Earlier 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.
My career as a novelist is still fairly new but I’ve already been on both the loved up and the snubbed up sides of literary prizes. Awards are a bittersweet fact of life in contemporary publishing. For an essay that says everything I’d like to about literary prizes, I highly recommend this, by poet Kimmy Beach.
Sitting alone, secretly and miserably refreshing Twitter as award long-lists and short-lists are announced without any of our own work on them has got to be a universal experience for writers. It’s certainly been mine. However, I’m grateful to have also stood and bowed my head as winners’ medals have been hung around my neck. For my first novel, it was a weighty pewter disc on a blue ribbon. For my second novel, it was a lei made of kukui nuts. Yes, Sistering was awarded Best Novel of 2015 by the Association for Mormon Letters at their conference in Laie, Hawaii.
In a book-world full of so much good material, it’s hard to stand out. Being part of a group outside the deep, swift mainstream can help. I’m a white Anglophone woman but there’s no P in my WASP. Instead, I am the granddaughter of women who raised their families in post-World War II, post traumatic stressed New Brunswick, both of them seeking new spiritual compasses. Independently of each other, they found Mormonism. It was passed down to me, and while most of my family has let go of my grandmothers’ spiritual legacies, I’ve held onto them. The reasons are personal and religious—which means they don’t have much to do with reason at all. My faith is based in transcendent experiences that began in my childhood and continue today. I don’t usually talk about them in detail, not in public, and especially not on the Internet. But they are real, not the kinds of things I would deny or abandon.
Religious codes that include direction on how to live face criticism. It’s unpleasant but I suppose it does move adherents to keep examining our praxis and to focus on prevailing ideals like love and compassion. Differences of beliefs and lifestyles don’t have to mean discord. For instance, according to my religious beliefs, people shouldn’t be drinking coffee. That’s how I live, but I can still sit at a table and watch anyone drink coffee without feeling the slightest bit of bigotry or enmity between us. This example can be extended to any behaviour contrary to my religious ideals. Regardless of how I believe people should live, my strictest principles are leveled at my own heart. They’re based on the first laws of Christianity which are all about love—love to the point of the losing of the self, which, with typical religious irony, is actually the finding of the self. No matter how differently someone may live from me, I can love them. I do love them. It’s something I’ve learned to do because of my religion rather than in spite of it.
The Association for Mormon Letters “is a nonprofit founded in 1976 to promote quality writing ‘by, for, and about Mormons.’“ It’s not the only organization set up to serve and promote Mormon writing but it is the best fit for quirky Can-lit like mine which tends to get a rough ride in heartwarming “inspirational” fiction circles. The judges were kind enough to call me “one of the most talented” Mormon novelists writing today. The AML are my people. I’d be happy to join them even if they didn’t hand out their awards on the north shore of Oahu.
My husband and I were only out of the country for three and a half days. We left our kids here in Canada, in the care of their oldest brothers. One them is legally an adult, and the other has a driver’s license. Between the two of them, they’re enough man to run our household for a few days—but just a few days.
Outside the Honolulu airport, Hawaii is just as delightful as everyone says it is. Thanks to our Mormon ties we didn’t have to go full-tourist. Friends of ours–fellow Mormon-foreigners, a couple where the wife is South Korean and the husband is Japanese—have been living in Hawaii for years and showed us local favourites like a huge old banyan tree hidden off the side of the road, and a strip-mall restaurant serving massive “Hawaiian-sized” slabs of sushi. On Sunday, we wound up at a church service singing from a hymnal written all in Samoan and witnessing a congregation sending off a woman named Celestial to be a missionary abroad.
Our religious ties were a source of diversity and authenticity. It was our Mormonism—something often thought of as a parochial American backwater—that made this weekend of thoughtful, artful validation of my work possible. It was our Mormonism that spared us a spending frenzy in crowded, urban Waikiki and provided us with a walk through idyllic daily life in small-town Hawaii. It was our Mormonism that gave me something to say as I stood —so low and so small—in the Pacific Ocean, pitching in the currents, my back to continents I’ve never seen, calling out psalms to my husband and the sea and everything above it.
I shouted what, in one form or another, I always shout. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?”
Sistering has been named a finalist in the novel category of the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards. It’s the first time any of my work has been included in the annual awards and I am very pleased.
Here’s the link to the announcement. The winner is going to be announced in Hawaii the same day I’ll be making a mid-term presentation on the grammatical intricacies of the Chinese 把 construction in Edmonton. Ha!
