Category: Canadian

Empire of Wild

Cover image for Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-0-73552-7718-2

Note: This title is currently available in Canada and will be released in the US on July 28, 2020.

 “Joan was anxious. She hated this cheap version of Victor, filled with so many lies. She couldn’t sit still any longer.”

It has been nearly a year since Joan’s husband Victor went missing from their land on the shores of Georgian Bay, but she refuses to give up hope, even as her family grows increasingly doubtful. Despite the fight they had the night Victor disappeared, Joan cannot really bring herself to believe that he has abandoned her. After a night of hard drinking with her cousin, Joan stumbles into a church revival tent in a Wal-Mart parking lot. At first she is unsure what drew her in, but when the preacher takes the stage, everything becomes clear in a moment. The man at the pulpit looks exactly like her missing husband, yet does not seem to recognize her at all. As far as he is concerned, he is the Reverend Eugene Wolff. But Joan knows her husband when she sees him, and despite the doubts of those around her, she will stop at nothing to extract him from the clutches of the travelling missionaries, and whatever powers they are using to keep Victor in their grasp.

Empire of Wild is told in alternating chapters, with Joan and Victor as the primary narrators. While Joan is bent on her quest to save her husband, Victor isn’t sure where he really is, or what has become of him. He just knows that something isn’t quite right. Dimaline also incorporates Joan’s nephew Zeus and community elder Ajean, as well as antagonists in the form of the mission’s leader, Thomas Heiser, and his right hand assistant, Cecile, a reformed hippie who has found God, and aspires to marrying the Revered Wolff.

In Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline takes the legend of the rogarou and blends it with the daily life of the Georgian Bay Métis community of rural Ontario. In all other respects, Joan’s life and family seem unremarkable, at least on the surface. But as the rogarou haunts her community, aspects of myth and magic slip between the cracks of daily life, revealing that Joan’s people are anything but ordinary. Among them, “girls are taught to fear the rogarou. Boys are taught to fear becoming him.” Violence against innocents and betrayal can bring on the transformation, and in this way the rogarou becomes a haunting metaphor for intergenerational trauma.

There is a certain disturbing aspect to the idea that Joan has to be the one to save Victor from his own darker impulses, and from the well-earned consequences of the betrayal he tried to press upon her in their final fight. Nor is this power she seems to possess entirely without consequence. Even the act of rescue can be fraught; sometimes when you try to save something, you risk destroying it by that very same effort. Increasingly, Joan’s family pays the price of her obsession. The death of Joan’s grandmother sends the family into mourning, and puts the community on high alert.

Although set in the present day, Empire of Wild has all the atmosphere of Dimaline’s post-apocalyptic hit The Marrow Thieves. There are dystopic elements, but they deal with the real, everyday infringement on Indigenous lands and dignity. What is cottage country for the summer people is home to Joan and her family, and they’ve had to fight for every inch of lakefront they control, with everything from tourism to pipelines threatening their home and their way of life. This real dystopia is only made more eerie by Heiser’s attempts to use Christianity to lure Indigenous people off their land, making for a charged, unforgettable atmosphere that truly makes this novel stand out.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

ISBN 978-0-385-69238-0

Content Warnings: Racism, sexual violence, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.

 “Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness—things neither social workers nor police officers have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged, to patrol.”

Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. Her debut collection has amassed an impressive array of blurbs, including Eden Robinson and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and the acknowledgements include thanks to the likes of Roxane Gay, Waubgeshig Rice, Cherie Dimaline, and Tanya Talaga.

The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. The essay “Crude Collages of My Mother” fruitlessly attempts to piece together the divide she created in her mind between her mother when she was well, and when she was sick, and the fundamental unity and yet irreconcilability of the two halves. It also means eventually confronting her own depression and anxiety, and the fact that suicide rates among her people are twice the national average thanks to a complicated history of colonialism and genocide.

A significant part of Elliott’s collection also deals with perceptions of Indigineity. For her parents, this is the push-pull between her mother’s white Catholic identity, and her father’s desire to more deeply connect with his Indigenous heritage. For her it means confronting the perceptions and misconceptions of being half-white, and the choice to pass, or not, in various contexts. When she becomes a mother at eighteen, it means grappling with the fact that her child, who has a white father, does not have status, and the simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the fact that the child is white-passing. She calls out the internalized racism. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child is not dark-skinned,” she laments.

