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.

Immigrant tales with a difference: Tumbleweed by Josip Novakovich—My Rusty Toque review

On Canada Day it seems appropriate to call attention to a collection of stories by a Croatian born writer who immigrated, first to the US where he lived and taught for many years before moving to Montreal in 2009. He decided to settle here, and is now a Canadian citizen. Josip Novakovich is a master of the short story and his tales tend to stretch across borders, typically either stepping back into, or at least glancing at, his Balkan homeland. Yet in his latest collection, Tumbleweed, the majority of the stories are set in North America, in cities and rural locations where his migrant narrators are struggling to set down roots and build lives for themselves, often in the company of some unforgettable non-human characters. It’s a great introduction to an author with a respected international reputation who deserves to be better known here in his adopted home.

My review of Tumbleweed can be found in the latest issue of The Rusty Toque.

Multi-lane manifesto: Expressway by Sina Queyras

My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?

When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.

Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations.  Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:

Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,

Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men

Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,

Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?

She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.

As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:

This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)

At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.

Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.

I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .

What for weary? We all hum.

I am weary. I have so little hope.

Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.

Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.

Expressway is published by Coach House Books.

Everything here is dead: Brothers by David Clerson

My first book of 2017 is not the cheeriest of novels, but all the same, it came as a very pleasant surprise. The story is a dark fable, decidedly not for children, but then, the fairy tales we remember from childhood were much bleaker, gruesome affairs in their original incarnations. So imagine, if you will, a scene taking place just off the edge of a canvas painted by Bruegel the Elder, where two deformed boys play on the shore of a wild sea, dreaming of escape to fantastic lands, and you will evoke the setting—and the mood—of Brothers by Quebecois writer David Clerson.

The third title to be released by QC Fiction, a new subscription-based imprint of Baraka Books, Brothers is quite possibly the Quebec publisher’s most daring and impressive offering to date (I reviewed the first release, Life in the Court of Matane for Numéro Cinq last July). This slender volume with the striking red cover—QC Fiction has chosen a most impressive graphic design for their books—cbrothersontains a world that overflows with mythological adventure, shocking violence, and nightmarish beauty.

Brothers plays with and twists themes pulled from myth and legend. The central character, “older brother” is born of the union between his aging mother and a wild dog. She does not want her son to face the world alone, so she cuts off his left arm and from that limb she fashions a “younger” brother who has two very short arms. The two disfigured boys spend their days running through the fields and marshes around their clapboard house, fishing off the pier, and scavenging oddities that the waves bring in.

One day the sea offers a wreck of a boat, another day a wooden puppet washes up. Together the brothers work to patch the boat as best they can, dreaming of the day that they cross the waters to distant lands populated with monstrous creatures in search of their “dog of a father.” When they find a drowned dog, they know that the time has finally come. With the older brother dressed in the animal’s tanned pelt, one of the puppet’s arms strapped to his shoulder in place of his missing limb, they set to sea, leaving their aging, desiccated mother behind. She has withdrawn from them so completely they doubt she will notice their absence.

The first days it took a long time to get away from the shore. Not by choice, but because the wind kept them there, or they didn’t know how to handle their sail, to make the boat go where they would have wanted. Instead, they followed the coast, in a direction they had never been, not toward the marshes and the neighbouring village, but out to where the coastline fell away steeply, with cliffs sliced by creeks and a multitude of shrieking birds soaring above.

The brothers are ill-prepared for their adventure. Illness levels the younger boy, storms rage, and ultimately, disaster strikes. The older brother eventually ends up alone, on a farm, chained to a doghouse. Yet he finds, for a time, a certain peace in this new existence, save for the torments dished out by the six pig-like children who also live there. He will even experience a mixture of love and lust with a grey dog—the daughter of a dog of a father—whose life has been much lonelier and harsher than his. But this respite does not last, and it does not end well.

If there is a moral here, it is that life is brutal—that goodness and evil are both instinctual survival mechanisms. The former is weak and the latter consumes. Redemption is elusive.

So why read it? The prose, beautifully translated by poet Katia Grubisic, is crystalline, spare, and unsentimental. The balance is just right… it holds you in awe. It is surreal, grotesque and beautiful in turn. The older brother is self-reflective. He notices his contentment, contemplates the stirring of love, and knows he is helpless against the escalation of murderous revenge. The cruelty he has experienced, the violence he has perpetrated, the guilt that haunts him, and the kindness he cannot accept leave their mark, shape him. He has existed at the intersection between beast and man—more whole and complete for the months he lives as a dog, as harsh and mean as they are—but in the end, in the absence of the brother who completed him—he can find comfort only in the company of a murder of crows. And it is insufficient.

This book is not, as I had feared, magic realism. This is not a human tale with a magic element—it is a magical tale with a human heart. Like a folktale for a post-apocalyptic future, Brothers, in all its grotesque surrealism, reflects a truth in which we recognize ourselves, with an equal measure of horror, sadness and shame.

Originally published in 2013 as Frères, this first novel won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault 2014.

