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.

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.