Category: Memoir

Beautiful Country

Cover image for Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

by Qian Julie Wang

ISBN 9780385547246

“From then on, there was no saving me. I lived and breathed books. Where else could I fund such a steady supply of friends, comforts, and worlds, all free for the taking? And so portable, too–everywhere I went, there they were: on the subway, at recess, on the steps outside of Ba Ba’s office. Unlike my teachers and classmates, they were reliable.”

In Chinese, America is known as Mei Guo, or the beautiful country. When Qian Julie Wang was only five years old, her father left for America and she did not see him for two years. Although the book is set almost entirely in North America, Wang’s memoir is in many ways about the intergenerational trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which shaped her parents’ choice to eventually leave China for an uncertain life as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Where once her father had taught English literature, and her mother had taught math, in America they were reduced to surviving on a variety of menial jobs from hair salons to piecework sweatshops to sushi factories. Wang arrived in New York City at the age of seven in 1994, and would not become an American citizen until 2016. Beautiful Country tells the story of some of the intervening years, covering elementary school and her first year of middle school before taking an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil here.

Wang is vague on the details of what exactly happened to her father’s visa, which does seem to have initially been a working visa, but she and her mother came as visitors and overstayed. Such details were immaterial to a very young child in any case. In America, Wang’s parents ruthlessly hammer home two crucial lessons. First, avoid the authorities at all costs. This leads them to mistrust what little support is available to them as undocumented immigrants, even when they could desperately use the food or other services. Free school lunch is one of the few forms of assistance they deem it safe to accept since they have already exposed themselves to some extent by enrolling their daughter in school. Second, Wang is taught to say that she was born in America, and has always lived there, a fiction which is initially undermined by the fact that she arrives in her second grade classroom largely unable to speak English. Unwilling to rely on the whims of the classmate reluctantly roped into translating for her, Wang begins teaching herself English with the help of PBS Kids. She also finds the first place that feels like home in her new country in the form of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library.

Beautiful Country also chronicles the Wangs’ fraught search for some sense of community or support in their new home. Used to being considered intellectuals, the Wangs find that in New York’s largely Cantonese immigrant community, speaking Mandarin leads to the assumption that they are “farmers from Fuzhou.” Wang’s parents had two couples with whom they were close friends in New York, but were fond of saying that they were not the type of people they would have chosen to associate with back home. They were friendships of necessity. Still more disturbing is the account of a lonely older white man they call Lao Jim who uses his money to buy the time and attention of Asian women at the salon where Wang’s mother worked one of many jobs. He takes the Wangs to McDonalds every weekend, and teaches Wang’s mother how to drive, but the relationship is always tinged with the ominous warning given by one of his other girls, Mimi. “You know he’s disgusting, right?” She warns. “He’s filthy. He has nasty thoughts about everyone. Even…her.” The outings do not stop, but Wang’s father always makes sure to accompany them.

Throughout, Beautiful Country is filled with the palpable anxiety of deportation, lurking around every corner. “Only later, after living many years in fear, would I understand that the risks were much lower than we believed at the time,” Wang explains. “But in the vacuum of anxiety that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous: it expanded to fill our entire world until it was all we could breathe.” The other pervasive feeling painstakingly described is going hungry. “Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo,” Wang recounts. “She came second only to loneliness. Hunger slept only when I did, and sometimes not even then.” Especially early in the book, Wang’s writing has a close, child-like perspective. But undocumented life in America forces her to grow up fast, becoming a source of both practical and emotional support to her parents, particularly her mother. Her experience becomes more contextualized, and I fell deeper into her perspective, only to be surprised when the book ended at sixth grade. We do not get to follow Wang’s winding journey to citizenship, but perhaps another memoir will be in her future. For now, Beautiful Country is an evocative portrait of those first five years of struggle to realize the promise of Mei Guo.

You might also like:

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2021

My reading this year leaned heavily towards fiction but I’ve still got some great non-fiction picks for you. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed–not necessarily published–in 2021. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

Burnout

Cover image for Burnout by Emily Nagoski

by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

ISBN 9781984817068

Burnout is an examination of both stressors and the stress cycle, as well as the cultural conditions that contribute to the stress and burnout experienced by women in particular. The first section of the book focuses on the key distinction between stress and stressors, and the separate techniques needed for dealing with each. Parts two and three delve into underlying causes. Burnout is about what happens when the instinct for self-preservation does battle with the deeply ingrained cultural message that caring for oneself is indulgent or selfish. The Nagoski sisters specifically look at the messages aimed at women, but many of the insights would be applicable to other marginalized identities as well. The book is written in an accessible even somewhat conversational style, and acknowledges the baggage that comes with words and concepts like “The Patriarchy (ugh)” that make these systemic issues difficult to talk about. This may be unpopular with some readers who prefer a more serious scientific tone, but this lighter touch will be key to the book’s approachability for others.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Science

Facing the Mountain

Cover image for Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point they became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military. In Facing the Mountain Brown predominantly focuses on three men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role, as does conscientious objector Gordon Hirabayashi. Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. He succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. 

Tags: Non-Fiction, History

Gmorning, Gnight!

Cover image for Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

ISBN 9781984854278

The contents of this book started life as a series of good morning and good night tweets by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) from about 2016 to 2018. They are something between poetry and affirmation; little nuggets of encouragement and inspiration, or even commiseration. The book’s subtitle describes them as pep talks, which is apt. This little book gathers them together into a collection illustrated by artist Jonny Sun with black and white line drawings on facing pages. In the midst of a long, crappy year, my best friend and I began trading these back and forth via text message on many days, a little spot of brightness and connection in the endless drag of the pandemic. This ritual proved to be a lovely little lift to the spirits when I needed it most, so this book holds a special place in my heart this year.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Poetry

Tiny Beautiful Things

Cover image for Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

by Cheryl Strayed

ISBN 9780307949325

Before she became famous for her 2012 memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for The Rumpus for two years under the pseudonym Sugar, where she answered letters from people seeking guidance about life and love. Tiny Beautiful Things collects readers’ favourite Dear Sugar columns, as well as a number of original letters. This collection is an intimate illustration of how someone sharing the particular tragedies of their life can be surprisingly generalizable. Strayed’s deeply empathetic replies to her readers about their dilemmas dovetail with stories about her own life, including lose her mother early, her struggle with drug addiction, and her complicated relationship with her father. This book is nearly a decade old now, and I’ve read it perhaps three times in that span, though I was never a Dear Sugar reader in its digital incarnation despite being a fan of the advice column genre. Strayed is funny, compassionate, and honest, and her writing is both beautiful and compelling. In a year full of comfort reads this was lovely to return to once more.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

Two Trees Make a Forest

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

by Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

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. 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. Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Canadian

What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2021? Anything you’d like to recommend?

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.