Under-represented at the table, holding their own on the page

Stop Saul CurtisNeither small-scale farmers nor low-income communities have been invited to the table to make food policy on a global scale.

The Stop illuminates this reality in matter-of-fact and unsentimental language, presenting facts both from a bird’s-eye-view and a grassroots perspective.

Readers are acquainted with some alarming information on an international scale. For instance, “in debt and unable to pay their creditors, more than 200,000 farmers in rural India have killed themselves since 1997”: a painful reality indeed.

The statistics hit close to home for Canadian readers as well. The “poorest one-fifth of Canadians—like many of those who use The Stop and other food banks—have a ‘sixty percent greater rate of two or more chronic health conditions; more than three times the rate of bronchitis’ and ‘nearly double the rate of arthritis or rheumatism’. This same cohort has a ‘358% higher rate of disability’ as well as ‘128% more mental and behavioural disorders; 95% more ulcers; 63% more chronic conditions; and 33% more circulatory conditions’.

The scale of this work is occasionally overwhelming. This is perhaps unavoidable, given the girth of the topic, but the authors balance the macro and the micro carefully.

So herein readers discover a brief history of La Via Campesina, which was founded in 1993 by farmers from four continents). We learn about Toronto FoodShare, which was founded in 1985 and was an early adopter of “food systems” thinking— looking at food as part of an integrated whole. And, we learn about Stop 103 in one particular Toronto neighbourhood, Symington Place in Davenport West. And that leads us to The Stop and Nick Saul’s involvement with the organization, which began more than a decade ago.

Stories of individual volunteers and dedicated justice workers bring heart to the narrative and Nick Saul‘s and Andrea Curtis‘ work is not only informative, but also surprisingly engaging.

The Stop is designed to appeal to readers with an interest in social justice, community and, certainly, food: it succeeds on many levels indeed.

***

Poverty is a primary concern in Up Ghost River as well.

Up Ghost River Metatawabin

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

The systematic underprivileging of native peoples in their homelands is at the heart of the diffculties that Edmund Metatawabin describes facing in his memoir.

“Had I been born in a different body with a different history, I might have gone to the police. I could have reported him and stopped it. Maybe he would have gone to jail. I knew from the radio news that that’s what the wemistikoshiw did. But I wasn’t wemistikoshiw. Our stories were different.”

But because he was not wemistikoshiw, his story begins differently too, with residential school.

This was not an optional experience. “‘‘And it’s not just Father Lavois who says the kids must go,’ Mama said. ‘It’s the Hudson’s Bay store manager. It’s the nuns. It’s everyone.’”

Residential school, and segregation from loved ones and cultural traditions, integrally and fundamentally changed this young boy, from the moment of his arrival.

“Most of the new boys were bigger than me, but I was a little taller, too, so when we went to line up to get our new numbers and new uniforms, my number was 15 out of 130. I looked at the number on the collar of my shirt. I didn’t want it. I just wanted to be Ed.”

No longer Ed, but rather Number 15, he quickly learned the skills required to survive the devastating policies and procedures which governed these institutions. And yet surving and enduring is a world apart from growing and thriving.

The language in Up Ghost River is succinct and unsentimental. And, yet, the content is highly emotive. What bridges the gap between these contrary states is a scenic style cultivated and sustained by Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo.

Those who would prefer to read about the subject in an more formal style might not appreciate the long passages of dialogue and vividly set scenes, but Up Ghost River includes enough spoken word and sensory detail to draw readers into the story. The narrative drive is intense and well-paced.

For those readers who are familiar with stories of other Saint-Annes’ survivors and the horrors inherent in the residential school system, the violence and suffering described herein will not be new information, but the author’s voice and personality (and his later role as chief) bring a particular slant to the chronicle.

The memoir also extends far enough to include details surrounding the charges which were ultimately laid against some of school staff members.

“Sister Anna Wesley was charged with five counts of assault, three counts of assault causing bodily harm and five counts of administering a noxious substance with intent to aggrieve or annoy, which is how the prosecution charged her with her favourite punishment – forcing the kids to eat their own vomit.”

