If Looks Could Kill: Why My Characters Have No Eye Colours

In preparation for an upcoming multi-author book event, I’ve been reading novels outside my usual range of Can-lit and literary fiction.  The atypical reading choices I’ve been making have been eye-opening – literally.  So far, what’s struck me most in my venture into crowd-pleasing commercial fiction is the diligent reporting of characters’ eye-colours.

Maybe everything I know is wrong but for me, all on its own, the colour of a person’s eyes determines nothing about how they experience life.  Okay, I admit my blue-eyed family may do more than the average amount of squinting in bright light.  And if I ever produce a brown-eyed child while married to my fellow blue-eyed husband, it would add some horrible drama to our home-life.  But most of the time, iris pigment is not the crucial narrative factor a random sample of Western pop-fiction might lead us to believe it must be.

Mentioning eye colour in literature can be a nice touch — like writing at length about a sunset or the ocean or whatever. (Writers can get away with a lot in the name of world-building.)  And in the right context, eye colours can be important story elements.  In Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Judy Garland closes her eyes and tests Fred Astaire’s devotion by challenging him to remember her eye colour.  Even as a kid watching the old movie on TV with my mum, I knew this was an important moment.  It advances the plot, reveals something about each of the characters, and it’s hecka sweet.  Well done, 1940s film-makers.  Look at you, making eye color genuinely relevant and letting it arise organically from the narrative.  That’s how it’s done.

The same could be said for any detailed description of characters’ looks.  Descriptions can work to propel the story, motivate actions, explain character traits.  But sometimes they’re dumped into a story apropos of nothing.  It’s as if we’re driving along an icy street and someone yanks up the parking brake and we’re flying in a circle for a moment, calling out eye and hair colours, spinning out of the true direction we’d been traveling.  Or it’s like the story has deteriorated into a junior high school Language Arts lesson and we’re now outside the narrative reading a “character sketch.”  At their best, character sketches are just exercises meant for the writer’s purposes.  They’re notebook scribbles, not even first drafts, and certainly not good reading.

I hope all of that sounds technical and reasonable.  Here’s a personal reason why I write without bothering to explain the minutiae what everyone looks like: I don’t care.  I honestly do not care what people look like.  That’s not to say I’m any less shallow than anyone else – I care far too much about how people smell – but it is to say that when I’m choosing what to pay attention to, a person’s looks aren’t all that compelling.

When I’m acting as creator of a book-world, I let everyone look the way readers want to imagine them.  That’s done by forgoing physical descriptions I don’t need for plot and thematic reasons.  Giving up the creative control that comes with dictating everyone’s colour palette is worth the sacrifice if that’s what it takes to keep physical traits from interfering with everything else I’m trying to say.

Describing a human being’s looks – even a fictitious human being’s – is actually not like describing a sunset.  It might feel idle and innocuous but it’s not.  Sunsets don’t come with politics.  People do.  Spelling out physical descriptions can introduce prejudices and tropes that distance readers.  If that’s what an author wants (and sometimes it is), carry on, I guess.  Descriptions also run the risk of fueling male gazes and other sources of negative stereotypes. They can end up assuring readers certain appearance-based prejudices are right and fair.  I have a revulsion to abetting that.

In the novel Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland deliberately withholds the information that the narrator, a woman, is overweight.  He allows the reader to discover her through what she does and says and only later introduces what she looks like.  The delayed fat-reveal is brilliant.  I was surprised at how it affected me.  I am not a fat-shamer.  I’m not fat myself (she rushed to say) but during my most intensive baby-raising years I was a bit of a chubby-chick.  It runs in my family.  I love fat people.  I understand on a deeply personal level that they are not lazy or greedy or bad.  And it meant I was shocked at how my vision of Coupland’s character unwittingly changed for the worse after I read she was fat.

To add another layer of complexity, Coupland’s narrator challenges the reader, saying we must have been able to tell she was fat before the reveal, as if something so fundamental must have been visible all along.  Of course, it wasn’t.  Her looks don’t make her any less human or relatable as a character.  But it’s only through withholding a physical description and showing us our own reactions to it that Coupland demonstrates the depths of our appearance-based prejudices and how easy it is for writers to be complicit in maintaining them.

By the way, Judy Garland’s eyes – they were brown.

 

Getting Ready for the Blue Met

I’ve booked my ticket and my cheap but not inexpensive hotel room and I’m all set to fly to Montreal in four weeks for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.  It’ll be my first time in Montreal outside the airport or the freeway and my first visit to a literary festival in any capacity.  In keeping with my out-of-step career path, at my first literary festival I’ll be appearing as an author with three spots on the programme.  As always, I’m humble and happy to be included in such a great event — and glad everyone’s cool with me performing only in English.

