Author Archives: Understorey Magazine

What to Read Next: The Write Crowd

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The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life by Lori A. May (Bloomsbury 2015) is not your average writing guide. It does not explore point of view or plot structures. It does not advise on how to pitch to agents or approach publishers. But it just may keep you writing. It may make the difference between saying, “I write” and “I am a writer.”

The Write Crowd advocates finding, creating and nurturing literary community through small “acts of literary kindness.” May begins the book by telling of her move from small-town Ontario to Detroit. She knew few people in the city but ventured out one night to a poetry reading in support of local authors. There she met other writers, publishers and like-minded poets. She made contacts that allowed her to launch a literary journal. She wasn’t “networking” but engaging. She was offering support and, as it happened, she also received it.

Literary citizenship can take many forms and May provides dozens of ideas from a simple “thank-you” note for author to reading for literary magazines. “The concept is to pay kindness and skill forward, to offer something to the community so that others may learn, engage, and grow from combined efforts.”

Literary citizenship is “contributing something to the literary world outside one’s own immediate need.”

The Write Crowd is both practical and inspirational. It is about connecting with others, about recognizing and celebrating the fact that we need each other.

Lori A. May spoke with Understorey Magazine about the book, literary citizenship and her latest projects.

Understorey Magazine: Writing your book was itself an “act of literary kindness” in that it inspires others to engage. What prompted you to write it?

Lori A. May: I had been impressed with so many wonderful acts of literary kindness around me—seeing emerging writers take the stage at reading series, witnessing grad student volunteers becoming employees of independent presses, watching grassroots groups become registered nonprofit organizations—that I began to document some of the ways we can foster and strengthen literary community. I wanted to share ideas big and small for how we play a role in the community and in passing on goodwill to the next generation of readers and writers. After speaking on the topic for a number of years and publishing a few articles, I imagined there was an audience for a book-length discussion.

UMag: You note in the book that literary citizenship has a long history (Walt Whitman was one advocate). Do you think the concept has changed significantly in recent times, especially with all the self-promotion authors are now expected to do?

writecrowdLM: I don’t consider self-promotion a part of literary citizenship. That’s marketing—and it’s certainly necessary for authors to do, perhaps more now than ever. Literary citizenship is when peers and readers share enthusiasm for new books, for authors’ efforts and for events taking place in the community. Acts of literary citizenship are not something a writer can count on as part of a greater marketing plan. But when readers and peers make an extra effort to help authors, it’s a welcome bonus. And when authors devote some of their time to championing others and injecting enthusiasm into the community around them? Well, those same authors are likely to benefit from community support.

UMag: Do you think the literary community and opportunities for engagement are significantly different in Canada versus the US or in big cities versus small towns?

LM: Opportunities are perhaps proportionate to population, but I don’t think there is less opportunity in Canada. There are wonderful book publishers, booksellers, literary festivals and organizations throughout the country and thus plenty of opportunity for literary citizens to get involved. In the book, I highlight a few stand-outs, like Brick Books, Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs and Canadian Women in Literary Arts, but there are countless others, such as provincial writers’ guilds and federations and many local literary festivals. The point I hope to make in The Write Crowd is that wherever you live, whatever resources you have to share with others, there is opportunity. If you live in a rural area, that’s all the more reason to find like-minded readers and writers to assemble a reading series. If you live in a small town with access to a library, there’s opportunity to mentor young writers or host community writing workshops. Plus, with the Internet, there’s little excuse to not get involved. Many literary journals rely on volunteer readers for submissions or marketing assistance, and many times these opportunities can be done at a distance. Whatever I learned about literary citizenship, I first learned as a young Canadian writer and I think opportunities are only increasing in Canada.

UMag: Time is a precious resource for most writers—and especially for women, who still take on a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare. Squeezing in thirty minutes of writing before work may be all that is manageable. Yet, as you point out, engagement is vital. What is one small act of literary kindness that a time-stretched emerging writer might perform?

LM: Cheer on a fellow writer. Make a quarterly appointment in your calendar to give encouragement—via mail or email or phone or in person—to another writer and champion whatever he or she is doing, remind one another why you’re writing and celebrate even the smallest of accomplishments. That may not seem like a major act of engagement but writers can so often feel isolated and frustrated with the process that these little boosts of encouragement can do wonders. You never know when someone is having a bad run and feeling down on her work. A pick-me-up phone call or note that says, “Your work matters, keep it up!” can be just the boost someone needs.

