In her second novel, Philomena (Unloved), Christene A. Browne pushes the conversation around sexual violence and #MeToo forward to include vulnerable women who've not yet had their voices heard. In this list, she shares other titles that engage with issues of poverty, immigrant experience, and homelessness.
Philomena (Unloved) began as the convergence of two things: me asking the question of what happens when one is not loved, and me wondering about the life of a strange woman I would see often walking aimlessly in my neighborhood.
In writing of the novel, I imposed an imagined life on this woman and populated her world with composites of people from my past. What resulted was a stark story of young girl who is orphaned by her father, abandoned by her mother, and placed in the cold grip of her long-tired grandmother.
Philomena in her small existence tries to make sense of the world and find some semblance of love, family, and home.
In her search, she falls victim to her pastor, a sexual predator. Philomena confuses his abuse of power for love. After a move from her island nation of Monserrat to America, her already mental fragility and instability are exacerbated. Only after some time living on the street and then in a psychiatric ward does Philomena finally finds a sense of home in supportive housing. Here she is surrounded by women who all have had similar experiences.
Told in the first person, the novel delves deep into a mind that has been altered by psychosis and the trauma of sexual violence and life without love.
In this era of #MeToo movement, Philomela’s plight—and those of the multitude of women like her—demonstrates that sexual violence against women and children is endemic in this society and it is the women who live on the margins—poor women, racialized women, homeless women, women who suffer from mental illness—who are all the more vulnerable.
I would like this novel (and the ones that I recommend below) to broaden the celebrity-obsessed discussion that is taking place in and around sexual violence and mental illness. I would also like it to give voice to the violence that can come with poverty, immigrant experience, and homelessness.
More, by Austin Clarke
In her steadfast beliefs and practicality, Idora reminds me both of my grandmother and mother. Clarke describes a woman who exists on the margins who must live with the stress of having a son who is young and Black and at the mercy of the streets and law enforcement.
With this book Clarke takes the reader into the most undesirable parts of the city and we are absorbed by the everyday indignities and violence of otherness and immigrant life.
Thirsty, by Dionne Brand
In this collection of poems Brand’s words wander and meander the streets of Toronto like a wayward soul with no place to call home—like the inspiration for Philomena (Unloved).
In beautiful, lyrical language, Thirsty describes the underbelly of ethnic Toronto. The urban chaos is permeated by police violence when a mentally ill person is killed and family is left to deal with the aftermath. It is a death that could have been easily avoided with some empathy, understanding, and tolerance.
Rush Home Road, by Lori Lansens
In Rush Home Road, Lansens tells the story of young mixed-race girl who has been abandoned by those who are supposed to love and care for her. Sharla Cody, like Philomena, is forced to find belonging wherever she can. She finds this in the home of Adelaide (Addy) Shadd, an elderly Black woman with no family to call her own. Sexual violence is only one of traumas that Addy has survived. And yet she manages to make a loving home for the wayward child. Their story illustrates the redeeming power of love and how love can truly save.
How to Talk to Crazy People, by Donna Kakonge
In this memoir of mental illness, Kakonge chronicles her 15 breakdowns over a five-year period with excruciating honestly and detail. Readers become privy to her daily struggles and dilemmas brought about by her poor mental health. We watch as she decides whether to stay on her meds or come off, as she battles her psychosis in real time and tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy in her work and home life.
With her testimony, Kakonge gives us a glimpse into the mind of someone who has carried the double burden of mental illness and marginalization.
Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, Evelyn Lau
Like How to Talk to Crazy People, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid is a personal account of a young woman who in battling her personal demons. Lau considers her family oppressive and leaves, ending up on the streets of Vancouver at the age of 14.
What she finds on the street, however, is far worse than what she left behind. She succumbs to addiction and turns to prostitution to support her habit. Her desperation shows in three attempts at suicide. Lau’s words are filled with the adolescent angst of someone who has lost her way. This heart-wrenching account could not be more real or tender, coming from the pen of a future writer.
Childhood, by André Alexis
In Southern Ontario’s Petrolia, Thomas MacMillan is raised by his grandmother until her death. When the mother who had abandoned him returns to collect him, his life becomes all the more uncertain and less grounded. Alexis’s first novel is written in a diary-like fashion and examines what love and family really mean.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Jack and Ma live in fear in a room where Jack was born. Ma must protect Jack from Old Nick, a sexual predator, with the only tools that she has in her arsenal—her deep love for her son and her desire for them to survive. They do their best to cope. Jack knows no other life so this comes easier to him.
Told from the perspective of Jack—a young, innocent child—Room is a tale of how love can allow one to endure the impossible.
Ragged Company, by Richard Wagamese
This novel tells the tale of four destitute Indigenous men—Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick, and Digger—who fight their demons along with the elements in a northern Arctic town.
Their sense of home and refuge is found among films in a movie theatre. There, they are able to explore realms beyond their meagre existence. The idea of home is central to the quest of these men who do not have one. These men represent the disproportional percentage of the homeless population across Canada who are Indigenous.
Two Women, by Christene Browne
Philomena (Unloved) grew from explorations and discussion I started with my first novel. Two Women is a cautionary tale about Violet and Rose, who share the same soul. Like Philomena (Unloved), it tells the story of unlikely friendships that form in a circle of women. The women here are also victims of violence. Their journey looks at the cycle of domestic violence that can be found in any family regardless of class, race, or geographic location. In this uplifting tale, the women embolden themselves and take charge of their destinies and come out on top with a little help of magical realism and humour.
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