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For its summer issue, The Walrus asked five Canadian writers to write a short story or poem according to the guidelines provided by the other writers.  Three of them are short stories…  It is interesting to see how each writer has dealt with the guidelines s/he received.

Kathleen Winter‘s story, “Madame Poirier’s Dog”, is written according to the guidelines of Alexi Zentner.  The first-person narrator of this story lives in a nursing home and explains why she always waits with so much anticipation for the visits of her youngest son, Armand.  Whereas her other sons are kind of business-like with her, Armand chats with her.  Together they remember the past and laugh.  This is her secret pleasure, which makes her tolerate her old age.

Last week, they were talking about Madame Poirier, a neighbour from years ago who will soon be moving in the same nursing home.  In particular, they discussed her precious dog, Dentelle.  Despite wearing a chastity belt for dogs, Dentelle was twice impregnated by the narrator’s dog and died from her second abortion.  Winter actually uses the prompt that a character has “to state that he or she finds people who treat dogs like children sort of creepy” at the heart of her story.  This story, which is about growing old reminded me of Binnie Brennan’s novella, Harbour View, which I reviewed a while ago.  It is a touching story, about how to cope when you get old, and is filled with memories and positivity.

Winter also makes a brilliant portrait of the characters, especially Madame Poirier and Armand’s wife, without describing them physically (another guideline).  The characters are not described as such, but evoked through their actions and what they say; however, Winter creates a vivid picture of these people, whom we might have ourselves encountered in our lives.

Another prompt is “evoke warmth without mentioning the sun,” but I let you discover how she does that…

Sarah Selecky‘s story, “The Cat”, is written according to the guidelines of Kathleen Winter.  The topic of this story might seem awkward as it is about the reincarnation of the narrator’s father into a cat.  One of her guideline was “The story should have at least one paragraph that contains something the author personally finds subversive and hilarious.”  Selecky explains on her website that this prompt gave her a liberation and “permission to write something ridiculous, inappropriate, terrible, or otherwise WRONG.”  This is a story that will really speak to cat lovers, but I must admit there is something disturbing in imagining that the cat is actually the narrator’s father.

Talking about her cat makes her remember her father when he was still alive.  She shares childhood memories (another guideline for her story) about going fishing with him when she was young or that time when he brought back live snails for dinner. 

I also liked her wink at Winter when she mentions that the cat spilled a glass of water on her copy of Annabel.

Alexi Zentner‘s story, “The Rules of Engagement”, is written according to the guidelines of Sarah Selecky.  Zentner begins his story as prescribed in a sunny location where three women are flirting with three locals, one of then being nicknamed “Fork” (another prompt) because of his pronunciation of the word “fuck”.  The women meet up the following morning and discuss their night, which is the occasion for the omniscient narrator to tell us a bit more about them and their affective lives. 

This might not be my favourite of the three stories, but I think that Zentner manages the guidelines very subtlely.  I actually really like the way these women are represented through their actions and the dialogue.  Although the narrator provides us with more information, very little is actually said about these characters; yet, we are able to get a clear idea of who they are. 

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

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With this story I reach the end of my Canadian tour (you can find links to all the stories I’ve reviewed here).  Yukon is another territory for which I have had difficulties to find a story, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue and suggested “Vegas Wedding” by Ivan Coyote (1969-), which he had previously reviewed and is available online here

John warned me that it is a personal essay, but said that it reads like a story, and it does!  This made me think about an essay by Douglas Hesse I read a while ago, “A Boundary Zone: First-Person Short Stories and Narrative Essays”.  According to Hesse, “a precise boundary line between essays and short stories does not exist”, thus leading many works to belong to the “boundary zone”.  At the heart of his essay if the issue of labelling and expectations.  One of the expectations we have in reading each genre is that one relates to fact, the other to fiction: “Reading a work as key to some more general truth involves a different set of perceptions than reading it as representing some action, however meaning laden.  We expect an essay story to show the way things are, a short story the way things happen.”  Furthermore, he states that “[t]he fundamental issue is reference.  Essays are supposed to refer to a real world beyond the page; short stories are not.”

Although “Vegas Wedding” reads more like a story than an essay, especially because of the extensive use of dialogue, presenting it as a personal essay implies that the piece is a true story, not a fiction.  This seems relevant considering the seriousness of this piece’s topic: same-sex marriage.  This is not fiction, such intolerance really happens in our world.

