Sunday, June 14, 2009

Edge of the Cliff -- Lyndsay Wilson

_No Previous Experience_; Cameron, Elspeth

Literature is life at its most vulnerable, intense, and achingly mundane. That’s how it sneaks up on you.

A professor once told me reading a book is as risky as attending a lecture; you never know it’s dangerous until you know too much. When you learn something, you can’t turn back. You can’t pretend you’re unaware. You’ve changed before you realize change happened at all. A word. A sentence. A few pages.

How could I have expected that a lecture -- more specifically, a lecturer –- would transform my understanding of love and life, as well as propel and guide me through the treacherous world of academia? How could I have known that a woman almost three times my age would inspire strength, hope, and conviction?

My transformation began during an 8:00 a.m. class, in the winter of my second year at university. A group of cold, apathetic students filed into a large classroom and slumped in their chairs, more interested in their coffees than the upcoming lecture. I was one of these students. I remember opening my notebook half-heartedly and scrawling the course code in the lined margin: "ENGL 2P92: Canadian Literature After 1920. Professor: Dr. Elspeth Cameron."

She jolted us awake immediately, responding to a question by a student unsure of which textbook to use. Her articulate yet slightly gravelly voice filled the room. “You mean you haven’t read this poem?” she inquired incredulously, holding up the now-open book. “It’s the first day of class, isn’t it? Why would you come unprepared?” Sixty sleepy-eyed students stared at her, mouths agape, coffees in mid-air. "Who was this woman?" they seemed to ask.

It was my first experience studying “CanLit” since high school, and I found myself once again falling in love with some of Canada's great writers. I delved into the assigned reading with gusto, yet, what I didn’t know was the piece of literature that would most affect me had been written by the quietly confident woman at the front of the room.

A fellow student informed me about Prof. Cameron’s memoir, No Previous Experience, near the end of term, after she had heard a rumour that Prof. Cameron was lesbian. This classmate told me she had apparently come out in her book, and had recently left her husband for another woman. Intrigued, I took down the title, and was intent on reading it when I had the time.

I began No Previous Experience as soon as classes ended that school year. After a mere two pages, I was in "too deep" to turn back. So I risked it. What I learned was she was a risk-taker, too. “It can happen on a hike,” she begins, mysteriously,

"You round a woody corner and suddenly you’re in the clear on the brink of
a pale limestone bluff, your stomach clenched, breath held, as you stare
straight down into the lush damp valley you never suspected was there.
Or you pass through the quiet streets of a nondescript town and a double
rainbow arches right in front of you, so close you can see the iridescent
droplets suspended mid-air, and you are speechless with wonder."

"...It can happen when you aren’t paying attention. You can miss the whole
thing. You can be blinded by blizzards, forget the password, pass by the cliff or plunge to disaster over its edge... It can happen anytime, anywhere."

I devoured the book in two days. It was not entirely what I expected, in that it was not a detailed, linear account that culminated in the exposure of her sexual orientation; instead, the book follows her re-evaluation of her sexuality in mid-life, with carefully chosen flashbacks to her youth. It begins at a conference in Edinburgh, where she encounters and develops a friendship with a fellow academic. Over the next 200 pages, Prof. Cameron boldly and openly describes the unique, intense bond of their friendship as it evolves into a lesbian relationship. Interspersed in this love story are her reflections on “fabricating the illusion” of her marriage, the terror of abuse and divorce, the importance of women in academia, as well as an exploration of motherhood, feminism, nature, sex, and personal growth. It is a narrative that not only investigates connectivity and self-discovery, but also the value of the unexpected and the possible.

I remember looking up after reading the final page. My couch was covered in wet tissues, crinkled wrappers, and empty mugs. The room itself looked the same, as did the world outside the windows, but something was different. I felt different. I felt a strange bond with this woman, a connection that wasn’t shaped by common experience, age, or even location. It was a bond over the realization of my own potential as a human being. Suddenly, I understood in my life I would probably make tremendous mistakes, but I would learn from them and survive. I realized there were parts of myself that would remain unexplored until a particular moment in time, or a particular person awakened them. At this moment, there was a connection not only to the author, but to other women in my life. What I knew as theoretical had turned into something real. It seemed I had always known women who had experienced emotional abuse and divorce. There were women I knew who had been sexually abused as children, beaten and controlled by their partners. I also knew women who had given up children, questioned their sexuality, struggled in their careers, and suffered with broken hearts. While I did not need Prof. Cameron’s memoir to validate experiences of other women, it somehow gave these individuals a stronger voice. Together, her story and the combined stories of the women I knew, fused together and forced me to value and consider my own life. Here was an epiphany: if they could move on and learn from the hardships they had endured, I could too. This pushed me to think: what was I capable of? What strength did I have? How would I live my life?

My first reading of No Previous Experience helped me reconsider what I knew as love. While my parents had always inspired me with their beautiful, loving partnership, I was in a relationship that was on the brink of disaster. For months, I struggled to make it work, to change myself, and hope that my partner would change too. Soon after reading the memoir, I found the strength to end the strife and move on, despite the humiliation I felt in ending it. What my professor said in a similar situation came to mind: she had done her best. I had done my best, too, but realized something more fulfilling might be found. I turned to the memoir for inspiration and strength, and found comfort in new beginnings. Then, I could see over the edge of the cliff she described, and felt my heart pound. When she reflected on Paul’s abuse, my stomach knotted in anger and my hair practically stood on end. When she caved and went back to him -– over and over -– I understood, but was frustrated on her behalf. When Janice came to her and told her they could be together, I felt her surreal relief and contentment.

