Monthly Archives: December 2017

BWS 10.01.18: Rod Michalko

Rod 7

Rod Michalko is a blind disability studies theorist who has recently retired from teaching at the University of Toronto. His books and essays are known internationally. He has now moved into the realm of short story writing, and Things are Different Here is his first collection. He lives in Toronto.

In his guest blog below, Rod shares his story of the inspirations behind his writing and the man who guided him along the way.

 

Comfort food, that’s what they called it, comfort food. We sat in that Queen St. East restaurant, five of us, dining on comfort food. The servers didn’t bring our food already individually plated. Instead, they brought bowls, bowls of food – potatoes, chicken, string beans – all in bowls. We helped ourselves; “Pass the string beans,” someone said; “Chicken, please,” said another, and we sat, comfortably passing bowls of comfort food to one another.

I began telling people just how much I was enjoying this comfort food. No one, including servers, felt obliged to tell me where on the plate my food was located. No one said your chicken is at three O’clock or your string beans are at six O’clock. There were none of these awkward moments, moments when sighted people felt a responsibility, a duty even, to let someone like me, someone who is blind, know where to find food on our plate. No one connected time and food. People merely asked me if I wanted chicken or potatoes.  I then said, “Yes, and put the potatoes right here,” indicating a spot on my plate with my finger, “Just put them right here.”

It was a wonderful evening almost six years ago now — good friends, lots of fun and I had the pleasure, not to mention the honor, of talking to Austin Clarke who was seated right next to me.  We spoke of many things but our conversation settled on my experience as a blind person. About to retire from university teaching, I remember telling Austin I was thinking of the possibility of writing short stories, stories that featured blind characters. Blindness and disability in general had been the focus of my academic writing. Now, I was telling Austin I think a change is due. Bringing blindness alive in fiction might be a worthwhile pursuit.

We then spoke of Austin’s work, his books of short stories, his many novels and his poetry, and we spoke of the poem he was currently working on, Where the Sun Shines Best. I told him how much I admired his writing, especially how he so vividly depicted the lives of Caribbean people as they settled in Toronto. I talked about one of his characters, my favorite, Boysie. We spoke of how Austin developed Boysie in his novels and how he used humor to do this. And yet, there was something sad, even tragic, in the way Austin portrayed Caribbean people in Toronto. We spoke of this too.

At many points during our conversation that evening, others wondered what Austin and I were talking about and tried their best to join in. A couple of them teased us saying that we were just a couple of old guys commiserating. They teased us, too, about our sticks – mine a white cane and Austin’s a solid walking stick. One of us, I think it was me, teased back saying that Austin and I would walk down the street to the Grand Hotel, he guiding me and I providing him with some balance. We would make quite the spectacle, I remember Austin saying.

Our conversation soon returned to writing. Austin asked me what I had experienced as very pointed questions. Will I have more than one blind character in each story? Would these characters be totally blind, or have a little sight?  And, then, the most pointed one: Will I, Austin wanted to know, describe things, people, scenes, buildings, and so on. This question never occurred to me before, at least in the sense that describing requires seeing.  Could there be another way to describe? More interesting still, was that I had included a couple of short stories in my academic books and hadn’t described anything in these stories, at least not in the conventional sense.

Austin latched on to this. He wanted to know whether this “no description,” as he called it, was already a depiction of blindness. Did I have a readership in mind and did I imagine this readership as sighted?  Does “no description,” Austin wanted to know, bring readers into the experience of blindness, at least a little? No reader would have any sense of what the characters and scenes in my stories looked like. They would have to, Austin stressed this word, imagine.  They would have to imagine what people and things looked like and do so through the narration and the dialogue of the characters. Did I think this began to capture the life of blindness? Austin asked.

On that evening some six years ago, in an unnerving kind of way, the most comforting thing was that Austin said, “I will teach you; you will be my student.”  From this came countless hours of working with Austin, learning how to write dialogue, and trying to understand my own blindness to bring it alive in the characters of my short stories.