UMag: What are you working on now?

LM: I’m tinkering with some new poems, but I’m mostly focused on a new narrative nonfiction project. It’s slow going, in a way that it should be, but I like sinking my teeth into a larger project like that. I also reward myself with the instant gratification of freelance writing, so I’m seeing results for efforts along the way. I’ve had a busy year with travel and presenting at a number of conferences and festivals and being that immersed in the community always makes me feel good. I love the thrill of hearing others’ successes and sharing that magic. Most often when I come home from presenting, I have an extra bit of spunk in my step that motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing. That’s why I think community is so important. We’re all in this together.

UMag: What books or magazines are on your to-read list?

LM: I just received the latest Best Canadian Essays from Tightrope Books, so I’m enjoying the myriad voices in that collection. It’s wonderful. I’m also enjoying my subscriptions to Room Magazine, The Missouri Review and The Colorado Review. Literary journals are an amazing way to discover new voices and support independent publishing too.

Lori A. May is a Canadian author, poet and teacher. Her second collection of poetry, Square Feet, was published by Accents Publishing in 2014. She has also written the The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Bloomsbury, 2011), two crime novels and short pieces published in leading literary journals. Lori grew up in Ontario and while she currently lives in the US, she keeps many Canadian literary connections, including a teaching post in the creative nonfiction writing program at the University of King’s College-Halifax and a position on the board of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs.

No One to Tell by Janet Merlo

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71KvlTE8B-LToday, the RCMP announced that it will offer up to $100 million in compensation to RCMP officers who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse on the job. The RCMP Commissioner also offered an apology: “We failed you. We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Acknowledgement, compensation and public apology have been a long time coming.

Janet Merlo documented her twenty-year career with the RCMP in her book No One to Tell in 2013. The title is apt. In her detachment, Merlo was known as “a fucking woman with a big mouth.” Yet ironically, she had no one to tell about the constant discrimination and overt sexual harassment she endured. No one who was willing to listen and make changes. Continue reading

Authors’ Advice to Writers

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Does motherhood stifle creativity? Can mothers be successful authors?

Do we even need to ask these questions? After all, it’s 2015.

But just two years ago, The Atlantic published this headline: “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” The title was meant to provoke. The author, Lauren Sandler, did not make this sweeping claim. Not quite. She was looking for literary role models and found several who, like her, have only one child.

Nonetheless, the essay re-ignited smouldering debate about motherhood, publishing and social policy.

Zadie Smith, award-winning author and mother of two, responded to the article:

The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms is the issue of time….”

Jane Smiley, Anakana Schofield, Aimee Phan and many other women and men, writers and non-writers, weighed in. Most noted that workplace success depends less on the existence or number of children than on how parenting time and duties are shared.

There is good reason for such ongoing debate. In heterosexual couples, women still shoulder an unequal amount of childcare and household responsibility. At the same time, in almost forty percent of households with children (in the US, at least), women are the primary or sole wage earner. Women are very busy. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that compared to men, women win fewer literary awards, publish fewer books and have fewer books reviewed. Even books about women are less likely to win prizes.

So while we work for more equitable social policies and a more diverse publishing industry, we need to keep asking questions.

And we have.

Understorey Magazine invited eight Canadian authors who are also mothers (see their biographies below) to share experiences and advice, mother-writer to mother-writer. Their responses were diverse, as you might expect. But issue of time was front and centre:

Motherhood and writing. Eek. I suspect the largest “hindrance” is the way motherhood distracts and divides your time and attention. I am forced to make choices between the kids and the work, sometimes work wins, sometimes the kids win. But even when I’m writing, my head is never one hundred percent there. I have random thoughts about the kids all day, every day.

— Natalie Corbett Sampson

I don’t know if having children stifles creativity so much as it siphons time. I think many female writers who are mothers fear how children will interrupt their writing timeline: “I must release my second novel within three years or I will lose momentum or become irrelevant.”

