Category Archives: Lynne Van Luven

Memoir revisits Red Cross work in Cambodia

Victoria resident Elaine Harvey published her first book of creative nonfiction with the North Saanich firm, Promontory Press , for Encounters on the Front Line. The press describes itself as “a traditional book publisher that doesn’t like the way the traditional industry has gone when it comes to being accessible to new authors.” Harvey describes herself as a “neophyte in the daunting world of publishing.” In looking for a publisher, she “considered everything from DIY to Smashwords to a call for new writers from Penguin Australia.”  The process kept her busy – and waiting — for two years. After hearing repeatedly that the publishing world was in crisis, she chose the collaborative model offered by Promontory because “it was important for me to be involved in the format and cover design of my book.” Harvey recently spoke with Lynne Van Luven about the challenge of wresting a narrative from her own journals and historical events.

Elaine, Encounters on the Front Line, your first book, has been almost half a lifetime in the making. Can you tell me a little about what motivated the young woman who, in 1980, undertook her “quest of the heart” to use her nursing skills for the International Red Cross on the war-wracked border of Cambodia?

My childhood dream was to work in Asia or Africa, having a sense of the world at an early age from my father. Later, nursing became a path that led to Cambodia. I am frequently asked why I was drawn to danger. I’m not particularly brave, but I was drawn to a desire to make a difference, to do something in the world, beyond my own backyard. Something that mattered and it did matter to the Cambodian refugees that we, the front line aid workers, were there. The paradox of this quest is that one gives a great deal in terribly difficult conditions but at the same time receives extraordinary gifts. One gift is a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. It keeps me curious, concerned and I hope humble.

I adjusted quickly to the realities of the refugee camp, having already travelled in the “third world,” but the dramatic death of a teenage girl on my third day at work catapulted me into front-line work. Decades later in writing Encounters on the Front Line I understood better the impact of this kind of work– the witnessing and the vicarious trauma that led to a continuing quest to find my own path, be it a worldly or a spiritual one. Front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.     

Your book is divided into three parts – The Border (1980), Pilgrimage (2007-08) and A Greater Mystery (2009);  to write it you had to assimilate and amalgamate experiences and notes from a 30-year span of time. That must have been a daunting undertaking. What process or techniques did you use to help you organize your material and find a sustaining narrative spine?

Yes, it was daunting. My techniques, if any, or at best learnt along the way, were simple. I transcribed journals to the computer. I didn’t wander from the present tense. I didn’t wander from my lived experience. With writing The Border, memories surfaced that led to the return to Cambodia, which I envisioned as a pilgrimage.

Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago: a haunting call, a subliminal message, and an unresolved question of my heart.

There was the call of the refugee, as well as a deep curiosity about the new Cambodia. I travelled, I volunteered, I met exceptional people and I wrote. The book emerged. The narrative arc may have been as simple (or as complex) as the need to find a thread from my past and bring it into the present. The reveries give glimpses into some existential doubts, conflicts and resolutions that move the story forward.  The transition between 1980 and 2007 was unwieldy. I attempted to fill the gap with ‘the rest of my life’ but the more I tried the less it worked. Only three months after my six months in Cambodia, I went to Africa with the Red Cross, another human and environmental disaster. The narrative arc needed focus so I chose to keep Encounters on the Front Line in Cambodia.

Your subtitle is Cambodia: A Memoir and you have given your readers a timeline, maps and a bibliography to help them understand the importance of the people you are writing about. Your book is a memoir of both your own development and the changes in the country itself. Feelings of both hope and sadness pervade your writing. What is your hope today as you look back on the place that both captured your heart and (to quote one of your co-workers) “punched you in the face”?

My hope for Cambodia, as it would be for any country, is that it will find its place as an equal in the global community. With all the challenges of an emerging economy – poverty, inadequate health care and education, political oppression and corruption – this requires a radical shift in global consciousness. Global disparities aside, I encourage people young or old, to travel, to volunteer, to understand ‘the other’ as more similar than different. I would wish Cambodians the same opportunities.

Cambodia has a pervasive sorrow (mental health data is alarming) though its people can be as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters. The country has a dark history but there is a new generation, educated and concerned about the future. There is hope. My life has its losses and sorrow, yet hope . . . provides the connection to our common humanity.

Can you describe how negotiated the challenging meld of fact, event, emotional experiences and memory in Encounters on the Front Line, with respect to the creative nonfiction credo of telling true stories in a dramatic fashion without straying into fiction? 

Straying into fiction never seemed an option; in fact it didn’t cross my mind. I was not a writer of fiction and was just learning the art of nonfiction. On the other hand, I was perhaps doggedly determined to tell the truth such as I experienced it. I recorded the subjective accounts of those experiences in my journals, not knowing that later in life I would write a book. My responses to the traumatic events I witnessed in a refugee camp were through the lens of direct experience, at times raw, terse or emotional. I was not doing historical research or investigative journalism; facts were difficult to glean in the midst of a disaster zone.

When I returned to Cambodia (2007 to 2009), I read extensively, but more important were my encounters and connections with the people. Cambodians shared their stories with or without an interpreter, on matters light or serious, in a straightforward manner.

“This is the way I hear the Khmer talk, the truth of their lives too hard to bear. Their stories are not embellished. The bare facts are enough.”

To soften the dilemma of nonfiction (do no harm versus telling the truth) was challenging. For the most part, I didn’t construct composite characters but wrote the stories that people willingly told me. I also knew that certain stories associated with past trauma in the Khmer Rouge era had to be told with care.

 You seem to me to be someone torn between activism and authorhood. Do you think of both roles as part of a continuum, two separate impulses or just stages in your own maturation process? 

One role of the writer, particularly in nonfiction, is to inform or educate or inspire a greater understanding of a subject. I’ve tried to understand the paradoxes within my own life and in Encounters on the Front Line, some of the paradoxes within Cambodia:

“I bridge two worlds, as travellers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar.”

