"I want to know more. The only way to do that is to invent it."
The stories in Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson's short story collection, Just Pretending, are searing portraits of life on the margins of family and of society in general, and the book is a remarkable literary debut. The collection was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award, and it took home four prizes this year at the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Fresh on the heels of a busy and exciting spring awards season, Bird-Wilson spoke to 49th Shelf about her own impressions of literary prize culture, about the mothers portrayed in her book, and to tell us more about that place where fact and fiction connect to create the stories we tell.
49th Shelf: In Canada and farther afield, there is a lot of debate about the merits and problems of literary prize culture. Your book is proof, though, that sometimes the system works. Just Pretending took four prizes at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and it was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award. What has this experience been like for you and your book?
Lisa Bird-Wilson: I would be lying if I said it was anything less than thrilling to see my book compete for these prizes and bring a few home. I understand some of the debate about literary prizes, in that it is felt some of them sort of lose their meaning or become trivialized by way of their specificity. Or worse yet, I understand that some of the prizes seem to now be considered kind of self serving—as a way to promote an organization’s conference or event. I gather the fear is that the overall effect will be to baffle and desensitize readers about the significance of the award—as if the shiny stickers will mesmerize readers and they won’t be able to discern the merits for themselves.
So, here’s another one—I’ve heard criticism that it’s not worthwhile to put a sticker on a book to note that it’s been shortlisted for a prize—I disagree. Sure, there was a book that won the prize, and I agree, let’s all go look for that book, but there were also another four books, let’s say, that made the cut to be shortlisted. I personally look for the shortlisted books—they are well worth my time. So I say, come on—give readers credit for being savvy enough to appreciate the nuances of literary prizes.
The attention and promotion a work receives, and the encouragement the writer receives upon winning—those are the major benefits of literary prizes. To read the jury comments on the book is very validating. They use great words like “literary canon” and it takes a while to sink in that they are talking about your book, you know, putting it in that category. It’s sort of surreal. But these prizes and the comments function as a catalyst to keep writing—so much about being a writer is perseverance, really. You’ve got to have some sticking power. Having your work recognized helps with that. I think it also takes a while for the work to make its way into the hands of people who might want to read it, who might benefit from reading it. That slow process is fine—writers are used to a lot of waiting, we’re a pretty patient bunch—but a prize helps speed it up a bit.
I say, come on—give readers credit for being savvy enough to appreciate the nuances of literary prizes.
49th Shelf: I was reading your book on Mother's Day, which seems fitting now. Your stories feature recurring themes of birth and maternal ties, though the ties are often disconnected, ghostly, tragic. Your story, "Hungry," however, suggests the possibility of connection, for redemption, with its breathtaking conclusion in which Lucy Wingfeather, who'd never belonged to anyone in her life, begins to breastfeed her baby. Or maybe I'm being too optimistic. Am I?
L B-W: I love that you were reading this book on Mother’s Day—and I’m sorry, I probably managed to cast a bit of a pall over your day. Speaking of mothers, I always envisioned my mother reading this book, even though I wouldn’t have really wanted her to. I imagined she would ask me one question—she would ask me, in her best artless voice: “But why are all the mothers so awful?” Unfortunately, we never had a chance to have that conversation because she passed away just before the book came out.
About the stories, and “Hungry” in particular, sometimes it’s almost too easy to have blinders on about what goes on in people’s real lives and it can seem a bit shocking to realize that a universe of endless or infinite possibilities does not exist. A character like Lucy is forced to survive in a world of cruelties both big and small—and all of that, all of her childhood, comes to her through no fault of her own. But then we see Lucy making some choices and finding her power where she can. I wanted Lucy to have a chance for something different. She finds a way to connect—a small mercy—it’s really about the little things—small things add up to be big things. It’s like Lucy has no idea who she is and then at the end I imagine that her and this baby are going to find out together—they have each other now. Something that could have been so wrong has a chance to be okay.