Over several terms, I came to know Prof. Cameron better after a few more of her classes. She became a mentor, and helped me run the gauntlet of undergraduate work. She praised my writing while at the same time bluntly articulating what was wrong with it and how to correct it. She encouraged me to do research at the National Archives in Ottawa, and was pleased when I returned overwhelmed with what I had discovered. When she found out I was interested in becoming a Teaching Assistant, she was the first to recommend me, and the first to reprimand the Chair of the department when he said I was “too junior.” I worked as a TA in her classes, and she allowed me to prepare a lecture. “Get used to being nervous, it doesn’t go away,” she declared, before I began. She was an encouraging reference included in all of my graduate applications. “Be sure to say exactly what you want,” she advised, “Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. It’s competitive out there, and you need to learn to stand up for yourself.” I tried to heed her advice. Eventually, when I received word I had been accepted to a graduate studies program, she emailed me, delighted. “I’m proud of you,” she wrote.

For other people, No Previous Experience may be a resource for sexual rediscovery, but to me it is a story of being and becoming, of learning as an incandescent process. It is an examination of boundaries and of love and the human experience. Most of all, it is about making mistakes and learning to learn from them. Many women will not have the chance to know the authors who inspire them; I feel lucky to have known, even for a limited time, the woman behind the words.

These stories -- whether they are from the pages of a book, from our relatives and friends or from the woman next to us on the bus -- connect us in our struggles and successes and allow us to draw courage from the world at large. We are never alone, whether we find courage from the pages of a book by a risk-taking author, or we seek out narratives of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, other relatives, teachers, and friends. In my experience, the connections we make and lessons we learn as a result are always worth the risk.

Elspeth Cameron
No Previous Experience
Penguin Books

Lyndsay Wilson hails from Beamsville, Ontario. She completed an undergraduate degree at Brock University and master's degree at the University of Ottawa. She currently works in educational publishing and lives with her lovely partner, Clark, in Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Turning Point: Discovering Cairo With Naguib Mahfouz -- Linda Barghoorn

_Children of the Alley_; Mahfouz, Naguib

In the summer of 1986, my Egyptian-born fiancé whisked me off to his native land to survey what might one day be our mutual home. “If you’re going to marry me, you need to understand where we could end up living,” he told me. “I need to know if you can handle it.”

And so we flew to Egypt, where we spent two weeks exploring areas of Cairo –- old and new -– as well as parts of the Mediterranean coast around Alexandria. My travel reading was a book my fiancé had handed me: _Children of the Alley_, by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s literary giant. I’d always been an avid reader, devouring mostly Canadian content during my high school days and German authors' works while fulfilling my language studies requirements in university. Until then I’d had no real driving curiosity about Egyptian writers. Now was the time. I was eager to uncover what Egypt’s literary culture might tell me about the country, along with what I was about to see for myself.

Already renowned in Egypt and widely considered the best Arab writer alive, Mahfouz went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1988. Many of his books portray the lives of "average" Egyptians, whose stories unfold in the streets and alleyways of old Cairo, where Mahfouz grew up. Indeed, as we wandered the twisting, snake-like alleyways of Old Cairo, I could almost imagine his characters there in the street scenes that played out in front of me: weathered old men smoking shisha pipes at small street cafes, colourful laundry hanging over balconies to dry, women carrying baskets of wares on their heads as they made their way home to cook dinner.

While these scenes were fascinating, the realities of life in modern Cairo appeared rather daunting, and I tried to hide my trepidations with mixed results. Traffic-clogged streets, overpopulation and dirt were some of the first things to greet us when we stepped from the lobby of my fiancé’s family’s apartment. Naturally, language and cultural barriers loomed large as I struggled to fit gracefully into the huge circle of friends and extended family that surrounded my fiancé.

If I thought I might find refuge from the uncertainty of my future in Mahfouz’s fiction, I was mistaken. Far from providing an uplifting view of modern Egypt and her people, Mahfouz’s story revealed a rather bleak portrayal of humanity, which left me with few optimistic thoughts.

_Children of the Alley_ tells the story of the descendants of Gebelawi, a family patriarch, whose mansion sits like an oasis amidst the barren wasteland of the Muqattam Desert. As he casts out first one son from his estate and then the second, the generations that follow are doomed to live out their existence in the alleys which emerge from the desert around the mansion. His estate becomes the focal point of a family feud that grows increasingly wretched, as (for the most part) do the characters who arrive on the scene with each subsequent generation. Avarice/greed, envy/jealousy are key themes in the lives of the characters and ultimately cause the downfall or unhappiness of almost everyone in the book.

Was this what life in Egypt had taught Naguib Mahfouz? If the characters in his novels -- who had spent their entire lives in Cairo -- were struggling just to get along with one another and eke out an existence, where did that leave me?

As a small town girl from the Niagara Peninsula (Ontario’s fruit belt in Canada), my farthest adventures abroad before this trip had been several summers in Europe furthering university language studies, where the grand old villas in northern Italy whose paint was faded and peeling had seemed derelict at the time. That, however, was nothing compared to the pot-holed and garbage-strewn streets and the crumbling buildings of old Cairo or the back streets of Alexandria. To be fair, there were certainly some beautiful areas in these cities, but the crowded chaos of Cairo’s metropolis was so far removed from the tranquil green surroundings I had known growing up in our quiet little corner of Canada. Could I really do this?

Looking back, I’m not sure if my fiancé wasn’t testing the strength of my resolve to commit to this marriage, by providing me with a tour of some of the seedier areas of the cities, where I now understand we would never have lived had we actually moved there. But, I do remember distinctly one afternoon, as we wove our way through some particularly suspect streets in the back of Alexandria, turning to him in a panic and declaring, “I’m not sure I can do this after all.”

