Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Bronwen Wallace 1945-1989

I happened upon People You’d Trust Your Life To between high school and university. I was working full-time in a bookshop, reading diversely and enthusiastically, compulsively wandering the public library in the evenings.

People Youd Trust Wallace FirstI was scouring the “Just Returned” shelves (for P.D. James mysteries and the latest alphabetical adventure of Kinsey Millhone) and this short-story collection’s inviting tone made me curious.

The Margaret Atwood quote on the cover had some influence as well; I liked the idea of reading about people “so real you’ll think they live next door”. And the fact that a minor character in one story could be the main character of the next: that appealed greatly.

When I later discovered her poems and her thoughts on narrative form, my list of reasons to admire her work grew rapidly. My own work often ambles and circles and suddenly I understood why: a woman’s way of telling stories..

“Some of what happens in my poems is an attempt to capture how women’s conversations work, which is never linear but circles and moves around things.” (Interview with Janice Williamson)

“When two women take up their shared narration – on the bus, over coffee, on the phone – they’re already aware of the major plotlines. … So at each session they dive straight into updates, with no sign of a formal beginning. Nor are there many endings, since the story always breaks off at the point the narrator has reached in her life today. Mostly the plots consist of vivid, unresolved middles.” (Dennis Lee)

Yay for middles!

***

This biographical information has been compiled primarily from her essays and speeches and from the works of people who knew her, including Dennis Lee’s “Acts of Dwelling, Acts of Love” (Body Music*) and Janice Williamson’s interview “I couldn’t separate the landscape from how I see my poems moving” (Sounding Differences**).

“Bronwen spent all but eight years of her life in Kingston. Her mother’s family was United Empire Loyalist; her father’s had lived on the same farm for almost two hundred years.”
Dennis Lee

“…I grew up around rural people and working-class people who tell stories.”
J. Williamson Interview

“I was raised as a Protestant, so I don’t understand the Catholic confessional as institution, but when we tell people intimate things about ourselves we are in some way asking for, if not absolution, at least support, inclusion, something, a healing gesture from the other person.”
J. Williamson Interview

“I remember when I first read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook… a couple of years after the novel first came out in 1963; I was a university student at the time, with classes to attend and essays to write. But what I did was read that novel – all 600-odd pages of it – in a day and a half, stopping only to grab a sandwich or a glass of milk, mesmerized by the fact that my own thoughts and feelings were suddenly there, larger-than-life-size in the writing of a woman whose upbringing and experience had been very different from mine and who was still able to show me certain aspects of my own life as if she herself had lived it. A woman who was able, moreover, to teach me certain things about my life which I had been unable to learn simply by living it…”
“Finding Some Unsuspected Truths in Fiction”

Common Magic Wallace“In 1967 I attended my first women’s meeting…and that led me to a number of activities, ranging from disrupting the House of Commons in May 1970 over the issue of abortion legislation, to helping to found what is now Queen’s Co-op Daycare.”
“The Cuban Missile Crisis and Me”

“So when I first started to write, I wrote bad T.S. Eliot. Then in 1970 I quit school and hitchhiked around Canada. I was in a Vancouver bookstore and found a copy of [Al Purdy’s] The Cariboo Horses. I remember reading ‘the Country North of Belleville,’ and … I remember I was actually crying, because it never occurred to me that it was possible and OK to write about those people in that kind of language.”
J. Williamson Interview

“I am crying like an idiot, right there in the store, getting the book all wet, so that I have to buy it… Maudlin, of course. Sentimental as hell. I can her my old English profs sniffing as they read this.”
“Lilacs in May: A Tribute to Al Purdy”

“When I’m writing my column [on feminism in the Whig Standard] or doing public education [as a member of the Kingston Coordinating Committee against Domestic Assault on women], those are the arguments I have with others, the places where I take a certain position and I’m rhetorical and persuasive.”
J. Williamson Interview

“My sense of being involved in an extended communal conversation grows weekly as readers respond to what I say and I incorporate their ideas into my next piece and they have something to say about that….”
“Reader Response Makes the ‘Isolated’ Writer Feel Integral to Community”

“I’m creating a persona in Stubborn Particulars, a persona who is the best or bravest part of me. She does the talking and has more courage to explore things than I probably do in my everyday self.”
J. Williamson Interview

“When I think of the reader, she or he is not on this side of the poem while I’m on the other side. The reader stands beside me, and we’re reading the poem together.”  J. Williamson Interview

“When we look at what we’re up against in global terms, it sometimes seems impossible that anything can change. And yet one of the reasons we are all here today [at the keynote speech for International Women’s Week in Kingston 1989] is that we know, as individual women, in our own particular lives, that change is possible – individual change and collective change.”
“Coda: Blueprints for a Larger Life”

“Seven years ago a woman who had been my closest friend for a number of years died of cancer at thirty-three. […]We spent all of the available time we could together, and I took care of her during the last three weeks of her life. I learned an awful lot about living from her, but I also learned what I would call a feminist way of dying.”  J. Williamson Interview

External Sources:
* Dennis Lee, Body Music (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1998).
** Janice Williamson, Sounding Differences: Seventeen Conversations with Canadian Writers (TO: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

Keep Candle Wallace***

“Geography and place are extremely important to me. And how we tell the stories of our lives, how we chart our way through life, is important. Those two things are really connected for me.”
ARC Magazine Interview

