Profiling Carolyn Black: [warning: photographic evidence]
Challenge: To profile an author who is notoriously shy about being profiled in the media.
Solution: Let her suggest that she be left out of the process save for a mysterious envelope.
To know something about Carolyn Black—author of the short story collection The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions)—I should first tell you something about me personally. If all goes to plan, by the end of this piece you'll know everything yet nothing that could be tied to a PIN.
Something about me: If you let me tell your story, I'll oblige. I'm writing this from Saving Gigi at Bloor and Ossington. I don't live in this neighbourhood. I've just sent a text to a friend which reads: "Finally looking at the images Carolyn Black sent for her CSI-like author profile. Laughing too loud at toenail clippings. May have to pick me up from the precinct."
Something about Carolyn Black: Carolyn Black will palm you an envelope at a reception for the Trillium Book Awards with the express instruction not to open the envelope that contains four smaller envelopes, each housing a sample of Carolyn's body. Each sample has been photographed, albeit carefully-crafted, and stored on the flash drive Carolyn slips into your other hand. While this encounter has its beginnings—you'd anticipated the images (if not the originals)—the envelope will protrude from your back pocket, falling once to the floor, leading you to wonder if this exercise hasn't made you the unwitting victim of a hoax, the grainy image of your casually-clad body escorted from the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon accompanied by the headline: "You think you know a person!"—Carolyn Black.
Because to know that Carolyn Black is not threatened by the prospect of being profiled based on DNA-rich reference samples is to give generous pause to this whole idea as you skulk past the security guard as if you'd hopped the turnstile at Union Station.
You don't know what else the envelope might contain. You don't know that one of the items isn't a key to an airport locker, a dye tag off a pair of skinny jeans from The Gap, worse, a coffee card. How much is on the card? Will you go into Starbucks and load up on lemon loaf and oat bars before checking the balance? Or will you stand in line during morning rush hour with the hope that, should the card be empty and you walk out, you'll soon be forgotten among the mechanic mob of sleepy faces? None of these things will come to pass, but for a time you can't know. Because what do you know about Carolyn Black?
So, you pop the drive into the port, take a hit off your Americano, and tell yourself your fingers will not stop moving to satisfy the one sure thing that Carolyn Black wants to think she knows about you: that you won't self-censor.
Your immediate impressions:
The drive is new. You know this drive because you have one too, a gift from the University of Toronto Continuing Studies program. You sat together at the seminar. The drive has likely never contained any other items. Carolyn doesn't believe something is ever permanently deleted from a drive. This drive will only ever know and remember one thing > Folder > Author Profile.
The four images have not been named. They maintain the title given to them at conception by the camera: DSC00197.JPG, DSC00200.JPG, DSC00254.JPG, DSC00258.JPG. Explanations include: absent samples; multiple takes (especially between the 2nd and 3rd image); photo session was halted between 2nd and 3rd sample, during which time Carolyn took 52 pictures of something else, possibly a stack of cards falling to the ground.
Each photo contains a carefully constructed frame: sample against white card against manilla envelope on which the name of the sample has been written in ink. It occurs to you that you wish you had a sample of Carolyn's handwriting.
Image #1: A lone hair has either fallen naturally or been staged into a shy, lower case 'd'.
Image #3: A pile of skin shavings: arm. Your first thought turns to sunburns. Peelings? Too small, you think about the effort behind collecting the sample and focus instead on how it looks like coconut or dandruff. For the first time, you notice the texture of the paper stock, the scratched surface of the table, or is it a fridge? Are these lain flat or taped to another surface? Are we looking down or forward at eye level?
Image #4: Three—or is it four?—toenail clippings arranged to face inward. Bare in colour. Deceivingly short, shadows suggest nonetheless that their length is approximately 1/5 of an inch, enough to pop a hole in a sock or rub the wrong way on a bed sheet, but not enough to elicit stares in sandals or draw comparisons to Louise Hollis. (Pinkie doesn't appear to be represented. Pinkie toenails are often disappointing. Could very well be there wasn't enough of a sample.)
Things you notice about all the samples: together, they present Carolyn head-to-toe; circles, all circles, hollow or filled; the false start of the pen on the word "hair", an uncharacteristic and abrupt beginning to an otherwise demure mise-en-place; the hyperbolic end stroke of most words, as if to say, "The saliva doesn't end here!" "There are more toenails where this came from!"
So, why? Why the envelope? Why the retreat from a traditional interview? "Serial Love I" (The Journey Prize Stories, McClelland & Stewart) upon which this exercise was based, tells that no one is as they seem, what Joan Thomas describes as the "precisely balanced ambiguity" of Carolyn Black's language.
We're constructs. We perform. We showcase elements of ourselves while hiding others. We echo the movements of those around us. We retreat behind clothing, perceived popularity and professional associations. Together, Carolyn and I decided that that made me as equipped to tell you something about Carolyn Black as Carolyn Black herself. This is also as close to a book review as you'll see me post, that you might quite like to acquaint yourself with The Odious Child.
Please meet Carolyn Black.