Another theme that runs through the essays is the power of seeing your reflection in literature, and how that impacts a young writer’s ability to create the kind of work they need to make. However, Elliott is equally critical of how the concept of diversity has been positioned in the literary sphere, arguing that it is the publishing world’s equivalent of the “ethnic” restaurant, fundamentally designed to cater to the white palate rather than reflect the tastes or concerns of the community from which it springs. While proud to be labelled a “Native writer” by other Native people, Elliott notes that being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people “is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat.” Outside their own communities, it is a label that calls even their accolades into question, as Elliott cites from a thesis in which the work of Thomson Highway is deemed to have been “canonized” simply because it came along just at the time when concerns were being raised about the pervasive whiteness of Canadian literature.

Elliott’s essays range from highly personal, to more academic, though they all incorporate a personal component. Some essays, such as “Dark Matters,” use poetic license on a scholarly concept, such as dark matter in physics, to draw a parallel: “Racism for many people seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable,” Elliott analogizes. The most academic of these is “Sontag, in Snapshots” which begins with her reflections on why she hates having her photograph taken, and how her friends have often refused to respect this boundary. However, it quickly expands into a more wide-sweeping critical examination of how white artists and photographers like George Catlin and Edward Curtis co-opted the public depiction of Native people, so that they were seen as “frozen in time, relics of the past, beautifully tragic vanishing Indians.” Building on the Sontag essay on which she is reflecting, Elliott critiques how the agency of white photographers has been given priority over the agency of their non-white subjects, cementing the photos as facts, even when the situation has been highly manipulated, or the image is taken out of context.

Across these many themes, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

You might also like:

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

Because Internet

Cover image for Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochby Gretchen McCulloch

ISBN 978-0-7352-1093-6

“Whatever else is changing for good or bad in the world, the continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems, nor the cause of them. It simply is. You never truly step in the same English twice.”

Canadian internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch studies the informal written English that has grown up around our use of the internet, as well as text messaging and chat services. Because Internet covers a lot of ground, from typographical methods of conveying tone of voice, to emoji as gesture, to the evolution of memes, and the centuries-long quest for sarcasm punctuation. Her study focuses predominantly on English, with occasional examples from other languages and cultures. Taking a broad view, McCulloch surveys the origins and precursors of how informal written language has evolved since took to the web, and will continue to develop as new generations make their own changes and additions to the lexicon.

Because Internet is a prescriptivist’s nightmare; McCulloch is less interested in how we should use language, than in describing how our use of the written word has evolved to help us communicate over the internet, and through other forms of technological mediation. As she points out, “standard language and correct spelling are collective agreements, not eternal truths.” She notes that the fact that young women lead linguistic change is so well established as to be an unremarkable state of affairs in linguistic circles. But it also likely helps explain why such changes are so heavily derided; young women are rarely taken seriously. However, McCulloch approaches her study with the same attention and rigour usually devoted to more formalized texts.

One of the most interesting sections of the book covers the evolution of emoticons and emoji to facilitate text-based communication. McCulloch contends that they serve the purpose of mitigating a feature that is both a strength and weakness of writing—it is disembodied. The disadvantage becomes evident “when it comes to representing emotions and other mental states.” What is stunning is that over time, “a couple billion internet users had subconsciously, collectively, and spontaneously” mapped the functions of embodied gestures and facial expressions on the capacity for text or image-based icons to convey those missing nuances.

McCulloch also maps some subtle changes in the way we use punctuation. In informal writing, terminal periods have begun to disappear, to the point that younger people will sometimes read a period as passive aggressive. Falling somewhere in between the two age groups, I looked at my own text messaging history and realized that, indeed, my terminal periods had largely disappeared. I would end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation point, but if the final punctuation mark would have been a period, I generally left it off and simply sent the message. Similarly, different generations use ellipses in different ways. While older people will use the … as a connector between thoughts, younger people will tend to read in hesitance, or omission, and wonder what isn’t being said.

In a guest post on Whatever, McCulloch explains that she decided to write to the reader of the future. So if you are what McCulloch calls a current “Full Internet Person,” certain explanations will probably feel unnecessary, but as time passes this context will become more important for everyone, just as it is currently useful for “Semi Internet People” who don’t live and breathe memes, and aren’t on the cutting edge of every social media trend. This approach does make for some sections that feel a bit overwritten for the current reader, but the current reader is only current for this fleeting moment in time. Because Internet captures the early linguistic evolution of informal writing on the internet.

