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BWS 11.09.19 report: “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time)” with Rosamund Small

Rosamund headshot by Liam Coo

Photo: Liam Coo

Rosamund Small is the playwright of Sisters (Soulpepper), TomorrowLove™ (Outside the March), and Vitals (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille, Dora for Outstanding New Play/Outstanding Production). She has written in many forms, and loves to experiment with dramatic fiction, verbatim, immersive/site-specific, solo, and anything in between. She collaborates on dance/theatre work with choreographer Robert Binet (their work Orpheus Alive premieres November 2019 at the National Ballet of Canada). Rosamund is a Jr Story Editor of Workin’ Moms on CBC/Netflix.

Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

In anticipation of Orpheus Alive, premiering this November at the National Ballet of Canada, Rosamund opened up about the process behind her collaboration with choreographer Robert Binet.

 

I am spending my mornings lately trying to write like a dancer.

To explain this, I am going to tell you about my collaboration with a ballet choreographer named Robert Binet.

Rob’s friend of mine. We met about seven years ago. We chatted at a party, then met over coffee, and we talked about work. About all of it. My writing, my rehearsals, previews, openings. And he talked about the making of dance, the training, the talking to dancers. There were immediate and apparent differences in our lives:

I spent my days, and still spend my days, hunched over a computer, to the point that I’ve had to consult with extremely expensive physiotherapists. Rob spends his days at a ballet bar or the gym, then the studio, working with dancers.

In his work, Rob is always demonstrating, speaking, guiding, and running a rehearsal hall as his creation space. He is alive outward into the world, while I am almost aggressively hidden from all other people while I write.

So it wasn’t obvious on paper that we would have all that much in common.

But when we talked, we realized we had our relationship with our audience, our relationship with our performers, and finally our relationship with drama to talk about. And by drama, I mean, the tension between two people. The desire to demonstrate or illustrate that moment when Person A expresses I want you to stay and the Person B expresses I want you to let me go, for example. And then the further tension: the what now?

By the end of the conversation Rob was the one who blurted out I didn’t realize we have the same job. And we both actually felt a little alarmed, as though the other person had maybe seen through us, him seeing through my words to something he could do with bodies, and me seeing through the shapes he makes with bodies to articulate them in words. There’s almost a deflating effect, actually, even though it was exhilarating, to be so totally seen. But it was also, electrifying.

As I was writing this, I realized it sounds like this will end with me and Rob falling in love, but it doesn’t, and we both remain happily with our respective partners. But when I describe Rob I’ve had many people think we’re in a relationship. I think it says something nice: Creative partnerships have a sense of excitement, even combativeness, and they are always, in a way, romantic.

Anyway, after our first coffee, Rob invited me into his rehearsal hall for a workshop. And I went in to watch him with two dancers from the National Ballet interpret the myth of Icarus, in a fifteen-minute piece. And that was the start of our collaboration. I didn’t really know what he wanted me to do, but we began talking and talking and talking.

What is the story? What order should it be in? How long should it be? Who’s the main character?

The myth of Icarus goes as follows: A man and his son are trapped in prison. The father builds wings made of wax, to escape. It works, and they fly out of the prison, across the ocean. But Icarus flies to close to the sun, the wings melt, and Icarus falls and perishes.

So I ask Rob: Why do they decide to escape? Why today? What are the conditions of the prison? How long have they been there? What is their home like? Is there any particular reason they have to get home? Are they close as father and son? Whose fault is it that they are imprisoned?

We had a few bumps, a few differences in vocabulary, especially at the beginning. I will never forget Rob’s look of confusion as I kept asking him What are the stakes of successfully flying? What are the stakes that make them leave prison? And finally, he said “I don’t want to sound stupid but what are stakes? Like, steaks? Like a steak?”.*

That first project was performed for a choreographic workshop audience, and remains a beautiful memory. But truthfully, I don’t know whether I made the project better by being there. In fact, I may have made is not quite as good as it might have been without me. Because what I kept asking Rob was what is the information?

What is the information? What is the situation? Who what where when how?

The given circumstances are so important to writers. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I sometimes tipped the balance of the project away from dance -shape, tension, movement- and towards something more like mime.

Nothing against mime. I don’t know a lot about mime.

But the ability of dance, at least Rob’s dance, does not lie in the ability to silently enact the world. It is about enacting what we experience but we cannot see in the world. It’s just about the drama. And the drama in the most fundamental way.

So, basically, I had to stop worrying as much about the stuff offstage:

What came before? What might come after? What if, how, when, where.

Dance is about tension, movement, release, let go, trust, pull away, push… there is nothing between two dancers except the relationship between them, in that moment.

We talk a lot about history between characters in theatre, and in lots of writing. And we talk about internal dialogue. And maybe childhood things coming out in adults. And that is beautiful, and wonderful, but I have found in my collaboration with Rob I am thinking more and more about how thrilling and relatable and inherently story it is, to watch one dance balance on one foot, for a long, long time. And how that is what’s at stake, for a moment, it’s… Will you fall? Will you release? Will you clamp up?

The drama of dance is wholly and completely present, like the drama in the life of a toddler. Big emotion, big situation, very little interest in why how when where or who.

Now, I am deep into a larger project with Rob about the myth of Orpheus. We have about forty-five dancers in every performance, closer to sixty with all the casts. And we are still interrogating the story as I did with our first project. In fact, we first talked about this Orpheus project at our coffee seven years ago, when Rob first mentioned he wanted to adapt the myth as his first full story ballet.

The myth goes like this: Orpheus is the greatest artist in the world. Orpheus’ lover Eurydice dies. So Orpheus travels to the gates of the underworld, and creates art so incredible that the gates swing open and The Gods let him through, on one condition: Orpheus cannot not to look at Eurydice until they are back in the land of the living. Orpheus finds Eurydice, and begins to lead her out. But at the last moment, Orpheus can’t help but turn and look, and so Eurydice is gone forever.

I am still asking my annoying questions, and I’ve been asking them seven years:

What kind of relationship does Orpheus have with Eurydice? How long have they been together? How old are they? What kind of art does Orpheus do? How long does it take to travel to the gates of death? How long does it take to travel over the River Styx into the underworld? Do you pay a fare? Do you walk? Is it cold?

But I have learned, through my collaboration, to pull back the scope of those questions, and ask something that can be more connected to that body-spirit experience of dance, toddlers, animals, when the chatty mind is hushed and the body is more simply present. So the creative conversation can be more like this:

Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

Because Orpheus is in a state of suspension –high on pointe and without Eurydice, Orpheus will fall off pointe, there will be a splat on the floor.

That’s all, that’s it, it’s obvious.

The expression of this situation, and the reality of it, are actually the same.

The metaphor doesn’t need to stand for something, as it can stand on its own.

The above example is a little over simple, a little under appreciative of the complexity of dance. It’s the most obvious metaphor: the sense that a jump might end in a fall. It’s simply the easiest dance moment to describe.

