Then: I don’t know how many articles I wrote, lectures I gave, and manifestos I signed in those years opposing this caricatured vision of Israel, and affirming that it was a pluralistic and democratic society.

[…]

And now: I am very critical of this policy not only because it seems to me right to be so, but also because I feel that the ever more colonialist bias of recent governments—I am referring to the governments of Sharon and Netanyahu—may be terribly prejudicial to Israeli democracy and the future of the country. Nothing degrades the political life of a nation more than sliding down a nationalist or colonialist path. Mario Vargas Llosa in “Journey to the West Bank”

♦ We have arrived, we are told, at the village of Susiya. The dust stirred by our vehicle settles. We look around—and see nothing. Where is the village Susiya? Here is only dust, stone, rubble, and the white heat of the sun.

[…]

Blink, and you will see the caves where people once lived but have been bulldozed, smashed, their entrances blocked with rocks. So now there is only a blue tarpaulin or two, held up by sticks. Anita Desai in “Visible, Invisible: Two Worlds”

♦ Silence in regard to the inherent immorality of the regime of occupation—which both oppresses Palestinian society and corrupts Israeli society—is rampant in Israeli society and, to a certain degree, in the international community. Michael Chabon in “Afterword”

It is difficult not to agree with Chabon.

 

 

Hussey, Charlotte. Glossing the Spoils. Awen Publications: Stroud, England, 2017 (2nd edition), 72 pages.

 

Montréal poet and scholar Charlotte Hussey’s most recent book of poetry, published by an Irish imprint, was sparked by a quest for reconnection to the author’s root culture’s myths and legends. As she tells it in her introduction, a comment by a Cree student about why the author would want to know First People’s stories, rather than explore her own, prompted her to do just that.  The result is a series of formally structured poems that explore significant passages from ancient poems and stories from the English and Celtic traditions.

While the premise may seem somewhat academic, the results are living, breathing artful poems that speak from a present context, while echoing the past.

The sources are translations by eminent authors such as Seamus Heaney and Lady Gregory of British, Irish and Welsh legends, including Beowulf, annals of English, Irish and Welsh history and other sundry sources of that ilk.  These primary texts are mined for four-line passages that appear at the start of each of Hussey’s poems as epigrams to be glossed. The Glosa form grew out of the practice of Spanish monks during the Renaissance who would provide marginal comments (or glosses) on texts. This idea caught on with poets, including, in our own time P.K. Page, who published Hologram in 1994, a book of glosas on the work of poets Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas and others. Using the glosa form, Hussey’s poems expand on the “Spoils” of the original texts and bring the cultural past to life and affirm its on-going relevance.

Structurally, each poem begins with a four-line quote from the original source, with the poet including each line from the original at the end of each of four stanzas, essentially having each stanza move toward the final line, thereby threading the new composition through the eyelets of the lines of the old, as it were. The poet looks for a way into the glossed texts and the reader is taken along for the adventure.

Hussey has given herself some hurdles to leap over, as well as springboards of inspiration to her poetic compositions, where she is able to delve into the deepest folds of myth while articulating an expression of the concern of living in today’s world. This way her poems are like the Janus figure, looking to both the past and the present.

The poems contain four 10-line stanzas, making 40 lines (44 with the passages to be glossed). The prosody at work is an intricate rhyme and blank verse hybrid, with lines 6, 9 and 10 rhyming as a rule, and the effect is something reminiscent of Celtic scroll patterns of jewelry or illuminated manuscripts.  Sometimes the form seems to force connections to the glosses but more often than not the connections are surprising and seem the result of profound mediation on the poet’s part. This is not just an exercise of style: it is an exercise in deep image therapy, as it were.

Then there is the great phrasing, rhythmic cells of language, rather than lines and sentences, being the matrix. This makes for terse turns of phrase that delight the ear, as they communicate their imagistic and semantic content. The resulting poems are rich in vivid, sensual, at times brutal imagery, as in “Lake of the Cauldron”:

A giant within me begins to swim
out of a wilderness lake….

Big-boned knees, vigorous,
striding the bank, he shakes me up,
hungry….”

The richness of the sound combined with dazzling imagery creates an opulent and entrancing effect, as the poet looks for a way into the glossed texts.  In looking for these ways in, the poet places side by side the contemporary facts of her life with the ancient stories, characters and scenes, which serve as a portal into another dimension of understanding. Such is the power of myth, and it is this that the poet has tasked herself with: to find by means of the glossing interaction a link to the wisdom of the old stories, reclaiming their former power and the wisdom one can only attain via the imagination and its mysterious workings, here prodded by some intriguing narratives lost in the sands of time, or erased by colonial overlays of culture.

The poems are drenched with lore, including the figures of Merlin, Arthur, Perceval, Beowulf, Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, and Brigit, “a Tuatha Dé goddess worshipped both as a crone and as a spring maiden,” one of several notes at the end of the book tells us.  Sometimes the poet gets inside the myth and explores it, or she goes off on a tangent. For example, “Raven Knowledge” is a poem about Merlin and Emily Bronte, while “Devil May Care” is a frank poem about sex with very sensuous imagery, and “Brigit” is an equally potent erotic piece, presenting a woman described as “one side of her face is ugly/but the other side is very comely” and the poem’s striking imagery conveys the double-sided nature of the mythical figure:

….Her skin’s
furrowed and black as burnt bark,
her lips cracked, her lidless eyes
stare unflinching into the king’s.
Waving her arms like raptorial wings,
she takes him under her cape, dirty,
run through with burrs and thorns.