You might also like Lost in Translation 

Winds of Marque

Cover image for Winds of Marque by Bennett R. Coles by Bennett R. Coles

ISBN 978-0-06-282035-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “He was a nobleman, and they were notorious for charming young sailors all the way to heartbreak. He was also the executive officer of this ship. The Navy had no formal ban on relationships within a crew—centuries of space travel had proven the impossibility of stopping people in isolated, close quarters from seeking each other out—but when it crossed ranks there was always the risk of trouble.”

When Executive Officer Liam Blackwood’s ship is put into refit by a reckless space race ordered by his aristocrat Captain, the XO is on the lookout for a new commission when he is approached by Lord Grandview and Lady Riverton. With the quiet blessing of the Emperor, Grandview is ordering an undercover mission to investigate the increasing pirate activity that is threatening the Empire’s trade, and which could compromise the Navy’s supply lines if war with the Sectoids was declared. Fresh from the diplomatic corps, Captain Riverton will need an experienced second-in-command to help lead HMSS Daring’s crew as they develop their façade as a trading vessel, gather intelligence about the pirate threat, and pay their crew with a letter of marque that allows them to seize the pirated cargoes. Blackwood knows just the woman to serve as Quartermaster for such an unusual arrangement, but recruiting her means facing up to his growing feelings for Petty Officer Amelia Virtue.

Bennett R. Coles bends his degree in naval history and fifteen years’ experience in the Royal Canadian Navy to fantastical ends, creating a space Navy that sails on the solar winds, and patrols a vast Empire ruled by a distant Emperor on the home world. Social class clashes with naval rank, creating a complex hierarchy to be negotiated aboard every ship. Having just quietly undermined his previous Captain to ensure that HMSS Renaissance was only damaged and not destroyed by the race to Passagia II, Subcommander Blackwood, who feels he has earned his rank by competence rather than birth, is understandably wary of the cold and aristocratic Sophia Riverton, who likes to play her cards close to the chest. Shipboard relations on Daring are further complicated by the presence of Cadet Highcastle, a high-ranking and cocksure young nobleman who is taking his maiden voyage before heading to the Naval Academy for formal study.

In many ways, Blackwood is just as cocksure as the other nobles he likes to look down his nose at, if perhaps slightly less reckless. While he thinks highly of himself and his abilities, the people around him are constantly having to wake him up to his status, which he easily loses sight of when he gets focused on his own competence. For instance, the crew is being paid in prize money, and if they seize nothing, they get paid nothing. It takes a conversation with his friend Lieutenant Swift to remind him that “what would be a useful sum of money to him would be life-changing for his propulsion officer’s entire family.” His relationship with Amelia is also complicated by the fact that she is a low-ranking officer of common birth, newly promoted to her station. When he is angry with her for an entanglement with Highcastle, it is up to her to risk his wrath and remind him that naval justice would undoubtedly fall short if she were to raise a grievance against a noble-born officer. When he tries to tell her it has nothing to do with rank or title, she responds, “you just don’t see it because you wield both with such unconscious familiarity. Do you really think Lord Highcastle would be punished if he raped a sailor? Do you think you would?” The prospect of a romance between Virtue and Blackwood is fraught by class and rank, and I was not strongly invested in seeing such a dynamic develop.

While Blackwood is portrayed as competent and experienced, I was more interested in Virtue and Riverton. Though Riverton has more experience as a diplomat than a military commander, it was clear from the beginning that she was thinking about the bigger picture in a way that Blackwood was not, and I was rooting for her to find her feet as a commander and realize her vision in a way that I was not engaged by Blackwood as a character. For his part, Blackwood never seems to consider that as Captain, she might have information he is not privy to. I was similarly interested by Amelia, who is figuring out her new role as an officer rather than a common sailor. When we see Amelia from Liam’s point of view, it is often intended to be admiring, yet somehow manages to come off as a bit condescending: “Liam was disgusted at how these men so completely objectified Virtue, but actually found himself admiring how nonchalantly she handled them. It was both painful and fascinating to watch.” Captain Riverton, for her part, easily sees Blackwood’s feelings for Amelia, and is rightfully protective of her. Winds of Marque is clearly set up for a series, and I would be most interested to see how things develop between Sophia and Amelia as they gain in mutual respect and understanding.