Another example goes something like this:

The story question: Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

The story answer: Because Orpheus loves Eurydice.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

But the question is unnecessary. Because you can also think of it as:

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The question is: Why does he go?

The answer: Because he is pulled.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The drama doesn’t need a question. The motivation is built in.

At least, that’s the working theory for now, when we’re stuck. When the questions can’t be answered, or the answers are not the most beautiful and exciting but somehow must be there, Rob and I lean on the inherent drama of throwing your body across the floor, as being the answer and the question.

If you are interested the show is this November at the Four Seasons Centre and you can come see how our process worked out.

The show also -to maybe break my point about bodies being so important- uses text, but not for the dancers to speak to each other, only for the dancers to speak to the audience, when they need to express something more concrete and less… danceable. Something more about the who what where when why of drama.

But our dancers -to each other- have relationships expressed in bodies only. The drama between them is only dance. And the dance overtakes the language in almost every moment. The bodies win.

I hear myself using words to explain the expression of bodies like child, or animal, as though the communication between bodies is less than the communication of language. But actually, how much of our most important adult communications are touch, hug, fight, fist on table, even sex...? All of this is in the body.

So now when I write dialogue for two characters, meant for two actors onstage, I often try to push myself back from my hunched over computer chair, and think to myself…

Why does my character want to marry this other character so much?

And instead of inventing an external explanation about why and giving my characters a strong rationale, or history, I have a conversation with my character:

CHARACTER: Why do I desire to marry this other character so much?

ME: Because of desire.

CHARACTER: Why do I desire him?

ME: Because you are pulled towards him, you are literally pulled.

CHARACTER: By what?

ME: I don’t know. But aren’t you?

CHARACTER: Yes.

ME: Will you resist the pull?

CHARACTER: I can’t talk right now, I’m hurling my entire self towards the character I desire.

Fewer questions, more actions. Less rationale, more risk.

Write like a dancer.

 

Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BWS 11.09.19: Charlene Challenger

Charlene Challenger - photo by Russell Challenger

Photo: Russell Challenger

Charlene Challenger is a writer and graduate of Ryerson Theatre School. Her first novel, the young adult fantasy The Voices in Between, was nominated for the 2015 Aurora Award for Best Young Adult Novel and long-listed for the 2015 Sunburst Award Young Adult Novel category. Its sequel, The Myth in Distance, was published in 2016. Her work is also featured in Stone Skin Press’s Gods, Memes and Monsters. She lives in Pickering with her family and her adorable house-wolves.

 

In anticipation of her reading at our event next week, Charlene shares an excerpt from a short story called Made Flesh, written for an anthology showcasing QUILTBAG speculative fiction.

 

Drs. Colby and Gahan are robotics engineers, though they could also be lovers. Their workshop is a rented corner of a converted warehouse on the east side of town. It used to be a shelter for the transient and the infirm, until the New Millennials could no longer abide the lack of return on their investment and gunned the poor bastards down in the streets. The downtown core still hums with the triumph of that brightest April morning.

Colby and Gahan have access to better facilities; as New Millennials, they’re entitled to seize assets and resources from card-carrying Xs and Ys anywhere within the NM borders. But laboratories are popular locations for the rave scene — still going strong, all baggy pants and baby dummies — and Colby and Gahan don’t care much for rubbing elbows with anyone on ecstasy.

In this summertime afternoon, the stale air leaves a film on the women’s faces, on their arms and shoulders. When they work on the android’s hands — on its modified spherical joints — when they wire its phalanges so that they twitch and beckon the way they’re supposed to, Drs. Colby and Gahan slap palms and half hug in the shade, where the air is slightly cooler.

Colby has a sculpted fairness that comes with hours of preening. She’s flagrantly selfish, greedy with her sleep. She is also sharp, and cultivated her intelligence at her own pace through the luxury of beauty, and the patience of others that it affords her. She designed, among other parts, the android’s hands.

Gahan specializes in building them, controlling them. Her thin fingers and keen eyesight are perfect for the fabrication process. One day soon, though, she’ll move on to skin: at night she slathers the rough, scaly areas of her body in balms and creams, and leaves an oily imprint of the side of her face on her pillow.

These days in particular are days of shameless excess. It’s the New Millennial Revolution, the fourth year of a ten year period. There will be no eleventh; everyone knows there will be nothing left.

Colby and Gahan take their commission very seriously, but that doesn’t stop them from taking turns holding the android’s hand and using it for obscene jokes. Dr. Colby pretends to pick her nose with an index finger; Dr. Gahan freezes in mock embarrassment as she holds the hand against the front of her jeans, two of its digits extended in a crass “V”. They admire its tendons, its pistons, and the soft clicking sound its fleshless knuckles make as they move.

Tacked onto the cork board next to Colby’s designs of legs and feet is the official letter from an eccentric, Mr. Ryan, commissioning an android.

Colby merely skimmed the letter upon receipt, while Gahan read it closely and highlighted several passages. “I’ve selected you,” and “I’m a long-time admirer of your work,” then, “To commemorate the fourth of ten years of the New Millennial Revolution, I ask you to design and build an android which embodies our recent, sordid, abandoned relationship with patriarchy and patriarchal ideology. The android will be unveiled at the Fifth Year celebration, tentatively scheduled for April 15.”

“A man sent this?” Colby asked as Gahan read the letter aloud, emphasizing what she took to be its finer divulgences.

“Male.” Gahan tapped at the page. “Self-hating male at that. Incredibly bored. Probably shit in bed.”

“What is he going do with a patriarchal android? Burn it as an effigy? Why do that? We won.”

“He could buy a mannequin for less. My theory is he wants to enslave it. Get it to fetch his slippers and shave his back, that kind of thing.”

Colby leaned a naked forearm against the workshop counter and began to doodle on the back of a torn envelope with a 2B graphite pencil. “So, a fetishist.”

“Exactly. Equal loathing and longing. At first I el-oh-elled, but it’s a lot of money. I don’t really want to turn it down.”

“I’m sure Maria wouldn’t want you to turn it down either.”

Gahan gaped at Colby, who didn’t look up from her sketch. “One dinner out with us and you’ve got her pegged, eh? So she likes shark fin soup, so what? Have you ever seen a shark up close? They’re terrifying and the ocean’s full of them.”

“It’s not just the shark fin soup. She wears fur. Eats veal.”

“So what? We can eat as much veal and wear as much fur as we want. You wear fur and eat veal. And horse, I’d like to add. The riots may be over but I’m still a pescatarian. And a pacifist.”

“I only mean it’s difficult to keep a girlfriend like Maria from chewing her own hand off from ennui,” said Colby. “The rest of us can occupy ourselves with other things, but Maria’s…” She put the end of her pencil against her bottom lip and turned it, pinwheeling the skin. “I don’t think she gets the concept of varied personal interests.”

“She has a liberal arts degree. That’s plenty varied. You never talk to her anyway, you don’t know.”

