A while back Lorimer Children’s and Teens, a Canadian publisher focusing on books for reluctant readers, sent me a few books from their Real Love series. The Real Love series are hi-lo YA novels about LGBTQ+ teens, written by Canadian LGBTQ+ authors. There’s a focus on romance, but also on identity as it relates to gender, sexuality, race, and more. (Hi-lo refers to books that have high level concepts but low reading level. Picture a book with the kind of themes you’d expect to find in an older age range YA book, but with the reading level you’d expect in a book for lower end middle graders).
Hi-lo books aren’t what I’d usually read for myself, but I know how important they are, especially for marginalized kids and teens. There are a wide variety of reasons these readers might need books at a lower reading level than is ordinarily assigned to their age: learning disabilities, having been out of school, learning English as an additional language, and more! So when I picked up You’re You by Vancouver-based author Mette Bach, I was anticipating more as an academic exercise, to assess it as part of a potential library collection or for appropriate teen readers. But to my surprise I actually really enjoyed it!
Freyja, the main character, is a well fleshed out young person. She’s a grade 12 student with a passion for social justice, stubbornness, and black and white thinking about insiders and outsiders. Bach shows that the root to this way of thinking is her history of bullying. I recognize this type of emerging activist who is young enough to think they know everything and just wants to save the world. (Hell, I have been that person, although I was never much of an activist). She wants to be a leader but doesn’t know how to be a humble and open one. She felt like a very real teen to me!
After Freyja’s girlfriend breaks up with her, she decides to try something new and volunteer at the food bank. There is a lot of cool stuff in the book about food justice that I think teens interested in activism would be really into. At the food bank, in addition to learning about food justice, Freyja meets a guy named Sanjay. Sanjay gets her more than her ex ever did. Freyja and Sanjay get to know each other at the food bank, and then as friends outside of volunteering. Freyja begins to feel confused about what kind of feelings she has for Sanjay.
Not surprisingly, Freyja identifies as a lesbian — an orientation that ties in perfectly with her binarist mindset. Potentially falling for a guy challenges her whole sense of self and her dedication to queer politics. She struggles with internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough. Once word gets out about even just her friendship with Sanjay, she faces biphobia from her fellow GSA members at school. This comes at the same time as the members are pushing against her forceful leadership. Ouch.
Mette Bach; photo by Mark Mushet via Goodreads.com
I would love to see more queer stories like this that show LGBTQ+ people’s fluidity from one identity to another, especially from gay/lesbian to bisexual/pansexual. In real life I know so many people who have experienced a change in their sexuality or who have realized their initial monosexual queer identification isn’t the best fit. I include myself in that second category! I also know plenty of people who originally identified as bisexual and now identify as gay. It feels very unauthentic to life, especially when we’re talking about young people, to expect them to have their gender and sexual identities all figured out!
But these identity journeys are hardly ever represented in fiction. When they are, too often they are knee-jerk labelled as harmful without paying attention to the nuances and truth of these stories. I’m thinking particularly here about Ramona is Blue by Julie Murphy. And when I ask for stories about fluid identities I do not mean “gay for you” or “lesbian fixed by the right man” stories, which are both biphobic as they ignore the validity and existence of bisexual identity — the later being lesbophobic as well!
Overall I would highly recommend You’re You! My only criticism is the fact that Freyja, a white character, has dreadlocks and this cultural appropriation isn’t addressed in the book. Honestly it’s fitting for her character to have dreads and not realize there’s a problem at the beginning of the book. But it would have been great if she could have grown to realize this, just as she learns about how to be a compassionate leader, about bisexuality and biphobia, and food justice.
Dionne Brand’s most recent book, Theory, is one of those novels that does what it sets out to do absolutely perfectly; but what it sets out to do isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s written in a self-referential discourse that is bitingly authentic to arts and humanities academia, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone without that background being interested in the book at all. (As you can see what with my use of the word discourse, I’m slipping back into my academic jargon already). Theory is almost two years old at this point but I can’t imagine it being irrelevant anytime soon. At least in its niche market, I imagine it will become an important text. How meta would it be to study this book in a post-secondary classroom or in a university professor’s research, this book which is about both of those things?