As it is told in the first person, the reader who is not familiar with Ivan Coyote only becomes aware that the narrator is a woman quite late in the narrative, Ivan being a name most often used for men.  This is when the story starts to become more challenging.  At first, it just seems to be the story of a couple deciding to get married in Vegas on impulse during a road trip to the death valley.  However, as you might have guessed from my previous remark, this is more difficult than it might seem at first, even in Vegas where anybody can get married in the space of a few hours.  Indeed, they are denied a license at the court-house because gay-marriage is not legal.  The narrator highlights the unfairness of the situation by claiming that there is more love between the two of them than between many of the heterosexual couples in the queue.

They still decide to try to get married at the chapel, but are refused because they do not have a license.  However, the narrator is now determined to get married to her girlfriend, Karen.  The irony of the situation reaches its peak when a priest watching porn also backs down when he is told they are lesbians because he finds it immoral, but would however accept to perform the ceremony against a fee of 500 dollars.  Finally,it is the photographer who offers to marry them and gives them a lovely ceremony.  Even though he is not prejudiced, we can still feel how he represents a majority of the population when he says “life partners” instead of “man and wife”.  In the end, the two brides are married happily ever after…

The story is entertaining and told in a light tone, but also problematises a serious issue of our contemporary society.  Not only does it show the incongruity of the legal system regarding same-sex marriage, but it also highlights the prejudice still existent in our society.

As a way to celebrate Canada Day, which was on Friday, I have been posting a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

I had been looking forward to reading a story by Audrey Thomas because I have read a few essay comparing her to Atwood.  I can see how they might be compared, not only in the themes and techniques of their stories, but also in their sarcastic humour.  Thomas was born only four years before Atwood, in 1935, and currently lives in British Columbia.  However, the story I consider today is not set in British Columbia, but in Montreal, although the character comes from Vancouver.

There is a story behind the story “Bear Country”, but I had never heard of it.  Feminism is at the heart of this narrative, but was also the reason why Marc Lépine shot six women at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, before killing himself in 1989.  The “massacre” is still present in the mind of Wilma, the main character of “Bear Country”.

Wilma has moved from Vancouver to Montreal, where she works as a secretary in Concordia university, writes plays for a small theatre company and learns French at the YMCA.  The gender of French words is something that intrigues Wilma and her plays have a strong feminist agenda.  For instance, she wrote a skit that caricatures a comment she had overheard from a professor saying that “Canada was putrid with feminism”.  In her play, she created a feminism Pollution Scoreboard similar to the one in McGill metro station.

She is obviously affected by attacks against feminism, so her anguish grows when the French course for which she has just applied is relocated to the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal.  As she takes the bus to go up there, she cannot help thinking about the “massacre”.  She worries about going up that staircase when the evenings will be dark in December.  During the class, she is lost thinking in French about how it would be if a man with a rifle walked in.

The story ends with another play Wilma wrote during the summer.  The play is another feminist take.  She uses the French word for “bear”, “ours”, to make a statement on gender imbalance.  The women in the audience pronounced the famous leaflet advertisement “We are in Bear Country”, while the men are supposed to respond with “This country is ours”.

The story is an overt critique of patriarchal discourses and a social commentary on feminism and anti-feminist sentiments.  It is humourous and shocking at once, especially since it is a response to a dramatic real event.

As I was saying on Monday, yesterday was Canada Day.   As a way to celebrate, I have posted a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

 (1963-) is a good author to make the transition between Alberta, where she was born, and British Columbia, where she lives.  She is also the youngest author in the anthology I own and I was eager to read her story, especially after reading an excellent review of her novel The Sky is Falling (great title!).  “The Chmarnyk” is also a story about the sky. 

I found this story difficult to read, but I will try to do my best at reviewing it.  It is told by a first-person female narrator who recounts her family’s story, or should I say disasters?  The story opens with the death of a dog in 1906, which led the family to move from Dakota to Manitoba “into safety”.  However, there, Mama’s baby is impaled.  The family moves again to escape the curse, but the death of the father makes them realised that it was him who was cursed.  When Teo, the narrator’s brother, dies, the mother exclaims that he has inherited his father’s curse.  There are many religious references and superstition can be seen as one of the main themes of the story.

