Destination: Leacock Summer Festival

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I’m at home this week, taking loved ones to dentist appointments, getting caught up on laundry, picking raspberries and catching Pokemon with my kids before heading off on another trip, this time a work trip to Orillia, Ontario, Can-Lit’s centre for humor writing at the Leacock Museum. Come see me Saturday, July 23 at 8pm. Apart from the reading, I’m still not sure what I’ll say but I do promise it will be in glorious English.

Full schedule of events available here.

An Interview With the AML

amlEarlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.

外国人去过北京 or, Mute Dragon and Stuttering Phoenix Have No Idea How to Relax

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I have trouble writing the monuments of my life. This summer has been rife with them. In June I attended the birth of my sister’s second-born, my own second-born’s high school graduation, and the veterinary clinic where we signed off on ending the suffering of the nasty little birdie who’d been our pet for over six years. All of it happened without much written comment from me. That will come later, in small ways, image by image as I properly take it in and bleed it out. July began with another monument, which I will post pictures of here at the very least, though I sense it will take years and years to write the whole of it.

My husband and I have just returned from China. Midway through our tour of Beijing, I posted the picture above, captioning it, “The Great Wall 长城, like everything about this place, is both far more amazing and more difficult up close.” A friend asked what I meant by difficult. Well, biased by childhood field trips to stone parapets of British forts made into National Parks in Maritime Canada, I expected the Great Wall to be something like a raised walking trail—all the dangerous parts closed off or refitted to modern standards. But the Beijing section of the wall runs along the top of a mountain range, like a spine on a rippling dragon’s back. The wall is made of stones and brick, dropping off in steep slopes, rising in uneven flights of stairs. In places,metal handrails have been added, long rusted red. Visiting the wall is not a walk but a hike, a climb. Despite the difficulty, it is crowded with people, all kinds of people: foreign athletes showing off their soccer moves, Chinese kids striking Kung Fu poses for their parents’ cameras, tough Chinese grannies unpacking bag lunches, and us, a blond waiguoren couple.

This has been my experience with everything Chinese. It is all more complicated and more difficult than anyone can tell looking at it from afar. The complexity is part of what makes

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The Temple of Heaven, where I might have cried a little

it beautiful almost to the point of surreality. My contact with it humbles and chastises me—at times, punishes me–but I keep following after it anyway. Every time I think about setting it aside, something pulls me back. I can’t turn around in China without crashing face-to-face into myself, even while there is nothing there at all like myself. It may be a place to lose myself in order to find myself.

In Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, towers and temples and shops. We cleared security and stood in Tiananmen Square, but didn’t queue for the two hours in the hot sun it would have taken to get into Mao’s tomb to see his body lying in a crystal coffin. We did go into The Underground Palace, an empty tomb of a Ming emperor and his two empresses. Their bodies had been removed and destroyed by the Red Guard decades ago. On our way inside, a beautiful princess-girl, just a little younger than the Red Guard would have been when they came here, approached me with delicate English. “Excuse me, would you like to take a picture with me?” She answered when I called her 妹妹 meimei, little sister.

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At Mao’s Tomb in Tiananmen Square

Maybe it sounds forced or phony but believe me when I say the best part of our tour of China was the people, the ones I spoke to and the ones I didn’t. I liked the way, instead of being equipped with a whistle, the boat at the Summer Palace had a loud speaker the captain used to call out scoldings to the smaller boats drifting into his path as we chugged across the lake. I liked the way our cab driver changed his manner of speech when he pronounced the name Mao Zedong—something between esteem and perhaps sarcasm, impossible to tell, so perfect, so Chinese. At night, along the old city moat not far from our hotel, people gathered to sing and dance until the police sent them home at 10pm. Some of them danced in unison, through steps they came together to learn and practice even when the nights were hot and smoggy. We sat on the edges of the patios, with the dancers’ pet dogs and the men with their t-shirts rolled up over their bellies, all of them smoking like it’s 1977, and we watched.

Speaking and understanding Chinese in a classroom is something I can do with hours of careful preparation. Speaking and understanding Chinese in the streets is different. In our

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Beijing Nightlife on the Moat

native language, my husband and I are professional communicators—people paid and petted for our skills in verbal and written expression. In China, my husband is illiterate and has a vocabulary limited to “thank you, hello, right, Canadian.” He was mistaken for Russian, which he also does not speak. But he loves me and came on a trip where he became the big, quiet bodyguard the cab driver was glancing at in the rear-view mirror, asking me what’s wrong with him. He could have booked a vacation on nearly any beach in this world, but instead he came to Beijing—to the heat and smog and smell—so I could grow a little.

As for me, I could barely read and every verbal interaction I had was a smoking wreck. There was a lot of me saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” a lot of helpful Chinese restating of what I’d just tried to say only with the better vocabulary and pronunciation. Every time I was corrected, I said thank you because I was thankful. I didn’t go to China to leave just as stupid as I arrived. There were also kind compliments, encouragement, surprised nods whenever I managed to order rice without sounding like a beggar. Back at the hotel, I’d lay awake going over everything I’d said, recognizing mistakes too late, wishing I’d done better. And then it’d all flip inside out and I’d be shaking my exhausted husband, raving, “I used the Chinese! I did it. Did you hear me?”

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Husby and  獬豸xiezhi, good-lookin’ pair, hardly anyone can say they’re as tall as a Chinese unicorn.