Link to the festival programme 

What Do Anime Heroines and Scottish-Canadian Arts Chicks Have in Common?

While eavesdropping on a Twitter conversation, I wound up reading an article denouncing white women who take up belly dancing.  The author says it’s an ignorant appropriation of Arab culture and the equivalent of white people performing in “brownface.”

The article took me by surprise.  I’d never thought about the racial politics of belly dancing.  That says something about the privileged position from which I experience the array of cultures in the pluralistic Canadian society in which I’ve always lived.  I’m someone who — despite my gender, low artsy income, and, strangely enough, my height — scores fairly high on privilege-o-meters.  I know that and I don’t argue when someone with an ethnicity other than my own tells me what looks to me like a well-meant tribute is actually unfair cultural appropriation.  I defer to them completely.  There’s been a lot of huffy Internet backlash against the article.  I will not add anything to that.  The role of humble, awestruck observer of diversity suits me just fine.

I felt a little chastened by the article anyway.  To insulate myself from my white imperialist self-loathing I went to my closet and reached for something colourful from my own culture.

Don’t be fooled by the Swedish surname I use now.  Quist is my husband’s family name.  I like it.  It works well for me.  The Q is distinctive, the name is short and Google-friendly.  Though, when people ask me how it’s pronounced I have got to stop answering, “Phonetically.”

My real name, my ethnic name, my blood name is MacKenzie.  It’s a name so Scottish it verges on caricature.  In my genealogy, I can trace my roots back to this clan three different ways.  No matter how generic it is, I love my family name.

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MacKenzie tartan – not just for kawaii school girls, not just for Scottish chicks

My Mister loves it too.  His dad lived in Scotland for two years before he raised a family of Anglo-Swedish Mc-wannabe Canadians (love that pluralism).  Some of my siblings-in-law can highland fling and play a few bagpipe tunes.  Maybe it’s because I’ve got nothing to prove that I never learned to do either of those things.  I don’t do things because they’re Scottish.  Things are Scottish because I do them.

I was touched anyway when my husband gave me the gift of a kilted skirt (a “kilt” is strictly menswear) in my family’s tartan.  It’s beautiful, dark green, heavy with pleats, handmade in Cape Breton, a symbol of my ancestors’ passion for ticking off and freaking out the English.

Even before I had a sweetie-pie to bring me authentic tartans, I’d been wearing cheap, chain store versions of dark green kilted skirts my whole life. They’re not hard to find.  Unlike belly dancer outfits, kilted skirts are everywhere.  Right now there are probably thousands and thousands of non-Scottish girls wearing them as school uniforms all over the world.  And that makes my relationship with my skirt a little complicated.

I wore it yesterday.  I wore it even though I was a little nervous someone might assume I was wearing it not as a grown up Scottish woman but as an old otaku tart making a pathetic attempt to appropriate the culture of East Asian school girls.  When my friends’ 15-year-old anime loving daughter saw my skirt she admired it — a lot.  It didn’t matter that it’s a stodgy knee-length and closed with a pin bearing my oh-so-Euro family crest.  The unintended connection to kawaii Asian students was not lost on her.

Wait.  Here is where I do not descend into a snarky denouncement of non-Scots wearing tartans and transforming an emblem of my culture into something vaguely awkward for me.  Here is where I will not complain the way I used to groan and barely restrain myself from going all highlander on my father-in-law when he’d strut around bawling in that horrible fake brogue of his.  My culture created this situation ourselves.  We can’t colonize – both literally and figuratively – other nations and then complain when their use of our artifacts makes us look silly.

South Korean schoolgirls used to wear han bok – flowing, bell-shaped, colourful dresses — to school until their region got entangled with the West and they eventually wound up dressed in the tartan skirts of our schools uniforms.  If white belly dancers got dressed up and performed out of a desperate sense that the only way to prosper and find a voice in the world was to do so, their position would be different.  It wouldn’t be so privileged.  It would be more like the position of the people who first brought my skirt into their schools in the last half of the twentieth century, trying to emulate the global power and wealth of the empires bearing down on them at the time.

It’s probably fitting that, woven within my lovely kilted skirt, there’s a bit of a hairshirt – a bit of mortification for me to bear in behalf of my imperialist ancestors, a bit of ambivalence about a culture that is flawed but still precious enough to its heirs to be worth remembering and preserving.  Fortunately for all of us, love and shame have never been mutually exclusive.

So scoff at me and my apparent lack of self-awareness, walking around at my age posing as a Japanese high schooler.  There’s a bit of me that knows I deserve the scorn, and another piece of me that can still enjoy what’s beautiful about the only people I can call my own.

Heart and Lip: Intellectual Prowess and the Obnoxious Dork

“Which one is yours?” the nice lady sitting beside me in the spectator seats at the junior high school asked.