You might also like: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

Canada Reads Along: By Chance Alone

Cover image for By Chance Alone by Max Eisen by Max Eisen

ISBN 9781443448550

 “After many visits back to Auschwitz, I can also see that the physical remnants of the Holocaust continue to deteriorate, and that the first-hand witnesses, like me, are moving on in years.”

In the spring of 1944, Max Eisen and his family were rounded up from their home in a Hungarian-controlled region of the former Czechoslovakia, and deported to Auschwitz. This was the final step after five slow years of increasing hate towards Jews, and restriction of their rights and freedoms. Max’s entire family would perish in the camps, lost to the gas chambers, and to medical experimentation. But a lucky chance, resulting in a position as an assistant at the prisoner’s infirmary, would allow Max to survive, and bear witness, fulfilling his final promise to his father by becoming a dedicated Holocaust educator, and now memoirist. By Chance Alone recounts his childhood, time at Auschwitz, and his path to Canada.

Max was fifteen when he entered the camps as slave labourer for the Nazis. As he would discover later, his mother and younger siblings, including his infant sister, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Revisiting these events more than seventy years later, he brings an unusual perspective, simultaneously capturing his youthful naïveté about what was going on around him, and the later knowledge he would gain about the depth and scope of the atrocities. For the most part, he remains in the moment, recalling the events as they occurred, though occasionally he provides information he would not have access to until later. For example, when his father and uncle were selected, he had no idea what their fate would be, only that he would never see them again. Decades later would he learn that they had been chosen to be subjects in the Nazi’s twisted medical experiments.

While Mengele’s experiments are relatively well known, Max’s account takes the reader inside a different part of the medical establishment at Auschwitz, where imprisoned doctors cared for fellow prisoners with limited equipment and resources. Max worked under Polish dissident Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who he believes to have been a member of the resistance, working to that end even while he was imprisoned. The additional comfort and resources Max was able to access as a medical assistant built up his strength, and were likely crucial to his survival of the death marches the Nazis took their Jewish prisoners on during the final days of the war. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of his ordeal as a refugee; a return to his home town did not yield a warm welcome. He recounts all of this in a straightforward prose style, bearing witness to what was done to his people, as he promised his father he would.

By Chance Alone was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by science broadcaster Ziya Tong, who mounted a thorough and impassioned defence that emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in inoculating Canadians against hatred of all types. Tong cited a study that found one in five young Canadians are not sure what the Holocaust was. She felt that it was urgently important to for Canadians to read a book that would take the Holocaust from distant, colourless historical event to a living, breathing person who experiences those events. Armed with a variety of statistics, as well as enthusiasm for her subject, she urged Canadians to read By Chance Alone and remain vigilant against the rise of hate crimes in our country, and around the world.

By Chance Alone faced a few crucial moments throughout the week, including comparison of its writing to style to more lyrical works such as Brother. Tong made a persuasive case for Eisen’s narrative style, however, arguing that he was writing the voice of a child, but with the wisdom of a ninety-year-old. Other panelists praised Eisen’s attention to detail, and the hypnotic nature of his simple prose style. Tong also made a strong demonstration for the book’s contemporary relevance, bringing to the table a recent photo of Max outside a synagogue, which had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti only last year.

On Day Two, panelist Lisa Ray raised the question of what By Chance Alone adds to the body of Holocaust literature that is not already there, contrasting Eisen’s style to that of Elie Wiesel. In her initial rebuttal, Tong pointed to the infirmary as an entirely unique contribution that provided information about the camp that even other internees did not necessarily have. The subject was raised again on Day Three, where panelist and free agent Joe Zee argued that each perspective on the Holocaust was unique and new, and that it is history told in a way that cannot be learned from a textbook. It came down to a close call that day, with Ray and Yanic Truesdale voting against By Chance Alone, while Tong, Zee, and Chuck Comeau voted against Brother. However, the book carried on to the finale.

