Category: Memoir

Canada Reads Along 2021: Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Leeby Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

“I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us.”

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self.

As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. On her first trip to Taiwan as an adult, Lee writes, “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s history through green and unfurling dendrological time, to that which far exceeds the scope of my understanding: the deep and fathomless span of geological time.” In trying to understand her family’s past, she also traces the island’s history of colonization, first being claimed by China in the late 1600s, roughly contemporary with the arrival of Western explorers, and briefly passing into Japanese hands for a generation, before becoming the home of China’s exiled nationalist government.

Lee’s trip to Taiwan came after efforts to satisfy her longing through reading were mixed at best, and alienating at worst, being a by-product of the island’s long history of colonialism. She found that many English accounts of the island were written by nineteenth-century British geographers, and “these portrayals mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust. Though written in English, I struggled to find in them a language I could share.” Mapmaking was similarly fraught by the cataloguing efforts of both Chinese and Japanese colonial administrators steadily pushing the island’s indigenous people deeper into the mountains.

Language is also a theme that runs through the book, as Lee tries to reclaim some of the native tongue that has been lost to her. As a white-passing woman in Taiwan, she is asked why her Mandarin is so good, but if she reveals that her mother is from Taiwan, then she is asked why it is so bad. Language is a crucial barrier between herself and her family’s past. An important letter left by her grandfather upon his death must be entrusted to translators, and her mother’s annotations. Through her descriptions, Lee is able to convey how the language was both part of her, and not. When her mother taught her the Mandarin names for Taiwan’s plant life while they were hiking through the mountainous forests, Lee “found in them a longing to remember the things I had not known.” In a note at the beginning of the text, Lee explains the difficulties in something as seemingly simple as rendering Chinese and Taiwanese place names into roman letters; Lee was taught Hanyu Pinyin, while her elders prefer to use Wade-Giles, and she had to grapple with both systems to write her account in English.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Her own grandparents only arrived there as rival governments were tearing China apart in the aftermath of the country’s revolution. “My mother, sister, and I stumbled over whether to call ourselves Chinese—we weren’t from a China that existed any longer—or Taiwanese. No single word can contain the movement that carried our story across waters, across continents,” Lee explains. “Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora. The past has many words for my grandparents’ generations, all of them containing a grain of truth.”

At the same time, her family was also on the receiving end of imperialism; her grandmother was living in Nanjing during the horrific Japanese invasion that is sometimes called the Rape of Nanking. “She never spoke of what happened in Nanjing. But I gleaned its seriousness at a young age through her unwillingness to set foot in a Japanese car or the ways she would suck her teeth in frustrated response to Japanese electronics,” Lee explains of her explosively difficult grandmother, known affectionately as Po.

In her memoir, Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds: “I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves.” The liminality of her account is an inherent part of its beauty, and her unique perspective.

Two Trees Make a Forest was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by singer-songwriter Scott Helman. In his opening argument, Helman touted the book for its intersection of humanity and environmentalism, using the specificity of Lee’s family history to address the universal theme of finding our place in the world. His was the only non-fiction book at the table this year, and drew some early fire from other panelists. Day One of the program is full of panelist introductions, book trailers, opening statements, and author spotlights, with only a little bit of room for debate. Often the best thing a book can hope for is to fly low and avoid initial notice, something over which the defender has little control.

This year’s Canada Reads theme is “one book to transport us,” and the opening debate focused on how well the books did that at this moment, in the midst of a pandemic. No less than three of the panelists called out Two Trees Make a Forest as the book that did not work for them in this regard, with Rosey Edeh citing the non-linear structure, Roger Mooking pointing to the distraction of the environmental descriptions, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee arguing that the book was overambitious. Helman’s rebuttal suggested that this is a book that calls for the reader to take a moment, a breath, and appreciate the Earth, and how the stories of our lives and the Earth are intertwined. He encouraged readers to make room for that.

When the time all too quickly came to cast the first round of ballots, Scott Helman and Devery Jacobs voted against The Midnight Bargain, while the other three panelists cast their votes to make Two Trees Make a Forest the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check out these past Canada Reads contenders:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

Know My Name

Cover image for Know My Name by Chanel Millerby Chanel Miller

ISBN 9780735223714

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, depression, suicide, mass shooting.

“The rules of court would not necessarily protect me; swearing under oath was just a made up promise. Honesty was for children. Brock would say and do what he needed, unabashedly, self-righteous. He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth. He made me his real-life ventriloquist doll, put his hands inside me and made me speak.”

When her victim impact statement was released to the world by Buzz Feed in June 2016, the young woman who had been sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus by Brock Turner was known to readers only as Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity, shedding the scant protection of anonymity in order to more fully tell her story and advocate for systems that better serve and protect victims. In doing so, she reintegrates Emily Doe with Chanel Miller, breaking down the wall of separation she built between the two in order to protect herself as she tried to continue some semblance of her life while also navigating the court system in search of something like justice.