For those readers who are plot-centred, it might feel like a stretch to call Theory a novel at all. The book is all character study. Told in the first person from an unnamed academic narrator (likely a Black woman or afab person—but deliberately ambiguous), Theory chronicle their life’s important love affairs. Although they certainly have a lot to say about the women themselves, a lot of the focus is on how the lovers interrupt and fuel the narrator’s decade-long dissertation project. You see, “Teoria,” as one lover calls the narrator, is one of those PhD students who finds it hard to do anything but work on their thesis, while at the same time seeming to never make any progress in actually finishing it. At one point they say:
My distractions seem more compelling than the dissertation. Why is it that the mind can be caught up so heavily in feeling? We have been taught that the mind can be marshalled and feeling can be sublimated, but this, I swear, is false. Feeling is more compelling and insistent than what we call ‘ideas’. Understandably, this is my own theory. No citation. Just self-diagnosis
Teoria is an amusing and unreliable narrator. Most of the time, they are hilariously lacking in self-awareness. They grumble about the troubles of their life with no understanding of their own role in creating them. They seem incapable of recognizing that the gigantic scope of their PhD project may have something to do with the reason they are unable to finish. But occasionally, at others times, Teoria shares thoughts such as “The problem with not having a lover is that there is no distraction from the person I am… There’s no one to fix, in other words, except me.”
Dionne Brand ; photo via Room Magazine
There’s a certain cheekiness to the portrayal of Teoria. (Thank god for that nickname so that I have something to call them). It’s like you can feel Brand the author behind the character having a hell of a lot of fun. Brand has held a number of different academic positions; she’s currently Professor of English at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She’s obviously intimately familiar with the academic world. It’s not even worth saying that she’s beyond qualified as a teacher, writer, artist, and academic. But she doesn’t actually have a PhD. Because she also never finished her dissertation! (I’m gleaming this from the author bio in one of her older novels). Anyway, this bit of side knowledge just fills me with glee in relation to this novel’s protagonist who is also ABD (all but dissertation).
If the names Althusser and Fanon and the terms like Lacanian feminist aren’t familiar to you, you may won’t get much from Theory. It even has footnotes for goodness’s sake! But for anyone with a background in humanities or arts academia, Theory is fascinating, funny, and thought-provoking. It made me laugh out loud a few times, and certain lines had me stop to think and let my mind ponder a train of thought. Teoria is both very smart and not very smart at the same time. But they may, as the narrator of Theory, have just written a dissertation on love and relationships.
Happy Pride Month! In honour of the original riot against police brutality that inspired Pride month and in support of #BlackLivesMatter I want to share two lists, one of people and organizations to donate to, and another of books. The intended audience for these lists are fellow white people; when I say “you” that’s who I’m talking to. (If these resources are useful for non-white people, I am glad for that as well!) The book list is of non-fiction books about racism (anti-Blackness in particular) and anti-racism. But first I want to share places where you can materially support anti-racism efforts and human rights in prisons and the justice system. Please give if you can, even if it is a small amount. If you know of an organization or fundraiser that belongs on this list, let me know! I have focused on Canadian-specific resources.
Now onto the books! Buy these books and support the authors if you can; if not, request them from your library and/or submit a request for purchase for them and other anti-racist books that your library does not already have. Read the books. Process their ideas; maybe read them again. Share what you have learned with other white people. Incorporate what you have learned into what you say and do. You will make mistakes; learn from them and keep going.
I have mostly focused on books by Black Canadian authors and about the Canadian context. I especially want to counteract white Canadians’ self-congratulatory and ignorant tendency to compare Canada favourably to the US and say we don’t have racism here, or we never had slavery here, or police brutality and state-sanctioned violence don’t happen here. None of those things are true and these books will show you!
Bread Out Of Stone: Recollections on Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming and Politics by Dionne Brand (Canadian)
I read this essay collection by Black Canadian lesbian poet legend Dionne Brand many years ago and was very glad I did (full review here). It is a sharp, personal account of, among other things: racism in Canada, education and academia, political activism, memory, capitalism, immigration, Black women’s sexuality, and writing. Most of the essays in Bread Out of Stone are written in what is for Brand a fairly prosaic style—that is, still pretty poetic because Brand is such a natural poet she just can’t help it. Many of the essays are odes to Black Toronto. One such essay is “Bathhurst,” which examines Black activism in the city, both past and present. “Brownman, Tiger…” is a searing criticism of racism, particularly the treatment of young Black people. Brand calls Toronto “this city which treats its white rapists and murderers like the boy next door gone unaccountably and sadly wrong.” Other essays are less descriptive and more like political theory. I was especially interested in her theory about equality versus justice in the context of anti-racist activism:
I realized that at some point the idea of upliftment had replaced the idea of justice and that equality rather than justice had become what we were fighting for. The distinction may be slippery, but it is a major one. Did we want only to be equal to white people, or did we want to end exploitation and oppression? Because to be equal to the white power structure twenty-five years ago and still today is to have the right to impose inequality.
