Category Archives: Rants, raves and faves

Belfry Theatre’s Chekhov blend goes down smoothly

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike 

By Christopheer Durang

Directed by Michael Shamata 

The Belfry Theatre

April 14 – May 17, 2015 

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Playwright Christopher Durang admits there are echoes of Chekov in his 2013 Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He likes to say he’s taken Chekhov characters and scenes and “put them into a blender.” That’s a pretty fair description.

The setting for the play is rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (Durang and his long-time partner John Augustine moved to Bucks County several years ago, and Durang says it was this move to the country that turned his mind toward Chekov.)

In the play, Vanya, Sonia and Masha are 50-something siblings whose amateur thespian parents named them after Chekov characters. Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia stayed home to nurse their parents through dementia and, after their deaths, stayed on at the family farm (think Uncle Vanya). Masha left home and became a B-grade movie star (think of a technologically-updated Arkadina in The Seagull). Masha’s money supports the farm, as well as Sonia and Vanya, who don’t have jobs.

As the play opens, Masha (played with unabashed self-absorption by Brenda Robbins) has come home to tell her siblings that she has decided to sell the house. As in The Cherry Orchard, this threatened loss of the family estate provides the core conflict and theme of the play. In this production, the importance of the home is established by a handsome set designed by Cory Sincennes, who earned a degree in Architectural Studies from Carleton University before studying design at Ryerson Theatre School. The peace of the countryside is effectively evoked by lighting designer Brian Kenney, whose warm red dawns and sunsets flood through the expansive leaded glass window upstage.

Another Chekhovian theme, unrequited love, plagues the title characters. Sonia (played by Vancouver actress Deborah Williams) suffers from a life-long yearning for Vanya (played by lauded Canadian actor R. H. Thomson) who has no interest in her “that way” because he is gay (but apparently not in a relationship). Masha, married and divorced five times, is in a relationship with a much younger “boy-toy,” Spike (played by Lee Majdoub), who is fond of disrobing down to his underwear in public and flaunting his well-muscled body, much to the discomfort of both Masha and Vanya.

As in Chekhov, there is also a pervasive sense of missed opportunity and loss, and of the approaching end of an era. At one point, Vanya walks into the room and finds both Sonia and Masha sobbing loudly, Sonia because she feels she’s never lived, and Masha because she feels she’s lived but lost.

It is left to Vanya to voice misgivings about the perceived end of an era, which he does in a 10-minute Baby Boomer rant that bemoans the loss of everything from postage stamps that had to be licked to the passing of such 1950s “shared experiences” as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Bishop Sheen’s TV sermons. This long rant demanded the complete unravelling of Vanya’s carefully buttoned-down control. Thomson, who had just days earlier won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement, was, despite that recognition, not quite up to the task on opening night. His choked delivery seemed too reservedly Canadian for this quintessentially American tirade.

There is also, as in Chekov’s plays, a certain genre confusion in this play. Chekhov insisted he was writing comedies, but his plays were produced as tragedies, or, at least, as lugubrious drama. Durang’s play is billed as a comedy, and no one would mistake it for a tragedy—Williams’ transformative impersonation of Maggie Smith alone is a send-up worth the price of admission—but this play pushes well beyond comedy into farce. Any doubt is dispelled by Cassandra, the housekeeper (played with appropriate exaggeration by Carmela Sison in her Belfry debut), who, like her mythological name-sake, receives presentiments of the future; she also resorts to voodoo at crucial moments. The only non-farcical character is Nina (played with sweet sincerity by Yoshie Bancroft), a modern-day version of the young, unspoiled Nina in The Seagull.

You don’t have to know Chekov to enjoy this play, but, if you do, it’ll add an extra layer of texture to your pleasure. When Sonia insists she’s a “wild turkey” and your mind flies to The Seagull, your laugh will broaden into a guffaw.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Friesen explores life of Crazy Bone in new long poem

Patrick Friesen is an award-winning author, formerly from Winnipeg, now living in Victoria. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1998 and 2003 and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in Manitoba in 1996 and the ReLit Award for Poetry in 2012. He adapted his book The Shunning for stage; it premiered at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985 and was performed in 2011 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. He has also collaborated with various musicians, choreographers and dancers and recorded two CDs of text and improv music. Friesen will present his new collection, A Short History of Crazy Bone, on April 23 at Russell Books in Victoria. Recently Friesen answered Cornelia Hoogland’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

In awarding you the P.K. Page Founders’ Award for Poetry in 2012, John Steffler wrote “Friesen’s ‘storm windows’ seems to me to go an extra step in conjuring up and offering an experience of poetry’s ability to transform consciousness, alter perception, and enlarge our awareness of ourselves, our lives, and our world.” Trusting you had similar goals in writing A Short History of Crazy Bone please talk about the ways in which writing the long poem enabled you to enlarge your own awareness of your character/narrator Crazy Bone.

