November 27th, 2015

The ethnic issue (rant)

This is the definition of “ethnic” per the nigh-on-infalliable Canadian Oxford dictionary:
“(of a population group) sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition, often associated with race, nationality, or religion. 2. relating to race or culture (ethnic group; ethnic origins). 3. (of clothes, music, etc.) characteristic of or influenced by the traditions of a particular people or culture, esp. a minority within another culture or one regarded as exotic.”

These definitions aren’t as clear-cut as perhaps I would like them to be, but I do think they prove my point, often ranted about but perhaps never in this space, that EVERYONE HAS AN ETHNICITY! White Canadians, in my experience, tend to dwell on the “exotic” aspect mentioned in the third definition, and assume that “ethnic people” are the ones who aren’t white, or speak some language other than English, or perhaps wear something that isn’t sold at the Gap.

I get that many people’s families have been in Canada so long they no longer identify with the cultural tradition they came from, and that they are not religious–but that doesn’t mean that they are the water and only non-white people and recent immigrants are the fish. Other than First Nations and Inuit, we are all descendants of immigrants and Canadian culture is itself an actual thing too. Saying one has no cultural affiliation as a Canadian doesn’t really make sense in a global context–like saying one has no accent. As soon as you leave the place where you are part of the dominant culture, it becomes clear that you have both.

It strikes me as offensive when a white person looks at an advertisement featuring only other white people and says, “It’s too bad they didn’t include any ethnic people.” !!!!! Obviously, that sort of comment comes from a political correct place–the speaker is trying to be inclusive, but it also comes from a place of privilege, where the speaker considers his or her place in society so dominant and assured that it has no point of origin–it just is.

We all get to decide who we are and what culture we want to identify with, but it is very very weird to say some people have a culture and some people do not. And even if people get where you are coming from and aren’t offended from a cultural perspective, I guarantee that if an editor hears you, s/he will be a seething over the improper use of language.

November 25th, 2015

Please give generously

I’m on a committee at work about our charitable donation program for the various end-of-the-year holidays, and I’ve gotten to learn a bunch of interesting stuff about giving. One thing I’ve learned is that you really have to give generous people an opportunity to give in the ways they want and to feel valued for doing so–another is that there is so much need out there, there is ALWAYS a use for whatever generous instinct a person might have.

My husband forbids household discussion of the holidays until after Remembrance Day, so here it is way past that and I want to get the ball rolling on the best of this time of year, which is ways to be kind to others. Probably there’s a bunch of stuff here that is familiar to many, but perhaps there’s something new too–hope it helps!!

Non-perishable foods: This one is a holiday standard and I think most of us are familiar with going to a party or event with cans of chickpeas in our bags for the holiday food hamper. And I do not want to discourage anyone from giving anything at all. When I was a kid, every food drive I would haul all the canned pineapple out of the cupboard and give it away because I hated it–but I’m sure someone was happy to get it, especially as many food banks operate as “free stores” and people can choose what they need. But if you’re interested in what specifically food bank might really need, it’s…
–proteins like canned meat but also alternatives like peanut butter, soy products, and beans.
–powdered milk and infant formula
–Halal products. This is going to be region specific, but where I am working (Scarborough), families that observe Muslim dietary laws struggle to use food donations. I have looked into this a bit and as I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong!), if you cannot find anything with the Halal symbol on it, anything that does not contain meat or artificial colours/flavours is fine. The meat because, obviously, of rules around butchery, but the artificial stuff because it often contains isopropyl alcohol, alcohol being haram. Interesting ,no?
–breakfast cereals (cold cereals)
–treats. It’s nice if there’s something fun at the food bank. If a colleague or acquaintance gives you yet another box of chocolates but you’re on a diet, you know where it could be welcome??
To make your donating dollars go furthest, my parents taught me a neat trick–every time they grocery shop, they buy doubles of whatever useful items are on a good sale, then drop the extras into the donation bin on the way out. That way you spread your giving out, making it a little more manageable. The “donation packs” that some stores sell are often filled with low-nutrient processed foods, but they are a good deal, so if you feel like that’s your best option, obviously it’s still going to be useful somewhere.

Household Cleaning and Personal Hygiene Products

I never used to think of this, but obviously it’d be incredibly hard on morale and just life in general to not have enough money for dishsoap and toilet cleaner. And how about tampons? Anything you use regularly and run out of regularly is useful to these donation drives, though if it is specifically advertised as a food drive, one should probably double check that they’re able to store and distribute non-food items before loading up on bleach or whatever you’re thinking. But these are so useful, and often forgotten, kinds of donation.

