Nonbinary and Genderqueer Reads

Today I’ve got mini-reviews four books by and about nonbinary and genderqueer people, including two young adult novels, and two memoirs, including one graphic memoir. I’m part of a monthly bring your own book club with other library workers, and this month’s theme was “read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours.” Having read a lot of books by men already in my life, I decided to focus on books by nonbinary people instead!

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (they/them)

Cover image for I Wish You All the BestThis YA novel is a classic coming out narrative, but for gender rather than sexuality. Ben is thrown out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary, and is taken in by their estranged older sister, Hannah. Ben starts the last semester of senior year at a new school, where they decide not to come out as nonbinary because of the fallout from the fight with their parents. At the new school, Ben falls for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan. This quiet contemporary focuses on relationships and acceptance, including Ben’s growing feelings for Nathan, reconnecting with their sister, and their decision about whether or not to forgive their parents. One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (he/they)

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderWhereas I Wish You All the Best is a coming out story, Felix Ever After follows the story of Felix Love, who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the nonbinary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online. Felix’s best friend Ezra is the light of this book, and he reminded me a great deal of Nathan from I Wish You All the Best.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir)

Cover image for Gender Queer by Maia KobabeThis graphic memoir follows Maia Kobabe on eir exploration of gender, and how e came to understand that e was nonbinary, with colours by eir sister, Phoebe Kobabe. The book recounts eir confusion about increasingly gendered expectations in childhood, such as differences in acceptable swimwear for young boys and girls. As e gets older, there is an increasing focus on body dysmorphia, particularly body horror related to menstruation and gynecological exams. E confesses to secretly harbouring a guilty wish for breast cancer as an excuse for a mastectomy. Unaware of the nonbinary option, as a teen Kobabe wished for the ability to switch between genders at will, like in the cartoon Ranma ½. The memoir comes to an open ending, as Kobabe has realized eir nonbinary identity, but is still struggling with being open about it in various settings, such as the art class e teaches. The book concludes: “A note to my parents: Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad I am your child.”

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (they/them)

Cover image for Sissy by Jacob TobiaJacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles. Sissy is their memoir about growing up in North Carolina, and their years coming into their gender identity and expression as a scholarship student at Duke University. Tobia is perhaps best known for their 2012 run in five inch high heels across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise money for the Ali Forney Center after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Tobia has a loud love-me-or-leave-me style that you will either jive with, or not; in their conclusion they write “to this day, your divine conviction in your own self-love makes you kinda arrogant and a little bit of an asshole,” apparently aware of the inevitable dichotomy. Tobia likes humour and extended metaphors; for example, they propose that instead of the closet, the metaphor for coming out should be a snail coming out of its shell. Their tone is a whiplash combination of earnestness and irreverence, mixing insights about gender and socialization with jokes, dropping insights about toxic masculinity in the same breath as a dick joke. Tobia loudly pushes for more trans stories that go beyond the traditional gender binary, using their own struggles with their parents, their church, and their university to pave the way.

Browse more LGBTQ+ reads

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover image for Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kellyby Helena Kelly

ISBN 9781524732110

“Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary as anything thing that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. By and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.”

When Jane Austen died in July 1817, she had lived only forty-one years, a quiet life amongst her family and friends that does not make for a remarkable biography. She was unmarried, and lived with her widowed mother and spinster sister, in a cottage on the grounds of the estate of one of her many brothers. Between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, England had been at war for most of her life, and she never had the chance to travel outside the country. In accordance with decorum, she did not publish under her own name during her lifetime. With such a scanty biography, and a family that was heavily invested in controlling her image after her death, Oxford professor Helena Kelly argues that to truly understand Austen’s life, we must look to her published works, because “it is impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words and reveal nothing of how she thinks or what she believes.” It is to Austen’s six novels that Kelly turns to understand the author’s true thoughts and opinions, bolstered by her letters and Kelly’s knowledge of English history. But while many people find Austen’s novels to be light romances, Kelly argues that we must read more deeply to unearth the true thoughts and less orthodox opinions of a woman who mocked the monarchy, criticized the clergy, and thumbed her nose at the titled aristocracy.