But then we get the other side, when we see her

….ripping off
the hag’s mask, throwing it over
her freckled, milky shoulder.
Touched by sunlight, her golden hair
swings free, her crown’s a flame.
The king buries himself in her soft,
full breasts….

The range of energies here derives from dichotomies’ binary electricity as we get in dreams, and the unconscious.

In “Wyvern” there is the figure of Merlin, “His blank, sandstone eyes, worn/of their painted pupils by the longtime/ rain, stare like those of the dragon,” and a zoomorphism whereby the animal-human divide is abolished and the two worlds meet. Along with human figures who embody some of this essential energy of the natural world, we also get banshees in “Matter,” trolls in “Trolls,” fairy women in “Fand, the Fairy Queen” as well as several other passages where the human world is invested with powers of the non-human.

The old ballads of course contained echoes of many of these myths and their narrative import. “Daemon Lover” offers reflections on solitary reclusion from love’s troubles and provides links to Merlin’s forgotten mother.  In “The Questing Beast” the poet juxtaposes Morte d’Arthur with “pick ups that once hauled melons and the richest 1%,” giving the ancient myth contemporary relevance.  In “Naked,” it is photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his painter wife Georgia O’Keeffe who are linked to ancient myth. In “Fortuna,” a poem dedicated to Dr. Jacqueline Kirk of Montréal, an aid worker killed in Afghanistan, the fates that appear in Arthurian legend are evoked as the martyred humanitarian confronts “Fortuna, eyes nearly blinded/by the hanks of her greasy hair, hides/behind an orchard wall, deadly/its fruit of Kalashnikovs poised/amid grapevines and pomegranates.” The poet also clearly taps into the energy of myth in “Silver Branch,” wherein “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal” is mined for meaning. The lines to be glossed from that tale are

The branch springs from Bran’s hand
So that it is in the woman’s hand
for there is not enough strength
in Bran’s hand to hold it

and the poem contrasts the silver branches, which “indicate the sovereignty of otherworldly deities,” the author’s note tells us, with the poet’s own experience:

I cut a branch from a crab apple
deep in the wood, a silver branch,
and dream all night of how to dress it;
silver ribbons of purple and blue,
seven hawk bells dangling in a row.
I am quickly made to understand
the branch possesses a potency all its own,
calling, called to those it chooses
like the silver one from fairyland;
the branch springs from Bran’s hand.

But, the poet tells us,

Mine falls prey to other hands,
my own in this age of scientific fact.
I forget my branch on a library shelf.
Dust from the streets covers it,
clouding my desires, leaving me
to starve in spite of feasting, the wealth,
deaf to the dream-makers’ approach

I imagine the Cree student who suggested Hussey look to her own past knew, herself, the power that the old stories, the stories of her ancestors contained. The wealth of material elaborated in Glossing the Spoils and the resulting mythopoetic adventure leave this reader wanting to explore the stories of his own cultural past, if only he could find out what they are. Cultural amnesia, whatever causes may be behind it, is reversible; that is one of many lessons to be learned from Hussey’s recent work.

 

 

 

 

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, 2018, Arsenal Pulp Press (Vancouver), 223 pages

 

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit /Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty). He is also the author of full metal-indigiqueer and winner of the Governor General’s History Award for the Indigenous Arts and Stories Challenges in 2016. He is currently doing a PhD in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures. With such impressive credentials, it might come as a surprise that his writing is anything but stuffy. In fact, it is as raw, poignant and poetic as the non-conformist sexual and outside-the-law survival escapades of Jonny, his literary alter ego.

The reader meets Jonny trying to scrape up enough money to make it back from the big city to the Rez for his stepfather’s funeral. As a cyber-sex and sometimes-in-the-flesh sex worker, he has to work very hard – and very fast – to make it back home in time for the burial, if not for the visitation. In fact, he has to pull an all-nighter to be able to afford the four-hour ride with a friend. In between gigs, there are flashbacks to his early childhood, his coming to terms with his unconventional sexuality as well as with the harassment he endured on the Reservation.  He also has to process his grief over the loss of the dearest person in his life: his kokum, or maternal grandmother. He finally makes it back to the Rez and, hopefully, to closure.

Life on the reservation is hard. So is life outside it. Rez boys have it as tough as urban Nates. But family life, while not idyllic, is very much there. So is conviviality, which flourishes in good and bad times. Jonny’s kokum is the matriarch who holds the community together.

Jonny says it best:

We’re all here telling our stories in NDN time.

But the ironic thing I’ve learned about NDN time is that it’s an elixir of an excuse and a toxin of a measurement.

It’ll kill you, you know, if you love it too dearly.

And that’s the truth.

 

©Joshua Whitehead

 

 

 

Maru and the Maple Leaf by Uma Parameswaran, Larkuma Publishing, 2016 (367 pages)

 

Uma Parameswaran, a retired professor of English (University of Winnipeg) and well known author with a special interest in women’s literature and South Asian culture, has cleverly crafted her recent novel around the writings and experiences of Maru, an Indo-Canadian woman from Winnipeg. A work of fiction, the book includes many of the author’s earlier excerpts from essays and stories. The name “Maru” can be seen as a short form for “Uma Parameswaran,” the nom de plume that Maru uses in her writings (sometimes spelled as “Uta” Parameswaran). Fact and fiction are thus entwined with motifs of familiar and unfamiliar names woven around the incidents and characters that shape this book.