— Ali Bryan

Women writers often also work as teachers and mentors, a role others often see as maternal. Its demands are huge, and women, especially, are expected to be selfless and giving. The time “between the cracks,” the shadow work, both paid and unpaid, can consume us unless we’re careful. Whether it’s our children or our students, women writers have to negotiate daily the means to protect our writing time and meet others’ needs.

— Lorri Neilsen Glenn

I would like to wave a wand and make it acceptable for women to proclaim not only, “I’m utterly uninterested in bearing and raising children ever,” but also, “I’m all-consumed by raising children and I don’t feel like writing now.” That both these statements remain taboo means that women in the former situation have to justify choosing art over babies, and those in the latter find themselves impossibly stretched, so that it begins to appear that writing and motherhood are incompatible.

— Kerry Clare

Of course, it’s not just mothers or writers who are clamouring for more time. But mothers are particularly stretched and writing, for most, is not a job that pays the bills. Writing must be squeezed in among other commitments—and mothers have a lot of commitments.

This is something guides to writing and publishing rarely discuss. In fact, general advice on the writing life often stresses the benefits of solitude and uninterrupted thought, precisely what many mothers—especially new mothers—lack.

Still, mothers write books. Good books. Great books.

Author Joanne Harris notes, “No man in publishing is ever described as ‘juggling’ anything.” Successful women, however, are constantly asked, “How do you do it?” And we still need to know.

We asked mother-authors what they might add to a guidebook on writing.

I think being at the heart of this whirring, exciting dynamo (two four-year-old boys, two careers each for my wife and me, and extended family on two continents) has unlocked a level of directness and emotion that I couldn’t access in my writing before. It is a gift—though I don’t want to romanticise it too much. Sometimes you just need to finish your draft and the dishes are piled and someone has cut his knee and there is a stack of papers to mark and the dog needs out. Yes, that happens. So it has made me hard-nosed about my writing time. There is none of this getting into the mood and waiting for inspiration to strike. If I have half an hour at the bus stop, the notebook is out. If I am sitting near a giant jungle gym with my boys while two hundred kids release their pent-up howls, well, I put on my earphones and keep writing. So for advice, I would say try to be tough and vulnerable at the same time. You have to let people around you know that your writing is key to your happiness. Let them have the chance to help out.

— Natalie Meisner

My routine has been different every year of my children’s life, when i was married and as a single mother. Our daily and weekly schedule changes over time. And that one truth might give the most relief to someone struggling right now. It always changes. And we have the power to make it work better, even if the only thing that shifts is time itself. Can you get up one hour earlier in the morning to write? Can the children spend time with someone else for two hours twice a week? Do you have a writing space and are they old enough to respect that space and leave you to it? Can you incorporate their reading or writing into yours? Can you create a writing club? Can you write little notes all week, flashes of ideas, and save them up for a weekend morning while your family or kids are busy? Or can you stay later at work once or twice a week and switch to writing at the end of the day? You have to take time to reflect and make a new plan if something isn’t working. Because it can work.

— Shalan Joudry

Last night I attended a reading by a poet who claimed to have spent five months doing nothing but work on one poem. My first thought was, What a luxury. But the more I considered it, the more horrific that notion seemed. I am prolific because I don’t have five months to write a single poem. I’ve written entire novels in five months because I am forced to make time. I wrote the final draft of my first novel with one hand while I held my breastfeeding infant in the other. The chaos of home life and parenting can also influence the writing. I seldom write long, lyrical passages of description because I don’t have time for that. My chapters are short, my pace quick, likely an influence of only being able to squeeze in a few hours at 5:00 am before people start wandering down from upstairs looking for breakfast.

— Ali Bryan

If you really want to do it, you can make it work. How? Read while the baby sleeps. And eats. When babies are small, you can write lying down with a laptop on your knees while the baby naps on your chest. Compose stories in your head while you’re out pushing your stroller. Learn to zone out your children and the world around you so that you can write a novel while your older daughter watches Annie and the baby naps. Never do housework or errands on your own time—bring the children along to the post office and call it an education. Don’t be too much fun that they’re happy to play without you. Always have a book in your bag. Don’t volunteer to be classroom parent. Ask a lot or enough of your partner. Accept that sometimes your workday will start at 9 pm.

