Reading and Re-Reading FALL ON YOUR KNEES by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Honestly where should I start with this devastating masterpiece, Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, originally published in 1996? I recently read this book — or rather listened to the audiobook — for the second time after first reading it in my early twenties. Actually, that’s not the first time I encountered the book. I have a distinct memory of getting a hold of a copy sometime when I was in high school and sitting down on this grassy area facing the ocean behind the grocery store in the small town I grew up in (it was a really nice stretch of impossibly green and perfect looking grass that my friends and I used to call “the movie grass”). I know I didn’t make it very far into the book, because it gave me an icky and creepy feeling right from the beginning; it turns out this feeling was entirely warranted, so good job teen me on the close reading skills.

I think when I finally read it through the first time I already knew that there were queer characters or a queer plotline of some kind, which is maybe what allowed me to persevere. I probably was also more steeled against reading books with disturbing content by that time. At any case, I read it and honestly I can’t really remember now much of anything about that reading experience. I think I probably just thought it was very good “literature” (imagine that with a posh British accent) as my English honours undergrad degree that taught me to assess.

Having read the book years and years before starting this blog, I had had it on my to-reread-TBR for a while, since I felt that I needed to re-read it before reviewing it on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, which I felt was necessary because it’s such a big book not only for queer Can Lit specifically but Can Lit in general and perceptions of Can Lit outside Canada (thanks, I guess, to Oprah for that??). And what better way to revisit a book than to encounter it in a different form: audiobook.

The audiobook is performed by Cassandra Campbell. (There’s also another audiobook version with Nikki James, but I decided I preferred Campbell after listening to excerpts of both readers. If you’ve listened to the other audiobook, I’d love to hear what the whole thing was like!) Cassandra Campbell does really an INCREDIBLE job with the audiobook adaptation. It’s not often that you have one voice actor doing the narration and all the different character voices and they really nail it. This book in particular requires various different accents and dialects (Nova Scotia Scottish, New York jazz age African American, Lebanese Canadian Arabic speakers, and others).

Campbell does a perfect job that makes you realize just how much skill is behind the seemingly effortless way she pulls it all off. She also had just the right touch of foreboding and mystery in her voice that also wasn’t without its humour that brought MacDonald’s prose to life. Like all of the best art, Campbell excels to the extent that you forget you’re even listening to an audiobook with one person doing everyone’s voices and you just fall right into the story. If you’ve been thinking about re-reading this book or reading it for the first time, I would HIGHLY recommend Campbell’s audiobook version. (But don’t say I didn’t warn you that it’s over 20 hours long; this is a long-ass book).

I don’t often read this kind of dark literary fiction these days, to be honest. For whatever reason, my taste for the depressing lit fic that I used to gobble up when I was younger is largely gone. So reading this kind of book again was hard, harder than I thought it would be. I don’t know how Ann-Marie MacDonald writes beautifully about such dark things, telling the intergenerational story of this fucked up family.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, or for whom it’s been a long time, here’s the official blurb:

They are the Pipers of Cape Breton Island — a family steeped in lies and unspoken truths that reach out from the past, forever mindful of the tragic secret that could shatter the family to its foundations. Chronicling five generations of this eccentric clan, Fall on Your Knees follows four remarkable sisters whose lives are filled with driving ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their experiences will take them from their stormswept homeland, across the battlefields of World War I, to the freedom and independence of Jazz-era New York City.

I didn’t think I remembered Kathleen, Frances, Mercedes, and Lily (the four sisters) until I had made my way through the first parts of the novel, which focus on their parents, at which point everything about these young women — their complexities, their sharp personalities, their joys, their mistakes — came rushing back. At the same time as this novel is a distinctly epic, sweeping look at a certain period of the late 1800s and early 1900s that has a very bird’s eye historical view, it’s also a deeply character-driven story, and not only of the four girls at its centre. I was especially struck this time around by complex and honest secondary characters like Adelaide, Leo, and Teresa Taylor and the father of Materia (the girls’ mother).

(Be forewarned, it’s difficult to talk about this book without spoilers, and since it came out 20 years ago, I’m assuming many of you have already read it. This review from now on includes MAJOR spoilers. Also, content warning for incest and sexual assault).