The narrator, Priti Moghe, is a resident physician in obstetrics. She is very busy with her hospital shifts and with her boyfriend, Stephen Woodhouse, a fellow resident in general surgery. Priti’s lifestyle is suddenly interrupted by the death of her dear Aunty Maru who has left her a legacy of cardboard boxes filled with journals, letters, essays and stories. Priti is baffled by all these typed or handwritten foolscap sheets. Some have dates, others don’t. Some are fragments or incomplete anecdotes. The stories capture the mind of the reader, but the journey that Priti takes us through is confusing. Do these sketches reflect Maru’s life? Are they instead about the women she met? Some of them seem to have been based on women that Priti had come to know through Maru. Have these stories been embellished? Are they fact or fiction? The questions are there as teasers as both Priti and the reader begin to realize that the spirit behind Maru’s writings lies elsewhere.

The novel takes us into different time zones: the present with Priti, Stephen and Uncle Siv (Maru’s husband), and the disparate and confusing time zones in Maru’s own past. Characters and incidents from India combine with speeches delivered at writers’ organizations and minority women’s groups in Canada. The maple leaf and the Assiniboine and Red rivers thus become as powerful as the Kaveri, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Ganga,[1] and somehow, sifting through all this vast range of rich imagery, Maru seems to draw strength from experiences, real or imagined. On the other hand, she does not fail to observe how there is no escape from class-consciousness:

“When one leaves a class-conscious homeland, one usually assumes it is behind for good. But oh no, it is alive and well in Canada, and let no one say otherwise; and when anyone talks about class and gender oppression in other countries, I hope you’ll have the courage to show them around our own city.”

We meet the mysterious Chikkamma, “born about the turn” of the “last century.” She earns a graduate degree to become a school principal. At the age of 28, she falls in love with a married man, marries him, and has a son. Bigamy in those days was not a crime, nor was it common for women to graduate from universities and hold jobs. Chikkamma remains a significant figure in the book. She appears as a strong woman, ready to take on the world and ready to offer her advice or support even if it is for unclogging a toilet bowl blocked with bread-bagging plastic. “Women of Maitreyi Nivas never walk out on a job,” she says.

There is also another motif from India’s ancient past, built around complex traditions and incidents from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Maru narrates the story of Panchali’s swayamvara, where Panchali chooses Arjuna for a husband instead of the glorious Karna, the charioteer’s son, whom she seemed to love more.[2] Panchali’s story, like many others in the book, reflects our choices in life, the consequences that follow, the connections, and the learning that takes place from the experience.

Parameswaran is very skilled in exploring centuries of relationships and bringing them together to a place in time that transcends a linear, chronological sequence of events. What happens or will happen depends upon who we are and what has shaped us: our history, ancestors, language, culture, the people we meet and even those we do not meet. Our stories speak to us and to those who come after us, very much like Maru’s poem “Apsara Love,”[3] where she longs to go “Far from here where all ever is.”

Maru and the Maple Leaf explores a vast canvas covering the span of many lifetimes. Maru’s struggle in Canada in the 1960s is not unlike Chikkamma’s struggles in the early 19th century, or Priti’s struggles with premature babies in maternity wards. If we could, like Maru, write about our lives and leave behind words and experiences to be picked up by others, we could continue to travel forever on unbeaten paths. I will conclude with Maru’s words of wisdom:

“Mortals are supposed to honour their forebears – that is what life is all about, that is what civilization is all about, to give continuum to all that is worth preserving. And the spirits have to depend on us humans. And I have failed Chikkamma.

Find out the details, dig around, that is what biographers are supposed to do, she said. But I am not a biographer, just one who wants to tell stories, women’s stories, so we can know ourselves through others.”

Parameswaran has written a well-crafted, intriguing novel about re-discovering one’s roots, connecting with the past, and shaping the present through a wealth of new experiences.

 

[1] Kaveri, Godavari and Krishna are names of rivers in Southern India.

[2] The story of Panchali, also known as Draupadi, is from the Mahabharata. Swayamvara is an ancient practice where a young woman of marriageable age chooses a husband from among many suitors. Karna and Arjuna were two suitors at Panchali’s swayamvara.

[3] Apsara is a female spirit or heavenly woman.

 

**  Please note that this book is currently out of stock with the publisher, but is available with the author at: uparameswaran@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Blackbird Song by Randy Lundy,
University of Regina Press (Oskana Poetry & Poetics*), 2018, 96 pages

 

Randy Lundy is a member of the Barren Lands (Cree) First Nation. He is the author of Under the Night Sun and the Gift of the Hawk as well as of numerous poems in different anthologies. His poetry is a plaintive song to the land of his ancestors, where the author has experienced love, communion, wonderment and sorrow. How do you condense sentiments that have been distilled to their very essence? You don’t. You just listen.

Randy Lundy, faithful to his Cree tradition, starts out by praising the Creator:
“O grandmother, O mother, O lover, / O woman who birthed the elliptical of the universe.”

In a poem dedicated to Jan, he muses on life:
“The walk is a journey of the spirit carried by the body like a good friend, and sitting is an important part of the walking.”

He laments that memory is “an uncomfortable skin” but recognizes that it “lives inside, too, not just in your mind, but in each cell, in the marrow of your bones.”

In “DOXOLOGIES,” Lundy expresses bewilderment:
“You are here, understanding or not understanding, not quite sure if it is dawn or dusk in this spider-spun heft and weft of light.”

In INSOMNIA, Lundy voices his insights inspired by Eastern philosophy:
“While you puzzle, nothing — neither a greater, nor a lesser god — is somewhere else, doing whatever it is that nothing does.”

Randy Lundy likes to question, but he also simply accepts.
“Sunlight, blackbird singing, / What more could you ask, friend?”

Breathe in Lundy’s poetry and enter an ineffable universe.

