Reflections on the challenge of writing the self, and a link to my essay at RIC Journal

I was lonely child and adolescent. I lived in a rural area, outside a small, but growing, city. There were no children my age in my neighbourhood, and although I had two younger brothers, I spent countless hours alone. A misfit of sorts, I found comfort in the world of words, spending hours reading and writing stories and poems. It was a way of imagining myself elsewhere, fashioning a time or place that I might fit into. However, as I neared my late teens, I became increasingly aware of an inability to inhabit, in reality or in my imagination, the kind of person I wanted to be.

If I couldn’t find my own voice, how could I grant a voice to characters?

So I stopped writing, hopeful that with a little more experience, I would have more to draw from. Gather stories to build on. Live a little first.

But I had no idea how strange and complicated my life would become, so monstrous, too untidy to reduce to words. Ultimately I found my way out of one fiction—the one I was living trying to be the gendered person I was born—and constructed another fiction around myself so that I could exit with some semblance of an ordinary, coherent history.

And then, when my re-orchestrated life was blown apart a few years ago, I was determined that I could no longer afford to hide. Nor could I continue to put off writing. But by then, the only story I had to tell was not the stuff of fantasy or imagination. It was my own. Raw and simple.

For a while I clung to the idea that the only way I could talk about myself was to create a character to carry the weight, bare the secrets, share the pain I was not prepared to own. But every word I wrote circled right back to me. And sounded forced, hollow, and false.

It took me a while to come to a level of comfort with the idea of writing work that I still often refer to as memoirish. I consider everything I write—no matter what form it takes at the end—to be nonfiction because it originates from my experience. But if asked, I simply say I write essay/memoir. I write of the self. On the one hand, I am always afforded a subject. But on the other, it is the most dangerous, difficult, and draining form of writing to do well. Boundaries are critical. The challenge is to touch on the essential and temper the detail.

Because all of my work comes back, in the end, to a lifetime disconnect between body and identity that has shifted but never resolved, I tread a very fine line indeed.

Two days ago, my most recent personal essay was published at RIC Journal. It is a meditation on photography, the body, Barthes, and grief. I wrote it in January for a specific publication and panicked. It was too raw. I didn’t know if it was finished or meant to go further. The thought that it might be part of something larger terrified me. So I put it away.

A few months ago, with my renewed intention to work once again toward a larger memoir project, I pulled it out. With a little distance, I saw it as is complete if rather unclassifiable. Now it is out in the world, another step forward in the ongoing process of writing myself into being.

This piece had no title when I sent it to Saudamini Deo at RIC Journal. As it is presented the first line of the epigraph—my favourite quote from Barthes’ Mourning Diary—has become the title. And it feels perfect.

My essay, “I am either lacerated or ill at ease,” with my own original photographs, can be found here.

Update: Not much writing yet, but there’s always tomorrow. Right?

The calendar may say otherwise, but with the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the past week, autumn seems to be no more than a hazy memory. More than one month into my year of writing fearlessly, precious little Writing has taken place. But’s been a positive, inspiring time all the same.

My city’s annual readers’ festival, Wordfest, was held in mid-October and this year I volunteered as a driver for the first time. What a fantastic way to meet and engage with authors! Whether I was driving children’s authors out to school events, or picking a New Yorker columnist up from the airport, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that arose. The programming was impressive as well, including a strong representation of Indigenous writers. But my personal highlight, without question, was the magnificent M NourbeSe Philip. I had three opportunities to talk to this most remarkable woman—a Caribbean-born Canadian poet, writer, playwright, and former lawyer—at some depth. We talked about poetry, writing, and our adult children. She was generous and supportive, especially when I shared with her the nature of my writing about the body. And her performance of excerpts from her seminal, experimental poem Zong! was one of the most powerful readings I have ever attended.

Since the festival ended, I’ve been busy. I worked during our municipal election—an absolute nightmare—we are one of the last paper ballot hold outs, turnout was unexpectedly high, and by midnight during the third recount I found that I was completely incapable of counting to fifty! Add feline dental surgery, writing reviews, editing, and a public speaking engagement (on the intersection of faith and my queer identity, in case you’re curious, a rather uncertain junction to be fair), I have found it difficult to carve out a creative space of my own. But, it’s all good. I even had the opportunity, earlier this week, to attend a book launch for fellow Albertan and Twitter compadre, Steve Passey. To be honest, I went to heckle him, but he’d stacked the house with his friends and family so I decided to be polite. (Just kidding, of course, it was a great night—with wine and cupcakes, what more could you want!)

