Writing Alberta

I read a review of Writing Alberta; Building on a Literary Landscape, edited by George Melnyk and Donna Coates ( U of C Press 2017) in AlbertaViews quite recently and it has been on my “to read” list. Essays by or about Alberta authors and their work are always of interest.

Yesterday, I discovered in the Member News in our latest “Westword,” the WGA magazine, that George Melnyk lists some of the authors included.  To my great surprise, in a list of authors who I hold in high esteem –Robert Kroetsch, Alice Major, Bernice Halfe, Chris Turner and others– my own name appears.

I have just borrowed a copy of the book from the Calgary Public Library and what an outstanding contribution it is to the Canlit canon as  “an overview of Alberta historiography of the past century.”

The authors referenced go as far back as Elsie Park Gowan and Sheila Watson. This book would be on my shelf even if it did not include: “Strategies for Storying the Terrible Truth in John Estacio’s and John Murrell’s Filumena and Betty Jane Hegerat’s The Boy”, by Tamara Palmer Seiler. To say I’m honoured to have my work included in Writing Alberta is understatement and to say I am in awe of Tamara Palmer Seiler’s description of The Boy as “a work of creative non-fiction that draws heavily on metafictional strategies” is  understated admiration for the fine critical analysis in this essay.

This is not intended to be a promotion of my work, but rather a statement of my gratitude at having been included in the collection, and also my strong recommendation that you read this book for the landscape of literary identity it provides.

Thank you George Melnyk and Donna Coates as well as the fine essayists and University of Calgary Press for publishing this work. https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552388907

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The names that become infamous; the names forgotten

Today is the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of fourteen women at  École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal.  Marc Lepine’s name is indelibly written in this tragic piece of history. Today is the day to remember the names of the victims.

While I was doing research toward writing The Boy, driving toward Stettler on a snowy day with the CBC for company, I gained insight into why it become so important to me to write this book, but in a way that shifted the focus from Robert Raymond Cook to the victims in this crime; a father, stepmother, and five young children.

I remembered these words almost verbatim, before I went back to the book to find this excerpt:

“It was still rush hour at 9:00 AM, and traffic on the Deerfoot Trail came to a full stop so many times I was able to pour coffee and glance through my notes. Finally, beyond Airdrie the highway opened up. As the landscape flattened, a stiff wind whipped up from the ditches and threw a veil of white over the icy stretches. After a few miles, I relaxed. I am a good driver, and I enjoy the road.

 I began to pay attention to the radio, to Shelagh Rogers on “Sounds Like Canada.”  It was the eve of the eighteenth anniversary of the Montreal massacre of fourteen young women at the Ecole Polytechnic. Shelagh was interviewing two women involved in establishing monuments to the slain students in their respective cities. Both of them had faced fierce opposition and even personal threats. Ironic, considering their efforts were meant to honour the lives of women lost to violence. So much attention had been paid to Marc LePine, the man with the gun who’d killed himself in the end, one of the women said, that eighteen years later, everyone knew his name. But the names of the victims were lost. I turned off the radio.

Victims.  Robert Raymond Cook’s name was part of Alberta lore, and his father’s by association, but many of the people I’d interviewed had forgotten Daisy’s name and no one but the man who’d been Gerry Cook’s best friend remembered those of the children.”

— from The Boy (Oolichan Books 2011)

The Figgs by Ali Bryan

This is not a book review. It is a celebratory note to the talented/tenacious/prolific and delightful Ali Bryan. I am biased. I had the pleasure of getting to know Ali through the Writers Guild of Alberta mentorship program when she was working on Roost. My reaction to Roost-in-progress on first reading:  WOW—this story snaps and crackles with comedy, craft and clever footwork. A cinematic style, a story with the pace of a screenplay. I could well imagine Roost as a television series.

I read a very early draft of The Figgs and felt certain that June’s family would be as engaging, as quirky, as totally normal as Claudia’s cast of characters. I was certain as well, knowing that Ali Bryan is a quick study, that the writing would be even more polished, more definitive in its style.

 The Figgs delivers all of that. Dysfunctional families have become a particular sort of meme, a flavour of the past decade in books, movies, television series, and stage plays. The Family Figg is not dysfunctional; the characters are as “normal” as your neighbours, and as likely to shock and surprise you as your own kin. They have their moments, each of them, but as frustrating as they are to mother, June, from whose perspective we watch this story unfold, it is clear that they are her world—however much she has hoped that by now they would have moved at least a province, or perhaps a continent away from the family nest.

There are scenes that are comedic:  June on Percy, the rocking horse, attempting a perilous gallop up the basement stairs; the entire family storming the hospital to be present at the birth of their grandchild/niece or nephew whose arrival is as unexpected to them as it is to their son, Derek, the baby’s father; the baby shower with a cast of guests who are celebrating with the raucous gusto of a beer bash.  The same scenes are seeped in poignancy, and I found myself near tears both from laughing and from feeling all that’s going on in June’s heart and mind. This is signature Ali Bryan story-telling, this ability to combine comedy with tenderness.

