Memoirists' Roundtable

Together, the books written by the seven writers who participated in our memoirists' roundtable make for an eclectic list. One book is two plays, another embraces several forms including poetry; one author is a comedian, another is a cellist; one book is concerned with the Roma people, another with an outport community in Newfoundland. Still another comprises letters between a Canadian woman in Uganda and her mother.

The subjects of these books include depression, poverty, racism, music, wilderness, gypsy culture, and a mother-daughter bond made more poignant when the mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The diverse approaches to memoir and autobiography we see across the seven books are shaped by the stories the authors needed to tell.

Introducing Ian Hampton (Jan in 35 Pieces), Catherine Hernandez (The Femme Playlist and I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me), Jessica Holmes (Depression: The Comedy), Chelene Knight (Dear Current Occupant), Marlene Schiwy (Gypsy Fugue), Kathleen Venema (Bird Bent Grass), and David Ward (Bay of Hope)

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49th Shelf: Let’s start by talking about structure—how did the story you were telling determine the way you told it? Were you aware of your structure at the outset of beginning your work, or was something else you had to work to arrive at? 

Jessica Holmes: The first draft of this book was lost when my hubby brought the computer in to have something fixed, and they wiped the entire memory. No backup. It was a blessing in disguise because that first pass was more of a generic, self-help approach to wellbeing (an approach that already exists in the thousands); in the long run I'm more interested in telling personal stories. I waited a year, and started writing again, this time with an anecdotal approach that juxtaposed the vulnerability of depression with casual humour. Each chapter was planned around how depression affected one area of my life: my sense of humour, marriage, comedy career, etc. My repartees with Pat (a fictional character who represents the reader) was born generically out of me improvising conversations while I was writing, and I like how those exchanges kept steering the story back into lightheadedness.

The first draft of this book was lost when my hubby brought the computer in to have something fixed, and they wiped the entire memory. No backup.

Jessica Holmes

Catherine Hernandez: I love creating lattices within which my writing has to adhere to. I find when I give myself that simple prompt, it allows the work to come forth organically. My old play, Kilt Pins, which explored teenage sexuality and Catholicism took place during the season of Lent to see how that could affect the themes of repression and expression. My first novel, Scarborough, which explores outreach strategies in low-income neighbourhoods, takes place during the span of a school year. My next novel, which explores LGBTQ2S and racialized folks taking arms against white supremacy, is told within a lunar cycle, ending with the full moon. This collection of plays, The Femme Playlist and I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me, is no exception. For The Femme Playlist, the structure is most definitely inspired by those cassette tape playlists you'd make for your love interest or friend that capture a particular feeling or mood. In this case, it captures the lifetime of a queer brown femme. For I Cannot Lie to the Stars that Made Me, the lattice is the gathering of women of colour around a fire, like a meal.

Ian Hampton: The appreciation of serious music (strictly speaking "Classical" describes roughly a hundred years of style from Haydn to the death of Beethoven) has been in decline for about 60 years. Concert attendance has diminished along with the public’s basic knowledge of how concerts are put together. This is naturally alarming to the professional musician, and it served as my impetus to write this book. I wanted to put music first—music that means a lot to me—and that dictated the book's structure from the outset.

I wanted to put music first—music that means a lot to me—and that dictated the book's structure from the outset.

Ian Hampton

Each chapter is headed by a piece of music that has been significant in my life. The book is structured somewhat along the lines of a concert with a prologue and epilogue about sound itself. The 35 pieces of music that head each chapter of Jan in 35 Pieces inevitably require a personal narrative to tie everything together. Initially, I wanted to keep the personal to a minimum by writing in the third person, but my wonderfully supportive editor, Barbara Nickel, convinced me that I couldn't just leave my friends, family, and colleagues dangling—that the reader wants to know what happens to them. 

In a career of performing, one also brushes up against distinguished and prominent people, and personal anecdotes of those occasions add richness and colour to our social history. Thus, between each chapter there are interludes, portraits, and profiles, presented almost like exhibits in a concert hall. In creating such a complex structure, I also created a constant headache for my editor—by mixing the past with the present, the use of tenses became rather problematic. 