Here’s the link the to announcement.
It’s Christmas, a fine time of year to tell a story that begins in church. Recently, I was in a congregation singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In the lyrics of the little-known later verses, the ones I had to peek at the hymnal to remember, the song describes the world we live in. It says, “And ever o’er [the world’s] Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”
Of course, “Babel” refers to a story early in the Bible about the social catastrophe of the Tower of Babel. Humanity was glitching out and needed its reset button hit–again. But instead of suffering another flood, our language was scrambled. It was the end of the world. Everyone was dry and safe but the world that existed before language was “confounded” was over.
Whether we read the Bible literally or not, the tower story reveals something about ourselves. The fact that a story like this could endure for so long and be so widely spread betrays the profundity of our sadness—maybe even our terror—at the barriers that divide us from each other. The Tower of Babel pricks at our collective longing for a world where “the whole earth [is] of one language, and of one speech.”
With great difficulty, language barriers can be overcome. They are overcome, all the time. In many ways, this overcoming proves that our higher nature—the one allied with the Christmas carol’s “blessed angels” who see “all the weary world” at once—can rise above the “Babel sounds” of our lower, confused and tribal nature that would rather we huddle in exclusive groups, throwing rocks, registering and monitoring people whose families don’t sound like ours. But separation does not make us happy. On some level, when we’re calm and honest with ourselves, we all know this. It’s one of the oldest lessons there is.
In everyday terms, told without angels or towers, here’s what I mean.
For the past two semesters, my Chinese class partner and school bff has been a 27-year-old, world-travelling, polyglot, sweetie-pie, veteran of the South Korean navy. One morning, I jokingly referred to myself as his noona (Korean for a boy’s older sister) and the rest is history. Noona, noona, noona~~~
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were having lunch with him. English is the third of the five languages he knows and sometimes, understandably, his talk gets tangled. He stopped himself mid-sentence with a bitter, “Oh, my English!” Actually, it wasn’t so bad. I rephrased the complicated statement I assumed he’d been trying to make and repeated it to him. He didn’t reply with his voice. Instead, he smiled, put one hand over his heart, and extended his other hand across the table, toward me. I recognized it as the universal sign for, “This person knows my heart.” It was beautiful. I will remember what he looked like, sitting there with us, for as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.
Ask anyone: overcoming a language barrier takes more than flashcards and worksheets. Memorization and practice can train us to function but they won’t boost us all the way over the wall to where people really live. True understanding of anyone from outside (or, heck, from inside) our language group requires bringing that hand to the heart, sharing and connecting in sublime ways beyond vocabulary. Any barrier is best overcome by acts of love and brotherhood—noona-hood.
All of this is what I want to say when I’m asked why I am slaying myself to learn a new language. The more people we can talk to, the more people we can love. And when we put ourselves in a setting where our native language is not the dominant one, we learn to pay more attention to what people mean rather than just what they say. When we can only translate part of a communication through language alone, we learn to tune in to other cues—obvious ones we can observe with our senses like gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal vocalizations, as well as cues we sense with our empathy, our feelings, with our spirits.
Why learn another language? Do it to for the resume, sure. But also, do it for love. How corny is that? Corny enough to be a Christmas song, one that looks forward to the day when “the whole world send back the song, which now the angels sing.”
I was three months pregnant with my third son when our washing machine broke. The tub would fill, spin, and drain but the agitator wouldn’t turn. We had no money and a lot of laundry. Something needed to be done. I rolled my pants over my kneecaps, climbed onto the edge of the washing machine and stomped the clothes clean with my feet and legs. From half inside the machine, I realized that, just for a moment, I had become my grandmother – and I was grateful and astounded such a thing could happen.
If my grandmother was still alive, she would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday yesterday. And by “celebrated” I mean stood up beside the dinner table while everyone else ate. I called her Gram but her name was Thelma, a word now used in our family as a verb describing a hostess who won’t stop working to sit down with the rest of the party. “Nah, I’m fine. You guys go ahead. I’m just gonna Thelma.”
If I lived 600km closer, I would have joined my dad and my aunties yesterday at a big Thelma Day dinner. It looks, from the picture, like they went to one of Gram’s favourite prairie Chinese food smorgasbords.