Reading Fall On Your Knees a second time was perhaps worse than the first time. I mean, the first time is awful, to be sure; and I don’t mean the reading experience is awful, because MacDonald does such an amazing job somehow weaving beauty out of darkness. But overall this is a dark book, full of people making horrible mistakes with gigantic consequences and making difficult choices and living under tough circumstances, not including the gut-wrenching reveal near the end.

The way MacDonald has structured the book made reading it for the second time, for me, REALLY hard. First time readers gradually get tidbits of what happens to Kathleen; you find out her father brought her home from New York, you find out she fell in love there, you find out she was really pursuing her career as a singer despite her music teacher being a jackass, you find out she was pregnant, you find out she died in childbirth back in Nova Scotia. Honestly, that story itself is sad enough. But the shock readers get at the end, where MacDonald reveals that it was Kathleen’s father who raped her and was the father of the child(ren) who were the cause of her death is just unbelievably devastating. It’s devastating even when you know the whole time he’s a fucking creep. I can’t believe I don’t have a memory of discovering that when I read it ten years ago.

But knowing that fact, the whole time that MacDonald is building up the narrative, releasing small bits of information about Kathleen, and especially throughout the final sections of the novel that take the form of Kathleen’s diary while in New York and falling in love with Rose is fucking heartbreaking. My knowledge of what happens tainted everything in the book, especially the Kathleen and Rose sections, which in and of themselves are so beautiful and lovely. Their first bristly interactions, Kathleen’s startling realization she’s attracted to Rose, their musical collaborations, Rose’s pointed comments about Kathleen’s naivety about race, everything about their friendship and romance that is so amazing and real and wonderful. Ann-Marie MacDonald, why did you want to break my heart this way??

Ultimately revisiting Fall On Your Knees made me think about what kind of stories get praised and what kind of stories get published by big publishing houses by and about marginalized voices, particularly people of colour and/or LGBTQ2IA+ people. Perhaps this is just a function of literary fiction in general; I mean, it does have a reputation for being a sad genre, as if sadness and horribleness are the stuff of serious literature but joy and wonder are not. But the heartbreaking stories also seem to be so much of the work praised by the white/straight/cis majority, as if stories about queer, trans, and people of colour are only worthwhile if they are about their suffering.

I don’t know if I can stomach stories like this about queer characters anymore. I don’t know if I want to stomach them. What I want is a book in which Kathleen and Rose live happily ever after in NYC and have fabulous music careers. Why can’t I have that?

I’m not saying I don’t still agree with my opening statement, that Fall On Your Knees is a masterpiece. It is, in print and audiobook format. It’s not that I think you shouldn’t read it, if you can stomach it. But fuck is it ever dark. And I don’t know if I want that kind of darkness in my reading life anymore, you know?

Posted in ann-marie macdonald, Black, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Rural | 1 Comment

Queer Canadian Book Gift Guide for Everyone On Your Holiday Shopping List

The title says it all; I do mean a queer Canadian book gift guide for everyone.

For the cynical, ironic millennial in your life:

Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person by Daniel Zomparelli

This collection of interconnected short stories by Vancouver gay author and poet Daniel Zomparelli should go directly to the heart of someone in their 20s or 30s at this moment in time. In the stories, gay men look for love (and hookups and possible threesomes with ghosts) on Grindr, Instagram, and through text messages; they also do stuff like steal office supplies from their jobs, deal with their mental health at their therapists’ offices, and bake pies. This book is funny and sad and snarky and sweet and very queer and will undoubtedly profoundly speak to anyone trying to be a young or a new adult in 2017.

For someone who needs to escape:

City of Strife by Claudie Arsenault

Sometimes the world we live in is garbage and we need to get away for a while. If this applies to anyone you’re shopping for (and c’mon, how can it not?) City of Strife by Québec City asexual and aromantic-spectrum author Claudie Arsenault. It’s about a magical city (of strife) called Isandor and one inhabitant Arathiel’s return to it in search of belonging. Of course nothing is that easy and he soon finds himself in the middle of a political assassination scandal. This is the first installment in fantasy trilogy that features a big LGBTQIAP+ cast, as well as strong friendship, found family, elves, and magic!