But, in the midst of all this, the most unexpected and welcome surprise came in the form of an invitation to join 3:AM Magazine as Criticism/Nonfiction Editor. There was a time when just publishing something at 3:AM seemed an impossible dream, and my first effort appeared after the most brutal editing experience—one that almost caused a me to have writerly crisis of faith. I had over-read and over-written a complex postmodern novel. However, I learned so much from the process of working it into shape and I was, in the end, very proud of the result. I firmly believe that being edited myself, editing for The Scofield, and the workshops and training I’ve taken along the way, have all helped make me a stronger writer. And it’s an excellent way to encounter great writers, engage with exciting writing, and help bring it to the attention of others. I look forward to being part of the 3:AM team, I expect it to be both rewarding and inspiring.

So now, to attend to writing. With winter making its presence felt early, it seems the ideal time to settle down and get to work.

Lost in time with Wolfgang Hilbig: A link to my TQC review of Old Rendering Plant

It is easy to become lost in the dense and convoluted narrative Wolfgang Hilbig unspools in Old Rendering Plant, the most recent translation of his work to reach English audiences. This slight novella invites the reader to wander, with the narrator, through the fields and along the pungent waterways that extend beyond his small East German town. As he rambles on, caught up in his memories of the past and hopes for the future, it’s easy to get swept up—and find oneself disoriented—amidst the industrial ruins where he is forced to confront the dark echoes of recent history and the expectations of the socialist state. It may be, especially for those unfamiliar with Hilbig’s idiosyncratic, stuttering prose, a little unsettling at first, but if one is willing to forego linear narrative expectations, an unforgettable, immersive, atmospheric reading experience awaits.

I read this book last summer to write a review for The Quarterly Conversation. In fact, I probably read it three times over to be able to read and articulate an opening into the narrative, but every time my appreciation of this moody, filmic text increased. As a critic, I derive the most satisfaction from writing about complex, unconventional narratives. My goal is not to give a definitive reading, but to explore the possibilities and questions offered by a piece of literature, while leaving a reader to find his or her own answers (or further questions, as the case may be). It was a sheer joy to write about this book.

Old Rendering Plant, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, will be released next week (November 7) by Two Lines Press. My review from the Fall 2017 Issue of The Quarterly Conversation can be found here.

Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

Lanterns buried: Injun by Jordan Abel

From the mid-60s through the mid-70s, I attended a small rural school west of Calgary, Alberta in western Canada. Treaty 7 land, though no one called it that. Children were bussed in from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation (though no one called it that either). The majority would not last beyond grade 5. This was the era of the Sixties Scoop when children were pulled from their homes and placed in foster care, and the wounds of the Residential School System (which was still in operation) ran deep. All we knew was that our friends disappeared one by one. And what did we know of the Indigenous populations of our region? Nothing. In school, when it came time to learn about “Indians,” we studied the Iroquois. The “people of the longhouse” are, let’s say for the sake of argument, about 3,000 kilometres off target.

I am also old enough to remember watching old Western movies and reruns of The Lone Ranger on TV on Saturday afternoons, and to have played “cowboys and Indians” without a second thought. Yet wise enough that, several decades later, when I took my own children to the library to see a screening of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, I was absolutely ashamed and horrified by the depiction of the native characters in the film. I had a long talk with the kids afterward, insisting that it was not acceptable to entertain those offensive stereotypes under any circumstances. But it is only in recent years that the full force of the need to address the impact of colonialism at home and elsewhere has really started to settle into my consciousness in a profound way.

My most important role now is to listen.

One of the most exciting young Indigenous voices here in Canada today belongs to Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. His book Injun, the winner of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize is a vital examination of racism and the language of hate. However, for anyone anticipating conventional verse, that expectation is quickly undone in this inventive exercise to reclaim a dehumanizing and insulting slur and undermine the mythology of the West that still holds a romantic appeal. The decorations and themes of the annual Calgary Stampede in my hometown may have been toned down and “corrected,” but the subtext of the spectacle is still intact.