— Kerry Clare

A time and space of one’s own is very important. Once or twice a week, every day, an hour or two at a time, even a full day—but your own, discrete, private, personal, alone time. For some people, particularly single mothers, this will often mean night time, after kids go to bed (if exhaustion will allow for ideas) or while they’re in school (if you are not working elsewhere). If there is a partner, this is the job of a partner, to help care for children and to allow for the work you need to do to get done. I’ve enjoyed sharing time and space with other writers, each writing, quietly, outside the home, together. Perhaps we need a pooled space for women, with childcare arranged, so that we can write. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

— Alice Burdick

I kept a notebook in my pocket, carried scraps of poems in my head, escaped for a few days’ retreat every few months where someone else made meals and let me hide in a room or walk outdoors muttering to myself. At meals, I had that faraway stare so common to artists, so grateful I was to be lost in words, to have hours on my own. Hell, I’d gladly have eaten a week of liver and onions for that gift of time. — Lorri Neilsen Glenn

So there are personal and practical ways for busy women to find time to write and publish. And there are certainly social and political ways to allow mothers more time to pursue work beyond childcare. But there are also philosophical ways to bridge that gap between the reality of life with kids and the desire, sometimes need, to write—and to address the entrenched fear that life’s interruptions will stifle larger literary goals.

In her wonderful collection 100 Essays I Did Not Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl, award-winning playwright and mother of three, brings her motherhood straight into the pages of a book on theatre. Sentences are dropped because a son needs to poop or suddenly usurps the keyboard. And then the sentences—and the insight, humour and wisdom of a professional career—are picked up again. Ruhl says that after having twins she thought her writing career was over, “annihilated.” And then she had a thought:

All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses. I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.

The authors we spoke with had more to say on this point than any other: Acknowledge, examine, sometimes even embrace the pauses, whether they last a few seconds or a few years. Blur the line between life and art and then move on to live and create.

I don’t think the model of the committed writer is realistic for many people right now. Only a very few writers can support themselves so most have distractions of other jobs and roles. Shutting the world and your experience out in a “no diversion” and “no intrusion” approach leaves you open to missing things that can be shaped into stories. I absolutely think my children contribute a huge amount to who I am as a writer and professional. It’s cliché, but they teach me and push me every day to be a better person as a whole, and that feeds into the way I interact with my clients at work and develop my writing/characters/stories.

— Natalie Corbett Sampson

If we are to say, “Yes, we struggle with work and motherhood,” then let us say it in a new way. When i think about the kinds of stories i love best it’s the ones that are specific, unique and hauntingly beautiful in their own being. I find that we write those interesting characters and stories after we have first pulled off the outer layers. Yes, as mothers we feel as though we’re neglecting our children to write or do something for ourselves. Yes, ok. Write that down first to get it out. Write it on paper, your computer, your journal, or say it out loud. Get it off your conscience. In our culture, we sometimes call that letting go of it in the sacred fire. It’s also about forgiving ourselves. Then we can get to the next layer of identity and ideas and it gets more interesting or specific. We take another turn around the circle, like a sharing circle, and maybe we share more, something that has even more depth and truth. We live these everyday. They are gorgeous human stories. Like when our child responds to an issue with such clarity or humour that we undo something in ourselves. Give that opportunity to your character and plot.

— Shalan Joudry

Although there are some instances where writers are contractually obligated to release material within a specified timeline, most of our timelines are perceived, self-imposed or merely recommended. The reality is that even the most successful writers don’t have readers who are sitting around desperate to read their work. No one really cares about your book. You are not the world’s one designated writer, so the book can wait. I remind myself of this often when my need to write outweighs my desire to parent. I’ve learned to pick parenting. A tea party or a baseball draft means more to a child in that moment than the book will ever mean to a stranger. And as cliché as it sounds, they grow fast. I have two kids in elementary and one in preschool. I’ve joked that by the time all three are in school full-time I won’t be able to write at all.

— Ali Bryan

Poet Lucille Clifton said, “Why do you think my poems are so short?” With six children, she had a houseful of activity. Carol Shields, the much-loved novelist, had five children and managed to steal time to write stories longhand at the kitchen table. Are these women superhuman, or can the rest of us accomplish this? I’m not sure, but there’s something in there about motivation, about an urgent need to express ourselves, about loving and valuing the work as much as we love and value our families.