I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter by David Chariandy (Canadian)
In the vein of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (both writers were inspired by the same James Baldwin essay), Chariandy writes a letter about race, identity, and belonging to his 13-year-old daughter. It’s a very sweet, tender book that while reading feels almost like you’ve stumbled upon something too personal for outside eyes, like you’re trespassing. It contains so many beautiful loving words.
Chariandy’s impetus to write this book emerged from a racist encounter that he quietly ignored while out with his then 3-year-old daughter. She asked him “What happened?” Chariandy wondered how to begin discussing race and racism with his children. He shares his own experiences growing up a visible minority (his parents are Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad) in the country where he was born. He looks back to his family history of slavery and indenture, tracing the effects up to the present. He tells his daughter:
You did not create the inequalities and injustices of the world, daughter. You are neither solely nor uniquely responsible to fix them. If there is anything to learn about the story of our ancestry, it is that you should respect and protect yourself; that you should demand not only justice but joy; that you should see, truly see, the vulnerability and the creativity and the enduring beauty of others.
The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole (Canadian)
The Skin We’re In focuses on one year—2017—in Toronto journalist and activist Desmond Cole’s life. Cole’s work first became well-known when he did a cover story for Toronto Life in 2015 about his own experiences with the Toronto police force’s racist practice of carding. In 2017, Cole continued his anti-racist work, facing consequences both personal and professional. He writes about attending and disrupting Toronto police board meetings demanding issues of police brutality, cover-ups, and carding be addressed. Cole was later told by his employer, The Toronto Star, that his activism violated their policies. He quit. He was also arrested after refusing to leave a meeting when the Toronto police board refused to address a police cover-up of a brutal assault of Dafonte Miller by an off-duty police officer and his brother.
Cole divides the book into chapters dealing with different issues such as immigration and Toronto Pride, often referring to the links between Black and Indigenous struggles. I can’t describe better than the blurb what this book does: “Punctur[e] the bubble of Canadian smugness and naive assumptions of a post-racial nation.” It’s also a call to action. He writes: “White supremacy keeps stepping on your toes while insisting it was an accident.”
The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper (Canadian)
Shame on me for never having heard of this book or the woman it is about until now. Marie-Joseph Angélique was a 29-year-old enslaved Black Portugal-born woman. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty of starting a fire that burned down 46 buildings in Montreal in 1734. She was tortured after the trial, as tormentors tried to get her to name accomplices. They suspected she had not acted alone. Under duress, she confessed to the arson, but still named no one else. She was hanged, but not before she was “paraded through the city.”
This book is the culmination of Canadian historian Afua Cooper’s 15 years of research into this forgotten historical figure. Not only does The Hanging of Angelique give a picture of what Marie-Joseph Angélique’s life was like, it is also a detailed account of slavery in Canada at that time. In fact, the trial records actually “[p]redat[e] other first-person accounts by more than forty years, … constitute[ing] what is arguably the oldest slave narrative in the New World.” Cooper places Canada in the larger context of transatlantic slavery and disproves the myth that Canada has no history of slavery. That makes this book essential anti-racist unlearning for Canadians!
Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware
This is the book for the latest information and thinking on Black Lives Matter in Canada and Black Canadian anti-racist activism. Published in February of this year, this anthology features work by El Jones, Robin Maynard, Paige Galette, Sarah Jama, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and many more. The editors are the founders of Black Lives Matter Canada. Activists write from Toronto, Halifax, Whitehorse, Waterloo, Lethbridge, Hamilton, and Los Angeles on topics including Black futures, evolution of Canadian Black activism, use of social media in organizing, intersections of Black and disabled identities, queer and trans Black communities, neglect of Black Canadian history, alliances between Black and Indigenous activists, and more! You can read an excerpt from Galette’s essay about moving to the Yukon as a Black queer person here. You can read a full review of the book on Quill &Quire. Vershawn Young writes about this book:
Until We Are Free busts myths of Canadian politeness and niceness, myths that prevent Canadians from properly fulfilling its dream of multiculturalism and from challenging systemic racism, including the everyday assaults on black and brown bodies. This book needs to be read and put into practice by everyone.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (British)
Given Canada’s close current and historical cultural and political ties to the UK, I think it’s helpful to look at the contemporary context there in terms of racism generally and anti-Blackness specifically. Eddo-Lodge’s book began as a blog post of the same title. She was inspired to write the original post by her frustration that “discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it.” Eddo-Lodge tackles topics including eradicated Black British history, white feminism, the links between race and class, and the result of white supremacy in politics. She writes:
If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. It can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall (American)
It feels best to start off with this quotation from Kendall’s book which shows us where she’s starting this incisive book from:
One of the biggest issues with mainstream feminist writing has been the way the idea of what constitutes a feminist issue is framed. We rarely talk about basic needs as a feminist issue. Food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. Instead of a framework that focuses on helping women get basic needs met, all too often the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege. For a movement that is meant to represent all women, it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met.
