A Woman’s Agenda by Karen Helm

It’s that time of the year when you turn a new page, start afresh, begin a new chapter…I am, of course, talking about diaries and calendars.

Back in my corporate life  I used the Time Manager to plan my workday. The corporation gave this agenda to all its management employees; I was young enough to be gratified by such accouterments.  The Time Manager consisted of the “binder, dividers, a box with approx. a year’s supply of forms including dated plans for the current year, a pen/pencil, and a user guide.” It looked like this, except mine was in black leather.

This one costs $255.76. Seriously. Follow the link.

Now that I’m self-employed (oh how I miss you, corporate expense account), and now that my interests have shifted from money to literature and women’s rights and race and immigration (wait! I still like money!), this agenda seems excessive, not to mention unaffordable.  An interesting alternative appeared in my mailbox not long ago–A Woman’s Agenda, published by Second Story Press, a feminist publishing house in Toronto.

Yes, instant love. And this one is priced at $14.85.

A Woman’s Agenda consists of a spiral-bound binder, and, uh, paper. The layout is pretty roomy, with 3 weekdays per page; the weekends get a little less space. There’s place for note-taking, and a chunk of pages for addresses and phone numbers. All pretty standard; the interesting stuff is the lunar calendar (useful for werewolves and menstruating women!) and the woman-specific material. No, the agenda doesn’t tell us to go in for regular Pap Smears or to cap the lip-balm tight before tossing it into the handbag, useful as those reminders would be. A Woman’s Agenda features twelve stories of kick-ass women from all over the world–January is Aung San Suu Kyi, February is black US congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, March is Canadian hockey heroine Cassie Campbell, April is Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and so on. Each month begins with a new story, and the weekends showcase quotes from the featured person. The women are all spectacular, each with a strong story to tell, and the narrative concentrates on the facts without sentimentalization.

What I like best about this agenda is its arrangement. A Woman’s Agenda insinuates the good stuff into our chore-ridden lives without interrupting the flow of the calendar.  We sometimes get sucked into the daily routine without ever surfacing for deeper contemplation–it takes real effort to shrug off duty and think of what’s important than what’s urgent. By juxtaposing the struggles and achievements of these women next to our daily plans, this agenda nudges us to weigh our priorities, and to be grateful for the stuff that works. Family. Books. Friends. A back that lets me shovel snow. Books. Central heating. Books.

I was, however, a bit bewildered while looking for a match between month and story. The choices seem mostly arbitrary; wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to make  a connection between the person and the month? For instance, February is Black History Month, and the choice of Shirley Chisholm is meaningful in this context. But the agenda mentions that May is Asian Heritage Month, and then features  Dr. Cornelia Wieman, an Aboriginal psychiatrist. And June (the month National Aboriginal Day is celebrated in Canada) features Zaha Hadid, the Iraq-born, London-based architect.  An unforced organic fit between the chosen women and the events on the calendar could have been beautifully engineered had someone spent an extra five minutes.  Ah, well, perhaps it’s on the agenda for 2012.

Despite my quibbling, I recommend this agenda wholeheartedly. You can order it off the Second Story Press website; I doubt the mainstream outlets will make space amongst their Time Manager clones for this one.

The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Last River ChildThis debut novel by Toronto writer Lori Ann Bloomfield offers many riches: a vivid potted history of Canada in the time surrounding WWI, a nicely detailed account of small town life in rural Ontario, plus a rousing reminder of why the women’s movement was necessary in the first place.

A river child is an evil spirit that lives in a river, waiting to drown children in order to assume their shape and then live on land. The river child brings bad luck, withering crops and killing farm animals. Or so the inhabitants of the small village of Walvern in Ontario, Canada believe.  

The arrival of a meteorite during Peg’s baptism, combined with the fact of her pale eyes and her habit of walking by the river soon make the villagers suspect that Peg is indeed the dreaded spirit. Crazy stuff, yes, but not back in the early nineteen hundreds, when religion and superstition were inextricably knotted together, and not in rural Ontario, where the failure of one crop could result in permanent tragedy for a family. 

As is usually the case, enough coincidences occur to rapidly cement the belief amongst  the villagers that Peg is a river child. But despite being a social outcast, Peg grows up loving Walvern, even as her sister Sarah longs to get away to the big city. It takes nothing less than a World War to shake the good villagers out of their silliness and superstitions.   