A modern day folktale: Baloney by Maxime Raymond Bock—my Rusty Toque review

baloneyOne of my favourite books of 2015 was Atavisms, a collection of short stories by Quebec writer, Maxime Raymond Bock. I was especially impressed by his ability to employ a wide range of styles and genres, from historical to speculative fiction, in a multi-faceted exploration of Québécois history, society, and identity. His newest release, Baloney,—now available from Coach House Books and translated, like Atavisms, by Pablo Strauss—offers further evidence of Bock’s versatility. This novella evokes the spirit of a traditional folktale, with its tragic-comic hero whose larger-than-life adventures are immortalized by a disillusioned young writer drawn to the aging, eccentric would-be poet. By turns funny, sad, and wise, this simple story is surprisingly moving and thoughtful, and stands as yet another fine example of a new generation of Quebec writers who deserve to be more widely read in English-speaking Canada and beyond.

My review of  Baloney can be found in the current issue of The Rusty Toque—my first contribution to this fine Canadian online literary and arts journal.

Personal reflections on identity, for better or worse, on Canada Day

Today, July 1, is Canada Day.

Exactly one year ago I was in Cape Town. I arrived back in the city that day at 5:30 in the morning after seventeen hours on a bus from East London. Dragging my luggage with its maple leaf ID tags I encountered many who would note the flag and say “Ah, Canada, that’s just about the perfect country, isn’t it?” Invariably I was hearing this from black or coloured South Africans and, I have to confess, at that time in my country’s recent political history I was feeling most despondent, embarrassed even, to be Canadian. For the very first time in my life.

What a difference a year makes.

canada-159585_960_720Hard to measure the shifting sands in the glass but while our Federal election last year brought home to the ruling Conservative Party the cost of divisive politics, the limits of denial and disrespect, and the risk of stoking xenophobia to sway sympathies; we now seem more and more like an island in a sea of unrest. And, I don’t pretend that we are immune to hatred, or that we don’t have a legacy of shame four “our” treatment of the First Nations on this land, but this is a huge and vastly underpopulated place so there is greater room to breathe.

At least for now.

As Canadians we also have another advantage: an identity that is relatively amorphous, ambiguous, sometimes even apologetic. A contest held in 1972 on the CBC Radio program, This Country in Morning, famously invited listeners to finish the statement: As Canadian as ________. The winning entry?

As Canadian as possible under the circumstances. And proudly so, I say.

Which leads me to wonder about identity, a question that has been troubling me of late.

There is a series of advertisements running on the television for a company that, for a fee, will analyze your DNA and tell you what your ancestry is, in percentages, no doubt with colourful pie charts to justify the cost. Perhaps you’ve seen them or something similar. You know, there is, for example, a man who always believed he was of German heritage but thanks to a little DNA sleuthing he discovers he is Scottish. He promptly trades his lederhosen for a kilt. And there are other variations but you get the drift.

How can your DNA define your cultural and ethnic identity? It might and then again it might not. Peoples migrate, borders shift, cultures evolve. An aboriginal survivor of the 60’s Scoop that literally pulled First Nations youth out of their homes and communities and deposited them in white foster homes may justifiably have a need for healing and reconnection with their heritage, but a DNA test that simply reflects possible ancestral bloodlines going back centuries or longer does not tell you who you are. Cultural and ethnic identity are complex and cannot be understood divorced from lived experience.

As I find myself, midway upon my life’s journey, to paraphrase Dante, I carry two questions of identity that, to some degree, offer an understanding of myself that reaches back into childhood and adolescence. But even if they are grounded in some understanding of a genetic/epigenetic heritage I own, the degree to which they can and do form part of my identity is troublesome. Identity is, as far as I am concerned, a choice. That is not to say it is not grounded in fact and reality at some level, but what does it mean to say “I identify”? And how is that to be differentiated from “I am”?

I have bipolar disorder (I touch on this in some of my earliest blog posts) and I was born with a pervasive sense of a gendered self that was at odds with the sex/gender that I appeared to be (I address this most explicitly here). I did not begin to understand either of these facts until I was in my mid-30’s. But they are inextricable from my experience of myself in the world, they are formative and I have no idea what it would be like to have existed without either although I have learned, with greater or lesser success, to live with each one. Both are treated, neither is cured. I have written about both, but I would be hard pressed to say that I identify as either bipolar or transgender. Would someone identify as a diabetic? Would you say you identify as brown-eyed?

I know people who do hold a mental health diagnosis or a gender identity with pride. Perhaps I did too at one time. Perhaps I still do even though I don’t want to admit it.

Recently my psychiatrist suggested, having reviewed the only records she had from my past—the report of an inpatient stay during acute psychosis almost twenty years ago, the turning point at which I finally began to unravel the fractured and unhappy state against which I had raged for several years—that she did not believe I was bipolar. That cheerful announcement set off weeks of rumination in which I replayed all of the episodes of depression and hypomania I had surfed for so many years, blaming myself for a failure to commit to any single course of study or employment. I began to appreciate how my understanding of the place I find myself at this point is contingent on having an explanation, an illness to blame. Combined with acute gender dysphoria I can assuage the sense of failure that haunts me. Justify all the paths I took or did not take.