“I know why you want this job.” Colby held up the envelope. Her sketch was the first of several of the android’s eye, sliced open, its veins — its wires — webbed around an expanse of synthetic aqueous humour.

Gahan snorted. “You’re always so quick to slit a throat. What do you do when you’re done, bathe in the blood?”

“What do you think of this?” Colby said, waving the envelope.

“Nice. Rudimentary, but nice. What colour?”

“What else? Pale blue.”

“Brown,” Gahan said. “I’m so over blue. All that Nazi imagery’s played out. It takes all types, anyway. My mother’s eyes are brown.”

“And she’s always lived in a very big house. All right, brown.” Colby tacked the envelope to the cork board.

 

Charlene Challenger visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Catherine Hernandez, Anubha Mehta, Téa Mutonji, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

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BWS 11.09.19: Téa Mutonji

Tea

Photo: Sandro Pehar

Born in Congo-Kinsasha, Téa Mutonji is an author, screenwriter, essayist and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Walrus, Room Magazine, Joyland, and The Puritan. Her debut collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty (Spring, 2019) is the first title published under Vivek Shraya’s imprint, VS. Books. She writes, and gets lost in Toronto.

 

I relied on a lot of auditive and visual thinking when writing Shut Up You’re Pretty. I picture Loli and especially Jolie, as these unhinged, totally fearless, crazy haired girls walking down the street to something punk rock but also soul. This image was so strong I feel it stayed with me throughout the creation process. And of course, I listened to so much music to keep me entertained while writing. Loli goes on quite the journey. If this collection could be anything else, it would be a movie. If this collection could be anything else, it would be a musical. It’s a good thing this collection is a collection, because it means that it’s free—of form, of decisions, free to move and sing if it wants too. I have a feeling that if given the chance, Loli would do it all over again. I hope this soundtrack guides you in feeling Loli’s feelings every step of the way. I hope you check it out after reading a particular story. I hope it excites you, cares for you. Most of these songs have some serious throwback vibes, and SZA’s Ctrl being a dominant voice for Loli. It’s light, it’s sometimes sad. It’s inviting you to dance.

 

THE SOUNDTRACK TO LOLI’S LIFE

Tits for Cigs: Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

“Hello Daddy, Hello mom, I’m your chch-cherry bomb!”

The feel of this song reminds me of Loli and Jolie’s spirit. Life, in every respect, is good and cruising. They’re vibrant, and rebellious. I like the chaos and background nose in Cherry Bomb. It’s a great kickoff to the collection, offers just enough drama and teenage logic.

Parchment Paper: Touch-a touch-a touch me, Susan Sarandon

“Thrill me chill me fulfill me, creature of the night”

Oh, Loli has just discovered masturbation! However odd and weird it was, let’s put that aside for a second. She’s now exploring with a toothbrush, a brush, anything that look phallic. I love the carefree, light, and energy in this song. It’s an accurate mood distinguisher for Loli’s beating heart.

The Event: She Works Hard for The Money, Donna Summer

“She works hard for her money, so you better treat her right!”

Loli and Jolie are out there living and striving. They’re enjoying this sense of freedom that comes with the nearing of summer vacation. The spring heat at its finest. The music of their lives is still pretty high, pretty dance heavy, focusing their energy entirely on their bodies and their willingness to exercise it.

Down The Lakeshore: Cold Little Heart, Michael Kiwanuka

“It tears me apart. Did you ever fight it? All the pain, so much power, running through my veins.”

The cool, whispery, can-hear-the-ocean-speaking vocals of this song by Michael Kiwanuka is perfect. You have a father figure who is stuck in the past, who puts bandages on open wounds before disinfecting them first. I especially like the Outro: “Maybe this time, I can go far, but thinking about where I’ve been, ain’t helping me start.” Verbatim, thoughts straight from a broken father’s mouth.

If Not Happiness: Normal Girl, SZA

“And don’t you happiness is not a place, it’s a road to take and who you choose to walk it with.” Wise words from SZA. The moment Jolitta realized for herself that happiness wasn’t a place, and not necessarily a state of mind, but instead, the journey we take. And Jolietta, at fourteen years old, decides to skip town and take the journey. This is where we leave her. This is all we know so far.

This Is Only Temporary: I Heard Em’ Say, Kanye West

“They say people in your life are seasons and anything that happen is for a reason.” This Kanye West song, when Kanye had real shit to say, tracks for Galloway. This song talks about temporarily, it takes about hearing the nose and choosing to live your life anyways. It talks about survival, it talks about community, it takes about bringing people in, and keeping them there.

Phyllis Green: Pretty Little Birds, SZA

“You are but a phoenix among feathers, you’re broken by the waves among the sea [etc]. Pretty birds, you hit the window a few times.”

I imagine Loli singing this love note to Phyllis Green. I imagine, in her inability to connect with Phyllis, in her uncomfortableness and severe insecurities, she sees a lot of herself in Phyllis and hopes for the both of them that, “when morning comes, if morning comes, I hope you’re still mine.” But I think, instead of mine, Loli mines, “I hope you’re still yours.”

Ten Year Reunion: Place Des Grandes Hommes, Patrick Bruel

“On s’etait dit rendez-vous dans 10 ans, même jour, même heure, mêmes pommes.” There’s a line from this song directly in this story. It’s about the promise of a future. It’s about the promise of love and commiting to that promise.

Theresa’s Getting Married: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

The friendship between Theresa is special in so many ways. Notably, they seem to communicate without saying much. A lot of their love is felt stubly. I love the chemistry from this song. It’s a feel good song. And the message that it speaks, that together, we can do anything, it really resonates with me.

The Boy From My Youth: After Laughter, Wendy Rene

“When you’re in love, you’re happy.” This story is kind of interesting. So much happens, and yet, so little action. Loli is learning about her immediate needs. She’s learning about her desires. This is where the music and overall feel of the book start to shift. The light and carelessness of Loli is starting to fade.

The Common Room: All the Things She Said, t.A.T.u.

“I’m in serious shit, I feel totally lost, if I’m asking for help, it’s only because, being with you has opened my eyes, could I ever believe such a perfect surprise?” This song is such a queer girl anthem. Loli doesn’t address her sexuality in words. Mostly because she’s been experimenting with both girls and boys at such a young age, it never seemed necessary to make a deal out of it. But she meets Olivia and her life is morphing into something new. Olivia is feeding her in ways that Jolie couldn’t.

Men, Tricks and Money: Lady Marmalade, LaBelle

Voulez-vous couches avec moi?” What about the stories of sex workers who love their lives, their freedom and their finance? Loli has no shame, no trouble, no fear.

The Waitress: Everybody Hurts, R.E.M.

“When the day is long and the night is yours alone, when you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on.”

At this stage in her life, Loli is recognizing her own depression, her struggle with mental wellness, though, still has no words for it. Instead, she watches as the world attempts to stand on its own feet.

