Help! I’ve been abducted by Atlantic Canadians!

27 06 2010

Salty Ink is an excellent blog on Atlantic Canadian writers and books by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley. He does make the dated and for the most part unnecessary distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, but his coverage is broad, thoughtful, and really gets into the meat of what’s great about Atlantic Canadian writing.

Right now he’s running Atlantic Canada Reads, in which a panel selected six reader-nominated books for a no-holds-barred fight to the death over which book every Atlantic Canadianone should read this summer.

So I’ve been a little distracted from reading SF!

The nominees are Lisa Moore’s February, a story about a woman whose husband dies in the ocean ranger disaster; Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, a tale of the beauty and the ugliness of Newfoundland; Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, in which a small island declares independence and hijinks ensue; George Elliot Clarke’s George and Rue, a stunning prose-poem about the last public execution in New Brunswick, the crime that led up to it, and the way racism perpetuates inequality and crime in a bigger-than-its-britches city; Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull an antidote to the nostalgic pastoralism of too much Atlantic Canadian (or pseudo-Atlantic Canadian *ahem* The Shipping News) writing, about sex death and bicycling; and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, about an intersex child born in Labrador’s ultra-masculine fishing culture.

Blog-readers get two choices. Even then, what a dilemma!

I haven’t read any of the books nominated, but I have read Clarke’s Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems, and I’m tempted to vote for George & Rue on that basis alone. When Matt Stranach suggests that Execution Poems may be the best book of poetry ever produced by an Atlantic Canadian author, he is not exaggerating; Clarke’s writing is spectacular and the book is one of the most powerful works of Canadian literature I’ve read.

But the other nominators make strong cases as well. Lesley Choyce is a hugely prolific author who has produced nearly 50 works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in the past 30 years. I’ve read about a dozen of them, and I can’t say that I’m a fan of his style, but I’ve always had a soft spot for micronations. The Republic of Nothing is probably a fun, light read.

In a violent storm, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, killing all 84 men aboard. In his office, my dad has a piece of cream-coloured card, beautifully printed with the words Amateurs built the ark; professionals built the ocean ranger. A quick Google to find the source of the quote tells me that the real expression refers to the Titanic (another Atlantic Canadian shipwreck) and that it’s meant to encourage amateurs to trust themselves, to ignore accepted wisdom, and to take risks.

In an engineer’s office, I always took it as a reminder of the importance of humility, of professional responsibility, of the fact that every project touches lives. It was from that simple, letter-pressed card that I first learned of the Ocean Ranger disaster. February is perhaps particularly relevant in the wake of the more recent oil rig explosion off Louisiana.

The book sounds like everything that’s delectable about so-called literary fiction; vivid descriptions of the every day, events drawn so skillfully it becomes impossible to miss the layers, the resonance, the deep connections that give meaning to human life. It’s passion, tragedy and heartbreak that’s palpable. This story, of families spread apart by the need to find work, broken by disaster at sea (even today), could be representative of life in the region.

I’m curious about Kathleen Winter’s Annabel – dying to read it – but nervous about it as well. I wouldn’t vote this one the book everyone should read without having read it because I’ve read few novels written by cissexual, cisgendered authors dealing explicitly with gender, transgender and intersex, that aren’t sensationalizing and dehumanizing. Trawling reviews, I’ve read that Winter’s story is carried by the characters and avoids being political (hmm…), and that Annabel’s condition is a device to explore “more conventional issues.” It is dehumanizing and exploitative to use the body and experiences of a non-cis person as a device to explore cis understandings of gender and sexuality. The Globe & Mail‘s review of the book gives me hope, but this remains the one book of the six that I’m the most unsure about.

Thanks to Nicole Dixon’s lucid, concrete pitch, Darryl Whetter’sThe Push and the Pull is high on my to-read list. It sounds like Dixon and I are frustrated by much the same trends in Atlantic Canadian literature, and she’s really convinced me to give this one a try. As a cyclist and perpetual pedestrian, I sympathise with Andrew Day, the main character of this Halifax-to-Kingston cycling odyssey as he faces down “the consequences of our car culture.”

I prefer Whetter’s stories of educated women torn between heart, crotch and briefcase to outport Gran’s poultice recipe for the croup. – Nicole Dixon (Yes! – Ed.)

