Creative Writing Workshops: May 2017

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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.

Book Review: Tell by Soraya Peerbaye

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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.

Book Review: 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.

Merlo, originally from Newfoundland, received her first RCMP posting in 1991, on the opposite side of the country in Nanaimo, BC. She knew that women before her in the detachment had complained of harassment and they had been shut down. Soon Merlo experienced it herself: a supervisor offering to retrieve change from her uniform pockets; a supervisor with a blow-up doll in his office; a list of “Training Courses Now Available for Women” left in her mail slot, courses which included “PMS—Your Problem Not His.” Merlo describes these and many other instances of bullying and abuse throughout her career.

At first she said nothing: “In a paramilitary organization, order is maintained by mute force—you just don’t speak out against those who outrank you.” When she did speak out the bullying worsened. She feared for her career and her health but she continued. She told coworkers and supervisors, sent letters to the RCMP Commissioner and to the BC Minister of Public Safety. She lodged a formal complaint that resulted in an investigation. Nothing was admitted or acknowledged. She was told to put it all behind her; that her issues were simply personality conflicts. Merlo was diagnosed with PTSD and that, too, was challenged by the RCMP’s Health Service.

Merlo says she has never thought of herself as a feminist yet her book empowers women in many ways. Through numerous anecdotes, No One to Tell provides a vivid look at the daily life of an RCMP constable and portrays the draining, often hidden, challenge of balancing several roles—in Merlo’s case officer, mother, wife and caregiver. Despite these many roles and her dedication to the job, she was often told she just wasn’t ambitious enough. Most importantly, the book also helps to explain why so many women are reluctant to come forward and report abuse.

Catherine Galliford, who trained with Merlo, first broke the silence about abuse in the RCMP during a CBC interview in 2011. That interview brought many women forward, including Merlo. They formed a Facebook group and, in 2012, Merlo filed a class-action lawsuit.

Today’s announcement and apology is partial settlement and a first step toward healing.

Read more stories about Women and Justice.

A New Partnership: Understorey Magazine and the Alexa McDonough Institute

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AMI Logo


Big news for Understorey Magazine!

We are now in partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute (AMI) for Women, Gender and Social Justice at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

AMI, chaired by Susan Brigham, is a hub of feminist energy, action and research. Understorey and AMI share a mandate of empowerment through self-expression and sharing of ideas, experiences and stories.

We look forward to this exciting chapter of the magazine. Stay tuned for details of our new editorial board and creative direction!

A huge thank you Second Story Women’s Centre for their support in launching Understorey and publishing seven fabulous issues since 2013.