Abel’s work stands, as a reflection of his academic study, at the intersection of the Digital Humanities and Indigenous Literary Studies. He mines documents in the public domain to create what might be imagined as a “revisioned” literature. His third collection, Injun, is a powerful and necessary project of reclamation in the face of a long history of racism, an inventive exercise in decolonial poetics that takes as its initial source material 91 western novels. Using Control+F, he searched these texts for the word “injun” and came up with 509 results.  As he explains:

After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five- word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would arrange a page until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.

I am aware that many are apprehensive about poetry at its most conventional. They may be wondering what it is like to enter into the territory claimed by Injun. The 26-part title poem, “Injun” runs from strangely lyrical couplets, to the increasingly disjointed and abstracted, and back again to verses formed with fragmented, wounded words. Roughly two thirds of the way through, at its most dispersed, the text flips over and the final sections are read upside down. The format, in itself, speaks to the legacy of colonialism: peoples disrupted, dispersed, almost destroyed, slowly healing. It is not “easy” to read, nor should it be. But is not as difficult or inaccessible as it may sound. Part c), for example, reads:

Some fearful heap
some crooked swell

bent towards him
and produced a pair

of nickel-plated pullers
a bull winder of

dirty tenderness*
that stiffened into

that low-brow ice
that dead injun game

Later, section u) begins:

             th e  d ayki     cksup
lik         e a pa  ck of wo       lves
o              n the         c     ut

    bu   zza            rds
ar     efin              e b     irds
th       at a   refo           ol    ed
b      y m    y    re           dsk   in*
sc  ent

The poem is followed by “Notes.” In this part, faded fragments of sentences containing words marked by numbered notation in the preceding poem (asterisks here, i.e. tenderness, redskin) are aligned by the specific word in bold print, offering an interesting indication of context. As one might expect, a selection of passages containing words like warpath, squaw, or scalped, leave an ugly taste in the mouth.

The final part, “Appendix” is effectively an extended prose piece, created, I presume, by running through the stream of sentences harvested from the source material and digitally erasing every occurrence of i-n-j-u-n. Thus, the very texts that have arisen from and perpetuated a white mythology of the Wild West, are sifted and distilled to create a condensed narrative that is difficult to read without flinching. There is a delicious irony in the repurposing of this material in this way. But the blank spaces solve nothing. They only serve to render visible the ugliness of hatred and racism, and the resulting erasure and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of language from this “canon” of Western pulp fiction, becomes a sharp commentary on appropriation and how it functions as an instrument of colonialism.

An important and experimentally powerful work, Injun is much more than an exercise in abstraction and recombination. It is a defiant act of reclamation, another step toward the recovery of identity. Nonetheless, it is also a commanding example of the ability of digital tools to assist in the creation of literature.

To that final note, the methodology employed here holds particular interest to me with respect to a project I’m working on to honour my father using material salvaged from his Russian literature collection, the translations of which are almost certainly in the public domain. I wish I had been paying more attention to the Canadian poetry scene before I met Jordan Abel a few weeks ago here at Wordfest. I knew he had won a major award and we talked about writing and poetry as I drove him from the hotel to the venue and back for a sound check, but had I been more familiar with his work beforehand I would have engaged in a serious discussion of technique! All the same, he is a great guy, and an exciting talent to watch.

And then I turned back: The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

Breathing heavily, with fat drops of sweat sliding down my face and chest, I thought of how you are never more authentic than when inside your own nightmares.

I almost hesitate to write about The Iliac Crest. I feel that to tread too carelessly into the heart of this enigmatic dark fable would be risk fracturing its utterly devastating beauty. One may be best to enter its world of shifting borders where space, time, reality, fantasy, sanity, madness, identity, and gender are bent, blurred and ever so steadily unraveled without any preconceptions. Not that there is a viable bread crumb trail that could be followed to ensure Absolute Understanding. But it may be best to let the narrator be your guide, or rather to accompany him as his self-contained, apathetic existence is disturbed and distorted.

The novel is set in an undefined time, in an isolated borderland on the coast between North City and South City.  To travel in either direction requires passing through heavily policed border checkpoints. Disappearance is contagious and faith in feminism is a faded notion—sexist attitudes toward women limit their roles in society. The image is a jarring one, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and decline is prevalent, nowhere more so than in the state hospital where the narrator works as a doctor tending to the destitute, wretched, and deranged who have come there to die.

A note from the author, Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, that opens the book provides some context. Navigating the US-Mexico border has been a constant in her life and this is reflected in the role that the idea of borders, geopolitical and otherwise, plays in this work. Many borders are challenged here, not least of which is the line between male and female. The consequences of rigid gender roles and the silencing of women’s lives and voices is a central concern in the story she has to tell. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” she says. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” As a reader with a gender different history myself, that question haunted me from the outset.