As I struggled to maintain an open mind to a potential new life in Egypt, I did also have many opportunities to explore the more romantic aspects of the country’s culture and history. We visited the mighty pyramids, the labyrinthine Egyptian museum with its impressive collection of ancient treasures, and the fascinating Khan al Khalili bazaar, where we bargained for everything from jewellery to leather to perfume. There was an entire world of smells, sounds and sights I had never experienced before. Some were thrilling: the muezzin cries calling the faithful to prayer at the mosque; snorting of cranky camels on our ride near pyramids; hush of the desert, which swallowed bustling sounds of the nearby city; and shouts of the galabaya-clad vendors at the centuries-old bazaar where scents of rich coffee and spices wafted through alleys. Others –- like the filthy canal in Cairo’s suburbs, where I watched children bathing and women doing laundry, were distressing.

In the end, as luck -- or fate -- would have it, I did not have the opportunity to find out whether I could manage a life in Egypt with my fiancé. While his career path ultimately led us to a number of international assignments, Egypt was not one of them. The marriage went ahead as planned upon our return to Toronto and I was never put to that particular test. Given my experiences since, I’m fairly confident that I would have survived though, and in fact, may have made a success of the adventure.

Over twenty years I have become more familiar with Mahfouz's oeuvre, although I have to admit his works are not easy reading. I’ve yet to find a number of uplifting messages in any one of his books. It was only after recommending _Alley_ for a monthly book club I attended while living in Belgium, that I really started to appreciate the brilliance of the author’s vision. There was definitely more to Mahfouz's story than I had absorbed under the "duress" of my introductory crash course.

When I researched Mahfouz and _Alley_ in more detail, I found an entire world of imagery and symbolism I had missed the first time around. On a more profound level, _Alley_ is an allegory, which does indeed offer a distinctly pessimistic view of the struggle of men and women for existence. The "everyday" characters though, are actually symbolic of master figures of some of the world’s major religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- stripped bare of their holiness to represent the history of humanity from Genesis to the modern day. Herein lies the genius of Mahfouz and this book, which was specifically cited as one of his master works upon receiving the Nobel Prize.

When I read Mahfouz today, I continue to marvel at his mastery of language, imagery and symbolism, which are woven deftly throughout his novels. More than anything, whenever I crack open the cover of _Alley_, I am instantly transported back to my first moments in Egypt as a nervous bride-to-be and relive sights and sounds that were such an intrinsic part of that trip and the uncertainty of what a future living outside of Canada might mean. It marked the beginning of a new turn in my not-so-conventional life, which continues today: a life of living in countries in the Middle East and Europe, testing my ability to adapt to new cultures, languages and to grow richer from them. It has been a unique journey, which has dramatically shaped and changed that small town girl from Niagara, who wasn’t sure she could.

Children of the Alley
Naguib Mahfouz
Translated to English by Peter Therous
Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, NY USA
Originally published in 1959

Linda Barghoorn grew up in the Niagara Peninsula, in south-western Ontario. She studied at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she obtained an Honours B.A. in Languages. Married with two daughters, she lives with her family in Surrey, UK. She is a freelance writer who enjoys reading, hiking and is deeply committed to philanthropy work.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Fifteenth Summer -- Lorraine O'Donnell Williams

_Seventeenth Summer_; Daly, Maureen

It was 1947. I was only fifteen, but due to skipping two grades in elementary school, was now entering my last year in high school. There was nothing that September to warn me that my favourite book was to create a “jump-shift” in me. One result would be to alter my relationship with my favourite teacher forever. Another would be to raise my self-awareness beyond thinking of myself as merely a daughter, student, sister, but as me – Lorraine, a young woman with an unknown, but exciting, future ahead.

Primarily nuns staffed the all-female convent school I attended. It was a time when there were plenty of religious vocations and most of the Sisters ended up as nurses, teachers or managers of those institutions. They fascinated me from the time I first saw them as postulants working in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. I’d glimpse those young faces, eternally devoid of makeup, behind steaming pots of food, beads of perspiration on furrowed brows as some loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. Others tended the soup pots, the tomato aroma permeating the walls of the “caf”. No sound issued from those pursed lips behind the steam table. Just about the only noises were non-human ones – the scraping of plates, pounding of potato mashers, and clanking of still-hot sterilized cutlery.

This sight was a contrast to the one from the school library windows. If I knelt on one of its red leather window seats, I could look out onto the cloistered yard below, where twice a day young novices and younger postulants took their recreation. How they collected in groups of four, like corners of a square, captivated me. Two would walk forward and two would walk backwards, facing them. With flimsy veils flying about their heads, they would laugh and chat, moving about the courtyard as quickly and carefree as leaves tossing in the wind. Despite their gaiety, they were so perfectly disciplined that never once did they look up to see my curious eyes glued to them.

In the late winter, those postulants graduated into novices, as evidenced by a subtle change in their habit. It was the novices, however, who underwent a more sublime transformation. On the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19th, they entered the chapel in a burst of bridal finery, replete with huge bouquets of flowers. After joyous prayers, tears of pride and sadness from their families, they would withdraw temporarily, then reappear, symbolically shorn and dressed in the full-length black and white habit of the Bride of Christ.