As I write, my blindness is right up front, but not necessarily as a topic or a theme even though this does happen.  It is up front because it almost forces me to imagine, over and over again, both what it’s like to be blind and what it means. It is as though I go blind again in the creation of each of my characters. More than anything else, I think my writing invents and reinvents blindness. This inventing and reinventing has culminated in the publication of my first book of short stories, Things are Different Here. I am now pursing the writing of a novel, something I promised Austin and my blindness.

RIP Austin Clarke.

Rod Michalko visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mariam Pirbhai, Canisia Lubrin, Mayank Bhatt, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers.

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BWS 10.01.18: Canisia Lubrin

Lubrin_Canisia_Sept3_2016_

Canisia Lubrin is a writer, critic, teacher, and a community arts administrator. She has written for Room MagazineThe PuritanThis MagazineArc Poetry MagazineThe Hamilton Review of BooksThe Unpublished City anthology, and The Globe & Mail, among others. With contributions to podcasts, anthologies, conferences and more, she has appeared on TVO’s The Agenda, CBC’s The Doc Project and was recently named to CBC’s list of 150 exemplary Young Black Women in Canada. Lubrin holds degrees from York University and the University of Guelph, serves on the advisory board at Open Book, the editorial board of Humber Literary Review, and Buckrider Books, and teaches at Humber College. She is the author of Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn, 2017) and the chapbook augur (Gap Riot Press, 2017).

In her book Voodoo Hypothesis, Canisia holds up a torch to the narratives of the ruling class, and shows us the restorative possibilities that exist in language itself.

Voodoo Hypothesis

Before sight, we imagine
that while they go out in search
of God
we stay in and become god,
become: Curiosity,
whose soul is a nuclear battery
because she’ll pulverize Martian rock
and test for organic molecules
in her lab within a lab within
a lab. She doesn’t need to know our fears
so far too grand for ontology, reckoning.

Did you not land with your rocket behind
you, hope beyond hope on the tip of your rope
with the kindness of antigravity slowing you down,
you, before me, metal and earthen. But I am here to
confirm or deny, the millions of small
things that seven minutes of success were hinged upon
when I was little more than idea and research,
in the hypnotic gestures of flame and Bunsen burner,
and into parachute
no one foresaw, the bag of rags at the end
of the tunnel – all memory now,
this Paraclete.

Where else is a pocket
of air more deadly than the atomic bomb?
Would this only happen on Earth?
Has Mars run out of tolerance for the minutiae

of air pockets, fingerprints and worry?
Aggregates of metal, Curiosity
and her clues to calm our fears for what’s coming.
Mars and her epic storms, her gargantuan
volcanoes have long ceased their trembling,
her crazy flooded planes, frozen and in cinema.
Martian life now earth and revelation’s phases:
Earth problem, not Mars problem.

But why
should I unravel over all this remembering?
Great thing about landing
is that I’ve arrived

at your service, at your sand, at your valley
and unsentimental magma.
Before me screams planes like Mojave Desert, Waikiki, Nagasaki,
nothing too strange to keep Curiosity off course.
Even though the Viking missions found no conclusive pulse
and we declared you dead, O Mars,
never mind that we named your heights and depths
from orbit. And from your spheres of minerals
where oceans once roared – we’ve learned little
of your lenience for empire.
Forgive us what Spirit uncovered in the silica of your ancient hot springs.

Canisia Lubrin visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mariam Pirbhai, Rod Michalko, Mayank Bhatt, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers. 

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BWS 10.01.18: Mayank Bhatt

Mayank

At an age when most people contemplate retirement, Mayank Bhatt immigrated to Canada, and when most newcomers look to earn more, he spent his first five years in Canada writing fiction. His debut novel Belief, published in 2016, shocked him by how warmly it was received. Being foolhardy, he’s working on another book.

In an updated version of a piece published in Write (Vol 44, Number 4, Winter, 2017), Mayank tells us about his incredible journey into writing and having his first novel published. It is indeed, a tale about belief.

