Terri Favro is the author of four books including “Sputnik’s Children”, a Globe & Mail 100 book, CBC Books top ten book and Quill & Quire best book, shortlisted for the Sunburst Award and optioned for the screen by EntertainmentOne. Terri also collaborates on graphic novels and likes robots, her family and wet, dirty martinis.
I sometimes think that I’m spending my life writing one big story. Every book, essay and short story seems to be about the same things: the Cold War, nuclear bombs, comic books, immigration/emigration, martinis, winemaking, hot rods, Italian-Canadians, Catholic mysticism, epic struggles between good and evil, and sexual obsession. Let’s throw quantum physics in there for good measure.
I often borrow from other stories and reference them in my work. The Proxy Bride is based on one of The Canterbury Tales (The Miller’s Tale) and influenced by classical Italian opera. Once Upon A Time in West Toronto is a retelling of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “Once Upon a Time in the West”, reimagined in Toronto’s Italian community in the mid-1970s. Sputnik’s Children is based on my favourite “Star Trek” (Original Series) episode, a Harlan Ellison-scripted time travel story that takes Spock, Kirk and Bones back to Depression-era Chicago. Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation is based on my theory that our obsession with robots is tied up with our anxiety about nuclear self-destruction, and references robot stories back to 1950 and earlier.
Right now, I’m writing a sequel to Sputnik’s Children called The Sisters Sputnik. While Sputnik 1 was set in two very similar alternate realities (quantum physics!!!), Sputnik 2 will send my time travelling, comic book writing heroine not only to an alternate timeline (Singularity Savings Time, where vicious time travelling Nazis are trying to change the course of history) but to the past –– 1956, a year before the Sputnik spy satellite was launched. (I forgot to mention that I’m also obsessed with creating alternate histories that seem very close to what we call ‘reality’.)
Here’s a glimpse of Debbie trying to survive the fashion dictates in 1956 as inflicted on her by a sadistic housekeeper for the evil Dr. Time. As much of a garbage fire the world of 2019 seems to be, at least we aren’t expected to wear rubber girdles or douche with Lysol anymore.
From “The Sisters Sputnik” (work in progress):
When I first arrived at Ransomville House, I didn’t know how to fasten a corset hook or pull on a panty girdle or thumb the top of a nylon stocking into a garter snap. Okay, it’s not rocket science, but you can’t just insert your body into these self-inflicted mid-twentieth-century torture devices for the first time without help.
On my first day, the housekeeper, Miss Sexton, gave me a scalding bath, scrubbed my hair with Halo shampoo, patted me dry and dusted me with so much talcum powder that I looked like a naked, damp ghost. She explained that this was to provide enough traction for the rubber girdle to glide over my fleshy bits without getting stuck halfway up my thighs. Sexton claims to have had lots of experience teaching other girls I about the painful lengths you have to go for an hourglass shape.
I joked that she was the Nurse Ratchet of fashion, but of course she didn’t know what I was talking about. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won’t be published until 1962. Unfortunately the Nurse Ratchet reference was prophetic. Sexton’s fashion sense is only surpassed by her sadism.
All I can say is, fuck Christian Dior and his New Look. Breasts like miniature ballistic missiles. Twenty-four inch waist. You not only have to wear a girdle under those nipped-in cocktail dresses, but under skintight capris and ski pants too. Even though I’m reasonably slim by twenty-first century standards, for the nineteen-fifties I’m a tank, my proportions all wrong for clothing designed for women whose growth was stunted by the Depression and wartime rationing. Armholes are too high, waists are too small, backs too narrow. Even hats don’t fit. I’m a hulking Amazon in a world of malnourished sprites. Sexton believes the best way to solve this problem is with an industrial strength, all-rubber girdle and long-line balconet bra with a little empty puff of air space over each nipple (to allow your breasts to breathe, dear, Sexton explained). Then comes the nylon slip (never allowed to peek out from under the hem of your dress), followed by a petticoat or crinoline. Sexton prefers crinolines because they’re more uncomfortable. Her philosophy is that womanhood equals suffering so I might as well get used to it. And oh, did I mention the sweat guards? Little cotton pads you pin inside your blouse or sweater, under your armpits, because the chemical giants of the nineteen-fifties (DuPont, Hooker and Cyanamid, whose nearby smokestacks stain the air a sickly shade of brownish-yellow) haven’t yet mastered the science of stopping us from sweating altogether. Instead, you mask your ‘B.O.’ (Sexton’s word) with deodorant or cologne before encasing your body in enough non-breathable synthetics so that you’re basically living in your own flop sweat, 24/7.
The fifties is a sweaty decade. Also, a tedious one, if you’re a woman interested in doing anything besides dressing, grooming and abusing yourself with chemicals.
Every night before bed, Sexton spritzes my hair with a semen-like liquid called ‘setting lotion’ and does it up in curlers, covering the whole structure with a chiffon turban. Very Bride of Frankenstein. I have to sleep sitting up on a mountain of pillows so the tiny plastic teeth don’t bite into my scalp. In the morning, she bustles into my room before breakfast to tug out the rollers and brush out the curls, setting everything in place with a mist of Spray Net. The hairspray goes down my throat and up my nose, giving me chronic sinusitis and releasing a fog of Chlorofluorocarbons into the air:
“That stuff is killing the planet, and me,” I cough, even though I know it’ll still be a good forty years before anyone sounds the alarm about CFCs in aerosol sprays destroying the ozone layer.
Sexton sighs: she’s getting used to what she calls my kooky warnings. “Is that what happened to your planet? I’m sure ours will be just fine.”
Periods are managed with giant sanitary napkins the size and texture of loaves of Wonderbread, belted between my legs. I’ve asked for tampons –– I know they exist in this decade, having seen the weirdly sensuous ads for them in Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal. Sexton is aghast at my request, whispering that only married women are allowed to use them or even buy them.
After my period, I’m expected to cleanse myself with something called a ‘douche’. I don’t know what that means until Sexton appears with a rubber bag, hose and bottle of Lysol. She explains that I am supposed to dilute the disinfectant with warm water and pump it up my vagina to freshen myself. I flatly refuse and go to luncheon.
The next thing I remember is I waking up to find myself naked from the waist down and tied hand and foot to the bedstead with Sexton calmly feeding the hose into me. (A non-lethal overdose of sleeping pills in my egg salad sandwich knocked me out long enough for her to immobilize and violate me.) For your own good dear, Sexton murmurs as the stinging liquid pours out of me onto a bath towel. I sob and curse. I can taste as well as smell the Lysol as it burns its way through me.
Cleansed but still groggy, I’m untied, powdered and forced back into my girdle, garters, stockings, wasp-waisted dress and Cuban heeled pumps.
Only then does Miss Sexton judge me ready for cocktail hour with Dr. Time.
Terri Favro visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Teddy Syrette, Jenny Yuen, SK Dyment, and guest speaker Leah Bobet who will be exploring word building with a focus on character in her talk, “Worlds are Made of People.”