For anyone who’s concerned about refugees:

The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan

This 2017 novel by gay Vancouver author Ahmad Danny Ramadan is a great present for anyone who’s interested in the tide of refugees who have been arriving in Canada and other places in the world in recent years. In particular, it’s about a gay Syrian couple’s journey told from the perspective of one of the men, a Hakawati (meaning storyteller), when he is elderly and looking back on his life as his partner is dying. The stories go back and forth in time, taking place in Canada, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. It’s a haunting and nostalgic novel, but life-affirming and healing at the same time. See my full review here.

For your mom (or anyone who is a mom, or grandma):

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

This book is really for anyone who’s ever been a stay-at-home parent (still overwhelmingly women) and had someone tell them that isn’t damn hard stressful work. Mary-Rose aka MR/Mister is a semi-retired writer trying to balance creative endeavours with mostly solo parenting her two young kids as her partner is a busy theatre director. Lesbian Toronto author Ann-Marie MacDonald dives deep into the character of Mister as she struggles with the debilitating weight (and boredom) of motherhood and lingering symptoms from a childhood illness she thought was long behind her. Eerily reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

For the (pre-school and elementary age) kids:

The Boy and The Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera

This children’s picture book with illustrations by Rajni Perera and words by Vivek Shraya is a tender story about an Indian boy who’s fascinated with his mother’s bindi. Instead of shutting down his curiosity or restricting its use based on gender, his mom teaches him about the bindi’s cultural significance and lets him wear one. It’s a beautifully affirming story about a parent accepting their child’s gender difference and about a child finding joy in being able to express their gender difference. The illustrations are gorgeous, full of rich, deep colours and the words — “Ammi, why do you wear that dot?/ What’s so special about that spot?” are both playful and profound.

For a t(w)een, especially for one who doesn’t fit in:

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

I’m quite Tamaki’s superpower is nailing teen and tween dialogue like no other writer and it’s in full view in this YA novel about Montgomery, a 16-year-old girl with gay moms and a gay friend and sexist boys at school. She feels angry for lots of legit reasons about hate. She’s also a weirdo who has a ‘mystery club’ with her friends Thomas and Naoki where they investigate anything strange and unexplained. Monty is a young 16 who’s going through a big learning curve about learning not to simplify complex stuff like people, which makes it a perfect read for young teens or tweens reading up. See my full review here.

All the above book titles and covers are linked to amazon.com; if you click on the link and buy that book (or something else) within a day, I get a small referral fee! This money helps me be able to dedicate time to the blog and ensure quality content! If you’re using amazon.ca for holiday or everyday shopping, here are those links for the books:

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

The Boy and the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan

City of Strife by Claudie Arsenault

Everything is Awful and You’re A Terrible Person by Daniel Zomparelli

Are there any other queer Canadian books you’d recommend as holiday presents?

Posted in ann-marie macdonald, asexual, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Lesbian, list, Mariko Tamaki, Queer, Short Stories, South Asian, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender, Vancouver, Young Adult | Tagged | Leave a comment

Vancouver’s LGBTQ2IA+ Library Out On The Shelves’ Holiday Book Drive Is The Perfect Gift This HoliGay Season

Wondering what to get a queer book lover in your life, especially one who seems to have already read every book or who’s already drowning in unread books on their shelves and doesn’t need any more? I have the PERFECT solution for you! But first a bit of backstory…

Some of you (many of you, hopefully!) know that in addition to running this website and being a public librarian, I co-coordinate an LGBTQ2IA+ library in Vancouver called Out On The Shelves. In the words of our official mission, we’re “a special, non-profit library built and cared for by volunteers, librarians, and librarians-in-training who are committed to anti-oppressive social justice work. Although we are located on UBC’s West Point Grey campus, we are not officially affiliated with UBC or its libraries.” In other words, we function very much the same way a public library does — free library cards for anyone who wants one! lots of rad stuff to borrow for free! — but we have ONLY LGBTQ2IA+ books and DVDs and are staffed by volunteers who are super knowledgeable about LBTQ2IA+ materials. Isn’t this like a library of your dreams?

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The library was in some dire straits about a couple years ago when it lost its space and needed to pack up and find new real estate in the very expensive city of Vancouver. We were very fortunate to have amazing co-coordinators before my time who managed to find us a new space on UBC campus, which we are newly moved into and set up in. In the library’s previous incarnation, it relied solely on donations and wasn’t allowed to fundraise. So the collection we inherited and set up at UBC had some areas that were in desperate need of updates, particularly books by authors of colour; books by and about trans, bi, intersex, two spirit, asexual and aromantic folks; and just plain new LGBTQ2IA+ books. Many hardworking volunteers and I have already done a lot of working soliciting donations, donating our own books, and scouring used book sales in an effort to fill these gaps. But there are still so many books we don’t have that our library really isn’t complete without.

