Author Archives: Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett

About Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett is Understorey Magazine’s founder and editor in chief.

Five Years Old

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Understorey Magazine Issue 15 cover, with Age by Ildiko Nova

 

Age

Welcome to Understorey Magazine Issue 14, an exploration of women, age and ageing.

The idea for this issue grew from many roots. There were discussions among our illustrious editorial board, of course, reflections on our own experiences of ageing: Reconciling that new face in the mirror or that oh-so-familiar but now elusive word. Contemplating how to act your age and then contemplating why the hell you care. Learning, all over again, how to ask for help—and how to give help in whole new ways. Many of these themes unfold in the eloquent, candid work by the writers and artists of various ages published here.

Our Age issue marks a milestone for the magazine, too. This autumn, Understorey turns five. As editor-in-chief for those five years, I have learned a thing or two about the creative process, about art and time. These ideas also inspired this issue.

I have seen, for example, far too many lists, prizes and accolades for “new” and “emerging” writers that in fact mean new and young writers. As if you might only emerge as a creative talent while young—and then either fizzle out or mature into an old, established voice. For some extraordinary young people, this is in fact their literary path. But they are exceptions, I think: art derives from experience, and experience comes with age.

Creators of the website Bloom recognise this. The site is dedicated to authors who have published their first book after age forty. Many other websites list authors who “got a late start,” first publishing after thirty or forty or even—gasp!—fifty. This is progress but, honestly, who has the means to write a novel in their forties? Why not a prize for “new” writers over seventy? An award for “emerging” artists over eighty?

Art takes experience but it also takes mental space, pauses in the day, the wherewithal to stop earning or caregiving—or both—long enough to gather snippets of images, cultivate a thought, nurture an idea into a finished work. Midlife, those moments are rare. As author, teacher and contributor Tanis MacDonald says in her book Out of Line, “I don’t have a life where it is possible to write every day, and I’ll bet you don’t either.”

Over the past five years, some of the most intriguing work has come to Understorey partly formed. These pieces were truly borne of lived experience but perhaps not into circumstances that allowed extended and studious polishing. This work is—like so much art, like most of us—both young and old. It offers wisdom but might still benefit from the guidance and wisdom of others. It is beautiful right now but will only grow more so with time and care, that is, with age.

Thank you for reading Understorey Magazine‘s fifth anniversary issue on Age. Please share with others and, if you are so inclined, leave a comment for our contributors.

Gush, edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon & Tanis MacDonald

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I’d forgotten Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is about religion. What I remember from the book, what most readers likely remember, is that eleven-year-old Margaret desperately wanted her period. For anyone who has had a period—for one year, ten years, forty years—that plot line is so off-the-charts bizarre it’s unforgettable. But the reason Blume’s book was passed around the school yard in the 1970s was not so much that Margaret wanted her period but that she and her friends actually talked about periods, as well as boys, bras, puberty and sex. Few people, youth or adults, spoke openly about such topics, very few about menstruation.

Almost fifty years later, Margaret is still in print and still touted by some as the guide to puberty. So how far have we progressed in terms of open discussion of periods? How much has changed in terms of books we can share, books that start conversations, answer questions, portray common experiences? Not far and not much, I say. Or I did say—until Gush.

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Blood

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Many moons ago, when I first started reading books about feminist theory, I ran across a chapter on menstruation and oppression. Like all young women I knew at the time, I’d hidden pads and tampons to make furtive trips to the washroom. I’d smiled and carried on through period pain. I’d spent far too much of my student budget in the “feminine hygiene” aisle. So the words menstruation and oppression seemed a logical fit. I kept reading.

The chapter suggested ways to free ourselves from the stigma and confines of the period. Quashing stereotypes and jokes about PMS was a good start. Advocating for reasonable prices and tax-exemption on menstrual products—I’d buy that. Giving up wasteful industrial products completely and sewing our own. I wasn’t much of a sewer, but sure.

The arguments made a lot of sense—right up to the final suggestion, a recommendation sufficiently ludicrous and thought-provoking that I’ve remembered it for decades. Forget “managing” your period, the author said. Just bleed freely.

The idea that women should not try to stem blood flow was new to me and I failed to see how it could possibly be liberating. Who would haul all that extra washing to the laundromat? Who would hire a free-bleeding chef or housekeeper or surgeon? Who wouldn’t stare at a free-bleeding shopper in the check-out line?

And yet free-bleeding isn’t new—or old. Or even that ludicrous.

Blood Red by Michelle de Villiers

The historical record on menstruation is, shall we say, spotty (most history is recorded by men), but it’s believed that women have bled into layers of clothing for centuries, simply because they lacked the time, resources or pressure to do anything else. Pads and tampons were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but a short and more overt free-bleeding movement arose in the 1970s, partly in response to toxic shock syndrome. The more recent revival of free-bleeding is sometimes attributed to an infantile, anti-feminist hoax but is more accurately a serious and conscious decision by some women to compete, practice and create art while bleeding.

So, yes, voluntary free-bleeding was—and is—a thing. These days, it’s not the norm but the women who practice it, whether for personal, environmental or political reasons, have helped to start a discussion, made a point. And for the rest of us, that discussion is the point. I may never be ready for free-bleeding but I’m most certainly ready for free-speaking.

There are over 3.5 billion women in the world and most menstruate throughout their adult lives. That’s a significant part of human history, society and culture currently confined to the bathroom stall. So can we talk about the cashier who is given a four-hour shift without a break? About the student who can’t leave the room during a three-hour exam? Can we talk about how displaced or homeless women can maintain dignity when society pretends periods just don’t happen? Can we recognise conditions such as endometriosis (my spell-checker doesn’t even know this word) as nothing less than a chronic disability? Can we stop disguising pads and tampons like some sort of contraband and aim for open-carry?

This issue of Understorey Magazine is all about blood—free-speaking about its many forms and the many ways it affects women’s lives. Through literary writing and powerful visual art, we share stories about the blood of the uterus and the blood shed, both literally and figuratively, during conception, miscarriage and childbirth. We hear of the blood that flows throughout our bodies and how that flow may be interrupted by something as tiny as a “delinquent” valve or as looming and eternal as illness and death. Several authors write of blood unleashed by intolerance and hatred but also through love and friendship. And we look beyond individual bodies to explore blood shared across generations, how bloodlines carry secrets, and how secrets revealed—secrets spoken—can empower.

Please enjoy, reflect and share.

Powered by Love by Joanna Henry, Ilana Landsberg-Lewis & Alexis MacDonald

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At the turn of the twenty-first century, when AIDS-related deaths in developed countries were finally on the decline, infection and death rates in sub-Saharan Africa continued to soar. Stigma, discrimination and misinformation meant that testing and treatment remained unavailable for the millions of people—in some countries up to thirty percent of the population—with HIV/AIDS. The majority of those killed by the pandemic were young adults and parents. Over twelve million children in sub-Saharan Africa were orphaned. The burden, not to mention the grief, fell to the older generation, grandmothers who had lost their children and took in their grandchildren—and then fought back. Continue reading

F-Bomb by Lauren McKeon

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Time Magazine‘s list of Firsts highlights recent accomplishments by American women: First female presidential nominee. First female to own and produce her own talk show. First openly gay person on prime-time TV. First black woman to run a Fortune 500 company….

The list is both impressive and utterly crushing. Most women achieved their “first” only in the past few years; all were achieved in this generation. Have women made it or have we only started?

In F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism (Gooselane, 2017), Canadian journalist, editor and feminist Lauren McKeon answers these questions unequivocally: “One of the biggest lies of the twenty-first century is that women have made it.” Continue reading