VOLUME 8 ISSUE 2 fall + winter 2020/21
MARG ARE T NOWACZ YK // winner of the Creative Nonfiction Collectiveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s annual contest // PHILLIPA CHONG // interview Z ALIK A REID-BENTA & E VA CROCKER // fiction C ATRIONA WRIGHT & TOLU OLORUNTOBA // poetry SUSAN OLDING & LORI SEBA S TIANUT TI // essays HOWIE TSUI // art MARTA CHUDOLINSK A // comic
PROFESSIONAL WRITING AND COMMUNICATIONS POSTGRADUATE CERTIFICATE
Featuring a third semester, industry-connected internship
VOLUME 8 ISSUE 2 fall + winter 2020/21
FROM THE EDITORS
4 Bashment 17 Life Drawing Lesson 22 Scoring
HAJERA KHAJA 33 Tomorrow You Will Be My Best Friend
50 When You See It, You Donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t
10 [Two Poems] 21 1887: A Kidnap from Opobo 37 [Three Poems] 49 Year of Summer
MARGARET NOWACZYK 12 A Mother-Daughter Phrasebook: Definitions
27 Past Lives
LORI SEBASTIANUTTI 41 A Retrospective Look at Hair, Hatred, and Healing
INTERVIEWS // REVIEWS
44 Another Secret
53 [Interview] 57
SONGS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD RENDER YOU ARE EATING AN ORANGE. YOU ARE NAKED. PHASES
62 64 [Featured Artist]
MASTHEAD PUBLISHERS John Stilla and Humber Press EDITORS Eufemia Fantetti D.D. Miller FICTION EDITORS Sarah Feldbloom Kelly Harness Matthew Harris ESSAYS EDITOR Leanne Milech POETRY EDITOR Bardia Sinaee ART/ILLUSTRATIONS EDITOR Cole Swanson COMICS EDITOR Christian Leveille INTERVIEWS EDITOR Meaghan Strimas COPY EDITORS Tanya d’Anger Rebecca Mangra Jorge Toro Kristin Valois Suzanne Zelazo PROOFREADERS Kathy Friedman Stuart Ross DESIGNER Kilby Smith-McGregor
The Humber Literary Review, Volume 8 Issue 2 Copyright © January 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 Howie Tsui 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.
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
FRONT & BACK COVERS
| HOWIE TSUI
PARALAX NEON (WHITE CAMEL MOUNTAIN) , 54” X 42”, KODAK PROFESSIONAL ENDURA PRINT ON TRANSPARENCY FILM IN LIGHTBOX, 2019 THE PEEL, THE BARK, THE TOME (WHITE CAMEL MOUNTAIN), 54” X 42”, ACRYLIC INK ON GOAT PARCHMENT IN LIGHTBOX, 2019
FROM THE EDITORS S
IX MONTHS AGO, when we were preparing our previous issue, we wrote about producing the magazine in an “unprecedented moment” in our lives. We didn’t think that six months later we’d be deep in a second wave, many of us facing a second (or third) lockdown. But here we are, living what has become the (already cliché) “new normal.” Generally, when preparing this note, we look for themes arising in the content: through lines that bring together the disparate works into some kind of cohesive whole. Perhaps it’s just our pandemic brains at work, but we don’t see that same pattern in this issue. And maybe that’s what makes this issue such a perfect read for the pandemic. In the long, locked-down winter ahead, this issue of the Humber Literary Review is the perfect antidote: sure, you can read it straight through, but you can also flip to any page and be taken away on a unique journey for a few minutes or an hour. You can go from Susan Olding’s substantial and thoughtful look at aging to Zalika Reid-Benta’s short story “Bashment,” part of that exciting young writer’s continued rewriting of Toronto’s literary narrative. You could also choose to sample some of the diverse poetry in the issue, from Catriona Wright’s “Fifteen,” an intensely personal, seemingly autobiographical poem, to Tolu Oloruntoba’s expansive and historic “1887: A Kidnap from Opobo.” Similarly different are Luke Sawczak’s storytelling voice in “Year of Summer” and Pete Gibbon’s sparse and impressionistic poems. But there’s so much more. From Marta Chudolinska’s comic that so beautifully and optimistically combines form and content, to Lori Sebastianutti’s fascinating and affecting “Retrospective Look at Hair, Hatred, and Healing,” a piece that achingly blends the personal and historical. And the diversity of content continues: there is an autobiographical work from Yolande House, a fresh take on the coming-of-age story from Hajera Khaja, and of course, we’re also pleased to once again house the winner of the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s annual contest, Margaret Nowaczyk’s fascinatingly structured “A Mother-Daughter Phrasebook: Definitions.” There is even more fiction yet, from Liz Johnston and Eva Crocker, that—as different as they are in content and style—both contain a character solitarily grappling with an issue. In these pages you will also find reviews of new works that will pair nicely with Nathan Whitlock’s smart, funny interview with Phillipa Chong, in which they discuss her book Inside the Critics’ Circle, exploring the world of book reviewing. All of it wrapped up in and illustrated by the colourful, genre-bending (and sometimes delightfully creepy) art of Howie Tsui. Please enjoy losing yourselves in this diverse offering, and most importantly, stay safe. Best wishes, The HLR Collective
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 4
oing anything fun this long weekend?” Naimah looked up from her phone to the front of the car. She preferred silent Uber rides, but her driver, Sal, had been doing his best to make sure she was comfortable: asking if she wanted gum or water, if she favoured a particular radio station, if she wanted to plug in her cell because he was equipped with an assortment of chargers from Samsung to LG to iPhone 8. He even called attention to his own musky cologne, admitting he’d been a bit too liberal with
/// PEACH BLOSSOM ISLAND (STILTS), 25” X 18”, PIGMENT ON MULBERRY PAPER, 2019 | HOWIE TSUI
Image courtesy of the artist.
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 5
“the stuff,” and asked if Naimah wanted to roll down the window to air out the Chevy Suburban. It would be rude of her to ignore him now or pretend she didn’t hear the question. “Me and my friend, Toni, we have a few people coming up from the States for Caribana,” she said. “Oh right, that Caribbean festival thing,” said Sal, one of his large arms hanging out the window, the other loose on the steering wheel, his fingers drumming against the vinyl. “They’re closing down all the streets for that. I tell ya, it’s gonna be a nightmare to drive around.” “I’m sure you’ll get a lot of business to make up for it,” Naimah offered. Sal shrugged. “There’s gonna be a lot of concerts coming up that weekend, I think Taylor Swift’s performing, so that’s always a lotta, lotta rides.” When Naimah didn’t say anything, he cleared his throat and itched his stubble with his thumb. “And I’m not saying that the parade won’t get me any customers,” he said, stopping the car at a red light. “It’s just, y’know, I don’t take many people because of those costumes. They’re beautiful, really, uh, uh, what’s the word? Really…elaborate. I always wonder how the girls get everything on, with the wings and the feathers and everything, it’s insane. It’s just the glitter, right? Like, the glitter, it just gets everywhere. It’s a bitch to get out, excuse my French.” But not everyone there will be participating in the parade, Naimah thought to herself. The bystanders wouldn’t even be in costume at all. It would also be easy to lay a sheet over the back seat if it meant getting more business. She’d seen drivers use that strategy on Friday and Saturday nights in preparation for drunk clubbers teetering along King Street. But then she remembered Ship Your Enemies Glitter. The site was created because glitter was such a nuisance that people would legitimately pay a company to glitterbomb anyone who wronged them. Naimah had read that the demand for the service got so high within its first weekend that the founder actually begged people to stop ordering his product. He’d sold the site since then. The light turned green and Sal stepped lightly on the gas, driving past the Harvest Time Caribbean Supermarket. “Y’know, I don’t usually drive up here,” he said, looking around at the 7-Eleven and Island Hot and Spicy Restaurant. “This where you live?” “My mom,” said Naimah. “I’m paying her a visit.”
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 6
aimah smelled the salty spiciness of curry chicken before she opened the door to her mother, Lucinda’s, apartment. When she walked inside, she willed her stomach not to grumble with either hunger or greed. She hadn’t been back home in nearly a month and she’d been living off of Kraft Dinner and Mr. Noodles. “Imah, is that you?” a voice called. “Yep!” she said as she lay her left hand flat against the wall and used her other one to unbuckle her sandals on the doormat. “Dinner will be ready in about five minutes.” “Perfect timing,” said Naimah. “Oh, but before I forget, can you go around the corner and give Miss Rose the ten dollar I owe she for my hair?” Naimah looked down at the shoes she had just taken off. All her mother had to do was call her or have her younger sister, Tasha, text her while she was still on the way to the apartment. But this was her mother’s MO. When she still lived here, Naimah would come home
If she said instant garbage was all she could afford, Lucinda would say she had no business living on her own so soon after university. and settle into her house clothes, wrap her hair, maybe even get a snack from the fridge, and her mother would walk through the door, having just come from outside, and ask her to get milk from the convenience store. “Can’t I go after dinner?” she said. “You know they close the salon early on Sunday. It won’t take but five minutes, Naimah, but I don’t know why I have to explain myself. You leave home and think you’re a big woman.” “All right, all right, I’ll go. Where’s the ten dollars?” “Come into the kitchen.” Naimah drifted down the hallway. “Why is it so hot in here? Are the windows open?” “Yes, all of them but the balcony.” She walked past the various portrait paintings on the wall, some of Jesus, some of Princess Diana, some of regal-looking African women, until she reached the kitchen. Her mother wiped her hands on her apron and moved from the stove to the small breakfast bar on the
other side, taking a ten-dollar bill out of the calabash bowl they used for change. Naimah watched as Lucinda walked over to her. She remembered that when she was a little girl, she thought her mother was the tallest woman in the world. Now Lucinda had to stand on her tiptoes just to reach her daughter’s cheek. After she kissed her, Lucinda handed Naimah the money and then stepped backwards and put a hand on her hip. “Did you gain weight?” she asked. Naimah’s neck stiffened. “I—” She was about to say most of her last pay went to rent, which meant she could only afford to eat one meal a day until her next cheque, but didn’t want to hear a lecture. “No, I don’t think so. I haven’t been overeating or anything.” “It’s not about overeating,” said Lucinda, walking back to the stove. “It’s all of that instant garbage you’re putting into your body.” “Right.” It was Naimah’s fault, really; avoiding one lecture only invited another one in its place and she should’ve remembered that. If she said instant garbage was all she could afford, Lucinda would say she had no business living on her own so soon after university. Instead of responding, she turned her head left toward the living room. The TV was on, but Tasha wasn’t watching it. She sat in the only armchair, scrolling through her phone, with the fan pointed directly at her. “No wonder it’s so hot.” “Naimah, don’t trouble your sister and go to the salon, nuh,” said Lucinda. But Naimah was already heading into the living room. She walked over to Tasha, nudging her leg with her foot. “You can’t even say hi?” Tasha didn’t look up from her phone but raised two fingers, giving a silent “deuces.” Lucinda stood in the kitchen, looking through the half wall into the living room. “Your hair looks nice, Naimah,” she said. Instinctively, Naimah touched the top of her head, feeling the tightness of her box braids. Her scalp was still tender, and for two days her temple throbbed dully with the promise of a headache, but it was worth it to be ’Bana ready, and her mother, a woman not easily impressed, complimenting the style was the seal of approval she needed. “Thanks, Mom.” “Why is it done up so nice? Is there an event at work?” “A staff party,” said Naimah automatically. “At the Keg.”
But Tasha wasn’t listening. “This is a Galaxy S9! I spent two entire cheques getting this phone!” “Should’ve thought of that before you snitched,” Naimah muttered before heading toward the foyer to put her sandals back on. ///
iss Rose, or Rose Campbell, didn’t actually own the hair salon around the corner—a Bajan man named Christophe did. He had a salon at Bay and Davenport back in the eighties but with the ever-rising rent, he had no choice but to move his business out of downtown. Rose was the first woman he hired at the new location: she specialized in relaxing and colouring hair. The salon’s clientele was mostly older women and young girls; very rarely did Naimah see women her age waiting to be serviced. If women in their twenties didn’t do their own crochet or wash and go, they usually went to African braiding salons or studios like the one Naimah went to, where the hairdressers specialized in styling natural hair. The door was open and two fans were going when Naimah walked into the salon. The air conditioning never worked in Christophe’s place, not even when he was still downtown, according to his lifelong customers. Five women sat on accent chairs behind the large display window, flipping through magazines or scrolling on their phones, waiting for their turn. Two more women were under hairdryers, and at the back of the salon, a little girl was getting shampooed. White smoke billowed in the air as Rose took the hot comb to another little girl’s hair. All of the tools in this salon were old-school: metal hot combs and Marcel curling irons with little ovens for heat. Nothing was electric. Rose looked up from her tiny customer, and when she saw Naimah at the doorway, she smiled brightly. “Naimah Stevens? Damn, I haven’t seen you in a minute!” Rose was the youngest hairdresser Christophe had working for him—in her mid-twenties, but she knew how to talk to the older ladies and that’s why Lucinda liked to go to her. Rose put the comb back in the oven, told the little girl she’d be back in a few seconds, and walked over to Naimah, gently touching the bottom of her braids. “OK, OK, I see you rockin’ them braids,” she said, nodding in approval. “Gettin’ yourself all done up for ’Bana.” Naimah grinned sheepishly when one of the women on the accent chairs decided she was a part of the conversation.
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 7
“Really?” said Lucinda. “That’s fancy.” “It’s someone’s birthday. Carol from HR.” “Will they throw you a party like this even though you’re part-time? It’s the office clerk job you’re talking, right?” “Yeah,” said Naimah. “And, uh, I’m sure they will. They’re not like my retail job, they’re nice.” “Oh well, that’s good,” said Lucinda. “She’s lying, Mom, she’s going to Caribana. The parties too.” Naimah shot her sister a look. “Tasha, what the hell?” Tasha kept her eyes on her phone and only smirked when Naimah hit her arm. Lucinda shook her head. “Naimah, I wish you wouldn’t go to that.” “I don’t see the big deal in wanting to celebrate my heritage,” said Naimah, her tone without any edge of anger but weighted by the weariness of voicing an old argument. “Then why did you lie?” “Because I know you don’t like it.” “What’s this? Are you jumping up in the parade?” “No.” She was way too shy for that. “I just—” “Those girls are practically naked!” Jesus Christ! she thought to herself, showing skin is not sinful! But said instead, “I think you’re being a little extreme.” “I’m not being extreme enough!” said Lucinda. “You should be spending that Sunday afternoon in church with me, not skinnin’ out for the whole world to see.” Naimah’s neck stiffened and her fingers began curling into her palms, but before they balled into complete fists, she remembered she didn’t live there anymore. Lucinda couldn’t dictate where she went. She repeated that in her head a few times: I don’t live here anymore, I don’t live here anymore, and exhaled. “Should I go to the salon or not?” she said loudly. “Yes, yes, go see Miss Rose, but this conversation isn’t over! Pastor James has a Bible study on Saturdays…” Naimah tuned her mother out and eyed her sister fluffing out her ’fro to take a selfie. “Box out!” Naimah called, instantly starting a childhood game where the only objective was to make the other person lose their grip on whatever they were holding and claim it as your own. Naimah leaned forward and swatted Tasha’s hand so that she dropped her phone. “Asshole!” Tasha scrambled to pick it up and examine the screen. “Natasha Stevens, there is no cussing in this house,” said Lucinda sharply.
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 8
“Did you say Caribana?” “Where have you been? They call it the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival now.” “Where have you been? Scotiabank dropped the festival long time now. It’s called Peeks.” Rose shook her head. “Either way, Ms. Lane and Ms. Dubois, we call it Caribana still.” “Mm, well I hope you don’t give police any reason to shoot you up when you’re there.” “Being Black is reason enough for police inna this country,” said a third woman. “That only happens in the States.” “They say ‘ignorance is the night of the mind but a night without moon and star’ and your mind is lookin’ mighty empty, Bernice.” The woman called Bernice raised her eyebrows. “Ah what you talking?” “Everyone thinks Canada is better than State, Canada nuh have the same problem as State, but ever since I came into this country some forty years ago, let me tell you something, just because this country is quieter nuh make it better.” The woman looked up at Naimah. “So, young lady, be careful when you’re in them streets, yuh hear?” Naimah only nodded silently. Even though she was no longer a child, whenever she found herself in Christophe’s store, she adhered to the rules of the hair salon her mother had taught her as a little girl—don’t intervene in grown-folk conversation. She turned back to Rose, who was giving her a knowing look, that “these old heads” look, and Naimah grinned. “My mom wanted me to give this to you,” she said, holding out the ten dollars. Rose took the purple bill and put it in the front pocket of her black smock, then told Naimah she would probably see her sometime during the parade. ///
enise just landed. Cassandra, Viv & Krystal are getting in tmrw morning. Naimah read Toni’s text as she waited with a group of other office workers for one of the three elevators to reach the lobby. It was unusually busy for eight in the morning. The rush typically came at half past, but rather than fight her way to a spot in the elevator, she stood back and drank coffee with one hand while she held her phone in the other, waiting for the chaos to die down. Toni sent another message. You took tmrw off, right? Yep. Called in a vacation day. Saaame.
Naimah grinned. It really was their vacation. The other people she knew had the Cottage or Niagara-onthe-Lake, but she and Toni had ’Bana. “Naimah!” She turned to find out who called her name and saw Carol Lam from HR bounding toward her, smiling with her morning-person cheer. Brb. Naimah put her phone in her pocket and greeted Carol as she came over to her. “Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to make you put away your phone. By all means, go ahead.” “It’s nothing,” said Naimah. “Just planning this weekend with my friend.” “Oh right. Should be a fun few days, huh? You’re probably going to the Caribbean Festival, aren’t you? Or RibFest?” Naimah took a sip of her coffee. “Caribana, yes.” “Are you—?” “I won’t be in the Parade,” said Naimah before Carol could finish. She nodded. “I couldn’t go through with it either. I really have to hand it to those women, though, wearing all those revealing things in public?” “There is more than one kind of costume.” “Sorry?” “I— Nothing.” “Well, I hope you have fun and stay safe, of course,” said Carol. Naimah looked at Carol and she cleared her throat. “I just mean—” The second elevator made it to the lobby and, without a word, Naimah wedged her way into a spot on the lift. Carol stepped inside right after her and pushed the button for the fifth floor. “I was just saying that people get a little rowdy during the parties, don’t they?” she whispered to Naimah as two businessmen squeezed in beside her. “I mean, according to the news and everything.” Naimah pressed her lips together and looked up at the LCD display, watching the floor numbers change from L to 2. Carol’s cubicle was at the back of the office, closer to one of the side doors, which she always used to enter and leave the workplace, and that meant Naimah could part ways with her once they got to the fifth floor. “What I mean is,” said Carol, as the elevator stopped at four, “it’s just that it’s been called a historically viol—” “What are you doing for the weekend?” said Naimah. “I should’ve asked before.”
one of her friends were at the venue yet, but the room was already packed with people—the strobe lights highlighting dancing silhouettes while the fog machines added an unnecessary yet appreciated drama to the atmosphere. It was the first event to mark Naimah’s summer vacation, and in her excitement she came a bit too early. She’d arrived an hour after the decided time to be there; Denise hadn’t even left her hotel yet, and Toni and the others were still in traffic. Naimah had planned to hang around the bar until someone from her group appeared, sip on a vodka cranberry, and watch the crowd ebb and flow around her like she normally did if she was the first to show up to an event. Things were different tonight, though. It was barely midnight and yet the DJ didn’t play the usual songs to warm up the crowd, to ease them into the eventual height of the party, into total bashment. She started with hits that energized the entire room, that brought about cheers, that intensified the dancing. Oh na, na, na, na, na, na… The crowd chanted back in a higher key: “Oh na, na, na, na, na, na!” As soon as Naimah entered the room, she felt her hips begin to sway to the rhythm, when a woman in jean shorts and a tank top appeared before her, holding up a bunch of mini-flags. “Choose one!” she yelled. Naimah saw the red and black of Trinidad, the blue and yellow of Barbados, the yellow, green, and red of Guyana, and finally the colours she was looking for: the black, yellow, and green of Jamaica. She took the
flag, smiling in thanks, and the woman moved on to a cluster of men closer to the bar. Air horns sounded throughout the room and the music died down as the party’s hostess took to the stage with a microphone. “WELCOME TO CARIBANA!” The mass of people clapped enthusiastically, a few men whistling loudly with two fingers in their mouths. “We’re all here to have a good time, right?” There was a chatter of agreement. “To respect the space?” “YES.” “To respect each other?” “YES.” “To catch a bubble, catch a wine?” Cheers erupted. “I can’t hear you!” Naimah started clapping, grinning at the excitement that surrounded her. “All right! Let’s get back to the bashment!” The music cut back on, and Rupee’s voice blared from the speakers: WHOY, LOOK AT PEOPLE! YOU MAKE ME WANNA… The energy of the room picked up to an electrifying frenzy as the crowd all waited for the beat to drop.
