Monday, April 12, 2021

Spotlight on Indigenous Authors

There's something for every age and taste in this collection of books by Indigenous authors.

Hunter with Harpoon by Markoosie Patsauq
Translated by Valerie Henitiuk and Marc-Antoine Mahieu


50 years after the initial publication, this Canadian classic set in the far north has been newly translated directly from Inuktitut, in consultation with Patsauq. Patsauq originally translated his own syllabics into English, but that text was then edited to make it more of a children‘s story (which is how I remember it). T
old in shifting perspectives, this new edition, only about 65 pages long, has cinematic energy and a powerful dignity.

They wait a couple of days, but the dogs do not come back. So they start walking, with their belongings and the rest of the food on their backs. As they go along, Kamik draws close to Qisik and asks, “How long will it take to reach our land?”
“Twenty days, I think, if we‘re on the right path.”
“And if not?” Kamik asks again.
“Then we won‘t make it home,” replies Qisik.

This world is full of beautiful things, he thinks, but it is a world that leaves you very cold and hungry. Then he also sees the northern lights. He wonders what makes them appear and why right here. The world offers beautiful things to look at even as you are starving to death.

Return of the Trickster by Eden Robinson
Audiobook read by Kaniehtiio Horn


Can Jared stay sweet, sober and committed to nonviolence no matter what horrors he encounters? He‘s one of over 500 offspring of his trickster father, but he‘s still one-of-a-kind. Who else has internal organs who run from his own body? This thrilling conclusion to the Trickster trilogy is a joyride with vicious coy-wolves, helpful inter-dimensional fireflies, otter humans, a gentle sasquatch, and an evil ogress.
 Indigenous literature like none other.

Hot women, in his experience, did not follow him around, flirting. They were either family, or they wanted to kill him. Usually both.

“There‘s a completely gratuitous sasquatch scene.”
—Eden Robinson (Haisla/Heiltsuk), talking about Return of the Trickster in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on 'The Next Chapter'

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age by Darrel J McLeod


Darrel McLeod is a queer Nêhiyaw from northern Alberta, writing about his loving yet painful relationship with his mother, Bertha. She was severely punished at residential school for speaking her language—by nuns who spoke in a garbled mix of English and French—so she didn‘t want her own children to learn Nêhiyawêtân. Racism, queer identity, cultural and family connections
all crafted in a spiral style and with avian messengers. Mamaskatch received a Governor General literary award in 2018.

The markers for I and you are attached as extra syllables to the verb forms. The second-person pronoun is always more important, so it comes first, whether it‘s the subject or the object. Unlike in English, I love you and you love me both start with the marker ki, for you. The gendered pronouns he and she don‘t exist in Cree. Mother has told me this more than once, laughing at herself for getting the two mixed up.

My interpretation of what I was learning was different from the usual student‘s. For example, Ernst Haeckel‘s theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” simply confirmed what my great-grandfather had used to say—that we were all related, the two-legged, the four-legged, those that fly and those that swim.

Initially the principles of existentialism disturbed me, but with time they provided relief. What if there really was no heaven or hell, and I only had to live in the present and make the most of it—accept responsibility for my own happiness and well-being? I loved the notion that I could choose whether or not to believe in Christianity without living in constant angst of going to hell.

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins.
Save us from the fires of hell…

The words cut me to the core—there it was again, hell. Why was the Church so obsessed with hell—why did it need to instill terror into people‘s hearts?


Come Home, Indio by Jim Terry


Jim Terry‘s father was white and his mother Indigenous (Ho-Chunk). Both parents struggled with alcoholism. This moving memoir in comics format documents the artist‘s turbulent childhood and sense of alienation, leading to his own addiction to alcohol. He takes us with him to rock bottom, then to sobriety. Attending the protest at Standing Rock helped bring him home to himself. His brushwork art and rich blacks throughout is reminiscent of Will Eisner‘s work.