With one vote each from the remaining defenders on the last day, it was up to the free agents to determine the final result. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone for the second day in a row. However, both Joe Zee and Yanic Truesdale voted against Homes. After much discussion on the final day of debates about the voice of the youth, and the wisdom of the elderly, both panelists were compelled by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading, and soon there will be no more living witnesses to tell their stories. Soon the books will be all we have left to ensure that we never forget. And so By Chance Alone became the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

That’s it for Canada Reads 2019! Thanks for reading along. Past winners:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Ru by Kim Thuy

Canada Reads Along: Homes

Cover image for Homes by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

ISBN 978-1-988298-29-0

 “As much as father wanted us to believe we could keep living our lives, it wasn’t true. He was wrong. We couldn’t pretend this war wasn’t happening.”

In 2010, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah fled increasing Sunni/Shi’a tensions in his native Iraq, along with his parents, siblings, and members of his extended family. They sought refuge in Homs, Syria, where some relatives already lived. Unfortunately, they had fled right into the teeth of the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprisings inspired by the movement. The streets of Syria became war zones, as the state military fought with anti-government militias for control. Mosques were shot up, businesses were bombed, and schools exploded. Homes is the story of the al Rabeeah family’s journey from Iraq to Syria and Syria to Canada, as told to Bakr’s English teacher, Winnie Yeung.

Despite being a true story, Homes is written in the style of a novel, a work of creative non-fiction recounting the memories of Bakr and his family, based on interviews given to Winnie Yeung. It is both simply written, and yet striking. Little details, such as the word “first,” become particularly poignant, as Bakr describes his “first car bomb” or his “first massacre,” things you hope to live a lifetime without seeing, let alone more than once while still in elementary school. Bakr’s childhood is full of such events, so common they become almost mundane, even as the trauma continues to mount.

Juxtaposed against the horrors of the civil war are the ordinary rhythms of the family’s daily life in Syria. Bakr and his sibling must still go to school when it is open. He plays soccer with his friends and cousins. Not really knowing any better, he and one of his cousins amuse themselves by collecting spent bullet casings, without considering the lives those bullets may have taken. The families celebrate Ramadan, and continue to attend mosque, despite the risk of another shooting. His father and older brother run a bakery, selling his mother’s recipe for soft, chewy Iraqi bread, a contrast to the dryer pita-style bread more commonly found in Homs. Life goes on with the illusion of normalcy, until it is shattered again by the next attack.

As the story moves to Canada, Homes also conveys the profound loneliness of leaving everyone you know, and everything you love, behind for a new country where you do not even speak the language. From business owner of a bakery, Bakr’s father is reduced to taking English classes, unable to care for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed. A better life has been promised, but when will it materialize? It is a blessing to be safe, but into the void of fearing for one’s life, new anxieties gather to take its place. Homes ends here, but in many ways, the al Rabeeah family’s journey has only just begun its next chapter.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by musician Chuck Comeau, whose quiet debate style emphasized love, family, and hope. He particularly highlighted the father-son relationship, as well as the partnership between Bakr and his teacher that brought the book into being, first as an after school project, and then as a published work. He also emphasized that fact that it is essential for Western culture to have more positive portrayals of Muslim people, rather than only seeing them as stock character terrorists in film and television.

Homes received one strike on Day Two from Lisa Ray, and one vote against it from Ziya Tong on Day One, who said it was too much like her own book, but otherwise it moved through the week unscathed. Indeed, Homes slid quietly into the finale to go head to head with By Chance Alone, which Tong was defending. Discussion on the final day of Canada Reads 2019 ranged over several questions, including what each of the remaining books helped panelists to understand, why the free agents should vote against their opponents’ books, and whether or not the books could move Canadians to action. Many of the panelists brought up the relative ages of the two authors. While both were writing about their youth, one is still a teen, and the other is a nonagenarian, representing both ends of the life spectrum. It was pointed out that the voices of both the youth and the elderly can be discounted by society at large.

When it came time to vote, Ziya Tong of course voted against Homes, and Chuck Comeau against By Chance Alone. The three free agents cast their ballots, with Joe Zee voting against Homes, saying that he was persuaded by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that Homes was the book she wanted all of Canada to read. This put the final vote in the hands of Yanic Truesdale, who had previously voted twice against By Chance Alone. In a surprise change of heart, Truesdale cast his final ballot against Homes, also citing the argument that the voices of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. Thus, By Chance Alone by Max Eisen was crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up on Days One, Two, and Three of the debates, and check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

Canada Reads Along: Brother

Cover image for Brother by David Chariandyby David Chariandy

ISBN 978-1-63557-204-9

 “Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”

Francis and Michael are brothers, though they could not be more different. Shy and nervous, Francis takes his refuge in the neighbourhood library, never quite able to muster the swagger of his confident older brother, Michael. But Michael’s hard shell hides a core of vulnerability that he knows he must protect at all costs, and as they grow, he garners a violent reputation, of someone who can snap at a moment’s notice. The inevitable result will be tragedy, and a decade later, Francis will still be trying to put his life back together when Aisha, his childhood crush, and local success story of neighbourhood girl made good, returns to town in the wake of her father’s death.