ZALIKA REID-BENTA // 9
Carol blinked but quickly smiled. “The fam is going to cottage country,” she said. “But I think I’m going to stay in the city with my boyfriend this year.” The elevator stopped at five and the doors opened with a ding, letting Naimah and Carol walk out into the corridor. “He really likes beer, so we’ll probably go to the Beer Festival,” she continued. “Cool.” Naimah took out the keys for the front door of the office while Carol started toward another hallway that led to one of the two side entrances. “Well, see you around,” said Carol with a little wave. “Yeah, see you. I hope you have fun at the festival.” Naimah paused and then turned back to look at Carol. “Oh, and Carol? Don’t forget to stay safe, OK?” Naimah opened the door then, and before it closed behind her, she thought she saw Carol’s eyes widen.
It really was their vacation. The other people she knew had the Cottage or Niagara-on-the-Lake but she and Toni had ’Bana. Naimah felt a surge within her body, starting from her gut and rising up to her chest until she finally screamed with the crowd when the song reached its apex. She held her hand up high, waving her flag in the air, as the people around her brandished flags for St. Vincent and Grenada, Antigua and St. Lucia. “Hear the people say, ‘ay ay’!” Naimah shouted the lyrics at the top of her voice, smiling wildly as her throat threatened to hoarsen. She jumped and swayed, bending low and shuffling her feet, taking up space in the middle of the room as sweat greased her face and pooled on her back. This weekend she would be loud, she would be bold, she would be larger than life—this weekend she would be free. ///
CATRIONA WRIGHT // 10
TWO POEMS FIFTEEN I smoked pot in a rhododendron cathedral by the canal, pink petals sputtering through thick plumes. I parted branches and entered a shimmering afternoon. In the canal’s radioactive waters carp thrashed to the surface. We fed them Pringles and Sour Patch Kids, stiff green soldiers covered in powdery down, the first frost. Sour. Sweet. Gone. That year my two best friends soured on me. They were gone. I had to go begging for new friends. I made out with a boy who sailed tall ships in the summer. He had fish eyes. I fed him lies and ladyfingers soaked in chocolate milk. He told me he was born on the same green couch he was fingering me on. My mother wanted to know what was wrong, why I didn’t want a birthday party that year, a cake with buttercream petals.
I made excuses. I made friends with a girl who snorted PCP on her desk during physics. It probably wasn’t PCP, just some sour sugar powder that scorched her nostrils. She made me friendship bracelets using pink and green string, her hair, thousands of tiny intimate knots. I didn’t love her. I couldn’t unlove my old friends because they resurfaced, tall and ladyfinger-slim, in every hallway. They starred in all the school plays, the sweetest gossip. Their barbed laughter clung to me as I clanged my locker shut. So every afternoon I’d climb into that quiet, dim chamber, into that mausoleum with its power perfume of rotting flowers and rutting skunks, the light filtering down in barbs and lances. I’d settle in and get so high I’d resurrect my imaginary friend, Petite, who I stabbed with a toy sword when I was six. She sat cross-legged in the dirt and asked for a hit. We drank chocolate milk. We cracked jokes and invisible eggs on each other, the yolks running warm and wayward down our backs. I’d get a good green hour before she noticed the flaking gold hilt in her chest.
After Donna Haraway For millennia I refined
composition drew praise and recognition,
my interpretation of the female
pleased my doting pollinators
bee’s genitalia, my petals’ subtle
who circled and circled and
smut not strictly representational,
landed, ecstatic, at my openings.
playful erotic abstractions
I never wanted to be a memorial,
that don’t pander or lapse into boring
an artifact, a designated mourner,
pornography unlike the work
the last wilting evidence
of some of my contemporaries.
of an extinct bee’s exquisite
My loose painterly style and organic
CATRIONA WRIGHT // 11
THE ORCHID’S LAST WILTING
MARGARET NOWACZYK // 12
A MOTHER-DAUGHTER PHRASEBOOK: DEFINITIONS LOVE /ləv/ 1* “Your hair is so thick,” you say. “Make sure you brush it every day.” Lying across your lap, your fingers in my hair, I am surprised by the lightness of your touch— such an unusual feeling. The smell of your body wafts from underneath your skirt, and I feel the warmth of your firm thighs against my three-year-old chest. I ask you to finger my scalp over and over again as time stretches toward the evening.
DEAD SEA, 38” x 125”, INK AND PAINT PIGMENT ON MULBERRY PAPER, 2007 | HOWIE TSUI PHOTO CREDIT: STEPHEN FENN
Image courtesy of the artist.
On December afternoons when dusk falls at four p.m., you peel and grate carrots, spoon white cane sugar into them—I love the extra sweetness. After I gobble up the mush, I demand applesauce and you shred a peeled apple on the same grater, its plastic forever stained pale orange. Sugar on the applesauce, too. To buy crumbly milk chocolate and unripe Cuban bananas for me, you stand in lines for hours—an everyday occurrence in communist Poland.
During the war, alone after your father was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp, your mother sold cigarettes smuggled across the San River from the German-occupied territories, an offence punishable by prison
Your sister Danusia is less than a year old and you have just started school when your mother dies of tuberculosis. Antibiotics reach Poland too late to save her. For fear of infection, your mother is never allowed to hold
MARGARET NOWACZYK // 13
I run up the stairs to our fourth-floor apartment, my white socks caked with the oily forest loam, my breath rushing in and out of my chest. I lug an armful of pussy willows I have snapped off the branches that trail in the stream cutting through the dense shrubs behind our building. “Don’t play in the forest,” you say when I burst through the door to our apartment. “There could be rapists in there.” A menace lurks in your voice and, from now on, it will forever await me behind the tree trunks sticky with resin, in the patch of wild raspberry canes of the forest, in the tall grasses whispering in the wind. What are rapists? In Polish, the word rhymes with “tormentors,” a word I do understand. My pulse thumps beneath my belly button, but not with exertion anymore. I am five and I am terrified.
or concentration camp. When that wasn’t enough to ensure you didn’t go hungry, she caught pigeons and cooked broth for you. Every nanny I have is subjected to obsessive questioning when you return from work in the evenings: “What did you eat today?” When you were four, right after the war, your mother knit a blue sweater for you, bluer than the blue sky. For me, you buy hand-knit dresses made to order and a rabbit-fur winter coat—I have to look better than everybody. My Grade 1 school uniform is tailor-made. For school, I have all the books, pens, crayons and paints, notebooks, and a leather school bag. I always have good shoes—did you? Were you cold in the winters? She died when you were eight. When I’m a teenager, you knit sweaters for me with thick, richly coloured wool: one—oversize, knit in splotches of beige, white, brown, and just enough pink to make all the colors sing—I still cherish.
MARGARET NOWACZYK // 14
her newborn daughter. Danusia is adopted by your married uncle because your father couldn’t possibly look after such a small baby. Throughout your childhood, you watch them dote on her—your father and his brother share a communal apartment. Danusia has pretty clothes that arrive in parcels from America, a belly full of food, and all the love and kindness and attention a child needs. Not even a year after your mother is buried, your father marries a much younger woman, and she and her baby boy keep him busy, even though she turns out to be fickle and a flirt. Three years later, your father decides that the brown-eyed runt of a boy looks nothing like him and divorces his mother. How often do you go hungry after your mother dies?
beautiful penmanship, so much better than my chicken scrawls. I have to be the best at school. And at piano, art classes, figure skating, ballet. You walk me to all the classes twice a week, and for skating practice we ride the bus to the next town over. After the homework is done to your satisfaction, you sit with me at the whiteand-black keys of the piano, the metronome ticking over my head. Scales, études, bagatelles—I practise and practise. You never had the chance to learn to play, so I have to. You never encourage or praise me, but you expect excellence in everything I do.
My sister is born when I am nine, only a year older than you when you lost your mother. I have begged for a sibling for years. I love feeding her, marvel at the strength of her suck when I slip my pinky into her mouth. You catch me once and yell that my finger is covered with deadly bacteria. I iron tiny muslin shirts and cotton diapers, wheel my sister in the pram whose maroon hood stands almost as tall as I do. In the mornings, I leave for school without breakfast. You doze on and off in the rumpled bed, the crib at its feet, not getting dressed until I get back from school, your hair uncombed, dark roots widening with each passing week. I think that with the birth of my sister you reenacted your own abandonment; your postpartum depression a mourning for your own mother.
One afternoon in the well of the inner courtyard of your building, five-year-old Danusia offers you her afternoon snack—a slice of bread thinly spread with butter. You taste the butter from the UNRRA package—so sweet, so smooth on your tongue, your lips shiny with it, when Danusia’s adoptive mother yanks your braid. “You thief.” She grabs the bread out of your hand and shakes you by the shoulder. “I didn’t make it for you!” she shouts. Did your father beat you this time, too? Did he do anything else to you after his divorce?
The second journey was inevitable. As soon as he was arrested he’d known he would be coming up along these same routes again.
AMBITION /æmˈbɪʃən/ When I am in Grade 1, you supervise my homework six days a week and insist I finish all the arithmetic problems in the textbook, even if the teacher doesn’t assign them. When I do, you write out new ones for me to practise. Same with letters and spelling. You drill and drill me for hours at a time, tell me about your mother’s
MALICE /ˈmæləs/ “Don’t you realize that the only reason Mrs. A. wants you to skip a grade is because she’s tired of your shenanigans?” you ask when my father hands me an upper-grade geography textbook, his eyes twinkling with pride. School textbooks are scarce in communist Poland, and he has managed to get it from under the counter. I’m nine, yet the illogic in your statement stuns me. I furrow my forehead, try to understand: if Mrs. A. wanted to punish me, she’d move me to the parallel class, wouldn’t she? But I say nothing. Is this my first inkling that something is amiss? You never use any of the diminutive forms of my name, and there are at least fourteen in Polish. I don’t remember you ever kissing me.
CONFUSION /kənˈfjuːʒən/ You thrust the just-published The Art of Loving at me when I am thirteen: “Might as well read it,” you say. No, not Ovid, but the first sexual education manual to appear in Poland, its pale pink cover sporting a drawing of the back of a demure bridal couple, she in a white veil topped with a virginal wreath. Communists mustn’t appear to be promoting the Western debauchery of premarital sex. Inside, line diagrams of flaccid, semi-erect, and erect penises; a map of male and female erogenous zones; several line drawings of intercourse positions, all interspersed with homey advice on foreplay and contraception, and disarming exhortations on love and respect. A week later, “You slut!” rings in the evening-darkened stairwell of our apartment when I return home. A slap rings out as it lands on my left cheek. “Always a quick little learner, aren’t you?” you hiss. I have no idea how you know that I have been kissing a boy for the first time behind our apartment building. My cheek stings as I slink into my room. ENVY /ˈɛnvi/ All through my childhood, I hear you talk with admiration about other women’s fur coats, patent dress shoes,
SHAME /ʃeɪm/ “Don’t you know I could seduce him away from you if I only wanted to?” you ask, smiling sweetly over steaming barley broth, my favourite soup, just the two of us at the dinner table. For weeks now, you have been preening in front of a third-rate lothario you have invited for dinner from your English-as-a-second-language class. In Poland, a character like that would have never been allowed in our house, and I never thought that he could be a source of envy for you, a married woman and a mother. I am seventeen, he is thirteen years my senior, yet you have been allowing him to take me out for a while now. In a delusion of teenage invincibility, I am sure that I can handle myself; like the nice girl that you want me to be, I know my husband will be my first. I am rendered speechless by—what is it? Delusion? Pathologic envy? Thirty years later, I still lack words to categorize this viciously inappropriate statement. In a few months, your lothario will rape me in the Three Pines Motel on Kingston Road, and I will never tell you or anybody about it. RESENTMENT /riˈzɛntm(ə)nt/ “Keep your precious English to yourself, you selfish brat,” you say, and storm out of my room after I struggle a moment too long to find the English equivalent of adwokat—barrister. I was trying to come up with the word, the wheels in my mind whirring and coming up empty. My eyes widen at your unfairness. I am eighteen and have just started university. There has never been any doubt that I would continue my education—even when my father was unemployed and then driving a cab. But you, your father said after
MARGARET NOWACZYK // 15
“Do you have any idea how that has just stretched your stomach?” you say after I devour a butter-and-tomato sandwich on a kaiser bun. I am ten. I shrug—it tasted so good, the salted tomatoes still tangy on my tongue; who cares what my stomach is doing? I roll my eyes behind your back. “You look like a cow; you shouldn’t ride a sports bike,” you say when I jump off after a race around the block on a friend’s bike. I imagine my huge butt hanging off the sides of the bicycle seat and I burn with shame. I am twelve, and this time I care. When we arrive in Canada, I am overweight from the dozens of Lindt chocolates I devoured during our six-month wait for immigration papers in Austria: a cornucopia of sweets I had never seen or tasted before in my life. You smirk every time I lumber toward the fridge; my skirt, held with a safety pin where the button had popped off, digs into my waist. I have a double, possibly a triple chin, you tell me. When I scowl at you, you declare that I have no sense of humour. I am sixteen.
gold rings and coral necklaces, leather gloves; berate my father about others’ lakeside cottages or gardened city homes with wallpapered walls and Persian carpets. Foreign cars and telephones with dial buttons. Other husbands’ higher salaries and business trips abroad. Apartments that have more rooms and are on a higher floor than ours. No matter what my father provides, it is never enough. Immigrating to Canada is meant to satisfy you, but recession hits the year after we arrive, and my father goes unemployed for four years. You never let him forget it. You threaten to pack up my six-year-old sister and go back to Poland every chance you get.
you failed your final exams in high school, were educated enough. You trained as a draftswoman, but when you met my father you lied that you were studying medicine. Twenty-two years later, it will be me who becomes a medical student at the University of Toronto.
“An intelligent person is never bored”: a piece of wisdom you bestow upon me time and time again. You are never bored. You work overtime both in Poland, lugging home cardboard tubes with architectural drawings you render in ink on our kitchen table after I go to sleep, your blond hair shining in the cone of a tabletop lamp, and in Canada, where you hustle furniture at Sears every weekend, no matter how many times I ask you to spend time with my sons. At home, you are always scrubbing the kitchen tiles and washing your crystal stemware and china in sudsy, scalding water. You run the laundry twice weekly and iron all your clothes—appearances, always appearances. I inherit your work ethic and, in spite of your repeated proclamations, I am not lazy. But I do allow myself to be bored and don’t feel any less intelligent for that.
enough pediatrics, I am convinced that I must have been a preemie, but you dismiss my theory. “I would know when I got pregnant, wouldn’t I?” Your voice offended, as if I had suggested something unsavoury. When I am pregnant for the first time, I don’t tell you until the seventeenth week. I have no desire to share the joy with you. Why would I? We never connected as women. I worry that you may spoil my joy with your snark, your old wives’ tales, your stupid comments. I finally phone you with the news only because my husband insists it’s time. At the hospital where I work, when I see women delivering babies, their mothers at their side, I always think it weird. I couldn’t imagine you holding my hand, wiping my forehead with a wet cloth. And yet. When my epidural doesn’t work, when unrelenting waves of pain surge through me from bow to stern, I do call out for you over and over again: Mama, Mama. And I feel mortified that I do—you have never been there for me, so why should it change now? How foolish. When the iron fists of letdown squeeze my suddenly D-cup breasts, when I pump milk and worry that I don’t have enough, you tell me that you never had any milk for me and that I turned out all right. For seven months, my son grows big and fat on my milk alone.
You need a hysterectomy. Fibroids the size of oranges have proliferated in your uterus. The bleeding leaves you tired; your belly’s bloated, aching. “So where I came from will end up in a jar on a shelf in an anatomy lab, a grey blob floating in murky formalin,” flashes through my head when you tell me about your scheduled surgery. In sympathy, my own lower belly tugs somewhere beneath my navel. For forty weeks, a twisted, pulsing cord bound us together, attached me to you inside your womb. You were proud that you didn’t show for seven months, and you told nobody you were pregnant. The star cicatrix of my belly button remains the only sign of connection between us.
“She just adores her daughter,” you say when a woman friend leaves after tea, the disapproval unmistakable. A mother in love with her adult daughter, what a concept. In medical school, a wise Polish-born psychiatrist explains to me that in Polish families, girls receive approval from grandmothers, aunts, godmothers—not from their mothers. You didn’t have any such women in your life, and neither do I. You never said you loved me. I know that you lost your mother, that you were neglected and might have been abused, and yet I still don’t understand the things you did. During both of my pregnancies, when I learn that I am carrying a boy, I am ecstatic. I never wanted a daughter. I wouldn’t know how to raise her without hurting her.
MARGARET NOWACZYK // 16
BIRTH /bərθ/ “They handed you to me you after you were born and were so red and wrinkly,” you tell me when I’m six. “Like a flayed frog. Screeched like one, too.” And you laugh—such a great joke. Years later, when I learn
1* As per Oxford English Dictionary, the pronunciations given are those in use among educated urban speakers of standard English in United States.
t took all of January and February for my partner Kris and me to break up in our one-bedroom apartment. The building manager controlled the thermostat, and the bedroom was sweltering in the night. We learned from a guy in a PVC trench coat who walked his pit bull around the courtyard that the tenants had organized and won a court case against the landlord last year—he’d been keeping the temperature below the legal limit, regularly freezing the pipes. “Do you find it gets too hot, though?” I asked. “No,” the guy from down the hall said with a sweet smile, grinding a cigarette butt beneath the heel of his platform boot. “Me neither,” Kris said. Each night I had to strip out of clothes that were drenched with sweat. Sometimes I’d go to the bathroom and stand in the dark, using a towel to dry my armpit hair, under my breasts, and between my legs. In the morning, when I collected my clothes off the floor, they were still damp. There would be a dark smear on the sheet the size of my body. We had moved from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Montreal that fall so Kris could go to grad school. They were getting stellar grades and making friends; they’d been offered a TA position without even applying for it. I found a job working from home, correcting auto-generated closed-captioning for educational videos. When the cold set in I felt inconsolably lonely and homesick. Kris and I spent most nights naked with our backs to each other, both of us sleeping fitfully in unbearable heat that smelled of burnt lint. On Valentine’s Day we’d eaten at a Mexican restaurant in Saint-Henri with heart decals on the window. We argued about whether we should order an appetizer and then whose turn it was to pay for dinner, and later
if we should get a cab or walk home in the freezing rain. That night I rolled away when they tried to touch me, stretching out along the edge of the mattress. “I’m too hot,” I said. “Fine,” they said. “I could open the window,” I said. They didn’t answer. I’d had a margarita at dinner and the sugar and alcohol were coursing through me, leaving me queasy and wide awake, making my throat itch. For
EVA CROCKER // 17
LIFE DRAWING LESSON
Kris and I spent most nights naked with our backs to each other, both of us sleeping fitfully in unbearable heat that smelled of burnt lint. a long time I could feel the stiffness of Kris’s body, even with the stretch of mattress between us, and I knew they weren’t sleeping either. Part of me wanted to roll across the distance and press my churning stomach into their back, but there was a knot of miserable anger in my chest that I couldn’t loosen. Instead, I let my leg hang over the edge and took comfort in the coolness of the floor. Eventually their breathing changed, and it was too late for any kind of reconciliation. I started going for long walks through the slushy streets every day in my shitty boots, letting the cold numb me. It was on one of those walks that I noticed
EVA CROCKER // 18
a sandwich board advertising pay-what-you-can life drawing classes in a small gallery on Saint-Laurent every Tuesday evening. The first night there was a girl at the door with a grey cash box. Her dark hair was crinkled into waves with a curling iron or crimper. She was wearing a tight black shirt and baggy black jeans. She had a sharp chin and high cheekbones and big wet brown eyes. It felt like her beauty was hanging in the air between us, embarrassing us both every time we interacted. “Five dollars?” I asked, and held the bill out to her. “Have a seat anywhere.” She opened the cash box a crack and crammed my money into a mess of bills sitting on top of the coin shelf. Moody French music was playing in the narrow room. There was already a handful of people sitting in twenty or so fold-out chairs set up in a semicircle. A square table in the centre of the room was covered with a white sheet. On top of the sheet was a dirty cushion with the bottom half of a mannequin balanced on it. I sat in a chair facing the mannequin’s severed waist. A guy across from me seemed to be sketching the legs from the toe end. He had a small silver case of chalky pastels open on the chair beside him. Two girls in front of me were also drawing the legs—two very different styles: one hyper-realistic and the other more impressionist, but both very skilled. They showed their pads to each other with easy confidence, commenting on the drawings in a language I didn’t recognize. I slid my sketchbook out of my knapsack and flipped it open quickly, ashamed of how bright and brand new the cover looked. I got out the pencils Kris had wrapped in an elastic and packed in a grey plastic bag along with an eraser and pencil sharpener for me. I wavered between being touched and annoyed at how supportive they were when I told them I wanted to attend the class. I was trying not to stare at the girl doing door duty, but I heard someone climbing the stairs to the studio, turned that way on impulse, and was mesmerized by her again. I had lost track of the weeks since Kris and I last had sex, but a memory of it drifted into my head: an end-of-summer night, on top of the new IKEA mattress still in its plastic sheath. A white guy came in with a cardboard container of fries and a shiny plastic fork sticking out of the top. He nodded at the girl and walked in without paying. She was sitting sideways with her back against the wall, legs crossed, foot tapping. Would she be the model? I felt guilty for hoping she would be the model. The guy with the fries sat on the windowsill with his coat on. I smelled gravy.
