I first encountered Vancouver writer Alex Leslie’s work in the new queer Canadian literary magazine Plenitude, which I recently reviewed. I thought Leslie’s prose poems in Plenitude gorgeously expressed the complexities of queer desire. So when I was offered the chance to review Leslie’s first collection of short stories, People Who Disappear, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the book in the mail (thanks Kelsey at Freehand Books for getting in touch with me!). As a fan of Hiromi Goto, I read her recommendation on the back of the book with interest: “Leslie’s dark tones are reminiscent of Rebecca Brown, but she is a creative force all her own. Her star is rising. Watch for her.” I happen to consider Rebecca Brown’s story “Bread” as one of the best short stories I have ever read. (I first came across it in The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories, edited by Emma Donoghue; I bought the book for my ex-partner as a Christmas gift at a second-hand bookstore in New Zealand. By the way, I’m currently reading and loving Donoghue’s book Landing, so stay tuned for a review of that soon!)
Back to Alex Leslie: what I’m trying to say is the recommendation by Hiromi Goto and the comparison to Rebecca Brown gave me high hopes for this book, which I’m glad to say were almost entirely met. Most of all, what I really enjoyed was seeing my home, the west coast of Canada, brought to life in fiction. It’s a strange but gratifying experience to have something as close to home as well, home, reimagined in fiction; we’re used to reading about cities like New York (in fact, for me that city exists only in my imagination) but seeing rural and small town Vancouver Island and even my home island of Saltspring is a dizzying, thrilling kind of experience. You mean the stuff of fiction can happen here? As Malaika, a fellow queer Canadian book reviewer over at Autostraddle wrote: “It’s exciting for this queer Canadian girl to read about another queer Canadian girl driving through recognizable towns. I’ve been through Overwaitea and I know about the totem poles, the RCMP stations and the workmen you try to avoid.” The only other writer I’ve read who has really reimagined the west coast for me is Haisla author Eden Robinson.
Indeed, fiction can happen in those places you know, as Leslie’s stories prove. In fact, the stories are inextricable from the landscape, which is a character unto itself in many stories; the west coast’s wet mist is the perfect metaphor for the literal and figurative disappearances that tie all the stories together. One of my favourite stories was “The Coast is a Road,” where a lesbian couple travels up and down the west coast, driving on winding roads, putting their feet up on the ferries (I do have one correction to make about the trip to Saltspring, though: the lengthy ferry from Tsawassen stops at Galiano, Pender, Saturna, and Mayne, not Gabriola. That’s nit-picky, but I should know since I’ve taken that ferry probably a million times in my life).
“The Coast is a Road” is a beautiful tribute to the sublimity of the west coast and of early love and lust; I use the term sublime intentionally because while both are majestic and awe-inspiring, they’re also terrifying. As one woman tells the other while looking at a map: “You see that road? Scared the hell out of me once. The end of it just goes right onto these shelves of rock. You’re not careful you could drive right into the ocean.” The landscape is dangerous, and humans are often at nature’s mercy, at the same time as they are part of it themselves. Love, also, has the ability to swallow you up, to lead you right over a cliff into the cold ocean.
What’s great about “The Coast is a Road” as well as other stories, is that they’re about queer people but the narratives don’t centre around the characters’ queerness. In “Like Mind,” for example, a queer woman struggles with her relationship with a mentally ill former friend who’s also queer; she is at once loyal enough to help him out, but feels guilty and is ashamed to be seen with him. I also loved the story “Face,” in which queerness doesn’t feature. In “Face,” kids whose neighbourhood in Vancouver is being bought up and demolished find in the rubble remains of what was clearly an Indigenous person killed long ago. The story quite brilliantly shows how the prosperity of the settlers who are the parents of these children depends on the genocide of First Nations peoples; the children, who feel a strong connection to the skull they name ‘Face,’ are at once guilty and innocent. This eerie and haunting tone, and the unsettling melange of feeling is typical of the collection.
Leslie is at her best when her prose borders on or seeps into the poetic; she does images better than narrative or plot. For example: “Your body on a sheet like paint thrown against a wall that has dripped accidentally into the shape of a woman.” Wow. Leslie also has a better sense of the urban than the rural. The feel for urban queerness is especially evident in the gorgeous prose poem “Swimmers.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but at times the descriptions of and dialogue by rural Vancouver Islanders just didn’t feel authentic. Maybe I was sensing that the perspective was still an urban one, that there was a vestige of exoticism remaining. I think what I wanted to see was more affection for rural folks, especially in order to combat the stereotypes of them as backward and homophobic; but to be fair, Leslie doesn’t display a straight-forward affection for any of her characters, instead choosing to concentrate on the dark elements of human nature. This focus, however, doesn’t stop her from extracting and displaying the peculiar beauties of humanity and the northwest coast stretch of earth her characters, and she herself, inhabit.