VOLUME 9 ISSUE 2 fall + winter 2021/22
C A SE Y PLE T T // interview BECK Y BL AKE // winner of the CNFC/HLR Contest AVA FATHI & MEHDI M . K A SHANI // fiction SALMA HUSSAIN & R A SIQR A RE VULVA // poetry DOMINIK PARISIEN & ANNAHID DA SHTG ARD // essays BR A X TON G ARNE AU // art KIMBERLY EDG AR // comic
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VOLUME 9 ISSUE 2 fall + winter 2021/22
CONTENTS FROM THE EDITORS
// FICTION MEHDI M. KASHANI AVA FATHI GRAEME DESROSIERS ASHLEY GOLDBERG
The Fruit on the Farthest Branch
17 Mother, Wash Me Clean 26 The Hunt 48 One of the Boys
// POETRY BRAXTON GARNEAU
RASIQRA REVULVA SALMA HUSSAIN JEDIDIAH MUGARURA
23 The Silliest Lunch Bunch 31 Before love was a word, it was
ANGELA KIRBY 55 The Bitter Astronomer and His Sieve of Wishes
// ESSAYS ANNAHID DASHTGARD
24 On Washrooms and Their Synonyms DOMINIK PARISIEN
BECKY BLAKE REBECCA FISSEHA
43 Ingénue 56 A Shared Afternoon
// COMICS KIMBERLY EDGAR
INTERVIEWS // REVIEWS CASEY PLETT Image courtesy of the artist.
(DEATAIL) CANEBILL II, PLATE LITHOGRAPH AND TONER TRANSFER ON PAPER, 2020
REVIEWS 62 ON FREEDOM: FOUR SONGS OF CARE AND CONSTRAINT
OUT OF THE SUN: ON RACE AND STORYTELLING
LETTERS IN A BRUISED COSMOS
CONTRIBUTORS BRAXTON GARNEAU
66 68 [Featured Artist]
MASTHEAD PUBLISHER John Stilla EDITORS Eufemia Fantetti D.D. Miller FICTION EDITORS Sarah Feldbloom Kelly Harness Matthew Harris Alyson Renaldo ESSAYS EDITOR Leanne Milech POETRY EDITOR Bardia Sinaee GUEST POETRY EDITOR Oubah Osman INTERVIEWS EDITOR Meaghan Strimas REVIEWS EDITOR Angelo Muredda ART/ILLUSTRATIONS EDITOR Cole Swanson COMICS EDITOR Christian Leveille COPY EDITORS Tanya d’Anger Alireza Jafari Amy Ladouceur Rebecca Mangra Kristin Valois Arisa Valyear Suzanne Zelazo
The Humber Literary Review, Volume 9 Issue 2 Copyright © December 2021 The Humber Literary Review All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission. All copyright for the material included in The Humber Literary Review remains with the contributors, and any requests for permission to reprint their work should be referred to them. The Humber Literary Review c/o The Department of English Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning 205 Humber College Blvd. Toronto, ON M9W 5L7 humberliteraryreview.com Literary Magazine. ISSN 2292-7271 Layout and Design by Kilby Smith-McGregor Cover Image and Portfolio by Braxton Garneau In Partnership with Humber Press The Humber Literary Review is a product of the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning’s Department of English. Printed and bound in Canada by Paper Sparrow Printing on FSC-certified paper Opinions and statements in the publication attributed to named authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning or its Department of English.
PROOFREADERS Kathy Friedman Claire Majors DESIGNER Kilby Smith-McGregor
ADVISORY Vera Beletzan Senior Dean, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Innovative Learning, Humber College Bronwyn Drainie Former Editor-in-Chief of the Literary Review of Canada; author Alison Jones Publisher, Quill & Quire Joe Kertes Dean Emeritus, Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts; author Antanas Sileika Former Director, Humber School for Writers; author Nathan Whitlock Program Coordinator, Creative Book Publishing Program; author
| BRAXTON GARNEAU
FLOW, 16” x 20”, OIL PAINT AND SUGAR CANE ASH ON CANVAS, 2021
FROM THE EDITORS IN ANNAHID DASHTGARD’S “BAD IMMIGRANT,” the writer tells the story of her life in Canada after immigrating from Iran at a young age: she speaks incisively of the confusion that arises from a life lived struggling to determine which kind of immigrant she is: the so-called “good” or “bad” kind. In the end, she writes of the anger that this questioning inevitably manifests. Throughout, Dashtgard deconstructs the stereotypical notion of Canada and “Canadianness” as an inherently benevolent force in the world. She peels back the facade that Canada has managed to shroud itself in as a pristine multicultural paradise and describes the insidious racism that sits just beneath that veneer. Canada, and the politicians who speak most loudly on its behalf, have done an extraordinary job of helping the rest of the world forget that it is a settler colonial state, and as such, that it is built upon an infrastructure of injustice. Pieces like Dashtgard’s serve as a reminder of the inherent inequities that exist in Canada, of the near-daily challenges faced by those who don’t or can’t or won’t conform to the whitewashed false ideal that has been carefully crafted and mythologized in the country. Our official mandate here at the HLR is to provide a space for emerging writers, but over the years, another unofficial mandate has surfaced: to question the colonized notions of what Canada is and to dispel the false mythology that has been fashioned to conceal the often-ugly truths of the country’s past: to provide a vision of Canada that is closer to the truth than what we’ve seen presented historically in Canadian publishing.
Not every piece adheres to this unofficial theme, though interestingly enough, there are many norms questioned in this edition: from Australia, Ashley Goldberg exposes the brutality of toxic masculinity, showing how it is normalized and perpetuated. Dominik Parisien re-examines our understanding of and relationships with washrooms, and Rebecca Fisseha wonders how her Blackness affects her relationship with a crush. There are also stories that speak of complex relationships between generations and of Easter-egg hunts gone terribly wrong. We were excited to work with guest poetry editor Oubah Osman on this issue, who’s selected a wonderfully diverse array of poetry to feature. We are also pleased to once again partner with the Creative Nonfiction Collective to publish Becky Blake’s “Ingénue,” winner of the annual contest we co-sponsor, about which judge Ian Brown notes: “It’s a quietly serious story told in a funny, observant voice, beautifully paced, told in scenes and dialogue and details and with a clear POV that all bring it off the page.” We also continue our community partnerships: this time featuring poets both online and in print who are part of the Ontario D/deaf/HoH, Disabled, Sick, Mad and Neurotypical Poetics Collective (formerly AbleHamilton). And, as usual, this issue is gorgeous: illustrated by the stunning multimedia work of emerging artist Braxton Garneau and featuring a strangely beautiful comic by Kimberly Edgar. We hope you value the version of Canada presented in these pages as much as we enjoyed building this issue. Best wishes, The HLR Collective
MEHDI M. KASHANI // 4
MEHDI M. KASHANI
THE FRUIT ON THE FARTHEST BRANCH E
arlier today, when my father-in-law called and suggested we meet after work it was unprecedented in itself. What made it doubly surprising was the subsequent request he made in a whisper: Sonia doesn’t have to know. We’re now almost through with dinner but our conversation has barely scratched the surface. Of my meal, only a few mushy fries and a nearly spent ramekin of tartar sauce remain. Sonia’s father is wolfing down the last bite of a thick burger whose dripping grease has drawn on his plate the outline of an unknown country. His fingers wriggle in the air, ordering his third glass of wine, while my first beer is hardly halffinished. We’re in a homey restaurant, east of Toronto’s downtown, wrapped in warm-coloured wooden walls. My second venture here. The last time was six years ago, when my father-in-law wasn’t my father-in-law. He starts by complaining about his adjustment to retirement, switching to their plan of visiting Iran, and finally their noisy ignoramus neighbours—everything except the reason why we’re having dinner on short notice. And I won’t ask, as if by not asking things will wrap up faster. The more time I spend here, the more I feel I’m betraying Sonia’s trust. “What did you tell Sonia?” he asks. “These days, I’m hashing out an idea for a start-up in my off hours. So it wasn’t that hard to buy some extra time.” He nods. Approvingly so, I hope. It feels strange to tell someone how you got away with lying to their daughter. He rubs his hands together. “So, tell me. How’s married life. You weren’t misinformed about the merits of marriage?” I take it less as a request to spill my guts than as a conversation opener pushing toward what is supposedly the reason we’re meeting. Dangerous territory,
but I’m also glad we’re getting somewhere. “Nothing to complain about. It has its moments.” “You look happy together. I can easily tell when Sonia is happy. And she’s happy. Happy is good.” I smile, sticking to my silence in case he wants to utter happy once again. The waitress brings his wine. He slides the glass toward himself and turns it by the stem, amused like a kid with a new toy. It was only last night that my motherin-law complained to Sonia about her husband’s recently acquired drinking habit. Supposedly a secret, Sonia filled me in anyway. Now, I’m a first-hand witness to the old man’s indulgence. “And Sonia is successful at work,” he says. “She manages millions of dollars, making her wealthy clients wealthier. She has always been an overachiever. It’s partially my fault and her mother’s.” “Fault?” “Well, I mean, when someone overachieves in some aspect of life, they’ll underachieve in others. Inevitably so. It’s the conservation of time principle.” I hold my beer glass with two hands. “If you’re implying that she’s cutting time from our marriage, I don’t think it’s true.” “I’m sure it’s not. And that wasn’t what I meant.” He fortifies himself with a gulp of his wine. “Look, son. We’re Iranian, no matter how long we’ve been on foreign soil. Here, we learn to play-act, to pretend we’re abiding by the rules of modern life: parents cannot and should not interfere in their children’s lives, especially once they’re married. And sweet as she is, Sonia is not really open to hearing our thoughts and worries.” Sonia’s parents are indeed discreet, almost to comic effect. Sonia tells me stories about them, often in an endearing tone, about how her parents’ criticisms are sugar-coated with indirection and allusion. I imagine this carefulness doesn’t come easy. Both she and her
Sonia’s father pushes away the plates between us with the back of his hands and laces his fingers together. “Look! I love my daughter. To tell you a secret, she is my favourite child—more so than my son. I was the one encouraging her to aim high, to climb ladders. But now, sometimes I feel like she’s so high in the air that I can’t spot her. She’s become the fruit on the branch farthest from my reach. Now, she tells me she’s learning golf, I ask her why, and she says her clients like it, and it helps her career if she entertains them with golf. Golf! Golf? We’re Iranian. We don’t play golf. Hitting a tiny ball with a stick.” He drains his wine and raises his free palm to indicate he’s not finished. “And of course, we would love to have grandchildren. That’s all Soraya wants at this stage of her life. But there’s something I’m thinking about that Soraya isn’t. This is a man-to-man conversation we’re having, right?” He leans in, drops his voice to a whisper. “I’m afraid of the day that Sonia will become a fruit that not even you, her husband, can reach. And that’s where I think kids can help. Playing the motherly instinct card. I hope you don’t take this wrong.” He throws back his head, but his gaze remains on me, studying my reaction. His lips form the hint of a smile, a sign of relief. This is the point of departure for him, where his path and his wife’s diverge. His concern is now less a parental worry than a gender power game. I teeter on the verge of anger over the insensitivity of his remarks, teaching me how to rein in my wife. And yet, he is her father; we’ve always maintained a peaceful rapport. Crossing that line feels like an excruciating
“This is a man-to-man conversation we’re having, right?” He leans in, drops his voice to a whisper.
ordeal that I might or might not be able to brave, and the timely arrival of the waitress lands me on the “might not” track. She towers over us to recite the options for dessert. I guzzle the rest of my beer. My lucid state is soon replaced with nausea. No, I’m no stranger to indulgence in food or drink. My queasiness is because of the situation I’ve been put in: how Sonia is the subject of the discussion of the men closest to her—for me, a reluctant collusion.
MEHDI M. KASHANI // 5
parents are strong-willed people. I can imagine the fights they must have had. But after all that, Sonia must have been the victor. “Is it about having kids?” His eyes shine under their alcohol-induced drooping lids. “This July she’ll be thirty-five. We don’t even know if you two have any plans for it.” Doing math on age and the looming edges of fertility is mostly a woman’s job. “We means you and Soraya Khanoum?” He nods. “We’re two retired souls who are supposed to have grandkids at this age.” Evolutionary-wise he’s right, but what aspect of our hectic lives is in line with the slow pace of evolution? Our daily eight-hour slump over lit screens? Our hormone-infused diet? “You know, these things are complicated. Our lives—” “Son, Soraya gave birth to Cyrus in the middle of the war. And when she was pushing Sonia out of her, Iraqi planes were shelling Tehran only a few blocks away from the hospital. We raised our daughter in a ravaged, bankrupt country. And she turned out good enough for you to fall for her.” He halts at my sheepish laugh, but his face remains gloomy. “You know, humans are great at procrastination. If I choose not to do something—like cleaning the house—I can spin tens of arguments why I should not—none of them the underlying reason. That’s a principle of life.” Sonia’s father has this tendency to strengthen his arguments by christening them with immutable principles. I imagine Sonia’s reaction had she been here. She would let him talk his heart out, perhaps with a polite smile, and then dismiss his opinions in one cold, terse sentence. “Well, we talk about it once in a while,” I say, which is true. In a sense. “You sound so casual. It’s not a debate on who’ll win the World Cup. Look! After the early years of marriage, whatever childless couples do in their spare time, it’s to fill the void of children.” His tone shifts, gears toward the avuncular. “I understand that this is unorthodox. It just happens that you’re more approachable. I wish there were a way we could talk to our daughter.” I know that Sonia wouldn’t allow that, and she’s made me swear to follow suit. So far, my job has been easy. She’s been our front, the one bearing the brunt. But now, they’ve changed tactics, smartly so. They know I’m too polite to dismiss them. His cellphone beeps. Amused by whatever appears on the display, he starts to type back. He’s pretty quick for his age, using only one finger of a hand.
MEHDI M. KASHANI // 6
“Have you tried their sticky toffee pudding, son?” I shake my head, showing little passion. He orders one with two spoons. The waitress assures us it’s a smart choice, turns on her heels, and marches off. “It appears you come here often,” I say, once I regain my focus. “Our favourite spot, like a second home. We’ve befriended many regulars here. And it’s all thanks to you.” I blush, less because of the credit than the occasion he’s reminding me of. Six years ago, I invited him to this very restaurant, and after dinner and two glasses of wine (then, I was the one in need of fortification), I asked for his permission to propose to his daughter. I didn’t know I was repurposing this restaurant into a confessional where people reveal things about Sonia. The dessert arrives. A brick-like sponge cake baked with toffee and criss-crossed with vanilla. We start digging from either side. For a minute or so, we’re savouring the delicacy, until there remains only a thin wall of cake neither of us dares to cut through.
The hypothetical cells that multiply to make a hypothetical baby will never catch up with the malignant tumour that’s eating up his brain. My father-in-law sets his spoon aside. “There’s one other thing.” “Sure.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin, rotates his phone to make it parallel to the edges of the table, turns his head to make sure no one is in his earshot. “I’ll die in six months. Six months is if I’m lucky.” His eyes escape my gaze. A crumb lodges at the corner of his mouth, somehow escaping his hurried scrubbing. I want to point it out to him, as if to fix these problems one by one, starting with the easiest. Instead, I find myself yelp: “For real?” He plays with his iconic agate ring. “If doctors are to be trusted.” “Who else knows?” He shakes his head. Even in relaying such news, he’s keeping his composure. Myself, I’m not a weepy person, but I could easily burst into tears if he started it. I’m at a loss for
words, not yet understanding the full scale of what I’ve just heard. I think about his greasy food, his new drinking to excess, and the sweet dessert he consumed, the microcosms of a decadent lifestyle about which my mother-in-law has always been so vocal. But I’m not the right person to comment on diets. My knowledge of the human body is minimal. I’m the sort of person who needs to manoeuvre his palm on his chest to find where his heart beats. So, if I inquire about the name of the disease, it’s only out of politeness. “Glioblastoma multiforme.” He taps his temple. “Brain cancer, in layman’s terms.” “Oh,” is all I manage to say to a sentence loaded with brain and cancer. Poignant as it is, my mind is still stuck on the conversation we had before dessert, trying to reconcile it with the revelation that came after. If what he says is true, he would never see his hypothetical grandchild. The hypothetical cells that multiply to make a hypothetical baby will never catch up with the malignant tumour that’s eating up his brain. Was that earlier discussion merely an excuse? An opening to the real issue? The waitress scampers in our direction, taking advantage of the silence. “Anything else you’d like?” Once she sees my father-in-law’s shake of head, she places the bill on the table with a flourish. I want to pay, but once I produce my wallet, he shows his discontent with a vehement wave of one hand, and places three fifties on the plate. He waits until we’re alone again. “I just wanted to say it to someone, to see how it sounds. A rehearsal before breaking it to Soraya and the kids. That’s why I didn’t want you to talk about this meeting with Sonia.” I nod, glad that I was helpful without really being helpful. “There might be a chance.” “Don’t even go there. False hope is the last thing I need right now.” I’m still in the middle of compiling some comforting words in my head when he grabs his jacket. I watch him in silence as he takes his time to slip into it while still sitting in the booth. No, he’s not seeking my words, comforting or not. I am just a makeshift receptacle for his news. I stand up, sling my laptop bag. “Would you like to hop in my cab? You’re on the way.” “Nah, I need to walk. But—” he raises a finger. “We should do this more often. Not every six years. Some of us won’t be around.” He laughs at his own joke, grim as it is, inviting me to join in. Instead, I stare into his eyes, a man who left his life in Iran for the sake of his family, who fought his way to becoming a district manager for Hertz car
must’ve secretly suffered. “And all this passion to make her clients happy, measuring her success in numbers, her taking up golf—” “Actually, it happens that she enjoys golf.” He glares at me for interrupting his train of thought but is forgiving when his order arrives. He slides one drink in my direction and downs the other. The forty-percent alcohol does little to alter the composition of his facial muscles. “She’s proving a point. My daughter is proving a point. And it’s all my fault. Soraya’s too. Maybe more so. She was the one who was robbed of sleep when the kids didn’t get full marks in math or physics. We shoved it in Sonia’s head to be the best, the strongest, the most invincible.” I don’t argue with him. He’s on the right track, summing it up nicely. Whatever I can add would do nothing but worsen the pain, and by pain, I mean his and mine. I won’t tell him how hard I tried to cajole Sonia into considering the possibility of having a child; how, two years ago, she surprised me on my birthday by announcing that she was on board, that she dragged me by the collar of my shirt to the bed; how her maternal instincts were summoned to the fore by the sight of any random baby; how, at work, I answered her calls with the anticipation that this must be it, the news of my imminent fatherhood; how she grew withdrawn for days and weeks, resigned to see a gynecologist, and received the news with heroic grace. My father-in-law’s hand touches the back of mine. He never struck me as a tactile person, so this must mean something. “I’m sorry you can’t have children.” I put my other hand on top of his. “I’m sorry you’re …” I clear my throat. “Dealing with this disease.” Our sorrows are muted, intertwined. There’s a soothing quality to the moment, to our depleted secret machines. And we know better than to ask each other for secrecy. The world around us whirls in the motion of drunkards as they huddle at the bar and then disperse. The waiters scuttle constantly in the corner of my eye. The music grows louder, drowning out shouts and guffaws. The interior darkens to set the mood. And our phones begin to light every so often with worrying messages and calls from our wives, wondering what’s taking us so long. ///
MEHDI M. KASHANI // 7
rental company, who fathered my wife, who found me a close enough relation, even if momentarily so, even if only because he couldn’t talk to his real close ones, to impart his worries and secrets. He takes my silence as the end of the meet-up and struggles to slide out of the length of the booth. “Sonia can’t have children.” He leans awkwardly on the back of the booth and his expression softens as he mumbles, “Doesn’t want to?” A smile creeps onto his face, faint and uncertain, as if he already knows his hope is to be crushed by the truth. “She actually does, but can’t. Something with her ovaries, prematurely defunct.” He slumps back, deflating. “Oh …” Now, I’m the one awkwardly on my feet, bending my head to diminish the difference in our heights. He points to my seat and I oblige. He doesn’t inquire any further. No question about surrogacy, in vitro, or adoption. “In fact, that sentence you said about couples filling the void, I first heard it from Sonia.” “Yeah, her mother used to say it when the kids lived with us.” The waitress glares at us from the other side of the room, as she offers the last free table to a group. The restaurant is getting busier. After-work socializers are being replaced by serious diners and drinkers. My companion doesn’t seem aware of the turnover. His eyes are levelled at a neutral spot on the wall. The waitress materializes, rousing my father-inlaw. “Still thirsty?” “Tequila double shot.” He casts me a sidelong glance. “Make it two.” “What are we celebrating?” she asks, totally ignoring the grim aura. I can’t help the chuckle I let out. Before I say anything though, my father-in-law nonchalantly responds: “A new life.” Accustomed to such announcements in her profession, she unleashes a giddy squeal and turns to me, “Boy or girl?” “We still don’t know,” I hear myself say. “Tequilas will be on me. A gift for the little one.” She heads to the bar, and I wait to receive some sort of explanation from my father-in-law. “So, all this time, she wanted what we always desired. She drew further away from us because she didn’t want us to see her defeat.” And he starts enumerating the occasions in the past where they pressed her, directly and indirectly, and how she reacted, how she
RASIQRA REVULVA // 8
SEPIODAE shimmying submersion, sunlit sujuda, prostrate in dull substrate, this, too, euprymna. sand camouflaging exquisite patina, the sun on the ground, this, too, euprymna. phantoms glimmer a tessellated mirror; the wonder where you are, this, too, euprymna. moonsong arousing each watery cinder— —if you are confused, this, too, euprymna. benthic, littoral, perpetual hajra— —carry a compass (this, too, euprymna). musocal shedding unearthing euprymna; sorority enveloping rasiqra.
