Emily of New Moon vs. Anne of Green Gables

Spoiler alert–Emily wins.

n59419 Sorry Anne fans, but if Anne Shirley is the boisterous poster child for all that is sunny and sentimental about L. M. Montgomery’s  Prince Edward Island, Emily Starr is the quiet and dignified young ambassador for its darker, lonelier, and sadder beauty. Both girls are orphans, both do, eventually, find their “rainbow gold” (critics often argue Anne achieves this only by lowering her expectations), but only one girl truly visits the “depths of despair” in her young womanhood, and for all her melodramatic theatrics, that girl is not Anne Shirley.

[Note – For the purposes of this post I am comparing the three Emily books (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest) with only the first three Anne novels (Anne of Green GablesAnne of Avonlea, and Anne of the Island). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the third Anne book. Secondly, by cutting the Anne books off after the third, we are finishing with both heroines at a similar age and marital status, since their girlhood and young adulthood is what I’m interested in anyways.]

anne_of_green_gables1I suppose I can start with the obvious: the writing in the Emily trilogy is, quite simply, better. This isn’t Anne’s fault. After Anne of Green Gables was first published, L. M. Montgomery had 15 years to become a better writer before Emily of New Moon came into existence. One would assume that a writer would become better after 15 years, and Montgomery did–she managed to retain the charming characters and setting that made Anne of Green Gables so beloved, but with Emily the plot as a whole was stronger, the stakes higher, and the narrator’s sense of humour and pathos considerably sharper. Emily Starr inhabits her world, and is constrained by its constraints; she doesn’t simply overrule them the way Anne does.

Obviously, the perceived strengths of each character and their journey depend upon what you, the reader, feel is more important in a story. Despite its relative safety and domesticity, the story of Anne Shirley reads like a fairytale–somehow, despite an early childhood of abuse and neglect, a little girl is able to be infallibly romantic and optimistic, charm every single person she ever meets, win top honours in every academic trial she encounters, and eventually realizes that the man she spent years declining really is the man she wants after all (boring Gilbert from Avonlea was her dashing prince all along! Quelle surpise!). Interestingly enough, despite Emily Starr’s possession of her Grandmother Shipley’s “second sight” (used incredibly sparingly as a plot device), her life and world are simply more human–once an orphan, Emily is misunderstood and treated unfairly by the adults in her life, and teased and resented by her peers. The love she gains (and is able to give in return) is hard-won on both sides, the outcome of conflict and compromise and not simply “charm”. Essentially, if you want the endearing dew-bright fairytale, Anne Shirley is the heroine for you. But if you want a character that’s a little more human (whose failures and disappointments make her triumphs that much sweeter), Emily Starr will deliver.

Still not convinced? If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool devotee of “that Anne-girl” you probably never will be, but just for fun, consider the following:

  • Anne and Emily share a similar character flaw (pride), but Anne’s is literally only skin deep. If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables (or watched the CBC mini series) you will remember the time Anne broke a slate on Gilbert’s head (and refused to forgive him for years) because he called her “Carrots”, or the time she dyed her hair green, or her nose purple (later book). One could say Anne is beset by pride, which can make for an interesting character flaw, but in actuality she merely suffers from pride’s annoying little cousin–vanity. BORING. Emily, though not at all vain, is acutely proud–proud of her late father (who is despised by her new guardians in her extended family), proud of her extended family (despite their sometimes unjust treatment of her), proud of her friends (despite their occasionally spotty reputation), proud of her composure (even to her detriment), and proud of being a writer. These various kinds of pride clash with the desires of her community, her family, her peers, and her heart in ways that are important to Emily’s growth as a character, a woman, and a writer, but they are also integral to the plot. The consequences of Anne’s vanity are as superficial as the flaw itself–hair grows back, forgiveness is granted, love restored. The consequences of Emily’s pride are lasting, and she must learn to live with them.
  • Anne Shirley writes, but Emily Starr is a writer. Sure, Anne scribbles down a few hilariously flowery romances (remember “Averill’s Atonement”?), and eventually pops out a little book about Avonlea, but she is hardly ambitious and seems mostly to write for amusement. Conversely, the first book in the Emily trilogy ends with a realization of her commitment to her craft (described as a “jealous goddess”) despite the pains it will and does give her. As you watch Emily grow as a person you also watch her grow as an artist–the rejection letters sting, the first acceptance is a thrill, and nothing will ever fill the hole in her that writing occupies.  Though obviously Emily the Writer is specifically relevant to me, I wouldn’t require Anne to share that goal if she at least wanted something. But she doesn’t really. I suppose I could rephrase my point in a more general way:
  • Emily has a goal, but Anne does not. It’s true. Anne enjoys scholarship and getting her BA (through hard study rather than intellectual maturation it seems), but has apparently little plans to do anything with it. How convenient for her that she happens to find herself in love with Gilbert Blythe around the same time she finds herself with nothing to do! And it’s not even the feminist in me that grates against this journey–if Anne had always wanted a simple married life then achieving the means to it would be a great end to the third book, but the thing is, she never did. The reader really wants Anne and Gilbert to end up together, but for the most part, Anne herself does not. Having the heroine achieve something she never really wanted because it turns out she has nothing better to do is not my idea of a great story. (For all you naysayers who point out that maybe Anne’s goal was to be loved and have a home, I would say that’s valid, but she achieves that goal in the first book, and the next two novels are just saintly sentimental Anne Shirley spinning her wheels and staving off Gilbert’s puppy-eyed advances.)
  • Anne’s love of Gilbert is simply tacked on to the end of the third novel, while Emily’s feelings for Teddy are a force that significantly shapes her journey. Regarding Anne’s engagement to Gilbert, see above. It’s all just comfort and friendishness, with not a single spark or thrill about it. Though critics often smear Teddy Kent as a “Gilbert Blythe” type, he is no such thing. Teddy Kent is a talented visual artist with emotions and ambitions of his own. His life does not belong to Emily, and he does more with it than dote on her (his creepy mother, the “morbidly jealous” Mrs. Kent, also serves to make Teddy a more risky and thrilling proposition than safe dopey Gilbert Blythe). Apart from Teddy’s superior qualities, his relationship with Emily seems to grow organically and artfully throughout the trilogy, encountering disappointments and misunderstandings along the way. Unlike Anne and Gilbert, Emily and Teddy are NOT a foregone conclusion and the tension this creates is AWESOME. Of Miss Lavender and Mr. Irving (finally wed after a long separation in Anne of Avonlea), Gilbert once says to Anne, “wouldn’t it have been more beautiful still, Anne, if there had been NO separation or misunderstanding . . . if they had come hand in hand all the way through life, with no memories behind them but those which belonged to each other?” No, Gilbert, no it would not, at least not in a book. BORING.
  • Bad things happen to Emily. Nothing really bad of course, or it wouldn’t be an L. M. Montgomery novel, but actual bad things do happen to Emily and she is forced to bear the weight of them. It’s suggested in Anne of Green Gables that Anne’s life before Avonlea is a very unhappy one, but it seems to affect her not at all. She’s sad of course when Matthew dies and Marilla’s eyes fail and when she declines Gilbert for the first time, but it falls from her like water from a duck’s back, and through unrealistically fortunate circumstances (including the death of minor characters we’re not attached to), Anne is able to have everything she wants anyways. Not so with Emily. When it comes to Emily Starr, Montgomery has allowed her heroine to be hurt and afraid in ways Anne never was (see Emily Climbs for a truly macabre episode in which 13-year-old Emily is locked in an empty church with Mad Mr. Morrison, who believes she is his dead wife). When Emily breaks an engagement, she loses a cherished friend forever. When her teacher dies, she loses her best mentor and critic. After high school she remains on New Moon farm while her best friends pursue their careers in the wider world, growing professionally and growing apart from her. And even in the glow of the triumph of her first published novel, she still feels the sting of the loss of her forever unborn actual first book. Montgomery has given Emily permission to be depressed when life hurts, a permission she never granted Anne. Case in point:
  • The broken ankle. When Anne breaks her ankle falling off a ridgepole in Anne of Green Gables, her seven weeks on the sofa are described as merely “tedious”. “It isn’t very pleasant to be laid up;” says Anne, “but there is a bright side to it, Marilla. You find out how many friends you have. Why, even Superintendent Bell came to see me, and he’s really a very fine man.” Then she prattles away for a couple pages about “kindred spirits”. Sigh. Anne Shirley, sometimes I want to slap you right in your silly face. When Emily trips over a sewing basket and falls down the stairs, piercing her foot on the sewing scissors and nearly succumbing to a dangerous infection, her convalescence as depicted in Emily’s Quest is not quite so cheery:

