Posada postema, Oil on board (4 x 6”) © Eric Carlos Bertrand, 2021 / ericcarlosbertrand.com

 

Over a year ago when our editorial team gamed out our upcoming issues, we decided that the theme for this April 2022 issue would be “Out of the Ashes.” The concept was based loosely on the idea that we would by now be contending with the new, post-COVID world. How would it look? How should it look? What would be the Next Emergent Paradigms?

I wasn’t so sure. As early as summer 2020, big corporations had been running feel-good commercials “welcoming us back,” talking about “what we all just went through”– in past tense. As someone of Irish Catholic extraction, I have more than a bit of superstition in me. Us folk might be likely to call this whistling past the graveyard. I would look at the television wide-eyed. Went through, lived through? What are you on about, Applebee’s?

As wave after wave of the pandemic emerged and politicization did too – at times spawning fearmongering, conspiracy theories, fanaticism, and violence – those of us who had considered past-tense discussion of the pandemic premature were, sadly, vindicated. Meanwhile – either quixotically or as a glutton for punishment – I had signed on as issue editor for “Out of the Ashes.” And at every editorial board meeting, I’d gulp quietly to myself. Board meetings that coincided with the third wave, the fourth, the fifth. What had I gotten myself into? What ashes? And how in the world were we out of them?

Today it’s quite clear. If we had stuck with the concept of “Out of the Ashes” as “contending with a post-COVID world”– well, we’d have had to bin the whole issue. As I write this from Ottawa, the highest wastewater levels ever have been found in the city this past week. As we all slide right back into yet another – a sixth – wave, the US has passed one million deaths. All this at a time when provincial and federal governments have, in some cases for political reasons, “relaxed” all restrictions and removed regulations. Seemingly taking the Applebee’s approach: if we simply wish hard enough for something to be over, it can be over, right?

Yet any good student of historical and literary axioms could tell you that such wishful thinking has never worked as strategy in human history. Just because you’re through with the past doesn’t mean it’s through with you. One of my favourite quotes ever, from Faulkner: the past is never dead. It’s not even past. And Shakespeare, of course, had some passing interest in the idea, too, with “past is prologue.”

How many of us have sent the infamous email in the last two years, the last two weeks? “In these troubled times.” “I hope this email finds you well, despite it all.” Let’s face it: we are always “in these troubled times,” COVID and non. Some just feel more troubled than others.

As we publish this issue, the old ghosts of WWII have re-emerged. World war looms, with the horror of emergent war crimes the order of the day. Improbably, shockingly – we go to press here at a time when the world braces for the possibility of global conflict the scope of which hasn’t been seen in eighty years.

Events move so quickly, so horrifically. What in the world can we say about “out of the ashes” in relation to Mariupol? Kharkiv? Now, Bucha?

Heaviness. Not just COVID, not just war and genocide in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Mali, numerous other spots on the globe. Climate change disaster and environmental collapse. Poverty and inequality, racism, misogyny, and hate, corruption and corporate crime. Where do we find the space for optimism? Might it work better to think about individual transformation, when getting a handle on global catastrophes feels out of reach? Is there space for hope?

None of us has the answers there. We are all living this moment, holding our collective breath – whether behind masks, or not.

In terms of this issue, though, I have to say we did something right. Something we couldn’t have anticipated as we called for submissions and chose literary and artistic works. But something that created a spooky synchronicity all the same.

As COVID ground on, we decided to build our call for submissions around the idea that we are always burning, smoldering, rebuilding. Coming to disaster and yet trying again. Shiva dances, turning the universe to ashes. From ashes, the phoenix rises. The concept of a new world emerging from a twilight period lives across cultures, centuries, global issues.

And when we moved the issue away from the impossible “Reckoning with a post-COVID world,” something beautiful began to emerge. A theme via brilliant local, national, and international submissions that we could call “Politics and Poetry.”

It allowed us to curate an issue of which we are very proud – a synergy of the personally creative and the politically reflective, with works that collectively swirl inside the chaos in which we’re all swimming. It’s an issue that, eerily and often, echoes pasts that are just now, suddenly and improbably, horrifically, becoming the present again. Even as we were already reckoning with an uncertain present.