Formerly the AbleHamilton Poetry Collective, the Ontario D/deaf/HoH, Disabled, Sick, Mad and Neuroatypical Poetics Collective comprises a group of poets from those identities who work to host events for members of their communities and promote their writing. Founded in 2018 as a literary festival dedicated to the work of Deaf and disabled artists in Ontario, the collective has had ties to the cities of Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, and Ottawa but is now able to feature poets from across the province thanks to a shift to an online festival. As an organization, the collective works to overcome systemic barriers, conduct accessible events, and feature all Deaf and disabled performers.
WATERINGHOLE, VIDEO PROJECTION AND INSTALLATION, 2017 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
RASIQRA REVULVA // 9
ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 10
MADRAS MASK, 9" x 4.5", CURRY POWDER, CLAY, AND RAFFIA, 2019 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
BAD IMMIGRANT t’s November 2020 and the US election is a few days away. Along with everyone else I know, on both sides of the border, I’m holding my breath with anticipation. Will people finally awaken to Trump’s evil, his ruthless disregard for people’s health, his corrupt divisiveness? I call my dad the day before the potential apocalypse— my fail-safe person to talk politics with (in addition to North American news, he consumes Iranian, British, and Russian news the way most gobble crispy bacon slices). I absentmindedly ask if relative so-and-so has voted, and he definitively answers, “I didn’t ask them. They’re voting for Trump.” I’m shocked. I know our extended family’s politics vary, but I didn’t expect any of them to support the dark side, especially after four years of ample evidence of what he has to offer. “They support the wall,” my father goes on to explain, “to keep Mexican immigrants from coming into the country.” “But Dad,” I respond, my voice rising. I feel a hot flash coming on. “They are immigrants! What’s the difference?” “I asked that,” he responds. “And?” I demand, the court judge ready to grant these distant relatives instant reprieve or punishment. “They said we’re the good kind of immigrant.” I sit there gobsmacked, my brain obsessing over the question: “What is a good immigrant?” And of course, good is usually measured against its opposite, so the more interesting question is: What does it mean to be a bad immigrant? And which one am I? ///
here’s this story we tell ourselves (especially here in multicultural Canada) that, hallelujah! We are one of the richest and most open-minded nations on earth, anyone is lucky to land here. And compared to other countries, this is very true. We have a high quality of life including public health care, one of our major political party’s leaders wears a turban, and people can be Canadian and something else. We make room for hyphenated identities—Iranian-Canadian, PakistaniCanadian, Jamaican-Canadian, etc.—rather than for-
cing people to choose their future over their past. And yet, I remember the response from so many people I met after publishing my book, a story documenting the lifelong double whammy of forced departure (exile) from Iran and subsequent social rejection (racism) here in Canada. I was surprised by the variations of protest: “But aren’t you glad you moved here?”; “Isn’t Canada the best place to be?”; “Look what you have been able to accomplish!” I started to wonder who people were trying to make feel better, themselves or me? I wonder how many people know the stories of those who immigrate from faraway lands—how hard it is to transplant a foreigner into the host country and hope the system doesn’t reject them. Even less chance of acceptance if they come from a different blood type: read, non-white skin colour. Dad, who was the Auditor General of Iran under the Shah, came here to work for the Auditor General’s office for the Government of Alberta. He left after five years. The reason cited: racial discrimination. I only know this because I found a file in his office drawer more than a decade later. He goes by Jim in public, Jamsheed in private; speaks English with clients and Farsi at home; has learned how to swallow casual racism while being the only accountant that many of his rich white clients trust. The experience of forced immigration as a brown or Black person, where you look like everyone else in your native country but immigrate to a new one where everyone in charge looks nothing like you, is a major shock. You gamble everything with absolutely no control over the outcome, the collateral damage is the invisible dents and punctures to the very shape of self. You hope you can Frankenstein yourself by grafting on a pronunciation here or adding a cultural mannerism there, but ultimately, it’s never enough. People smell the foreign in you. As poet Nayyirah Waheed eloquently wrote, “You broke the ocean in half to be here, only to meet nothing that wants you.” And depending on what part of the world you’re coming from, whether you’re fluent in English, and how much money you have, the
ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 11
ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 12
experience is either bearable or much worse. An upperclass white Brazilian has a fundamentally different immigration experience than a bearded working-class Pakistani in exile. No, in order to have any hope of fitting in, you have to be a good immigrant, to be grateful, and to express this gratitude at every opportunity. And to be a nonwhite immigrant from a non-European country equals a super-sized dose of gratitude: gratitude to be here, gratitude for a better life, gratitude toward the benevolent politeness of strangers who exclude while smiling, able to hold on to the illusion of their inclusive politics while ignoring the ubiquitous barriers to belonging. Immigrants are expected to be outwardly grateful while dealing with the anger at what they have lost and what they are facing in private. Smile in public, rage in private. And if you rock the boat and show any kind of anger—toward a boss or teacher, an institution or the government—for expecting the same meal deal as those around you, you should just go back where you came from. Here are the unstated rules of being the good kind of immigrant:
You will be renamed, but always to a shrunken version of your original self; never longer, never bigger. Jamsheed will become Jim and Annahid, Anna. Do not correct people because it will be a disruption of social rank, and you should be grateful they are conversing with you at all.
You will hear your country’s name consistently mispronounced by people who have never visited it, but who will insist they are right, nonetheless. “No, I’m sure it’s Eye-ran, not Ee-rahn.” See above.
You will get asked, “Where are you from?” as the chaser question to “How do you pronounce your name?” Once people hear the answer, they will make that the most interesting thing about you or shrink back as if there is little else to say. You will go from never thinking about what it means to be Iranian or Korean or Nigerian to creating your own mental slide show ready to hit play at any time: “Yes, I was born in Iran. No, I’m not a practising Muslim. Yes, we ate a lot of pomegranates.” Create the most stereotypical version of the story you can because this will be the least offensive.
Learn to declare your birthplace sparingly, more as a bargaining chip than as everyday currency: plus ten points if shared in a holiday icebreaker, minus ten if shared with border services. Mostly better to hide, if you can.
If you date someone who is white and North American born, don’t expect them to understand your constant need for reassurance that you’re _________ (okay, loved, secure, beautiful, smart, enough). They will not understand the insatiable hunger for something you yourself can’t name, but feels something like belonging, looks something like home. Try Zoloft.
When you write a book about your life, do not be surprised when older white women consistently repeat: “You’re so young to _________ !” Just smile and pretend demureness even though they are the reason you wrote it in the first place and they will be the last to buy it.
When people sound surprised by or envious of your success—and this is important—play it down as being an accident of circumstance even though you have worked your ass off for every drop of success. People will not like seeing a brown or Black person— especially an immigrant—succeeding over them. Bring the conversation back to them.
When you reach a level of leadership where you are interacting mostly with other white leaders, try not to act surprised or be offended when they call you “dear,” comment on how pleasant you seem, ask you to do an additional five things to prove your expertise, or forget and leave your name off the session promo. People will be shocked if you bring any of this to their attention, and even more offended if you tie it to your identity, so just keep swallowing. Again, it’s better to try Zoloft.
Do not expect any of your friends, colleagues, or neighbours to ask or remember your own cultural celebrations. If you mention that tomorrow is Eid or Nowrooz, expect a kind of benevolent glazed expression to appear and smile appreciatively at the lacklustre, “Cool. Nice. Hmmm,” that gets thrown back at you.
Learn to be two different people: Canadian and _________ . You will learn to code-switch between your people and the country’s people, inhabiting a different self in each place. The wear and tear this will take on you is part of the price you pay as you pretend that you belong, though your body frequently reminds you differently. I worry that I am the bad kind of immigrant. ///
might have healed over, to be a forgotten and distant scar on the adult shape of self. But when we immigrate, as foreign bodies, we don’t have much say over what happens to us, only how we survive the transplant. ///
he other children say she smells,” my Grade 6 teacher reports to my parents, in front of me, in the classroom, my prison. I am three years into life in Canada and have gone numb, not from the bone-chilling winters but from the emotional temperature here. I don’t understand why the other children don’t like me, why they cross the street to avoid me. I don’t understand why people move away when I go with my father to get groceries or to the library for books. I don’t understand why I am spat on, or called Paki, or worst of all, the way I am rendered invisible by people passing by me to greet other people who look and sound like them, pale skin and thin accents. I lose faith in the adults around me to make things better because most of these adults do not seem to see what I see or hear what I hear. Like many children, I have taken belonging for granted, and now that it has been stripped away, out of my reach, I don’t know where to go. A lifetime later I will face my daughter just as she is starting school, asking me with great concern, “But if you were just moving to Canada, and we share the world, why was it so hard?” I will struggle to find a good answer. I can’t sleep at night. A few months into our arrival, I stay awake for hours after the lights go off. That continues for years. I desperately want to rest but am unable to surrender. I am not aware of feeling much of anything, just an internal crouching, like a fox in its den, hearing the howls of the hounds from a distance. The emotion I reach for, wrap around me like a cloak of protection, is anger. Anger is safe, she is a gatekeeper holding back the less predictable monsters of fear and grief. Anger stokes the coals of hope that perhaps one day things just might change, get easier. Anger helps me hold on to the notion that I deserve to be greeted like those around me, with smiles and cocked ears, micro-signals of respect. Anger holds my hand through the long years of childhood, as much an internal parent as the ones I have outside of me who themselves are surviving this foreign territory. When I’m twenty-eight and living thousands of miles from the small town I immigrated to, in the major metropolis of Toronto, I will be confronted with these ghosts of the past in the aftermath of 9/11, as I watch images of Middle Eastern people on TV and hear them speak about being called names or spat on, or their houses or places of worship being vandalized
ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 13
ust like every culture prepares tea differently, each expresses emotion uniquely. Is it sucked, hot and sweet, right onto the tongue, or cooled with milk before being carefully sipped? And anger, she is the most chameleonic of them all. In Iran, she was a frequent visitor, expressed at the dinner table over the latest revolutionary news or because of missed dirt in the corner of the kitchen floor. She was accepted, part of the air we breathed, how we expressed our love for each other and the country we were part of. But in Canada, where the status quo is modelled on emotionally repressed British society, anger hides herself in the closet, made available only to certain people, with certain identities, over certain topics. When I first arrived in this land of winter cold and ice, in a northern city in the most conservative province of all, I was an unruly and opinionated girl of nine. Steeped in Iranian cultural traditions of ta’aroof, of heaping tables of food wherever we went to visit, of the loud cacophony all around us in the city of Tehran, I was … not quiet. I was also quick to express anger —“Why did you do that?!”—in a tone at least two decibels higher than necessary, only to be found a minute or two later humming or reading quietly to myself. With such ease, the emotion had no more or less hold on me than any other passing through my small growing body. But that’s not entirely true. When one remembers, one has to try to remember it all. I was more acquainted with anger than those around me, not just because of the difference in cultural expression, but also the deep grief and injustice I felt about our forced departure. I was seven, playing outside in our walled garden just outside of downtown Tehran, when my father pulled me aside and told me, “We are leaving Iran next month. The country is changing and it is not safe for us.” I don’t remember my reply, just the protective tidal wave of anger that rushed through me. “Why, Baba, why?!” I cried. He went on to explain, “Because someone named Ayotollah Khomeini is taking over, and he is a madman.” I spent the next couple of hours tearing orange blossoms from their home branches and repeating under my breath, “I hate Khomeini, I hate Khomeini.” I knew I didn’t want to leave, but I also couldn’t have known how much I was losing. Not yet. By the time I got to Canada, this anger over our forced displacement had seeped more deeply into the bone and marinated into a more complicated mélange of rage, fear, and grief. But like most children, I was adaptable. If we had had a welcome reception in our new home, perhaps the rupture of soul after leaving
ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 14
and burned down. Overnight, Iranian immigrants have gone from being the tolerable kind of immigrants (never quite achieving model minority status like their Eastern European or Asian counterparts) to the devil incarnate. The fresh skin of belonging that has grown over my early wounds of rejection is stripped away. I feel exposed and raw. I call my family members almost every day, unclear whether I am reaching for support or offering it. A week after witnessing the world I thought I knew dismantled, my white landlady knocks on my door to whisper to me with mock concern, “Are you okay? I can hear you yelling into the phone. It seems like you have a lot of anger.” Rather than abashedly apologize, this is what I wish my young adult self had said to her: “Fuck yes, lady. I am angry. I am tired of swallowing the grateful immigrant narrative when I bust my ass twice as hard and get half the recognition. I’m angry when I watch the rising racism and Islamophobia and realize that the diversity Canadians pride themselves on being so tolerant of actually masks a fear of difference, which has, like most uncomfortable truths, been swept under the happy Canadian multicultural mosaic rug, waiting, just waiting, to emerge. I am angry that people here shy away from conversations about race and immigration, identity and power, words that are my world. I am angry because I want things to change, and anger is the emotion that drives things to be different. I am angry because I don’t know how else to be in the world right now. For the same reasons you can’t access anger, it’s all I can feel.” Maybe being the bad kind of immigrant is good for me. ///
nger is an important ally in the struggle to find belonging someplace new. But we can’t be colonized long-term by a singular emotion. It starts to stunt our growth, becoming counterproductive. The ability to express anger freely is liberating, whereas being in anger lockdown as the way to survive racism and xenophobia is just the opposite. That moment of waking up to my anger set me out on a journey to better understand it. I realized that because anger was so marginal in my adopted culture, I often felt ashamed of it and ignored what it had to teach me. Gradually, through years of meditation, therapy, and bodywork I bravely allowed the fire of anger to subside, so the waters of grief and fear could start flowing again. It took many years. Trauma—as a result of threatening experiences we cannot undo or escape—means that we lose our ability to know where our boundaries
lie. Sometimes I overdid it and reacted to things my partner or children did that were clearly undeserving, or underdid it in other moments, like being yelled at by a white teacher in my child’s classroom as I stood there numbly. Dad, he just forged through, only to berate me through the years for being too sensitive and expecting too much. I watched him turn into an Iranian nationalist—the kind that could single-handedly appear in adverts in pro-Iran tourism videos—unable to hear any criticism of his home regime. I recognize this now as his way of dealing with it all. Righteous anger is often a cover for grief. Gradually, I worked at developing a relationship to anger separate from trauma, one that allows for spontaneous opinionated expression aligned with my passionate Persian roots. For many of us, it is hard to differentiate what is personality vs. what is identity: one is intrinsic and the other, a response to a cultural story where we are moulded into ways of being not always of our own choosing. I didn’t choose this anger: it was a by-product of survival, of racism, and the weight of being sold a bill of goods that were, in reality, rotten. When I was a child, I believed that if I just worked hard enough, I could be Prime Minister one day. But the reality is that there are so few people of colour leading hospitals, health care, schools, and especially, government, that if people succeed in getting there, they are very much the exception rather than the rule. I had to make peace with this society I found myself a part of rather than constantly fight for it to be different, or at least, choose my battles and find more sustainable ways to fight for change. I have learned that the best kind of anger has to be connected to love. Recently, I got angry when a conference organizer asked me for my professional title to promote me in their advertising. After giving it to them, I heard back that they’d have to check “if it was okay to use” as there was no self-promotion allowed. I was speaking for free, and this response came after a lot of time donated on my end. I swallowed and paused before responding. I let myself feel the feeling and what it was telling me. I was angry because I was feeling disrespected, and because I suspected this wouldn’t happen to a CEO of a bank, a white man who would never be questioned about their title or integrity. I replied via email: “I am formally declining the invite to be part of the conference. Given the time and generosity I have extended to be part of this, the level of micromanaging about how I am expected to show up is not what I would expect, and it doesn’t feel good to me.” I moulded my anger into a boundary: no drama, no depression, just a line in the sand. A healthy relationship to anger offers a border
between ourselves and the dominant story, allowing us to thrive, allowing for the possibility of relationship across a belonging divide. ///
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ANNAHID DASHTGARD // 15
elonging is often described as a kind of homecoming, being anchored to a place and claimed by its people. Black and brown immigrants are stuck in this in-between place, sometimes for generations, haunted by a country that no longer exists, invisible to the people in the country they find themselves in. And just like any other citizen of any country on earth, immigrants deserve their anger. My dad, he composed his anger differently, had less opportunities to hide his differences and less skills to cope with them. But both of us, all of us, deserve the right to be a bad and good kind of immigrant, to be angry or polite or peaceful, or any other way we choose to be, because this is what belonging comes down to: the ability to occupy our full humanity, to align who we are and how we feel with how we experience reality. If we can’t exist in the fullness and ease of who we are, then our newly adopted nation—the world—doesn’t get the best of us. We all lose out. To be a good or bad (or any kind of) person is an illusion, a one-dimensional image. It has been twenty years since I was that young woman who started embracing the anger debt as a result of immigrating here. I’d like to say I always use anger mindfully and purposefully, that I have it under control, but that’s not true. Anger can still be a volatile and mischievous mistress. What is truer is that, with time, I have learned to be playful with my anger, to be more aware of her chameleonic nature, of her need to sometimes control, sometimes speak out, and sometimes appear when she is not needed at all. I’ve embraced the knowledge that she is an essential part of the stuff I’m made of and impossible to separate from—as valuable a piece of me as my heart or my courage. I will never deny or dismiss her, denounce her or, worst of all, pretend she is not here because without her … I may not be. “Am I bad?” my eight-year-old daughter asks when she messes something up these days, usually after losing her temper—much like her mama in this (and other) regards. I have learned to answer, “No, sweetheart, you’re never bad. No one is, just people surviving a sometimes-bad world.” And after all these years I mostly, and gratefully, mean it.