The Terrorist, the Security Guard and the Emergence of a New Voice

The ancient Greeks told us that those whom Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. That may have been true in the ancient times. These days, the Gods turn them into novelists.

Writing a novel for the first time is guaranteed to drive anyone crazy. It was plain stupidity that made me embark upon this misadventure. It all began during the graveyard shifts at a condo in Toronto where I began working as a security guard soon after I immigrated to Canada in 2008. As a security guard, you mostly sit around and do nothing. But doing nothing for prolonged periods of time is boring. I decided to write a short story.

The idea for the story came from my apartment building at Keele and Lawrence, known colloquially as Gujarat Bhawan (Gujarat is a province in India, and Bhawan means a building) amongst the South Asian immigrants of the area. They were like me – qualified, experienced and doing survival jobs. It was entirely conceivable that the absence of tangible success could easily lead them to getting embroiled in unsavoury misadventures.

I began to explore the theme of immigration and linked it to terrorism. My purpose was not to get into a polemical argument. I was keen to explore terrorism’s impact on an immigrant family. Young people make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes drastically alter their lives and the lives of their families. I wanted to understand how a family would cope (or not cope) with a son involved in a terror plot.

I began to write sometime in December 2008 – my first winter in Canada. I showed the story to a resident, who suggested I enter it in a short story competition. That’s when I came across Diaspora Dialogues’ short fiction mentoring program. Diaspora Dialogues promotes diversity in fiction, poetry and drama.

Surprisingly, I was selected and MG Vassanji, one of the finest contemporary novelists in the world, became my mentor. I had the privilege of working with him for three months and the short story was published in Diaspora Dialogues’ TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto in 2010.

I should have stopped here and gone back to living my life.

But no, I decided that my story was good enough to be turned into a novel. I enrolled into the writing program at Humber School for Writers. Days turned into months and then into years, and I struggled with my manuscript. Whoever claims that writing is fun is a congenital liar. A former good friend advised me to abandon the idea of completing the novel. I almost abandoned him, but continued to work on my manuscript.

Finally, when I could do nothing more to the manuscript, I began to look for agents because I was told that agents could get better deals. I wrote to an agent and she promptly asked me to send the manuscript. I did so and didn’t hear back from her, ever. Then I wrote to another agent. She responded within a day. No, she said, we’re not interested. I gamely struggled for a few more months, and then gave up. The manuscript languished for a couple of years.

Eventually, a friend suggested I send the manuscript to Mawenzi House. I was reluctant considering MG Vassanji had mentored me and Nurjehan Aziz, the publisher of Mawenzi House, is MG Vassanji’s wife. The friend assured me that the publishing house would take a professional decision. With some trepidation, I sent my manuscript.

It was accepted.

A process that had started soon after I landed in Canada came to fruition in September 2016 when the novel was finally published. It looked stunning. The cover image is a self-portrait by Charles Patcher, the renowned Canadian artist, and Ali Adil Khan helped me get the requisite permissions to use it as the cover for my book.  Many of my friends, members of my family, total strangers have helped me in the writing this novel, some, such as Farzana Doctor, by evaluating the manuscript critically, others by providing me with the right passage from the Qur’an, some others by providing legal background.

As I was busy informing my friends and acquaintances of my novel, I heard from Antanas Sileika the former head of the Humber School for Writers. He said he had read a review in Quill and Quire. I rushed to the nearest bookshop to buy the magazine. It was a brief but good review. I wasn’t sure how well or badly the book would do. But its publication and a good review are more than I ever imagined for it.

Last November, I read from the published book at the condo where I worked as a security guard, and where I first began writing the novel. It was one the most exhilarating moments of my life. That Sunday afternoon, many residents who had helped a security guard and his family settle in Canada were eagerly listening to an author talk about his experiences. This was overwhelming, and every bit worth the effort.

Mayank Bhatt visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mariam Pirbhai, Rod Michalko, Canisia Lubrin, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers.

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