Today it is unlikely that I would work in a high conflict zone, but there are many paths to engagement in a complex world. I aspire to some sort of “activism and author hood.’’ The quest for voice becomes an evolving voice, a journey of reaching out and reaching in, not as separate but as interwoven threads of my life.

Memoir probes domestic life after adoption

Maurice Mierau’s most recent book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Nonfiction in April. In the memoir, the author probes his domestic life after he and his wife adopt two Ukrainian brothers, aged three and five. The book is both unsentimental and passionate, sparked with moments of humour–a must-read. Mierau’s new poetry collection, Autobiographical Fictions, will be published this fall by Palimpsest. His last book of poems, Fear Not, won the ReLit Award in 2009. Mierau is founding editor of The Winnipeg Review, and lives in Winnipeg with his family. He talked recently to Lynne Van Luven about his memoir.

Maurice, I just read Detachment, and I found it to be a really brave book. You are fearless about revealing your own fears and doubts as an adoptive father. What sort of reaction have other parents had to your book?

The reactions have been universally positive. Many people have commended me on my bravery, making me wonder if that isn’t a euphemism for foolishness—though I know they (and you) are sincere! As a poet, I have never had personal feedback from readers other than a few fellow poets coming up to me after events. With Detachment I’ve had emails from all over the country, phone calls, comments at readings, and much of that has come from parents both adoptive and otherwise. Often people tell me stories about how they discovered a family member was adopted, or, if they are adoptive parents, they tell me stories about their own struggle to form a family. The things people reveal to me are frequently intimate family secrets, and I find myself moved by this connection with readers that I’ve never had before.

Most of your readers will know you as a poet. Did you find writing a memoir vastly different from writing poetry, or did you find that certain commonalities pervade both forms?

It was quite a different experience from writing poems for me. I wanted to construct a narrative that would keep people engaged in a story moving forward, rather than a more static, highly literary kind of memoir like Nabokov’s famous one. And since I’m not an epic poet or a novelist, I had no experience writing a book-length narrative, and that was really the challenge. The other challenge was integrating my father’s story of childhood trauma fleeing from Soviet Ukraine with the story of adopting my sons Peter and Bohdan in Ukraine in 2005. Nothing in poetry prepared me for these storytelling problems.

My background as a poet was helpful to me in terms of constructing individual scenes. Lorca said that the poet is the professor of the senses, and while I don’t have tenure the way he did, I do have some notion of how to make a scene vivid. Another thing you learn from poetry is how to bring thematic, imagistic, and other forms of deliberate repetition into a book, so that these elements rhyme in the reader’s mind, not always consciously.

You have now been a father three times over. What has the experience taught you about children’s essential personalities, their differences as unique human beings?

It’s taught me that children, like adults, don’t have essential personalities: they are all different. Without being flippant, children need love and empathy in order to become loving, empathetic adults. Empathy involves the intelligence and the imagination as well as emotion, and I have often failed to enter imaginatively into the lives of my children; Detachment shows me struggling to make that entrance. I feel my failure most keenly with my oldest son, Jeremy. Perhaps that means I’m a better father now, at least on some days.

There is a growing list of books about adoption, which is wonderful because it provides a fine resource and because it has moved “being adopted” out of the closet to a certain extent.  Do you think adopted children still face the same stigmas they did 30 or 40 years ago?

Absolutely not. No one, at least in my experience, questions adoption as a way to form a family now, not in a school context and certainly not in the community where we live. I think that’s a normal Canadian experience. There has been a generational shift that probably accompanies the increased acceptance of non-traditional families, including same-sex ones, and also books and media exposure that show adoptive families as part of mainstream society.

One of the most moving parts of the memoir is the way your Ukraine-born sons’ trauma echoes that of your own father’s past. Has that history, and the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine, further strengthened your extended family’s bonds?  

Yes, I think it has with my father in particular. My dad, as the book describes, struggles to articulate his own feelings about being a war refugee and an orphan early in his life, but he does see the parallels between his life and my sons’.

As for recent events, they are depressing and a testimony to the unwillingness of Russia to allow Ukrainians to live in a country with a healthy economy and the rule of law in place. Fortunately the boys are from western Ukraine, near Lviv, and far from the war in the east. We plan to visit soon, so they can meet at least part of their birth families.

Planet Earth continues to bolster local poetry scene

What better way to mark April as Poetry Month than to talk about Planet Earth Poetry? Known to its devotees as PEP, the series is one of the most influential poetry-reading successes in Canada. Planet Earth sponsors a wide range of established and emerging poets. It has bolstered many a flagging poetic spirit and fostered a number of lyrical spin-off events in Victoria. PEP’s roots lie in the Mocambopo reading series started in 1995; the irrepressible Wendy Morton was its third host/organizer. In 2007, the series moved to its current location at 1633 Hillside Avenue, just across the street from Bolen Books. Except for a summer hiatus, you can find poets and listeners gathered at 7:30 p.m. every Friday, where “words are most important.” Famous for its well-run open mic, Planet Earth functions as “a launching pad for the energies of writers and poets established and not.” In September, Daniel G. Scott will take over as host and artistic director for the series from new Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer, who has directed the series since 2009.  Scott, who will soon be retiring as a professor in the School of Child & Youth Care at the University of Victoria, has long been involved in the arts and has published two books of poetry (Black Onion and Terrains). Blomer has three published poetry books: As if a Raven, The Book of Places and a broken mirror, fallen leaf. She is also co-editor of Poems from Planet Earth. Both recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about their aspirations for Planet Earth and poetry in general. 

Yvonne and Daniel, you are both community-engaged poets, if I can put it that way. Yvonne, can you comment on the coffee/poetry scene in Victoria over the past few years?

