Author Archives: Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett

About Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett is Understorey’s founder and editor in chief. Katherine is a writer, editor, researcher and mother of three. She 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. Katherine has published academic papers as well as short fiction, monthly columns and literary essays. She believes writing and sharing stories can empower, shift attitudes and build community.


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The View from Underneath by Teresa Young

Welcome to the Women and Justice issue of Understorey Magazine. Here are a few numbers to ponder:

  • In the past ten years, the rate of federal incarceration for women rose by 50% while the rate for men rose by less than 10%.
  • In the same period, the rate of incarceration for Aboriginal and Black men and women rose by 50% and 69% respectively.
  • Almost a quarter of federal inmates and 35% of incarcerated women are of Aboriginal ancestry—yet Aboriginal people comprise less than 5% of the Canadian population.
  • The vast majority of federally sentenced women report being sexually and/or physically abused at some point in their life. Compared to male offenders, women are twice as likely to have a serious mental health diagnosis.
  • Aboriginal and Black inmates and female inmates with mental health issues are more likely than others to be placed in segregation.

These claims come from the latest report of Canada’s Correctional Investigator, a federal government office legislated to impartially assess our criminal justice system. The numbers are shocking and difficult to dismiss, no matter your political persuasion or appetite for social change. There is clearly something very wrong. Yes, right here in Canada.

Shouldn’t we be doubting that so much progress has been made/ When so many women aren’t waving but drowning —El Jones

But reports and statistics and headlines tell only a partial story. Behind the Correctional Investigator’s numbers, behind the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, behind the “I believe survivors” and Black Lives Matter slogans—are voices.

Sometimes, these voices are loud and gain attention. More often, and in contrast to a legislated mandate to speak out, they are muffled, unheard or actively silenced. Yet these voices, these disparate stories of everyday experience, are necessary to understand the whole. More than that, they are necessary for us to feel—and therefore to act.

For every time I’ve been encouraged to tell my story, I have been told three times to move on, forget it happened.

—Carling M.

In this eighth issue of Understorey Magazine, our first produced in partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute, we present some of these voices—stories of women and justice told through essay, poetry, fiction and visual art.

Several pieces published here examine segments of our criminal justice system, our prisons, parole boards, history-making court cases and the work of enforcement officers.

She was not a person/ Under the law

—Lynda Lesny

Many contributors tackle issues of social justice. They capture subtle and shifting assumptions of power and privilege, or more deeply engrained divisions of gender, class and race.

One set of poems looks at environmental justice, at how we treat our natural world and how those decisions affect cultures and communities.

Separately and as a whole, the literary and visual art presented here shows that criminal, social and environmental justice are linked. The course of a life is shaped by personal choices, sure, but also by our choices as a society, by what we choose to value, who we choose to hear, and how we choose to see.

The arresting officer wouldn’t even touch me to put on cuffs.

—Naomi Sears

It is this willingness to really see the lives of others that Rebecca Thomas so poignantly describes in her poem “Etuaptmumk.” In doing so, we can become more aware of our own lives—past, present and future—and create a space for something bigger, something new.

Open your other set of eyes/ Recognize the pain you have caused/ Take a pause and start breathing./ Welcome to the world of Two Eyed Seeing.
—Rebecca Thomas

For many reasons, this issue of Understorey Magazine has been the most challenging to produce thus far. But I believe it is one of our best. Please read, consider, comment and share. If you feel so compelled, please donate to help Understorey continue publishing stories by and about Canadian women.

A special thank you to the Quakers Fostering Justice Committee for funding part of this issue, to Carole Langille for her encouragement and support throughout the long process of creating the Women and Justice issue, and to Emily Bowers for her assistance in vetting and editing submissions.

Why Tell Stories?

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Landscape Illuminated 2 by Philippa Jones

Once upon a time, I worked in a research laboratory. I tapped test tubes, swirled flasks and, when strictly necessary, wore goggles and a boxy lab coat. My project, on the genetics of plant disease, offered an intellectual puzzle and plenty of time to tinker with cutting-edge technology. Should I discover it, the answer to that puzzle would intrigue the scientific community, benefit farmers—and afford me a graduate degree.

And yet, this wasn’t enough. I needed something more. So I’d often start an experiment, set a timer and leave the lab. Sometimes for hours.

