Working in the space "hilarity and humiliation" (Todd Babiak), Roost (Freehand Books), by Ali Bryan is about family tragedy and the moments for which we hadn't planned. Roost plays with the absurd nature of forced transition, resulting in a truly laugh-out-loud debut novel, something The Toronto Star picked up on calling Bryan an "amusing writer who has mastered the voice of the self-deprecating female, amusing without being annoying."
We contacted Bryan for comment, and to ask the question, is domestic humour a many-gendered thing?
Julie Wilson: Let's start with The Toronto Star quote. I read it and had a kind of knee-jerk reaction. Were they commenting on gender? Domestic narratives? Writers who pull from life?
First, how does humour fit into your life?
Ali Bryan: I’m fascinated by how laughter tends to evolve from a simple involuntary reaction—a baby playing peek-a-boo—to a complex coping mechanism. Charlie Chaplin said “laughter is the tonic, the relief the surcease for pain.” I love the notion of laughter as tonic. Something wet and consumable and physical. It’s hot yoga for your mental and emotional junk drawer.
Personally, I use humor as a vice to cope with the everyday. Baby spitting up milk puke on husband’s side of the bed is made funny by drying it with a hair dryer and not telling him. When a box of fusilli falls out of the pantry because the pantry is too full, you tell that fusilli to f*&k off. When your kid does a terrible job sounding out a word as he’s learning to read, you don’t correct him, you say, “Read that again” and then give him a high-five.
And it’s not just the small stuff. Humor has been an ally in my darkest moments, albeit sometimes in hindsight.
JW: Why do you suppose we still comment on women as funny, and the seemingly appropriate measure of funny to woman?
AB: I get this and I don’t get this. Men aren’t scrutinized the way women are when it comes to comedy. The whole “and she’s funny, too” attitude implies that women aren’t naturally funny. That being humorous is an anomaly, like being an albino. Basically, a lot of funny women are judged or measured by how successful they are at making men laugh.
Enter domestic comedy. It's written as if for women, and conjures of images belly fat, diaper genies, and roasted animals like it is still 1959. Dudes change diapers and they cook shit. They can relate. "Domestic" doesn't have to be a dirty word. I really think that men take more ownership of their domestic duties by not making as big deal of it. Being a Dad or doing house stuff is just one element of a greater whole, whereas women are defined as Mothers rather than Humans. Raising children, cooking dinner, teaching your kid to tie her shoelaces—these are human experiences without gender.
Women don't help their case. Take the Facebook status update that reads, "I tried to be domestic today by making a roast chicken." No, you just roasted a chicken. "I roasted a chicken." The problem arises when these are the only experiences that women discuss. I believe it’s why there’s a successful army of “mommy bloggers” ready to wipe a bum and write about it. I try to avoid this in both my fiction and non-fiction, and even in my blog: Hot Mess: bananas in the dryer and other chaos. When people ask if it's a mommy blog, I say, no, “It’s a human blog.” It's possible women go through a phase in motherhood where being a “mom” is all they are or how they identify, I get that: I am a mother and I will not have sex right now because I am pure and motherly. I am the maker of children and I wear yoga pants and I will post details on Facebook. Motherhood is a new religion.
Personally, I just try to make people laugh; that’s my personal measure of success. Did you read the book? Check. Did you laugh? Check. Are you a human? Check.
JW: Your protagonist, Claudia, is a single mother who seems to get funnier as life gets messier to include her unwitting promotion to matriarch after her mother dies. How does humour function in Claudia’s every day life?
AB: Sue Sinclair, critic-in-residence for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), nailed it when she said humour is one of Claudia’s “load-bearing walls.” Humour is a tool. A flashlight in the dark and really the difference between her moving forward after her mother’s death or being immobilized by it. Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” For Claudia, that line is eyelash-thin.
JW: Many of the reviews have called Roost relatable. Reading the book, I think it has a lot to do with how you use dialogue. For instance, when Claudia tells her children, Wes and Joan, that their grandmother isn't well, you can imagine children saying these things—Did she eat too many Smarties? Did she jump off a building?—and it's funny in part because we can forgive children their lack of tact. Did you intend to use the children in Roost to offset the misery?
AB: I did intend to use Wes and Joan as a way to offset Claudia’s grief, but sometimes a lack of empathy and compassion can be confused for plain old innocence. In some ways kids have a very healthy perspective on death. They have an organic, sometimes practical, response that can provide healing and relief, even if temporary, and it's not always funny, just astute. A colleague once told me about his five-year-old grandson’s reaction to the death of the boy's uncle. Seeing everyone around him in total despair, the child said, “Grandpa, if Uncle went to Heaven, why is everybody so sad?” His comment became a turning point in the grieving process for the family and was the closest thing to peace any of the adults had felt since the man’s passing.
Recently, one of my six-year-old son’s friends told me he used to have an uncle who had died, too. When I said, “It’s hard to lose someone,” he said, “That’s OK, because he’s a bird now.” Imagine if adults saw thing this way, even if just for a fleeting moment, to consider that loved ones are flying above us.
I was about five years old when my grandfather died. I remember my mom at the dining room table crying, comforted by a friend. I wasn’t used to seeing her cry but I knew I was hungry. Even though she had her head in her hands, I still asked, “Can I have a sandwich?”
JW: Which writers do you find funny?
AB: Oh, there are some great Canadian writers who make me laugh. I recommend each highly: Lynn Coady, Patricia Pearson, Jessica Westhead, Todd Babiak, Suzette Mayr, the late Paul Quarrington, Nicole Dixon...
Ali Bryan is a personal trainer who grew up in Halifax and Sackville, New Brunswick. She is a graduate of St. Mary's University and completed a graduate certificate from the Humber School for Writers under the tutelage of Paul Quarrington. She was a finalist in the 2010 CBC Canada Writes literary contest for her essay "Asshole Homemaker" and a bronze medalist in the 2012 Canada Writes Literary Triathlon. Ali lives in Calgary with her husband and three children. Roost is her first novel.
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