Middle School: Writing from the Landscape of the Lonely

By Shoilee Khan

Photographed by Eli DeFaria. Unsplash. Girl/Woman.

The last time I felt this alone, I was in middle school spreading a bed sheet under a straggling copse of trees during lunch break. The plan was to lay myself down on the blue-lined fabric, feel the prickle of grass beneath it and read my book. The trees were on a little mound near the side doors of the school and as my classmates passed by, they did what middle schoolers do: they pointed, they laughed, they whispered loud enough for me to hear.

Oh God, look, what a weirdo, what the hell is she doing with a bed sheet? What the hell? What the hell?

The book that I held up to the sky—my head lodged uncomfortably over bumpy ground—was by L.M. Montgomery. It could have been Emily of New Moon, or The Story Girl, or Anne of Green Gables, or Montgomery’s dark, dark diaries because in seventh grade, I ran my finger across the shelf that held her books and I consumed them, returning to the library every three days to get another and another and another.

I crouched between shelves, in stairwells, behind doors, under the covers in my bed, under the trees, reading and reading and reading to fill myself up with the stories of the girls I wanted to be, the girls I could be.

These were girls—Emily and Sara and Anne—who rose up in tall grasses, solitary figures in grand landscapes, powerful and strange, a little bit otherworldly. They were often orphaned, or abandoned, always stepping into the narrative as unwanted, despised young beings who were tolerated and dealt with, love earned, not given.

I emerged from a middle school equivalent of a grand landscape: on the first day of grade six, I crossed a field of tufty grass with my brother at my side. We approached the back of the school, the bodies of other kids appearing like bright summer paint strokes scattered across portables and pavement.

A cluster of girls—older, wearing white shorts that curved up against lean thighs—gasped when they saw me, their faces distorting in the sunlight. My white, cotton hijab was a flag bearing a message with the kind of clarity that pre-teens appreciate: Here she is! Here’s the one who doesn’t belong!

My hijab set me apart, but it couldn’t do all the transgressive work on its own. My hijab was attached to me and I must be at the root of this undesirability; why boys shuddered when they saw my hands (they were too small), why girls questioned aloud whether I was a girl or a boy (because how could they know if they couldn’t see my hair?), why I was so often picked last in gym class (what is the function of picking teams, gym teachers of the world?), why the friends I did have outgrew me and left one by one to forge the connections they needed to survive these brief, dangerous years.

Over and over, I asked myself why? Why don’t they like me? What did I do? What can I do? I must be too much or too little, too something. I must be outspoken, or bossy, or needy, or ugly, or confusing, or strange, or alien, or prideful, or possessive, or clingy, or rude, or unlikeable, or something, something. In incalculable, inexplicable ways, I was undesirable and so I was alone.

By the time I decided that I could do this—that I was bold enough to make this plan and execute it, bed sheet, book, lunch recess—I was just beginning to relish what it meant to be alone. What it meant to take a bed sheet from the linen closet at home, fold it into my backpack, place my book on top, and carry that knowledge with me on the walk to school.

It was a self-created moment of solitary rebellion. I would be alone at lunch, but I had an image of what this could be. It would be my time under the trees. I would be there and you could see me doing what I wanted to be doing and if you wanted to look, you could. You would.

———————–

The three years I spent in middle school—the three treacherous, war-like, electrically-anxious, emotionally warping years—are not special, or unusual, but the intense loneliness they cultivated in me were formative in my development as a writer.

My struggle to be wanted, to belong, to be cherished and valued and kept, created in me such a wrenching vacancy that it had to be filled. My small body and everything it held would not have survived if this terrible yearning for fulfillment did not demand a response.

Loneliness can numb you with pain. But that pain creates a vacancy that hungers for sustenance.

My sustenance came in the form of my story-girls. Emily, Sara and Anne were storytellers. Their power and confidence were rooted in an ability to engage others with the stories they told. Indeed, their stories afforded them attention and admiration and even love.

But the stories were also forms of life that they cultivated through observation, through hours spent walking alone thinking, dreaming, and conversing with the natural landscapes that rose up around them. The stories yielded themselves from spaces of isolation and then flowed with life in the company of others. They did the thinking, they did the telling, they did the writing.

