Catch me in Calgary on Thursday 28 June as I help launch Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times. It’s a new anthology from Frontenac House edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Tanis MacDonald, and Ariel Gordon. My contribution has a laugh at how I can answer the old timey cliched question of whether I thought I was dying the first time I got my period with “No, I thought I was getting my period the first time I was dying.” Trust me, it’s funny.
One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from a friend I saw every day, for hours at a time, for an entire month, who told me I was the happiest person she knew. Great compliment. Hearing it made me even happier. That’s what compliments are for. That’s how it’s done.
Here’s how it’s not done. Happy people don’t know they’re happy unless they have bad days once in a while. The day the loved one who has been the happy person’s tiny and then not at all tiny companion for twenty-one years gets on an airplane and moves thousands of kilometres away tends to feel like a bad day. Yes, the day my brave and brilliant son moved to Ottawa all alone for an internship was a rough one for me. Hours after he left, I must have been dragging myself through my errands looking like I had just lost a best friend, because I had.
It was time to take my car to the tire shop to have the lug nuts on its new tires retorqued. The process is typically quick and painless. Oddly, this time, the tire technician started hollering at me. I didn’t hear him clearly but I could have guessed at what he’d said, the same way I guess in audiology booths and anytime anyone says anything out loud to me in Chinese. If I was right, it would mean this nice man who was making my car safe must also be a doofus. I didn’t want that and I gathered my hard-of-hearing status around myself and didn’t respond. Then he stepped closer, loud and grinning, unignorable. It was as I had feared. The poor doofus was saying, “Wouldn’t kill ya to smile, would it?”
No, it wouldn’t have. However, I do tend to be a bit more discriminating in making choices than simply choosing from the entire range of what would not kill me. “I don’t need to smile right now. Thank you,” I said. It was impossible to say it without sounding haughty and prim and I rushed to ask him a tire question so we could converse normally and just be pleasant without harassing each other.
I didn’t say, “Dude, I have a right to my feelings. Back off.” I didn’t offer him the justification I’ve just made here about giving up my firstborn son that morning. It’s private and I shouldn’t have to pay with explanations in order to, as we now say, exist in public, not even while sad.
I’m not going to go nuclear feminist on this, though I could. There is a widespread, widely-known problem of men exerting control over public spaces by policing the facial expressions of the women in them. The issue was raised in the national media in the context of a law school moot court competition just this week. When the man with the wrench approached me about my face, he was part of this problem. It’s real.
But sometimes, it feels like this is struggle is especially mine. It rises from things more personal about me than mere gender. I inherited my grandfather’s face, a certain kind of Irish face which I love on him, on my baby brother, on my ginger nephew and on my middle son to whom I passed it along, but which doesn’t play so well on a woman’s head. On me, Granddad’s wise and trustworthy expression plays as nasty and not trying hard enough. Ever since my grade six teacher first complained about it to my mother, men and women who do not know me will sometimes stop me to let me know my sad-looking-not-sad face is a problem for them. There is always something of an assertion of power in these comments but I do allow that they are usually also meant as a sort of overbearing kindness—as if their special insight will liberate me.
Well, like I said in the beginning, this is not how it’s done. The number of moods improved by letting someone know their face is unpleasant is precisely none. Instead, try something like the response of another friend of mine. “Who says you look sad?” he demanded. “You’re not sad, you’re great.” Right there—that’s how it’s done.
Many thanks to the dear people who have given their time and energy to help me celebrate my new novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner. As always, Audreys Books of downtown Edmonton hosted a launch in their basement (a good space for events if not for photos, Ha!) and I got to travel to Montreal to be part of the Linda Leith Publishing launch of its spring season at the Metropolis Blue International Literary Festival. Unlike my first book trip to Montreal, I had a traveling companion this time, my middle son who has been in French immersion education since he was six years old. Good news: it worked!
