Category Archives: Senica Maltese

Festival’s diversity focus unites writers

Victoria Writers Festival

At Oak Bay United Church

Nov. 6-8

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

If you were to pass me on the street, you would see a white, middle-class, straight woman. You would not be wrong to see me this way, but it isn’t the whole story.

This year, the third annual Victoria Writers Festival gathered writers from a variety of literary backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations and genders to tackle ideas around diversity and unity.

As Victoria Youth Poet Laureate Morgan Purvis stated in the first reading on Nov. 6, “the only thing that ends in death is the illusion of our separateness.” Though many of the events and readings focused on the unique pain caused by this separateness, and the labels that inevitably arise as a result, I think the closing line of Purvis’s stunning spoken-word poem remained relevant throughout the entirety of the festival.

The opening event on Nov. 8, a multi-generation panel on queer women’s writing entitled The Queer Sentence, was one of the first all-queer events to appear in a mainstream festival. The panel, which was hosted by early queer activist, editor and critic Chris Fox, included Betsy Warland, Leah Horlick, Arleen Pare, Jane Byers, and Alie Blythe. Each of these writers shared portions of their most recent works before engaging the audience in a supportive and open discussion on queer literature, history and the complexity of labelling oneself and labelling others.

Though the panel seemed to agree that having access to an umbrella term like “queer” is useful, Betsy Warland’s designation, “a person of between,” is the most inclusive and accurate definition that I have heard. Warland concluded the event, declaring, “There is no straight line.”

The lack of a straight line reappeared in this year’s Carol Shields Lecture, which also dealt with the complexities of separateness, but from an indigenous point of view. The lecture, entitled “Islands of Decolonial Love: Exploring Love on Occupied Land” was presented by Leanne Simpson (pictured above), a Nishnaabeg storyteller and activist.

Simpson’s presentation, told in four timeless Nishnaabeg stories, explored the impact of colonialism on the lands and bodies of First Nations peoples and fearlessly delved into the ways that colonialism has damaged their intimacy and caused generations of shame in indigenous communities.

According to Simpson, storytelling spurs the creation of what she calls “islands of decolonial love”; however, she clearly stated that story telling is only the first step in the long and labyrinthine path to indigenous resurgence.

Though complex in its implications, Simpson regarded her ability to give her lecture in a branch of the United Church, which was responsible for much of the pain in Simpson’s cultural history, as a tremendous success.

Darrell Dennis’s reading, which appeared in “The World Before Us” gala, also addressed the damage caused by colonial occupation on First Nation’s land, but from a place of searing wit. Reading from his newest book, Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth and Lies About Indians, Dennis deconstructed some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes pushed onto indigenous individuals.

As a person who is easily slotted into the mainstream, I am acutely aware of my privileged position in Canada, and in the world. The pain and historical weight behind these presentations allowed me access into worlds where I do not often feel openly welcomed. Without a doubt, the third annual Victoria Writer’s Festival has encouraged me to rethink and reread history, literature, the body and the self. I would call it a tremendous success.

Senica Maltese is a writing and English literature undergrad at UVic. 

Haida Manga is evocative and deeply human

Red: A Haida Manga

Story and art by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Douglas & Mcintyre

108 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

Hand-painted by artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga is the stunning retelling of a tragic Haida legend, in which an orphan boy named Red grows up vengeful after raiders capture his sister from their coastal village. The evocative artwork, reminiscent not only of tribal Haida art, but also of Japanese watercolours, gives Red’s harrowing and fantastical story a deeply human quality. Yahgulanaas illuminates the story’s complicated commentary on the cycle of greed, fear, destruction and rebirth.

As a graphic novel novice, I didn’t know what to expect from this mysterious “Haida manga” form. At first, I found the jumps in setting unnecessarily jarring; however, on a second reading, they proved an artful way to enact how violence, nurtured by a rising sense of capitalism among the coastal villages, ruptures Red’s spiritual awakening and leads him down a path of self-destruction. The surrealist distortion of the illustrations, particularly during the raid scene, makes Red’s terror and trauma palatable on a bodily level, thereby proving the graphic novel form is an excellent complement to traditional oral narrative.

Without a doubt, Red is the kind of story that is enriched by multiple readings. I understood and appreciated this story in Yahgulanaas’s graphic novel form much more when I read it a second time. The story’s commentary on the relationship between greed, fear, destruction and rebirth remains complicated and resists a simple reduction, even given multiple readings. However, it becomes ever more purposeful in its execution.

On my first reading, the narrative’s point of gravity felt muddled. I wasn’t sure what point the story, or the author, was trying to make. I had a vague sense of anti-capitalist sentiment, but I couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the story. My second reading, although it did not give me a hard answer to the “point” of the story, felt successful in its complexity rather than ill-conceived.

Even the artwork grew on me with re-reading. I could immediately see the skill and expertise in Yahgulanaas’s paintings, but they just weren’t to my personal taste. Looking at these paintings now, I appreciate them wholeheartedly and wish that the paperback format had made use of the fact that this entire story forms a single piece of art when the pages are placed side by side. I think it would be extremely successful as an accordion book that could be unfolded into the original poster sized piece of art (but that would cost a small fortune, I suspect).