Suddenly a flood of new people poured in and filled the remaining chairs. The girl at the door locked her cash box. She crossed the room, lifted a sheet thumbtacked to the wall, and stepped into an expansive space on the other side. It was dark in there. All I saw before the sheet fell was a stack of brown cardboard boxes. She reappeared from behind the heavy cloth seconds later. “Your model will be out in five minutes,” the door girl announced. She settled back into her chair and opened a coil notebook. She arranged a row of pencils beside the cash box. A black cat slinked underneath the chairs, buffing its shoulders against people’s dirty boots. I dropped a hand and rubbed my fingers together. When the cat got close I could see specks of white dander in its short hair. It stuck its head into my bookbag and then its two front paws. People smiled. I tried to scratch its back, but it hopped out of my bag and made its way toward the guy with the fries. A woman stepped out from behind the sheet. She was topless and wearing a pinstripe, steampunk-style skirt, with a ruffled split in the front. She was plump with curly red hair down to her butt, and she was smoking a wizened little roach. She looped around the back of the semicircle of chairs, flicking a sputtery lighter and taking quick inhales off the joint. “This is OK, right?” She raised the roach at the door girl, who nodded. Then the door girl stood, holding a blank pad against her thighs, a sharp pencil between her fingers. She spoke to the room. “This is our model, Laura.” The door girl paused for applause but there was none, so she continued. “We’ll start with ten two-minute poses, then a few tenminute poses, then three twenty-minute poses. Is it warm enough in here?” “It’s pretty warm,” the model answered. She put the joint out with the bottom of her lighter and hefted the mannequin legs onto the floor. “Too warm?” the door girl asked. “Any warmer and I’d be sweating,” the model said over the heads of the people seated between them. “It gets hot up here, holding the poses.” “I’ll open a window then.” The door girl set her pad on the table. She passed behind my chair, and I didn’t turn my head. There was the creak of the window opening and then a cool breeze that smelled of wet pavement. The model stood on the table. She turned her back to the people gathered around her, pressed her fingers into the ceiling, and shifted her hips. I started with the fingers, and they came out as spikes—too narrow at the top and too wide at the bottom. I glanced at the pad of
and took it off over her head. She was wearing a pair of black cotton, high-waisted underwear. She balled the skirt up and laid it on a broken chair. Then she climbed up on the table and sat with her legs twisted to one side, back against the wall, hands clasped in her lap. The soles of her feet were dirty from crossing the room barefoot. The guy next to me cracked a beer, and white foam burbled down the silver side of the can. He tilted his head, put his mouth on the tin, and sucked it up. “Ten-minute pose beginning,” the door girl said, and pressed a button her phone. The tip of my pencil had worn down, and the model’s body came out in thick, easy lines. Big swoops for the curve of her belly and butt. For her hair, I did a bunch of loose scribbles, and this time I put a crease in the corner of her eye that gave the face a little bit of depth. When the timer went off, I saw the model glance at my book before she rearranged herself on the table. There was something of her there. My other drawings looked less like her, but sliding my sketchbook into my bag at the end of class I felt satisfied by that one drawing that kind of worked. People mingled and flipped through their sketches. Beneath the music and voices I could hear sounds from the street coming in through the open window. I got my coat on. There was a frostbite warning that night and I had an hour-long walk ahead of me, but I didn’t mind. The criss-cross of lights strung over Saint-Laurent seemed romantic in the swirling snow. I stopped in front of Cinema L’Amour and stepped backwards into the street to take a picture of the neon sign and the garish collage of nude women plastered on the doors below it. A little farther down the road a woman was sitting on a milk crate with a ripped Tim Hortons cup and a cardboard sign on the ground in front of her. Her face was almost completely covered by scarves. I felt the sting of the wind through my jeans as I walked past her with my gloved hands deep in the pockets of the down coat Kris had given me. I passed a hair salon where an old man was sitting alone in a barber chair watching the news on a big-screen TV anchored to the wall. In a restaurant window, chickens were stacked on top of one another on turning spits, their skin glowing golden brown. When I got home, I walked into the bedroom in dirty boots and pushed open the window at the foot of the bed. A cold wind blew in and rippled the sheets. ///
EVA CROCKER // 19
the man sitting next to me. He already had a streaky sketch of the model’s whole body and was shading in the ripples of fat on her twisted waist. I tried to emulate the loose strokes he was making, and the forearms came easier. The door girl’s alarm shrieked through the room as I was adding a U-shaped dent to an elbow. The man next to me had a whole drawing that captured the pose. I was aware that everyone behind me could see my unfinished torso with its cone-shaped fingers. I curled my body around it. “Two-minute pose beginning,” the door girl called across the room. The model had already rearranged herself on the table. Her legs were folded under her and she was bracing herself with a hand against the wall. This time she was turned to my side of the semicircle. I was staring at her slack face. I looked into her eyes and smiled the kind of smile you give a stranger who’s holding a door open for you. She surprised me by smiling back, and I realized she was nervous. There was sweat on her forehead, rising out of the crevice of a wrinkle, ready to drip down into her eyes. All the swagger with the joint was to cover up her nerves. The guy next to me had already put down fluid lines for her legs and hips, the crease of her crotch. He held his pencil in front of his face and moved his thumb along it, measuring proportions. The class was an hour-and-a-half long with a fifteen-minute break in the middle. During the break people collected their coats from a rack in the back of the room but left their notepads on their seats and bookbags gaping open on the floor. “Ashia? Can I borrow a smoke?” someone beside me asked, bending to fish a pack of cigarettes out of their friend’s purse. “You’re gonna give it back?” their friend answered. “Yes, you can have a smoke.” The model disappeared behind the curtain again. There was a swell of chatter in French, English, and Spanish as people trooped down the steep stairs and out into the night. I stayed in my seat with my closed notebook on my knees, my boots resting in the pool of melted slush they’d left on the hardwood floor. The door girl was working on a drawing, her head bent close to the page, her pencil flicking quickly. The music seemed louder in the almost empty room. Eventually people trickled back in, smelling of cigarette smoke and holding cans of beer from the depanneur across the street. They hung their coats up, found their seats, and fell silent. The model weaved her way through the chairs to the front of the room, where she unzipped her skirt
LITERATI MECH #1 (APECORE), 36” X 27”, EPSON ULTRACHROME PIGMENTED INK ON EPSON COLD PRESS NATURAL PAPER, 2018 | HOWIE TSUI
TOLU OLORUNTOBA // 20
Image courtesy of the artist.
Jaja had grown Opobo into a palm whose oily fingers poked Liverpool’s eyes.
Holding it against the light, he looked for the sting. [But only if I keep my dams.] They grew hungry again, frantic now.
Consuls roused the queen. This crocodile user of juju guarding her coveted Niger
Let this tree be ours. Or we cut it down. You may however board this gunboat, to negotiate another way.
never shut his eyes, clenching estuaries by dance and stratagem, his bulk and trade a dam on tributaries
But having been enslaved in youth [I’ll die first] they dreamed up another peace letter and sent it ashore.
with sluice doors of tax, his backhand knuckled with war canoes and fifteen trading houses flocking his arbour,
But what is this seizure on deck under the white flag of parlay, the Union Jack unmoored,
his cannons trained up and downriver, not amenable to glass bribes and turns of phrase.
inviting a sovereign in shackles to trial in the marsupial pouch of night, kidnapping for four years of tea
Importantly, he knew they fought with paper, so he planted cunning treaties of his own,
with the queen, if promised free passage? Why did consuls say at once, to Opobo, Your king is exiled,
bottled and buried in fields at night to root his feet in the earth. When Europe scrambled from Berlin
as they pumped jubilant puncheons from the moat? They knew, didn’t they? A brutish contract
to their slices of Africa, they rushed again to snatch the oil river with innocuous papers.
can be interpreted however you wish when you have machine guns.
Sign here. [Undress first, this word, “Protectorate,” he said.] We do not want your lands, only to protect them from the Germans.
TOLU OLORUNTOBA // 21
1887: A KIDNAP FROM OPOBO
LIZ JOHNSTON // 22
ack in 2001, without discussing it with me, Jerry offered up our home to the town’s Junior B hockey team. We were hosting Curtis Gostin, a seventeenyear-old billet from nearby Mara, while our own children were in their final years of high school. Sheila was starting Grade 11, and Andrew Grade 12. We got decent money for hosting the kid; it didn’t put us out that way. But it changed everything in our home. For one, I had to give up my studio for a fourth bedroom. The studio had been the last vestige of Jerry humouring me about the artistic projects he had claimed to believe in when we were newlyweds. When he now said, “You can use the living room if you want to paint,” he meant it didn’t matter whether I painted or not. Curtis’s arrival meant a little more work every day, more food to prepare, more mess to clean up after. And, inevitably, it altered the dynamics of the house. At first, I worried for Andrew, who had been so obviously replaced. But he didn’t seem to care. He might have been putting up a brave front, but I suspect he was relieved to have his dad looking to someone else for now. As for Sheila, formerly the family clown, she turned into a reserved stranger. I expected this to change as she got used to Curtis being around, but all season long, every time she entered a room and found him in it, her shoulders crumpled inward, her head bent down, and her voice thinned to a whisper. Curtis, on the other hand, stepped into our home with ease. He never acted like a guest, never asked before doing anything. From day one he’d get up to help himself to seconds of dinner; invite teammates over to play Andrew’s Dreamcast; talk for hours on our phone, letting incoming calls go through to voice mail. None of which was against any house rules, though perhaps some things would have been if I’d anticipated them. As it was, his overly comfortable attitude took me by surprise, and I didn’t have the nerve to call him on it. He’d open the fridge and snack on whatever he wanted or come in at all hours of the night, and I couldn’t bring myself to say, “I bought that for dinner,” or point
out that he’d broken curfew, even though that was one thing the hockey club was pretty serious about. His confidence sort of knocked mine away. Like Sheila, I became a mouse in his presence. It’s tough to explain how a seventeen-year-old had so much power in our house. He seemed almost a man, larger across the chest and in his arms than my husband: a square, strong jaw, and legs like tree trunks. Very much a man, really. He looked at women, grown women, like he knew exactly what to do with them. Though I was more than twice his age, I sensed him sizing me up, always. In the evenings, as I moved around the kitchen preparing dinner and he sat at the table talking on the phone or doing homework, I felt his eyes sliding over me. They would be on my butt as I reached to the windowsill to grab the salt or on my breasts when I turned to ask him to set the table. Instinctively, I’d cross my arms over my chest to address him, but it didn’t stop him from looking and imagining. I knew he was picturing bending me over the sink or slamming my back up against the cupboards. The smile he flashed in those moments, rising to get the cutlery or passing the phone to his other ear, told me unmistakably what had been going on inside his head. You might think I’m the one with the dirty mind here, or that I’m full of myself to imagine a seventeenyear-old fantasizing about me. Trust me, there’s nothing flattering about being looked at that way, at any age. Everything you’ve ever done or said or thought is torn away, and you’re reduced to flesh, and even the flesh isn’t fully yours because he’s taking it all in his eyes. I didn’t want his leer. One night, the team was in Sicamous for a game and Andrew was freaking out because Curtis had “borrowed” his homework. The two of us, Andrew and I, rifled through Curtis’s room (my studio) but came up with nothing. The team was staying out of town overnight, so if Curtis had taken the assignment with him, Andrew wouldn’t see it before his class the next day. Jerry’d gone to see the game, but we didn’t have
tomorrow, and Curtis Gostin—did you know he’s billeting with us?—Andrew let him borrow this paper, but he never returned it, and now, with the team away for the game, Andrew’s freaking out. I know it’s a slim chance, but I thought I’d check to see if Curtis might’ve left his backpack here. Do you think I could poke around a minute?” “For you, anything.” Stan grinned, sweeping his arm in front of him like the hostess at Denny’s. I stepped in past him. He locked the door behind us and then led me into the dim arena. The overhead lights were off, and the caged white backups shone eerily down the quiet hallway. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here when there wasn’t a game.” In fact, it probably hadn’t been since my figure-skating days. “It used to creep me out, but I love it now, having this huge space to myself.” “So it’s a good job, then? You still like it?” He walked on a few steps before saying, “Yeah, I do. It pays decent, and I have a lot of freedom, time to
He was still the boy who used to drive me down to the river to smoke joints under the bridge and spin our teenage philosophy. do some construction projects. Angela and I are working on a place her dad bought, helping him flip it.” And then, “You working? Or, I guess the kids are a full-time job, pretty well.” “Yeah, yeah. They are.” Stan had played centre for the local Junior B team in high school, and there wasn’t a person in our graduating class who hadn’t expected him to become more than a janitor. Yet somehow he always made me feel like the one who’d thrown something away. He led me the rest of the way down the stairs and around to the home team’s locker room. He unlocked the door and let it fall open. We stepped in, and he flicked the lights on. Though the boys and most of their equipment were on the road, the oniony tang of stale sweat and hard-worked teenage bodies hung thick in the air. They hadn’t left much behind. A few jackets hung on hooks. Notebooks and papers that might easily be schoolwork, along with a few
LIZ JOHNSTON // 23
cellphones in those days, and he hadn’t left me his number at the hotel. Andrew was ready to punch a hole through the wall or burst into tears by the time I volunteered to check out the arena locker room. “I’ll pop out to the arena, see if Stan’s still around to let me in,” I told my son, who was furiously digging through our billet’s closet. “Curtis could have left your paper in his locker.” It was a long shot, but it was all I could think of. I hopped in the car and zipped over to the arena, which, with no hockey game, was dark. The lot was empty but for one car, Stan’s. As I got out, my high heels pierced the hard-packed snow. The shoes were ridiculous in the winter, but I tended to skip the snow boots whenever I knew I’d only be out for a few minutes. Already, though, my feet were freezing. I rushed over to the front door, my heels stabbing in with each step. The two arena doors had large windows, and I leaned up against the wire-latticed glass of one as I knocked, rapping hard where the two doors met in hopes the sound would carry to Stan, wherever he was. I could picture him sweeping the stands with a little boom box blaring from his cart. My feet growing painful with cold, I banged on the door again and shouted his name. Then I headed for the side of the building, looking for another entrance. When I’d almost reached the corner, Stan was at the front door calling my name. “Thank you, thank you,” I shouted, spinning on my heels and hurrying back. “A little old to be playing nicky nicky nine doors.” Stan and I were both small-town lifers, yet I crossed paths with him rarely. It was always a rush to see him. The twenty years that had passed since high school hadn’t filled in a different picture for me. He was still the boy who used to drive me down to the river to smoke joints under the bridge and spin our teenage philosophy. “Way too old,” I said, taking him in. Even in his blue-grey coveralls, he looked good. The signs of age suited him. His eyes, a livelier shade of that coverall blue-grey, had gathered soft wrinkles at their outer corners, which spoke to his good humour, a life of smiling. The spot where he used to knit his brows when working out theories about life and our place in the universe had become a permanent ridge I half wanted to reach up and smooth away. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” “I wasn’t sure you’d hear me.” “You’d be surprised how the sound travels when this place is empty.” “I’m hoping you’ll let me sneak in and check the locker room. Andrew’s got this big assignment due
LIZ JOHNSTON // 24
stray socks, poked from cubbies and dotted the benches and floor. But I felt them. I realized I’d encroached on space—territory—where I didn’t belong. I’d first shut my mouth so as not to taste the body odour on my tongue, but soon discovered I was holding my breath. I reached into the nearest cubby, pulled out a windbreaker, and stuffed it back. I stepped farther along the bench, opened what turned out to be an empty binder, flipped it closed. The next cubby had a couple of blank assignments sheets and a pencil case. I walked past a few more socks, a roll of hockey tape. There weren’t any backpacks among the mess. I wasn’t going to find the assignment here. I scanned the room again, and this time, a paper taped to the wall caught my eye. I stood in front of it. Gripping the untaped bottom edge of the paper—a single sheet of ruled loose-leaf—I leaned closer. I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing, but my armpits dampened. They—one of them—had turned
The blood roared through my ears as I made my way toward him with the paper. “Do you know about this?”
the notepaper into a grid. In the top margin, jutting up from the first line like angle-parked cars, were names I recognized as the players’, famous in our town. Then, in front of the thin red line of the left margin, girls’ names stacked one on top of the other: Jessica, Christie, Ashley, Rebecca, Jen C., Jenn T., Aislin, Tina, Ally, Britta, Sasha, Crystal, Anita. The last two looked to have been added later, written by two different hands. Lines had been drawn to make separate columns falling from each player’s name. In the little boxes created where the columns intersected with the rows of the lined paper, there was a scattering of x’s, winky faces, and a few cryptic letters. Beside Jenn T. someone had written “Bitch” in fat heavy pencil. I pulled the paper off the wall. Curtis, just Gostin on the paper, had x’s where his column met up with Jessica and Tina and “NMY!” where his name lined up with Sasha’s. This last girl I knew, guessing she was the same Sasha who’d been friends with Sheila when the two were in middle school.
Her name had made real the darkness that had slithered into my skull and stomach. My mind began decoding the letters that lined up with “Sasha.” I heard a sound and whipped around. Stan was just standing in the doorway, watching me. The blood roared through my ears as I made my way toward him with the paper. “Do you know about this?” “Any luck?” he asked as I came to stand in front of him. “What is this, Stan?” I held up the paper. “Is that what you were looking for?” I was staring at his blank eyes, holding the paper in front of him. “What is it?” “Your guess is as good as mine.” He gently pushed my hand down. “You know what this is,” I said. He spoke my name. When I held steady, he said, shrugging, “I don’t know. They’re playing puck-slut bingo or something.” If we were teenagers, I would have smacked his chest. “Why would you call it that?” I balled the paper and shoved it into my purse. “Is that a thing? Did you, when you were—” “Of course not. You know me. You knew me. I was never the way these kids are. None of us were. The shows they watch, the stuff—” I stepped away from Stan, turned around. “Andrew’s going to lose it when I tell him I didn’t find this stupid assignment.” He called after me, but I was walking myself out of the arena. Alone in the parking lot I fumbled with my keys. My feet hurt from the cold. I let myself into the car and started it to run the heat. I stared over at the arena, so angry that Stan had led me to this thing. Voices on the radio babbled along somewhere. I reached into my purse, pulled out the crumpled piece of paper, and spread it out on the steering wheel. Stan’s phrase repeated itself in my head as I looked at the names and intersecting lines. I’d known what these x’s meant the moment I’d seen them. That’s why I hated them, why my heart had started knocking against my rib cage. I thought of Sasha, the only girl whose name I had a face for. I thought of this pretty, bubbly teenager, swooning over Matt Gregson, the team captain, unaware he’d already worked his way through Tina, Ashley, and Aislin. Or if aware, thinking this was different than with the other girls, believing she was the one he really wanted and giving into his pressure to have sex, clueless that while she put her body and her heart on this line, he was playing a game. Or maybe she’d gone to a party, she and a few of the other girls on the list. Maybe the team had thrown
t happened the next day, in his room—my room, now his. He and Jerry were back from the hockey game. Jerry’d gone off to work and my kids were at school (Andrew having scribbled down what he could remember of the assignment). Curtis was skipping first period, sleeping in to recover from the night before. I knocked on his door and told him I had to talk to him; he invited me in. We were alone together in his room, the only light the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He was at my desk, so I sat down across from him on the bed. When I did, he rose, aggravatingly, to sit beside me. His thigh grazed mine, but it seemed cowardly to scoot away. I smoothed out the paper over my lap and asked him to tell me what it was. Instead of taking in the paper, he steered his eyes over my body. I didn’t have to look at him to know that’s what he was doing. “You tell me,” he dared. More than twice his age, I knew he would do nothing to me. But I felt danger. I tried again: “I want to hear you admit what you’ve been doing.” “What do you think I’ve been doing?” Then, leaning in, lowering his voice, “Why do you want to hear about it?”