…in the long nights when everything was blotted out by pain she could not face it. Even when there was no pain her nights were often sleepless and very terrible when the wind wailed drearily about the old New Moon eaves or chased flying phantoms of snow over the hills. When she slept she dreamed, and in her dreams she was for ever climbing stairs and could never get to the top of them, lured upward by an odd little whistle[…]that ever retreated as she climbed. It was better to lie awake than have that terrible, recurrent dream. Oh, those bitter nights!

Emily’s world is clearly darker than Anne’s, and for those who don’t like the darkness, I can see why spunky Anne would be a better literary companion. But doesn’t a little darkness make for a better story? Doesn’t a little pain make a character more human? Don’t ambitious goals and formidable obstacles make the reading experience more worthwhile (especially when, true to L. M. Montgomery fashion, everything works out fine in the end)?

I think so. Though Anne Shirley will always have a nostalgic little place in my heart, it is to the world of Emily Starr that I return again and again for comfort and inspiration.

Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield on taking 10 years to write one book

Last Thursday my fiction professor David Chariandy decided to take us on an impromptu field trip to the Rhizome Cafe to hear Vancouver-to-Halifax transplant Rachel Lebowitz read from Cottonopolis, her new book of  prose and poetry, with a special a guest reading by Vancouver writer Wayde Compton (we missed the first part of his reading but his work was pretty intriguing).

cottonopolisI must confess that I generally don’t like readings, or at least, don’t like the idea of readings. I worry that if I don’t like the work I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth this person managed to be published, or if I love the work, I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth I will ever have anything of worth to contribute. Lebowitz and Compton put my feelings in the latter camp of course; however, the evening as a whole was surprisingly encouraging and I think it has to do with actually meeting published writers, instead of just being scared (or jealous) of them.

13237125Prof. Chariandy (whose 2007 debut novel Soucouyant was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award) is never one to miss a learning opportunity and shortly after the reading he was able to commandeer the time and attention of not only Rachel Lebowitz but Ireland-to-Vancouver transplant and author Anakana Schofield as well (Schofield was recently the recipient of the Amazon.ca First Novel award for her book Malarky). Both Lebowitz and Schofield seem to take time very seriously in their respective processes, i.e. both writers worked for years on their respective books. Upon learning that we were an undergraduate writing class, Schofield joked that she and Lebowitz would give us their top ten tips for taking ten years to publish one book, but between the two of them they actually came up with a great list.

So here, in no specific order and paraphrased/remembered only to the best of my abilities, I give you Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield’s “Top Ten Tips for Taking Ten Years to Publish One Book”:

  • Read, and read widely. If YOU aren’t reading, how can you expect your work to be read by others?
  • Don’t publish work that isn’t good, even if it’s “publishable”.
  • Take time to NOT write. There’s no reason for the constant pressure for writerly output if you’re just spinning your wheels–time spent on your family, your interests, yourself will find its way into your work.  To be a good writer you have to actually LIVE life.
  • Choose your “influences” carefully. Your influences should be artists (from various disciplines) that you believe to be the best of the best. Your influences should inspire you to be better. Your influences should be truly excellent at their craft, rather than writers that write at the level you’re already operating at (i.e. your influences should not be your peers, necessarily, unless your peers are jaw-droppingly good).
  • Don’t condescend to your reader. Writing to the lowest common denominator because you think it will increase your chances of being published does not a good writer make (see point about not publishing work that isn’t good). Assume a readership that is as intelligent as the work you are trying to create.
  • If you find yourself consistently writing around the same locale or idea, that’s fine, so long as you continue to challenge yourself in your writing. As long as you need to write about a certain thing, write about it. Once it’s out of your system, you can write about the next thing that haunts you. To put it another way, there’s no need to write about something outside your scope of knowledge, interest, and experience just for the sake of it. The fact that a subject is “new” for you doesn’t necessarily make it more worthy, unless you have genuine passion and interest around it.

Find those first six tips helpful but need more advice on how to stretch out the writing process to ten full years? Schofield rounded out our top ten with some time-spending techniques:

  • Lose parts of your manuscript all over your apartment.
  • Get a guinea pig.
  • Don’t kill your teenager (presumably keeping both guinea pigs and teenagers alive is more effortful and time consuming than killing them off).
  • Stay off the cheese (I’m not sure if this one is meant to speed you up or slow you down actually. Either/or I guess, depending on how much you like cheese).

Of course my list is no replacement for meeting these warm and talented writers in the flesh but I found their conversation with us so darn nice and useful that I just had to record it for posterity. I apologize profusely if I’ve misrepresented either Lebowitz or Schofield–I did my best to get the gist of a pretty fast-paced conversation, but obviously some things were lost in translation.

I was able to purchase Cottonopolis from Rachel Lebowitz that night (and get it signed too, woot!) and will hopefully be able to get my hands on a copy of Malarky soon. I’m certainly intrigued and appreciative and looking forward to some good reading.

[For more about Rachel Lebowitz’s process, you may want to check out Lebowitz’s 2010 interview with Desk Space. For more of Anakana Schofield’s informative and hilarious musings, visit her website at anakanaschofield.com. Particularly the “About” page and her blog.]

I Never Had My Gatsby/Salinger/Bohemian Moment

People with whom I’ve discussed certain works of English literature have probably heard me say that “I’m just not all that into ‘angry young man’ fiction.” I will often follow up by complaining that there seems to be no similarly canonized literature about angry young women.

While my latter point is true, and remains problematic to me, I realize that labelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye “angry young man” fiction is a bit of a misnomer. The characters aren’t angry, per se, but they are hopelessly lost. And they make terrible decisions, the consequences of which are often more damaging to other people than they are to the decision maker. (Then again, maybe the angry young men aren’t the ones in the books themselves, maybe they’re the ones reading them. But I digress.)