Chelene Knight: The structure (which is totally EVERYTHING for me right now), evolved after multiple drafts (ten drafts to be exact, but who's counting). I really struggled with this because to me, traumatic memory is flawed, broken, and fragmented. Writing trauma is very different from just writing your stories, or writing your childhood. There's a self-care aspect involved too. There's also a chance of being re-triggered and re-traumatized by the unlocked memories that can flood back. There's this very visceral feeling of attachment and detachment that happens. So being expected to tell my story in a linear chronological way was never something I thought was possible, necessary, or interesting. I knew around Draft Eight that something major was going to happen. Then during Draft Nine that moment of rupture happened. That moment where I knew that the the project had done a complete 180 and I had to just roll with it. I had to feed it. 

Being expected to tell my story in a linear chronological way was never something I thought was possible, necessary, or interesting.

Chelene Knight

David Ward: I’m sure you know how it is: You can tell someone, “These Newfoundlanders are fantastic!” or you can provide stories that indirectly illustrate how fantastic Newfoundlanders are and let the reader decide for themselves. So, with creative nonfiction, that’s how I like to handle it—I like to tell a story. Period. Wherever possible. And I like to give the reader credit for being clever. And this Bay of Hope story made that easy—12th-generation fishing families facing the end of the line, for their community, their fishery ... their lives even. And government not only not assisting with the process but making it worse. And, yes, I was convinced this was the way to tell that story from the start.  

Kathleen Venema: I first began dreaming this project more than ten years ago, and I imagined a structure very much like the one that (finally) emerged. I knew that the book would comprise three main, interwoven stories, one created by the letters my mother and I exchanged in the late-1980s while I lived in Uganda; the second an account of the weekly conversations my mother and I began recording after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis; and the third an at-least-partial history of my mother’s life. Because my mother was increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s predations, the third story was the key motivation for the project, but—because my mother was increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s predations—the first two stories would provide crucial context.

The nimble weaving that I’d imagined turned out to be far harder to accomplish than I’d expected, but I had a lucky breakthrough in the spring of 2014 (when I’d been working on the manuscript for two years). After giving a paper on the project at an academic conference, I was invited to submit an extended version to a life writing journal. As I worked on extending and elaborating the conference paper, my project’s multiple stories and voices and timeframes emerged and engaged with an unexpected fluidity (perhaps because I now had a clear narrative centre around which to work). That extended paper (which is due out in the journal’s next issue) became the core of what is now Part One of Bird-Bent Grass. I remember the relief I felt while extending the scholarly paper, knowing I’d finally found the manuscript’s shape and form—alongside the daunting realization that now I needed to do the same thing again, as deftly as possible, four more times.

I remember the relief I felt...knowing I’d finally found the manuscript’s shape and form—alongside the daunting realization that now I needed to do the same thing again, as deftly as possible, four more times.

Kathleen Venema

Marlene Schiwy: I knew from the beginning that I wanted a musical structure for Gypsy Fugue: An Archetypal Memoir, but it took some time to discover exactly what that would be. The book is an account of my lifelong relationship with the gypsy archetype and I wanted to explore all the expressions and manifestations of that image in my life. I have also had a lifelong passion for the music of J. S. Bach, and his ongoing use of Prelude and Fugue offered a wonderful model for my book, since music is such a central dimension of the gypsy image as well. I imagined each vignette in the book as a variation on a central melodic motif as in Bach's music. Music plays an important role in the memoir and my hope is that theme and structure mirror each other.

49th Shelf: How would you describe your book’s relationship with truth and fact?

