Field Notes

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Ever since I met my “Upper Canadian” husband in my hometown of Fredericton at age twenty and moved to southern Ontario at twenty-one, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Maritimes, as well as with rural and small-town life in general. At times, I have resented what I saw as its narrowness and stubborn attachment to the past. I can credit Sara Jewell and her Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia (Nimbus, 2016) with adding more weight to the “love” side of the equation. Now back east, living in Halifax after seven years abroad, I’ve come to appreciate anew the warmth and hardiness of my birthplace. Field Notes reminds me of what I had lost and now regained.

In a series of essays covering everything from checking for ticks to dealing with roadkill, from the wonder of sighting deer on morning walks to how to hold a Maritime dinner party, Jewell traces her relationship to Maritime country life with insight and humour. We learn of her first summers spent in a cottage near Pugwash with her family, her return to Nova Scotia after the breakup of her first marriage, and her later marriage to a man whose family has deep roots in the Cumberland County soil.

Jewell’s essays are peopled with memorable characters: the in-laws whose willingness to adapt to new technology surprises her in “Nanny and Grampie Get an iPad”; the artists and musicians who are thriving in her adopted region; and the friends gained and lost. Some essays evoke smiles, other sadness—yet always with thankfulness that what has been lost will live in happy memory and that the surroundings of Cumberland will act as their monuments.

The more than forty essays in Field Notes are to be savoured slowly, each one taken out and considered as one would consider a leaf or a stone or a deer track—much like the very artifacts of the Maritime fields and woods Sara Jewell brings to life in her words. At the end of my reading, I found myself hoping that a second volume is in the works, so that I can become even further reacquainted with my Maritime roots.

Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma

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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: 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 Review of Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience

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cover_blendedIt took until 2011 for Statistics Canada to formally include stepfamilies in the population census. At that time, almost 500,000 Canadian families – over 12 per cent – were step. It’s telling that stepfamilies had been left out. We tend to believe they are not so different from others; stories unique to blended families often go unheard.

A new book brings the stepfamily experience to light. Blended will be published by Seal Press this May. Edited by Samantha Waltz, Blended offers thirty personal essays by upcoming and established writers. Tone and circumstance vary across these stories, as we would expect from thirty diverse families, yet all contributors focus on the challenges of re-mixing relationships into something whole and profoundly new.

In “It Takes a Villa,” for example, Barbara Lodge describes a long-awaited vacation in Tuscany. She brings her new partner, Louise, as well as her two teenage kids from a previous marriage. She also invites her ex-husband and his new partner, both recovering addicts/alcoholics. Lodge works very hard to be a good mother, a loving spouse, a considerate ex, and a happy-go-lucky vacationer as her ex-husband invites their slightly underage kids to party long into the night.

In “Nightshade Love,” Nancy Antonietti writes beautifully of her two childhood homes – with her grandparents’ and with her somewhat estranged father. She distills this experience into the push-pull of leaving one home for the other every weekend and the assumptions adults unwittingly pass on to children.

And in “The Angel Steps Down,” Elizabeth King Gerlach explores a time of stress and compromise for many blended families: the holidays. Through reluctant shifts in Christmas decorations, Gerlach, her new partner, and their children learn to overcome resistance and nurture new traditions.

There is no firm advice in Blended; no how-to-be-a-better-stepparent. There is simply the wisdom of interlaced experience and the pleasure of fine writing.

Three Quick Reviews: The Women of the East Coast Literary Awards

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Last week, the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia announced the winners of their annual East Coast Literary Awards for published works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

As always, a batch of fine contenders were shortlisted. As almost always in the publishing world, most of the shortlisted books and all of the winning titles were written by men.

Now, I’m sure the WFNS judged on merit alone. I’m not questioning their process or the literary skills of the winning authors. I would like to draw attention to still-prevalent trends in publishing, however: men publish more, are reviewed more, and win more awards.

Among the suggested reasons for this state of literary affairs:

  • Fewer women are published in literary magazines, which function as gateways to publishing contracts.
  • Women are less aggressive than men in resubmitting rejected work.
  • More women than men juggle careers, caregiving and housekeeping; writing remains a hobby, not a profession.
  • The publishing world is still male-dominated and inherently sexist.

While there is no pat explanation or quick antidote, we can—and must!—continue to read, encourage, mentor, support and celebrate women writers. More publishing deals and accolades for women will follow. This is part of our mission at Understorey Magazine.

And so, without further griping or ado, we celebrate the three fabulous women-authored books that were shortlisted for a 2014 East Coast Literary Award.

shapeFiction: The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat (Cormorant Books). Six-year-old Mira Acharya lives in Richmond Hill, Toronto, with her mother, older brother, Ravi, and a loose-knit community of “aunties” and “uncles.” We know Mira’s father is dead, that Ravi is in special ed, and that her mother is quietly unraveling. Throughout her childhood, and into her teens and early adulthood, Mira must reconcile chance and will, parts of life she can control and those she has been dealt. In doing so, Mira grapples with death, ethnic and immigrant identity, mental illness, sex, self image, and the bonds of family.

hookingPoetry: Hooking by Mary Dalton (Véhicule Press/Signal Editions). Hooking is a book of centos, a poetic form in which lines from other poems are woven—or hooked—into new literary works. In Hooking, her fifth collection, award-winning poet Mary Dalton honours both the traditional craft of rug hooking and the many writers whose poems form the strands of her own. Themes of handiwork and creativity run through the book: “Cloth,” “Brush-Stroke,” “Braid,” “Cross-Stitch.” And like a rug hooked from scraps of saved cloth, there is overall pattern and texture in Hooking—as well as sprigs of unexpected colour and curiosity.

SueGoyetteOcean[1]Poetry: Ocean by Sue Goyette (Gaspereau Press). Sue Goyette has won many literary prizes, including an East Coast Literary Award for poetry in 2012. Her latest collection, Ocean, is beautiful inside and out. The cover feels like handmade paper and a simple wave-like pattern carries readers into the book, and into the ocean. This is no ode to the sea but described instead as a biography. The fifty-six poems rock us back before ancestors salted the waters with tears, then thrust us forward to 3D ocean films and scratch-and-sniff coastal cards. As readers, as maritimers, we abide the ocean, alternately observing, acquiescing, sinking in.