— Lorri Neilsen Glenn

In my early, fiery days of deciding to be a writer, it felt like the odds were indeed stacked against any young Canadian making a living in the arts—let alone a woman, let alone a lesbian from a working class background in a small town in southwest Nova Scotia. During those days, I inhaled the work and also studied the lives of solitary literary lionesses like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop. I internalized, without meaning to, the idea that you needed to stay unencumbered and light on your feet. Family, the running of a household and babies, especially, seemed antithetical to the hours of reading and practice needed to truly hone a craft. For nearly a decade, I kept myself quite free of such “impediments” until it became radically apparent that attachment—that is really what life is all about! How could I have ever dreamed that you could make silos in this way? Writing, love, ties, attachment, they are all wound up in the knotty secret heart of a writer.

— Natalie Meisner

This will sound odd, but having dealt with trauma from a young age, I’ve become used to the idea that writing can wait and life can take centre stage. And yes, the words will come back. So at the very outset of motherhood, taking care of an infant, exhaustion may take over, the body takes over. But the mind in the meantime works away, the words to come. If you write, then writing is a part of your life, and you can let other parts of your life nourish it.

— Alice Burdick

Know too that motherhood becomes less devouring as the children grow. If there isn’t time for writing now, one day there will be. Take it easy on yourself. Concentrate on the moment at hand. Take notes.

— Kerry Clare

The experiences generously shared here are neither definitive or representative. How could they be? But in offering a glimpse of different writers, mothers and lives, we hope to keep the conversation—and the writing—alive. As Shalan Joudry says:

What helped me was talking with other women about writing. We’re all so different but it felt good to swap stories and see how our different lifestyles affect our writing routine.


In this spirit of sharing stories, we invite you to join in. Post your thoughts, advice, experiences and comments below or send them to Understorey Magazine.

We give the last words of this essay to Sylvia D. Hamilton:

Believe in yourself. You have to believe in you, otherwise why should anyone else? Douse the rising self-doubt. Tip the scale inward. Practice trusting in yourself.

With many thanks….

Ali Bryan is the author of Roost (Freehand Books), the 2014 pick for One Book Nova Scotia. She is at work on a second novel.

Alice Burdick is the author of three collections of poetry and co-owner of Lexicon Books. Her fourth poetry collection, Book of Short Sentences, will be published by Mansfield Press in 2016.

Kerry Clare is editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood (Goose Lane Editions). Her first novel, Mitzi Bytes, will be published in 2017.

Lorri Neilsen Glenn is the author of six books, including Untying the Apron: Daughters Remember Mothers of the 1950s (Guernica Editions). She was Poet Laureate of Halifax from 2005-2009 and currently teaches at Mount St. Vincent University.

Natalie Corbett Sampson is the author of Game Plan and Aptitude (Fierce Ink Books). Her third novel, It Should Have Been a #GoodDay, is forthcoming in 2016.

Natalie Meisner is a writer from Nova Scotia and Professor of English at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Her first work of nonfiction, Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family (Fernwood Publishing), was a finalist in the Atlantic Book Awards.

Shalan Joudry is the author of Generations Re-merging, a collections of poems (Gaspereau Press). She is also a performance artist, storyteller, cultural interpreter and ecologist at the Bear River First Nation in Nova Scotia.

Sylvia D. Hamilton is a writer, award-winning filmmaker and professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Her poetry collection And I Alone Escaped to Tell You (Gaspereau Press) was nominated for an East Coast Literary Award.

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Understorey Magazine is a project of the Second Story Women’s Centre and a registered charity. If you like what you see here, please share with friends and consider making a donation. Thank you.

Jennifer Raven: Cancer Girl

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cancergirl

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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Understorey Magazine is a project of the Second Story Women’s Centre and a registered charity. If you like what you see here, please share with friends and consider making a donation. Thank you.

