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The Politics of Poppies

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Since World War I, red poppies have symbolised the loss of military lives in war. The imagery stems from two poems, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician John McRae in 1915 and “We Shall Keep the Faith,” written by American professor Moina Michael in 1918.

Following Michael’s lead, many people still choose to wear a red poppy around Remembrance Day and Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice of military personnel in wartime. Many other people, however, choose not to wear a red poppy, believing the message too one-sided to capture the complexities of war.

Maya Eichler, a feminist scholar of militaries and military conflict, and Jessica Lynn Wiebe, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran and artist, aim to open a conversation about the politics of poppies. What does the red poppy mean today? What does the symbol leave out? What might the red poppy mean in other cultures and circumstances?

As the politics of poppies illustrates so well, there is no single story of war. At the same time, there is often resistance to hearing different, and sometimes conflicting, stories about war.

We invite you, readers of Understorey Magazine, to join this conversation.

The images below show art work by both Maya and Jessica. The text provides their own statement about their piece and initial questions to each other.

How would you answer the questions below?

Do you have other questions for Maya or Jessica?

Do you wear a red poppy? Why or why not?

Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box at the end of the article.


“The National Politics of War and Peace”


The National Politics of War and Peace by Maya Eichler

“The National Politics of War and Peace” is a Canadian flag Maya created out of red and white poppies. The white poppy campaign was first initiated by a group of UK women, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, in the 1930s. Its intent is to commemorate all victims of war—not just military but also civilian—and wearing the white poppy symbolises a commitment to working for peace. In Canada and the UK, however, wearing the white poppy can be controversial. The Royal Canadian Legion has spoken out against the white poppy and characterised it as disrespectful of military members and their sacrifices.

Every November, Maya struggles with the politics of poppies and with the divisiveness between those who choose the red or the white flower. She has worn the white poppy, both a white and red poppy, and on occasion a red poppy. In the fall of 2014, the politics of poppies seemed particularly heightened when a Canadian soldier was killed on Parliament Hill. That year, Canadians were called upon to start wearing the red poppy to show respect for soldiers well in advance of Remembrance Day on November 11. At the time, Maya was teaching a class on Canadian Foreign Policy in which there was much discussion of Canada’s shift in emphasis from peacekeeping to combat over the previous decade and a half.

She decided to create “The National Politics of War and Peace” to express both the personal and political tensions that emerge from how people choose to talk about past wars and how people make sense of Canada’s military identity today. She wanted to draw attention to how commemoration is political and shapes current understandings of Canada’s military role in the world. Creating a piece of art seemed like a potentially productive way to engage others in these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

Maya: What is your reaction to the flag I made out of red and white poppies?

Jessica: When I first saw your work, I did not understand what the white poppy represented. In the past, I had accepted the interpretation of those around me, with no research, investigation, or questioning on my own. I had perceived the white poppy as a stand against the military and war. It was uncomfortable to confront my own lack of deeper questioning. As a result of engaging with your work, I now understand the history of the white poppy in relation to the broader politics of war.


“Root Funding”


Root Funding by Jessica Lynn Wiebe

In “Root Funding,” Jessica used a photograph she took of two Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) rolling past her position in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. Using collage, she replaced the vehicles with images of poppies. During this time in her art practice (2014), Jessica was beginning to look deeper into the politics of the war in Afghanistan. She noted how the poppy is represented in Canada, for remembrance and sacrifice.

However, as a soldier with the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, she recognised the poppy as the root funding of the conflict, fuelling the drug industry and the fighting. To her, the poppy in this context represented vulnerability and danger. According to the United Nations Afghanistan Opium Survey, the main profits from the opium trade go to the drug traffickers, warlords, and the insurgency. Therefore, a good spring poppy harvest indicates an intense fighting season.

With this work, Jessica wanted to draw awareness to how the poppy manifested specific meanings in different places and cultural contexts. This work also highlights, if only at a surface level, the political and economic complexities and nature of the war and its perpetuation.

Jessica: What is your reaction to “Root Funding”?

Maya: I really like how you let the piece speak to the uncomfortable truth of the underlying war economy. But when I first saw the piece, I was most struck by its aesthetic beauty and its contrast with my aesthetic image of war. I felt a tension and a lingering discomfort with how you had “beautified” the Light Armoured Vehicles. But that discomfort made me look again, and think again, about the different ways in which we buy into war, whether for economic reasons, ideas of patriotism and sacrifice, or visual appeal—and how entangled they are often with one another.