My great-grandmother Anna is where Crazy Bone began. Anna was a trickster and someone who crossed community borders and became an outcast. I have written her into other work, including one of my plays. In carrying the shadow, a book published in 1999, I included a middle-aged woman, dressed a certain way, wandering the countryside. Maggie Nagle, who had acted in my first play The Shunning, wrote me and wondered whether I would consider writing a monologue based on this woman. Some five years later I began writing a series of poems fusing this woman with Anna. After I had completed about half the poems I shifted to a monologue, finished that, began a two-hander with Crazy Bone, and then returned to finish the poems. That’s how the process worked, somewhat simplified. The character took on a life of her own as fiction. I also found myself entering the character and engaging in my own thinking process. So, in a way, Crazy Bone is a combination of certain aspects of Anna, of the woman in the previous book, and my own thinking process. There were other influences as well.

What are your aesthetic concerns around writing the long poem? What formalities or restrictions did you place upon yourself? Do the conventions of the long poem allow for greater inspiration, and do they more deeply release, rather than limit, your subject?

I’ve often written in couplets, particularly when I’m writing short-lined poems. This is the primary restriction I placed on this long poem. I also chose to use a pared-down, simple language to suit the character Crazy Bone. From the first poem on I knew I would be working with two voices, Crazy Bone’s voice and an objective, observer’s voice. The rhythms of these two voices changed as I went along. The observer’s voice tends to dominate the first half of the book, but Crazy Bone takes over in the second half. I think this happened because I found myself getting more and more comfortable in Crazy’s voice/thinking and what she was thinking and saying became more important than what she was doing. I’ve written other long poems which were one continuous development. This book doesn’t work that way. It works in fragments (which I’ve also done before in different contexts), fragmentary comments by Crazy for example. Each separate poem is part of the long poem but can probably stand on its own as well.

I see the separate poems within this long poem as flashes of thinking. Not completed, worked-out thoughts, but momentary hummingbird flashes. When you put these together you can begin to see a development, a continuity not based on a systematic workout, but an accumulation of moments in a life.

Writing the long poem can be understood as an extension of a main idea, for instance, in a lyric poem. In A Short History of Crazy Bone, I see you moving your idea/originating impulse into different contexts and making that idea/impulse respond to different voices. Where does that focus lead? Am I correct in seeing the shape of this long poem as the shape of a mind inventing itself? Is that what it’s about? A short history of the mind’s work of invention?

Yes, in a way this long poem is a mind shaping itself, or revealing its shape, a shape the character doesn’t consciously know until experience fused with language reveals it. A friend wondered about the title of the book suggesting that, in fact, this was not really a “history.” True enough, if history means a coherent series of events. It is, though, a history of a mind. Within that there are other histories, fragments of cultural history for example. There is no plot in this book, but there is a subplot. Crazy is wandering about through fields and bush; she alludes to a former lover, but this story is never completed. She has five stones she wants to return to their original place. But it’s a vague mission, and she is not truly driven by it. It may be the excuse for her starting out on this journey of her mind.

What are the contingencies that Crazy Bone meets in her travels? Would you say that the contingencies (such as admonishing voices, or her clothing and other props) are a way of working through the same idea via different metaphors?

There are no real barriers for Crazy. Her mind is like a river flowing. If there is a stone, it flows around it. She has no particular expectations of her mind, she just lets it move. This is the motion of the book, the movement of a relatively unfettered mind. She also moves physically, not just in walking, but in occasional flamenco and butoh movements. This is a mind/body moving through space.

What tensions are you creating with third and first person voices? Does switching back and forth allow you to modulate your distance from the poem as you reveal more or less intimate truths? Even within a poem in first person, hierarchical positioning is playfully undermined, and Crazy Bone lifts off the page, far beyond the clutches of those who would disparage her. For instance, in poem 60 Crazy Bone says (and I do want to end this interview with Crazy Bone speaking),

they said dancing led to pregnancy
they were right

I have given birth
a thousand times

shame on you
they said

and I ate their shame

Crazy Bone is a gentle anarchist (well, she expresses the desire to build a house in order to burn it down, which isn’t all that gentle). She thinks in contradictory terms, is not impressed by hierarchy or wealth or status. She sees the idiocy of human pretension, and she sees existence as shot through with humour. The third person voice establishes setting, suggests Crazy’s physical movement through space, some of her actions. As in a play, this gives us a context for Crazy’s voice, the motion of her mind. Whatever judgments community wants to place on Crazy she shakes them off. Mostly she doesn’t bother engaging in battle with community, rather community is irrelevant. She accepts their judgments sometimes. Why not? The judgments are ridiculous and not worth countering.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Deep Bay,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death. 