I found fierce power in walking alone in the woods at lunch and across the field that took me to and from school each day. In giving names to trees, to the sun, to the moon—just as Anne did, just as Montgomery herself did—there was power and control and the fruition of illuminated life in everything I saw and touched. Dandelions were beats of sun. The sky was an escape made for human wings. Even the pavement deserved the kindness of soft steps, of a greeting.

Everything was tender and loved and there for me. I cultivated my own friendship with a circlet of fat pines. I greeted them with salaam every morning and afternoon. My small hands brushed their trunks, gripped the ridges of their tree-bodies, held onto the sturdiness of life that they offered. These tree-friends became guardians, became such solace that to this day my heart softens at their sight. I did all this as comfort, as a way of braiding the everyday miseries of middle school, the everyday effort of growing up into a rope I could climb.

In my backpack—folded over the bed sheet and tucked under my book—were the pages of a story I had written for the public library’s annual short story contest. It was a story I didn’t know how to finish. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be or what it should mean. I wrote about a girl who was twisted up and worried and angry and frustrated and feeling woeful about her friendships, about how unfair it was to be misunderstood.

I wrote about her hijab. I worried about writing about a girl and her hijab. I worried about writing about myself. So I lay on my blue-lined bed sheet and I tried to write an ending that would suffice so I could submit it that afternoon, so I could wait for my moment to arrive, for someone to unfold my pages and think that here was a girl who had written something good, very good, and there is truth in here, and good, good things and yes, this is it. This is the story we’ve been waiting for.

My story-girls told stories. They were white and ethereal, with slim ankles, and toes with nails shaped like seashells. They belonged before they didn’t belong, and they could rise up and up and up because when they told their stories, something changed: inside them, around them, through them. Pen to paper that day on the bed sheet, grass prickling, I discovered a double-loneliness. The barely perceptible realization that I didn’t fit inside the stories I loved, not in the way I had learned to imagine them. Where does a girl like me rise up? What landscape does she belong in? What stories does she tell? Who does she tell them to? Who will listen?

———————–

That day—and many times after that for the next few years—I learned to smooth my hands over the curves of loneliness. I learned to hold the thing against my body and feel its solidity like it was the trunk of a tree I could lean against, hard, sturdy, a plane of stability. Loneliness that starts young becomes a friend, but not before you’re shocked by the clutch of it. Not before you learn to sink into it and feel it rise up around you, inky and voluminous with heaping waves.

The tumultuous energy of friendships made and lost, the frantic desire to be good and whole and worthy, the confusion of desire and being desired, this is middle school, but it is also every day after that. Loneliness is not a yearning for the solidity of companionship. You may have companions—I did and I do—but still gasp from the insatiable quality of yearning. This kind of hunger will not be filled by a life partner, by a friendship, by familial relationships, or—as I’ve become more aware and increasingly afraid of—by the work that I do. Nothing that ordinary will fill that vacancy.

Loneliness is a yearning, a constant churning hunger for the thing that will fill you, quiet and complete. As long as you are hungry—even in this painful, wrenching way—you will keep looking for the thing that could feed you. And you will know that the looking is the feeding.

The looking is what happens when you’ve sunk in the landscape of the lonely. When you’re standing alone in the woods, or sitting in a parking lot trying to breathe. The looking is the creating; it’s the naming of the leaves and the greeting of the trees. It’s the packing of a bed sheet and a book and a plan. It’s the writing through it and because of it. Loneliness cultivates an awakening, a slow rise in a grassy landscape that belongs to you.


greenandgoodShoilee Khan’s fiction has appeared in a diverse collection of magazines and journals including Adbusters, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly and Other Voices. She teaches English in the School of Communication and Literary Studies department at Sheridan College, and is the host and curator of Bluegate Reading Collective, a reading series in the Peel region.

Khan is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

Danila Botha remembers Recklessness: The Art of Writing

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This past September I had the pleasure of starting my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. So far, I’ve taken an incredible poetry workshop with Dionne Brand, who’s been one of my literary heroes for years, an amazing plenary class with Michael Winter, and I’ve heard amazing guest speakers, lectures and performances.