On the night she was assaulted, Miller was no longer a college student herself. Having graduated with a degree in literature form the University of California Santa Barbara, she was back home working her first job in a start-up when she attended the fateful party with her sister and her sister’s friend. Many memoirs begin with the inciting incident that is the book’s promotional hook, and then flash back to the subject’s childhood. However, Miller takes a more integrated approach, telling stories about her family, childhood, and education as they fit into the larger context of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. As a result, they are more uniformly dispersed throughout the book and the early part of her narrative dives right into her memories of the night of her assault before her black out, and the aftermath as she wakes up in the hospital. The trial concludes near the middle of the book, and the latter half is given over to dealing with the sentencing and appeal, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, and the recall campaign to unseat the judge who sentenced Turner, as well as Miller’s fraught relationship with Stanford in the aftermath of what took place on their campus.

Know My Name is filled with visceral details that make it a difficult read. This includes not just Miller’s own assault, but several friends who were also victims of sexual violence, as well as accounts of a rash of student suicides at her high school, and the death of a friend’s roommate while she was at college in Isla Vista, in a mass shooting motivated by misogyny. However, sometimes the biggest impact is in the smallest details, such as Miller’s description of the moment that she realized her underwear was gone when she woke up in the hospital, or her heartbreaking account of the guilt she felt for taking a long shower to wash off the assault, because California was experiencing a drought. Miller articulates clearly that she is writing more for victims than for the general public in making these narrative choices: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest.”

Nevertheless, there are a few small bright spots in Miller’s account, as she returns repeatedly to the two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles when they witnessed her assault, interrupted her attacker, and chased him down when he tried to run away. Miller looked to both their actions and their testimony as evidence of the better side of human nature. She explicitly acknowledges Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt, saying, “May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.” For months, she slept under a small drawing of two cyclists, guardians watching over her troubled rest. Miller’s relationship with her family, and her sister in particular, also stands out. In moments where she could hardly fend for herself, Miller nevertheless fought for her sister’s sake, fiercely protective of her since Tiffany’s identity, unlike Chanel’s, was not protected by the legal proceedings.

Although a very personal account, much of the book is about systemic effects and experiences, and the process that Miller did not fully understand she was undertaking when she told the police that she would agree to press charges. Miller rips back that curtain for the reader, taking us inside the grueling legal process, and the still more fraught mental and emotional recovery that followed. The court case is over, but the latter is clearly ongoing. Know My Name marks Miller’s effort to finally break out of that system, with all its failures and constraints, to tell her story on her own terms, as a fully fleshed-out person rather than a nameless victim.

You might also like We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Austen Years

Cover image for Austen Years by Rachel Cohenby Rachel Cohen

ISBN 9780374720827

“She is always, and still, reading Persuasion. She loves Persuasion. It is not the most brilliant or elegant or formally demanding, but it seems to know her, and all of them, so well. It has the depth of dreams, and like dreams it is incomplete, and she cannot really understand it.

In 2012, Rachel Cohen was pregnant with her first child, and her father was dying of cancer. As these two major changes fundamentally upended her life, she found herself reading almost nothing but Jane Austen, an author she had first gone through as a senior in high school, but then never returned to. Slowly, she also found herself warming to memoir, a genre she had previously avoided despite being a teacher of creative non-fiction. As a dying wish, her father had charged her with publishing a letter he had written to a colleague, which had begun to shape what might have been the next phase of his career as an organizational psychologist. While her children grow, and her memories of her father inevitably begin to fade, Cohen struggles to find a way to fulfill her promise, while also grappling with the ways in which she has used Austen to order and interpret this season of her life.

Austen Years is a book about grief and change, and many of the most touching and emotional parts of the book relate to Cohen’s memories of her father, the sadness of slowly losing him even while he was still alive, and her responsibility for his legacy and memory after he has passed. I kept wondering when we would get to read the letter which is often referenced, but it is not included in the main body of the text, but rather attached as an appendix. I’d recommend flipping to the back and reading it the first time it is mentioned, and then continuing from there, as Cohen repeatedly picks up on many of its themes, including the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and works with them throughout the book.

You can only read a book for the first time once, though the impression it leaves may be hazy or crystal clear; Cohen has some of both in her memories of Austen. But reading a book about a book, or books, that you have read, is sometimes perhaps the closest thing to reading a book again for the first time. Seeing a familiar story through someone else’s eyes, through someone else’s life, defamiliarizes it just enough to render it fresh again. At the same time you hold it alongside your own impressions and memories, comparing and contrasting the two. It is also fascinating to see how different people can be as readers and rereaders. Like Cohen, I first read Austen in high school, and I revisit the novels often—most recently Emma—and often find comfort in them at times when I can focus on reading little else. But unlike the author, I always reread them in whole, beginning to end. Cohen in dips into parts, rereading only the final third of Sense and Sensibility for months at time, or lingering over the scene in which Darcy and Elizabeth walk together at the end of Pride and Prejudice and finally come to an understanding.