STUDIO SPACE, 2021 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
y grandfather lived in a nameless place, once. We called it the North. Shomal, in my native tongue. North of the city, north of the mountains, north of poisoned air and blackened sky. Grandfather had escaped it all, built his home on the farthest shore, the smiling lip of the Caspian. My mother moved us when we were little to Tehran—what Grandfather called a prison in disguise. Electric gates. Iron bars. The face of a tyrant pressed into every crack and crevice. It was a city carefully composed, painted by a loving hand. Layer the colours overtop, said He. Towering skyscrapers, synthetic gardens, boulevards filled with luxury and opulence. Let the poverty and desolation fester underneath. Perhaps it was easier to forget. To pull a veil over not only our hair, but our eyes. The children selling roses in the streets, the young men foraging through our garbage bags. We sent drivers to haggle over meat prices and pick up the dry cleaning rather than face it ourselves. Maybe it was easier to hide behind locked gates and metal spikes rather than confront our own failures. The North was another world entirely. Fresh air, quiet streets, the sea sprawling out for miles and miles. We visited every summer. As a child, it seemed to me an enchanted place, an oasis far removed from the city and its troubles. The cats were friendlier, the sky bluer. The oranges we stole from Mr. Soltani’s trees were sweeter, juice running in rivulets down our necks, dampening our shirts. Even my parents were more indulgent. I ran wild in the streets, playing hide-and-seek for hours at a time with the neighbourhood kids. ///
other bathes him before she leaves, helps him to the toilet. She knows I can’t handle a repeat of last time. She settles him in the backyard, on what used to be his favourite chair, places his pipe and his photo album on a table within easy reach.
“It’s going to be fine,” she says, more to herself than to me. “We’re only going to the bazaar.” She fusses about him, lathering on sunscreen and adjusting his black leather cap. He says nothing, just blinks up at her with those blue-green eyes. “Darya’s going to stay with you, okay?” She pauses a moment to search his face. “Remember Darya?” He nods. “You do?” She squeezes my hand. “Of course, you do.” He looks at me then, through and beyond me. “You look like her, you know.” Mother and I exchange a wary glance. “Like who?” “My child of the sea.” He hums a long, discordant note. “My granddaughter, my Darya.” ///
p and down Mount Damavand, we took two cars every summer. Me and my cousins in the old Jeep and our parents in the Benz. The road was long, steeply winding along the mountain face. There was no fence, no speed limit. Only crumbling pavement and impenetrable stone. Only dust and degradation. Parvis, our driver, was an old man even then. He slept in a shed in our backyard and answered to a bell attached to the terrace. The groundskeeper and the cook were temporary faces; Mother found a reason to replace them every year or so. But Parvis was a constant, with his patchy moustache and leathered hands. On the road to Shomal, Parvis was the general, and we his lieutenants. He bade us sit very, very still while we drove, lest he veer right off the mountain and into the rocks below. If we were lucky, there would be a lone shepherd to distract us, his flock spilling out behind him in noisy clouds of wool. Sometimes locals set up carts beside the road, selling walnuts soaked in water, or headscarves dyed a brilliant red. We passed great valleys of green, dark caves lined with graffiti. There were men in rags; dogs travelling in violent packs. There were houses held
AVA FATHI // 17
MOTHER, WASH ME CLEAN
AVA FATHI // 18
together by mud and tarp; women wrapped in long, billowing fabric. More often than not, Parvis filled the silence with stories of war. Those disastrous eight years between Iran and Iraq. Amid long puffs of tobacco, he replicated the whistle and wail of a bomb overhead, described the terrible silence that followed in its wake. They came in the night, he said, they dragged children from their beds and beat them into soldiers. Parvis spat and cursed and trailed off for long stretches, staring hard at the road. He didn’t have Grandfather’s practised eloquence or measured pace, but he didn’t need to. He managed to impart something true and essential about our country, our inheritance, all the same. He began always as if to entertain us. As if it were only a fairy-tale, another knight off to battle, a children’s book stained with blue-green glitter. Then he would unravel, devolve into machine guns and barricades and holes filled with bodies—his best friend who set himself on fire rather than join their ranks. The wound by his left shoulder that never fully healed, shards of shrapnel still lodged in his chest. Through it all we were silent. Me, Kamran, his older sister Jaleh, my little brother Darien. We sank into tattered leather and let his words crash over us, again and again. Every story, we knew, required an audience. It wasn’t his fault this was the only one Parvis knew how to tell.
Every story, we knew, required an audience. It wasn’t his fault this was the only one Parvis knew how to tell.
Halfway through the journey, we’d stop at the only restaurant with a bathroom my mother could stand. The tiles were wet, slippery. The women had to squat, holding up their long black skirts, to pee in a hole in the floor. I had to squat, too, afraid all the while that I’d slip and fall, disappear into the deep, hollowed shadows of this place. Outside on the restaurant balcony, we sat on worn carpets and revelled in the cool mountain air, all of us weary and sweat-stained. Father ordered buttery rice and roasted kebab, freshly steeped tea, and syrupy rolls of pastry. Between the four cousins, Kamran and
I were the closest in age, thick as thieves at eight and ten years old. After lunch, we’d find the stream cutting across the tile floor, a thin trickle of water covered by a grate, and dare each other to jump across. Left, right, left, right. We’d hurtle ourselves back and forth, pretending the grate was a chasm, a pit, a trench. We lay on our bellies and stretched out our arms to touch the swift-moving current. “This water,” Kamran said, face pressed against metal. “This water rolls all the way down the mountain and into the Caspian.” He said the same thing every year. “I hope not,” I said time and time again. “I hope not.” The water smelled of dead things up close. It stained our fingers a mottled grey. ///
randfather sits in the middle seat, between me and Darien. He hums under his breath, seemingly unbothered by his soiled dress pants. I can feel the warmth of his urine seeping into the folds of my new dress. “We have to go back.” That was Mother. “I have to wash and change him.” “We’re already late.” Father paces at the side of the road. It’s his brother’s fiftieth birthday. Mother rears back as if slapped. “Why can’t we just stop somewhere and buy him new clothes?” “I can’t do this anymore, Rana.” Father grabs hold of her shoulders and shakes her back and forth. “I just can’t.” Darien and I glance at each other over Grandfather’s head. This is about more than just pants. Father stalks off, heading toward the teahouse up ahead. Mother, after re-adjusting her veil and wiping her cheeks, hurries after him. Me and Darien sit in silence for a time, fiddling with our phones. Grandfather stares straight ahead, humming the same note over and over. Distantly, I wonder if he even understands the indignity of his situation, soiled pants and all. He used to be such a proud man. Glancing at the side of his face, the once-strong line of his jaw, I hope he’s as insensible as he appears to be. Sometime later, there’s a knock at Darien’s window. It’s a woman, so hunched and filthy that it’s hard to guess her age. Neither of us noticed her approach. She holds one hand out for alms, and with the other she bounces a small, dark-haired baby. Mother and Father still haven’t returned. Darien motions that the door is locked, that he doesn’t have the keys, not that it matters. He would never open that door. Never. Not even the window, not a crack. Let your guard down in this country and you’ll be swindled out of everything you own. This is Father’s favourite
he summers we spent in Shomal were sleepy and dream-like. By the time we reached my grandfather’s house, the house I was born in, it was usually mid-evening, the sun well below the horizon. Before our arrival, he would fix up the rooms himself, buy new bedding, and set out freshly cut flowers. Mother always loved the smell of freshly cut flowers. When we tumbled out of the car every summer, we knew we were in for a story. Aching, sticky, sore—none of it mattered. To most, Grandfather was a forlorn sort of man: lost his wife to cancer and his way of life, his doctor’s practice, to the new regime. But to me he was simply a storyteller. The world fell away—ceased to exist—when Grandfather opened his mouth, weaving tales out of antiquity, magic out of air thick with salt. We gathered around him in the backyard, spread out on blankets and pillows, letting the crash of waves and the trill of crickets lull us into the rhythm, the ba-da-da-dum, the beating heart of the tale. On the wings of a fearsome dragon, Grandfather hurled us into unfamiliar skies, a golden past of warriors and kings. Rustam and Sohrab, a father and son torn apart by war. The tragic romances of Khosrow and Shirin, Layla and Majnun. The first kings of legend: Hushang, the creator of fire; Tahmures, the architect of language; Jamshid, who rose and fell from the kingdom of heaven. On the back of a panting horse, he launched us into battlefields slick with blood. A hundred years of political unrest bubbling to the surface and spilling out onto the streets. Wave after wave of revolt, bodies trampled underfoot, disappearances and executions and buildings set ablaze. It was a call to freedom, Grandfather said; it was the beginning of the end. It was neither, it was both. What to call it? How to describe it? We welcomed a blight onto this land, the devil in the robes of a prophet. We tightened the noose; we administered the poison ourselves. Mostly, he spoke of the sea. The ebb and flow, the rising tide. The creatures that lurked just below the surface. The long fishing expeditions he went on as a boy. The sea has many faces, he said. She will rock you to sleep with one hand and sink your vessel with the other. She will nurture and sustain you through the winter, then flood your fields in the spring. He told us of grown men, experienced swimmers and fishermen, drowning in shallow waters. Unlike the dead beaches of the West, silenced by the tourist industry and subdued by heavy machinery, the Caspian was alive. Insatiable.
AVA FATHI // 19
line, his adage, repeated so often and so sternly that now it’s ringing in our ears like an anvil. Like a death sentence. His voice strong and sure, both playful and derisive. The woman stares at us, peering through the tinted windows of our sleek German car. I sink into my seat, hiding behind Grandfather, whose humming has finally stopped. I don’t want her to see the dress we have imported from Italy, or the diamonds winding like lace across my throat. All that money hoarded and passed down from Grandfather’s time, before the revolution, before sanctions upon sanctions strangled the people’s hopes and dreams. All that money wasted, Grandfather’s legacy squandered on pearls and parties and trips to the cottage. All that money used to forget, to escape the city and its miseries. The woman raps at the door again, motioning to her mouth and her baby’s mouth with dirty fingers. Darien turns away, clenching his eyes shut, and I fight the urge to do the same. It would be so much easier, would it not, for all three of us to just turn away? “Look.” I jump at the gravelly sound of Grandfather’s voice. “What?” I search his face in surprise. “Did you say something, Grandfather?” “Look at her.” He grabs Darien’s chin and points it at the glass. “Look what they have done to her.” The woman starts banging at the window in frustration, first gently and then louder and louder, as if responding to Grandfather’s words, the thump of her fist shaking through the car. “This is Iran. Ashes upon my head, this is Iran!” Her eyes are red, her arms thin and purple with bruises. Darien struggles against Grandfather’s iron-like grip. He doesn’t want to see this. No one wants to see this. “These are your people.” Grandfather says, voice so hard, so reminiscent of his old self, that I am sinking in my seat, under the weight of my diamonds. “This is you in the dirt, out in the cold.” He pushes Darien’s head to the window, violently rubbing his face into the glass. Darien is crying in pain now. Screaming. Grandfather’s voice is like thunder in our ears. “What have they done, what have we done—” Father appears outside the window, seething, forcing the woman away from the door and ripping it open. He pulls Darien out of the car and glares down at Grandfather, violence in the curve of his shoulders, in the vein pulsing at his neck. For a moment, I think he might yell or even strike the old man, but Mother wrenches him away, crying soundlessly. Darien covers his face with both hands and drops to the crumbling pavement. The woman and her baby are nowhere to be found. We never make it to the party.
AVA FATHI // 20
Like the country itself, the sea was angry; she was clever. She was not to be trifled with. To underestimate either meant certain death. Grandfather never shied away from the painful truths of our collective history. He dropped them like jewels onto our laps—the ugly and the devastating along with the beautiful, oftentimes because of the beautiful. All the adults seemed to share this same conviction, this stubborn belief that nothing good came easy, unpaid for with blood. In the last century alone, three separate movements had been thwarted and repaid a thousandfold. They were still paying, it seemed. Every gift, in their eyes, came with a price. That first night, we dreamt always of violent deaths, of falling on battlefields, disappearing in mobs, slipping under dark, frothing waters. But we never complained. It was a necessary evil. We were up before dawn the very next day, eager to leave the nightmares in the shadows where they belonged. Kamran and I spied on the neighbours, stealing into backyards and trampling flowerbeds, looking for kids our own age. We played in the skeletal remains of old buildings, worn to their foundations by wind and time. We hunted for treasure in sand dunes, comparing seashells and dead fish to beer bottles and multicoloured rock. Grandfather left the house every morning and disappeared in the sand. We were not to follow him. None of us, not even Mother. The one time we did, it was what Grandfather called a special circumstance. The lizard Kamran had caught and kept on his windowsill had died in the night. Grandfather said it was the circle of life, that from dust we rise and to dust we must inevitably return, that it was nothing to be particularly upset about. Yet we cried for so long and so hard that he offered to take us with him, to witness what no one else had. Lizard forgotten, we hurried at his heels as he led us through the backyard, over the garden wall, and onto the long stretch of beach below. Kamran and I broke into a run, whooping and jumping and bursting out of our skin. We stood with our feet in the water, waiting for Grandfather to catch up, impatient to see what he would do. I held my breath as he approached, but he only stripped down to his bathing suit and settled in the sand. After a long moment, I stretched out beside him in my clothes, letting the water rise and fall along my thighs. Kamran sat on Grandfather’s other side and crossed his arms, disappointed. I flexed my toes in the water. Kamran dug a hole in the sand. Eventually, we followed Grandfather’s lead
and relaxed into the cradle, the lull, the give and take of rocking waves. Looking out on the water, blue and endless and heaving, I felt small. I felt brand-new. I was untouched, suddenly, by the calamity and despair that shaped my city, my country, my world. “Grandfather,” I said, eyes on the horizon. “Why do you like the sea?” He turned to me and smiled a funny, lopsided smile. “The sea belongs to no one.” Cupping the water in his hands, he let it fall, slowly, between his fingers. “Not me, not you, not …” I watched the bob of his throat as he swallowed. “Why do you like the sea?” I looked down at my hands, casting about for a good answer, something wise and worldly. My parents and Kamran’s always bandied the word “privilege” about like some sort of punishment; this vaguely shameful quality that robbed us of the ability, the right, to complain or cry or display any emotion even remotely negative because the people outside of our shiny cars and gated houses had it so acutely, so unimaginably worse. But sitting there in the sand, I thought for the first time that maybe privilege was about more than just wealth. There was privilege in walking the coast, of drawing in our minds a border, a map of our country, that stretched back thousands of years. There was the privilege of knowing my grandfather, my grandfather the storyteller, of being the heirs to generations upon generations of stories, of customs and traditions that refuse to die. There was the privilege, also, of having a dream for the future, of being bound—blood-bound, bound in our very bones—to an image of Iran, a true Iran, that didn’t exist yet, that we had to shape and mould with our small brown fingers, our unwrinkled hands. Finally, I turned to Grandfather and said, “it washes me clean.” ///
e move Grandfather to the city, so we can take better care of him. He keeps me up long into the night with his stories, makes me record them in a small, leather-bound notebook. He seems to know that soon he will forget them, and, eventually, he does. He loses every story but one. I was born in the North. That summer long ago, Mother found herself trapped in Grandfather’s cottage, already in her third trimester. All the streets had flooded the night before. Grandfather was forced to grab me by the neck and pull me into the world. But this is not the way he tells it. The more he deteriorates, the more warped and fantastical the story
enough to walk. The current grasped at my waist and pulled me under. It was Grandfather who hauled me out and onto the sand. As I kicked and thrashed and was emptied of air, as the weight of the water surged and swallowed and overwhelmed me, filling my eyes and ears and lungs and throat—I felt a hand close over mine, strong and firm. I felt two arms like metal hooks wrap around my shoulders and pull. Clawing at my neck, struggling to hold on, he yanked me to the surface. He used the last of his strength to drag me to shore. Grandfather, who could barely stand without assistance. Grandfather, who hadn’t known my face in years. With the strength of a much younger man, he saved me. He took my place. When I crawled out and onto the sand, coughing and retching and sobbing with relief, he wasn’t beside me. He was in the water. I watched in horror as his head, his blue-green eyes, disappeared beneath the waves.
randfather lost his memories. He lost his stories. He lost his mind. How quickly, how painfully, did Grandfather lose his mind. We didn’t see the signs. One year to the next, the man we knew was gone. That last summer, all the light and magic had already disappeared from Shomal. Grandfather had been living with us for three years by then. The gardens were overgrown, our rooms cold and cobwebbed. The roaring tides at night more ominous than comforting. The house itself seemed to wilt, to lay down its petals and sink into dirt. At the end of the season, we packed in the morning and spent the day by the water. It was Kamran and I who helped Grandfather to the beach, stripped him down to his bathing suit, settled him comfortably in the sand. We sat on either side of him and watched the family splash and play in the midday sun. Grandfather stared straight ahead and hummed in time to the crashing waves. “Go on,” Kamran said, squeezing my hand. “You first.” I grinned and scrambled to my feet, sprinting for the gently rocking waves. I sighed as the water hit my shins, my knees, my waist. I dunked my head under and came up laughing. It occurred within the span of a second. One moment, the sand was solid and unyielding beneath my feet, and the next, it was shifting, it was receding, it was being swept away by the tide. I knew what was going to happen before it did. Mother had warned me again and again, since I was old enough to swim, since I was old
He seems to know that soon he will forget them, and, eventually, he does. He loses every story but one.
We searched for his body until dawn. Hand in hand, a chain disappearing down the coast. Father on my left and Kamran on my right, white-faced and weeping. Mother was screaming so much that she had to be restrained, sedated face-down in the sand. The men in uniform started the count, and we took one step forward. Then another. And another. Left, right, left, right. Feeling with the tips of our toes for a hand, a leg, the fleshy part of his stomach. The silence was deafening. No shouts, no cries of discovery. As I trudged back to shore, it occurred to me that we might never find him. My grandfather, the storyteller. There would be nothing to bury, nothing to mourn. He was just gone. The sea had stolen him back. Or maybe it had finally freed him. ///
AVA FATHI // 21
becomes. It is the only time he ever speaks, now, to tell the same tale. Backwards and forwards, broken and rambling. He turns the sea into a jealous mother, a vengeful god, a mythological force that demands an altar, a sacrifice, of her own. “They could have no children,” he says, sucking on his pipe. “They turned to the moon, the tides. The dark, black water. The sea, the sea, the sea.” “Three days, three nights.” He orders and reorders the photos in his album, thumbing at faces he can no longer remember. “The storm raged on and on. The village flooded, windows shattered, three on three on three.” “The sea delivered.” He bursts out of his room, half-dressed, unknown stains on his briefs. “A newborn on our doorstep. Blue eyes. Dark hair.” He looks at me, always he looks at me. “The sea will come for you, mothers always do. Every gift, after all, comes with a price.”