Apart from a too-tidy ending for my taste, this novel is finely shaped and paced, and very readable indeed.  But Bloomfield at times pulls her punches—the story doesn’t quite deliver the emotional goods the outline suggests, mostly because the adult Peg’s internal life isn’t realized deeply enough.  (The first part of the novel, which deals with the young Peg and her mother, is near perfect). Bloomfield holds back when she should burrow her way into her protagonist’s heart, with the result that I didn’t care for Peg as passionately as I might have.  For instance, (SEMI-SPOILER WARNING!) when Sarah runs away to Toronto leaving Peg to manage the farm single-handedly, Peg is “consumed by rage” at Sarah’s selfishness. “Beneath the rage, determination began to glow, forged in the heat of her fury. A plan started to form in her mind. She only needed to feed herself and a few of the animals.”  The thrill of evoked emotion is mild with this sort of writing.  The bottom line: The Last River Child is a promising debut, definitely good if not great.  

PS: This book is published by a lovely little feminist publishing house  Second Story Press. Do check out their site, for their other offerings look pretty interesting too.

The Blythes are Quoted by L.M.Montgomery

A new collection featuring Anne of Green Gables has just been published, and redheads all over the world (not to mention the Japanese) are celebrating. But “new” is somewhat misleading–all but one of the stories in The Blythes are Quoted appear (in slightly abbreviated form) in 1974’s The Road to Yesterday. (Note: TRtY was published after Montgomery’s death as well.)

The background: Benjamin Lefebvre came across Montgomery’s original typescript of TBaQ, and realized it contained several never-published poems and Blythe family vignettes, as well as the unedited versions of the stories in TRtY. TBaQ was also far bleaker in its approach to war than Montgomery’s earlier writing. Believing that the manuscript “could change the way readers perceived the author and her work”, Lefebvre gives us “as close a reproduction of Montgomery’s [original] text as possible.”

Let’s cut to the chase: should you pay $25 plus tax for this book?

TBaQ boasts one story that was not included in TRtY. Titled “Some Fools and a Saint”, this one isn’t amongst Montgomery’s stronger efforts–I found it both tedious and unconvincing. (Warning: this rest of this post will mean little if you aren’t intimately acquainted with Anne’s world.)

Regarding the edited stories, I don’t find the pruning of Montgomery’s writing inherently objectionable–she can get way purple, and I’ve often wished for a sterner editorial hand. (This doesn’t mean I love Valancy or Emily any less, just that like Mr. Harrison, I would have preferred that the sunsets be left out.) I think the edits in TRtY are mostly justified—Montgomery’s weakness for ellipses has been reined in, the errors corrected, and the wishy-washier parts have been pruned. Here is an excerpt from the story “The Twins Pretend”, where millionaire Anthony Lennox has just agreed to let two young children, Jill and P.G., redecorate his house.

The Road to Yesterday: “…Well, are you coming in with me?” [Lennox asked]

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

The Blythes are Quoted: “…Well, are you coming in with me?”

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

Bored? They didn’t know the meaning of such an expression. Wasn’t this just the last word in words! To think of a thing like this falling down on you, right out of the blue, so to speak!

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

No complaints from me here about the edit. And the original story has some errors–e.g. Anthony Lennox thinks about Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s appearance, but later says he knew Anne (and Gilbert) in college. Surely you don’t think about your old college mate as Mrs. Dr. Lastname? TRtY cleans this sort of thing up very successfully.

One of the things I disliked most about TRtY was that the Blythes seemed too good to be true. The accumulation of admiration verges on the ridiculous in TBaQ. Anne is miraculously youthful looking, an ideal wife and mother, never mistaken in her judgment, and beloved by everyone. She sets the standard for behavior, beauty, style, and goodness for PEI. For instance, Anthony Lennox, who’s moped for fifteen years over a lost love, recalls his beloved’s eyes as “suggestive of wild, secret, unfettered delights…very like Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s…” Ummm…creepy. Gilbert Blythe and the Blythe children also receive generous servings of adulation; this book could have been titled The Mary Sues are Quoted.

What’s really interesting about TBaQ is Montgomery’s shifting perception of war. The stories don’t really reflect these changes (perhaps a Montgomery scholar might differ?), but the poems are something else. The first set deals with purple stars and elfin chimes and other Anne-ish fancies. Then war breaks, and the poems get progressively grimmer. The last poem “The Aftermath” is as bitter a repudiation of war as any I’ve read, and Anne says “I am thankful now … that Walter did not come back. He could never have lived with his memories…” Is this the same author who  in Rilla of Ingleside contemptuously dismissed “a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort?” Who believed the First World War was fought “for the preservation and safety of all sweet, wholesome things?” I think some readers will find this side of Montgomery fairly unsettling; as for me, I like her even more now.

(Major Spoilers Ahead.)

And I do love the family vignettes. I enjoyed seeing the Blythe children married, with families of their own, though Faith Blythe (nee Meredith, remember?) calling Anne “Mother Blythe” is rather disconcerting. Jem and Faith have two sons, Jem Jr. and Walter. Rilla is now Rilla Ford, and Nan is Nan Meredith. If you are sufficiently invested in Anne’s world, this kind of detail is utterly satisfying; in my mind, I have already married Shirley to one of Diana’s children, and I must end this post here to figure out names for their three children.

