Reading (or not) through a pandemic

Remember that desert island  you used to playfully assemble a mental reading list for? That essential library that would fuel you through an extended period of isolation? How is that notion working out for you now in these days of lock downs and distancing and otherwise upended routines?

I was never much of an imaginary library builder, but at the moment, in a flat lined with a total of ten bookshelves—seven tall, three short—bursting with books, I am finding it almost impossible to commit to any one of them.

Some of this is probably reflects my readerly nature. I invariably pack too many books when I travel and as soon as I’m away from home, none of the titles look appetizing. I wonder why I brought some, wish I’d brought others. At worst, I pass through episodes marked by a literary nausea every time I think about reading. It’s odd, unsettling and counter intuitive to what I always imagine a vacation offers—time. All that waiting, flying, transiting, eating alone in restaurants…

These days, with varying distancing measures in place across the globe, many of us are faced with a surfeit of time. A reader’s paradise. Some seem to be coping well, if social media is any measure. Book related blog posts still appear, photographs of bookshelves and stacks of self prescribed reading material populate my feeds. I’m finding it almost as disturbing as the death counts and criminally inadequate political responses that also seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. I find books offer no distraction or comfort these days.

And I’m in a good space. The federal government here in Canada is responding rather sensibly to the medical and financial threats on the horizon and my provincial leader, much to my surprise, is responding with measured compassion and generosity even though our already weakened economy stands to take a beating. Certainly there are those who will always find fault, but the willingness to work across party lines is admirable. And although politicians have their share of time at the podium, our public health officials hold centre stage, earning respect and even a little celebrity in their own right. A sharp contrast to the crisis presently exploding beyond our southern border.

Yet, somehow I sit here, shuffling piles of books, reading a few pages here, a few pages there until once again anxiety pulls my attention away.

Some days are worse than others. The sun helps. Limiting time online is essential. But nothing works for long. Editing for 3:AM Magazine has helped a little—the imperative of a self imposed obligation I suppose—but I am engaged in precious little reading and writing for myself. Books that I’ve accepted or requested for review taunt me from the shelves even though there are no deadlines or absolute commitments attached. They fill me with guilt all the same. As do the partly read volumes I’m struggling to return to. Somehow I feel I should at least clear the deck a little before venturing on to something new. I’m already juggling a handful of titles as it is.

So I fritter around, surrounded by books, unable to finish anything, start anything, write anything. Overwhelmed by words.

These are, of course, exceptional times. Time perhaps, to throw out the “rules”, including all the idiosyncratic expectations we set for ourselves. Follow the flow. Resist the urge to measure ourselves against others. We are all in this together, but our circumstances vary. Friends in India, the UK, Italy, and South Africa are under lock down—variations on the theme are in place or on the horizon elsewhere. Here in Canada, physical distancing is advised if one is well, isolation if ill, and enforced quarantine if returning from outside the country. But each day, the parameters shift, the restrictions increase and for many the immediate future is unnervingly uncertain.

So I suppose my best pandemic reading strategy is to play it by ear.

Or is that eye?

Each day I try to get out for a walk, even if the energy sometimes eludes me. I’ve decided to set aside a few books in progress for the time being, and try to be open to any muse that might pass my way. At the moment, then, I’m reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter read along, R. K Narayan’s shortened modern prose version of The Ramayana and plenty of poetry. But is all subject to change without notice.

Stay safe, friends.

Blue Monday meditation: Thoughts on writing a life (again)

I took a long walk today for the first time since crippling pain seized my lower back on January 2nd, followed by a week of temperatures in the -28 to -35C range that kept me close to home for the first half of the month. Now, with temperatures above zero under heavy grey Chinook sky, it felt good to be moving again.

Since Christmas I have had to guard against a seasonal tendency to slide toward despondency; on occasion I even found myself drawn down dangerously dark corridors. I am ever more aware of growing old, feeling isolated from the culture around me, and concerned that I have lived a life completely out of step with the rest of the world.

I’ve always been anachronistic when it comes to television or movies or music, but nothing makes me feel stranger than the complete alienation of my own experiences as a differently gendered person from the transgender dialogue that has become so prominent recent years. I don’t understand it. I feel that it has taken my voice away, invalidated my reality as someone who transitioned twenty years ago without the supports, protections, or pronoun politics of today. And worse, I fear it has stifled my ability to be honest about the costs of the path I’ve chosen.