AVA FATHI // 22
My mother falls sick and Jibbi Khala comes for a visit. I am nervous, I hop, I ribbit. Jibbi Khala lets out a croak: “AH! The frog inside me awoke!” We hop. We croak. We slither. We slime. We collect pretend bugs On the tips of our extended tongues We smear green On the scales of our skin We skip a day of school and Froggie Khala takes me to the community pool She teaches me that the only way to float Is to fall back and think: I am falling but I will not sink I am falling but I will not sink I am falling but I will not sink ///
(OPPOSITE) CANBOULAY (DETAIL), ASPHALT, SUGAR CANE, TWINE, CANVAS, COCONUT FIBER, OX BONES, 2021 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
SALMA HUSSAIN // 23
THE SILLIEST LUNCH BUNCH
DOMINIK PARISIEN // 24
ON WASHROOMS AND THEIR SYNONYMS I
magine playing the spoons. Forget big fancy moves, just imagine a pair of spoons clanking together over and over against the meat of a palm and thigh. Clanketyclankety-clankety-clank. Get a good rhythm going. Now, imagine the spoons are my head, and the palm and the thigh are the solid surfaces of my toilet and bathtub. Bang them against each other over and over. Thumpetythumpety-thumpety-thump. Not exactly musical, but there’s still a sort of stumbling rhythm to it, and the acoustics in the washroom must be pretty good, otherwise people wouldn’t sing in the shower all the time. Because I’m disabled, that’s what I’m supposed to start with, right? Or get to, anyway. Trauma, physical and psychological. Horror stories and hardship. Especially when the subject is washrooms. Here, then: that was my third or fourth or fifth concussion—I misremember, but probably not because of the concussions—and my first from convulsing in a washroom. In the aftermath, I became depressed, not for the first time. A few weeks later I flushed my sleeping pills down that same toilet, a major inconvenience for my concussed brain’s suicide plan, while on the phone with a helpline. Who would have thought washrooms such a dangerous place? (A disabled or elderly reader might interject—Me, obviously! As might a trans or nonbinary reader, for different reasons.) Then, there are the numerous issues of access, which writers and activists like Ivan Coyote, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Alice Wong, and Stella Young have written about eloquently. Washrooms do make me nervous when I’m dizzy and stumbling—which might mean I’m drunk, but not usually—and I do reach for grab bars if I need them, but the rest of the time I use the washroom unassisted, and my gender has never caused me to be driven out of a washroom based on my appearance. No, I’m writing to celebrate washrooms. Is that showing my privilege? Well, yes. Maybe that’s why I wrote about trauma first, not solely so I could get it out
of the way, but in the hopes that showing my credentials, such as they are, will allow me to dive into the subject without too many objections. I come to writing about washrooms because of family (the universal in the personal and all that, but also if you’re going to write about the business, you might as well keep it in the family). Washroom and family are a combination of words that make many shudder. Washroom and private are a far better combination. Washroom and public are acceptable because together they’re utilitarian, except public washrooms are just so … public, aren’t they? So, I imagine the words washroom and family and public together are nightmare fuel to some. My parents both had small-town, working-class French Catholic upbringings, which of course meant they each had a lot of siblings and only one washroom to go around. Outside of the kitchen, the washroom was the most densely packed area of their homes. Our family was small-town middle-class, which is to say we had the great luxury of multiple washrooms between four people. Later, we even had a pool and eventually a small hot tub, so there were ample places to pee if it came to it. Except, our washroom, too, was the heart of the home. It was the ideal hub, at the exact centre of the house. There were no windows, which when I was very young made it the perfect place to hide from the T. Rex that haunted my dreams ever since I’d watched Jurassic Park—no terrifying eye could look in on me there. And yet, you could call out to just about anywhere in the house and be heard, from the bedrooms to the kitchen to the living room or even parts of the basement, if you shouted into the air vent. A sliding door technically separated the toilet and the vanity from the space with the washer and dryer and bathtub, but it rarely saw use. You could almost call the door ornamental, except that might be too generous. For years the walls were that ubiquitous ’90s teal and there was a green and white laminate
effect for practical if inconsiderate jokes over the years). But to my increasingly self-conscious teenage self, it was a lesson in care. Allowing others to support me was a struggle, and the washroom became a symbol of that struggle and eventual concession. It forced me to acknowledge some of my needs as a disabled person. Later, washroom and support became synonymous with sibling. In her late teens, my sister Sophie developed serious digestion issues. They diagnosed her with IBS, with severe acid reflux. They tried all manner of diets and medications with unpronounceable names. In the end, they learned her birth control pills were the cause of all her woes, which is just cruel considering she seemed to experience the symptoms of a particularly long and difficult pregnancy. For years she struggled to eat most things. She’d spend entire nights nauseous, perched over the toilet like a poor party girl waiting to throw up after a rowdy night of drinking. We were both insomniacs at the time (she isn’t anymore, the lucky shit), and often we were involved in what you might call evenings of tag-team retching wrestling. Tag, your turn, sibling! Get those arms around that toilet! Put your back into it! Turn your head! You good? Okay, I’ll take over! We’d text—That time? Yup. Be right there—or just overhear the other in the washroom and walk over. We’d come bearing blankets and books, a heating pad or cold compress, ginger ale (Canada Dry, obviously) or plain, boring water. We were kids again, except we were camping together on a cold tiled washroom floor instead of our bedrooms or the basement. We’d read to each other, talk trash, and crack jokes that wouldn’t have been half as funny if we weren’t so sleep-deprived and sick. It was a time of steadying hands on a back or of holding hair (I was a proper goth—our hair was of roughly equal length). Sometimes we leaned backto-back, listened to the other’s erratic breathing, felt the other’s weight press comfortably against us. We’d always been close, but those nights in the washroom brought a sense of togetherness that started shifting us from close siblings to friends. Now, in a big city—hours away from my sister and my parents and surrounded by strangers—my washroom is less than half the size of the one where we spent so much of our time together. My toilet runs and the white paint is peeling on the window frame. The mirror is small and there’s no wicker cabinet in sight (thank God for small mercies). And yet, when I close the door and leave it unlocked, it still feels like my sister or parents might walk in at any moment. Washroom feels synonymous with family. Which means I never quite feel like I’m alone, even when I’d damn well like to be. ///
DOMINIK PARISIEN // 25
vanity—with cupboards large enough to accommodate a growing child or two—that ran from wall to wall with a full flat mirror covering the entire length of the counter. Above the toilet, a little wicker cabinet served to showcase a bowl of potpourri that was never once refreshed in its sad existence. The cabinet also featured a compartment that would accumulate empty rolls of toilet paper until the doors finally threatened to burst open. To us, that washroom was synonymous with culture. Our mother was never without a book or magazine there. On the toilet, in the bathtub, she would spend long minutes, or hours, or minutes that seemed like hours, reading whatever she had available. It was in the washroom that I learned the power of a good book. As a result, in university, I would be known to disappear into my partner’s tiny washroom with a book, never quite realizing how much time had passed until I’d finished that chapter (or several, if the book was good). That might seem frustrating, a real tyrant claiming the throne for themselves. Except, washroom was synonymous with conversation. There was logistical talk, the agendas of the day—Can you pick up boloney for sandwiches? What time does practice finish? But some of our best or most profound conversations—Wait, does that mean you still believe in God? I’ll propose just before Christmas. No, I think that’s pretty much how he would have wanted to die—were with one person comfortably settled on the toilet and another sitting atop the counter, or in the bathtub separated by a curtain. And it wasn’t always a tête-à-tête—some days the entire family was involved. You might have one person in the bath, one on the toilet, another brushing their teeth, and the last one a free agent, maybe folding laundry on the washer, or lazily standing in the corner to be included. Everyone was vulnerable there, physically and emotionally. Washroom was synonymous with togetherness. Boundaries! a reader might interject. Yes, yes, we had them. A locked door meant private. A closed but unlocked door was nebulous: a startled sound when the handle turned meant halt—the occupant had simply forgotten the lock—whereas quiet was the same as an open door and meant welcome, regardless of the person’s business. Later, washroom became synonymous with support. When my convulsions started in high school and I began regularly throwing up from pain—enough that I sometimes tore my esophagus and coughed up blood, a weirdly neat talking point for a goth until you mentioned its bland name, a Mallory-Weiss Tear—I was asked not to lock the door in case I collapsed. It was an artificial concession to privacy, really, since the lock was loose, and you could easily force it open if you wanted or had to (which could and had been used to terrifying
GRAEME DESROSIERS // 26
THE HUNT T
he morning sun pierced the clouds, its beams like light through water, and warmed Molly’s hands through her work gloves. She stopped to check her phone. Eight-thirty. Just half an hour to finish preparing for the Dundas Valley Easter Egg Hunt. Her team of volunteers was hiding candy throughout the grassy, U-shaped section of The Driving Park, known as The Cove because of the forested slope surrounding it on three sides. The whole valley was once the floor of an ancient inland sea. She had learned the name for the period in high school. She tried to recall it while she worked, but it wouldn’t come back to her. Molly was collecting garbage from in and around the pavilion near the long, flat section of the loop road that gave the park its name, forming a fourth boundary for The Cove. She was cleaning up the detritus of what looked like a serious party the night before. Molly remembered partying here herself. Back then,
She stopped to check her phone. Eight-thirty. Just half an hour to finish preparing for the Dundas Valley Easter Egg Hunt. she was a stoned teenager in flared pants cut with fun fur. She had a reputation for what she could do with her tongue piercing, a taste for Southern Comfort and Mountain Dew, and the ability to make a pipe out of a plastic Coke bottle and the tinfoil sheet from a pack of smokes. The Cove—if kids still called it that—made a perfect party spot because of the easy escape up the hill into the cemetery or the apartment buildings along Helen Street should parents or police show up to ruin the fun.
As she bagged empty bottles, broken glass, roaches, cigarette butts, a Batman baggie with a few loose grains of white powder, and a condom smeared with semen and blood (this last she lifted, grimacing, with a stick), she wondered if her daughter, Ariana, had been among the debauchees. Like her mother, Ariana was wild, reckless, angry. Damian, her youngest, was more like his father: studious and self-absorbed to the point of aloofness. She didn’t worry about him the way she worried about Ariana. She was a little bit nervous he might ask to go live with her ex and his new wife. The more she tried to pull Damian close, the harder he pushed away. Molly threw away the last of the garbage and surveyed her volunteers. Grace, the only one from the Catholic high school in West Hamilton, was hiding eggs in the back of the field, near the trees. She was a couple of years older than the others, wore long braids in her hair, and had traces of a Caribbean accent Molly was not knowledgeable enough to identify. Grace had been sitting on a bench reading when Molly showed up that morning. “It’s for school,” she had said, stuffing the book quickly in her backpack when Molly asked her what she was reading. Jayden and Ethan, a pair of rep hockey players whose coach had dropped them off that morning, were fooling around by the road, eating some of the candy Molly had given them after scattering the rest in the grass with a few quick tosses. As Molly watched, Jayden, a tall kid with long blonde hair, grabbed Ethan, a short, scruffy, jumpy kid, and spun him into a headlock. They were the same age as Ariana, who hung out with them sometimes. They’d never been to the house. Savannah, who had been in school with Ariana since kindergarten, was carefully distributing eggs on and around the rocket ship and the swings. She was blonde, with a toothy smile, and wore leggings and a sweater with a heart on it. Her big, nerdy glasses hid beautiful features. Just this week, Molly had scolded Ariana for calling Savannah a “basic bitch” at the dinner
the Cat and eating green grapes cut lengthwise. She didn’t understand why he and Damian weren’t closer. They did some online gaming now and then, but that wasn’t what she would call a relationship. “Most of the prize eggs are hidden out by the trees, to keep the big kids away from the little ones. Don’t tell anyone I told you.” “Thanks, Aunt Molly,” he said. “Can I wait in the car?” he asked his mother. Sara nodded and handed him the keys. Her efficient brown ponytail bobbed against the fitted purple athletic jacket she wore all over town. “Passenger seat.” He crossed to where it was parked on the other side of the road. “I told him he had to leave his phone in the car,” she explained. “He probably wants to go on Tik Tok or whatever.” Sara wore a hint of eyeliner and mascara, so subtle that Molly wouldn’t have noticed if she wasn’t her sister. Her hair was immaculately dyed to hide the grey roots that lurked beneath. By contrast, Molly proudly wore a skunk stripe in her black hair. “You talk to Chris this week?” Sara asked. “I saw him when I dropped off the kids on Friday.” “Too bad they couldn’t come this year.” “Meh, they’re too old now. Where’s Philip?” “Still getting over that cold. Says hello. You need any help?” “I think we’re good. I just hope we don’t have another fight. I don’t remember anything like that from when we were kids.” “Kids are different now.” Sara glanced at Spencer in the car, his eyes on his phone. “We’ll have to have you guys over for Chloe’s birthday.” Molly agreed. They had been best friends as kids but diverged widely as teenagers, Sara the Sarah McLaughlin to Molly’s Courtney Love. Since Christos left two years earlier, they had grown close again. They were running together three times a week now, training for the Around the Bay race. Molly waved at a few neighbours and some old familiar faces from school as the families congregated. It was time. She blew her whistle. “Happy Easter everyone! Can I get all the kids in the centre, please, all the kids in the centre where I can see you?” Dozens of children emerged, the boldest running and planting themselves excitedly in front of her, the shy kids clinging to their parents’ legs or propped up in their arms. “Thank you everyone for coming out on a Sunday morning. I know many of you will be heading off to church or family after the hunt, so I’ll try to be quick. A big thank you to the Rotary Club, the Town of Dundas, and all our sponsors.”
GRAEME DESROSIERS // 27
table. She was a good student, which was why Molly had been encouraging Ariana to partner up with her for their social studies project. Apparently, they hadn’t. Molly blew her whistle. Her volunteers gathered. “Listen up,” she said. “Two boys got in a fight last year, and Rotary almost cancelled the hunt. I need your help keeping things under control. I’m going to stay in the pavilion with the prizes. Jayden and Ethan, you guys will be by the road. Hey, are you listening?” Ethan was showing Jayden a photo on his phone. Jayden gave a dirty, snorting laugh. Molly saw a flash of skin. Was that Ariana? “Guys?” she said. “Sorry, Miss,” Ethan said and slipped the phone into his pocket. He smiled slyly at Molly. “Grace and Savannah, I’m putting you out back. If anything happens, just wave me over. Don’t intervene. I don’t want anyone hurt.” The year before, two boys had gotten into a fight over a Creme Egg. The bigger boy dislocated the smaller one’s shoulder. Everyone froze as the boy’s screams tore across the field. A reporter’s story on the hunt had gone viral. In an interview, Molly helplessly explained, “I just didn’t expect anything like this. It’s a children’s Easter egg hunt.” This year, she hoped to recover her reputation. She had also hoped Ariana would volunteer, and that Damian would want to participate, even if he was a bit too old. By the time she found out that neither was interested, it was too late to withdraw from running it, or at least, she would have been too embarrassed. Ever since Christos had left, there were whispers about her in the community. People who remembered her teenage antics probably assumed the worst. The truth was much plainer. She had agreed to move back here with Christos after all those years in Toronto because they had family here and wanted space to raise their kids. She hadn’t expected he would start attending his old Greek Orthodox church with his mother again when they did. She also hadn’t expected he would leave her to marry a nice Greek Orthodox woman, as his mother had always wanted. Molly’s sister Sara arrived early with her children, Chloe, Emma, and Spencer. The girls, high on sugar, played with the Beanie Babies they had received as Easter presents—a monkey and a panda—making them kiss. Spencer, twelve, stood awkwardly beside his mother as she and Molly hugged. “Managed to get you out of bed early on a Sunday?” Molly asked him. “Mm-hm,” he replied. It seemed so recent that Spencer had been happy to sit on her lap reading Splat
GRAEME DESROSIERS // 28
She addressed the kids with a dramatic voice and gesticulations. “Who here is good at math? Hands up.” Dozens of hands shot up, some of them down, then up again, waving back and forth. “Keep your hands up if you can count to … one thousand!” About half of the hands went down, then some went up again as the kids thought it over. “Well, I spoke to the Easter Bunny this morning, and he told me he’d hidden two thousand eggs and bunnies all around this park.” Kids rocked and clapped and pogoed. “Aaaaaand … we have special prizes too. So, if you find one of these,” she removed a pink plastic egg from her pocket and held it up, “come see me at the end of the hunt for one of the big prizes. Everyone have their baskets?” Kids with brightly coloured baskets or plastic buckets held theirs up, high and proud, while others looked sheepishly at crumpled grocery bags and pillowcases. “Let’s gather at the starting line.” She led the charged group over to the green ribbon she’d strung between the pavilion and one of the benches. The older kids wore the expressions of trained Olympians; the younger kids were bemused but excited, sensing something big was about to happen. “Everyone ready?” She looked around to make sure her volunteers were all in place. “Can I get a big hurray?” The kids roared. “Aaaaaand, go!” she shouted and cut the ribbon. The older kids at the back pushed forward and knocked those at the front to the grass. Confusion, frustration, and excitement contorted the kids’ faces. Fingers clawed faces and yanked ponytails while stumbling feet kicked shins. Molly danced around the edge looking for a way into the frenzied mass. Several kids overcame their inhibitions and savagely shoved their peers aside, while the more risk-averse darted back to the safety of their parents. Molly blew her whistle. “No pushing please! There’s lots of eggs!” she shouted. She lunged and scooped up a face-planted brunette in pigtails and jean overalls before she could be trampled. The girl was in tears and called for her mommy, who weaved through from the back. “You didn’t need to wind them up so much,” scolded the woman as she bent to hug her wailing daughter. She pressed a tissue to a spot of blood on her daughter’s lip. “She’s bleeding. Very nice. I guess that’s what you get,” she said. She hoisted the girl up on her hip and walked away before Molly could apologize. The rest of the kids were picking themselves up, too excited about candy to worry about the grass stains on their knees. Candy was serious. Parents holding hands with their toddlers trailed behind, smiling uncertainly as they entered the area with their wide-eyed children. Spencer came sauntering in toward the end. “Don’t forget about the eggs in the
back,” she said as he went past. He nodded and cut straight through the kids picking up one egg at a time. Molly took her place in front of the pavilion. Sara stood beside her, arms folded. “Rough start,” she said. “I think it’ll be okay now. We need a separate hunt for the younger kids.” “Sorry about Spencer. I can’t seem to get him excited about anything these days.” Molly shrugged. “I thought he might want one of the prizes. There’s a couple of iPads.” “He’s already got i-everything, thanks to Philip. You need any help?” “I think I’m okay. Just keep an eye out in general. Maybe watch those two on the corners.” Ethan was already gone from his post. Molly spotted him conferring with a young boy in a red-and-grey striped shirt, swapping cash for a prize egg on the sly, hand-to-hand like a street corner drug deal. “Hey!” Molly called out. She walked briskly toward Ethan. The kid fled into the crowd. “What were you talking to him about?” “Who?” Ethan said. “That kid. You know who.” She spread her feet and put her hands on her hips. She still had a couple of inches on him, plus the weight of authority. “I was trying to keep him in bounds. I didn’t want him to run off and get hurt,” Ethan said. He put his hands in his pockets and turned his body away. “What was he handing you?” “Nothing.” “Do I have to make you turn out your pockets?” “You can’t make me do that. Not without a warrant.” “Show me.” “What is this, the Blair Witch Trials?” “Well, I’m not signing your volunteer form.” “Miss, it’s not fair. I got up early. This is bullshit.” “If you have a problem with it, you can speak to your teacher. I’ll get someone else to watch your corner.” “Fucking bitch,” he muttered. “What was that?” “Nothing. I’m outta here.” “Fine by me,” Molly said and threw up her hands as she turned her back on him. The hunt continued. Many parents had phones and tablets out, filming their kids hoarding eggs like little cocoa capitalists. In the distance, a local news station captured the scene. Molly recognized the reporter from the year before. The vulture had returned for another scrap of flesh. She cringed as she remembered the footage. She had looked ineffective and out of control as she ran to break up the fight. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction this year.