This is also the year the program was celebrating its ten- year anniversary at IFOA, called Recklessness: the Art of Writing. Program coordinator and author Catherine Bush introduced the theme by explaining that “the energy of reckless abandonment is heedless and endlessly hopeful”.

The selection of readers, all former graduates of the program, ranged from spoken word to poetry, memoir, novels, music and plays. Each reading was unique, and intensely powerful. I was overcome by the privilege of being part of the program, and by the experience of hearing so much incredible talent on stage.

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The evening began with a rousing spoken word performance by poet and novelist Andrea Thompson. Andrea was one of the pioneers of slam poetry in Canada, and her performance referenced some of our “ancestors of verse” including Lillian Allen. Her poems also addressed issues of race, and community “God they asked for strength/each other they asked for direction” with the line, “still our history will not be undone” resonating in my mind and heart for hours.

The second reader was Liz Howard, who read from her wonderful, Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. There’s really something special about hearing one of your favourite poems read out loud, hearing the emotion and cadence and rhythms as the poet intended them. Hearing Liz read from Look Book, with its precise everyday imagery juxtaposed with heartbreak was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard. “I go back into our clapboard/house to look at the Sears/catalogue and dream I am a girl posed into happiness… somewhere my birth father is drunk and homeless/half mad when/the cops ask him for his name/he’ll say December”

Ayelet Tsabari, author of the incredible Sami Rohr Prize winning short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, read from her forthcoming memoir. With beautiful honesty and openness, Ayelet read about her travels to India in her twenties, and the journey to giving herself permission to write. She wrote about the struggle to write in English after growing up in Israel, describing her fear that the language was like a “lost genre.” Her desire to write, “to introduce chance into my life, to coax the stories into the open” was inspiring to every writer in the room.

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Mark and Marichka Marczyk met and fell in love during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in Novemeber 2013. Together they created Counting Sheep, a “guerilla folk opera” a performance that retells the Maidan revolution with spirited punk and haunting folk music, with vocals by both Mark and Marichka. Behind them were screens that projected poignant war visuals, that were made more disturbing when juxtaposed with cartoon montages, nature and children.

Multi award winning author Shani Mootoo read from her new novel in progress. It brimmed with intelligent characterization and the type of sharp humour that made her last novel, the Giller shortlisted Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab such a pleasure to read.

Poet and librettist David James Brock read from an opera designed with composer Gareth Williams as part of Breath Cycle, a concept community opera project for people with cystic fibrosis. In his sensitive and funny reading, he perfectly captured the tender and sweet experience of a teenage girl with cystic fibrosis, sneaking out to meet a boy she has a crush on.

Playwright and poet Motion performed some dynamic and compelling spoken word. Her poem, For Maya, spoke profoundly to the experience of every writer: “when Maya wrote me notes of hope/ Toni threw me rope/ and Alice covered my shoulders with a violet cloak… I found the words to bring me home… I can still write/I can still save my life”

Current MFA student and winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award Adnan Khan read a potent scene from his debut novel in progress. As in his National Magazine Award nominated essay, Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here, he addresses issues of racism with intelligence and sensitivity. His character Omar’s experiences developing feelings for a friend (whose family then treats him with mistrust and hostility) invests the audience emotionally and makes everyone want to read the rest.

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Playwright Judith Thompson wholly transformed herself into an Iraqi mother, the protagonist of the third monologue in her brilliant and chilling play, Palace of the End. Set before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the audience sat transfixed, moved to tears as the character described being tortured in front of her children.

The evening ended with a wonderful reading by the amazing Zoe Whittall, whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People was recently short listed for the Giller Prize. Zoe is one of my favourite writers, and her work has inspired me tremendously. She read a scene from the point of view of Kevin, a writer who has decided to exploit the scandal that is erupting in his town. Full of brilliant social observations, and winking references to the struggles of all writers, it was the perfect ending to an incredibly inspiring and remarkable evening.