Käthe Kollwitz was an antiwar, antifascist, towering art figure of the 20th century’s world war period – famous for standing up to the Gestapo and for her portrayals of mothers and children, and the working poor and their struggles. How fortunate, then, for us to receive Miriam Edelson’s personal essay on Kollwitz’ legacy in her own family, accompanied by a tender portrait of a mother holding her child. Serai has added an interview with Edelson by editor Rana Bose, and a haunting Kollwitz sculpture that spotlights the burden of war on women and children civilians.

We are equally thrilled to include a unique interdisciplinary and interactive text here in this similar vein of the world wars through art and thought: an interview with Guy Sprung, the son of decorated WWII intelligence officer turned eminent Canadian philosopher, Mervyn Sprung. In it, Guy walks us through his father’s work and concepts, particularly finding the historical, the autobiographical, and the political within them.

Remarkably, as Chernobyl is so suddenly and uncannily back within the world’s purview, Hungarian-Canadian poet Ilona Martonfi offers a poem by the same name, accompanied by photography of the (now disturbed) exclusion zone. Her poetry’s associations of Eastern Europe – Pripyat, babushkas, Geiger counters, and Birkenau – are evocatively and sometimes chillingly present once again.

Our own longstanding editor Maya Khankhoje reviews Montréal writer Cora Siré’s Fear the Mirror. Yet again serendipitously, this issue includes discussion of a book of short stories built upon the interlocked lives of displaced peoples in North America, thrown together by the aftermath of European world war.

Award-winning poet and previous Serai contributor Nicola Vulpe once again provides fantastically otherworldly and allusory work. His imagery of cannons, hunger “tomorrow, again,” and a world in which “everything had burned” is prescient. Vulpe’s contribution holds intergenerational depths as well, with his poetry accompanied by artwork from his daughter, international artist Leonor Vulpe Albari.

Novelist Jim Upton offers up a personal account of being a visitor in the dangerous heart of an occupied land’s insurgency. This is not a piece from Baghdad of the 2000s or Kyiv today, but rather one that vividly lays out the terrain of Belfast, 1981.

With reckonings closer to home, Serai editor and McGill Islamic Studies associate professor Pasha M. Khan writes about the 2017 Québec City mosque attack, reflecting historically on its roots in white male supremacy, past and present, in Canada. Many of us just lived through weeks of the convoy occupation of Ottawa, with non-white residents and women terrorized and hate flags flying. Indeed, a mirror image mosque attack was, amazingly, thwarted outside of Toronto just weeks ago. Once again, the past isn’t past at all – and this piece clearly holds a renewed urgent meaning, now even more than it did when we began to conceive of this issue for the magazine.

In a similar vein of reckoning with past and present in homegrown racism and genocide, Serai’s Jody Freeman interviews Vice-Chief Sipi Flamand of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan. The interview features the Atikamekw nation’s incisive call for sweeping cultural changes in the wake of Joyce Echaquan’s death. Her grieving community has brought forth a straightforward plan of action to inculcate respect and recognition for Indigenous peoples’ rights. Out of the ashes of devastating racism, “Joyce’s Principle” offers a concrete and comprehensive way forward.

Our final group of contributors work within the cycles of burning and rebuilding, not in the sphere of wars or social affairs, but of planets, epochs, and the human soul. Poet Elana Wolff writes in terms of eons and on the most macro of levels, dealing with concepts of cosmic and universal destruction and rebirth. She contemplates the light from millions of light years away being sent forth on the night a loved one is born, unknowable but present: imploding stars, nebula, ash.

Maya Khankhoje offers readers a second book review that, like Wolff’s poetry, deals with planetary destruction and renewal, but on the urgent and human sociopolitical level. She approaches novelist and biologist Ann Eriksson’s 2022 must-read climate change tome, Urgent Message From a Hot Planet.

Finally, celebrated US poet Kathryn Jordan takes us to the land of neither political nor ecological destruction, but the personal. In moving explorations of the grieving of a lost family member, her poems evoke the common experience of the bereaved trying to make sense of where the lost life ends and the continuing damaged, wounded life begins.

We also count ourselves fortunate in this issue to be able to include the artwork of Mexican-Canadian artist Eric Carlos Bertrand. His pieces grace our landing page (Maximum Density) and this editorial (Posada postema), powerfully referencing the times in which we are living, with themes ranging from human statistics, epidemiology, and the one-of-many-in-the-crowd, to the primeval, the fire, the chaotic moment of destruction in the dispersal of the tribe.*

It’s clear: COVID – not to say world war, genocide, and totalitarian fascism on the march – aren’t through with us yet. Some days, one wakes up and scans the news on their phone only to be reminded of nothing less than Yeats’ rough beast and his lost falcon. Things seem, simply put, to be getting really bad. Aficionados of tarot and the Jungian collective unconscious might say we are living right now a moment of a particular card: the Wheel of Fortune, reversed.