Hold on for Czaga’s playful first collection

For Your Safety Please Hold On

Kayla Czaga

Nightwood Editions

96 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Kelly Shepherd

It’s exciting to review a book with so many award-winning poems. I was a little nervous, even, when starting to read it. But I was quickly drawn in to Kayla Czaga’s large and eccentric (yet eerily familiar) extended family, and within the first few pages of her debut collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On, I willingly got into the car for the road trip, for the small town coffee joints and the provincial parks of northern B.C. But this is not a book about the road, although it is haunted by stories of leaving one place and arriving at another; its concerns are much more domestic. It’s a geography of interiors, landmarked with brown floral couches and potato salad on soggy paper plates and houseplants shivering in the cold.

Originally from Kitimat, Kayla Czaga lives in Vancouver where she recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Some of the poems in this collection have won several of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, including The Fiddlehead‘s 23rd annual Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, The Malahat Review‘s 2012 Far Horizon’s Award for Poetry, and an Editor’s Choice Award in ARC Poetry Magazine‘s 2012 Poem of the Year Contest. Among others.

For Your Safety Please Hold On is divided into five sections that follow the narrator through sketches of her parents and family, from small town childhood to living alone in the city. Despite their often somber themes—the unspoken violence of childhood, family illnesses and deaths, the Sandy Hook school shooting—there is nonetheless a playfulness and an almost joyous energy running throughout these poems. There is wordplay: in the long poem “Many Metaphorical Birds,” a philosophical coffee barista “is Hegeling with a customer” and “Adornoing his pastry case.” There are surprising turns of phrase on every page. The family is “wicked with worry”; a nickel is a “slender metaphor.”

“The Drunk Uncle,” one of the family case-studies, wears “the same old skull T-shirts for thirty years / to unnerve his mother.” He has “buddies for every occasion”; he “yammers / the nails, beats the dead horse, bags the wind, / blows it hot and beery into your face.” Attending the same family gathering is “The Decorative Aunt,” who belongs to “the Ativan side of the family, / bejewelled and bleached, leather-shoed / from therapeutic tanning-bed snoozes.” In “The Other Grandmother” both the family legend and the immigrant experience are writ large, almost approaching hagiography.

“Your other grandmother walked barefoot across Europe with your infant father.


Your other grandmother drank her husbands
under the coffee table. She slapped your cheeks
with stories, kissed you with myth, carried
on into all hours, carrying children on
both her hips and shoulders.”

These irreverent family portraits, replete with awkward personal details and pop-culture references, are reminiscent of characters in an early Douglas Coupland novel. In some instances, however, their detached tone might be a little too effective: they feel disconnected, almost callous. It’s as if the narrator were an ethnographer attempting objective field notes, but unable to resist using playful figurative language at the same time. The reader isn’t quite sure what to do. When “The Grandmother” is compared to a “silly old child” with “lilac slacks / billowing out from her twig body”—and when the narrator confesses “[w]hen she died you had just started / university in a new city and weren’t / allowed to attend her funeral”—it’s hard to know if the poem intends wry tenderness, or alienation.

Nonetheless, I admire Czaga’s eye for minutiae, for the sense of glow and wonder in the smallest details. These poems are lyrical and funny, honest and sad, sometimes painfully so. The car is cold, the nighttime streets are lonely, and the dashboard is cluttered with distractions and nostalgia, but this is a ride I wouldn’t want to miss.

Kelly Shepherd lives in Edmonton and has a Creative Writing MFA from UBC Okanagan. His fifth poetry chapbook, Fort McMurray Tricksters, was recently published by Vancouver’s Alfred Gustav Press. He is a poetry editor for the environmental philosophy journal The Trumpeter

Gaston’s characters drive stories and novels

University of Victoria creative writing professor Bill Gaston’s remarkable insight into human nature, his gentle sense of humour and his imagination make him one of Canada’s most highly acclaimed authors. His previous collections of short stories have received nominations for many national awards, so it is no surprise that his most recent collection, Juliet Was A Surprise, was nominated for the 2014 Governor General’s Award in fiction. Gaston recently took time away from his teaching and writing to answer reviewer Janet Ralph’s questions.