“You!” shouted Molly. She pried Grace off him and hauled him off the ground. Even though Ethan struggled, Molly held him by the arms. “Someone call the police.” “I already did,” a woman called out. Sara helped Grace to her feet. In the distance, Jayden lifted the box of prizes from the pavilion. “Hey!” Molly shouted. Ethan struggled again. “I’m going to fuck your daughter,” he spat. Molly turned to him in shock. Ethan twisted his arms free and lunged toward a gap in the circle of people. Molly sprinted after him across the field. He moved quickly and erratically, like a rabbit, but she had the longer, more powerful stride. She felt the strength in her thighs, the muscles she had built for the race. Ethan veered sharply toward the hill up to the cemetery. Molly caught him by the hood of his sweatshirt. Ethan spun and slapped her. Molly slapped back, connecting hard with his cheek. His hood slipped out of her fingers. She pounced as he turned, landing on his back with the full weight of a body that had borne two children, the jolt of impact passing through his body
He moved quickly and erratically, like a rabbit, but she had the longer, more powerful stride.
into hers. She pinned his arms and lay on top of him, winded. She thought about all the people watching. The cameras. The police pulled up along the road. They flashed their lights and buzzed their sirens. She rolled off the boy, who groaned and rolled over onto his back. They lay on the grass, panting side-by-side like lovers. Molly stared at the blue sky. Suddenly, it came to her. The name for the time when this valley sat at the bottom of the sea: The Silurian. She thought back to the geography class where she’d learned it, how she’d come out to The Cove, gotten high by herself, and skipped the rest of the day, lazing in the sun with no concern for her future. She closed her eyes and smiled, imagining this place under all that water. ///
GRAEME DESROSIERS // 29
As she walked toward the pavilion, she noticed Jayden had left his corner as well. Good riddance. She was relieved her son, Damian, had already quit hockey. She remembered all the shit hockey players had gotten into when she was young. Half her friends lost their virginity to members of the rep team, not all of them willingly, or at least not soberly. Herself among them. She felt another pang of worry for Ariana. Sara stood in front of the pavilion, arms crossed. “What was that about?” she asked. “Little bastard. I caught him selling one of the prize eggs I gave him to hide. He called me a fucking bitch.” The sisters laughed. “I’m just glad this is my last year. You’re not going to take over, are you?” “Me? No. This is Spencer’s last year. If you’re not running it next year, why don’t we do our own thing with the kids? I guess you’d have to sort it out with Chris.” “Wouldn’t matter. Greek Easter is a different weekend.” “Right.” Molly watched the children combing the field, their parents chatting among themselves on the sidelines. She felt an overwhelming sense of relief. The hunt was nearly over and aside from one minor incident, it had been smooth. Maybe all this worry about Ariana was for nothing. After all, Molly had eventually straightened herself out. Maybe it was just a phase, something strong-willed women like herself and her daughter needed to go through. It was just at that moment that Grace called for Molly’s attention from the far back corner. “Miss!” A frenzied group of children scattered before a pair of boys who swept shark-like through the group, grabbing baskets and bags. They wore hooded sweatshirts, but she could tell it was Jayden and Ethan. Idiots. Grace was in pursuit. Some parents grabbed at the boys, while others swept their kids off the ground and out of the way. Ethan thrust his load of baskets and bags at Jayden and turned to face Grace and the pursuing kids. Grace stopped abruptly in front of him, like a dog who’d finally caught a cat and didn’t know what to do. The wave of chocolate-crazed children chasing their stolen candy hit Ethan and Grace and broke upon the grass, the ground a pile of writhing bodies. Jayden kept going. Molly and Sara ran toward the children, fearing broken collar bones, bloody noses, loose teeth, or worse. They arrived at the scene and started pulling children off. Each one screamed as though the apocalypse had descended. She uncovered Grace and Ethan at the bottom. Grace had her head tucked protectively into her chest. She held Ethan by the shoulders. He punched her arms and the back of her head and yanked on her braids as he tried to escape.
GRAEME DESROSIERS // 30
Before love was a word, it was. A man is a lover toward heaven. He marks black where you submit to him. His hot breath turns you into a ghost of him. Then, he grows his hair like you grew yours. He was not his before he was yours. You figured when he smiled it was your own. What happens if you own What was not accorded to you for long? If you remember where you belong, The sun will choose not to share its light with the moon. Where you belong was before the moon, Before love was a word. Before love was a word, It was. ///
(OPPOSITE) BLANCO, 8" x 12", COPPER PLATE ETCHING AND AQUATINT ON PAPER, 2019 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
JEDIDIAH MUGARURA // 31
BEFORE LOVE WAS A WORD, IT WAS
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FRUIT/SOIL // 42 UNTITLED PHOTO EXPERIMENT, 2020 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
INGÉNUE hen I audition for my first TV commercial, I miraculously get the part. Is it beginner’s luck? The start of my meteoric rise to stardom? I don’t yet know. What I do know is that a movie network is going to pay me $500 to play a teenager making out with her boyfriend on a couch. My agent is almost as excited as I am. He tells me that a wardrobe stylist will be calling soon to find out my bra size. “They want you to take your shirt off in one of the shots. Are you okay with that?” he asks. “Um, sure!” I say. Five hundred dollars is two months’ rent. He gives me the address and call time. At 6:30 a.m. a few days later, I step out of a cab on a residential street in north Toronto. It’s early October and the air feels crisp and no-nonsense. Most of the houses are dark, except for one that’s bustling with activity. I introduce myself to a guy with a clipboard, and he tells me to go see the wardrobe stylist in the basement. When I find her, she sizes me up, then flicks through several hangers on her rolling clothing rack before pausing at a red shirt with long sleeves. She rips off the Le Château tags and hands me the shirt, along with a pair of jeans and a black basic-looking bra. Thankfully, it’s not see-through or lacy like I was worried it might be—it’s more like a sports bra. The stylist points to a curtain hanging across a corner of the basement. “Just go try these on over there, then come out and show me,” she says. As I walk over to the changing area, I pass a group of actors sitting at a folding table in the centre of the room. They’re drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and wearing white bathrobes, like a family that just woke up. When I come out from behind the curtain, the stylist shuffles me behind the rolling clothing rack and motions for me to lift up my shirt. She studies the bra critically, her eyes darting from left to right. “Okay, good. The director also wants you in layers, so let’s put this sweater over your shirt. And then you can grab a robe, just so you don’t spill anything on yourself before they’re ready for you.”
I pull on the extra clothes and she points me to my next stop: a brightly lit area where a makeup artist is waiting. When I sit in her chair, she squints at my face like it’s a book with too-small print. As she begins to do my makeup, I feel just a little bit famous. In theatre school we always had to do our own makeup, muddling through the best we could. “Close your eyes,” says the makeup artist, and I feel the wet tickle of eyeliner trace my eyelid. Her mint-scented breath warms my cheek. “So, what’s your commercial about?” she asks. “I’m not sure,” I say. “I just know I have to take my shirt off.” She gives a short laugh, as if stripping down is a pretty common part of acting in TV commercials, and I feel relieved. Maybe this is a rite of passage—something like joining the actors’ union.
She gives a short laugh, as if stripping down is a pretty common part of acting in TV commercials, and I feel relieved. When my makeup is finished, I go over to the table to meet the other talent. The actor who will be playing my boyfriend—who introduces himself as Mark—is not the guy I auditioned with. Mark seems a bit younger than me maybe, although neither of us are “teens.” I’m twenty-four, he’s probably twenty-two. We just look young for our age. Mark walks me outside to show me the craft services tent where there’s coffee, fruit and yogourt, and even an omelette station. I wonder if I might be able to sneak some food home to share with my actress roommate in our dingy basement apartment.
BECKY BLAKE // 43
BECKY BLAKE // 44
“So, do you know what we’re going to be doing?” I ask, stashing a couple of granola bars in the pocket of my bathrobe. “Um, I just know about the kissing,” Mark says with an apologetic look. “Yeah, I heard that too.” Mark seems nice, but we are definitely not flirting; we’re just two pros talking about the job. “I think I also have to take my shirt off,” I say. “Oh, wow.” He raises his eyebrows. I take a sip of coffee and leave a lipstick mark on the lid. I never wear lipstick. How do women get it to stay on? Maybe by not eating? If that’s the case, the makeup artist is going to have to reapply mine because I’m starving. “Have you done a lot of commercials?” Mark asks. “This is actually my first one! What about you?” “Oh, I’ve done quite a few,” he says. “My girlfriend and I both model too.” “Cool.” I grab a banana and a yogourt, scouting out the potato chips for later; that’s what I really want, but nobody eats chips for breakfast. At least not in public. Back downstairs, we return to the table and wait for someone to tell us what to do. A half-hour later, the director bounds down the stairs and strides toward us. “Good morning, everyone! So, I think we’ve figured out how things are going to work. We’re going to shoot you two first.” He gestures toward a middle-aged woman and a boy who is maybe nine or ten. “And then you.” He turns his gaze toward an elderly man with an
… I can’t look at Mark, unsure if I am the one who did too much kissing. Is there a way to kiss someone that looks real on film, but isn’t? impressive moustache. “And then you two.” He points at me and Mark. I smile brightly as if being on set for as long as possible today is exactly what I was hoping for. And in a way it is.
omeone has left a bunch of fashion magazines on the table. Apparently Fall ’95 is all about faux reptile prints. Also faux leather and sweater sets in pale pink and blue. I take a quiz and find out that I’m “fashion phobic.” The scant articles list ways to stay trim and
never age, tell me that hair is “on the rise,” and offer tips for choosing a plastic surgeon. Photos in the last article show female body parts with dotted lines drawn on them, areas of excess that could easily be cut off. The mom and kid commercial gets shot over the next couple of hours, and then the man with the moustache receives his half-hour warning. While the crew is refreshing the set, the director returns to prep Mark and me for our shoot. “So, do you guys know who Benny Hill is?” he asks. We confirm that we do. Benny Hill is an old chubby guy with a comedy show that my dad and grandpa like to watch. “Then maybe you remember that he does these funny skits? They’re in fast motion, and there’s this crazy music?” I have a vague recollection of Benny Hill being chased by skinny young women in bikinis. I feel like that happens in most of his skits. “Well, we’re going to shoot your commercial in that style,” the director continues. “Like classic slapstick. So, we’ll see two kids making out on a couch, tearing off each other’s clothes at a zany speed. And then you guys will get so hot and heavy that you’ll tumble over the back of the couch. There will be a crash mat back there, obviously. And then, after a minute, your heads will pop up from behind the couch because something awesome has come on TV. What is it? It’s a movie on the client’s network of course!” He smiles. “Sound good?” “Sounds great,” I say. At least the scene is going to be funny. I won’t need to be sexy or romantic in a bra, just goofy in a bra. “And I saved you guys until last so there won’t be any non-essential people on the set.” The director gives my shoulder a light squeeze, then he’s gone. Mark and I glance at each other. It might be good to rehearse—or at least make physical contact; shake hands or something—but there’s not really any way for either of us to suggest that. It would be way too weird. Our lunch break is from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and I try not to eat too many chips. At the end of lunch, we get a half-hour warning that we’re up next. Time for a makeup touch-up. “Don’t forget to recheck her body makeup,” shouts the assistant director as she whizzes by. The makeup artist gives me a startled look. “You need body makeup?” “Um, I guess so,” I say. “Maybe because I have to take my shirt off?” “Fuck. I thought you were joking.” She’s looking at me differently now. Like instead of me doing
your arm around her.” His arm lands across my shoulders as I stare at our reflection in the dark eye of the camera. The camera and tripod are so big that I can hardly see the man behind it. Just his legs, straddling wide. I adjust my position and try to look relaxed. I am a teenager. Mark is my boyfriend. We like each other. There’s no subtext. “And action!” calls the director. “So, you two can look at each other now. And Mark, you can touch her face. Maybe tuck her hair behind her ear. Then you can kiss her.” As our lips make contact, I imagine my first teenage boyfriend instead of Mark. I imagine we are alone and not being watched by a room full of people. “Then the kiss is beginning to get a little more intense. Good! And then you start to take each other’s clothes off. Mark, take off Becky’s sweater. Then help her take off her shirt. More kissing. You both go up on your knees. Becky, there’s no need to take Mark’s shirt off, but maybe you can grab it? Great. Now the two of you are getting so into it that you’re going to fall off the couch—and don’t hurt yourselves; be careful. That’s it! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Perfect! Now, just lift up your heads and peek over at the TV. Wow, isn’t that interesting, you think. Now, look at each other for a beat. Then climb back over the couch and snuggle down under the blanket. Excellent. And—cut!” There is a moment of silence on the set. Then the crew erupts into loud laughter. The lighting guy is fanning himself with a clipboard. “Wow, that was hot,” says the key grip. “Uh, yes,” says the director. “I think we’re going to need some more makeup here before we can go again.” The makeup artist zooms over to examine us, pulling Mark and me toward a light and frowning. There are lipstick smudges on Mark’s face. How do women keep their lipstick on? Maybe by not kissing? The director approaches our little circle. “Guys, that was amazing. Very convincing. You can maybe pull back a teensy bit on the kissing next time. Just a little less intense maybe.” I nod toward the floor. I can’t look at Mark, unsure if I am the one who did too much kissing. Is there a way to kiss someone that looks real on film, but isn’t? Maybe in all the other commercials Mark’s done, his kissing partners knew how to do this right. A few of the crew members are crowded around the TV now. “Hey Scottie, can we please just take a five-minute break?” one of them begs the director. “It’s time.” The director looks at his watch and sighs. “Five minutes,” he agrees. Then everyone goes quiet as someone turns up the sound on the TV.
BECKY BLAKE // 45
something that’s a rite of passage, I’m actually doing something wrong. She asks all the guys in the basement to clear out and I take off my bathrobe, my sweater, and the red shirt, then turn to face her. “Oh my god. Mimi, get over here,” she calls to the wardrobe stylist. “Look. Her skin is all red. Like from the dye maybe?” I glance down at my arms and belly, which look mottled, like I’ve been beaten. The two women usher me into the bathroom where I have to take off the bra so it doesn’t get wet. We don’t have much time. Using pump soap and a towel they wash and scrub me down, while implying that this situation is basically my fault. For example, why did I sweat so much? I don’t say anything. I have my arms raised above my head like a criminal, and in the mirror, I look into my own eyes, pretending I’m Meryl Streep in Silkwood just after she’s had exposure to radiation. Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for that role. Finally, they pat me dry and I can put the bra back on. The makeup artist furiously applies a layer of concealer and then powder. “Five minutes!” calls the assistant director. As I pull on the red shirt again, the makeup artist leans back against the edge of the sink, relieved, and pushes her hair out of her face. “Jesus.” She barks out a short laugh. Upstairs, Mark is waiting in the living room along with about ten crew members. “Okay. Everyone non-essential off the set,” shouts the director. A couple of people reluctantly leave, pulling themselves away from a TV in the corner of the room. It’s been on all day, tuned to CNN Live with the sound off. The director is doing some stretching, as if he’s about to go for a run. He cracks his neck then sidles over to us. “Okay, we’re not going to be recording any sound,” he says, “so I’m going to be able to talk you guys through this whole thing. All you need to do is follow my instructions. And we’ll probably do a few takes, so no worries if you mess something up. Any questions before we get started?” “How fast do you want us to move?” Mark asks. Good question. He really is a pro. “Oh, just regular speed. We’ll speed up the footage later in post.” My stomach drops. Regular speed means that making out with Mark is not going to be goofy after all. In fact, it will probably be very, very much like regular making out. The director ushers us over to the couch. “Okay. So, you two can just sit down, and Mark, you can put
BECKY BLAKE // 46
On-screen, O.J. Simpson rises from behind a table in the courtroom. He turns to face the jury and lets out a breath, his shoulders dropping. The jury deliberated for less than four hours yesterday. Surely, they will find him guilty. I think of Nicole Brown Simpson and of a headline that I’ve never been able to forget—that her body was found “nearly decapitated.” It must take a lot of force to do that—a football player’s force. The clerk reading the verdict is not shown on camera, but we hear her voice as she reads, “Superior Court of California, county of Los Angeles, in the matter of the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson case No. BA097211, we the jury in the above-entitled action find the defendant Orenthal James Simpson not guilty of the crime of murder …” “I fucking told you!” shouts one crew member to another. “… a felony, upon Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being, as charged in …” I wonder why the clerk needed to state that Nicole was a human being. I picture the headshot of her they have most often shown. Before her near-decapitation,
$ 1 rize
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Far Horizons Award for Poetry
Commit these deadlines to memory
she was gorgeous. She could have been a model in one of the fashion magazines on the downstairs table. Or one of the bikini girls on The Benny Hill Show. After the second not-guilty charge is read for Ron Goldman’s murder, most of the crew members are groaning or shaking their heads in disbelief. Beside me, Mark is silent; I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s in shock, like I am. Or maybe he’s happy for O.J. The director claps his hands together once. “Okay. That is just … Wow. Okay.” He takes a big breath and lets it out. “So, we have to be completely out of here by 4 p.m. today, so let’s get set up and go again.” And then we do. This time, I kiss Mark less. “That’s the one!” shouts the director when we finish the take. “Really good stuff!” I’m relieved to hear he thinks so. I was worried my expression might have wavered when my head popped up from behind the couch and I saw O.J. still smiling on the TV.
August 1, 2022 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize | $1000 One winner gets the prize
November 1, 2022 Open Season Awards | $6000 Three writers split the winnings
February 1, 2023 Long Poem Prize | $2500 Two writers split the winnings
RE ACH FOR TH E H ORIZON ENTER BY: MAY 1, 2022 | ENTRY FEE: $25
BECKY BLAKE // 47
UNTITLED PHOTO EXPERIMENT, 2019 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
CONTENT WARNING: this story contains content related to sexual assault
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 48
ONE OF THE BOYS T
oby is a fat fuck. That’s what the boys say, over their cans of VB, while the rented minibus changes lanes and beer spills down their chins. “Hey, Toby. Pass us another will ya, ya fat fuck.” They say it with open-mouthed smiles and laughs, as if to say they’re only joking. Toby laughs back, hands them cans from the Esky, and lets his lips settle into the nervous smile he’s been holding since they picked him up. Hadley, Simon’s best man, has asked Toby to take care of the Esky and pass out drinks as the boys need. “Feel free to smash a few yourself,” Hadley had said, turning his back before Toby could respond. The Esky was in the backseat, and Toby had to put it in the aisle so he could fit. Hadley’s brown hair is neatly combed to the side in a thick sweep. He’s wearing salmon-coloured shorts and a lime green polo shirt that’s tight enough to let you know he goes to the gym. He works as a financial planner in the city and met Simon when they were both studying at Melbourne Uni. Hadley stands. “All right, guys. Guys!” He shouts over the boys’ voices. “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” The boys settle back into their seats like told-off kids. Hadley holds onto the seat in front of him with one hand and raises a beer with the other. “This is not the time for fucking around.” His voice is flat, solemn. “We’re here today to mourn the loss of our dear mate Simon’s balls—” At balls the boys laugh loud and hard, releasing the tension Hadley instilled. Those near Simon lean over their seats and make pretend snatches for his nuts. “—to the lovely and beautiful,” Hadley cups his hands in front of his chest, “Nicole.” The boys hoot and whistle and shake Simon by the shoulder. Hadley raises his hand. “Seriously though, I mightn’t have known him as long as you lot—” he gestures to Simon, who’s been dressed in a pink leotard, tutu, and fairy wings, “but this fucker has become like a brother to me, and I feel honoured and privileged to be his best man.”
Simon holds up his VB in appreciation. “I love you mate, but today—” a wide grin spreads across Hadley’s cheeks. “Today mate, you’re gonna get fucked!”
n primary school, Simon had been one of the most popular and athletic boys in Toby’s grade until an aggressive bout of glandular fever struck him down. He missed three months of school and returned pale, gaunt, and silent most of the time. At recess and lunch, Toby often saw Simon listlessly wandering across the school grounds, instead of playing soccer with the other boys like he used to. Shoulders hunched, steps languid, Simon would amble around in slow, steady circles, looking at the ground or into the distance, never at anything in particular, until the bell rang. And then, one day, Toby, who was wearing a floppy blue hat and hiding from the sun in the shade of a large elm tree, spotted Simon heading his way. “Whatcha doin’?” Simon asked. “Too hot for me,” Toby said. Simon looked up at the glare of the white sun in a cloudless sky. “Me too. Mind if I sit?” “Free country,” Toby said. And so Simon sat. Toby couldn’t put into words what Simon’s friendship in the ensuing years had meant to him, but he imagined Simon felt similarly, or else indebted, because even as his health improved and he regained his popularity, Simon kept Toby by his side, passively allowing him to ride the coattails of his ever-expanding life.
oby didn’t hear from Simon much after their high school graduation. A sports scholarship to Melbourne University separated them and eventually, Toby, sick of making unanswered calls and having plans cancelled at the last minute, was left to wonder if their friendship wasn’t something he’d imagined all along. He knew from Facebook that Simon was engaged, but the phone call was still unexpected. “Simon?”
o far, Toby hasn’t had a chance to speak to Simon, who’s seated at the opposite end of the minibus. The night before, he’d been kept up by thoughts of what he’d say when he first saw Simon—congratulate him again, ask about Nicole, work, and his family. It would be fine and easy, but what if Simon had questions? What should he say? That he dropped out of uni and is working at Bunnings. That he still lives with his
DYSMORPHIA II, 8" x 12" COPPER PLATE ETCHING, AQUATINT, AND TONER TRANSFER ON PAPER, 2019 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
parents and doesn’t have a girlfriend. That he’s never had a girlfriend. On the freeway, blocks of dead grassland alternate with warehouses as long as footy fields for about forty minutes before the minibus gets off at an exit that reads DANDENONG SOUTH. The change of pace stirs Toby from his thoughts. He’s been nervously sipping beers and is surprised to find three empties by his feet. He flushes the cans to the bottom of the Esky and piles ice on top of them till his fingers sting from the cold. A minute later, the minibus comes to a stop outside what looks like an airplane hangar, except it’s been painted entirely in army camouflage. A hush comes over the boys, followed by a ripple of excited murmurs. Hadley stands again. “Gentlemen.” He turns to Simon. “And lady.” One of the boys wolf-whistles. “I want you all to remember this day, for it will be yours for all time,” Hadley says. “Scull your beers and drink heartily, for today—we play paintball!” The boys cheer, spring up from their seats, and jump off the minibus with two-footed leaps that rock it up and down, like a boat gone over a wave. Toby’s the
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 49
“Toby! Mate. How you going? It’s been ages.” His voice was loud, inflected with excited energy. Quiet Simon was long gone. “Yeah it—it has. I’ve been good. How about you?” “Well, big news mate—I’m getting married!” “Oh nice. Congrats. That’s great, Simon.” “Yeah. It’s crazy. Listen, Toby mate. It’s my buck’s next weekend. All the boys will be there. Can you make it?” He was taken aback by the invitation. Did Simon want him there because it was an important moment in his life? Or was he just another one of the boys? “Sure,” he said. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” “Great. Will be good to catch up. I’ll send you the details.”
last off. He looks at the building and something gurgles deep in his gut.