Those gaps are where YOU and your holiday (or should I say holiGay) shopping come in. We’ve organized a holiday book drive! What do we mean by that? It means you buy a book off our wishlist (or grab it off your shelf if you already own it and are willing to donate it!), give it to us and tell us who you’d like to dedicate it to, and you (and your friend or loved one) get the satisfaction of knowing queer readers in need have access to an amazing queer book! Some examples of books we’re looking for are Nevada by Imogen Binnie, Blood, Marriage, Wine, and Glitter by S. Bear Bergman, A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby, 100 Crushes by Elisha Lim, Pantomime by Laura Lam, This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids by Kristin Russo and Danielle Owens-Reid, and so many more! We’ll be making custom book plates to put in the inside covers of each book donated so that people know who donated it / in whose name it was donated. We’re also planning a fun little “open our book presents” get together that we will film and share on social media.

preview-full-OOTS Book Drive Flyer (1)

If this sound interesting and worthwhile to you, please consider donating! It would mean SO MUCH to us volunteers and more importantly, our patrons. The steps to participate again are:

  • Peruse our wishlist
  • Buy a book from the list at your place of choice
  • Mark off your purchase on the wishlist so other participants don’t buy the same book
  • Drop the book off at Out On The Shelves:
    • Room 2112
      AMS Student Nest
      6133 University Blvd,
      UBC Campus
      Musqueam Territory
      Vancouver
    • or mail the book to Out On The Shelves, 6133 University Blvd, Vancouver, British Columbia, Room 2103, V6T 1Z1.
  • To make your donation more special dedicate it to a friend or loved one with a custom bookplate!
    • Email us at outontheshelveslibrary@gmail.com to tell us which book you bought and who you’d like to dedicate it to.

And if you live in Vancouver, I would LOVE to see you in the library in person! We had a bit of a soft open in October and are planning a big launch party in January after being closed for the holidays from December 18th to January 1st. Stay tuned for info on my website for news about the launch! You should also follow Out On The Shelves on social media to stay updated: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. If you’re coming to visit in person, know that our hours are a bit variable since we have a new volunteer schedule every four months, so make sure you check our website before coming!

Posted in Canadian, News, Queer, Vancouver | Leave a comment

Interview With a Queer Reader: Sanchari Sur Talks Queer South Asian Writing, Naked Heart Festival, and More!

Sanchari Sur is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on South Asian Canadian Writers (women, to be specific), as well as representations of subaltern bodies in those written works, and how those bodies challenge Canadian multiculturalism. Sanchari identifies as gender queer. Queerness and its representations often find themselves into both her academic and creative work.

She recently started seriously investing time and energy to creative writing last year and has so far been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, Matrix Magazine, The Feminist Wire, The Unpublished City anthology (Toronto: BookThug, 2017) curated by Dionne Brand, and forthcoming in The Rusty Toque. (Wow, right!? All that in a year!). You should also check out this great recent interview she did with Gwen Benaway in The Rusty Toque. Find Sanchari on her blog and on Twitter @sanchari_sur.

Sanchari Sur

Keeping reading to hear Sanchari talk about queerness in South Asian writing, Shani Mootoo, looking for fluid sexuality and gender in books, Naked Heart Festival in Toronto, and more!

What was the first LGBTQ2IA+ book(s) you remember reading? How did you end up reading it (i.e., were you searching for queer books or did you just happen across it?)

My first encounter was with Ruskin Bond’s short novel, The Room on the Roof ([published in] 1956), at the age of 14. The narrative had a gay teenage boy, where moments of homosexuality/homoeroticism between the character and his friend were heavily cloaked. At the time, I had to read the work a few times to even understand the relationship between the two boys properly. The short novel was in a collection of Bond’s work, an omnibus my parents gifted me because I was such a fan of his work. Of course, they were unaware of all of the contents of the collection. There were a lot of stories in the collection that were definitely not PG-13.

