Do you ever feel the weight of your stack? Many of the books I’ve been reading have been rigorous and demanding.
Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s story of imprisonment in Sri Lanka, Marcelino Truong’s memories of coming-of-age in Vietnam between 1961 and 1963, Shirin Ebadi’s work for human rights in Iran, Solmaz Sharif’s war-soaked poems in Look, first-person accounts and fiction from Sudan: amazing stories.
Alongside, I was looking for light. And maybe a little more determinedly than usual.
In August, I devoured Negin Farsad’s How to Make White People Laugh (2016).
It’s not an uncomplicated book because although she is a comedian, she’s also overtly politically engaged. Which, for a Muslim women in the United States today, is not a comfortable position to inhabit. It’s amusing overall, and laugh-out-loud at times. I especially enjoyed the footnotes and the infographics (which aren’t usually very informative).
And I loved the way she ends it. “I refuse to believe that you’re not a part of what’s going to make this country better. I mean, come on! You!? You’re a handsome devil, a smooth and stylish heartbreaker. How could you doubt your place in changing the world? I’m charmed by the very thought of you. Because you’re human.”
Change was a theme in Scaachi Koul’s One Day
We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (2016) as well. “I don’t like change, or making big decisions. I don’t like changing my personal status quo even when my status quo isn’t comfortable,” she writes.
In fact, many of these pieces revolve around change: the way her parents adapted traditions from India to the suburbs of Toronto, Scacchi’s growing commitments to her boyfriend and her niece, and her relationship to India and ideas about arranged marriage and other traditions. Even her waistline changes, or her weight fluctuates at least. The essay about the dress and the fitting room had me chortling and snickering, groaning and wincing.
Family and one’s sense of self is at the heart of the collection and I particularly enjoyed the texts she exchanges with her father and her observations on her parents. Like: “(I am still not convinced they won’t outlive me, like lovable radioactive cockroaches or crushing personal debt.)” Or: “If you’re lucky enough to have non-abusive, non-dead parents in your twenties, it’s nice to have them in your life as allies rather than wardens.”
There were even some laughs in my fiction reading. As one would expect from Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster (2016). Which, among other amusements, offers a new take on Mother’s Day greeting cards:
“Only cheap booze and leaky condoms will get me grandchildren.”
“You see? That’s a Mother’s Day poem right there. Hallmark doesn’t know what they’re missing.”
Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement (2016) is sharply funny, snaring Owen and Lucy in a scheme to have an open marriage now, while they are happily married, in order to avoid being unhappily married sometime in the future.
“Victoria was painfully thin, and her skin was pale and already crepey under her blue eyes. She teetered around on her trademark vintage heels, which made her look like she might trip and fall straight into late middle age.”
And Terry Griggs’ The Discovery of Honey (2016) has some wry observations about marriage, too. Like: “If her marriage were a cage, she knew her way around its latch.” Although it is primarily a coming-of-age story.
Hero does not have a conventional upbringing, though. Here she is at three years old, when her aunt is helping her develop her vocabulary:
“When he spotted Viv behind the wheel, he smirked and gave her a cocky wave,. In return, she gave him a squint-eyed and mirthless look. ‘And that, Hero, is an asshole. Ass hole. A genuine, one hundred percent prick.”
Ah, I thought, now this is more like it, more nuanced, and with a bit of math thrown in for extra educational value.”
Peter Unwin’s Searching for Petronius Totem (2016) is somewhere between dark and light: deeply sad and strained but punctated with guffaws and giggles.
“’We had a poet die in this room,’ bragged Pete. ‘Choked on his own vomit’. They always say that. ‘Choked on his own vomit.’ I mean, think about it, who else’s vomit are you going to choke on, right? You never hear, like, ‘choked on someone else’s vomit.’”
It’s either a story of “masculine company with all of its ribaldry and hearty male laughter etc.” or it’s a story of “lonely unfinished guys who were going nowhere and…knew it”.
Except that, as is often the case, it’s not so much ‘either/or’ as it is ‘and’.
So there you are, left to giggle about this observation he’s made about language, but he’s still talking about choking. And vomit. Neither of which is funny.
The smallest detail is designed to expose the chaotic and messy bits of life. “A daylight moon hung in the sky just like toothpaste splatter on the bathroom mirror and everything was familiar and as well-worn as it is in a long relationship.”
The settings are as lonely as the characters. Like “…the Bite Me Bait Shop Emporium: a combination gas station, grocery store, bait shop, restaurant, dance hall, video stores, motel, and dew worm outlet, all of which were long bankrupt and now in shambles.”
And, fitting for a story about one literary artist hitting the road to look for a missing (or misplaced) “literary artist”, the commentary about the writing life is considered and incisive.
Sometimes, suddenly. “If there’s one thing a Canadian artist fears above all, it’s a dental bill, and I stood in Elaine’s living room testing the tooth with my right index finger.”
Sometimes, gradually. “The Minister of Culture and Confinement appeared on national television and announced to the country that the age-of-entitlements was over; all those starving artists who weighed one hundred and ten pounds or more, who had previously received entitlements and were not in fact medically starving and could not provide a doctor’s letter indicating what level of starvation they had attained, were not disentitled.”
The change they’ve experienced in their lives as artists has been gradual too, but now feels suddenly painful.
“The world was full of shiny vampire killers who were all blogging and writing vampire novels in their spare time and working on a script for the miniseries, I knew that.”
How are these lonely unfinished guys supposed to cope? What’s a writer after all? “One who writes. Moral arbiter of the universe.” But who needs it? “No offense but who needs four thousand lines of anything? Even coke.”
Their world is moving so fast that it’s barely recognizable
Now that I think about it, all of these books are about change. “The deal is done. We’ve been mediated, commodified, signified, digitized, deconstructed, neo-liberalized, and now we’re getting chickenized.”
Change can leave us undone. If we want to avoid being chickenized, we really do need writers.