Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.

Lo, the First Foreigner on “The Good Word” Podcast

After writing, my favourite medium is radio — no make-up, all talk. Podcasting is a lot like radio — radio without all the “ums” edited out, long-form radio where guests can really cut loose and do some damage. This is a podcast I recorded last month with Nick Galieti, a book industry guy in Utah.

We talk about my accent, my family, Mormonism, literary elitism, the Republican Party (a first for me in an interview, for sure), my marriage and the lighter side of death schtick, and the mysterious geography of the second largest country on the globe.

Nick: So how is Canada today?

JQ: Canada is — is enormous.

Nick was a fine interviewer and it turns out he used to live with my cousin-in-law when they were missionaries.

Check out the podcast if you’d like to hear some unfortunate, spontaneous voice acting, a little bit of Mormon jargon, and my six-year-old coughing through a door. Must have been a good time; my final word was “Woo hoo!”

Jennifer Quist Interview with Nick Galieti

 

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

 

For Fathers’ Day: Prose Poetry Set to Photographs by LM

Photo by LM, 2014 This is me – at this time, at this age, in this flesh – when my father looks at me, in bad weather and foreign countries and late at night.

Photo by LM, 2014

Photo by LM, 2014

I ruin pictures, telegraphing through clenched teeth.  Jenny wrecks pictures.  Everyone knows it.  Photograph me when I don’t know it, distracted, in the dark, if you can, like my father does.

He sees me “through a glass, darkly” – rough pixels of close cropping, yellow and blue indoor shadows, sharp angles of sharp angles.   The glass is dim but faintly lit with a long, blood-love – billions of eons on either side of every moment.  Enough light to reveal something of how to “know even as also I am known.”

Don’t look into each other’s eyes, but out of them.

Our Fairy Godmother is the Queen of England

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

It wouldn’t be true to say I chose an arty career just to impress my kids. But I was definitely gratified this week when, right before my kids’ eyes, the unglamorous sitting and typing I usually do was fairy-godmothered into a morning of sandstone balustrades, live harp music, and canapés garnished with purple pansies.

Me at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

Me squinting in the daylight at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

The fairy godmother who conjured this fantastic morning for my kids and me was actually the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. I’m one of the recipients of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. It’s a fabulous, generous programme and I’m thrilled and honoured to be included in it. Canada is a constitutional monarchy and some of our traditional royalist sensibilities, like art patronage, provide vital support and recognition for artists – a term it’s probably high time I stopped apologizing for applying to myself.

The award was presented to me and seven other recipients – accomplished singers, filmmakers, poets, visual artists – in a private ceremony. I was able to invite five guests so I brought my parents, my husband, and my 17-year-old and 15-year-old sons – the kids of mine least likely to turn the whole thing into a brawl.

I arrived at the Government House mansion before my family and waited in the green room until we were ushered upstairs where our guests were already seated. We all rose when the “viceregal salute” was played on the harp and Queen Elizabeth II’s local representative, the Honourable Donald Ethell (who is more like an impressive great-uncle than like the queen of anything), entered to officiate from a throne made of dark wood and green velvet.

How cool is that?

Each of the eight of us was formally presented to the gathering as our bios were read. It was the first time I’d heard the adjudicators’ remarks about my work. They said, “Her writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice.”

Thanks!

We then came forward to greet His Honour and receive a medal – and a discrete folder containing our prize money. (Apparently, Government House lacks a giant novelty-sized cheque printer.)

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

Just like the day years before when I was in this same room watching my extraordinary husband receive an award from the Department of Justice for his service as a prosecutor, the line from the bio that drew an audible murmur from the crowd was the one reporting our roster of sons. Lawyers, artists, everyone has something to say about a large young family.

Even His Honour mentioned it as he slipped my medal over my head. “With all the writing you do how did you find time to have so many children?”

“They were thrust upon me,” I said.

My mum loved that.

He recognized the pair of my boys sitting the audience. “Where are the other ones? In school?”

