I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
Here I sit, Monday morning, trying to distill my thoughts into a package tidy enough to make sense. I’ve been reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell, which is not the type of book I usually manage to wade all the through; non-fiction seems to take me a long time to process, especially when it’s offering new ideas or new ways of looking at the world. Odell uses stories from her own life and experience to analyze different forms of attention, and different ways of being in community with others: with humans, with animals and birds, with ecosystems, with any animate or inanimate being that exists within our particular intersection of time and space.
Here’s a quote that jumped out at me, as I read this morning (Oh, yes, I’m trying to start every weekday/work morning by reading a book): “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.”
Immediately, I thought of my life as a contract lecturer: how lonely it was. How, when I asked an administrator how many other contract lecturers there were at the university and whether there would be some way to reach out to others, to attempt to form a community, share stories (and possibly even to organize for better working conditions), I was told that no one knew how many lecturers there were, and that there was no easy way to identify and contact others who shared my situation.
How many people work jobs like this, now? Part-time, contract, isolated, without benefits or protection, jobs with no guarantee of future contracts, temporary, often with baffling administrative or online systems to learn and negotiate, no set hours, and workloads that creep outside the boundaries of what we’d thought we’d signed on for, our value measured by anonymous evaluations. “Producing faithfully without ever touching.”
It’s a recipe for burn-out. In my experience, it’s not a sustainable way to live a life. But this isn’t a post about disappointment. Because the next thought that came into my mind was how different life can be, if you have the ability (and privilege) to step away from “producing faithfully” and turn instead toward the networks of attention, support, and all the non-“producing” life forms that continue to exist. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to afford a different pace, a different way of being in the world?
Most obviously, I’m willing (and temporarily able) to sacrifice a regular paycheque. I’m willing to live with more risk, to invest time into projects that are underway or unfolding, but not yet profitable (and which may never be profitable). I’m willing to live with uncertainty. I’m willing to live in a nebulous zone of invisible productivity where others may not understand what I’m doing, or why. I’m willing to give up status and authority. I’m willing to *not* be too busy. I’m willing to say no. I’m willing to protect my time to go for walks, to read books, to draw, to write, as fiercely as I would any task deemed important or productive. I’m willing to work inefficiently.
Do I squander my time when I cook a meal from scratch? Is it a waste to go for a walk with the dog and notice trees, birds, other dogs, to stop and talk to neighbours out walking with small children and dogs? Is napping wasteful? I think most would agree that, no, these things are not wasteful; and yet, I feel a shame and guilt as I write this, because there are so many people expending their time and energy to do and achieve big things, or just to survive. Cooking, walking, resting, stopping seem like luxuries only a few can afford. I wonder: is that true?
One final thought, arising from this quotation: how necessary, how critical, how important to our survival as a species is the collective—the opposite of being alone, or being isolated from others who would both support and challenge us. Odell writes about how the self is not, in fact, a fixed property, even if algorithms may insist on its fixedness, and how boring life becomes when our likes and dislikes are made to seem predictable. In fact, we need to know and care about others who aren’t like us: to expand our understanding and empathy, to help us see in new ways, to live interesting lives.
Maybe that’s all I’m after: a life that interests me, not because it’s full of drama, excitement, glamour, but because its fundamentals are present to me in the smallest ways, the most mundane places, the simplest interactions. Fundamentals: birth, death, relationships, conflict, love, beauty, pain, the air, the ground, the sounds, my material self, the spirit. And so here I sit, recommitting to the responsibilities that I’ve decided matter to me; alone, but not feeling alone. Thinking of groups of people with whom I’ve formed bonds; thinking about what it means to be on a team; thinking about everything else, animate and inanimate, that is present with me in this time and this space.
Unrelated to this post, but worthy of an update via caption: our team won the cup final to cap off our season.
Waterloo friends, the Waterloo Public Library is helping me throw a launch party for my new picture book, Jammie Day! When: Saturday, Nov. 25 (that’s tomorrow), at the main branch of the WPL, from 2:30 – 4. Books will be available for purchase. Wearing your jammies is optional, but welcome (kids in jammies will receive a small prize; not sure whether this applies to adults, too …). I’ll be reading from the book and there will be music, crafts and a scavenger hunt.
For more info, click the link.
(Will I, or won’t I, be wearing jammies, too?)