For white women (like myself) who consider themselves feminist, Hood Feminism is a must-read. Feminism must be actively intersectional and stop centring the needs of white middle class women, and focus on the issues that are disproportionately affecting women of colour and/or poor women.
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi (American)
A lot of people are (rightfully so) talking about How to Be an Anti-Racist right now, so I don’t think it needs a lot of introduction! This book is a guide to anti-racism in the American context. Particularly helpful for its introductory nature is Kendi sharing his journey to becoming an anti-racist, which includes admitting and confronting his own racist ideas and behaviour. He writes:
What’s the problem with being not racist? It is a claim that signifies neutrality. ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively anti racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle… One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.
Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard (Canadian)
Anti-Blackness is alive and well in Canada and has been for a long time, and Maynard’s entire book is here to prove it. It’s a dense book, for good reason as it covers a lot: “nearly four hundred years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punishment of Black lives in Canada.” Maynard is also careful to pay attention to intersectional Black communities, including queer, trans, undocumented, disabled, and female Black people.
Some of the topics she addresses include the legacy of slavery in Canadian institutions, historic state-sponsored segregation, Black poverty and unemployment levels today, incarceration and policing, deportation and immigration, exploitation of Black migrant workers, disproportionate removal of Black children by the state, low school graduation rates, and more. Maynard explains why she wrote this book:
In combing through the world of research for something that would describe the realities that I was seeing [‘enormous and disproportionate levels of what can only be called state-sanctioned violence and concerted neglect of Black people’], I realized that there was still far too little literature addressing, in one place, the specificities of how criminal and immigration laws, inequitable access to work and housing and other state policies and institutions interact to shape the conditions of Black life in this country. It has become increasingly clear that none of these incidents are isolated; they are part of a larger pattern of the devaluation of Black life across Canada. I felt compelled to write this book because anti-Blackness, particularly anti-Blackness at the hands of the state, is widely ignored by most Canadians.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt (Canadian)
Guyanese Canadian author Tessa McWatt’s memoir is a nuanced look at her own body and heritage as she grapples with the topics of race and racism. She starts with a childhood memory of being asked “What are you?” by her elementary school teacher. As a mixed-race person of Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese descent, McWatt has never had an easy answer to this harmful question. From her unique position of “having been plagued with confusion about her race all her life,” McWatt investigates the concepts of a so-called “post-racial” world, shadism, anti-Blackness, identity politics, and call-out culture. She also writes about how story–McWatt is an accomplished fiction writer–has brought her kinship and solidarity. She writes about visualizing a part of her ancestry:
I hold on to the image of my Indian ancestor squatting not because I don’t trust the science of DNA, but because it doesn’t account for all the songs or symphonies we are, or for literature, or for out of body experiences, for my father in the birds, my mother’s awe of the trees, for the perfection of being in the right life, the right body.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (American)
I read this book in 2018 and found it an excellent introduction to race and a lot of related concepts. A must-read for all white people, So You Want to Talk about Race is very smart but very accessible. Oluo breaks down complicated issues like police brutality, the model minority myth, micro-aggressions, intersectionality, the “N” word, privilege, and tone policing (among others) masterfully, weaving together personal stories, detailed examples, and statistics (American ones, though, FYI). This is definitely an entry-level book that feels aimed at readers at the beginning of politicized learning. If you read through audiobooks, I would definitely recommend the excellent narration by Bahni Turpin. On privilege:
We don’t want to think that we are harming others, we do not want to believe that we do not deserve everything we have, and we do not want to think of ourselves as ignorant of how our world works. The concept of privilege violates everything we’ve been told about the American Dream of hard work paying off and good things happening to good people. We want to know that if we do “a” we can expect “b”, and that those who never get “b” have never done “a”. The concept of privilege makes the world seem less safe. We want to protect our vision of a world that is fair and kind and predictable. That reaction is natural, but it doesn’t make the harmful effects of unexamined privilege less real.
