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.

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.