Kelly begins with Northanger Abbey, likely the first of Austen’s novels to be sold, and the last to be published, for the publisher that initially bought the rights never actually printed it. She later reacquired the rights, but it was not published until her after death, leaving open the question of whether she wanted this youthful manuscript to be read. Each chapter begins with a biographical sketch from the life of Jane Austen, showing where she was and what was happening in her life at the time she was working on each of her books, though this is an inexact business, as her early books in particular were likely worked on over many years. But the main part of each chapter is given over to close reading of Austen’s work, looking for evidence of her engagement with the radical ideology of the time in which she lived. Interestingly, Kelly never applies the word “radical” to Austen directly; she reserves this for political thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, and Mary Wollestonecraft, and once applies it to Austen’s most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

When the characters from all of Austen’s books are taken together, as Kelly does here, it is clear that Austen did not think much of the nobility or clergy. Most of Austen’s characters are untitled gentry, but characters such as Sir William Lucas and Lady Catherine de Burgh are figures of fun, and the Reverend Mr. Collins still more so. The Reverend Mr. Elton of Emma is hardly better in his pretensions and flirtations, and Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park, openly admits the he is going into the Church out of convenience rather than any sense of vocation; he knows that nepotism will provide him with a living. Altogether, Kelly makes a strong case that for the daughter of a clergyman, Austen did not have a great deal of respect for England’s traditional institutions and authorities.

It is also clear that Kelly’s view of Austen’s novels is not particularly romantic. In her reading of Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that the math does not add up in the story Colonel Brandon tells Elinor about whether he is the father of his ward. He never outright denies the relationship, but seems to disavow it through his timeline. Kelly points out that the fortune that saved the estate Colonel Brandon inherited from his brother rightly belongs to his ward, since it was essentially stolen from her mother when Brandon’s father abused his guardianship and forced her to marry his older brother. In her close reading of Emma, she makes the case that Mr. Knightley is engaged in an enclosure of the commons, something that was happening at an extremely rapid pace during Austen’s lifetime, with serious consequences for the poor who relied on those resources. Kelly further suggests that by marrying Emma and Isabella, the Knightley brothers will eventually be able to complete an enclosure plan for Highbury and Donwell that the conservative and change-averse Mr. Woodhouse would be unlikely to agree to. Once married, their property belongs to their husbands when they eventually inherit Hartfield. Austen’s other heroes do not fare much better under Kelly’s scrutiny.

Helena Kelly knows her English history, and uses it to illuminate the context of Austen’s novels beyond the drawing rooms in which they take place. If her theories are sometimes far-fetched, they are always thought-provoking, and are looking to tie back to that history. “Read Jane’s novels,” Kelly implores, “they’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” No doubt I will be thinking of her ideas the next time I revisit the texts, even as I doubt I will be taking some of her theories to heart. 

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn 

Hood Feminism

Cover image for Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendallby Mikki Kendall

ISBN 9780525560555

“The patriarchy isn’t dead, nor is it the same everywhere, and calling for solutions without addressing the impact of class and race evades the real problem. As a society, we face a vicious tangle of income inequality exacerbated by unchecked bigotry that has been allowed to seep into every community.”

Meriam-Webster defines feminism as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” But author and activist Mikki Kendall argues that a number of very fundamental and basic needs have been overlooked as feminist issues by mainstream feminism in favour of more specialized interests that only benefit a small subset of already relatively privileged women who have long been at the head of the movement. Arguing that “internal conflicts are how feminism grows and becomes more effective,” Kendall lays out these oversights, and centers the women who have been left behind at the heart of her idea of what the feminist agenda should focus on going forward. This is intersectional feminism, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but Kendall dubs it “hood feminism,” because for her the glaring oversights of the mainstream feminist movement were made readily evident by her own history as a poor, black woman growing up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Chicago. In Hood Feminism, she lays bare the gaps, in the hopes that it will help us chart a more inclusive way forward.

Kendall begins by rejecting trickle down feminism, or the idea that gains for white women will eventually benefit women of color and trans women as well. She instead proposes reversing this model, and centering the needs of the most vulnerable members of the movement first, rather than continuing to ask them to wait in line for a turn that never seems to come. Hood Feminism also calls for an acknowledgement that “white privilege knows no gender.” Kendall suggests that women in positions of relative privilege should acknowledge that power, because “sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters.”