Gram was loving but not always easy to feel close to. We were close anyway. At size 5, she was one of the few adults I could trade shoes with – not that we ever did swap her hospital inspired Naturalizers for my chunky-heeled boots. We were both oldest daughters of large families who had to take on work as teenagers to help our parents. My load was lighter and I was able to stay in school but when Gram quit in the eighth grade, she quit for good. I never heard her complain but when I graduated from high school at the top of my class she bought me a card and instead of just signing her name, as she usually did, she wrote “very proud of you” and my heart spilt in two. We’re both daddy’s girls, cleaning ladies, fast food super stars — doctor snarking, sibling scolding, hard coughing, cat ignoring, short ladies.
She’s a figure recurring throughout my creative work. The first piece I ever did for CBC Radio was a personal essay for Tapestry about the work Gram and I did together tracing our roots from New Brunswick to Scotland. In my novel, I shamelessly lifted the character of the grandmother who sleeps on a saw bench the night before her husband’s funeral from a scene out of my own childhood, with my own grandmother.
When she was nearly dead and losing her hearing, many voices slipped out of the pitch where she could still hear. But I knew where to find the right range and she could always hear me, right to the end. I stood up to speak at a funeral for the first time when she died.
So I felt like an idiot going to bed after midnight on Thelma Day, the one hundredth anniversary of my grandmother’s birth, without doing anything to observe it. While my family members were eating commemorative dinners, I had done nothing and said nothing about it as I fed my kids a rushed meal before darting off to take the 9-year-old to judo lessons. I had eaten standing up while packing his gym bag. I had dropped him off and driven to the senior’s home where my mother-in-law lives and collected her laundry. I had tried to phone my favourite schizophrenic loved one, found out his line was disconnected, and arranged to pay the bill to hook him back up. There are lots of good ways to observe Thelma Day, even if we happen upon them unknowingly while doing what she would do if she was here.
More than any inspiration she’s given me creatively, Gram inspires me spiritually. For our family, she was a Miriam without a Moses. Her Promised Land is a hard brilliant place without anywhere to sit. Someday, I hope to stand with her there.
Happy Thelma Day, everyone.
Two decades without camping didn’t seem like too many to me. I love being outdoors but I crave a proper roof overhead when it’s time to call it a night.
Then, this winter, I was asked to take over as leader of a youth group for 30 girls ages 12 to 17. It’s a great gig. It tempers the Smurfette vibe I’ve cultivated living alone in a pack of men for the last nineteen years. I’m honoured and happy to be there.
Still, I spent the spring dreading our youth group’s traditional annual camping trip. Fortunately, some of my fellow leaders are skilled, enthusiastic campers. They took over. My camp role was to sign off on expense claims, make a few rousing presentations, offer hugs to the homesick, and not sabotage the whole thing with my incompetence.
It was a simple role but I fretted anyway. What might have been more daunting than whatever challenges awaited at camp were the challenges I’d leave behind at home. Not getting things done can be just as hard as getting things done. My family is in the middle of moving house. It’s not a great time for me to flee into the wilderness. In order to take the girls camping, I left my house unpacked and unsold, left my kids, left a chance to see my commuter husband who was traveling home to stay with them. And, I left my second novel in the process of an intense unfinished edit.
For me – and probably for other writers who finish manuscripts – there’s no such thing as taking time off simply because life is busy. Activity inspires creativity and the paradoxical truth is I sometimes work best when it should be logistically impossible for me to get anything done. This summer, while single-parenting my five sons and trying to sell our house, I’ve written more, and more consistently than I have all year.
The prospect of my second novel is a bit terrifying. My first book has been well-received and part of its legacy is fear of a “sophomore slump.” I wrote the first version of my second novel before I’d found a publisher for my first book – before I knew who I was as a novelist. It was an experiment. The first version of it was plotty and funny and fairly glib. There were hardly any “that’s my soul up there” moments in it. It ate away at me a little – the secret that I didn’t love my second novel the way I love my first one. I liked it. But…
With this second book I have access to something I didn’t have when I wrote my first one. I have someone in the industry willing to read it and skilled enough to tell me what’s wrong with it. I knew the book was lacking but I couldn’t tell how or what to do about it. With good editorial feedback fueling my revision process, I hope I’m starting to understand.
The radical edits demanded I change something fundamental to the book – the title itself. Every time I opened the document I changed the title and every time I changed it, I hated it more and more.