The narrative begins on the classic dark and stormy night, when a stranger appears seeking shelter. She introduces herself as Amparo Dávila. The narrator is instantly captivated by her striking appearance and her expansive presence. But she frightens him. Several hours later, the woman he had been expecting, a former lover referred to only as The Betrayed, arrives and immediately collapses on the threshold. Before long, the women have installed themselves in his home, disrupting his solitary life. While The Betrayed convalesces, Amparo Dávila sets up a daily routine which includes sitting down to write in a notebook. She informs him that she was once a great writer. Now she is writing about her “disappearance” and she believes he can help her.

The narrator is skeptical. He doesn’t trust his unwelcome houseguest. She claims to know truths about him that confuse and unnerve him. And as the Betrayed recovers, he is horrified to discover that they share strange language that is unlike any he has ever encountered. The more he tries to get to the truth behind the identity of The Disappeared as he comes to call the so-called writer, the more he finds himself balancing on the uncertain edge of reality. His emotions swing between desire and anger and fear. He finds himself alienated and isolated. At one point he remarks: “I felt as if I were in a parenthesis in a sentence in an unknown language.”

Certain images and expressions are repeated, like refrains that echo throughout the text, creating an incantatory quality, enhancing the increasingly unsettling mood. The clarity with which the narrator appears to begin his account is steadily eroded until he can no longer trust his own sensations. As the line between truth and lies is obfuscated, the narrative grows chillingly opaque. But the tone remains measured, the language hauntingly beautiful.

I have resisted delving too far into the sequence of events that unfold—real, remembered or imagined—because I feel this is a book best experienced without too much plot detail in advance. But I cannot resist a longer quote that captures the sheer beauty of the prose:

Hurried and intense brushes, a proximity that, out of so much fear, smelled of sweat and adrenaline. Everything, however, would return to normal with a kiss. Usually it was just that: a kiss. One. Lips together. Saliva. Time turned flesh, color. A long kiss, like an expedition. After, just after that, the separation began. The beginning. This. This walk like someone wearing shackles around their ankles, this sensation of the body against air in an age-old battle, this weariness, this desolation. What do I know about the great wings of love? The pelicans appeared again almost overhead, but much higher. I paused to watch them for a couple of minutes. Silence. Air. Time. I imagined them fleeing from their own wings and, in that moment, I raised my finger to my lips, trying to detect traces of something felt from far off in time. Yes, indeed, you turn back. And turning back achieves nothing.

I confess I finished this book breathless. Anxious even. Although I knew that Amparo Dávila, the author at the centre of the mystery, is a real woman—a Mexican writer whose own work often treads the uneasy borders between the real and the uncanny—I decided not to search her until I had finished reading the novel. I was pleased to find an article in the Paris Review online and one of her short stories in the Winter 2017 print issue. Originally published in Spanish in 2002, The Iliac Crest has helped rekindle interest in Dávila who is now in her late 80s. Christina Rivera Garza captures her spirit, but in a mesmerizing, wholly original tale that is perhaps more timely than ever.

The Illiac Crest is translated by Sarah Booker who also provides valuable insights in her Translator’s Note. The publisher is Feminist Press.

Note: Since posting this, translator Sarah Booker has kindly shared links to two other Dávila stories she has translated: “Griselda” and “The Square Patio”  The latter, in particular, has strong resonances in The Iliac Crest.

Where truth lies: A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro

When an author is lauded as a “relentless innovator” and a “meticulous explorer of the psyche’s most obscure alleyways,” it is easy to be skeptical. Those are strong endorsements, and a reader who enjoys a literary challenge knows well that a publisher’s promotional copy can be laced with hyperbole that often falls short of the mark. Yet, Spanish writer Elvira Navarro lives up to her billing with  A Working Woman, newly released from Two Lines Press, one of the most peculiar novels I have read in a long time. Its strangeness is subtle, the tone is ever so slightly off, the structure unconventional, and the narrator’s account inconsistent. The opening section is unsettling, even off-putting, but sets the groundwork for an oddly metafictional tale that unwinds (unravels?) slowly to end with a coda that places the purpose and nature of the entire preceding narrative into question.