Kendall also points out that the mainstream feminist movement too often asks black women to divorce their feminism from their blackness, sometimes at the expense of black men. Without the nuance of intersectionality, black men are treated as if they have the same power and privilege as white men, even as black women bear daily witness to the fact that this is not true for the men in their lives. The most powerful faces of the patriarchy are not, and have never been, men of colour. She stresses the importance of acknowledging these nuances before effective policy solutions that do not harm marginalized people can be proposed and enacted.

Having established the narrow bounds of our current ideas of feminism, Kendall turns her attention to the broader issues she believes should be viewed through a feminist lens. These include issues as various poverty, hunger, gun violence, education, and housing. For each, she approaches the issue afresh, and demonstrates the unique harms and impacts faced by women and children that qualify them for consideration as a feminist issue. In the case of gun violence, she highlights data showing that “the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a women will be killed” by her partner. This leads directly to police brutality as a feminist issue, because when black women face domestic violence, they cannot turn to the law for a remedy without risking further violence. By following these connections, Kendall makes the case for broadening the scope of feminism.

Respectability politics are a major theme throughout the book, impacting how people are perceived and valued by society in a variety of situations. But Kendall points to poverty as a key driver away from the ability to maintain standards of respectability, pushing people into impossible choices between food and selling drugs, or shelter and sex work. “Any system that makes basic human rights contingent on a narrow standard of behavior pits potential victims against each other and only benefits those who would prey on them,” she argues. These standards can be advocated from within the community, or without, but whatever the source, they often “reflect antiquated ideals set up by white supremacy” and are “financially and emotionally expensive” to maintain. Respectability comes up again and again as a factor in deciding who deserves help, and who is deemed beneath notice.

Kendall does address some issues that are already broadly considered feminist issues, such as rape culture and reproductive justice. Here she focuses on the ways we need to broaden our understanding of the issues to be more inclusive of marginalized women, and the ways that women with the most privilege can ensure that they are not contributing to the oppression of other women through complicity in white supremacy. She argues that when white women reinforce stereotypes about women of colour, we legitimize their sexual abuse and reinforce rape culture. “Exotification isn’t freedom,” she argues. Rather, “any feminism that hinges on the fetishization of the beauty of women of color is toxic.” Assertions that sex workers cannot be raped create similar harm, positioning some women as deserving of whatever violence befalls them. In the chapter on reproductive justice, she focuses on black maternal mortality, as well as America’s harmful history of imposing eugenicist reproductive policies on marginalized women. In doing so she calls for a broader feminist understanding of reproductive justice that focuses on more than abortion access.

Hood Feminism provides a broad understanding of why some marginalized women struggle to identify with mainstream feminist organizations and causes. It promotes intersectionality by enhancing our understanding of what constitutes a feminist issue. And it calls on the women who have gained the most from white feminism’s narrow focus to use that relative privilege not for our own further gain, but to reach out and help bring other women onto equal footing, in ways that will benefit us all thanks to the interconnected nature of our society.

You might also like Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

The Good Immigrant

Cover image for The Good ImmigrantEdited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

ISBN 978-0-316-52423-0

“Promises were made to those who arrived on this country’s shores. There were full-throated declarations about equality and all men breathing free. Regardless of how uncomfortable these words may now make some sons of the men who wrote them, we intend to hold those promises to account.” –Walé Oyéjidé

The Good Immigrant is an American take on a British best-seller of the same name, compiled by the same editors, one of whom is now living in the United States. The book consists of twenty-six essays about being an immigrant to the United States, or the child of immigrants. Some now have their own American-born children. Jim St. Germain writes that this is like “living with my heart outside my body in a warzone.” Some are refugees, and others come following family or economic opportunities. Some might even have preferred to stay at home, but were pushed or pulled across the ocean by the circumstances of life. Tensions about immigration remain a political flashpoint in America, leaving the writers to grapple with language, identity, and culture in the midst of a hostile environment.

The collection opens with an essay by Porochista Khakpour about her complicated relationship with being known for her essays about the Iranian-American experience. She struggles openly with the confluence between what she thinks people want to hear from her, what she wants to write, and what she thinks she can sell. Nigerian author Teju Cole also writes about feeling his identity shaped from the outside in this way. Cole describes becoming “African” only upon arriving in America, where the fifty-four countries that make up that vast and diverse continent are reduced to a shapeless monolith. He felt his Blackness more acutely once removed from a place where everyone was Black, and thrown against the white backdrop of America.

