Article Category Archives: Editorial

Funny, Not Funny

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Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: That’s not funny.

Which is funny, right? Or not. The relationship between women (and we mean all those who identify as women) and humour—as well as laughter and comedy and even smiling—is complicated. It grows out of life experience and personal taste but is also a product cultural expectations and gender norms.

Humour is highly individual but also deeply influenced by society.

There is, for example, that persistent societal notion that women are simply not as funny as men—hence, the feminist light-bulb joke and many, many variations of the punchline. This notion was recently explored in a (decidedly unfunny) systematic quantitative meta-analysis, with the finding that, indeed, men’s Humour Production Ability is higher than women’s.

Consistent with this stereotype is the caution that women—because they aren’t funny—probably shouldn’t try too hard. It might go very badly. Another recent study suggests that telling jokes in work presentations increases the perceived status of men presenters, but lowers that of women presenters. Why? Because a joke told by a man is interpreted as helping him get the work-related message across; the same joke told by a woman is interpreted as disruptive or as compensating for her poor work skills. Same joke: funny, not funny.

The women-aren’t-funny idea appears to be further supported by the gender gap in stand-up comedy. Men get far more bookings, more stage time, and more pay than women or gender-diverse performers (see #onewomanonthelineup).

But we know it’s not that simple. Of course. Laughter, humour, comedy: not that simple.

Cover for issue 20 showing photography by Heidi Jirotka. Two people face each other; one is making a funny face; the other looks to be receiving the laughter.

Laughter. Photography by Heidi Jirotka
with assistance from Dante Jirotka.

To start, the comedy gender gap stems in part from the fact that most producers, the people who book the shows, are men. It may also be related to the very interesting finding that while women tend to appreciate funny men, men tend to appreciate women who find men funny. In other words, there’s evidence that women generally appreciate humour production (funny people) whereas men generally appreciate humour reception (people who find them funny). So, yeah, landing a booking in comedy can be tough indeed.

Then there’s being brave enough to tell our own stories in our own way, place, and time. The authors of meta-analysis cited above acknowledge they did not look at cultural differences (how humour is created and received in non-Western cultures) or differences in types of humour (the snappy one-liner versus the longer, more complex story). They also note—and this point is crucial—that women interacting with other women may create a completely different scenario, humour-wise.

Women may find other women funny.

Given that women-identifying folks comprise roughly 50 percent of the population, this statement should be enough to book a woman headliner and fill a venue with laughter. And it’s true, the stories told in that venue may not resonate with all audiences—stories about motherhood, bodies, anger, loss, that ever-present gender gap, feminism, #metoo, and, yes, even menopause. Stories that might be jarring or scary or subversive or sad, as well as very funny.

Because, as this issue of Understorey Magazine shows, laughter can mean many different things. Laughter can derive from the fleeting absurdities in life or from frustration at a system that seems resistant to change. It can grow out of very personal fears or widespread misinformation. Laughter can be a form of resistance or even insurrection. It can offer a new way to see the world or a new way for us to see ourselves.

As Fazila Nurani writes, and as our cover art also suggests, laughter is always shifting to fill many different spaces. Especially in difficult times, like this past year, laughter is therefore powerful and emancipatory. It can bring us together not simply in reaction—the end to a funny joke—but as action. An astonishing twist. A new beginning.

Thank you to all of our contributors for sharing their stories and their visual art. Thanks also Heidi Jirotka and her two children for collaborating on our wonderful cover image.

Enjoy and share!


About Katherine Barrett

Katherine Barrett is the founder and editor of Understorey Magazine.


About Natalie Meisner

Natalie Meisner is a writer from Lockeport, Nova Scotia, and an Understorey advisory board member. Natalie’s plays have been produced across the country and have won numerous awards. She is the current poet laureate for Calgary.


About Heidi Jirotka

Heidi Jirotka is a natural light photographer with over 25 years experience. Although her initial focus was on newborn and child photography, her portfolio is now diverse. She has worked with Chapman’s Ice Cream since 2012 and is now their official, commercial photographer. Heidi lives in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, with her husband and their two children. See more of her work  on her website, Facebook, and Instagram.


Covid Stories: April-May 2020

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The personal essays and poems published here were written and submitted during the spring of 2020, just after a global pandemic was declared and the first lockdowns began across Canada. We collected and published these stories quickly, without our usual in-depth vetting and editing process, because we wanted to capture the immediate experiences of women and non-binary writers—their initial, visceral responses to such extraordinary circumstances.