It’s been about two weeks since the book was published and some kind words have appeared from readers. The was a post that went up on goodreads from no ordinary read but from author, scholar, and a former (and probably a repeat in the future) judge of a the AML novel awards, Michael Austin. He says:
So many people have used [the word apocalypse] incorrectly for so long that it almost never pays to know the real meaning–except when one is reading the work of an exceptionally talented modern novelist who always pays serious attention to what words mean.
A published review appear in the Spring 2018 edition of the Montreal Review of Books by Sarah Lolley. She said
There is sensitivity and lyricism in Jennifer Quist’s writing. There are keen observations and scenes of exquisite compassion[…]Readers wanting a fast-paced whodunit should look elsewhere. The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner is for those seeking something graver and richer, more nuanced and thought-provoking, something with no easy ending, however the verdict comes back.
And Kerry Clare author and book reviewer, blogger, curator at the 49th Shelf posted a review on her Pickle Me This site, saying
I loved this book. Quist’s narratives are always rich and compelling, and this latest novel is no exception. It’s sad and brutal, but also sweet and funny, and all its characters are so real. It also becomes such a page turner as the story progresses…
So grateful for readers who give writing reach and meaning.
Maybe you don’t feel like reading a book right now. I understand completely. Fortunately, reading isn’t the only way to experience a story, especially if it’s full of music and pictures. And so we bring you a bit of a playlist from my newly released novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner.
(Real-life friends and family: keep reading if you want to be able to talk to me like you’ve read my new novel, even if you haven’t got to it yet. Ha!)
The book’s protagonist is looking for meaning, and art is one of the places she looks first. Not at all an elite high-culture consumer, art for Morgan Turner is the movies, TV, music other people have cued up, and books from the stacks at the public library. Much of it, she doesn’t even like (and, though it doesn’t matter, I don’t like all of it either). But here is a little of what she is watching and hearing.
In trying to understand evil, Morgan watches scary movies–typical canonical horror like Psycho and The Exorcist and, a little farther afield, Nosferatu. The most important movie in the book, however, is one hardly anyone has seen. It’s a movie about home fire prevention produced for Canada’s National Film Board by the Alberta Native Communications Society for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (as it was called in 1975 when the film was made). Its title is He Comes Without Calling. Don’t Google it. Trust me. But please enjoy a few clips of it, including the mesmerizing opening snow-plough scene, right here:
Morgan also watches The Seventh Seal/ Det sjunde inseglet. The first scene, where the Crusader knight returning to Europe plays chess with Death on a rocky beach, is probably what this film is best known for, but don’t miss the final chess scene, in the forest.
The television Morgan ends up watching is much brighter than the films she sees. You’re welcome. It’s Morgan’s coworkers who introduce her to South Korean romantic comedies. Here is one she loves: Secret Garden, where risqué action like this is a big deal.
And here is a show she wants to love but can’t because the heroine falls in love with the wrong boy-band member in the end, stupid You’re Beautiful…
The music in Morgan’s orbit is also out of her control. Sometimes it’s her brother’s electro-goth spooky Skinny Puppy. Sometimes it’s the bittersweet Psychedelic Furs someone is singing along to in her car, and sometimes it’s 我的快乐就是想你 by 陈雅森 。
Many thanks to the cab driver in northern China who had this song playing on repeat one sweltering Saturday morning.
This book has books in it, from the Criminal Code of Canada to the Bible to The Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook itself. The book that figures most prominently is probably a graphic novel version of Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy/Divina Commedia. I didn’t have any particular version in mind but I did imagine it illustrated with Gustave Doré’s definitive wood cuttings. Here is one of my favourite pieces from the Paradise book of the Divine Comedy, the Celestial Rose.
I think it’s probably Morgan Turner’s favourite too.