We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade

Two talented Indigenous women--Lindstrom (Anishinabe/Metis) and Goade (Tlingit/Haida)--created this absolutely gorgeous picture book with an important message: the need to protect our supply of fresh water, on behalf of all living beings. An inspiring call to action.

My people talk of a black snake that will destroy the land.

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Audiobook read by Kenny Ramos and DeLanna Studi


A wonderful anthology of interconnected stories for kids age 8 and up, all written by
 different Indigenous authors, all having common elements: 
a) the protagonists travel to the intertribal Dance for Mother Earth powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan
b) the stories include mention of a particular dog who's wearing a t-shirt. 
The dancing, regalia, food stalls, craft vendors—these are seen from different viewpoints. The kids, from tribal groups across the US and Canada, portray the vibrancy of indigeneity today. Excellent for family listening.

Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead


Speculative fiction from queer Indigenous authors: these stories are fresh, varied and imaginative. I didn‘t like them equally but I found something to admire in each. I also now have new-to-me authors to watch. Editor Joshua Whitehead‘s introduction is my favourite piece, for its scholarly yet poignant wordplay. The rest are aimed at tween and teen readers, although of course they can be enjoyed by older readers too. The cover art by Kent Monkman (N
êhiyaw) on the revised 2020 edition (Arsenal Pulp) is a perfect complement.

Who names an event apocalyptic and whom must an apocalypse affect in order for it to be thought of as “canon”? How do we pluralize apocalypse? Apocalypses as ellipses? Who is omitted from such a saving of space, whose material is relegated to the immaterial?
(from the introduction by Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Nêhiyaw))

Here is my first instruction: when the apocalypse happens, make sure you bring your kookum. Mine is named Alicia. She doesn‘t have an Anishinaabe name because when she was born they were only starting to get them back. You‘re going to want your kookum when the apocalypse happens because kookums know everything. Mooshums do too but they can get bossy and think they‘re right all the time, like the council does.
-Kai Minosh Pyle (Mekadebinesikwe)

I ask, “How do we build a relationship with this new planet?”
She laughs. “I would assume like all consensual relationships: we ask them out.”
-jaye simpson (Oji-Nêhiyaw/Saulteaux)

“I don‘t think you can call humans a failure. We built spaceships. We invented vaccines and …” She looked somewhere above my head, presumably scanning a vast imaginary landscape of possibilities. “… and spreadsheets.”
-Adam Garnet Jones (Nêhiyaw/Metis/Danish)

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day


This quiet middle grade novel about letting go of unattainable dreams has many strengths, including a realistic portrayal of a contemporary Indigenous (Makah/Piscataway) family in Seattle, and a fierce but sad central character who is passionate about ballet. I‘m glad the author chose ballet over traditional dance, because it sidesteps stereotypes. The dedication at the front sums up the message: “To anyone who needs a reminder that pain is temporary.”

Nedi Nezu: Good Medicine by Tenille K Campbell


When I heard Tenille Campbell (Dene/Metis) read at a poetry event online, I knew I needed this collection. Her sensual poems celebrate lustiness and a large, brown body belonging to a woman who makes her own choices and remembers to look after herself. Words in Dene and 
Nêhiyaw language reclaim Indigenous space on the page.

when you come to the door
black garbage bag in hand
full of clothes and mismatched socks
underwear she bought you
t-shirts your mom got you
I realize
loving you
would mean loving me less

I fought too hard
to be this version of me
and I‘m not raising
a grown-ass man
again

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

March 2021 Reading Round-Up

As usual, I've got assorted literary treats to share with you this month. Two of these are by Canadians, three by Americans, and one each by a Byelorussian, an Italian, a Frenchwoman, a Brit and an Australian. Two are Nobel prizewinning authors. All but two of these are fiction, including three audiobooks and one in graphic novel format.

To keep this post to a manageable size, I've set aside some of my favourites for separate posts. Watch for upcoming spotlights on poetry, kids' books, and works by Indigenous authors.