So I went to camp with my novel gutted, untitled. I went trusting my familiar paradoxes, sure a four day pajama party in the woods would improve everything unsettled in my life right now – maybe even my second novel.
Camp was fantastic. We should have called it “Camp Slacker.” There wasn’t much of a schedule, I kept driving the girls to the beach in the back of my pick-up truck, we stayed up all night every night, we never really stopped eating.
On the final morning of camp, I woke up underneath a brand new spider web, listening to music – not in my ears but in my mind. It was a song I hadn’t heard in a long time – one I first learned when I was a 16-year-old girl. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river…
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…
It’s unlikely LC was thinking of youth camp leaders working to convince young girls of their worth and power and potential – to “show them where to look among the garbage and the flowers” – when he wrote these lyrics. But art is sublime and it doesn’t matter what he was thinking. For a moment, the song was about me and my “children in the morning” – the ones born to other mothers but sent into the woods with me for a few days in hopes we’d all come to understand ourselves a little better.
My second novel – the awkward one with no name – it’s always been about sisterhood. And in the early morning sisterhood of my first camping trip in over twenty years, the paradox worked its perfection and I think I learned what I will call the book.
Photos by Naomi Stanford
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!”
I’m churchy, okay. I’m not even sorry.
I wrote a novel about people who quote the Bible at funerals, have a large family, and conspicuously don’t drink coffee. I wrote a book with the words “Joseph Smith” printed in it. In case anyone missed it, my characters are Mormons and so am I.
Like all writers, my goal is for everyone to read my book. Everyone includes my fellow Mormons. The Church is active throughout the world but its densest concentration of members is in the American state of Utah. By the time my book was released, I had only been to Utah once. It was when I was twelve years old and caught in one of my parents’ horrifically hot transcontinental summer road trips.
As a grownup author with a book to promote, I didn’t know how to begin to infiltrate the Utah market. I picked through the Internet until I discovered the Whitney Awards. They were invented to recognize fiction produced by Mormon writers. It was a longshot but a few months later, a panel of judges selected my book as a Whitney finalist – one of the top five in the general fiction category.
And that’s when I tripped down the rabbit-hole.
I’m still a novice when it comes to understanding fiction considered “Mormon.” I haven’t learned all its terminologies and talking points. Please forgive any rookie misconceptions here. As far as I can tell from outside the scene, “Mormon fiction” means several different things. It has to since the Church is large and varied enough to include all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes and reading and writing levels. Contrary to nasty, simple-minded fairy tales, there is no monolithic Mormon person. Insisting there is would be calling on a stereotype and it’s as unfair to apply a stereotype to a religious group as it is to apply it to any other bunch of humans.
Far from being a unified movement, the Mormon book-scene is multi-faceted. Within it there are writers who craft books intended solely for Mormon audiences. They produce mainly historical fiction, kissing-only romance, inside jokes, and heartwarming lessons.
There are also Mormon authors – big commercial names like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer – who write mass market speculative and young adult fiction.
When it comes to literary fiction, much of the book-length Mormon-y stuff is written from the negative perspectives of disaffected members – people who don’t like church anymore. Some of these writers – no one famous or influential enough for me to spontaneously remember their names – loudly reject the idea that there can be a “Great Mormon Novel” that combines good literary fiction with Mormon orthodoxy.
I didn’t know this a year ago, but I’ve heard there comes a time in most Utah-Mormon writers’ careers when they must ask themselves if they’re going to work within the Mormon niche or in the mass market. I have never asked myself this question. Until recently, the Mormon book-scene hasn’t been part of my consciousness. I’ve missed out on some good contacts and mentors because of that but I’ve also been spared some self-consciousness and second-guessing – the burden of a complicated, value-laden artistic and intellectual drama.
It was when my novel was named a Whitney finalist that it started to get traction in the Mormon book-scene. At first, it was received with enthusiasm. Kind reviews started to appear. People were happy to read my book. It unwittingly defied critics and filled a literary void in the 2013 Mormon publishing calendar.
What I didn’t understand was that all this goodwill was coming from just one corner of the book-scene. I hadn’t counted on the larger, sometimes more petulant corner that prefers to have its heart warmed, flipped over, warmed again, flipped over, warmed again… From that corner, literary work often seems risky and dangerous and pretentious.
I was about to learn this in an episode I’ll call “Off With Her Head.”