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LIZ JOHNSTON // 25
a kegger, and chicks got free beer if they showed their tits. Or maybe Matt or Curtis or Phil let her take a few swigs from his mickey of Jäger before leading her into an empty bedroom. Maybe she wanted to go, or maybe she didn’t quite understand . . . I squinted at some of the code letters, trying to unlock the story hidden in the list. Whatever it was, this was worse than someone using someone else for sex. And it wasn’t just the same old story of the stud and the slut, the fact that each x was a score in his column and a penalty in her row. This wasn’t one guy using one girl, or doing worse than that. They did it together, as a team. And while they filled out the scorecard, their opponents didn’t even know the puck had been dropped. I folded the paper twice and tucked it into my purse, deciding to confront Curtis when he got home. I imagined slapping the paper in front of him and demanding an explanation. He’d be caught, scared. He’d tell me the x’s and symbols weren’t what I thought, maybe he’d even come up with some half-believable lie, but he’d be begging forgiveness at the same time, telling me that whatever they were doing, it would stop. And my house would be my own again.
Blood rushed from my heart to the farthest reaches of my body, pulsing against my skin like it would burst from my body. “You tell me, what am I doing?” I pushed myself off the bed and left the room, angry, and afraid of the warmth between my legs.
LIZ JOHNSTON // 26
nd that was it. I told no one about the piece of paper. Jerry’d either dismiss me, unable to think badly of the kid who let him relive some thwarted youthful dream, and tell me the paper didn’t mean what I knew it meant. Or he’d have a huge, violent reaction against that same kid, shattering peace in our house for months, maybe years, to come. And how could I tell him about what had happened in my old studio, when nothing had? Neither the principal nor the coach would care one lick about the bingo game. The team was playing well; they were on an eight-game winning streak. Those men would just be annoyed at the bored housewife who couldn’t leave well enough alone. At most, they’d organize a meeting with the team about respecting women to humour me. So the players wouldn’t be held accountable for what they’d been doing with all our girls. Curtis might tell the team I had the list. Probably he would. And, I figured in my more hopeful moments, maybe they wouldn’t risk recreating it, knowing someone knew what they’d been doing.
I never heard anything about the girls on that list. A few times, I asked Sheila why I never saw Sasha anymore. Until he left at the end of the school year, Curtis went through our home, taking over the couch or digging in at the dinner table, as secure as ever. On the ice, he looked completely sure of himself. Bolder, if anything. I never again let myself be alone in the same room as him, and I moved my usual spot at the dinner table so that he would now be flanked by my son and husband. I never heard anything about the girls on that list. A few times, I asked Sheila why I never saw Sasha anymore. At first, I got a shrug in response, a muttered, “I don’t really hang out with her anymore.” I worried I
saw her thinking, I don’t hang out with puck sluts. But then, I could never picture my Sheila as a bully. More likely it had been Sasha, the girl marked “NMY!,” who, getting in with the hockey team and their popular crew, outgrew my daughter. But the last time I brought it up, my daughter confided, “She kind of dropped off the map.” She hadn’t seen her at school in ages, and there were rumours . . . I saw her at a game once after that, not that I went to them much anymore. It was an ongoing fight between Jerry and me, but sometime after the list, I’d started using the time he and the kids spent at the arena to paint. I set up my easel in the living room, like he’d suggested when he thought I never would. It wasn’t a comfortable set-up, and I hated leaving my in-progress work out there for him and the kids to see—especially hated Curtis glaring at the smudgy blobs of colour I was massaging into shape—but claiming this time for my art set something right. The time I saw her, Sasha was sitting across the rink from us with a couple of friends. I pointed her out to Sheila, who, suddenly too invested in the action on the ice to leave her seat, mumbled that she’d go say hi after the period. I, on the other hand, couldn’t pay attention to the game at all. My eyes were welded to Sasha. With bright, heavy makeup around her eyes and her coat jacket open on a too-tight tank top, she looked at once older and younger than my daughter. Her friends chatted rapidly and cheered at every good save or near goal, but Sasha sat silently, carefully crumpling a straw wrapper between her fingers, pinching one side down and then the other to turn it into a springy zigzag of paper. The girl beside Sasha, the most animated of the three, who sat beautiful and exposed in the pool of her jacket, was calling down to the home team box. Matt Gregson had just come off his shift, and he nodded back to her. While he was looking their way, Sasha folded her coat tight around herself, and once he’d turned back, she balled the straw wrapper in one hand and tossed it at her feet. Her mouth got small and tight. Maybe they’d started a new list, or maybe they’d gone on without one. I don’t know what Sasha’s tortured face meant, but it’s stuck in my mind all these years. She’s in my sketchbooks, her eyes tired and empty. She sees what’s going on. She sees the list that I tore up. She understands it’s all a game, a competition between these boys she thinks are men. The parties, the rides down to the river, even the Friday night movies: they’re plays, some more violent than others. ///
PAST LIVES ld age is not for sissies, my mother used to say. Legally blind by her mid-fifties, she refused on some level to accept this and kept her driver’s licence in her purse until her death at the age of ninety, “just in case.” She underwent a mastectomy at eighty-three, buried her husband at eight-five, fractured her foot at eighty-seven, and, for her last few years, subsisted on frozen dinners and toast with apricot jam because she was too weak to pick up an ordinary pot and her arthritic fingers couldn’t grip a knife. When she tripped on her concrete porch and hit her head, we had to take her to the hospital. In her final week of life, she faded in and out of consciousness, sometimes alert and calling her visitors by name, sometimes unsure where she was. “The kids are making such a racket up there,” she said, touching her forehead. “Who’s going to clean up the mess?” Three years later, and her sister, my aunt Pat, reclines in a newer, fancier hospital, reading David Sedaris. A fuzzy purple blanket covers her legs. Hugging her, I’m afraid to squeeze too hard in case she breaks. Cancer has metastasized to the bone, but doctors have not yet traced its source. Breast or cervix? Lung or liver? There are tumours all over her body. Until a week ago, Pat had no idea there was anything wrong with her. Sure, she was tired. But she was caring for her husband, who has Parkinson’s. That pain in her leg? She put it down to the family arthritis. Then she fell and hurt herself and had to get an X-ray. Now they’re talking palliative care. When my mother died, we didn’t expect my aunt would be the next of the seven siblings to go. My mother was the eldest. My aunt is the second-youngest. A tiny, sardonic gossip with a white thatch of hair, she flits from tale to tale the way a chickadee darts from branch to branch; whereas my mother’s poor eyesight led to social withdrawal, my aunt has always had her beak in other people’s business. It’s karma, a Hindu might say of her current condition. This life, or a past life, coming back to bite her; she should accept the pain
and suffering as her lot. But Pat is swallowing morphine like the middling Christian she is. She picks up the little plastic cup and rattles her pills. “This is the good stuff,” she says, with a knowing lift of her eyebrow. Her daughter, my cousin Sandra, nods her approval. “We don’t want you trying to tough it out.”
hen Sandra was a toddler, she insisted to anyone who would listen that she had another family in California. In her clear, high-pitched voice, she named the town where she had lived—not a big, famous city, but a town like Arcadia or Bellflower or Chula Vista or Rancho Cucamonga, a place that no three-year-old living in Beaconsfield, Quebec, in a pre-internet era could possibly have heard of from books or radio or TV. She talked about the house and the car and the flowers that bloomed all year in the yard. She talked about the rip in the turquoise liner of the built-in swimming pool that they’d had to get repaired. She described her siblings and the neighbour’s beagle and her other mother, all in precise and matter-of-fact detail. “When can we visit my other family?” she used to ask. “I want to go see them.” Sometimes she missed them so much she cried. For years, we called her “Spooky” and “Spooky Sand.” With her coltish legs and sparkling eyes and long blond hair, she even looked like a California girl. Until recently, I’d never heard of another child who spontaneously “remembered” a past life. But apparently, it’s not unusual. The University of Virginia’s School of Medicine even supplies a page of advice on its website for parents whose children report the details of earlier lives. The author, a Dr. Jim Tucker, counsels against asking pointed questions. That could upset the kids or prompt them to invent in an effort to please. Instead, parents should listen, empathize, and write down the things their children say. I think that’s what my aunt did, though being herself, she also talked about it to anyone who would listen, which may have encouraged Spooky to cling more firmly to her story. Still, like
SUSAN OLDING // 27
SUSAN OLDING // 28
most kids who exhibit this behaviour, by the age of six or seven, she seemed to forget her California family. Gradually we started calling her by her given name. Sandra is middle-aged now, with a demanding job at one of Toronto’s larger law firms and a marriage and four kids of her own. During the past few years, she’s also been burdened by more than her share of health scares, including some that have required surgery or investigation. Each time, her mother has been there to pick up the slack, fixing meals for the kids, driving one to dance class and the others to hockey practice, playing games, reading stories, making sure they’re tucked into bed at a reasonable hour if their dad stays late at a meeting. Knowing their Grandma Pat as well as they do, Sandra’s children adore her. Their hand-printed letters and cards plaster the walls of her hospital room. I sit on the chair next to Pat’s hospital bed and she passes me the latest missive so I can read it. We laugh, and I notice with a twinge of grief that her teeth look unnaturally large in her jaundiced face. Old age is for sissies, of course, and strong men, and sinners, and saints. There’s no escaping it, short of dying young, and most of us consider that an even worse fate. Yet the ravages of age may not be inevitable forever. Cellular senescence, or the failure of cells to grow and divide, is one of the leading drivers of age-related disease and decline. Until recently, it seemed impossible to prevent. In 2017 researchers discovered that injecting older mice with a certain peptide could reinvigorate their seemingly moribund cells, resulting in greater stamina, improved kidney function, and renewed hair growth. Senolytics—drugs capable of targeting and destroying senescent cells in humans—are now being tested in clinical trials and may become more widely available within the decade. If these medications work as well as predicted, Donald Trump may say sayonara to his patchy comb-over before his seventy-fifth birthday. That prospect raises the most terrifying risk of extending the human lifespan. The best insurance against a tyrant is democracy, but if democracy fails, then at least we can look forward to an autocrat’s dotage and eventual death. But a Stalin or a Hitler or even a Trump in possession of senolytics could inflict untold damage. A lengthy, drug-assisted youth could become the sole preserve of the powerful. The rest of us, like worker bees, would cycle through successive stages of servitude to a dictatorial thug, doomed to protect and cosset that bloated narcissist and his brood in their ever-honeyed splendour. Unlike our rulers, we’d continue to suffer the indignities of age, and worn down by our duties, we’d succumb to sickness and frailty earlier
than ever. Our fate? A swift disposal, then replacement by the next generation of workers. And this would go on until the forests burnt themselves out, the ice caps melted, plastic choked the oceans, and the earth eroded beneath the tyrant’s feet.
y mother’s people come from Pictou County on Nova Scotia’s Northumberland shore. Oldings and Murrays, Blairs and Kellocks, they arrived there from Winchester, in the south of England; from Dornoch, in the Scottish Highlands; from Kirkaldy, in Fife, on Scotland’s east coast; and from Ayrshire, in the west. Drawn or driven by who knows what, they disembarked on the sandy ground of traditional Mi’kmaq territory and set to work farming the land, digging the mines, building the shipyards, and founding the courts of law of their misappropriated home. My aunt grew up, and my mother spent her teenage years, at a place called Meadowville Station, near Toney River. Today, Meadowville is more pastoral than its name; the lowing of cattle drifts down the hill from the Skibsrud barn and cell service is spotty. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, when my aunt and mother lived there, it must have been a busier place. My grandfather served as the community’s postmaster. He also ran the general store and a couple of gas pumps. People stopped there to fill their tanks, to buy their sugar and flour, to pick up their letters and bills. A branch of the Canadian National Railway operated a line just a few metres from the house and freights thundered past both day and night. Across the tracks, the neighbours kept sheep and a coop of clucking chickens. They also ran a still, to which my grandfather seemed fatally drawn. By the time I knew him, in the 1960s and 1970s, the still was gone and Grandpa’s heavy drinking belonged to the past. But he continued to operate the store, which was then joined to the main house. My family visited every summer. I wasn’t supposed to bother my grandfather while he was at work, but whenever my mother turned her back he beckoned me across the threshold, tempting me with treats like Creamsicles and Coke. I walked down a few steps to get inside. The hot air thrummed. It smelled like tarpaper and wood and laundry detergent and tobacco. Sliding open the top of the electric cooler, I pulled up a green ridged bottle, cool with condensation, slick with promise. What was once the CNR line at Meadowville is now part of the Trans Canada Trail. The silver rails are long gone. But when I was a child, the trains still came through once or twice a day. Between their scheduled runs it was safe to walk on the tracks. August afternoons, my grandmother often sent me to gather the
n the largest brain imaging study ever conducted, scientists recently identified five common conditions or behaviours that seem to accelerate brain aging:
schizophrenia, cannabis abuse, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and alcohol abuse. I know Grandma didn’t smoke weed. But maybe she had undiagnosed ADHD? As an explanation of her free and easy nature, it’s just as plausible as the past-life theory. After my grandfather died but before her mind unravelled, Essie came to visit my family in Ontario. She was a diverting guest, up late pounding the piano and drinking with my dad; singing hymns; telling me tall tales about the mischief my aunts and uncles and mother used to get up to; urging my mother to take her halfway across the province to visit a distant relative; filling the house with her laughter. She’d lost some weight since I’d last seen her. Her cheeks sagged. In the previous decade, she’d had heart disease and diabetes and a hysterectomy and who knows what else. Before that, she’d borne eight children and buried one of them. Now she’d lost her husband. If she’d been old when Grandpa was alive, she seemed even older now. To teenage me, that is. Not to herself.
I’m not old yet, only middle-aged. And already I’ve been reincarnated a dozen times.
“I look at myself and think, who’s that old lady?” she hooted, and the gold tooth flashed. “Inside, I don’t feel a bit different than when I was eighteen. You don’t believe me, Susie, but it’s the truth! I’m exactly the same.” If I found that difficult to believe then, I find it even harder to believe now. I’m not old yet, only middleaged. And already I’ve been reincarnated a dozen times. I’ve been Susie, who sucked her thumb and ate as many blueberries as a bear and suffered bullies in the schoolyard. Sue, who tried to become popular at school and drank vodka in the woods and smoked joints under the bleachers. I’ve been “S” to some; Suz to others; Susan to others still. There was the life where I volunteered after work in a literacy centre and the one where I lounged around reading fashion magazines and painting my toenails. In one incarnation I gutted chickens; in another I studied philosophy. Wife, divorcée, stepmother, mother. Teacher, editor, writer. A certain Jacqui—self-described witch and friend of my college roommate—informed me in a fit of pique that
SUSAN OLDING // 29
wild blueberries that grew there, lush and heavy-bearing, thanks to the railway workers’ regular pruning. I jumped from tie to tie, trying not to fall between the cracks, breathing creosote and fresh-cut hay. Blackbirds sang. Yellow butterflies circled the Queen Anne’s lace while crickets leapt from beneath the rails, sailing in smooth arcs. Half a kilometre from the house, the tracks crossed a marshy pond where the air shimmered, iridescent with dragonfly wings, resonant with frogs. Farther along, round a bend, the blueberry bushes clustered in low mounds. I crouched beside them and plunged my fingers into their dense branches, the back of my neck bared to the punishing afternoon sun. For each berry I dropped into the pail, I must have eaten three. They stained my lips purple and left a tang in my mouth. Back at the house, I took them to the kitchen, where my grandmother, Essie, stood in an apron, rolling pastry. No matter how many berries I brought, she always exclaimed at the bounty. She had a voice that bubbled like ginger ale. Soft, pale skin, pale blue eyes, and yellowish white hair. A gold tooth that glinted when she laughed. She was chatty, gullible, spontaneous, good-humoured, unafraid to make a fool of herself. Girlish, some people said—although to me she seemed impossibly old. How she materialized from her dour Presbyterian forebears is anyone’s guess. In the 1920s, she’d been a flapper. Pregnant with my mother, she’d eloped with my grandfather and the two had honeymooned in Toronto, charging their room at the Royal York to his father’s CN account. Forty-five years later, the extended family was still trying to live down the disgrace, but Grandma didn’t seem to give it a thought. Maybe, like my cousin Sandra, she’d had a past life. Hers would have been in Paraguay or Panama or Venezuela, a place as expressive and emotional as herself. When my grandfather retired, he and my grandmother moved to New Glasgow, where they took an apartment in a low-rise building overlooking a stand of beech and maple. A lifelong smoker, Grandpa died of emphysema soon after. My grandmother lived on for almost twenty years. At the age of seventy, she took up painting with her typical zest and for several years filled canvas after canvas with naive and colourful representations of the landscapes she knew and loved. But dementia soon robbed her of that pleasure, along with most others. She spent her last few years in a seniors’ residence, unable to manage a rolling pin or a paintbrush, unable to recognize any of her seven children.
I was once a victim of Jack the Ripper. Whether or not that’s true, I was once a person who lived with the kind of person whose friends believe that kind of thing. So many past lives. If you get to a certain age and don’t lose your mind, you can look back in wonder at them all. ///
SUSAN OLDING // 30
sychosocial theories of aging aim less to explain why we age, and more to tell us how we ought to do it. That is, if we want to do it “successfully.” There’s the disengagement theory, which claims that old people naturally withdraw from society, and that’s as it should be, and the modernization theory, which states that as societies become more modern, the status of old age inevitably declines. Not so, say adherents of the activity theory, who argue that life satisfaction and well-being for older adults depends on staying active in the community. But don’t just engage in any old task, say the continuity theorists. Keep your activities consistent with your previous goals and roles! Has aging got you down? Focus on your gains and strengths instead of on your losses, say the selective optimization and compensation theorists. Meanwhile, the socioemotional selectivity adherents would have you prioritize relationships and meaningful emotional experiences, while gerotranscendentalists maintain that spirituality, increased self-knowledge, and altruism lead to a happier old age. And a happier old age is a longer old age, the evidence attests and everyone seems to agree. I don’t think my grandmother was happy in the last decade of her life. Photos from that time show a woman I barely recognize, and by then I doubt if she still recognized her eighteen-year-old self. Hers was a sad diminishment. My mother hadn’t always approved of her own mother. The world may have seen Essie as a madcap entertainer, but to her eldest child she seemed irresponsible. While Essie was out “gallivanting,” somebody had to look after the little ones like my aunt Pat, and usually that somebody was my mother. Often, she felt that her mother’s fun had come at her expense; often, she thought that her mother’s flightiness had warped and constrained her one and only life, and she resented that. But in those late years, I know she’d have given anything to see the light of laughter ignite in my grandmother’s eyes. ///
or my birthday this year, my brother sent me a handful of family documents he’d found among our mother’s things after she died. One was a photo of my grandmother, my mother, and me, taken when I was
four. The three of us sit side by side on the outside deck of the Wood Island Ferry, returning to Nova Scotia from Prince Edward Island. My mother squints at the camera. She wears a red raincoat. Her mousy brown hair blows back from her face. Fleecy, the family’s miniature poodle, balances proudly on her lap. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s arms circle my small body, while she turns to my mother with her characteristic smile. Any outing is a party, her expression says. Who cares about a little wind and rain? As for me, I’m joined at the hip to Grandma, but my upper body tilts away. With my thumb wedged in my mouth and a strip of flannel security blanket wound round my fingers, I stare into the lens as solemnly as if I’m taking an oath, as if the smiling women beside me don’t exist, as if I’m on a high mission and they’re an irritating distraction from my task. Until I saw this photo, I’d completely forgotten the occasion, but the torn and faded image brought it back—my knees, reddened from the cold, the salt spray stinging my face, the way I begged for a hot chocolate from the ferry’s café and didn’t get one—which might explain my sulky expression in the picture. I flip it over, notice its date, and do some math. My grandmother, with her white permed hair, her ladylike handbag, her soft skin smelling of Pond’s Cold Cream; my grandmother, who despite her youthful spirit seemed like such an “old lady” to me—on the morning that photograph was taken, she was the age that I am now.
he day I visit my aunt Pat, I bring along another family photo, one taken of her at around the age of ten months, scooting along on her bum on the grass at Meadowville. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she says. “That was the only year my hair was ever blond. It must have changed right after.” She looks at the picture again— those plump and solid arms and legs, so different from the ones that propel her now. “I was a determined little thing,” she adds. “We thought my dad would go first,” my cousin Sandra says to me later, in the hospital corridor. “With the Parkinson’s, I mean. We didn’t suspect it would be my mom. What will he do? He doesn’t know how to cook. He doesn’t know how to do the laundry.” Who will clean up the mess? In the last few years of her life, my mother, like many older people, began to talk about incidents from her distant past. She had always enjoyed reminiscing, but the stories that surfaced now were different. New and surprising in content, so my brother and I were able to see the common threads in family patterns that had always seemed mysterious. Richer in dialogue and
SUSAN OLDING // 31
detail and framed in unexpected ways, so we discovered twists and nuances in tales that had become stale to us from so many retellings. “Why did I remember that?” she’d say about the Harris tweed suit her roommate loaned her for an interview, or the tune her shellshocked uncle used to hum when the bad panic came over him again. It seemed that, like my brother and me, our mother also found new meaning in these reinterpretations and freshly unburied bits of the past. “I haven’t thought of that in years,” she would muse. And her face would take on an uncommon inwardness as she sifted and sorted and rearranged. No single theory adequately explains why we age or how we can do so with dignity and grace. Is aging genetically programmed or is it a result of wear and tear and random mutations? Should we go gentle, or should we rage against the dying of the light? What is the role of memory in old age? Why, as we grow older, do some of us lose track of everything that seemed to make us ourselves and drown in a deep forgetfulness, while others become ever more focused on the details of our past lives, rampant with memory? The year before my mother died, my brother and I took her to Meadowville for a family reunion. She knew—we all knew—that this would be her last trip home. She was grumpy and sharp-tempered, carping at the smallest irritations, intent on doing what she wanted, but unable to tell us what that was. Mostly, I think, she just wanted to breathe the ocean air, to navigate from memory as my brother drove, to tell us what was coming up ahead, and who’d lived where, and what had happened to them. And she wanted us to breathe the air, to know we’d gone swimming at Toney River and encountered jellyfish, or not; to know we’d come out of that water, our skin dusted with salt. The day of the reunion, we helped ourselves to lobster rolls. One cousin stood on a ladder in the driveway with her phone, trying to get a signal so we could talk to Sandra and her family in Ontario. I peeked into the old store—separated from the house now and used as my uncle’s studio. Some of the kids went looking for berries on the trail. My mother held court on the back porch, looking elegant in her white linen and fake pearls. Later, we posed for a group photo—the two eldest siblings on one side of a row, and the two youngest on the other. When we said our goodbyes, my mother didn’t seem to cry, but then, she was wearing her dark glasses.