When you begin a story, do you always know it’s a short story and not a novel?

I always know, and always the main character determines it for me. It’s really pretty simple: some characters I get very interested in, kind of like we become close friends, and I want to hang out with them to see what they do with their life. That becomes a novel. But many of the characters I come up with are not good-friend material. Anyone who has read my short stories can see this. The main character is often someone you don’t want to spend more than twenty minutes with. They’re interesting, [I hope], but often in the way a car accident is interesting, and some of them are downright warped and nasty. But still worth probing, so to speak. Those become the short stories.

What authors and musicians are you currently reading/listening to?

At the moment I’m reading The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s newest, and just reread Pastoralia, by George Saunders. Next is Lee Henderson’s The Road Narrows as You Go. As for music, I’m checking out Alt J’s new album, and I often gravitate to old Eno. Otherwise I listen to our house background music, which is my 16-yr-old daughter’s playlist, and that’s anything from Dixie Chicks to vintage Chili Peppers and some really slimy hiphop.

Do you ever consciously turn off your powers of observation and analysis of people? What do you find most endearing, and most annoying, about human nature?

No. I’m frequently dull, blind, and stupid, but I don’t become that way consciously or deliberately. Though maybe that’s what I do when I grab one beer too many. What I find most endearing is kindness. Most annoying? Pettiness and lack of humour. I include my own sometime petty and humourless self in this, of course.

Cake is probably the most complex character in your recent book because of his peculiar power over people. What are your thoughts about this sort of “other power” some people have?

Well, I have encountered at least a couple—that I know of—people with an undeniable and somewhat magical “power” over others. But Cake I did make up. Mostly, he stands as a kind of metaphor for those who do have power over others, not necessarily a magical kind but the ordinary kind. We see it all the time: it might be charisma, or it might be more hidden, and we see it in families, and on the street. And of course in politics. I think that’s the point of Cake’s character: that often people don’t have a handle on what power they have.

Juliet, the title story, and others are so funny, I wonder if you are laughing as you write. Is there a part of you that identifies with the arborist?

I wouldn’t say I’m laughing out loud, but I might be caught smirking. I do often write what I consider to be funny characters and stories. My sense of humour might be of the driest sort because lots of people seem to miss the humour. Or maybe they just aren’t that funny, I don’t know. But I do identify with characters like the arborist. Here is a person who is socially awkward, with low self-esteem, and eyeglasses 20 years out of date, who thinks too much. He has a carnal angel throwing herself at him, in the form of Juliet—so what’s he supposed to do? It’s very much a set piece male fantasy, but I think everyone can relate to and find funny the dilemma of forbidden fruit and a lack of will power. And, of course, mindless rage and murderous revenge.

Janet Ralph is a UVic student.

Alumni production packed with energy

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Adapted by Ron Reed from C.S Lewis’ Novel

Starring Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams

The Phoenix Theatre

Two added shows: Oct. 24 and 25 

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

Phoenix Theatre alumni Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams have been touring The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the past two years and now have brought it to the theatre that shaped their careers. The first book of the Narnia adventures is compressed into a famous two-hander play, but for me, C.S. Lewis’s hearty narrative is not well served by the play’s format.

The story is told in retrospect on behalf of brother and sister characters Peter and Lucy, who are revisiting the Wardrobe eight years after leaving home. The two actors recreate 10 different characters between them, including Mr Tumnus, Mr and Mrs. Beaver, the Queen and Aslan the lion. They did an impressive job navigating the play’s entire dialogue  — not an easy feat.

A simple set keeps the characters reminiscing in one room furnished by a chair, a lamp and a wardrobe, with a few fur coats for costume. Minimal props and lighting are used to indicate shifts in character or scenes. However, I found the constant switching back and forth between characters to be underwhelming. Peter and Lucy would talk — and with only a small accent adjustment and a white fur coat they’d become brother Edmund and the Queen.

The first half of the play had a steady pace — Narnia was nicely introduced and all the familiar references were there. Gordon’s portrayal of the Beavers was my favorite, as he hunched and waddled with vigour. I found Williams’s portrayal of the Queen to be her best character: she had the perfect cackle and looked just as irritated with Edmund as the rest of us felt.

Unfortunately, the second half of the play seemed rushed: all the best action was funneled into a whirlwind of shifting characters. Some of the best moments, the battle or the stone table, were undercut with overwhelming narration mixed with hurried dialogue. I was most looking forward to seeing the great lion, Aslan, but alas, he was only portrayed with a small throw blanket the actors passed back and forth.