“The obnoxious one,” I answered.

She nodded and laughed a little, knowing exactly which kid I meant.

Reach for the Top in the 1980s

We were at the provincial “Reach for the Top” tournament.  As a kid, I’d seen competitions like this one on TV during long, cold, boring afternoons in the days when we only had three channels to watch. It’s a trivia contest for school kids – kind of like Jeopardy only the contestants give their answers in the form of an answer.  Like lots of the stuff on Canadian TV in those days, it seemed to me like another weird Ontario-thing.

Reach for the Top doesn’t exist as a television show anymore but thanks to the dedication of teachers in our area, there’s an untelevised league of it operating in my kids’ schools.  We’ve been involved with it for four years, ever since one of my sons took the local programme by storm.

I admire my son’s smarts but I don’t think he’s always the most knowledgeable kid on his team.  He is, however, the only one who nearly got fouled out for heckling the quiz mistress.  He is also the one who answers more questions than anyone else.  He likes to be right but being wrong isn’t a disaster for him.  The reward of winning makes the occasional “that is incorrect” worth the risk.  In other words, he dominates Reach for the Top out of sheer nerve.

It’s well-known that the sports trivia sections of Reach for the Top matches are usually wash-outs – those and the classic rock sections.  (“Trooper!” I once heard a parent rave.  “Come on. I can’t believe they couldn’t get Trooper.”)  When the topic is sports, the quiz master usually just reads through the questions while the kids wait for the time to run out.

But since points aren’t deducted for giving wrong answers, my kid buzzes in and tries to guess the sports questions anyway, again, out of sheer nerve.  It paid off most spectacularly the time the question asked for the number on Frank Mahovlich’s hockey sweater.

Like a random number generator in a hoodie, my kid picked a value between one and ninety-eight.

“27.”

“That is correct.”

“What?!”

It was unholy.

That match – the one with the hockey sweater divination – was the only time our team beat the team captained by our arch Nemesis, an über-dork named Angus.  In terms of high school competitions, it was an epic moment.  If the Reach for the Top team was the football team there would have been yelling and hugging, water bottles emptied over people’s heads, my kid getting cheered and mauled by dozens of people.  As it was, there was some excited whispering.  I admit I applauded — high and fast, fingers splayed like Snow White — in spite of all the stink-eye.

If my boy was a football quarterback instead of a trivia jock, maybe he would have spent his high school career being celebrated for playing his chosen game with such courage and self-confidence – so much of what is referred to in sports as “heart.”  It’s the willingness to take risks and use raw energy and enthusiasm to out-perform what ought to be expected of our natural talents.

But “heart” is for physical contests.  In the sit-down, four-eyed, noisy-spectators-will-be-ejected world of trivia contests, my kid’s “heart” is called “lip.”  Even I do it when I tell the other parents my kid is the obnoxious one instead of describing him as the gutsy one — the heroic one.  Sure, he doesn’t deserve to win any sportsmanship awards.  But maybe someone could give him a break and acknowledge that his headlong approach to his game is not a character flaw he needs to apologize for but a gift.  And the person who needs to do that first is probably me.

Go Rams!

Anthologies Are the Friendliest Literary Form

My Name — Among Way Cooler People’s — on the Back Cover of “40 Below”

Last year, a piece of my short non-fiction was included in 40 Below: Edmonton’s Anthology of Winter.  As always, I was thrilled to get the gig.  The book was released three months after my novel’s debut and it turns out to be the gig that keeps on giving.  It helped introduce me — a little hick in the sticks — to the big city Edmonton literary scene.  It got me invited to some cool events (most of which I couldn’t attend because of the winter weather — is that irony?) and also got me a slot in the podcast series produced to accompany the anthology.  Here’s a link to me and editor/writer/nice guy Jason Lee Norman celebrating the book writer-style — locked in a little room.

Jennifer Quist’s 40 Below Interview and Reading

Love and the Library

My husband got me chocolates just like I ordered for Valentines Day today. And, by playing muse to my novel’s “Brigs,” he also indirectly got me this: a recommendation from the Edmonton Public Library’s “Great Stuff” curator, Diego Ibarra. See?

Really needed that today.  Thanks, fellas.

Nothing Comes from Nothing: Reading Eric Freeze’s “Dominant Traits”

Dominant Traits, by fellow “Ridgeview” High School Alumnus, Eric Freeze

I never read faster than when I’ve found a short book written by someone I know.  It’s especially true when that short book by someone I know is also a good book.

That’s the experience I had blazing through Dominant Traits, a collection of short stories by Eric Freeze.  Eric and I went to the same high school – the one I came to in grade eleven and into which I never became fully socially integrated.  He was in the show-choir/theatre scene and I was an egghead poor-girl whose only extra-curricular pursuit was a part-time job.  We were not close.  But in a small school where everyone had some knowledge and experience with each other, Eric and I had good will between us.