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 50
n high school, he was Tubby Toby—TT, or Titty for short. He stood a head above most of the boys but was almost as wide as he was tall. “How about a tit job Titty?” the boys would say, or “Just a quick motorboat?” At the lockers, the boys would dack him when his arms were full of books, which would drop to the floor with hardback thuds while he struggled to pull up his pants, and the boys’ laughter echoed down the corridor. Things weren’t as bad when Simon was around. His dad was said to have played in the reserves for Carlton, and Simon was a natural athlete. He was on the footy team and often received medals at the sports carnival in discus, high jump, and the hundred metres. Though he didn’t talk much, the boys seemed to respect his strength and the way his calf muscles stuck out like rocks when he flexed. Most lunchtimes, Simon would play soccer on the school’s outdoor basketball courts, and Toby would watch from the wooden benches outside the chain-link fence. Rarely, Toby would go in goal for one side, but most of the time he was too worried about being slow and the boys getting angry at him for letting too many in. Other times, the boys would stand at the edge of the school’s quadrangle discussing the parties they’d been to that weekend, or which of the teachers they’d like to fuck. On those days, Simon and Toby would sit
Once they’re outfitted, Kelly takes the boys to the indoor paintball field, which isn’t much bigger than their old school’s auditorium.
in silence on the periphery, occasionally fielding questions from them like, “How about you, Simon, would ya give it to Miss Shields?” “Yeah, I reckon,” Simon would say, and the boys would nod in approval. “What about you Titty? You could rub your tits together like a couple of dykes.” And then the boys would laugh and Toby would laugh back, but he never actually answered.
woman with short blonde hair introduces herself as Kelly and tells them she’ll be running their paintball session. She’s wearing a light blue T-shirt, stretched stiff by broad, strong-looking shoulders and black tights that end above her ankles. The boys nudge one another, whisper, and smile. Toby hears something about camel toe. “All right, listen up!” Kelly says. “This isn’t the first buck’s we’ve had, so I bet you fellas have had a few, but do me a favour and don’t tell me about it. We’ve got a strict zero tolerance policy here for playing under the influence and for drinking while you play, so no hip flasks.” There’s an audible sigh from the boys. One of them steps forward and hands her a silver flask before sheepishly stepping back and copping shoulder punches and poorly disguised coughs of pussy. “Right, thank you. We’ll go over the rest of the safety precautions downstairs once you’re suited up.” Kelly directs her eyes at Simon. “You must be the lucky man. I’m afraid your wings won’t fit under our overalls, but don’t worry, we’ve got something special lined up for you. Now go on downstairs and find yourselves some gear.” Toby waits for the last of the boys to disappear before he moves to follow. He’s been thinking about the moment they’re divided up into teams and having to see the disappointment on the faces of the boys who are stuck with him. The slowest guy. The biggest target. He must stink too, having sweated out most of the beers while Kelly was speaking. Raising an arm, he’s about to take a whiff of himself when Kelly surprises him from behind. “Go on then, big fella,” she says. “Don’t worry, we get blokes your size in here all the time. I’m sure we have something that’ll fit.” Once they’re outfitted, Kelly takes the boys to the indoor paintball field, which isn’t much bigger than their old school’s auditorium. The floor is fake grass— the kind used on outdoor tennis courts. Mesh netting surrounds the field, on which inflatable pyramids and cylinders sit—some on their sides, others upright or at odd angles, like a toddler’s toys discarded at random. Inside the netting, Kelly asks the boys to line up and for Simon to step forward. He’s dressed in a light brown animal onesie. It’s got a large white patch down the front and two felt antlers sticking out over his helmet, which remind Toby of cartoon cacti. Though Simon’s meant to be a stag, Toby figures it’s a Rudolph costume because no one’s bothered to blacken the red nose. “All right fellas,” Kelly says. “Before I divide you into teams, I’ve got something special lined up for your buck.”
Toby leaps from behind the bumper and pushes hard into the turf with the balls of his feet. He focuses on the netting on the other side. As far as he’s aware, he hasn’t been hit yet; either that, or the impacts don’t hurt much. He hurls himself into the netting, but the effect isn’t as it was with Simon—it sinks with his weight and, for a few seconds, he’s a stationary target. The onslaught begins. Stinging blows pepper his torso and his body jerks with surprise at each, though he can’t identify where the pain is coming from. Off the net and back the other way, shots smack against his helmet and the sides of his goggles. Two quick bursts bury in the gap beneath his helmet, and a deep ache travels down the muscles in his neck. He raises his hand instinctively to cover the area and immediately withdraws it as a single shot drills into the spot below his right knuckles. Back behind the bumper, finally safe, Toby shakes out his hand repeatedly as though the pain might fall off his fingertips.
ack on the bus, Toby plucks an ice-cold can from the Esky and places it against the marble-sized welt on the back of his hand. The boys claim responsibility for each other’s battle wounds, and the minibus’s engine sputters to life. Toby opens the can with a clinkhiss and raises it to his lips. Twenty minutes later, the beer and recent exercise seem to have worn the boys into a lull of quiet when, as if on cue, the bus pulls into the parking lot of a corner pub. The words THE GOOSE EGG stick out above the entrance in gold lettering. Inside, Hadley talks to the bartender, who leads him and the boys to a room out the back. A long wooden table sits in the middle of the room with places set out for them. Floral-printed wallpaper surrounds the table on three sides. On the fourth, a toothpick-thin bartender mans a small, private bar. The boys sit while Hadley orders pints and hands them out. Halfway through their drinks, pub staff bring them each a chicken parma stacked high with chips, and the boys let out a collective cheer. Hardly anyone speaks while they eat, but Hadley’s voice is clear above the sound of heavy breathing and chewing—he’s doing the rounds, asking each of the boys how they’re finding the day so far. Toby lowers his head, as he would with a charity mugger in the city. “Tobes mate,” Hadley slaps him on the back. “How’s it goin’?” Rather than answer, Toby forks the final chunk of his parma into his mouth, so that it bulges from his cheek like a jawbreaker. He chews with difficulty and nods.
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 51
“Is she the stripper?” one of the boys near Toby whispers. “Nah, mate,” another replies, “tits aren’t big enough.” “We call this The Buck Run,” Kelly continues. “See that bumper on the far-left wall?” She points to an inflated cylinder about halfway up the field. “Simon is going to run from there to the other side of the field, and then back again while you boys see how many shots you can get in. Got it?” The boys nod. “All right Simon move on up to the bumper. And remember fellas, no shots to the head or neck.” Simon positions himself by the cylinder, poised for a sprint. The boys raise their guns. Toby focuses on the autumn brown of Simon’s costume and aims his barrel above the antlers. “Ready and go!” Toby pulls his trigger—the hiss of compressed air is followed by a sharp pop, and a thwack as orange paint splatters against a bumper on the far end of the field. The sensation is oddly satisfying. He lowers his gun by a fraction and fires again. Most of the boys’ first shots sail over Simon’s head—the paintballs don’t travel in a line, but an arc. It takes a moment for them to figure out their trajectory and by then Simon’s nearly to the other side. Still a dead-fast sprinter—he launches into the netting, using it to propel himself back the other way. The next volley of shots is too low. They explode at his feet, coating his shoes and spraying lines of orange up his legs, and then he’s back behind the bumper as late shots smack harmlessly against it. “Woo!” Kelly claps and the boys join in. “Great run, Simon. Okay and now where’s the best man?” Hadley raises his hand and tries to blind Kelly with his teeth. “That’d be me, Kelly. But I can’t run, sorry. Knee reco a year ago.” “Oh. That’s all right. Do you wanna select someone else then? Or we could just get stuck into it?” “Might as well let one of the boys have a go,” Hadley says. He steps out in front of them and walks up and down as though they’re army recruits. The boys appear to embody their roles, standing stiff at attention. Toby, expecting the worst, wonders if he’s got pit stains on his overalls yet. He closes his eyes, sighs heavily, and hears Hadley stop in front of him. “How about it, Tobes? Think you could take over as best man for me?” Too many beers—that’s what he’ll tell the boys. That’s why he started running before Kelly said go. Toby doesn’t have half Simon’s speed, and he’s decided he deserves some kind of handicap. “Ready an—”
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 52
“Jesus, you devoured that. Big appetite huh. Want me to see if I can get you another?” Toby shakes his head and tries to swallow, but the ball of food is too big and it’s lodged in the back of his throat. He picks up his pint and strains the entire thing through his teeth, softening the glob enough for it to slide into his stomach. “Whoa, thirsty too I take it. How about another beer then?” Toby puts his glass down and exhales heavily, wishing Hadley would just leave him alone. “Sure,” he says. Once the plates are clear, Hadley makes sure everyone has a fresh pint and tells all the boys to stand up. “All right boys, it’s time for a race—a boat race that is.” He walks over to Toby. “This side of the table versus that one. Simon will be your anchor and over here—” he places a hand on Toby’s shoulder—“we’re gonna have big Tobes.” Toby and Simon are placed opposite one another at the end of the table. It’s the closest they’ve been all day. Hadley’s down the other end giving instructions. Simon watches him while Toby tries to make eye contact. “You all know the rules—” Hadley says. Simon glances up at Toby. “—finish your pint and then place it upside down on your head—” “Glad you could make it,” Simon says and smiles. “—then the next man goes—” Toby smiles back. “No worries. Congratulations again.” “—till we get to our anchors—” “Thanks mate. So, what have you been up to?” “Er not much, I’ve mostly been—” “—for who we’ve got a special surprise. Bring them over.” Toby and Simon turn to the bar where the skinny bartender carries a tray, holding two pints of what look like a dark ale but without any head, and two full shot glasses. “Reverse Jägerbombs,” Hadley says. The boys ooh, aah, and applaud in approval. The bartender carefully places the glasses down by Toby’s side. Simon reciprocates his nervous grin. “Fill me in later,” Simon says. Hadley moves to his position as the first in line and calls to the boys. “Hands on glasses, annnd GO!” Simon’s team gets out to an early lead—an empty glass is on the head of their first man while Hadley has about half of his beer to go, and though his team’s losing, Toby has to suppress a smile. The boys cheer each other on, shout, and insult one another. “Suck it down, you pussy,” they say.
“Just pretend it’s a cock.” “Don’t be a soft cunt.” The boys on each team drink at an even pace after that, so Simon has a half-pint lead on Toby when it’s his turn. He figures he’ll never catch up and hopes the boys will acknowledge that he started behind. “Come on TITTY!” the boys shout. “Bring it home Simon! Do it for Nicole!” they cry. Toby tilts his head back and lifts the beer at a tight angle so that he doesn’t have a choice but to swallow repeatedly or else drown. And then the beer’s done, and the boys are shouting for him to put the glass on his head—gesturing wildly with their own, and he’s confused, but then he glances at Simon and sees that he’s just taken his down, so he flips the glass on up there, slams it onto the table, and seizes the shot of Red Bull— drops it into the Jäger and swings the glass into his face fast, too fast—the shot smacks into his front teeth, but if there’s pain he doesn’t feel it—everything is sweet aniseed brown and he’s gulping it down down down until Hadley is beside him ripping his arm up into the air, and the boys are on him, slapping, punching, and shaking, and everything is a swirling blur of hollering voices, swallowing him whole.
hen they get going again, Hadley asks Toby to sit next to him in the middle of the minibus. He won’t shut up about the boat race. “I mean it Tobes, that was incredible. You opened your throat up like a—pelican or something.” He keeps grinning and slapping Toby on the back with a loud open palm. Toby doesn’t know how to respond. He watches Hadley closely, trying to figure out if he’s making fun of him, but despite himself he can feel a kind of fraternal warmth swelling inside. The bus makes its way across the Yarra via the Kings Bridge and stalls in traffic near the entrance to the city. The boys crack open the minibus’s small windows, wedge their heads and arms out as far as they’ll go, and start singing their respective footy teams’ anthems over top of one another. “We are the navy blues.” “It’s a grand old flag. It’s a high-flying flag.” “Oh, we’re from Tigerland.” Neighbouring cars honk at them, roll down their windows, and tell them to shut the fuck up. The boys respond with their middle fingers. “Up yours,” they say. “Fuck off, cunt,” they say. They sing louder. Their voices pulsate through the minibus, and Toby closes his eyes, listening, until he’s
he first party Toby followed Simon to was at one of the boys’ houses in Elwood, when they were sixteen. The boy’s parents were out of town and half their grade was rumoured to be going. Simon had gotten hold of eight cans of UDL, which he said they could split. They tasted like raspberry Fanta, but when you got to the bottom there was a metallic tang, which Toby figured was the alcohol. For most of the night they sat at the kitchen table, drinking their cans and saying little, while the boys did shots of vodka around them and challenged each other to arm wrestles. Girls from their year milled in and out of the kitchen, getting drinks from the fridge and heading out back where it was said someone had weed. The boys grew silent whenever one of them entered, gawking at their belly-button piercings and crop tops stretched across their burgeoning breasts. Once they left, the boys would break into loud boasting about who’d got with them and to what extent. “Fingered at the beach.”
Toby tilts his head back and lifts the beer at a tight angle so that he doesn’t have a choice but to swallow repeatedly or else drown. “Ate her out in a disabled toilet.” “Sucked off in the park.” “Hey Simon,” one of the boys called, “didn’t you get with Gemma a couple weeks ago, at James’s party?” “Did you—” one of the boys raised two fingers to his nose and sniffed. Toby lowered his can and studied Simon’s face, expecting him to laugh and shake his head, but instead he gave them a knowing smile, shrugged his shoulders, and opened a new can. It bothered him. Not that Simon had an experience he hadn’t—there were likely plenty of those. It was because he hadn’t shared it with him. Hadn’t felt the need to. It’d probably never even occurred to him. “All right, next shot, who wants one?” one of the boys said. Toby stood up, abruptly knocking the table and rocking the boys’ drinks. “I’ll have one.” The boys looked at each other and laughed. “Atta boy Titty.” Someone fetched a plastic cup. “‘Ere ‘ave a
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 53
overcome with a sense that he’s a part of something significant, and he’s thankful and even happy, for the first time, to be there with them. The minibus stops on King Street beside a building with blacked-out windows and an unmarked grey door, guarded by a bald bouncer with arms as thick as Toby’s neck. Hadley gets up. “All right boys, last stop, so grab all your shit and let’s go and see some tits!” The bouncer’s eyes widen at the sight of them getting off the bus. He looks up at Toby, takes two steps forward, and shakes his head. But Hadley approaches, composed despite the drinks. He holds out his hand, introduces himself, and tells the bouncer that they have a reservation under his name. He gestures backwards to the boys and assures him that there won’t be any trouble from them. “We’ve only had a few, and we just want to give our mate a proper send-off before we lose him to the shackles of marriage. You know how it is, mate,” he says with a smile. The bouncer lets out a small laugh and says you farkin know it, and all right they can head on through, but no bullshit. Simon thanks him, saying “good man,” and the boys shuffle past, smiling and saying thank you. One of them even salutes. Inside, a large woman in a black blazer with dark red hair and long fake nails stands at a desk surrounded by promotional material for the club. Hadley gives her his name and tells the boys to go on ahead while he pays the balance for the booking. They continue into the club’s main area. Hanging lanterns give the room a dim glow. An R & B track plays softly from hidden speakers. Small round tables and gold seats surround a glass stage that runs the length of the room. Two silver poles cut into the stage near its rounded ends. A handful of middle-aged, overweight men sit alone about the room, watching the girls come and go. A petite brunette wearing a black corset with red cups and fishnet stockings collects the boys and leads them across the room, down one corridor and then another, for what feels to Toby like forever, before they emerge at a function room bookended by a private bar and a knee-high hexagonal stage the size of a kiddie pool. Their guide pops behind the bar and takes drink orders from the boys. Toby’s sight is blurry, and he has to focus hard on someone to make them out. The ground teeters and saliva pools in his mouth. He’s going to be sick. Desperately, his eyes lock onto the nearest bathroom door. He dives in just as the schnitzel and Jäger make their reappearance in a waterfall of dark brown chunks that spray against the sink basin and his shirt.