The book has many beloved magical elements that create its fantastical narrative, and although I admire the play for taking on such an endeavor, the story calls for a performance that is a little more larger than life.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

Whatever Lola Wants

Whatever Lola Wants

by George Szanto

Brindle and Glass

424 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Aaron Shepard

From his heavenly cloud, Ted tells stories about what he sees on Earth. His audience is Lola, once a movie star, now a god, ranking higher than Ted’s status as an immortal. There is a gentle irony in this idea: the gods are out of touch with the world and need storytellers to re-learn their humanity. Szanto establishes this premise with nimble efficiency, exploring the laws of this particular heaven more fully as the novel progresses.

Ted’s story revolves around the conservation-minded Magnussen family and Johnnie Cochan, a developer whose vision of a utopic, hermetically sealed city called Terramac becomes a megalomaniacal obsession. Caught between is Carney, Ted’s son, a disaster-recovery specialist.

The concept of Terramac – where all ecological processes are controlled – raises fascinating questions. What is ecological perfection? How do we define “pristine” in relation to true wilderness? Thematically, Carney’s attraction to chaos mirrors Cochan’s desire for complete control.

Like the American writer/environmentalist Rick Bass, Szanto explores not just our relationship with the natural world, but the way our differing perspectives on nature affect our personal relationships. But whereas Bass’s writing encompasses the minutiae of an ecosystem down to the geological, Szanto is at his best in the human sphere, crafting vivid scenes and dialogue.

Szanto is also an accomplished crime fiction writer, and his gift for creating fast-paced narratives is evident throughout. The prose is energetic and expressive, carrying us through an intricate story covering multiple decades, characters and plot strands. His warm, ironic humour is reminiscent of Jack Hodgins’ stories.

While the Magnussen family is the David to Cochan’s Goliath, every character comes in shades of grey, bearing flaws and neuroses sourced in earlier tragedies. Even Carney, ostensibly the hero who unites the Magnussen family in their fight, is burdened by an incapacity for empathy. Though some characters never rise above their defining traits, the evolution of Carney and others into complex, realistic protagonists is one of the novel’s great satisfactions.

The omniscient point of view – being able to see into the minds of every character – is particularly apt in a novel where an immortal is telling the story. However, the sheer number of points of view, including that of minor characters onstage for a mere page or two, stymies Szanto’s otherwise crisp pace, creating a surfeit of detail and dialogue in some places.

Another risk is in Lola becoming a proxy for the reader’s emotions as she laughs, cries or rages at key points in Ted’s story. This is a tricky balance, as we need to see Lola grow invested in the story, but without us being told how to feel. As for Lola and Ted, their own story, while endearing, takes a while to catch fire.

Quibbles aside, Szanto has created a fictional world of remarkable scope and depth, exploring family, science, poetry and the nature of storytelling itself. He casts a wide net, but his joy in the undertaking is palpable and infectious, making an epic journey feel like light lifting.

Aaron Shepard’s first novel, When is a Man, is published by Brindle and Glass.

Classical violinist and folk band on the same bill? No problem.  

Emerging Artists Alumni Series, School of Music, University of Victoria 

Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, Sept. 21

Featuring Sarah Tradewell and West My Friend

Reviewed by Chris Ho

I was skeptical. A classical violinist and chamber-folk band seemed like an unusual pairing for a concert. But Victoria-based musician Sarah Tradewell and local favourite West My Friend proved me wrong.

The inaugural Emerging Artists Alumni Series, featuring graduates from the University of Victoria’s School of Music, made for an eclectic night of music recently at Phillip T. Young Recital Hall. The evening started with Sarah Tradewell, a violinist, music teacher and stage actor, who performed a range of classical pieces, including movements by Bach, Polo, Stravinsky, and Bunch.

Aside from the shaky start where there were some tuning issues, (she had commuted to and from Duncan with the Victoria Symphony that same day), her performance was flawless. As she further progressed into Bach’s Suite No 1. In G Major, I had that feeling you get when you know exactly when the chorus is going to hit in a song you’re hearing for the first time. I wanted the familiarity of a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s exactly what I got. The simplicity and serenity of Bach’s movement was the perfect introduction.

Half way through Bach’s movement, the tempo picked up, as if we’d cut to a film scene where the camera pans wide, revealing the rolling hills of rural England. Tradewell’s music brought many scenes to mind, but what stood out was the final song. She performed a modern piece by Kenji Bunch, playfully titled The 3 G’s, because three strings need to be tuned to G to play it. The suspenseful and rhythmic bowed sections were tempered by sharp pizzicato, eventually building into a powerful finish.