Of course, both The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye are great books. They really are. You should read both of them at least once in your life, and yet…and yet

There’s a certain cultural thing these books have become part of, erroneously I think, and I just don’t get it. There seems to be a group of young Salinger/Fitzgerald fans (in the age group of my peers, generally) who laud these books as Bibles for the truths they tell about the irresponsible, self-inflicted misery of privileged living (which a lot of angsty Millennials from middle class backgrounds relate to), and yet, paradoxically, seem to use these same novels to excuse their own flakiness and lack of roots or connections to the world and people around them. If you recognize that what makes The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye so good is also what makes them so sad, I can’t see that you would consider Jay Gatzby, Holden Caulfield, or even Nick Carraway to be role models for living. Unless of course, you actually wanted to be sad. In which case, you’d be well on your way if you emulate these miserable heroes.

But are we really so lucky, really so privileged, that we must purposefully seek out unhappiness and instability in order to feel alive? Have I missed out on a great piece of my generation’s growth by experiencing only the unavoidable misery and instability that came my way naturally? If so, I don’t get it.

Maybe I’m just stuffy as hell. I recently went to see Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan were great, Tobey Maguire, as usual, was not). Before the previews the cinema was playing advertisements, most of them aimed at millenials like myself (because we buy SO MUCH STUFF), and one of them was Mini Cooper’s NOT NORMAL commercial. Basically, says the coaxing manifesto of the voiceover, normal is safe, but “normal can never be amazing”.  Grey sterile images of office cubicles and dry toast with marmalade make way for beautiful twenty-somethings hula hooping in the dark, making art, and kissing in elevators, all to loud rousing music and the smooth British voiceover man as he champions the “not normal”. And somehow, these beautiful people (who are WAY too cool to have anything “normal” like a job) can afford to drive Mini Coopers.

I have no problem with crazy hula hooping club parties, making out in elevators, or even Mini Coopers, but the message here (“Who would ever want to be normal?”), like the message of most advertisements, is way off. Even sexy Mini-driving DJs eat toast sometimes. Even people who “seize the day” by getting it on in a crowded elevator have jobs, most of those jobs are “normal”. Mini Coopers don’t pay for themselves, and NO ONE gets paid just to be an awesome thrill-seeking hipster. Survival necessitates at least some bending to the normal demands of life (food, shelter, transport). Sure, “normal”, by definition, can never be exceptionally stupendously mind-blowing, but it also won’t be war-torn, diseased-wracked, starving, homeless, or abused. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m okay with normal, and because of this, I am not invited to Mini Cooper’s party, the wild binge-drink/heart-break/art-make that is their version of “not normal”. And I guess that’s too bad.

I always wanted to go to a really amazing party. I really wanted to be part of that “let your hair down” crazy time, I wanted the romance of waking up in my car in a strange place, of stolen kisses and superficial heartache brought on by guitar-strumming boy wonders, summers that last forever, mud in my hair, and the Zombie’s “Time of the Season”. But when I was old enough to go to parties, I was disappointed. I felt like a fool and a phoney, self-consciously swigging whatever beer I could get someone to buy for me (regardless of its taste or temperature), talking too loudly, laughing too loudly, making “fun” this big show we all had a part in. It didn’t look like what I’d imagined, there was a lot of eyeliner and hooded sweatshirts and stupid fights. It didn’t sound like what I’d imagined, most of the music in the mid-2000s was really shitty. It was nothing to make a celebrated subculture out of, and I felt cheated.

I still feel cheated. I wasn’t at Woodstock, I was never part of the Pepsi Generation. I never lived in a house where all our glasses were mason jars and the weed belonged to everyone. I’ve never done anything really debaucherous. I’ve never really REALLY been out of money (because rather than being “not normal” and spending the last of my line of credit on turntables and a Mini Cooper I got a temp job in admin instead). I’ve never felt responsible for nothing. I’ve never sought out misery or insecurity or instability for the sake of it–I’ve always run back to solid ground when I could find it.

I never said, “eff this” and wandered the big wide world aimless and nursing my whiskey soaked blues. I never kept company with careless people (if I could help it). I never hated my family or their values, I never broke a heart if I could help it. I chafed against the system, but I never really rejected it. I loved the long loose dresses, but I never was a bohemian. I’ve never even cried on a fire escape.

And I never held up a battered paperback of Catcher in the Rye that I carried everywhere and said, “This book, man. This BOOK. It’s like the story of my WHOLE LIFE,” and set my eye on a future that was always moving away from, and never coming back to.

Huh. I wonder what it is I missed?

In Defense of Fairy Tales

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I knew I loved fairy and folk tales, so I assume they’ve been part of my being ever since I can remember. In my house, my sisters and I were told stories. We were read to. We had a big bad-ass dress up box. We had a few cherished old Disney movies, and books with beautiful and provocative illustrations (like Edward Gorey’s uniquely creepy illustrations of Rumpelstiltskin, or Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s spellbinding visions of Snow White, painstakingly translated by Randall Jarrell).

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, pictures by Edward Gorey

We were little kids with a lot of space to play, a lot of time, and a lot of imagination. Fairy tales were a natural part of our games–and are still a natural part of my creative impulses.

But somewhere along the line fairy tales have gotten a bad rap. Perhaps it’s little girls’ (and occasionally little boys’) obsession with princesses that has us all worked up. Despite my moderately feminist upbringing, I must confess I liked storybook princesses too (the dresses! the castles! the dresses!). I even went so far as to make a storybook of my own out of cardboard, entitled “Princess Amanda and the Unicorn”. [Princess Amanda was the youngest and most beautiful of seven king’s daughters. Apparently she meets a unicorn, but to the best of my recollection the better part of the book is spent naming ducklings near the castle pond, and the story has no conflict. Delightful.]

Childish fancy aside, I’m sure most of us have (inwardly or outwardly) groaned and rolled our eyes at the women we meet who, despite their adult years, happily call themselves “Daddy’s Little Princess” etc. and who use this label as an excuse to be covetous, shallow, and selfish. Bridezillas on reality shows like “Say Yes to the Dress”, “Wedding SOS”, and “Four Weddings” constantly emphasize two main goals: to look “like a princess”, and to have “a fairy tale wedding”. If this over the top display of vanity and consumption bothers you I don’t blame you. But don’t blame the fairy tales.

Fairy tales have also long been harangued by feminist critics for promoting idealized and patriarchal interpretations of romance, interpretations that reward beauty and passivity in women (a la Cinderella) and punish intelligence (a la the evil queen in Snow White whose character, while pathologically jealous, still serves as a rare depiction of an educated woman). The outdated and unrealistic ideas of “waiting for The One”, “love at first sight”, and being on an unhappy path in life until a “special someone” steps in form the basic plots of most romantic comedies today. The answer, according to most of these films, is finding romance. Never mind your career accomplishments, your intelligence, your bonds with family, friends, and colleagues: you’re nothing until you find a man. Your life means nothing without a “fairy tale” ending (except, of course, for most of us, our lives don’t end at marriage but must be defined ultimately by what comes beyond it). If you find these messages sexist, nauseating, and unrealistic, I don’t blame you. These are valid criticisms. But don’t blame the fairy tales.