Yet, we can tie these superstitions and religious references to the family’s origin.  From the term “Baba”, used to designate the grandmother, I would deduce that they are possibly Eastern European immigrants.  The family is depicted as always on the move, fleeing the curse of the land, but maybe also trying to find a place where they will be accepted as the narrator mentions that “they said we were worse than Jews” and that “Baba said she could smell hatred”.  It seems therefore that the family and their superstitions are not understood by the other inhabitants (in the same way the reader might be confused by these beliefs), but, and most importantly, are not accepted because of them.  The curse on the family might then act as a metaphor for the way the family is rejected.

The story is set during the depression, at a time when the Prairies were experiencing a drought (as in Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon”).  Most the story revolves around this lack of water and the efforts made by the inhabitants to survive.  The narrator even says that she was afraid to cry for fear that people would lick her face.  The title of the story is also a reference to the rain.  “Chmarnyk” refers to the narrator’s brother and is the name given to a rain-man in Galicia, the narrator explains.  In the story, the brother tries to find ingenious ways to survive despite the dryness.  When he dies, there is a thunderstorm: he has finally managed to make it rain.  The mother decides then that he has inherited his father’s curse.  The inhabitants claim that he has been struck by lightning; however, the story clearly suggests that he was shot by a farmer.

I find this story complicated and I believe each new reading will reveal more meanings and subtleties.  By reading on Caroline Adderson, I discovered that she writes about various historical periods and in the voice of various characters; she is not actually of Eastern European origin herself.  This story is well-crafted and I believe she must have done some careful research for it.  I think that knowing more about the context, but also about Eastern European customs would be enlightening.  However, the story can still be appreciated without prior knowledge.

As I was saying on Monday, today is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

Choosing Thomas King (1943-) to illustrate Alberta is quite arbitrary as he was born in California and currently resides in Ontario.  However, when he initially moved to Canada, in 1980, it was to teach in Alberta.  King is of Cherokee and Greek origins and is considered as a spoke-man for indigenous populations.  “One Good Story, That One” reflects these concerns.

The story is told in the voice of an Indian who sets to narrate a story to three white anthropologists.  At first, he begins to tell them anecdotes about his friends, but his friend, Napiao, insists that he recount a good old story, a story of origins, “how the world was put together”.  And so the narrator begins in a typically white-man fashion: “Once upon a time…”

The story he tells is no other than his own version of the Genesis.  He has God creating the world, including a television and a grocery story, and a “not so smart” Ah-damn and a clever Evening, “she be Indian woman”.  In his version, Ah-damn and Evening are also expelled from the garden of “Evening” – “just like Indian today” – by an angered God because they ate the “mee-so” and Ah-damn lied about the number he ate.  He nearly forgets the snake in the story, but remembers to add it at the end, hissing because Evening has stuck an apple in its mouth.  His version also includes coyote, the trickster, to whom the white men are compared at the end of the story.  However, in this story, it is them who have been made fun of.  They wanted a traditional indian story, but all they got was a subversion of their own myth of origin. 

This parody of the biblical myth is hilarious and the story as a whole is funny and clever.  King denounces the way white men appropriate Indian tales and properties in a humourous manner.  The first thing that struck me was the rhythm, probably reminiscent of the way native storyteller would narrate a story.  The English is broken and interspersed by numerous Indian words, but this only adds to the pleasure this story gives.

In my attempt to understand better postcolonialism in a Canadian context, I started reading the essays in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, a collection edited by Cynthia Sugars.  This book had been recommended to me as a good introduction to Canadian postcolonialism, which it indeed is.

In her introduction, Cynthia Sugars highlights the “impossibility . . . of settling on any one definition of postcolonialism in a Canadian context” (xiii).  She emphasises some of the form this postcolonialism can take, in particular as the result of American/English imperialism, but also from an indigenous perspectives.  This collection is an attempt at representing these various perspectives.

All essays have been previously published but are, here, regrouped according to their themes or perspectives: native perspective for instance, but also pedagogical ones.  It highlights how this contentious debate has evolved, with some essays being actual response to other essays, thus enabling the reader to create a more complete picture of the complex question of postcolonialism in Canada.