A cool friend posted this link to ALL SORTS of donating opportunities on Facebook, so I thought I’d pass it on here. But do keep in mind, in this season of sock drives and one-day volunteer stints, it can feel overwhelming to fit in helping others with work and school and family and everything else. I love volunteerism and creative charitable projects, but I just want to mention that these are very much the kind of problems you CAN throw money at. Yes, there are foodbanks that don’t take cash donations, but most love them as liquid funds allow them to go out and purchase exactly what their clients need, without having to sort or store it. I think there’s a vibe around a lot of giving (cough, especially for women) that if it is not a project with a lot of time and love and sacrifice it’s not worth doing. And giving one’s own time and love is amazing, but so is giving a cheque. As I say, there’s so much need, there’s always a use for whatever you want to give.

November 11th, 2015

Gillers are now!

And not last night, as I erroneously said in my previous post. I am very excited for the live-stream, starting in a few minutes unless I or the CBC somehow screws it up…

First commercial break: I do not understand any of the jokes in the opening monologue, but always happy to see Rick Mercer again. The room looks glamorous but I don’t spot anyone I know yet. The mini-interviews with Rick and the authors take place in the Halifax public library this year and are very mini–maybe there’s more later [edit: there wasn’t]. Buffy Saint Marie does Andre Alexis’s *Fifteen Dogs* intro–a better choice of presenter than usual, though she still sounds very scripted. The mini-movie that accompanies Alexis’s reading is awesome, because it’s full of dogs–much more engaging than any I’ve seen in previous years. Coming up next: Samuel Archibald’s *Arvida*.

Second commercial break: A ballet-dancer presents *Arvida*, but it turns out to make more sense than it sounds because the dancer grew up in Arvida (the town the book is set in) and so he can vouch for its accurate vibe. He also sounds very scripted but is pretty enthusiastic (also handsome). The mini-movie, this time with archival footage from the town back in the day, is again pretty good–the GIllers have really upped their mini-movie game. Archibald’s tiny speech is for his daughters and partly in French, very sweet. He’s shown in a video clip picking a question from a hat–is this going to be a reoccuring feature throughout the show?? How come Andre didn’t get to do one? Or did I miss it?

Third commercial break: Rachel Cusk’s outline is introduced by a “science-fiction actor” (not a thing) and her mini-movie is just shots of people doing the things being described in the reading, a bit boring and on the nose–did Cusk draw the short straw? Her mini-speech is about how grateful she is to have hung out with the other nominees though, which is an excellent thing to say. Then Mercer does a “comic” bit that he did last year, alleging he’s written a memoir about his interactions with Canadian politicians but needs help with the metaphors, to coax the nominees into playing a mad-libs type game. It’s really silly and not funny. An opera singer introduces Heather O’Neill’s *Daydreams of Angels*, which is still not a logical choice but she does have a wonderful presentation style. The mini-movie for O’Neill’s book is really good, sparkly and simple. Her question from the hat is from Patrick DeWitt and her answer is funny.

Forth commercial break: The judges are introduced but not invited to the stage or allowed to speak–they just stand in a clump in the audience and then sit back down. That seems shameful considering how hard they worked. Pleased to hear Alex MacLeod get a big round of applause–everyone loves that guy–but they all deserve that and much more. The presenter for Anakana Schofield’s *Martin John* is the director of TIFF, which makes even less sense than most of the presenters, but he is the only one who sounds like he’s speaking extemporaneously, from a genuine sense of respect for the book. The mini-movie is fine, I like the public transit scenes. AK looks fantastic in her flow purple dress and her mini-speech is sweet. Next up: the winner!!!

Fifth commercial break: There was no speech from Jack Rabinovich this year, or from any of the bank guys. There was a brief shuffle over the envelope and who got to read it–I was just asking Mark when someone was going to say that for the price of a meal out in Toronto, you could buy all the shortlisted books when he shushed me–the envelope was open!!!

*Fifteen Dogs* won. Alexis gave a dignified but sweet speech and then it was all over. As the winner was announced I yelled, “I am shocked!” because I genuinely loved Anakana Schofield’s *Martin John* enough to be blind to the possibility of any other book winning. Which is a pretty stupid position for someone who has not read three out of five of the nominated books, and who understands that other people, including lit juries, have agency and different subjectivities from her.