The question “Where are you from?” is a thread that runs through many of the pieces collected here. It is addressed by Fatima Asghar, who asks, “how much of myself can I give away to satisfy others’ thirst?” Sometimes the question comes from another outsider seeking connection, but most often it is a loaded question, almost an accusation, and an implication of non-belonging.  The question is at the heart of the essay contributed by Yann Mounir Demange, who is one of three mixed-race brothers, who share the same white mother, but different fathers. He settles on describing himself as a Londoner—but not British—but each layer of his life story that he peels back reveals how complicated and personal such a seemingly simple question can be. Our desire to taxonomize is deeply invasive.

Many of The Good Immigrant’s writers also reveal complex relationships with where they came from. “My people, my people. How I love you on sight, how you make my heart beat a crowded symphony in my chest. Half of the time I want every single one of you as my kin, and half the time I want nothing to do with you. Perhaps this is the source of my loneliness: belonging and not belonging, always, to you,” laments Fatima Asghar, reflecting on the push-pull of her South Asian identity. Priya Minhas writes movingly about women being forced out of her community for failure to conform to its ideals of womanhood: “Sometimes it is a luxury that I’m now able to define myself outside my community. Other times I’m so homesick that I forget I’m living here by choice.” Instead of people, the departed women become cautionary tales for the next generation of girls. Distance becomes a heartbreaking necessity for a woman who wants to build a life outside such narrow confines. For biracial writer Alexander Chee, it was necessary to find a path into his Korean identity that did not involve doing so through his father’s abusive family.

Another thread that runs through the collection is language and accent, which arise again and again as the contributors are continually policed by society for the way that they speak or write. Daniel José Older writes about his childhood refusal to learn Spanish, and the internalized bigotry that led to years of miscommunications with his own family members. Actress Dani Fernandez writes about being frozen out of Spanish by her parents and grandparents, who wanted her to sound American. But instead of her telling her she sounds American, people tell her she sounds white, and that she isn’t Latina enough for their idea of the Latina characters they want to cast for television. Fatima Asghar writes about being a native English speaker, and yet being told that her grasp of the language is wrong. But it is the only language she has, since her parents died and she no longer has Urdu or Saraiki with them. Nigerian Chigozie Obioma writes about how his “African” accent exoticized him, setting him apart from African Americans in the eyes of their White neighbours, at least in situations where he had a chance to open his mouth.

Most of the writers are people of colour, whose outward appearance means that they cannot slip seamlessly into white America and disappear. But one essay comes from Irish immigrant Maeve Higgins, who writes about the blithe privilege with which she overstayed her visa as a teenager, utterly unconcerned that she might be caught or punished. Now acutely aware of her privilege, she writes about how preclearance programs discriminate against people of colour, and prevent legitimate asylum claimants from reaching US soil, a necessary first step in making such a claim. Another is contributed by Jean Hannah Edelstein, the daughter of a Jewish American father and a Scottish mother. She writes about how she felt Othered by being the child of an immigrant who might have preferred to stay the UK, and only later came to realize the privilege of her whiteness in contrast to her identification with the experiences of her peers who were the non-White children of immigrants.

As collection, The Good Immigrant is largely serious in tone, but it is also occasionally funny. Krutika Mallikarjuna writes about going on date with a white woman who goes by her middle name, Anita, but feels compelled to confess that the first name her parents actually gave her is India, after her likely place of conception. Bassim Usmani’s tour diaries about his experiences in a punk band composed entirely of Muslim men is like the premise of a dark sitcom about race, expectations, and double standards. One of the more unique pieces is by Mona Chalabi who uses a paper airplane to help readers understand immigration statistics. Long or short, serious or leavened with unexpected humour, Shukla and Suleyman have brought together a diverse collection of voices highlighting the breadth of the American immigrant experience in the midst of an increasingly xenophobic political environment.

Canada Reads Along: We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habibby Samra Habib

ISBN 978-0-7352-35007

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, homophobia, sexism, racism, child marriage.

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ Freedom from your captors, war, and oppressive regimes. But when used to describe a woman, it is meant to imply that she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right to tame her: her parents and all the men in her life whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her own desires.”

Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims, which the Sunni majority does not recognize as a form of Islam at all. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her.

In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her mother, from whom she was estranged for a period of time following her divorce from her cousin. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong her parents did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step. After all, she had “only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Habib’s memoir takes us deep into her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but cannot offer us quite the same insight into how her mother started as someone who would marry her minor daughter to her first cousin, and came to be a woman who could accept the fact that her daughter is queer, and dates all kinds of other queer people. “To better understand myself, I need to understand how she got here,” Habib concludes. “I intend to spend the rest of the time she’s alive finding out.”

Habib’s father is a fascinating contradiction, a man who refused to accept condolences for having three beautiful daughters before a son finally came along, but who was also known to bellow “Allah hates the loud laughter of women!” Habib’s portrait painfully illustrates how his confidence was unmade by the family’s move to Canada, where he is unable to reclaim the status to which he was accustomed in Pakistan as a successful businessman. He is the kind of father who disagrees with engaging a teenager to her first cousin, and obliquely offers to put a stop to it. But he is also mercurial enough that his adolescent daughter knows instinctively that there will be a price to pay for accepting that offer. Even though he was not the architect of her child marriage, Habib’s rapprochement with her father seems more halting and tentative. I was also deeply curious about the experiences of her sisters and brother in this same household, and how they were uniquely affected by growing up under similar circumstances. However, that is perhaps their own story to tell, and Habib does not dwell on it.

Although leaving Pakistan helped her family avoid one type of religious persecution, in Canada Habib still faced racism, homophobia, and anti-Muslim discrimination. “Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either. We had our asylum and our government-issued blankets, but I still didn’t feel free to be a child,” Habib writes of the precarious transition to life in Canada. School was a mixed blessing. Though “people who devote themselves to learning have always been my people, my pockets of safety,” she experienced the transition from ESL classes with other immigrants to the mainstream classroom as a source of trauma. Education was her weapon, but school was not always a safe place.

We Have Always Been Here was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by actor Amanda Brugel. The book slid under the radar on the first day of debates, as the discussion that day centered on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. However, Brugel was an engaged debater from the first, showing herself early on as one of the strongest defenders at the table this year. She came out swinging on the very first question, arguing vociferously against Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, saying that it centered the perspectives of angry men, and that the only woman of colour protagonist was less developed than the smart toaster in “Unauthorized Bread.”

Indeed, We Have Always Been Here faced little criticism over the course of a week of debates. The most notable critique came from Akil Augustine, who argued that Habib did not do a good job of explaining how she could remain a Muslim after she came into her queer identity. Augustine specifically felt that given the importance of the religious texts in Islam, she should have mounted a theological argument referencing the textual passages that supported her position, as this would be most effective in persuading other Muslims to her way of thinking. George Canyon also noted he would have liked more contextual information about Pakistan and her family’s history there.

Although she didn’t often use the term, Brugel also argued that her book was the most intersectional, and therefore best represented the widest variety of Canadians within a single story. Samra is a queer woman of colour, a Muslim, and a refugee, providing multiple points of entry into her narrative. In keeping with this year’s theme, Brugel felt the book had the potential to bring the largest number of diverse Canadian identities into focus, making them feel safe, seen, and recognized.

Brugel described reading this book as being like reading the diary of a soul mate she had never met, and the other panelists seemed to agree with her, especially after they became free agents. George Canyon praised We Have Always Been Here for the way Habib’s writing evoked the Pakistani setting in the first part of the book. Canyon also joined Akil Augustine and Kaniehtiio Horn in naming Samra as one of the characters from all the books that stuck with them most, and Alayna Fender named her the character that most embodied compassion for the messiness of being human.

Going into the finale, We Have Always Been Here seemed a clear favourite, never having had a single vote cast against it by any of the panelists. In her closing remarks, Brugel asked her fellow panelists to put aside the question of fiction vs. non-fiction, and instead vote for the book that changed them, and impacted their life after the last page. Despite a lively final day of debate, when the ballots were read, everyone except Son of a Trickster defender Kaniehtiio Horn had voted to name We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib the historic winner of Canada Reads 2020. This marked the first time since Canada Reads began in 2002 that a woman panelist defending a book written by a woman took home the top prize.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2020! Need to catch up? Start with Radicalized by  Cory Doctorow.

