This bundle of books, with the Canadian Reading Challenge in mind (this, the eleventh year, hosted by The Indextrious Reader, with sign-ups for the twelfth year now posted), was particularly delectable. I love the idea of telling the story of a life in a way that feels true, whether that means facts or fictions or both intertwined. These six books range from the more-to-the-less truthful: each tells the story of a Canadian life.
Velma Demerson’s Incorrigible (2004)
“The lights are left on in our cells although there’s nothing to read and nothing to do. Eventually, the lights go off. It’s not completely dark, there’s some light from the hall. During the night I hear the soft steps of a matron passing through with her flashlight, casting the beams quickly over the sleepless women.”
It sounds like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s set in the future rather than in the past. And it’s not fiction, but a memoir, a slim volume in the Life Writing series by Wilfrid Laurier University Press (which landed on my reading radar because I enjoyed Magie Dominic’s The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel).
Violet Demerson was institutionalized in 1939 because she was in a relationship with a Chinese man (which resulted in the birth of their son, born in the Mercer Reformatory for Females. She was eighteen years old and her parents had been divorced for some time; her father travelled halfway across the country to arrange for her sentence and committal and her mother did not oppose the action (and stopped visiting her daughter after Velma made it clear that she had no intentions of disowning their child).
Violet’s story is chilling, but within the context of the other stories she shares, which she learned from the other women and girls who were also confined to, first, the Belmont Home (ostensibly a “refuge” rather than a prison) and, then, later the Mercer, this is a truly horrifying scene.
David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter (2018)
Inevitably this book is being compared to Te-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), which was written in the form of a letter to his son, whereas David Chariandy is ostensibly writing a letter to his daughter. And there are similarities: both can be read in a single sitting, both feel almost painfully tender in their parent-y-ness, and both reach backwards to ancestors and forwards to future dreams.
But I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You stems from an incident in a Toronto eatery, when the author was sharing a meal with his then-three-year-old daughter, and confronted by a kindly-but-cruelly expressed racist comment, to which he responded – in that moment – with silence. The impetus for Coates’ and Chariandry seem quite different, one -seemingly a response to overt American violence and the other to a peculiarly subtle but vicious Canadian racism – but both books address the kind of hatred which puts the children of these fathers at risk.
Chariandy also discusses his discovery of James Baldwin in the library: “I didn’t even find myself a chair; I sat right there on the worn carpet in the stacks, mesmerized by what and how he wrote.” And his gratitude at having been able to mend some earlier silences with language and literature: “In modest ways, through my efforts both as a teacher and especially as a writer, I have managed, at least at times, to answer back in terms of my choosing to the voices that once paralyzed me with doubt.”
He also observes parallels with the treatment of his ancestors and his family members with the experienced of other maligned groups, including indigenous peoples, which expands the reach of this volume in a simple but powerful way, recognizing those “people who were violently exploited and never offered the illusion of automatic belonging here, but who have survived all the same, and have come to sing and love profoundly and to contribute immeasurably to the very nations that have failed to see them.”
Initially when I picked up this book, I picked it up with the idea that it was a story I should read and understand; upon reading, I discovered it was a beautifully crafted piece, and I read on with pleasure (often smiling and, once, even laughing aloud).
Tony Miller’s Daddy Hall: A Biography in 80 Linocuts (2017)
Brief introductions situate the reader succinctly. First, George Walker sketches the history of the linocut (introduced by the German expressionists in the early 20th century) and then Tony Miller’s history as an artist, beginning with classes at H.B. Beal in London and moving through years at OCAD, but also stretching back ancestrally, to the inspiration for this work, his connection to Daddy Hall (1783-1900), through his great-great grandfathers who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, terminating their journey in Sydenham (present-day Owen Sound).
Next, George Elliott Clarke explains Daddy Hall’s community connections, how he “be part-Native, part-Nubian – if we accept his bio at face value”. And why not? Clarke asks. Why not believe that his mother was an escaped British-American slave and his father a Mohawk? It does make for a good story. Or, in this case, for good pictures.
After we have moved through the story told with linocuts, Tom Smart presents a short afterword, which summarizes the artwork. “Here is what you have read: A mythic story of a man of great strength and endurance who survived hardships that seemed limitless, indescrible.” This story about freedom – told without words – is truly remarkable.
Jason Dickson’s Glenn Piano by Gladys Priddis (2010)
Once, Gladys and her husband, Jonathan, walked along the Thames River pathways in London, Ontario; they visited Springbank Park as it was being built. There is a love story here.
“For like a lake, the heart too moves with creatures of its own. It makes in itself the inventory of a life. And like a bird coming up for air, it longs to throw itself into the open. Is this longing not the exact opposite of stillness?”
But the love story is unpredictable. Readers have a copy of a photograph with a historical plaque near a waterway, but one part of the story is written in a delicate script, so there is a twinned sense of fact and fiction: history and imagination. “I saw things in the dark that were not imaginable in the day, parts of my life told and retold, things I had forgotten.”
Readers aren’t sure where the line between what is real and what is possible in this slim volume or, even, if it is a line at all. Which is all the more unsettling as things sway from soft and sad, to distressing and disorienting.
Joseph Boyden’s Wenjack (2016)
Necessarily short, because Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack died when he was eleven years old; necessarily fiction because one has to imagine and assemble the events which immediately preceded his death.
When he was nine years old, Chanie was taken from his home in Ogoki Post, Northern Ontario in 1964 and installed in Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, in Kenora. He died trying to return to his home, having escaped from the school with two friends. Years later, his death forced a public inquiry into the residential school system, although it would take another thirty years for the last school’s doors to be finally and permanently closed (in 1996).
“Gimik-wenden-ina? Do you remember? I remember, me.” The indigenous language is not set apart from the text in italics, rather incorporated as a vital part of the storytelling, with the context relaying the meaning and the syntax only occasionally erupting into something other than subject-verb-object telling. This straightforward style suits the project, avoiding sentimentality without sacrificing tenderness.
The story is divided into twelve short segments, which read like prose poems, and which are titled for the images on the cover of the book which is small enough to nestle into your palms, just enough room for your hands to cup it and your thumbs to hook around and hold it snug, like a prayer book. Afterwards, there is a single image reproduced, a photograph, which looks as though its edges are worn, creased in places, cherished. If this image was on the cover, you would have read the book for his smile alone.
Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry Saturday 14 February 2009, New York (2009)
Once, I bought this for a co-worker when she was retiring; she was kinda artsy, loved to read, and had lived in the small shore home for ages, sharing it with two husbands and raising her daughter, so I thought she would like the idea of a collection of objects gathered together to sum up a life. She thought it was a little weird that I was giving her an auction catalogue to mark the occasion and it is a little weird: she may have thought it was even weirder when she finally read it and realized that it was actually a made-up auction catalogue.
But the blurb from Maira Kalman on the back cover sums it up beautifully for me: “Leanne Shapton’s splendid book is completely sensational. I am nuts about it. This is the stuff of life, literally. Oh, love. Oh, despair. Oh, stolen salt shakers.”
And on what items would I have bid on? The orange socks with the homemade card, the paperback edition of Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf with the handwritten letter inside, the two framed pet photographs, the small handwritten book of recipes given to Lenore by her maternal grandmother, and the small spiral notebook in Lot 1103. What I would not bid on? The stuffed squirrel.