By guest blogger Danila Botha. You can follow Dinal on Twitter @DanilaBotha

Managing Darkness by Sheniz Janmohamed

“My heart is a wave, blue and breaking on the shore” -Ciaran O’Rourke

It will take more than poetry to come to terms with the many issues facing us today, but it can certainly help ” -Paul Muldoon

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This year at IFOA, I had the formidable task of hosting four events and attending various panels. When I wasn’t hosting or attending events, I spent my time in the Author’s Lounge: snacking on cookies, laughing with authors and enjoying the view of planes coming in over the lake to land at Billy Bishop Airport. It was in the moments between readings, panels and discussions that I was able to make connections between what I was hearing and what I was feeling. In all the events I attended and participated in, I listened closely for links between writing and the writing process. What I uncovered were ways in which authors managed grief and darkness—from Ciaran O’Rourke claiming that poets and poetry lovers have a special relationship to misery to Paul Muldoon writing elegies as a way to come to terms with the loss of people in his life.

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I had the pleasure of hosting Pushing the Boundaries, a panel discussion with authors Amy Jones, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Suzana Tratnik and Charlotte Wood, which was moderated by Susan G. Cole. The topic turned to exploring ways in which fiction writers use landscape and humour as a way to hold space for darkness. Charlotte Wood spoke to the slippage of reality as vital to her story, counterpointing darkness with humour and the beauty of landscape. Amy Jones confessed that she used humour as a coping mechanism in both writing about darkness and her own experiences of darkness, and that a sense of place rooted her writing. When she was writing Sarong Party Girls, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan reminded herself that it was important to balance darkness with humour, particularly while exploring the suppression of Singlish in Singapore. Suzana Tratnik tackled darkness head-on by creating unlikeable characters, as a nod to the fact that LGBTQ+ people are not two-dimensional.

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In Stories of Redemption, another panel I was pleased to host, Darren Greer spoke to writing as redemptive, Cornelia Strube explored the ways in which children manage darkness, and Anosh Irani admitted that he had to mentally prepare himself, as a human and a writer, to write The Parcel. Irani begins his writing process by asking, “What is the wound of this character?”, and then works to expose the wound as a means to bring about healing. Maybe we need to ask ourselves what our wounds are.

It was Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth, who captured the writer’s condition best, “Is it weird that when things go wrong, I imagine writing about it?”

No, it’s not weird at all.

It’s what we do.

 

By guest blogger Sheniz Janmohamed. You can follow Sheniz on Twitter @ShenizJ

Adam Nayman looks back on Jay McInerney at IFOA

The opening passages of Jay McInerney’s new novel Bright, Precious Days describe a book lover’s fantasy version of New York as a “shining island of letters” – an overture to rival the love-letter opening voice-over of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. For McInerney’s narrator, the city is a maze of “haunted libraries and bookstores,” with phantoms ranging from Norman Mailer to Truman Capote, who can be counted on to materialize at the end of the bar (or else snort coke in the bathroom). The picture he paints is seductive, enthralling, and somehow familiar: scanning through the first chapter, a reader could be forgiven for thinking than a more appropriate title for the book would be Bright Lights, Big City.

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In town for IFOA and onstage in conversation with cultural critic Linda Barnard, McInerney –now sixty-two years old and four decades removed from the excitement and what-does-it-mean-for-American-letters topicality of his early 80s output– acknowledged the difficulties of a career cast in the shadow of an auspicious debut; if he talked a fair amount about J.D. Salinger, whose hero, Holden Caulfield, is evoked in Bright, Precious Days via a throwaway line about “the ducks in winter,” it may be because he identifies with the older author’s lopsidedly mythological reputation.

Writers and rock stars – and rock-star writers, of which McInerney was surely one circa 1984 – are often pilloried for just going out and playing the old hits, the irony being that when they present their new material, their fans often head to the concession stands. As a cool and collected veteran of a thousand reading-slash-Q-and-A events, McInerney parried questions about the impact, salutary and not, of Bright Lights, Big City on his career and its influence on the series of novels (including also Brightness Falls and The Good Life) that Bright, Precious Days concludes: a so-called “Yuppie Trilogy” (though McInerey insisted that he hates that word) following a married couple through their lives in New York, starting in the Reagan 80s and culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “It’s still tied to the dream of Bright Lights, Big City,” he said, although he added that as he’s gotten older, he’s tried to widen the scope and implications of his work to become more “inclusive.”