Jennifer Raven: Cancer Girl

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Jennifer Raven is a photographer, writer, teacher, single mother of twins, and cancer survivor. Her photography show Metamorphosis~body of work includes self-portraits before, during and after treatment for stage three invasive breast cancer. Metamorphosis was exhibited at the Afterglow Arts Festival in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, in 2013. Two years later, Jennifer turned to comics to tell her story. Adventures of Cancer Girl, illustrated by Denise Gow-Morse, portrays the daily life of single mother with cancer. As Jennifer writes: single mother + cancer = superhero.

Understorey Magazine: Why did you move from photography to comics to tell your story?

Jennifer Raven: I think photography and comics engage different audiences. Metamorphosis may be my life’s work. I don’t know how I will ever be able to create a more complete and powerful group of images. But while a picture might be worth a thousand words, it doesn’t allow me to talk directly to my audience. Comics were a strange choice for me; in general, I’m not much of a fan. But Cancer Girl allows me to explore the very bizarre lifestyle one slips into after a cancer diagnosis through the lens of my own dark sense of humour. I hope it will help de-stigmatize breast cancer and contribute to greater awareness and dialogue.

UM: As a single mother and cancer survivor, do you actually feel like a superhero?

JR: Going through cancer treatment, I felt like anything but a superhero. My cancer coincided with an emotionally abusive relationship, which ended soon after I finished treatment. At that point, I felt like I had survived a war. Looking back, it hardly feels real and sometimes I think I forget, until I look down and see my own scar. I still can’t imagine my daily life in the months before my diagnosis: getting “twinfants” up, diapered, dressed and fed; getting my six-year-old ready for school; commuting work three days a week; grocery shopping on the way home; picking up the kids; making supper; and getting everyone to bed. Two years after treatment, I thought I was fine until one day when I had a mammogram. Staring down that machine again, I had a panic attack and started to cry. I was shell shocked. It has now been more than three years since my last treatment and I still experience post-cancer fatigue. But when I look back at what I lived through, I feel like only a superhero could have done all of those things. I think all single mothers deserve the title of superhero. My mom certainly does.

UM: What can be done to help other women, especially single mothers and women battling cancer, to feel more heroic?

JM: Connecting with others who are going through the same thing. I didn’t really do that until quite late in my treatment, and that left me very isolated. One thing I did do was make a point of dressing well and looking my best whenever I left the house, even if I was just going to the Cancer Centre. I may have spent eighty percent of the time in my pyjamas, but I tried not to let the fatigue show on the outside. I think it gave me back a bit of my dignity and sense of control. I think all of us need to search inside ourselves for our inner superhero.

UM: Where do you get ideas for Adventures of Cancer Girl?

JR: Most of the strips are autobiographical. Those that aren’t from my own experience are mostly things I wish I’d thought of when going through treatment.

UM: Tell us about your collaboration with artist Denise Gow-Morse.

JR: When I was first diagnosed, I had just written a children’s book, Boo-Boo Baby. It had received a number of rejections so I made a decision to self publish and went on a hunt for an illustrator. I was blessed to be introduced to Denise through a friend. We work very well together and had actually completed a second project before I asked her if she would be interested in bringing Cancer Girl to life. She has her own web comic called How My Mom Sees Things, which I really enjoy. She was a natural choice.

UM: How has Adventures of Cancer Girl been received so far?

JR: We’re still very new so we don’t have a huge audience yet. But it is growing. I am truly gratified that other cancer patients and survivors have related to the strip and have given a lot of positive feedback.

UM: What do you hope for Cancer Girl, both the comic strip and the woman in it?

JR: I don’t see Adventures of Cancer Girl just as a strip about cancer, although that part is always there. Cancer never happens in a vacuum: it comes unannounced and invades our ongoing lives. Thankfully for many, cancer is a temporary condition but, like a divorce, you are never the same afterward. As a comic, I hope for wider syndication and I see that happening already. I am hopeful we will have Cancer Girl at the next Hal-Con, and I will be making an appearance in an upcoming issue of a national breast cancer magazine. We definitely need Cancer Girl t-shirts! As for Cancer Girl herself, unfortunately, I don’t think she will ever be cured, but I hope she can show us ways to laugh in our darkest moments and make it through the most stressful events in our lives with dignity.