Or, as my therapist challenged me yesterday, have I been using bipolar as an excuse to avoid grieving the losses I have experienced?

I don’t even know how to begin to grieve and the thought terrifies me. And, if I find my way through it all, perhaps I will write about it. But I do believe it may be the one path I have not yet dared to take.

Finally, what of gender? That is a topic for many essays I’m afraid. My differently gendered existence is essential to who I am, but again, it is not my identity. If forced, I “identify” as male, but prefer to understand myself simply as a man, and every time I qualify myself by appending trans* I feel reduced, dehumanized. One only has to exist within the LGBTQ community, such as it is, as a man attracted to men, to feel the full force of transphobia from within. And to have transitioned when I did, before it was fashionable and trendy to be trans, other transgender men were often exceptionally homophobic toward anyone who identified as gay. For everyone who claims to defy gender binaries there is a whole cast of characters propping them back up. I’m probably in there myself.

pride-flag-meaningSo, although I tick three out of the five basic boxes in LGBTQ, I have no Pride. But then I have no shame either. And identify? Well, here I stand I can be no other. Even if I don’t feel I belong. June is always tough for me. This month with all the difficult emotions stirred by the Orlando shootings has been especially hard.

I actually do belong to an LGBTQ community and have good friends there. My very closest friends are all queer. And yet I always feel like I am on the outside looking in. An impostor. But in what way? And who decides who belongs and who does not? Even apparently marginalized groups seem to find a way to splinter and divide.

Which brings me full circle to the angry racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic aggression and violence that threatens us all, at a time and in a world in which we should know better.

At least, for now, and on this day, the one thing I can say is: I identify as a proud Canadian.

In the dark days of winter, searching for words

Normally January and February are my favourite months. The days are growing longer, minute by minute; the days cold and crisp, the ground a snow-covered white, the sky a bright clear blue. A perfect time for reading.

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Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

More than one week into the new year, I have a strange sensation akin to trying to make my way on one of those moving sidewalks that traverse the passageways of major airports. However, because the direction of the sidewalk and I are at odds, I’m making little progress. Lately my weeks have been punctuated by trips to visit my father, 1 1/2 to 3 hours each way, depending on whether or not we pick up my mother. Weather dictates travel, scrambling the best laid plans, and now that my father has moved on to the rehabilitation unit his stubborn determination has returned – for better and, sadly, for worse. Through it all, my mother, now so tiny in her old winter coat, is entertaining the thought that he might someday return home – home to a setting that neither one of them is really well enough to live in anymore. The potential challenges that lie ahead are fraying the less than stellar relationships between myself and my brothers, and these are still the early days. Meanwhile I have dealt with car repairs and a burst hot water pipe. And I don’t even want to venture into the messy, potentially violent eruptions that have threatened peace in my own house as my son struggles with an addiction to alcohol.

To say that my reading has been scattered would be an understatement.

I am afraid that, anxiety and exhaustion aside, I seem to be responding to an internalized sense of guilt that reading, and writing about reading, has no value if it does not generate an income. If your life does not presently include income generating activity – a circumstance that was not by my design but has afforded me the time and energy to read and write – then my literary pastime is even more self-indulgent. Or at least that is what my family members (and their voices that echo in my head) are telling me.

Of course I have been reading, but my focus is off.

I have just emerged from Rafael Chirbes’ forthcoming On the Edge, a testament to internalized guilt, regret and resentment if ever there was one; fuel for my abiding mid-life angst. I’m preparing a review for Numéro Cinq. Otherwise most of what I have read lately is not quite carrying me through. I find myself distracted and picking at pieces, reading on line journals and stabbing aimlessly at collections. As I said, my focus is off.

§ Finish Your Thought!

As in death, we are equalized in thought when we think that every mind in its effort to comprehend the world must come upon the unthinkable.

§ Think for Yourself…

…not others. There is no such thing as thought to spare, only to share.

Matches_Cover_Front_Mockup_07182015-216x346That said, I find that I do have an appetite for aphorisms and fragments. Perhaps that is the ideal antidote for a scattered new year. I am dipping in and out of S.D. Chrostowska’s MATCHES: A Light Book, over 500 pages of illuminating meditative thoughts about the contemporary quality of thinking, reading, and writing. This is not a work intended to be read from cover to cover over a few sittings, rather it is ideal for slow, thoughtful engagement. Light the match, let it burn for a moment, reflect for a while – return again and again, over time. The perfect companion I hope, to lead me back into reading when I feel I am straying and, more critically direct me to writing when fear I am losing my way.

§ New Line of Thought

Every new line of thought is a departure.
Or a new way of arriving where one already is.

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Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

MATCHES: A Light Book is available from Punctum Books.