I've got this one on my shelf. It never stops blowing my mind.

I’ve got this one on my shelf. It never stops blowing my mind.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that for most North Americans, the versions of fairy tales we know best are the ones depicted in Disney films. Disney’s versions are so ingrained in most of our minds many of us can’t even tell what is part of the story and what is Disney invention. University of Winnipeg professors Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer believe that contemporary critics of fairy tales “need to consider the possibility that the archaic sexist or ageist values they express may be those of the…1930s and 1940s–and the 1990s and 2000s–as much as, or rather than, those of an ancient oral tradition or even those imposed on the tales by writers such as [Charles] Perrault and the Grimms.” (The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 312). If you’re going to take issue with a fairy tale, you should at least know where it came from. (Which is easier said than done, since the “authenticity” of fairy and folk tales is hard to prove considering their origins in an oral tradition–the middle-class Grimms were far removed from the German peasants whose tales they claimed to be collecting–but for argument’s sake let’s go with “earliest recording” as closer to “original” than Disney.)

An old tale like Snow White, for example, has been unfairly criticized for depicting a passive and gullible woman, waiting around (and then SLEEPING, for heaven’s sake), doing and achieving nothing, happy to let men (i.e. the dwarves) take care of her in exchange for a little housekeeping, and when they fail to protect her, happy for a prince to come along and wake her with a kiss. Such is Walt Disney’s telling, but the version “recorded” by the Brothers Grimm is somewhat different on a few key points:

  1. Snow White is a seven year old child when she escapes to the dwarves’ cottage, not even old enough to be considered a “young” woman. Can you really blame a seven year old for sticking with those who can offer her shelter and protection, and for being naive enough to be tricked by a clever queen in disguise? Heck, I’ve known seven year olds who can’t tie their own shoes. At least Snow White can do a little housework.
  2. Snow White is not woken by a kiss. Her rescue from her step mother’s poison, in fact, has little to do with romance. After eating the apple and “falling down as if dead”, the dwarves can’t revive her. The child is so beautiful, even in death, that they do not want to bury her so they lay her to rest in a glass coffin. A prince comes along, sees Snow White, and cannot part with her. The dwarves take pity on him and let him take the coffin. As they’re carrying it off, one of the prince’s servants trips on a bush and bumps the coffin. The bump dislodges the piece of poisoned apple that was still stuck in Snow White’s throat. She coughs it up, instantly revives, and when the prince asks if she wants to marry him, she says (more or less), “Yeah, sure.” Considering she’s a child who’s had four attempts on her life at this point (the huntsman, the bodice laces, the poisoned comb, and the apple), it’s probably fairly prudent of her to marry a guy with the resources to keep her safe and comfortable.
  3. The violence against the heroine of this story does not go unpunished. Unless we accept the Disney version of events in which the evil queen (disguised as a peddler woman) falls off a cliff, most of us don’t really know or care about what happens to her. Which is weird. She tried to KILL a little girl! More than once! Don’t we want some justice? The Grimms sure do. When Snow White marries the prince the evil queen is invited to the wedding. Dressed up in her party clothes, the queen asks the mirror her famous question. The mirror answers that the new bride is the fairest one of all. The queen is sick with jealousy but can’t overcome her curiosity–she HAS to see who this bride is. When she gets to the wedding she recognizes Snow White, but before she can be too pissed off about it they put her in a pair of red-hot iron shoes and she has to “dance” until she dies. The end.

If I was going to have a problem with the story’s depiction of women I’d probably take bigger issue with the representation of an educated woman with a can-do attitude as vain and homicidal than with the depiction of a young child as fearful and naive. I’d also be a bit squeamish about a seven year old getting married but in the olden days small royal children got married off to other royal people all the time. So……I’ll chalk that up to the medieval world this tale seems to be set in.

Fairy tales are really all in the version you read/hear, and all in how you think about them. Even silly little Cinderella, with her dreams no bigger than a ballroom, should be able to find sympathy in this liberated age. Having been abused, humiliated, and forced into servitude by her family, is it any wonder she won’t let herself wish for anything more than one night of fun (or three, depending on the version)? For privileged folks like us, one night at a party seems like nothing, a silly thing to ask for. But for a young woman in Cinderella’s situation, the idea of even one night away from the prison of her home must have seemed an impossible dream. “But she doesn’t DO anything” you might say, “she just cries and waits around for someone else to save her.” Well, yes. Sometimes, people in abusive situations can’t find a way out of them, and they might need outside help. Magic old ladies and pumpkin carriages aside, this idea is not so unrealistic unfortunately. Though marrying the prince may not seem like the perfect solution to Cinderella’s problems (as she exchanges one set of bonds for another), becoming a princess to raise her status and power above that of her abusive family’s is a pretty shrewd maneuver I think. Well done, Cindy.

Do fairy tales hold an honest mirror to society or provide us with good principles to live by? Of course not (at least not directly). But they’re not supposed to. They present a removed world (somewhere “Once Upon a Time”) where lines between good and bad, rich and poor, hero and villain are clearly drawn. Simple yes, but the tales aren’t simple because they’re low. They’re simple so people telling and retelling the stories can remember them. No matter which version you encounter, each popular fairy tale contains certain elements that remain the same–a red cloak–a magic mirror–a room full of straw–a poisoned apple–a giant beanstalk–a lost slipper–an angry fairy–a secret name–a deep dark forest. There is something utterly captivating about these elements, something familiar but bewitching, that gives fairy tale stories their longevity. Dress them up however you like, criticize them, comb them for Marxist/Capitalist/feminist/Freudian theory, adapt to stage and screen and back to fireside–these tales endure.

And there is no reason to blame them. If you don’t like the versions of fairy tales you know, tell your own. Tell them and retell them and tell them again. Though eventually recorded into “definitive” versions by scholars and court scribes, at their most authentic, these stories have always belonged to everyone. The elements are all there; you just need to tell the tales. If you don’t, you have no one to blame for their “messages” but yourself.

On “The Pleasures of Children’s Literature” (Perry Nodelman & Mavis Reimer)

This post is not the first in which I discuss my interest in children’s literature (like my love of YA fiction), and it will likely not be the last. My inspiration today is my current preoccupation: studying for my final exam in a Children’s Literature course (an Education course this time, cross-listed with English). 0801332486The textbook shaping and informing this course is a lovely little volume called (you guessed it) The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by University of Winnipeg children’s lit scholars Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer.

As a textbook, Pleasures is fairly rigorous and methodical. Its voice is also just casual enough that it makes for enjoyable (and informative) reading. As far as required texts go, I’ve been subjected to much drier. That’s not to say the text is perfect–the authors supply a lot of theories about engaging children with literature, and plenty of their own (albeit educated) opinion and bias, but leave practical application of these theories more or less up to the reader. They also unforgivably dismiss one of my favourite trilogies, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, as little more than a variation on the simple “home-away-home” theme (which completely misses the point of the novels and is also just plain wrong wrong WRONG!). These criticisms aside, my journey with this text has been a good one, and, considering the ways in which literature for children is inextricably linked to education, I’m happy to report it’s taught me things too.