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SILVER TREE, 38” x 125”, DEAD SEA, 18.5” x 25”, INK AND PAINT PIGMENT ON MULBERRY PAPER, 2008 | HOWIE TSUI PHOTO CREDIT: STEPHEN FENN
HAJERA KHAJA // 32
Image courtesy of the artist.
hy are you in such a rush today, huh?” my mother asked, reaching her arm into a bag of Wonder Bread. There were only a few slices left, which meant I would be getting the hard end slice again. “Baji spilled milk on the tablecloth and didn’t even clean it up properly,” Imrana blurted out. “Did not!” I had sopped up the spilled milk with a tissue but that didn’t matter. Imrana was always looking to get me in trouble. My mother gave me a sharp glance and kissed the top of Imrana’s head. “Be a good girl and finish your breakfast quickly,” she said. Imrana was my mother’s favourite, with her milky-white skin and hazy greybrown eyes. The first time Amy saw her, her jaw had dropped. “How is she even your sister? She looks nothing like you,” she had said. I checked my watch again—8:47 a.m. Only twentythree minutes till school started. I had left my curtains open at night and had woken up before anyone else, but it didn’t look like I would be making it to school any earlier that day. My mother was still putting our lunches together—the smell of eggs and browned butter hanging in the air—and my little sister Imrana was nibbling on her jam toast, her head lolling around on the dining table. Ten minutes later, we were finally out the door. The elevator came right away and took us straight down to G without stopping. Most mornings, we would have to wait several minutes and then cram ourselves inside with Imrama and me squeezing between the legs of adults and my mother sliding sideways into any sliver of space she could find. But that morning, Imrana gave me a high-five in the empty elevator, and we did a silly
chicken dance for the few seconds we had before we reached the ground floor. Outside, the sky was a clear dazzling blue, the only clouds wisps of grey smoke rising from the tall apartment buildings on our street. The sun felt warm on the back of my neck as I skipped ahead of my mother and Imrana, my ponytail sailing in an arc across my back. When we reached the hill where the parents released their children, I waved bye to my mother and ran off, imagining all the things Amy would say to me. Asma, you are the bestest best friend I have ever had. Asma, you are my favourite person in the whole world. Asma, you are so pretty. At the bottom of the hill, I scanned the field and the first person I spotted was Tazeen, standing by herself near the fence at the edge of the playground. She was wearing a dark green T-shirt and the same brown corduroy overalls she had worn yesterday. As always, her hair was parted straight down the middle and sectioned off into two pigtails. No one was around her. I felt a deep shame swell inside of me and wondered if I should say hi. If I walked past her quickly without twisting my neck to look at her, I could do it discreetly and no one would notice. Then I heard a voice call out from across the playground: “Hi, best friend!” I held on to the straps of my backpack and ran toward Amy. She was hanging upside down from the monkey bars, her hair falling behind her like a sheer gold curtain. She was wearing a new outfit, a yellow dress with a strip of tiny green flowers at the waist, and she even had a matching yellow plastic headband with shiny green stones stuck all over it. Amy jumped to her feet and wrapped me in a tight embrace. The
HAJERA KHAJA // 33
TOMORROW YOU WILL BE MY BEST FRIEND
HAJERA KHAJA // 34
excitement that had been bubbling in my belly since the morning finally rose up, erupting in giggles as I hugged Amy back. Since the start of the school year, I had waited patiently for my turn to be Amy’s best friend, but when April came and went and it still wasn’t my turn, I had given up. Amy was back to being best friends with Sharon and it looked like she had already taken a turn being best friends with everyone on her list for the year. For the next three weeks, everything remained the same, until yesterday when Amy came up to me after lunch. I was on the swings with my eyes closed, enjoying the rush of wind lifting and pushing through my hair, when suddenly I felt someone yank on one of the chains. The swing jerked from side to side before coming to a stop, and when I opened my eyes, I found Sharon’s hand just a few inches above my own. Amy was standing next to her. “Asma, I’ve decided that tomorrow you will be my best friend,” Amy said. There was a bright spot on her head where the sun shone, like a halo. I looked away, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light. “Really? I’ll do anything, I promise.” Amy had laughed in response. Her laughter was like a bird flying out of her chest, expanding the air around us. “You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “It’s just your turn.” Amy and I linked arms as we walked toward the school doors. I hung up my backpack, and just as I was about to turn away, Amy grabbed my arm and dragged me to the front of the classroom. She asked Ms. Candles if I could switch seats with Sharon for the day. Ms. Candles said it was okay with her as long as it was okay with Sharon, too. Sharon shrugged and walked to the back to sit in my regular spot, next to Tazeen. I wondered if Tazeen would try to talk to her, but every time I glanced back to check on them, Tazeen and Sharon were both stone-faced, looking aimlessly ahead. The rest of the morning, Amy taught me things. She showed me how to pinch and yank on my eyebrows until hair shaped like tiny little waves came out. “That’s how I pluck my eyebrows until I’m allowed to do it for real,” she said, gathering her wispy brown waves at the edge of the white desk and flicking them away. The skin beneath my eyebrows felt tingly and I didn’t know if it was because I had pinched too hard or if it was supposed to feel that way. Then Amy showed me how to tap dance, our feet moving to the count of her whispers: one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. We giggled uncontrollably every time our feet bumped, and Ms. Candles announced that she would have no choice but to separate us if we didn’t stop that racket. Amy and
I looked at each other, mouths stuffed with laughter. “I mean it!” Ms. Candles called out, and for the first time, instead of worrying about getting in trouble, I straightened my back and looked around the classroom, a mixture of pride and accomplishment ballooning in my chest. I felt a strange urgency to savour the feeling, to fold it up and tuck it inside my sock, the way I tucked cash my mother gave me on rare occasions to go buy myself and my sister a treat. I would keep the money hidden underneath, like the slip of a dress, while I played in the park first, my fingers grazing the cash every time I reached down and pretended to adjust my socks. At lunchtime, Amy and I sought out a table for ourselves. Sharon wanted to sit with us, but Amy told her she had to discuss some things with me in private. “I really hate Ms. Candles sometimes. And her earrings today are so tacky,” Amy said, taking a bite out of her sandwich, pink sauce oozing out of the bread and sticking to the corners of her mouth. I was fond of Ms. Candles. She always wrote nice things about me in my agenda, like how I worked diligently and asked thought-provoking questions. But my mother would read her comments and say, “Don’t ask why, why, why all the time. Just keep your head down and do your work.” Ms. Candles’s feather earrings were eccentric, but I liked them, the way the indigo feathers swooshed around her face like a tiny bird whenever she turned her head. I took a bite out of my own sandwich and nodded as if I agreed. “Eww, is that egg?” Amy scrunched her nose. “It smells awful.” I stuffed my sandwich back into its container and snapped the lid shut. I had finished all my grapes in the first recess and had nothing else to eat. Amy began listing all the things she disliked about the girls in our class. Andrea’s lunches smelled like soy sauce and she ate sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tanya’s socks had big holes at the heels because her parents couldn’t afford to buy her new socks. Laura went to bed without brushing her teeth and had gingivitis. “Sharon’s my permanent best friend,” she added, “but you know her brother, the one in high school who comes to pick her up sometimes—I think he’s in a gang. That’s why I’m not allowed to go over to her house. Also, Sharon would be really pretty if she wasn’t so dark, like if she was only as dark as Rihanna or Beyoncé.” I dropped my hands and peeked at them from under the safety of the table. They were unmistakably brown, like the Parle-G biscuits my mother put out whenever guests came to visit. Sometimes they would
Amy’s mouth fell open. I stared at the two pieces of yellow plastic in my hands. One of the green stones had popped off, leaving a sticky grey circle in its place. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “It was an accident, I promise.” Amy grabbed the broken pieces from my hands. She held them together at a distance, as if trying to estimate the extent of the damage I had done. “Maybe we can superglue it? That might work.” Amy narrowed her eyes at me. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” She threw the broken headband pieces on the ground. They landed a few feet ahead of us, next to a crinkled gum wrapper. I wondered if I should retrieve the pieces and try to fix it somehow, but Amy started walking back toward the playground, and I realized it wasn’t the headband she cared about so much. I ran after her, telling her again how sorry I was and that it was an accident and I would never do anything like that ever again, but Amy just kept walking faster and faster and then broke into a run, not turning around even once.
I wanted to ask Amy if she thought I was pretty, but I bit my lip, afraid of the answer.
I stopped following Amy when I reached the fence near the edge of the playground. Tazeen was in the same spot where I had seen her that morning. She seemed to be playing a pretend game, jumping on one foot, then the other, then both feet at once, as if she was playing hopscotch within the confines of an imaginary chalk outline. Every time she jumped, her pigtails flapped up and down, and a surge of anger rushed through me as I watched her so fully absorbed in herself. Tazeen looked up and caught me watching her, and took a small, timid step toward me. I felt frozen, unable to move. She took another step, paused, and then took a bigger, bolder step, and just when I thought she would finally start walking over to where I was, the feeling came back into my legs and I bolted. I turned around only once to see if she was following me, but she was back to her imaginary game, as if I had never been there at all.
HAJERA KHAJA // 35
ask her how come I was so dark and not fair like Imrana, and my mother would blame the sun, complaining that I stayed outside too long and never wanted to be indoors. Afterwards, when I would try to point out to her that Imrana stayed out in the sun for just as long as I did, my mother would strew her teeth and tell me not to compare myself to my little sister, that God made everyone different and it was nothing to fret over. I always wondered why she didn’t respond to her friends the same way. Still, for a full week last summer, I stopped playing outdoors, just to see if there was some truth to my mother’s assertions. I wanted to ask Amy if she thought I was pretty, but I bit my lip, afraid of the answer. After Amy finished her sandwich and the two brownie squares she had brought for dessert, we went outside and played tag. I offered to be “it” but Amy wanted a redo every time I caught her. I was faster than her and, even after giving her a head start, I caught up to her in no time. After a while, Amy put her hand up to stop. She was out of breath, her cheeks and the top of her ears a deep pinkish-red. “I’m so hot,” she said, taking off her headband and shaking her head. Her hair flowed from side to side like the women in shampoo commercials. I slid off my hair tie to undo my ponytail and shook my head, too, but my hair barely moved. It was stiff and there was a bump in it from being tied up. “We can switch,” I said, holding out my hair tie. Amy looked at it and twisted her mouth. It was a pink fuzzy hair tie with a white plastic daisy stuck on it. It matched my pink-and-white-striped dress perfectly. But held at arm’s reach, I noticed a tinge of grey in the pink, and the daisy that had looked dainty and delicate to me when I picked it out at the store now looked tacky and tasteless. I started to pull my arm back, but Amy yanked the hair tie dangling from my fingers and handed me her headband in exchange. “Only until I cool off,” Amy said, gathering her hair high up on her head, twisting and looping my hair tie around her ponytail. Up close, Amy’s headband was even prettier. It was a bright sunflower yellow and the dark green stones sparkled like emeralds when I tilted it to catch the light. I positioned the headband on my forehead and then pushed it up and back, and then a tiny bit forward to get a little pouf in the front, the way I had seen Amy do it. The headband felt tight behind my ears so I took it off and pulled the two ends apart ever so slightly. I stretched it once, then twice. For good measure, I stretched it a third time and suddenly the headband snapped in half.
HAJERA KHAJA // 36
I was near the playground again and I could see Amy talking to Sharon. Amy was waving her arms wildly, her ponytail swaying in the wind, still held aloft with my hair tie. I walked around to the spiral slide and tried to hide, twisting myself into the slide’s interior curvature, but Sharon spotted me. Her eyebrows shot up and her lips stretched into a smirk. I expected Sharon to come up to me and say something, but she started walking around the playground and went up to all the girls in our class, one by one, whispering something into their ears. My stomach dropped. I felt cold all over, goosebumps rising on my arms as I understood what was happening. They were going to do the same thing to me that I had done to Tazeen yesterday. I knew I had no excuse; I had no one to blame but myself. But I’d panicked, fearful that Tazeen would ruin everything when I’d spotted her walking toward us, only moments after Amy had declared that it would be my turn to be her best friend the next day.
…I understood what was happening. They were going to do the same thing to me that I had done to Tazeen yesterday. Amy had turned around to see what I was looking at. She had leaned in close to me, her breath smelling like bubble gum, and whispered, “Why is her hair always in two braids like that? Is that a cultural thing or something?” “Of course not!” I’d whispered back, horrified. “I never wear my hair like that.” “And she smells funny, too, like spices or sweat, or something.” A knot formed in my throat. I knew that smell intimately. It was the smell of coconut oil, which my mother rubbed in my hair on the weekends, but I always made sure to wash it out before Monday. Instead of telling Amy about the coconut oil, I whispered something into her ear, something my cousins and I often did to Imrana when she was being annoying and interfering in our games. “Yes, that would be so funny,” Amy said, her eyes wide with glee.
Later in the afternoon, when Ms. Candles took us to the library, I had tiptoed across the scratchy red carpet and went up one by one to all the girls in our class. “We’re going to boycott Tazeen,” I’d whispered urgently in their ears. “No one’s allowed to talk to her or play with her.” Some of the girls had looked confused and I just mouthed, “Amy said so,” and no one questioned me after that. Whatever guilt I felt I had squashed by telling myself that Amy would never be best friends with Tazeen, but at least I had a chance. ///
haron continued her circuit around the playground, pointing every now and then in my direction. All the girls took turns looking at me, nodding in agreement, and then returned to their play. Behind me, I could hear clapping to the chants of “Stella Ella Ola” and the seesaw squeaking with the weight of too many kids on it. Someone yelled that they felt a raindrop and a thunderstorm would make landfall any minute now. Then, suddenly it became dark, like a curtain had been pulled across the sky. I saw Sharon approaching, but she walked right past me, making her way over to the fence where Tazeen was still engrossed in her make-believe game. I bit my lip, trying to clamp down on the tears that were pooling in my eyes. Tazeen was listening intently to what Sharon was saying, and any minute now I knew Tazeen would scan the playground for me, and when she found me, slinked low in the crevice of the slide, she would smirk, maybe even laugh out loud, hands clutching her knees, overcome with the glee of vengeance. She would take Sharon’s hand and they would join Amy on the swings, the three of them huddling into a triangle of best friends, plotting their next move. But it didn’t turn out like that at all. Sharon kept talking, gesturing toward me, her arm slicing through the air, and Tazeen kept shaking her head. No, no, no. The bell rang and Sharon rushed back to Amy while everyone else made their way toward the school doors, the playground emptying in mere seconds, an eerie quietness settling all around. I walked back toward the fence, but Tazeen was no longer there. I scanned the funnel of kids trickling back inside, but everyone looked the same—a homogenous mass of colour crowding the school doors. I couldn’t spot her anywhere. ///
THREE POEMS PETE GIBBON // 37
when we arrived home the man in the tree asked me if I was from down south and said that all the elms will be gone soon and they won’t come back so he finished up and we moved the dead wood to the shed
Easter Morning at St. James Basilica in Anglican worship. Beautiful acoustics.
held her arm until it lost all feeling
my father has many deposits of mucus in his pockets
the pigeon’s neck
RIB LAKE if you swim to Manson Island my dead aunt will bake you a blueberry pie
I bumped her shoulder & didn’t say I’m sorry
is red and blue five
“downwind” is only one word four
to die alone mom
Sent from my iPad (no body)
a chimp heart
MARTA CHUDOLINSKA // 38
MARTA CHUDOLINSKA // 39
AFTER BY MARTA CHUDOLINSKA
MARTA CHUDOLINSKA // 40
AFTER BY MARTA CHUDOLINSKA
3100 BCE | Ancient Egyptian women, who consider body hair—including pubic hair—to be uncivilized, use some of the first razors made of copper. 2 BCE | Roman poet Ovid urges women to remove
armpit hair to avoid smelling like “wild goats” and to remove the “harsh hair” from their legs. 12TH CENTURY | The Trotula, said to be the work of the first female professor of medicine in Salerno, Italy, contains three recipes for creating a highly alkaline solution that melts hair from the skin. 1400 | In Renaissance paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, women and goddesses are portrayed without pubic hair. 1848 | Celebrated art critic John Ruskin is so disgusted by the sight of his bride’s naked body that he is unable to consummate the marriage. His study of the smooth, hairless nude, coupled with his wife’s declaration that “he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw,” birthed the rumour that he found his new bride’s pubic hair to be intolerable. 1871 | In his book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin theorizes that the least hairy of our ancestors were considered the most attractive and thus produced the most offspring.
1875 | Dr. Charles Michel, an ophthalmologist, modifies the surgical process of chemical decomposition through electricity, known as electrolysis, to remove ingrown eyelashes from his patients. 1910 | Michelina Ranaletta is born in Celano, Italy. A poor farmer, my grandmother spends her life tending to the land, her five children, and her unwanted facial hair. 1915 | Women’s fashion becomes less modest. With sleeveless dresses now in style, Gillette’s Milady, the first razor marketed to women and their hairy armpits, is born. 1933 | Mexican artist Frida Kahlo paints Self Portrait with Necklace, depicting herself with a unibrow and moustache. 1935 | A hairy patrol is a slang term used in the U.S. army to reference a patrol that is unpleasant or rough. 1941 | Leg-hair removal gains popularity when the U.S. War Production Board curtails silk and nylon stockings manufacturing and sporting bare legs becomes unavoidable. 1961 | Endocrinologist Dr. David Ferriman, along with one of his graduate students, develops the Ferriman-Gallwey scale to classify levels of mild, moderate, and severe hirsutism (male patterns of body hair growth in
LORI SEBASTIANUTTI // 41
A RETROSPECTIVE LOOK AT HAIR, HATRED, AND HEALING
LORI SEBASTIANUTTI // 42
women). The averages are based on the evaluation of sixty white women.
arms to display thick, bushy hair. My North American sensibilities are horrified.
1964 | NInety-eight per cent of American women routinely shave their legs. 1966 | While filming the movie A Countess from Hong Kong, Marlon Brando complains that he can see costar Sophia Loren’s nose hair during a kissing scene.
1992 | At my incessant begging, my father takes me to see an endocrinologist. After having blood drawn and enduring a humiliating examination of the fine black hair that lines my belly and lower back, the doctor confirms my mother’s theory. “You don’t have a hormonal imbalance. Your body hair is the result of good, old-fashioned genetics.”
