2019 Amazon Canada First Novel Award winner Casey Plett calls the book, "A queer prairie novel of my dreams—electric, funny, hot, heartbreaking, scathing, like a mix of Sarah Schulman and Chandra Mayor. The Western Alienation Merit Badge flashes effortlessly back and forth between four decades of sisterhood, poverty, estrangement, grief, queerness and, well, alienation. And the ache, the ache of queer people and family."
Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph-Humber and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.
THE CHAT WITH NANCY JO CULLEN
Trevor Corkum:After several collections of poetry and your award-winning debut fiction collection Canary, The Western Alienation Merit Badge is your first novel. What particular challenges did you face working in this genre?
Nancy Jo Cullen: Well, there was a whole lot of getting used to leaving some pretty bad writing on the page. The long form of the novel demanded that I leave a lot of embarrassingly bad writing down while I worked out the shape—this not how I work when writing poems and stories. I essentially write poems line by line and while I might hammer out an ugly draft of a story I get to return to fix the bad writing a lot more quickly. So I had to sit with a lot of discomfort and a lot of not knowing what TF I was doing. Many, many times through the writing of the novel I thought I’d never do it again but I also didn’t want to give up. But so much insecurity! Now that’s it’s over I feel a little differently although I expect the process of writing a novel might just involve a lot of thinking you are unworthy.
I had to sit with a lot of discomfort and a lot of not knowing what TF I was doing. Many, many times through the writing of the novel I thought I’d never do it again but I also didn’t want to give up.
TC:The novel pivots back in time to various periods in Calgary’s history—most consistently, the early 1980s, time of the Trudeau’s National Energy Program and a marked rise in Western alienation. What was it like to time travel back to this period?
NJC: It was enlightening to look back at the NEP and its consequences from an adult perspective. I was a young adult in 1982 and my attention wasn’t focused on the financial misery of people working in the oil patch. I didn’t get to Calgary until 1985 although we visited a few times each year when I was growing up, as my folks were both raised there and we had lots of family in the city. So the NEP wasn’t really on my radar. But two of my brothers were working in the industry at the time and they really struggled. And although there was more than one factor in recession that crippled Alberta (there was a global oil surplus that coincided with the National Energy Program) the NEP hammered Alberta hard.
I absolutely remember the feeling of alienation many Westerners had. We all felt it to a certain extent. We’d go vote at 5 p.m. in BC as the polls were closing and before the polls closed in BC election results were being announced. It felt like we had no effect and it was alienating. The NEP prioritized eastern Canada’s needs over Western Canada’s (Alberta’s) needs and that still hasn’t been forgotten, which is evident in the way a great number of Albertans talk about Justin Trudeau today.
I absolutely remember the feeling of alienation many Westerners had. We all felt it to a certain extent. We’d go vote at 5 p.m. in BC as the polls were closing and before the polls closed in BC election results were being announced. It felt like we had no effect and it was alienating.
So reading the material, going over editorials, digging up some ancient Alberta Report magazines pulled me back to those years and the kinds of conversations adults were having. The consequences of the NEP are still reverberating today and I think you can see that in some Conservative rhetoric and policy, especially in Alberta. People have not forgotten that era and I don’t expect they will any time soon.
TC:The novel in part is a queer coming of age story, during a rich time in queer Canadian history. I understand you mined some of the resources of the Calgary Queer Archive as part of your research. What did you find? What’s special or unique about this queer history?
My good pal, Sharon Stevens, who is a Calgary activist and artist, connected me with Kevin Allen, who started on the Calgary Gay History Project in 2012 and Kevin was super responsive via email. He also reconnected me with Nancy Miller, an activist I had known better in the late 80s, early 90s when I was more deeply involved in feminist activist work and so we were able to chat about women’s dances and those goings on. Though I didn’t really start attending women’s dances until the early 90s, Nancy had good memory of those events in the 80s.