This collection reflects a moment in history. Anxiety, shock, gratitude, fear, restlessness, determination. Reading these stories even a few months later, we realize how much we didn’t know, how we made things up—figured things out—as we went along. But that’s always the case, isn’t it? The Covid pandemic was “unprecedented” but, in many ways, so is every day. The poems and essays here show resilience in the face of uncertainty and a surprising yet reassuring togetherness as expressed through the power of literary writing.

Essential Workers or Essential Work?

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It’s estimated that, in Canada, our food travels an average of 2,500 kilometers before arriving on our plate. That slice of holiday chocolate—cocoa, sugar, palm oil—likely travelled much further, almost 50,000 kilometers according to one study.

With initiatives like “food miles” and “buy local,” we’re learning more about the distance our food travels and the advantages of choosing food made closer to home.

But the idea of food “travelling” is still abstract. Food doesn’t move by itself. Chocolate, for instance, requires growers, harvesters, processors, packers, transporters, manufacturers, marketers, retailers, shoppers, and sometimes servers to “arrive” on our plate. These general categories hide many more people who bring us food: cleaners, chemists, mechanics, logisticians, cashiers…. Hundreds of people as well as the families that depend on them.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve become more aware of these complex supply chains because glitches have made the links visible. When grocery stores ran out of Robin Hood flour last spring, it wasn’t the flour that was in short supply. It was the iconic yellow packaging. When did we last consider where those familiar yellow bags come from?

In realizing the many critical steps of food production and distribution, we have have started talking about essential workers. We’ve started praising essential workers. Thanking essential workers.

Or have we?

Have we really thought about these workers—the woman at the cash, the dishwasher in the restaurant, the trucker on the highway—or have we only thought about the work that needs doing? Flour bags that need to be made. Check-outs that need to be staffed. Chocolate that needs to be shipped.

Do we value essential workers or just their essential work?

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we share stories of the many workers who bring food to our table. We share small details of their everyday lives in the hope of better seeing them as individual people who contribute enormously our everyday lives.

The writers and artists published here show us the tired but still playful hands of production line workers; the clenched, hesitant hands of a livestock farmer on culling day; the shaky hands of a veteran restaurant server; the knowing hands of a decades-long canner; the nimble hands of a food-cart cook; the scarred, strong hands of a butcher; the grieving yet giving hands of a community-kitchen worker.

So many hands. And so often women’s hands. Most food work done in the home and garden, in the “front of the house” in restaurants, at the cash register in stores, at the bedside in hospitals—the lower-paying or unpaid work—is done by women, very often women of colour. This is one reason why rates of Covid-19 infection have been higher for women than men during the second wave of the pandemic: more women are on the front lines, not just of health work but of food work too. In higher-paying professional and management roles—chefs, owners, CEOs—and traditionally male work like farming, fishing, and transport, women remain vastly underrepresented.

Perhaps in addition to “food miles” we need to consider “food hands” when choosing what we eat.

We hope this issue of Understorey inspires us all to take a moment to appreciate the often-unseen hands that bring us food. And then take another moment to appreciate the hands we see every day, those of family, or housemates, or partners—even our own—that plan, buy, harvest, cook, and clean up the food that keeps us going, from one year to the next.

Here’s to a brighter and more joyful 2021.

painting showing two women sorting fish on wharfWe Still Return for the Cod by Kat Frick Miller


Thank you to our cover artist for Issue 19, Kat Frick Miller. Her painting We Still Return for the Cod was originally created to accompany the article “Cod Haven’t Fully Returned, but We Still Return for the Cod” by Jennifer Thornhill Verma, published in The Independent NL in October, 2020. You can see all Understorey Magazine covers here.

Us and STEM

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Earlier this year, as Covid-19 spread throughout the world, reports surfaced about the design and fit of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Even the smallest sizes of PPE were too big for many women working on the front lines of the pandemic. The PPE was designed for a generally larger male body. The technology was biased.

Later this year, as Black Lives Matter protests gained strength, many reports emphasized what has been known for years. Police surveillance—which has led to police violence—depends on facial recognition technology. And facial recognition technology misidentifies Black faces more often than white faces, up to ten times more often. The technology is biased.