I think over the past three years or so, more cafes have been opening their doors to readings. Tongues of Fire is celebrating its tenth year in 2015, so spoken word has gained a lot of energy. Think of the literary events happening on Vancouver Island just in the past four months: WordsThaw in March, The Creative Nonfiction Collective’s conference April 24 through 26, the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo April 30 to May 3  . . . The youth poetry slam Victorious Voices was just held, not to mention Planet Earth Poetry every week, and we have readings at Munro’s and Russell Books.  Cafes are plugging into the enthusiasm of writers to launch their books or do readings. Hillside Coffee and Tea’s owners Nataliya Kapitanova  and Michael Kowalewich are superb supporters of PEP.

Daniel, can you talk about your area of academic focus and how you got to publishing poetry from there? (I know your sister is Quebec author Gail Scott.)

Actually, academics are the accident. I got an 8.8 GPA in my master’s work and somebody said I should go on to do a PhD.  I thought, “That sounds interesting,” and studied the work of narrative in our lives. I came up with the word “narraturgy,” that never really went anywhere. But before I came back to academic studies in 1991, I spent over a decade in professional theatre, including three years as theatre artist-in-residence and summer youth theatre at the University of New Brunswick. I also worked for over a decade for the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, leading and developing youth programs and training youth workers. I’ve been an actor, done radio and print journalism, and written poetry for years.  It’s all congruent for me.

Yvonne, you have been engaged with the writing community since you were a student. You have carried on that work through motherhood, further education (an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia), and now you are engaged in your own teaching career and have a four-year stint as poet laureate. Does all this seem like “part of the same thing” to you?

Yes, I do think it is all within the same field, as say, a family GP might see patients, work with student doctors, have hospital hours, look over records and assign follow-up appointments. The key thing for me is the writing, and then all the other things just go with it. Teaching certainly does–you learn from the engagement from different writers’ works but also from your students. It’s just a part of me to support everything. I always say yes to students, tell them to keep on writing. I sometimes long to be like PD James’s Scotland Yard poet Adam Dalgliesh, who writes poetry between solving crimes, but does not feel the need to promote himself  [Here, Scott interjects, to remind Blomer that “Dalgleish is a fictional character.”] I long for quiet time . . .  but I also feel it is important to support literary arts in any way that I can. My work is a flow of something larger that moves towards readers and thinkers.

The world is filled with violence and disaster.  Many people’s lives are chaotic. How do you answer philistines who say, “How can poetry help us?”

Daniel:  One of the pluses of poetry is that it gives you a way to draw near to things indirectly. There is such uncertainly and confusion in the world, we need voices prepared to go into emotional territory, but to make sense of it intellectually. That’s why I am so drawn to Jan Zwicky’s combination of poetry with philosophy.

Yvonne: Engaging those afraid of poetry, and helping them feel something shows how poetry connects us . . . as a new poet laureate, I feel less sure of how poetry can measurably help, but I want poetry to change the path we are on by making us all think, by drawing action from thought.

Talk a bit more, both of you, about your hopes and dreams for poetry in Victoria.

Yvonne:  Through Planet Earth and other public events, I hope that poetry will reach more people, change their relationship to it, that they can move from feeling lost and confused or even scared when they hear a poem to being engaged emotionally. I held an event at the Art Gallery of Victoria last week . . . and for the first time some of the regular gallery visitors experienced how poetry gave an alternate way of engaging with art. At Victorious Voices this month, someone commented on how important it is to come out and LISTEN. If no one is listening, then communication fails. I just want to draw more people into the intimate conversations poetry creates.

Daniel and Yvonne: And we would like the Planet Earth website to become more of a hub. We’ve applied for a B.C. Arts Council grant for the first time this year, so we can professionalize and pay some of our workers a small stipend, and pay the poets a standard rate of $125 an appearance. I think we are starting to build a listening audience. It’s exciting that people are starting to realize that hearing poetry read aloud changes what it is. People have forgotten it comes from an oral tradition.

Editor-writer recognized for cultural work

Third-generation British Columbia resident Betty Keller will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence at the B.C. Book Prizes gala on April 25. Keller, who has edited almost a hundred books about British Columbia in her 40-year editing career, is an award-winning author herself, with biographies of such cultural figures as Pauline Johnson and Ernest Thompson Seton. Her book on Pauline Johnson (Douglas & McIntyre, 1982) won the Canadian Biography Medal. She co-authored Skookum Tugs (Harbour, 2002), which won the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 2003, and co-authored A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour, 2004), which won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 2005.

Keller is also the author of Pender Harbour Cowboy (Touchwood, 2000), a biography of BC fisherman/novelist Bertrand Sinclair, as well as a tongue-in-cheek history of Vancouver, On the Shady Side (Horsdal and Schubart, 1986), a history of the Sunshine Coast, and a novel set in Vancouver, Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin Press, 2001). Her most recent book, A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper (Caitlin, 2010), is also set in Vancouver.

Keller began her career as a high school drama and English teacher in 1963, then worked as a faculty associate in education at Simon Fraser University and as a sessional lecturer in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. When she “retired” to the Sunshine Coast in 1980, she took up a whole new career as founder and producer of the Festival of the Written Arts (1983 to 1994). In addition, she co-founded the SunCoast Writers Forge and the Sunshine Coast Writers-in-Residence Program. Countless writers cite her support and mentorship as essential to their careers. Keller recently discussed her career with Lynne Van Luven.

Betty, congratulations on your award. Can you talk a little about your response when you heard the news?

I was thoroughly overwhelmed. I also feel a bit guilty to be accepting an award for doing something that is ample reward in itself.

You have been both a writer and an editor simultaneously for so many years. Can you describe the different joys and challenges of each role?