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad (British/Middle East)
If you want a practical, step-based workbooks to look critically at how white supremacy (especially unconsciously) affects you, this is it! Saad’s book aims to help you do the work of dismantling your own privilege, with the goal of stopping the damage you do on people of colour, as well as helping other white people do the same. If you’re wondering what the last part of the title refers to, Saad’s concept of being a good ancestor—“to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation, especially for black girls and black women”—is central to all her work. I’ll leave you with this excerpt:
You will be called out/in as you do antiracism work. Making mistakes is how you learn and do better going forward. Being called out/in is not a deterrent to the work. It is part of the work.
Please share any other resources on race, racism, anti-racism, and anti-Blackness in Canada in the comments, as well as any other Canadian organizations or fundraisers fighting racism. Again, Happy Pride Month and Black Lives Matter! None of us are free until all of us are.
Amber Dawn’s latest and second collection of poetry, My Art is Killing Me and Other Poems, is an exquisite, hard-hitting book. At times devastating, My Art is Killing Me is not without its moments of humour and light. Amber Dawn also shows off her formal talent and skills with an ample amount of free verse experimentation done through creative spacing and repetition, and using non-poem formats such as spells and business emails.
As the aptly dark and funny title suggests, this book is a chronicle of Amber Dawn’s experiences with the burdens and joys of writing from the perspective of a woman, queer person, survivor, and sex worker. Being an artist in the public realm, particularly in the nefarious realm of social media and the digital world, is an intricate and complicated role.
The book begins with this eerie snapshot:
My mama: What? You’re crying.
You wanna cry, eh? I’ll give you something to cry about.
The rest of my life: You’re writing confessional poetry, is that right?
Well, lah-de-dah, girl. I’ll give you something to write about.
Thus she tracks from childhood this self-fulfilling prophecy of self-expression stemming out of pain and pain as a base from which self-expression emerges. The rest of the collection grapples with this never-ending circle.
It asks: what is the relationship between pain, trauma, and creativity? Is reliving trauma the price one pays for being an artist? How can that be? What role do readers and audiences play in asking or even forcing artists to perform and convince them of their trauma? How can readers and audiences take and take and take from artists without acknowledging what it might cost them to give? Without even acknowledging they are finite and flawed human beings? Amber Dawn asks: “Who do I confide to about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?”
In the opening poem, “The Stopped Clock,” Amber Dawn writes about finding out she had been accepted into UBC’s creative writing program while in Alabama, backstage at a strip club wearing a “white tiger striped bodysuit.” Her stiletto gets caught on the wooden stage; she falls onto her knees. She asks:
And besides, what’s another bruise?
What’s a bruise? What’s a bruise? What’s a blue moon bruise
to do but pull young blood to and fro like the tide? What’s a bruise
but a testament to the sharp art of surrendering to time and place?
If the (literal, metaphorical) bruises are what you write about, then do you have to continue to bruise yourself in order to keep writing? What if all your readers expect you to do is write about the bruises? Are bruises the cost of “surrendering to time and place,” being present in the moment as an artist?
In another poem, “How Hard Feels,” Amber Dawn chillingly repeats the line “everywhere there is a man” as she chronicles dealing with abusers in positions of power in the literary community: authors, professors, mentors. The line inserts itself into the poem, interrupting and lurking in the background, right aligned on the page and often repeated over and over like an intrusive thought, a whisper in the back of your mind. But Amber Dawn also pushes back against the ubiquity of men with a solid block of text:
Everywhere there is a woman queer or fury or holding her beloved body
however she can everywhere there is a woman working her masked craft
invisible labour ungraspable praxis her voice shivering out a frequency
only other women can hear her unsung opera her nixed lexicon censored
undetectable a slight a secret she never has to reveal other women already know
the shape of a veiled monument already follow her pen and ink abstracts …
beharassedseeharassment beharassedseeharassment …
everywhere there is a woman shaping and reshaping and reshaping the deep
lower than thermocline that sunless room of her own underwater spinning
bull kelp and eel grass into words that only other women will ever look for
Women continue their artistic labours and creative output, made by women for women to “hear” and “look for.” This is despite being surrounded by men’s harassment, men’s self-interested so-called guidance and mentorship, men’s fervent denials of privilege, and men’s manipulation. Unnervingly, at the end the poem goes back to the refrain of “everywhere there is a man,” repeating it three times as the boldness of the text’s black colour fades to grey.