“A country without a literature is not a country.” – Elaine Dewar
It seemed apt after musing yesterday on writing in Canada, that this morning I would hear an interview with Elaine Dewar, author of The Handover, which is published by Biblioasis. Her book is about the sale of McClelland & Stewart (aka The Canadian Publisher) to a German rival, years ago, when I was working at the National Post (so I have a dim memory of how it rocked the industry at the time). This subject may sound arcane, but it’s important to everyone who has an interest in Canadian culture, as distinct from other national cultures.
You can listen to the interview, here, on CBC’s The Current.
The Canadian book industry is contracting very rapidly, warns Elaine Dewar toward the end of her interview. This caught my attention. It sounded like news of the icebergs melting.
Of course, this is bad news for anyone who hopes to earn a living as a writer in Canada. [Side note: does anyone hope to earn a living as a writer in Canada anymore? Or do we all recognize that if we want to make a living as writers, we must sell into the exponentially larger American market?]
The discussion on publishing in Canada continued between the show’s host, and John Degen, executive director of the The Writers Union of Canada and someone with the Association of Canadian Publishers (could not find accurate info online to identify him, but his name is Glen). They dug into the issues raised by Elaine Dewar, and I’ve paraphrased the main points of their conversation, below.
Q: What is it like for writers in Canada, today, to get published?
A: This is really a global issue. There have been major changes in the industry. It’s a blockbuster culture that sees it being increasingly risky for a young writer to break into the industry—if you break into the industry and don’t make it right away, you have a greater chance of never making it at all.
What we really need is diversity. Canadian publishing wants to be playing on a level playing field. When we allow cultural policy to erode, at the federal level, it damages the playing field. We have 115 companies publishing in Canada [wow, is that true?], but very few of these are large enough to compete with international publishers [both in terms of purchasing rights to books, and in terms of purchasing assets that go up for sale]. For example, due to the sale of a major distribution company, decisions about book purchases for Canadian libraries are now made in the US. [think about that…]
There is government policy in place to keep Canadian cultural assets under Canadian control, but a long litany of decisions honours the policy in reverse, in secret. Canadians should have access to purchase the assets of these companies when they’re up for sale [a recent example is Harlequin, which sold to HarperCollins in the US]. If these assets are not purchased by Canadians, then the government should exercise its mandate to keep them in Canada.
Q: But shouldn’t publishers adapt to the market?
A: We’re just through on era where books were declared dead, and they’re now declared back to life again. Canadian publishers are prestigious. We punch above our weight. We’ve shown resilience in developing Canadian culture. We’re up against the border of the largest exporter of culture in the world. We publish in English. Without direct subsidies it’s very tough to compete with that.
It’s part of the Canadian project to decide whether we will be active in this medium in the years to come.
And there the interview ends.
So what do you think? If government is going to subsidize the creation, publication, and distribution of Canadian culture, including literature, how should it best direct its support to build a healthier, more resilient, more diverse system? Personally, I’ve found that the public grant system for artists offers spotty support that could never replace, even short-term, a steady income. Additionally, many of the opportunities for residencies, etc., are impractical for anyone raising kids, or working another job.
It’s precarious for all of us, publishers and writers alike.
The only reason I’ve had the luxury to develop as a writer is because my husband was able support us financially for the years (many years!) when I earned next to nothing; and he continues to provide the steady income that allows me to teach part-time and write part-time now. It takes a long time to develop, as a writer, and you need permission to experiment and fail, too. (In other words, it can be an unprofitable undertaking for long stretches of time, even after you’ve had some success.) Is it worth it? Depends on whether you’re measuring in terms of money, or in terms of something else—what’s a thriving culture worth?
I’m absolutely certain that important voices, necessary voices, are missing from the conversation because of financial limitations or lack of connections. If we can’t solve this, Canadian literature will represent only a small, mostly elite segment of this country’s voices. I want so much more from our literature. If you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, so do you.
The longer I teach, the more I learn.
If I were to write a dissertation, now, my subject would be the short story. I would take a scalpel to the form, carve three-dimensional paper sculptures to show how beautifully various the short story can be. My focus, as a reader and a writer, has long been on Canadian literature, but the more widely I read, the more I wonder what Canadian literature stands for. Where are we right now? What are we lacking? Are we constrained by our Canadian-ness, because our patron is the state? Our violence is secretive and shameful. We don’t dare feast or riot. We would never burn the house down, and if we did, we’d make sure no one knew it was us. Also, outwardly, we appear reasonably satisfied with this state of affairs.
