Article Category Archives: Editorial

From the Editor

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I wear it joyfully. I wear it big. I wear it womanly. And I wear it Black. Black. Black. As night, deep and soft and endless with no moon. Just black and perfect splendour in life and in being a woman in this world.

This is an excerpt from “Mirrors” by the late Nova Scotian poet Maxine Tynes. Tynes was one of the first writers I met. I was about seven years old and she was reading at the Alderney Gate Public Library in Dartmouth. I was captivated by her composure, her elegance and her ability to bring an audience to unwavering attention with her beautiful rhythmic words full of truth and empowerment.

From the time I could put pen to paper, I was filling scribblers with short stories, poetry and random thoughts that I believed had the potential to blossom into literary greatness. Tynes was an inspiration. She was a radiant, strong and uniquely creative African Nova Scotian woman and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Since that meeting at the Alderney Library, I have been fortunate enough to meet several other incredible women who have immortalized stories through the written word. They too have inspired me to write and that is why I was so honoured when Katherine Barrett, editor-in-chief of Understorey Magazine, asked me to guest edit this very special edition featuring several talented and extraordinary African Nova Scotian women.

This project became even more special to me when my husband and I welcomed our baby girl into the world this summer. Upon her arrival, I experienced a completely new and overwhelming kind of love. I also immediately felt a great sense of responsibility to protect, inspire and educate this young mind. I am determined to fill each day of her life with positivity and hope. I want her to fully understand that the life she has–the opportunities she has been given–are because many strong women before her paved the way. I will tell her about Viola Desmond’s stand against segregation and how Portia White entertained royalty with her God-given, sultry operatic tone.

And now, thanks in part to Issue 12 of Understorey Magazine and the generous funding of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, my daughter will be able to discover even more African Nova Scotian talent. She’ll learn about the great family tradition of quiltmaking, read about the importance of turning even the most negative situations into opportunities to give back and move forward, and her eyes will surely be dazzled by the beautiful interpretive works of artistic minds. All of this and so much more can be found within these pages and I am grateful to be included amongst this group of women.

I hope you enjoy this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. Just like that seven-year-old who listened in awe to Tynes recite her beautiful work, my hope is that young girls will be inspired by these women who were willing to share their creativity with Understorey Magazine.

Lindsay Ruck

About Our Cover and Forthcoming Print Edition

Our cover for Issue 12 features work by Nova Scotia artist Shreba Quach.

Shreba says, “I have been an artist all my life but only in the last five years have I called myself one. Creativity has been a tool for healing and recovery from a traumatic past.”

The full painting from which our cover was created is shown here.

Look for Shreba’s work in the print edition of Issue 12 due out in February 2018 and available from DBDLI and on this website.

A Message from DBDLI

The Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute is pleased to partner with Understorey Magazine on its latest edition: African Nova Scotian Women. This important initiative acknowledges the unique experiences and history of women whose families have lived in Nova Scotia for generations and builds community by inspiring and mentoring new writers and artists. As an Africentric-based institute that focuses on educational excellence, the DBDLI is pleased to provide a platform for their stories and art to be shared within Nova Scotia and beyond.

Service

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Our cover art, a spraypaint mural of a woman among ferns and flowers and trees, may not be the first image that comes to mind when considering our theme: service. But it’s an old word with a long history and many variations.

Service originated from the Latin servitium, which relates to slaves and slavery. Several of the prose and poetry pieces we publish here, our eleventh issue of Understorey Magazine, carry this sense of service as being bound by contract or duty or societal expectations.

Spray paint mural by Shalak Attack, Montreal, 2007

Susan Brigham tells of her mother who, at fifteen years old, travelled far from her home of St. Helena to become a servant in England. Other pieces consider a more subtle form of service as servitude, particularly the unspoken roles of women. Julia Florek Turcan looks at how service roles are passed down through generations of mothers. Dorothy Nielsen creates a fictional “Marie,” a wife and mother who always and unquestioningly puts the needs of others first.

Many of the stories in this issue invoke a more complex definition of service, one in which roles are taken on willingly but a deep sense of obligation, allegiance, and sacrifice remains. Often such forms of service involve tending to the direct needs others. Gayle Mavor tells of becoming wound into a web of caregivers for an elderly woman. Sara Jewell writes about caring for her father, who suffered from early-onset dementia, and how this experience compares with her becoming a lay worship leader. And Savannah Sidle touches gently but deeply on the unceasing service of mothers to their children.

Of course service often extends beyond personal relationships—out into the community, the country, the world. Emily Bowers writes of working abroad for many years and then returning to rural Nova Scotia to become a volunteer fire fighter. Several of our pieces look at military service, but none through the usual lens. Sheila Firth-Warlund offers three poems about her role as a military chaplain serving in Afghanistan. Wanda R. Graham tells of caring for a woman released from Canadian military prison:

she’s made mistakes
I look at her in wonder
she’s one of the country’s finest
what can she mean, what has she done?

