Author Archives: Katherine Barrett

Katherine Barrett

About Katherine Barrett

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

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.

Rising Tides edited by Catriona Sandilands

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cover image for Rising Tides showing starfishIn the few weeks it has taken me to read and review Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times (Caitlin Press, 2019), the world has all but forgotten the climate crisis. It is March 2020. Headline stories of wildfires and floods have slipped to the bottom of news websites or disappeared completely. We are consumed by another—seemingly separate—crisis: COVID-19.

But as contributors to Rising Tides show, as all nature writers show, few things are truly separate. A virus moves from wildlife to humans and then, within months, is transported around the world. Is COVID-19 different from the climate crisis, or are both symptoms of a larger problem: our unyielding consumption and exploitation of nature?

Rising Tides is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays that originated in a workshop on Galiano Island, British Columbia. Most of the forty-plus contributors are from Canada’s west coast; many others are from Ontario, and a few write from the east coast. Despite their range of geographic location and writing genre, Rising Tides’ contributors are united in their portrayal of a world already altered by climate change. Their writing is not speculative, as editor Catriona Sandilands notes in her introduction, but rather bears witness to what we have already lost and what we continue to lose. Right now, every day.

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Words > Stories > Action

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RE Nature: Concerning nature.
Renature: To restore to original condition.

We began plans for this issue of Understorey Magazine over a year ago, in August and September of 2018. It seems like a long time has passed.

At that time, few people knew of Greta Thunberg, fewer had attended a Climate Strike. Extinction Rebellion did not exist. The IPCC had yet to release their game-changing report, the one that warned we had only twelve years to take serious action against climate change.

In the past year, it seems, our awareness has transformed. Even our language has changed. It is now commonplace to talk of the “climate crisis” or the “climate emergency.”

But while global awareness has recently surged, the situation itself—warming, melting, acidification—is not new at all. Half a century ago, back in the 1970s, Exxon (and probably others) accurately predicted and then actively buried the fact that burning fossil fuels would rapidly warm the planet. A quarter of a century ago, in 1992, nations met in Rio to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal was to limit “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate. And decades ago, Indigenous people, especially those in the Arctic, sounded the alarm, told us we are not doing enough. They have been living in a changed climate ever since.

The climate crisis has been called a “long emergency.” But things are speeding up—and it’s not just the climate we have to worry about. The UN has also issued dire, unprecedented warnings about species extinction. Some researchers say there are in fact nine planetary limits or boundaries; global temperature and species extinction only two of them. They say we have already transgressed four of those boundaries. Without a radical change of direction, and soon, we will not survive as a species.

So….

Why write poetry? Why write fiction or memoir? Why take time to paint or weave or sketch? Even for one morning, why ponder stories when so much is at stake?

A guiding principle of Understorey Magazine is that stories inspire change. Unearthing stories that are not often or not widely shared can build bonds, strengthen community, fuel action. This is why, for 17 issues now, we have chosen themes that are vital to our everyday lives but tend to stay hidden under the surface of everyday conversation: age, blood, service, motherhood, and more. In telling these stories, we announce: This has happened. This is happening—to me, to us. Stories help move us forward, they urge the question: Now what?

But as author and environmental journalist Linda Pannozzo recently reminded me, both through her writing and in person, stories can also blind us. Told over and over, stories can mire us in “truths” that were never truths, ideas that never made any sense at all. Patriarchy, for instance. Or more generally, dominion. Terra nullius. Nature’s bounty. Limitless economic growth. Whose stories are these? How are they sustained? What happens if we erase them and tell something new?

In his essential book, The Truth about Stories, Thomas King says: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Think about this for a moment. We are the stories we tell. We become the stories we tell.

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, our contributors do not lord over nature’s bounty. Nor do they stand aside in reverence or awe. They do not separate themselves at all—from nature, or from a nature in crisis. “We are accomplices,” writes Anna Quon, capturing in three words an alternate and necessary story.

Mi’kmaw author Tiffany Morris asks about specific words and definitions: “there is not a word in every language for / extinction event,” she writes. What does it mean that the English-speaking colonial world now requires this term?

Many of our contributors look at the storytellers themselves. “Auteur theory is for the birds,” writes Tanis MacDonald, forcing us to question who is penning the stories we tell of nature. Who believes they are directing the plot? And what about those relegated to the wings? Those who are homeless, endangered, living precariously, already suffering, or already lost? How will their stories shape who we are as a society and a species?

Of course, we have to do more than sit and write. We also have to rally crowds, get our hands dirty, listen to the too-busy and the still-doubtful. And, yes, we must pause to acknowledge the absolute wonder and our place in it. But creating a new narrative requires brave new storytellers, as well as a place to tell their stories.

So we invite you to read, think, comment, share, and act—RE Nature.

Thank you to all of our writers and visual artists, and to all who submitted work. We could not publish everything but we appreciated and learned from everything we read. Special thanks to our poetry editor, Rachel Edmonds, who vetted submissions and provided editorial comments, all while undergoing chemotherapy and planning a wedding. And a big thank you to our cover artist, Jane Whitten. Jane creates woven art with non-traditional but sadly abundant materials such as discarded plastic bags, telephone wire, and fishing line. The resulting portrayal of natural beauty and nature in crisis suggests not only where we now stand in the world, but several possible future stories.

The cover for Understorey Magazine Issue 17 showing sea stars created by Jane Whitten with plastic bags and telephone wire.

On Creating a Literary Festival: Five Questions with AfterWords Co-Organiser Stephanie Domet

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Official poster for the After Words Literary festival listing a selection of speakers.Understorey Magazine: AfterWords is a brand new literary festival for the Halifax area. What inspired you take on this project?

Stephanie Domet: My co-organiser, Ryan Turner, and I have had the idea for AfterWords since the final Halifax International Writers Festival back in 2008. Halifax hasn’t had a multi-day literary festival for the past ten years. We aimed to create the kind of event we would like to go to. There’s so much happening in Nova Scotia. We wanted to show writers who travel here for the festival—as well as local readers and writers—the very best that Halifax has to offer.

UM: Tell us about the AfterWords slogan: “Where writers and readers meet.”

SD: The focus of the festival is on conversation and hospitality, not just readings to an audience. So we have a lot of different venues, including Cafe Lara and the Agricola Street Brasserie. Some events free. Some have food and drink. We hope to widen the appeal of a literary festival, especially to people who might not think “literary” is their thing. This is not an elite event. It’s for everyone. Continue reading

The Nap-Away Motel by Nadja Lubiw-Hazard

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Book cover for The Nap-Away Motel, showing a illustrated tree with cats.

We all have stayed at the Nap-Away. For a night or a week or a longer time, at some point and for some reason, we all have found refuge in a small motel on the edge of a city. The facade is nondescript except for one or two curious features. The same might be said of the staff. Because it’s the residents who, for the length of their stay, define the motel and create its story.

The Nap-Away in Nadja Lubiw-Hazard’s debut novel (Palimpsest, 2019) is somewhere in Scarborough. Its walls are yellow, the roof grey. Behind the Nap-Away is a huge oak tree and butterflies. In front is an open space where pigeons alight. And for the length of Lubiw-Hazard’s beautiful tale, the Nap-Away is home to three wildly different, struggling characters.

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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