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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Family Matters

  • Marian Botsford Fraser (Author)
    Requiem for My Brother. Greystone Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Anna Porter (Author)
    The Storyteller: A Memoir of Secrets, Magic and Lies. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Laurie McNeill

Canadian life writers including Michael Ondaatje and Fred Wah have made particular contributions to one sub-genre of the family memoir in which a family member narrates family history with him or herself at the centre of the tale, writing the family as he or she has known it, and how it has shaped the narrator’s identity. Two recent texts follow this tradition: Anna Porter, in The Storyteller, reflects on her childhood in Budapest through the heroic figure of her grandfather, Vili Rácz, who embodies not only her nostalgia for her family but also her romantic vision of Hungary. In Requiem for My Brother, Marion Botsford Fraser mourns her brother Davey, who died of melanoma while also living with multiple sclerosis. While Porter celebrates the life of a man she clearly idolized, and weaves an enchanting personal and national history that—thanks to Vili’s epic storytelling—spans several centuries, Fraser is evidently still processing her emotions about her brother and family. The resulting product is an uneven and not entirely sympathetic narrative that highlights the ethical issues of writing relational auto/biography (in which the narrator constructs identity and narrative in relation to a key relational other), especially when one of the subjects can no longer speak for himself.

Davey Botsford, as his sister constructs him, was an incredibly proud and private individual, aspects that inspired both pride and fury in his caregivers, and give Fraser extensive material to demonstrate the costs of being her brother’s keeper. These traits, however, may also run counter to the revelatory project of (published) auto/biography, where narrators walk a fine line between respecting their story and respecting their subjects—both themselves and those they represent. Though Fraser’s own identity narrative must foreground how she deals with caring for her brother, should that desire trump her brother’s wish for privacy? Would Davey, for example, have appreciated the public airing of his difficulties with toileting and repeated instances of incontinence? Such questions attach themselves with particular insistence to narratives in which the relational other, through illness or death, loses the power to control what’s said about him or her. In his canonical auto/biography Patrimony, Philip Roth chronicles the growing intimacy between his ailing father and himself, and puts his father’s “beshatting” incident at the heart of this new relationship; the father’s loss of control (and dignity) shapes the son’s new relationship to his parent and the resulting change in Roth’s relational identity. (“There was my patrimony,” Roth concludes, “not the money, not the tefillin, not the shaving mug, but the shit.”) Behind such epiphanies, there, and in Requiem, however, I hear Roth Sr.’s (ultimately unheeded) plea to his son to never tell anyone about this incident. Roth’s and Fraser’s decisions to break such promises, whether explicit or implied, call up ethical issues about representation, ones that this text does not address.

In Fraser’s case, her choice to tell all also makes for difficult and fairly repetitive reading that, in keeping with the narrative as a whole, comes across as prurient rather than illuminating. Requiem struggles throughout with information level, becoming mired in detail, the point of which is not always clear and is often unflattering in its observations. For instance, Fraser devotes two pages on the layout of their childhood home (a place that does not signify largely in the greater narrative), similar coverage of her mother’s daily routines, and several paragraphs to the family’s weekend meals. A canoe trip Marian and Davey took together marked an important new phase in their adult relationship, but devoting almost ten per cent of the book to this trip seems disproportionate (and dull). Such difficulties with focus and information level indicate related problems of audience and purpose: much of Fraser’s narrative will be most interesting to her family and intimates, and her purpose in going public with this wandering elegy isn’t always apparent. While she uses her brother’s story to critique the medical system and societal attitudes towards people with disabilities, these criticisms are problematic. In some key cases, her anger seems quite justified, and thus medical practitioners, for example, could learn from this narrative. In others, particularly Davey’s battle with the cruise line Holland America, Fraser does not make a compelling case that her brother was mistreated, thus further alienating readers.

More successfully, Anna Porter’s text elegizes both a person and place, intertwining the story of her grandfather with historical (and sometimes mythical) Hungary. The Storyteller, originally published in 2000, has been re-released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. It joins a cluster of other recent Canadian narratives, including works by Lisa Appignanesi, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Myrna Kostash, that explore immigration from Eastern Europe, and thus contributes to a growing body of Canadian migrant auto/biographies. (Though Porter’s family first went to New Zealand, she later immigrated to Canada.)

Porter, publisher of Key Porter Books until her retirement in 2004, has evidently inherited her grandfather’s gift of storytelling, crafting an often magical tale that interweaves personal and public history. Rarely sentimental, though certainly nostalgic, The Storyteller charts Porter’s childhood in Hungary from WWII until the family flees during the Revolution. Through Vili’s alchemical mixture of fact and fiction, past and present, the family’s hardships during these years become informed by centuries of Hungarians’ struggles; Porter suggests that Vili’s narratives help her survive the painful months in which Vili is sentenced by the Communists to hard labour, and going to prison with her mother as a young girl after a failed attempt to cross the border. Certainly scholars of Eastern European history may contest the version of Hungary’s past that Vili passes on to his granddaughter, but historical accuracy was not his point, nor, as her subtitle suggests, is it Porter’s in sharing his stories. Instead, she pays homage to this central figure in her life and demonstrates how his lessons of heroism, nationalism, and generosity have informed the adult she became. Alert, both as a young girl and an adult auto/biographer, to the blurring of reality and fantasy in Vili’s tales, Porter nods to the lies without diminishing the autobiographical truth of her narrative.

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MLA: McNeill, Laurie. Family Matters. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 133 - 135)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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