This is when I expected the night to get awkward. I wasn’t sure if the audience would be ready to transition into the realm of chamber-folk after a traditional classical performance. Instead, it felt euphonic to begin the concert with a solo instrumental act, and then follow it up with a full-fledged folk band. It made for a well-rounded evening of music. The venue was ideal for the instrumental hooks and four-part vocal harmonies that make West My Friend a local favourite.

Their synergy as a band is one of the reasons why they never seem to overdo the sometimes complex and overlapping harmonies. Maybe this is to be expected from a group of highly trained musicians, but the collaborative composition is something to be remarked on. Writing vocal melodies and mandolin hooks that are catchy and original is something not all indie bands can boast about.

But if there’s something that West My Friend has in common with many indie bands, it’s the difficulty of placing their music into a particular category. When asked to describe their genre in an interview, Jeff Poynter (accordion, vocals) replied: “Cascadian third-wave indie prog chamber folk roots music.”

Not the most marketable genre, as some producers and labels would argue. But if accessibility and marketability are seen as two sides of the same coin, then music doesn’t need to be conveniently categorized to be appreciated.

Simpson’s spirited stories shift perceptions

Islands of Decolonial Love

By Leanne Simpson

ARP, 143 pp., $14.95

Reviewed by Tyler Gabrysh

Leanne Simpson’s latest work, Islands of Decolonial Love, is an impressive collection of short stories. Simpson’s book includes poems and brief vignettes, as well as audio downloads for select stories to round out the reader’s experience.

Simpson’s writing concerns Indigenous Peoples– particularly those of her own Nishnaabeg nation.  Her work conveys heartache, sensitivity, and innocence, sometimes at odds with circumstance, blemished truth, and awkwardness.  Readers are introduced to this collection through the narrator’s unsettling (and implied) account of a relationship incident.

Throughout the book, many words (and chapter titles) replicate the language of the Nishnaabeg with an according translation given at each chapter’s end. While this is admirable, a single index would have been helpful.

“waaseyaaban” opens with the narrator describing the single shower all four family members take as mother “instructed us to wash ourselves and our five pairs of dirty underwear.” Then, “binesiwag” tells of an eight-year-old’s resistance to staying with relatives for the first time. Next, “it takes an ocean not to break” reveals disdain for an ignorant white therapist who uses the word “aboriginal” too frequently.

Simpson jolts us with jarring content, including the following from the narrator’s friend: “lucy says that i made a critical mistake on my first day of therapy. ‘you have to lay all of your indian shit out on the first day, drug abuse, suicide attempts, all the times you got beat up, all of that shit. then you sit back and watch how they react. then you’ll know if they can deal or not.’ ”

As effectively as Simpson jolts us here, she finesses elsewhere. “Caged” concerns a spotted lynx and a male bear, along with  “nozhem,” a female bear spirit. The tone is warm, reaching for compassion. “She told him 10,000 years of everything” is rich in atmosphere as a thirty-something waits at a music gig to interview the lead singer before a timely romantic encounter. “For asinykwe” is tender prose about a woman healer. Although not a central focus, humour pops up now and again, too.

Overall, Simpson provides a host of rarely heard characters and various means of travel and experience. The language is woven with spirit, symbolism and metaphor. Phrases strike a chord and readers are made to re-examine presuppositions they may have held about Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Tyler Gabrysh ( is a writer who lives in Victoria.

Marjorie Simmins’ coastal life

Former West Coast freelance journalist Marjorie Simmins now lives on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax, and has become a teacher and writer of memoir. Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven recently emailed Simmins some questions about her latest book, Coastal Lives: A Memoir.  The book is now available in bookstores, and to order directly from the publisher:

Marjorie, this is such a down-to-earth and heart-warming memoir; it talks about mature people living real lives.  Can you talk about the process of creating Coastal Lives?

Sometimes it seems as though we live in a world where the tough realities people live, with great courage and dignity, are not a part of the larger conversation. Mature or otherwise, most of us don’t have Hallmark Card lives. There are hard times and good times – and extraordinary, funny and delightful times, too. I like to think I cover a wide emotional spectrum in the book – with an undercurrent of optimism, because that is who I am. If you show up for your life with verve and energy, sooner or later, good things happen.