I’d head to the basement of the student union building, to a scuffed white door with an unassuming sign: Photography Club. There I’d develop and print my weekend shots of birds and trees and graffitied back alleys until I had to rush back to the lab. This was well before Instagram. Photography was messy and magic: an image captured in a blink released into a pool of liquid and slowly nurtured into story. Yes, it felt like pure creation and I was hooked. Throughout my science degree, I developed hundreds of artsy photos. I marvelled at every story that emerged, packed the growing pile of eight-by-tens into black binders and used paper boxes—and printed more.

Then, one day, I stopped. Most of these photos would never be seen. They would not be displayed next to my name and biography. They would not change the world or the way people understood it. They would certainly not help pay my student loan or find a job. Why do it? I’d never asked myself the question and once I did, I found no reason at all.

Why make pictures? Why chisel form from stone? Why assemble words into lines and verse? In one sense all art is storytelling. But why do we tell such stories, especially when we’re busy, broke, stuck, tired or criticized?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, notes that our ancestors began painting almost forty thousand years ago but started cultivating crops only ten thousand years ago. This suggests a strong, perhaps hard-wired, urge to create art, an urge even stronger than ensuring a steady food supply.

Curiously, it seems most cave artists—up to three quarters—were women and girls. We don’t know why they did it. We don’t know why we continue to paint, sculpt, choreograph and compose. But we have theories.

To make sense. Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, says storytelling puts a frame (real or metaphorical) around everyday incidents. That frame allows us to focus on and make sense of our personal dramas. Research shows that our brains actually crave stories and will construct story-like patterns from almost any event. In a complicated, changing world, we simply think best in stories.

To purge. Aristotle believed theatre, especially tragedy, purged us of negative emotions. We still use his term catharsis to describe cleansing through art. It’s possible our ancestors painted caves as a purgative ritual. Recent evidence suggests writing that vents emotion—mommy blogs, for instance—offers a similar kind of therapy.

To feel better. Storytelling has more specific and measurable health benefits, too. Studies have shown that regular writing and other forms of art can help injuries heal faster, boost immune function, alleviate symptoms of cancer and depression, boost working memory, increase motivation—and even “turn lives around.”

That’s a whole lot of reasons to create stories—and a fair excuse for my stealing away from the lab to craft images of seagulls. So why did I stop? Perhaps because in packing those photos so quickly into boxes and binders I dismissed a further reason, perhaps the reason stories have endured for tens of thousands of years:

To connect. Storytelling, whether through writing, performance or visual art, means forging a relationship between teller and audience. A story is never air-tight and self-contained. Good stories leave blank spots, spaces to be filled through the active process of reading or viewing. It takes both to complete a story. Creating art may empower the artist but filling in those spaces empowers the audience.

In fact, Aristotle’s original notion of catharsis applied to the audience, not the actors and playwrights; he believed theatre purged negative emotions in viewers. Present-day research tends to agree. A study published last year showed that attending live theatre increased “literary knowledge, tolerance and empathy” among students. This one of a growing number studies on the power of stories for the audience. Collectively, they show stories are easier to remember than facts—stories help us learn. More than that, reading, viewing or listening to stories can increase our understanding of others. It can alter deep-seated biases and foster empathy. Look at the phenomenal success of Humans of New York: a twenty-line personal story can stir millions of readers to action.

That’s one gigantic reason to tell stories. But it means actually telling the story. It means embracing the creator-viewer relationship, taking the photos out of the box, the canvas out of the studio, the story off the laptop. It means honing our craft (there’s no way around practice) but, eventually, at some point, sharing our work.

Which is hard.

Most of my photos are still in boxes. I never went back to photography: I graduated, my cameras were stolen, the technology changed. I moved on to writing and again found that thrill of pure creation. And although I’ve posted and published my work many times, that old urge to hoard and safeguard remains. It’s not ready. It’s not original. It will only be rejected.

Putting yourself “out there” is hard, no question. Traditional routes to building an audience—through publishers, agents and galleries—can be particularly tough. Until that fabulous and elusive acceptance letter, it may feel as if no one is listening, that you really aren’t sharing work at all.

But there are other ways to cultivate a vital two-way relationship with viewers.