What will come of it? What can we do? Who can say? What is certain is that we’re going to need art, and thought, and sadness, and joy – common sense and science too – to get us through this moment, cultivating the seeds for rebirth. Each author and artist in this important issue of Serai offers us that gift.

 

* For more on Eric Carlos Bertrand’s work as a painter, conceptual artist, gallery director and writer, please visit his website, Instagram page and non-profit gallery in Montréal, Cache Studio, which promotes under-represented artists.

 

 

Bannock with homemade jam, thanks to Ossie’s mother, Liz Dawson – Photo © Ossie Michelin

 

An interview with Ossie Michelin

Introduction

Telling Our Twisted Histories is a popular podcast series focusing on all things First Nations, Inuit and Métis, co-produced by Terre Innue and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2021. Created and hosted by Indigenous artists, the series reclaims Indigenous history by exploring words whose meanings have been twisted by centuries of colonization.

Based on the award-winning series in French, Laissez nous raconter : L’Histoire crochie, which was launched with Radio-Canada a year earlier, each podcast is developed around a single word that holds particular meaning for Indigenous people in Canada and is ripe for discussion. Episodes cover themes ranging from “Reconciliation,” “Obey,” “Pocahontas,” and “Savage” to traditional flat bread, “Bannock.”  The podcasts will be available in both languages at the McCord Museum in Montréal, as part of its permanent exhibition Indigenous Voices of Today.

Montréal Serai’s Kerry McElroy interviewed writer and director Ossie Michelin this past fall.

 

Kerry: It’s a pleasure to get to know part of the team behind the fabulous podcast Telling Our Twisted Histories. Could you tell us about your role in the project?

Ossie: I was working as a researcher for a television project when Francine Allaire, the executive producer of the original French version called Laissez-nous raconter, called me and said: “Okay, we’re making a podcast, we’re doing it in French, but we might make an English version. And if we do, you should come on board.” That sounded like a really neat idea.

And then it was right before Christmas 2020 when I was given the transcripts of all the different interviews. I got to listen to a couple of the French episodes to have an idea of the format. As soon as I started listening to it and heard what everybody had to say, I knew we had something really special in our hands. It’s just really powerful and approachable at the same time.

The French version had taken off! It won a number of awards. It was the top francophone podcast in Canada and the top podcast of the Paris podcast festival. It was doing really, really well and we had over 20 hours of English interviews. So it felt like a natural fit for the CBC to come on board after Radio-Canada had sponsored it.

The words and format were already figured out before they brought me on, so I just started listening to the different interviews about the different subjects, 20-something hours of tapes! I did four of the interviews myself, but the rest were all already done. So we had to select the best clips and then create the dialogue for the interview, for our hosts.

Kerry: Can you tell us about the host and how she was selected?

Ossie: Yeah. Kaniehti:io Horn, from Kahnawake, is our host. She is an amazing Kanien’kéha:ka actress and a really cool person. She was my first choice for a host. She’s done a number of things and is just a really solid person. They checked in with her and she was all excited to do it.

She’d already been doing some voiceover work for audiobooks, and she had just had a baby, so she was happy to get work that would allow her to stay at home. She brought so much of herself to the podcast, and so much of her humour! She was just really comfortable in the role.

Kerry:  Some people are naturals.

Ossie: Indigenous people like to tease. That’s kind of how we soft teach things to people, you know? Just tease ’em a little bit about it. I told her from the beginning: Imagine someone you know, who wants to learn more, and you’ve got to give them a little bit of a tease. Show them that, ok, it’s a serious thing but it’s not something you need to be serious about all the time.

It can be relaxed, and we really made sure that we would get some of that humour and some of that teasing into the podcast. And I think Kaniehti:io pulled it off well. We had lots of great funny moments… and lots of little cheeky moments, too.

Kerry: That speaks to a question I had about what do you hope for Indigenous people to get out of listening, and non-Indigenous people? You know, is it an educational project?