This good will, our high school, writing fiction, and seeing it published aren’t the only things Eric and I share.  We have both set stories in the same southern Alberta town where we went to school, the place that inspires his “Ridgeview.”  We both write fiction deeply rooted in real life.  I read his collected stories out of sequence and noticed real life first in “A Prayer for the Cosmos” when the narrator refers to an infamous pep rally where dear old Ridgeview High School made a casual racial slur against an exchange student basketball star playing for a rival school.  Something like that really happened.

Then there was the story about the awkward white rural kid who thought of himself as a rapper.  When I first came to Ridgeview, I assumed this kid must have been playing a character, trying to be funny.  He wasn’t.  It was excruciatingly embarrassing.  I tried to ignore him.  I guess it worked.  I hadn’t thought about him for decades.  He’s probably grown up and put his rapper days behind him.  But then, in Eric’s “Francis the Giant” story, there he is again, not grown up at all, falling down on-stage in this MC Hammer act, and I can’t look away from him.  Eric’s fiction folded the kid’s story into the accordion fan I hadn’t realized it had always been for me.  There was the real kid, his act, my initial confusion about the act, the fictional character arising from the kid, and then the hallucinated transformation the character makes within the story, changing from a scrawny teenager to a giant, leech-flinging monster.  We are everyone around us.  We’re folded into accordion fans with everyone we know.  Their stories are rightfully ours, the opposite sides of our own folded surfaces.

“He’s doing it,” I thought as Eric’s stories started to bend into my own experiences.

I do it too.  Last night, at a literary event in Edmonton, I read one of the chapters from my novel that is crafted very much like an event from my family’s real story.  Afterwards, as I signed her book, a nice lady asked if the book was fiction or not.  I grinned, “Yeah, it’s fiction.  But it cheats.”  She seemed pleased.  Readers love cheating.

Though I’ve been on the giving end – force-feeding my family, friends, and high school classmates doses of our histories, fictionalized, printed, bound between the brittle, narrow margins of my perspective — I don’t think I’d ever been on the receiving end of this kind of storytelling in so direct a way until I read Eric’s book.  Seeing it from the other side had a much greater impact on me than I expected.  I didn’t just smirk knowingly and say, “Ah, yes, it’s this.”  Instead, my heart lurched inside me when I realized Eric’s “Torched” – a piece about a roofing crew grappling with the tenuous mortality of men early in adulthood — includes the story of a boy from our school who suffered an oddball head injury riding a bike in the dark.  Even though he seemed to recover from the accident, he suddenly died from the injury a few years later.  It’s weird but true.  There’s a monument to it in Eric’s book.

It was good for me to read Dominant Traits.  It ambushed me even after a mutual friend, the eye on the cover, and my cursory grasp of ancient Ridgeview gossip warned me the book was closely connected to things I had seen and heard for myself.  Reading it helped me consider my own writing in a new way, with greater empathy, with more tenderness and patience for what I demand of everyone.

Here was another writer not only playing my game but playing much of it on the same field – the same place and time.  Sure, his “Ridgeview” is different from mine.  He lived there as an insider (compared to me, anyways) and as a boy.  Unlike Eric, I would probably never attempt a story about cattle castration.  That is not my Ridgeview.  But I knew the convenience store, the comically wide roads, even the squeak of the gym floor, though I usually only heard it through closed doors.

Closed doors – that brings me to the point where I prove I don’t give old high school classmates free passes in book reviews.  The collection, in many ways, is men’s fiction — if the prevailing literary privilege will allow me to talk of such a thing.  It’s smitten with the male problem of imagining erections and ejaculations are far more salient in the world outside their own pants than they actually are.  The other half of humanity rolls its eyes, scoots to the cold side of the bed, and tells those Very Important erections to just go to sleep, for crying out loud.  I’d like to see a man my age write a meaningful, earnest, literary love story without any penises in it.  I’m not protesting out of stodginess.  I’m protesting because I’m tired and disappointed with male (and often female) writers taking the slimy, easy shortcut to writing about intimacy.  Work at sex and intimacy in a different medium once in a while, fellas.  Feel free to prove me wrong with examples in the comments.

In the age of “post-fiction,” writing from life is accepted and understood, sometimes preferred.  Maybe it’s not considered cheating anymore.  I don’t believe in creation ex nihilo – that everything we know must have been created by some kind of magic out of emptiness.  I don’t believe in it physically or artistically.  Ex nihilo nihil fit.  I’d wager Eric Freeze doesn’t believe in it either.  Everything created is organized out of pieces of things that are here already – Big Bangs exploding whenever someone or something comes crashing through us.