You Are Eating an Orange, You Are Naked by Sheung-King


An elegant, playful novel that captures the inner thoughts of a Cantonese Canadian and his dialogue with a Japanese Canadian as he falls in love with her, never sure if his feelings are reciprocated. The two travel from Macau to Hong Kong to Toronto to Prague. Surreal and sensual, it‘s told in second person, floating in and out of vivid reveries and sharing of childhood memories, interleaved with retellings of traditional stories, plus footnotes.

You manage to finish half of The Unbearable Lightness of Being over the course of a large coffee. I, on the other hand, over the course of drinking my coffee, manage to reply to an email regarding my tax return.

“Vivaldi‘s music is like a teenage boy masturbating.”
“What?”
“Yeah. Not only are the transitions obvious, Vivaldi, especially, spends so much time on the bridge. It‘s like he‘s about to cum but is holding back—just a little bit longer, just a bit—and then, bam—loud finish, orgasm, done, and the audience claps. I think masturbating is healthy. I just don‘t like music that resembles male orgasms.”

You take out two tall cans of Suntory Premium Malt. The beer cans are gold with blue labels.
“What else is in your bag?” I ask.
You take out a small makeup pouch, a copy of Mieko Kawakami‘s Breasts and Eggs, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, a pair of headphones and cucumber sandwiches.
I pick up your copy of Purity. “This doesn‘t seem like the kind of book you‘d normally read,” I say.
“It‘s awful,” you say. “A guy who used to be in my creative writing class gave it to me, saying that I remind him of the main character. Isn't that gross?"
I nod.
"I don't think I'll be talking to him ever again. What kind of douche gives people books like this? It's misogynistic, and everything he writes is about white people."

“You‘re like a cucumber sandwich.”
“What?”
“Do you know why I like cucumber sandwiches?”
“Tell me.”
“If there‘s just the right amount of butter, and the cucumbers are sliced to just the right degree of thinness, and the bread is just soft enough, a cucumber sandwich can be quite sophisticated without being fancy. You‘re not quite there yet, but I think you have the potential of becoming a cucumber sandwich one day.”
"I'm flattered."
"I don't want anything fancy or extravagant. If I wanted that, I'd just marry a rich guy. It's easy. I much prefer cucumber sandwiches. And you tell me stories. You're like a storytelling cucumber sandwich."

To Know You're Alive by Dakota McFadzean


These unsettling short stories in comics format make visible the vague fears we have about existence, especially in our childhood years. Canadian cartoonist Dakota McFadzean‘s expressive art is printed in black, white and salmon pink. The pink skies and trees--and pink skin growths, monsters and aliens--accentuate the eeriness.

Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West by Lauren Redniss


Lauren Redniss has a distinctive style in her works of visual nonfiction: delicate line drawings with saturated colour. Here, she takes a nuanced approach to the issues underlying a controversial copper mine by interviewing three generations in a white settler family and three generations in an Apache family in Arizona. People‘s lives take centre stage in this story of historic injustice plus spiritual, environmental & economic concerns. 

Mike McKee has advice for opponents of the Resolution mine [a lot of whom are former miners]. “I tell them, “Hey, it‘s gonna be 20 years before it opens up. You‘ll be dead, so you don‘t have to worry about it.”

By the summer of 1886, the United States had mobilized approximately one quarter of the army‘s soldiers, some 5,000 troops, as well as Mexican fighters and Apache scouts fighting on the government‘s side, to pursue the remaining Apache fighters: 17 men.

[One group of Apache people were forced to settle on a reservation in the Arizona desert, where temperatures can reach 120F.] “Conditions in San Carlos were so merciless that the army strictly limited periods of deployment. But Natives were prohibited from leaving. Congress‘s 1876 appropriations act stipulated that ‘Indians shall not be allowed to leave their proper reservations.‘ In San Carlos, enforcement was rigorous. Apache who left were routinely hunted down & killed.”