In Bright, Precious Days, that means generating a his-and-hers narration split between book editor Russell and ex-stockbroker Corinne, whose point of view is more fully developed than before. This question of duelling subjectivities occasioned a query from moderator Emily M. Keeler about whether or not McInerney felt as if he was being somehow presumptuous about trying to write outside his own experience, which he shrugged off quickly enough to suggest that it didn’t bother him overmuch. A more fertile line of questioning came from an audience member who wondered how he felt about having his friend and fellow former “brat packer” Bret Easton Ellis borrow certain of his characters for American Psycho and also putting McInerney in Lunar Park as a drunken, equivocating, out of control version of himself; he admitted that it was by turns alarming and flattering, and suggested that he and Ellis were still friends (and that Lunar Park was a great novel, which it is).

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As usual for events like this, McInerney was asked about his process and about any tips he had for aspiring writers, which remained safely on the short side of profundity while also ultimately being fair enough: “you have to write every day, and you can’t wait for the muse to visit you.” It’s fun to note that this advice was delivered in the same pushy, second-person voice that distinguished Bright Lights, Big City and became, in a way, its enduring gimmick – a means of address that collapsed the distance not only between author and character, but also between both parties and the reader, which in turn accounts for the close, passionate hold it retains on its audience nearly thirty-five years later.

 

By guest blogger Adam Nayman. Follow Adam on Twitter @brofromanother

Kevin Hardcastle looks back on an interview with John Metcalf at IFOA 2016

On the final day of the festival, I got to sit in on a conversation between acclaimed writer and professor Randy Boyagoda, and renowned writer, editor, and literary critic, John Metcalf. John edited my collection of stories for Biblioasis (Debris), and I managed to hand him the last loose pages for the novel we are working on for next fall. Nonetheless, I would’ve advised any serious writers and readers to get to that event and hear the truth from a man who has given his entire life to Canadian literature, and who doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions on the strengths and shortcomings of CanLit.

John Metcalf has quietly been shaping part of Canada’s literary scene for the better part of forty years now. Working with dozens of writers, especially emerging writers with a distinct voice and a focus on craft. His emphasis on quality over shine has created entire generations of excellent writers and prose stylists. Though Metcalf has no bones about telling people what books he thinks are terrible, he has undeniably contributed to our national literature by focusing intensely on what he thinks is good writing, with no concern for CanLit trends or the market at large.Metcalf John

“If you think what you’re writing is sellable, you’re demented,” said Metcalf from the stage at his IFOA event. If this seemed like a disconcerting statement, I would suggest that you think of it as a very Metcalfian way to say that a great deal of fine literature, and art, does not always land in whatever sweet spot the market is turned toward at that time. To bend to the market could spoil the very thing that makes the writing interesting, and, in some cases, difficult to sell.

What Metcalf’s approach dictates, as evidenced by his own career, is the belief that marketing and promotion should be a secondary concern when you are trying to produce the best literary work. That the focus necessary for the best kind of lines, and books, should not be polluted by the bigger picture thinking that comes with trying to eat and make it in the industry. That success may somehow come, but if you are doing something interesting, and breaking new ground, you’d be best not to hold your breath. Metcalf as editor and critic would tell a writer that they should not let “success,” or the promise of it, change their approach and efforts to the actual work. But if they stick to their craft, however unsexy that may be, they might just reshape our national literature in a much more substantial way than the pursuit of sales and casual readers. Nonetheless, even with Metcalf’s editorial focus entirely on the quality of the writing, the weight of the work, wider success has been found by many of books and authors he has worked on.