Most important, however, is that Edmund Metatawabin’s story is available to be read and heard and understood.

“There is no concept of justice in Cree culture. The nearest word is kintohpatatin, which loosely translates to ‘you’ve been listened to’. But kintohpatatin is richer than justice – really it means you’ve been listened to by someone compassionate and fair, and your needs will be taken seriously. We had peacemakers before we had judges, whose responsibility was to listen to all those affected by the crime: the victim, the offender and their relatives.”

Even a single listener can work towards redressing an injustice. Even a single reader. And Up Ghost River not only affords readers that opportunity, but ends on a note of promise.

***

One Kind Word Three OClock

Three O’Clock Press, 2014

Until Joan Rivers introduced the subject, nobody had talked about abortion on television. She had told the same joke many times, always referring to a friend who’d had 14 appendectomies, because she couldn’t even say the word. (This is discussed in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in June 2010, rebroadcast following her death in 2014.)

In the same interview, she discussed recently listening to a recording of her early work with her daughter , and musing at how it seemed so quaint to contrast what was provocative then with what is challenging now.

And, yet, more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade, a book like One Kind Word (edited by Martha Solomon with photographs by Kathryn Palmateer) still faces challenges.

Sure, major publishers will back works penned by feminists these days, but books of photography about dogs swimming underwater definitely outnumber the copies of One Kind Word in print.

Presented here are portraits and statements by more than thirty Canadian women who have had abortions. It is a slim volume which you are unlikely to find stacked on the national booksellers’ displays, but what it lacks in girth it makes up for in gumption.

These women’s stories range from a few words to a few paragraphs in length, from detailed descriptions of events which informed their decisions to simple, declarative statements.

Some of the women are public figures you might recognize if you follow Canadian politics, others are private individuals you might not recognize if you met them on the street.

In summary, they evidence the reality that women of all kinds make this choice; whatever myths one could have believed would be challenged by this array of portraits and narratives.

Copies of this work, in paperback and epub, are available direct from Three O’Clock Press. While I passionately believe in supporting indie booksellers in the community, buying direct from a feminist press not only gets you great books but it works directly towards publishing more great books.

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2015-01-21T14:41:36+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Aarti January 24, 2015 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    What a great post on books that cover very important topics. Thanks for sharing them – I am very interested in the food movement, so will look into that one. And the book on abortion stories sounds so powerful, too.

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2015 at 6:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Aarti. Although I talked about them all at once, I read them over a longer period of time, so I could let the information settle. (And actually have read One Kind Word twice now.) Like you, I read more fiction than non-fiction, so I’m slower with this kind of reading.

  2. Christy January 22, 2015 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Reading your review of Up Ghost River reminds me of how prevalent such “educational programs” were around the world: Aboriginal children, American Indians in the US. Even the Magdalene laundries of Ireland could be considered similar in its intent and destructiveness.

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2015 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      There are certainly aspects which are similar in terms of the institutional abuse. (Did you see Peter Mullen’s Irish film “The Magdalen Sisters”?) Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian would make a terrific reading companion to Edmund Metatawabin’s story and places the experiences in a broader historical context (and his use of humour is outstanding).

  3. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) January 22, 2015 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    200,000 farmers in rural India have killed themselves since 1997? That is a shocking statistic – I had no idea. ‘Stop’ sounds like an important book.

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      And the fact that it’s an ongoing concern, with circumstances unchanging, is even more shocking, isn’t it?! I think it’s interesting that The Stop is very much a local story and, yet, the authors present it in such a way that you can imagine the narrative unfolding down any street, not just here in Toronto. (I’d be interested to hear if other readers who don’t live here find that too, however.)

  4. Naomi January 22, 2015 at 9:07 am - Reply

    All three of these books sound like good and important reads! The last one seems particularly brave, which makes me want to buy it.

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2015 at 6:13 pm - Reply

      That’s true: good and important. But they don’t read that way. The first two are surprisingly compelling stylistically, the first with its casual tone and the second with its emphasis on scenic detail and dialogue. And the last contains relatively little text, but the images are just as engaging.

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