Wendsler Nosie attended high school in Globe, Arizona, the town closest to the San Carlos Reservation. Globe was once inside reservation boundaries, but the US seized the area by executive order in 1876 after silver was discovered.
Wendsler Nosie: “In 1974 in the town of Globe, they still had signs, ‘Dogs & Indians Keep Out.‘ We still had to order outside of restaurants.”

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Keith Gessen


April 26, 2021 will mark the 35th anniversary of the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl. Nobel prizewinning journalist Svetlana Alexievich has curated a profoundly moving chorus of voices, of people talking about their experiences after the disaster. It portrays a particular time in post-Soviet history, a time not only of political and social change, but also of shifting inner landscapes, of how people viewed themselves. Heartbreaking, humane and utterly compelling.

We take the salami, we take an egg—we make a roentgen image—this isn‘t food, it‘s a radioactive byproduct.

When people saw that the milk was from Rogachev, and stopped buying it, there suddenly appeared cans of milk without labels. I don‘t think it was because they ran out of paper.

There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. “Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!” Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. “Don‘t worry!” she says. “They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.” 

"I'm not afraid of anyone--not the dead, not the animals, no one. My son comes in from the city, he gets mad at me. 'Why are you sitting here! What if some looter tries to kill you?' But what would he want from me? There's some pillows. In a simple house, pillows are your main furniture. If a thief tries to come in, the minute he peeks his head through the window, I'll chop it off with the axe. That's how we do it here. Maybe htere is no God, or maybe there's someone else, but there's someone up there. And I'm alive." 

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein


An interior novel that somehow is also a page turner. Giovanna‘s coming of age in Naples is a visceral experience and I loved every bit of it. This book and Voices from Chernobyl were buddy reads with my friend Kathy in Vancouver. Buddy reading is a great way to get even more out of a book by sharing reactions, discussing thoughts, and parsing meaning.

What happened, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?

I‘d thought I couldn‘t live without him, but time was passing, I continued to live.

He took off his shoes, pants and underpants. He kept on his linen jacket, shirt, tie, and, right below, the erect member that stuck out past legs and bare feet like a quarrelsome tenant who‘s been disturbed.

“Poetry is made up of words, exactly like the conversation we‘re having. If the poet takes our banal words and frees them from the bounds of our talk, you see that from within their banality they manifest an unexpected energy. God manifests himself in the same way.”
“The poet isn‘t God, he‘s simply someone like us who knows how to create poems.”

Les Gratitudes by Delphine de Vigan
(An English translation by George Miller is available)

Aging, aphasia, acknowledging loss, and being thankful for what we‘ve received: this quiet, finely crafted French novel hit me at the perfect moment. Pandemic times have left me acutely aware of our continuing need for physical human contact, as well as emotional and intellectual intimacy, all of which is touched upon, though not the main story. I read this in French, but it‘s been translated into English (among other languages) and it deserves a wide audience.

The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay


A bizarre road trip through Australia during a zooflu pandemic—a virus that enables humans to understand animals. Jean is at the wheel—she‘s a hard-drinking granny looking for her son and granddaughter. Sue—half dog, half dingo—is riding shotgun. Author Laura Jean McKay‘s skill in using language to create a disorienting sense of otherness astounded me. It is a probing look into our relationship with other creatures on this planet. Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature and currently longlisted for other awards.

"In this country the animals / have the faces of / animals." The epigraph is from Margaret Atwood's poetry collection, The Animals in That Country.

The road curls inland toward the city. Sue wants us to turn off at a little arsehole of a coastal town that crouches around a bay like a kid who won‘t share lollies.

Maybe some of those petrol fumes get to me because when I look up at the birds they seem to say, clear as if it was written in the sky,
Let it be.
Let it be.
Like they‘re the fucking crow Beatles.

Andy‘s voice breaks. “I heard … heard the pregnant mice say that they‘ll … what do you call it? … self-terminate because things aren‘t right. They can do that. Did you know they can do that?”