1974 | I am born the third daughter of Italian immigrant parents. My black midnight curls I inherit from my mother, and to my father I am indebted the fine, equally dark hair that coats my tiny body. 1987 | Seven sisters from Brazil, known as the J Sisters, open a salon in New York City offering a waxing service that removes hair from the entire pubic area. 1987 | At twelve, I beg my mother to let me start shaving my legs a year ahead of her mandated thirteen. I had made the basketball team, and two Grade 8 boys were going to be assisting the coach during practice. She mercifully agrees. 1988 | A friend pulls me aside on the playground to tell me that the most popular boy in our Grade 8 class, with his Anglo last name and penchant for blondes, is telling everyone that I “must have the hairiest pussy.” 1989 | My mother drives me to the mall, where in the backroom of a hair salon, I begin years of electrolysis on my upper lip and jawline. 1990 | A boy whom I consider my friend puts his arm around me while we sit side by side on the school bus. When I pull away, he spits out that I should consider myself lucky that a guy would be interested in me, considering how hairy my arms are. 1991 | I plead with my mother, who shaves her legs twice a month and whose arms are practically bare, to take me to a doctor to see why I’m so tall and hairy. She refuses, telling me I got both those traits from my father’s mother, the poor Italian farmer. “Your nonna used to shave her face before the creams reached the small towns. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s just the way you’re made.” 1991 | While on a family trip to my father’s hometown in central Italy, I notice that none of my female cousins shave their armpits. They unapologetically lift their
1993 | When I ask my mother if she would pay for electrolysis for my belly and back hair, she tells me I won’t have to worry about these areas until it’s time to get married. 1994 | While living away from home during my first year in university, I begin the arduous task of waxing the hair on my back, belly, and bikini line, paying for the process with money my mother feeds into my bank account each month. 1996 | Dr. Richard Rox Anderson and Dr. Melanie Grossman discover that at certain wavelengths and intensities, laser pulses can damage follicles enough that hair cannot grow back. 1997 | The FDA approves the first laser for permanent hair reduction. Women of colour are warned that for them, the procedure may not yield results and in the most severe cases could cause blistering, scarring, and irregular skin colour. 1997 | Female porn stars routinely shave or wax their pubic hair, leaving only a thin, vertical “landing” strip. By the early 2000s, complete removal is the norm, and actors with a “full bush” are relegated to fetish films. 1998 | Noticing how my body hair, in its various states of removal and regrowth, is affecting our intimacy, my boyfriend tells me to leave it alone. It doesn’t bother him, and it’s the price I pay for having “such great hair” on my head. 1999 | Actress Julia Roberts sports unshaven armpits at the London premiere of her movie Notting Hill. The conversation the photos generate almost eclipses the movie itself. 1999 | Working as a teacher, I begin paying for pricey, painful laser hair removal on my abdomen and lower back. My university boyfriend is gone, as is my temporary acceptance of my moderate-level hirsutism.
2001 | The sensitive skin of my upper thighs and bikini line can no longer support waxing and shaving. I get a serious case of folliculitis, which involves dozens of large, painful, pus-filled whiteheads in the area. I make an appointment with my doctor who prescribes me an oral antibiotic and tells me to not touch the area until it fully heals. When I ask him about hair removal moving forward, he tells me to accept the hair or get laser. I choose the latter.
2014 | Researchers look at high-resolution photos of 2,895 women’s faces and find that, on average, white women have less hair than any other race and Indian women have the most. Among the white women, those of Italian descent are some of the hairiest.
2005 | I remove an eight-by-ten photo from my wedding album and stuff it in a drawer in my bedroom. The photo is meant to showcase my large, heart-shaped wedding bouquet. All I see are the long black hairs that coat the length of my forearm. Within a year, I am back in the dermatologist’s office getting quotes for more laser treatments.
2018 | Mattel launches its Frida Kahlo Barbie with a minimized unibrow and no facial hair.
2007 | While out for drinks with co-workers, three women say that they get “full Brazilians” at the request of their male partners. Having zero interest in divulging my current pubic-hair aesthetic, I sip my white wine, hoping the conversation will change. 2008 | Actress Kate Winslet is forced to wear a merkin (a hairpiece for the pubic area) for her role in The Reader, set in World War II. After years of removing her pubic hair, she cannot grow it back to an accurate representation of the look of the day. 2010 | Reality star Kim Kardashian tells Allure magazine that she’s had every hair on her body removed by laser. Three years prior, the world was introduced to the daughter of OJ’s defence lawyer and her hairless genitals through her leaked sex tape Kim Kardashian, Superstar. 2010 | Forced to share a bus with staff and students from another school during a trip to Montreal, I meet a woman who tells me a joke she and her friends used to tell while growing up in their small eastern Ontario town. Why don’t Italians brush their teeth before bed? Because they’re too busy brushing their backs. I turn my head away from her, look out the large windows, and stare at the trees, newly decorated with spring foliage.
2019 | En route to an osteopathy appointment, I realize that my legs are stubbly, and the young, attractive male osteopath will need to touch my bare skin. I consider turning my car around and calling to cancel, claiming a personal emergency. I also consider keeping the car in its forward motion so I can get some much-needed pain relief. Surprising myself, I choose the latter. ///
LORI SEBASTIANUTTI // 43
2006 | While rummaging through our dresser drawers in search of an extra phone charger, my husband happens upon the discarded wedding photo. When I tell him the reason for removing it, he tells me I’m being ridiculous and asks me to put it back. I will honour his request—thirteen years later.
2017 | Model Arvida Byström appears with unshaven legs in an Adidas campaign. She receives rape threats on social media.
YOLANDE HOUSE // 44
ANOTHER SECRET SOUTH KOREA “It’s medicine. For your broken heart.” My Korean doctor’s eyes crinkle above me while I lie on the heated table. The warmth on my back feels like a cozy hug. He holds out a bag of chocolates, small round pebbles tied with a silky white bow. “Oh.” I blink, wetness spilling down my cheeks. “Thank you.” I had told him I’d been dating someone but it hadn’t worked out. “It will make you feel better,” he says, nodding at his gift. It does. I take my “medicine” every day for a week, a small handful at a time, feeling sugary strength infuse my bruised heart. The doctor is the husband of my old boss who now has a newborn baby. “You should have a baby,” he’d told me soon after the birth, his face glowing. “I am so happy.” He’s a good guy, I thought, that rare breed I take heart in, a gentle and generous soul, and my Korean traditional doctor of almost four years. “The medicine worked,” I tell him at my next appointment. His brow furrows. “It was just chocolate.” He smiles, polite but puzzled. Does he think I thought it was real medicine? “I know. But you gave it to me to help me feel better. It worked.” “Oh! I’m glad.” He beams. CANADA The moment you realize OMG, my uncle is hitting on me your world stops. Trust me. It happened after my dad went to bed. As a recent graduate, I lived with my dad while I job-hunted. My dad’s brother, crashing for the night, drank beer after beer alone in the kitchen while I used the computer in the living room. When my uncle came over to ask what I was doing, I showed him my gaming site, how I
dressed up my virtual pets and made them battle. He laughed, clapped his hands, and asked to see more. About midway through the virtual tour, he started patting my shoulder. Quick taps, affectionate uncle pats. Then his hands stayed longer, stroking a bit. Tap then squeeze then rub. Then full-on massage. My stomach tightened. Is this creepy? I liked this uncle. When I was seven and wouldn’t go to bed at a family reunion when the adults were having so much fun, he shrugged and twirled me around the farmhouse kitchen while I shrieked with laughter. He always greeted me with a bright smile and a firm hug. No, no, this seems innocent, a slightly high-pitched reply came. He’s my uncle—a family member I love, who was there for me my whole life. He wouldn’t do this. Don’t be silly! He’s just drunk. Then his hands started trailing down the front of me. Just an inch at first, then two inches, three. Going for it and then retreating. Going for it and then retreating. As if he were a boy on a date. I sat ramrod straight in my father’s wooden chair and my heart pounded. This can’t be happening. This must still be innocent even though it feels creepy. He must not know what he’s doing. I’m overthinking. My uncle’s hand continued to inch and retreat, inch lower and then retreat, inch lower. Please don’t do this. I’m giving you a chance to stop. Stop now, and we’ll pretend this was some weird drunk thing that doesn’t matter. Please. His hand crawled lower. I had to know. Was this some strange, drunken misunderstanding I could shrug off, or did my uncle actually think something could happen here? In my mind, I drew a line. Where does my chest stop and my breast begin? The pads of his fingers touched soft flesh, and I took a deep breath.
OPPOSITE: PEACH BLOSSOM ISLAND (GROW LAMP), 25” x 18”, PIGMENT ON MULBERRY PAPER, 2019 | HOWIE TSUI
Image courtesy of the artist.
At another visit some weeks later, he says, “You need a boyfriend.” His black eyes light up and he chuckles. I don’t need a boyfriend! I think. Then I shrug. “That would be nice.” I sigh. He nods.
The next month, in June, I have another headache. The needles go in, and the doctor smiles down at me. “This summer, my wife is away,” he says. “In August. I will be lonely.” I nod. “Do you want to go to the movies? Sometime in August?” He looks hopeful. Once or twice a year, I go for a meal with him and his wife, but never alone. “Oh.” I frown. Why not? He’s always been so kind and gentle. I’ve known him and his wife for four years now. He’s safe. Slowly, I bob my head. “Sure.” He grins. Afterward, I feel uneasy and beg a friend to go with me. “I’m sure it’s innocent,” I tell her, “but it still seems a little strange. I’d be more comfortable if you were there. One-on-one with a married man is just too weird.” She agrees. But as sweltering summer cools into fall, I find I’m able to withstand the headaches that would usually send me running for that familiar prick. Bullet dodged.
YOLANDE HOUSE // 45
SOUTH KOREA “Your hair. Beautiful,” the married doctor says. I lie on the acupuncture table, blond hair splaying from its usual elastic band and messy bun. The doctor has finished administering the needles, pricking me from foot to forehead, and now I look like a silver porcupine. He lifts a golden strand. “The colour. My favourite.” If I were in Canada, I’d be uncomfortable right now, I think. If he were single, this would definitely be a come-on, in Canada or Korea. But he’s married, safe. I appreciate receiving male attention from someone I can trust. He is a doctor, after all. Maybe he knows exactly what I need. “Thank you,” I say, smiling.
YOLANDE HOUSE // 46
CANADA “Stop!” I shouted. My uncle’s hands froze in place. “What?” he asked, confused. “Get your hands off of me!” His arms retracted, and I turned and glared. His mouth gaped open. “Get away from me. Go away!” He backed up a couple of feet, sputtering and stumbling. “Go downstairs, to your bed,” I continued. “Get away from me! GO!” He was still inching backwards when I ran upstairs to my room. I lay awake. What if he comes upstairs? What if he’s here tomorrow? When I woke up, he was gone. SOUTH KOREA In late September, a cool breeze has replaced the outdoor sauna of the Korean summer. I finally have a throbbing headache bad enough for the needles. I make my way through the rows of heated beds with
I lay awake. What if he comes upstairs? What if he’s here tomorrow?
sectioned-off curtains that fill the large room. Lying down in my usual spot, I pull the drape closed and relax. When the doctor pokes his head through the curtain, his forehead creases above raised eyebrows. “You came back!” “Yes, of course,” I say. Has it been that long? I can’t remember. “I think…you would not come again,” he says in his slow English, his voice a little high-pitched, his speech a little fast. Why does he care? I’ve taken breaks before. Sometimes, I don’t come back for a couple months. Why is this time different? “I was healthy over the summer,” I say, keeping my English simple and clear. “But now I have a headache. So I came back.” “Oh.” His head drops, and he looks at his rolling table of medical items. Taking a cotton pad, he douses it with antiseptic and dabs at my feet. “I’m so glad you came back.” His face lights up with relief.
I nod even though I don’t know why he’s so happy. This must be another Korean cultural thing I don’t understand. He takes out a needle and presses it between my big toe and second toe. It feels sharp, but not too uncomfortable. As he continues to prick my knees, stomach, and arms, his face seems pinched. I start to feel bad. It’s an old habit of mine, to reassure when I don’t know why someone is upset. I assume it’s my fault. “I promise not to be gone that long again,” I say as he presses the last of the silver pins beside each of my nostrils. I’m not sure why I said that, but he smiles and his shoulders drop. Weird that he cares so much. I guess I should come for treatments more often anyway. CANADA For years, I had nightmares that I’m at a family reunion and people find out what happened. Then my loved ones explode into a brawl of “he said, she said” accusations. Oh God, there he is. My gaze darted away, but the hallway at my aunt’s wedding was crowded and my uncle stood in my path. I squeezed past him, my eyes downcast. Then I felt a hand grip my forearm, and my head whipped up, my eyes blazing. “Hello,” my uncle said in a loud voice. I yanked my arm away as his wife stared at us open-mouthed. Marching straight ahead, I took the first exit up the stairs, leaving the well-dressed crowd to spent the next hour on the phone with my best friend. I emerged dry-eyed and wary, with only two telltale crimson spots bright on my cheekbones. SOUTH KOREA “The doctor wants to see you,” the receptionist says after I’ve paid for my appointment and am about to leave. She points down the hallway to his office. I haven’t been there since my evaluation four years ago. My jacket is heavy over my arm. “Hi,” I say, poking my head in the room. It’s small, decorated with bookshelves, a desk, and framed degrees on the wall. I leave the question of why he beckoned me here unspoken. He stands up. “I have a gift for you,” he says, grinning. “It’s chocolate. From Australia.” He holds it out. “Wow, thank you.” I take the bag and step away, bowing slightly, preparing for the final exchange of niceties. Then he holds his arms open wide, a broad grin on his face.
Months pass. Headaches come, but I have nowhere to go. No other traditional doctors in my small town speak English. What if I get sick, as I did the year before, and only acupuncture or traditional medicine can
help me? What happens the next time my old boss and his wife call to invite me to dinner? Another secret I have to keep because of a man. When I was younger, the men who assaulted me were strangers or acquaintances. Now, betrayals come from people much harder to avoid. Not that this was assault. I’m not sure what it was. For a year, the secret is a frozen thorn in my heart. My anger expands and bursts at unwelcome moments. I finally talk it out with a good friend, who walks me through a play-by-play. He asks, How do I define assault and consent? Did I consent? No? Then how was this not assault? My shoulders heave and shake until thawed rivers spill from swollen eyes. “I’m just so tired of this happening,” I say through tears. “Why does this keep happening? Doesn’t it stop at some point?” CANADA The worst after-effect is when my dad puts his hand on my thigh or his arm around my shoulders, an innocent, affectionate gesture I used to welcome. Now I tense up. I tell myself, He’s not my uncle, but once trust is broken, everyone is suspect. Another family reunion I dreaded for weeks arrived. I asked Dad over and over who would be coming, just to check. My uncle’s absence made my steps light. Then, at the last minute, a change. I avoided my uncle all day, slipping into rooms absent of his slender frame. When interactions loomed, I escaped upstairs to the family desktop computer and
The hair touching. The boyfriend comment. The scenes tell me a darker story than the one I’d lived, and my hands clench. wrote teary emails to my boyfriend. That evening, at the hotel that housed the many family members who didn’t fit on my grandparents’ modest farm, I celebrated my success by watching bad movies and eating junk food in my brothers’ room. Then I left, opening the door and stepping onto the second-floor walkway. I spied the bright orange glow of a cigarette by the railing, a dark head illuminated against a floodlight. I
YOLANDE HOUSE // 47
Oh. He wants a hug. Yeah, I guess. He did give me a gift. I step in to give him a quick embrace, patting his back. His arms envelop me and clutch hard. Oh. A tight hug then. All right. I squeeze back for a second, then pull away. But I can’t move far. His arms are still locked around my waist. I have no time to think as his head dips down, eyes closed and lips pursed. He looks like a little boy having a blissful dream, lips curled upward. Oh God, oh God. I twist myself as far away from him as I can while being immobile from the hips down. He’s strong. I push on his chest, but his head continues to inch closer as I struggle. I crane my neck to the left, stretching to look at the ceiling to get as much distance as possible. Oh God, oh God. Finally, his lips reach air. He stops. He opens his eyes. His forehead wrinkles. Then he looks at the floor. He still holds me tight, but his shoulders seem to slump. He loosens his vise grip, and I step back. My mind reels as he sits down at his desk, studying the screen and clicking the mouse. This all has to have an innocent explanation, right? I must be overthinking again. “Thanks for the chocolates,” I say slowly. He clicks his mouse a few more times. “Uh, bye.” His head dips in acknowledgement. I back into the corridor and pass the clueless receptionist. I will never return. As I walk home in a daze, traffic roaring past me, memories come rushing back, like a movie unspooling backwards. I watch them play out. The movie theatre invite. The hair touching. The boyfriend comment. The scenes tell me a darker story than the one I’d lived, and my hands clench. Did he think he was courting me or something? Nausea swirls in my stomach. Arriving home, I throw the chocolates on my laminate kitchen floor. Then I pick them up and climb the stairs to my friend’s apartment. “Here, have these,” I say, shoving the bag into her hands when she opens the door. “I don’t want them.” “Are you sure?” Her eyes widen. “They look really nice!” “Oh, I’m sure.” I thump my way back downstairs, feeling lighter.
YOLANDE HOUSE // 48
blinked, and the face came into focus, looking right at me. My heart pounded, Danger! Danger! and I yanked my gaze away and marched toward my room. “Yolande, I want to talk to you,” my uncle said as I passed. His tone was stern, like he wanted to teach his wayward niece proper manners. My jaw tightened, and I quickened my pace, bracing for a touch that never came. Opening and closing my door, my shoulders heaved and I took deep breaths as I steadied myself against its frame. SOUTH KOREA My old boss spots me on the busy Korean street. Petite and fashionable, even six months after having a baby. “Hi! How are you? Are you here to see my husband’s new office?” “What?” I blink, startled. It’s been two months since I last saw her husband. She texted me once, and it took me a week to respond. Then silence. I wonder what he’s said to her. “My husband. His new office.” She is cat-eyed now. She knows me too well. I look up to the second floor of the building beside us and see a white square with a green cross. He’s moved closer to me now. Crap. “Oh,” I say as she studies me. “No. I, um, haven’t been sick. Yeah, it’s been a while. So, I, I didn’t know he moved. But that’s good to know. Um. I’ll remember that. Thanks.”
I couldn’t breathe. So this is an open secret? Why didn’t anyone reach out to me?
I blink, willing her to believe me and go away. She nods and then seems to shake herself. The silence stretches. “I should get going,” I say. She nods again, still looking me up and down, puzzled. I’ve never been smooth with goodbyes, but she knows that. I wave, offer a smile, and then cross the street. When I prepare to leave Korea the next year, I call my old boss to ask for her help. I need an apartment
for one extra month to give me more time to pack and finish up my life in Korea. I fear seeing her husband, but I don’t know who else to turn to, as apartments here usually require a hefty deposit and a year-long lease. She jumps at the chance to help, and I think maybe her husband hasn’t said anything about me after all. I’m relieved he never accompanies her when she visits. When I leave the country the next month, I’m grateful to be far, far away. CANADA Two months before I would move to South Korea, I attended a family wedding. When my uncle sat across from me at the reception, I spoke to my cousin and aunt on either side of him and pretended the chair between them was simply filled with white static. “So, you’re moving to South Korea,” my uncle finally interjected, his voice booming across the table. Side conversations stopped, and everyone stared at us. No getting out of this one. “Yes.” I looked him straight in the eye, wary. “That’s a tough road, moving abroad,” he said with a nod. “I’ve done it. It’s not for the weak of heart.” “No,” I agreed. “Do you think you’re ready?” “Yes, I think so.” My shoulders loosened. This wasn’t so bad. People were around. I was safe. “I’ve done a lot of research and talked to friends who lived there. If I don’t like it, it’s only for a year.” “Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” my uncle said. “Good luck. I hope you have an easier time than I did.” I nodded. This felt better, to exchange a few words rather than skitter to the bathroom and cry. A couple of years later, when I’d become comfortable in my new life in Korea, a message from my cousin stopped me short. “What happened between you and [Uncle]?” she wrote. “Mom told me, ‘Be careful around him. Something happened between him and Yolande.’” I couldn’t breathe. So this is an open secret? Why didn’t anyone reach out to me? Hot lava bubbled, thrusting tight shoulders toward my ears. Why do I bother trying to hide? Then, as the heat began to cool: Does this mean they believe me? Air filled my lungs, and I let out a long exhale. Something loosened deep inside me. Maybe there are no secrets. Only facts I have yet to accept. ///
YEAR OF SUMMER
It was just as lovely as the long peacock feather standing out of a man’s shoulder bag, torn like a comb, writing his path in the soil behind him. At the zoo I saw the peacock tail spread, walking backwards, when I’d stared unseeing for so long! A hundred sapphire eyes, and a little girl beside me kept crying, “Where? Where? Where?” even as I pointed. A man’s hair curled to his waist; he talked to ducks and chipmunks. A stream of chk chk chk chk, allegro, ma non troppo, seven eight. We see ourselves in the other. Could you want a year of summer? ///
LUKE SAWCZAK // 49
They walked her in a black coat down the hill of cherries backwards, as though tearing her away from the frail bursts of Japanese pink. Staggering at the foot, she calmly remarked: “I tend to walk backwards in winter!”