ASHLEY GOLDBERG // 54
double,” they said, and poured it mostly full with vodka. “Need a chaser?” He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he shook his head anyway, thinking the vodka was more than enough. “Good on ya,” the boys said. “Brave man.” Toby raised his cup to his mouth. The chemical smell of the vodka crept up his nostrils and he had to fight the urge to gag. The boys raised their cups in a silent toast. Toby placed his to his lips, closed his eyes, and pictured clear, crisp water, collected at the base of an icy mountain spring, until his stomach burned and he was left gulping air. “You’re in for a hell of a night,” the boys said, laughing again. He dropped his cup and turned to Simon, as if to say, you don’t know everything about me either, but Simon was gone. Toby looked all over the house, but he couldn’t find Simon. When he got to the lounge room, he was feeling a bit woozy and figured he’d take a minute to rest on the couch before continuing the search. People came and went, over how much time, he couldn’t say. He thought he remembered seeing Simon at the entrance to the kitchen with Gemma and a couple of other girls, smiling and giggling, looking his way, but he couldn’t be sure. And then Gemma was sitting next to him, offering him a cup. “Oh, I’m okay thanks,” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s only water.” She smiled. Her lips were shiny with pink lip gloss and she was wearing a white singlet under which he could see the dark outline of her bra. He accepted the water and made an effort to sit up. “Thanks.” “So, Toooby.” She slid closer to him and leaned over—her top sagged and he could see her cleavage. “Tell me, have you ever been with a girl?” He took a large gulp of water and shook his head. “I don’t even know how to talk to girls.” “Sure you do. We’re talking now aren’t we?” She smiled again and shifted her bare leg so that it was touching his. He picked at his jeans, hoping she didn’t notice him trying to move his erection. “Confidence, that’s what you need. Girls are attracted to confidence.” “Confidence,” he repeated. “Like Simon?” “Yeah,” she put her hand on his arm, “just like Simon.” “Okay, I think I can do that.” He turned to her and cleared his throat. “Gemma—”
“Yes, Toby?” “Gemma—can I—can I finger you?” “What?!” She jerked backwards. “Oh, right sorry,” Toby shook his head and smiled. “Sorry, I forgot. Confidence.” He placed a hand on the other side of her and edged forward until his heavy gut was pressed against her. “I’m going to finger you.” “What the fuck?” Gemma shouted. She lifted up a knee, wedging it between them, and then shoved him in the chest with the heels of her hands until he flipped back onto the other side of the couch. “Get off of me, you fat fuck!” And then she launched up and stomped out of the room. Toby thought he heard laughter from somewhere nearby, but that was before he threw up and passed out.
oby washes the sour taste of bile from his mouth, wipes his shirt with a clump of wet paper towels, and stumbles out of the bathroom. In the function room, the boys are seated around the stage on red-cushioned stools. Toby takes a seat on the opposite side of Simon, who’s truly pissed. He keeps sliding off his stool, and he can’t stop laughing. Eventually, two of the boys prop him up between them and he stares, glassy-eyed, at the empty stage. He nearly topples forward, but one of the boys acts quick and catches him. “Where are my tits?” Simon shouts and laughs as the boys sit him back upright. “I want to see some tits!” “No worries, they’re coming mate,” one of the boys says, “just waiting on Hadley.” “Tits out for the boys,” Simon says. “Tits out for the boys,” he repeats a little louder. One of the boys joins in, “Tits out for the boys,” and then another, until the whole room is chanting, “Tits out for the boys. Tits out for the boys,” again and again. Their voices are a wave, and Toby can feel himself being swept up by it. He’s about to join in when he focuses on Simon and realizes that he’s leering at him—a darkeyed, drunken-sheened, predatory leer. Toby turns around, looking for the bartender, but she’s gone. They mean him. His tits. Out for them. “TITS OUT FOR THE BOYS. TITS OUT FOR THE BOYS,” they chant and clap. Toby’s pulse thunders in his ears, and the air gets thin and hot, and they won’t stop, they won’t ever stop—he knows that now—so he stands, takes a hold of the end of his shirt, and lifts it up. ///
THE BITTER ASTRONOMER AND HIS SIEVE OF WISHES ANGELA KIRBY // 55
Weekends I spackle every hole, sand walls smooth as glass, as truth caught in telescope lens I put my flat feet up, try and reroot to earth; still have a graveyard of plants on the porch Stars I brought closer stopped doing whatever stars do for people who glance at the sky Something escapes me with every day’s rising, eye opens: night’s circus packed tent, left town It’s the damned light obscuring what matters illuminating only what never gets done ///
REBECCA FISSEHA // 56
A SHARED AFTERNOON H
e couldn’t wait to get away from me. I couldn’t understand why. It was the perfect opportunity to hang out together without it seeming like either of us had tried to make it happen. One of those “since we find ourselves here, we might as well” moments, for which we should both be secretly glad because we had been wanting time alone with one another but had been too shy to ask for it directly. As in, a date. I felt too Black for him. Maybe he felt I was too Black for him too. Or he felt too white. “Too white” is understood. “Too Black” is easy to misunderstand. I mean from too different a world, not literally “too Black.” Too different in thinking, in experience, in expectation of the kind of person he saw himself with. I could never see myself as that girl, for him. But I must have been able to see him as that guy, for me, hence the crush, the constant attraction. But when the show ended, and I thought we would just float away somewhere to a coffee shop or something to take advantage of this opportunity to be alone together, nowhere near work or people from work, he couldn’t wait to get away from me. Now, I wonder, did I smell? It was a hot summer day and I had been dressed from head to toe. The fact that I was wearing jeans was the first thing he had said, astonished. That alone pointed to how different we were. That I would be wearing jeans on such a hot day. That he would be so confused by it. Any chance of time together died the moment he said, “How can you be wearing jeans on a day like this?!” So, really, while we were still in line to go into the show, I already knew that I was dreaming to think that after the show we would hang out together, go into the city, and end up spending hours together. Coffee turns into a walk. No, a walk turns into coffee, and coffee turns into another walk, or a drink, which turns into dinner, etc. By the end, something would have been established.
Something that says, Yes, there is something here, against all odds, despite what we look like next to each other at first glance. But even while the show was going on, I knew there was no chance. That wouldn’t happen. None of that. We sat next to each other and there was nothing. No current. No silent exchange. Much less the occasional whispered exchanges during the show. I remember nothing about the show. Why had I picked it out of the others in the festival? I don’t even remember which festival it was. Just one of the big summer theatre festivals. There’s a “common” one and a “posh” one, the difference being how hard it is to get a ticket. I was only there because someone had offered me a free ticket. Or tickets, but I had no one to bring. Or I didn’t try to find someone to bring. Whatever, whichever it was, I remember nothing about the show except that I sat there thinking how amazing it was that I had him all to myself, in a way, because of random chance, even allowing for the fact that one of the things he does is produce independent theatre so his being there wasn’t completely out of the blue, and expecting-hoping that afterwards we would drift off together for the rest of the afternoon, maybe into the evening. At least for a little bit, because it’s the polite thing to do, if nothing else. And maybe that would be all he would need. To notice the chemistry between us. But no. The moment we stepped outside into the daylight after the show, he said it was nice running into you and have a great rest of the afternoon or something along those lines, and while I was mumbling responses automatically, he was already moving away. And I stood there feeling thicker and darker and hotter and uglier in those jeans that were inappropriate for the heat of summer than I had before. Still, the hope of “us” took time to die. It flared up with a passion when he casually ended an unexpected email, long after he had moved on to work somewhere
and spice. I could tell it was authentic. But a place not many people knew about because it’s a neighbourhood place. Before my therapist changed offices, I got takeout from there a few more times when I was going home after therapy. The helpings were so big I always ended up making two meals of them, even me! I never dined in. If I wasn’t going straight home, I didn’t buy roti. Simple. Did I sometimes change plans and decide to go straight home after therapy just so I could get takeout? It’s possible. I stopped caring that I might run into him around there again. And only now, at this exact time of writing all this down, as my hand starts to weaken because I haven’t stopped since I started, does it occur to me that we could have decided to eat at that roti place that day when we ran into each other on the sidewalk outside it. I think he was holding two carry-out meals though, heading back to his place. Or that day after the play, he could have suggested it. (So, no coffee-that-turns-intoa-walk first, then.) Well, he didn’t suggest it. It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. That matters if you are not trying to extend the time you have with someone you have run into by chance. If you can’t wait to get away from them, as I already mentioned he couldn’t. Once, at the office while he was still freelancing for my boss, I shared some of my morning glory muffin with him. Because he asked, I’m sure. I’m not a spontaneous sharer. Of food or anything else. But I don’t refuse if someone asks or looks like they want to. While he was eating part of my breakfast, I said, “In my culture, if a girl shares her muffin with you, it means you’re engaged.” He froze, looking terrified. Then the spell broke. Did I break it? I can’t remember how, but it broke and we all had a laugh—me, him, and the two others in the open-concept office. But for a split second he had believed me completely. And looked stuck, terrified midchew by the thought of being stuck with me. I couldn’t understand why he believed me. It was obviously a joke. Obviously. There are no morning glory muffins in Ethiopia. But if there were, and someday there might be, they would be so expensive, so exclusive to a certain class of people, that sharing one with a member of the opposite sex (eligible or not), or better yet, buying them their own whole muffin, might as well imply something serious. Not engagement, of course. We’re not that hard up. Only something to say you’re special to me. ///
REBECCA FISSEHA // 57
else, with a suggestion of going for coffee sometime. I went into a giddy panic, wondering what sex would be like with him, his very white body covered in red hair and accented with what was for sure going to be a very pink penis. I might have wondered if he’d find my dark parts disgusting. I probably did. It’s so automatic for me to think that, if I have my eye on anyone who is not dark himself, or not as dark as me. He never followed up on my response, agreeing to the coffee suggestion or responding to the other matters related to his old job that he had asked me about in the email. I realized I’d been an idiot. I sensed it had been just an expression: let’s go for coffee sometime. People said that. And there are people who you follow through with on that, and people you don’t. I was one of those people you don’t. To him. I have been one of the false ones too. I’ve sometimes suggested a coffee I didn’t mean. It’s like saying “Nice running into you,” or “Have a great rest of the day.” It doesn’t mean anything. So I couldn’t hold it against him too much for doing it to me. Those jeans had been a mistake. Maybe everything I ever wore that he saw me in had been a mistake. Everything I ever ate, drank, spoke, didn’t speak. I missed the mark. Maybe my being dark, to whatever extent and in whatever meaning, was the least of it. I ran into him one more time, in the same neighbourhood as the theatre, when I was coming back from seeing my therapist. I didn’t know about the Indian roti place yet, though I’m sure I’d noticed it, passing by every Thursday, but it only became real after he endorsed it. I almost wrote that I ran into him while I was going into the roti shop for my takeout. But actually, it was he who was on his way out of the roti shop, just stepping onto the sidewalk as I came down the sidewalk. He said he lived around there, and this roti place was amazing; he got takeout a lot. During the small talk—did he ask me what I was doing in the area, and did I lie? Or did he not ask at all?—he fished around for information about his old boss, who I was still working for. That’s when I realized I was just a source to him. Someone he could tap for information, and not even very diligently at that. I was a low-risk, low-stakes person on the “inside,” so to speak, while there remained a few unresolved matters regarding his old job, for which the proper channels no longer worked. That was all I was, a source, a D-list contact. That ended it for me. I did try that Indian roti place later. I was in that neighbourhood once a week. And the roti was very good. Affordable, large portions packed with flavour
[INTERVIEW] // 58
BOOKS ARE WEIRD AND DIFFICULT AND HARD
[IN CONVERSATION WITH NATHAN WHITLOCK]
NOTHING COMES EASILY IN A CASEY PLETT STORY. IN THE DOZEN TALES THAT COMPRISE HER 2021 COLLECTION A DREAM OF A WOMAN, YOUNGISH, MOSTLY TRANS CHARACTERS STRUGGLE TO REMAIN RELATIVELY SANE, FINANCIALLY STABLE, AND MOSTLY SOBER WHILE DEALING WITH SUCH DIFFICULT QUESTIONS AS WHO AM I? WHO KNOWS ME BEST? WHAT SONG SHOULD I DO AT KARAOKE TONIGHT? DESPITE THEIR ALL-TOO-FREQUENT ENCOUNTERS WITH IGNORANCE AND BIGOTRY, PLETT’S CHARACTERS ARE NEVER SYMBOLS OF OPPRESSION OR RESISTANCE, BUT REAL PEOPLE WHO SWEAT, DRINK, CRY, FAIL, FALL IN LOVE (AND OUT AGAIN), AND STUMBLE THEIR WAY FORWARD, RARELY SURE OF ANYTHING EXCEPT THAT THEY DESERVE A LARGER SHARE OF HAPPINESS THAN LIFE HAS PROVIDED THEM WITH SO FAR. HER DEBUT, THE COLLECTION A SAFE GIRL TO LOVE, WON A LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD. HER SECOND BOOK, THE NOVEL LITTLE FISH, WON THE AMAZON FIRST NOVEL AWARD. A DREAM OF A WOMAN WAS LONGLISTED FOR THE GILLER PRIZE, AND, MAYBE JUST AS EXCITING, WAS GUSHED ABOUT ON INSTAGRAM BY COMEDIAN PATTON OSWALT, WHO SAID ABOUT THE STORIES: “THEY FUCKIN’ ROCK.” THE HUMBER LITERARY REVIEW SPOKE TO PLETT ABOUT MANAGING LITERARY SUCCESS, THE PITFALLS OF WRITING FROM WITHIN A MARGINALIZED COMMUNITY, AND WHY SHE NEEDS TO LOVE HER CHARACTERS—EVEN IF SHE DOESN’T NECESSARILY ALWAYS LIKE THEM. PHOTO CREDIT: JOANNA ELDREDGE MORRISSEY
HLR: Little Fish came out in 2018, and A Dream of a Woman came out this year. Were these stories floating around in different versions for years and years or did you have this burst of creativity after the novel? CP:
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The only story here that was totally written before Little Fish came out was “Hazel and Christopher.” The vast majority of the rest I wrote between the middle of 2019 and the middle of 2021. I got lucky because I won the Amazon First Novel Award at that time and I got some fellowships and residencies, so it wasn’t just that I was blessed with a burst of creativity—I also had an enormous amount of financial and institutional help.
HLR: And what was that shift like? I imagine you go into a book thinking you have no idea who is going to read it, but now you’re working on a book that you know people are going to read. CP:
Every time I’ve been published it’s always been in some sort of unique and weird circumstances. But you’re right: this is the first book I’ve written knowing I’m almost certainly going to be able to get somebody to publish it. Every now and then it would be a little strange, like “Oh, reviewers might actually review this; I wonder how that’ll go.” Or, “I wonder how it’ll sell in comparison to Little Fish.” I tried to tamp down those thoughts as much as possible because I don’t think they ever really serve you as a writer. Books are so weird and difficult and hard, fiction especially. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I’ve got to write another book of fiction.
HLR: Years ago, I interviewed a fairly well-known Canadian thriller writer who said by the time they finish all of the promotion for their previous book, the next book is due. They are on this strict schedule. It’d be great to have an editor who has such confidence in me, and to be able to say I’m going to be on the bestseller list every time, but I would never want to approach it where you had to put out a book whether you were ready or not. CP:
I’ve been a columnist a couple times in my life, and that’s what I felt like: you’ve got to do this stuff and it’s got to be creative, but also it’s got to be regular and you’re not going to hit it out of the park every time.
HLR: Aesthetically and stylistically, your prose approach is—let’s say a lazy critic would associate it with dirty realism. But I’ve always felt like there is good dirty realism and then there is dirty realism that is just an affect or a way to distance emotion. Whereas in your stories the emotions are right there. They’re so raw. CP:
I’m really glad that you feel that way, that means a lot. I feel very dedicated to always fully exploring the emotional stakes of whatever is happening, particularly with short stories. I sometimes have a big bee in my bonnet about short stories because it’s a condensed form and because it’s like a snapshot, so therefore the emotional stakes become a snapshot as well. And I’m just not interested in that whatsoever. I feel frustrated when I read something, no matter what kind of aesthetics the writer is drawn to or no matter what the plot, what point they’re trying to make, where the emotions and feelings of the situation are just curtailed. That’s just not my thing. I can read a one-page Amy Hempel story and feel like I’ve travelled through my entire life’s emotional range somehow. If Amy Hempel can do that in one page, a regular short story can do it in fifteen.
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Also, I’m not interested in writing characters that I don’t really love in a certain way. I don’t have to like all my characters and they don’t have to be good, but I do kind of want to love them all, and I do kind of want to have a deep empathy for them no matter if they’re bad people or if they’re doing shitty things or if they’re making bad decisions. I feel really committed to that, and I think that even though some of these stories deal with a lot of extreme circumstances and deal with a lot that is pretty explicit and pretty profane, and even though they have characters who are often not very in touch with their own emotions—don’t want to give credence to them, don’t want to talk about them—I’m not interested in writing stuff where the feelings and emotions they provoke are not coming to you the entire way. HLR: I apologize if this is controversial, but I’ve done some research on you, and apparently you’re a trans writer. Did you know that information is out there? CP:
[Laughing] You Sherlock Holmes, you!
HLR: That’s right. So this is a very sweeping generalization, but a lot of writing that comes out of a marginalized community, however you define that, some of it can be really brilliant, but there’s a lot of it that feels very simplified or didactic or preachy. Because there’s this feeling that you have to represent your community or you have to speak to a larger community that’s not yours. The great thing about your work, however, is that there are no out-and-out villains, and the characters at the centre of all these narratives are really complicated and messy and far from perfect. One of the most gratifying things that has happened since this book came out is—you know the character of Iris in [Plett’s story] “Obsolution”? I feel like everybody I know has a different response to that character, and I feel extraordinarily grateful for that. Because she is an incredibly complicated person, she has this incredibly complicated relationship with the protagonist, and I’ve heard literally every adjective and feeling applied to her. That’s one of those things that makes me feel like I’ve possibly done the thing that I meant to do. Before I began writing fiction, my prime exposure to trans characters were one-dimensional CP:
villains, jokes or villains—either these like, sick, weird, falling-apart, decrepit creatures, or these like vicious, violent, crazy people. Around the 2010s, we started seeing a rapid change, but then a lot of trans characters were like heroes, there were these one-dimensional martyr-sufferer types. I would read those things and I’d be like, yeah they’re made with good intentions not malicious ones, so that’s a key difference absolutely, but also I’m not a freaking hero. Most my friends aren’t. So I’m not interested in those fictional projects where trans people are made out to be these hero figures, and the only enemy is some hockey-mad bigoted dad. I mean, those characters exist, and those characters are real, but the lone wolf against the bad people— that’s not the fictional stuff I’m interested in. Also, if I can give you one more little minirant: I think there’s a subtle difference between where characters are grappling with political and social problems and where the book itself is trying to grapple with them. There are lots of times in my fiction where characters are discussing politics and this wider stuff, they’re asking questions and having debates. My hope is always that it feels like this is happening because this is what these characters would actually talk like in a bar. There’s a fine line between that happening and the creator of the work all of a sudden, like, sticking their hand in it and trying to yell at you. HLR: Because some of these stories are broken up and keep returning throughout the book, I wonder how were you able to let them go. Are you feeling like maybe there’s more to say about these characters, or have you made yourself put them aside for something new? Do you feel like the next big, intense, complicated, messy book is going to be a whole new set of situations or characters, or could there be continuity from some of these stories? CP:
I’m not sure. Possibly. I mean, I have no idea.
HLR: I’m dancing around the “what comes next?” question. CP:
I appreciate that. I think I felt something very urgent about these first three books that I’ve written—Cheryl Strayed talks about a twohearts-beating-in-your-chest feeling. I felt like I really needed to expel them in this really intense way. They feel like they almost make a trilogy in a way, which I wasn’t really expecting to do, but they’re all poking at this similar thing. And this
HLR: There’s always thrillers. CP:
Right, exactly. ///
IS THE AUTHOR OF THE NOVEL LITTLE FISH (ARSENAL PULP PRESS) AND THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION A SAFE GIRL TO LOVE (TOPSIDE PRESS), AND COEDITOR OF THE ANTHOLOGY MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE: SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FROM TRANSGENDER WRITERS (TOPSIDE PRESS). SHE WROTE A COLUMN ON TRANSITIONING FOR MCSWEENEY'S INTERNET TENDENCY AND HER ESSAYS AND REVIEWS HAVE APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, MACLEAN'S, THE WALRUS, PLENITUDE, THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS. SHE IS THE WINNER OF A LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD FOR BEST TRANSGENDER FICTION AND RECEIVED AN HONOUR OF DISTINCTION FROM THE WRITERS' TRUST OF CANADA'S DAYNE OGILVIE PRIZE FOR LGBTQ EMERGING WRITERS. SHE LIVES IN WINDSOR, ONTARIO.
2021-12-16 1:02 PM
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might be the last one, like I’ve done the thing that I meant to do when I started writing fiction a little over a decade ago. I feel very at peace and grateful to have made these three books. I feel proud of them and I feel very unencumbered to figure out whatever the next one is. Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping in 1980; that was, like, the book she’d meant to do all her life. And then she didn’t publish another work of fiction for twenty-four years. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer and got a teaching job and wrote these non-fiction books, so it’s not like she wasn’t doing stuff in the literary world, but she just didn’t publish another work of fiction until she wrote Gilead. Maybe if I don’t publish a book of fiction for a long, long time, that’s fine. I have a non-fiction book that I am working on, I finished a screenplay that I’m trying to shop around, and I have this little publishing company that I just started earlier this year because I obviously hate myself and don’t care about my mental health—that’s a prerequisite to starting a publishing company. But as far as works of fiction go, I don’t know—that’s probably going to be a slow burn for a while.