Brother is a short, tightly written story of two brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants, who grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. However, David Chariandy chooses to begin at the end, a decade after the events that will shape Francis’ life forever. Francis is scraping by working in a grocery store close to home, and taking care of his mentally fragile mother, who has never quite recovered from the tragedy. Aisha’s return to Scarborough upsets the delicate balance they have struck in the intervening years, breaking open old wounds that have been festering for too long.

Brother quietly exposes a dark underbelly of racism and homophobia that many Canadians would probably like to dismiss as an American phenomena. Michael and Francis’s neighbourhood is heavily policed, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have serious consequences, even just walking down the street: “We had been stopped by the cops before. There was a routine to it all: we knew that if you carefully played along you’d eventually be released, if not with your dignity, then at least with your skin. But that night we sensed and urgency we hadn’t experienced before.” Anti-black prejudice is entirely clear in this environment they must navigate in order to grow up and make good on their parents’ immigrant dreams. Yet somehow the promise of Canada never quite materializes.

The tough outer shell that Michael has cultivated to protect his weak flank proves to be only a new kind of vulnerability to authority. Having shown the neighbourhood that being gay does not make him prey, he instead becomes regarded as a dangerous threat by the police. The city has a thousand subtle ways of showing these boys that they mean nothing. Michael’s boyfriend, Jelly, is a talented DJ, who enters a competition sponsored by a record company. In an underdog story, this would be where they triumph. Instead it is yet another reminder that they can be twice as good, and still get nothing but a beating for their trouble. The refusal to deal in platitudes or false hope is part of the poignancy of this story.

Brother was defended in the 2019 Canada Reads debates by actor Lisa Ray. It has been an unusual year for Canada Reads in that three of the five titles are non-fiction, and one of the two novels is based on true events. Ray has focused throughout the week on differentiating the book she is defending as a work of fiction that shines a light on a reality that is underrepresented in Canadian literature. Her emphasis on beautiful, lyrical prose and has sometimes seemed to come at the expense of non-fiction as a mode of writing. In the Q&A after the show, she shared that she is a dedicated fiction reader because she values emotion, and doesn’t believe that data can tell the whole story.

When not pitting fiction against non-fiction, Ray has been an eloquent defender for Brother. In addition to highly praising the lyrical writing—which David Chariandy spent ten years on—she has spoken powerfully to the themes, including racism, police brutality, and the cycle of poverty. She has also highlighted some of the quieter elements, such as the portrayal of mental illness in the mother. She pointed out that Brother is the one story at the table that looks at what happens when we open our borders to immigrants, but then fail to fully welcome them into our society and support them as they settle in. We do not always make good on our promises, and Brother invites us to look to our own backyard and question whether or not our society is as fair and as just as it could be.

The Day Three discussions focused on questions of emotion, the portrayal of loss, magic, and the panelists’ personal connections to their chosen books. The discussion of hope in the books became a key point, with both Chuck Comeau and Ziya Tong highlighting the resilient hopefulness of Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah and Max Eisen, despite having faced incredible adversity. Ray took the counterpoint, arguing that the loss of hope was one of the tragedies of Brother, an ugly truth that Canadians need to confront.

When the ballots were counted, Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that her choice was based on literary grounds. By Chance Alone’s defender, Ziya Tong, cast her ballot against Brother, as did Chuck Comeau, who was persuaded by Tong’s arguments, specifically a current photo she shared of author Max Eisen, which had been vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. Free agent Yanic Truesdale also voted against By Chance Alone, leaving Joe Zee to break the tie. Citing the need for hope, Zee voted against Brother, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up with Day One and Day Two of Canada Reads 2019!

Canada Reads Along: Suzanne

Cover image for Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette Translated by Rhonda Mullins by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

Translated by Rhonda Mullins
ISBN 978-1-55245-347-6

“You made a hole in my mother, and I am the one who will fill it.”