 

 

* For more information on the University of Regina Press (“A voice for many peoples”) and its Oskana Poetry & Poetics series, go to: https://uofrpress.ca/ and https://uofrpress.ca/Series/O/Oskana-Poetry-Poetics

 

 

 

 

Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland by Zebedee Nungak, Véhicule Press, 2017, 132 pages

 

Zebedee Nungak is a writer, broadcaster and one of the chief negotiators in the James Bay Agreement (1971-1975). In this compilation of essays, Nungak delivers an often humorous, in-your-face account of the history of Nunavik, the hardball James Bay Agreement negotiations and the future prospects of Inuit identity in Québec.

The colonization of Inuit territory started with the British Crown through its surrogate, the Hudson Bay Company, which held a trading monopoly between 1670-1870 over the whole of the Hudson Bay drainage area also known as Rupert’s Land. In 1868, an Act of the British Parliament ratified the sale of this territory to Canada, without settling the issue of Aboriginal ownership of the land. The Ungava District, later known as Nunavik, was assigned to Québec in 1912. The author wryly notes that it was only fifty-two years later, in1964, when Québec government officials first arrived there, that Inuit identity and its modus vivendi felt really threatened.

This fascinating account of the intersections between the descendants of relatively recent French colonizers and longstanding Aboriginal populations will make you reconsider any preconceived notions you might have about the righteousness of Québec nationalism.

 

 

 

Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa
Quercus Books, 2016, 160 pages

 

Kopano Matlwa has been billed as South Africa’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But her uniqueness defies comparison. A physician by profession, Matlwa tackles patriarchy, xenophobia and race in post-apartheid South Africa, with a voice unlike any other. And she does so in a manner guaranteed to keep you awake the whole night until you finish the book. The protagonist, a doctor working for the public health system, barely gets a chance to look after her own debilitating endometriosis while taking care of patients who are doomed to die due to lack of resources. In her personal life, her friendship with a Zimbabwean fellow doctor earns her a brutal “correction” from her fellow countrymen. The protagonist tries to fight back, but her own people sabotage her efforts. Kopano Matlwa’s message is that South Africa might have gotten rid of apartheid, but the mentality of its citizens remains colonized. Yet the author lets us know through the actions of her heroine that there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon,
Tin House Books, 2018, 150 pages

 

Conversations on Writing was a collaborative effort between Ursula K. Le Guin and Oregon writer/radio host David Naimon. They discussed fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Le Guin’s take on her craft fits in with her Taoist/Buddhist beliefs and her Anarchist leanings. She gives herself the following advice: “If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself…”

Le Guin thanked KBOO, Naimon’s radio station, “for being for fifty years the strongest consistent voice in Oregon of and for the arts and the freedom and generosity of thought.”

She also lamented that “While America is busy tearing itself apart into fractions with rant, lies, and mindless violence, it’s in voices like this that you can hear—if you listen—what may yet hold us together.”

And this is precisely what Le Guin’s oeuvre and philosophy of life stand for: an unleashing of the imagination to decolonize the mind and imagine a better world.

Ursula Le Guin reached the end of her long journey before the book went to print. Read it. Pay heed to the final words of a profound thinker.


Days of Moonlight
by Loren Edizel,
Inanna Publications Inc., Toronto, Ontario, 205 pages

 

The compelling, contradictory nature of cover blurbs! They excite and prod the reader on. Depending on the era – from Jane Austen to Grace Metalious, from classic literary masterpieces to small town New England Americana in the ‘50s – they probe social inequalities, class privilege, adultery and sexual repression on a spectrum ranging from baronic landlord culture to gossipy, hypocritical suburban USA. Based on the corner of Vine and Maple, where everything wicked happened, Grace Metalious developed Peyton Place.  At a time when pulp fiction had not yet swept the scene and easy treatment for cinematic conversion was not that prevalent, Peyton Place was made into a film, a sequel and a subsequent TV series. Of course, several versions of Pride and Prejudice have received film treatment. And a film has now been made about the far more madly captivating and meditative novel by Elena Ferrante, My Beautiful Friend, reflecting on sisterhood/girlfriends in a Napolitano village. Loren Edizel’s new novel, Days of Moonlight, follows. Is a film treatment possible?

In all this, is the search for worldly context necessary to novels (and consequently to cover blurbs)?  Sometimes blurbs feed subtle understated personal torment as a mysterious, elusive je ne sais quoi… things that cannot be glossed over.  But do they gauge the socio-political epoch always? Blurbs can also help us look away and find deeper subterranean rivers and currents in the writer’s project.

This novel has five cover blurbs – all very poignant comments – that incited me to look further for Edizel’s angst in writing this mind-bending novel. Beyond family secrets, mythological fabulousness, the dilemma between passion and intense conflict in discovering warmth and fleshy sexuality, irrespective of sexual preference, the madness of expulsions, population exchange and exile in one of the most intensely fought over religious and civilizational conflict zones in the world. This zone often continues to edge the world towards catastrophe today. What the blurbs do not call up is the extraordinary epochal sensitivity, as in this very progressive novel. And that is the undercurrent I most enjoyed. The worldliness.

What Loren Edizel captures ineradicably is the minds – and signs – of those times, ranging from the ’twenties to the ’sixties, in Greece, Turkey and Crete… fatuous, silly, patriarchal and conquering inter-imperial societies, deep in economic disparity, interrupted by the clackety, banging sound of an iconic but poorly made Impala door, closing like a dog-eared pagemark of the times in an aberrant, impressionable, middle-class neighbourhood.