My kids forgot to mention the heavy brown box that arrived today until I found it by the front door myself. I un-boxed my author copies of my brand new novel on the kitchen counter while my charming low-key 16-year-old did some charming low-key cheering. For the first time, the cover is glossy instead of matte, which feels better in my fingers. The colours are from somewhere on the food spectrum and make me a little hungry. Now that it’s here, my husby is reading all of it from start to finish it for the first time. So, yeah, super nervous.
One week until it’s officially released!
As a tiny girl still not able to read much in my native English, I was taught a little French by the short films pasted into the Canadian version of the Sesame Street program my mother dialed us into to give herself an hour of time for something other than childcare every day. This French was mostly just counting to twelve and “Mon ami, mon ami, mon ami pour la vie…”, but it was not nothing.
When I learned to read English, it became clear that half of the words on the sides of the salad dressing bottles and milk cartons on our dinner table were not English. “Agitez bien”, “Sans arômes artificiels.” My oldest son, who worked as grocery stocker, calls this Cereal Box French and every life-long Canadian knows it.
On the east coast of Canada, French was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, taught in elementary schools with wacky rhymes about lonely old men who dress up brooms as women and with games ending in the taunting victory song “Eh, eh, eh, nous avons gagnéeeeeee…” My teachers were natural Francophones—Acadians who pronounced “oui” more like “weh”, like I still do when I’m in a French situation and I finally start to relax.
My bff was half Acadian herself, with a Francophone dad who raised her almost completely in English. Still, we’d often speak to each other in a Frankenstein-ian abomination of French and English, ingraining mistakes and bad habits. But Nova Scotia Public School Patois was good for when we were babysitting and wanted to tell each other things without the preschool kids understanding. “You’re talkin’ silly,” one of them told us. How right she was.
I didn’t finish high school in Nova Scotia but in western Canada, in a small town where the oral French exam was simply reading a list of words aloud. This was the fizzling end of my formal French education. But at the restaurant where I worked was a boy my age newly emigrated from France. We spent our shifts speaking mostly in French until my new bff—who had a huge crush on French boy—rightly pointed out how rude this was to the rest of the staff. “And what does ‘salut’ mean, anyway? Why does he always say it to you?”
In university, I wanted new things, foreign things, and left French for German, which I studied long enough to know its grammar was not to be taken lightly, and not to be taken any further by me.
My history with French is one of forcing it and faking it. Now, I’ve come to the end of the line of that approach. I’m working on a graduate degree that requires me to read academic texts in at least two languages other than English. I’ve satisfied the requirement for Chinese (on paper, anyways) and the quickest route to a third language is back in time, back to French. In a Canadian modern languages department, it is often very generously assumed that I must have decent French. When I met my thesis supervisor for the first time, she began our conversation in French. I understood, but answered in English. Not good enough, Wannabe-Doctor-Q.
I’ve said elsewhere that relearning French—a language I have never really studied but learned by lazy childish osmosis before setting it aside for decades–has been like trying to summon the dead. It’s an archaeological dig after the bones of something that is still with me but buried in time, disuse, and in a little German and a lot of Chinese. I unearth things, hold them up to the light, and test them out to see if they still work. The results are mixed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a compartment in my brain for every language I’m using. All I have is an English compartment and a non-English compartment. I go to the non-English area looking for des mots français and come away with a handful of 汉语. It’s my ridiculous Mando-Franc-ösisch, making me sound like a lunatic. I sit blinking, stammering, translating French out of the Chinese that’s tumbled out of the non-English compartment of my brain. When I mentioned it to a linguist friend of mine, she told me it’s normal, and to some extent it will always be a part of my struggle.
One month into my first French course of the old new millennium, I sat in a university stairwell, phone to my ear, listening to my half-Acadian bff asking me in my own accent, “Pourquoi prends-tu le français, mon amie?” I launched into my “Parce-que…” naturally, easily. In that French, she still sounded like herself, and I still sounded like me. Even after I slipped into broken Chinese, and she laughed, and we went back to English—every word was still me. This dusty dig-site, this messy mind, this chaos is really me.