Indigenous people who are listening might find this sense of community. But then when you’re speaking to a broader audience, are you hoping to get people to see things differently? Maybe see some very problematic things, or just see history in a different way? And on your website there is this idea of “decolonizing our minds.” Could you speak to those two things?

Ossie: Well, for Indigenous people, I think that this is a chance to hear ourselves, for our voices to be heard in the big national media discussion. But it’s also a chance to get to know our neighbours… Because as an Indigenous person, when I hear about somebody who is from an area that’s really similar to mine, I want to know: What do they do? What do they hunt? What do they fish? What do they eat? What are their seasons? Because we’re not a monolith, right?

There are hundreds of different Indigenous groups within Canada. And, we all have different relationships with the land, with the country, with each other. Talking like this is a chance to show the variety… but also of opinions. And you see a lot of overlap when there are things in common as well. I think it really shows just how different but similar we are.

One of my favourite things about this as well, for anybody listening, is that we don’t have any experts. We don’t have any experts telling you how you should think or how you should feel. It’s really just someone saying, “This is what I think about this word. This is how it makes me feel, what comes to mind. This is how we’ve adapted the word, or this is how I want to see the word changed.” And that’s it. It’s just somebody sharing their experiences. I think that’s really powerful and that really connects with people. Because you’re hearing directly from folks: how does this particular word impact you in your life?

Kerry: Right. So it’s a diversity of answers as well.

Ossie: Exactly. But there’s nobody there saying, “You shouldn’t say that word, that word’s a bad word. You know what I mean? It’s just “Hey, this is how I feel.” And then it’s up to the listener to do what they will with it. It’s really kind of conversational.

Kerry: What has been one or some of your most memorable episodes?

Ossie: Well, the first episode is on the word “discovery.” I think that’s a really great place to start off. All of these words were chosen to elicit a reaction from an Indigenous person. And if you ever wanted to see an entire room full of Indigenous people roll their eyes, just go say the word “discovery” (laughing).

Kerry: The list also includes “Pocahontas,” right?

Ossie: Yeah, the Pocahontas episode did really well. It was very interesting, because we wanted to let people know the actual history of Pocahontas, then hear from Indigenous women about being called Pocahontas. And what does that mean? You know, the history of excluding women’s voices from the historical record.

Also, there’s the family names episode, which is probably my personal favourite. That’s the one where we hear from different Indigenous people about how they got their last names. Sometimes you find out it’s an Indigenous name, or the name was given to people by a priest. Or some people’s last names have changed because somebody spelled it wrong – like a Hudson’s Bay manager, or a priest or something. Or Canada.

Kerry: Like a clerical error. And then that became the name.

Ossie: Yeah, exactly.

Kerry: How do you balance trying to keep a sense of humour and lightness with heavy subject matters?

Ossie: Well, a lot of the subject matter is heavy. That said, it’s part of our lives – a heavy part of our lives – but it doesn’t define who we are. If something does define who we are, it’s our humour. And our humour is how we connect with each other, but it’s also sort of a survival mechanism to a certain extent. I think that having this humour all throughout it helps people to kind of process. It has to do with what I was saying before about the teasing. It kind of helps you to understand and to process. And it breaks the tension. It breaks the awkwardness, you know? It makes people more receptive, if they’re smiling while hearing it.

Each episode is only 20 to 25 minutes long, so it’s easily digestible. We didn’t want to end off a podcast with people feeling defeated. We wanted listeners to finish it saying, “Oh, I have a lot to think about now.” And I think we really did that.

To fairly portray ourselves as Indigenous people, we just had to include all aspects of it. Just because we’re talking about a heavy subject, it doesn’t mean we don’t still feel joy. And that’s something we really need to get across. I think it came across pretty well.

Kerry: That’s so interesting. I’m working on a magazine series about trauma work. I started it thinking, this is going to be depressing. And instead I found it exactly like what you just said: that people find joy in doing this kind of work or they wouldn’t do it. There’s always either growth in it or there’s humour or there’s evolution. There’s always some beauty in that as well.

Ossie: Yeah. I don’t want people to think that we’re defined by our problems. If you go into any Indigenous community you’re going to hear laughter. That’s just part of who we are.

Kerry: Right. And music and culture…

Ossie: Yep. All those things that make us human.

Kerry: That’s a nice lead-in to the fact that this issue is focused on food – what food means to us socially, issues around food, culture, political and social ramifications. So I’d really love to give some extra attention to the “food word” episode series of the podcast. Can we talk about bannock? Do you know why it’s called bannock?

