“Wasn’t my life supposed to be rock and roll?”

Rockstar or not, Nicola Harwood’s Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired is a bold and absorbing memoir. At times her style is plain and functional, at other times it is poetic and intricate – even captivating, her voice consistently displayed centre-stage.

Harwood Flight Instructions

Caitlin Press, 2016

“No such thing as one true love, just the one sent hurtling against the door, catching your breath like a fly ball but not your words as you flirt outrageously and wonder how she could have fumbled that great line.
No one true love, but a whole lot of small lies told over dinner, draped over a restless urgency that threatens to bend the forks.”

While extended passages of figurative prose might be overwhelming, these poetic bursts are layered between matter-of-fact and often scenic segments, so readers have plenty to secure them to the narrative proper.

For instance, the following passage offers a solid complement to the “true love” musing (which is longer than what is quoted above).

“We slide out of now into then, into our twenties, those heady days of late-night sex and all-day exhaustion; idealistic, co-dependent lesbian unions fueled by drugs, softball, and Adrienne Rich. Unions such as this one, that didn’t stand a chance in hell. And while we are fucking and laughing we are ever so delicately examining the threads of our story. The hopes, the illusions, the disappointments. How young and stupid we were then. How old and stupid we are now.”

Nicola Harwood doesn’t come off as “old and stupid” on the page, however, but spirited and dynamic, open-minded and open-hearted.

She appears to be enchanted by language but also recognizes its shortcomings, including the thorny question of definition, particularly when it comes to one’s identity.

“From dyke to queer to butch to transgender to gender queer to gender fluid to bi-gender, tri-gender, pan-gender and non-binary girly faggot femme boy (not cis-boy!) – identity is like snow. It lies beneath language, fails between words, melts on your tongue.”

The question of commitment is at the heart of the memoir, as the title suggests. “Non-monogamy is a complicated, hyphenated word, which translated into dog language means: don’t fence me in.”

But not only romantic relationships but other kinds of relationships are also explored, both enduring and fleeting. “My writing magazines always have a page devoted to the latest award winners, and I read their achievements with bitterness. Recently I am more interested in stories of failure, especially spectacular failures. The zeppelins of relationships.”

Where does one put down roots? How does one nurture existing ties while accommodating change and growth. “Family. Like Aquarius and her jar of water it pours constantly from every source. For some it is the wine of life while for others it is the hopeless sense of drowning in a sticky mess not entirely of our own creation but somehow, intrinsically, our own. Drowning in our own blood.”

She and her partner – called Lover – establish a relationship with Ant, whose own family has “some queer corners not fully exposed to light”, whose own sexuality was a work in progress. Though a long-time resident of a group home, he gradually establishes a relationship with this couple, who open their home to him after many months of supervised contact although the relationship remains dynamic and complicated.

“If this is the new millennium, this cacophony of race, language, sex and gender, mothers, daughters, sons and sons who are daughters, neighbours and friends. If this is what family will look like in the new millennium, bring it on.”

Nicola Harwood’s writing feels honest and no-holds-barred, like Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom and Priscila Uppal’s Projection, but it has a flair which makes it read like fiction.

If this is what queer feminist memoir will look like in Caitlin Press’ catalogue, bring it on.

2016-07-31T12:23:08+00:00

9 Comments

  1. Naomi August 23, 2016 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Comparing this to Drunk Mom makes me want to read it – I loved Drunk Mom! And, she has a new book coming out, doesn’t she?

    • Buried In Print August 25, 2016 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      But JB’s new one is fiction. Does that make you more or less interested?

      • Naomi August 25, 2016 at 4:51 pm - Reply

        Curious might be the right word… What about you?

        • Buried In Print August 26, 2016 at 12:09 pm - Reply

          I would have said the same thing, but now I’ve checked out a summary online and I’m more than a little curious (given how much of her writing experience is based in NF, which makes me automatically draw lines between the subject of her new novel and her own life). BTW, there is a GR giveaway on right now, apparently, if you’re r-e-a-l-l-y curious.

          • Naomi August 30, 2016 at 5:02 pm - Reply

            Thanks, I didn’t know!
            After I read both Drunk Mom and then Confidence by Russell Smith, I became really curious about both of them – between the 2 of them they’ve pretty much covered their own personal lives in the books/stories/memoirs/articles they’ve written. Maybe other writers so the same thing, but it has never seemed so obvious to me before. Maybe because they are both writers, so we get twice as much of it? I wonder why it is so compelling, but it is…

  2. Melanie August 17, 2016 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    If you enjoyed this memoir, it sounds to me like you would be or are a big fan of Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, Chronology of Water, which made a big splash (it’s a pun!) when it was published. I think I would find this book a bit frustrating every time it melted away to become abstract.

    • Buried In Print August 18, 2016 at 9:28 am - Reply

      You’re right: that sounds like something I would enjoy a great deal. Onto the TBR it goes: thank you! It also brings to mind another book about swimming and excellence, and the link with creativity (but also the stress of pursuit) which I loved, Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies.

  3. Naz @ Read Diverse Books August 15, 2016 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    I’m currently trying to expand my reading of Queer literature beyond the general gay and lesbian. I am starting by venturing into stories with transgender characters and that explore trans issues, but there is so much more and I am willing to learn because sexuality is fascinating and complex. This memoir sounds amazing and so bold! So many people would be utterly baffled by the contents within, if it’s as unapologetically queer as it seems to be. But that’s exactly the kind of book I want to read!

    • Buried In Print August 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm - Reply

      That’s it exactly: it sounds like it would be a perfect candidate for your reading project, Naz. She is also very careful to acknowledge that her use of pronouns changes in the book too, in order to adjust to individuals’ identities as they change over time. So, at the beginning, one person identifies as ‘he’ but at the end, as ‘she’. (I know it’s a memoir, but I still don’t want to spoil the details!) Anyway, another reason I think you would enjoy it? It’s quite funny at times!

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