Monthly Archives: April 2016

BWS 04.05.2016: Melanie Mah

Melanie Mah headshot

Melanie Mah, originally from the foothills of Alberta, now calls Toronto home. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is the author of The Sweetest One, a novel forthcoming from Cormorant Books in June.

In her guest post below, Melanie tells us about the music in the background in both her novel and her life. Enjoy!

The Sweetest One takes as its centre a passionate teenage girl named Chrysler Wong for whom music is vital. From scenes involving concerts and song lyrics to the role music plays in Chrysler’s life and the attention I gave to how words and sentences sound, this book owes a debt to music. The songs below reflect major motifs and themes in the book and my writing life so far, and are also just songs I really like. Here goes.

Sonic Youth – Teenage Riot

I’ve loved this song for years and years. To me, it really encapsulates an excitement about life seemingly had by most in their teen years and by a few lucky ones throughout their lives. There can be a wonder in life, a sense of possibilities – who will be the love of your life? How will they complete you? What kind of amazing things will you experience in the future? Who will you meet? How will your life change? – and yearning, too, which I think is especially strong when you grow up in a town that’s too small for you. These are things I can’t help but think about when I listen to this song, which is weird because I’m in my thirties and really happy with my life, and they’re things I try to capture in my book, in addition to feelings like joy and fury I find so apparent in this song.

This book is a kind of study of potential approaches to impending death. It’s about a family with five kids where the first three kids die at age eighteen outside their small hometown and the last two decide that there is a family curse, and that if they leave town at age eighteen, they may die, too. The elder of those, Trina, leaves anyway because she wants a full life. She’s the risk-taker of the two, and she’s cool, magnetic and fun. The younger is our protagonist, Chrysler. Chrysler has responded to tragedy and the inherent difficulties of her life by making strict rules for herself – chief among them: “Do not leave town” – and by becoming someone who’s cripplingly anxious of many things. But the flipside to this is that she’s so full of wonder. She looks at a pretty and enormous sky and feels a chinook and still thinks, “Holy fucking shit,” even though she’s already experienced those things many times. Her almost-magic power is that she doesn’t take anything for granted. She thinks life is amazing, even though it’s really hard, too. The problem is, she’s curious and cosmopolitan, and she knows her life would be way better in key ways if she left town to travel or live in a city and go to university. These are some of the things she wants most in the world. But she can’t leave because she’s afraid of change and afraid of dying and leaving her parents alone. And what if Trina comes home and, finding Chrysler gone, leaves again? It’s that classic “Person comes to town” storyline flipped on its head. More like, “Person can’t leave town.”

Chinese opera sung by my parents in a car on road trips to Edmonton when I was young. (No YouTube clip available! Too bad for you.)

I used to hate Chinese opera. I still kind of do. There’s something almost…ghoulish and otherworldly about it. I don’t know anything about the history of it, but I do know Chinese people, especially ones with village connections like Chrysler’s dad, have a very close relationship with death. Plus, it’s dramatic, and a story about a girl who thinks she’s going to die soon is as dramatic as they come.

My inclusion of Chinese opera here underlines the importance of Chrysler’s relationships with her parents. Much of the present-tense story is Chrysler at home or in the family business (a clothing store). Chrysler’s not a favourite of either parent, she’s what’s left, and traces of the dead or missing siblings hang like ghosts in her life and in the book; still, she’s close to them.

Dream a Little Dream of Me – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

This song is about having a person in your life who’s very important. It’s about how much better life is when you’re with that person. (And it’s about romantic love, too, but that isn’t so important here.) To Chrysler, that person is Trina.

This is one of the first songs referenced in the book. It’s a perfect sad, yearning song for a sad, yearning part of the book. It appears on a mix tape Chrysler’s sister Trina is playing in her car while the two have a rare hangout on the night she disappears without a trace. It’s a kind of send off. When Trina leaves, all Chrysler seems to have are dreams and memories, and her outlook on life. Because meaning in Chrysler’s life comes primarily from her family. She hasn’t learned to live with herself in the centre of the frame yet.

The appearance of this song in the book also reflects the cultural omnivorousness of many teenagers. I remember making tapes that were like, a jazz song, then a rock song, then a rap song, then a bluegrass song – all in a row.