I am a substantive rather than a copy editor, so I am generally called in to work on manuscripts that have “substantive” or basic problems. In my first reading of a manuscript, I ask myself whether it communicates the message that the author was attempting to communicate. Is the information or the story line accessible to the reader? Do I have to reread sentences and/or check back fifty pages to find the beginning of the author’s argument in order to understand what he has to say in later chapters? Since lack of accessibility almost always depends on structural problems, I then have to isolate the spine of the work and help the author to reorganize the material attached to that spine so that the reader can move easily from concept to concept or, in the case of most fiction, from event to event. So structure comes first, but it’s always a joy to begin an edit job and realize that, although the manuscript may have problems, it already has “good bones.” So then it’s a matter of looking at the author’s style. While it is vitally important to nurture the writer’s style, sometimes a unique presentation can overwhelm the lines of communication to the reader, so here the editor has to walk the fine line between nurturing style and promoting communication. Then comes grammar and syntax and usage and punctuation, areas where a distressing number of writers have little or no knowledge whatsoever, so I experience pure joy when I edit a manuscript in which the author obviously understands parallelism and restrictive clauses and hasn’t even dangled modifiers!

When I am writing, I have to wear both my editing and creating hats, and then the pleasure comes not in the initial writing but in the rewriting and revising until I get the effect I am striving for—or at least as close to it as I can get before a great editor comes along and gives me the final nudge in the right direction! But that, as Hugh MacLennan (Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes) once wrote to his student Marian Engel (Bear, Lunatic Villages, The Tattooed Woman), is what a writer’s life is like. (See Dear Marian, Dear Hugh, University of Ottawa Press, 1995.)

What has been the most interesting change in the publishing world, in your opinion, within your years of engagement?

For most writers I think the answer to that question would be the introduction of ebooks and downloading and Kindles and all the technological changes in book publishing in the last 20 years. But for me it was the initial introduction of the personal computer. The pure joy of simply deleting or moving a passage instead of typing it all over again is impossible to describe to those who never composed a book on a typewriter. As one who literally cut and pasted her first seven books, I think that a computer is a lovely, lovely thing indeed.

When you relax, and just read for pleasure (you are so busy, I am not sure you do that!), what authors do you turn to?

These days at least 80 per cent of my reading is manuscripts, and I have to admit that reading for pleasure has become an indulgence I reserve for trips by ferry or plane and for holiday visits to my sons and their families in the U.S. and U.K. My Saturday mornings, however, are always devoted to newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, and my bedtime reading begins with The New Yorker (even though the punctuation style is maddening!) and extends to “must read” books recommended by friends. These are usually non-fiction in the environmental/political category.

Can you tell us about the power of writers’ festivals and writers in residency, with respect to the creation and recreation of writers?

When we created the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt in 1983, our original goal had been to provide a forum for writers to talk to writers, but we decided to welcome readers as well because it allowed us to introduce more Canadian writers to the reading public—and also because it made better financial sense! However, in my years at the helm of the festival it was always a pleasure to see the number of novice writers in the audiences taking notes and absorbing inspiration, and this was the stimulus behind the festival society’s introduction of the writers-in-residence programs that we ran from 1987 to 1994. Our goal was not to “make” writers but instead to help writers find their voices. But critiquing by a professional writer is only part of the benefit of such programs; there is also invaluable input from the other members of the class and in the informal discussions of writing techniques and problems that occur between classes.

In the last 20 years I have moved my own teaching to very small classes—three is my preferred size—that meet on a weekly basis for eight or 10 weeks. This format allows in-class time for a thorough exploration of each member’s work, and the limited term means that writers (and I) can take a writing “breather” before signing on for another term. The intensity of the sessions also means that everyone in the group is completely focused on finding his/her voice and on overcoming writing problems in a limited period of time.  

Mother’s loss to dementia inspires personal essay collection

Edmonton writer Myrl Coulter uses the personal essay to explore the passage of time and the loss of her mother to a rare form of dementia.  Her book, A Year of Days, is published by University of Alberta Press, which is fitting as Coulter has a PhD from the U of A, where she taught English for eight years. Coulter recently talked online with Lynne Van Luven about her new book and the personal essay. She will be in Victoria for the Creative NonFiction Collective’s 11th annual conference, April 24 to 26. 

Myrl, perhaps because I have a father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, my favorite chapter in your book is “Death by Dementia,” in which you trace the way Primary Progressive Aphasia robbed your mother of her words and, eventually, her life. Can you talk a little more about how you regard the connection between language and personality?

Of course, the connection between language and personality is intimate. One of the primary ways personality develops is through language. My mother, like everyone, had her own language patterns and quirks. As she deteriorated, she lost her nouns and then her verbs and eventually her entire sentence structure. But even at the end, her unique language personality was still there. One phrase I particularly remember is “boy, oh boy,” a vague saying she used all her life. In her last years, she came to rely on it when she was no longer able to string words together in a sentence. Whenever I heard her say “boy, oh boy,” it took me back and I’d think about the different times I’d heard her use that phrase over the years.

Beyond language, personality is also evident in non-verbal ways. When dementia progresses and language skills deteriorate, body language is still visible. Much of my mom’s personality was present even when many of her words were gone. I knew she was still in there, just by the shrug of her shoulders or the look on her face.

Because your book is organized into 15 personal essays that explore the passing of a calendar year, readers might think you wrote the book in a year. How much time passed between your eulogy for your mother’s funeral and the final publication of A Year of Days? I guess what I am asking is how long did it take you to be able to write about your mother as a person no longer physically present?

Considering the slow process of traditional book publishing, this one came together quickly – it was less than four years from my mother’s funeral to publication. After writing the eulogy, I knew I needed to write more about her. But in the year after her death, I read much more than I wrote. I read books about emotion and loneliness and holidays and the human brain. I doodled around the internet a lot. I spent time in libraries and coffee shops. I walked miles and miles.

The essay “Wearing Black” came first, inspired by the eulogy. I took it to the Banff Centre’s Writing With Style workshop in the spring of 2012. Then I began to see a structural shape, so I wrote out a Table of Contents and a plan, which I used to apply again to the Banff Centre. I was accepted into the Wired Writing Studio, where I had the great good fortune to work with Charlotte Gill. After that, it didn’t take me long to write the first draft, less than a year.

