Sunday, November 18, 2018

going to the book fair / Salon du livre de Montréal 2018

How many people go to Montreal's book fair? I don't know but wow. There are more than 2500 authors invited for signings and other events.

Above is the view from my table,and here's me watching the streams and streams of people passing at 11 am on a Sunday morning!

The longest lineups are for children's books. For one author there's a lineup of parents and kids down the alley and up the stairway and around a corner three or four abreast. When R comes by to see if  I need anything, he asks if maybe I want to write a children's book.

I'm watching how many people meet my eyes as they walk past. I sometimes get a smile and even a Bonjour. A woman asks if my book is for adolescents or adults. Another asks what my book is about and says she'll keep it in mind. She comes back 10 minutes later and buys it. Nice!

I love watching the kids who walk past swinging or hugging the bag with the book(s) they've been allowed to choose. Some return my look solemnly. Some look away. Some smile. One asks her mom if I wrote a book too. Yes, I say. It's important for kids to know that ordinary-looking, talking, walking people write books. When I was young, I loved to read but hadn't the least idea who wrote books. I thought you had to be born in England and have a snooty accent. 

I get questions that have nothing to do with my book. "I have an 11-year-old and a four-year-old. Can you tell me which children's authors are at the Salon right now?" She's holding her phone and I suggest she pull up the site and look. We do that together. And then from left field: "Madame! Madame! Why is this book $39.95 here and in my bookstore in St-Hyacinthe it's $34?" I say I'm not the manager, I'm an author. I don't normally say that I'm an author. It sounds so la-di-da. (See snooty accent above.) But being here makes it okay somehow. The woman apologizes and leans in to hug me. Glances at my book but doesn't buy it.

The publisher stops by now and then to see if I need anything and to chat. I appreciate it.

A friend underhand-pitches me a piece of sucre à la crème--like fudge--through the crowd. To my surprise I catch it. Keep your blood sugar up, he says. 

I step across two seats when I realize that a new author who's come at noon is Sylvain Neuvel, who also lives in Pointe St-Charles. He was at the Salon yesterday too and said that he had another writer from the Pointe beside him. Good writing vibes in the Pointe these days! 

I stay long enough to cross paths with Eric Dupont whose recent book, La route du lilas, I've started reading and admire hugely. Before he even arrives, he has a lineup. The woman at the head of the line has a list of questions. I ask if she hesitated before undertaking to read a 600-page book. She's very surprised. The more pages are only the more pleasure! she says. The whole day so far has been an Alice tumble into a world where words and books reign.

But I'm ravenous for lunch and R recalls the smell of fresh bread when we were walking to the Salon from the Pointe, and we head off to find the bakery-café he's positive exists. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

visiting the swamp

What is it like for people who can never see their once-upon-a-time home again because they cannot return? I ask myself.

My own relationship with past homes is considerably softer, but still elusive.

I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My parents had only just emigrated to Canada a year before I was born. They obviously hadn't yet assimilated North American values. In fact, as a child I often wondered why we were in Canada since I often heard my parents say that European quality--Qualität--was so much better. My mother found the neighbours schlampig. Say that out loud. You don't need to speak German to hear that it's not a desirable trait.

Our relationship with our neighbours, most of them from the Maritimes come to southern Ontario for work, was coloured by recent history. Not so long previously their fathers and uncles had fought against the Krauts, and goddamn! if we weren't Krauts living in their midst now.

You think that as a child I couldn't have understood these distinctions? I might not have understood what they meant, but I heard Kraut often enough and I was aware we were disliked. I knew I didn't look like the other kids with their pedal pushers and short curly hair. I had long braids and handmade dresses.

However, when I finally met my family in Austria, it turned out I didn't fit in there either.

It was easy when I finally decided to move to Montreal where I didn't "come from", but that's finally become home.

At some point in my timeline of growing up in Ontario, my parents bought land that included several acres of swamp. Behind the swamp was a forest where my father built a one-room cabin--no electricity, no running water--where we camped in the summers and spent weekends. Here it is in the late 1960s. It took several years for a humongous pond to be dug in one corner of the swamp to heap up enough land to get permission to build a house on top, more time again to build it.

When we moved into the house I was fifteen. It was the family home I returned to for visits and Christmas until the house and land were sold twenty-five years later.

Do I have fond memories of the cabin, the forest, living in a house surrounded by a swamp? No. I was a strawberry blond, pale-skinned target for mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, deer flies, blood suckers. I couldn't figure out how to climb a tree. I wanted to be in a city.