One will find essays by theorists, such as Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon and Diana Brydon, but also by writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, Thomas King or Lee Maracle.  Some of these essays might be more accessible than others, but I find that the way the collection is conceived helped for a better understanding of the difficult concepts.

Beginning with a consideration of postcolonialism in a Commonwealth context, the collection then moves to various attempts at defining postcolonialism in a Canadian context.  The essays thus highlight how postcolonialism in Canada might be the result of British imperialism, but also emphasise the question of Canada as a country in the periphery of the United States.  Indigenous questions are also examined in details and the essays offer an array of views on the topic.

I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in understanding better this controversial issue.  You might actually have already encountered some of these essays, but they act here as a dialogue.

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

“Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is my second story from Saskatchewan and was written by Rudy Wiebe and published in 1974.  It is probably one of the most famous Canadian stories and I had meant to read it for a long time.  I have seen it so many times mentioned in essays that I consider it as an essential Canadian read.

I am sorry to report that I did not enjoy reading it.  I started it about three times and read it in two sittings, something I avoid doing with short stories.  I cannot figure why it did not appeal to me.  I enjoy reading about this story, but not reading it.  I found the writing quite alienating.  Maybe is it because of the longish descriptions? or the fact that it seems to oscillate between essay, history and fiction?

In this story, the narrator begins by stating that “[t]he problem is to make the story”.  He then discusses some historical facts about the Indians and how they were hunted down by the police.  He insists on the difficulty to represent history through language.  He also highlights the vagueness of the facts provided by the records, as well as the discrepancy between the photo and the official descriptions provided as a search warrant for “Almighty Voice”.  Therefore, the story highlights the difficulty in recording history, but also emphasises the fact that the history we are offered is provided by the voices of white dominant group, thus not allowing for the Indians to give their own version. 

These are themes I would usually enjoy considering in stories.  However, I could not get into this story and I know that I will have forgotten about it very soon.  I will probably give it another try at another time, and maybe I will then be able to appreciate it.  Have you read it?  What did you think of it?

Second Words: Selected Critical Prose is the first of Margaret Atwood’s collections of critical prose pieces.  The pieces in this collection are miscellaneous and range from the simple book reviews to book introductions to essays on topics as varied as Canadian humour, Canadianism or being a woman writer.  If you like Atwood, it will give you a good insight into where she is coming from.

I read it from cover to cover (for study purposes) and this might not be the best way to do it, although, as the pieces are organised into three chronological periods, it gives you a good idea about where Atwood stood in each period.  The collection spans the years from 1960, when Atwood was at Victoria University, to 1980, when she had already become an established writer.  She herself explains that the logic behind her organisation:

“The first, or Rooming House, runs from 1960 to 1971, during which I moved about fifteen times, always to places with a lot of stairs to climb and inadequate heat.  It was during this time that I was developing some of the ideas set forth in Survival.  The second, or Dugout, period runs from 1972 (or publication of Survival) to 1976, and covers a time when I was being attacked a lot; much of what I wrote then was in response to some of these attacks, the more intellectually serious ones, I think . . . It also corresponds to the peak of cultural nationalism and the popularization of feminism.

The third period, which has no name yet, runs from 1976, in which I published Lady Oracle and had a baby, thus becoming instantly warm and maternal and temporarily less attacked, to the present [1982].  It covers my growing involvement with human right issues, which for me are not separate from writing.  When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger.  There’s no contradiction.”

The reviews can become a little tedious when read one after another.  It is the same as when reading book blogs: you rarely read all the reviews you come across.  I read them all because I did not want to miss a thing.  Since Atwood’s writing is good, and funny at times (although she is more serious in her reviews than in her essays), they are enjoyable – albeit, if you space them a little.  Her reviews are actually enlightening in considerations of her own writing and they also give a good sense of the context in which the books were written and thus of Atwood’s own context (for contemporaneous books).  For instance, her reviews of Adrienne Rich’s work provide a glimpse at Atwood’s position regarding feminism.  They are also an excellent way to discover the work of authors unknown to you and to, perhaps, raise your interest to works you would not have considered reading before, as is the case with any review.  As they feature some Canadian authors, such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Audrey Thomas and Timothy Findley, but also Canadian magazines, they are also a kind of commentary on the state of Canadian literature at the time.