Read more of the Adventures of Cancer Girl.
















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A Conversation with Carol Bruneau

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bruneauThese Good Hands is Carol Bruneau’s sixth novel. Published in May 2015 by Cormorant Books, These Good Hands is a fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century French artist Camille Claudel. The book explores mental illness, misogyny, compassion, and the enduring power of art. It focuses in part on the strained relationship Claudel had with her mother — a relationship tempered by social attitudes about women’s “proper” behaviour.

Understorey Magazine spoke with Carol about her inspiration for These Good Hands, what she learned about Claudel, motherhood, and illness, and how she kept writing through the ten years required to create this book.

Understorey Magazine: What inspired you to write about Camille Claudel?

Carol Bruneau: I first heard of Claudel ten years ago through a tiny display, part of a Rodin exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Rodin was Claudel’s teacher. He was forty-two and she eighteen when they first met in Paris in the early 1880s and began their affair. Imagine, a middle-aged instructor hitting on a talented teenage student who was keen to get ahead in a tough career. Sex was an assumed perk of artistic “collaboration” — this at a time when women artists had to get government dispensations to wear pants. The Rodin display told little about Claudel other than that she was Rodin’s student/model/muse and mistress and that she died after spending thirty years in an asylum. The fact that she was a brilliant sculptor was mentioned, but more or less in passing.

UM: Motherhood shaped Claudel’s life, even though she was never a mother herself. How does motherhood figure in your novel?

CB: Claudel’s mother felt that her sexual behaviour — her relationship with Rodin — was an unforgivable disgrace to the family. When Claudel was in her twenties, symptoms of mental illness began to manifest and her mother thought her even more of a social liability. In 1913, Claudel was committed to a French asylum and diagnosed with what we might call schizophrenia. Her mother never visited, although she corresponded with her occasionally by sending small care packages to the asylum, mostly food.

Even more heartbreaking, on several occasions Claudel’s doctors found her well enough to be released into the care of her family, and each time Claudel’s mother absolutely refused to allow it. In letters, she wrote that Claudel had “caused them enough suffering” and under no circumstances would she accept responsibility for her daughter.

Social stigmas regarding mental illness and standards of “moral” behaviour certainly played into this, but even so, the mother’s lack of compassion is striking, and certainly seems, from our perspective today, to be unusually harsh.

My novel uses key pieces of Claudel’s artwork as touchstones in her narrative. I’ve also invented a work-in-progress called “Maman et Enfant” that Claudel creates and hopes her mother will appreciate as a token of their “natural” affection.

There have also been suggestions that Claudel and Rodin had at least one child together and it’s easy to assume that she had an abortion at some point; this is another motherhood-related plot point in my novel. Claudel’s inability to become a mother herself may have caused her further grief, especially given her difficult relationship with her own mother.

UM: How is this book and its themes of motherhood, misogyny, and mental illness, related to your previous novels?

CB: These Good Hands revisits themes explored in my previous novels, but considers them from more extreme, even radical, perspectives.
My 2005 novel Berth likely predisposed me to Claudel’s situation. Berth is set in the 1980s and explores the limits of maternal selflessness; how an otherwise “good” mother risks compromising her child’s interests to act in her own largely sexual interests. The central character in Berth suffers the psychological effects of social isolation and ever-present misogyny, acting in ways that I think shed light on persistent double standards regarding “proper” female versus male behaviour. Berth was a bit like getting my feet wet, preparation for diving into the more intense, more exacting challenge of writing about a clinical case of mental illness and the research that necessitated.

My last novel, Glass Voices, revolves around a mother who loses a child in the Halifax Explosion, and how trying to reconcile herself to this loss — and the accompanying guilt she feels over surviving when her child apparently hasn’t — prevents her from seizing life’s possibilities. In a way, These Good Hands revisits the kind of longing that this character feels, but looks instead at the severed mother-daughter connection from the child’s perspective.

As for the theme of motherhood, it’s like oxygen in just about all of my writing. A mother of three, I lost my own mother while in my mid-twenties and before I had my children. So motherhood is a theme that continually intrigues me with its endless variations to explore. Of all the things one can write about, in all its permutations motherhood is one of the most interesting, timeless, and universal.