STACY PENNER // 50
WHEN YOU SEE IT, YOU DON’T M
ost people didn’t notice her mom’s lack of a face. They looked at the blue smudge there instead, and then once they looked away they forgot. In Costco, people’s gazes slid right off Maeve and onto the two-packs of Aveeno moisturizer. At one of Iris’s kindergarten field trips, a mom tried to describe Maeve. “She’s the one over there, with the dark hair to her chin, and the long skirt, and she’s got—” She stopped. “Iris, what’s your mom look like again?” No one could describe it, and few remembered the blue smudge. It was a shadowed Prussian blue, such a deep blue that it seemed to absorb things around it. A blue hole, blue smudge, blue no-face. In the crayon drawings of Toni, Iris’s older sister, Maeve’s face was blank until teachers sent home notes of concern. Then Maeve wore a wobbly black line of uncertainty as a smile, dark eyes, and no nose. For Iris’s own crayon families, she ran her small fingers over each blue crayon. None were right, but the closest was a mixture. First, Cornflower, barely swirling across where her mom’s face should be. Next, Eggplant, with some scratches of Outer Space. The final layer was webs and webs of Midnight Blue. That crayon label was ripped off completely to get farther down the wax, and the webs left dents in the printer paper. When Maeve came tidying, Toni shoved Iris’s drawings underneath Barbies. “You’re wrecking my crayons!” she said. “Pick another colour.” But Iris patted the drawings smooth and, on tiptoe, poked them onto the kitchen table. She watched the smudge as Maeve brushed aside her drawings to peel vegetables. Sometimes the blue twitched, but as Maeve tested each carrot for wilting, her hands were only as distracted as usual.
n a camping trip when Iris was eight, she watched Maeve pick up rocks along the lake. One round stone was slimed green from the water, and Maeve scraped it against a jagged rock until all the scum was gone. After she dunked the stone in the cold lake, Iris could see white speckles pitted on the wet-washed grey. Iris picked up her own, flatter rock and snapped it out like Toni and their dad Bernard, who were throwing stones farther down the shore. The rock plomped right into the water. She picked up another one, flailed, and watched it sink. Maeve’s hands were gentle on Iris’s shoulder, and she picked up another flat stone. “Try this way,” Maeve said, and she skipped it. The rock slapped the water’s skin and bounced four circles before dropping. Maeve found rocks for Iris all along the shore. Some were spearheads or moons. Others were just shards. While Maeve wandered farther, Iris picked two. One was the round one with the speckles, and the other was almost a dish, a flat stone with a smooth indentation in the centre. She put the round one in the toe of one of her yellow water shoes, the dish stone in her opposite heel. When Maeve turned back, Iris found another flat stone, threw back her arm, and skipped it twice. Maeve’s fingers squeezed Iris again, and this time they were warm. Then Toni laughed, a bright girl’s sound across the rocks. “Mom, look at me!” She teetered on a jagged slab. Bernard chuckled and reached out to steady her. The blurred blue of Maeve’s face shuddered, and Iris’s hands were empty again as their mom leapt over the stones. While Maeve clutched Toni off her precipice, Iris threw rock after rock into the lake. ///
ris started her Chapters job a few days after her sixteenth birthday. She was getting ready for work the day she heard her mom and dad arguing. Usually they fought quietly, and Toni and Iris had to tiptoe to the master bedroom to hear. This time their parents were in the living room. Toni was planted at the top of the stairs, and she squeezed Iris’s hand as the younger sister crept down.
“I can’t, Bernard, I can’t, and you know—” Maeve’s soft voice was unusually shrill. “You say that over and over, and now it’s years later. This isn’t you, that…” He shook his head. “All I’m asking is for you to try, Maeve.” “And what the hell do you think I’ve been doing?” Silence like fog, until Iris heard her mom’s keys and the door to the garage sticking, then thudding. Her parents had never walked out during an argument, but when Iris got to the bus stop, the van’s red brake lights were fading into rain. At work, Iris spent the first hour shelving biographies: Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker, and Anne Frank. An older co-worker grumbled about a reader, another one who’d slipped a book off the shelf and was tucked into a plush chair. “It’s not a damn library. She’s flying through it, too—she’ll probably finish by close.” Maeve’s feet were indeed tucked up under herself and she didn’t look up for any of the employees’ glares. Her hands held a fat paperback mystery, but the blue smudge was stormy, with glints of darker and darker midnight under the usual colours. Iris offered to do the final sweep when the store closed. “Mom? They want to lock up.” Maeve didn’t stir, and Iris looked at her soft hand and thought of touching it. “Mom?” she said instead, even more quietly. Maeve gave a hum and slipped the mystery back onto the shelf. “I’ll drive you home.” Out in the parking lot, their breath steamed up the inside of the windshield, and Maeve let the vehicle run to clear it out. Iris wanted to ask about the fight and what Bernard had meant. But these questions were cotton balls. They soaked up her saliva and clung to the slopes of her mouth. Then the creeping pattern of mist on glass dissolved, and Maeve shifted the van into drive. ///
aeve missed Iris’s graduation. At other times in Iris’s childhood, Maeve had spent up to five days holed up in the guest room, discarded dishes mounding up outside a door seeping with blue. This time, when Toni disappeared into a “find-yourself” backpacking trip and refused to call, was much longer, starting in May and leaking through to July. Three months, an entire season, the length of time a smudge can grow and shrink and deepen while never becoming anything but a smudge. Three months for a mother to disappear in her blue, only to come back and never acknowledge she left. Three months, the amount of time for an eighteen-year-old Iris to never unsee a
STACY PENNER // 51
uring dinner, Maeve often didn’t say a word. She’d place the precooked chicken cordon bleu on the table with hard potatoes and wilted broccoli. Bernard would grumble about his supervisor at the lumber mill and Toni would fill the air on how potatoes could create electricity. While Maeve bent her slim body toward their voices, Iris was silent. She sculpted her food into eyes, a nose, and a smeary smile. As she got older, Iris spent hours looking at Maeve, even as Toni tried to distract her with nail polishes or bottle rockets or impromptu dance parties. Iris peeked through the bathroom door as Maeve applied sweet-smelling face creams, and she watched through the van’s rear-view mirror when Maeve thought she was reading. Often, Maeve would unconsciously poke and prod at the smudge, sometimes rubbing as if at an itch. Maeve didn’t like when Iris flipped through the old photo albums, so she waited to creep into the front closet when Maeve did laundry, finding photos where Maeve had a face: Maeve as a young girl with pigtails, Maeve smiling next to Bernard in a wedding dress, Maeve embracing a little baby that must be Toni. Iris showed Toni the pictures, but she barely looked up from her Popular Science. “Who cares what she used to look like?” The year Toni got her learner’s permit and Bernard started working late shifts, Iris and Maeve spent their first night alone together at the dinner table, condensation dripping off their glasses onto the wood. Iris imagined Maeve asking her about drawing class, about their new betta fish, Betty, about the way she’d cried last week when she got her first period. Instead Iris said in the silence, “You think Betty misses the goldfish she attacked?” Maeve tilted her head. “I guess so.” Iris waited, and they ate more corn. After dinner, Iris slipped her fingers into her jeans and sprinkled corn kernels into the fish tank. Beside the tank were piles and stacks of stones. A round stone with white speckles was pulled out in front, displayed on a flat rock dish like a pearl in its oyster.
photo of her body on the internet and every comment and text that came with it. Three months to knock on the door, needing her mother in this Toni-shaped hole, to hear nothing back. Three months to wait. When Maeve finally came back, Iris couldn’t talk about the photo. She felt as if the blue oozing out the door was congealed in her lungs. Iris went to college, where the photo still popped up, and made excuses when Bernard tried to pass the phone to Maeve.
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oni was living in Toronto with her four-year-old when their dad finally moved out, nearly eight months after his and Maeve’s divorce. Bernard hadn’t known what to do with the boxes and bubble wrap and splitting lives. Iris thought Maeve hadn’t known what to do with Bernard. Iris’s knock went unanswered, so she let herself in. Dust pressed down on the baseboards. In the den, their old armchair nestled Maeve’s smudge as she read a thick paperback. When she saw Iris, she started making tea. “Dad asked for photos,” Iris said. “I thought you were a lady from our church group,” said Maeve. “They mean well,” she added. As Iris and Maeve organized, the house ripped, shreds of it strewn through the living room and the bedroom, the bathroom as neutral ground. Maeve’s movements were crisp as they pushed items into piles for “Bernard” and “Maeve” and “garbage,” but she slowed when they reached the closet with the photo albums. “It’ll take a lot of fuss to separate these out,” she said. “Why don’t you come get them another day?” Iris was already picking through the early days of her parents’ marriage, most of them scattered with the pale face meant to be her mom. In one photo, a faced not-Maeve laughed as she lifted a tiny baby up to Bernard’s bristly moustache. “Just think how Toni complained when he shaved it that time.” Iris grinned as she held it out. The smudge buzzed around Maeve’s face as she leaned in to see. “That’s not Toni,” she said. Then she seized the picture and returned with a box. “Here, I really need you to decide what to keep of your old school stuff. I’ll do the photos.” Padding her way upstairs, the albums pressed close, Maeve called down, “If you see any old drawings you and Toni made, leave them out.” Letters to Santa, old report cards, and years of drawings spilled out of the box as Iris sifted through
it. When she unearthed a paper covered in Midnight Blue swirls, she lugged the box outside and tipped its contents into the recycling with a soft whoosh. ///
n the five years after the divorce, Maeve rarely went out her front door, so Iris had to be impressed at her mom’s committing to a full week in their old tent. This trip had been Bernard’s idea, a peace offering. He couldn’t go with Maeve, and Toni was pregnant again, so Iris was the only logical choice. Her family’s logic generally prevailed over Iris’s preferences. It was windy, so Iris and Maeve opted for the campground’s shore instead of swimming. As their sandals bent against the rocks, Iris saw Maeve transfixed by a girl in the waves, little feet kicking. A young mom followed, laughing. “Slow down!” she called. A wave crashed over them both and toppled the girl over. The seconds ticked, and Iris waited until she saw the girl yanked out past the drop-off. Then the blue smudge caroused violently around Maeve’s head as she plunged fully clothed into the waves. Iris froze, not sure if she should dunk in after or call for help. She didn’t need to do either; it was over in seconds. The young mom clutched the now-shivering girl and sloshed her way back to shore, all before Maeve was waist-deep. “Your girl okay?” Maeve asked the passing mom. The younger woman nodded, eyes clasped to her daughter. Maeve stood still as the waves scrunched and rippled her coat. Its fabric folded into the waves like cream in coffee. “Mom?” Iris called. “Mom?” She imagined herself walking away, back to the car. She could huddle in their tent or drive past all these trees to the pizza joint a few kilometres out. She could call Toni and say that her latest animation gig had turned urgent. The smudge thinned with the breeze and, for the briefest moment, revealed a blotchy red cheek. Iris looked away. She stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and crunched across the sand. Wind slapped waves onto the beach as Iris trudged an invisible boundary. Finally, she heard Maeve’s slopping steps, and she slowed down. Unseen, Maeve pressed a rock into Iris’s hands. It was flat and smooth, the slimy green mostly scraped away. Iris slipped it into her pocket, and then Maeve took her hand. The rock in Iris’s jacket smacked her leg with each step, and Maeve’s hand was cold, still wet. She squeezed. ///
[IN CONVERSATION WITH NATHAN WHITLOCK]
INSIDE THE CRITICS’ CIRCLE BY PHILLIPA CHONG IS A DEEP, SCHOLARLY DIVE INTO BOOK REVIEWING—A WORLD AS FULL OF FRAGILE EGOS, PETTY RESENTMENTS, DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR, AND BRIEF MOMENTS OF SINCERE PLEASURE AS ANY NOVEL. CHONG, AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR IN SOCIOLOGY AT MCMASTER UNIVERSITY, INTERVIEWS A FEW DOZEN REGULAR REVIEWERS FOR OUTLETS SUCH AS THE GUARDIAN, THE NEW YORK TIMES, AND THE GLOBE AND MAIL IN ORDER TO REVEAL HOW THE DAY-TO-DAY PRACTICE OF REVIEWING IMPACTS HOW LITERARY FICTION GETS MORE BROADLY EVALUATED IN OUR CULTURE. THE HUMBER LITERARY REVIEW SPOKE TO CHONG ABOUT HOW REVIEWERS SEE THEMSELVES, WHY REVIEWS STILL MATTER, AND WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO ACTUALLY GET REVIEWED AFTER HAVING ONLY STUDIED AND WRITTEN ABOUT THE PROCESS. PHOTO CREDIT: CHRISTINA DE MELO
[INTERVIEW] PHILLIPA CHONG // 53// 53
POWER AND PRECARITY IN THE WORLD OF REVIEWS
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HLR: Right at the start of your book, you note that book sections are shrinking and there are fewer and fewer outlets for books to get reviewed. Which makes me wonder what brought you to this world in the first place? Why throw yourself into something you admit is becoming more marginal? PC: As a cultural sociologist, I’m broadly interested in issues of inequality in the arts—why do some people get more than others? For me, what book reviews represent is this really unique opportunity to look at the logic of why some books and some people are more deserving of our esteem than others. By actually speaking to the critics themselves, I got the added perspective of why these people thought that their opinions were more worthwhile than others. That’s where my intellectual impetus came from, but on a personal note, I interned for McClelland & Stewart [where Philippa’s sister, Anita Chong, is a celebrated senior editor] when I was in university, in the publicity and marketing department, so my job was collecting the book reviews and sorting them and trying to get people to review our books. So reviews have always have been top of mind. HLR: The reviewers that you interview are constantly shrugging off the title of “critic” as something too grandiose. They even shrug off any larger cultur-
That dance between the power they have but also all the precarity they feel in doing the work—that’s a major theme in the book. al implication for their reviews, which reminds me of how the poet Philip Larkin, who was also a respected (if frequently cranky) critic, always referred to his reviewing work as “hack writing.” At the same time, those same reviewers you spoke to, when they discuss quote-unquote amateur reviewers or book bloggers, suggest those people aren’t worthy, that they have not earned their
spot. What lies behind that contradiction? Are reviewers just insecure snobs? PC: I think there are a few different reasons why many of my respondents, who are reviewing for some of the most elite publications in the Anglo publishing world, sort of shrugged off the idea of identifying as a critic. One reason is because they see critics as people who are writing longform, in-depth essays in places like maybe the Humber Literary Review or, you know, the New York Review of Books. Another reason is that the idea of a critic, however vague, doesn’t really gel with their experience of writing reviews. A lot of these people only review maybe a few times a year, so it isn’t central to their identity, which is probably more linked to being a writer. But then, as I also describe in the book, the practice and experience of reviewing seems like a very powerful opportunity to wield influence in the literary field. You have this authoritative position, but the actual lived reality of writing reviews is far from what we might expect it to be. That dance between the power they have but also all the precarity they feel in doing the work—that’s a major theme in the book. You are right that once I got people talking about amateur reviewers, suddenly they took on the name and the cause of professional reviewing very strongly, and I think the reason they did that was because they were very clear in their minds that what they did was qualitatively different. It stems from the same issue, which is that the book-reviewing world, and book criticism in general, is very informally organized: there’s no clear demarcation of jurisdictions, or even who’s qualified to do it. HLR: You don’t get a badge or an ID on a lanyard. It’s almost like—and I apologize for using scholarly jargon here—but inasmuch as you are concerned with how the sausage gets made, the book-review sausage, you can imagine going to a sausage maker and saying, “Your sausages are nutritious, they are the greatest!” and them saying, “No, no, no—they’re just sausages…” But if you tell them your neighbour makes sausages in his basement, the same person will say, “No! That’s not real sausage!”
HLR: I often think of a conversation I had with a former book publicist, years and years ago, who said that his job was not to get a book in the Globe and Mail book section, it was to get it in the Globe’s life section or food section or auto section. It clarified a lot of things about book marketing for me, but also makes me wonder if the shrinkage of book-reviewing space is something the publishing world kind of did to itself.
HLR: Your book is more focused on practice, but something you touch on a little bit is the idea that book reviews can be literature in their own right, and that might be a reason to want to write them and read them, a reason for them to exist. I personally own these huge collections of John Updike’s reviews and essays, but almost none of his fiction. Zadie Smith, too: I like a lot of her fiction, but I prefer her essays and reviews. So I’m one of those people who will read reviews as a kind of standalone piece of writing, with no desire to read the book being reviewed. Or sometimes I will read a book and then go read the reviews—I want to see what other intelligent people have said about it.
PC: It’s a good question. Before writing this book, I was convinced book reviews still matter a lot. After writing this book, I’m still convinced that book reviews matter a lot. But to your point, you can read a bunch of takes on book reviewing that talk about how book reviews don’t sell books, and maybe being in the fashion section sells books. Even when I was in the industry twenty years ago, publicists were
PC: What you’re hitting on is that we ask book reviews to do a lot of different things. Authors hope that book reviews publicize their work, but the critics themselves might not buy into that. And some readers might look at reviews not to find book recommendations, but just to read a lovely essay. Some critics might write reviews because they need some quick money or because they really enjoy the intellectual challenge of reading a book and condensing all their thoughts into it, especially into a short form. There are so many different ways that we can appreciate a review. HLR: They can add to the idea of a literary conversation, as opposed to a journey from marketing department to reviewer to buyer in a bookstore. PC: That’s right, and I think that’s where sometimes the discourse and debate about the value of book reviewing can sometimes, not break down, but sort of get stuck. When we’re not clear about all the different things we’re asking book reviews to do, or all the different reasons that people read them or write them, it’s like we’re talking past each other.
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PC: Exactly, and because there are no clear demarcations, or mechanisms for saying you’re in and you’re out, it means people don’t know how to identify themselves, but also they might flex a little bit and see other people as outsiders. I hope that something that can come from this book is the understanding that these different branches of reviewing aren’t necessarily incompatible, or even vying for the same jurisdiction.
…some readers might look at reviews not to find book recommendations, but just to read a lovely essay.
looking for ways to get information about their books out to the public through ways other than book reviews, but part of the reason we did that was because it was so hard to get a review. Something like a thousand books on average come down every week and being able to secure a review is so unlikely that we often have to look for other ways to promote the book, and that’s not exactly the same thing as saying we don’t value reviews. The reason I’m more convinced than ever that book reviews matter is because there’s a type of value and worth that a book review brings to a title that sales do not. In the world of literary fiction, a review will lend an air of prestige to a title. In the sociology of the art world, we call this consecration—making this one book somehow seem more deserving, more serious, more artistic than all the other books that have come
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out. That is a type of worth that you can’t get through Twitter or through the fashion or life sections; that is a type of value that we can only squeeze out of critical reviews and literary essays, and maybe being taught in universities. HLR: When my first book came out, I’d already been working as reviewer and a reviews editor, and I remember people asking me if I was worried about getting negative reviews, because I’d written a few of those myself. I can always honestly say that any time I’ve gotten a negative review, I think, “Hey, they gave me space. They gave me the opportunity.” I know how much that real estate is worth. PC: Absolutely. A review basically is saying, “This is something worth talking about and thinking about.” HLR: Which leads me to my final question, perhaps the trickiest one: your book received a number of reviews, including a few negative ones. Were you able to be detached about it, or were you, like, “That jerk”?
I’m very similar to my respondents in that you don’t think about the good ones, you just sort of obsess over the negative ones.
PC: You know, I learned as much about the reviewing world since the book came out as when I was writing up the research findings. I’m very similar to my respondents in that you don’t think about the good ones, you just sort of obsess over the negative ones. Definitely it hurts so much. The only way that I got out of it was to pare it back to the analysis in my book—that helped me put into perspective what was going on. So in some ways my better self can see how the reviews of the book confirmed some of the findings that I report in the book. Sometimes the best type of review coverage you can get
is any—it means you’ve struck on something and there’s something that people want to engage with. The big takeaway of my book is that when we think of book reviewing and how it gets done, it’s not always about the book. I think that core finding has brought some peace to my wounded ego. HLR: I apologize on behalf of all reviewers for your pain. PC: [Laughing] I’m used to taking criticism—academics aren’t nice people. You get nasty comments in peer review, but it is criticism with the goal of improving the piece. So when I read a negative review of my book, I’m like: they’re not trying improve the piece. I had a hard time with that, but what I’m doing now is I’m taking some of the criticisms that I’ve received from reviewers and I’m trying to turn them into something productive. I’m actually creating a YouTube series where I try to break down the book into a way that is more palatable and fun for the general reader. Also, I’m actually writing my first book review assignment myself, so I’m going to tweet about what I learned and how it’s applying to my actual practice. I’m an internal optimist and a learner, and I’m going to use what those reviewers said to try to broaden the reach of the book. ///
PHILLIPA K. CHONG
IS A CULTURAL SOCIOLOGIST WHO SPECIALIZES IN HOW WE DEFINE AND EVALUATE WORTH. TO DATE, HER EMPIRICAL FOCUS HAS BEEN ON BOOK REVIEWERS AS MARKET INTERMEDIARIES IN THE CULTURAL MARKET. SHE HAS WRITTEN A BOOK ON THESE TOPICS, ENTITLED INSIDE THE CRITICS’ CIRCLE: BOOK REVIEWING IN UNCERTAIN TIMES, PUBLISHED BY PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. SHE WORKS AS AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR IN SOCIOLOGY AT MCMASTER UNIVERSITY. BEFORE ARRIVING AT HER CURRENT POST, SHE EARNED HER PHD IN SOCIOLOGY FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, AND WAS A POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW IN THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY.