Beat Happening – Tiger Trap

One thing that Chrysler wants most and is also most of afraid of in the world is romantic love. When I was in my late teens and had never been in a relationship before, I would listen to bands like Beat Happening, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo, bands I loved that sometimes had a real romantic sound and think, “Love will feel like how this sounds.” It’s a weird emotional synaesthesia, maybe it sounds cheesy.

Chrysler thinks love will change her irrevocably. She also thinks she’ll never, ever find it, which could be true because she often picks the wrong guy and doesn’t have the social smarts to know how to woo him. Also, she’s a misfit at school. Small town teenage misfits often grow up and move to cities where they find love and happiness. Lucky them. Chrysler has it tougher.

Sometimes people want romantic love because of some big thing that is or was missing in their lives – either that or some big, traumatic problem. Those people are like buckets with holes in them and they’re trying to patch it up with chewing gum or duct tape or any other way they can. It’s sad because the buckets should have been made whole in the first place.

JS Bach (performed by Pablo Casals) – Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: I. Prelude

Usually, I write in a library. Sometimes the library gets loud, and I have to put on music to drown everybody out. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I write, so usually, I put on some kind of classical music. I like Tchaikovsky and Chopin, but I really fucking love Bach. And I love the cello. One day, during a particularly noisy spell at the library, I played this song on repeat, like fifteen times. The song is only 2.5 minutes long! That day, I joked that I wished Bach or someone or some computer that can write music like Bach had done an hour-long version of this song. I guess this song is part of a bigger song with some repeated themes, but for some reason, I like this part of it the best. (And yeah, this song is everywhere – on TV and in movies and probably also in some toilet paper commercial or something, but there’s a reason: it’s the real deal.)

Casals made a recording of the Bach Cello Suites in the 1920s and 1930s that absolutely blew my mind. It’s mastery coming forth through a lo-fi recording technique that makes it sound even better. I want to be as good at writing as Bach was at writing music, as Pablo Casals was at playing cello. It might never happen, but one can dream.

Melanie Mah visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Pushpa Raj Acharya, Larissa Lai, Shari Kasman and a special guest talk, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, by Dundurn Press acquisitions editor Shannon Whibbs.

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BWS 04.05.16: Pushpa Raj Acharya

Version 3

Pushpa Raj Acharya grew up in Pokhara, Nepal, and came to Canada in 2012. His first poetry book, Chhayakal (“The Shadows of Time”), is in Nepali, and his second, Dream Catcher, is in English. His collaborative poetry and art book Somnio: The Way We See It was published in 2015. Pushpa was a member of Borderlines Writers Circle/Writer-In-Exile Program, Edmonton. He is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. 

Pushpa dropped by the blog this weekend and told us a little about himself and his poetry ahead of his May 4 visit.

Five Fragments

A Jackfruit Tree
My father used to recite verses—including his own—in Nepali and Sanskrit. When he bought a National Panasonic 3 Band Radio Cassette Recorder, he recorded some of them. For several days when the world went quiet late at night, the room would resound with his recital. A curious, albeit rather trying occasion for a sleepy kid. A huge jackfruit tree in front of the house stood as an unwavering witness. I would play the recordings for several years to come.

Poetry Flows from Writing to Speech
Many years passed. After I finished high school, I tried my hand at writing verses in Nepali. My inspiration came not from the force of feelings but from a compelling desire to recite verses. I composed verses in Sanskrit meters, learnt them by heart, and recited them among the poets in Pokhara. Later, the surging, loosening emotions steered me to an open form. I wrote free verse poems, committed them to memory, and spoke them out, mostly.

Fluid/Fixed
Poetry’s perpetual fugitiveness marks its beginnings. Poetry slips from the fixed to the fluid, from the fluid to the fixed. The recital transformed the fixed memory of scripts into the fluidity of sound. The sound of poetry was inscribed on the jackfruit tree invisibly and written on the magnetic tapes tangibly. An illiterate village poet, Pahalman Subedi, from eastern Nepal composed oral verses, which survived only in the listeners’ memory. Nepali poet and playwright, Abhi Subedi remembered a couple of them and wrote them down on his notebook. One poem says: “Once uttered, all sentences are written on the universe (boleka jati vakya chhan ti ta sabai brahmanda ma lekhine)”. He knew that the fluidity of his oral poetry was at the same time a fixed inscription on the cosmos. Or on the jackfruit tree and the sky that covered it.