UM: What is Camille Claudel’s legacy?

CB: Because she destroyed much of her later work — and because during her long incarceration, pieces went missing — her oeuvre only comprises ninety pieces or so, including originals and copies. A good deal of her work done as Rodin’s apprentice was incorporated into his famous pieces. She was expert at sculpting hands and feet, for instance, and made many of the figures for his Gate of Hell, yet art historians balk at ascribing her authorship of specific pieces.

As far as I’ve determined, at that time, no other European sculptor with skills of Claudel’s calibre used the medium to explore themes so directly related to women, and in ways that refuted — subverted — the romantic, self-serving representations her male peers created. In works such as Clotho (1893), Claudel focused on telling the truth about women’s lives. Eschewing any traditional ideas of beauty in art, pieces like this must have blindsided her contemporaries, and attest to her courage and fiercely distinctive vision.

As an inspiration to artists generally, her legacy is huge. It is revered in France. In North America, sadly, it’s barely recognized but this is already changing, I think, as more people discover her. Better late than never. The fact that her art transcends and truly outshines the tragic circumstances of its creation is inspiration to all.

UM: These Good Hands took ten years to write. How do you maintain commitment to and enthusiasm for a project over such a period?

CB: I take inspiration from my subjects themselves. Glass Voices took eight years to write, and in that case I’d think about the perseverance required of Halifax Explosion survivors any time I felt whiny. With this book, the tragedy of Claudel herself made me determined to persevere — although on several occasions I almost despaired because of a perceived disinterest in its subject, and filed the thing away “for good” in a drawer. It would have become the permanent elephant-in-the-room if several friends and family members hadn’t pestered me about it. And a couple of trips to France — after the initial trip to do research — fanned the flames. Then, in 2012, I saw the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work in the Musee Ste. Croix in Poitiers, which is also the home of my ancestors and, well, that was the nudge I needed — that and a timely note from a friend about rejecting rejection.

UM: Now that the book is out, how will you spend your summer?

CB: Well, having just finished a new collection of short stories, I’m presently trying to pick up the threads of a novel I started in 2010. I’ll be doing some readings in Toronto, and then, I hope, hiding out on my deck, writing.

For a chance to win a copy of These Good Hands leave a comment below! Courtesy of Cormorant Books.

A Conversation with Lesley Crewe

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Kin by Lesley Crewe

Kin by Lesley Crewe

Cape Breton mother and author Lesley Crewe has published six acclaimed novels, including her latest, Kin. Lesley’s first novel, Relative Happiness, will be released as a feature-length film in 2014. Lesley spoke with Understorey editor Katherine Barrett about motherhood, grief, and creativity.

How did you start writing novels?
I was working as a newspaper columnist in Cape Breton when I started my first novel, Relative Happiness. I wrote that story to be with my son, Joshua. We’d lost Joshua twenty years earlier, when he was just an infant [see Forever below]. I wanted to write his name—to see his name in something other than granite. So I did, over and over again. I didn’t intend to publish the story—I wrote it for myself—but a friend suggested I send it to a publisher and I’ve been writing novels ever since.

How has motherhood influenced your writing?
It’s who I am. Motherhood has influenced my life so of course it has influenced my writing too. My children are grown and live away from home but the mothering never stops. I don’t write about my kids in my books, yet the experience of being a mother—that love, empathy and worry—shapes all of my characters and stories.

You wrote your first five novels in two years. You’ve now published six and have another due out this summer. How do you it?
Please don’t be too impressed or daunted by how much I have written! Everyone has their own process and a right time in life to be creative. I didn’t write anything when my kids were small; I didn’t have the energy. Now I write just to avoid housework…. Actually, I walk every morning and that’s when I think of my stories. I then sit down and tell those stories, usually in short bursts of intense work. I write books that are easy to read, books that can be enjoyed in the tub or on the beach. I tell the kind of stories I like to read myself, and I draw a lot from my life and from the people around me.

Although the characters in your books often leave Nova Scotia, they seem compelled to return. There’s a pull, especially back to Cape Breton. Do you feel that too?
I spent the first six months of my life in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, and then grew up in Montreal. I have always felt a connection to Cape Breton and was fortunate to have the opportunity to move back, even when so many people have had to move away for work. I’ve lived here 30 years now and everyone I know who has left can’t wait to get back. I think that pull stems from the people here and in the Maritimes in general—the people and the connection we have to each other.