Shut Up You’re Pretty: Anything SZA

This is the most difficult story to score. Really, I think this one story is musicless. There isn’t any song to accompany the reality of this story. There isn’t anything at all.

Women Talking: Survivor, Destiny’s Child

“Thought that I would self-destruct but I’m still here.”

This story ends before it begins. What you have is two women coming together to offer each other unsolicited support. And they leave this interaction better for it.

Old Fashioned: Weekend, SZA

My man is my man is your man, Her, this her man too, My man is my man is your man
Her, that’s her man, Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I just keep him satisfied through the weekend, You’re like 9 to 5, I’m the weekend” I mean, verbatim, the song lyrics from SZA’s weekend is word for word this story unfolding. Add a dash of bourbon and you have a perfect merger. An big alternative to this would have been Bottle or Me by Dee Dee Sharp. That’s another fabulous song for Loli.

Sober Party: Sober & Sober II, Lorde

“Sometimes I feel like, my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels.”

Okay, Loli is hitting rock bottom but also picking herself right back up. I love the coolness of this song. It’s smooths but picks up for the climatic chorus that really reminds me of Loli’s emotional state in this story. She’s looking for herself. She’s looking for herself in other women.

Tilapia Fish: Fast Car, Tracy Chapman

Anyplace is better, starting from zero got nothing to lose, maybe we’ll make something, but me myself I got nothing to proveI had a really difficult time picking a song for Tilapia Fish. I went with Tracy Chapman Fast Car. Loli’s coming home again. She’s coming home to be with her mother and to be with herself. I think this song can be applied over and over again, throughout the entire collection. Loli wants a fast car. But so does Jolie. So does Olivia.

 

Téa Mutonji visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Catherine Hernandez, Anubha Mehta, Charlene Challenger, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

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BWS 11.09.19: Anubha Mehta

1. Anubha Mehta

Anubha Mehta is a Canadian writer, educator, and artist who was born in India. With a doctorate in Political Science and over two decades of Canadian public service experience, Anubha has been awarded for innovative program planning and working with diverse Canadian communities. Anubha has always balanced academics and public service with art and has been a classical dancer, theatre-actor, painter and poet. Her publication, The Politics of Nation Building and Art Patronage (2012), was a culmination of years of her research in the late 1990s.

Anubha’s debut novel Peacock in the Snow, was launched by Inanna Publications on September 28, 2018 in Toronto. It was selected for sponsorship by City of Toronto Arts Council- IFOA’s Toronto Lit Up. On October 20, 2018, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, showcased and spotlighted Anubha in a ‘Launch of Launches’ in a packed event to a community of readers, patrons, writers and authors. Peacock in the Snow was declared as one of the most anticipated books to read for Fall 2018 by the 49th Shelf. Visit her website for more information.

 

Ahead of her appearance on September 11, Anubha tells us about her debut novel, Peacock in the Snow.

This is a tale of a seamless, adventurous journey of a young woman across continents, cultures, and generations, to find a love that is so improbable and to uncover a secret that sets her free. It is about the tireless capacity of the human spirit to hope, strive and succeed despite impossible obstacles.

This is a story of shy and naïve Maya and how her perfect life with her new husband Veer is thrown into complete disarray when she accidentally stumbles on an ancient family secret. What begins as unwelcome behaviour by Veer’s family soon turns into something sinister. Trapped within the dark walls of her married mansion, the secret begins to haunt Maya and draw a wedge with Veer. To escape the malicious spirits lingering in the house, Maya and Veer migrate to a distant land and start rebuilding their life amongst adventure and hardship. Not knowing that the ghosts of their past have followed them, in a race against time, Maya is put to a final test. Armed with conviction and courage, she sets out to face the dark forces that lie await.

Will Maya ever be free of a dark past? Will she be able to survive so far away from home? Will her marriage stand the test of time, displacement, and hardship in a new country?

Peacock in the Snow is a story of belief, vengeance, and forgiveness. It is a story of optimism rooted in the imperfections of life. Maya’s hope makes her resilient and her courage leads to her redemption. The only way to overcome past wrongs is to face them, to conquer our fears and confront our inner demons.

In this book I talk about those sides of issues and isms, that fall within the shadows and silences of the noise- those aspects that are often overlooked. In Patriarchy’s forceful dominance often women get indoctrinated as its gatekeepers and vulnerable men surrender their personal lives, dreams or love in a show of allegiance to this system.

Across the globe, these issues and isms don’t change, nor are they contained within geographic boundaries. They mutate with different cultures and colours and are manifest in a diversity of context, circumstance, and behaviours according to the tolerance and norms of the place. Set in both East and West, Peacock in the snow, uses a lot of symbolism, allegories and the concept of the paranormal where the possibilities of myth and magic that exist on the fringes of reality come to life and run as arteries throughout the storyline.

 

Anubha Mehta visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Catherine Hernandez, Téa Mutonji, Charlene Challenger, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

 

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BWS 11.09.19: Catherine Hernandez

Catherine_Hernandez

Photo: Marko Kovacevic

Catherine Hernandez is the Artistic Director of b current performing arts and the award-winning author of Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press). Scarborough won the 2015 Jim Wong-Chu Award, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award, Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, and longlisted for Canada Reads 2018. It made the “Best of 2017” lists for the Globe and Mail, National Post, Quill and Quire, and CBC Books. Scarborough will be adapted into a film by Compy Films, Reel Asian Film Festival and Telefilm, with Catherine authoring the screenplay. She is currently working on her second and third books, Crosshairs and PSW, both forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada.

 

Before appearing at our next event in September, Catherine shares the first chapter of her second book. “In Crosshairs, QTBIPOC folks learn to take arms against white supremacy and prepare for an uprising against a fascist regime.”

CHAPTER 1

Evan. My beautiful Evan. Here in the darkness of this hiding place, I write you these words. Without paper, without pen, I trace these words in my head, along the perimeter of your outline. Watch this sentence travel along the meat of your cheekbone. See my teeth dig into your it playfully. Watch these words ball into your hand along with a fistful of bedsheet, which you pull over us to create a tent. I imagine your voice now, lying across from me, improvising a silly song about the smallness of my ears. Ironically, you sing it half in tune, half out of tune.

“Maybe you’re the one with the small ears,” I suggest, and you scrunch your face in embarrassment. You are talented at many things, but music isn’t one of them. Sometimes the image of you is clear, right down to the curl of your eyelashes. Sometimes, especially when I am hungry, I recall the shape of your smile and nothing more. Watch these phrases ink across an imaginary page, a Whisper Letter, folded twice, placed in an envelope and mailed to wherever you may be. I will never forget your name, Evan. And I pray you will never forget mine.

If by some miracle my whispered words reach you, I want you to know that I am safe at 72 Homewood Avenue where Liv has hidden me in her basement.