Then there is the most invigorating gevrek boy’s street-savviness, determination and curiosity (in the mind of the narrator) to live and explore an adult world away from his street-hawking and gawking (“voluptuous pale flesh escaping from armpits, V-necks, and false pleats around hips… she is bursting at the seams…. Even stray dogs and tomcats get erections, when she sits on those steps”). Unbound jealousy and compliance to overbearing social mores are tearing him apart, as is the urge to follow through on undefined human pheromone commands. Contemporariness sweeps in often, whether it is watching Psycho, To Kill a Mocking Bird or Guns of Navarone and listening to the Stones or Mahalia Jackson or Moon River. Edizel’s words evoke shimmering memories of the times. The epoch is resplendent.

With the end of World War I and a weakened Ottoman Empire pitting orthodox Christians and Muslims against one other, Anatolia was partly overtaken by the usual suspects – British, Italian, French and Greek – and that was the time Ataturk rose to the occasion with his well-propagated secularist visions for the region. While Izmir was burned to the ground, forced expulsions drew the line between progressive ideals and imperial geo-politics, at its veritable birth place.

It is this progressive undercurrent – the quest for sobriety, for fun-loving fairness, for a tolerant, just world – that Edizel hearkens and laments. She records it all, down to the detail of a single sesame seed on a salty bun. There are exquisite pages and paragraphs of deeply felt internalizations, sheer nubile Botticellian rounded erotica. But there is always the subtle quest for a secular progressivism.

If there is a minor hiccup, it is in the flurry of letter exchanges towards the end between the two women, who are desperately in love and cannot always define it, that hurry-the-novel-to-an-end. And in that end, while one of them yearns and pines away until she dies, the other stays pragmatically settled and yearns for a world they could not build together. Thousands of miles apart.

A commendable well-written contribution to Canadian literature, by others for all others! More than moonlight!

 

Postscript:

Check out the interview with Loren Edizel in the December 1, 2014 issue of Montréal Serai, conducted by Veena Gokhale:  https://montrealserai.com/article/in-the-shadow-of-war/

Also see Edizel’s short story published in the March 30, 2010 issue of Montréal Serai: https://montrealserai.com/article/in-the-shadow-of-war/

 

 

 

Radius Islamicus by Julian Samuel, Guernica Editions, 2018

 

“The radius islamicus is the farthest distance a camel part is thrown from the blast centre.”

The narrator of Julian Samuel’s second novel is a “stateless” leader who supposedly spent more years of his life around airports than in any one country. An intellectual, he is now in his eighth decade, living close to former teammates who, under his direction, had conducted multiple projects including “the flash and bang in London” where the calculated radius of damage stretched to several metres. He was the “organizational brains behind it all,” and whereas his teammates from “various cellular backgrounds had been given an understanding of Islam,” he their leader, had helped them understand “a white fist in the face.”

Then, all of a sudden, they grew old and landed at the same residence in Pierrefonds. Perhaps it had been designed that way so that he could keep an eye on them and prevent them from making “death bed confessions,” either due to regrettable feelings of guilt or through the ubiquitous dementia.

Some of us, when we get older, feel bad about what we did and want to talk about it. I’m here to die as well as to make sure that there is no flow-out.

Who are these people? What are their names? What countries are they from? Where have they lived except at airports? Anver or Imran, Dr. Joseph Mcleod (as the narrator almost always calls himself), Gorgana or Usha, Tatjana and Nurse Linda with her five o’clock pills flow back and forth on Joseph’s memory screen, as do the lists of satire-filled names such as Fazool Samundur, Ms. Lal Chout, Imran Zindagee Ultaa, Kala Bazee, Safade Makudma and others. Descriptions of past and present life happenings are confused renderings of the failing mind of one reading from his diary, the “Radius Islamicus.” He relies heavily on pills to stabilize his memory, and describes himself as “decaying in Montreal” with “a fatal disease called old age:”

I’m a terrorist – non-convicted, thus innocent, thus a free citizen, thus a near-free citizen swaddled in the white cloth of occidental tyranny. Who these days isn’t a terrorist? One man’s terrorist is another man’s old folks home friend; one man’s terrorist is another’s transit lounge passenger.

Characters racked by sagging skin, limp penises, vascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, cognitive impairment and a past buried under lost memories speak lines that flow like poetry:

I pull her into my arms. I notice that she has had a partial mastectomy…. Also, I see a small scar that a lumbar puncture has left. She is flesh, and she’s warm. She likes me. The tips of my fingers find the healed scars. We fall into a coma.

There is reference to Eliot’s Wasteland as “Muharram in Québec is the cruelest month.” Indeed, I myself have often thought how near impossible it might be to grasp the cruelty of the month from the plains of Sialkot. There is poetry in greying colours and wrinkles:

The magazines of nude young women have a beauty as well, but age produces a body with a different set of late wrinkle harmonics, a different sexual aggression antagonized by a flesh that yields, or not at all. We’ve developed together. Her toes, painted, shyly shine through the suds on the floor of the bathtub. Her bowl-shaped hips, now near-translucent folds of flesh, fall everywhere; her buttocks hang down in triplicate, white, creamy terraces seen only on faraway planets.

At one point, Joseph offers a deal to alter metro station names for “better cultural integration:”

I am sure not even a cheap copycat knapper would knapsack stops with Moslem names. Imagine Javid Chambers or Anver Ahmad knapping a metro stop with a name such as Hussain Hussaine. The current Prime Minister is thinking of changing Russell Square to Mohammad Ali Jinnah just for this reason. It is the only choice he has.

Finally, who writes our history? Is there a “view of the River Ravi from Pierrefonds?” Should there be one? Islamic culture in duffle bags? There is an ironic sting to it:

Islamic intellectuals translated the Greeks for Europe. Europe wouldn’t have TGVs or particle accelerators if the Arabs hadn’t translated Socrates for them. From Iberia, the Islamic scholars carried these old translations to the British Library in duffle bags.