Like Graham, collaborators Maya Eichler and Jessica Lynn Wiebe both honour and question military service. Their visual art and dialogue examines the red poppies often worn on Remembrance Day and asks readers to consider what—and whom—this symbol might exclude.

There is yet a further, broader sense of service represented in this issue, that of commitment to a cause rather than to a specific role. Liane Berry shares her story of addiction and recovery and how, through service, she now devotes her life to helping other addicts. And in Hannah Renglich’s work, service veers into the realm of stewardship, caring for the long-term vitality of the land and its diverse communities.

Despite differences in interpretation, the work published here invokes two enduring elements of service. There is commitment (willing or less so), hard work, sacrifice. But there is also growth.

All of the women represented in these stories are changed through acts of service.

Some find a voice. Some redemption. Many find community and belonging. Even those exhausted and undervalued are stronger in some way: a small salary sent home, a single friend, a self-made bed. Service roles are rarely linear, simply giving. They start from self, change many, and circle back to self.

In this sense, our cover art perfectly captures the theme of service. The mural was created by Shalak Attack, a Canadian-Chilean artist dedicated to creativity, community, and activism. It covers a wall in north Montreal, a public space available to everyone. And although the woman in the mural is rooted to the earth, she extends out into the world. She is engaged and essential. As she supports others around her, she becomes stronger herself.

Also in this sense, we present the Service Issue of Understorey Magazine as an act of service in itself. We work hard to bring stories of women’s lives to a wider audience. Many of the authors and artists published here are new to their craft. For some, this is their first publication. Yet all have vital stories of giving and growing as women among often conflicting obligations, desires, and communities.

We invite you read, contemplate, share. As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment for an author or artist in the comment box at the end of the articles, on Facebook or Twitter, or through our contact page.

Thank you and enjoy!

X, Y, Z…?

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Much has been made of the gulfs across recent generations: workaholic Boomers, lost Generation Xers, entitled Millennials or Generation Y—and now the plugged-in Generation Z.

But imagine a woman from each generation as a young, aspiring writer:

Baby Boomer Brenda scribbles ideas on loose leaf with a felt-tip pen. Later, she types out her story on a Smith-Corona. When Brenda needs to fill in facts, she flips through the card catalogue at the local library. If there’s no book on the subject, she consults her friends when they gather at the Dairy Queen.

Gen X Jessica jots notes in a knock-off Filofax. Later, she transcribes her story on the word processor in the basement rec room. When Jessica needs to fill in facts, she scans the computerized catalogue at the library or calls her friends on the wall phone in the kitchen.

Millennial Megan enjoys a latte at Starbucks and outlines a story in her Moleskine notebook. Later, she sits on her bed with her laptop, expanding her ideas into a finished draft. When Megan needs to fill in facts, she searches Google or calls friends on her cellphone.

Gen Z Zoe thumbs notes into her phone. Later, she composes a poem from those notes, also on her phone. When Zoe needs to fill in facts, she speaks into her phone to ask Siri or she texts her friends.

Gaping gulf or a smooth continuum? Is Brenda’s world bigger than Zoe’s or smaller? Is Zoe more connected or less?

Based on the youth I met while editing this issue of Understorey Magazine, I’d say writing tools have certainly evolved but the basic motivation—even compulsion—to write hasn’t shifted that much. Writers, and particularly youth writers, still wrestle with life’s big, tough questions: Who am I? Where do I fit in? How can I express my own power within the power structures around me?

In this issue, for example, Meredith Bullock describes how she discovered the power of her mind when that of her hands proved unreliable. Elayna Foran uses video to explore her place in a changing political landscape. And Guyleigh Johnson takes a broad look at inequalities across generations and how they affect her life and community of North-end Dartmouth.

Means of exploring these issues may have changed but I’d guess that if sixteen-year-old Brenda and her friends spent a day with sixteen-year-old Zoe and her friends (and brought Jessica and Megan along), they’d have a lot to share. I suspect they’d discover an articulate and diverse group of women connected to each other by their curiosity, their ingenuity and their desire to create.

With great confidence, I turn Issue 10 of Understorey Magazine over to today’s youth.

Night Feathers by Larissa Hauck

Home and Away

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I have, so far, called twenty-eight different addresses my home. Some of these were childhood homes, as ours was a military family, always on the move. Many were student homes, me in constant search of lower rent, brighter rooms and better locations. I’ve lived in high rises and basements, above restaurants and below musicians. I’ve lived on Prince Edward Island and Vancouver Island and many places in between.

Few of these homes were perfect. When I shared chaotic flats, I craved civilized domesticity—a single unstained coffee cup. When I finally got my own place, I craved the chaos of living beings—cats and friends and family. But these were just details. Most of my twenty-plus moves contained an element of choice (even military moves) and a much larger element of excitement. Moving has always meant renewal: a fresh bedroom colour as a child, a decently scrubbed apartment as a student. Changing my place of residence never left me feeling adrift. I was never displaced, just replaced.