So what about my reality? Does it have any weight at all? And when does a lived story begin to take shape, begin to make sense?

Over the past few years I have asked myself these questions, entertained scenarios, crafted neat narratives tracing crisis to closure. But every time I imagined I was nearing not only an answer but more critically a direction to guide my desire to examine this life in writing, something would happen to unspool the thread I’d been so carefully winding.

An unforeseen opportunity would arise; an unexpected twist of fate would knock me off balance.

I have long wondered what to do with this existential morass, slowly and steadily accumulating more days, months and years as I found myself unable to do more than collect, in fits and starts, stray notes in a random collection of books and files. Hidden, tucked into closets, real and metaphorical.

The other day I finally started writing in earnest. I would like to confess that at last a path has opened up before me, that a map has made itself clear, a puzzle into which all the various pieces of my story have suddenly fallen into place.

But, of course, life doesn’t work that way.

Life is not a novel. It cannot be edited; it can only be lived. And if any narrative construct can be observed, it can only be seen in retrospect, buried under all the diversions, denials and delusions we rely on to get through the responsibility of living in the moment—the messy business of being in the world.

And is that evolving target I am writing toward. All that I have been. All that I am. Whatever I may yet be.

My literary goals for 2020, or rather, where they begin

When I wrote my end of year post on New Year’s Eve, a wave of end of year gloom, fueled in part by media focus on the currents state of the world and a sense of anxious pessimism colouring the future outlook, for myself personally and the planet. When I look back over the past twelve months or so I feel fatigued. There seems to be so much I could not get a hold of—the volume of editing for 3:AM, coping with my son’s addiction, managing my own grief processing and mental health challenges.So, unable to set boundaries or take control I sought to escape. After a five week trip to India in February, I went back in late October. One should never confuse the desire to travel with a desperation to run away from loneliness and a failure to feel at home, but I suspect that drives many of us who are perpetually restless. I’ve only been back for a month and already I find myself watching planes take off from the airport across the city and wish I too was leaving again. It’s a financial and practical impossibility at the moment, and I don’t even have a destination in mind, but a part of me is always mentally packing bags and thinking about getting away.

From this vantage point, I keep thinking about everything I did not do this year, all the bookish goals unmet, outlines unsketched, words unwritten. I made a few forays toward a fledgling project, some with promise, inspired in large part by essays I was reading. I fiddled with a little poetry, published a couple of pieces and wrote one major critical essay and a personal essay commissioned for a publication sometime this year.

However, sometimes it feels like my efforts fell short—for two months I even battled a crippling inability to open a book—but, in truth, 2019 held many moments of literary magic.  I visited Bombay for the first time early in the year to meet up with poet and cultural critic, Ranjit Hoskote, and also ended up meeting Priya Sarukkai Chabria—a translator, novelist and poet whose name was new to me. By the end of the year I would come to treasure her friendship and belief in me as a writer. In November I spent several days with her and her husband in Pune where she arranged for me to give a talk on book reviewing and, the next day, meet up with several poets who have now become part of my expanding network. I’m learning to trust her instincts.

In February I also made my second trip to Calcutta where, once again, I taught a class at the Seagull School of Publishing  (a session which has, in itself, added to my circle of friends) and I had the distinct honour of engaging in a public conversation with Edwin Frank, the founding editor of NYRB Classics. As usual, several other creative personalities were gathered at Seagull, but an unexpected delight was to spend a few days with Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who happened to be in the city on a residency. It was a busy, inspiring week in a city I’ve come to love.

On both of this year’s India visits I spent time in Kochi where my dear and long-time friend Mini lives, now that she has returned home after many years in Dubai. I made my first trip to Nepal to catch up with a Nepali friend who used to live in my home town. My closest queer friend, a graduate in theratre arts and probably the only person who understands my own complicated queerness, I miss the long conversations over coffee we used to have. Kathmandu is a long way to go to catch up. But worth it!