Like Roost, The Figgs is fast-paced and has that same cinematic feel. Almost every chapter/episode brings yet another surprise, and there were moments when I had to curb my sense of disbelief.

This is a story of a family in crazy-making chaos, told from the perspective of the mother. There is a point, though, at which this becomes June’s story.  There is a point at which the story becomes focused on the loss of the mother-child bond. The absent mother of Derek’s son, an adopted child with a buried longing to know her birthmother, a birthfather divulging/grieving the loss of a son.  In another life I was a social worker: I counseled mothers who were “surrendering” (a long ago term for giving up their parental rights) their babies; I worked with adopting parents; in my last position I facilitated adoption reunions. There are moments in this novel where I wanted to intervene, and had to remind myself that the rapid succession of events was characteristic of the style and story.

By the end of The Figgs, through the magic of Ali Bryan’s pen, there is a sense that … Oh, just read the book.  I’m already guilty of some near-spoilers.

http://www.freehand-books.com/books/the-figgs

 

 

The Top of Toy Mountain (1999)

 

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I’m stuck in traffic, making one last trip to the mall. A radio announcer with a soulful voice implores me to consider the children who will have nothing under the Christmas tree. He wants me to help build Toy Mountain.

For three weeks, I’ve shopped, baked and decorated. I am building Christmas for my family. Today, I have one last purchase to make for each child; one special present to add to the practical pyjamas, sweaters and socks and the books, games and CDs.

I will spend tonight assembling my ten-year-old’s costume for the politically correct school concert. Having clothed angels, shepherds and wisemen for almost twenty years, I am an expert, but this year’s school costume stretches my creativity. He’s to dress like Elvis. Other classes are wearing western garb for “Santa’s Holiday Hoedown.” Trying to explain to my son what part Elvis played in Christmas, I finally shrugged and told him flatly, “None.”

Now, waiting to turn left to the mall as the radio beseeches to make this a Christmas a child will remember, I let my own memory idle back.

Christmas Eve is what I remember, and probably 1954. In a small white Lutheran church in New Sarepta, Alberta, I leaned against the scratchy wool of my dad’s suit coat with my eyes fixed on a twinkling tree that was surely twenty feet tall. In a few minutes, we’d file past the smiling man at the back door who would hand me a brown paper bag bulging with one Mandarin orange and a generous fistful of nuts and hard candy—the men who filled those bags had generous hands. Then home to our own tree and presents.

There was no Santa in our Christmas. The gifts came from Mom and Dad: a sweater, socks, underwear, and maybe a Nancy Drew book. I have no memories of perfect toys , but what I remember is the sweet swelling in my chest as the voices of the people I loved rose in the final verse of Stille Nacht.

It is the same tender ache I will feel when I stand with my children in the candlelight on Christmas Eve at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary in 1999.

I have been trying to build my own Toy Mountain. I dart into the right lane, out of the stream of traffic and head north to a little shop called Ten Thousand Villages where, two weeks before, I found a pottery burro made in a Mexican village. He bears the Holy Family on his back and in Mary’s face there is the same expression of awe that I wish for my children at Christmas. The Mennonite Central Committee operates the store, the staff are volunteers, and the Mexican villagers who craft the pottery are paid fair trade wages.

I buy three figurines, pause and add a fourth. When my children open their presents, I will tell them the story of 1954.  The fourth little burro I will add to the top of Toy Mountain.

(published in the Calgary Herald, Christmas 1999 &Canada Lutheran Vol 14 Number 9  December 1999)

Betty Jane Hegerat was a member of Lutheran Church of Our Saviour at the time this piece written and is now a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary.)   

Sharon D’s rose, 13 years later

 

My original post of “Sharon D’s Rose” was written in June 2011. As with every memory of a friend lost, I shake my head and ask how it could be that so many years have passed.

Bob and Marilyn had come for tea in the garden that weekend. In my ramble around the yard before they arrived, I found a perfect stem of roses to send home with them. The shrub with the totally inadequate and utilitarian name of Winnipeg Parks had just began its blooming.  I planted this rose in memory of Sharon, a mutual friend of Bob’s — and every summer since, when it’s at its peak, it outshines all the other roses in the garden. Bob went straightway to a garden centre to buy the Winnipeg Parks that is blooming now in his garden.

Yesterday, clipping a bouquet to bring into the house, the memory of the spring and summer when Sharon became a gardener, flooded my thoughts.

Looking ahead to solitude in her house —her first two children had flown and the third was poised on the age of the nest to leave for university in the fall— Sharon was gazing out the window one morning, she told when she called. She had decided that she wanted to turn that rectangle of back yard with its lawn and shrubs into a beautiful place. “Help me make a garden, Betty! Any fool can make a garden, can’t she?” I flashed back to a similar conversation just a few months before when Sharon was contemplating walls and called to say, “I’m tired of these walls. Any fool can remove wallpaper, can’t she?” The rental of a steam unit, and three days of labour later, another phone call. Quavery voice. “Betty, you know the layers of wall underneath the paper?” Drywall. Made soft by oh such enthusiastic steaming … But still, I knew my friend was no fool at all, but a bright spark of a poet who would bring such creativity to her gardening I couldn’t wait to watch this garden grow.