Ossie: Right, so bannock has always been special. It’s a type of bread that is made with just four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and baking powder. It became a staple for Indigenous people because it was all simple, cheap ingredients. No ingredients that would spoil. And you could carry it on your back in a sack. It could be cooked under fire, even under sand. And there’s also fry bread, which is a fried version of it.

For the name, I’ve heard it’s Scottish. Maybe from Gaelic.

Kerry: How does it differ from bread that non-Indigenous people might think of? It sounds to me kind of like southern American biscuits?

Ossie: Not quite like that, because there’s no fat. If you fry it then it’s called fry bread, but originally bannock didn’t have any fat (or anything that could spoil quickly). I’ve heard British people say that bannock is similar to a scone.

Kerry: I learned a lot from listening to that episode of the podcast. How does bannock represent the encounter between settlers and Indigenous people? It seems to be a dish that elicits a love-hate relationship in Indigenous traditions…

Ossie: Well, it’s definitely a staple and many even consider it a traditional food for Indigenous homes and communities. But introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company, they say. And it’s also very heavy, all carbohydrates, not really a healthy everyday food.

Kerry: There seems to be this tension around bannock, then, as a traditional Indigenous comfort and family food, but one with a colonial legacy of rations and starvation. One woman in the episode said she considers it a “sad” dish. And another man talks about the HBC in the episode – the Hudson’s Bay Company. What’s the wordplay there?

Ossie: The Hungry Belly Company! I had heard that before, right.

Kerry: And can you talk about the “four white foods,” the four “white man’s foods”?

Ossie: As one of the interview subjects describes it, their bannock is made from four white foods, like you say, four foods the white man brought: sugar, flour, salt and grease. So now it does get talked about in current times as a health hazard, as part of the obesity epidemic. But you know, we’ve had bannock for hundreds of years, and the obesity epidemic only for some decades. So it’s complicated.

Kerry: Some in the episode definitely repeat how bread wasn’t an Indigenous tradition. They say “it was never our food,” and “we were healthy before.” In one section, a man says, “bannock came to kill us,” but then right after, a woman counters, “I like bannock!”

Ossie: That’s a brother and sister, being interviewed.

(Laughing)

Kerry: So she was kind of putting him in check a little bit! More of the diversity of opinions in the community. In fact, it’s a good example of what you’ve talked about, that you chose not to preach or take positions on the words in the series. No experts in the show, but humour. Contradicting voices, one right after the other, with humour.

Ossie: And also we didn’t want to judge anyone with this episode. Everything in moderation, right? if you want to have some bannock, have some. We should maybe think of bannock like birthday cake. It’s not something you can or should eat every day, but it is a part of our culture, and we do love it and it’s comforting. So the idea is “have some, it’s not going to kill you.”

Kerry: But at the same time, conversations in the community about cutting back on bannock are part of bigger conversations and movements among Indigenous people to encourage one another, saying “decolonize our plates.” Can you speak to that? In the episode, people say “we used to know how to eat from the earth.” They talk about the three sisters — corn, beans, squash. What does “decolonize the plate” look like?

Ossie: The foods most easily accessible to us aren’t always as healthy as our traditional food sources. A return to more healthy diets is being encouraged in response to the obesity epidemic in Indigenous communities. But really, it’s not a hard sell to get Indigenous people to eat our traditional foods. They are usually our favourite foods, anyway. We need more access to healthy foods to reconnect with them.

Kerry: Right. I think the food episode is one of the ones most richly woven together in terms of how historical and current cultures intertwine and are complicated.

Ossie: Thanks!

Kerry: Can you give us a little tease? If there is a second series, what’s another word you plan on exploring, or a concept you want to deal with?

Ossie: I don’t think I can say that much. But I’d like to look at the word “cousin.” If anybody knows me, they know that I have hundreds of cousins. In Indigenous communities, the term is going to be a bit looser than in settler society. A cousin is just basically a relative. It would be an exploration of Indigenous kinship through the word “cousin.” If we have another season, I’d like to do that one.

Kerry: Is there anything else you’d like to say about content, past or future experiences, reception – anything at all?

