Creative Writing Workshops: May 2017

Understorey Magazine will host two creative writing workshops as part of our collaboration with the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute.

Workshops are free and open to all who identify as women of African descent.

10 am until noon
Akoma Family Centre
1018 Main St.
Dartmouth, NS
Facilitator: Lindsay Ruck

MAY 27
10 am until noon
Black Loyalist Heritage Centre
119 Old Birchtown Rd.
Shelburne, NS
Facilitator: Louise Delisle


Contact us for further information or for print copies of our posters.

Call for Submissions: African Nova Scotian Women

We are excited to announce that Issue 12 of Understorey Magazine will be dedicated to writing and art by women of African descent in Nova Scotia.

This project is funded in large part by the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, an organisation focussed on excellence in Africentric education, with additional funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.

Issue 12 will be published in both digital and print editions and will be guest-edited by author/editor Lindsay Ruck.

We will also hold two community writing workshops during May 2017. One workshop will be in the Halifax Regional Municipality and another in Shelburne, NS. (Please stay tuned for dates and times.)

Submissions are now open to all who identify as women of African descent and who live in Nova Scotia (as well as African Nova Scotian women living outside NS). Please contact us with any questions and see full guidelines on our submissions page.

Deadline: September 1, 2017.



Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma

When I received my copy of Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks (forthcoming from Beacon Press, February 2017), I envisioned myself curled up in my comfortable armchair with coffee, settling in for a good long read. That was not to be—partly due to demands of a busy holiday season and introducing a new kitten to our family but mainly due the nature of Brooks’ book itself. It is not the sort of work that one can rush through, so I found myself reading one of her eighteen “interviews” per day, savouring the insights I gleaned and pondering how I could apply their lessons to my own writing.

Although she grew up in New Brunswick, Brooks now lives in New England. It was while she was working on her MFA in creative nonfiction and planning the writing of a memoir based on her father’s death from AIDS contracted from tainted blood that she began to look into the works of memoirists who inspired her. She then got in touch with the writers directly to ask the questions that she was asking herself: What does it take to write an honest memoir? How can memoirists present the details of a painful past honestly and at the same time respect the privacy of friends and family? Those conversations became Writing Hard Stories.

Each of Brooks’ interviews has many gems to offer, and it would be impossible to detail them all here. Writers such as Andre Dubus III, Kyoko Mori and Edwidge Danticat tell Brooks how what they thought would be an essay or even a novel—a work only tangentially connected to events in their own lives—ended up as a memoir, even though, as Dubus says, “I didn’t want to write a memoir. … I didn’t want to.” That avoidance of memoir arose both from a reluctance to revisit a painful past and from a fear of offending family. Both worries, Brooks’ chosen mentors teach her, are minimized with the realization that memoir can help find a rightful place for pain. Further, memoir writing involves presenting one’s own memories, not be the memories of others, who have the right to their own versions of history. Many of the memoirists in Writing Hard Stories, in fact, found that they were encouraged by the very family members they had feared hurting.

Another lesson involves the form that the memoir can take. I’d always thought of memoir as assuming a traditional chronological structure. However, we learn that Joan Wickersham arranged her memoir The Suicide Index in the form of an index, each entry presenting the suicide of her father from a particular point of view: act of, anger about, finding some humor in, and so on. In When We Were the Kennedys, Monica Wood pairs the sudden death of her father in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jessica Handler, in Invisible Sisters, uses family artifacts to begin each chapter of her memoir about the death of her two sisters.

In some sense, all writers are memoirists. We turn what we have lived through into poetry or prose and although the final work may seem distant from its source, the seeds are there from the beginning. How could it be otherwise? I had been troubled by recurring themes in my own writing but after reading Writing Hard Stories, I have begun a more direct, though still difficult, grappling with the hard stories of my past. I thank Melanie Brooks for the liberating read, one which I am sure will inspire many other writers.

Book Review: Tell by Soraya Peerbaye

It took me four days to read Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell: Poems for a Girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015). By day three, I wasn’t sure I could follow through, so acute was my fear and respect for the tide of pain and loss on nearly every page.

Tell honours Reena Virk, assaulted and murdered by her peers in 1997; she was 14 years old. I was 14 in 1997, as well; our birthdays are only weeks apart. Perhaps “I’d have been her friend” (“Trials,” 10). In Grade Nine, I didn’t know any girls from South Asian families, but I had girlfriends who loved clog boots, who wore pleather jackets; girls who shouldered rumours, reputations, and threats too heavy for their age, their hearts and bodies—girls, in many ways, like Reena.

Peerbaye’s brilliance—and yes, this poetry is transcendentally brilliant—is her commitment to image as memory, and memory as empathy. Each poem quietly prepares you for the next with its own “silt, shells, bottles, trash, eelgrass” (“Silt,” 9)—its own traces of oncoming violence. This evidence hides away in your shoes, sticks to your skin, does its work of cutting and chafing as Peerbaye goes on to ask you, gently but insistently, to consider the specifics of Reena’s pain and death: how it is that her clothes became “saturated… soiled” (“Current,” 4), her skin “slackened, sloughed” (“Washerwoman,” 11), and what it means when pathologists find stones in the mouths of young women drowned.

Perhaps Karine Guyon’s beautiful cover art is a warning: its splintered, tangled, spiralling web of shadow, descent, moonset. But like the whorl of white paint across the top half of Guyon’s There is Light, Tell’s hopeful and forward-looking core shines through for the reader who perseveres. In the section “Who You Were,” Peerbaye’s poetic speaker gives us another facet of Reena by reflecting on her own girlhood—her own experiences as a South Asian teen growing up in Canada. There is “pain, depression, sleep” (“Safety,” 6), and the “verdant grief of girls” (“Tremor and Flare,” 13), but also “sweet water, sweet stones” (“Lagoons and lakes,” 10)—the redemption of debris.

And in the book’s final poems, we find resplendent parting gifts: the Lekwungen story of Camosun; the persistent “life in these waters” (94); bones, tools and fragments “four thousand years old” (“Tillicum Bridge,” 11). These are traces of history and healing, and Reena’s call to rest in the land.

Tell won the 2016 Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize.

See also “Reena” by Carole Glasser Langille.