No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch to leave. Like it has a commitment problem. This place was meant to be a cold cellar. A place where, before the invention of refrigeration, the woman of the house would have likely stored things like butter or eggs. That’s why even in the heat of the summer, the heat of this hellish summer, I feel like I am swimming in the cold breath of ghosts. I am wearing all the clothes I ran away in. Five layers, which you told me to wear. There is no finding me. At least I hope so.

To ensure that I am hidden, I have set up my bed beside Liv’s furnace. My bed consists of two layers of cardboard boxes cut to fit in the corner of space behind the humming engine, and a pile of Liv’s old winter coats, which I use as blankets and a pillow. The idea is, if I need to leave again and in a hurry, what remains behind won’t resemble a hideout for me: a Queer Femme Jamaican Filipino man. Anne Frank, minus the diary.

It is here where I await news, where I hope for your arrival, where I wait for Liv to feed me or to tell me it’s time to run again. I am unsure of exactly how long I have been here as counting days is its own form of torture. Instead, I understand the passing of time by watching the moon’s cycle from the basement window. Maybe you are doing the same. Lunar crescents have grown fat then thin across the night sky almost six times. And at the swelling of every moon, Liv has replenished my supplies. It is through this same basement window, that I know I have been here long enough to have watched a racoon give birth, pushing those puppies out, one at a time, in the space between the spider web-stained glass and the corrugated metal framing. Long enough to watch them grow too large for the cubby hole. Long enough to watch the mama bite the collars of each of her whimpering pups and bring them to the surface of the world, high above me.

In the dead of winter, under the fingernail-width-light of a waxing moon, I jogged in place to keep my limbs from feeling wooden and numb. In the spring, when the floodings began, I would stand in ankle-deep filthy water. Under a new moon, with flashes of lightning as my only guide in the darkness, I filled buckets with floodwater and passed them to Liv through the hatch to pour down the kitchen drain. Since the summer has returned, and the moon is pregnant-round, I am thankful the musty smell of mould has dissipated a bit.

I can see the sky peeking through the opening of the basement window like a half-circle picture-perfect blue. I’m not sure what is better: to look outside the window and long for sunlight or to lie on my dark makeshift bed, close my eyes and dream of bicycling with you through the city, fast and free.

Long ago, when I first arrived, I kept to my cardboard bed and wept, seeing the basement as my prison, my tomb while the Renovation unfolded at ground level. Then, as time passed, as the moon scratched a wound across the sky, I began to inch my way about the concrete to witness the untold history of the home with my curious hands and squinting eyes. At the opposite end of the basement where a broken stove sits, just beyond the reach of its power cord’s coil, is a washroom rough-in. Three unfinished pipes stand neck-deep in the solid concrete. I picture a couple in the early 2000s renovating the basement as a separate apartment, then halting their construction as the stock market crashes. In the adjacent corner stands a dusty wooden bar and dysfunctional sink. I imagine a husband in the 1970s, wearing his paisley shirt, sneaking through its shelves in search of his favourite brand of whiskey. A mysterious series of headboards from several different time periods from several different occupants lean against the cold walls.

Every corner of this basement tells a tale and so too does every inch of my body. The landscape of every curve is a map of my traumatic experiences. Between my kneecaps are bodies of water, deep with your touch, remembered. The distance between my belly button and my throat is measured in increments of kilometres run in my escape and the sequence of events that led me here, to this nightmare lived. The canyon of my palm is where I feel everything and everyone I have lost in the last several months. And constantly echoing through these vast mountain ranges, is the sound of first screams and final goodbyes. The cartography of memory. The navigation through valleys of scars.

Tonight, the light comes. I hear the kitchen table slide roughly across the floor and then the hatch is lifted.

 

Catherine Hernandez visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Anubha Mehta, Téa Mutonji, Charlene Challenger, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

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Brockton Writers Series 11.09.19

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 – 6:30pm

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by

Catherine Hernandez
Anubha Mehta
Téa Mutonji
Charlene Challenger

with special guest speaker

Rosamund Small

Glad Day Bookshop

499 Church Street, Toronto

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and refreshments are available for sale.

ACCESSIBILITY INFO
The venue is accessible. Please refrain from wearing scents.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

OAC_REVISED_NEWCOLOURS_1805c

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

 

GUEST SPEAKER

“Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting”

Rosamund headshot by Liam Coo

Rosamund Small is the playwright of Sisters (Soulpepper), TomorrowLove™ (Outside the March), and Vitals (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille, Dora for Outstanding New Play/Outstanding Production). She has written in many forms, and loves to experiment with dramatic fiction, verbatim, immersive/site-specific, solo, and anything in between. She collaborates on dance/theatre work with choreographer Robert Binet (their work Orpheus Alive premieres November 2019 at the National Ballet of Canada). Rosamund is a Jr Story Editor of Workin’ Moms on CBC/Netflix.

READERS

Catherine_HernandezCatherine Hernandez is the Artistic Director of b current performing arts and the award-winning author of Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press). Scarborough won the 2015 Jim Wong-Chu Award, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award, Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, and longlisted for Canada Reads 2018. It made the “Best of 2017” lists for the Globe and Mail, National Post, Quill and Quire, and CBC Books. Scarborough will be adapted into a film by Compy Films, Reel Asian Film Festival and Telefilm, with Catherine authoring the screenplay. She is currently working on her second and third books, Crosshairs and PSW, both forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada.

 

 

1. Anubha Mehta

Anubha Mehta is a Canadian writer, educator, and artist who was born in India. With a doctorate in Political Science and over two decades of Canadian public service experience, Anubha has been awarded for innovative program planning and working with diverse Canadian communities. Anubha has always balanced academics and public service
with art and has been a classical dancer, theatre-actor, painter and poet. Anubha’s publication, The Politics of Nation Building and Art Patronage (2012), was a culmination of years of her research in the late 1990s.

Anubha’s debut novel Peacock in the Snow, was launched by Inanna Publications on September 28, 2018 in Toronto. It was selected for sponsorship by City of Toronto Arts Council- IFOA’s Toronto Lit Up. On October 20, 2018, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, showcased and spotlighted Anubha in a Launch of Launches’ in a packed event to a community of readers, patrons, writers and authors. Peacock in the Snow was declared as one of the most anticipated books to read for Fall 2018 by the 49th Shelf. Visit her website for more information.

 

TeaBorn in Congo-Kinsasha, Téa Mutonji is an author, screenwriter, essayist and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Walrus, Room Magazine, Joyland, and The Puritan. Her debut collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty (Spring, 2019) is the first title published under Vivek Shraya’s imprint, VS. Books. She writes, and gets lost in Toronto.

 

Charlene Challenger - photo by Russell Challenger

Charlene Challenger is a writer and graduate of Ryerson Theatre School. Her first novel, the young adult fantasy The Voices in Between, was nominated for the 2015 Aurora Award for Best Young Adult Novel and long-listed for the 2015 Sunburst Award Young Adult Novel category. Its sequel, The Myth in Distance, was published in 2016. Her work is also featured in Stone Skin Press’s Gods, Memes and Monsters. She lives in Pickering with her family and her adorable house-wolves.