I wish I‘d known Sister Priscilla in those days. But, in my opinion, it’s true that nuns barely age, so she probably looked much the same when I first met her in the school library, as she did then. She’d have those same intelligent china-blue eyes that seemed to look beyond – perhaps to her Beloved. No hair strayed beyond her headpiece. Her natural colouring could only be guessed at by the blond line of her unplucked brows and reddish-blonde eyelashes. A slight ruddiness to her cheeks created a perfect relief to the exquisite harmony of her black and white outfit. Her physical conformity to her Order’s high standards was matched by her conformity in conversation. Only once in our talks did she offer any personal reference to herself. And I, a fairly strictly-conforming convent school pupil, looked probably as unfulfilled in my black-navy tunic and white blouse as she looked fulfilled in similar colours, would have never dreamed of asking her about her life. To me, she had no history. She was Sister Priscilla, Eternal Nun.

When I first met her there, I realized she was not able to talk or laugh in a normal audible way. She could only speak in a whisper. She never explained what had caused this and, of course, I never asked. I only knew it had happened to her some time after she’d taken her final vows. Normally, such a challenge could be a personal tragedy to one trained to teach. Anyone who has come to know nuns very well though, is aware they’re more often managerial geniuses than the general population. Thus, it was perfectly evident to Mother Superior that Sister Priscilla had been selected by Divine Providence to run the school library. No one ever talked out loud in libraries and Sister’s strained whisper only served to reinforce that stricture.

I frequented the Gothic-inspired library every spare moment I had. Although my father loved reading his Thorne Smith or Erle Stanley Gardner pocket books, my mother wasn’t a reader, so I had to go outside the home to find books that interested me. I came to know that school library and its guardian intimately. The room contained hundreds of book and magazines, lined up on racks and shelves between the windows. The books were all concerned with one subject: religion. There were books on Christology and Mariology, Lives of the Saints, the “in-house” organ of the order, all the papal encyclicals and classics on devotion ranging from the “Imitation of Christ” to “Concepts in Mental Prayer”. All had the imprimatur prominently displayed. My favourite section was that which held books focusing on the illumination of the doctrines in vogue in the late 1940’s: those dealing with “The Mystical Body of Christ” and “Catholic Action”. These always struck me as so marvellously juxtaposed – one so ethereal, one so busy. In my final years of high school, I read or perused (solely by choice) almost every volume in that room.

In the middle of the room, were three long study tables and chairs of carved oak. At the far end of the room, was Sister’s teaching desk. She’d sit there when she finished teaching us the Dewey Decimal System, cataloguing new acquisitions as we laboured over assignments she gave us. Unbeknownst to my classmates, she also had another desk in what I termed her “cubbyhole”, located through a tiny corridor at the extreme right-hand side of the room. During classes, my interaction with Sister was kept formal. But, through our common love of books, I had also established a special secret connection.

As the school year advanced, she and I developed a routine. I would show up at the library once a day, usually after lunch break when there was thirty minutes left before the next period. Sometimes, when I arrived from the cafeteria, the scent of tomato soup still clinging to me, the library would look empty. That would be when Sister was in her cubbyhole at the back, where she kept those “special” books that weren’t for general circulation.

The sameness of these meetings never diminished the joy I experienced each time I picked out a book I hadn’t looked at before, or shared a whispered conference with Sister about the latest “Sign” magazine or pamphlet by the popular Jesuit, Father Daniel Lord. It was in that library I knew I was loved, accepted and appreciated.

Towards the end of my last high school year, as usual, after lunch I was hurrying along the quiet halls to my “place”. Not surprisingly, the library seemed deserted. Then I heard a slight rustle. There at the end of the room stood Sister Priscilla, appropriately framed by the leaded glass windows behind her.

“Come here, Lorraine, I’ve got some new books in,” she whispered. “Do you want to see if there’s anything you like?”

I’m sure my eagerness was evident in the few words of my reply. We went past her cubbyhole to a small shelf holding a dozen crisp new books. I lifted each reverently, one by one, again very conscious of the privilege extended to me. I was the only student given immediate access to these books, which she had to ensure contained no passages “harmful” to convent girls.

On this spring day, however, one of the books I took off that special shelf changed forever the nature of my relationship with Sister. It also changed my perception of myself. The book, written by an American-Catholic, Maureen Daly, was called Seventeenth Summer. Sister must have felt so daring purchasing such a novel. It dealt innocently, sweetly, with a chaste romance between Angie, a high school graduate about to enter college, and her boyfriend Jack.

I sensed that Sister felt very conflicted about letting me read it when she specifically stated, “Don’t loan it to anyone else.”

In that very instant, I felt my life had broadened beyond her cherished library walls. What I knew and she didn’t was that for the past two years, my girlfriends and I had been keeping Daly’s book in constant circulation at our local public library. All of us had read it, and gone over and over the part where Angie and Jack finally kiss. And here was Sister, so out of touch with her charges, unable to realize how times had changed. I did still love her for the nurturing affection she had bestowed on me. It was sad though to realize I had moved beyond what she could give me. Yet these realizations filled me with joy because of who I had become. This new maturity was freeing me to look for new role models, and perhaps wondrous landscapes lay ahead!

After graduation that year, Sister and I kept up a formal summer correspondence. Her last letter to me contained a bombshell:

“I made a pilgrimage to St. Anne de Beaupre Shrine in Quebec, and after I finished drinking at one of the holy fountains, I could speak.”

Her voice had come back! I was jubilant. Miracles do still happen.

But I mourned as well. I knew she was too good a teacher to leave practically confined in a library, now that she could speak above a whisper.

I never answered her last letter.

Seventeenth Summer was written by Maureen Daly and published by Dodd, Mead & Company, in 1942. It has been considered the first in the “Young Adult” genre and has been republished in new editions scores of times. Daly died in September, 2006.