  • Find a writing group or start a new one.
  • Take a class, in person or online.
  • Open a pop-up store (this works best for visual art, but why not pop-up poetry or performance art?).
  • Join an online peer group like SheWrites or Wattpad.
  • Write micro-stories on social media.
  • Start a blog or post on open sites like Medium or StoryCorp.

You may not want to share everything, and in some cases you shouldn’t. You may still encounter criticism, especially if posting online. But as Brandon Standton of Humans of New York says, telling stories with “a spirit of genuine interest and compassion” tends to bring out the same in viewers. And sharing just some of your work, nurturing even a small audience, may keep you going through moments of doubt.

I said most of my photos would never be seen; most were still in boxes. There are some exceptions. Four are framed and decades after printing still hang on living room walls, two on Canada’s east coast, two on the west. They capture a singular place and time. They’ve been viewed by a few dozen friends and friends of friends. Over the years, they’ve prompted questions, stirred memories, started conversations. Is it enough to build a career? No. Is it enough to keep telling stories? Yes, I think it is.

Many thanks to Scotiabank (Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, branch) for funding this issue of Understorey Magazine.


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Conversations by Flavia Testa

Conversations by Flavia Testa

Welcome to the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine, a diverse collection of stories, poetry, and visual art on mothering through social, physical, and mental challenge. We are excited to publish work by both new and established writers and artists — Canadian women living in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, the US, and the Netherlands.

Our title, “Extraordinary,” is meant to skirt (at least temporarily) sometimes disputed terms such as “disability” or “special need” while at the same time raising questions about what these words and categories mean to the people who live them.

Literally, extraordinary means outside or beyond the ordinary. But the word draws no definite or permanent line between inside and out — and makes no obvious value judgement. Extraordinary can mean rare, distinctive, atypical, and sometimes fabulous.

Likewise, through essays, fiction, poetry, and art, our contributors show that there are many ways to define, surpass, or simply live with our particular challenges — and those of our kids.

Andrea Nicki, in her poem on personality disorder, and Renate Lindeman, in her essay on mothering two daughters with Down syndrome, for example, raise pointed questions about definitions and authority. What is, or should be, the role of doctors, patients, and parents in proclaiming a diagnosis? And why should that declaration — the finding of an extra chromosome, for instance — trump all other ways of describing who we are and what we can do?

In fact, contributors Alice Evans, Kristin Proctor, and Carol Bruneau ask — in very different ways — whether Down syndrome, selective mutism, or schizophrenia are adequately described as a deficit. Are such conditions simply an absence that needs to be filled or fixed? Or can they be better described as the presence of something that, yes, brings challenge but also creates a new way of viewing and being in the world?

Indeed, for some people, symptoms and struggles are constant and unwavering. But for many, the lines between ability, disability, and even super-ability shift with age or task or surrounding. Poets Tracy Carruthers and Paula Follett-Comeau look at everyday events, a shared meal or a visit to the theatre. They ask, as everyone has asked from time to time: Is this normal? Do we need a name for this, a label? Do other kids and other mothers experience this too?

Motherhood, of course, adds layers of complexity to these questions. Mothers are supposed to protect. They are supposed to help their children. They’re supposed to want the best for their families, even at personal cost. Already, this is extraordinary. But contributors Sheila Morrison, Debra Reynolds Banting, and Susie Berg explore maternal responsibility, expectation, and love through the added challenges of autism, depression, substance abuse, and mental illness.

Cecile Proctor and Rita Kindl Meyers examine the flip side of these issues. What happens when a mother coping with traumatic brain injury or multiple sclerosis must learn to depend on her children, and learn to ask for help rather than provide it? How do mothers and their kids face this unexpected reversal of care, vigilance, and trust?

In all of these situations, the private slips into the public — and therefore into the political, the bureaucratic, and sometimes, as Rachel Edmonds finds in Sue Goyette’s new book, the legal. But while our social institutions might provide necessary guidance through our individual challenges, we can gain no deep understanding of ourselves, our families, our community — our motherhood — without telling our own, personal stories of everyday experience.

And so we present the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine.

Thank you to the writers who sent in their work. Although not all submissions are published here, all took time, energy, and much courage to set down on screen or paper.