Ossie: Oh, just that these are really big, complex subjects. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t know where to begin, I don’t know how to enter into this conversation,” the podcast is a really good place to start. One of the pieces of advice I always give to people if they ask how they can learn more about Indigenous people is, “Just listen to their public conversations. Go follow people on Twitter and social media and see what they’re saying amongst themselves.” This podcast is an example of that, come to light.

There are these big, complex conversations going on. Where do you start? Well, let’s try with a word, and then see.

 

Telling Our Twisted Histories was the Apple Music Canada Editor’s Pick in 2021, and was Canada’s most listened-to podcast at various times in 2021. It can be found, as Ossie Michelin kindly explains, “anywhere you get your podcasts”: on the CBC website and Listen app, Spotify, and Apple Music. It is available in French under the title Laissez-nous raconter : L’Histoire crochie on the Radio-Canada website and Ohdio app, Spotify and Apple music.

Starting on May 31, 2022, Montréal’s McCord Museum will be featuring this podcast series in English and French as part of its permanent exhibit, Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resilience / Voix autochtones : Savoir, trauma, resilience.

 

Ossie Michelin on the banks of the Koksoak River in Nunavik, QC – Photo © Malaya Qaunirq Chapman

 

More on Ossie Michelin

Besides his writing and his work as director of Telling Our Twisted Histories, Ossie Michelin is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, who is now branching out into the growing field of Virtual Reality. One of his photos shot during a police raid in New Brunswick in 2013 was awarded best image in the National Museum for Human Rights. His photo of a Mi’kmaq woman kneeling before a line of police officers at an anti-fracking protest in 2013, holding an eagle feather in the air, won best human rights photo award and was featured at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Ossie is also a documentary filmmaker. His short film Evan’s Drum is available on the NFB/ONF website.

 

 

Music, Late and Soon by Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis, 2021, 320 pp)

 

Memoirs are often described, in review and by enthralled readers, as “charming.” Robyn Sarah’s newly published Music, Late and Soon is not such a work. Deeply interdisciplinary and challenging, it bears intimate witness as the internationally acclaimed Montréal poet reckons with the parallel strands of music and writing interwoven through her creative and inner lives. When a memoir opens with a preadolescent girl riding a crosstown bus to a piano lesson after school in 1960, and closes with her at 65 on the same bus, visiting that very same, aged teacher in hospital, we the readers are more in the territory of the uncanny than in the realm of light memoir.

The book details the author’s re-entry into the world of classical piano, a world she left behind in young adulthood to instead pursue writing. In so doing, it brings to life many of the people who were meaningful to her over the decades, and their contributions, all the while musing on the nature of creativity and work themselves.

Within the memoir, the theme of time—in terms of life forming into a sort of groove that deepens and reworks within a certain geographical space—is constant. Indeed, as Sarah returns over and over to the grooves of her own Montréal life, the book brings the reader repeatedly to the place of the uncanny, offering a mixture of the poignant and the surreal. Sheet music taken out of boxes and pieces picked up precisely where they were left 35 years before is one of the eeriness-of-time moments that recur throughout the memoir. What is time at all, in the sense of each of us in constant flux yet always remaining that same us, in constant, lifelong dialogue with ourselves?

Sarah also delves into life in its tendency towards connection, loss, or reconnection with those who become special to us from childhood to old age. What of the mysterious roles that others will play for us in the short, medium, or long term? How is it that one beloved person may fade from our life, and another may disappear only to re-emerge after years, while still another may remain a constant through the decades? And most importantly to this particular and sensitive text: how can writing, music, and their creative overlaps define and characterize a life?

Through twin strands of the musical and the literary, Sarah explores the concept of vocation. A singular project in terms of a book of poetry or preparation for a recital may be “finished,” while still always operating within the always unfinished space of a life in art. Writers can and often must work on deadline; study of an instrument cannot be completed in any such manner. As Sarah’s beloved and enigmatic piano teacher Phil Cohen—a central figure in the memoir from the author’s childhood to adulthood—explains, music is never finished. A piece can always be reworked and explored for more and different elements, an instrument can always be played differently, with new sounds evolving new techniques. For the pianists under Cohen’s mentorship, musical training means a life always unfolding in and with music. Where Sarah feels sheepish and childlike to return to “piano lessons” in her later fifties with grown children, Cohen is utterly unfazed; instruction has no age, lessons have no end date. Music and its pursuit simply end only when life does.