Update: If you like this post, you may want to check out my review of Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables.

The Canadian Dream Deferred: Stealing Nasreen by Farzana Doctor

stealing100Every immigrant to the western world knows, or knows of, a cabdriver who was a brain surgeon or fiscal economist in his homeland. The narrative of the underemployed migrant goes something like this: lured by promise of fluid upward mobility and unfettered capitalism, professionals move west, only to find that their prior work experience doesn’t count. The educational qualifications earned in their homelands via sweat and blood (and sometimes an organ donation) aren’t recognized. Their alien accents and unfamiliar cultural codes further solidify entry barriers into the workforce.

Toronto-based writer and therapist Farzana Doctor takes a long hard look at this depressing phenomenon in her debut novel Stealing Nasreen. And yet, I was chuckling as I read, for Doctor’s clear-headed, witty narrative is never overpowered by the weight of the issues tackled. The novel’s other running theme-the (non-)acceptance of LGBT  South Asians by this community-is again a profound topic treated in a knowing, humorous manner.

Shaffiq Paperwala and his wife Salma have moved from Mumbai to Canada in search of the proverbial better life–Shaffiq, an accountant, felt his (Muslim) religion clouded his career prospects in India. Salma, a school teacher, was more sanguine, but was eventually persuaded to emigrate. The only employment Shaffiq finds in Toronto, however, is a janitor’s post in a hospital. Salma meanwhile works at a dry-cleaning outlet, and teaches Gujarati on the side.

In moving countries, Shaffiq has moved down the social ladder; as a janitor and a new immigrant of color, he is invisible to most eyes. Attempts to assert his former class or position are met with indifference or suspicion. In one scene,  Shaffiq, while taking out the recycling, finds a budget sheet with an accounting error. When he points out the error, the administrator informs him that the documents are confidential.

“…I’m not sure that cleaning staff should be scrutinizing them.”

“You see I am not really a janitor. Well I am here, but back in Bombay I did this kind of thing in my job-”

“Oh, well, I suppose I should thank you for noticing my mistake. But please, for future reference, you really shouldn’t be-” She frowns, not able to hide her irritation.

“You see I am an accountant,” Shaffiq adds, wanting her to understand. “That’s what I really am. I guess my eyes were just drawn to what used to be so familiar to me.”

“I see,” she says, with a frozen smile that tells Shaffiq that she doesn’t…”

Canada looked far better from far away; now, Shaffiq longs to crowd into “a city bus with a hundred Indian men” again. But just as he’s questioning his move to Canada, he encounters Toronto-born Nasreen Bastawala, a therapist in the same hospital. As a contemporary of Shaffiq’s ethnicity and a successful Canadian professional, Nasreen appears to be the Canadian migrant’s dream gone right. Shaffiq develops a fascination with Nasreen, and starts purloining small objects–a dropped earring, a discarded travel itinerary-from her workplace.

Nasreen is initially too preoccupied with her troubles to notice Shaffiq. She’s just lost her mother to cancer, her father seems increasingly needy, and her girlfriend (now her ex) cheated on her. But when Nasreen enrolls for Gujarati classes with Salma, her intersection with the couple takes on a unforeseen dimension. Salma is attracted to Nasreen, and the discovery that Nasreen is lesbian opens up a world of sexual possibility inconceivable in conservative India. All kinds of complications-all touching, all believable, mostly hilarious-ensue when Salma impulsively acts upon her feelings.

Doctor’s book is driven by the issues of the day, and such books, by their very nature are perishable. But Stealing Nasreen is first a novel, and only then a social manifesto. The book is energized by its characters, and Doctor has a real gift for crawling into her protagonists’ heads and recording their emotions. I was nodding in recognition as I read, finding echoes of myself and people I know in almost every character– Nasreen’s dietary habits, for instance, uncannily matched my own weakness for Jalapeno kettle chips followed by Nutella followed by more chips… The book thus engages the reader in a very personal way even as it indicts some of Canada’s (and immigrant communities’) failings. The story’s denouement, while featuring a too-long exposition by a secondary character, is as farcical and delirious as a Noel Coward play. And as in these plays, comedy is the leavening force for exploring serious issues such as marital discord, the repression of homosexuality in “polite” society, and class conflict.

Stealing Nasreen is published by Inanna Publications, a small Canadian non-profit feminist press. (Inanna, by the way, is the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare.) Stealing Nasreen reminded me anew why I love small presses so much. These folks are willing, even eager, to address the issues nice people don’t talk about.

****

This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine. Do check it out–the theme is “Why Literature Still Matters”, and contributors include Jaspreet Singh and Rawi Hage.