Thing Number One: What we consider necessary components of children’s literature are based on commonly-held assumptions about children that may not be true and are often contradictory. [This idea is very fully explained by Nodelman and Reimer in chapter 5 of the text but I was so interested in this I summarized it below.]

Ask anyone–a parent, a teacher, a young bookworm like me–what makes for appropriate literature for kids, and you’ll get similar kinds of answers which usually include the following: It should be simple. It should be colourful. There should be lots of action. It shouldn’t be too scary. It should end happily. It must not have too much violence or contain anything sexual. It must not demonstrate or describe behaviours or beliefs we do not want children to copy. It must have characters children will relate to–boys want to read about boys, girls want to read about girls, etc. of a similar age to themselves, with cultures and values like their own.

These assumptions about what makes a good book for children leads us to question what we are assuming about children themselves. Based on the assumptions above, we are really assuming that children have short attention spans and lack the ability for sophisticated thought (hence the need for simplicity, colour, and constant action). We assume that children are naturally innocent (hence books can’t be “too scary”, can’t acknowledge violence or sexuality, and must end happily). We also, paradoxically, assume that children are naturally bad and will immediately copy any wicked behaviour they are exposed to in literature without proper guidance (hence the need for censorship). Another paradox is that we assume children are self-centered (which is why they only like to read about characters like themselves), but, as described above, they are somehow also very easily influenced by whatever they read.

As far as children’s lack of sophistication goes, it turns out that much of what we believe to be “obvious” about children’s mental development (and by extension, what they are capable of reading) actually stems from the research of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. It’s worth noting that the methods used in the experiments Piaget conducted to “prove” his theories of mental development in children would likely not pass muster in the field of psychology today and serious objections have been raised regarding both his methods and his logic. It is Nodelman and Reimer’s position that because we still (perhaps falsely) believe that children’s understanding is limited, we limit the literature and learning materials they are exposed to, and therefore create their limitations ourselves.

As Nodelman and Reimer contend, our assumptions about children’s literature (and therefore, our assumptions about childhood) may have less to do with what children are actually like and more with what adults need them to be. Which leads me to…

Thing Number Two: Some of our most beloved and enduring children’s books, the ones we believe to most truly capture the essence of childhood, are really only capturing what we, as adults, want to feel that childhood is or was.

The two most obvious examples of this that come to mind (out of the many many books the authors of Pleasures discuss in their text) are A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (usually known nowadays as just Peter Pan). Both of these stories revolve around the innocent and fantastical adventures of childhood, and both end with the title character being left behind by a dear friend who must “grow up” (oh god, I’m getting teary just thinking about it).

Though many many children do love the stories of Pooh and Peter (for me, it was the flying), I agree with Nodelman and Reimer that the real audience of both of these stories, i.e. the audience that can best understand and appreciate them, is an adult one. Pooh8It is because we no longer possess the ignorance and innocence of Pooh and his friends that we can find humour in their sayings and doings (our relative experience also allows us to better appreciate the eternally pessimistic Eeyore, a character I found boring as a child). It is also because we are no longer young ourselves that we find an island like the Neverland (where you never never grow old) so beguiling.

As humourous and enchanting as the adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan are, their real heart and soul are captured in their final scenes depicting the inevitable and permanent separation of Pooh from his beloved friend Christopher Robin, and Peter Pan from Wendy Darling, the girl who loves him. Christopher Robin must go to school (after which he says, “they don’t let you” have the escapades he had with Pooh before), and Wendy realizes that if she avoids growing up, she must also miss out on experiencing important and necessary parts of life (like family). For children who are living childhood, the idea of losing it likely has a far less profound effect on them as it does on us. As a small child, I actually thought very little of the “sadness” of growing up. I wanted to be bigger so I could do the things my older sister was doing. It wasn’t until after puberty (and there was no turning back) that these books were truly relevant to me. (Please don’t get me wrong–these are beautiful books, beautifully written and beautifully sad, but perhaps not as much “for” children as “about” a childhood, real or imagined, that we as adults have lost.)

If you think about it, is childhood really as golden and idyllic as A. A. Milne and J. M. Barrie describe it as being? Not really. For the lucky children (like me), it’s very fun and magical but it’s also very messy and confusing and scary and uncomfortable. For unlucky children (which, on a global scale, is most children), there is abuse and/or neglect and/or illness and/or war and/or poverty. Not exactly a romp in the Hundred Acre Wood or a flit off to the Neverland. And although adults know these things, in Western culture we still like to see representations of childhood that are eternally bright and heart-breakingly carefree. They provide entertainment to children, yes, but more importantly, they provide comfort and nostalgia to adults.

Thing Number Three: The creation and availability of children’s literature is driven by adults, in service of adult concerns, and not by children.

This should be obvious, since adults are the ones writing, publishing, selling, selecting, and buying books for children, but we sometimes seem to forget this. The books you can find in the children’s section of a bookstore are the winners of a very profit-driven lottery, and the odds are becoming more difficult each year. In a nutshell, publishers are printing less titles, but expect to make just as much money (or more) from less. This means the titles publishers do print must (regardless of literary merit) be blockbuster money-makers, like the Harry Potter or Twilight series; they are much less likely to take a chance on a more obscure but perhaps better book that may become a classic over time. Depressing. Because teachers and librarians (the primary buyers of kids’ books apart from parents) are increasingly worried about the threat of censorship (often by parents who haven’t even read the entirety of the book they are trying to ban), they are increasingly unlikely to buy books that may be censored, and publishers are increasingly unlikely to print them. Also depressing. Ho hum.

Thing Number Four: Many of the most widely used strategies for teaching literature to children aren’t creating what Nodelman and Reimer call “ardent readers”, primarily because these strategies ask children to do things that ardent readers don’t do.

This point is really hit home with me, especially since I consider my own “ardent readership” an important factor in the course of my education and life. If I had not already lived in a house of books and been introduced to the activity of reading by my parents and older sister, I would likely have been utterly turned off reading by the stupidity and uselessness of the “activities” my English classes forced upon me.

According to Pleasures (and my own experience), ardent readers get caught up in the book they’re reading. They engage with the suspense, they rush to the end to find out what happens. They do not stop every time they find a word they don’t know to look it up in the dictionary. They do not ask themselves absolutely vapid comprehension questions that have more to do with unimportant details than with the point of the book itself. They do not waste time making posters of scenes from the book (unless they like to draw, or if it’s a tie-in with art class, but I will never forgive those well intentioned teachers who gave me marks off in ENGLISH class for the quality of my COLOURING). Ardent readers talk about the books they’ve read. They argue about them, they defend their position. They think about what the book means to them, not blindly accept what their teacher says it means so they can parrot it back in a test. And they acknowledge, if they see them, the innuendos, ironies, and possibilities for “reading against a text”, even if that interpretation isn’t a sanctioned part of the school curriculum. I always got the feeling that my teachers expected their students to dislike reading, so they tried to assign activities loosely based around a text but that required as little true reading as possible. Nodelman and Reimer also note that many (too many) teachers who “cover” poetry in their classrooms neither understand nor enjoy poetry themselves. You can’t really blame kids for not understanding/enjoying it either…sigh….(all I can hope is that today’s teachers of English or Language Arts are reading Nodelman and Reimer too…).

