Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Making it real

My early Canadian
literary landscape

When I move, or travel somewhere I've never been, one of my first steps in preparation is to find fiction or poetry set there.  Maybe it was growing up with parents who recited to me and my sisters bedtime stories about their childhood. My father told us stories about farm life, about delivering milk at the crack of dawn from his family dairy farm at the age of 15 in a rickety old truck, or the hair-raising trip of our ancestor down the Fraser River on an Overlander raft.  My mother told stories of growing up on an apple orchard in the Okanagan, building secret playhouses with apple boxes, and she retold her Girl Guides camping scary stories that transfixed us around summer campfires.  The hills and streets of my hometown weren't just themselves; they were layered with generations of stories, voices of the past echoing through the sagebrush or drifting like blossoms through the apple orchards.

Ontario reinvented
through a Cat's Eye
New perspectives, new layers
When I moved to Ottawa and started studying Canadian literature in earnest, I discovered that Ontario was layered with stories that stretched from early settler tales from Susanna Moodie to urban Toronto stories from Margaret Atwood, to First Nations perspectives from Tomson Highway.  I couldn't look at the landscape around my campus residence room without seeing through the filter of the stories that gave it depth and context.

When I lived in Lesotho at the time of apartheid in South Africa, it was Andre Brink and Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali.  In Australia I read Sonia Harnett, Melina Marchetta, John Marsden and Markus Zusak.  It was fiction that made the land real to me, just as American and British writing made me feel I know places I have never been.

Not only home, but part
of the literary landscape
Fiction makes it real
My own books, though not set in a specific school in the Lower Mainland, include elements that local readers will recognize.  The staircase from one school, the lockers from another, the Starbucks at the end of the Skytrain station -- it's all part of creating a literary as well as physical reality.  Growing up and reading books about far flung places, I always felt that "somewhere else" was the appropriate place in which to set stories. ("Yes, this is Jack Kerouac's road!") As I read more about the places I lived, I realized it wasn't the places themselves but the literary imagination that made them settings.

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After I became an island dweller, I ran across a book in a second hand shop that called out to me.  I had heard of Malcolm Lowry's last novel about a tortured relationship, October Ferry to Gabriola, but never read it.  As I followed the characters from Vancouver to Deep Cove to Gabriola, I was immersed in then as well as now. I had taken a bus up Vancouver Island.  I had ridden the October ferry to Gabriola. It's a different road and a different ferry now, but I saw it through new eyes after reading it in fiction.  This isn't just any ferry.  It's Malcolm Lowry's ferry.

I know those chickens!
Then my new Island book club chose Susan Juby's hilarious Woefield Poultry Collective, and the farmer's market in Cedar and the English pub down the road took on a literary gleam.

Gabriola draws many writers. Our local public library (Vancouver Island Regional Library) has a brochure that includes a long list of celebrated (local) writers, and the longer I am here, the more I read by local writers and the more the island becomes woven into a physical and imaginary tapestry.  Now I am on that list, and my next book will have  elements that make it real for me, and, I hope, for my readers.