What advice could you give to new writers?
I’ve given workshops in high schools in Cape Breton through the Writers in the Schools program of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. I tell my students that you don’t need to travel to some exotic place to find a good story. We have lots of great stories—and fantastic characters—right here at home. I also advise new writers to write for the love of it, not out of a desperate need to be published. Write for yourself and trust your characters, too. Sometimes they take your story in new and unexpected directions. Listen to them.

What’s next for you?
I have a new book coming out in August. Chloe Sparrow is a lighthearted novel about a TV producer. The story was my daughter’s idea so I wrote it for her. I also finished another book this winter called Amazing Grace. I fell in love with the main character of that story, Grace. I miss her now. It’s strange the way that works…. This fall will be busy with Relative Happiness, the movie, coming out and with promoting Chloe Sparrow. But I love to meet my readers. They’re always so kind to me.


A Conversation with Alice Burdick

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holler I met poet Alice Burdick on a snowy morning at the Biscuit Eater Café in Mahone Bay. We sat in winter sun made cozy by the scent of baking, Latin tunes on the CD player, and shelves stacked high with books, including Alice’s latest collection, Holler.

We planned to talk poetry and motherhood but first took a few minutes to enjoy lattes, muffins, and marvel of leaving the house. It has been a cold winter in Nova Scotia with a lot of storms and school closures, times Alice spends at home with her children, Hazel, aged 6, and Arthur, 4.

Alice Burdick: I usually write at home, even when the kids are at school, but I do miss those days of leisurely writing in cafés like this one.

Katherine Barrett: When did you start writing poetry?

Alice: I took an extra-curricular writing course in high school called The Dream Class. It was run the by the Toronto school board, taught by Victor Coleman, and introduced me to the major poets and poetry movements of the twentieth century. I got hooked and later started making my own chapbooks—complete with hand-painted covers and pages—and selling them at book fairs and bookshops.

Katherine: And you’ve published a lot since then.

Alice: Yes, several chapbooks, three full-length poetry collections, and poems in literary magazines across Canada.

Katherine: How has motherhood changed your writing practice?

Alice: Other than spending less time in cafés? I’m much more focused than I was before kids, I just sit down and write. I treat it like a job and that way I’ve kept writing straight through motherhood, even when the kids were babies. I have to write to feel fully human.

Katherine: Your latest collection, Holler, contains many poems about children and mothering.

Alice: More than my previous collections, yes, and readers have said Holler is my most accessible book. I’m not sure how those two points are linked but it likely has to do with the immediacy of motherhood.

Body House
(from Holler)

Hazel stands in front of me
and points to her eyes.
They are windows, her ears,
they are windows, and her mouth,
she says it’s a door.

Her body is a house,
and she’s home
for now.

Katherine: Tell me about “Body House.”

Alice: My daughter, Hazel, was about three when she came to me with these pronouncements about her eyes, ears, and mouth. I saw her trying to situate herself, her body, in the world; trying to process the information that flows in and out. Three is such an innocent age, free of insecurities about bodies but I know that she’ll one day become aware of how others see her. That’s why I added “for now.”

Ghost Feet
(from Holler)

Please make me a book
from salad and tears. I cry at condiments.
My ghost feet light up the sidewalk.
Will you forget a book or a person so easily?

Arthur makes a series of sounds
that will one day be words.
He gets his point across
the floor, straight to the cat’s dish.

Katherine: To me “Ghost Feet” is about that crazy headspace of motherhood. Why am I crying at condiments? No, my kid is crying at condiments. We’re both crying. Never mind because there goes Arthur to the cat dish….

Alice: I’d say a lot of the poems in Holler share that quality: the brain on tangents brought home by the physicality of parenting. But “Ghost Feet” actually started with Michael Jackson. A friend challenged me to write about him; a “literal” video for Billie Jean and the line “my ghost feet light up the sidewalk” stuck in my head. So the poem is a reverie of sorts: the beauty of life; our quick acceptance of its disappearance; and the everyday strangeness of kids and parenting.

Katherine: What are you working on now?

Alice: I have a new poetry manuscript in the works. I’m also trying my hand at collaborative fiction, co-writing with another author. And now that the kids are a little older, I’ve started carrying my notebook around again, taking notes. We’ll see where it all goes.