My first proper encounter with a LGBTQ book was in undergrad at the age of 19, Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman (2002). The book contained a lesbian relationship between an unhappy married housewife and an activist widow. It would have been an extremely radical book (sorry, spoiler alert!), if it had not ended in the demise of the relationship, where the housewife goes back to the (dis)comfort of her heteronormative existence. I came across the novel because I had just finished reading Kapur’s Difficult Daughters, and was hungry to read more of her writing. It was serendipity, sort of.

I think it took me longer to encounter queerness in literature because I was drawn to South Asian writing (from South Asia and its diaspora), and either those books referred to queerness in passing, as caricatures, or didn’t refer to it at all.

What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?

Aah, so many! These are my five:
1. Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994): I loved the seamlessness with which Selvadurai wrote queerness into his work. The voice of the protagonist stayed with me for a long time.

2. Absolutely anything by Shani Mootoo!: Mootoo’s books have a vigorous and intersectional quality to them. That is, her characters (especially, her queer characters) are not one dimensional. I like the fluidity of gender that she portrays in her work. I have never seen such fluidity before, and it was in her work that I saw a character that came closest to reflecting my understanding of my sexuality.

3. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976): I read it as part of my course work in undergrad, and was blown by the possibilities of science fiction. Although traditionally, I am a fan and writer of literary fiction, this particular book will always hold a special place.

4. Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires (2005): This was the first theory book I read on queerness, and it opened up my eyes and mind to a way of thinking that I had not encountered previously.

5. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (edited by Ruth Vanita Saleem Kidwai) (2000): I had read about an obscure (and rarely talked about, if at all) Hindu myth in one of my undergrad classes, and the excerpt had been taken from this book. It is a rich collection of queer writings that have either disappeared or have been made invisible through time in India. I return to this collection time and again to gain inspiration for my stories.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?

Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter (2008). The character of Viveka came closest to reflecting my experience.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?

I am not sure if such a book exists, but I would like to read a book where sexuality is not a homonormative idealization, but is a fluid construct. There is a misconception that sexuality remains the same throughout one’s life. Real life instances will prove this false. But I am yet to see such a representation in the works of South Asian (and its diaspora) writers. Shani Mootoo has been quite successful in the representations of fluidity, but I would most like to see a book that explores the variations of gender queerness.

How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?

I get my recommendations from queer lit festivals (like Naked Heart!), queer bookshops and publishers (like, Glad Day in Toronto, or Queer Ink in Mumbai), and recommended lists on Autostraddle.

It is easier to find books here in Canada. As a graduate student, I also have access to an extensive library system where I can get my hands on practically any book I want. In India, it’s tougher, considering Section 377 of the India Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality, still stands.

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Do you know other LGBTQ2IA+ readers or participate in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities (in person or on the Internet)? What’s it like? Why or why not?

I have friends in the queer community who read extensively. I have never been involved with the LGBTQ reading/writing community before as I had not come out to my family (sometimes, this “coming out” never ends, because I get asked the same questions again and again). I am still trying to figure out where I fit in, find the vocabulary for my gender/sexuality. It’s a process, and being a part of the Naked Heart Festival this year was a part of that process. While I have written queer characters in my fiction, I am just beginning to connect with other queer writers.

Thanks so much for sharing so many great books with us Sanchari, especially ones by queer South Asian writers I hadn’t heard of. One of these years I would LOVE to get to Naked Heart festival. It sounds so fabulous.

Posted in Canadian, Caribbean, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Postcolonial, Queer, Shani Mootoo, South Asian, Toronto | Tagged | Leave a comment

December Patreon Update: New Column Called Queer Can Lit Newsflash, More Interview with a Queer Reader Posts, and More!

Happy holidays and welcome back to my monthly update that I’m not sure I can call monthly anymore since I skipped last month! October was a bananas month for me for a few reasons, which made me late in my update for that month, so I decided it made sense to just wait until December for the next one, and here we are!

I can’t believe I’m sitting at $104 a month on Patreon from all you lovely supporters! Thanks so much. It’s been almost a year since I started a Patreon and I’m honestly surprised it has gone so well. It’s really reinvigorated me to dedicate time to this blog and made me think about what kind of content my readers are really looking for and try to meet those wants and needs as best as I can. I’m really, really grateful for any support you all have given me, whether it’s supporting my Patreon at any level, sharing my posts, commenting on my posts, chatting with me about queer bookish stuff on social media, and more!