Immediately following “How Hard Feels” is the first of the collection’s spells: “Stregheria Instructional #1.” I inferred from the poem that Stregheria had something to do with witches, and of course I was familiar with the classic children’s picture book Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. When I looked up stregheria, I was fascinated to find it’s an archaic Italian word for witchcraft, among other uses. I love Amber Dawn’s use of the mystical and witchy to draw villainized women’s power up against the fear so powerfully evoked in the previous poem. The spells are angry — “tell / the waning moon fuck it / fuck this fuck me fuck him fuck him / fuck her fuck pain fuck poor decisions” — as well as playful and funny: “I’m making this shit up as I go.”
In addition to poetry as spell, Amber Dawn also cleverly writes poetry as academic email and business letter. These “found and redacted from my inbox” poems are painful(ly funny). They immediately gave me that feeling of well, if I can’t laugh about this I might cry, so let’s try a dark joke, maybe laugh and cry at the same time. Beginning with “Dear IncorrectName,” the poem goes on to expertly mimic and parody academic word choice and tone:
Please allow me to introduce myself as the OfficialTitle at the College_University_GovernmentFundedInstitution. At my InstitutionalPlaceofEmployment we are Studying_OtheringtheLivingHellOutof Prostitution in Canada_FeministViews on Prostitution_ProstitutionExploitationTrafficking_ and other topics related to your “hellish existence.”
Your book How Poetry Saved My Life is on my students’ critical book review list alongside TextsbyFeministsWhoHateYou and UnethicalResearchers. … I do not have funds for guest speakers, but I would be happy to offer a $50 honorarium from my own SalarythatIsFourTimesWhatyouEarnedLastYear
The deep disrespect, ignorance, and hate masked under the formality of academic, institutional, and bureaucratic discourse are astounding. Amber Dawn harnesses this discourse to use it against itself and the powers it serves.
I don’t want to focus only on the burdens of the artist, though. “Fountainhead” chronicles some joy as Amber Dawn travels to Italy in search of her queer ancestry and past. She
… spent a humble lifetime looking for
others who too labour to live inside their skin. My kink is to loudly love those
who’ve been told to keep quiet. Erotic boom. I want outlaster love. Against-
all-odds love. I, finally, want myself, and I want slick fluency in this desire
While in Napoli I wrongly read a museum label to say that Parthenope
wished to marry Circe the sorceress. I read queer determination, and imagine
how that ancestral beach might feel if my mistranslation was an origin story.
Imagine if the grounds we walk were built from queer love?
What if indeed. Although I am too wimpy I think to ever actually get a tattoo, I have a running list in my head of lines by women poets that I might get tattooed on my body. “My kink is to loudly love those / who’ve been told to keep quiet” is now one on of them.
Amber Dawn is certainly building her poetry from the queer femme ground up. Some of my favourite lines in the book were about reimaging and complicating what poetry is. Poetry as queer femme:
I wouldn’t mind if poetry mimicked racing tipsy down the subway stairs
in platform heels to barely catch the last train of the night.
Poetry as a mirror: “A poem is always a mirror / that we must hold up before us”
Amber Dawn also interrogates narrative itself, of the linear storyline made for straight white men’s stories. She asks:
But you (literally you) are reading queer and desperate poetry
so may I assume you too have never been afforded
an uncomplicated story?”
Part of that linear narrative made for people not like Amber Dawn, or me, or queers, or sex workers, or survivors, is the idea of closure. To neatly close a story off with a bow doesn’t fit. Closure, in fact, is a hungry, oppressive force. The beautifully alliterative line, “Closure / is like the conspicuous consumption / of real life,” circles back to the question of who is consuming what or whom when we talk about art.
This also connects to “Hollywood Ending,” a poem where Amber Dawn tears apart the hypocrisy of Oscar award-winning and nominated actresses who have played sex workers—read: consuming them — who then sign a letter demanding Amnesty International halt a proposed policy to decriminalize sex work. Their reasoning? It supposedly allows men to consume women.
Like all the best poetry, My Art Is Killing Me is a book to reread and savour. And as I said, maybe a collection from which to pick out some new words to tattoo on your body.
Polar Vortex is multi-talented writer and artist Shani Mootoo’s latest book, her first in six years. I didn’t think I had a fixed idea of what I was expecting in this novel, but this strange, dark, and thought provoking novel was not it. In the past Mootoo has written literary fiction in rich, sensual language that takes on usually heavy topics of queer and trans identity, sexual abuse, domestic violence, Mootoo’s home country of Trinidad (or fictionalized versions of it), and South Asian Caribbean culture and identity, sometimes as immigrants to Canada and sometimes not. But I read Polar Vortex with a feeling of uneasy anticipation that you might associate with a psychological thriller—which I guess in many ways is what this novel is.
