Tag Archives: short stories

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 (www.tylergabrysh.com) is a writer who lives in Victoria.

Routley internationally recognized for LGBT lit

Andrea Routley, an alumna of the University of Victoria, has recently published her debut short story collection, Jane and the Whales through Caitlin Press. The collection is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, an international English-language award for LGBT literature. Previously, Routley’s work  has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She also edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010). Recently, Coastal Spectator Managing Editor Nadia Grutter discussed Jane and the Whales with Routley via email.

Andrea, I was delighted to read a series of short stories that skims so close reality. Your stories—particularly “The Gone Batty Interpretation”—challenged and moved me emotionally. Would you mind describing the emotional journey you went through writing this book?

Well, each story is its own journey. I didn’t begin writing the first story with an over-arching concept for a collection, but, like any writer, your obsessions begin to reveal themselves in your writing patterns. That particular story, “The Gone Batty Interpretation,” I wrote about six months after the suicide of a high school friend, so it is not a humorous story or an intellectual story at all. Suicide is something that comes up in several stories. So many of us are touched by this, but I most often hear it talked about in medical terms, as a treatable disease, and it’s not that simple. “The Sign,” on the other hand, deals with the same subject but in a way that (I think) is humorous. It looks at choices like that from a more logical perspective.

Your writing is powerful in its restraint—both in its brief form and concise content. Is this something you learned to cultivate through, say, workshops during your time at UVic or has your writing style always been so distilled? Basically, how did you learn to write the way you do?

When I first started writing stories, I’d often get the question, “Is this the beginning of a novel or a short story?” At first I felt proud of this question, like looking like a novel meant it was a big, fat, interesting story and this was a good thing. Then I realized this just meant I had a lot of superfluous detail or was alluding to potential plot twists that were never going to happen. You definitely learn to pare down the more you write. (And yes, I learned this while at UVic with the fantastic instructors!) I think this is in part because your writing becomes less precious to you, simply as a result of quantity. I’ve axed characters from some of these stories who I’d thought were critical in early drafts. For example, there was a kid like a wild animal who likes to stalk around in the sage by the clay cliffs and hisses at people, but eats his wiener like it’s corn on the cob. Maybe he’ll come up in another story, and if not, that’s okay too–it was fun to write the scenes with him. It’s not about publishing everything you write. It’s imperative to just enjoy writing, too (or just feel compelled to do it).

Your stories are very diverse content-wise. How did the stories inform each other in the writing process? Was there one core story that sparked a sort of leap-frog of ideas into the other stories?

Every story explore in some way humans’ and animals’ relationships with the world around them, that search for a place. “Habitat” certainly carried over into “The Gone Batty Interpretation” with the protagonists both coping with grief and expressing their sadness through empathy for an animal, among other things. Many of the stories have characters trying to make sense of the past through their unreliable memories — or the way we discover just how unreliable our memories are when something surprising happens to a person we thought we understood.

The conclusions to your stories strike a careful balance between inevitable and surprising. What did the process of rounding out an individual story look like for you?  

I’m glad to hear the conclusions feel that way. I try to write a “satisfying” ending to stories. Sometimes stories end so abruptly and the satisfaction is really delayed; it only comes later when you’ve had time to unlock its meaning. I can appreciate those endings, but I don’t really “enjoy” them. I try to write something that will feel concluded and satisfying, but give enough to leave you with something to chew on. For some of these stories, the rounding out involves the editor’s feedback, deleting one line too many, or adding one more beat. (Sometimes more than that, of course, like going back and rewriting a scene that obviously was not doing its job of setting up the ending and things like that).

Are you working on any projects aside from Plenitude at the moment?  

I have some crazy, daunting, stupid idea of writing another book, one of linked short stories of exclusively queer characters, across decades. I have read at a couple queer events and it was incredibly rewarding to read a queer story for such an engaged, lively, appreciative crowd. I want to make more of those characters that we are obviously in need of — “we” includes me. The queer past is full of diverse and wonderful people and experiences, and there are not enough of us in story. If anyone would like some ideas on new queer books to read, though, I have an ever-growing list of new queer Canadian titles at PlenitudeMagazine.ca.

For more on new queer Canadian titles, visit http://plenitudemagazine.ca/resources/new-queer-books/.

Glover’s stories engrossing, polished

Savage Love

By Douglas Glover

Goose Lane

264 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Susan Sanford Blades

Turn to any page of Douglas Glover’s Savage Love and you’ll find yourself engrossed in a world without convention, where an emaciated woman in otter-skin coat and hunting boots becomes a universal sex symbol or a man falls in love with a legless mute and proceeds to kill anyone who comes “like lambs through the front door.”

This is Glover’s tenth book of fiction, his sixth book of short stories. He won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2003 for his novel, Elle, but as of yet has been overlooked by awards juries for his latest effort.  That’s a shock, as this is a tight, accomplished book of stories, published in the year of the story by a man who, literally, wrote the book on writing fiction (Attack of the Copula Spiders, Biblioasis, 2012).

Savage Love begins with a two-page Prelude, “Dancers at the Dawn,” in which stated language is “much better for describing things that don’t exist than for pinning down reality.” Glover dances with this writer’s paradox throughout the book. He pins down what is real—realer than real—in language that is graceful, muscular, challenging (no one has me reaching for the dictionary like Douglas Glover), all the while decrying it for its ineptitude. In the tongue-in-cheek “The Lost Language of Ng,” for instance, “the more achieved Ng intellectuals . . . eschewed speaking altogether and communicated by ‘signs and thoughts.’ ”

The remainder of the book is separated into Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. Each piece is a theme-heavy meditation told in eloquent language, with characters described in details that are contradictory, astonishing, and beautiful (much like humans themselves), with quick, original plot lines—sometimes so fast-moving as to make the story itself seem implausible thus allowing his reader to hone in on its elements, which, I believe, is Glover’s intent.

Throughout the book, Glover rips open the skin, digs deep, and exposes the beating heart of life (“I am already nostalgic for the yeasty richness of life, its sudden turns and dramas, its deep sadness, its mysterious and gorgeous purposelessness”), the “inhuman endlessness of desire,” and, of course, love (“whatever happened between us, it would end badly, that all love ended badly, that we would one day part out of boredom or disgust, or that we would grow old and not be the people we were this minute”).

His characters are never dull (even the cardigan-sweater-wearing librarians among them); his endings often sheer quirky brilliance (“except for the catering assistant found with a pitchfork in her throat behind the barn after the reception, everyone lives happily ever after. For a while.”)

At times I found myself wanting for the mundane, for a peek at the mechanics of humanity via an exposed slip, Munro-style, rather than a Glover-style gawk at the meaning of life via the gruesome edge of death. But an author cannot satisfy all of his reader’s desires and Savage Love is a celebration of what Douglas Glover—and the short story—can achieve.

Susan Sanford Blades is a Victoria writer.