Jessica Westhead is the author of the novel Pulpy & Midge and the story collections Things Not to Do and And Also Sharks, finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Her latest novel, Worry, was a CBC Books Best Book of the Year and longlisted for CBC Canada Reads.
I’m excited to share some new work at the Brockton Writers Series in January! And I realized that I’m revisiting some familiar territory with the story I’m going to read from, with one character writing to another character about a recipe (among other things).
In my first short story collection, And Also Sharks, the title story is about an insecure woman who is obsessed with a self-help blogger named Janet. I read an excerpt from that story to narrate this book trailer, which still makes me smile, produced with the help of Jonathan Culp (who found the classic Super-8 film footage we used; I first performed the story at the 8 fest as part of a group performance that Jonathan curated called CounterNarratives) and Bryan Ibeas (my editor at Cormorant Books at the time, who is now the Editor-At-Large at Invisible Publishing). Please note that the video (which shows a woman’s hands preparing a casserole made from chopped-up hot dogs, diced onions and white sauce) does not have captions, so I’ll include the transcript of the story excerpt at the end of this post.
Another similarity is that the protagonists in “And Also Sharks” and in my new story “Gary How Does a Contact Form Work Do I Just Type in Here and Then Press Send and That’s It?” both lack basic self-awareness (because that’s my favourite kind of character to write), and they both have their own not-very-well-hidden agendas for reaching out to the other characters. And the letter writers and the letter recipients in both stories are women. In “And Also Sharks,” though, both characters are white, which was something I rarely, if ever, gave any conscious thought to. My characters are almost always “like me” in some way—usually created from the parts of myself that I’m most embarrassed by. But until very recently, I hadn’t really considered that, with the exception of maybe one or two stories, I had only ever written about white people.
In response to that realization, and out of my own belated “awakening” to the reality of white supremacy, I started writing the new story collection I’ve been working on. A Warm and Lighthearted Feeling attempts to shine a light on the obliviousness of white privilege and the violence of “polite” racism, and in particular, the harm that “well-intentioned white ladies” can do. In the story I’ll be reading from, “Gary How Does a Contact Form Work…”, a self-absorbed, middle-aged white woman is writing to a Black food blogger—on the surface to praise the younger woman’s culinary skills, but on a deeper, creepier level, she has a much more selfish reason for sending this email.
And here I want to thank Dorianne Emmerton, Brockton Writers Series host and all-around delightful person, for once commenting to me (in the nicest way!) that I was really good at writing from the perspective of unpleasant and entitled white women. That observation stuck with me, and helped to clarify what I wanted to do with my new collection. Thank you, Dorianne! And thanks so much for inviting me to be part of this excellent reading series, in such wonderful company.
BOOK TRAILER TRANSCRIPT (EXCERPT FROM SHORT STORY “AND ALSO SHARKS”):
Oh my God Janet, you are so brave. Your bravery astounds me. Because you lay yourself bare for the world when you put your feelings out there to be known. But just basically because your words touch so many people, and there are so many of us in this world who are suffering from the self-esteem issues that affect our very lives. So I guess what I’m saying here is that you are doing something extremely BRAVE. Plus that recipe you shared on your last post for the ham casserole with white sauce is AMAZING! I made it the other day and it was so easy, exactly like you said it would be, and I was supposed to have my brother and his wife over for dinner and that was what I was going to serve, and they were going to bring a salad which I think was going to be a macaroni salad. But then they called at the last minute and said they couldn’t make it because her pregnancy was acting up, which I guess you have to understand, pregnancies being the way they are. But anyway, the casserole. You said it would nourish the soul, the making part and the eating part, and like you always are, you were right. Last week I did the exercise you suggested where you cut out pictures from magazines that appeal to you, and paste them onto a piece of paper to make a collage which represents how you want your life to be, but all I had at home were a bunch of Reader’s Digests and an old copy of National Geographic which was the Shark Issue, so my collage ended up being about this family that got trapped by an avalanche, and also sharks.
Jessica Westhead visits Brockton Writers Series via our YouTube channel on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 starting at 6:30pm alongside Becky Blake, Jane Woods, and Hollay Ghadery. Our guest speaker Nadia L. Hohn gives us, “Writing Kidlit in a Nutshell.”
Please log in at 6:30.