A very long time ago I used to write literary fiction. These were populated by a lot of young women who had feelings and watched loons fly across evening skies after days of unspecified sadness (not exactly that, but it gives you a sense of what I mean). They also had failed relationships, and drank coffee, and sometimes something a little uncanny happened, like they wandered into a cornfield, or someone lit themselves on fire. I’m being glib, of course, though I did learn a lot about writing producing those stories, and I even published a few of the more interesting ones in Canadian magazines like Grain and Geist and Room of One’s Own. They were best when they slid into the literary weird, which I think happens naturally if you’re trying to describe your experiences of the world in a precise and granular way– deep focus and precision makes everything seem weird, doesn’t it?
Anyway. One of places I used to send stories was a magazine called subTerrain. I think I might have also sent them some pretty dire poetry, as well, poor editors. They never took anything, though. And who can blame them, what with the loons and the feelings.
So, you can imagine my great, gleeful pleasure that finally I have a story appearing in subTerrain. And while it’s about feelings, and forest fires, and there are no loons, there is systemic forgetting, on both the institutional and personal level. And there’s dystopia. Please check it out and buy if you can. There’s a lot of good & relevant stuff in here, and it’s a beautiful magazine.
This is a dark story. I wrote it about my own climate change anxiety, as a kind of exorcism. I don’t know if it worked to exorcise anything, though, since I am still in turns terrified and exhausted, haunted by low-grade anxiety, and ready to scream. I often wonder if this is what it was like to live through other slow disasters: the fall of Rome, maybe? Or the Black Death?
Slow, until it’s fast, of course. And what “fast” will look like I have no idea.
The title comes from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia. A lot in my life comes from Sir Thomas Browne. I even wrote a novelette (near-novella) about a TB-like character meeting aliens because he struck me as a perfect person to hang out with aliens. Hydriotaphia is about memorialization and failures of memory. It’s about the impossibility of resisting the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things. There’s something soothing about Hydriotaphia, for me living through this slow disaster, because it is a record of other people’s responses to the end, in whatever form it came to them.
“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” is about memorialization, mostly because that’s how I understand disasters best, given my work on war and memory. What does memory look like after the end? My answer was the Ossuary, a virtual urn containing the information we leave behind.
But you would still like to know who started the Ossuary. An elderly woman, contrite after a career in politics spent dismantling the welfare state. A philosopher. A global artist collective. A disappointed coder with a background in conceptual art. A theologian with a lab full of grad students hired to name the dead. Conspiracy theorists liked to present evidence that it was the second website created in September 1991, by an ancient organization that recognized the value of the emergent technology. There is no evidence for this. More recently, people have begun to believe that the Ossuary was generated by the internet itself, sentience emerging from the noise of panic as the anthropogenic end-times pass from theory to reality. There are others who observe earlier memorials—one thinks of the Somme, or Verdun– and reject the suggestion, because the convention is too familiar, its history too long.
(Gordon Downie, jr, lead singer & songwriter for the Tragically Hip, Canadian icon. 1964 – 2017)
It’s August 2016 and I’m in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II. It’s the last day and I’m both happy and exhausted, that enervated feeling you get when you’ve been talking to so many wonderful people for so long you have run out of words. In my moments alone, walking from panel to panel in the convention centre, I listen to the Tragically Hip, thinking about how they’ve been a constant soundtrack, a commentary running in the background of our lives for decades. As I walk through the big glass doors at the corner of 13th and Central, among the writers and fans and boba fetts, I hear “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” One line sticks in my head: the ferget yer skates dream. I think about what that dream might be: anxiety and memory and childhood.
The next day, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I read an email from a friend who watched the last concert– the one livestreamed by the CBC– in a bar in Nanaimo, and cried with strangers over the impending loss. While I walked around the convention centre, and probably while I was at the Hugos, 11.7 million strangers & friends watched the last Tragically Hip gig.
I missed it. I missed it and I am surprised by how much this hurts me. It’s a good life (if you don’t weaken).