Lorraine O’Donnell Williams was born and raised in the Beach area of Toronto. She has an Honours BA (Philosophy and English) from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Ottawa. She has been employed in forensic, correctional and psychiatric fields of social work, and has been a teaching master in social work at Ryerson University and Seneca College. She recently retired from a private practice in psychotherapy and marital counselling. She is the author of two books, has had some short stories published and is a travel writer. She belongs to The Writers Union of Canada, and the Society of American Travel Writers. She now lives in Markham with her husband John, former Solicitor General of Ontario. They have five children.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Feminine Journey -- Vanessa Reid

_Hymn to Isis_; Fancott, Edmund

A thick, yellowed husk of paper curling at the corners as if folding into a womb: worn, not weary, it archives eras, centuries, civilizations. Its cloth is woven from a pride of trees. It is of the earth, but so very light. Like the depth of a lake, swimming to its own slender shorelines, its thick centre slowly recedes outward to its own searching corners that become tentacles.

I touch it, stroke it, smell it. It is ancient, hand-drawn. Place names are written with cursives and characters. The tiniest details are etched with artistry and delight: bright green hills, the hush of desert, vast “snowlands”. Forests spread like liquid over continents, stopping only at cliffs and fjords to then plunge into shades of turquoise. The map sings birds in their flight patterns and whistles sea creatures in their habitat. It sketches lavender temples, charcoal sites of beauty and battle. A spider’s web of connected particles, these places, passages are woven together by time. Its ribs, skin and bones holding together heaven and earth.

Exploring the map’s surface, I move my fingers tentatively to deep crevasses, sarcophagi holding dark wounds; blurs of crashing materials, forms -- living creatures, abstractions bound together in a violent dance. Embracing, they whirl in ecstasy; defacing, they fall. Turmeric stains, saffron scent, and metallic undertones characterize this bleeding ink. It is a work of art -- a timepiece -- this living map of worlds dreaming, breathing, dancing, colliding. What is this invitation, this invocation -- this opus that has landed in my hands, already raw from my own travels?

No signatures or emblems of ownership or authorship grace deface the map. The makers have left beautiful white spaces, untouched, expansive, and at the centre… I am breathless. There are simply no words to describe…

Is it my turn? Do I dare?


My brother, Dylan, grew up reading fantasy novels, playing Dungeons and Dragons, devouring history books rough with conquerors, battles, quests. Where was my quest? What kind of journeying, companions and honour awaited a girl like me, a little sister? My world seemed so, well, here. Now. Immediate. It was a world of soccer games, playing outside, canoe camping and friendships with real people who I could hug, laugh, dream with, confide in. Every so often Dylan invited me into his big, mysterious secret world of goblins and wizards. We created a character, a thief this time with a magic cloak… off we would go. But I wondered really who were my mates in these and other yet unmapped adventures of camaraderie, discovery and myth-making?

When I was twelve, I read The Hobbit as well as the illustrated version of Watership Down. I was moved by these adventures about saving what was “good”, acting courageously for self, community and standing up for what was right. But I did not see myself in these books whether as author or as its heroine -- I was neither a rabbit nor a hobbit.

It wasn’t until I read a book of a very different kind that I began to slowly understand. Then, it was possible to feel the unfolding of what it was to have a quest, a heritage of mystery, wisdom -- of human and mythical proportion, and come to know a community of wise, courageous people.

It was a poem in book form called Hymn to Isis, it was about goddesses, oracles, seekers. And it was written by my grandfather.

My poet-sage-artist grandfather, whose final contribution to this world was this sacred ode, a history in poem to Lilith, Eve and Isis. Edmund or Granpy, an English-born bohemian father of four (my mother, a sister to three brothers), died of throat cancer after birthing a radical expression of love to Woman. He waited until I was 6 months old before leaving this world. The book was published a few years later. I like to believe that he conceived this poem, sang it to and through me as I was developing my own beginnings of life, rendering my own map of the past and future, while swimming, swirling, being unveiled, in my mother’s womb. He sent his words through me, I sent my reply through him.

Sensual, luscious, luminous undulating language, I have grown up with Hymn to Isis forming and informing me in almost every stage of my life. The lessons of learning, yearning, of loving, revealing are slowly being uncovered as I see more deeply into my own self. “How can I teach you,” whispers Isis, “you who knows so much yet knows so little beyond your self?”

As an inquisitive, spirited teenager, these three aspects of woman enthralled me: Lilith, wild and luscious; Eve, the keeper of the house; Isis, goddess of fecundity, all-powerful. But I really loved Lilith, “proud unconquerable, the fire and the fury of love and lust, not I rejected Adam, he too mortal fell from my onslaught, an empty husk…” This changed everything -- Adam’s wife before Eve? She was too much for him! With the sexy language, the evocation of feminine power, the diving deep into the sinews of relationship, well, I rarely read the whole poem through. I found I did not have the patience for the seekers’ stories to the temple of Isis; I wanted to be Lilith.

As a young woman in university, I found the poem again, discovering the symbols of myth that are universal in literature and the history of goddesses. I used what I saw as the central theme to the book, love and reciprocity, in an essay on Canadian Literature in my first year English class. “No gift is greater that the receiver, no heaven beyond the love of the lover, no hell lower than love lost in lust.” This was my grandfather’s book! In the library! A Canadian author!