Anyways, while occasionally bleak, I liked this textbook.

With teachers for parents (and my desire to someday be a parent myself), I’ve always been interested in the field of education. Being a lover of English literature and possessing a certain whimsical streak, I’ve always been interested in the field of children’s literature. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature was a great introductory read. The greed of the children’s culture industry and the various failings of our education systems notwithstanding, my love of the genre is intact and my old favourites (whether actually read in childhood or acquired after the fact) are still friends to me.

Anne of Green Gables, NOW BLONDER AND BUSTIER!

Even if they haven’t actually read the classic book by L.M. Montgomery, people who are at all familiar with western literature or culture will know that THIS is Anne of Green Gables:

9780553609417_custom-ca4455d0c15d99fc51ea2900942fec2d9c13388c-s6-c10And that this monstrosity, on sale on Amazon.com since November 2012, is most definitely NOT:


[If the sexy photo moves you to indulge in some turn of the century Canadian kid’s lit, look no further than right here on Amazon.com!]

I mean, what the hell is going on here? There are two very, VERY big problems with this:

PROBLEM ONE: Anne of Green Gables is a redhead (though amazingly no one at the bookselling giant Amazon.com seems to know it).

Everybody knows that Anne Shirley has red hair. This fact is repeated over and over and OVER in the book. Anne’s redheadedness, and the way she reacts to peoples’ comments about it, is an integral part of who she is. Anne’s red hair is the reason she snaps at Rachel Lynde. It is the reason she cracks a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head. And it’s the reason she accidentally dyes her hair green (in an attempt to turn it “a beautiful raven black.”). Though in later books Anne’s hair colour does deepen, it becomes auburn, which is really just a fancy way of saying dark brownish red.

Anne was not, is not, and never will be, a blonde.

PROBLEM TWO: Anne of Green Gables is an eleven year old girl.

Anne Shirley is a skinny, poorly dressed, redheaded little orphan girl with big eyes and incredible innocence. She’s also intelligent, studious, and extraordinarily sensitive. She has no interest in the boys in her life except as friends or academic rivals.

She’s certainly no buxom, bedroom-eyed sex kitten leaning on a hay bale.

That any publisher or purveyor of CHILDREN’S LITERATURE would be comfortable with the sexual objectification of the eleven year old heroine of a classic children’s novel is absolutely shocking. It’s like draping Wendy Darling over Skull Rock in a bikini, or letting Alice stomp all over Wonderland in fishnets and stilettos. There are times when adding sex appeal is not the way to sell a product. When the product in question is eleven years old (even fictionally), you know it’s one of those times to keep your sexy thoughts to yourself.

I don’t really have a problem with the young woman in the photo on a personal level. She’s probably just some model who ended up in a collection of stock photos of “girls on farms”. She likely had no idea that her contemporary sexy blonde farm girl photo would grace the cover of a much-loved children’s classic (first published in 1908) about an eleven-year-old girl with red hair who lives on Prince Edward Island.

I do, however, have a big problem with Amazon.com, and their publishing company “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform“. I find it amusing that in Amazon’s free preview of the first few pages of the book, the words “Copyrighted Material” appear emblazoned all over the place. As if either Amazon or CreateSpace can claim any ownership of L.M. Montgomery’s actual words. It looks more like they just took a public domain manuscript, didn’t read a word of it, and slapped a foxy cover on it in an attempt to make a quick buck. Which seems to be exactly what has happened here.

It is obvious that Amazon.com, despite being a bookseller and controlling a publishing company, has no knowledge of or love for literature. If they did, they would have read the book they published, realized right away that Anne is very vitally a redhead and a child, and put a redheaded child on the cover (if they needed a photo at all). I had always assumed that in order to be a purveyor of books, a company would actually, you know, know/care about books. Apparently not.

Though I am among the many who feel in their bones that a great crime against literature, childhood, and authorial intent has been committed, in all probability what CreateSpace and Amazon.com have done is okey-dokey in the eyes of the law.  The book Anne of Green Gables and its sequels have been in the public domain for a long time. If a publisher wants to slap a sexy blonde on the cover of it, they probably can. And if Amazon.com wants to peddle that smut, it’s within their rights to do so.

That doesn’t mean they should. Some things are just sacred, and childhood classics are one of those things. I suppose if representing Anne Shirley as a sexy blonde woman is fine, it’s probably equally fine, in terms of legality, to display her in a Nazi SS uniform, driving an SUV and punching a kitten. I’m sure there are those who would find this hilarious or titillating, but they can find that kind of crap on 4chan or on late night television if they so choose.

They don’t need to find it on the cover of L.M. Montgomery’s beautiful childhood classic. And they don’t need to find a voluptuous blonde there either.

A Night of Poetry with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Co-Op Books. This is where the magic happens.

In my continued efforts to challenge my brain and improve my writing, I am once again taking a Creative Writing: Poetry course at Simon Fraser University (this one is the 400-level version of the 300-level class I took this spring). Rachel Blau DuPlessis (“poet and essayist, and feminist critic and scholar”) is currently in town so class was cancelled and we were STRONGLY encouraged to attend one of her Vancouver readings.

Last night about six or seven of us gathered at the People’s Co-Op Bookstore (1391 Commercial Drive) to hear DuPlessis read from her latest (and as of yet unpublished) work. It was obvious who the students were, as we sat eagerly in front while a formidable crowd of poets, poetry lovers, and scholars gathered behind us. We really were in for a special treat as DuPlessis read selections from her latest Draft poems (including what she called her “final” draft), and she told us afterwards that this was the first reading at which she had read these poems.

[Notes about the Drafts. There are over a hundred of them. This particular project has been in process for over twenty years.]

Listening to DuPlessis read made me realize that I connect with (good) contemporary poetry read aloud the way I connect with (good) contemporary dance. There is an arc there, carefully crafted, but it is emotional, intellectual, and/or intuitive rather than narrative or linear. Because one thing does not lead to another in a linear sense (and because, in a reading, I cannot see the page the poet is reading from), what I perceive or catch hold of are fragments, and I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what I saw or heard.

I’m used to this when watching dance. I’ve long known contemporary dance puts me into a mental state in which I am perceiving what is on the stage but also thinking and feeling a million different things which, I assume, are informed by what I see. Every once in a while I will be shaken from my reverie by an image or movement that particularly strikes me. Some could say what I’m experiencing is the act of “not paying attention”, but what I really think I am experiencing is something more transcendental.

This is what listening to DuPlessis read is like. I do not remember what any of the lines of poetry were, and I am not well-read enough to have caught the quotations or allusions within the poems, but goddamn, that woman can read. I was pretty lukewarm on the idea of attending a poetry reading because the last one I went to featured a poet who was so incredibly precious and flowery with the way in which she read the poems aloud I could not hear the poetry for the reading. DuPlessis is not flowery. She reads with conviction, and the climaxes and denouements of her “arguments” (because in a way I did get the sense there was an argument, a thesis here) reminded me of a political speech in the best possible sense–a speech that makes the people want to fight for something (but instead of lowest common denominator platitudes about God blessing America, we have poetry).