It is an uncomfortable book. A rare and original look at the complex dynamics of female companionship, the bonds and distortions of madness, and the desire to find and define oneself, creatively and personally.

Set in Madrid, during in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, Elisia is a proofreader with one novel, an MA in Publishing and an unfinished PhD behind her. She is one of the working wounded, so to speak.  She is lucky to have a job, but it has, over time, been reduced from a series of temporary placements to uncertain independent contract work for a publisher woefully behind with payments. She has already moved from an centrally located apartment to the barrio of Aluche in the southwest part of the city. As her financial circumstances become ever more precarious, she is faced with the prospect of renting her flat’s small second bedroom. When her friend Germán sets her up with Susana she does not know what to expect:

It was twelve thirty when she arrived. She wasn’t as I’d hoped, short and plump like a Hispanic mother, but the Nordic type: tall, blond, horsey, with a complexion the colour of something like raw silk. She was squeezed into a brown coat that came down to her ankles, and had a showy beige scarf around her neck. On her head was a green hat, with a swirl on one side like a flower. Weighed down by so much wool, she could hardly move, and her cheeks briefly glowed with two, perfect rosy circles. She was a bit ridiculous, particularly due to something that seemed to have its source in her nose, which, from the instant she crossed the threshold, appeared unpleasantly alert for any smell, the nostrils flared and quivering. It was such an eloquent gesture that, if I hadn’t previously committed it myself, I would never have considered accepting her as a roommate, and nor would she have taken the tiny room.

Their strained friendship sits at the core of A Working Woman. It is a relationship that seems, for the most part, to occupy an awkward space in the apartment, and in Elisia’s troubled imagination.  She exaggerates Susana’s impressive Amazonian dimensions, and finds her elusive nature—her tendency to at once take over the shared rooms with her belongings but share little about her past or her daily life—disconcerting.

However, by the time Susana crosses Elisia’s threshold for the first time in the narrative, we have already been treated, no exposed, to a graphic portrait of the woman she was twenty years earlier when, in a period of marked mental instability, she took a gay dwarf lover to meet her particular sexual needs. The novel opens with what we are told is a story based on what Susana told Elisia about her madness. “I’ve added some of my own reactions,” she tells us, setting her own words apart in italics, “but to be honest they are very few. It goes without saying her narrative was more chaotic.” For nearly forty pages, the narrator records a bizarre tale of sexual obsession. It’s easy for a reader to wonder what they’ve signed up for. Later on, one begins to suspect, that the entire set up says more about Elisia than whoever Susana may be (or may have been). Especially as she begins to develop symptoms of mental illness herself and is forced into seeking treatment. The layers of madness and sanity overlap with metafictional questions of narrative intent.

A Working Woman is imbued with an intense restlessness and anxiety that extends beyond the characters’ own uncertainties into the world around them. The narrative excavates the raw edges of Madrid where the economic downturn has left its mark. Empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, construction projects halted midstream. Elisia’s nocturnal wanderings through the streets of her neighbourhood is refracted in the countless city maps her roommate constructs out of tiny magazine clippings. But the two women are ultimately on different trajectories in life. Their worlds collide, but their connection, mediated through Elisia’s oddly unbalanced narrative, is neither warm nor natural. It is not even clear that Susana, or at least Susana as presented, exists beyond the narrator’s literary aspirations—or her own delusions.

Confusing? Yes and no. Navarro’s language is direct and compelling. She creates vivid multidimensional physical and psychological landscapes. Her ability to evoke, through her narrator’s breakdown, the sensation of losing the ability to cling to reality is especially powerful, and one I recognize well from my own experiences:

I managed to alight from the bus—there was still no ground under my feet, and I had to support myself against the buildings. Then I sat down in a doorway and stayed there for I don’t know how long, until my sense of touch returned. It occurred to me that I was crazy. I formulated this thought ten, twenty times. Movement was painful. The lacerating rumble of traffic. The tense, high-pitched voices of friends chatting in doorways. The people walking behind me. Their breathing, their bodies, were too close. I was intolerable even to myself, wanted to tear my body to pieces.

From its unusual, attention-grabbing beginning to the curious short chapter that ends (or upends) the book, to read A Working Woman is to enter an altered hyper-reality, a place filled with strange, yet strangely recognizable, figures who leave you wondering where truth lies, and where stories within stories begin, and end.

A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro is translated by Christina MacSweeney and published by Two Lines Press.