Late in the afternoon, after the Great Wall, our tour guide took us to The Sacred Way, a lavish imperial graveyard we had to swipe our thumbprints to get into. It was a long flagstone avenue lined with trees full of magpies, and old statues of standing and crouching animals. Our guide brought us to the Chinese unicorn, the symbol of law and judiciary, a respectful acknowledgement of my husband’s true identity as an erudite member of the justice system in our home country. We stopped to take this picture, long enough for China to make one more tug at me. A swallow-tail butterfly flitted out of a hedge and alighted on the top of my foot. On the stones of The Sacred Way, I stood still and waited as the creature fanned its wings.

On the Bill at the Leacock Festival, or, “Sistering” is Officially Funny

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In tenth grade English class, we were told that Can-Lit can be funny and our teacher proved it by assigning “The Man in Asbestos” by Stephen Leacock. So it is with a lovely sense of full-circularity that I will be appearing at the Leacock Summer Festival this July to read from Sistering as part of an event on women as the authors and subjects of humor writing. Very pleased. If you’re in Orillia, Ontario on July 23 at 8pm, do come see us.

Bad, Honest Advice on How to Write as a Young Parent

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This 25 year old mother of two is me. Lazy butt had written precisely zero novels.

Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.

  • Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
  • Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time  alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
  • Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
  • Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
  • Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
  • Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
  • Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
  • Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
  • Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
  • Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
  • Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.

And that is the awful truth of how I do it.

 

 

Reviewing in The Puritan

I’m not the uber-reader it’s sometimes assumed a writer and, heck, a student of literature must be. I love books but I’m slow and busy and sleepy. What I love more than reading books is reviewing them. It’s more fun than reading and easier than writing new material–the best of both worlds.

Please enjoy this review I did this spring for Rhonda Douglas’s short story collection Welcome to the Circus, published by Calgary’s Freehand Books. See, even I can do it. Here’s hoping it inspires people everywhere to hop on their bikes and review some books themselves.

Click here to read the review in the Ottawa-based literary magazine, The Puritan.

Call Me Binoo

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Binoo, on his island, reads a book

In 2005, Quebecoise author Dominique Jolin’s popular children’s books were adapted for English television as Toopy and Binoo, an animated series headlined by an oversized, chatty mouse and a little white cat who doesn’t speak at all.

2005 was also the year my fourth son was born, delivered without a doctor in a Fort McMurray hospital during an April snowstorm. No one thinks her kids are ordinary but this boy has made an exceptionally strong case for extraordinariness. Ask anyone.

While he was still in his super-toddler form, his little brother, my fifth son was born. Baby brother’s birth wasn’t ordinary either. But instead of being a cavalcade of feats of frontier hardiness, my ultimate son’s birth drama was launched six weeks too early, beginning in an ambulance and ending in a neonatal special care unit.

By the time itty-bitty, needy brother made it safely home, our super-toddler had started identifying with Jolin’s cartoon mouse character, Toopy. I could tell by the way he called me nothing but Binoo and the way my new baby was renamed “Patchy-Patch” after the stuffed toy Binoo fawns over on the show. We all played along. It was hecka cute, cost us nothing, and benefitted us in ways I didn’t recognize during the haze of caring for five children under the age of eleven.

I’m not sure if Jolin wrote Toupie et Binou as a script for toddlers confronting the harsh fact
that mothers are busy people with more to their lives than indulging the whims of one child, no matter how extraordinary. When we make art, we may wind up expressing truth we don’t otherwise perceive. Either way, Toopy and Binoo is a work of genius.

In print, the script of an old-school episode of Toopy and Binoo would read as an uninterrupted monologue by Toopy, mostly spoken in the second person to Binoo. Toopy prattles on in the forefront while in the background Binoo cares for Patchy-Patch, makes small adjustments to keep Toopy’s surroundings safe, and gently redirects and makes suggestions without a word—no pop psych editorializing about social skills or recycling. Binoo plays along, lets Toopy’s imagination wash over him, engaging it, validating it without adding much to it.

This is what the daily life of a toddler at home with his mother (especially with a little sibling) really looks like. They are together in the same world, but each of them wanders within it. There’s constant interaction but its intensity ebbs and flows. The mother’s role in the child’s imaginary world is a supporting one, like Binoo’s role in Toopy’s world. She participates almost by default and, though it may be unwitting, fosters the child’s sense of being “fabulous” by letting him take the lead in play.

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“Looks like Binoo has finished reading his book…”

For parents, there’s a self-serving side to this arrangement. A Toopy-kid—imaginative, caring, happy—is secure enough to loosen that strangle-hold toddlers like to have on their mothers’ attention. In the “Binoo’s Island” episode, Toopy can’t reach Binoo because he’s sitting on a blanket, wearing his glasses, reading a book. And it is not a crisis. “Looks like Binoo is on his very own island,” Toopy narrates, adding only, “Wow!” He then spends the rest of the show goofing around with the premise of a marooned Binoo but actually leaving Binoo the frick alone until Binoo himself decides he’s finished reading his book.

That’s some social modelling I can get behind.

There are lulls in the story where Binoo is not even looking and Toopy is happy just to be near him. Sometimes when a Toopy-kid is talking, a real Binoo-mom keeps looking down at her preemie infant or at her screen full of work and just says, “Uh-huh, uh-huh…” Toopy can deal with that. He knows he’s still “fabulous” even if other things and people need some space to be fabulous too. He knows the dividing of Binoo’s attention won’t last forever. Maybe Toopy and Binoo makes a case for the value of “quantity time” because parents are human, houses are small, everyone is important, and sometimes quantity time is all we want.

My penultimate son told me as much. One afternoon, I had been on Binoo’s Island for quite a while when he came into the bedroom where I was working on a novel and just stood at the foot of the bed. I looked up, greeted him, and asked if he wanted anything. “I want,” he said, “to be near you.”

Done.