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Audiobook read by Sura Siu


Kazuo Ishiguro's writing skills are not in question--he is a Nobel laureate--and t
he power of this understated novel crept up on me. The voice is immediately engaging: we see the world from the viewpoint of Klara, an extremely observant Artificial Friend--robot--who‘s destined to be a companion for an adolescent. The politics and social unrest of a possible future can be glimpsed by readers, but they are not Klara‘s concerns. Her job is to understand the human heart. Klara's character is a haunting combo of naïveté and wisdom.

A few weeks ago, reading Noreena Hertz's Lonely Century, I learned about the contemporary use of compassionate AI in the real world. For example, as companions and health monitors for the elderly; or as a listening ear and sexual companion for single men. It left me entirely receptive to a question raised by Ishiguro‘s novel: is our loneliness a precious aspect of our humanity?

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Audiobook read by Renata Friedman


As with Klara and the Sun, this was initially a slow simmer. It took a little while before I warmed up beyond enjoying the writing and finding the characters interesting, to feeling emotionally invested. Once in, however, I was ALL in. These trans women feel so real, facing their desires, flaws and mistakes head-on. Written by a trans woman, this novel is a stunning exploration of queer white womanhood, friendship and chosen families. 

She had previously been under the impression that she had failed majorly for most of her life, but, in fact, she had simply confused failure with being a transsexual.

The car travels slowly, block by block through traffic. Tourists and a few groups of teenagers frogger their way across the streets.

Many people think a transwoman‘s deepest desire is to live in her true gender, but actually, it is to always stand in good lighting.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Audiobook read by Kristen Sieh


The wordplay in this stream-of-consciousness novel made my heart sing. It begins with our bonkers addiction to social media, accessed through the portal of handheld devices, then morphs into online social justice and political awareness, and eventually it's a wake-up call: a return to the importance of being physically present when our loved ones need us. Invigorating and poignant. 

But then, almost as a serious laugh, a strength entered her voice and she stood like a tree with a spirit in it. And she opened a portal where her mouth was and spoke better than she ever had before. And as she rushed like blood back and forth in the real artery, she saw that ancestors weren‘t just behind, they were the ones who were to come.

The cursor blinked where her mind was. She put one true word after another and put the words in the portal. All at once they were not true, not as true as she could have made them.

Because when a dog runs to you and nudges against your hand for love, and you say automatically, “I know, I know,” what else are you talking about, except the world.

Beau‘s mother called his feeding tubes his cheeseburgers. It was important to do things like that. If you didn‘t call your baby‘s feeding tubes his cheeseburgers, then somehow the feeding tubes won.



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Witty Novels by Irish Authors

Are you looking for unusual voice and language that thrills your word-loving soul? Here are four delightfully quirky novels by Irish authors that I've enjoyed recently:

The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams


Winceworth and Mallory both work at Swansby‘s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, but in different eras. In alternating timelines, 1899 and the present, they each experience an eventful (wacky!) day which changes their lives for the better. This novel is playful, witty, warm and wise. Also, it's an ode to vocabulary. Also, it's a lesbian novel. 

Whether a dictionary should register or fix the language is often quoted as a qualifier. Register, as if words are like so many delinquent children herded together and counted in a room; fixed, as if only a certain number of children are allowed access to the room, and then the room is filled with cement.

‘Ah, but here‘s a nice one: “widge-wodge (v.) Informal — the alternating kneading of a cat‘s paws upon wool, blankets, laps etc.” A sappy so-and-so, then.‘

‘That‘s incredibly illegal!‘
‘It can‘t be incredibly one or the other,‘ David said. He couldn‘t help himself. ‘Something‘s either illegal or not illegal.‘
Mansplain (v.) was unlikely to enter any version of the Swansby‘s Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

Winceworth had returned to vexing over why no word had been coined for the specific type of headache he was suffering. The bitter meanness of its fillip, the sludgy electric sense of guilt coupled with its existence as physical retribution for time spent in one‘s cups. A certain lack of memory, as if pain was crowding it out.

Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved. By the time afternoon tugged itself around the clock, both handwriting and I degrade into a big rumpled bundle.