“Bronwen spent all but eight years of her life in Kingston. Her mother’s family was United Empire Loyalist; her father’s had lived on the same farm for almost two hundred years. With that background, she found southeastern Ontario – the towns, the great lake, the rolling farmland – a geography of stories, from which she drew hungrily. She once referred to these stories as ‘what I have to call a country’.”
Dennis Lee

“It’s the rocks because I see the rocks as the major configuration of the landscape, and the farms are just sort of these lucky little deposits that made it, somehow.”
Morningside Interview 1986

“I suppose I’m doing the same thing that my great-great-great-great grandmother did: well, this is where I am, this is what I come to terms with. And not seeing that as a limitation that inhibits me, but as a limitation that enlarges me in some way.”
Morningside Interview 1986

“Me, I keep on living here, without meaning to.
Friends ask me why, I say light,
I say lake, I say cost of housing,
but it doesn’t add up and most of them know it.”
“Place of Origin”, Common Magic

“And to some extent, that’s what those poems are about: suddenly realizing that I’ve been looking at this landscape all along, but not really seeing it. Or not really seeing what I am in relation to it.”
Morningside Interview 1983

***

BOOKS:
Marrying into the Family (1980)
Signs of the Former Tenant (1983)
Common Magic
(1985)
The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (1987)
People You’d Trust Your Life To (1990, reprint 2001)
Keep that Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems (1991)
Arguments with the World (1992)
Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-87, Erin Mouré and Bronwen Wallace (1993)

Stubborn Particulars Wallace“If Alice Munro wrote poetry, you feel, this is what it might sound like.”
Dennis Lee

AWARDS:
She received the National Magazine Award, the Pat Lowther Award, the Du Maurier Award for Poetry, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (regional, UK).

The Bronwen Wallace Award was awarded for the first time in the poetry category on May 26th, 1994 in Kingston, Ontario. It alternates between poetry and fiction and is awarded to a Canadian writer who has not yet, by the age of 35, been published in book form.

Some of my Favourite Passages from People You’d Trust Your Life To:

Now, I think maybe you never get over anything, you just find a way of carrying it as gently as possible.
“Heart of My Heart” (Katherine)

And yet the strange thing is that Lydia doesn’t feel unhappy. It’s just that enjoyment seems too flat, too smug a word.
“Chicken ‘n’ Ribs”

…[Lydia] enters the small pause where everyone seems to be waiting for her.
“Chicken ‘n’ Ribs”

It was like I just discovered something, and, at the same time, discovered that I’d known it all along, so that it started to dawn on me that I could never stop knowing it again.
“Fashion Accents” (Brenda)

Despite my high marks and thin chest, I was destined to have as normal a life as any of us do. It was just that the way Stella talked to me made it seem suddenly possible, really possible, for me to see myself actually having such a life.
“Fashion Accents” (Brenda)

Like statistics and social theory, they have little to do with a person’s real life. The history that matters is the history we can use.
“If This is Love” (Lee)

I guess I saw her as a victim of her own life, forced into it because she hadn’t been smart enough to plan ahead. I never even considered then that she might see me in the same light.
“For Puzzled in Wisconsin” (Anna of Gwen)

Just because I understand doesn’t mean it doesn’t poke at me, niggling and sore, like the pea under all those mattresses in the fairy story.
“For Puzzled in Wisconsin” (Anna, of Peter’s lack of imagination)

She knows this is something that really happened – though she hasn’t thought of it in years – but she can’t tell now whether it was part of the dream or not. What happens next is that she puts her hand to her face and feels tears there, still wet, on her cheek.
“Back Pain” (Barbara)

Signs Foreign Tenant WallaceThough she knows it. As she knows her own smell. As she knows how to lie there, holding her child in her arms, letting her shoulders ease themselves into a position they can keep for hours if they need to, relaxing into it, trusting it to be enough. Not for good, certainly, but at least for now.
“Back Pain” (Barbara with daughter Kate)

Anger and tenderness. That she can feel so many conflicting things, that she can know so little about anything she feels and still manage to appear a competent adult. Sometimes it scares her. Knowing there’s no end to feeling like this, ever.
“An Easy Life” (Marion)

It made me queasy, like the chocolate bars I smuggled into my room and wolfed down before I fell asleep at night. It made me sick, the thought of it, the thought of married life.
“Tip of My Tongue” (Lee)

She held her right hand, back out, in front of Myrna’s face. The raised white scar ripped across it from the base of her thumb to the base of her ring finger.
“People You’d Trust Your Life To” (Gail)

…you’re a [bank] teller ‘cause you need the money, right? But these photographs are your real work. This is what you love.”
“The Scuba Diver in Repose” (Jimmy)

And I began to see that very often people were most themselves when they didn’t look it, when they were unrecognizable in all the usual ways.
“The Scuba Diver in Repose” (Jill)

And the baby lying there lighter than you’d think, given the space she’d taken up on the inside and at the same time so heavy, so much weight Lillian could barely hold on.
“Lillian on the Inside”

Lillian and the little girl on the pink street at this hour, flying towards each other, their faces holding, exactly, and only for a second, the same expressions of sorrow and amazement.
“Lillian on the Inside”

***

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