Like many publishers, mine has added book trailers to its repertoire of marketing aids. A book blogger friend of mine once publicly wondered why so many book trailers are terrible. I’m not sure why. But I knew I didn’t want mine to be a lot of panning in different directions over the book’s cover, so I drove my son around Edmonton, the city where the book is set, while he filmed dirty winter street-scapes to use as the bulk of the footage for our trailer. It might not be pretty, but it’s legit.
With just two more months until the release of my new novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner is starting to get some buzz. We had a mention in back in October 2017 in Publishers Weekly‘s roundup of upcoming releases from Canadian publishers. The AML included us in its preview of 2018 fiction in a November 2017 blog post. Now the book has been included in 49th Shelf’s “Most Anticipated” list for Spring 2018. So pleased. March 10th is coming soon! Gratuitous exclamation points for everyone!
Lately, my husband has been ending remarks with “…for the past two years.”
And I have been correcting him with “…for the past three years.”
That is how long it’s been since we moved our family back to the city—three years only, three years already. In a large family like ours, where seven timelines run simultaneously, three years is more like twenty-one. Graduations, promotions, publications, growth spurts, near misses, rescues, the death of our insane pet bird have all happened in that time. Romania and China have happened in that time, all based from our house in an aging suburb.
The house itself hasn’t fared as well as the rest of us. Wear and tear happen here to the power of seven as well. When we were trying to decide on a house to mortgage (it’s still too early for me to think of it as something we bought), we made lists of the improvements we’d have to do once we chose a place and moved into it. Once we decided, our home improvements started right away. Walls were painted, trees were planted, the forty-pound metal, office grade fluorescent light fixture which used to buzz and flicker over my head in my laundry room/office was taken down. The renovations started, and then they stopped.
No, I still haven’t peeled away this odd, flocked white wallpaper in my son’s bedroom. Frankly, the room is chilly in the winter and it might have been put up in the first place to provide a little extra insulation. Whatever its original purpose, no one cares that it’s still stuck to the house. When I told the boys, three years ago, that I was willing to repaint and redecorate their bedrooms, all I got for a reply was “Why?” I prefer to credit this to their easygoing-ness rather than slobbery, and I happily go along with it.
Speaking of paint, fancy paint finishes were trendy in the early 2000s. Remember? I am terrible at pretty things and never attempted the trend myself but the last person to decorate my rec room and my all-purple-walls-all-the-time bathroom mastered this highly textured technique. It’s dated now, but I’m not sure how to remove and redo it. So I haven’t.
This is the undone renovation I notice most often: the staggering anticlimax which is a twelve-foot chain suspended from a vaulted dining room ceiling which, after all that tension, ends in…a simple pendant lamp. Maybe that’s what bugs me most about it—the chain and its lamp are bad storytelling, right there in my front room.
For lighting in the kitchen, we still have a sunshine ceiling—1990s shorthand for fluorescent tubes and smooth plastic panels. Two of my sisters bought houses of the same vintage as mine and their sunshine ceilings were the first things to go. We all had equally bad feelings about them but I got distracted, didn’t act on my feelings soon enough, and now—the moment has passed.
The moment has passed for all the brass trim in the basement too, for the “bone” coloured special-order 5-plex light switch plate by the front door, for the rattly aluminum blind in the living room with its dimming rod held in place by a paper clip. I’ve settled into all of it now. The chain-and-pendant lamp is still in some danger, but the rest of it—no one cares, not even me.
I suppose this means we did it. In three years we have truly made a new life for ourselves. Looks like it’s done not by making everything perfect and different and new, but by making new priorities, letting go of things that might have been important once, to people we used to be, getting comfortable with the baggage those people left when they turned into something new. Maybe “settled” isn’t the right word for it. Or maybe I don’t even care about that anymore. Simply put, some of our priorities have shifted to make room for things we never would have dreamed would become important to us. It’s a metric of change and—I hope—of growth.