Communal Celebrations
Or on the mountains like the Annapurna, when a group of poets in 1998 read poems to a small group of the community members at Muktinath. Nepali poet Sarubhakta read out five points of the manifesto of the Conservation Poetry Movement (Samrakshan Kavita Andolan). We would write environmental, ecological poems and travel to villages. Reading poetry with villagers and schoolchildren, I realized the counter-flows of poetry. Poetry is a flow from a pensive mood to the communal celebrations.

Code-switching
In 2010, I listened to Dylan Thomas—his voice, poems, and the play, Under Milk Wood, fixed on a digital recording. So potent was the experience that I began to write poetry in English. The flow from one language to another has been a liberating experience.

Pushpa Raj Acharya visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Shari Kasman, Larissa Lai, Melanie Mah, and a special guest talk, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, by Dundurn Press acquisitions editor Shannon Whibbs.

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BWS 04.05.16: Larissa Lai

Lai publicity photo 2014

Larissa Lai is the author of two novels, When Fox Is a Thousand and Salt Fish Girl; two books of poetry, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement; and most recently, a critical book, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers’ Award, she has been shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Tiptree Award, the Sunburst Award, the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award, the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the Dorothy Livesay Prize. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Calgary and directs The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing there. Larissa’s appearance is made possible with travel funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.

Toronto performance artist Gein Wong, artistic director for the company Eventual Ashes, adapted Salt Fish Girl in 2008. Here’s a little peek.

Larissa Lai visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Pushpa Raj Acharya, Shari Kasman, Melanie Mah and a special guest talk, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, by Dundurn Press acquisitions editor Shannon Whibbs.

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BWS 04.05.16: Shari Kasman

ShariKasman

Shari Kasman is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Joyland and Taddle Creek Magazine as well as in Anansi’s eBook anthology of Broken Social Scene stories. Her collection of short stories, Everything Life Has to Offer, is forthcoming from Invisible Publishing in November 2016.

Shari didn’t write anything for her guest post this week. Or maybe she did.

Why I’m Not Writing

I need to write something for this Brockton Writers Series blog and decide to write about distractions. I search the Internet for information to include in the piece and learn from the Psychology Today website that distractions can be disruptive. I was hoping to learn something a four-year-old doesn’t know so I continue searching the internet, but notice a layer of dust on a shelf. I get out the microfibre cloth from under the sink and dust the shelf then figure I might as well dust some other things, too, so I tackle the top of a picture frame and the top of a stereo speaker. Small improvements like this matter. Back on the couch with my laptop, I decide that rather than delve deeper into the topic of distractions, this piece can be entirely based on existing knowledge. I can’t find the notebook I was going to write in, but I know I saw it earlier. I look under the couch. It’s not there. I open my laptop and check email, Facebook, and Twitter. I have three notifications about events I won’t attend and one notification that says someone I barely know likes my photo of cake falling over. An email from my mother says she was listening to latin jazz on the jazz radio station, and a Twitter link sends me reading articles on plants that purify air, which reminds me that I should water my plants. One is overgrown and could potentially envelop the fridge, so I cut off some pieces and repot the plants, leaving dirt all over the floor, which I need to vacuum before it spreads. I water the plants and am about to get back to writing but it feels like I’m getting a cold and there’s a tangelo on the table so I eat it as a preventative measure. I’m ready to write this piece now but I first pour a glass of water, then decide tea would be a good idea, so I put on the kettle. I could have three productive minutes of writing before I’d have to turn off the stove, but there’s a knock at my door. It’s the mailman. He has a package for me. I sign for it and he says I have best signature he’s seen all day — it looks a little like Arabic. Since we’re already talking I see this as the perfect opportunity to ask him a series of job-related questions. He explains that his mail route goes up and down my street and the next street and around the corner, and he says he delivers mail for five hours every day, then I close the door and put the package on the floor. I turn off the kettle and grab the first tea bag I see. It’s superfruit tea. I don’t know what superfruit is, but it’s worth trying anything that claims to be super. I should know what I’m drinking, so I Google superfruit and learn that it can be any number of berries. Super. Then my phone beeps because a couple people on Twitter are now following someone who’s irrelevant to me. My phone dings. It’s an email from my mother that says her house lost power for ten minutes. I’m ready to write but don’t see my notebook. I check on the piano then realize I should be playing piano, but because there’s a keyboard on the floor, I end up listening to synth drum tracks which I then need to record so I can remember what I’m doing later on when I continue working on this, when I’m not in the middle of writing this piece for the reading series. I see that a button on my sweater is coming loose and need to fix it before it falls off. I can’t find the needles. The pin cushion should be near the sewing machine, but I don’t see it there, then find it on the kitchen table. I take the first spool of thread I see and sew the button, then check to make sure all the other buttons are secure. Then I check the buttons on another sweater and on two coats. My tea is now cold. I need to boil more water. I put the kettle on and drink cold superfruit tea. I find my writing notebook under the microfibre cloth which is on top of a larger notebook that’s full of ideas. I flip through the book of ideas and read about an an idea for an art project that has to do with shapes. I write the idea on a Post-It Note which I stick to the wall by the couch. I turn off the stove and pour boiling water into the half-full mug of cold superfruit tea. The alarm on my phone goes off, but I can’t remember why I’d set it. My phone chimes. It’s an email from my mother to let me know she’s going to a meeting tonight. I’m not working at my desk since it’s too messy in that room because I need a bookshelf. I contemplate going out to buy a bookshelf but don’t go anywhere since I need to get some writing done. I check Craigslist and the only good bookshelf is a 45-minute drive from home. I renew the Craigslist ads for my squash racquet and for university textbooks that are too out of date to be useful. I check my email. I check Facebook. My phone alarm goes off again and I remember it’s because I’m supposed to play the piano, but I already did that, so now I can write this piece. I check my email and remember I should go buy a stamp to mail a birthday card. I’ll write this thing later.