The days in my book come from the cycle of a single year, but I go to many different years in these essays. The title refers to the days that come around year after year. As time goes by, we experience those days differently, with hope and anticipation when we’re younger, with nostalgia and yearning as we get older.

You talk about visiting your mother and watching her sitting silently, staring at her hands. You write, “I tried to imagine my brain leaking words, tried to feel what it would be like to have the lake of my vocabulary draining a paragraph or two at a time through some unseen puncture in my head.” You say the questions you asked yourself about your mother’s loss of language made you afraid. Can you talk a little more about what you meant by that?

That’s a big one. Fear like that is hard to manage because it’s not rational. When a dementia-related condition strikes a family member, irrational fear is almost inevitable. And it increases as the patient deteriorates. Mine has abated now because I’ve realized that I’m not my mother, that she had her destiny and I have mine. But while I watched her language skills disintegrate, I felt vulnerable to her fate, especially because Alzheimer’s had already claimed my aunt, my mother’s older sister. Every time I hesitated in a sentence or had to search my brain for a word I couldn’t find, I’d think, “Oh crap this is it. It’s started. I’m a goner.” It got so bad that I mentioned it to my doctor. When I told her I was worried about my brain, she said, “Well, Myrl, you are writing books. I think you’re okay for now.” I’m deeply grateful for that simple rational statement. It was, and is, so calming.

As my parents age, I have been reading dozens of books about the aging process, about the loss of capacity induced by dementia-like illness, and I have been thinking a lot about the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Did your family ever discuss that incredibly potent topic during your mother’s decline?

No. Not once. Never even thought about it. My mother denied her diagnosis vehemently, so that would have been an impossible conversation for our family. Still, I’ve followed assisted suicide cases closely, especially the Gillian Bennett story last summer. I admire how she and her family handled their situation. But every case is different because every family has its own dynamics. There is no blueprint here, no step-by-step prescriptive we can apply generally. That’s what’s so hard about these dementia conditions. Families have to find their own way through the maze. Dementia care options must be made more elastic, more adaptable to individual cases, and perhaps most of all, more available when needed. Families need choices. Our health and geriatric care system isn’t where it yet needs to be in this area.

I am interested to learn aspects of the personal essay drew you to it, as a vehicle of grieving for your mother. More precisely, how does the process we now call life-writing, wherein one explores a private dilemma, evolve into the creation of polished essays which move beyond the purely personal into ruminations one can share publicly?

The purely personal is diary-writing, journal-keeping: it’s therapy, a helpful tool long prescribed by counsellors and psychologists. This kind of writing is good for healing and recovery, but not for publication.

Personal life-writing for publication is the result of craft. It takes work, research and time. The successful personal essay has resonance, is driven by curiosity, a need to discover, a quest for connection. It expands beyond the writer’s life, examines social and cultural contexts, creates links readers can identify with. My first book is a memoir, but I wrote each of its chapters as personal essays that would build a memoir story. In this one, I wanted to avoid the memoir shape, so I set out to use as many different versions of the personal essay as I could. It’s such a flexible form to work in. If it were a visual art form, it would be classified as multi-media because personal essays use many different elements and take on a wide variety of structures. Some chapters in A Year of Days are linear and others are braided. Some build to revelations that came during the writing flow. Others follow questions I had in my head. The opening essay is a taxonomic exercise that illustrates the impossibility of categorizing emotions. The next is a straightforward travel story. One is a process essay shaped loosely as a recipe; another is about the many ways to cross a bridge. Some are anecdotal and some have lyric qualities (I hope). For each one, I picked a topic and usually ended up writing about it and something else. That’s the beauty of the personal essay – it’s not bound by the topic or the self. Its movement is outward.

Ex-Mountie tells story of sexism, harassment

No One to Tell:
Breaking my Silence on Life in the RCMP

By Janet Merlo, Edited by Leslie Vryenhoek

Breakwater Books

218 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

Journalist Linden MacIntyre encapsulates the essence of No One To Tell in his introduction: “The institution Janet Merlo went to work for in 1991 was a troubled place.”

This memoir, part therapeutic retelling, part analysis of workplace harassment, lays out the whole sad story of a police force unable to change its values to encompass female members, undermined by males in management unable to offset a poisonous work atmosphere by courageous leadership. Has the RCMP under new management changed substantively since Janet Merlo was a fresh-faced recruit? Outsiders may never know. I’d say many RCMP worksites are still troubled places–and now perhaps feeling even more defensive in the wake of recent Mountie killings.

Janet Merlo, who grew up one of three Farrell children in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, learned on Christmas Eve, 1990, that she had been accepted into RCMP training. She already had a degree in sociology with a certificate in criminology. Eight months later, she was among 29 new Mounties completing the graduation ceremony at the RCMP training depot in Regina (formerly Pile of Bones), Saskatchewan. Among her fellow recruits was Catherine Galliford, who would one day gain media attention as “another of those bitches” who could not “hack” the demands of the force. (In November 2011, Galliford told a CBC reporter that, “If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses asked me to sit on his knee, I’d be on a yacht in the Bahamas right now.”)

From graduation, following RCMP policy to post members away from their home communities, Merlo went directly to the Nanaimo, B.C. detachment. In 1991 she believed “I’d joined one of the most amazing organizations in the world. . . . More than two decades later, I still carry that pride though it’s buried beneath years of disappointment.”  That’s a controlled understatement. Once I finished reading No One To Tell, I could not help thinking that joining the RCMP pretty much ruined her life. It certainly contributed to her ill health and the destruction of her marriage.