Cohen is sketched in the memoir as an iconoclast and a sort of mystical bohemian in early references to him in the book, around 1960. Influenced by physiology, neuropsychology, Eastern philosophy, and mysticism, he brought his unique philosophy on the inherent interdisciplinarity of music and science to both McGill and Concordia Universities. Cohen was a cofounder of the Leonardo Project at Concordia, a highly innovative initiative formed in 1992 to explore the interdisciplinary interplays of music and science, indeed of science in music. Sarah describes Cohen as a teacher who offered his students “a musical Kabbalah… a guide for how to live well in the world.” In such a musical/existential worldview, “there are no answers and there’s no right way.”

The reunion of Sarah and Cohen as pupil and teacher at the age of 59 and 80, respectively, forms the heart of the memoir. Their relationship is particularly representative of the ways in which time is often presented within the memoir as something weirdly ineffectual, unable to break decades-lost connections or change the essential core of a person. Perhaps Sarah’s book is longer than typical for a memoir because of a guiding philosophy that emerges in the later pages, applied to both music as vocation and to writing: “It’s not about finishing something. It’s about keeping it alive.” We come to understand this quote as applicable to a life’s work, a musical practice, a memoir 10 years and many decades in the making, or a beloved lost-and-then-found creative collaboration and friendship.

 

Robyn Sarah © Jody Freeman

 

The book is circular as a text, much the way that ideas of time, past, present and future are explored in the author’s life throughout it—in flashback, blurred timelines, and stressed continuities. The middle section, with its musical title Entr’acte, is a meta-discussion of the writing of the book itself and its metamorphoses, circa 2017. Indeed, the memoir’s circularity serves as a stylish effect, in keeping with the idea of music as a kind of homecoming. Sarah mixes journals from 2009 with 1960s journals she found, detailing her life at the Conservatoire as a teenager—another strong choice in reinforcing the blurring of present and past as the work’s primary motif. She also skillfully weaves together the cultural and political fabric of life in Montréal and North America over seven decades, from her childhood recollection of the Kennedy assassination to her bohemian student days in the McGill Ghetto around the time of the October Crisis.

The author writes with a quiet strength and surety to her words—a trait somehow perfectly in keeping with the determined personality required for a lifelong dedication to high level piano. The memoir remains conceptually interesting throughout, even beyond themes and style; it is also quite cleverly organized into sections of musical motifs. Musical metaphors in writing, and writerly metaphors in music abound. Performance is explored as a type of acting, teaching as another. Highly imaginative and sensory sections on how it feels, smells and tastes to play a particular instrument are especially vividly drawn. A taste for interdisciplinarity and a working knowledge of musical terminology and concepts will be helpful for the reader. Music, Late and Soon is a book that will be most enjoyed by musicians and lovers of music, and appreciated by anyone who recognizes literary effort at the level of the magnum opus.

 


Robyn Sarah reading from her book, with Serai editor Jody Freeman

 

Note: Music, Late and Soon is shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction, issued by the Quebec Writers’ Federation.

 

More on Robyn Sarah

Poet, writer, literary editor and musician, Robyn Sarah is the author of 10 poetry collections, two of which have appeared in French translation. My Shoes Are Killing Me won the 2015 Governor General’s Award and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for poetry. In 2017, a retrospective of her work, Wherever We Mean to Be: Selected Poems, 1975-2015, was published by Biblioasis. Sarah is also the author of two collections of short stories and a book of essays on poetry. From 2010 to 2020 she served as poetry editor for Cormorant Books.

 

 

 

Kamlabai Gokhale, one of the first Indian women to appear on screen   Photo: courtesy of Caravan magazine

 

In 1991, Indian feminist filmmaker Reena Mohan produced a little-known documentary called Kamlabai. The film chronicled the remarkable life of one of the first Indian film actresses, Kamlabai Gokhale – one that began with the dizzyingly modern new twentieth century, marked by class considerations, and rather shockingly included drag and a cross-dressing marriage. Most would be surprised to learn that appearing on-screen in the new medium of cinema in India was initially so disreputable that men were required to play women’s roles. It was Durgabai Kamat, Gokhale’s mother, who broke this stigma for the very first time in 1913.

