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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.

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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, 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.

 

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.

Last December, Amy at My Friend Amy sent me this novel as part of the Book Blogger Holiday Swap.  She had noticed my interest in Canadian literature and told me how moved she had been by this story.  I am glad she shared it with me, but my feelings about it are quite mixed. 

Kim Echlin’s novel (novella?) The Disappeared, which was a finalist for the Giller prize in 2009, is a first-person narrative addressed to you, Anne Greves’s partner.  It is a kind of memoir relating her passionate and painful relationship with Serey, a Cambodian refugee whom she fell in love with when she was sixteen. 

The novel opens as a short story with a short episode that happened thirty years previous to the time of narration.  Such an opening draws the reader directly into the narrative, but also has the effect of confusing us.  Indeed, it is immediately interrupted and it is only much later in the novel that we discover the context of this episode.  Following this opening is a first-person narrative addressed to “you,” whom is soon revealed as being Serey, a Cambodian refugee the narrator met and fell in love with in Montreal when she was sixteen.  The narrative is broken, shifting from present suffering to past events, while also being interrupted by flashbacks providing us with a short history of Anne Greves (the narrator).  The chapters are often short and begin and end abruptly, thus adding to the fragmentation created by the temporal shifts.  This narrative structure, which attempts to convey Anne’s grief, is in itself interesting as it demands efforts from the reader.  Little by little we are able to put the jigsaw pieces together and understand the story and the motivation behind Anne’s narrative.

Most of the first part, except for the digressions afore-mentioned, focuses on Anne’s relationship with her lover until the day he decides to go back to Cambodia to look for his family after the reopening of the borders at the end of Pol Pott’s dictatorship.  A decade elapses before Anne takes a plane to go there and look for him.  The second part is then set in Cambodia and relates Anne’s search for Serey and their life together.  It also tries to convey the unspeakable: Serey’s silence is in stark contrast with Anne’s pouring of words through the telling of her story.  It attempts to render the incomprehension between the two lovers: how can this Westerner understand the suffering endured by Cambodians like Serey who are the victims, directly or indirectly, of the Khmer Rouge genocide?

This novel addresses a sore reality – Pol Pott’s dictatorship and the years of suffering that followed it – and it is often heartbreaking and powerful.  It is a story of loss, Anne’s own losses, that of her lover and unborn child, and the losses of all the Cambodians whose family members have disappeared literally or figuratively through political treasons.  However, I found Anne’s egocentrism too irritating at times.  Echlin is at once trying to narrate a tragic love story and a historical tragedy.  I find that too often the former undermines the latter in this narrative of grief.

I do not really read biographies or memoirs.  Actually, I do not think I had ever read a biography before, but if they are all like this one, I cannot wait to read more!  In fact, according to its author, Rosemary Sullivan, the book is not a biography, it is a “not-biography” (how can you write a book about someone’s life if this person is not dead yet?):

“I was writing a book about Margaret Atwood.  Though I didn’t quite know what to call it.  A ‘not-biography’ was the closest I’d come . . . I wanted a book about the writing life.  There is so much confusion about what makes a writing life possible.”

I think it is fair to say that Sullivan succeeded in her project.  The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out retraces the influences and beginnings of this writer who has now become a literary icon.  However, it is much more than about Atwood.  It is also about literary life in Canada and the developments of the publishing industry in the 60’s.

The Red Shoes is wonderfully written and takes you back to Canada at the time when Atwood was growing up and becoming a (woman) writer.  From Northern Quebec to Toronto to Harvard to Vancouver to Montreal to Europe, it makes you visit all those places in which Atwood lived and evolved.  It recreates the climate in which she became who she is.  It also makes you discover the state of literature in Canada at the time.  I had read about it before in many essays, but this book enabled me to get a feeling about it.  I was taken back to the late 60’s-early 70’s, when poetry readings were happening in the Bohemian Embassy and when a few musicians were also starting out (some of them got together and became The Band).

Sullivan’s work is well researched.  She knows what she is talking about, but has also interviewed many of Atwood’s acquaintances, has read Atwood’s works and links them to events in her life, has consulted the correspondence Atwood held with other writers, and so on.

The title comes from a film Atwood saw as a child, The Red Shoes, in which the female artist commits suicide because she is faced by the impossibility of pursuing her artictic career as a dancer and her love affair.  Atwood, when she decided to become a writer, had this idea that she would die before 30 and never become a wife and mother.  Womanhood and being an artist were seen as incompatible at the time.  Sullivan’s work retraces these anxieties and highlights how this unconventional woman managed to be fulfilled as both a woman and an artist.

It is also a valuable testimonial about the Canadian renaissance in literature and the arts.  It discusses how Canadian literature became viable, how small presses, such as the now famous House of Anansi, were born. 

For someone like me who has a fascination with Canada, this book is invaluable.  Sullivan has also written a biography of the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (which Loni mentions here) and I look forward to reading it.  MacEwen was a contemporary of Atwood and lived in the same Toronto as Atwood did…

I have arrived in Ontario, where I might spend a few weeks.  The first story for this stay in Ontario had to be by Alice Munro (born in 1931), Canada’s most notorious short story writer.  Munro began writing short stories as many writers do: for practice, but she then realised that she liked the genre and decided that it would become our genre of predilection.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” was published as part of her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968.  It is a childhood story in which the first-person narrator recounts memories of her and her father when he was a peddler during depression. 

The story opens with the narrator going for a walk by the lake with her father.  There, her father tells her a story she is familiar with: how the lake came to be, which leads her to ponder on time and our short existence on the planet in the grand scheme of things:

“He tells me how Great Lakes came to be.  All where Lake Huron is now, he says, used to be flat land, a wide flat plain.  Then came the ice, creeping down from the North, pushing deep into the low places.  . . . And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today.  They were new, as time went.  I try to see the plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able even to imagine the shore of the lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown.  The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”

This excerpt draws attention to one of the themes of the story: time passing and the past.