In second year, I found feminism -- as a course of study, and as a community. In cafés while skipping class, my girlfriends and I talked about what we were reading, and how it reflected our own lives. At the time, I secretly wished I could appear on Oprah and say something very clever and important to an apparently ignorant, patriarchal world. We cut our hair when we broke up with boyfriends, whispered, roared, loving our communion. Feminism was an affirmation of my own burgeoning beliefs on equality and expression, the personal and the political. These courses were exciting, uncomfortable, life-changing, and I saw the connection with my own mother’s struggle for rights, equality, policy, language, with this new language of my generation “identity politics” and “third wave”. Hadn’t both my grandmothers been pioneers and gone to university in the 1920s? But while I devoured this literature, clawed my way through post-structuralist theory, and drank too many cafés au lait, I was most drawn to this long, rich, and painfully invisible history in which women were central characters.

I spent hours in the McGill University library looking up women’s myths and symbols, the ancient stories of female leaders and goddesses whose lives were courageous, and stood or fell for an important cause, virtue, country. They were religious, political, common, from all parts of the world. It was so thrilling. I wrote articles for International Women’s Day in the ‘McGill Daily’ and designed tattoos according the meaning of a Celtic or pagan symbol, imagining the sisterhood I was connected to through this necklace of women through time.

In my final year of my undergraduate degree, Hymn to Isis came to life once again, in an independent video project made with three girlfriends. They read the poem and loved it, we sprinkled Jeanette Winterson’s modern myth-making into it and ta-da! Our video connected Eve, a contemporary young woman, with her Lilith and, ultimately, her Isis. We played with lighting, time, slow motion. We shot beautiful images of Eve walking through the snow of a ruined church in Montreal and then merged her into her Lilith self through music and a velvet costume change. In a final scene, this Eve is invited into a circle of candles in her apartment by the hand of Lilith. She sheds her old self; and together, naked, they dance to ancient drumming and the ululation of a songstress beating their passage through Time into Self, collapsing into Isis: three in one, one in three. How we got Tracy’s roommate to act in this, I don’t know, but we were breathless in our creation, very determined. We screened it for our class of nine and only our professor, who perhaps had an appreciation for the abstract, the complexity of our storytelling and editing (and likely for the risqué scenes,) gave us an ‘A’.

Isis, in her slim hardcover, her dusty rose envelop illustrated with whimsical line drawings of women with wide eyes, third eyes, flowers and butterflies has been my constant travel companion. She came with me on road trips across Arizona and through the Canadian Rockies, has come with me to bed, under the dim of morning discovering “the intimacy of the quivering senses poised on the brink of ecstasy, the ebb and flow, membrum erectum, membrum pendulum…” with a boyfriend while we tried to invent what might have been the “500 ways known to the Chinese and the 50 secret ways known only to the Emperor”. She flew off my bookshelf to be read over the phone in a flirtation with a boy who ran a bookstore and zoomed across oceans and time zones to India, in 1999, the first time I went there to work. “Bring a favourite book,” they advised, “something that will ground you should you feel lonely or overwhelmed.” I would be there for close to a year with an Indian non-governmental organization, working with the most marginalized communities for social justice and social change. Hymn to Isis came out one night, in the intimacy of a shared moment: my anchor, my compass.

I had brought The Hobbit, too, but it was Isis that initiated an intense bonding with my female roommates one dusty evening after a week in the chaos, colour of hope and despair of Indian social justice work. Our male roommate, Graham, was gone to the field, so Michelle, Betty and I sat together one evening after celebrating Shabbat with our ritual meal of kosher Pizza Hut. The roar of rickshaws and clang of urban cattle outside our window accompanied us on this hot night in Ahmedabad, the old capital of Gujarat, in central India. We were there through an internship with Aga Khan Foundation Canada, one Jew from Montreal, a pragmatic atheist from Harrison, BC, and me having come only with my questions about religion and faith. Working in a Jesuit-founded secular organization, I found myself seeking.

“I will read you my ‘favourite’ parts,” was my introduction. I searched for the beautiful poetry. But, they asked for the whole book. I had never read it aloud, in its entirety and it was hard not to become emotional. Many aspects of the poem became more pronounced to me in the process -- the beauty of its wholeness, of the stories of seekers going to the temple of Isis, the questions to the goddess, and her power in knowing when to reveal, when to conceal.

It was my second cry for a grandfather on this trip. The first was my grief reading in an email from my parents that Pere, my dad’s father had died peacefully of pneumonia in his 92nd year. I did not go home for the funeral, having just arrived in India. He and my grandmother had lived there in the 1950s. He was Canada’s first High Commissioner to a newly independent India. I knew I was where he would want me to be; in a place he and Nana had loved, into which they had poured their dreams and hopes. It became my mission to embark on a pilgrimage to their old house in Delhi. In some circular way, I was simply continuing the work that Pere had begun 40 years before; he in diplomacy, and me, his youngest grand-daughter, in community development.

Tears have also come when thinking about my mum’s father, the one I had not known in person, but who in spirit spoke to my deepest place. It would have been a shock of recognition -- that both of these men would have guided me to this one place. This realization has come only recently. The memory is vivid: I was 29, on the cusp of discovering the fire of articulating and manifesting one’s purpose in the world. Swirling with questions and hungry for experience, I found in India a rite of passage. Not surprisingly, the experience burned me bright, left me raw, pushed me to see my purpose more clearly.

During those days, I did not have the words then: “pilgrimage”, “quest”. I saw only the epidermis of my map, and it led me back two generations to my socialist, diplomat grandfather whose driving passion, greatest fear, was to ensure there would not be a Third World War, in his lifetime, ever. It became apparent how I was stepping into the path that he in his time of fear and hope worked so hard to lay down and that in my own time, with my own resources, would build on that inheritance. It was a call into the river of public service. This was visible to me in the context of concrete injustices in man-made structures.