It’s October 1999 and I’m in the bar in Muenster, Saskatchewan. It’s walking distance from St Pete’s College, where I am staying for three weeks of poetry workshop, so we go there a lot. I’m playing pool with Robert Kroetsch. I’m a terrible terrible pool player, but Robert is forgiving, and digs into his pocket for a handful of quarters and tells me to go put something on the juke box. That something is always– that night and other nights– “Bobycaygeon.”
“Bobcaygeon” while we drink cheap beer and watch the northern lights and talk about poetry.
It’s June 1993 and I’m at Western Speedway, just outside of Victoria, for Another Roadside Attraction: Pere Ubu, The Hot House Flowers, Midnight Oil, and the Tragically Hip. Only I’m not with a group of Hip fans, so we leave after Midnight Oil because our ride wants to get out before the traffic gets crazy. I am sad to leave them behind, because secretly I love “Courage” though for adolescent reasons I cannot remember, it is uncool at that moment to love “Courage.”
As we walk out across the parking lot, I hear them playing it, distorted by distance, bouncing over the walls of the speedway and over the asphalt and the cars and the bodies in the moshpit up front. I can hear the crowd, too, from whom I am separated and who sing along, Gord’s voice over them all:
courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
So social media is full of #metoo. Or, as one friend put it, “of course #metoo” and as many others have asked: is this any kind of a surprise?
A couple of years ago (at Clarion West) I wrote a story called “On Highway 18.” It’s about small towns and girls and cars and hitchhiking and the constant, pervasive, numbing threat of violence, which touches everyone directly or indirectly. It grew from my own experiences as a young woman, and I borrowed a few from other people as well.
It’s much easier to write fiction about this kind of pervasive, low-grade anxiety because in relating each lived example, I tend to downplay the hurt. They seem slight in retrospect, even if my skin crawled at the time, or prickled with anxious sweat, or I sprinted from the scene with my heart beating in my throat. If I described the facts of these sorts of events, I might add, I know other people have experienced much worse, or but you know I’m fine, or it wasn’t that bad… was it?
In fiction, though, I can try and capture the immediate, subjective experience, independent of whether the encounter was “bad enough” to count as trauma. In fiction there’s room for evocation and impressionism, to describe the way each encounter taught me something about what it means to be a woman, and the amount of power men had to define me, to tell me to smile, to demand my attention. To touch me. “On Highway 18” was therapeutic from that perspective, a whole catalogue of experiences that aren’t “that bad,” but nevertheless accumulate into a feeling of dread and smallness. At least, for one of the characters. Other characters aren’t so “lucky.”
I’m posting this paragraph, which is reportage:
Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
“You girls want to party?”
Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.
Worse has happened since, and worse is happening this very moment, but I still hate that I didn’t know– as a fourteen year old– how to answer his question more powerfully.
New story called “The Journey and the Jewel” up over at Sockdolager (an excellent magazine published by Alison Wilgus and Paul Starr). I am always surprised by how consistent (not to say “repetitive!”) my stories are thematically, and this one covers a lot of familiar concerns. Forests. Grief. Families. Beaches. That’s pretty much my territory.
“The Journey and the Jewel” is also about that peculiar genre of the early 80s: the “armchair treasure hunt” book, something that reminds me of an ARG, an idea that arrived a little early, and that would have benefited from contemporary communications tech. The paintings in these books always remind me of Celestial Seasonings tea and the fantasy-and-science fiction section of the secondhand bookstore I used to visit in Duncan, BC when I was a kid. Unsettling high realism, sometimes, and dreamlike landscapes more strange than comforting.
Kit Williams seems to have originated the genre with Masquerade in 1979. We had a copy when I was little. I don’t know where it came from, but there were a few pages I found terrifying (I was just that kind of kid– I had to leave E.T. early because it was too scary). There was this one painting of the sun, a character in the story, who had been turned into a puppet and dropped on a beach at sunset, his limbs all twisted. I really didn’t like that picture. Because I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, the book ended up living in the top of the linen cupboard for most of my childhood.
It’s an interesting genre, though, and I can see why some of the other, unsolved examples have found a place online, where people can collaborate on their interpretations & theories. Over at the The Secret wiki people are trying to find ten jewels whose locations have been hidden (since 1982!) in paintings that remind me a lot of Kit Williams. I can see why they’re looking– an unsolved riddle, a still-lost treasure is appealing because the story remains unfinished, the end deferred. It’s made to be solved, right? So what happens to the story if it isn’t? “The Journey and the Jewel” is a kind of answer to the question.