Julian Samuel’s speculative novel shocks the reader while making her laugh and cry all at once. It is irreverent, sardonic and brutal, with body parts being blown to unrecognizable pieces. Nothing is sacred anymore. There are no gods except made-up ones for terrorists. Whatever smiles are there are the smiles of the near dead. It does not matter who falls as long as the donkeys are intact. All is fair as long as there is no disclosure during the “whimper” at the end – the one last blast before the final take off.

I would recommend this unusual novel to readers. I found it always clever, sometimes brilliant, beautiful and musical in parts.

 

My Conversations with Canadians

By Lee Maracle, Book Thug, Toronto, 2017

Lee Maracle was the first Turtle Island writer I read after coming to Canada forty years ago. Her writing struck a chord in me. My Conversations with Canadians, her most recent book, is my latest exposure to her work. And I am still reeling under the impact. Her book is directed at Canadians, and Maracle distances herself and all Indigenous communities from Canadians, whom she considers willing participants in the usurpation, exploitation and genocide that is still taking place in a country known for its “nice” and “courteous” citizens.

She also reminds Canadians that all of us here are guests who have disrespected the rules of hospitality, as delineated in original treaties and covenants that have been either distorted or simply ignored. She blames us individually, not the Canadian government, which she dismisses as illegitimate. That is why I am still in a state of shock. Because Lee Maracle tells it like it is, and she is absolutely right.

As a Mexican-born Canadian of Indian and Belgian origin, I have ties with a country that was colonized by the British (India); a country that was a brutal colonizer in the Congo (Belgium); and a country that was first colonized by the Aztecs (Mexico), then by the Spaniards, and finally by the United States when the latter annexed almost half of Mexico’s territory. I am sure my story is similar to that of many of my fellow Canadians. The fact that my feelings and beliefs are more closely aligned with those of the Indigenous people rather than with the colonizers doesn’t make me less complicit. So, I have come to understand that we can all be colonized and colonizers at the same time, which is why I find Maracle’s book so ground-breaking. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in schools and institutions of governance.

This slim volume contains thirteen conversations and a final text in which the author commemorates the past and outlines a possible future.

In Conversation 1, “Meeting the Public,” Lee Maracle wryly notes that Canadians tend to support far-away causes, but often neglect their own backyard. She also decries the fact that  Canadians talk about us rather than to us.” She also reminds us that in the early days of confederation, First Nations people were considered immigrants to Canada, then wards of the state and later citizens. In other words, they were infantilized and commodified.

In Conversation 2, “Who are we separately and together?” Maracle contends that it is Canadian identity that should be questioned rather than Indigenous identity. She also reminds readers that Canada was once Indigenous, and mocks the colonial expectation of love for the Queen. She does not touch on Québec.

“Marginalization and Reactionary Politics” is the subject of Conversation 3. She calls for greater unity between Indigenous communities and people of colour as well as the reinstatement of Indigenous gender-complementary systems of governance, which include men and women.

Conversation 4, “What can we do to help?” analyzes the paternalism of well-meaning Canadians who often ask this question. Here Maracle explains that by ending all forms of oppression, people are not just helping others, they are also helping themselves. She also argues that a critical study of world mythologies “might disturb our obedience to capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy.”

Conversation 5, “Hamilton” points a finger at the cultural apathy of Canadians. In this chapter, Lee Maracle takes a shot at Canadian lefties who are woefully ignorant of Indigenous history. It is also shocking to learn from her that Indigenous singing and dancing were once forbidden by the government, and higher education was limited to settlers.

Conversation 6 asks the big question: “What do I call you: First Nations, Indians, Aboriginals, Indigenous?” Maracle’s answer: “call us ‘Turtle Islanders.’” However, she quickly points out that people from different nations, cultures and languages are racialized when given a collective term. In this chapter, the author also touches on the subject of forgiveness. She points out that in her culture, forgiveness is all about learning from past mistakes, undoing any harm done, and growing. She expects Canadians to do just that in order to be forgiven.

Conversation 7, “Galloping toward Ottawa: This chapter is short and to the point. Maracle strongly rejects the notion that her people have to rely on the Canadian government for a definition of who is an Indigenous person or national citizen.

Conversation 8, “Jack Scott and the left: This conversation examines the role played by the left in Canada. In her opinion, Jack Scott (founder of the Progressive Workers Movement) was one of the few activists who “stayed true to himself till the end.”

Conversation 9, “Divisions, constraints and bindings: This section clears up a lot of confusion surrounding the very current debate around gender. Maracle explains that Indigenous communities are not rigidly gendered and their languages contain no pronouns or gender divisions. She also believes that “it is the transgendered who help us to see ourselves.”

Conversation 10, “Appropriation:” Maracle explains the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. In the former there is a usurpation of knowledge for the benefit of the usurper, and in the latter, there is a give and take that is mutually beneficial for both parties. She explains how Europeans appropriated Indigenous communities’ knowledge, such as on the use of herbal remedies and other items the latter purchased. This appropriation extends all the way to ancestral knowledge appropriated by universities and then sold back to Indigenous students. European law does not recognize knowledge obtained through the oral tradition, but feels entitled to patent anything that’s put in writing. White men were entitled to purchase large tracts of land that were owned by Indigenous communities, whereas the latter were deprived of their use. The list is endless. In Indigenous communities, property did not exist for the sake of acquisition, but all friendly communities had access to it, particularly agricultural land. Personal property was used to give away to friends or family members, never for profit. This is a very complex chapter that cannot be condensed into a few words, but anyone who understands the meaning of capitalism will understand what it is all about.

