Body and Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers

High time for me to say something about the anthology Body and Soul, edited by Susan Scott and published by Caitlin Press. I have a personal essay in it — “Mother and Child,” about my experience of our daughter’s came outing out — but that’s only one reason to mention the book. There are twenty-eight more, including contributions by writers such as Alison Pick (foreword), Sharon Bala, Carleigh Baker, K.D. Miller, Ayelet Tsabari, and Betsy Warland. And twenty-two others.

9781987915938Body and Soul takes on the daunting and often rather private concept of “spiritual.” As the back cover states, it breaks “that age-old code of silence to talk about the messiness of faith, practice, religion and ceremony…” Its writers emerge from contexts that may be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Indigenous, or nothing. There’s leaving and joining, leaning away from and leaning towards.

I confess that writing my piece seemed risky to me. Fear of judgment, I suppose it was. Fear it wouldn’t be enough of whatever for whoever. But putting it to paper was a powerful experience for me too, as writing can be when the very act of it traces through facts of the past to reveal a landscape seen as if in fog the first time round and now glittering with a kind of clarity. And editor Susan Scott was a marvellous (and soothing) guide and champion.

The seed for the anthology got planted when a panel on spiritual memoir at the Wild Words Festival in 2015 provoked surprisingly enthusiastic response. In an interview with Isabella Wang for Growing Room, Susan said:

“Let’s face it. There’s a lot of eyeball rolling when it comes spirituality, religion, faith—pick your word, they’re all words that make people uneasy. Real knowledge, understanding or empathy are often thin, and it’s no wonder. Canadians tend to keep such matters private, which is fine on the one hand; on the other hand, it means we lack a nuanced public discourse, a lexicon to reach for.”

Susan Scott

Susan Scott

I participated in two of the launch events for Body and Soul in Vancouver last month. As I listened to Susan introduce the project the evening we read at the Vancouver Public Library, as I heard her passion for what it represents and how unique it is, I felt myself pulled out of and beyond the personal experience of my own essay. I felt myself placed into a solid companionship — with the other women who happened to be reading that evening, as well as the others in the book, all of us beside the other in a fine alphabetized row. Companionship, yes, with the commitment to listen hard and well to each of them. I believed I could rest in the expectation that they would listen hard and well to me as well. 

“I liken the process of building an anthology to the practice of hospitality—another old word that’s misunderstood. The roots of hospitality are linked to care. In the writing community, a hospitable publishing process begins and ends with care. Care, as in deep listening and holding the space for writers. Care, as in I care deeply about what you have to say and I believe in my bones that others will care. Care, as in judicious editing that builds on trust.” (Susan Scott, interview with Isabella Wang).

You can look for Body and Soul at your local bookstore or library (if not, please request they order), or through Caitlin Press or Amazon.

Susan Orlean on libraries

Yesterday a friend and I went to hear journalist Susan Orlean, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of eight books, talk about her latest, The Library Book. The event was held, fittingly enough, at the Vancouver Public Library, a place I find compelling and enjoy spending time in even though its Colosseum-look seems, to my eye, somehow incongruous in this dynamic and contemporary city. But never mind, the book isn’t about this library in particular but about the Los Angeles Public Library and its devastation by fire in 1986, though it’s also, by extension, about libraries in general. download

My friend read Orlean’s book; I haven’t yet, though I listened to her in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. She’s a dynamic and articulate presenter, which isn’t necessarily the case with (us) writers, so the evening–to a packed hall–was both entertaining and informative. She’s been speaking about her book a lot, so I’m sure that helps; it’s down to a fine polish.

Orlean has a reputation for landing on unusual topics–a taxidermist competition, for example, or the dog Rin Tin Tin. And now a library. She arrives at them, she said, by “responding to an authentic curiosity I can’t shake off.” She’s delighted, she said, by two “species” of stories: 1. “something familiar I realize I know nothing about” or 2. “a story hiding in plain sight.” Her exploration of the L.A. library and its history combined those two.

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Susan Orlean, VPL Mar. 6, 2019

It took her six years to learn and write that story. “I see myself as a student,” she said. “The moment I feel I could teach [the material] is how I know I’ve learned it.” The book is “meticulously researched,” interviewer Carol Shaben noted, and, I gathered, the book wanders about considering almost everything imaginable concerning libraries. Orlean’s answer to the question of how she worked a topic so sprawling into a structure was interesting. The experience of the narrative, she suggested, was like being in a library, you might pull a book off the shelf about arson and then another on, say, shelving, and then another about something else. But always it circles back to: “there was this this terrible event, and why does that matter?”

download (1)It matters, she said, because libraries matter: physical, communal, shared spaces, one of the few public places left without commerce. They’re the memory of a culture or civilization. And, they’re not without vulnerability. As with the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 and on numerous other occasions in history, they can be burned.

“Not much money but a completely fascinating profession”: FBCW Books Alive event

Lots of books, lots of options, stay open and be flexible. (And it’s fascinating!)

That’s what I took away from the Federation of B.C. Writers’ “Books Alive Brown Bag Publishing Fair” at the Vancouver Public Library on Saturday. I’m still new to the writing scene in this province, so I enjoyed meeting others and also hearing presentations from a variety of industry specialists. A few things that grabbed my attention from three of them:

Jamie Broadhurst of Raincoast Books: Did he say 250,000 new titles published in North America each year, maybe triple that self-published? If I got that right, it’s no wonder I can’t keep up! He also said Canada is currently the most successful English language trade market, for a number of reasons, one of them being that libraries here have healthy acquisition budgets.

Paul Whitney, former chief librarian of Vancouver: Do we need more books (see previous paragraph)? His answer: “The impetus to create is powerful.” The key issue, he said, is the reader’s time. He spoke of “the stressed reader.” And this: “The library provides an afterlife for a book, after its commercial life.”

Betsy Warland, writing coach and author: “You have to be more flexible and imaginative [today] in how you get your work out there… Stay open and keep being informed about alternatives… We’re earning less and having to put more money in… Be inventive, playful… Have to be very self-reliant, way more than [before], have to have a platform, bigger skill set… Not much money but a completely fascinating profession.”