After her reading, DuPlessis took questions, and was kind enough to truly fully answer questions about her process, about her reading (she does not rehearse or prepare for the act of reading allowed, which was my question, but she does revise her poetry so many times that the arc and movement is built in), and about poetry as an art form in general. Poetry is different from other writing (fiction, etc.), DuPlessis says, because of the concern for the line, and the different ways in which syntax and structure must be taken into account (if I’m totally botching my paraphrasing here, I’m so sorry, I’m going by rather awestruck memory).

I cannot remember what happened while listening to DuPlessis read, but I do know I had moments of surprise, that something struck me as funny once or twice, that I was startled when she finished, and that I thought a million strange thoughts while DuPlessis read, none of which I can remember either. Very much like any evening I would spend with good contemporary dance. I just hadn’t expected the two to be so similar.

[I should mention that although the People’s Co-Op Bookstore was the venue for the evening, DuPlessis was actually hosted last night by the Kootenay School of Writing. The book store is also worth checking out–lots of interesting looking books, none of the crap “memoirs” of young reality stars written by ghost writers that you’d find in a Chapters nowadays.]

Book Review: Joseph Boyden’s “Three Day Road”

In a quick and dirty nutshell, Joseph Boyden‘s Three Day Road tells the story of Xavier Bird, a young Oji-Cree man from the bush near Moose Factory, Ontario. Together with his best friend Elijah, he travels far from home with the South Ontario Rifles and becomes an accomplished sniper. Afterwords, his spirit and body broken, Xavier returns to his aunt Niska, who paddles him deep into the bush towards the home of his childhood. Experiences in the trenches of the First World War are interspersed with memories of Niska’s coming of age as a diviner and healer for the few remaining “bush Indians” who continue to resist the pull of the white towns and the rum, exploitation, and prejudice that came with them.

A striking theme in this novel is the shock of Niska’s spiritual and natural world colliding with that of white Ontario–with its religion, RCMP, and residential schools. Through Boyden’s telling, it is obvious that the systems imposed on the First Nations of Canada were grossly out of touch with the practical and natural realities of life in this country. A familiar theme, yes, but its representation in Three Day Road took my breath away with its absurdity and immediacy.

In another quick and dirty nutshell, I liked this book. I liked Xavier, a quiet young man whose inner jealousies, comforts, fears, and joys play across the mind and heart we are privy to, but remain hidden from the soldiers in his company. I liked his Aunt Niska, a wise woman whose strength comes not necessarily from taught knowledge but from careful and close observation, a firm sense of self, and an ability to do, under any circumstances, what must be done. I loved the descriptions of the bush Niska and Xavier call their home, I loved its almost otherworldly beauty. I loved that this beauty is here, in Canada, though in smaller and smaller spaces now. I hated the war and the futility and brutality of trench life and the various suicidal “pushes” the soldiers were ordered to participate in, but then, who wouldn’t? I was taken by the sensuality of the book–physical, natural, spiritual.

I liked this book. What’s not to like? I suppose that Three Day Road is long, so if you don’t like long books, you may not like it, and it’s heavy, so if you don’t like literature that takes a more serious tone, you may not like it. But if you allow yourself to be pulled in by the beauty of the telling and the emotional threads of the story you will find yourself whizzing through the novel, dodging bullets and yearning for a comforting voice in the din and a warm fire in the rainy night.

If you like Canadian literature and/or history, or literature by and about the First Nations people of Canada, or action scenes and technical descriptions of early 20th-century warfare, or sensual descriptions of intimacy and the natural world, Three Day Road is a book you will like.

Or perhaps “like” is the wrong word. You will respect this novel, you will be pulled by it, you will be struck by it. You will start a long journey and reach the end sooner than you think. And like me, you will recommend this book to others.

We’re Not In Green Gables Anymore: Canada’s Revolutionary Reads

When I think about iconic Canadian literature, I think about Anne of Green Gables skipping in raptures over the red roads of PEI, the heartbreaking irony of Sinclair Ross’ Painted Door or A Field of Wheat, and maybe, if I’m in a more “contemporary” mood, I’ll think of Margaret Atwood and her much-lauded Cleverness. I don’t think of the word “revolution” when thinking of Can Lit any more than I would think of the words “outer space”. Sure, some Canadian out there is writing about it, I thought to myself, but they can’t be all that good or I would know about it.

Or maybe I’d have to take a class entitled Canadian Literature after 1920 (this year the course theme was “Revolution(s)”) and surprise myself immensely by enjoying it. Which is what I did. Considering three of the books we studied were Canada Reads winners, it seems I am not the only Canadian reader to discover a taste for revolutionary literature.

Readers of Canada (and beyond), allow me to present to you, in the order in which I read them, the books of the Summer 2012 semester of Canadian Literature after 1920:

    • In the Skin of a Lion– Michael Ondaatje (winner of Canada Reads 2002)This one is pretty obvious, and Michael Ondaatje certainly isn’t an unknown quantity to Canadian readers. This was my first encounter with him though, and I wrote my final paper about the book (a high-falutin’ affair entitled “Not Just ‘Men From Nowhere’: Narrative Inclusion as Revolutionary Act in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion“). The book is big on beautiful language and lyricism, and big on telling stories, but light on the the proletarian rhetoric someone might expect from a book that deals primarily with the conditions of the (mainly immigrant) blue-collar workers who built key features of modern-day Toronto (which is alright by me). As expected, considering its author, In the Skin of a Lion is a fine book. A damn fine book, y’know?
    • Next Episode– Hubert Aquin (winner of Canada Reads 2003) This book gave me some difficulty. When you read it, it seems to be about a revolutionary imprisoned in a Montreal psychiatric facility trying to write a spy novel, set in Switzerland, about a revolutionary spy, but actually it’s about the political climate of 1960s Quebec. Get it? I didn’t, but according to my dad, who read the book in French back when he was a student, if you had been following Quebec politics at the time, you would get it. Give this book a whirl if you’re feeling brave and patient.
    • Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography– Chester Brown Considering the story of Louis Riel (and his involvement in the Red River Rebellion and the 1885 Northwest Rebellion) is told entirely by Brown in minimalist black and white comic-strip format (like the kind you would see in a newspaper), Chester Brown’s achievement is impressive. By Brown’s own admission, a lot of facts have been omitted or altered in his telling (since it’s pretty hard to fit major historical events in a comic), but his departures from historical fact are exhaustively cataloged in his notes at the back of the book, along with research information. If you don’t know much about Louis Riel, you’ll actually learn something from this comic-strip depiction.
    • Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistancea film by Alanis Obomsawin Kanehsatake is not a book, obviously, it is a documentary about the 1990 Oka Crisis. I was so struck by this film I am really quite speechless (and wordless) about it. Watching it will give you a very different, rather uncomfortable view of Canada and the way our rights as citizens are (dis)respected.
    • In Another Place, Not Here– Dionne Brand This book is a stylistically difficult, deliciously unsatisfying read. The underdogs do not “get theirs” in the end and the villains (when they can be defined) do not learn, or lose, anything. But the language (including Caribbean dialect in the voice of Elizete) is poetic and sensual with the ripe and sweating heat of Grenada pulsing against the empty greyness of Toronto. The plot centres around two people in a lesbian relationship but In Another Place, Not Here is not a novel about being gay. It is a novel about heat, and passion, and unfairness, with a final image that tears your heart right from your chest and just leaves it lying on the floor. It’s a book you can’t help but respect.
  • Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter– Carmen Aguirre (winner of Canada Reads 2012) Despite its often heavy content, stylistically, this book is probably the easiest and fastest read. It is also the funniest. A natural storyteller, Chilean exile and Vancouver theatre artist Carmen Aguirre shares with the reader her (previously unshared) memories of growing up a daughter of the Chilean resistance movement. At the age of 11, Carmen’s mother and stepfather remove Carmen and her sister from the safety of their exile in Vancouver and return to South America to aid Chile’s resistance against the dictatorship of Pinochet. First kisses and doing the hustle are juxtaposed against bullets in the street and the all-important facade the family had to keep up at all times to ensure their safety from arrest and torture. At 18, Carmen officially joins the resistance as a fighter in her own right. This is a book not about gunning down baddies or blowing up buildings but about the physical danger and psychological and emotional toll underground resistance takes on ordinary people who are willing to risk all for a greater cause. The book created a bit of a controversy on the Canada Reads panel when panelist Anne-France Goldwater referred to Aguirre as “a bloody terrorist” and mused that she can’t understand “how we let her into Canada” (you can read more about Goldwater’s comments on the Globe and Mail website). Personally, I was quite taken with the book, and don’t see why anyone needed to use the “T-word”.

