A Rush and a Push: The Making of a CBC Radio Piece

CBC Radio’s Sook Yin Lee, host of Definitely Not the Opera

If you’re ever in the Edmonton City Centre and you see a person sprinting past the stores and coffee shops, pounding over the hard tile floors, doing that funny, ginger stomp down moving escalators, either you’re witnessing the flight of a very bad shoplifter or the frenzy of someone late for a taping at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation studios located at the far eastern end of the building.

Last Friday, that CBC bound mall-sprinter was me.

It was the seventh time I’ve done work for CBC Radio.  Sure, the very existence of Canada’s public broadcaster is considered controversial by some and acknowledged as tenuous by just about everyone.  But for now, it’s still a functioning organization that treats its contributors with respect and class.  I’ve always enjoyed working with them.

My first CBC gig was with the Sunday afternoon spirituality and religion program, Tapestry.  I put on a big, foamy headset, leaned into a microphone and read an essay I’d written about my grandmother – an essay I eventually re-read at her funeral as an exhausted 30-year-old involuntarily fasting with grief.

The six other pieces I’ve done for the CBC have been for the Saturday afternoon story-telling magazine, Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO).  As my producer told me the first time we met, “DNTO is way cooler than Tapestry.”  That’s not to say none of my DNTO work will ever be part of a eulogy but it does tend to be lighter and less lyrical.

A DNTO piece isn’t supposed to sound like it’s being read.  There’s no script and no rehearsal.  It’s supposed to sound spontaneous and conversational.  But like my sister-in-law, a veteran on-air personality of the University of Alberta’s student radio station says, “The best off-the-cuff speaking is the kind that isn’t really off-the-cuff at all.”

She’s right.  And though I can’t make any pre-show notes, I can’t help spending the hour-long car ride from my house to the studio babbling to myself, ironically practicing sounding breezy and conversational. As I speed along the Alberta Autobahn, I compose and repeat the story to myself until the sad parts don’t make me cry and the stupid parts don’t make me sound quite so stupid and every extraneous “um” goes away.

I begin the trip convinced that, this time, I’ve left early enough that there’s no chance of me having to make that desperate, frantic dash from the crowded downtown Edmonton parkade to the studio at the far end of the building.  This time, I won’t be standing in the elevator, trying to catch my breath, aware that the producer is already on the line from Winnipeg, waiting for the hack freelancer to appear.  But it never happens the way I’ve planned.  The mad rush to the finish is just part of the experience for me, I guess – just another pre-game adrenaline spike.

The recording itself is the easy part.  DNTO pieces are personal stories and there’s nothing most of us are better at talking about than ourselves.  The producers prompt with questions and politely ask for clarifications.  The process takes about forty very pleasant minutes.

And from that forty minutes, the story is edited into a tight five minute item.  I’m always nervous during the editing process.  I’m not included in it.  The whole thing happens in a black box about a thousand miles away from where I wait for the results.  It’s not until I tune in my radio with the rest of the country on Saturday afternoon that I hear how my rambling story-telling has been carved up and digested.  The waiting and fussing — it’s scary.  But I haven’t been disappointed yet.

The CBC and I are on again this Saturday, March 30 2013 at 1:30pm.  Hope to talk to you then.

Until then, here’s something from the archives, a previous DNTO piece featuring me:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/DNTO/Warm+your+Cold+Heart/   Click on the link called “The Joy of Silence.”

UPDATE: The episode of DNTO I’m talking about above has now been posted.  Here’s the link.  It’s not a hardship to listen to a whole episode but if you’re my mom or something and you just want to get to my bit, it’s at about 38.5 minutes into the program.


Judging My Book by Its Cover

The Cover of "Love Letters of the Angels of Death"The book itself won’t be out until August 2013 but this week my publisher released the image that will be the front cover of my debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death.   And I couldn’t be happier with it.

Before the cover was created, my publisher, Linda Leith was generous enough to ask for my thoughts.  She asked me even though visual design is not a talent of mine.  It’s the same with me and music.  I know what’s good and what I like when I actually encounter it but creating something from my own imagination is a dodgy venture.  Not surprisingly, my first few suggestions were way off the mark.  But Linda still didn’t dismiss me from the process.

Finally, I said, “I wouldn’t mind a pair of birds as long as they weren’t too maudlin.”

It seemed risky to me — the possibilities for sentimentality putting two birds on the cover of a book about a marriage could inflame.  It’s not that I actually feared I might end up with a book cover with a pair of pastel, cartoon lovebirds canoodling on it.  But just to be sure we all understood what I meant, I did an image search and came up with a picture posted on a British wildlife photography website called Warren Photographic.  As time went on, we agreed we didn’t just want something like this photograph.  We wanted this photograph for the cover of the book.