Probably the biggest news for this blog is my new monthly-ish segment Queer Can Lit Newsflash! If you took the survey I did earlier this year, maybe you were one of the people who wanted more news-related posts. This is me listening to your feedback and thinking, oh yeah, that is a great idea. I get tidbits of news about LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian and Indigenous bookish stuff all the time from a variety of venues, and it totally makes sense for me to share it with y’all. Check out the first installment and second installment! If you’ve got any tips for me, from news about upcoming queer literary events to new releases to calls for submissions and anything else that seems relevant, email me at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

More news is that I’ve upped the Interview with a Queer Reader posts to two a month! This is also in response to the feedback I got on the survey, where a lot of people said they wanted more of those posts. Two interviews already went up in November, and you can expect this to continue. I put a call out one day on Twitter for potential interviewees last month and the stars must have been aligned that day, because I got a gazillion responses. I’m excited to get to share with you all these new queer readers’ experiences! But just because I’ve got folks lined up now, doesn’t mean you still can’t participate if you want. Send me an email (stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com) if you’re interested!

This month’s winner in the queer book draw is Leigh! Congrats Leigh! These are the books Leigh got to choose from:

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Besides the first two Queer Can Lit Newsflash segments, there is some other November content that maybe you missed. Are you into audiobooks? If so, (or if you’re just thinking about getting into audiobooks), check out this post: Five Queer Canadian Audiobooks for Your Ear-Reading Pleasure. I also wrote about some of my all-time favourite books, Four Amazing Queer Short Story Collections You Must Read. Really, I count those books by Nalo Hopkinson, Casey Plett, Nancy Jo Cullen, and Shani Mootoo among the best books I’ve EVER read. In November I also reviewed two really great books: Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy by Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett and Oracle Bone by Lydia Kwa. Damn, there is some amazing queer speculative fiction being written these days.

And as always I want to individually thank all of the people who’ve signed up to be patrons. You lovely humans are: Danika, Leigh, Anna Marie, Jane, Jakelene, Emmet, Madeline, Heather, Carla, Laurita, Jason, Jillian, Shelagh, Priscila, Allison, James, Seed, Julie, Katherine, Rachel, Samuel, Amy, Sarah, Daniel, Sarah, Chantelle, Al, Undertheteacup, Karen, Nicole, Leora, Loretta, and Mandy!

Last but not least, are you following me on the social media of your choice? Find Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian (or the real me) on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram!

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Devastation, Heartbreak, and Beauty Despite Everything in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Poetry Collection LOVE WILL BURST INTO A THOUSAND SHAPES

I’ve been putting off reviewing Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes, a poetry collection by queer disabled Vancouver-based writer Jane Eaton Hamilton, because, as far as I can remember it’s one of two things I’ve read where I had a particularly challenging reading experience: it was one of those books where I could recognize the skill and beauty of the writing but I didn’t truly appreciate them myself. (For those of you wondering, the other book that comes to mind is Lisa Foad’s The Night Is A Mouth, which I review here). Has anyone else had this kind of experience? I guess it’s just knowing that something is not your thing but being able to recognize that it could be exactly someone else’s thing. I mean, I know this is true of Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes; there’s this glowing review on the Lambda Literary site and here’s another one from Prism Magazine and another one. Well, here goes nothing!

As the publisher’s blurb declares, this collection of poetry (Hamilton’s third) centres on themes of “art, children, marriage, breaking, rejoicing.” Let’s start with art. Those more familiar with the art world than me (which is, uh, probably most of the people reading this) will likely delight in being able to pick out details they recognize from famous artists’ work and lives in the poems Hamilton crafts from the perspectives of Suzanne Valadon, Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Degas, Frida Kahlo, and Gauguin. Unfortunately the only artist of that group whose work I’m actually familiar with is Frida Kahlo. I did have an uncanny indescribable feeling while reading the titular poem of the collection (“Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes: Frida Kahlo,” and actually a quotation taken from a letter to Diego Rivera from Kahlo) that the words somehow felt like how her art looks. I wonder if the other poems about artists felt that way for readers who know their art. Readers not familiar with the artists but interested in visual art (this is not really me, unfortunately) might also have fun looking them up and experiencing the art alongside the poems. I also felt “in on” the Gauguin poem, called “Woman With a Mango by Gauguin: Etta Cone” in reference to Gertrude Stein; Hamilton writes the poem in an uncanny reflection of Stein’s strange, mesmerizingly repetitive style and it is bang on:

Gertrude you are a Gertrude are a Gertrude

no one in Baltimore is a Gertrude anymore

If you can’t say anything nice about anyone

come sit next to me

you said

and I did

The next section of the collection following the one focused on artists is “Our Terrible Good Luck,” an apt oxymoron that encompasses the devastation that populates these poems on topics not often associated that kind of horror: motherhood and children. Oh boy, was this part of the collection hard for me. They’re just shattering to read: domestic abuse, the death of children, gun violence, mass murderers, the dark sides of motherhood, the physicality and sometimes grotesqueness of child birth. For me, they were painful and difficult to read, despite their being beautifully written. When I say devastating, this is what I mean:

In the month before they find your son’s body

downstream, you wake imagining

his fist clutching the spent elastic

of his pyjama bottoms, the pair with sailboats riding them

He’s swimming past your room toward milk and Cheerios

his cowlick alive on his small head, swimming

toward cartoons and baseballs, toward his skateboard

paddling his feet like flippers. You’re surprised

by how light he is, how his lips shimmer like water

how his eyes glow green as algae

He amazes you again and again, how he breathes

through water. Every morning you almost drown

fighting the undertow, the wild summer runoff

coughing into air exhausted, but your son is happy

He’s learning the language of gills and fins

of minnows and fry. That’s what he says

when you try to pull him to safety; he says he’s a stuntman

riding the waterfall down its awful lengths

to the log jam at the bottom pool

He’s cool to the touch; his beauty has you by the throat

He’s translucent, you can see his heart under

his young boy’s ribs, beating

as it once beat under the stretched skin of your belly

blue as airlessness, primed for vertical dive

HOLY FUCK, Jane Eaton Hamilton. I don’t remember the last time I read a poem so fucking sad and heartbreaking.

jane eaton hamilton

Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via huffingtonpost.com

Although the last two sections “This New Country” and “Hands” are about intimacy, love, and sex, they often continue the deeply melancholic tone of the previous poems, but not always. I wonder too, if my sadness about the poems in the middle of the collection crept into my reading of the later poems. Maybe it would have been better to space out my reading of this collection more. Anyway, early poems in “This New Country” are joyful celebrations of brand new intimacy, like when Hamilton writes in the titular poem:

We packed our bags and named

our destination: each other

climbed into the car

the bus, the plane … I

couldn’t stop looking at you. We

didn’t know the new country even

four years later. … This country is

saturated with colour: azure

persimmon, indigo; with light:

dawn, the harsh light of noon, the washed

light of rain, dusk; with heat

We can’t send postcards. We are dumb

exiled to grace.

Unfortunately for my unrelentingly romantic heart, the poems about new love and sex and building a life together progress fairly quickly to, well, more devastation. In “Paris,” Hamilton writes

I didn’t understand the possibility of endings then, I didn’t know you

would soon say you weren’t in love with me and had been hungering

to leave for thirteen years. What time of day was it? Just after noon

and we were off the Montmartre bus

I was taking atmospheric photographs

I ambled down the street to meet you, my grin large

I remember wanting to lift you in the street and swing you

until love made us soar

I don’t know how to describe these poems except to keep using the adjectives devastating and heartbreaking all over again. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s writing talent that she is able to evoke such an achingly beautiful image of love — the “wanting to lift you in the street and swing you” — and at the same time that horrible feeling of looking back on your coupled happiness from the hindsight of the ruins of the relationship. This poem perfectly captures that feeling; reading it brought me back to when I felt that way at the end of my previous long-term relationship, and I have to say it’s not somewhere I really wanted to go, because it’s just painful.

When the next set of poems move into new intimacy again, the past hurt is not far behind, the melancholy persists: “I am too hungry. I am too huge. I am too slow. It is too late for me.” But Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes, thankfully, doesn’t end there. The last poem, “The Lovers I Have Loved,” manages to integrate the sadness of the past while not allowing it to overshadow the beauty you still find the relationships that have passed and the lovers who have left you. It’s a delicate balance astutely achieved, as Hamilton ends the poem:

Whatever happened

(we did not tarry, we did not root)

I still walk toward them

and lay my palm upon each cheek

a lover’s palm on lovers’ cheeks

All this to say: Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes will probably wreck you. And probably haunt you. And probably make you cry. But that’s not to say there isn’t astounding beauty within and outside the despair and sorrow.