What to Read Next

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Rose’s Run, by Dawn Dumont (Thistledown Press, 2014)

rosesrunDawn Dumont is a professional comedian, so you might expect Rose’s Run, her second novel, to be funny—and it is. But the book has a serious side too, tackling women’s issue and both daily realities and ingrained stereotypes of native life in Canada. Rose Okanese is a mother of two young girls on a fictional reserve in Saskatchewan. Although she’s been to university, Rose works at a pig farm and spends her evenings at the bingo hall. When she returns home one evening to find her husband in bed with her cousin, Rose throws him out and resurrects old running skills to chase her cousin down. The following day, Rose loses her job. She applies for welfare at the band office and meets the alluring and athletic new Chief, Taylor. Through attempts to impress and maintain dignity, Rose lands a job as social administrator and (much to her horror) commits to running a marathon. But as she juggles mothering two girls, caring for a pregnant friend (whose husband has also strayed), her new job, and a punishing training program, another problem arises—literally. Rose’s teenage daughter, Sarah, along with a pot-smoking friend, unearth a mysterious Dream Woman from an unmarked grave. The woman, a sort of feminist wihtikow, begins to possess local women, compelling them to take revenge on their wayward men. Rose must put her newfound strength—physical, mental and spiritual—to the test. Like a swift morning run, Dumont’s book is both challenging and exhilarating.

 

Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie (Pen-L Publishing, 2015)

flingFling!, Lily Iona MacKenzie’s debut novel, spans two continents, three generations of Heathers, and multiple layers of reality. In 1906, Heather McGregor is born in the Isle of Skye—or is not born, exactly, but dances off a painting and into a potato patch. Heather grows (more robust than the potatoes), marries a MacDonald, and moves to Calgary. There she gives birth to another Heather, later known as Bubbles, who in turn gives birth to her own Heather, known as Feather. But Heather Number One doesn’t stick around “cold Protestant” Canada for long. She flees with an employer to a wild and mysterious life in Mexico. Many years later, Bubbles, a sprightly ninety when the novel opens, decides she and Feather must follow in Heather’s footsteps—not vanish into Mexico but simply retrieve Heather’s long lost ashes and perhaps discover what tempted her mother to leave family behind forever. Of course, Feather and Bubbles discover much more: sex, drugs, shamans, a very vital statue, and living, dancing long-dead relatives—including Heather, still wild and spry and generous with motherly advice. With a light but practised hand, MacKenzie weaves the rich traditions of Skye with the myths and magic of Mexico (and a rather modest portrayal of her hometown Calgary) to explore motherhood, the ties that bind generations of women—and perhaps the secret to happiness itself.

 

Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum (Picador, 2015)

shallow“Why’d you decide to have kids?” We rarely hear this. More often, women—and some men—who do not have kids must account for their childless status and fend off the “standard barbs” that give this collection of essays its title. Editor Meghan Daum aims to show, however, “that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively.” Indeed, several contributors make little effort to dispel the selfish label. Staying out late, sleeping in and travel are cited as benefits of the child-free life. But the notion that childless equals freedom while parenthood equals drudgery, “trekking in Bhutan” versus “folding onesies,” as Pam Houston puts it, seems far too tidy. Many contributors explore more nuanced, diverse and compelling reasons for their choices. Lauren Kipnis, among others, tackles the notion that human reproduction is biologically or socially necessary, that we must have kids to be fully human. If this is not the case, and surely it isn’t, positions like Geoff Dwyer’s—I don’t have kids because I’m not interested in kids—seem valid and sufficient. Yet most contributors have thought long and hard about parenting. Some wanted children but never found the right time, place or partner: more childless by circumstance than childless by choice. Perhaps the most poignant essays are from writers who have examined their own lives and decided they simply cannot be a parent. Paul Lisicky writes beautifully of a time when gay men like him died in their twenties and thirties. On parenting he says: “It is easier than you think to be indifferent to what you’ve been told you can’t have.” Sigrid Nunez begins her essay: “There was a time during my childhood when I believed that all children were unwanted.” She writes of her own mother and the parents she knew growing up: their dominant emotion was anger; hers was fear. Nunez says she could not be a real mother, “not the kind I would have wanted for my child.” No one reader could empathize with all views presented here; some are even hard to like. But Daum succeeds in presenting both diversity of experience and fabulous writing, and the essays will no doubt evoke deep feeling—anguish, rage, camaraderie, surprise—in parents and nonparents alike. What more could one want from a book?

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