Memory, Family, Politics
- M.A.C. Farrant (Author)
Girls around the House. Polestar Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Maggie Helwig (Author)
Gravity Lets You Down. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Theresa Kishkan (Author)
Sisters of Grass. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Elizabeth Haynes (Author)
Speak Mandarin Not Dialect. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Deborah Torkko
British Columbia’s Theresa Kishkan has written six poetry collections, a book of essays, and a novella prior to Sisters of Grass, her first novel. The story is told from the point of view of Anna, a museum curator, whose task it is to catalogue "a packet of photographs;... letters bound with faded rose-coloured ribbon; a program for a concert; newspaper clippings; a copy of Camera Work, dated Autumn, 1906; [and] a length of thin, hollow bone," items that once belonged to Margaret Stuart, a half-Indian young woman who lived until the early twentieth century. As the novel unfolds, Anna works to construct Margaret’s "life from the small scraps of ephemera."
The problem for the museum curator is to make the invisible visible, to select from the homely objects the information that determines the life of her subject and to help museum visitors "understand something about a community in a particular time and place." As she works to delineate Margaret’s life, Anna must also come to terms with her own questions: "How do I balance the composition of what might be expected of a young woman of her time and place with what might be remarkable? What have I learned from dreaming her shape into my life, and how can I know what is memory and what is desire?"
In the process of reconstructing Margaret’s life, Anna imagines how Margaret shuttles back and forth between the two worlds bequeathed her by a Native mother and Scottish-American father, a family background that requires reconciliation as she matures. Margaret wears trousers, rides horses, and herds cattle on the family ranch. She carries within her "the pungent smell of damp rocks and sage, the flowering buckwheat, the blackbird’s shrill whistle, the warmth of the sun." She knows "where to find lilies, where to find wild potatoes to bring back to her grandmother’s cabin." She is also instructed in the ways of womanly propriety. Her father’s sister and mother, Aunt Elizabeth and Grandmother Stuart, frown upon Margaret’s tomboyishness and teach her how to cross-stitch, to stitch "a verse on fine linen with borders or bluebells and purple English violets." The novel is as much about Anna’s recollection of her past, however, as it is about Margaret Stuart’s history. Anna’s thoughts move back and forth between her girlhood summers in the Nicola Valley and her present occupation as museum curator, "between the life of the body and what remains."
Lac Le Jeune, Kamloops, the Canadian Rockies, Mexico, China, India, and Budapest provide some of the geographical settings for the stories in Elizabeth Haynes’s Speak Mandarin Not Dialect. This collection explores the pretexts of memory through family relationships, travel, and language, and the stories remind readers that although we may think we are finished with the past, the past is never finished with us.
"Krishna saw the universe in his mother’s father’s mouth," "African Sleeping Sickness," "Harry’s Orphan’s," and "The Week She Was Zsuzsi" are stories that concern father-daughter relationships and are told from the daughter’s point of view. These relationships are often unfulfilled, bereft of heartfelt love and connection. In "The Week She Was Zsuzsi," Zsuzsi remembers her childhood and how her father would stand out in the river and wait for her to swim towards him, how "[h]e’d stand out, way out it seemed, farther than any of the other mothers or fathers, didn’t open his arms like them."
The title story, "Speak Mandarin not Dialect," foregrounds how times and places intersect in a kind of isobar of the emotional and physical present. Elly, the protagonist, is travelling alone in China. While riding on a bus, Elly dozes off, and when she suddenly awakes, she has momentarily lost her bearings: "Where is she? On a road, trees, where? On a bus, WHERE? Home? Vancouver?... No. Singapore." Elly doesn’t need to be half-awake to feel dislocated, however. When fully aware that she is swimming laps in her hotel’s empty pool, she thinks she could be swimming elsewhere: "She’s swimming, swimming Lake Ontario, the English Channel, the South China sea." For Elly, as for many of Haynes’s characters, present experiences invoke the past so acutely that space is successive—she moves from one geographical viewpoint to another while remaining physically stationary—and time is simultaneous—for her the past and the present flow together in successive moments.
Translated into English, "Pido la Palabra" means "seize the word," a title that reminds readers of this story that "[w]hat is important in a culture is reflected in the language." The nameless protagonist "studying Spanish at the Instituto Cultural in Oaxaca" experiences first-hand that the "small, necessary words, survival words" of language study fail to convey the nuances of meaning and context implicitly understood by members of a cultural group. Robbery and rape and the manner in which these crimes are received by her Mexican friends and Mexican authorities show the protagonist that she needs to understand the beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions of Mexicans from the standpoint of their cultural logic and not her own.
The problems of language that Haynes’s stories explore are not confined to cultural differences, however. The husband in "Synapsing: Diary of Barbara Evelyn DeChesnay" is unable to talk or write. The story is structured as a series of diary entries that chronicle two weeks in Barbara’s life, beginning the day her husband suffers a stroke. The story is a meditation on language, on words and thought and their connections to the workings of memory: "Words without thought. Thought without words. If the words don’t come, are they there? If we don’t think in words, how do we think? If there are no words, what makes memory?"