Conversation 11, “How does colonialism work?” Maracle finds that this conversation is one of the most complicated ones she has ever had with Canadians. She says it all when she repeats the following: “Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territory and our lives.” Canadians often respond: “But you don’t own the land.” Maracle thinks, but doesn’t respond, “but you don’t own the land.

Conversation 12,Response to empathy from settlers:” Lee Maracle does not accept the idea that Indigenous populations are marginalized, because that would imply that settlers are at the centre of a “wheel of relations.”

Conversation 13, “Reconciliation and residential school as an assimilation program: The author cites Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention, signed by Canada in December 1948. This article defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic or religious group. Such acts include killing, hurting, inflicting detrimental conditions of life on the group, imposing measures to prevent births within the group or transferring children from one group to another. Maracle contends that since these measures benefit Canadians, it makes them complicit in the plunder.

My Conversations with Canadians ends on a positive note. In the First Nations (Adivasi) Literature Conference held in India, Lee Maracle presented a paper describing how to affirm one’s rightful heritage. In it she makes a plea for a decolonization of the mind through language, literature and art. She rejects the definition of what constitutes proper language imposed by the colonizer, and calls for greater respect to be given to the oral tradition:

Our orality is not simply about our stories. It is about our sociology, our science, our horticulture, aqua culture, our medicine, our law, our politics, and lastly, our story.”

She also claims for herself the right to speak English as she does, a right Indigenous people earned with their very lives. And lastly, Maracle encourages people to keep questioning:

“The creative mind does not know any stupid questions and often ferrets great answers.”

Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions (Canada), 2018

 

Veena Gokhale’s second book but first novel is a bridge spanning cultures and languages across South Asia, Africa and Canada. It is about the separation of vulnerable populations from their ancestral land through bureaucratic systems set up to work against Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The ubiquitous forms, documents and multifarious “schemes” add a legal veneer over the rights of those who belong “to their land, not the other way around,” and for whom the buying or selling of land is an incomprehensible “abstraction.”

Regardless of whether it is a small slum in Andheri (Bombay) or Fatimah’s village of Ferun – the Aanke people’s family farmland in the fictional country of Kamorga (Africa) – the decisions made by Bombay’s district municipality or Kamorga’s central government are irrevocable. Shanty huts are bulldozed to build colonies, and ancestral land is taken over for cocoa production. Promises for compensation are made and broken as a matter of course. Hopes are built and shattered, filling generations with powerlessness: “When land is abundant . . . communal rights can exist more easily. But as it becomes more scarce, individual rights advance.”

And flowing stealthily beneath is the deep animosity of the Kakwa against the minority Aanke people displaced from their land into the settlement of Madafi. Originally from West Africa, the Aanke do not belong, not in Kamorga, one of the many countries “collapsed into AFRICA.” Among all Kamorgans, there is an unspoken code: “support your own people against a foreigner.”

Working to relieve some of the stress within this environment are well-intentioned multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership). These organizations are tightly bound by complex protocols that clearly identify the “regulars” with identity cards who can be served, and the “irregulars” who are supposed to be turned away. Although exceptions are made for IDPs, HELP offices in Toronto and Kamorga can never agree upon recognizing the Aanke people as IDPs since they are believed to have received compensation for their land. HELP staff therefore do their best to serve the “irregulars” who show up “the day after and the day after . . . lining up on the verandah, spilling up into the sun-roasted compound, waiting patiently for hours and days on end.”

The list of names at the beginning of the book helps the reader in keeping track of the slew of characters. To name a few: Anjali Bhave Bhagat, acting Executive Director of HELP’s African regional office, who provides a central perspective to the novel; hard-working Mary Iwu (Anjali’s maid) and her son, Gabriel; Elizabeth, Anjali’s loyal assistant; Fatimah Ditta and her immediate and extended family of Aanke farmers; Grace Madaki, the iron-fisted chairperson of HELP; and Hassan, the charming and unforgettable contractor hired by HELP. The fictional language they speak is Morga, Kamorga’s national language.

Whereas on the one hand, Land for Fatimah is about the poor and the dispossessed, it is also about the plight of foreign or local NGOs: “Community Based Organizations, Charities – linked to religious groups or otherwise, organizations spun from trusts, organizations linked to universities and other institutions” that do not amount to more than “drops in an ocean of need.” Forced to categorize people, they end up helping some while ignoring others. Although a few of these organizations become corrupt, “some wrong-headed, others merely inefficient,” almost all of them are “well intentioned.” In actual terms, there is not much that they can change, but it is difficult to imagine life without them.

Land of Fatimah provides a rare insight into the day-to-day challenges faced by these organizations. Set against the backdrop of busy city streets with swarming Matatas (privately-owned mini-vans) and the all-consuming dust of African countryside, this novel makes a great read.

“high density settlement – view from gilbert hill, Andheri Mumbai” (CC BY 2.0) Madhav Pai

Curry: Eating, Reading and Race by Naben Ruthnum

Coach House Books, Exploded Views Series, 2017.

When it comes to word association, some words are more potent than others. Like curry.

“Curry isn’t real . . . .  It’s a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable . . . but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed of cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers.

Fuck off, my ideal reader might be saying right now. Of course it’s real, it was on my plate and soaking into your naan last night. And you’d be right, sort of. But even if the flavour is real, and delicious, it’s also become a crucial element of how the story of South Asian cultural identity is told . . . .”

So begins Toronto-based writer Naben Ruthnum’s dazzling and long essay, which successfully marries erudite, penetrating socio-cultural and literary analysis with a personal exploration of eating, reading and race.

