To have and to hold (or not): Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig

I’ll admit it, I’d never heard of Canadian author Helen Weinzweig until I stumbled across her 1973 debut novel and, intrigued by its premise and its fragmentary form, decided that I had to bring it home. Before long, her name began to appear in my literary network with the American release of her second, and only other novel, Basic Black with Pearls from NYRB Classics last month, so I figured it was time to have a closer look at Passing Ceremony. The “Introduction and Memoir” by James Polk that opens the book had me wondering how her name had escaped me so long.

Polk, who was the editorial director at House of Anansi Press for many years, recalls how, in 1971, when the publishing house was still located in a less than glamourous part of Toronto, he received a large Birks jewelry box tied with a ribbon and addressed to “Editor.” Inside he found a stack of perfectly typed papers and a note instructing him to toss the pages in the air and arrange them as they fell. He could not quite imagine a market for such “chance” fiction in the current  Canadian literary marketplace, but as he scanned the fragments he soon found himself engrossed. It would become the first book he edited. (It was organized into and exists as a bound volume.) But if the initial packaging of the text surprised him, so did its author. Weinzweig, when she arrived to meet him, turned out to be a well-dressed woman, over fifty—“smart, wise, and funny” and well-read in everything from Beckett to Conrad, but harbouring a special affection for the French nouveau roman. She had, at this point, been publishing stories for several years, starting in 1967, when she was already fifty-two.

“One of the drawbacks of staring when you’re older is you know what good writing is, and you know you can’t do it,” she told the Globe in 1990. But she could do it. Everything she submitted to the magazines got published, in those mythic days when short stories had markets and commercial currency, though her age and gender bothered the critics. How could a nice Jewish housewife and mother seriously try writing, a man’s game, especially when she was so clearly over the hill?

Her style was startling and original, but sadly, after two novels and a collection of short stories, Weinzweig’s creative life would be cut short by either early onset dementia or a series of small strokes. Although she went on to live to the age of ninety-four, her short window of literary productivity makes her work that much more precious.

And so to Passing Ceremony.

What is played out through a series of fragments, is a most unusual wedding in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto. The bride has a promiscuous past that no white dress will allow her to put behind her, and the groom is a closeted gay man abandoned by his lover. The estranged father of the bride arrives from Mexico with his young wife and baby, while his ex-wife is a sobbing puddle of shame throughout her daughter’s “big day.” The cast of assorted upper-class guests display an array of dysfunctional, often unpleasant, even suspect behaviours, thoughts, and obsessions. The reader swirls through the event, never quite catching enough to put all the pieces together, but gathering more than enough to know this is not a happy event.

The novel opens with a short monologue, the groom addressing his dead sister, admonishing her for missing, by her suicide, the act of sacrificial desperation that is about to unfold:

. . . if you could see me now: with this ring I thee wed and I will not fail you in sickness and in health as all the others did. Abandoned yet haunted by all of you, every night a nightmare of vanished faces. I take her, take thee, a small life, to have and to hold against my impossible longing.

Page after page, through a series of vignettes that range from  a short paragraph to a few pages in length, the reader eavesdrops on conversations, slips in and out of consciousnesses, and observes actions from a distance. Characters may or may not be identified. Perspective and style  shifts throughout. It is akin to being the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, and more. The assembled guests are generally an unpleasant, sometimes unsavoury, and occasionally tragic lot. If a wedding is, ideally, a celebration of love, this event—with a match as mutual means of escape at the centre—is more readily an evocation of the betrayal and failure of love. Yet there is also something so very human, and affecting, in the various confessions and mini-dramas being played out over the course of the evening:

How can I forgive you for what I will never know again. On your knees you promised. Those endless kisses. I was drugged like any addict. Enveloped in your languor. Aware of nothing but your whispers in the night. Now I’m thrust into the light and my eyes hurt from the glare. I do not wish your happiness. After all. It suits me to appear drunk.

The fragments that comprise this strangely engaging novel hint at the anger, humiliation, and false pride nursed by the assorted guests and family members present.

Helen Weinzweig, who was the wife of famed Canadian composer James Weinzweig, was no stranger to the well-heeled society she brings to life in her fiction. She captures the nuances of conversation—insinuations, veiled compliments and threats—in pitch-perfect tones:

—That’s the man, the doctor. His wife is supposed to die on the 30th.
—What’s today?
—The 18th.
—What if she doesn’t?
—Oh, but she will, he is a doctor.
—Suppose she rallies, they sometimes do, you know.
—Impossible—they say he treats his rats badly.
—Which one is his wife?
—The one with the sores.
—Did you know her when she was alive?
—Yes, she is a pretty little thing, rather pathetic, always begging you to like her.
—Beggars can’t be choosers.
—Doesn’t she know that?
—Apparently not, or she would have chosen life.

Much of what we hear or observe is deeply disturbing. Furtive confrontations suggest that more nefarious activities are at play. It is a dark satire in which the hapless couple at the centre—the fallen woman and her gay groom—are the most sympathetic, and unfortunate, of all the characters gathered for this unconventional and surreal passing ceremony. All that I know is that I am glad (and relieved) that I was able to attend vicariously.

Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig is published by House of Anansi Press.

Seeking redemption underwater: Blue Field by Elise Levine—My Rusty Toque review

November is destined to go out as it came in, with a link to a review published elsewhere—in this case, my thoughts on Elise Levine’s Blue Field which appears in the latest issue of The Rusty Toque. This is a book that I heard about when it was released earlier this year, and I was immediately intrigued. However, when I finally sat down to read it, having already committed myself to a review, my first impression was that this was not going to be for me. The first few chapters put me off a little, that is, they led me to think I would find Blue Field difficult to assess fairly. I don’t believe that one should avoid negative reviews, but I feel that, if appropriate, they should be constructive, and if a book simply is not to your taste, it’s very difficult to make any judgement about it one way or another. As John Updike said, and I am paraphrasing, you should not accept for a review a book you are predisposed to dislike or obligated to like.

Then I turned to the promotional materials that came with my review copy. Biblioasis, bless them, frequently include an interview with the author or translator and, with an opportunity to learn more about  Levine, her writing process and interests, I was so impressed that I decided to give her book a second chance. Perhaps because it is somewhat different than the type of book I’ve read lately, I found myself caught off guard by this tale of a woman who takes up cave diving in an effort to find healing after her life has been upended. She is not particularly likable, increasingly reckless, and trapped in an vortex of loss and grief that could cost her everything she has. However, the prose—vivid, pulsating with energy, alternately harsh and shockingly poetic—is finely tuned and relentless in its intensity. Won me over.

Blue Field by Elise Levine is published by Biblioasis.

To find out more, I invite you to check out my review at The Rusty Toque. And while you’re there check out some of the other excellent features in this issue.

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.

Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.