If anyone thinks Calgary is all pancake breakfasts, politicians in Stetsons, and dubious animal handling ethics, they don’t know Calgary. It’s home to a great literary arts scene–poets, writers, literary mags, university programs, the whole package. It’s a pleasure to get to travel there as part of my own book tour. Last night, I was part of filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series along with fellow writers Erin Emily Ann Vance and Bren Simmers. It was the first time this tour I wasn’t either sick or late, making the event a triumph. I had a great time, was the subject of some horrible photos as I hammed my way through my reading, went back to the hotel, ordered room service with my sponsor (my husby), and crashed. Thanks, YYC!
We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.
Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.
What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.
That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!
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 served 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a link to a blog post from my publisher, Linda Leith, explaining the role and the need for small publishing houses like hers. I’m stopping short of gushing about how impressed I am with Linda. Not only would gushing be kind of socially awkward but it’s also unnecessary. Just look at her website.
Linda Leith Publishing will release my novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, by fall 2013.