The protagonist in M.A.C. Farrant’s Girls around the House is a writer whose words entertain by making the mundane memorable. This collection of linked short stories is set in Sydney, a community on Vancouver Island. Farrant’s stories are funny, often ironically funny, and they entertain the reader with anecdotes of ordinary middle-aged parents and their ordinary adolescent children. Farrant renders comic the everyday banalities of family life. Nothing spectacular happens, and one doesn’t need to live in Sydney to appreciate these stories.
Marion, the protagonist from whose point of view these stories are told, is a writer, wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, neighbour, and family chauffeur who struggles "to separate the writing self from the domestic self." "Holistic Ball of Wax" is a very funny tongue-in-cheek rejection of the tenets of New Age Spiritualism. Serenity, wholeness, and nirvana are not for Marion; she really likes "all this lovely, real-life neuroticism." Marion juggles the bewilderment and confusion of domestic life with the impossible demands of writing and has reconciled herself to accept "this split because, somehow, each side nourishes the other."
In "Panellist School" Marion is on a two-month book tour in Australia where she is also writer-in-residence at Macquarie University. Despite the exotic location, academic life in Australia is alarmingly familiar. She soon realizes that she didn’t need to travel all the way "to the Southern Hemisphere ... for the privilege of experiencing bewilderment, despair, confusion, hopelessness, dread and existential angst." Family life in Sydney provided her all of that.
Mothers who live with adolescent daughters will appreciate the ironic humour in "The Princess, the Queen & the Withered King: A Tale from Wit’s End," a story that uses fairy-tale narrative to examine the often painful rivalry between mothers and adolescent daughters. The wicked queen of this story, driven to her wit’s end, would put her self-absorbed, self-righteous Princess to sleep in order to preserve forever her childhood sweetness. The princess in this story appears "beautiful and gorgeous," but at best, the Queen reminds mothers, the princess is only "wonderful in training."
"Ritardando," the closing story, describes the family celebration of Nana’s eighty-second birthday. A musical term, ritardando means "becoming gradually slower," but Marion thinks of it as "a way of being present in the midst of things, a way of both participating in and absorbing the scene before [her]." As both participant and observer, Marion reconciles her writerly self with her domestic self in a halcyon moment of sacred ritual. Nana’s birthday party is as much a tribute to her eighty-second year as it is an affirmation and celebration of family solidarity.
Maggie Helwig’s Gravity Lets You Down collects vignettes, anecdotes, reportage, reviews, and stories about the gritty political realities that exist outside the safe shelter of family connectedness and belonging. Not one to shy away from dangerous truths, Helwig invites readers into the darkness to see what it is like when we fall. The author’s political underpinnings are made clear by the book’s dedication "to the demonstrators at the Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, East Timor, 12 November 1991." Bleak and painful in their stark truthfulness, these narratives examine the imbrications of political events and personal culpability. The narrator of "Transmissions" acknowledges that "even if I never knew anything about East Timor in my life, this twelve-year-old girl who was raped in prison is also part of my life."
The collection deals with potentially explosive issues ranging from religious faith, brutal political regimes and abuses of power, to events of civil protest. The Morgenthaler Clinic bombings, the G-7 Economic summit in Toronto, East Timor’s brutal campaign against the indigenous Timorese, nuclear missile and chemical weapons built in North America for war in the Middle East—all are targets for Helwig’s incisive narratives.
"Canadian Movies" is a series of vignettes loosely connected by the ruminations of their nameless narrator. A circus story, a Globe and Mail excerpt about Canadian film-maker Claude Jutra, a brief blurb about the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease, " [a] word about crazy people" comprise this story. The story begins recounting a macabre story about a man who eats the memory and motor centres of his brain and is carried away by two men who shock each other with cattle prods. The complications of this story, and of all the stories in this collection, are never resolved because we can’t "resolve things on paper any more, because that is a lie."
Helwig’s narratives rage against acts of inhumanity, but the possibility of grace and redemption, however slight, lingers. "In Byzantium" is a story for the city: "Toronto, New York, Rome and Byzantium and Toronto." The narrative juxtaposes the Byzantium idyll with Toronto street life. The biblical Mary is incarnated in Toronto’s Mary the bag lady, combining divine audacity and grace, reminding readers that in cities everywhere the extraordinary prevails in the here and now.
- Placing the Text by David Creelman
Books reviewed: Novels and the Nation: Essays in Canadian Literature by Frank Birbalsingh and The Margin Speaks: A Study of Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch from a Post-Colonial Point of View by Gunilla Florby
- Afraid of the Dark by Lothar Honnighausen
Books reviewed: The Way The Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
- British Columbia's Iliad? by Mark Diotte
Books reviewed: The Inverted Pyramid by Bertrand W. Sinclair
- Women Writing Women by Susanna Egan
Books reviewed: In Her Own Words: Women's Memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada & The United States by Jill Ker Conway
- Magic and Loss by Tim Haner
Books reviewed: The Demon Lover by David Arnason and Black Coffee Night by Emily Schultz
MLA: Torkko, Deborah. Memory, Family, Politics. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 145 - 148)
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