I could be wrong. I could be entirely very very wrong. Generalizations are almost certainly wrong, at least to some degree.
But here’s what I’ve learned, from teaching. For the past five years, I’ve assigned Canadian short stories for my students to read and discuss, and my students’ complaint has been consistent: why are these stories so similar? At first, I was baffled: the differences between the stories were so clear to me; subtle, perhaps, but clear. But as I’ve started to read and assign stories from international writers, some in translation, I’ve come to understand that my students were more perceptive than I. This is not to dismiss my beloved Canadian stories. But I see, now, that there is a world of stories out there that are different and not just in subtle ways, but in juicy, technically audacious ways: stories that are ugly, ungainly, colourful, lawless, unconventional, impolite, rowdy, hungry. Imperfect. Stories that dare to be disfigured, furiously cryptic, ridiculous, structurally untidy, fascinating, open, broken, big. Stories that can take the criticism, because they’re out there doing the dirty work, and they’ve got more important things to worry about.
The world is waiting to be read.
I can’t pretend to know what Canadian literature stands for, nor what it lacks, nor what it needs. I think we are in troubled waters, troubled times, but I’ve been devoted to CanLit for my whole life, steeped in the stuff, and this is my trouble, too. Times of transition are always troubled times. I believe this. Transition is what gets us somewhere new. Truth and reconciliation: painful. It’s painful to be wrong, but how much more painful is it to be a child of 12 for whom suicide is the answer to their pain, how much more painful to be this child’s family, community. This is our country, right now. This is Canada. And somehow, I think it’s our literature, too. Now is not the time to turn more inward, to hide away, to ignore, not listen, not try. It feels imperative — to try. To pay attention.
I want to write stories like the ones I’ve been reading from around the world, and I can try. I may not be able to, but others will. If I’m a very fortunate teacher, maybe my students will. Meanwhile, I can keep learning, listening and reading.
I realize, coming into my office this morning, that my reading life is a mirror for my actual life, and at the moment both appear scattered, reflective of broken or partial attention. I have never in my life had so many half-read books stacked all around me, on my bedside table, the dining-room table, a stool in my office, in my purse (the big one), on the staircase. Here is a list:
On the stairs, with the intention of being carried up to the bedside table (already totteringly tall): Elena Ferrante’s My Days of Abandonment, abandoned early on; American War, by Omar Al Akkad, which I started yesterday while sitting on these very stairs.
On my bedside table (this includes only the books at the top of the pile): Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which I was enjoying, but that was last month, and I’ve only just remembered that I was reading it; Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, of which I read the last few chapters, then tried to start at the beginning, probably a mistake. Both of these are buried under the Rachel Carson biography, not yet finished—my interest waning, perhaps unfairly, with her growing success.
Beside me in the office on my rocking chair, we find Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. The folded-down page corner informs me that I’m mid-way through, but as I skim through chapters apparently already read, I realize how little I’ve retained and long to read them again, as if gazing upon fresh material. Also on the rocking chair, tucked into my purse (the big one): The Middleman, by Bharati Mukherjee.
Over here on the stool, on the other side of my desk: Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniel Mueenuddin; Etger Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door; and Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes.
Out there on the dining-room table: Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, with a pretty red ribbon repurposed as a bookmark, denoting where I stopped in the middle of story (almost impossible to manage, given that so many of her stories are breathtakingly brief). Also on the table, Destination Unstoppable, by Maureen Monte, bought after hearing her interviewed on a sports podcast, thinking it might make me a better soccer coach; but it’s a self-published book with the obvious self-published problem of not having been edited, a flaw that kills the transmission of most decent ideas, at least those presented in book-form.
Is that all? I also have some re-reading to do for my creative writing class, and 125 poems to read, comment on and somehow apply marks to, as of tomorrow at midnight.
In the bathroom, there are New Yorker magazines with many half-read articles marked with folded pages. On my phone, I have access to even more articles, including in-depth ones that I want to read, such as an interview with Lydia Davis in the Paris Review (see book waiting on the dining-room table).
Rare photo evidence of this child reading a book.
What of this is my addled brain retaining? I dip in, with pleasure and surprise, images flicker through my brain, some hold, briefly alight; and I am interrupted, pulled back out. What am I accumulating to use, to inform, to enjoy?
Where is the through-line in this mess of partially digested images and voices? What am I keeping? What does this tell me about my life, right now?