The memories were a mine, though, when I began to imagine a life for Thérèse and Rose in my novel Five Roses.

This, too, is a surprise: among the different landscapes of my past, swampy land feels familiar, the unruly growth and wreckage of it even beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago R and I visited family in Ontario and I wanted to take a drive to the old house, though I was told that the couple who bought it didn't "keep it up".

The house looked abandoned even before I opened the outside screen door to knock and ask permission to walk around.

Here's the creek we used to float down in inner tubes or paddle kayaks or a square boat my father made from scrap lumber. Don't get bitten by a snapping turtle, eh? It'll take your finger off.

R remembered picking green beans and tomatoes in the garden that used to be enclosed by these trees--that used to be a hedge.

Here's the 30' high tower we used to climb. It was more solid in those days, although it was 30' in the air and you had to throw yourself over the wall from the ladder to get inside. Also dangle in the air while finding your footing to get down again. Mind you, it wasn't built as a toy. It was meant to... sight herons? I'm not really sure.

It's sad to see how decayed and abandoned the old place is, though equally impressive to see how tenaciously Nature reclaims its own. My father built a boardwalk to cross the swamp to get to the forest. This moss-covered wood is what's left of it.

And yes, by the way, I KNOW that swamp is more properly called wetland now, but I have my particular relationship with what I assure was and still is a swamp.

Making our way past the swamp to the forest, all my old landmarks rotted or overgrown by thorn trees and alders, I wasn't always sure which direction or how far to go. A distance that seemed far as a child isn't the same as an adult. In fact, it might be farther. In the forest I felt lost at the same time that I recognized the wet leaf scent, the softness of decomposing pine needles underfoot, the brush of the trees.

And here, faded but still nailed to a post, one of our old handmade signs.

The windows of our old cabin were smashed, the inside wrecked. The rope swing my father hung between two pine trees was gone. No trace of the driftwood fence, the outhouse, the benches, the birdbath.

Well, of course not.

Back at the house, walking around it one last time, I saw the bird's nest on the sill of my old bedroom window.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

october 27th / not at the opera

Two years' worth of home compost turned into the garden by shovel, then changed stinky shoes and walked to the market--no pics of pumpkins but two coffee-loving, Day of the Dead skeletons. Over to Verdun, along the river, and home again. 
Right now, outside my window on October 27th at 7 pm it's started snowing. Eh oui, Montreal. Winter's on its way. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

book launch in Old Montreal

Last week my Quebec publisher, Marchand de feuilles, hosted a lovely book launch for their fall titles--Eric Dupont (in the public eye just now with the English translation of his novel La fiancée americaine--in English, Songs for the Cold of Heart--shortlisted for the 2018 Giller prize), Simon Paradis, Adam Leith Gollner, and myself.

The venue was the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal. The church is also called, more simply, Chapelle des marins or Sailors' Church given its situation in the port, close to the river. Included in the church's long history--rebuilt in 1771 on the site of an older church that burned down--it gets a nod in Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne" (1968): "And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour..."

Looks good, but I actually only spoke for a minute. The gifted Catherine de Léan, beside me, read the excerpt from my novel.

After readings at the altar, there was a cocktail in the crypt.

B&W photos by Justine Latour. Colour by Mélanie Vincelette.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

bringing up boys

I look about me and see how women--sadly, sometimes the same ones who deplore men's behaviour--expect their daughters to help out in the kitchen while their sons get to hang out on the computer.

Slowly that's changing, but not fast enough!

Seriously, people! Cleaning the toilet is not gender-specific. Nor taking out the garbage. I am *not* agog when a dad changes his baby's diaper--and I grind my teeth when I hear people coo and nudge each other that he's being so sweet about it.

Do people notice when a woman does it?

We recently spent a week with friends who have four boys. I told the boys I wanted to take pics of their bedrooms and was given permission.
They look like boys' bedrooms, though they could equally have been girls'. I suspect the interest in knitting was an early, still unrealized obsession with knotting fishing lures. It's the eldest, not the youngest, who reads comics.

Both parents work. Both parents cook. (Someone comes in to clean.) The boys all have assigned household tasks. I'm happy and relieved to say I know of other families like this.

If we want the society of the future to be more equally weighted with regards to gender (for a start), then it's in the present that we need to establish expectations.