What lay under that river, was this other inheritance, a deeper tributary -- its source more mystical. There was another call to another kind of service, but I did not recognize it then. “To lift the veil of Isis is to pierce the heart of mystery.” Only after another rite of passage, laying myself bare -- burning and raw again -- with family, friends, in my own community, and touching the shores and core of India once again, would I skin a second membrane to this map, and the invitation-invocation that Isis held to me. But that is another story.

I am Isis
The gift of the gods is given freely
But the oracle speaks in riddles
So that fools can wallow in their folly
And the wise shall understand
But who shall proclaim the majesty of woman
I am Isis

Edmund Fancott
Hymn to Isis
With line drawings by Susan Fothergill
Peter Martin Associates

Vanessa Reid is the executive publisher of ‘ascent magazine’. She has travelled extensively and now resides in Montreal.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Metropolis: My Memory Palace -- Sheniz Janmohamed

_Metropolis_; Dunlop, Rishma

As a South Asian Canadian poet searching for literature that I could identify with, Rishma Dunlop was one of the only poets I had access to. When I discovered her poetry collection, The Body of My Garden, I was taken aback by the proximity of her voice and the richness of her tone. From my experience studying Canadian poetry, I expected something more “prairie” or “suburban” and not something so unapologetically vibrant.

After meeting with Professor Dunlop and discussing literature and life with her over a few cups of cappuccino, I felt more assured about my own sense of “aesthetic”. I was less reluctant to occupy the liminal space of my second-generation South Asian Canadian identity.

Two years later, I picked up Dunlop’s Metropolis, finished a latte and walked back to my dorm room to read it. Sitting on the floor, I read it cover to cover. The voice was sharper, less kind, more haunting. It had an unfathomable maturity, almost mimicking the growth in my own life. Metropolis clanked words on concrete, walked with a lone woman down crowded streets, archived the fragmented lives of city dwellers.

My final year as an undergrad was a practice in discipline. After ending a three-year relationship that summer, my fourth year was my first year of university “alone”. I spent my time studying, bookmarking poems, conversing with female friends and strolling the streets of Toronto. It was difficult to adjust to the silence of being unattached -- not calling a man to quiet my fears, not meeting him in the foyer of his apartment building, not celebrating silly monthly anniversaries. There were times where I couldn’t visit certain cafes, bookstores or street corners. Each was marked with moments from a relationship that no longer existed.

In Metropolis, Dunlop delves into Cicero’s “Memory Palace”, which discusses the concept of remembering through “loci” (paths). For example, to memorize a speech, one would associate parts of it with particular locations around a city. To remember a section of the speech, one simply remembers the place with which that section was associated. I could relate because Toronto became my “Memory Palace”. The city was a palimpsest of memories from my past, unravelling my personal history in its bends. It took me a while to visit those old haunts, but I eventually allowed myself to create new memories in old spaces. I would amble down Bloor St.West on sunny mornings, collect my thoughts and prepare myself for the rest of the day. The city walk became a private meditation, a ritual, a chance to observe the world by maneuvering through it. I learned to recognize shady characters, walk with some sort of grace in high heels and ignore whistling construction workers. The city moulded me into a stronger young woman. After these experiences, when I read Metropolis, the poetic voice instantly resonated with me:

When your eyes have unclouded,

You will see the shine rising off the

Edges of things. You will hear a human

Breathing, sense of something blue, alive,


Dunlop’s speaker is an observer, a woman who sits on the subway and watches the way people fold their hands, how they avoid eye contact. She alludes to the invisible gap of humanity in the cold horizon of steel towers, the sirens, the interactions between people:

The city is in the eye of the blackbird,

Fixed on skyscrapers, bus terminals,

Garbage dumps.

Witness to muffled emergencies

Someone’s heart about to stop

Someone’s about to be delivered

Someone’s seeking redemption between

A woman’s legs.

She knows she is alone even when she is standing in a crowd, that people brush past her. She does not feel them, however:

Some days in the city nothing really touches us.

Everything is transparent, black-curtained government cars

Cast their shadows along the avenues. . .

When I read these poems, the poet and I are hardly any different. We occupy the same concrete world, witness the same bruised horizons, even wipe off the same shade of lipstick staining the rims of our coffee cups. Dunlop brings my world onto a page, and magnifies it with details and ideas I have been unable to pen into existence. There is also gravity lacing her words, an emotional weight that lends itself to uncertainty:

Some things keep you safe. . .

Until the blasted church,

Machete massacres

Rush hour bombs on subways,

Carnage that is the failure of love.

As a twenty-something woman stepping out of undergrad life, waiting for an acceptance letter to an MFA program, watching the daily bombardment of Islamic culture on a television screen, I was deeply moved by these words. I was moved by the feeling that we are never sure. Although this lack of surety is uncomfortable, it is inevitable. Dunlop’s carefully crafted poetry allowed me to accept this fact with some measure of maturity and sense of humour.

In the first year of an MFA program, I commuted via subway to attend classes. I would often take books to read when I got tired of noting down quirks of fellow riders. One morning, I glanced at my bookshelf and eyed the slim volume of Metropolis. I thought, “Dunlop. Why not?” That day I took it with me and read it, cover to cover, from Bay Station to Kipling. I found a strange relevance in the text through reading lines that described my environment. On the subway trip back, I just observed, as Dunlop might. I revelled in the exiting and entering of passengers, the crisp smacking open of a newspaper, the announcer’s drowsy voice. There I was -- completely alone, but confident. I had no idea what the next stop was, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the city had become my own, a metropolis of my mind. I was no longer afraid to get lost, because there was hope I’d find directions along the way.


