Debut collection embraces female experience

Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, Julia Leggett’s debut collection of short stories (Mother Tongue Publishing, 188 pages, $19.95) is both polished and compelling. She was born in Calgary, but grew up in Zimbabwe, which she left at age 18. Leggett makes her home in Victoria now and is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Her poetry has also appeared in Force Field:  77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue 2013), edited by Susan Musgrave. Leggett recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions for Coastal Spectator. Gone South will be launched in Victoria on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m., at the Martin Batchelor Gallery.

Julia, this is such a strong first collection of stories, and you have an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Is Gone South an aspect of your master’s thesis?

The collection is essentially my thesis. Though a few of the stories are in quite different places than they were when I submitted. The entire collection is longer too. I went into the MFA program really only writing poetry and so my fiction tended to be tightly wound. I had to learn to elaborate. The opposite I think of what a lot of writers struggle with. I know when I started my MFA, there was more talk about how “writers aren’t taught, they’re born,” but without doing my MFA, I do not think I’d have ever written this book. The MFA not only gave me permission to focus on writing, it demanded I do.

The title story of your collection is incredibly powerful, a relentless epistolary record of a young woman’s diagnosis of melanoma. In your Acknowledgements, you thank your “fellow melanoma warriors,” so I’m deducing this work is based upon personal experience. Can you talk a little about that?

It is a deeply personal story. I was diagnosed and underwent treatment for melanoma when I was 28. Luckily, I am currently [showing] no evidence of disease because melanoma has a pretty appalling survival rate, and not very exciting or effective treatment options. I thought I understood what it meant to be mortal before my diagnosis but I don’t think I really had any idea.

“Gone South” was a very challenging story for me emotionally. I wrote the first draft in two intense weeks about a year after my treatment ended, and in hindsight, too soon. In visualizing Ruth’s progressing illness in such detail, I felt as if was staring into my own future. I had to rewrite the story in short bursts or else I became consumed with anxiety, convinced I would experience a reoccurrence. Not all writing, it turns out, is therapeutic. I did write letters about my own illness when I was sick, as Ruth does in “Gone South,” and that was helpful. The act of telling people the story of my cancer enabled me to make meaning out of my illness.

Women’s lives – their struggles minor and major – are the focus of these stories, and that’s wonderful to see. Do you have a list of women whose writing has given you the courage to create your own characters with such humour and insight?

My literary influences are a little odd for my age I think.  I am up to date on the one-hit-wonders and the best sellers of the 1930s. Zimbabwe was under sanctions before 1980, and after independence, Mugabe kept the country insular and self-dependent until the mid-1990s, and so the library had very few books from after about 1960. I read Elizabeth Goudge, Daphne De Maurier, Stella Gibson, Miles Franklin and the modernists; Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf. I read my mother’s books from the ’60s and ’70s too, like Lynne Reid Banks, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Angela Carter and Marilyn French.

Readers who know you grew up in Zimbabwe might expect African images in your fiction, but there is not a one in this book that I can find. Is that part of your life going to be a whole other story?

I imagine I will come around to writing about Zimbabwe. I know Canadians are often surprised and, perhaps, disappointed my work does not directly address Zimbabwe. Particularly Canadian writers, who I suspect view a childhood in Africa as the equivalent of a literary pot of gold! But the truth is I find Zimbabwe very hard to fictionalize. For me, it’s not really a place where imaginary things happen. The story of Zimbabwe itself (colonialism, independence, dictatorship, violence, economic collapse) is so big and still unresolved — Mugabe remains in power and the country remains in a state of uncertainty and suffering — that, at this point, Zimbabwe could never simply be a setting for me.  It would always be the protagonist.  The human experiences I was interested in exploring in this collection would have been dwarfed by Zimbabwe.

I do feel some guilt about not setting my fiction there as I think it is vital for a country to tell stories about itself. Our literature connects us to each other, it shows us what it is possible and points out alternative ways of living. And if the fiction you are reading is all about America or somewhere else, your own country, in an odd way, can lose it’s sense of “realness,“  become ersatz to you.

I left in 2000 during a time of extreme political and economic turmoil. I was 18 and leaving home for the first time, and felt exiled, orphaned by my country. My parents have stayed on in Zimbabwe, which isn’t in fact reassuring, as the situation is often dire. For years, I was homesick. As a child I had never thought I would live anywhere else. I was Zimbabwean, where else could I go? I lived in England in my early twenties, as though I was in a waiting room, just killing time, hoping eventually I would go home. Losing your country was a trauma I talked to death and at some point, without really noticing, I simply let go of that story and moved into the present. And presently my life is here in Victoria.

I understand you are now working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology.  How does that inform your pursuits as a writer, especially your poetry?

Poorly. I am beginning to believe the more therapy you go to, the less poetry comes out of you.  I don’t actually buy into the “insanity makes good art” myth but there is pragmatism to the therapeutic outlook that I think is better suited to short fiction or the novel.