Fleeing the rural life of her traditional French Catholic family, Suzanne Meloche heads for Montréal, and falls into company with the Automatists, a group of avante-garde artists and activists centred on Paul-Émile Borduas. She writes poetry, and she paints, and she will marry one of Borduas’ disciples, the painter Marcel Barbeau, and have two children by him. But motherhood and marriage will weigh her down, until she runs away once again, leaving her children behind. In Suzanne, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette attempts to make sense of the life of her grandmother, a woman she never really knew, but whose choices sent profound ripples down through the generations of her descendants. To her, she was simply the woman who abandoned her mother, but in writing the biographical novel of her life, she reveals her grandmother to be that, and so much more.

 Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s biographical novel of her grandmother’s life was published in French in 2015 as La femme qui fuit, or The woman who flees, it has been translated into English by Rhonda Mullins, who was also the translator of 2015 Canada Reads contender And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier.  Suzanne is, rather unusually, largely told in the second person, the author dictating her grandmother’s actions back to her, a mode that feels simultaneously interrogative and perhaps somewhat impertinent. A quick look at the original French confirmed my suspicion that Barbeau-Lavalette writes of her grandmother using the more informal, less respectful “tu” rather than the more formal, or respectful “vous” pronoun. She is at once trying to get closer to her, and denying her the deference usually conveyed upon an elder. She approaches the woman and her legacy defensively, still nursing the hurt done to her own beloved mother.

On the other side, Barbeau-Lavallette seems to have little curiosity or attention for her grandfather, Marcel, who agreed to terminate his parental rights so that Suzanne could place the children for adoption. Prior to the termination, he had left Suzanne alone in a farmhouse with two young children, while he travelled to New York to pursue his artistic career. Perhaps somewhat unfairly, it is Suzanne who, as a mother and a woman, bears the brunt of judgement for this abandonment. Barbeau-Lavallette’s mother, Manon, would be raised by her paternal aunts, but her uncle was adopted out and raised by strangers. Marcel largely disappears from the pages when he and Suzanne go their separate ways, but he was still alive when La femme qui fuit was published, and Barbeau-Lavallette thanks him in the acknowledgements.

Suzanne is defended on the Canada Reads 2019 debates by actor Yanic Truesdale. The questions on Day Two focused on the quality of the writing and the immersiveness of setting in the remaining four books. Lisa Ray lauded Suzanne’s lyrical writing, and said that it was the only book besides her own that moved her to tears. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the panelists seemed to take issue with the choice of a second person narrator, a traditionally unpopular form. However, Chuck Comeau expressed that as a parent, he had a hard time connecting with the emotion of the character, even though he understood that the context of Suzanne’s life was very different from his own.

In the discussion of setting, Ziya Tong mounted the most direct attack on Suzanne, arguing that much of the setting was irrelevant, because Suzanne was a marginal character in her own story. She was simply swept into events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Rides, but these backdrops were not the result of some deep conviction on her part. When Truesdale countered that the core of the story was about forgiveness, she also suggested that since Forgiveness won last year’s Canada Reads debates, it was not the appropriate theme for this year’s discussion. (Last year’s theme was actually “One book to open your eyes.”)

Truesdale mounted a valiant defence of his book’s unlikeable protagonist, despite the fact that his own father abandoned him at the age of two. Truesdale argued that Suzanne is not about excusing her actions, but about contextualizing her decisions, and Barbeau-Lavalette’s journey of understanding and forgiveness. It is a deeply humanizing act of artistic transformation. He found an ally in Lisa Ray, who suggested that as actors, the two were able to embrace Suzanne’s character and find a way into her pain without judging her. She also argued that no one would judge a male artist, such as Picasso, so harshly for making a similar choice, and Truesdale pointed to the father, Marcel Barbeau, as just such an example.

When the ballots were cast, Truesdale voted against By Chance Alone, arguing that it was less powerful than some of the others. Brother received one strike from Joe Zee, who said he changed his vote from Suzanne because he was persuaded by Lisa Ray’s argument that we would not judge a man the same way. Ray cast her own vote against Homes, while Chuck Comeau called out Suzanne, again saying that her actions were inconceivable to him. This put the deciding vote in Ziya Tong’s hands, and she made Suzanne the second book to be voted off of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up with Canada Reads 2019 starting here!