The birds – with their long tails and iridescent blue-green plumage — are magpies.  Even though this pair has probably never set foot on the North American continent, western Canada, where most of my book is set, is teeming with their far-flung cousins.  They don’t migrate with the seasons.  They stay here all winter long making noise, scavenging food, and cleaning up the remains of other animals naturally selected out of the harsh environment.  They’re the most beautiful carrion birds I know — especially when they’re quiet.

The first time I noticed magpies – as an angry teenager newly arrived in southern Alberta from Nova Scotia – they were perched on some statuary outside a Lethbridge cemetery.  I assumed the city must have planted them there – like the swans in the Halifax Public Gardens – to make the urban landscape more exotic and elegant.  Every Albertan I’ve ever told this story laughs at me.

Like other corvids – ravens and crows and jays – magpies live in mated pairs.  And what I love about the pair on my book cover is the way they’re facing different directions but looking at the same thing.  The smaller one (which my prejudices tell me to call the female) is closer to what they see and the male is watching her as part of what he sees.  It’s like the narrative structure of my novel where the male narrator addresses his vision of the world directly to the female – the “second person” to whom he is narrating, the one individual who’s included in everything he sees.

I love the rest of the cover too.  I’m thrilled to have a blurb by Padma Viswanathan as the header.  Even after seeing it in print, I didn’t have a fit of self-consciousness and start hating the title (something that would not have been uncharacteristic of me).  And I’m grateful the surname I lifted from my husband when I married him is distinctive (unlike my first name and my McMaiden-name) while still being short and easy to say.  Hooray for my fine, Swedish in-laws, doggedly justifying the existence of the little-used “Q” section at the dry-cleaner’s – and now, hopefully, at the bookseller’s.

Review: “The Shore Girl” by Fran Kimmel, NeWest Press

Fran Kimmel’s new novel, “The Shore Girl”

I’ve had my head down, raising my kids, for a long time.  It meant that, when my publisher asked if I knew any well-known writers who could provide “blurbs” (that’s fancy-shmancy publisher talk for short reviews) to put on the cover of my book, I had to confess I didn’t know anyone.

It was a revelation for me.  The silly mystique of writers toiling away in thoughtful silence and social isolation really is a sham.  People who hide by themselves have nothing to write about – except maybe science fiction.  I’ve done all my writing in crowded, noisy houses.  The only thing I’ve been isolated from was other people doing the same thing.  And the time had come to find them.  My publisher was able to take care of the book blurb herself but I still needed to lift my head out of my laundry pile and meet my colleagues.

I didn’t expect it to be easy.  Canada is huge and sparsely populated and its artistic communities are densest in urban areas.  What were the odds there would be another literary fiction novelist living in my obscure little town?

Apparently, they were amazingly good.

After about two minutes on the Internet, I discovered Fran Kimmel.  She’s the author of The Shore Girl, a novel released in Sept 2012 by NeWest Press.  And she’s also my neighbour.  We had “coffee” at our local library’s café where she signed my brand new copy of The Shore Girl.  I liked Fran right away.  She’s closer to my mom’s age than to mine but, thanks in part to my big sister complex, I felt comfortable and happy to be with her.  She was gracious and generous with her encouragement and advice.  I came away scolding myself for not finding her sooner.

There was just one lingering worry for me.  I hadn’t yet finished Fran’s book.  By page eighty-eight, I liked it.  But would I keep liking it all the way to the end?  Not knowing any writers personally meant I could always say whatever I wanted when I finished a book without any fear that the old authors from pre-revolutionary Russia, or wherever, would get their feelings hurt.  What would it mean for our new friendship if I got to the end and realized I didn’t like it?

I read Fran’s book anyway.  I trusted her.  I trusted her publisher.  I read.  And I thoroughly enjoyed The Shore Girl.

It’s told in polyphony, through the voices of half a dozen different first person narrators.  They vary in age and gender but they all have two things in common: a girl named Rebee and the question of whether surrendering power to other people by loving them is worth the burden it brings.

I won’t risk trying to write a detailed plot summary.  I’m afraid I’d botch it and make the book with its unstable mothers, homelessness, and all that alcohol sound like an old after-school television special bemoaning the effects of dysfunctional families on developing children.  That’s not what this is.   Somehow, Fran has taken a set of circumstances that are usually treated in sentimental, tiresome terms and knocked the cloying clichés off them.  The clarity of the details of everyday life – the fingernail clippings and the insides of refrigerators – along with the stoic resignation with which the characters negotiate their difficult landscapes allow a story that could have been mired in gratuitous melancholy to become a story told with sincerity, warmth, wisdom, and even hope.

