In which there is talk of true stories and stories that fall between the cracks of imagined facts and probabilities.
Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life (2017)
Arranged as though composed over a twelve-month period, this would seem to be the perfect book to read slowly, meditatively. To allow the pages to unfold over the course of a year, with time to reflect and ponder. I read it in two afternoons. Instead of one more chapter, I was whispering “one more month”. It was too much and, yet, it was just right. I remember reading Kyo Maclear’s debut novel, The Letter Opener, with the same enthusiasm.
This, however, is a work which would reward a closer read. The sense that the author’s thinking has expanded and changed over the course of her writing urges me to collect a copy with plans to read more slowly, more mindfully. It could be that birders or artists would respond most viscerally to her work. But the title not only beckons to those people. And perhaps that’s what drew me in most fiercely: this broad and insistent invitation.
“It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as ‘anticipatory grief’, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepidatory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me, but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.”
Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy’s Survival Guide (2016)
This is not the first of Ivan Coyote’s collections I’ve read; in fact, I’ve read so many that I expected to cherry-pick a few pieces from their latest, inspired by their recent listing for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Non-Fiction (Kyo Maclear’s book is also on this shortlist) but not committed to a thorough reading. And, then, I read every one of them.
True, the format is inviting, with all these vintage images and text-boxes, both in the margins and between pieces (although just for show – the bicycle in the essay doesn’t look anything like the illustration chosen). But, really, it’s Ivan Coyote’s style of storytelling. And even though they make it look easy, I suspect that these pieces are finely honed, in private and in public, carefully sculpted to appear effortless.
“Tomboy thrums in your heart. It can’t be hidden by a haircut. It’s not about nail polish or not. It’s running right now in your veins. If it is in you, you already know. Tomboy blood is so much bigger than the outside of you.”
Much of what they say is simple and straightforward. Some of it seems intimate and revealing, and some of it makes me chuckle and snicker, sometimes simply smile. Twice, they made me cry here. Hard. Because just as they could imagine how desperately some readers might need to hear some simple and straightforward truths, I could imagine those readers too. Maybe I am one of those readers.
[Note: Thanks to roughghosts for the reminder to use they/their, rather than she/her, when referring to Ivan Coyote and their work. I have edited accordingly. See comment below.]
Clem and Olivier Martini’s The Unravelling (2016)
When you hold this off-size book in your hands, it completely fills your palms and spills over their edges. This is the kind of emotional and dramatic story which is difficult to contain. It is enduringly and strangely uncomfortable even in its compactness, just as the story of the Martini family’s struggles with healthcare is plainly awkward.
Not only the story of two brothers (Clem, who writes, and Olivier who draws), but also the story of their mother (who has been the primary caregiver for Olivier, while he has been living with schizophrenia) and her experience with dementia, and also the story of other family members who are required to fill the gaps which one might think would be filled by medical and social services in Canada.
“The truth is that it more closely resembles the flawed, wonky structures generated by the spiders given LSD during lab experiments in the sixties than the glorious, dew-dappled symmetry you might spy hanging from some branches on an early morning walk. This web is fashioned as much from good intentions and competencies as is from compensation, mistakes, and frailties. It sustains and supports, but only barely. Snap a single thread and everything tumbles away.”
Despite this dew-dappled image, this is not a kumbaya story; The Unravelling is a call to action. “Frankly I say screw making nice with schizophrenia. I am angry at schizophrenia.I am furious at the pain and damage it causes. I don’t want to ‘embrace’ schizophrenia – a disorder that killed one brother and torments another – I want to see it cured.” Plainspoken and deliberate, the brothers speak directly and passionately about the need for change.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost (2017)
This collection, part prose and part poetry, pleases the part of my reading brain that simply wants another story.
Simultaneously, it makes me step back from the page – tilting my head at it, trying to decipher whether all the “I”s are the author’s experience, itching to categorize each piece as fact or fiction.
Ultimately, I dive in – not caring about boundaries and simply eager for “more”.
Islands of Decolonial Love provoked the same kind of curiosity, and I am pleased that I bought a copy of this one, so that I could take my time, read a piece (or two, or four) at a time, then let the ideas in them swirl in my mind until they had stilled enough to read onwards.
This kind of work makes you laugh at the idea that anyone could ever separate the personal and the political.
This kind of work reminds you that laughter can be a powerful provocation for change.
“We know what your people think about us. We know you feel pity because the largst city in the country is on top of us, thrusting in and out like it’s our benevolent Wiindigo, fucking us in time to our screams like it’s death metal. Like our loss is tragic and we are small people. Like golf courses and dreamcatchers and selling out are all we have left.”
Like that. Indeed.
Which of these do you think would be the best match for you? Or have you already read some/one?