During these and other world-changing events, people turn to the Internet for vital news and information. But pop-ups, animated GIFs, autoplay, and other website clutter mean people with epilepsy, autism, and other physical, developmental, and cognitive challenges can only read for a short time, or not at all. This technology is also biased.

But can technology be biased? Can chunks of metal, plastic, and silicon be sexist, racist, ableist?

We tend to think of technology as non-human by definition. But technology is, of course, designed, produced, tested, and marketed by humans. And in the tech sector, most humans are men; in North America, at least, they are mostly white men. Available sizes of PPE are based on human assumptions about “typical” healthcare workers. The algorithms that run facial recognition technology are coded by humans with experiences in particular families, workplaces, and communities. The design of websites depends on goals and values, often the uniquely human goal of making money. All of these assumptions, experiences, goals, values—in other words, biases—are built into the technologies we use every day.

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we explore at how technology, with all its biases, affects our lives.

How might something as simple as a salad spinner, as familiar as a karaoke machine, or as complex as computer-generated haiku forge conversations across generations and cultures?

How do the features included on a fitness tracker or the tools needed to adjust a wheelchair facilitate or complicate wellbeing?

How might technology connect us directly and intimately to our very identity? Or to our faith?

Answers to these raise questions further questions about who is involved in creating technology and about the barriers—everyday, systemic, colonial—to greater inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

Together, the writers and artists in Issue 18 suggest that technology serves us best when the human elements are made visible. When we acknowledge that technology arises not from isolated individuals or autonomous companies but from complex social, cultural, and political systems. When we see that technology does not have a “user” but functions in a network of parents, caregivers, teachers, mentors, Elders, and many others. When we accept that technology is not a thing but a process and work toward technologies that enable without subjugating, that engage our passions but not our compulsions, and that help us understand ourselves by giving voice to many.

cover for Issue 18 showing art by Teri Donovan (fabric microwave oven with crown)

Thank you to our cover artist, Teri Donovan. Teri’s Kitchen Queen (plastic toys assemblage, spray paint, fishing line, white flocking) provides the perfect image for the many themes explored in this issue.

A special thanks to the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender, and Social Justice for their continued support of Understorey Magazine and for providing funds for this issue.

A Message from DBDLI (June 2020)

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On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, USA, George Floyd was videoed being brutality asphyxiated by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while no one stopped the horror. Two days later in Toronto, Ontario, Regis Korchinski-Paquet was killed falling from a balcony; she had been with police in her apartment after her mother called 911 out of concern for her daughter’s health. These are only two of far too many incidences of anti-Black racism that have led many of us to feel overwhelmed with disgust, frustration, despair, trauma, pain, fear, and anger.

Persistent state violence against Black people and systemic anti-Black racism in our workplaces, communities, and institutions here in Canada and around the world underscore the urgent need for change. It also highlights the need for an amplification of Black voices, perspectives, and stories.

In the time of a global pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, people of all backgrounds are seeking and listening more carefully for Black counter-stories. We are craving the rhythm of poetry, looking for the respite that visual art can offer, and yearning for the familiar sounds of African Nova Scotian voices of every timbre to help us feel we are not alone. In these pages, you will find breathing spaces and resonance. You will be reminded that we are “bound together with threads of compassion” (Wanda Robson), that we can critically hope to “build more capacity to find the courage to give back, despite the adversities we face” (Wanda Thomas Bernard), and that we do indeed “belong to a crowd that would not negate your very existence” (Késa Munroe Anderson).

As a board member of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute (DBDLI) and Chair of the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice, which partners with Understorey Magazine, I thank the talented women featured in this edition. The contributors—young and old, aspiring and seasoned—express their stories through art, poetry, and essays, covering such topics as critical hope, healing, home, racism, exclusion, body-image, family, loss, and beauty.

I also want to express my appreciation for all those who enabled the contributors to share their creativity in a beautiful and accessible way. Thanks to Katherine Barrett, Editor-in-Chief of Understorey Magazine, for her unwavering commitment to providing a platform for women and girls to express their stories and for her foresight for this special edition. Thank you Lindsay Ruck for guest-editing this outstanding edition. The DBDLI, which is committed to advancing Africentric education, is proud to have collaborated with Understorey Magazine and fund the print edition and the re-issuing of this edition at this critical time.

Remember: “Your truth is powerful” (Guyleigh Johnson).

Please enjoy and share this brilliant “African Nova Scotian Women” publication.