Even though her Recruit Field Training in Nanaimo lasted only six weeks before she was on her own policing in the community, Merlo experienced more than usual new-recruit pranking because of her diminutive size and her Newfoundland accent. When she started to date Wayne Merlo, who was a municipal employee of the RCMP, she did attract the attention of her fellow officers: one of her supervisors told Wayne that she was “the perfect girlfriend–just the right height for giving a blow job with a beer balanced on my head.” And so it began.

Janet Merlo’s memoir is not a work of genre-challenging creative nonfiction, but it is a straightforward piece of personal reporting.  Merlo takes readers through the increasingly noxious events as her life progresses: when she is pregnant, one of her colleagues starts a rumour she has had an abortion; when her pregnancy progressed beyond five months and wearing the heavy gun belt became risky, Merlo’s operational officer said “What the fuck am I supposed to do with you now?” rather than simply reassigning her to an office job.

The harassment and disrespect continued, but so did Merlo, gamely trying to make the force deliver the dream she expected of it. She had a second child and kept on trying to hold her marriage together, even when it became plain that Wayne was also under stress at work and was becoming mentally ill. The RCMP regulations are allegedly consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act: Harassment is defined as “rude, degrading or offensive remarks or emails, threats or intimidation.” And the federal Treasury Board Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace states workplace harassment “will not be tolerated.”

However, William Elliot, the new civilian commissioner appointed in 2007, failed to respond to Merlo’s letter asking for “a new style of leadership.” With Galliford’s public declaration of abuse in 2011, Merlo had hope. In March 2012, Merlo filed a class-action suit in the B.C. courts. Within months, hundreds of women stepped with tales of abuse and career derailment. The lawsuit is now working its way through the courts.

Readers of Merlo’s story will end her memoir impressed with her strength: she has a new life now and is living with her nearly grown daughters in St. John’s, far from the scene of her humiliations. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has introduced new training protocols to confront the force’s 40-year entrenched sexism, but unless the force continues to focus on bullying based on race, gender or beliefs, the besmirchment of the RCMP scarlet will continue. As will the destruction of individuals who enter the force with hope and resign in despair.

Lynne Van Luven teaches creative non-fiction at the University of Victoria and is the co-editor of the anthology In The Flesh (Brindle and Glass).

Giller nominated story collection full of surprises

Saltspring author Kathy Page has had a most interesting fall: her latest book of short fiction Paradise and Elsewhere (John Metcalfe Books/Biblioasis,) was nominated for the Giller Prize, and her novel Alphabet, first published in 2004 and shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award in 2005, has been reissued in Canada by Biblioasis Books. Alphabet is a compelling story about freedom and responsibility told through the consciousness of a character named Simon Austen. The busy author, who also teaches creative writing at Vancouver Island University, talked online recently with Lynne Van Luven about how her work and life intersect.

Kathy, I love these new stories of yours in Paradise & Elsewhere because they nicely disconcert the reader. Can you talk a little about how this particular assembly of stories came together: do you think we are indeed living in disconcerting times?

Yes, indeed, though perhaps we always have! It’s true that there’s an element of surprise, of unpredictability, in many of these stories and I’m glad of it, though it was not a deliberate policy, but one of the many common elements which I discovered as I put the book together.

I’d been thinking of a collection of stories, but putting off the task of gathering, arranging and selecting. When I at last got down to it, I realized that the two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and other stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like quality, did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.

It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex – what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.

These stories are so well-honed; there is not an image or a word wasted. Do you find yourself writing in a more abbreviated fashion in your short stories than you do in your novels?  (Not that I am saying your novels are verbose!)

Thank you, Lynne. One of the many great things about short stories is that they lend themselves to continuous honing. It’s easy enough to open up the file six months or two or ten years after the story was originally written, read through and make a few changes. But of course another thing about the short story is that it’s often read in a single sitting and absorbed whole, like a poem, and because of that, readers may well be more aware of the detail of the writing. For the same reason, readers are also more aware of form in the short story.

My opinions as to my “favourite” stories in Paradise & Elsewhere tend to shift with each re-reading.  First I thought I liked “G’Ming” the best.  Then I thought it was “Lambing.”  Next week, it may well be “My Fees.”  Was it difficult to decide how to order these stories within the collection, and did you have certain criteria for which one went where in the book?

The ordering of and seams between the parts that make up a book is always very important and how to orchestrate all this is a part of the writing process that I really enjoy. I know you’ve read The Story of My Face – there, I was cutting between the three story lines, regularly, but not in an systematic way. There’s an emotional logic to these decisions that is hard to completely explain. In Paradise & Elsehwere there is a kind of chronology to the stories the book, a movement from the myth-like stories that deal with the origins of particular invented civilizations, like “Of Paradise,” to the speculative fictions which take place in a not-too-distant future, such as “We the Trees,” “Clients,” or “The Ancient Siddanese.” There is a drift forwards in time but I chose to break that “rule” and began the book with “G’Ming,” which is a more contemporary story. The point of view is unusual but the situation is at base one with which many tourists will be familiar; I felt it was gentler, more subtle way into the book, and then I realized that it also sets up many of the themes and motifs that are developed later: the idea of paradise, the way we relate to strangers, the couple, money, trade, et cetera.

 The short stories in this collection have a sort of untethered tone, when it comes to realism. And yet I have always loved the psychological realism of your novels. Are you heading in a different direction as a writer, do you think?

I think I can reassure you there. The stories are set in vivid, real-seeming places: a desert, a story sea shore, a walled garden, a coniferous forest, but you won’t find them on the map, and sometimes what happens may not conform to expectations of reality. But I do think there is a great deal of psychological realism going on. It’s not so much either or, but rather both and more, and I should explain that the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere were written over a long period of time, so this kind of fabulist writing really isn’t a new development for me. It’s putting the stories together and letting them talk to each other that’s new.

Realism is the dominant mode in literary fiction, and it can be a wonderful thing. At the same time, more imaginative approaches do persist and they have always fascinated me. When I sent my two short story collections to Biblioasis, the editor, John Metcalf, was in touch within a week to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t read it. Three months later, we began editing the other book, The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, he agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.