“It’s not a happy story,” Fran warned me.  She’s right.  But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t leave me feeling hopeful about the resilient, resourceful people who can grow out of tumultuous home environments.  Imperfect, incomplete love is still love.  And maybe — miraculously — it’s enough.

It was with perfect sincerity that I emailed Fran the morning I finished The Shore Girl and congratulated her for writing a very fine novel.  Just one more thing remains unsettled between us: Fran has yet to read my still unreleased novel.  Now that’s scary.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Sex in Books

Anna Karenina – Literary Sex and Death without the heebie-jeebies

It’s an odd talent.  I can stand at a shelf, pick up a book I’ve never read before and, if there’s a sex scene written in it, I can instantly turn right to it.  It’s a mixed blessing, I guess.  Books don’t come with parental guides so if I’m trying to see if a book is “appropriate” for my kids, my amazing talent saves me a lot of time.  But it also means I inadvertently end up looking at book-sex when I’d really rather not.

There are a lot of reasons why I’m not a consumer of the new wave of erotica that’s flooding the book market right now.  I keep away from it even though it’s leveled squarely at my demographic – the settled lady with a mortgage demographic.  I keep away from it even though, thanks to ereaders, it can be indulged in more discreetly than ever before.  I am not involved in erotica either as a reader or as a writer.

But stay with me.

This isn’t a polemic about obscenity.  I won’t bother outlining all my reasons for opting out of erotica here.  Instead, please bear with some thoughts about why, despite its popularity, sexual content is so challenging for writers.

Sex is a bit of a mess.  Attempts to write about sex tend to be messes too.  It’s a problem so notorious Literary Review has been doling out an annual award for bad sex in literature since 1993.  The award began as an indictment of “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels.”  Despite the threat of receiving an award like this one, raunchy writing – or at least its profile in the mainstream – seems to be at a cultural high mark.  Since I still only read it when I stumble across it with my magic dirty-book opening trick, I can only wonder if this latest proliferation of book-sex means writers are getting any better at composing it.  But the lively competition for the bad sex in literature award seems to suggest that writers are just as inept at depicting sex as ever.

In the past, writers’ attempts to deal with sex in the context of books may have read as prudish and evasive.  The language used to cloak sex was often so oblique it sounded awkward and far-fetched.  We can’t relate to it and end up laughing and scoffing at it.

On the other hand, more recent attempts to write about sex are ridiculous in a different way.  Conventional smutty romance writers tend to mete sex out with silly jargon and clichés used only in their own genre.  More literary books – especially, as some commentators have noted, ones written by men – offer graphic book-sex that reads like nature film narrations filtered through the imaginations of teenaged boys.  It’s crippled by a detached matter-of-factness, dwelling on body parts and fluids.  The very realism of it makes it alienating for readers and we end up laughing and scoffing at it all over again.

Why doesn’t it work?  This might sound maudlin, but there’s a quality to real-life sex that’s ineffable and transcendent.  It goes without saying that it’s hard to talk about what is by its nature unspeakable.  A good writer can write about a transcendent phenomenon but it’s usually done by writing about everything the phenomenon touches and influences rather than by dissecting the actual phenomenon itself.

Think of some of the very best death scenes ever written – like the scene in Anna Karenina where a man dies of tuberculosis.  The reality of the impending death comes across most clearly for me when a servant attending the sick man mirrors his motion of pulling at his own clothes to try to get more air.  The dying man’s body – including the physical mechanisms that are actually killing him – isn’t the central object of the scene.  A lesser writer might have thought he had to make it so.  But even without a narrative full of nothing but choking and coughing, the gravity of the situation – the fear and hopelessness, the final collapse — is still crushing.

I think the same kinds of principles that helped Tolstoy express the impact of death need to be used when authors want to genuinely and sincerely invoke sex in literature.  Sexual content resonates better when it’s barely there – when it’s offered with a reticence that highlights the power sex has to exceed what it physically touches and pervade all the spaces in between everything in its domain.

To write about sex in graphic detail is to demystify it.  Some writers might crow that this is exactly what they intend.  But once sex is demystified, it’s probably not true to our most meaningful and powerful experiences with it anymore.  Real sex should have a mystical element to it.  Without one, it’s just another mess.

Korean Boy-Bands and Their Feminist Sub-text

I have never actually touched an issue of Tiger Beat magazine – or anything like it.  Even though I was a teenage girl in the days of New Kids on the Block and the Corey phenomenon, I was never into the boy-idol scene.  At the time, it all just seemed totally embarrassing – totally.

But that was before I started raising boys of my own.