I also finally  got to Jaipur, a city I will have to go back to—magical energy, stunning architecture and a climate as long as I avoid the really hot months, suited to my natural desert temperament. (I live in a dry, albeit cold, environment.) I spent two days with Saudamini, another creative spirit I have known for a number of years, who was an enthusiatic tour guide. And together we found in the bedrooms of the Nahargarh Fort interior design perfect for book lovers!

On my third and final day in Jaipur, I enjoyed another serendipitous encounter with a Twitter follower who reached out when she heard I was on my way. A curator at the City Palace Museum, it turns out that we have a mutual friend in Bombay, because, of course, even in cities with millions of people, it is a small world. Apurna and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch together, strangers only for the first few minutes. Which, in itself, is one of the things that brings me back to India.

The other critical anchor for me on this most recent Indian adventure, was the opportunity to get to know another Twitter contact, someone unknown to me on my first visits whom I “met” through non-Indian readerly friends and who lives (at least for now) in Bangalore where I was based. A writer and reader with impeccable taste (that is, corresponding with my own), JP and I spent a lot of time drinking coffee and scouring bookstores on Church Street as one must when in that city. Last, but not least, I went to the Bangalore Lit Fest with a couple of students from my first year teaching at Seagull. Had I found the courage to venture to Delhi, I would have connected with even more former students, but I still find the city daunting. Someday, I will go.

For now I know that I need to take the time to drift through all the memories I gathered in India this year. There are so many that they sometimes feel like they are crammed to the back of a closet, waiting to see the light but too much, too confusing to deal with. They are filled with joy, pain and curiosity. I was in the country during the election campaign when Pakistan was bombed, I returned home as the controversial Transgender Protection Act was passed—something that reminds me how precarious my own travels are, no matter where I go because my outward appearance only provides a superficial security—and now I watch the citizenship protests roll out.

My attraction to India is complicated. I am not an Indian, I am not involved with or married to an Indian. Friendships aside I have no need to go there. But what I have gained over the course of my visits is a real life validation of my worth as a writer. Something no editing engagement, publication or Twitter chatter can equal. However, it inevitably makes me feel like I come home to a creative and emotional void. I hit waves of loneliness that turn back into bitterness and resentment.

Aimed at myself.

Aimed at my city.

Aimed at my life.

Once again, it serves to accomplish little more than to further absorb my creative energy. So, as 2020 begins, I am aware that, if I am ever going to be able to meet the  writerly goals I have set for myself, I have to start with, strangely enough, forgiveness. It is the only protection against anger and resentment.

So that, then is my primary literary goal for 2020. Everything I read and write will flow from there.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

Travel, writing and poetry: A link to my new poem at RIC Journal

I have a new poem up today at RIC Journal.  I’ve called it “Indian Autumn Elegy.” For some reason, this most recent visit to India, my third in two years, has so far resisted my dedicated efforts to capture it in prose. At least not for this blog.  As I process my cumulative experiences, not simply in India but in the other countries I’ve spent time in over the past few years, South Africa and Australia, I am coming to understand that much of what I want to draw to the surface belongs to another, longer dedicated writing project. One that has long been a vague intention but is now beginning to fill empty pages.

In the meantime though, there are reflections and observations too restless to wait, and those seem to be slipping into poetic exercises.

Like this one.

The first sketches of this poem were composed last month, on the train between Delhi and Jaipur. It speaks to a recognition that something I have often told myself I was seeking through travel—a kind of validation I hoped I might find by losing myself in a crowd—is neither necessary nor possible.

“Indian Autumn Elegy” can be found here.

Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day

When I started this blog in 2014, I was reeling in the aftermath of a major manic episode. One that effectively cost me my career. My early posts were angry, fueled by the shame and trauma of having endured such a public breakdown, and the complete insensitivity of my employer, a situation compounded by the fact that I had worked in the disability and mental health field and had never denied my own mental health history. But when I needed someone to step in and guide me to medical care there was no one.

On this day it would be good to stand up and say: Yes, I’m a survivor. Truth is, I’m lucky. I respond well to a long standing medical treatment (if I’m not so reckless as to believe I don’t need it) and I was able to coast for about seventeen years between breakdowns and, after losing everything in my mid-fifties, finally access solid supportive psychiatric and psychological care.

Over the past year I have needed that support twice when stability waned.