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You need only look at the writers that have had a real, sustained literary impact during or after working with Metcalf to see that he knows how to spot and develop the very best writing, and that readers will support it. A shortlist would include: Russell Smith, Kathy Page, Caroline Adderson, Steven Heighton, Andrew Pyper, Annabel Lyon, K.D. Miller, Michael Winter, Amy Jones, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Rosenblum and so on. He worked for eighteen years as editor for Porcupine’s Quill, without pay, before bringing his skills to Biblioasis (his memoir, An Aesthetic Underground, had a considerable impact on publisher Dan Wells). Metcalf’s approach has helped Biblioasis build a groundswell of success over the past few years, with a focus on quality above all, and the fruits of their labour are plain. Few Canadian publishing houses have produced such a wide range of unique and interesting titles in recent years, with all of them linked by the fact that they are damn well written, and have real literary weight and staying power. Since landing on the Giller Prize shortlist in 2010 with Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, Biblioasis has had books in contention for various major Canadian prizes. Anakana Schofield won the Amazon First Novel Award for Malarky, and was later shortlisted for the Giller for Martin John, sharing that space with Samuel Archibald’s translated collection, Arvida. Kathy Page has been on the Giller longlist twice in the past three years, and the translation of Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall was shortlisted this year. Even lowly writer, Kevin Hardcastle, won the Trillium Book Award for his Metcalf-edited title, Debris.

The interviewer at IFOA, Randy Boyagoda, was clearly very familiar with the work Metcalf has done, and Boyagoda zeroed in on one of the most overlooked things about John Metcalf. That he is a gifted writer and prose stylist, praised by the likes of Alice Munro, and that comes to bear on his editorial and critical eye. This event came on the heels of the publication of his first book in twenty-six years, The Museum at the End of the World. His skill as a writer is often overlooked amidst all of the focus on his editorial and critical volume, but it is that skill and eye that allows him to edit and critique so surgically. Metcalf spoke at length about how he brings a level of precision to his own writing, to each line, and to each word. He said that good lines “change to reader to an active participant in the story,” with the work provoking a “deliberate emotional response” from the reader. He also stated the he tries for a natural flow that borders on the poetic, and thinks that it should tend toward that in aesthetic and sound. He even told Mr. Boyagoda that he thinks about the rhythm and cadence of his writing as “being part of music.”

A highlight of the event came when Boyagoda brought up an exchange that he’d had with Metcalf before the talk. In that conversation, he has suggested that Metcalf’s latest work could have been a novel, instead of a collection of stories and novellas, and for this he apparently received a “stern warning from John” about such ideas. “If you did (suggest it should be a novel), you would be misreading,” said Metcalf. He went on to clarify that he chose the form that suited the writing, and said that “if (The Museum at the End of the World) was a novel, there would have to be a lot of padding,” and that he hoped, by writing it as needed, that there was not “a single bit of wadding” in the book. If anyone knows about Metcalf’s work in writing and developing short fiction in Canada, none of this will come as a surprise.

Above all, Metcalf has championed the short story in Canada, a form that most of his writers have excelled in. It is how he has discovered so many talented writers throughout the country, and how he often measures them against some of their peers or predecessors. The short story collection is something that is produced in Canada regularly, often the first book for a writer. But Metcalf’s short story writers are those who value the form as integral and essential, regardless of the opinions of most publishers and readers, and other foreign markets, and so it is no surprise that they are on board with his philosophies on writing, and that this has often been channelled into novels and other works that have put them more squarely in the spotlight of CanLit.

It was plain from the conversation that Metcalf has not wavered on his aesthetic approach to writing, and that he hasn’t softened on some of the lesser points of the writing life. Especially with regards to the lives and sometimes hilarious experiences of being a noted Canadian author. In his own writing, the character Robert Forde often traverses the space that a “Canadian author” occupies, a mix of inflated solemnity, genuine appreciation, achievements simultaneously celebrated and rendered invisible. Still, his dedication to those writers that strive for greatness on the page cannot be questioned. If he might brush off his impact on Canadian literature as his job, something that deserves no public praise, there are many others in the community that will not let him skate on that. Metcalf once plainly told me that I must have “sweated blood” to do some work that seemed straightforward enough on the page. I would say that the man has done the same for the most of his professional life, without public fanfare, but so many significant members of the literary community have seen that blood colour countless pages of essential Canadian literature. Irreversibly so. And they are glad for it.

 

By guest blogger Kevin Hardcastle. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KHardcase

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