 

 

 

 

 

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BWS 10.07.19 report: “Worlds are Made of People” with Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet -- Headshot

Leah Bobet‘s most recent novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, won the Sunburst, Copper Cylinder, and Prix Aurora Awards; her short fiction appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies. She lives in Toronto, where she picks urban apple trees, builds civic engagement spaces, and pickles basically everything. Visit her at www.leahbobet.com.

 

“Anyone who’s fit somewhere—or notknows “worldbuilding” is a powerful word. We’ll get back to that,” said guest speaker Leah Bobet at our last event.

What is worldbuilding?

As Wikipedia has it, “the process of constructing an imaginary world“—one of the foundations of speculative fiction.

More simply, worldbuilding is your answer to: “How does your story’s universe work?”

Like most how questions, those answers can get really deep—and really cool—really quickly. In this space, we’ll think about what builds story worlds well in three layers, and with a guiding concept: worlds are made of people.

Simple worldbuilding: facts and figures

The first layer is that Wikipedia definition: maps and backstories, simple facts: “Developing an imaginary setting with coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology worldbuilding often involves the creation of maps, a backstory, and people for the world.”

At the very basic level, we’re making decisions about a world’s physicality and starting conditions. The joy of speculative fiction is that anything is possible: with nothing out of reach, you build worlds from the ground up—oxygen, plant life, unicorns if you want.

This doesn’t mean making lists. We’ve set some starting conditions, but we worldbuild when we explore the implications of those choices.

Example: In Game of Thrones, summer and winter can each last years. But Westeros is full of people, plants, and food. Applying systemic worldbuilding awareness means if long summers and winters are true, seeds in Westeros work differently. They must hibernate for years, otherwise the first winter would have wiped plant life out.”

That’s doing the fundamental work of science fiction: taking an idea to its logical conclusions.

Basic worldbuilding isn’t just deciding facts; it’s analyzing and realizing how facts fit together and how, by both being true, those facts generate more facts.

This doesn’t mean putting miles of explanations about geography on the page. This worldbuilding is like an iceberg: 90% of the mass below water, holding up the visible parts and making them feel stable because there’s one well of agreed facts. That feels consistent, and a consistent fantasy world feels more real.

Worlds are made of people

Our basic facts generate more facts, but they also generate human reactions. Lots of decisions are made by characters because of their surroundings; how people react to their circumstances.

There’s a spaceship video game I like, Spacebase DF9. In it, sometimes a spaceship shows up with five people on board and one bed. I have questions.

Yes, that’s saucy, but also serious: characters will react to that situation. How does that one bed affect them? Do they sleep in shifts? Are the crew really cool with touch? What if someone gets sick? In short, how has this tiny society arranged itself to work with or around this limitation?

Societies arrange themselves, at the core, to work with—or transcend—their physical conditions. Societies are lifehacks, built with something to hack. How people react to our generated facts is what makes them more than an atlas for places we’ll never visit.

So step two is applying social awareness: reading our setting as made of systems and generating results for how those systems shape the characters living there.

Constructing everyday worlds

For layer three, we’ll consider how individuals interact with the societies we generate.

In her Brockton Writers Series post, JF Garrard pointed out: “[Worldbuilding] is actually something built into every story because the reader needs to be transported into a world which the writer has built.” I’m going to take that idea another way: Worldbuilding is built into every story, because people are always worldbuilding.

I like books set in Toronto, and when you read thirty stories set in the same place, you internalize how differently thirty authors see the same city block: different landmarks, different moods and memories associated with them. We live in societies, but we also live in subcultures, and for most of us, our societies are an uneasy fit. You can derive a character through finding their relationship to their society.

Carmen Maria Machado addresses this question well in her 2017 Atlantic interview: “Being queer, too, can feel surreal. There’s this sense that you’re seeing things that other people don’t, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist apart from the more culturally dominant perspective.”

We all live in constructed worlds every day. We’re not inventing ecologies and physics, but we walk through a world stuffed with information and, to make sense of it, we edit and explain. When writing a character’s perspective, how we edit and explain is worldbuilding: How does this person’s universe work? How do they, because of their intersectional identities, blind spots, geographies, habits, subcultures, moods, see and filter that objective world we laid down in steps one and two?

This is the worldbuilding that literary fiction does strongly: work like Austin Clarke’s “Four Stations in his Circle” or Emma Donoghue’s Room. How your protagonist sees and what their seeing says about them is worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is a powerful word

Building a world asks you to think in very specific ways:

-questioning your assumptions;

-thinking intersectionally, in systems;

-considering the implications of your choices;

-considering how surroundings shape people;

-taking others’ perspective.

For me, the most rewarding part of writing process is how we can apply it in our lives too, and we build worlds every time we interact with people.

I chose pronouns in this post; it built a world. I cited my queer authors, and authors of colour, crediting their intellectual work and underlining that these ideas are built in community; that builds a world. Having your reading series in a queer bookstore with accessible washrooms and gluten-free tags on the menu is a worldbuilding choice enacted in three-dimensional space.

Worlds are made of people: the reactions to our conditions. When we set good conditions, we can make worldbuilding choices that help more people fit well in the worlds we construct—and that’s a power we don’t need to write to realize.

 

Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 

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BWS 10.07.19: SK Dyment

WriterPhotoNice

SK Dyment is a writer and visual artist. SK has an illustrated blog with The BuzzMag called Inking Quickly, and his humour and illustration work have appeared in Peace Magazine, This Magazine, Briarpatch, Open Road, The Activist, Kick It Over and Fireweed among others. Steel Animalsis is their debut novel.

 
Ahead of their July 10th appearance, SK Dyment opens up about their debut novel, Steel Animalsis, and their inspirations and journey as a writer.

 

There doesn’t ever seem to be a queer philosophical adventure fiction category, which is what my debut novel Steel Animals features, so even though people love it in their displays, because the cover design is evocative and pretty, on the shelf it becomes mysterious.

The book is based around a rag-tag group of welder friends, while two of the male friends grew up together and were intimate as teens and as young men. The book definitely has a hot relationship between a young dyke leaning to gender fluid or trans and a bisexual in it, but the plot is more widely around these other events as well. So besides the entertaining story of a bank robber who needs to learn forgiveness not to mention impulse control and not drag her new true love into a plot for revenge, there is a whole secondary event happening, as one of the teen boys has grown up to become a top man in a corrupt construction firm while the other one opposes him.

The issues of loyalty, ethics and moral issues also are themed into the plot, which weaves together with the building of a squirrel-shaped glider and a number of other playful devices and funny events of magical realism. Of course, redemption and salvation are there too, as well as the wildly terrifying and reportedly funny finale, but the loyalty theme is very catalytic and it revolves around a male love relationship while a female love relationship powers a rebuilt vintage motorcycle through the middle. To me, this is queer fiction. The book contains queer people, bisexuals, a straight couple who stray, a gay couple who bring a baby to the New York MOMA, the two hot dykes with their motorcycle romance, and it is really written for readers who are interested in the deeper contemporary questions around relationships and around the problem of corruption as well as those readers simply interested in reading something fun.