I’m finding Blackstrap Hawko a little difficult to grasp, because Perry Moore’s pitch for Kenneth J. Harvey’s 825 page behemoth talks a lot about Newfoundland, and what Newfoundland isn’t, but not a lot about what Blackstrap Hawko is. I know I want to read it, but I’m not sure why.

So this, Jessica Grant‘s delectable Come, Thou Tortoise, Farah Mendlesohn’s terrific, Hugo-nominated The Inter-galactic Playground, and an abortive attempt at reading Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (does anyone want to talk to me about Bold as Love? Because it’s really not working for me and I’m feeling painfully un-hip over the whole thing) have kept me from my project. I’ll be back on track before long.





Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

12 04 2010

I love Nalo Hopkinson so much that it would be impossible for me to write an unbiased review of any of her books. Her prose is so vivid and exciting that even if I believed it were possible to erase the person from the critique and objectively evaluate the quality of the writing, I would leave my critic hat at home and just rave. Nalo Hopkinson is one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction these days.

Today I’m going to talk about Skin Folk, which is a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of skin. That is, the surface under which we hide our darkest secrets, the burdensome appearances that we maintain and shed, the external forces that confine us, and the way some people can see through these images to find truths that we aren’t yet even aware of ourselves. Many of these stories are about breaking free from the skins that we wear, that we have chosen for ourselves or had imposed upon us, or that have grown over us so quietly that we didn’t notice them until they had covered us completely. This is how Hopkinson introduces the book:

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you’ll find stories about people who aren’t what they seem. Skin gives these folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge. They may be owls. They may be vampiric balls of fire. And always, whatever the burden their skins bear, once they remove them – once they get under their own skins – they can fly. It seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.

This is a thick, delicious collection of stories, each concerned with very contemporary and important questions. In “Something to Hitch Meat To,” Artho, who edits photographs for pornographic magazines, airbrushing out imperfections, exaggerating models’ natural assets, is beginning to find human bodies – real, living human bodies – pretty creepy. Like when you say a word too many times and it loses all meaning, he has looked at and “corrected” too many bodies, and now the people he crosses in the street seem awkward and ungainly.

Artho was thinking of something to say to him, some kind of opener, when the man’s ears caught his gaze. They jutted out from the side of his head like knurls of deformed cartilage. There really was nothing odd about the guy’s ears – that’s just how ears were – but they still gave Artho a queasy feeling. With one hand, he worried at his own ear. He looked around at other people in the food court. All their ears seemed like twisted carbuncles of flesh sprouting from the sides of their heads, odd excrescences.

Unfortunately for Artho, whose life is about to change dramatically, an ugly little girl in a Spiderman backpack, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk to him, follows him back to his office, and changes the way he sees things. No, this isn’t one of those heartwarming clichés where the little girl teaches the mean old man how to love. This little girl has glasses with jam-jar thick lenses, which refract and multiply her eyes, hair in dark medusa strands, ashy brown bumps of dry skin for knees, and her name is Nancy. Wrongs are about to be righted, but not in the way Artho had in mind.

Throughout the story, Artho finds that people’s real-world perceptions of him and reactions to him – often distrusting – don’t match up with the way he sees himself. People react to him with fear and distrust, and he absolutely can’t get a date. Who would want to date the guy who sets the standard of beauty and sexual attractiveness at a level that is unreachable to most people, who creates the images that make most of us feel ugly? Who would want to date a guy whose job it is to tell us that the beautiful bodies we already inhabit are not worthy of the camera’s lens? Nancy is about to sort this out, too.

Media images may not be the scourge of our generation (there was oppression of the powerless long before there was Maxim), but in this story, a Nancy fixes a little wrong with a little right, sending out a subtle corrective that just might spread, making the people in Artho’s world (and us readers, maybe) a little more comfortable in their skins.

There are fifteen stories in this collection, each as thoughtful as the last. My favourites are “Fisherman,” “Slow Cold Chick,” “Snake,” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “A Habit of Waste.” I may have a few more notes on these later on.

It occurs to me that if I’m successful at my project, I should (will) actually go to WisCon.

Currently Reading: The Female Man by Joanna Russ