First the pruning back of trees, then the digging of the beds (Sharon hired my youngest son to do the labour), the round and round my garden for plants she loved, and the digging and sharing. Then the trips to Greengate and at my suggestion of a bed of roses along the front driveway where the sun shone all day long, we reached the climax of this gardening story. I think there were six assorted roses in the first planting, but the day the Winnipeg Parks opened its first bud, Sharon sent an email saying she was off to Greengate. She was in love with that rose, and she needed at least two more bushes. On a day in late September, I had an email from Sharon saying she’d just finished planting tulips among the rose bushes when the first snowflakes of the season drifted down. She was hooked on gardens. She couldn’t wait to see those tulips pushing through in spring.

In January, Sharon died very suddenly. I think it helped that the world was covered in snow and we didn’t have to think about her garden for several months. That summer, my son tended the yard, pending the emptying and sale of the house. The tulips bloomed but were neatly decapitated by the deer that range nearby. But the roses, the roses were splendid.

Each year, my intent to  drive by Sharon’s garden to see if the Winnipeg Parks is still there lessens. By now, the sadness that kept me away in the first years would surely give way to joy should the roses still be in that perfect spot. But there is a good chance that whoever lives in the house now has different preferences, and they will be gone. I prefer to hold close to the memory of the excitement on my friend’s face that summer she was transformed into a gardener.  This year’s Winnipeg Parks in my own garden will be enough.

One Woman’s Island

 

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My good friend, Susan Toy, dedicates a large amount of time to promoting books and authors, and offering advice on “the business.” She also finds time to write and publishes her work and that of others under her own imprint, IslandCatEditions.

Susan is a splendid cook and an inspired one.  A recipe she created for Cinnamon Buns and kindly shared with me has won me many compliments. When I told her I was serving Susan Toy’s Cinnamon Buns at a coffee gathering last week and that I would give her acknowledgement but not divulge the recipe, she laughed and said I was to make sure everyone there knew that the recipe, along with several other of her “island” recipes is in her latest published ebook, One Woman’s Island.

( Some I will try but I will pass on Goat Water Soup.)

After several years of being on the receiving end of Susan’s promotion, I’m delighted to be able to shine some light on her writing.

In 1989, Susan and partner, Dennis, visited Bequia Island, a small island and part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, and were so enchanted with this bit of “paradise” that they bought property, built a home and moved to Bequia in 1996. In the ensuing years, Susan has returned to Canada for several extended visits to Calgary, and more recently has bought a holiday home (she refers to it as “the trailer”) in Ontario.

As soon as I began reading One Woman’s Island, (and the same recognition occurred when I read Susan’s first mystery novel, Island in the Clouds), I could clearly hear Susan’s voice in the narrator, Mariana, who is looking for time to sort out her life. Six months on Bequia is a compelling choice.

The characters, the  island setting which emerges as a character unto itself, and Mariana’s introduction to Caribbean culture have resonance for me because I have heard so much from Susan about this place. The resonance, I think, would be there for anyone who’s dreamed of living in paradise.

There is a community of ex-pats—mostly Canadian and American—to whom Mariana is initially drawn, but with whom she becomes quickly disenchanted. Susan pulls no punches when it comes to the hardened judgement most of the “visitors” express freely about the “locals” and island culture. She also skilfully gives glimpses of the shrouded feelings of the locals toward these visitors on whom their tourist industry relies, creating a livelihood for many in this struggling population.

Mariana’s overflowing compassion is entirely believable, and so too is the reaction of her fellow ex-pats and the local community.  And so the story unfolds, with mysterious deaths and nefarious characters.

Just a tip:  Should you ever have the good fortune of visiting Bequia and meeting Susan Toy, stay away from swimming pools. She enjoys disposing of bodies—only a literary predilection we will assume—in convenient pools.

If I have one quibble with the writing, it is a small one.  I find reading dialect distracts me from story, even in this case where Susan’s many years on the island and finely tuned ear give her the skill for re-creating the voices of the local characters. There are places where a bit less, without entirely removing the beautiful song of the Caribbean voice, might make for smoother reading.

If you are seeking an escape, the island of Bequia, even enjoyed from your comfortable chair at home in your own personal paradise, would be a lovely bit of travel in any season.

If you have an interest in ethnography and sociology, there is plenty for pondering.

If you’re looking for a recipe for Rum Punch, you will want to try Dennis’s creation.

And of course, there is the recipe for the cinnamon buns which I brazenly now refer to “Betty Jane’s as told to her by Susan Toy.”

For availability, check IslandCatEditions website.

https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/islandcateditions/

One Woman’s Island is available through the Calgary Public Library’s electronic resources and I am sure through other libraries as well.

Well done, Susan!

An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)

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BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

http://www.sumeru-books.com/

Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.