Years before I had any kids, I already knew I would try my best to raise them as feminists.  Since it was a decision about my own behavior, it was a promise I could keep and control.  What I couldn’t control was my kids’ genders.  All of my children turned out to be boys.  The utter lack of peer females in our family makes teaching feminism more challenging than I expected.  At the same time, living with my boys has come with some surprising lessons for me about my own feminism.  I’ve found I learn how to be a better girl by raising my boys.

But it doesn’t always happen easily.  I need help.  And sometimes it comes from unlikely places – like East Asian pop-culture.

One night, when the boys were away learning manly things, camping at a mountain lake with their father, I was left alone, wandering through the Internet when I stumbled across this.  This was Super Junior – a staple of the recent East Asian boy-band movement.  It was spectacular and surreal and staggering — thirteen young South Korean men dressed up, made up, dancing, singing and posing while I sat transfixed, half a world away.  At the time, I couldn’t understand a word of anything they said – not even their English.  But that just made the group more charming.  Where the Coreys had failed, Super Junior succeeded.  I was an instant fan – an Anglo-Ahjumma.

When my menfolk got back from the wilderness, I didn’t show them what I’d discovered right away.  I guess I was a bit embarrassed.  Eventually, I showed them anyway.  And their reactions surprised me.

Based on the boy-band trash-talk of the male peers of my youth, I expected my family to hate Super Junior.  I expected to hear echoes of the hostile jealousy of male journalists who still write scathing critiques of boy-bands – rants about not playing their own musical instruments or writing their own songs, gravely benevolent warnings about how their charm is actually a corporate tool meant to exploit the hopes of real girls.  But that wasn’t how my boys reacted at all.  Instead, they seemed just as delighted with Super Junior as I was.

After watching the “Mr. Simple” music video a few times, my husband pleased the heck out of me by announcing it was time for each of us to pick our favourite group member.  Most of our boys chose Eunhyuk.  He’s the one with his hair dyed blonde, like theirs.  He’s the lead dancer who stands at the front of the formation doing tricks.  My husband chose Siwon, the one who comes across as masculine and powerful.  And my favourite was Heechul, the one heckling the rest of the group, being careful not to be caught trying too hard.  I found out later he’s also the one most likely to perform dressed as a woman – a very pretty woman.

Even when not in drag, there is an androgynous quality to all the group members – Siwon’s formidable eyebrows notwithstanding.  Their features are clean and delicate and enhanced with plenty of guy-liner.  Their hair is long and perfect and does not grow out of anywhere but their brows and scalps.  Their outfits are tailored and generously embellished with fancy accessories.

And we all loved it.  There was no shame in our enjoyment of it – no sense of competition, no stupid homophobic self-loathing.  There was just earnest admiration for the amazing show the young men and their stylists and producers put on for us.

The conventional wisdom of social theories about boy-bands usually talks about the pretty-boys as risk-free love objects we girls can cast in fantasy rehearsals of our earliest romantic relationship scripts.  I’ve always found this interpretation kind of sad and patronizing.  There might be some truth to it but I think it misses an important point – a point my heterosexual husband and teenaged sons demonstrated for me.  I could sense it in my own completely non-sexual fascination with the flower-boys too.  We didn’t choose our favourite Super Junior members based on characteristics we’d like to find in a romantic partner.  That wasn’t it at all.  We chose our favourites based on which members had characteristics we’d most like to see in ourselves.  My sons saw themselves in the hot-shot at the front.  My husband saw himself in the self-assured masterful one.  I saw myself in the bossy sophisticate.

Maybe our rationale can be extended to other boy-band fans – even the typical fan-girl who thinks she ought to be in love with them.  Maybe, on some level, she doesn’t admire the member she’d most want to date.  Instead, she might admire the one she’d most like to become.  Apart from being some pathetic attempt to prepare themselves for romance, maybe following a boy-band lets girls try on a male role – a fabulous one.  They’re reaching past the limits of their roles as girls – roles that are usually more constrictive when they’re young than at any other time.  They’re experimenting with being someone else, someone who is a boy.

Is that what male critics of boy-bands truly fear?  Are they afraid the gorgeous androgyny of boy-bands, the generous offering of their fabulousness, opens a breach in the brotherhood?  Maybe the biggest problem some men have with boy-bands has nothing to do with creative integrity or even with jealousy.  Maybe it’s that boy-bands are too dangerously easy for girls to relate to.  They make being a boy – looking like boys look, acting like boys act, controlling what boys control — seem like a role any of us could fill.

And who would want that?

Update: After reading this, a good friend of mine, the biggest Donnie Osmond fan I know, sent me a birthday present.  I am now the owner of a copy of Tiger Beat magazine dated September 1974.  The Tampax ads are spectacular.