My first experiences with publishing things was in the form of cartooning, and editorial-type drawings for magazines. I decided to tackle the novel-length form a few years ago, after I had written smaller articles for student newspapers and had short stories published here and there. I approached it in a different way than some novelists, really like I was going to war at first with the prose. I forced myself to write a set amount every day and to not leave my space until I had produced tangible results and had met my required word count. I used to write with my rollerblades on, and skate around my carpeted apartment, descending the stairs finally sideways at night, one frazzled step at a time, to go rollerblading alone for miles under the moon. So the bare bones of the manuscript was developed in that way.

The influence and purpose behind my narrative voice however, was formed, as mentioned on my website www.skdyment.ca to a very large extent from my experience growing up working in the family bookshop, which I had to do after school. The shop had a massive collection of Western philosophy among other features which speaks about purpose. It was from the philosophy that I developed a sense that people abstracted intellectually on the “art of living a good life” and that the “love of wisdom” was a pursuit, but as I came of age in the 1980’s, I was aware that it was a sexist, racist society that excluded the good life based on arbitrary categories and required LGBT people to be in the closet or be fired and excluded from Canadian government jobs.

As a teenager I had another job as a night cleaner at the Department of Defence, pushing a little cleaning cart from office to office, and so I had actually seen lying next to an eighties-era shredder a list of names of Defence employees who had been reprimanded for overly-out behaviour. This was not fiction. This was a reality that was playing itself out around me while I tried to focus on my own life, and my own sprawling existential questions surrounded by Camus, Foucault, Hegel, Socrates and Plato. So besides the philosophy tomes, which had more questions than answers, I was required to evaluate boxes from people downsizing their libraries of those quickly-devoured paperback books that truly reached out by authors such as Tom Wolfe or Nora Ephron, and in the midst of this I discovered Robert Pirsig who blew my mind.

So I developed a sense, in a true tactile way, of the type of writing that people actually loved-up and grimed-up and shared with friends and that ultimately arrived in boxes for someone unknown stranger to discover, and it wasn’t the dusty philosophy books, the vast collection of military history or even the well-meaning pop-psych books that populated the shop. I told myself that I would some day write a snappy little book that ended up with that grunge effect like that, or at the very least, a debut novel that showed I knew how to write. People are telling me they find it an entertaining romp, which encourages me to write another one.

When I moved to Toronto just a few years ago, I saw the beautiful motorcycles lined up in front of Ryerson University as I sat in a coffee-shop composing essays for an art director in Canadian film who was teaching a course. I saw Ducatis and Harley-Davidson and even a Norton. Cafe racers. And I thought, this is it, if I want people to know I can write things, I’ve got to take that incredible restrained energy from that row of bikes and create a fast-paced novel that could be on the screen. And although I’ve only owned one and only had it for a little while I fancy motorcycles, they are proletarian, use very little fuel and are easily converted, they roar with energy and thrum with animal excitement.

So the next semester I took a course in publishing, and stayed up late in the Ryerson Library self-publishing the first version, which ultimately was re-edited by Inanna. I am very grateful to Inanna Press. And as I write the screenplay, I realize that the sound of a grunge music band such as the Riot Grrls might quite fit nicely as a sort melodic background growl. I did live that era, roamed Seattle and San Francisco and the West Coast as a hitchhiker. So the rebellious power chord strum of grunge and punk rock has a mood-music place in the writing. I’ve recently written a Coles notes style study guide for the book so that it can be taught in an academic setting, because there’s a helluva lot in there, hidden things, secret meanings, little poems, an encrypted code. I wanted my readers to be able to identify cultural references along the way.

Hopefully through the book people sense they  have looked into the interworkings of human relationships and found relevance, and have visited the world of poetic and philosophical abstractions while enjoying an adventure.

So now I continue to write and spend time developing fresh ideas in different forms, and I always come back to these philosophical questions. Why are we here? To cynically damage our beautiful planet, I think not. To enhance the current ways we have to tear down corruption and in the same stroke nurture an egalitarian society? That sounds like the right message to me. Without being a spoiler, the book tries to land in this optimistic place, using magic realism to take things a little past normal but also using the basic magic everyone has in them to shift culture and save everyday lives.

 

SK Dyment 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, Terri Favro, and guest speaker Leah Bobet who will be exploring word building with a focus on character in her talk, “Worlds are Made of People.”

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BWS 10.07.19: Terri Favro

Terri

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.”

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BWS 10.07.19: Jenny Yuen

Jenny_Yuen

Jenny Yuen is an award-winning news reporter, who covers a wide variety of local, provincial and national stories, and has written for the Toronto Sun, Now Magazine, and CBC Radio. She is a proud poly partner. She lives in Toronto with her family.

 

While polygamy has been characterized as patriarchal, polyamory – fostering multiple consensual relationships simultaneously – has been known to be feminist. Polyamorous author Jenny Yuen, who has two partners, was quoted in Slutever recently on how polyamory is on the rise in North America and how talking about having multiple loving relations more openly can reduce misconceptions, stigma, and help it gain wider societal acceptance.

This New Book Offers a Fresh Take on Polyamory

Jenny Yuen’s book Polyamorous: Living and Loving More approaches the subject of polyamory with an open-mind, extensive research, and the first-hand experience to back it all up. Troy Michael Bordun talks to the author about jealousy, internet communities, and trust.

 I lived my young adulthood in downtown Toronto. It was the early to mid-2000s and I had friends with diverse backgrounds and interests across the city; yet, when it came to sex and romance, we only knew two possibilities: dating or promiscuity and (serial) monogamy. Then in 2006, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “polyamory,” and its usage increased as the years went on. In 2017, for example, the fourth most popular Google search related to relationships was “What is a poly relationship?” and “What is an open relationship?” came in sixth. For many Canadians and Americans today, polyamory is simply part of our everyday lives.

In her first book, Polyamorous: Living and Loving More (2018, Dundurn Press), Toronto author and journalist Jenny Yuen shares the stories of dozens of polyamorous Canadians. According to a 2012 study, 4-5% of the country’s population, much like its neighbour to the South, is in some kind of consensual non-monogamous arrangement. Yuen provides the space for some of these folks to discuss their habits, preferences, and struggles. In a highly engaging style, the author articulates just how relevant alternatives to monogamy have become.

What initially struck me while reading Yuen’s book was the sheer quantity of responses from poly Canadians (I’ll follow the book’s usage of “poly” instead of “polyam” or “polya”). During my conversation with the author in October 2018, she mentioned that her own choice to pursue polyamory assisted her in generating so many productive interviews. Like Yuen herself, many are open to talking about their personal lives in the interest of normalizing alternatives to monogamy. Indeed, the first two chapters of the book exclusively detail Yuen’s discovery of and experiences with polyamory. The author also revealed that she offered her participants the opportunity to use just their first name or a pseudonym, because “not everyone has the privilege of being ‘out.’’’