I shrugged. “I sure hope so.”

At the luncheon afterward, my boys didn’t fail to appreciate the never-ending platters of dainty sandwiches and sweets. No matter how nice they are, I have a hard time stomaching refreshments at events and it was good to see someone from the family eating my portion.

My sons met His Honour, Her Honour (his wife), their red-uniformed aide-de-camp, the Minister of Culture, the Mayor of the city of Red Deer, and a real live professor from the University of Alberta — the school my oldest boy will be attending in the Fall. The professor, Douglas Barbour, was there as a guest of one of the other artists but he also happened to be the instructor of the only senior-level English course I ever took.

My Family and the Lieutenant Governor

A Bit of My Family Meets the Lieutenant Governor

Several times during the boys’ fancy morning out, I overheard strangers asking them if they were proud of their mom. It can be an eye-roller question — even for me, someone who prefers the term “pleased” to “proud” since it travels without the negative baggage and misunderstandings that can come with “pride.”

People in their late teens aren’t renowned for being gracious. They don’t efface themselves like I do but they scoff and sigh and shrug. And the truth is, my accomplishments have meant the boys’ childhoods have been lean on motherly touches like homemade baking and chauffeur service to school.

I kept smiling but I braced myself as I listened to my boys make their answers at the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Awards luncheon. In replying to kind strangers who wished us nothing but the best, the boys set aside any cynicism, bitterness, or semantic fussiness to answer with pleasant enthusiasm – enthusiasm for me and the tumultuous, demanding arts career that may have affected their lives as much as mine.

“Award-winning” at the Last Minute: I Am No Paul Henderson But…

My dad has shown me enough inspirational sports movies and documentaries for me to know it’s best to wait until right before the buzzer sounds at the end of the game to score a big goal.

That’s the way the literary awards season for my debut novel has unfolded. The book was released in August 2013 and I sat here quietly and morosely ticking off each of the season’s awards as their short-lists were announced without my name on them. I got to watch kind well-wishers saying it was too bad I was overlooked and while that went a long way in buoying my spirits, it didn’t give me and my novel any grounds to be called “award-winning.”

Near the end of the season, I was named on one shortlist but, while I appreciated the honour, the award was a bad fit for me and I didn’t win it.

Since it’s Fathers Day this week, I’ll tell the rest of the story with a Canadian hockey history analogy.  Let’s just say it was the final seconds of the third period of the literary award season…

“Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell”

… when I got a phone call…

“Here’s another shot right in front of the…”

…congratulating me on winning the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award.

“Score! Henderson!”

It finally happened. I won the last award I was a contender for this year – scored on my last chance to claim the “award-winning” designation, right before the final whistle. Along with the rights to “award-winning” it comes with a prize, a medal, media coverage, and a fancy ceremony with His Honor. I’m one of eight recipients chosen from a wide range of artistic fields to get the award. I’ll find out who the rest of them are at 10am today at Government House in Edmonton.

I couldn’t be more pleased or more grateful to the board for selecting me. Yay!

 

[Thanks (and apologies) to hockey legends Paul Henderson and Foster Hewitt.]

Morbid in the Mountains

April and Chris Demes’s guitar birdhouse in Hill Spring, Alberta as posted on canadiangardening.com

My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.

This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes.  Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING.  Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.

Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life.  (Quiet simple life is a myth.  If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.)  While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other.  That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.

The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites.  It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband.  They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process.  But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.

One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it.  They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.”  There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel.  It begins in the title and never really lets up.  It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book.  Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”

Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy.  I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book.  Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy.  Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy.  Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me.  As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.

While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm.  It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.

I hate cooking more than most people.  I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it.  “Take that, cooking.  You’re gross.”  But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.

Please enjoy this photo of a butchered chicken

Maybe death is the same.  Life on Earth means eating and it means dying.  Both are messy, inevitable, and natural.  It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die.  It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.

I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring.  One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book.  It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s.  She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.

It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.