“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”

In the end, the distinction between realistic and imaginative writing, like all distinctions, breaks down. There’s a strong mythical undertow to all my novels, even the grittiest of them, Alphabet, which Biblioasis are reissuing this fall.

When I first interviewed you, shortly after you moved to Salt Spring Island (in 2001), you commented that transplanting a writing career from the United Kingdom to Canada was not an easy thing to do.  Do you now feel properly “re-established,” the way a plant does after a few seasons in a new segment of the garden?

It’s interesting you mention this, given that the arrival of a stranger is one of the themes of the book. I’ve found Canadian writers to be very open and friendly, but even so, moving any kind of life and finding your place is bound to be difficult. I’m beginning to feel more part of things here, and oddly enough this book has a great deal to do with it. Because it includes stories written when I lived in the UK, along with others that originated here, I can feel that I’ve brought at least some of my past into my new life, and integrated the two. The wonderful response to the [collection], and appreciation from Canadian short-fiction writers whom I very much admire, has certainly helped…

Tofino artist, writer create fine chapbook

In the fall, a lovely package arrived in the Coastal Spectator mailbox. It was a chapbook, This Dark, haiku by Tofino poet Joanna Streetly, illustrated by Tofino artist Marion Syme. Syme and writer Adrienne Mason are the owners of Postelsia Press, which published This Dark. Mason, who trained as a marine biologist, explains that the Postelsia is the Latin name for the sea palm, a tiny, tenacious seaweed that lives in West Coast habitat. Both Streetly and Mason talked to Lynne Van Luven recently about their creative (ad)ventures.

Adrienne and Joanna, when I hold This Dark, there is no doubt in my mind that this chapbook of illustrated haiku grew directly out of the West Coast environment.  Can you each talk a bit about how you came together in this project?  

Joanna:  Adrienne contacted me one day after I’d put out a haiku about gardening and the rain. It was a rainy April day, and we were all in the thick of the weather change. It was a shared experience, and the poem extended the scope of that shared experience. It linked us to each other and to our environment. A two-point connection became a three-point connection…

I can’t remember the haiku that pushed Adrienne over the edge, but one day she instantly responded to one, saying that the poems just had to be published. Several wine and dinner gatherings later, a first draft was in the makings. In publishing these poems, complete with the gorgeous linocuts, Postelsia Press has helped make them feel tangibly representative of the coast – a hold-in-your-hand collection, but also an expression of collaboration itself.

Adrienne:  I enjoyed reading Jo’s haiku on Twitter – her choice of words always seemed so perfect – and I could tell she was having fun with it… Her daily haiku were a reminder about the importance of daily practice.

Haiku also spoke to the physicality of books that I love. There is something that appeals to me about a small book with some heft that can fit in your hand. And [my partner] Marion and I wanted to design beautiful books, so Jo’s words and our vision of the physical manifestation of the book — small, thick, beautifully illustrated, with a quality wrap cover — came together.

Adrienne, you and artist Marion Syme founded Postelsia in 2009 — hardly a good time to launch a small press. You are an author yourself, published by more established presses such as Greystone and Kids Can Press.  What was your impetus?

I don’t even consider Postelsia a small press, more of a micro press. In some ways it was a backlash to “traditional” publishing. I’ve published over 30 books in that way, and, frankly, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. More importantly, we have one thing that a lot of publishers don’t have — direct access to a steady stream of visitors from around the world who come to this international destination. We also have two independent bookstores — one in Tofino and one in Ucluelet — as well as two other outlets that sell a nice selection of quality books. We were very clear from the beginning that our marketing and distribution “strategy” (such as it was) would stop where Highway 4 meets the Pacific Rim Highway. I knew how difficult it was to get books into stores outside of the region, because essentially we’re looked at like a self-publisher, so we’ve always been very clear that our market is the Tofino-Ucluelet region.  (Having said all that though, we do have one of our books distributed through Sandhill.)

It is really more a labour of love . . . than anything. Everything gets invested back into the press. I know this business has the smallest of margins, so I went into this with my eyes wide open. I want to produce local books (we use printers in Port Alberni or Victoria), with local writers and artists, on local topics.  You can find the four books we’ve published (and that are still in print) at Postelsia Press.

Joanna, your bio says you “have lived afloat in Clayoquot Sound for over 20 years.” I imagine that somehow the compressed quarters of a boat might have made you a woman of few words when it comes to your writing. Do you think there is any connection between the sparse beauty of haiku and your floating home?

I don’t consider myself a person who is naturally given to sparseness. But my lifestyle has saved me from being a compulsive packrat. I live on a floathouse that I mostly built myself. The interior is 16 feet by 24, with a nice airy loft . . . floathouses have to be able to float. And that means you can’t fill them with possessions, or they’ll list to one side – or even sink… Twice a year as my penance, I reluctantly box and bag the detritus of useless stuff that seems to creep around me like ivy. I sort it into piles – to give away, to sell, to recycle. It’s never enough.

With haiku, the process is similar. I chose to work with the syllables as a way of honing my writing skills. Skilled editing is a challenge and benefit to any writer. And so, for me, haiku became a way to distil essential moments into a single drop of imagery. I always begin with too many syllables, too many words I’m attached to. I always have to sort out my thoughts and choose which ones are worth holding onto. Rarely, a haiku will be born whole, no refining needed. More commonly, I chew them over while I walk through the forest, or they rearrange themselves in my brain as I paddle a kayak.

Artist Marion Syme’s linocuts are a response to Joanna’s haiku, and to her own walks in the forest and along the beaches. Adrienne, you say you had a great launch of the chapbook in August that drew together the Tofino community. I am wondering how you think “community” contributes to artists’ and writers’ process and products.