Cohen moves through five of Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, graduating to Mansfield Park and Emma, and always circling back again and again to her favourite, Persuasion. She omits Northanger Abbey entirely, and briefly addresses the fragment known as Sanditon. She writes of Persuasion’s heroine as if she were a real acquaintance, beginning “when I first knew Anne Elliot,” and continuing from there. Having married late to a friend she had known for twenty years, Cohen relates deeply to Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s second chance romance, as well as the echoes of the loss of her mother that reverberate through Anne’s story. I admit I’ve also been secretly fond of steadfast Anne, Austen’s oldest heroine, who is no longer pretty, but gets her second chance at love anyway.

At turns touching and introspective, Austen Years is fragmentary, struggling after but never quite achieving cohesion. Cohen is trying to string almost too much together, and it shows even in her sentences, which are flighty and rife with commas trying and failing to do the work of more robust punctuation.  The author is grasping after some kind of sense in the wake of loss, but seems unable to get the disparate parts to coalesce. Life and death are not always neat and orderly in that way, and so we roam from memoir to biography to literary criticism, and back again, as Cohen ranges over her marriage, her father’s life and career, Austen’s life and career, family, mortality, legacy, community, theatre, history, literary biography and more in a quest to understand why these works consumed her for so many years.

You might also like My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

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

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: 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.

Tell Me How It Ends

Cover image for Tell Me How It Endsby Valeria Luiselli

ISBN 978-1-56689-495-1

“The causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States.”

Valeria Luiselli came to the work of interpretation by chance. Her family had applied for green cards, or permanent resident status in the United States, but while everyone else’s cards arrived, hers had been lost somewhere along the way. She hired a lawyer to help with her case, but soon after the lawyer quit to take a new job at a non-profit representing unaccompanied minors who arrived at the southern border of the United States to claim asylum. She had been recruited because the organization desperately needed Spanish-speaking lawyers. Almost as an afterthought, Luiselli asked her departing attorney if the organization also needed interpreters. And so, Luiselli found herself interviewing child migrants from South and Central America, following forty carefully scripted questions that would determine their fate.

Luiselli uses the structure of the immigration interview to scaffold her book, but it is as much about what the children do not say, as what they do. For example, many are young enough that they struggle to answer basic questions like where they are from, and why they came to the United States. Some of them speak Spanish as a second language. There is also the context that the children cannot know but which Luiselli becomes terribly familiar with; the lawyers are scanning each transcript for key information that may help them build a case to keep the child in the country. There are too many children, and not enough lawyers—they must pick and choose. A special, expedited juvenile docket was created under the Obama administration, giving the non-profits only twenty-one days to find a lawyer and make a case. Children are entitled to a representative if they can find one, but the state is not obliged to provide. Those who do not find representation are almost always removed. Luiselli catches glimpses of many stories, but rarely knows the final fate of those she tries to help.

Nothing highlights the transnational nature of this problem quite like Luiselli’s discussion of the gangs. Gang violence and recruitment is one of the major factors driving young people to flee their homes, and it can help cement an asylum application. For its part, the US traffics guns south, into the hands of gang members, and feeds the demand for drugs flowing north. Luiselli highlights MS-13’s origins in Los Angeles, and how deportations helped transnationalize the gang, as members were sent back to the Central American states they tried to escape. Children arriving in the United States may well be faced with international members of the very same gangs they fled. As one child Luiselli interviewed put it, “Hempstead [New York] is a shithole full of pandilleros just like Tegucigalpa.” Although he was required to attend school per the terms of his asylum application, the boy wanted to drop out as soon as possible to get away from them. He had run two thousand miles, but it was not far enough.

As a Mexican herself, Luiselli also grapples with Mexico’s role in the migration process. Riding La Bestia—the big freight trains on which migrants hitch a ride—Central American asylum seekers must cross Mexico to reach the United States. Most of the migrants Luiselli interviews are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are mass graves of migrants who die in transit scattered across the country of her birth. Rape is so common enroute that young women “take contraceptive precautions before they begin the trip.” There are also various programs and agreement with the Mexican government to try to prevent migrants from reaching the US border in the first place. The Mexican government “is getting paid to do the dirty work” before an application for asylum can even be made. Yet between April 2014 and August 2015, Luiselli recounts that more than 100, 000 unaccompanied children reached the border.

Tell Me How it Ends is brief, but illuminating, highlighting a problem that long predates the current US administration, and which swiftly exposes the interconnected nature of the refugee crisis which America persists in viewing as an external problem.

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

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