Confluences 2: Essays on the New Canadian Literature. Mawenzi House Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
A Mariner's Guide to Self Sabotage. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
It is amazing that “self-sabotage”—a fitting term for the behaviour of many of Bill Gaston’s characters—has not surfaced earlier than the title of the seventh collection by this intriguing, tremendously gifted writer. With as many novels to his name, plus a recent memoir, the Victoria-based author has, over the last three decades, developed and mastered a certain type of short fiction in which a wild premise is taken seriously and rendered eerily relatable. It is no surprise that one of his most celebrated collections is titled Gargoyles, since something of the grotesque often attaches to his characters. And yet the quirkiness is never sensational or played strictly for laughs. Gaston’s emotional palette is broad: the humour is laced with sorrow, while tragedy is never without a hint of the ludicrous.
The latest volume offers all that we have come to expect from him: aging misfits, resurfaced past lovers, unhinged seekers of profundity, weary families, and couples on the verge of romantic collapse. Gaston has become adroit at chronicling sexual dynamics from the male point of view (especially, perhaps, in the aptly titled Sex Is Red), but it is two of the stories with a female perspective—“Levitation” and “Anonymous”—that contain some of his finest material to date. Other standouts include the touching yet oddly mischievous farewell in “Drilling a Hole in Your Boat” (ostensibly the source of the collection’s title) and “Carla’s Dead Wife,” in which revealing a long-held secret may have catastrophic results for an already volatile family reunion. As ever, there is a touch of the purely bizarre, especially in the Southern Gothic-tinged “The Church of Manna, Revelator” and “Hello:,” a deranged and perhaps spurious first-person confession, somewhat in the manner of Gaston’s famous Malcolm Lowry send-up, “A Forest Path.” In short, A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage is further proof that one of the most talented Canadian storytellers is still fully in control of his craft, and as deserving as ever of the most prestigious literary prizes, as he continues to mark out his own, singular routes.
The question of singularity is one of pressing importance in Confluences 2, a collection of essays edited by Nurjehan Aziz. Co-founder of what is now Mawenzi House (formerly TSAR Publications), Aziz continues the commendable task of showcasing exciting voices “to emerge in Canada in the last four decades, following the postcolonial wave of immigration of the 1960s and 70s.” As in Confluences 1 (2016), Aziz is careful to include essays focusing on the work of one writer at a time: the writer’s name, printed in bold capital letters, precedes a given essay’s title and the name of its author. Such a strategy precludes comparative work, which could in some cases yield remarkable results. However, and more importantly, it also strengthens the idea that each of these authors must be read within a specific, irreducible cultural context, as if to counter the trend observed by Madeleine Thien, among others, who a few years ago deplored the scarcity of “historical context or literary precedents” in reviews and critique of “the work of Asian, South Asian, African, and Arab-Canadian writers.” Most contributors to this volume narrow their scope; the most prominent exception in that respect is Laura Moss’ superb essay on M. G. Vassanji’s “unapologetically multinational figure,” where the critical eye is trained also on the shifting paradigms of Canadian studies, the various “hungers” of academics and readers alike.
Confluences 2 offers a fascinating panorama of contemporary postnational writing which, according to the editor’s preface, “draws its inspiration . . . from the histories, cultures, traditions, and experiences of . . . areas considered historically outside the purview of the ‘Western.’” With two further volumes still in preparation, it would be futile to list omissions. Where Confluences 1 highlighted the work of, among others, Michael Ondaatje, Hiromi Goto, Austin Clarke, Rohinton Mistry, and Anita Rau Badami, here—in addition to the author of The Book of Secrets—the essays deal with the writing of Dionne Brand, Wayson Choy, Ramabai Espinet, Cecil Foster, Rabindranath Maharaj, Joy Kogawa, and Shauna Singh Baldwin. Aspects addressed by established academics and writers (e.g., H. Nigel Thomas, Asma Sayed, and Dannabang Kuwabong) as well as emerging scholars range from “nowarian” consciousness, lingering racist heritage, and feminist interventions, through complicated domesticity and postmodern city space, to the fluidity and interpenetration of genres. Taken together, these varied and astute essays respond to what Moss calls, in a somewhat different context, “the desire of global readers to think laterally about identity and place.”