The process of creating Coastal Lives was a surprisingly natural one, which came from a lifetime of daily writing. I can actually pinpoint the day I started on the path of becoming a writer. It was — here’s a surprise! — a dark and rainy day in Vancouver. I was around eight years old, and my mother suggested I write a letter to my grandmother, who we called “Minnie.” I was bored and cranky – and not quite willing to give that up. “What do I write about?” I petulantly asked my mother. “Oh,” she mused, looking around the room for inspiration, and, seeing the family cat asleep on a cushion, suggested, “why don’t you write about George? Your grandmother likes cats.” And down went the pen to paper, starting a lifetime of letters between myself and all my family members. I continue to write a letter almost every day of my life.

Part II of the equation is journals. When I was 15, my father bought me my first hard-bound journal, from a lovely arts store on Robson Street. That gift initiated 20 years of journal keeping.

Part III of the equation is my journalism career. By age 30, I had started writing as a freelance journalist. One of the first articles I had published was what I have always called a “personal essay.” I graduated from UBC in 1984, and my first job after that was slinging beer at Jerry’s Cove Pub, on Alma and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t thrilled with the job, but I was doing all right until my manager told me that part of my “side duties” included cleaning the women’s and men’s bathrooms. “Don’t forget to pick out the cigarette butts from the urinals,” she announced brightly, handing me a mop, bucket and rubber gloves. I walked in the men’s bathroom, dressed in a pretty summer dress, my hair pulled up into a jaunty pony tail, looked at the urine-soaked butts in the urinals – and cried my eyes out for half an hour. “Post BA Blues” was published in the then-UBC Alumni Magazine, now called TREK. My career publishing life essays had begun.

As you know, there are 22 previously published essays in Coastal Lives. I use them almost as photographs along the storyline. And so, the writer in the book is a letter writer, a journal writer, a journalist and an essayist. That’s where the voice – voices, really – come from.

The first iteration of the book was in my Master’s thesis, which was a research degree, focusing on memoir studies, from Mount Saint Vincent University, here in Halifax. I called the thesis “Memoir: An Examination of a Renegade Memoir From the Inside Out.” Essentially, I studied memoirs past and present, and then wrote my own, as part of the thesis. The book is substantially different from the thesis, primarily because of the brilliant editor at Pottersfield Press, Julia Swan, who asked for more of the previously published essays to be included, and more detail to the memoir storyline, because she sensed I’d left some large bits out . . . . I hasten to say that I also use humour to describe this process! (I keep waiting for a reviewer to say that he/she laughed when they read some of the essays – they were sold as a humour pieces, first time round, in newspapers!)

Not many Canadians can truly claim “bi-coastal lives.” Is that how you think of yourself now?

Mostly, yes. I know darn well I don’t have the full understanding of the West Coast that I once had – and that distresses me to think about at times. I go to my hometown as a visitor now – and that also distresses me. I couldn’t even afford to live in Vancouver any more – and that distresses me beyond measure . . . When I go to Vancouver, I may well be a visitor, but I am blessed to stay with various great family members on both sides of our families, and in their homes I am welcomed and feted. They ask me, What would you like to eat? And I answer, Salmon, every kind and every meal. They spoil me with this, and with other treats like spot prawns and halibut. (On the East Coast, it’s all about lobster, scallops and haddock.) I also do all sorts of funny rituals that make me feel re-connected to the West Coast world. For example, I can’t get to the banks of the Fraser River fast enough. The Pacific Ocean, too, but it is the Fraser I was raised closest to, and that I love with all my heart. Near the Fraser is Southlands, where I rode for over 20 years. When I go to Vancouver now, I have the huge pleasure of taking my great-niece Leila for pony rides, as I used to take her mother, Jocelyn, my niece. And best of all, this is at the same barn, and with the same barn owner! I am comfortable and happy on both coasts – and grateful for this.

Many of my former journalistic colleagues still seem to have an inborn resistance to the memoir; a few of them, I am certain, even think of it as an inferior form of nonfiction – not as muscular perhaps as first-person reportage that strips out the self. What would you say to such a colleague?

I find this stance — by journalists, academics or even the general reading public — quaint and outdated. I would also suggest people with that view simply haven’t kept up to date with memoir. Some of the finest writers in the world are memoirists – always have been, always will be. Joan Didion, Vladamir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, George Orwell and Mary Karr. Canadian memoirists are equally dazzling: Farley Mowat, Evelyn Lau, David Adams Richards and Wayson Choy. Other recent and stunning Canadian memoirs include Bog Tender by George Santos, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter by Alison Wearing, How Linda Died by Frank Davy, The Danger Tree by David MacFarlane and Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia . . .

Of course there are badly written memoirs. There are badly written novels, and books of poetry and non-fiction . . .  Somehow memoir is held to a higher standard – and so must, on occasion, fall the farthest and most cripplingly . . . There are literary memoirs and trash memoirs. There are beautiful, hybrid memoirs, which include maps, photos, recipes — whatever best illustrates a life. . .  Anyone bored or lofty about memoir needs to go back to the bookstore and look a little longer.

You have a master’s degree in arts research specializing in Memoir Studies and you now teach memoir-writing courses around the Maritimes. Do you find a hunger for telling personal stories among your students?

The hunger is huge. Young, middle-aged and older — the lives people lead are astonishing. I adore learning about other people’s lives, especially when I am taken to worlds I’d never gain access to ordinarily. Fascinating details aside, the job is to craft a story, and the prettiest, most dynamic one you can. I have no problem whatsoever teaching memoirists who simply want a self-published life story to hand down to children or grandchildren. I believe this is laudable. That said, I get as excited as any other writer and teacher when I read a memoir-in-progress that is of high literary quality and may well find a traditional publisher once it’s done. The most uneventful lives can still be led by those who can write like angels. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. I just do my best to give the people who come to my seminars whatever it is they want and need, to start and finish a memoir — and perhaps, to understand better the scope of their choice regarding content and structure. After that, they’re on their own.

You and author Silver Donald Cameron (whom you call simply Don) now have two dogs.  Muriel Spark once said that owning a cat is conducive to a writer’s concentration. What do canines bring to the writing world, besides the chance to go walkies when your work is not going well?

Don and I walk the dogs every day, whether our work goes well or not. We spend endless hours at our desks – seven days a week, mostly – and the chance to get outside and breathe fresh air and see what the rest of the world is up to, is so necessary to our well-being. Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes is also a revitalizing experience. Let’s get excited about wind! Birds overhead! Sailboats on the North West Arm! A rotten fish on the shore! Eliminating like mad! Other dogs!! Dogs spread happiness and excitement all around them, even on the end of a leash. The pleasure we take in our dogs’ company is immense. For me, the presence of animals in my life — dogs and horses particularly — is non-negotiable: I simply must have them around me to live my best and happiest life.

PGC Issues a Call for Action

By Joy Fisher

The Playwrights Guild of Canada announced a new initiative at its annual general meeting in Montreal recently aimed at redressing the chronic underrepresentation of women in key creative positions in Canadian theatre.

The Equity in Theatre (EIT) initiative will call on the theatre community as a whole to respond to gender inequities in the industry, according to Rebecca Burton, PGC’s Membership and Contracts Manager, who is coordinating the initiative.

“Although approximately 70 per cent of theatre audiences are women, and women make up 50 per cent of PGC’s membership, only 22 per cent of plays produced in Canadian Theatres in 2013/14 were by women playwrights,” Burton said. PGC’s Theatre Production Survey revealed that percentage varied by province, with Manitoba scoring highest at 44 percent and British Columbia dragging the bottom with only 18 percent of produced plays by women.

The percentage of productions by women playwrights reached a record high between 2000 and 2005 when 28 per cent of productions were plays by women according to an Equity Study published in 2006. “The figures demonstrate an actual regression since then,” Burton noted.

A key component of the initiative will be a Symposium to be held in Toronto in April 2015 facilitated by an equity and diversity consultant funded by Canada Council’s Leadership and Change program. Participants will include partners from industry organizations such as Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, Canadian Actors Equity Association, Associated Designers of Canada, and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas as well as associations of the underrepresented, such as Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and Artists Driving Holistic Organization Change. The end result will be the development of a first draft of a strategic plan for improved equity in the theatre industry as a whole.

In the year following the Symposium, a series of monthly play reading events will be held across Canada in partnership with Play Development Centres and other organizations. Other events and community actions will also be developed. Women patrons, for example, could exercise their consumer power by demanding more plays by women (reflective of their own reality and age demographics) from the theatres they support.

A research project will seek to identify successes in the industry and to establish best practices. A website will be created as an informational hub to facilitate meet-up groups and provide advice on how to create social actions. It will also house a searchable database of Canadian women artists, including playwrights, to serve as a resource to communities.

The desired outcome is to see representation rates rise to 50 percent, which would not only provide increased opportunities for women but would also produce a more balanced and inclusive vision of Canadian society for audiences to enjoy. “We’ve studied this problem for years,” Burton said. “Now it’s time to act.”

The official public launch of the initiative will be in September 2014.

The link below will take you to the PGC website and Valerie Sing Turner’s lyrical and compelling article Redefining Normal: A Challenge to Canadian Theatres & Artistswhich explores equality and redefining the norm in Canadian theatre.

Joy Fisher is a UVic writing graduate and a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.