You can also browse for more Canadian reads, including past Canada Reads contenders! Past winners include:

Canada Reads Along: Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinsonby Eden Robinson

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, child abuse, domestic violence.

ISBN 978-0-345-81078-6

“He wanted to stay with Sarah, but watching Mr. and Mrs. Jaks slowly dying was brutal. He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong.”

Old beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all.

Son of a Trickster starts out slowly, setting the scene on the northern coast of British Columbia, in a town defined by the boom and bust of the resource cycle. The ups and downs in Jared’s life ride upon the unstable temperament of his formidable mom, Maggie, who would do anything to protect her son from the world, but can’t always protect him from herself, or her secrets. By turns fascinating and terrifying, Maggie has carved out a place in the world by sheer force of will, but it is a constant effort to hold that space, and sometimes she lets it all collapse, leaving Jared to pick up the pieces. Jared’s own will is as stubborn as his mother’s, and as the story progresses it becomes evident that there is much he has been refusing to see out of a deep-seated sense of self-preservation.

At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, little bits of weirdness creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from. While this element comes into full force late in the book, the fact that Son of a Trickster is the first in a series leaves room for Robinson to continue to explore the implications of the first book’s final revelations.

Son of a Trickster was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by Kaniehtiio Horn, an Indigenous actor and podcaster from Kahnawake. Horn mounted a quiet but powerful defense of her chosen book, touting it as coming of age story that will appeal to everyone from young adults to elders. This year’s Canada Reads theme was “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and Horn also argued that it was time to expand Canada’s focus beyond Indigenous trauma narratives, and make room for the broader voices that are also part of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Toward the very end of the finale, she expressed that she wanted to see Indigenous authors on every shelf, from crime fiction to fantasy to science fiction and beyond, occupying every genre.

Son of a Trickster faced a variety of hurdles in this year’s Canada Reads competition. Most notably, some of the panelists seemed to have a decided preference for non-fiction. This formed a central part of the second day of debates, with both George Canyon and Akil Augustine expressing a stronger connection to real people rather than fictional characters in response to a variety of questions posed by the host. Nevertheless, Son of a Trickster arrived at the finale having only been voted against once, by Alayna Fender on Day Three, as she tried to save her book Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club from elimination.

After giving the eliminated panelists a moment to remind the audience why they should still read all those books, moderator Ali Hassan focused the final day of debates on questions about compassion, engaging storytelling, and which book most challenged the way the panelists look at the world. Son of a Trickster eked out an edge in the storytelling department, with George Canyon describing the book as a captivating, Akil Augustine lauding the magical element, and Alayna Fender praising the engaging cast of characters.

Throughout the competition, Horn spoke eloquently to Son of a Trickster specifically as an Indigenous story. When Alayna Fender raised questions about the completeness of the story, and its sense of having a beginning, middle and end, Horn responded with an explanation about how Indigenous stories are often more cyclical, but tend to be judged against the linear standard more common in settler narratives, though she acknowledged that the book is also the first in a trilogy. She also took time to educate listeners about the important role of the storyteller within Indigenous culture. In her final appeal, she asked her fellow panelists to make Son of a Trickster the first book by an Indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

After a lively final day of debates, the panelists cast their ballots for the last time. Kaniehtiio Horn voted against We Have Always Been Here, but the other panelists came together in a unanimous block to eliminate Son of a Trickster, and make We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib and defended by Amanda Brugel the first book by a woman author defended by a woman panelist to win Canada Reads since the program began in 2002.

Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

Canada Reads Along: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

Cover image for Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail ColesMegan Gail Coles

ISBN 978-1-4870-0171-1

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, substance abuse, misogyny, animal abuse.

“She suspected John would try to colonize every aspect of her character so that he could accredit himself with anything worthwhile later. Early on, before the truly horrid had happened, Iris was concerned that John could not care less about what she was really like as long as this impersonation woman he preferred to her was believable.”

As a storm blows into St. John’s on Valentine’s Day, at the heart of a brutally cold February on the bay, the staff of The Hazel restaurant are preparing for service despite the weather. But another more personal storm front hangs over the dining room. John, the restaurant’s chef, has been conducting a precarious affair with Iris, the hostess, under the nose of his wife, who bankrolls the business. Damian, fresh off a breakup with his boyfriend, has arrived to his shift hung over, and without the patience to deal with the two increasingly wasted customers who take up position at the bar as lunch service begins. Outside, Olive watches it all from the cold winter streets of St. John’s, near-homeless because she cannot return to an apartment on which she has not paid the month’s rent. The Hazel is a house of cards ready to come crashing down, and a storm is blowing in.