Thank you to the artists whose incredible work brings this magazine to life. Not coincidentally, several of the stories in this issue demonstrate an essential link between art, wellness, accomplishment, and empowerment. Written stories tend to get centre stage in our editorials, but the stories told through visual art are vital to Undertorey‘s mission, message, and aesthetic appeal.

A sincere thank you Disabled Persons Commission of Nova Scotia and the Family Development Centre for their enthusiastic moral support and generous financial support, both of which made the “Extraordinary” edition possible.

And, of course, thank you to all of our readers. Please leave a comment or two and tell us what you think!

On Rejection and Snow Angels

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I'd Rather Be Reading than Ironing hooked rug by Laura Kenney

I’d Rather Be Reading than Ironing. Hooked rug by Laura Kenney

Winter. Discontent. There’s a reason Shakespeare bound those words for eternity.

When I was a kid, winter meant a puffy new coat, tunnels through giant snowbanks, and sweeping, ephemeral snow angels. Though I loved that first day of spring—running shoes on pavement!—I loved the whole winter, too. It was simply part of the year, part of life.

Now, as a trudging adult, winter means work. I blindly hope it won’t happen, that it will somehow pass me by. When winter arrives, as it always does, I feel injustice: What? Snow, again? I shovel the driveway, find mitts, wipe salt from the kitchen floor, find mitts, dry boots on the radiator, and find those very same mitts once again. The possibilities of winter are stifled beneath the weight of getting things done.

Of course, there are parallels to the creative process. Watch a kid who loves to paint or write. The first brush stroke or sentence, like that first plunge in the snow, begins an adventure, opens a portal to everywhere and nowhere at all. It’s thrilling. It’s magical. And then, well, it’s time for dinner….

But to be serious artists we must indeed be serious. Product matters. Success matters. We must buckle down, finish our work, package it neatly, and ship it out to the world. And then we wait as our creative offspring is surveyed, judged, scrutinized, and more than likely shipped right back home again. Turned down. Rejected. Like the fifth winter storm in February, rejection is unfair, infuriating—and inevitable.

The literary world is infamous for copious and cryptic rejection. Top literary magazines reject 99.9 per cent of submissions and most with a form letter or cold silence. The writer is left with nothing but their boomerang prose and a creeping sense of failure. No doubt visual artists vying for their first show experience the same.

I’ve dealt with rejection from both sides. As a writer, I’ve amassed my share of eternal question marks and Dear Submitter letters. As an editor, I can attest that sending rejections is the very worst part of running a magazine. Understorey is small and dedicated to nourishing creativity, so we try to respond to each submission with a personal note, either an acceptance or a reason for rejection.

Still, every writer and editor knows that rejection is part of the deal. Like winter, it will come. To ease the blow, we offer Understorey‘s alliterative emergency kit: four small Rs to better prepare for the the Big R.

1. Revel. Go on, take a moment to wallow. Feed your rejection letter through the shredder. Toss your writing guides in the compost. Furiously clean the house because that, at least, is productive. You might even co-wallow at places like Literary Rejections on Display, a nine-year-and-counting collection of merciless brush-off. Raise a glass with fellow failures everywhere!

2. Reframe. In the sober moments following your rejection-fest, you might consider the wise words of researchers who study failure for a living. Carol Dweck, for instance, suggests we reframe failure as “not yet,” as a necessary, neuron-building rung on the wobbly ladder to success. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that greatness requires a degree of aptitude and a ton of work—10,000 hours of work to become a virtuoso. So, yes, the early stages will be tough, collect yourself. In the immortal words of Debbie Allen: You want fame. Well, fame costs….

3. Recruit. You need to get to work. But given that two-word rejection letter, where do you start? How can writers improve when writing markets provide little or no evaluation? Some guidebooks are great; retrieve yours from the compost bin now. Writing websites offer valuable insight, too. People are best, of course, but finding available, willing readers to provide honest, constructive critique is tough. I’ve considered starting a match-making service through Understorey where writers can exchange work and feedback. What do you think? Would you use it? (Leave a comment or contact me.)

4. Regress. Yes, we need to work hard, get things done—but not all the time. Nearly every instruction on writing (and no doubt on other creative pursuits) suggests daily doodling, a time to create without critique. Natalie Goldberg popularized the idea of free writing, during which “the correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.” There is no goal, just childlike freedom play. Goldberg and many others promise this practice will restore your spirit and improve writing. So put down the snow shovels, writers and artists, find your puffiest coat and the fluffiest snow drift. Fling yourself backward. Make angels.