The fascinating main character in Polar Vortex is Priya. She is in her late 50s and lives with her partner Alex in a small Ontario town, which they moved to fairly recently from Toronto. Priya is a South Asian Caribbean immigrant to Canada and is the only woman of colour in her and Alex’s lesbian friend group. Out of the blue one day in early winter, Priya gets a message on Twitter from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship.
Complicated and fraught is an understatement. Priya and Prakash, whose South Asian family came to Canada as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s, met in university and bonded over being two of the only South Asian people they knew. They had in common their South Asian heritage and specifically the fact that they both came from diasporas at times not considered truly Indian because they were born and grew up outside Asia. Other than that, however, the two don’t have much in common.
This type of friendship from young adulthood is certainly familiar to me. When you look back on it, whether or not you are still friends with the person, you know that if the two of you were to meet now, the friendship would never have bloomed. Priya and Prakash’s relationship is partially this, certainly, but there are lot of other nefarious layers. Let’s get into it.
Priya is slowly discovering her lesbian sexuality as she attends university. But it’s a difficult time in the 1980s to come out, even or perhaps especially to yourself. She is afraid to tell Prakash about her queerness. In fact, she maintains an early mutual friendship with him and her first girlfriend while they remain in the closet.
As their friendship continues, Priya is forced to come out in the aftermath and heartbreak of her first relationship. Prakash is superficially and practically supportive. But his behaviour to her continues to be intense and attentive in a way that shows he has romantic and sexual feelings for Priya. Priya, for her part, sometimes takes advantage of Prakash because she is lonely, looking for validation, and needs help launching her career as an artist. She also has no one else to turn to for emotional support — particularly after breakups — as a new immigrant to Canada without community or family support (even from a distance, as her family does not know she is queer).
The history of Priya and Prakash’s past relationship is revealed slowly throughout the first two sections of the novel, interspersed with the present where Priya’s impulsive decision to invite Prakash to come visit is bringing up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship.
Throughout these early sections of the book, Alex is portrayed as very jealous and suspicious about Prakash — through Priya’s point of view. At some point, and I’m not sure exactly when or exactly why, it occurred to me to ask how reliable of a narrator Priya was.
Slowly, part I (“The Bed”) and part II (“Cold”) inch towards Prakash’s arrival as it dives deep into Priya’s thoughts and experiences, present, long ago, and recent past. The format circles back, re-examines thoughts and asks questions that have already come up, in the way that the occupied and anxious mind does. Mootoo brilliantly builds the tension despite the fact that on the surface, not much of anything is happening, except Priya rising from bed, finding breakfast, and interacting in an everyday way with her partner.
There is more to Prakash and Priya’s relationship than meets the eye; the same is true of Priya and Alex. One recurring detail that at first seems innocuous and later looms large and metaphorically is the distinct smell of decay in their kitchen, which they attribute to a mouse having died inside the wall. The mouse is not the only thing dying in their house. Priya later confirms this when their mutual friend Skye comes over for a quick morning visit. Priya thinks “It is just that around Skye I often feel a great warmth, as if I am an actual person, and this lays bare the coolness that has come between Alex and me.”
Just when the tension has built to a breaking point, and you are anxious for this visit with Prakash to hurry up and get started, a new section of the novel begins. Titled “The Visitor,” it pivots and offers the story from a different first person point of view: Alex’s. A lot that is new, of course, is revealed in this different perspective, but one thing that is the same as Priya’s is Alex’s sense that their relationship is crumbling. Alex remarks while first meeting Prakash: “To an onlooker there would, I’m sure, have been no hint, in the swift and almost ordinary gesture for two people living together [Priya kissing her cheek], of the distress that hung like a heavy curtain between us.” She later wonders
Whatever had happened to us? Perhaps it is more common than not that things break down in slow motion rather than with a single grand gesture, and you can get so inured by the slow demise, even as it happens and happens and happens right before your eyes, that you don’t notice the approach of the point of no return.
In the novel’s fourth and final section — again from Priya’s perspective — what we know about Priya and Prakash and Priya and Alex are turned upside down. I won’t say any more except you should get this book and experience it for yourself! It is a breathtaking and anxiety-inducing finale.
Shani Mootoo; image via akimbo.ca
One of the first words I used to describe Polar Vortex was thought provoking. I do not use that word glibly. In a similar way to another recent read, The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (review here), Polar Vortex left me silently contemplating the themes and the complex ways in which they were handled for extended periods of time when I wasn’t even in the middle of a reading session.