That’s actually a rather dismal situation, truth be told, but like I said, I am lucky, I respond well to medication and compared to many other people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to function well—most of the time. My son has faced much greater obstacles.

But today I want to talk about Ulla.

When I appeared online as a rough ghost, I quickly became connected with a group of fellow bloggers dealing with mental health challenges. Ulla, who went by the name Blahpolar was funny, outrageous, tragic, and queer. She lived in South Africa, a country I had long been interested in, and she was a huge fan of Canadian literature. We bonded almost instantly. We could joke and riff off each other as if we’d been friends forever. A little more than a year after we met online, I flew to South Africa and spent a week with her in the Eastern Cape Province. We were as comfortable together in person as we had been online.

But Ulla was struggling.

She had had a rough life. Her illness had only been diagnosed recently, at age forty-five. But the damage ran deep, complicated by so many factors. And yet she was one of the most  gifted writers and wonderful people I ever met.

By the time I got to know her she was unable to work, living on saving s in a small house she’d inherited from her mother, in a remote seaside community. But the blackness was closing in fast, even at the time we met. Every rand stretched, she tried everything she could afford to fight it off.  No treatment—not even shock therapy—seemed to have any effect.

She survived the first suicide attempt. Succeeded the second time, a little over three years ago now.

I say “succeeded” because it is selfish of me to insist that a woman of forty-six, who has waged many long and bitter battles, does not have the right to say: I cannot live this way. But it breaks my heart that she is gone, and angers me that in the end, she had to die alone.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was her favourite book. A bold plea for assisted death for those with severe depression who see no other option.

Who has the right to weigh another’s pain?

Unaware that World Mental Heath Day was approaching, I pulled out the elegy I wrote for her the other night and tried to read it through. When I composed it, three months after her death, I was numb. My parents had died less than two months before her and all those losses were deeply intertwined. They are only breaking loose now.

I can’t get through this piece right any more. A sob rises in my chest just thinking about it. But on his day I wish to share it once again.

It is the best way to honour my friend Ulla. And everyone else who has reached the point where they felt no option but to join “that nocturnal tribe.” One should not wish that on anyone, but we cannot judge them. Least of all those of us who have known some measure of the pain depression and bipolar can bring. We can only try to ensure that support, understanding, and services are available for those who need it.

So, once again, for Ulla Kelly, And I Will Tell You Something.

In search of my own poetic voice: A few thoughts about writing poetry with a link to my work at Poetry at Sangam

a shiver of unease
runs its course across
my shoulders, shudders
down a rocky spine
to dissipate
through fissures
in this sleeping
mountain
mine

Over the past couple of years I have, often in defiance, insisted on writing about the poetry I read. At the same time, my focus in reading poetry has shifted, taking in more contemporary poets, as well as experimental and translated works. But I know nothing about formal analysis, and even less about how one might set out to write a poem. But I’ve not let that stop me from attempting the odd poetic effort, even if I always feel like I’m writing into the dark. Stumbling into it sideways.

This month I have the honour of having several of my poems included with some truly fine poets and translators in the latest issue of Poetry at Sangam. My contribution includes a photo essay originally published at RIC Journal, a piece I wrote after I returned from central Australia. I’d gone to hike the Larapinta Trail and arrived with a brutal head cold brewing, so hiking was limited, but in that magnificent ancient land I sensed the presence of my mother in a dream for the first time after her death the year before. This piece recounts that experience.

My three new poems, all touch on authenticity, the body, and gender identity—pretty typical terrain for me, but one that I am beginning to feel may be best explored in a poetic realm as I move toward other subjects in essay form because, as I explain in my introduction:

Poetry, fractured prose, and fables have begun to play a greater role in my writing repertoire by offering a space for me to explore the raw, the visceral, the discordant elements of my being from a distance. It still arises from my own emotional journey, sometimes riding close to the arc of my narrative reality, but I can be abstract, ambiguous or disassociated from the speaker or the subject as much as I want or need to be. Many of my poetic efforts gestate over long periods of time, moving in and out of first person, falling apart and coming back together as need be. But in the end, it is all trial and error. I don’t really know anything about writing poetry at all.

My full introduction and links to my poems can be found here. And be sure to check out the rest of this wonderful issue at the same time.

With thanks to my dear friend, Priya Sarukkai Chabria.