Ruthnum’s parents immigrated to Canada from Mauritius. Trying to grow up “Canadian” in Kelowna, British Columbia, he visited Mauritius just once, at age 9. While he proudly claimed the “curry” made at his home as authentic and defended it as part of his cultural identity, he rejected “curry books.” These were books authored by people with Indian names, with stereotypical fonts and images on their covers.

“There was an acceptable authenticity in what we ate, one that I felt counter to the books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes, and shielded faces that turned up on our shelves . . . .”

In the book’s first section, “Eating,” Ruthnum deconstructs food writing, including recipe books, bringing in his own experiences of making and eating curries. Myth making and romanticism abound here, with memories of grandmothers’ and mothers’ kitchens. But cooking “authentic family recipes” comes hard to the second generation, given the imprecision of the recipes handed down from relatives! And some then resort to buying cookbooks by Indo-British cooking celebrity, Madhur Jaffrey.

Ruthnum acknowledges briefly that Indian food is as hard to define and encompass as curry, given the incredible regional variety. He writes that myth making and attempts to pin down authenticity expanded further when it came to curry books. Through the 1970s and 80s, “South Asian literature” became mainstream, and the “disconnected-family/roots-rediscovery page-turner” became a sub-genre within that larger genre. These books, both fiction and nonfiction, typically contrasted “the pure-if-backward East with the corrupt-but-free West,” and were largely “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with past family narratives.”

There are of course more subtle and nuanced curry books, very much part of great South Asian literature. Ruthnum details a number of authors and books of this kind. But since the somewhat problematic success of curry books, which after all pander to stereotypical views rather than exploring new ground, South Asian writers in the diaspora started getting a strong message on what kind of book they should write. There is a growing Western and diaspora audience for such books, and the sub-genre includes Western writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray Love).

There are ironic and lighter moments in the book like Pakistani-American novelist Soniah Kamal’s “mango” dilemma. Not wanting to pander to an “orientalist Western gaze,” she mulls over the issue, finally allowing her characters to eat the fruit in a summer scene set in Pakistan! Tropes reflect real circumstances, says Ruthnum, who feels some sympathy for the affirmation of alienation that makes (some) readers turn to curry books.

Ruthnum’s last chapter on race is his most powerful. Here he deconstructs many homogenized, sanitized, “banalized” concepts and realities, including the South Asian diaspora:

“A poisonous, crucial element of this imposed expectation is that brown people and their books should look back, into a past and a place that may never have existed.”

Despite all obstacles, Ruthnum demands multiple narratives spanning many genres from culture (not just literature) about and by brown people, and finds South Asian stand-up comics already taking this on.

I took courage from these words:

“The realities of racism and the white majority dominance of life in the West defines how brown people are seen, how they must act, and what they are allowed to achieve – but this doesn’t need to limit our imagination of ourselves, or lessen the distinctiveness and individual nature of experience, especially as expressed in art…”

He has set aside his first novel, with some curry book connotations, for now, and will be publishing a thriller instead (Find You in the Dark) in 2018. The book will be published under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley. A copout? In “Curry” he offers a convincing argument for why he chooses to go this route.

November: Poems

by Jaspreet Singh, Bayeux Arts, July 2017

Jaspreet Singh’s new anthology of poems, November, is about memories of pain, grief, migration and mourning, following the 1984 mass murder of Sikhs across India, and the loss – thirty years later – of the author’s mother, a survivor of the massacre. Jaspreet Singh, a writer, poet and research scientist, synthesizes his knowledge of chemistry with poetic imagery through skillful juxtaposition of the complex with the simple. He is as comfortable with Ghalib, Bullhe Shah and Nanak as he is with Primo Levi, Roald Hoffmann, Richard Feynman, Nek Chand and Corbusier:

“Like children on a snow-covered street, I, too, think about stories and molecules. And I will never write a poem which gives priority to either.”

[From the poem “Micro-manifesto”]

A brooding November darkness lurks in the book behind shadows, tempering its composition with false smiles, and infecting everything with the unholy, the impermeable: “dark kalyug,” atoms rising to “roam the bazaars in turned-out toes,” invisible clouds kissing “pages of Gita” but clotting “earth’s inherited laughter.” What remain are stories. But these, too, are threatened by molecules powerful enough to “erase stories, even memories of stories.”

Hidden behind the bright colours of the phulkari – the delicate Punjabi art of embroidery on fabric woven on family charkhas by groups of women sitting in trinjans – are spitballs landing on saris on the streets of Dilli, a city that does not speak “the language of ‘why.’” Resonating behind the sounds of Bhagat Ravi Das’s shabad madhave tum na toro” (Raag Sorath) is the relentless sound of the blowing wind: “Novembers are dead,” the poet writes, and “mothers are dead.”

Then, there is “Muttersprache” reflecting the connectiveness of language, idiom and mother tongues – English, Hindi, German, Spanish, and Punjabi – sung by “gypsies” in packed buses en route to “Ludhianay tayshun teh.” Punjabi and its dialects can be felt “rivering” towards Malton, Brampton, Paldi, finally coming to rest in Surrey on a “malmal sheet” spread on “a hand-woven jute cot:”

“Sweet tongue
make me fall,
make me rise,
make me play again. Name again.
Unlock ruins riddles, even things
which did not leave
a trace. Teach me
a crisp 3000-year old song. Restore
deep wells within my heart. You are
where my mother lives now.”

[From the poem “Punjabi”]

It is October now, and the month of November is fast approaching. The grass will soon turn to snow to mark another New Year. Jaspreet’s Singh’s poems reignite “the periodicity of Gujarat, Trilokpuri,” reminding us of horrors forgotten like burned out “incense-sticks,” showing us, once again, how to “become Novemberized.”