The essays are typical Atwood; they are witty and thoughtful.  Some of them are autobiographical, while other consider contemporaneous issues.  For instance, a piece like “Travels Back” recounts Atwood’s early book tours in some remote town (a topic also evoked in her short story “Lives of the Poets”, but also considers what writing means to her.  In fact, many of these essays examine various aspects of writing: “On Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas” and “Writing the Male Character”, for instance.  Others examine Canadianness, and Canadian literature in particular, as well as the relations between the US and Canada.   

I might look at these essays more closely in the future, as I really enjoyed reading them, but for now, I will share a few quotations with you.

“‘They’ had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins.  ‘We’ on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were.” (“Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club”)

“If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have – hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy – without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example.”  (“The Curse of Eve – Or, What I Learned in School”)

“How much better if children could be chosen, and loved for what they are, not viewed as an inadequate substitute for a ‘career’ or some kind of parasitic burden?”  (“Adrienne Rich: Of Woman Born”)

“Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth.”  (“Amnesty International: An Address”)

“If a man depicts a male character unfavourably, it’s The Human Condition; if a woman does it, she’s being mean to men.”  (“Writing the Male Character”)

 

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).  Today, I have reached Saskatchewan with a story by Sinclair Ross (1908-96).

“The Lamp at Noon”, which is the title story of a collection published in 1968, is a typical Prairie story in which the setting becomes a kind of character in the story.  The dust and wind o the dry Prairie landscape during the Depression are leitmotifs in this story and they literally drive the characters mad.

“She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.”

The story is set during a period of dryness and the land has not produced food for a few years.  The atmosphere is suffocating because of all the dust that gathers on the furniture and Ellen cannot leave the house because there is nowhere to go.  The infant has problems breathing and keeps crying.  However, Paul does not want to move to the city.  He is too attached to the land and too proud to receive what he calls “charity” from Ellen’s family.  The couple is torn by the situation created by the landscape.  Eventually, Paul begins to understand Ellen’s position, although he finds it difficult to admit it.  However, it is too late and when he gets home, Ellen has left, taking the child with her.  He organises a search and is finally the one to find her.

“The child was quite cold.  It had been her arms, perhaps, too frantic to protect him, or the smother of dust upon his throat and lungs.  ‘Hold him,’ she said as he knelt beside her.  ‘So – with his face away from the wind.  Hold him until I tidy my hair.'”

This is a very evocative and poignant story.  One can feel the love Ellen and Paul have for each other, but the landscape stands between them.  Space is often mentioned when discussing Canadian literature and I think this story is a perfect example of its importance.

 

When I decided to do this Canadian tour through short stories, I was stuck for a few provinces / territories, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue.  For the Northwest Territories, he suggested “Show my Yours” by native writer Richard Van Camp, which you can actually find online (you can also read John’s review here).

At the heart of this story is a call for peace amongst people despite their differences.  The narrator explains how by wearing a leather necklace with a picture of himself as a baby he escaped bullying.  Following the incident, his aggressors began wearing a similar necklace with their own baby picture and shook hand with him.  Everybody then started following this trend.  The baby pictures become peace symbols reminding us of our innocence when we were born.

“Whites, Natives, Inuit — oh we all laughed together when we saw each other and there are just so many beautiful babies inside us all.”

The story is framed by an episode in which the narrator and Shawna look at the Northern Lights.  Shawna mentions that customs regarding Northern Lights are different in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, thus again emphasising that we are all the same even though we have different beliefs.  We are still all humans in front of this mystery that is nature, no matter how we interpret it.

There is also an elusive love story between the narrator and Shawna packed in this very short story.  They seem to have been in love for a long time, but have always been separated either by other relationships or by location; however, their relationship seems to be strong and lasting and transcends their separation.  It reinforces this feeling of love amongst people.

The story is thus at once universal in its emphasis on our common humanity and equality in the face of nature, while at the same time retaining some strong native characteristics.  The prose is quite poetic and I liked the evocation of the northern lights.  It is a peaceful story which screams for happiness.  However, a shadow still hangs in the possibility that Shawna might leave again. Yet, I believe that this possibility highlights the strong bond between the two characters even in the face of spatial separation, thus stressing once more the fact that no matter where we are on earth we are all part of the same human community.

Canada Day being next friday, I have decided to post more Canadian short story reviews during the week in order to celebrate and to finish my tour.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

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