Sometimes it can seem a bit shocking to realize that a universe of endless or infinite possibilities does not exist.
49th Shelf: As a reader, I find myself longing for wrong things to have a chance to be okay. In the world, too, but readers really do seem to demand this more of stories. "Bleak" and "depressing" become criticisms because perhaps we want something apart from reality. As a writer, how do you negotiate this? How do you tell a story without having to lie?
L B-W: Sometimes it happens consciously and sometimes unconsciously, but I appreciate moments of humour that find their way into some stories. There are stories that just need that more than others—even if the ending doesn’t turn out any differently, at least there are moments built in where a reader can take a break. Some stories are what they are—they’re just inside you—something you’ve known forever that you were going to write, but you’re just waiting to find the right way to tell it. I recently read a quote from Maya Angelou, who passed away at a glorious old age. She said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I think that’s true, whether you’re a writer or not.
Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.
49th Shelf: I am so intrigued that your story "Blood Memory" has been celebrated for its fact (included in Best Canadian Essays 2011) and its fiction (nominated for the Journey Prize). Is the fact/fiction boundary blurred in your other stories? And what is it like to walk this line?
L B-W: Good for you for picking that up. I’ve found “Blood Memory” is often read as non-fiction—by the reader’s own volition. When it was published first in Geist they included it simply as a “feature.” There was no definition put on it and that suits me fine—I’m more inclined toward that ambiguity than toward finding the right noun for everything. The anthology picked the story up from there and read the piece as they were inclined. I admit there is a great deal of truth in the story, but that’s not to say it’s a true account of anything. We could call it fiction informed by facts, perhaps? “The facts and just the facts” would make a boring story, wouldn’t they? It’s my story but it’s not my story. I think there is a certain danger in attempting to draw a line from writers’ lives to the fiction they produce—it just doesn’t work that way. The relationship between fact and fiction is complicated. That’s the reason why siblings who grew up in the same family can have completely different narratives about what happened. I think it was Thomas King who said, “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.” Maybe it’s a writer’s job to create truth?
With Just Pretending I set out to write about identity and meaning in families and relationships, how individuals negotiate the sometimes-murky waters of their families and how that is all complicated further by having two families—a family of origin and a family that raises you—and so on—it can go further than that—there is no “typical” or “normal” family is there? I have a strong appreciation for the irony that we think of home as safe and the outside world as dangerous and how that notion is so easily turned on its head.
I have a strong appreciation for the irony that we think of home as safe and the outside world as dangerous and how that notion is so easily turned on its head.
In broad strokes, yes, the themes I write about tend to be important to me somehow. But that doesn’t define everything I write. Sometimes I write to explore concepts and ideas that don’t belong to my experiences but that I can relate to somehow, on a human level first and foremost and on an experiential level next. I’ll give you an example: Once I heard an interview with a retiring journalist where he was questioned and talked about his relationship with his mother, who was long deceased. He described growing up as an only child and how his mother interacted with him. At the end of the interview it was like he was worn down by the remembering and by putting it into words and he said something like, “I think she loved me. I’m pretty sure she did, love me?” And it was more a question than a statement. That was so powerful, poignant, and sad—this grown, almost-old man still affected that way by his relationship with his mother. I want to imagine and invent fiction about a relationship like that—just based on those remembered lines, their context, and the way I remember them being said. They struck a chord. I want to know more. The only way to do that is to invent it.
Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Saskatchewan Métis writer whose stories have been finalists for the Journey Prize, among others. Her work has appeared in periodicals such as Grain, Prairie Fire, Geist, and in the anthology Best Canadian Essays. Just Pretending is her first book-length work of fiction. Lisa is the author of one other book, An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute, and has also written curriculum and other materials for the Ministries of Education and Advanced Education. Saskatchewan-born and-raised, Lisa works as a director of the Gabriel Dumont Institute and lives in Saskatoon with her family.