Winceworth blushed, coughed, but words were tumbling out faster than the rhythm of normal speech, almost a splutter, the uncorrected proofs of sentences.

Pip was out at the café where she worked. Of course she was—she was out to her family, she was out at work, out and about, out-and-out out. I suspected she emerged from the womb with little badges on her lapel reading Lavender Menace and 10% is not Enough! Recruit! Recruit! Recruit!

A few minutes later, when calm was restored, the cat Sphinxed on the armrest of a chair with its eyes closed. I gave its spine a nudge with my knuckles. Its body rumbled something about solidarity against my hand.

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession


I feel so much love for this funny, understated novel about gentle people. People who are quiet, kind, and almost invisible to their work colleagues. Gentle people who are not in the least bit ordinary. People who give me hope that perhaps the world will be okay, after all, because there are people like this in it.

She met Peter after he had stopped one day to give her directions to an art exhibition and then invited himself along. They fell in love effortlessly. Their initial chemistry broadened into physics and then biology, until they were blessed with Hungry Paul‘s older sister Grace as their first child.

“How do you make sure you get enough protein?” asked Leonard.
“Ah, protein. I know how you meat eaters stay awake at night worrying about how much protein vegetarians get. Margaret, who works with me, lives on a diet of cigarettes, popcorn and Diet Coke, and the other week she starts giving me the whole protein speech. I just told her not to worry, that silverback gorillas are vegetarian and they get by okay.

There was a section at the back of the shop full of books about history and other deadly serious subjects. It seemed to be some sort of crèche for older men who had been left there while their wives had gone off shopping elsewhere.

Big Girl Small Town by Michelle Gallen
Audiobook read by Nicola Coughlan


Majella O‘Neill is a large young woman in a small town in Northern Ireland. Look no further if you want matter-of-fact sex-positivity (the opposite of romantic) and an unapologetically fat heroine. Majella seems to be on the autism spectrum, which gives her a unique perspective. Each chapter opens with an entry from Majella's long list of things she doesn't like, or her short list of things she likes.

Thanks go to author Ronan Hession for recommending this book in a booktube conversation with Shawn Mooney. (Hession and Cauvery Madhavan made a whole whack of enticing Irish lit suggestions. Watch it here: Shawn the Book Maniac.) 

I adore novels like this, written in the kind of original voice that I won‘t forget. Hearing that voice, peppered with Irish colloquialisms, is even better in audio format. 

9.1: Makeup – Nail Polish: is too heavy–weighing fingers down–looks utterly unnatural when coloured e.g. red, orange, black giving the people the appearance of wearing beetle carapaces on their fingers.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn‘t keen on into a single item: Other People.

Aghybogey was a town in which there was nowhere to hide, so people hid stuff in plain sight.

Exciting Times by Naoishe Dolan
Audiobook read by Aoife McMahon


The author, Naoishe Dolan, is queer and has autism. Reading her debut novel has given me a sense of what it's like to be inside the head of someone who is neurologically different from me.

The three toothbrushes on the cover  gave me pause. A love triangle plot, even a bisexual one, doesn't usually appeal. However, as with the other three novels in this post, I was bewitched by the wit and the central character's unique voice. Ava is 22, teaching English in Hong Kong. She didn't fit in when she was growing up in Dublin, but leaving Ireland hasn't alleviated her insecurities. Sharp-tongued Ava is socially awkward, but her life begins to shift when she falls in love. 

So, you‘re saying it‘s like London?
I dunno. I‘ve never been.
You‘ve never been to London?
No.
Ever?
Never, I said, pausing long enough to satisfy him that I‘d tried to change this fact about my personal history upon his second query and was very sorry I‘d failed.

He often said he didn‘t meet many people like me, but I didn‘t know if that meant there was necessarily a vacancy for them.

I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat.

With my college brain on, I knew more people lost their jobs when banks like Julian‘s played subprime roulette, but the college brain came with a dial. I turned it up for people I hated and down for people I liked.