Catherine Hernandez: While the plays are not autobiographical per se, they are inspired by many racialized, queer femmes who survive rape, aggression, and poverty every day. I always like to challenge that word: "fact." In a colonized world, Black, Indigenous and of-colour folks are always having to prove facts when it comes to our oppression. I find that society likes to focus on gathering proof and facts rather than actually listening to our lived truths. There is a scene in I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me where one of the characters begins to recite statistics about the connection between poverty and chronic illness. But another character responds with "But we don't need those statistics, not when we feel them in our bone-tired bones." 

I always like to challenge that word: "fact." In a colonized world, Black, Indigenous and of-colour folks are always having to prove facts when it comes to our oppression.

Catherine Hernandez

Kathleen Venema: I wrote my memoir about my mother and our exceptionally close relationship because my mother was disappearing into dementia’s relentless fogs. Faced with the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I wanted two things: to keep the mother I’d known all my life as long as I possibly could, and to ensure that my mother’s remaining years were as happy as possible. That meant keeping my mother cognitively and physically active, and learning as much as I could about her life. As I say in the book, it’s ironic that I learned far more about my mother because she had Alzheimer’s than I would have if the disease had never encroached on our lives. It’s also ironic that, because of Alzheimer’s, what I learned about my mother’s life was always telegraphic, truncated, partial, and fragmented, and always possibly untrue. Because of Alzheimer’s, the dynamic relationship between “truth and fact” is one of my book’s recurring themes, but what’s utterly true—and I hope the book conveys this—is the commitment Mom and I brought, all our lives, to being the very best mother and daughter we could be for one another.  

It’s ironic that I learned far more about my mother because she had Alzheimer’s than I would have if the disease had never encroached on our lives. It’s also ironic that, because of Alzheimer’s, what I learned about my mother’s life was always telegraphic, truncated, partial, and fragmented, and always possibly untrue.

Kathleen Venema

David Ward: One, this book is all truth—MY truth. I reported on how things appeared to me. Here I was at the middle of a modern-day cultural tragedy, surrounded by love yet alone and lonely. So Bay of Hope is, in large part, my truth, with no exaggeration or other distortion applied to make a point. It wasn’t necessary. 

Here I was at the middle of a modern day cultural tragedy, surrounded by love yet alone and lonely. So Bay of Hope is, in large part, my truth, with no exaggeration or other distortion applied to make a point. It wasn’t necessary. 

David Ward

Secondly, almost all the facts I reported on are researched and accurate to the best of my knowledge. In fact, in the past, Memorial University of Newfoundland has turned to me for some of my details, like stuff that I found in Captain Cook’s journal and made it part of my story, for example. They’ve called asking me for permission to add my findings to their archives. My point is, MUN seems to regard my creative nonfiction as truthful and accurate, because it is. All my facts are truthful to the best of my knowledge. Bay of Hope is no different. Again, no exaggeration was necessary.

Having said that, this is a piece of literary nonfiction. It’s a narrative. So when two people tell me about a time they committed an act of eco-sabatoge, I share it, but I don't use their real names, and I didn’t do a follow-up with the conservation cops, or the industry, to see if such details were exactly as they described it. I simply trusted what they gave me. But I also had no reason not to. These outport people I work closest with are not liars, or even inclined to exaggerate. In summary, you would be correct to assume there are Newfoundlanders right now sabotaging environmentally destructive aquaculture cages. But if you asked me to name them, I wouldn’t.

In closing, it’s fair to say that Bay of Hope is a work of nonfiction presented in narrative form, but it’s right to assume it’s 99.9% truthful and factual.        

Jessica Holmes: I read somewhere that with autobiography you can give a precise accounting of all the facts, OR you can have a book people actually want to read. For the reader's sake, I wanted to be 100% transparent, but always with an eye on entertainment. The places where I would say I took creative license were where I amalgamated a few people into a single character (so I wouldn't have a cast of 500) and arranged the chapters in the order that had the most satisfying arc, instead of chronologically. 

For the reader's sake, I wanted to be 100% transparent, but always with an eye on entertainment.

Jessica Holmes

Marlene Schiwy: It was an inner psychic reality I was after in this book. I consistently tried to capture and articulate the emotional truth of the story, and to render factual accuracy as closely as possible. In other words, the symbolic dimension of the book sought emotional truth, while the outer dimension—that dealing with actual Roma lives and also my own life—sought to be faithful to the facts of those lives. Since there was also considerable reading and research involved in the first part of the book, the Prelude, I drew on my love of scholarship and other writers' words, ideas, and experiences as well. 

Chelene Knight: Again, we come back to that idea of trauma and memory being very well versed in each other. I would never consider using the word "factual" when thinking about anything memoir. I say this because you can still tell your side of the story, share your perspective and have that be the complete opposite from what someone else involved in your story knows to be true. Facts can be proven and disproven. My memories cannot. You (the reader) have to trust that what I say is true to me and therefore true to everyone else. That's why writing in this way is such a gamble. How can I back this up? How can I "cite my sources"? I think facts are safe. I took a risk with this book. And I am glad I did. 

How can I back this up? How can I "cite my sources"? I think facts are safe. I took a risk with this book. And I am glad I did. 

Chelene Knight

Ian Hampton: Many real-life people ride through the pages of Jan in 35 Pieces. Early readers of the manuscript wanted a dramatis personae as an appendix to the text because the manuscript read like a Russian novel. For clarity’s sake, a few of the reminiscences have been massaged or simplified, and some events re-sequenced, but essentially, they are true. A few stories that made their way into the book are the sorts of stories that get handed down through the music profession and I can't absolutely vouch for the veracity of those.

49th Shelf: What parts of real life experience are most challenging to fit into the constraints of literary narrative? 

Marlene Schiwy: Literary narrative invites a linear reading experience. The challenge is to convey the simultaneity and synchronicity, synaesthetic perception and experience, multi-sensorial inklings and intuitions that play such a huge role in our lived experience from one moment to the next. Experience is so much thicker, denser, richer and more complex than what can be readily expressed in language, and yet that is our challenge—to embody and convey that in our writing!

The challenge is to convey the simultaneity and synchronicity, synaesthetic perception and experience, multi-sensorial inklings and intuitions that play such a huge role in our lived experience from one moment to the next.

Marlene Schiwy

Ian Hampton: Life is a messy business and refuses to fit in an orderly narrative. By putting music first and treating musical compositions as the bones of the story, it was, perhaps, easier to "flesh out" the personal journey. In order to give the reader a sense of the everyday in music making, the story is interspersed with scenes (called interludes in the book) of a string quartet coping with its itinerary. The interludes, related in the present tense, are a way to deal with the constraints of literary narrative. Writing about music can become impossibly technical. By featuring the four personalities of the string quartet and describing their concerns, I hoped to reduce the complications for the reader.

Jessica Holmes: I found it awkward to jump over long periods of time that weren't relative to the story. In the end I used a conversation with "Pat" to basically say "we're skipping dinner to get straight to dessert."

David Ward: My personal successes and suggestions. I think it’s hard not to sound like a braggart, or preachy.    

Kathleen Venema: My greatest challenge was incorporating material from the 150+ conversations that my mother and I recorded after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Accurate transcripts of conversations are, first of all, shockingly time-consuming to create and, when completed, look so much like nonsense that a person hardly knows how to proceed. Especially when we talk with people we know well, we speak telegraphically—we can guess pretty accurately what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it, and they make the same accurate guesses about us. Transcriptions make it clear that these kinds of conversations are often extended series of partial phrases, incomplete, interrupted sentences, and lots of phatic emphases and repetitions, more a peculiarly personal coded idiom than conversation per se. Add to that challenge the fact that—because my mother and I so typically endorsed one another’s opinions and jokes—whole sections of our conversations couldn’t be transcribed because they were obscured by laughter. These “normal” challenges are exacerbated, of course, when your interlocutor is grappling with dementia’s effects and regularly struggles to find the right words for what she wants to say, and—as was the case for my mother—moves in and out of two or more languages as she tried to make herself clear.

The realization that I was under no obligation to reproduce those conversations verbatim was a crucial turning point. Such relief as I understood that nothing bound me to the stilted transcripts, that my job as a writer was to contextualize the conversations, to offer my readers a sense of my mother’s voice and mind and passions, even as Alzheimer’s was intruding into our shared world. I treasure the readers who’ve told me that they felt, as they read Bird-Bent Grass, that they were right there at the kitchen table with Mom and me, party to our devoted, focused, coded, passionate grappling with the big questions that propelled her engagement with the world.

The realization that I was under no obligation to reproduce those conversations verbatim was a crucial turning point.

Kathleen Venema

Catherine Hernandez: Details about major events. I don't like to go on and on about details like it's a court testimony. I focus on emotional truths instead. How did this feel? What sensations were going through this character's body? People can read a newspaper anytime. I'm an artist. I write art.

Chelene Knight: I don't think life experiences are at all challenging to fit into the constraints of literary narrative because when you write real life, you control the narrative. You don’t have to worry about what your characters are going to do because you’ve already seen them do it and you know the outcome. The constraints are only there if you allow them. The literary constraints told me I could not write in fragments and that this structure was too experimental. In other words, my stories were supposed to fit into a template. This is where I resisted. Any story that is bursting at the seams needs to be allowed to rip some stitches, you know? I have no regrets about this.  

Any story that is bursting at the seams needs to be allowed to rip some stitches, you know? I have no regrets about this.  

Chelene Knight

49th Shelf: Anne Lamott once wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” How did you handle concerns about how other people were portrayed in your story? 

Chelene Knight: I was worried less when I was writing the book, but worried a bit more when certain media outlets focused on my mother's drug addiction or her other issues. The book is not about this. It also wasn't written to be considered the "woe is me, pity me" tale. It was written because I felt my stories were and are important. I wanted folks to recognize how other people in Vancouver lived, struggled, and survived. I felt as though there were two stories amplified in Vancouver and about those living here: those who were desolate, and on the streets of the DTES, and those who were making a living, going to yoga classes, and doing just fine. There were never stories written about the people of in between. I was always in between hovering between a massive downward spiral, or doing just fine. This is story I wanted to shed light on.

Kathleen Venema: To some extent, memoirists are like magicians, creating their effects by misdirection. “Look over here, folks,” we urge, very deliberately so that folks don’t accidentally look “over there.” There are unpleasant events and negative aspects to relationships that I deliberately detour around in my book, mainly by diverting attention elsewhere. I also deliberately developed two minor figures as almost exclusively contrary, highlighting and underscoring their foibles, flaws, and limitations, and thereby channelling negative emotions onto these—perhaps—enjoyably frustrating characters. (Naturally, I’ve given them pseudonyms.) In every case where I’ve included stories that other family members did not want told, I made the difficult decision based on how central those stories were to my mother’s life and self, knowing that omitting them would gravely distort what was true about who she was and how she lived.   

Jessica Holmes: If I had been writing a tell-all about taking down a crooked government, I wouldn't have cared so much whether I offended the guilty parties, but this book was meant to be a band-aid for people craving levity, so I had my husband and my mom both read it over and flag anything that could be construed as hurtful. I removed a few funny but offensive descriptors (which is harder than it looks for us comedians—bye bye punchlines!) and focused on instances where I'm the brunt of the joke. 

David Ward: People like former intimate partners for example. Yes ... First thing I do is agonize over it throughout the entire writing process. Then, when all the editing is done, I do a really deep self-examination of how I feel about it all, to make sure I’m as good with it as I can be, that I’ve worked it to my own highest truth. Everything from, can I justify what I’ve written in good conscience? Is putting this story out in public going to benefit a certain part of the population? Does it really have to hurt the person who sees themselves in it? I mean, I’ve seen people get hurt by things that I’m convinced they in no way should have been hurt by. The hurt was all theirs; it had little to do with me. It was all about the people who had hurt them prior, or how they’d hurt themselves—I was only the trigger. In summary, I do all the work regarding my choices that I possibly can, so that I can reach a point whereby, if someone has a problem with what I’ve said, I can live with that. Yet, if someone can show me where I’ve actually erred, I can apologize as well. I’m human. But I’d rather it didn’t come to that. So I’m as personally proactive as I can be prior to publication, and then I get on with my next project.    

I do all the work regarding my choices that I possibly can, so that I can reach a point whereby, if someone has a problem with what I’ve said, I can live with that.

David Ward

I love Anne Lamott by the way. I’ve learned a lot from her.   

Catherine Hernandez: When I interview people, those interviews are merely residue or a jumping off point for my work. it's not about them. It's not about me. It's about the work. If I allow the characters to jump from the page, then what happened in the "real" world becomes less and less important. 

Ian Hampton: I wanted to write an amusing book, but I had no wish to offend anyone. The music profession has plenty of strong personalities—people whose egos protect them against the possibility of failure in front of large audiences. There are also the "working stiffs" who, as the saying goes, are only as good as the last note they played (and I count myself among them). Musicians’ characters tend to be tinged with insecurity due to the ephemeral art they pursue. There are incidents in the concert hall or recording studio where tensions run high and regrettable moments erupt. I have included a couple of occasions where the actors received a dent in their reputation. Now that the book is out I am more concerned that in my zeal I may have failed to notice that perhaps some people might take offence where none was intended

Marlene Schiwy: I do my best to understand human nature at a deep level and to write about individual people with all the honesty and compassion I can summon. In several instances I showed individuals what I'd written about them before it went to print to be sure they did not feel misrepresented or unduly exposed. On other occasions I used pseudonyms or decided not to include certain anecdotes in order to protect the privacy of even the guilty! Heaven knows there are occasions during which I should have behaved better myself!

49th Shelf: What are some other Canadian books, both nonfiction and fiction alike, that inspire the work you do? 

Catherine Hernandez: Rohinton Mistry's work. All of it. If I could put each of his books between pieces of bread and eat them to make me a better writer, I would. 

Kathleen Venema: I was deeply affected by my first reading (and many subsequent re-readings) of Timothy Findley’s The Wars, and (what was to me, at the time) its utterly new and extraordinary interweaving of perspectives, timeframes, and voices, and its representations of the ways that “ordinary” individuals experience world-changing historical events. I had similar responses to other texts of Canadian historiographic metafiction, and multi-generic memoirs like Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the text I “heard” in my imagination, as I revised my manuscript for the last time, was Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic. I like remembering that Marlatt published her now-classic, then wildly experimental novel—about rescuing a forgotten woman from historical obscurity—in 1988, while my mother and I were in the middle of exchanging the letters that would form the core of Bird-Bent Grass. Richard B. Wright’s multiple-award-winning Clara Callan, which develops its entire plot through letters, was another inspiration, as was Sarah Leavitt’s heartbreaking graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

Chelene Knight: I wish I could stop blathering about David Chariandy's Brother but I cannot. That book is beautifully written and having the privilege to speak directly with David on multiple occasions, I feel as though him and I have some pretty cool stories to tell. He has been super supportive of me, my current work, and my novel in progress. I'd also love to mention Dionne Brand whose poetics reminded me that yes, I am a poet at heart, but my connection to my city and my stories deserve the breadth of prose. Her book Thirsty will always be my go-to. 

Ian Hampton: In the course of my profession I have read a lot of music biography and books about the social history pertaining to music. As a professional musician, one often has to talk to audiences, explain to schoolchildren, write programme notes. I read very little fiction, but I am interested in visual artists and social history. One Canadian writer that interests me is R. Murray Schafer, and I was particularly fascinated with his book The Tuning of the World.

David Ward: Fiction: Paul Quarrington's King Leary, Logan in Overtime, and Whale Music. Joel Thomas Hynes’ Down to the Dirt, and Right Away Monday. Regarding nonfiction: David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree. And Claire and Farley Mowat of course: The Outport People, This Rock Within the Sea ... Claire and I are pen pals—she continues to inspire me in really big ways, at least once a month via snail mail.

Jessica Holmes: I really appreciate Alyson Schafer's books on parenting. She really has moms' backs, and wants us to raise mentally healthy children. It inspired me to include a chapter on parenting and depression because even though it was the most difficult one for me to write, I could share the really important lessons I learned about not becoming a grumpy doormat! The book that's left the biggest impression on me is Anne of Green Gables—which made me feel like I wasn't the only head-in-the-clouds, busy-minded girl who has accidentally dyed her hair green!

*****

About the Books: 

Jan in 35 Pieces, by Ian Hampton

About the book: In his memoir, Jan in 35 Pieces, acclaimed cellist Ian Hampton recounts his years of music and camaraderie, ably capturing his life-long dedication to the history and culture of classical musical performance.

*

The Femme Playlist and I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me, by Catherine Hernandez

About the book: From masturbation to motherhood, body shaming to burlesque, Catherine Hernandez reveals the reality of living as a queer woman of colour. Set to the music of her life, The Femme Playlist shows what it’s like to be sexy and proud, slutty and loud, queer and brown.

I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me is an around-the-campfire guide to mourning and healing for women of colour, written after Hernandez and her daughter left an abusive relationship. As a group of women share their stories around a campfire, they pray for each other and give as much strength as their bodies will allow.

*

Depression: The Comedy, by Jessica Holmes

About the book: Comedians live by the mantra tragedy + time = comedy - hence Jessica Holmes's refreshing and hilarious new memoir about depression, "the cold sore of the mind." She takes us on her journey—sometimes laugh-out-loud, sometimes cringe-worthy—from successful performer to someone who was basically living the life of a house cat. She muses about the chicken and the egg of depression and comedy; marriage counselling (a.k.a. tattling on your spouse); where jokes come from; living on the sofa, which now looks like a tornado hit a 7-Eleven; her kids' take on the perks of having a depressed mom: "We don't have to clean up anything. Yesterday the cat barfed and Mom just put a cushion on it and went back to playing on the iPad!"; the obnoxiousness of anti-depressant commercials: "I never noticed the ocean before!"

Holmes shares her two cents on how to play it cool when your medication makes you hear Kate Hudson's voice, and why you don't sneak elk pepperettes into the movies. It's a validating read for anyone who has suffered from depression a little ("I get sad every January") or a lot ("My psychiatrist doesn't have a name for what I've got") or who just thinks real life calls for levity and understanding.

*

Dear Current Occupant, by Chelene Knight

About the book: From Vancouver-based writer Chelene Knight, Dear Current Occupant is a creative non-fiction memoir about home and belonging set in the 80s and 90s of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Using a variety of forms, Knight reflects on her childhood through a series of letters addressed to all of the current occupants now living in the twenty different houses she moved in and out of with her mother and brother. From blurry non-chronological memories of trying to fit in with her own family as the only mixed East Indian/Black child, to crystal clear recollections of parental drug use, Knight draws a vivid portrait of memory that still longs for a place and a home. 

Peering through windows and doors into intimate, remembered spaces now occupied by strangers, Knight writes to them in order to deconstruct her own past. From the rubble of memory she then builds a real place in order to bring herself back home.

*

Gypsy Fugue: An Archetypal Memoir, by Marlene Schwiy

About the book: A life story sure to inspire a new movement of self-discovery and soul-searching for years to come.

A story that captures a life richly lived, celebrating fantasy, passion and the ideals that lie within our soul. Who is to say that the outer stories of our lives are more important than the images that haunt our imagination? What if memoir could capture the vital pulse of our inner lives and track the mysterious affinities and longings we so often feel?

From earliest childhood Marlene Schiwy was enthralled by colourful gypsies that filled her imagination and fantasy. As a young woman she created skirts with laces, embroideries, and beadwork that expressed the darkly shimmering mystery of those gypsies and wondered why they kept appearing in her dreams.

Gypsy Fugue invites readers on a journey they will never forget. The author travels to Rajasthan, the original home of the Roma. In France, she joins thousands of Gypsies in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer during the annual Roma gathering to honour their patron Saint Sara. She embarks on her own Camino pilgrimage in Spain, birthplace of flamenco and deep song, then faces her mother's shocking, wrongful death just days after her return. The music of Bach, the psychology of Jung, folktales, poetry, and alchemy keep her company as she meanders through a gypsy territory rich in colour, music, and dance. Running through the book is the scarlet thread of Marlene's gypsy dreams.

This book celebrates fantasy, yearning, and the strange unbidden passions that lie inside our souls. As we explore this gypsy landscape, what opens before us is a whole new way of imagining our lives.

*

Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir in Pieces, by Kathleen Venema

About the book: Bird-Bent Grass chronicles an extraordinary mother–daughter relationship that spans distance, time, and, eventually, debilitating illness. Personal, familial, and political narratives unfold through the letters that Geeske Venema-de Jong and her daughter Kathleen exchanged during the late 1980s and through their weekly conversations, which started after Geeske was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease twenty years later. 

In 1986, Kathleen accepted a three-year teaching assignment in Uganda, after a devastating civil war, and Geeske promised to be her daughter’s most faithful correspondent. The two women exchanged more than two hundred letters that reflected their lively interest in literature, theology, and politics, and explored ideas about identity, belonging, and home in the context of cross-cultural challenges. Two decades later, with Geeske increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s disease, Kathleen returned to the letters, where she rediscovered the evocative image of a tiny, bright meadow bird perched precariously on a blade of elephant grass. That image—of simultaneous tension, fragility, power, and resilience—sustained her over the years that she used the letters as memory prompts in a larger strategy to keep her intellectually gifted mother alive.

Deftly woven of excerpts from their correspondence, conversations, journal entries, and email updates, Bird-Bent Grass is a complex and moving exploration of memory, illness, and immigration; friendship, conflict, resilience, and forgiveness; cross-cultural communication, the ethics of international development, and letter-writing as a technology of intimacy. Throughout, it reflects on the imperative and fleeting business of being alive and loving others while they’re ours to hold.

*

Bay of Hope: Five Years in Newfoundland, by David Ward

About the book: Part memoir, part nature writing, part love story, Bay of Hope is an occasionally comical, often adversarial, and always emotional story about the five years ecologist David Ward lived in an isolated Newfoundland community; of how he ended up there, worked, survived the elements, and coped with loneliness and a lack of intimacy. But this book is also a story about David’s 78 McCallum, Newfoundland, neighbors, the unforgiving mountain and wilderness culture they call home, and why their government wishes they were dead.

Creative nonfiction written in the tradition of Farley Mowat’s Bay of Spirits, Ward’s memoir is also evocative of Michael Crummey’s poignant novel Sweetland and Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A book about how great adventure tales do not always have to include dramatic, never-attempted, death-defying feats, Bay of Hope shows us that a person can travel a million miles over the treacherous terrain within their hearts, as long as they’re courageous enough to make such an arduous trek.

May 21, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
Depression the Comedy

Depression the Comedy

A Tale of Perseverance
edition:Paperback
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Gypsy Fugue

Gypsy Fugue

An Archetypal Memoir
edition:Paperback
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Bird-Bent Grass

Bird-Bent Grass

A Memoir, in Pieces
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Bay of Hope

Bay of Hope

Five Years in Newfoundland
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Bay of Hope

Bay of Hope

Five Years in Newfoundland
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Kilt Pins

Kilt Pins

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Scarborough

Scarborough

edition:Paperback
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The Wars

The Wars

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
edition:Paperback
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A Map to the Door of No Return

A Map to the Door of No Return

Notes to Belonging
edition:Paperback
tagged :
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Ana Historic

Ana Historic

A Novel
by Daphne Marlatt
introduction by Lynn Crosbie
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : literary, lesbian
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Tangles

Tangles

A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
edition:Paperback
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