Posted in Canadian, disability, Lesbian, Poetry, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Queer Can Lit Newsflash: Upcoming Queer Issue of Room Magazine, Fantasy by Trans Femmes, New Queer Indigenous Work, and More!

Welcome to this second installment of my new monthly-ish column news about stuff that’s happening in the Canadian and/or Indigenous LGBTQ2IA+ literary world. Have something you think I should cover next time? Send me an email: stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

Did you love jia qing wilson-yang’s debut novel Small Beauty? I know I did, and you probably did too, so  while you’re waiting for her next full-length work, you should read her short story “Rewinding” which was recently published in Rice Paper magazine. The story also features illustrations by Jesse Zhang. To give you a taste, here’s how the story begins:

She couldn’t sleep. It had been a horrible day. A day that felt like it was going out of its way to tell her that she wasn’t right for the world. As if she had been the subject of a poorly lit reality show about Asian transsexuals, as if the movements of her day had been broadcast on television for the world to judge. Which, if she was being honest, was the kind of show she would watch.

In case you missed my original review of Sigal Samuel’s debut novel The Mystics of Mile End, I should tell you that I LOVED it and it was one of my favourite reads last year. The novel is about a Jewish family and is set in Montreal (the Mile End neighbourhood, specifically) so it’s especially apt that a translation of the novel into French just came out! It’s exciting that a novel set in a diverse neighbourhood full of Yiddish, English, and French speakers is going to be newly available in one of those languages. (There’s also an Italian translation coming up).

Speaking of Anglophone queer Canadian books being translated into French, Amber Dawn’s debut novel Sub Rosa – which was the first novel I ever reviewed for this blog! — recently got picked up to be translated into French too. Also in Amber Dawn news: her latest novel Sodom Road Exit is set to come out from Arsenal Pulp Press next year and the cover is BEAUTIFUL. Check it out:

sodom-road-exit.jpg

Feminist literary mag Room Magazine has an upcoming issue that is going to be particularly up the alley of anyone who reads this blog, whether you’re a queer reader or queer writer. Their current call for submissions is for issue 41.3, “The Queer Issue.” The full call reads:

Room magazine invites women and genderqueer folks who identify as part of the LGBTTQIA+ spectrum to submit their best poetry, fiction, CNF, and art to our first queer-themed issue. We especially encourage submissions from writers affected by multiple intersections of oppression, such as racism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and transphobia.

This issue is a celebration of emerging and established queer writers and artists; the creative work itself does not have to be queer in focus. Do you want to queer genre? Create a poem about the corporatization of Pride? Or just write microfiction on the minutiae of daily living? All types of submissions are welcome.

New work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha will also be featured in this issue, which will be edited by Leah Golob, and assistant edited by Arielle Spence and Rebecca Russell. The call for submissions is open until January 31st.

this-wound-is-a-worldHave you heard of Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation)? I hadn’t until I went to a reading featuring his debut poetry collection This Wound is a World (shame on me) and I was so moved and impressed. He calls the book an “instruction manual for a queer Indigenous future” in this CBC interview. You all should really get this book in your life. Look for more on This Wound is a World on this site in the future! The publisher describes the book as “scavenging for a decolonial kind of heaven where ‘everyone is at least a little gay.’” To quote from my memory of the event, one of the lines in a poem is “I’m a hopeless romantic who hopes every blow job is transformative.”

Are you a trans feminine writer who writes fantasy? You should definitely submit a pitch to Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes! It’s being published by Bedside Press in Winnipeg, edited by Gwen Benaway ,and will include written work by Kai Cheng Thom, Casey Plett, and Gwen Benaway and art by Alex Morris. I am eagerly awaiting this collection!! Bedside Press is the same publisher who put out Love Beyond Body, Space, & Time: An Indigenous LGBT Anthology, which I review here. Given how great that collection was and my love for the work of all those authors who are already included, I have very high hopes for Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. Also, that title! And this beautiful cover (art and design by Annie Mok)!

maiden-mother-crone-fantastical-trans-femmes

Posted in Alberta, Amber Dawn, Anthology, Asian, Canadian, Fantasy, femme, Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Jewish, Lesbian, Montreal, Poetry, Queer, Queer Can Lit Newsflash, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment