Author Archives: Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett

About Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett is Understorey’s founder and editor in chief. Katherine has worked on women's and environmental issues for many years and has edited for Literary Mama, the feminist publisher Demeter Press, the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Canadian environmental magazine Alternatives Journal. She is currently managing editor of the academic journal Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture and Social Justice. Katherine has published numerous works of scholarly research, short fiction and literary nonfiction. She believes writing and sharing stories can empower, shift attitudes and build community.

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

Service

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Our cover art, a spraypaint mural of a woman among ferns and flowers and trees, may not be the first image that comes to mind when considering our theme: service. But it’s an old word with a long history and many variations.

Service originated from the Latin servitium, which relates to slaves and slavery. Several of the prose and poetry pieces we publish here, our eleventh issue of Understorey Magazine, carry this sense of service as being bound by contract or duty or societal expectations.

Spray paint mural by Shalak Attack, Montreal, 2007

Susan Brigham tells of her mother who, at fifteen years old, travelled far from her home of St. Helena to become a servant in England. Other pieces consider a more subtle form of service as servitude, particularly the unspoken roles of women. Julia Florek Turcan looks at how service roles are passed down through generations of mothers. Dorothy Nielsen creates a fictional “Marie,” a wife and mother who always and unquestioningly puts the needs of others first.

Many of the stories in this issue invoke a more complex definition of service, one in which roles are taken on willingly but a deep sense of obligation, allegiance, and sacrifice remains. Often such forms of service involve tending to the direct needs others. Gayle Mavor tells of becoming wound into a web of caregivers for an elderly woman. Sara Jewell writes about caring for her father, who suffered from early-onset dementia, and how this experience compares with her becoming a lay worship leader. And Savannah Sidle touches gently but deeply on the unceasing service of mothers to their children.

Of course service often extends beyond personal relationships—out into the community, the country, the world. Emily Bowers writes of working abroad for many years and then returning to rural Nova Scotia to become a volunteer fire fighter. Several of our pieces look at military service, but none through the usual lens. Sheila Firth-Warlund offers three poems about her role as a military chaplain serving in Afghanistan. Wanda R. Graham tells of caring for a woman released from Canadian military prison:

she’s made mistakes
I look at her in wonder
she’s one of the country’s finest
what can she mean, what has she done?

Like Graham, collaborators Maya Eichler and Jessica Lynn Wiebe both honour and question military service. Their visual art and dialogue examines the red poppies often worn on Remembrance Day and asks readers to consider what—and whom—this symbol might exclude.

There is yet a further, broader sense of service represented in this issue, that of commitment to a cause rather than to a specific role. Liane Berry shares her story of addiction and recovery and how, through service, she now devotes her life to helping other addicts. And in Hannah Renglich’s work, service veers into the realm of stewardship, caring for the long-term vitality of the land and its diverse communities.

Despite differences in interpretation, the work published here invokes two enduring elements of service. There is commitment (willing or less so), hard work, sacrifice. But there is also growth.

All of the women represented in these stories are changed through acts of service.

Some find a voice. Some redemption. Many find community and belonging. Even those exhausted and undervalued are stronger in some way: a small salary sent home, a single friend, a self-made bed. Service roles are rarely linear, simply giving. They start from self, change many, and circle back to self.

In this sense, our cover art perfectly captures the theme of service. The mural was created by Shalak Attack, a Canadian-Chilean artist dedicated to creativity, community, and activism. It covers a wall in north Montreal, a public space available to everyone. And although the woman in the mural is rooted to the earth, she extends out into the world. She is engaged and essential. As she supports others around her, she becomes stronger herself.

Also in this sense, we present the Service Issue of Understorey Magazine as an act of service in itself. We work hard to bring stories of women’s lives to a wider audience. Many of the authors and artists published here are new to their craft. For some, this is their first publication. Yet all have vital stories of giving and growing as women among often conflicting obligations, desires, and communities.

We invite you read, contemplate, share. As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment for an author or artist in the comment box at the end of the articles, on Facebook or Twitter, or through our contact page.

Thank you and enjoy!