Yuen is clear about the poly privilege. There isn’t a readily available poly starter kit but a few things do help people get going and maintain their partnerships, e.g., financial security, urban living, and a progressive family and community. Many polyamorists use their financial security in order to maintain multiple households, go to expensive kink events, plan a poly vacation with a poly travel agent (yes, this exists), or visit partners in faraway cites – flying across the country and staying in hotels isn’t cheap. Yet Yuen also describes how Facebook has been a vital tool for more local, community-oriented poly hangouts. Groups like Toronto Non-Monogamous BIPOC and Poly Role Models (Philadelphia) try to make events – and thus the lifestyle itself – more accessible. But as rewarding as an online community can be, it remains just that – it’s no substitute for meeting real people.

Further, although the urban lifestyle is preferable for the polyamorist (larger dating pool, bigger community, more events), Yuen ensures that her book highlights rural voices alongside urban ones.

Individuals in rural parts of the country can find ways to connect online and, if fate will allow it, arrangements can be made for a meeting. Amber, a woman who appears in Yuen’s book, was living on a remote island in British Columbia when she found the Vanpoly (Vancouver) group online. There, she met a man and, after a year or two, moved in with him, his wife, her boyfriend, and another housemate who became Amber’s boyfriend too. Now she splits her time between the island and the city. As Yuen writes, with the invention of the internet, “Polyamory suddenly became accessible with one click” for both rural and urban folks. Whether people want to learn more about it or find people to connect with, online access has proved invaluable.

But even with an internet connection, people like Cloud Edwards – a 28-year-old from Nelson, British Columbia (some 800 kilometers from Vancouver) – can still feel isolated. Edwards describes feeling rejected in his small town as most women didn’t want anything to do with a poly man and his poly wife. Polyamorous men often struggle, Yuen tells me, as men “may be the ones who instigate opening up their relationship (if they are in an existing one), but then may find their girlfriend/wife/partner finding their own partner(s) more easily and quickly. And that can lead to jealousy and other problems.” (Of course, this could happen to women in heterosexual relationships, or women and men in same-sex relationships, but Yuen finds that this pattern of struggling hetero men in poly relationships is relatively common.)

Indeed, navigating jealousy is, unsurprisingly, a considerable stumbling block for poly individuals. While Yuen only dedicates one chapter to the subject, navigating, negotiating, and overcoming jealous feelings is a thematic current that runs throughout her study. Rather than shame or condemn the negative feeling, Yuen grants her interviewees the opportunity to examine jealousy and describe ways they’ve been able to overcome it. The author indirectly offers relationship advice here: reading about all these poly folks, we learn that emotional epiphanies, working through it one day at a time, and poly counselling are just some of the options available for those who want to improve a relationship. On starting a poly life, Dr. Oren Amitay perhaps puts it best: “get ready to feel insecure and find ways to handle that.”

In addition to internal pressures within relationships, poly folks are also subjected to stigma and scrutiny from friends, family, co-workers, and the law. Yuen kindly offers her own experiences here. With a British husband, she wondered whether immigration officials would dig into her private life, and further, expressed her concern over whether she and her husband would “be persecuted” because they “chose to structure [their] relationship(s) differently than societal norms.” Yuen notes that her polycule (a romantic network of three or more individuals) consulted judges, criminal and family lawyers to ensure they weren’t breaking any laws, especially regarding the ambiguities around commitment ceremonies and “sanctioning events.” In a particularly insightful chapter, Yuen provides a history of polyamory and the law – an excellent resource for poly folks who want to know more about the risks involved when forming a polycule (in the end, the law doesn’t have too much to say about it or it doesn’t want to bother to enforce existing legislation – in short, polyamory isn’t criminal).

For the most part, Yuen says, those around her and her partners have been accepting of her lifestyle. However, Cory and Kendra from Whitehorse, Yukon, haven’t been so lucky. Yuen dedicates an entire chapter of the book to their story. “We [Kendra and I] had death threats,” Cory reveals. “Literally, I’ve had people tell me they were going to shoot me.” Eventually they fled the North, but these negative experiences hung over their lives like a dark cloud, and they suffered hardships (mental illness, geographical displacement) and consistent relationship problems (break-ups, trust issues).

Cory’s, Kendra’s, and other interviewees’ honesty make Polyamorous what it is: a true to life account of the diversity of sexual and romantic formations. Yuen doesn’t pull any punches, especially when it comes to women’s experiences in poly relationships. As Elisabeth Sheff points out in her 2006 study of poly men, polyamorous relationships still sometimes reproduce typical power relations and gender hierarchies. Yuen and her interviewees note poly trends such as unicorn hunting (a hetero couple searching for a bi-woman) and the one-penis-policy (hetero couple arrangement in which the woman can have other partners as long as they’re not male) as evidence of ongoing sexist behavior. Yuen tells me, “Women who identify as solo poly tend to feel a lot of pressure… because as the single woman coming into a triad, they can sometimes feel like it’s ‘two against one’ when couple privilege comes into play.” In the book, she provides the example of S.J, a woman often sought out as by couples asking her to be their unicorn. According to S.J., unicorn hunters often reproduce partner hierarchies and “ninety percent of the women were not even bi; they’re just trying to please their husbands.” Moreover, after hooking up with a couple, she was twice asked to babysit their children. This kind of treatment suggests that whoever doesn’t respect the monogamous institutions like marriage – in this case, S.J., who has chosen to remain childless – becomes expendable. Yuen concludes, “when everyone in a polycule isn’t treated with respect and honesty, then things go downhill pretty quickly.”

Yuen didn’t aim to write a poly guidebook, nor does she claim to be an expert. She is relatively new to the poly world, but has nevertheless provided an account that touches upon so many key themes and topics in poly communities. Tackling subjects like age, class, marginalized identities (the brief look at Indigenous polyamory is fascinating and important), and poly families, Yuen’s Polyamorous is a timely, necessary book for 2018 and for the future of poly people and relationships. The book’s strength lies in its ability to normalize the diversity of relationships and relationship philosophies.

I closed my interview with Yuen with an inquiry into the future of polyamory. She simply hopes for less stigma, and, in turn, greater acceptance. Yuen continues, “I think everyone should be able to choose who they love and how many they can love without fear of retribution, of losing their job or their children, and without a person invalidating their life choices. Hopefully, with more positive, less sensationalized media coverage, a willingness from poly communities to talk about ‘how it all works’ and dispelling misconceptions, people can better understand why others wish to practice it.” Polyamorous is a valuable step in that direction.

 

Click here to read more on how polyamory can allow women to set their own boundaries and to choose whom and how many they wish to love without adhering to societal norms. 

 

Jenny Yuen 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, Terri Favro, 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.”

 

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