With this film, Mohan accomplished two things more relevant than ever in light of the global #metoo movement of the last year. Firstly, she managed to get a remarkable woman’s history into the film historical archive. In managing to interview the elderly Gokhale the year before she died, Mohan also ensured that the actress’ experience of life as a woman in the earliest years of the film industry was not erased with her death. But more questions remain than answers. Why isn’t this film more famous, more studied? Why are the details of Kamlabai’s life still conflicting on the internet, even today? And most importantly, what has become of all the stories of the other Kamlabais in other countries, already lost for good?

In terms of women’s film history, the case of Kamlabai reminds us that there is both a scholarly and an ethical imperative to turning the #metoo conversation to the historical. One of the major points I have tried to drive home this year in my own work as a feminist film and cultural historian is that #metoo doesn’t begin with Harvey Weinstein in 2017 at all, or even with Tarana Burke’s coining of the phrase outside of film circles ten years prior. In fact, it should be a lead-in to excavation that traces back much further in film history, through golden ages and silent screens. Neither can #metoo be classified as only a Hollywood-centric imperative, to gain a historical understanding of how women have been treated in film industries, but a global one. How did casting couches work differently across borders? What became of women who stood up against financial, sexual, and professional mistreatment from industry to industry?

So #metoo is not and should not be synonymous with American Hollywood. Accepted. Also, #metoo is not contemporary but also should reframe how we look at all women in cinema, from stars to extras back to the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Still with me? Good. But now please indulge by following me into an even deeper historian’s dive. To understand #metoo, and create a scholarly body of evidence that supports it, why start – or rather stop – with the birth of cinema at all? Why should we draw an artificial bright line between the cinematic actress who grew into what we understand as the modern star, and the pre-cinematic theatrical actress, dancer, showgirl, artist’s model, courtesan, and all the permutations blurred therein for centuries?

 

Kamlabai Gokhale

 

The actress in culture doesn’t begin with cinema, but rather moves into cinema taking all the archetypal prejudices of centuries with her. Simone de Beauvoir understood this, including a chapter entitled “The Actress” as a pan-historical and pan-global category in her magnum opus on women and culture, The Second Sex. Within the work, de Beauvoir crucially unlocked what we might call the largest paradox of the actress in any given society. She is a woman who gains bodily freedom accessible to few women in male-controlled culture. And yet, the actress is still subject to the worst kinds of sexual and labour exploitation, and to a life of poverty and misery if people lose interest, or her career ends through aging.

We must remember that the concept of the actress as a woman at the peak of aspirational glamour is an extremely modern one, made possible by a shift in class understandings and respectability standards and exported from American Hollywood. Throughout human history and across cultures, actresses were, definitionally, beyond the pale. For thousands of years, performing women fell in with courtesans, prostitutes, mystics, and women scholars – women who left their families, didn’t marry, didn’t bear children, who traveled around, who were inherent outsiders. Women who didn’t fit, who, as historian Ute Frevert has put it, said “I” – and thus were non-conforming and dangerous.

Luce Irigaray has theorized all of society as predicated on the exchange and commodification of women, who have always been divided into use-value and exchange-value depending upon their classification as mother, virgin, or prostitute. The actress fascinates as a woman who at times may straddle all three, and do so on the public market. As long as women have been performing, from demimondaine 19th-century France to Restoration England, from 18th-century Russia and its serf theatre to opera troupes in ancient China, and from devadasis in India to haeteras in Rome, they have faced the same underlying reality: the treatment of women in a business where being a visible woman was conflated with having a body for sale to be traded around and owned by men. In every one of the above-mentioned cultures, actresses, by virtue of being paradoxes, prized for beauty and yet reviled for non-traditional public life and bodies on display, have faced the same concerns and the same exploitations and mistreatments.

The re-reckoning with women’s realities in history is an ethical and political ethos, but it is not only that. When it comes to the gender organization and inequities in global culture, Faulkner’s famed axiom, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is inescapable. To contextualize #metoo, and even women in modern culture at all, we have to go back to the beginning, to the global and the ancient. As historians trying to correct the historical record for what life has been like for women in culture, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of today, or the era of silent film, or Hollywood, Hong Kong, or Bollywood cinema. We should be mining all of women’s performance history for its #metoo revelations.

We cannot go back and interview the maenads of ancient Greece or the abhinetriyon of medieval India on their roles and treatment in society. We can’t talk with a Russian serf actress or a Parisian courtesan of the fin de siècle about sexual assault or economic precarity. But we can start with doing interviews, writing articles, and making documentaries about women like Kamlabai before they are gone.