The Chat with Alex Leslie

Alex Leslie_Author Photo_Credit Alex Leslie
TREVOR-CORKUM-cropped_small

Alex Leslie’s fantastic second short story collection, We All Need to Eat (Book*hug), covers the shifting emotional and physical landscapes of a young woman from Vancouver named Soma. The collection moves back and forth through time, tracing Soma’s relationship with lovers, family members, and her own historical ghosts.

The Toronto Star calls the collection “a thematically rich and sophisticated portrait of an individual and her entwined networks” while Kirkus Reviews calls the book “A magnetic collection that must be read over and over.”

Alex Leslie was born and lives in Vancouver. She is the author of the short story collection People Who Disappear (2012) which was nominated for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction and a 2013 ReLit Award, as well as a collection of prose poems, The things I heard about you (2014), which was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroestch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her latest book is We All Need to Eat (2018). Winner of the 2015 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers, Alex’s short fiction has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology, The Best of Canadian Poetry in English, and in a special issue of Granta spotlighting Canadian writing, co-edited by Madeleine Thien and Catherine Leroux.

**

THE CHAT WITH ALEX LESLIE

Trevor Corkum: We All Need to Eat is a spectacular collection, full of powerful stories that centre around Soma, a queer woman on the West Coast. How did Soma arrive for you as a character?

Alex Leslie: Thanks. Glad the stories connected with you so strongly.

Soma came out of an original set of stories, and the newer work was built around her and for her. Originally, my concept that I was writing a book of stories connected by moments of weightlessness in characters' lives, to explore experiences where characters find themselves violently thrown out of their status quo—by historical events, by personal loss. I felt blocked, something didn't click. I was very frustrated and at various points thought, maybe these are just stories that are being published in journals, and that's OK.

I had an epiphany at some point while revising the stories I had—when I'm blocked, I revise—that they were all about the same person. She was having these experiences of pain, leaving her body, and being forced to evolve. I mapped out the chronology of the stories I had. From that point onward, I had a way to organize the stories in my mind, because the stories are the pattern of Soma's consciousness. I had this core relationship with this character—a person who is wry, who survived an abusive childhood, who is Queer.

TC: “The Person You Want to See” is a devastating account of a break-up. Soma takes up weightlifting in order to manage the many layers of her grief after her partner leaves. How difficult was it to write this particular story?

AL: I struggled with this story for years. It was rejected, in various versions, by many literary journals—Canadian and American—before The Rusty Toque published it and then it was reprinted in The Journey Prize Anthology. When I heard this story had been selected for The Journey Prize Anthology, I actually laughed, because it is probably my most-rejected story.

It was rejected, in various versions, by many literary journals—Canadian and American—before The Rusty Toque published it and then it was reprinted in The Journey Prize Anthology. When I heard this story had been selected for The Journey Prize Anthology, I actually laughed, because it is probably my most-rejected story.

It was difficult to write because it is so deeply physical—the emotion of the story for me is held in the descriptions of her changing her body, the pain and ultimately the self-mastery. It's hard to write about internal emotional and psychological transformation without "leading" the reader. The tone took forever to pin down. I revised this story countless times, rearranging components. I juxtaposed the weightlifting passages with social media passages, to modulated pacing.

I think that's why the story took so long to find a home—it's dense, uncomfortable. Later in the book the reader finds out more about Soma's context. She has a lot of pain. She has a lot to release.


TC: Soma is Jewish, and several of the stories explore Soma’s obsession with the rise of the alt-right. Can you speak more about the ways your fiction is informed by particular political concerns?

AL: There is a long story in the centre of the book, "Who You Start With Is Who You Finish With," that is a duet of Soma's voice and her grandmother Charna's voice. Soma is speaking now, while the alt-right is getting media attention, and Charna is speaking in 1939, while Canada is turning away a ship of Jewish Holocaust refugees, the St. Louis. I think it's important for fiction to discuss contemporary political events, and to not shy away from political darkness in the world.

In Soma's psychology, there is this unfinished mourning regarding the losses her grandmother's family experienced in the Holocaust. Exploring the psychological impact of news coverage of the alt-right on Soma—heightened anxiety, automatic fear, and distracted hypervigilance—emerged organically. Soma is preparing to observe her grandmother's Yahrzeit (anniversary of her death in the Hebrew calendar). Charna is living through the period of the Holocaust, when her family lost their relatives trapped in Europe, and so she and Soma's fears weave together across generations.

I think that by exploring themes of anti-Semitism in the context of the lessons of the Holocaust, we can have a deeper understanding of the dangers of what's happening now. I did my first reading from the physical object of the book (at the Toronto International Festival of Authors) on the day of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue massacre—a bizarre coincidence given the stories in the book. Sadly, violent anti-Semitism continues. Fiction is a way to look at the world through another person's eyes and through the kaleidoscope of another person's history, to feel deeply and understand the complexity and long-reaching effects of genocide.


TC: You’re working on a novel at the moment, and you’ve published a collection of stories and a collection of poetry, with another collection of poetry coming out next year. What creative challenges or opportunities arise for you from working in multiple genres?