Time to Grow Up, Mommy Lit

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Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

The “second oldest profession,” Erma Bombeck wrote of motherhood in her 1983 book on caring for “children, a husband, and oneself.”

Motherhood is indeed an ancient profession—or job, or calling, or stage of life—yet Bombeck’s book was among the first to discuss it candidly. We have printed and distributed books since the 1400s. Women have mothered since life began. And yet the history of books about motherhood spans roughly 40 years.

Feminist scholars have debated the role of mothers and motherhood at least since the 1960s, but Adrienne Rich opened the discussion to a broader audience with her 1976 book, Of Woman Born. Like Bombeck, Rich drew on her own experience as a mother and included entries from her personal journal. In this sense, Rich and Bombeck were forerunners of today’s mommy bloggers. Of Woman Born takes a broader, more political and feminist point of view than Bombeck’s book of humour and advice, but both authors aimed to dispel the idea that motherhood is easy, natural, private, and the most significant way to define a woman.

Following Rich’s book, motherhood studies gained some traction in the publishing world with The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), The Myths of Motherhood (1994), The Mommy Myth (2004), and The Maternal is Political (2008), to list a few. Despite this relative boom, books on motherhood remained fringe, a serious read for a dedicated few.

Mother-writing moved toward mainstream with first-hand accounts from the trenches. Anne Lamott published Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in 1993. At twenty years old, the book is considered a classic of motherhood memoirs. Subsequent works by Ariel Gore, Rachel Cusk and others portrayed the messy reality of motherhood: hard, diverse, ungoverned yet public. These were raw, brave works that ushered a new age of mommy lit.

And then there was blogging.

Weblogs, as they were first called, provided an easy platform to chronicle motherhood as it happened. Blogging opened the doors to thousands of homes and the mothering within. Heather Armstrong’s Dooce (2001), The Mommy Blog (2002), Her Bad Mother (2006) and the many blogs that followed have shown motherhood uncensored. Projectile poop, morning swigs of vodka, post-partum sex (or lack thereof), toddler tantrums captured in video—nothing is too real, too irreverent, for the mommy blog.

It’s the irreverence that seems to sell. The most successful mommy blogs have become books, and the most successful of those have become bestsellers. From Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried and to the current hit, I Heart My Little A-Holes, mommy blogs-turned-books have given voice to the anti-mom. Popular mother-writers are self-described naughty, slacker, slummy, scary and/or sh*tty moms.

We ought to thank the anti-mom—the one on our bookshelf and the one in our head. Her swearing, drinking, and willingness to publicize her children’s toilet-training have freed mothers (in North America, at least) to rage, I’m so much more than this! Her storming through major publishing houses in pajama pants and stilettos has allowed books about “holy-crap moments” of motherhood to breach the New York Times bestseller list.

But it’s time to move on.

The toddler years of mommy lit, Adrienne Rich and the women who followed, broke the silence. We learned to speak and write about the everyday of motherhood. The delinquent teen years, rife with slummy mommies, let the world know that both kids and moms can be “a-holes.” The teen years shook us up, grabbed our attention—and that of publishers.

Let’s now move toward a sophisticated adulthood of mother-writing. Let’s move toward Pulitzer-winning journalism and memoir about the ways motherhood shapes women’s lives and every element of our world: schools, violence, medicine, garbage, farming, war. Let’s move toward Booker-prize-winning fiction with complex, diverse and fascinating mothers as protagonists. Writers like Maggie O’Farrell, Jenny Offill, and Ann-Marie MacDonald have led the way, crafting motherhoods neither sentimental nor snarky, women whose lives neither begin nor end with—but are clearly changed by—motherhood.

At Understorey Magazine, we hope to inspire this next wave of mother-writing. We hope the essays, fiction, poems and excerpts published here will spark the literary prize-winning books of tomorrow. We invite you to read our current and past issues, to consider, to comment—and of course, to write.


If you like what you read in Understorey, please consider making a donation. We are a non-profit organization and rely on grants and donations to continue our work. Thank you!