While we were visiting, R and father of said boys cooked a few great meals. That's what kids need to see: men can and do.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

underwear circa 1700s

A simple linen shift or chemise a woman wore next to her skin as underclothing in the late 1700s. (Pic taken in the storeroom at the McCord Museum in Montreal where I was doing research.) It looks simple enough, but what was involved in the making?

Linen is produced from the inner fibres of flax, a tough plant that looks like hay. To get the longest possible fibres, the plant is cut at or pulled up by the roots. Bundles of flax are soaked in ponds or vats to soften the outer stalk. That can take up to two weeks and it stinks--in the same way flower stems smell when they get sludgy in a vase. Multiply that to the size of pond, a field's worth of flax.

Next step is to roll, crush, or beat the stalks to release the inner fibres.

I took this picture in the Alpine village of Maria Luggau in Austria. We happened upon an open shed and I wanted a picture of how light shone on the flax, reminding me of fairy tales where flax was spun to gold.

I've only now noticed--in the bottom left corner--the tool like a pair of wooden scissors that would be used for repeatedly crushing the stalks. The process is called scutching.

Next step is combing or hackling the strands of fibre that will be spun to make yarn. It's called yarn even though it isn't always wool.

All this work, only to make yarn! It still needs to be woven on a loom to make cloth. The cloth has to be either bleached or dyed (long possible discussion here on how various dyes are made). The cloth then gets sewn by hand to make a garment--in this case, nothing fancier than underwear. 

Decoration optional.

I'm not really talking about clothes here, but about the work that was done through the ages mostly by women and children. Clothing as a document of social history.

dress / identity / social history

Remember the Beatles' song, Eleanor Rigby?

"Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for..."

It's a song about all the lonely people, but you know how your attention zooms in on a single line? Even as a teenager I was caught by the face kept in a jar by the door. What a resounding image for the identity we put on to go out into the world--how we wish people to see us--or how we disguise ourselves so people don't see us. An assumption of identity or a game of hide n' seek.

In 2015 I started doing research into historical clothing. I wasn't interested in dress styles so much as how clothing was styled to emphasize or hide the human figure. Breasts were sometimes crushed flat, sometimes revealed to almost the nipples. A Regency silhouette (early 1800s) defined the bust but wafted and floated around the waist, hips, and legs. This very formlessness was racy because it looked like the underclothing of previous centuries. There were no hoops, bum rolls, and drapery of fabric to disguise and deform the human anatomy, so that a woman looked like a ship moving through a room. And was hampered like a ship if it had to maneuver in a room.

Imagine wearing a "cage crinoline".

Of course, I'm referring to Eurocentric society. I am aware that other cultures dressed differently.

I stopped doing research into historical clothing when I realized that the book I was working on should be something else. I followed the something else, but I haven't forgotten the conservation labs of museums with their magnifying lamps, skeins of hair silk, experiments with droppers to match a fabric dyed 300 years earlier, fascinating stories about clothes--what you could see about the habits of the people who wore them, what you could discover about the society who made them. A dress made with imported fabric, for example, reveals information about trade routes.

In the Institute of Conservation in Vienna, a student was working on a dress that belonged to Maria Anna, the older sister of Marie Antoinette. The Marie Antoinette. I wasn't supposed to take pics but here (sorry!) I snuck an angle of the shoulder and a long piece of fabric that might have been a central panel of the skirt or a shawl or...? That's what the student and her professor were trying to figure out.

The panel was decorated with looped and knotted flowers made from silk thread and the slimmest of ribbons. In some areas they needed to be replaced, but so far the student had only succeeded in making a few. The original blooms must have been knotted by children's hands.

That interests me too: the labour involved in making clothes--harvesting fibre, spinning, dyeing, weaving. Before industrialization, much of that work was done by women and children. The manufacture of clothing is rich with social history.

This dress is historical in a different sense--and also a statement about identity. The artist, Rebecca Belmore, made it as a riposte to the absurdity of colonial values. A friend saw it in the AGO in Toronto and sent me a couple of pics, along with the artist's statement: "That summer [1986 or 87] the royal newlyweds, Prince Arthur and Sarah Ferguson, paid a royal visit to a reconstructed fur-trading fort at Old Fort William.... My contribution was Rising to the Occasion, a dress that was part Victorian ball gown and part beaver dam. The royals came to our city for a handful of hours as performers, replaying colonial history complete with birch bark canoes and a fake fort. This was incredibly absurd to me. What to wear for such an absurd occasion?"

I agree!

Dress as identity. Dress as it shapes us--whether it's imposed, we embrace it, or choose it as a disguise. Dress as a record of social history. I hope to write this book yet.