Schofield posted some lovely things about being happy for Alexis on social media and others in the community seem pretty thrilled, too, so I’m going to try to take that to the bank. I’m less dejected than I was last night (hence the delayed posting)–really, so many great books got celebrated, a bunch of deserving authors got money and a fancy dinner and some well-deserved attention, and because of who the jury is I’m sure *15 Dogs* is a great book, though I probably still won’t read it…or perhaps I will. It was an interesting couple months running up to this event, and an interesting event too. I should be feeling lucky that my country celebrates authors like this, and mainly I do…but I was so sure I was right!!


November 1st, 2015

The Gillers Are Coming!

It’s a controversial position, but I love the Gillers! The endless run-up with the long-list, the short-list, all the readings and finally, the night, the glam ball and the awkward awards show that I love and blog every year. I started watching/live-blogging in 2010 because Alexander’s Macleod’s Light Lifting was on the shortlist, and I couldn’t have loved that book more if Macleod had written it expressly for my tastes. And then Sarah Selecky’s collection This Cake Is for the Party was up too, and I like her and that book very much, and so I decided to watch. The broadcast was weird, Sarah and Alex didn’t get to talk much, and a different book won–but that author seemed nice too and I got so engrossed I decided I needed to keep doing it.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think Giller Prize designates the best book in Canada–just one that 3 (or 5) smart people happen to like very much. But there’s nothing wrong with finding out what that is! I don’t find myself very swayed by nomination lists or even the prizes themselves–it’s a rare book that I wasn’t intending to read until it got a prize nod, and then I read it.

Normally, what happens is that i will see the longest and note which books on there I was planning to read anyway, and then jump those up in the queue so that I have read them by the time the prize is announced. This didn’t work out last year owing to a slow library holds system, but in general there’s a couple books on my hot list that coincide with the Giller list, so I have someone to root for. It took until 2013 for a book I’d read–Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing to win, which was an excellent experience but really I love the show either way.

This year was especially rich–when the longest was announced, there were two books on it I had already read and two more I wanted to read. I figure the overlap might have something to do with Macleod, who is on this year’s jury–if he could write the exact book I wanted to read, perhaps he could also select a list of other books I also want to read.

Let’s be clear–no offence to the books that I won’t be reading. We all know I could quit my job and stop talking to humans right now, reading, eating and sleeping for the next 50 years, and never read close to all of even the best books in existence. It’s just not doable–so I try not to feel guilty about what I pick. Anyway, the books I had read were Russell Smith’s Confidence and Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die, both of which I really admire, so things were already going well. I quickly moved on to Anakana Schofield’s Martin John and it stopped me dead.

There is no other book like it–not that I’ve read. Even Malarky, Schofield’s very wonderful first novel, does not achieve the radical newness with language, the eviscerating emotional freefall, the sheer weirdness of Martin John. When Mark asked me about it, I said it was good and then ran out of things to say–it’s hard to encapsulate. But it’s going to win. I figured it would either get dropped off the short list–including in the longlist only as a token bit of experimentation–or it would win. Since MJ is on the shortlist, it’s going to win. I’m certain. How could it not?

That said, I haven’t read the full list. I went on and read Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill, which is certainly very good but I didn’t love it as much as her previous books. I’ll probably stop there because I’m working on a bookish essay and just have a bunch else I want to read but nevertheless I’m convinced that I’m going to get to hear Anakana’s speech up on that stage and it’s going to be amazing.

I was thrilled when Coady won and I really enjoyed and admired Hellgoing, but I wouldn’t have been upset or surprised if it hadn’t won. It was a good book in a field of good books. Martin John is something different, something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. I am SO excited to watch the Gillers, though I think I might be crushed if another of the very good books wins. It’s interesting to be this invested, when I haven’t been before. Skin in the game, I guess.

So stay tuned for the Gillers on November 9 and a very het up blog post from me….

October 19th, 2015

Blogroll update?

What do we even call the blogroll in 2015? I have a feeling the term has changed and no one told me. But whatever, I updated that list of links on the right of this page. I hadn’t done it in ages but I’m pretty sure no one case, since many of the links were broken and no one ever complained about it. I have fixed the broken links, deleted the blogs not updated in over a year, and added a few ones that I’ve been enjoying for ages but never mentioned.