If you want to expand your reading into literary graphic literature, but don’t know what to pluck from the shelves of superhero comics at your bookstore, pick up Red. It’s a rough gem with a shining centre if you take the time to look for it.

Senica Maltese is a writing and English literature undergrad at the University of Victoria. 

Shy in person, bold on the page

Shy: An Anthology

Edited by Naomi K. Lewis & Rona Altrows

The University of Alberta Press

171 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

Shy, An Anthology battles the stigmas and assumptions that surround what it means to be shy with a collection of poems and personal essays. As someone who has always self-identified as shy, regardless of my peers’ boisterous disagreements, I approached this anthology with a combination of weariness and curiosity. I found the foreword, which described, with great spirit, the crippling effects of shyness and social anxiety, nerve-wracking. It did not seem true to my experience, and I became worried that this anthology, though full to the brim with good intention, would dramatize shyness, making it feel less real, less important. I was afraid that shyness would become a caricature.

Luckily, by the end of the book, this fear was assuaged. I found the personal essays particularly interesting and engaging. Some of the contributors recounted childhood experiences much like mine.  For instance, Naomi K. Lewis describes French Immersion in her contribution, “Say Water.” Primarily, the essays recounted childhood experiences, though some did discuss shyness in adulthood. For this reason, I couldn’t help but think that these stories would make powerful guest lectures at elementary or high schools. As someone who has already worked through the shyness of childhood, these stories did not carry as much weight for me as they might for someone in the midst of these feelings.

I appreciated  those essays that focused on shyness in early adulthood, and even late adulthood. I particularly enjoyed Jeff Miller’s “Common Loon,” which recounts his experiences with shyness in a foreign country after a disastrous break up. Debbie Bateman’s “Amongst the Unseen and Unheard” reminded me that the “most damaging part of shyness isn’t the embarrassment,” but rather “the missed moments” and all the meaningful connections that we fail to make due to our own fears.

As for the poetry, I really enjoyed Lorna Crozier’s contribution, “Watching My Lover,” which is indescribably beautiful, and Kerry Ryan’s “How to be shy,” which has a refreshingly comedic take on shyness. The first segment of Ryan’s poem, entitled “How to be shy: the hug,” is especially funny, but also reflects how I and other shy individuals feel when confronted with random acts of physical closeness.

Even though Shy had its ups and downs, as with any anthology, I found it to be a  worthwhile read that I would recommend to anyone who has felt some sort of philosophical compulsion to understand her or his own shyness. In many ways, Shy is a compilation of coming of age stories centred on bashful, artistic individuals. And I am thankful to them for sharing their experiences.

Senica Maltese is a BA student focusing on Honours English and Writing.

Poet argues against simple readings

Poetry and Meaninglessness

At Gibson Auditorium, Camosun College, Lansdowne Campus

The Carol Shields Lecture

Delivered by Jan Zwicky

October 19th, 2013

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

As a writing student focusing on fiction and poetry, I had high expectations going into Jan Zwicky’s Carol Shields Lecture entitled “Poetry and Meaninglessness.” The lecture did not disappoint; however, it was not at all what I expected it to be.

The Victoria Writers Festival brochure stated that the lecture would explore how some contemporary poetry strikes us as meaningless and to what degree this assessment is correct. For this reason, I went into the lecture expecting to look at specific contemporary poems and to explore how they could be regarded as meaningless and how, perhaps, they nevertheless retained meaning. As I should have anticipated, this discussion resisted the simplicity that I predicted.

I firmly believe that we readers should engage with material that is “out of our league” and, for the most part, that’s what this lecture was for me. Jan Zwicky’s presentation, though clear, articulate and mind-blowingly intelligent, left me more dazed than enlightened. Her use of mathematical examples to explain our perception of our surroundings left me confused and grasping for the safe ground of the literature and poetry. As I was sitting in the auditorium at Camosun College listening to her speak, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person under 30 in the room, which may have explained why others in the audience were nodding and laughing while I sat paralyzed in the stands. However, toward the end of the lecture I began to get a more solid footing on the material.

I particularly enjoyed Zwicky’s segment about the joy that we derive from obtaining meaning, and how a harder struggle can result in greater joy.  The lecture genuinely impressed me when Zwicky insightfully remarked that we have become too satisfied with the “sugar rush” of understanding simple things. Zwicky insisted that meaning needs to advance and evolve into insight into realty, and that we should forgo “superficial pops” of understanding in favour of more durable insights. Zwicky concluded by asserting that writers, particularly poets, have a great responsibility to allow readers to experience their insights—in other words, that they must show the path to their insights in order that readers experience the insight for themselves. She stressed the importance of this evolution and cultivation of meaning in our modern day world, which is rooted in ecological and economic strife. Though this seemed a rather heavy note to end on, the lecture was still deeply inspiring and received a standing ovation.

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to engage with Zwicky’s insights into poetry, philosophy and human understanding in general. I suggest that anyone passionate about or interested in poetry attend one of her lectures, even if they think it may be “out of their league.”

Senica Maltese is a BA student focusing on Honours English and Writing.