I’m having a hard time doing this novel justice, so let’s start with the positive; Megan Gail Coles can write beautifully, turning out some stark gems of highly polished prose. Everything is carefully described, and her characters are incisively drawn. That being said, I didn’t find this at all pleasant to read. It probably doesn’t help that I started it in early March, as the COVID-19 crisis was picking up steam, and everything was changing by the day. When it was announced on March 13 that Canada Reads 2020 was being postponed, I threw this book down with relief, and didn’t return to it until last week, wanting to finish out the final quarter before the debates aired. With a measure more focus than I had back in March, I was able to handle the widely ranging narration, and the fact that the author eschews quotation marks or dialogue tags, and get past that somewhat to appreciate her characterization and themes.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club takes place over the course of a single day, divided by the cycle of the restaurant into Prep, Lunch, and Dinner. The narrative perspective shifts at will among the various characters, often descending deep into their stream of consciousness before shifting to the next. Each character is distinctive, some of them employing various degrees of Newfoundland dialect, which helps anchor the sense of place. By and large, these are not pleasant people, and I would be relieved to leave one behind when the perspective shifted, only to find the next person was equally nasty company. It isn’t terribly enjoyable to be inside their heads, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn me. “This might hurt a little. Be brave,” reads the epigraph with which Coles opens the book.

Pulsing beneath the humdrum events of the day is a deep current of misogyny. Toxic masculinity runs rampant amongst the male characters, and as we get to know Iris and Olive, their abuse at the hands of the men around them is slowly revealed. Iris’s ill-advised affair with her boss is crumbling, and John is actively planning how he will gaslight and discredit her if she reveals anything to his wife, Georgina. At the bar, we have Roger and Calv, two long-time friends with a complicated history. The women in his life—from his wife, to his mother, to his sister—are always telling Calv to dump Roger, but he can’t quite seem to cut the cord, even as he becomes increasingly complicit in Roger’s misdeeds. Georgina, known as George, a woman with a man’s name, is also tellingly complicit in her husband’s behaviour; Iris is not the first staff member at her restaurant that John has taken liberties with while she looked the other way.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by YouTube star Alayna Fender, known online as Alayna Joy. Fender mounted an impassioned defense of her book in the face of deep resistance to the writing style and subject matter, particularly from the male panelists. Both Akil Augustine and George Canyon consistently voted against the book on the first two days of debate, with discussion becoming quite heated. At the opening of the third day, Canyon began by apologizing for chiding the women panelists as “girls, girls, girls,” when his book, From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, was eliminated yesterday in a vote that broke along gender lines.

Host Ali Hassan focused the third day of debates around setting, character, resilience and hope, while trying to steer the panel firmly clear of the fiction vs. non-fiction debate that dominated day two. This focus on literary elements led to a less contentious debate, and brought up new aspects of the remaining books that had not been previously discussed. Samra from We Have Always Been Here seemed to appeal broadly to the panelists, while Canyon felt there were too many characters in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club for him to relate strongly to any particular one, which Kaniehtiio Horn echoed. Alayna Fender attempted to parlay this into a strength, arguing in her rebuttal that the beauty of the book lies in the way it ties many stories together, showing how each issue is connected.

The final question of the day addressed resilience, and which book best embodied that idea. Alayna Fender highlighted the resilience of Iris and Olive, but part way through the discussion, host Ali Hassan redirected the panel towards the idea of hope, and what relationship that has to resilience. This seemed to resonate with George Canyon, who felt that Samra from We Have Always Been Here was the character from the remaining books that gave him hope. However, panelist Akil Augustine firmly rejected this idea, saying that hope bears no connection to the work that needs to be done. Alayna Fender also pushed back against the idea of tidy endings, arguing that a happy ending can leave the reader feeling complacent, whereas a more nuanced ending leaves the reader knowing that there is work yet to be done.

