Reflections on “Finding Father”

A friend recently asked me if I missed my dad. After stopping to think, I said no, not really, it’s already nearly ten years since his death and, because he had Alzheimers, it seems he’s been gone even longer. So, no.

Then I happened to be in my 1993 journal, looking for something else, and I came across a really lovely letter he wrote me that year, this after I’d pushed somewhat impetuously — in the midst of a mid-life exercise of figuring myself out as it were and re-visiting my upbringing — to discuss my perceptions of our relationship when I was a kid. He’d been exemplary in so many ways, a good provider, but always busy it seemed and also being relatively quiet, left the verbal articulation of affection up to Mom, who was much more outgoing. The letter acknowledged all this, used the word “shy” about himself, and then set down exactly what I suppose I was after: words of pride and love. Much felt resolved on account of it and it must have been how I realized that we were both introverts and that I actually took after him and not my mother in personality, much as I’d aspired to be like her. Re-reading the letter, I missed him.

I was also reading Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters, an anthology of 13 personal essays, edited by Mary Ann Loewen (University of Regina Press, 2019). It made me miss him too, because good personal writing not only enlarges our awareness of others but turns us back into ourselves. I think this is especially true if one shares some things in common with the authors, which in this case includes being a daughter, but also being Mennonite and in the same demographic as many of them.

At any rate, I enjoyed this collection very much. There’s variety of voice and approach. Elsie K. Neufeld movingly excavates her father’s history as a soldier in the German army and then postwar immigrant; Magdalene Redekop structures her “findings” around seven incidents with her father, the incidents rather small but together conveying an entire relationship; Jean Janzen begins with a poem and moves into poetic prose befitting the bond between this father and daughter; Raylene Hinz-Penner wonders if her father’s Lutheran roots accounted for his confidence, exuberance, and subversion of the dour pieties of their Mennonite environment; Cari Penner writes of a man who remains a stranger to her. And so on and so on.

I noticed something interesting happening by the time I finished the book, comprised as it is of numerous voices and relationships. The fathers seemed to have merged in my mind into one father, one good man, tall and dark-haired and somber in his Sunday suit, carrying sorrows from his immigrant or near-immigrant past, trying his best, silent or inarticulate about many things. Part of the patriarchy to be sure — the one sitting in the driver’s seat– but certainly not its most negative representative. None of the fathers in the anthology is the father I’ve just described, but somehow they’d fallen into line behind this composite figure. What remained more distinctively individual, however, were the daughters — the writers — and what they were doing in their pieces in terms of understanding, reaching back and towards, praising, longing for, or defending. Each had been shaped by her father, but each seemed to have become fully herself, whether with the help of or in spite of this first and vital man in her life. And now she was able to write perceptively about him, and with the perspective of her own life experience.

Author Questionnaire

I just posted the following at my Chronicles of Aging blog, the place I notice the ins and outs of living this stage. Since it concerns my work as writer, which I sometimes talk about here, I’m sharing it in this space too. (My apologies to those who follow both blogs for the repeat.)

I just spent several hours filling out an author questionnaire for Turnstone Press, publisher of my next novel, All That Belongs. They need information to market my book. A long string of questions. Basically, who am I, what have I done, where have I lived, who do I know?

It wasn’t my favourite assignment of the week but of course I did it. It’s among the things you do after the euphoria of a manuscript’s acceptance wears off.  But it felt peculiar, vulnerable, like taking a slow 360 degree scan of one’s life, to see if anything’s still relevant. Fortunately I have an up-to-date CV I could use for my publishing history. I was also glad I could think of several places across the country where a cluster of friends and relatives might be interested in me and my book. (Glad too for a big family.)

There were questions about the work itself. A description in my words? Themes? What do I think people will like about it? (So I can’t hide behind “I hope they’ll like it”?!)

What about its inspiration? This was my answer:

I clearly remember sitting in the sun near my local library when the character of Uncle Must–a mysterious and haunted man, a kind of Desert Father, equal parts faith and fear–dropped into my head. Then, like the narrator Catherine, I had to figure out who he was and what he wanted, and who she and the other characters who soon gathered around her were and what they wanted. I was interested in the whole concept of shame as well as how the past remains with us and what we do with its legacy when we would rather turn away than embrace.

Now I’m going to reward myself with a break and go read someone else!

Sally Ito: Becoming oneself through language

I miss the occasional lunches I enjoyed in Winnipeg with writers Sally Ito, Joanne Epp, and Sarah Klassen. I always came away warmed by their friendship and stimulated by our conversation, which sometimes continued later via email exchanges.

Reading Sally Ito’s recent memoir, The Emperor’s Orphans (Turnstone, 2018), shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Manitoba Books Awards this year, felt like an extended and wonderful such lunch. The Emperor’s Orphans is full of colourful characters, stories, and ideas that elaborate on the role of writing as “a becoming of oneself through language.” This “becoming” has particular currency for Ito as Japanese-Canadian. “I write to find my cultural identity,” she says.ItoSally_photosByMarlisFunk_0x280 (1)

The memoir is a multi-layered exploration, both in genre (diary excerpts, poems, essay, and storytelling) and in people and places. So rich and complex are the layers, in fact, I longed for a family chart to help me keep names and relationships straight, as well as a glossary of Japanese words! This is a minor critique, however. One can simply sink into the complication that is any personal or family story and observe the way being shapes and shifts. Identity, as her series of essay-like chapters demonstrates, isn’t linear as much as overlapping circles, turning ever deeper into legacy and geography, into past and present meaning.

download (1)Born to a Japanese couple in Alberta and growing up mainly in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Ito’s life and genealogy tugged between Canada and Japan. Some members of her fore-family immigrated to Canada and then returned to Japan, others remained there, yet others moved from their first Canadian home in southern B.C. to an internment camp and then to the flats of southern Alberta. Her story includes the challenges of immigration, race, assimilation, but also the reality of Canada’s insensitivity and injustice to her citizens of Japanese descent at the time of the Second World War.

Her dual loyalties, she says, have led to an interest in translation. Via translation, she shares the writings of her grandfather Toshiro. “He brought into consciousness everything he observed in words,” she comments. His writing was not about identity, for he was Japanese “through and through.” She, however, was “hybrid.” In high school, she began to write. She realizes she was, in this way, beginning to piece out her hybrid identity. “I felt the frisson of the creative energy and clarity words can give to an otherwise unexpressed thought or feeling. I became hooked on writing to find out what it could tell me about myself and the culture I felt I was so much in jeopardy of losing.” Despite growing up in Canada, she was “looking for the motherland.” In 1982, before university, she went to Japan for a year, for in Japan “was embodied the loss of what I felt was missing all these years in my life in Canada.”

Some years later she would return to Japan for a time with her own family. The last chapter of the memoir describes what she admits as perhaps quixotic efforts concerning land in her grandfather Saichi’s name (he immigrated to Canada as a young man), a quest bringing together “a remnant of the fringes of the family tree.” Although this didn’t work out in terms of the land itself, what she gained was “the land of story.”

I found this book fascinating, and recommend it.