As I say, no one clicks and these links and I doubt anyone will now. The reason the terminology is changing is that the internet is changing, and few people actually get content by surfing around a site and seeing what else they have. People use social media platforms to post links to individual posts or stories, which people click on if the topic is of interest, no matter who wrote it or where it was posted. I would never, ever actually go to the mainpage of a site like Clickhole or Upworthy, but I sure have read a lot of listicles from both.

I actually just spent a painful few minutes trying to log into my Google Analytics account and that has changed too–not only did I have to get my cell phone involved to log in, once I did I no longer really understood the dashboard. I got as far as “content drilldown,” which sounds like a cheerleading routine, realized I don’t really care if anyone clicks on my by-any-other-name blogroll and gave up.

But this post isn’t all “I will live in the past forever”–I do intend to do something new. I am going to try linking some of my posts (the good ones?) on Twitter and Facebook, just to see if anyone is interested. I feel really awkward about “push messages”–marketing speak for asking people to read my blog. But if that is the way people read now, I think I could try it without being seen as a blog-whore. People just ignore what doesn’t interest them, so they can ignore Rose-coloured along with all the Clickhole stuff as well… We’ll see how it goes.

October 13th, 2015

Confidence on Ego Burn

One of my favourite things these days is getting to do guest blogs for other writers. It’s such a great change from the novel, and really satisfying to get something written, edited, and out into the world *quickly*, which is not the path the novel is on. I did a bit on writers helping writers for Ottawa Poetry a while back, and now this week, a piece on confidence for Emily Saso‘s lovely blog Ego Burn.

Emily’s confidence series is really interesting, both because it’s something we all grapple with and because I’ve never really thought about it from quite this angle. How confident am I? How do I find the will to keep going when I haven’t written anything good in ages and/or no one cares? Is that confidence, or bloody-mindedness or habit or what? In addition to my piece, there’s a fascinating take from Erin Bedford already on the blog and more to come. I’m really looking forward to the whole series.

October 7th, 2015

Random excerpt

I think I wrote this…in the spring, maybe? And then thought I couldn’t use it. Now I realize I maybe could, so I went back to the file and for once in this depressing year, was kind of jazzed by something I’d written. I need to do a lot more with it to suit the context and I think some of my favourite bits of the scene may be lost in the edits, so I thought I’d put it here, just as it is, before I start that process. I don’t think any explanation is required–it’s just a moment. I hope you like it–I do!


Kevin was steadfastly staring at the small window perched high in the cinderblock wall, set deep enough you couldn’t really see out, just a small bar of sky. Deirdre was petting Monica’s hair and talking about legato. I went over to Lars at the snack table. He had an entire Nanaimo bar in his mouth, standing motionless in front of the platter holding several dozen more.
“I think that might’ve been too big a bite, buddy,” I told him.
His lips bulged; his eyes were agonized. “Murf,” he said.
“Oh, buddy.” I knelt in front of him. “Can you chew?”
He started to shake his head, then stopped and I saw a ginger motion of the jaw muscle and heard, almost immediately, a weak and high-pitched retching sound.
“Eh, just stop for a sec—um…” I stood up and grabbed his arm, then half-crouched again. I didn’t want to be seen aggressively hauling a groin-high kid across a church basement. We staggered slowly towards the door to the parking lot, his face turning greyish.
Out in the snow without our coats, I felt damp before the cold hit me. I guided him up the wet stone steps to ground level, then over to a snow-covered bush. “Ok, let ‘er rip.”
It was amazingly gross—the yellow cream in the middle had mixed enough with the chocolate enough that most of what fell into the show was a beige-streaked and it had of course semi-disintegrated in the warmth and salvia, even though he hadn’t been able to chew. What a tragedy—Lars loved Nanaimos more than anything, even ants or Pokémon.
He was coughing and spitting a bit, as though he’d actually vomited, so I gave him some back slaps and rubs, just to remind him I was there for him. Then he abruptly plonked down in the snow next to the mess and began to cry.
It was around then that I most felt the wind through my restrained dress shirt and remembered that it was February. Of course, to a good uncle physical discomfort means nothing, so I knelt beside him and pulled his head into my chest, feeling the snow swamp the knees of my good cords.
By the time I got the kid back inside, wet and shivering and with an unfortunate wash of brown down the middle of his shirt, Deirdre and Kevin were standing by the door, making angry hissing whispers at each other. It was one of those moments, and there were getting to be a lot of these, when I glanced at my watch and counted the hours until I could go to work.