We’ve only got another month of summer. Get into your hammock or down to the beach and sink your teeth into some revolutionary reads. You might look at your country, or at least its literature, in a different way.

Conceptual Art I Like (on Srikanth Reddy’s “Voyager”)

Cover of the Voyager Golden Record, on board the Voyager spacecrafts.

I must admit that before this spring, if you had asked me if I liked conceptual art, my answer would have been an unequivocal no. Signing a urinal, calling it “Fountain” and selling it for lots and lots of money seems to me to smack more of douchebaggery than of genuine creative passion. Oh I know conceptual art is about process, and process can be interesting. I know it’s often meant to be intellectual, not emotive, and the intellectual can be interesting.

But a bunch of scenesters making whatever crap it comes into their heads to make/write, giving it some smart or artsy-sounding title, claiming it’s about “the suffering of the existential spirit in a post-apocalyptic Nietzsche world” or some such B.S. and then labelling it “conceptual” as a way to weasel out and seem clever when someone points out that it’s just a huge piece of crap that took neither talent nor brains to create is NOT the kind of culture I tend to enjoy.

I’m not saying that I need the art I engage with to be accessible. I don’t. But I need to be able to see intention on the part of the creator, a real question or form being tackled. If the artist hasn’t invested time, talent, or brains in a piece of work, as an audience member (or reader), I don’t feel the need to invest even an iota of my time and my brainpower trying to respond to something that was never a sincere question in the first place. To those that smile smugly and say I just don’t “understand” their work, let me say that I can usually tell the difference between something that has energy and genuine engagement invested in it (even if it’s not my taste), and something that’s just a pile of trash thrown together. Let me also suggest that you stop being an asshole and make an actual effort next time.

Luckily for me, I have been exposed to two pieces of conceptual poetry this semester that have really knocked my socks off and shown me that the conceptual can be effortful. The first was Inger Christensen’s alphabet, a complicated alphabet poem that grows according to the Fibonacci sequence. The second is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, and if you ever want to read a really intentioned, committed, and effortful piece of conceptual literature with a concept that’ll blow your hair back, this is the book for you.

To summarize the awesomeness:

Unless they’ve studied history or politics, people in my generation may not know much about Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary-General of the UN (1972-1981). I certainly didn’t before this semester. To bring you up to speed, Waldheim was Secretary-General when the Voyager spacecrafts were launched into deep space in 1977. It is his voice which speaks for humanity on the Voyager Golden Record, a copy of which is aboard both spacecrafts.

All of this would be well and good, (you know, the UN Secretary-General representing the planet, etc.) if it weren’t for the slightly unsettling fact that Waldheim has been accused of being a Nazi war criminal and though he apparently “didn’t know” about the routine execution of civilian prisoners close to where he was stationed, and “didn’t know” about the rounding up of Jews to be sent to Auschwitz, it does make one uncomfortable to think of his voice as being representative of the entire human race.

This “disappearance” from memory of major and obvious wrongs has since been called “Waldheim’s disease”, in reference to Kurt Waldheim’s convenient ability to not remember or know anything about the horrible atrocities which surrounded him during his time as an SS officer.

What does Kurt Waldheim and “Waldheim’s Disease” have to do with conceptual art and Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, you ask? Well, Waldheim wrote an English-language memoir called In the Eye of the Storm and when Reddy sat down to write his political book-poem Voyager in response to “Waldheim’s Disease” he did so not by writing words from his head but by taking a chapter of Waldheim’s memoir and then crossing out most of it, leaving the words that comprise Voyager behind. Reddy did not use any words that were not in this chapter, and did not change the order that the words appeared in the book (he actually did this three times to the same chapter, making the three “Books” that comprise the poem).

This is what blows my hair back: Reddy wrote an entire book in response to a man’s erasure of history by erasing that man’s memoir. Reddy’s concept is his message. Reddy’s voice is within the voice of his subject (it doesn’t get much more “engaged” than that). He doesn’t tell us how erasure and disappearance changes that which is revealed. He shows us. Is your mind blown yet? Mine is.

The best part is that Reddy doesn’t rest on the laurels of his amazing process (which can be viewed at tiny.cc/voyagermethod). The incredibly intelligent and disciplined commitment to his concept aside, Voyager is just a damn good poem. In Book Three, a hell-dwelling Minister keeps a zoo of political leaders, harpoons one, and eats the man’s skin raw, “which he insisted/ was the best way/ to eat a respected/ former Congressman.” Keep in mind that all of these words do exist, in this order, in Waldheim’s memoir, and it is only the erasure of words by Reddy that leaves these lines behind. KA-BLAM.

"Voyager", published by the University of California Press

THIS is a concept I can get behind. This is art whose point is its concept (a very clever one, I might add) but because the work was sincerely tackled by the artist, who took the time to truly empathize with his subject (so much so that the poem blurs the lines between the poet as a separate voice commenting on Waldheim and Waldheim as a voice of the poet himself), the book becomes so much more than concept. This book is not even a condemnation of a former Nazi officer. It is a thorough and passionate engagement with a political figure and with what is shown and hidden in history.

Like a lot of conceptual art, Voyager will make you feel small. But you will not feel small in the face of inaccessibility and a sense of douchebaggery. You will feel small in the face of an overwhelming feat of creation and literature. This is the kind of small you want to feel when you experience any art, conceptual or otherwise.

Read it. Engage. Blow your mind.