In Tofino, and in our region in general, “community” is huge. If you are a local writer or artist, you will almost be guaranteed a great launch of your work. The community as a whole is very creative so people understand that when artists put themselves out there – to release their writing, art, theatrical production, music, whatever — it’s part of the “deal” for the rest of us to support them. I know people who will buy every book put out by a local person and purchase new works of art, even though they have no room on their bookshelves or walls…

I think the creative events are also one of the few times in a very busy tourist town where “locals” gather. We did Jo’s launch for This Dark in mid-August, possibly the busiest time of the year in Tofino, but community members filled the venue. It was a little pause in the summer where we could come together, celebrate Joanna and Marion’s creativity, before going back out into the busy world. I am always rejuvenated after these events, and they are wonderful reminders of why Tofino is such a great place to live.

What new books can we expect from Postelsia Press?  

This Dark is our most recent title. Then there is a chapbook, The Golden Fish, which is an original fable by our local (just retired) librarian. And a small anthology (which we envision as one of a series), The Chesterman Beach Anthology — poetry, history, memoir, interviews by locals (some writers, most not) all about Chesterman Beach, our community’s place to celebrate, mourn, exercise, work out our troubles, get married, scatter ashes, learn to ride bikes, party…

Patrick Lane embraces world as he refutes it

Renowned poet Patrick Lane will launch his new book of poetry, Washita, at Open Space in Victoria on Nov. 2, 2014 at 7 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by Planet Earth Poetry. Lane recently took time from his writing schedule to talk with Lynne Van Luven about the sere surprises of his most recent poems, which he began to type slowly following a frozen-shoulder injury. In 2011, Lane published his impressive Collected Poems with Harbour Publishing, who also released Washita. Lane, an Officer of the Order of Canada, has won numerous literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

Patrick, Im intrigued by the title of your new collection. Some plains folks might recognize Washita as the Oklahoma river where Custer massacred the Cheyenne in 1868, but your focus with these poems is much wider and yet more particular. Can you talk a little about how the image of the Washita stone, a white quartz used for grinding and sharpening, signals your approach to language these days?

My father had a Washita sharpening stone in a narrow box. As a child I knew he treasured it, the stone somehow associated in my mind with being a man, the stone taken out by him to make an edge on a hunting knife, a chisel, objects that I wasn’t allowed to touch. It became then a talisman to me, a kind of holy ‘man’ object, and thus my vision of the future, captured as it was by his being in the war as well as him being a rodeo cowboy. Images of childhood, all kinds of holiness or unholiness depending on the view. The Washita symbol as representing the poems in the book…yes, the lines and images, the rhetorical flourishes however muted, all simple metaphors. Manliness, yes, something rarely spoken of in these new bright dark ages.

Is it correct to say you are trying an ever-more sere style in these poems?  Your tone to me seems always reflective, but here you are relying more on end-stopped and shorter lines. Does your continued struggle with vision, as well as the earlier frozen shoulder, contribute to this writing form?

It began the form, the writing with my left forefinger after my right arm and shoulder broke down from writing a novel on top of a novel, the former given up on entirely. The lines became compete sentences, end-stopped mostly with periods, though commas occasionally held them together. The slowness of the letters forming words with a typing finger, a right-brain, neither knowing where the keys were. So, a form, yes, however serendipitous, because when it began to evolve I began to explore its possibilities, the leaps between lines, the conjunctions of thought stressed to breaking points.

Yes, I like that. Breaking points.

Your many references to Japanese culture in such poems as Hiragana, referencing the feminine brush strokes in Japanese calligraphy, seem to echo the simplicity you are reaching for in your own work.  How does being as I have heard you called an elder statesman poet play into these approaches?

Elder? Yes, that too, advancing age. I was reading Confucius, his, “At seventy I followed my heart…” and I was seventy-one, following, willy-nilly, my heart. A man grows old in thought as much as deed, the imagination reduced to simple things, a tree frog the cat brought in this morning and offered to me, the tiny drum on its throat beating, exhausted by long effort and song, a sound made to draw a maiden and bringing instead the Minotaur. Japan? I love its OCD culture, the monk I saw at dawn at Ryoanji in Kyoto on his knees plucking pine needles from the moss. I too, OCD as I am, bring to language that same desire for order. Also, the words, iki, sunyata, uguisubai, sabi, words that express a presence in the human word that we require a paragraph to express. Thus the glossary at the end of the book. I have long admired Asian poetry, Japanese and Chinese poetry, since reading Kenneth Rexroth’s early translations in the early ’60s, and, of course, Waley’s earlier work.

Other writers, such as Albert Camus and Jack Gilbert, also create echoes in your poems. Can you reflect a little about how reading poetry from all over the world has shaped your own writing over the years?

I read a Penguin anthology of European poetry back in the early ’60s that left me quite shaken. Back then, there were almost no translations available in the outposts of the B.C. Interior, let alone the wilderness of barbaric Vancouver. The European forms didn’t shape my poetry so much as their perceptions of suffering, their witnessing the world, given the poetry covered a Europe of two great wars, their poets reporting back, [Austrian Expressionist Georg] Trakl and the rest. I loved German and Russian poetry. When I got to know [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko in Vancouver, our conversations ranged through my ignorance of his voice, his damnation.

To me, The Ecstasy of No is both a marvelous phrase and a wonderful poem. And yet in North America, we are beset with endless and therefore mostly meaningless words and images. Do writers need to protect themselves against that excess in order to keep their creative voice alive, their vision authentic?

I work daily on the word ‘no.’ No longer wish to travel, no longer wish to be distracted by humanity in its yearning for the destruction of all things, the desecration of all things. The poem “Off Valparaiso” reflects my waking in the night and weeping at the dream I had of the whales, Moby Dick, the ancient art of death, the song of the three-year voyages to fill barrels with whale-oil for the lamps that lighted the declarations of war, the pitiful please for peace. The distances between the words  “the” and “blue” and “heron,” are huge and unimaginable.

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.