Shari Kasman visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Pushpa Raj Acharya, Larissa Lai, Melanie Mah and a special guest talk, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, by Dundurn Press acquisitions editor Shannon Whibbs.

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Brockton Writers Series 04.05.16

WEDNESDAY, MAY 4, 2016 – 6:30pm

May the fourth be with you! Come out to Brockton Writers Series’ third event of 2016. Featuring readers:

Pushpa Raj Acharya
Shari Kasman
Larissa Lai
Melanie Mah

and special guest speaker

Shannon Whibbs

AT

full of beans Coffee House & Roastery

1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and treats are available for sale. Please note that while the venue is wheelchair accessible, washroom facilities are not.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

Print

And to the Canada Council for the Arts for travel funding!

GUEST SPEAKER

“Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”

Whibbsheadshot.jpg

Shannon Whibbs is Acquisitions Editor at Dundurn. She has edited the works of authors such as Austin Clarke, Audrey Thomas, Farzana Doctor, George Fetherling, Allan Stratton, and Priscila Uppal. She holds a B.A. in English from Queen’s University and is a graduate of the Centennial College Book and Magazine Publishing Program. Shannon is a former writer for Chart Magazine and has done editorial work for FASHION Magazine, Harlequin, and House of Anansi. She lives in Toronto.

READERS

PUSHPAPushpa Raj Acharya grew up in Pokhara, Nepal, and came to Canada in 2012. His fist poetry book, Chhayakal (“The Shadows of Time”), is in Nepali, and his second, Dream Catcher, is in English. His collaborative poetry and art book Somnio: The Way We See It was published in 2015. Pushpa was a member of Borderlines Writers Circle/Writer-In-Exile Program, Edmonton. He is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. 

ShariKasmanShari Kasman is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Joyland and Taddle Creek Magazine as well as in Anansi’s eBook anthology of Broken Social Scene stories. Her collection of short stories, Everything Life Has to Offer, will be published by Invisible Publishing in November 2016.

 

Lai publicity photo 2014Larissa Lai is the author of two novels, When Fox Is a Thousand and Salt Fish Girl; two books of poetry, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement; and most recently, a critical book, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers’ Award, she has been shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Tiptree Award, the Sunburst Award, the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award, the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the Dorothy Livesay Prize. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Calgary and directs The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing there.

Melanie Mah, originally from the foothills of Alberta, now calls Toronto home. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is the author of The Sweetest One, a novel forthcoming in spring 2016 by Cormorant Books.

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