Rishma Dunlop

Mansfield Press


Sheniz Janmohamed is a freelance writer, poet and spoken word artist. She holds an Honours BA in English and Religion from the University of Toronto. Recently, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing (Guelph) under the mentorship of author Janice Kulyk Keefer. Her thesis is a collection of essays and poems reflecting her triune identity as a Canadian with Kenyan and South Asian roots. She has also completed a manuscript of ghazals in English, and is collaborating with international dub/electronica artists on numerous musical/spoken word projects. Her work has appeared in various magazines as well as columns and book reviews in “City Masala Magazine”. She has performed at various venues across Toronto, including the Strong Words Reading Series, Toronto Poets’ Saturday Night Love, and Majlis Arts’ Figure of Speech series. To learn more about her, visit her site:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Force -- Lori Hahnel

* This essay was orginally published as part of the "Women Who Love to Read" project at

_The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934-1952_; Thomas, Dylan

Reading a Dylan Thomas poem in a library one afternoon, in 1986, helped me navigate through a time of great turmoil in my life. I was twenty-two years old, working as a receptionist at the Calgary office of Schlumberger, an international oil service company, and hated my job. My job entailed running the switchboard, dealing with couriers and clients at the front desk, typing after a fashion. This work was boring yet stressful – clients would vent their anger at not being able to reach certain employees who never bothered to tell me where they were; the switchboard was always lit up with calls; and, I was trapped at my desk unless I called someone over to relieve me. The job itself wasn’t so bad really, but I wasn’t the right person for it. At the time, there was no interest in the corporate world whatsoever in me. I was fighting my creativity, trying to push it away, trying to be happy in an office job. After all, my parents said, my progress was impressive: all the way up from temporary typist to full-time mail clerk to receptionist – who knew where I might end up? I really wanted to end up in a place no office job could lead me, I knew that. But unfortunately, for the time being, I seemed to be stuck with it.

Right after high school, my next step was to attend the Alberta College of Art since my intention was to become a commercial artist. The grind at ACA was notoriously tough though – eight-to-five classes five days a week, tons of homework, a sixty percent first year drop-out rate – and the competition to get into the Visual Communications program was fierce. My aim had always been to work as an artist, but when it became plain that there was no space for me in VComm, I decided to drop out. In my mind, there wasn't any use in having a diploma in textiles or painting. Unfortunately, this was in early 1982, when a major recession began. For a while, I was unemployed, doing odd jobs, a little drafting work my engineer father found for me, trying to think of what I wanted to do with my life. What I really wanted was to go back to school and earn a degree in English, learn to write fiction, something I’d wanted to pursue since childhood. What I had envisioned was to write on the side and create art for a living – pretty realistic, eh? My parents, however, felt I should think of a more practical career after the ACA experience.

After a year and a half, I finally found full-time work as a foot courier. My employer was a printer and I hauled packages around the downtown core for $4.35 an hour. Six months later, I landed temporary work with Schlumberger and within a year, was Main Receptionist. This pleased my parents, but I hated the routine, the dullness, having to dress like an office lady. The situation was intolerable: engineers would take off and not let me know where they were going and then I’d have to deal with clients wanting to know where they were.

Often I’d take the C-Train to the main library, on my lunch hour, to get away from the noise and stress of the switchboard, to find a book to take with me, forget about my job, just be around books. Libraries had always been a place of refuge for me, place of escape, and then I seemed more drawn to them than ever before. One cold spring day, about a year after starting the receptionist job, I was browsing in the poetry section on the main floor, standing beside one of the huge plate glass windows that provides a view of Seventh Avenue and found something incredibly moving. I took a copy of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas off the shelf and opened it. The sound of a C-Train I remember very clearly rushing past. The sunlight was slanting through the window onto the page as I began reading these lines:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

I closed the book around my finger to keep my place after I finished the poem and took a deep breath. That was it, I realized. There was no going back. Now I knew what I had to do. No matter what my parents thought, no matter that there might not be any money in creative writing, I had to try. If I could ever write anything half as powerful, as heart-breakingly beautiful, it would be very fulfilling indeed. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas I took with me to the Social Sciences Department on the third floor of the library to find some information about university entrance.

That September, I started work on my English degree. Before long, the Calgary Public Library was my new job site. (The position was part-time.) There I continued to work after graduation. Today, I'm working my way up as a fiction writer, and it’s a longer, harder journey than I ever imagined. During those years of full-time work when I was paying off my student loan after university, I didn’t have the energy to try and do creative work, too. It was only once I had children and spent a lot of time at home that I had the time, and began to learn the patience.

And patience one needs in spades when one is a creative writer. It may be the most important attribute to have – it’s certainly something I need to work on. One receives rejections, waits for responses (some of which will never come, I'm sorry to say), hesitates, procrastinates, but ultimately one has to keep pushing on, because the next acceptance could be on its way. My work has won awards, been published in literary magazines and anthologies, and been broadcast on CBC Radio, but still the time between acceptances can be long, waiting for responses can seem interminable. The money earned by most creative writers is worse than laughable. Be that as it may, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, and the little success I’ve had brings me great satisfaction, more than any job ever could. The same force that drove Dylan Thomas, I like to think, drives me. To me, that’s worth it.

The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934 - 1952
Originally published by New Directions Publishing

Lori Hahnel is the author of a novel, Love Minus Zero (Oberon, 2008), and a short story collection titled Nothing Sacred, forthcoming from Thistledown Press, in 2009. Her credits include CBC Radio, "The Fiddlehead", "Prairie Fire" and "Room Magazine"; more of her work is forthcoming in "The Fiddlehead" and "The Antigonish Review". She is currently at work on a second novel.