It was not until we moved to South Africa that I felt home—or the lack of home—in a deeper way. Our three boys were toddlers when my husband accepted a three-year job in Cape Town, a relocation that would in fact last four and a half years. South Africa is a beautiful and complicated place, still struggling with the legacy of apartheid. I have never been more aware of myself, of my identity as a white, middle-class Canadian, than during those years. That awareness surfaced in mundane ways: my search for molasses in the grocery store or a public swimming pool in our neighbourhood. But it manifested in more profound ways too. I drew parallels between the histories—and current realities—of our indigenous peoples. I also glimpsed what it might be like to leave your home country forever.

Though I grew to love South Africa, I felt the constant pull of Canada, that undefinable Canadian essence that somehow defines us. In a small way, I sensed unsettledness: part of myself in one place and another part permanently elsewhere. It was indeed a small way, as we could always return to Canada. Nonetheless, I learned that moving can change more than an address—it can alter a sense of self. I still cannot fathom true displacement. I have never left or made a home due to conflict, disaster, abandonment, discrimination, illness or economic crisis. For this I learn from others: everyday actions, conversations, works of art, the written word.

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we explore many facets of home and away. The diverse authors and artists featured here portray the small, tangible items that define a home—carrots from a backyard garden; a hooked rug passed down through generations. They capture the more elusive qualities of belonging or exclusion—warmth of the sun felt across time and continents; small acts of assertion at a housing co-op. Our contributors also broach those more profound circumstances—negligence, colonization, war—that can tear down a home and impose its rebuilding.

Please read, consider, comment and share.

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Four Boats by Joy Laking

Justice

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The View from Underneath by Teresa Young

Welcome to the Women and Justice issue of Understorey Magazine. Here are a few numbers to ponder:

  • In the past ten years, the rate of federal incarceration for women rose by 50% while the rate for men rose by less than 10%.
  • In the same period, the rate of incarceration for Aboriginal and Black men and women rose by 50% and 69% respectively.
  • Almost a quarter of federal inmates and 35% of incarcerated women are of Aboriginal ancestry—yet Aboriginal people comprise less than 5% of the Canadian population.
  • The vast majority of federally sentenced women report being sexually and/or physically abused at some point in their life. Compared to male offenders, women are twice as likely to have a serious mental health diagnosis.
  • Aboriginal and Black inmates and female inmates with mental health issues are more likely than others to be placed in segregation.

These claims come from the latest report of Canada’s Correctional Investigator, a federal government office legislated to impartially assess our criminal justice system. The numbers are shocking and difficult to dismiss, no matter your political persuasion or appetite for social change. There is clearly something very wrong. Yes, right here in Canada.

Shouldn’t we be doubting that so much progress has been made/ When so many women aren’t waving but drowning —El Jones

But reports and statistics and headlines tell only a partial story. Behind the Correctional Investigator’s numbers, behind the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, behind the “I believe survivors” and Black Lives Matter slogans—are voices.

Sometimes, these voices are loud and gain attention. More often, and in contrast to a legislated mandate to speak out, they are muffled, unheard or actively silenced. Yet these voices, these disparate stories of everyday experience, are necessary to understand the whole. More than that, they are necessary for us to feel—and therefore to act.

For every time I’ve been encouraged to tell my story, I have been told three times to move on, forget it happened.

—Carling M.

In this eighth issue of Understorey Magazine, our first produced in partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute, we present some of these voices—stories of women and justice told through essay, poetry, fiction and visual art.

Several pieces published here examine segments of our criminal justice system, our prisons, parole boards, history-making court cases and the work of enforcement officers.

She was not a person/ Under the law

—Lynda Lesny

Many contributors tackle issues of social justice. They capture subtle and shifting assumptions of power and privilege, or more deeply engrained divisions of gender, class and race.

One set of poems looks at environmental justice, at how we treat our natural world and how those decisions affect cultures and communities.

Separately and as a whole, the literary and visual art presented here shows that criminal, social and environmental justice are linked. The course of a life is shaped by personal choices, sure, but also by our choices as a society, by what we choose to value, who we choose to hear, and how we choose to see.

The arresting officer wouldn’t even touch me to put on cuffs.

—Naomi Sears

It is this willingness to really see the lives of others that Rebecca Thomas so poignantly describes in her poem “Etuaptmumk.” In doing so, we can become more aware of our own lives—past, present and future—and create a space for something bigger, something new.

Open your other set of eyes/ Recognize the pain you have caused/ Take a pause and start breathing./ Welcome to the world of Two Eyed Seeing.
—Rebecca Thomas

For many reasons, this issue of Understorey Magazine has been the most challenging to produce thus far. But I believe it is one of our best. Please read, consider, comment and share. If you feel so compelled, please donate to help Understorey continue publishing stories by and about Canadian women.

A special thank you to the Quakers Fostering Justice Committee for funding part of this issue, to Carole Langille for her encouragement and support throughout the long process of creating the Women and Justice issue, and to Emily Bowers for her assistance in vetting and editing submissions.