October 2nd, 2015

On Order

This past weekend, I went to see my husband participate in a panel on the short story at Kingston Writers’ Fest, alongside Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman. It was a fascinating discussion with great readings alongside. In fact, the whole festival (we stayed all weekend and saw a grand total of 7 events) was fab.

But the discussion on order in short-story collections was not long enough for my liking, so I thought I’d extend it here.

So! I care about order in collections. I also care about order in albums, where it is arguably more important. Rare, in our iTunes days, that one track will actually lead into another by blending music from one to another (there was a recent Sloan album that did it, making it mind-bogglingly weird to listen to on shuffle) but usually there’s at least a bit of a gestured segway, even if the track change is marked a moment of silence. You want to carefully plan any dissonance between songss, ditto big tempo changes, keys, moods, etc. It’s not that these sorts of juxtopositions are inherently bad–or good–just that they need to be thought through. Same with stories.

Mavis Gallant said that story collections aren’t for reading straight through–one should read a story, then close the book. Stories are for thinking about, and then after a while, the next day, when you’re done thinking you come back for the next one. But realistically, I think each story primes the reader to read the next one, and it’s nice to put them in an order that’s pleasing, that creates some variety, tension, interest. There is absolutely no reason someone couldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich followed by a single oyster followed by a tablespoon of relish, but most of us don’t consider that a meal, or pleasant.

Which is why most short story writers really work hard to structure their collections. This is true even if there are no linkages, even if the stories aren’t taking place in the same “universe” or with the same characters. In fact, my second collection The Big Dream was easier to structure than my first Once, because the stories were linked. They didn’t all move forward in time–there were a bunch that covered the same events from different angles, and a bunch more that it didn’t matter where exactly in time you were situated. But it the stories where time mattered or was obvious, it was easy to order them. In Once, where the stories were unlinked, and had almost no crossover characters, I didn’t have any temporal line to fall back on, so the structure is all about contrasts in tone, subject matter, characters. I didn’t want two really similar stories up against each other, but I also didn’t want say, a really dark ending to precede a silly, goofy story. That’s why “Massacre Day” is the last piece in the collection–I think it’s one of the strongest pieces, but also one of the grimmest–it would be hard for anything to follow it. And it may well require the most thought from the reader, so it’s good that there’s space there to think if you want to.

I’m not saying that I got these choices right, just like I’d never even claim that the stories themselves are awesome–merely that the ordering of the stories was part of my creative process, part of what I chose to present to the reader. A novelist (a thing I am currently attempting to be) decides on structure for novel in approximately the same way, though it’s more complicated. A linearly told novel is very different than one that flashes back and forth in time, and that is clearly a creative decision; the decision to order stories one way or another is too.

So…I like to read stories in the order the author (and editor!) chose for them. A few people at the reading protested the idea that of being “told” to read stories in order, since they preferred to flip through a collection and choose to read whatever jumped out at them. Which is of course fine–and I believe it’s what Alice Munro does, someone who obviously knows what she’s doing regarding short stories. Often stories will be anthologized solo or published in magazines solo, but again an editor is making a choice to insert them in a certain spot, before and after certain other material. I am interested in those choices, in seeing how well they work form as a reader and learning how I might make better ones myself as a writer.

A collections order is not *an* order to the reader–it’s a suggestion, the author and editor’s best suggestion of how the stories might be read. Just like you are not required to look at every piece in a gallery exhibit no matter how carefully curated–there’s still lots of pleasure to be had in alternate viewings. Or in songs on shuffle, or best-of collections. But I am interested in the author’s own intentionality, and willing to be guided by his or her choices most of the time.

September 9th, 2015

Ways to help a fellow writer with his/her work

I wrote a little advice-y blog post for rob mcclennan’s Ottawa Poetry blog on Ways to Help a Fellow Writer with His/Her Work. It’s an area I know well, having been giving and receiving criticism from my peers since 1997, and hopefully some of this is helpful. It was fun to write, anyway.

August 20th, 2015

Best Canadian

I’m pleased to say that my short story “Marriage” will soon appear in Best Canadian Stories 2015. In case you haven’t been playing along at home, “Marriage originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The New Quarterly.

This may sound vaguely familiar because I announced it once before, when I thought it would appear in last year’s edition. I’m not entirely sure why it didn’t, but mine is not to reason why–I’m happy it’ll be coming out soon. Since the last time I mentioned this story on the blog, it has had many adventures–it is the first story in this book that I am STILL writing, and very much a weight-bearing pillar in that structure. I’ll be thrilled to see it making another outing in the world. Coming this November.

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