I was particularly haunted by this passage from Priya’s perspective early in the novel:
When the large world around you does not support your kind of love, it can be hard to nurture and sustain a relationship. It’s hard to stay in when things get rough and tough; you don’t see your problems as common ones that any relationship might come up against. You can’t talk to your mother and get advice or comfort or stories from her. You see your failure as a result of who or what you are, of you as a person—you begin to chew on leathery words like normal, and when that happens, when you question your own worth, it’s impossible to embrace someone else who reflects to you what you are. Well, at least that’s how it was for me in my younger days. It’s different now, but I do wonder how different it really is. Anyway, it’s not something you can talk to other people ‘like yourself’ about because even if they have privately experienced the same set of feelings, they want the actions you take, the things you say, to reflect a kind of politics that says that, no matter what, we’re out and we’re proud and we’re happy, very happy, to be the way we are, and you’d better get used to us.
Although I have different racial, cultural, sexual, and generational identities and gender presentation than Priya, this passage struck a deep chord with me. Priya is talking about a politics of queer identity and palatability that wants to erase the complexity of queer experiences and flatten our humanity. A politics that doesn’t actually allow us to experience and process all our feelings or to flourish as it claims we already are.
I have also thought a lot about how Priya is scared and ashamed to admit she’s been affected by heteronormativity and sexism. She remembers that she has sometimes played the “Indian woman” to Prakash’s Indian man in their friendship. She has internalized the idea that she must always be — and must always have been — strong, confident, and sure about her lesbian identity. It’s clear Priya has been deeply affected and scarred by that white cis gay men-centric paradigm of gayness, the “sure” narrative, that well meaning advice “You’ll know if you’re gay!” that makes people think they can’t be if they’re not 100% certain or if their past behaviour or feelings don’t fit the model.
The pressures of sexism and heterosexism are such heavy burdens, especially in the decades in which Priya is growing into her identities. I wish I could tell her that seeking attention and validation from men is a societal habit that you are conditioned into, and that simply being a lesbian does not erase this oppressive conditioning. It’s not her fault! I wish I could point her to a community and support system of queer people of colour and of queer South Asian people, which she seemed to lack even in Toronto. (I think, happily, this is not true 40 years later in Toronto for younger generations of QTPOC and queer and trans South Asian people specifically). Witnessing the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour like Priya is heartbreaking and important.
There is even a subtle presence of biphobia as Priya’s mind wanders back through her relationship with Prakash. Early on in Priya’s conflicted thoughts, I kept thinking: well what’s the big deal even if she was involved with Prakash, bisexuality exists! Her insistence and defensiveness with Alex when she is asking if Priya and Prakash were involved, as well as Alex’s suspiciousness, are great examples of how biphobia can be destructive even in a relationship where no one is bisexual!
Then there’s the character of Prakash. He, in many ways, is one of those so-called nice guys. He thinks, consciously or not, that being kind and supportive to Priya means he has earned her romantic and sexual attention. He, like many other men, is a man who thinks of all women, including masculine lesbians, as part of their women “on the market” (thanks feminist theorist Lucey Irigaray for this terminology!) who should be available at all times and who they have a right to as sexual objects.
Mootoo, however, doesn’t allow us to only think of Prakash this way. In Alex’s section, he tells both women a long story about the trauma of being expulsed from Uganda, the terror of his dad not coming home from work one day, and the deep shame and resentment that so many countries refused to offer South Asian Ugandans fleeing for their lives refuge. These memories and feelings are just coming back to him as he looks back on his experiences, them being triggered by the current Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. I found it impossible not to feel for him in those sections, as much as I loathed him in others.
Yet another theme beautifully and complexly investigated is the difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships. The deep dive into longterm queer relationships really reminded me of Jane Eaton Hamilton’s book Weekend, which I also loved (and reviewed here). If you enjoy the verisimilitude of reading about very authentic lesbian relationship processing, you should read both those books. Again like Vivek Shraya’s The Subtweet, the characters in Polar Vortex have a frustrating lack of open honest communication that feels completely believable given the complex characterization of their insecurities and personalities. I realized about halfway through the book that Mootoo’s use of the present tense shows readers that there may not be a future—at least for Priya and Alex’s relationship—after Prakash’s visit from which to tell the tale.
I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this review that you are excited to go read Polar Vortex and explore Mootoo’s fascinating characters and careful and nuanced exploration of all these issues. But if this was a TL;DR for you: Mootoo’s latest novel is a masterful study of longterm lesbian relationships; the intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia for queer women of colour; South Asian immigrant and refugee experiences in Canada; and mainstream white discourse about queer sexuality and identity. Polar Vortex is, quite simply, a stunning book.