Then the story gives us some background on the family.  The narrator explains how her father had to give up his fox farm because of the economic situation and become a peddler for the Walker Brothers, selling an eclectic range of products.  The story contrasts her mother’s attitude to their new situation with that of her father, who used to bring her for walks by the lake and on his rounds as a Walker peddler.

It is during one of these afternoons going from door to door that he brings her and her brother to visit Nora Cronin and her blind and aging mother.  We never really learn who Nora is, we just know that she grew up with the narrator’s father and has not seen him for a long time.  The reunion of the two characters seem to make them equally happy and bring back stories and images of their youth.  In her presence, the narrator discovers things she did not know about her father.  However, the interlude has to end and the father must go back to his present life:

“On the way home my father does not buy any ice cream or pop, but does go into a country store and get a package of licorice, which he shares with us.  She digs with the wrong foot, I think, and the words seem sad to me as never before, dark, perverse.  My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from the thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the licorice, that there are things not to be mentioned.  The whisky, maybe the dancing.”

This story is successful at evoking a time passed without burdening us with long descriptions.  One can picture this rural Ontario of the depression Munro is alluding to.  Munro leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, but gives us enough details to reconstruct this place where she grew up and its atmosphere.  I found this story profoundly touching and tender, especially because of the complicity between the narrator and her father.  It is a simple story dealing with life and how people get on in difficult situations and try to make the best of what they have.

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

This week I arrived in Quebec and read a short story by Mavis Gallant.  I would like to read some French Quebec short stories also, but the only ones I have at home are in English translation and I’d rather read them in the original language.

“Scarves, Beads, Sandals” is probably not the best choice to represent Quebec as it is set in Paris.  Although she was born in Montreal, in 1922, Mavis Gallant has been living in France since the 50s.  She is thus one of those expatriate Canadians who have made their name abroad, yet is an important reprentative of Canadian literature.

“Scarves, Beads, Sandals” is a difficult story to read and I believe a few more readings would be necessary to really grasp it.  The story focuses on three characters: Mathilde, her first husband, Theo, and her present husband, Alain.  The focalisation of the narrative alternates between each of the character very subtly and a short passage is even narrated in the first person.

Under its simplicity of plot, this story presents many complexities in its writing style and brings us to share the thoughts of its protagonists, Mathilde in particular.  Although she is now married to Alain, she still looks after her first husband Theo, a bohemian artist whose previous partners Mathilde attempted to imitate unsuccessfully in the past.  The unifying element of the narrative is the painting Theo offered to Mathilde and Alain for their wedding.  Through discussion of the painting we get a glimpse at Theo’s unconventional artistic life, which stands in stark contrast to the stability Alain seems to have brought in Mathilde’s life.  However, it is difficult to figure out how Mathilde feels about these two men and what they represent.  The narrative moves from past memories to present moments and we are left to reconstitute what we can from these exerpts of lives.

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

This week, I decided to linger a little longer in Nova Scotia and read two stories set there at the beginning of the 20th century.

“My Grandfather’s House” is an extract from Charles Ritchie’s memoir with the same name.  Although collected in The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, which is edited by Michael Ondaatje, it is not a short story per se.  The subtitle of Ritchie’s memoir is “Scenes of Childhood and Youth”.  Indeed, except for its brevity, I did not find that this piece read as a short story.  However, the conventions of the short story can be quite reductive and too exclusive and one should be able to step outside of these, especially when we consider the new forms contemporary short stories might adopt.

This “scene of childhood” is not actually a scene, but multiple scenes and memories.  However, we can see how they all lead to the final scene and the narrator’s realisation of the impact is, now dead, grandfather had on his childhood.

The narrator recounts some of his visits to his grandfather’s house in Nova Scotia in the early 1910s.  He gives us an evocative description of the street where the house stood, tells us about afternoons spent with his grandfather and about the absence left by the death of his grandmother.  Each thought leads to another one and we are introduced to a few characters who populated his childhood, as well as what it meant to be a colonial at the turn of the century in Nova Scotia.

To be honest, this story did not do much for me.  I cannot say I disliked it, but it left me indifferent.  Maybe you need to read the whole book or be more familiar with the Nova Scotian context to appreciate it better?  It could also be that I was not in the right frame of mind.  There is one thing I keep noticing when reading stories or childhood accounts about Nova Scotia though: how often drinking and attitudes to drink are mentioned (the Gaelic heritage?).

Following this story in the collection is Hugh MacLennan’s recording of the Halifax explosion.  Again, this is not a short story per se, but an extract of his book Barometer Rising (I then had a glance at Ondaatje’s introduction and he explains why he selected some pieces that were not really short story; because he deemed them relevant to give a more complete picture of the Canadian culture).

This piece takes the form of a literary documentary.  MacLennan was actually in Halifax during the explosion in 1917 and would have thus been a first-hand witness.  In this piece, he sets to explain how the explosion happened.  The narrative is divided into three parts, each preceded by the time.  The piece begins by focusing on the crew of the Mont Blanc before the collision; it then describes how the collision and explosion happened; finally, it reports the impact of the explosion: the earthquake, the air-concussion and the tidal wave created by the explosion.

I think this piece is informative, but also well-written.  One can feel the tension growing as we get closer to the explosion and can judge the dramatic consequences it had.  I was glad to read this documentary piece as it gave me some context for McKay’s The Birth House, as it is one of the historical backgrounds for her novel.

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

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