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REVIEWS ON FREEDOM: FOUR SONGS OF CARE AND CONSTRAINT By Maggie Nelson (McClelland & Stewart) Reviewed by Neil Price Maggie Nelson’s latest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, is a bold and oftentimes vexing exploration of how freedom gets both exercised and interpreted, and what we gain and lose in our pursuit of this grand idea. Divided into four lengthy sections that ruminate on art, sex, drugs, and climate change, Nelson takes on some of the thorniest subjects of our time without flinching. The #MeToo movement is both analyzed and criticized for its perceived excesses; drug addiction is weighed against the valuable lessons learned through personal struggle; anxieties about climate change are examined in relation to our human tendency to think narrowly and narratively, as in, “this story will end badly.” In each of these “realms,” Nelson argues that freedom—or our desire for it—always gets “knotted up” with unfreedom. For Nelson, this is a good thing, leading to greater appreciation for what we gain with each passing day. Drawing heavily on the ideas of Michel Foucault, Nelson’s overall project is to present freedom not as a final state or destination but as a continuum. The book’s essays delight in paradoxes that open space for thinking differently about how we should live. Are we at our best when we are not free to do whatever we want? Is there deep value derived from the various constraints placed on desires? Do we gain life-affirming truths from experiences that bring about trauma and pain? And how long will it take to arrive at the answers to such questions? Here, Nelson deploys a dose of hard realism, writing, “Those of us who are waiting for the big liberatory moment will be disappointed to find out that freedom was with us the whole time.” In the section titled “Art Song,” Nelson argues that the uses of art—no matter how offensive—have plenty
to offer our notions of freedom, despite our revulsion at what is presented. In addressing the heated controversy that followed the exhibition of artist Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” which depicted the brutalized body of Emmett Till, Nelson questions whether or not this kind of outrage in response to art says more about the viewer or society than it does about the art itself. Is there something to be said for beholding and pondering what others find racist or demeaning? Perhaps. Nelson believes we “have the freedom to find a piece of art repulsive, wrong-headed, implicated in injustice in naive and nefarious ways, without concluding that it threatens our well-being.” With elegantly controlled prose, Nelson mines liminal spaces where quick condemnation is challenged. In the section titled “The Battle of Sexual Optimism,” Nelson makes some of her boldest arguments. Through explorations on sexual violence, AIDS, promiscuity, consent, and sexual liberation, Nelson suggests that we can learn from what we fear the most. Without this fear, we are left somewhat bereft, somewhat wanting. “Due to AIDS, much of that time was fearful and awful,” Nelson writes. “I do, however, have a tremendous respect for the lessons it imparted.” Nelson wants to convince the reader that life is full of threatening risks, which remain no matter our efforts to mitigate or hide from them. Simply put, we miss out on growth by trying to live within walled gardens and, for Nelson, who would prefer that we have exposure to all of life’s opportunities and challenges, the chance to engage in what she refers to as “radical compassion,” the ability to accept humanity in all of its frailty and meanness, somehow keeps us going as better human beings. In the book’s final section, “Riding the Blinds,” Nelson suggests true freedom is about taking what life throws one’s way and progressing forward the best we can in a kind of updated Zen stoicism. “Riding the blinds means you’re out of the authorities’ sight,” she writes. “It also means you can’t see where you’re headed. Maybe you’re on a runaway train headed for a concrete wall. Maybe you’re heading for a future that is simply impossible to imagine from the present.”
OUT OF THE SUN: ON RACE AND STORYTELLING By Esi Edugyan (Anansi) Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji “I am not a historian, only a storyteller with an interest in overlooked narratives, and I’ve always been curious as to why we sideline some stories and mythologize others,” writes novelist Esi Edugyan in the CBC Massey Lecture Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling. Edugyan pairs historical rigour with intimately told stories from life, crafting a collection that she calls “part memoir, part travelogue, part history” to offer “meditations on identity and belonging.” Split into five sections corresponding to different places, Edugyan turns to Europe, Canada, America, Africa, and Asia, re-examining aesthetic values such as empathy, storytelling, and futurism from a position firmly grounded in the present.
In “Europe and the Art of Seeing,” Edugyan explores the legacies of erasure and racism in visual art, beginning with the experience of sitting for her own oil portrait in BC, to discuss the weight of representation. Edugyan reflects on the 1778 portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray, known as such until the 1990s, even though there is another woman beside her—a young woman of colour named Dido Elizabeth Belle, who is Lady Elizabeth’s cousin. Edugyan notes that Black people have long been present in paintings as “footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi” but “rarely until the twentieth century [as] just human beings, living human lives.” “Canada and the Art of Ghosts” turns to these lives. Edugyan writes, “Our ideas of pioneer life rarely seem to include the people of African descent who, both enslaved and free, built farms, homesteads, and roads, who hunted and fished on the land and lived lives of spectacular diversity.” Edugyan captivates with her telling of a ghost story experienced by her friend, who retired to a homestead in northern Alberta, where plains were traversed by Indigenous peoples and freed slaves from southern American states. After returning home from outings, Edugyan’s friend would find strange occurrences, such as the furniture having shifted by inches, picture frames arranged faced down, and light bulbs unscrewed and placed in the centre of the room. Her friend eventually left the homestead. Later, her friend became curious about the haunting and began researching genealogical logs of Germans, Ukrainians, and Mennonites who were settlers and migrants to the area. Edugyan writes: “I was struck by how little it occurred to her that her ghosts—in whose existence she was fully convinced—might belong to one of the communities of colour whose presence also predated her own on the land. She didn’t bother with the stories of those who were not, like her, descendants of Europe.” Edugyan then develops a striking analysis of race and haunting: “It seems a strange thing to speak about race when discussing ghosts. But it is interesting to note how often such details get left out.”
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In On Freedom, Nelson uses her impressive intellectual prowess to probe subjects of immense import and debate. While her arguments offer intriguing paths of inquiry and reflection, they don’t always feel overly generous or inclusive. Nelson can afford to posit her thesis— that there is something deeply human to be gained when one’s freedoms are curtailed or impinged upon—because her identity and social location as a white, queer, successful, American writer give her the privilege to do so. There is a niggling and flippant tone that runs through the book, which seems to take the life-and-death seriousness of the subject a little too lightly for this reviewer. Readers who know about the crushing weight of oppression or who have lost freedoms in dire contexts will note that these musings come from a particular writer, of a particular lived experience, who has yet to adequately grapple with freedom’s complex interconnections with history, class, and race.
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Out of the Sun deepens stories of historical erasure and Black presence, engaging with contexts of reclamation such as futurism and African-Asian relations to show what has been in order to acknowledge what can be. From the film District 9 to the orientalized and turbaned portraits of Angelo Soliman and Dido Elizabeth Belle, Edugyan creates intimacies of relation without resorting to phony universality, a tremendous feat that contributes to world-making beyond arts and letters.
LETTERS IN A BRUISED COSMOS By Liz Howard (McClelland & Stewart) Reviewed by Keith Garebian As in her Griffin-award-winning collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Liz Howard explores colliding worlds in Letters in a Bruised Cosmos through poems that are passionate conversations with themselves as much as with their readers. Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, as in the earlier collection, demonstrates how desire is compatible with meditative wonder—though the “limits of language” are essentially “the limits” of anyone’s world, as Wittgenstein maintained in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—and thus inquiry (and even gut-wrenching experience) can only lead to elliptical, partial answers. Wittgenstein is one of many figures quoted in this collection, whose wide frame of reference encompasses the works of Archimedes, Blake, Proust, Kafka, Arendt, Curie, Clare, Kahlo, Kristeva, Roubaud, and Knausgaard, in addition to the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, biology, Western literature, post-structural feminist studies, and Anishinaabe cosmology. I hasten to add that this list shouldn’t daunt the reader because Howard is not entrenched in the abstract or the abstruse. Though her poetics can be as intellectually challenging as those of Anne Carson, Erín Moure, or Margaret Christakos, her language has mercurial volatility: it unwinds, circles, and
stretches itself for a stronger perspective on an imperiled cosmos. The title of Howard’s collection suggests the epistolary, but the connotations are multiple. On one hand, the poems are messages about memory, trauma, and autobiographical episodes that are unpacked, explored, and reintegrated with urgency and purpose. The poems are also messages aimed at a cosmos that itself messages us all about its griefs and furies. To quote from the collection’s endnotes, this “cosmos” is “an anomalous region detected in the ‘heat map’ of the known universe,” and its radiance is imperiled, as is our own survival. Believing that our world is a result of an astrophysical collision, the author knows (as all Anishinaabe poets do) that we are not landowners, but merely bruised or bruising tenants on a lease we can never truly pay. While attempting to “reforge” herself and us “inside of tomorrow’s humidex,” Howard admits to being “bogged” in a “pustule of astrocytes,” implying that such star-shaped nerve cells are ineffective at curing her “moods / and vapors and sickness,” her hormonal stress. Yet she pursues the future, fearing abuse and even murderous violence, two effects of being Indigenous in a present that is a palimpsest of “a past there’s no coming back from.” Her bloodstream consists of “dark matter”: abandonment in girlhood by an alcoholic father (whose embrace she experiences only after his crematory ashes catch on her shoes, leggings, and skin); near drowning in a river; and “an experience / of abjection” at the age of seven, where she feels “a true separation between [herself] / and the world.” She weathers all, examining her own “total vulnerability.” It is this susceptibility that lends a poignant tenderness, a grace to her brain-mapping of time, space, and art. Howard makes a place in this collection for blood relatives (father, mother, brother, uncle, greatgrandfather, lover) and for Indigenous life, mythology, and cosmology. The autobiographical element is pitched in a different linguistic key, a down-to-earth directness in contrast to her intellectual refinements
What does it mean to actively die? Actively? I’ve been reading Knausgaard who writes: For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Full stop as in a period, as a period is a flat line when extended. I have been given my father’s papers, his Polaroids, and a pocket watch that belonged to my great-grandfather. I have been given his ball cap that kept the Maritime sun out of his eyes as he scavenged for bottles. The band of this hat has collected his scent which is lemongrass, earth, and discount smoke. I have been given his small tools, cologne, nail clippers, a water canister, a small plastic box of razors, a picture of me as a baby, a drawing of electric currents, a knife.
Howard is frequently metaphorically stretched, lifting her chin and consideration to higher things in emblematic elevations: she points to “A column extended from the top / of my head into heaven”; she notes that “It’s as if these winters have nothing on a chin / tilted upward”; “Somehow,” she says, “her mind was lifted up to the ceiling.” The column image is instructive, signaling her desire to find a portal between world and spirit. Her book manifests a modified dialectic of the cogito (in nature and body), really a nervous existential struggle with metaphysics of phenomena. As she divulges in one sequence, she has served as a researcher into cognitive mechanisms of the living brain; even so, as she wisely admits, her considerable art cannot reify “what time has taken away.” Her book is an extended meditation that in eight near-final pages has a lowend economy of thinly stretched-out phrases (for example, “All the skins a fibrous silk of nerve stimulus”) that could be read as axons or nerve endings.
This morpheme imagery cleverly exhibits that Howard’s profound mind is always at the service of an intensive human sensitivity. I hope I have not misrepresented this amazing collection. Letters in a Bruised Cosmos’s rich caviar of thought may entice academics, but the moving, evocative aesthetics will undoubtably appeal to all readers. The collection’s best lyrics often demonstrate how thought can be sublimated into “a braid of snowflakes,” a mesmerizing whir of language. Howard is a valuable part of a nucleus of contemporary Indigenous poets: sensitive dreamers who strive for spiritual enlightenment and expand the Canadian literary map, rewriting themselves as acute tricksters in the best sense of creative resourcefulness and genius. These are poets who can wrench the gut and heart as they exercise the mind to illuminate what has often been consigned to darkness or callous indifference.
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in the philosophic lyrics. But the two contrasting tones can also blend beautifully, combining sentiment, reflection, and punctum:
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CONTRIBUTORS BECKY BLAKE is two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prize (for non-fiction in 2017 and short fiction in 2013). Her stories and essays have appeared in publications across Canada, and her debut novel, Proof I Was Here, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2019. Becky holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She is currently working on a second novel and a memoir-in-essays. ANNAHID DASHTGARD lives in Toronto and is the author of the upcoming Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World (2023, Dundurn Press) and recent memoir Breaking the Ocean: Race, Rebellion, and Reconciliation (2019, House of Anansi Press). Her writing has appeared in CBC Books, Prairie Fire, and The Globe and Mail, among other places. She’s CEO and co-founder of boutique inclusion firm Anima Leadership and believes nothing changes minds and hearts like a good story.
small press, Hecate Press, by editing and publishing a northern comics anthology called The Northern Gaze (2021), which subsequently won Best Comic with the Broken Pencil Zine Award (2021). With pieces in the Yukon Permanent Art Collection and the Ottawa Direct Purchase Program, Kim is currently working on a debut graphic novel. AVA FATHI was first published in the University of Toronto’s oldest student literary journal, Acta Victoriana, in Winter 2020, and her creative nonfiction was recently published in The Malahat Review in Fall 2021. Fathi has taken writing courses with Adam Sol, Robert McGill, and Albert Frank Moritz and is entering the last year of a degree in English literature, with hopes to shortly begin an MFA in Creative Writing. Fathis’s dream is to one day write a novel steeped in Persian fantasy and folklore.
GRAEME DESROSIERS is a writer and teacher living in Montreal with his wife and two daughters. He holds an Honours BA in English Literature from the University of British Columbia and an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Concordia University. His work has previously appeared in Headlight and was longlisted for The Fiddlehead’s 26th Annual Literary Contest.
REBECCA FISSEHA is an Ethiopian-Canadian writer whose novel Daughters of Silence was among Quill & Quire magazine’s Breakout Debuts of 2019, and Margaret Atwood’s selections for the gritLIT Spotlight Series. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various publications and in the collections Addis Ababa Noir and Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language. Rebecca was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and currently lives in Toronto.
KIMBERLY EDGAR is a queer white settler living on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory in the subarctic town of Dawson City, Yukon (Canada). An artist, cartoonist, illustrator, and designer, Kim is also chronically ill and uses comics to reflect on their experiences of both the medical system and the ennui that comes with being sick with no end. In their personal work, Kim holds a Broken Pencil Zine Award for best comic for their comic The Purpose (2019), and has been nominated for two Doug Wright Awards (2021) for their comic The Space in Between (2020). Kim is also the recipient of grants from Cue (2018), Canada Council (2019, 2021), On Yukon Time (2020), Culture Quest (2020, 2021), and the Yukon Advanced Artist Award (2020). Kim recently started a
KEITH GAREBIAN has published twenty-seven books to date, eight of which are poetry collections, such as Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano (2004), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (2008), Children of Ararat (2010), Poetry Is Blood (2018), and Against Forgetting (2019). Several of his poems have been anthologized in Canada and the US, and one of his Jarman poems was set to music for choir and instruments by Gregory Spears, in the company of a poem each by Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov. Garebian has been shortlisted for the gritLIT, Freefall magazine, and the Gwendolyn MacEwen/ Exile poetry awards, and some of his poems have been translated into French, Armenian, Hebrew, Bulgarian, and Romanian.
SALMA HUSSAIN writes prose and poetry for children and adults. She grew up in the UAE to parents from Pakistan and moved to Canada as a teenager. Her debut novel for kids and kids-at-heart, The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan, is forthcoming in May 2022 (Tundra/ Penguin Random House Canada). MEHDI M. KASHANI lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. His fiction has recently appeared in Epiphany, EVENT, and Zone 3, among others. He has work forthcoming in Sou’wester and Potomac Review. To learn more about him, visit his website: mehdimkashani.com.
DOMINIK PARISIEN is the author of the poetry collection Side Effects May Include Strangers, and his nonfiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Maisonneuve, Arc Poetry Magazine, Canadian Notes & Queries, and PRISM international, among others. Dominik is a disabled, bisexual French Canadian. He lives in Hamilton, ON. OUBAH OSMAN is a Somali-Canadian writer from Djibouti. She has been published in 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, The New Quarterly, and CV2, among others. Her chapbook titled Hereditary Blue was published by Anstruther Press in 2019 and was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. She is an MFA graduate from the University of Guelph. She was raised in Scarborough, Toronto. NEIL PRICE is a writer and educator. His writing has appeared in NOW Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Hazlitt, Canadian Art, and This Magazine.
ANGELA KIRBY graduated from Duke University with a BA in Creative Writing. Publications include Seam Ripper, Lament for the Dead, and Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. She writes in the mountains of North Carolina.
SHAZIA HAFIZ RAMJI is the author of Port of Being (Invisible Publishing), a finalist for the 2019 BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize). It was named by CBC as a best Canadian poetry book of 2018 and received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Shazia’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Best Canadian Poetry 2019, carte blanche, and Quill & Quire. She is at work on a novel.
JEDIDIAH MUGARURA is a writer from Kampala, Uganda, currently based in Toronto, Canada. He published his first poetry book WARAGI in November 2018, launching in Nairobi and Kampala through a content company, Hen House Africa, which he co-founded with his business partner Joanita Tushabe. His poem “It takes Longer for Night to Fall Here,” features in “Black Alive and Looking Back at you,” the 2021 summer issue of CV2 and “Obutumwa: a letter to Atuhwera” in Brittle Paper. His short story “Special Boy” is forthcoming in Transition Magazine. He tells stories of his home country Uganda and the continent of Africa.
RASIQRA REVULVA is a queer femme writer, multimedia artist, editor, musician, performer, and SciComm advocate. She is an editor of the climate crisis anthology Watch Your Head: A Call to Action, and one half of the experimental electronic duo The Databats (Slice Records, Melbourne; Toronto). Her debut collection, Cephalopography 2.0 was published by Wolsak and Wynn (2020). Additionally, she has published two chapbooks of glitch-illustrated poetry: Cephalopography (words(on)pages press, 2016) and If You Forget the Whipped Cream, You’re No Good as a Woman (Gap Riot Press, 2018). Learn more at @rasiqra_revulva, @thedatabats, and rasiqrarevulva.com.
CONTRIBUTORS // 67
ASHLEY GOLDBERG is an Australian writer. Ashley’s fiction has appeared in Chiron Review, F(r)iction, Storgy, The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Honest Ulsterman, Tincture Journal, and Award Winning Australian Writing, among others. Ashley has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. Ashley’s work has been longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Ashley’s debut novel Abomination will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in May 2022.
BRAXTON GARNEAU BRAXTON GARNEAU is an emerging visual artist living in Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), Canada. He holds a BFA degree from the University of Alberta and a Diploma of Fine Art from Grant MacEwan University. He has exhibited in group exhibitions within Canada and the US and is currently working on his second solo exhibition in Alberta. His current practice combines a variety of harvested and hand-processed materials with printmaking, painting, and installation to create portraits, shrines, and corporeal forms. These materials often share inextricable colonial histories and significant cultural ties to those who’ve spent generations in close proximity to them. Exploring the materiality of culture, Garneau mines his own Caribbean heritage to charge his practice with the essences of animism and masquerade that swirl within Trinidad and Tobago. He merges classical aesthetics and double entendre to cultivate a visual language steeped in burlesque and iconoclasm. Garneau’s transformative approach of combining traditional media/subject matter with raw and repurposed material serves to disrupt the historical notion of mastery and to democratize the privilege of viewership. He revisits traditional handicraft to explore the sociocultural history between humans and colonial goods. Adamant about encouraging young artists in his community, Garneau has facilitated drawing workshops with both the Jubilee Auditorium and the Art Gallery of Alberta. He is currently a part of The Alberta Foundation for the Arts Travelling Exhibition Program “… bring a folding chair,” which aims to highlight the unique contributions and experiences of Black Albertans. His work has been selected for several publications and catalogues, and he has given artist talks for both Canadian and American institutions. ///
! s u h t i w e t a r b e Cel
COLLECTED NOTES ON WRITING
EVENT celebrates 50 years of publication with a Notes on Writing anthology, featuring more than 70 personal essays with insights into the joys and struggles of the writer’s life and process, written by notable Canadian writers, including Jane Urquhart, David Bergen, André Alexis, Madeleine Thien, Eden Robinson, Jen Sookfong Lee, Zoe Whittall, Joy Kogawa, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Joshua Whitehead, and many others. ORDER NOW, OR RECEIVE A FREE COPY WHEN YOU SUBSCRIBE OR RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION
DETAILS AT EVENTMAGAZINE.CA
STUDIO SPACE, 2021 | BRAXTON GARNEAU
Image courtesy of the artist.
CASEY PLETT // BECKY BLAKE // ANNAHID DASHTGARD // RASIQRA REVULVA // SALMA HUSSAIN // REBECCA FISSEHA // ANGELA KIRBY // DOMINIK PARISIEN // AVA FATHI // KIMBERLY EDGAR // JEDIDIAH MUGARURA // ASHLEY GOLDBERG // GRAEME DESROSIERS // MEHDI M. KASHANI
Hu m ber L iter a ryR ev i ew.com