There’s a newspaper in Utah called Deseret News. It’s not run by the Church but it is owned by the Church. A freelance book reviewer assigned by Deseret News – a woman the same age as my mum — really, really hated my novel. I can’t find a way to say this that doesn’t sound like bragging so I’ll just blurt it out. I don’t have much experience with bad reviews. The fact that this reviewer didn’t like the book was strange and disappointing. But that wasn’t what made me sick about it.
The reviewer didn’t actually say much about the book – nothing that can be traced back to the text, anyways. Instead of offering an analysis of the story, she chose to denounce it via the lowest road there is: the one that ploughs through my quality as member of the Church. In this review, my book — and by extension myself — was pronounced “not the perspective of the Church.”
A complete stranger had called out my work in a Church-owned publication as bad Mormonism. I don’t know how other churches work but in my Church, book reviewers aren’t supposed to have the authority to say what or who is or is not doctrinally orthodox.
Now, the last thing a novelist should do upon getting a bad review is challenge the reviewer and her editors about it. Everyone knows that. We are aloof artistes. We ignore and move on. But the reviewer had raised issues outside my book. She’d attacked my integrity and fidelity. It was so far offside I blew the whistle.
I complained first to her immediate editors. They ignored me (though the reviewer showed some shocking hegemony when she wrote back telling me it is indeed her role to warn innocent readers when books “don’t match up” to good Mormon doctrine). Fuming, I wrote to the president of the newspaper. Within half an hour of sending that email, Deseret News apologized, took the offensive comments out of the review, and asked me to forward the email where the reviewer voiced her absurd self-appointed mandate to judge my orthodoxy.
My novel had become controversial and polarizing. When the controversy wasn’t terrible publicity, it was great publicity. In the days after the review, people defended my work. This included an old family friend who is actually an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. He likes the book, doesn’t find it doctrinally subversive, and when he read the review he wondered, “What book did she read?”
After all this, I decided to travel to Utah to attend the Whitney Award ceremony anyway. I’d been tumbling down the rabbit-hole of the Mormon book-scene long enough to start to examine my surroundings and the other objects falling with me. I was curious – perhaps morbidly so – and wanted to land in that world and move through it in the physical universe for a little while.
Once again, my parents were my traveling companions in Utah. We had the good fortune to be in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square during a quick, free concert played on the massive pipe organ inside the big church that puts the “Tabernacle” in the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” We all agreed this was the highlight of the trip. Instead of indulging himself with a fussy highbrow organ piece, the organist played accessible songs – organ pop-songs with swelling choruses and big finishes like sonic tsunamis. They were loud and fancy – songs meant to show us what the old pipe organ could do, sounds that vibrated through our chest cavities as if we were part of the instrument ourselves. The organist was playing to the hearts and souls of musical Philistines like my parents and me – and we loved it. It was exactly what we wanted. There are times and places to play to more subtle and discriminating tastes but this was not one of them.
Back at the Whitney Awards, things weren’t going so well. I’d brought books to sell and in an entire day, I’d sold one. Sure, it was to the fiction editor of Sunstone magazine but – come on. At the banquet I accidentally flung my tough cut of sirloin into the front of my dress and, of course, I did not win a Whitney Award. I’d been nominated alongside three romances and a buddy-road-trip novel. The best and most literary of the three romances won. For the overall best book award, another romance – self-described as Bronte inspired — was the winner. I was a little offended when, in her acceptance speech, the winner made comments that could have been construed as her claiming to have won because she had prayed harder over her book than the rest of us (again with the beside-the-point piety rankings) but other than that, the award made sense.
See, the final round of the Whitney competition is a popular vote. It’s like a free, quick concert on an ostentatious pipe organ. It’s got to be a crowd-pleaser, an easy, emotionally satisfying romp. That’s just what it is.
What I do appreciate is that someone in the previous selection round, one or more of the Whitney judges, had stuck their necks out and brought my novel – a literary piece, a critic-pleaser by an obscure foreigner – to the Mormon book-scene’s attention. The Whitneys aren’t really the time or the place to celebrate a novel like that – not yet, anyways. But someday they might be. This year, maybe they came a little closer. Maybe someday that mythical “Great Mormon Novel” will appear on the scene and by then even the most guarded reviewers in the Deseret News will have learned not to be angry and afraid of it.
Until then, take my novel, Mormon book-scene. Take it into your Wonderland and let it wear away some of the harshness of the hegemony still lurking there. Grind it up, add its few small grains to the foundation being built for something better than what’s there now.