AL: Writing in different genres connects you to different writing communities and to different audiences. Writing fiction and poetry has made me read more widely. The genres feed different parts of me as a writer. As a fiction writer, I am interested in character development and in story development. I find that true especially now, working on a novel.

When I write fiction, I think in the logic of scenes. When I write poetry, I think in the logic of images. There are stories in "We All Need to Eat" that are very focused on language—in particular the final story, which some readers have told me feels like reading a prose poem, but I think of it as a lyrical summary of Soma's life. My book of poetry, "The things I heard about you" (Nightwood, 2014), is a series of lyrical prose vignettes that are then broken down into smaller linguistic components. In my mind, it's also a work of experimental fiction.

So I am interested in the grey zone between genres. That this can be a challenge for some readers because it confronts these accepted rules we have about genre. I've had editors ask me, "what's this piece—what genre is it?" Ambiguity and travelling in different worlds can be harder for people to interpret. But I admire the writers who have written in different genres—for example, Amber Dawn, Sina Queyras, Gary Barwin—and I think overall it has made me a stronger writer. Also, when you switch genres, you get built-in breaks!

I've had editors ask me, "what's this piece—what genre is it?" Ambiguity and travelling in different worlds can be harder for people to interpret. But I admire the writers who have written in different genres—for example, Amber Dawn, Sina Queyras, Gary Barwin—and I think overall it has made me a stronger writer.


TC: How do you view the current state of queer writing in Canada? What opportunities or drawbacks do you see existing for queer writers at this moment within CanLit?

AL: I think that queer writing in Canada is in a really exciting place. At the Book*hug launch this fall, where I launched We All Need to Eat, I had the honour of hearing Gwen Benaway read from her devastating, gorgeous third poetry collection Holy Wild and Hana Shafi, AKA the Frizz Kid, read from It Begins With the Body, which is so funny and wise. Both are incredible books.

This past year I loved Two Spirit writer Joshua Whitehead's two books, Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. I heard him read from the work at the Verses festival in Vancouver and his poetry reading was just astonishing—I was moved, perplexed and couldn't stop thinking about it for days.

In Vancouver, there's a chapbook press called Rahila's Ghost that's publishing a lot of queers, for example Estlin McPhee's chapbook Shape Shifters. Casey Plett's novel Little Fish was everything I wanted and more after her unbelievable story collection A Safe Girl To Love, which is still one of my favourite Canadian short fiction collections of all time.

Leah Horlick is sending around her new poetry manuscript and it's a gem. Amy Fung's first book, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, is coming out with Book*hug this spring. Rita Wong has a new collection with Fred Wah out with Talonbooks this spring.

We have a generation of established queer writers who are a continuing inspiration: Greg Scofield, Zoe Whittall, Ann-Marie MacDonald (OMG—Adult Onset was SO good!), Larissa Lai. There is a lot being said about the dark currents in CanLit right now—the programs crumbling, the lawsuits—but if you look at the work out there, it's so strong.

Sometimes I worry that we are getting distracted from the work. Queer writers are everywhere doing incredible things.

There is a lot being said about the dark currents in CanLit right now—the programs crumbling, the lawsuits—but if you look at the work out there, it's so strong. Sometimes I worry that we are getting distracted from the work. Queer writers are everywhere doing incredible things.

**

Excerpt from “Who You Start With is Who You Finish With”

Soma

I listen to Melanie get the coffee going and open all the doors wide downstairs and I lie in bed googling “alt right” and “fascism” and “canada” on my phone. I need to know the details. A rabbi in Surrey, a half-hour drive from our apartment, has awakened to find her door anointed with red swastikas. I hear Grandma Charna’s voice, whispering in my ear, “Maybe they’ll poison her little dog too.” I never argued with her pessimism. It would have felt like theft. She had full claim to the past; I was history’s blind passenger, ferried along in her blood vessels. An editorial on the CBC website laments that we are in a new age of fascism, this year in the twenty-first century, to be remembered as the starting point of a dark spiral. A few of my friends have reposted an article comparing the restrictions against Syrian refugees to Canada’s refusal to admit Jews before the Holocaust. When do people know that something is beginning? How do people know when to leave? Where is the moment, the sign? A symbol or a door? A scream in the street? No one in our family has ever been back to eastern Ukraine. If I were to go, I would be the first to go back since everyone was run out or killed. Grandma Charna taught her children: there is nothing to go back for. We are not really from there—what we came from is gone. So, are we from nowhere? She read the newspaper every morning; I got my obsession with news from her. The same photo of the swastika on the rabbi’s door floods my Facebook newsfeed, a column of bent spiders, a chain, interlocked feet and teeth, unbreakable. Melanie calls me from downstairs. I met her a year after Grandma Charna’s death, just after the first yahrzeit. Grief had split me. There’s a string of neo-Nazi protests planned for cities across Canada next week. I put the phone away.

This excerpt appears with permission from the publisher.

December 11, 2018
comments powered by Disqus

X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...