We Don’t Do First Person
One thing preoccupied me during the battle: what are they thinking?
What do they think while they’re marching up and down the field, and firing muskets at one another, or wandering in and out of the white canvas tents. Obviously, a lot of their attention would be taken up trying to figure out where you were supposed to be when, just because the choreography for a crowd that large has to be pretty demanding. But when they were in position, and taking aim at the opposing line, what did they think? Did they imagine themselves to be in 1812, representing a person who might actually have lived through the original version of that moment? In other words, if the battle was theatre, were they actors as well as re-enactors? Continue reading
Welcome to 1812
Reasoning that it qualified as dissertation-research (for me, that is), D and I drove down to the Niagara Peninsula last weekend to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights. This event was part of a huge, national project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, with events planned all around Ontario and Quebec for the next two years. There will be fancy-dress armies, historically-accurate food, tall ships, sea-battles, red-coats, poke bonnets. Laura Secord. Tecumseh. General Isaac Brock. The events are spectacular, and expensive, equal parts educational opportunity and vacation plan.
This event drew nearly a thousand re-enactors, many of them men who double as combatants in the Seven Years War, or the American Civil War. It lasted all weekend, with Saturday devoted to the battle, and Sunday to “Brock”‘s funeral, and a slow march in costume through Niagara-on-the-Lake. Continue reading
I was trying to remember when I first heard about the War of 1812, and I came up with two icons I must have encountered when I was very small, though I could not say exactly when: Laura Secord and Johnny Horton. Laura Secord has a pretty obvious 1812 connection, so obvious she even has her own historica minute. Johnny Horton might require an explanation.
When I was about seven I had Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits on a beige audio tape, without a case, one that a neighbour kid left at our house when he moved. It was an unfortunate oversight on his part, one that has, sadly, informed my sense of American history as much as L.M. Alcott or Herman Melville or Frederick Douglass. It’s a good thing I’m not an historian, because I’m pretty sure they’d take away my degrees for that.
So, as a seven year old I absorbed a peppy, post-war version of American history, much preoccupied with battles and heroic men: Johnny Reb fights all the way through the Civil War, Ol’ Hick’ry defeats the Red Coats with a weaponized alligator, Davey Crockett strangles a bear and dies at the Alamo, and even the Bismarck is imagined in Texan terms, with guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees. It’s Disney-history, nuggets of sepia-toned high adventure rendered as three-minute narratives in 4/4, with Horton’s band singing “Mush! Mush!” behind him, as Big Sam McCord goes north to Alaska (where the rush is on). Continue reading
Last May D and I drove south to the Niagara frontier to see the Corpse Flower in bloom at the Niagara Floral Showcase and to visit Queenston Heights, because I’m working on a chapter about the battlefield. The Corpse Flower gets its own post, though, as a kind of footnote.
Queenston Heights is a park that was once a battlefield. You know it was a battlefield because there’s a very large monument to Sir Isaac Brock, the English General who led British and Canadian troops against the Americans in October 1812, and who died early in the battle. The memorial tower rises aggressively on the Canadian side of the frontier, with Brock at the very top, pointing toward the American side of the river, as though the tower isn’t only to remind us of the general’s death, but to tell us where and how to look toward his American enemies.
I’m writing this post as a break from what I should be doing, which is either preparing my next lecture, or revising a chapter about commemoration on the Plains of Abraham. I’m feeling a bit worn out by both projects, so I hope it’ll cheer me up to write about something I like.
Not like, even. I love Vaudeville theatres. I love them so much that I’ve written a novel about an imaginary theatre called the Temple, in an imaginary version of Vancouver. My inspiration for the Temple came from the Orpheum and Pantages in Vancouver and the Paramount in Seattle, the McPherson and the Royal in Victoria. There’s a touch of London’s Grand Theatre about it, too, and maybe a little of San Francisco’s Castro (though that one was always a movie palace).