The timing of the publication of Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World is either spectacular or terrible, given the COVID-19 crisis. In either case, a novel about a pandemic released during a pandemic is undeniably noteworthy. Nawaz’s second novel opens in August 2020 as a “bad flu” finds a foothold in New York City. From there, the story follows an array of characters as they react to rising infection rates, jumping back in time to explore how these different characters’ paths have crossed and what events brought them to their present situations. The virus in this novel, dubbed ARAMIS, has many similarities to COVID-19. It’s a novel coronavirus, highly contagious, and it attacks the respiratory system. Elliot, a police officer, witnesses many of the efforts meant to curb the spread of the virus—quarantining, adoption of masks, lockdowns—as he attempts to maintain order. So much of this mirrors what has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic that reading Songs for the End of the World can feel a bit eerie. It’s no wonder the publishers opted to include a note at the beginning of the book explaining that it was written between 2013 and 2019 and informed by past outbreaks and historical pandemics. Yet the fact that Nawaz is so accurate in her depiction of the virus and the medical and social responses to it highlights her impressive research and talent for synthesis. This talent is further demonstrated by the novel’s exploration of philosophy—ethics, legality, morality. Several of the characters are linked through the town of Lansdowne, where they attended or worked at a university. This academic background informs their actions during the pandemic and makes for some interesting passages of dialogue in which concepts like elite panic are explored.
The book demonstrates the limits of academic knowledge, or at least the difference between knowledge and action, too. Three characters are thrust into the media spotlight for their supposed expertise: Keisha, a doctor; Keelan, a philosophy professor; and Owen, a novelist. Each is featured in the media snippets that appear between chapters, where they share their knowledge via interviews or articles. But their roles in the greater narrative show their shortcomings. Keisha is on the front lines of pandemic response but unwittingly exacerbates racism by releasing a photo of the ARAMIS girl, an Asian woman who is blamed for spreading the virus due to being present at the restaurant where the first outbreak occurred. Keelan’s books about humanity during times of crisis decry acting out of fear, yet he ends up stockpiling supplies. Owen’s plague novel makes him a sort of survivalist messiah, yet his horde of online followers don’t fill the gap left by the relationship he destroyed through his own selfishness and philandering. Which brings me to my final point: Songs for the End of the World may be a pandemic novel, but at its heart it is about human connection. Individual characters demonstrate a longing to connect, especially amid crisis, while the story’s structure itself weaves their narratives and acts as an illustration of six degrees of separation—a concept all the more relevant with virus transmission on the mind. It is fascinating to uncover the relationship between seemingly disparate individuals—a police officer and a waitress, a famous musician and a cult-member-turned-mom, a novelist and a philosophy professor—and it is impressive that Nawaz is able to capture so many different views and voices, so much complexity, without losing the reader. Songs for the End of the World is worth attention for far more than the similarity between its premise and the global crisis during which it was published. Its shifting point of view and overlapping narratives demonstrate a masterful understanding of character.
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SONGS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD Saleema Nawaz (McClelland & Stewart) Reviewed by Emily Stewart
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RENDER Sachiko Murakami (Arsenal Pulp Press) Reviewed by vange schramek With roots in the French word rendre, to return, the verb render inhabits an interstitial space in the English language. Sachiko Murakami provides the full complement of possible definitions as the epigraph to her fourth collection of poetry, Render, which range from submission, as in “services rendered,” for example, through to transformation, as in her line “touring musicians have been rendered incapacitated by the economic effects of COVID-19,” while also maintaining its original meaning: to return or to repeat. Murakami’s Render harnesses the bound powers of this verb, moving beyond these cursory definitions to denote moments of conversion in chemistry as well as linguistic translation. Indeed, her collection renders her readers anew—unable to see or marshal this word without registering the entirety of its proliferations. Sometimes the weight of these myriad meanings shimmers softly, a drop shadow; at other times they are a halo of clunky luggage laden with etymological and psychic baggage. Such divisive metaphors clash aptly in the case of Murakami’s Render, where the speaker must navigate the day-to-day realities of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) as they creep up and through their new iterations: ones buoyed by hope and governed by recovery, and yet in debt—ever being forced to Give. Something. Back. As a member of the Kootenay School of Writing (KSW), MMurakami, in her earlier collections, The Invisibility Exhibit (2008), Rebuild (2011), and Get Me Out of Here (2015), mobilized a wry, direct speaker in lyric and sonnet forms that engage and accuse readers, enacting a core KSW tenet of social praxis. The three preceding collections were also constructed in relation to community, both analog and digital. Drafts of poems from The Invisibility Exhibit, for example, were previously shared with family and community members of disappeared and
murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (women taken as a result of serial killer Robert Pickton’s rampage of the late 1990s–early 2000s). Rebuild appeared with an accompanying online component, Project Rebuild, where readers can inhabit Murakami’s poems and rewrite them, challenging the notion that the poems we write belong to us and mirroring the conceptual premise of the Vancouver Special, an architectural style emblematic of immigrant neighbourhoods in Vancouver that are constantly being moved in and out of. Get Me Out of Here is composed of crowdsourced sonnets based off one-liners from people stuck in international airports struggling with being present in such transient and austere spaces. Murakami’s landmark socially conscious lyric and her impetus for communal creation take distinctive turns in Render. While a first-person speaker exists in the prior collections, the speaker in Render is focused inwards, in contrast to the externally accosting poems prescribed by the influence of the KSW. Render’s speaker is one facing the reality of maturing pains as they affect the personal, singular body and self: addiction, grief, and both intergenerational and generational traumas. Unlike the collaborative poetics of previous collections, Render folds in upon its singular speaker as they transit their own pasts and presents. For example, in the poem “Still, Here,” the speaker traverses the complexity of C-PTSD: “You enter every room / except the one with your name on it.” This “I,” this “you,” is one grappling with accepting the slippery time-space continuum of survival: the endless frustration of trying to just “get over it” and rejoin a sense of normalcy. Murakami’s speaker—and the plethora of us readers out there battling addictions and/or attempting to overcome the long-standing effects of abuse—see that normalcy gleaming mirage-like around others. It angers us, it evades us, it exasperates us. Murakami’s speaker forges on, trudging through sobriety and striving for emotional clarity toward a potential, unknown something on the other side. In the poem “Breather,” the speaker considers what’s on the other side of one’s “Bottom as in the end of doing harm. Bottom as in no further passage”—a potential answer arises only
YOU ARE EATING AN ORANGE. YOU ARE NAKED. Sheung-King (Book*hug Press) Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji In an interview with 49th Shelf, debut novelist SheungKing tells Kerry Clare that he grew up with dyslexia and had trouble reading as a child and that audiobooks helped him access stories. The narrative structure of speaking and listening is evident in Sheung-King’s You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. Throughout the novel, the male protagonist tells stories, creating the scaffolding of frame tales to weave an intertextual time-leaping tapestry that draws from Chinese folktales, the cinematic dreamscapes of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At first glance, Sheung-King’s book may seem to be a collection of stories because each chapter can stand alone, but the relationship between the unnamed couple develops and recurs throughout as they drift from Hong Kong to Macau, embarking on a contemporary, transnational odyssey of love. In the second chapter, titled “Kitchen God,” the narrator’s lover (unnamed and referred to as “you” throughout the book) listens to him tell a story about rice over Thai food. The narrator remembers his mother telling him about the Kitchen God, who made sure people didn’t waste food and that “food left in children’s bowls would appear as warts on the faces of their future spouses.” In response to this memory, the narrator acts: “I did not want my future spouse to grow warts. I only put a small amount of rice in my bowl.” Later, he contends with Japanese propaganda that posited: “Those who cook Japanese rice are the happiest.” And he confronts himself: “I am Chinese. I wondered what it meant for a Chinese person to eat Japanese rice.” Meaning and politics arrive through memory, relation, and food. Rice as a signifier is reclaimed and
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from a commitment to continuation: “You keep digging because you hope / there might be a glint of violence / that will tear you open the way / God tears some open.” These lines are simultaneously truth, hope, and incantation, akin to the AA Serenity Prayer the speaker riffs upon in this collection: “grant me the serenity to accept / the difference / between now and then.” Unlike the wide, deliberate net cast for crowdsourcing in Rebuild’s companion Project Rebuild and Get Me Out of Here, Render presents slow, private thought—thought accumulated on the long, oftentimes tedious personal journey of recovery. For a poet hitherto compelled by a social praxis, this inward departure may seem—from the outset—as a pivot toward inacessibility. And yet, such poems arrive at exactly the right time, as Murakami’s readership oscillates between the poles of community conviction and compounding private angst brought to the fore by the events of a global pandemic, a BIPOC revolution sparked by unthinkable carnage, plummeting economic projections, and a world-on-fire climate apocalypse. Though Murakami admits her process is to write “from after,”1 and not during, events, poems such as Render’s “The Internment” offer lines to live by as we dodge “Filial hunger, filial debt, filial panic disorder” and, though it is acutely painful, “Scrape until something bleeds.” Bloodshed here is laden and plodding but an eventual catharsis. In “The Exact Nature of My Wrongs,” the speaker “gather[s] the weight of her grief / and take[s] her to your bed, then / friend[s] her on Facebook and leave[s] her / to her walk of shame.” Such a stanza belies a crucial truth of this fourth collection and of an author-speaker reaching the breaking point of attempts to “fix” the outside world when the being’s own inner worlds no longer hold. This tension is epitomized by the necessary dose of self-care one requires or is able to afford oneself in a moment of profound collective breakdown. On airplanes the safety announcement’s automated message commands you to put on your own oxygen mask first; only once you are breathing can you attend to your community. Render is this poetic mask.
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cast aside: “… I was never proud of living in a post-colonial city. I needed to prove that my life was separate from the nation, and from rice.” Although the young narrator demands separateness in the context of identity, the novel insists on the opposite. In “Memory Piece: Macau,” the narrator and his lover visit his father’s homeland of Macau, where he riffs on the impossibility of the cliché It’s not you, it’s me: “That saying is so centred on humans. Maybe external things play a part in a relationship as well, you know? […] A person can’t be that far apart from his or her surroundings; we’re all part of this universe.” Sheung-King’s graceful wit and humorous ruminations on everyday life remind us of what fiction can do. Whether we turn to novels to escape from life or ease our loneliness, the best ones always let us know that even those closest to us are unknowable. SheungKing’s lovers know this. And they still go along for the ride, because what is life otherwise? You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is like Sally Rooney’s Normal People but for transnational millennials always on the move, at home nowhere and everywhere at once. A refreshing, innovative debut that isn’t afraid to challenge every trope we know— about life and fiction itself.
PHASES Belinda Betker (Coteau Books) Reviewed by Clea Roberts Belinda Betker’s debut poetry collection, Phases, is a significant contribution to LGBTQ2S+ literature. The collection explores the trials of a lifelong journey toward knowing—toward identity—and the wayfinding power of embracing the body’s sensual nature. The linear narrative of the poems in this collection spans a lifetime. The book is split into three distinct sections. The first section, Saros Cycle, features poems from childhood to young adulthood, where the speaker
experiences her first funeral, the onset of menses, miscarriage, domestic violence, and the dissolution of an abusive relationship. An awkward, sometimes shamefilled adolescence and early adulthood unfolds in this section of the book. The speaker emerges from the innocence of childhood to fall under the heavy gaze of others who notice her “buck teeth, and glasses, her blotchy skin” and how she walks “funny / once a month” due to bulky menstrual pads. The absence of love and intimacy haunts these poems. In time, the speaker finds herself in an abusive relationship and full of self-loathing: How foolish to speak out loud, forgetting to duck his fist, my ears ringing, eyes swelling, him shouting who’s the idiot now (“Bread”) And while many of the poems in the first section dwell on shame, a reader finds pockets of reprieve where a sense of self is trying to fledge. Within these pockets, the speaker seems to tentatively palpate the future for what it might hold. I could tie a double Windsor better than any of them— with or without a mirror on myself, or someone else— my talent for knots and entanglements. (“Tied Right”) In the second section, Grazing Occultation, the speaker recounts the beginning and end of a second marriage (also abusive), the grief and depression that follows a hysterectomy, and reconnecting with the body after physical and emotional trauma. The poems in this section begin to push away from the form of the stand-alone lyric poem. “Marriage Counseling (He Said, I Said)” recreates a pivotal moment between the speaker and her husband during therapy, which is
Full moon so large, so close outside my back door. I lift my arms, stretch my hands to its radiance— ten moons rise from my nail beds. … I slide my hands over bare breasts to scarred belly and lower— the quickening inside. “Orbital Eccentricity” is the third and final section of Phases. The speaker, having acknowledged that “[u]nravelling has its purpose.” now sets out to
weave herself a new life, a new way of living in the world. These poems rejoice in moving “beyond childhood / closer to my truth.” In the poem “Coming Out” the speaker tells a friend she has “met someone—a woman.” This poem is dynamic in how it compresses moments of silence (“September trees spill fire over water— / reflections waver”) with moments of robust laughter: Finally you say but we can still be friends right? I stop in my tracks. Yes, absolutely—I don’t like you like THAT and after laughter you ask which one of you plays the man? I recall that classic routine— who’s on first what’s on second I don’t know’s on third— but now I’m playing the outfield. Ultimately, it’s this rejection of heteronormativity, of deciding she is “playing / the outfield” and embracing drag that brings the speaker fully into selfactualization. The poems in the third section of Phases complete the collection’s satisfying arc in which the speaker moves from a place of shame and fear to a place of self-acceptance and strength. The poems in Belinda Betker’s debut collection lean intimately into moments of great vulnerability and great strength. As a reader, I am grateful for the discrete and sustained attention she has brought to each poem, breathing through the pain toward a “place of knowing.” ///
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intensified by the use of a script-like format. “Understanding Hysterectomy” creates a multi-layered understanding of a complex procedure by using a series of linked poems. The long-poem format suits the subject matter, as each poem provides a different window on the speaker’s experience. In these poems, and others, I admire Betker’s flexibility and experiments with form in order to find the right vessel for her poetry. Moon imagery is pervasive throughout Phases. The section titles are astronomical terms associated with the moon. The moon is ever-present witness to the speaker’s darkest and most luminous moments. After filling her pockets with “cold smooth stones” and walking out on thin ice, the speaker sees the “faraway moon shiver / beyond fish gleam / and airplane glint.” When she emerges from the fog of depression and reclaims her imperfect yet sensual body in “Perigee Syzygy” (the poem title taken from the astronomical term for a supermoon), the speaker becomes the earthly manifestation of the moon:
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CONTRIBUTORS NOTE: This issue, we sadly say goodbye to our reviews editor Neil Price but thank him for his excellent work over these last few issues. We’d also like to welcome Kelly Harness (fiction) and Cole Swanson (art) to the team! Two new voices whose influences are already imprinted in these very pages.
EVA CROCKER is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her short-story collection Barreling Forward was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers and won the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction and the CAA Emerging Writer Award. Her debut novel, All I Ask, was long-listed for the 2020 Giller Prize. PETE GIBBON is a Canadian poet and educator. His chapbooks include Eating Thistles (Apt. 9 Press, 2010) and Conditionals (bird, buried press, 2016). He currently resides in Toronto. YOLANDE HOUSE’s creative writing has appeared in literary magazines such as the Rumpus, Grain, PRISM international, and Joyland. Her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018,” and she was a finalist for an issue of Creative Nonfiction. She can be found online at www.yolandehouse.com, Instagram (@healthruwriting), and Twitter (@herstorian). Currently, she’s revising a childhood memoir. LIZ JOHNSTON lives and writes in Toronto. Her stories have appeared in Grain, the Antigonish Review, the Nashwaak Review, QWERTY, Confingo, and the Cardiff Review, among other publications, and she is an editor of the international literary magazine Brick. HAJERA KHAJA’s fiction has appeared in Joyland, TOK Magazine, and The Journey Prize Stories. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario, and is currently working on a short-story collection.
SUSAN OLDING is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays and Big Reader, forthcoming in Spring 2021. Her writing has won a National Magazine Award and has appeared widely in literary journals as well as in anthologies, including Best Canadian Essays 2016 and In Fine Form, 2nd Edition. TOLU OLORUNTOBA, born in Ibadan, Nigeria, is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium, and The Junta of Happenstance, a fulllength collection of poetry forthcoming from Anstruther Books in spring 2021. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Obsidian, Under a Warm Green Linden, This Magazine, TERSE Journal, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Surrey, BC. MARGARET NOWACZYK is a pediatric clinical geneticist. She has published two books on genealogy and genetics in Poland. Her memoir about working in the medical profession is due out in 2021 with Wolsak & Wynn. She lives in Hamilton. STACY PENNER lives and writes in Vancouver, BC, where she is an MFA candidate in creative writing at UBC. Her work is published in Litro Online, ryga, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. She is writing her first novel. SHAZIA HAFIZ RAMJI is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, Maisonneuve, Gutter (UK), and has been shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize for International Creative Writing (UK). Her poetry and prose have both been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes. She is at work on a novel.
CLEA ROBERTS lives on the outskirts of Whitehorse, Yukon, with her husband and two children. Her poetry has been translated and published internationally and has been nominated for the League of Canadian Poets Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the ReLit Award, and a National Magazine Award. She has received fellowships from the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Atlantic Centre for the Arts, Vermont Studio Centre, and is a five-time recipient of the Yukon Advanced Artist Award. LUKE SAWCZAK is a teacher on the outskirts of Toronto. He frequently does freelance editing, self-publishing, course development, and web development. He loves to learn languages and compose for the piano. You can find him online at sawczak.com. VANGE SCHRAMEK is a writer and activist with essays, articles, and reviews published in Canadian Literature, the Puritan, Fashion Studies, and the Martlet and poems published in Grain Magazine and the chapbook Poems from the Round Room (Massey College Press). She is pursuing a PhD in Communications, New Media & Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. LORI SEBASTIANUTTI is a writer and teacher from Stoney Creek, Ontario. She is the former managing editor
of the Fertility Matters Canada blog. Her essays have appeared in the Hamilton Review of Books and are forthcoming in the New Quarterly. You can read more of her work at lorisebastianutti.com. EMILY STEWART has written reviews for Women Write About Comics and Arc Poetry Magazine, where she is now the reviews editor. CATRIONA WRIGHT is the author of the poetry collection Table Manners (Véhicule Press, 2017) and the short-story collection Difficult People (Nightwood Editions, 2018). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, the Walrus, the Fiddlehead, and Lemon Hound, and they have been anthologized in The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry and in The Best Canadian Poetry 2015 and 2018. NATHAN WHITLOCK is the author of two novels, most recently Congratulations on Everything. He teaches publishing and communications at Humber College. ///
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ZALIKA REID-BENTA is a Toronto-based writer. Her debut short-story collection, Frying Plantain, won the 23rd annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award, recognizing the best first collection of short fiction. Frying Plantain also won the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in literary fiction, was shortlisted for the 2020 Trillium and Toronto Book Awards, long-listed for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and nominated for the 2020 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award. Zalika is also the winner of the 2019 ByBlacks.com People’s Choice Award for Best Author.
HOWIE TSUI // 64
HOWIE TSUI H
OWIE TSUI EMPLOYS A VARIETY OF MEDIA to construct tense, fictive environments that subvert canonized art forms often from the Chinese literati tradition. Tsui synthesizes diverging socio-cultural anxieties around superstition, trauma, and otherness through an outsider lens to advocate for diasporic perpectives. His recent projects, Retainers of Anarchy and Parallax Chambers, examine mouhap as a narrative tool for dissent. A traditional form of literature, mouhap is a genre of fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists—often from lower social classes—as they uphold chivalric ideals against oppressive forces, amidst social turmoil. Banned in China (1920-70) for supernatural themes and its potential for arousing anti-government sentiment, exiled practitioners proliferated the form in Hong Kong.
Howie Tsui (b. 1978 in Hong Kong and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and Thunder Bay) currently lives and works on the traditional territory of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Nations (Vancouver). Recent solo exhibitions include the Power Plant Contemporary Art Museum, Toronto (2020); the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida (2020); Burrard Arts Foundation, Vancouver (2020); Ottawa Art Gallery (2019); OCAT Museum, Xi’an, China (2018); and Vancouver Art Gallery (2017). Select group exhibitions include Patel Brown, Toronto (2020); Asia Now, Paris (2019); Ottawa Art Gallery (2018); Art Labor, Shanghai (2015); Dalhousie Art Gallery, Nova Scotia (2015); Para Site, Hong Kong (2014); National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2014); and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (2012). Tsui received Canada Council’s Joseph Stauffer Prize in 2005 and was long-listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2018. He holds a BFA (2002) from the University of Waterloo. ///
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