After three rounds of debate and discussion, when the ballots were in, and the votes were read, both Akil Augustine and George Canyon stuck firmly to their earlier positions, voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. Defender Alayna Fender, who was obviously not going to vote against her own book, cast her ballot against Son of a Trickster. However, both Amanda Brugel and Kaniehtiio Horn joined the rest of the panel in voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, despite Brugel’s expressed love for the book, thus making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020.

Need to catch up with Canada Reads 2020? Start with Radicalized by Cory Doctorow. 

Canada Reads Along: From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse Thistleby Jesse Thistle

ISBN 9781982101213

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, sexual violence, child abuse.

“My words belonged to me. They were the only thing I had that was mine. And I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies.

Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself. Thistle’s account begins with crushing images of childhood poverty, including toddlers drinking half-empty beers (“brown pop”) because they were hungry, and trying to eat a raw turnip. Before disappearing onto the streets himself, Thistle’s father spent all their money on drugs and alcohol, and taught his three young sons to beg and steal to feed themselves.

Thistle has a knack for striking images. Early in the book, he describes himself homeless and addicted on the streets of Ottawa, fishing change out of the fountain surrounding the capital’s Centennial Flame. He is half-heartedly pursued by an RCMP officer who is obligated to chase him off, but less than invested in the endeavour. Occasionally his imagery can be overwhelming, such as gut-wrenching descriptions of medical horror. Thistle broke multiple bones after he fell off the side of a building, attempting to break into his brother’s apartment for shelter. On the streets, staying in homeless shelters, smoking against medical advice, his wounds became infected to the point that he was at risk of losing his leg. Eventually he deliberately committed a crime and turned himself in, in order to be sent to jail where he would have stable housing and medical care while his injuries healed.

From the Ashes was the only one of the Canada Reads 2020 titles that I listened to as an audiobook, simply because that was the only format I could get my hands on before the program was initially supposed to air back in March. The audiobook is performed by the author, who has a slow, extremely measured speaking voice. I don’t tend to speed up my audiobooks, as I prefer to listen at speaking speed, but for the first time ever, I listened to the entire audiobook at 1.25x. As this is published, I am currently rereading it in print form and overall would recommend reading over listening.

From the Ashes was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by country musician George Canyon, who appeared via video link from his home near Calgary. In his opening statement, Canyon highlighted the book as a hard story, but also one that is about love and redemption. Of the writing style, he spoke to its personal feel, saying that he felt like he was sitting down to coffee and hearing the life story of a brother, to the point that it felt rude to put down the book and interrupt the conversation. He lauded the uninhibited writing, and the vulnerability Thistle demonstrated in sharing such experiences. During his closing, he admitted that the book made him cry more than once, and held Thistle up as an inspiration for everyone.

With two novels and two memoirs left at the table, a debate ensued about building empathy through fiction and non-fiction, and which form is more effective. As the defender, Canyon argued for the realism of non-fiction, saying that it could not be dismissed as “just fiction” or not real, and that it would therefore be better at creating empathy. Alayna Fender advocated hard for the value of fiction, and the ability to identify with fictional characters, because you do not separate yourself from them in the same way you maintain separation from a person you know to be real. The fiction vs. non-fiction debate is a common sticking point in Canada Reads debates when both are brought to the table, and will likely remain an issue this week as one memoir and two novels remain.

Host Ali Hassan directed the conversation back into the hands of Indigenous panelist Kaniehtiio Horn, who incited controversy on Day One by referring to From the Ashes as “trauma porn.” Horn is championing the other Indigenous book at the table, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. She clarified that she felt that From the Ashes appealed to a non-Indigenous audience, and that for Indigenous readers, it would actually be all-too-familiar and even triggering to read. She agreed that the book could help build empathy, but also pointed to the idea that it might be so appealing because it holds up a colonial idea of success. Certainly Canyon’s choice to call Thistle inspirational points to that appeal factor playing into his choice.

When it came time to cast the ballots, once again the vote split down gender lines, with George Canyon and Akil Augustine voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The accessibility of Coles’ writing remained a matter of hot debate on Day Two, and Augustine once again raised the subject of Coles having an axe to grind and whether or not people would actually read her story as a result. On the other side, Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together to make From the Ashes the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. As Jael Richardson brought up, with this elimination, Canada Reads 2020 is set to make history this week. Never in the history of Canada Reads has a woman defending a woman’s book won the debates.