I visited Kevin in Calgary in the summer of 2018 in Calgary and took a look through some of his archival material —he has so many documents, it was fantastic. While I was at Kevin’s a friend of his, Leslie Wilkins, dropped by and she reminded me of LIL (Lesbian Information Line) and we talked about the dances—where they were, how they were. It was spontaneous, unplanned, and so useful.
I don’t know if Calgary’s queer history is any more remarkable than the queer history of any other place. Standing up, coming out, advocating on behalf of queer people took tremendous courage, wherever one lived. It still does in many places. What Calgary’s queer archive demonstrates, though, is that Calgary had and continues to have a vibrant queer community that has supported one another for generations, despite what ideas people may have about Alberta. There is no question that it’s exhausting when certain politicians/commentators feel entitled to expound on the lake of fire, etc. But Calgary’s (Alberta’s!) queer community is not going anywhere and these days there are many, many allies in the wider community.
Documentation and history keeping are so important and the folks at the Calgary Gay History Project are doing just that. In fact, this year Kevin Allen published his book, Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary, which is a great addition to the record.
TC:One of the things I love about your fiction is how much you explore class issues and class differences, and the novel is no exception. Why is writing about class important to you?
NJC: I grew up in a large Catholic family and my folks probably had three or four more kids than was fiscally reasonable (there are seven kids in my family). My dad joined the navy at the very beginning of WW2 when he was just seventeen. After the war my oldest brother was born with some health challenges so my dad began working in the oil industry. My family moved around southern Alberta, Edmonton and eventually to Fort St. John in northern BC, where I was born. My dad almost certainly came home with PTSD and although he managed it very well he could occasionally drink up a storm. There was a kind of toughness you had to have in my family that isn’t easy to articulate without us sounding like a bunch of goons (we’re not). Nor was it a given that each of us kids would go to on to pursue post-secondary education; we were expected to work. Most of us kids eventually completed some post-secondary education but only two of us went right out of high school, my oldest sister to nurses training and me (the baby) to theatre school.
So, I come out of that world and I’m interested in exploring it, not so much as a mission as just being interested in celebrating the kind of people and places I grew up around.
TC:You’ve been living in Ontario for awhile now. How does Alberta live on in your life, both fictionally and professionally?
NJC: I’ve been in Ontario for ten years now. Most of my siblings and extended family are in Calgary as are many dear friends/collaborators. My three poetry collections are published by Frontenac House, a Calgary-based publisher. So I remain connected to Calgary and I regularly return to Calgary. I’m not sure that Calgary carries on in my fiction but it may very well inspire a project and/or turn up in a future project. I left Alberta to pursue an MFA and ended up staying in Ontario but I still love the province (and every winter I long for the sunny bright days of an Alberta winter).
I’ve maintained my Calgary connections and Internet makes this pretty easy to do. I wasn’t born in Calgary, but my folks were reared there, met and married there, my cousins are there, my siblings, many friends. It’s the city where I became an adult and came into myself, so it feels more like my hometown than the places where I was born and where I grew up. I miss it, but that being said, home is Kingston now and I don’t expect that to change. I live here with my partner and my kids live in Toronto so it works best for me now.
Excerpt from The Western Alienation Merit Badge
After the inland sea dried up and its beaches turned to sandstone and the plant life turned to coal and gas, the ice advanced and ground the stone to dirt, then later retreated from the riparian valleys, coulees and rolling plains where now a girl stepped through the rabbitbush, rough fescue and western wheatgrass. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, pulled her six-shooter cap gun out of its holster, pointed the pistol in the air and fired. A loud pop and the choking smell of the burning cap, but nothing else. No other creature.
She pulled The Guide Handbook from the rear waistband of her cut-offs and turned the blue and white paperback over in her hands. She traced the cloverleaf with the letters GGC on the back cover, mouthed the words “Published by Girl Guides of Canada Guides du Canada 1965” and flipped it open to the Foreword. At the bottom of the page she stopped on the sentences: “You are now a Guide Recruit. This book is for you.” The girl wiped her eyes again and, sick of crying, she spat on the page. She raised her arm to hurl the book into the field; let the ground squirrels and magpies tear up the pages for their nests. But, after a moment’s hesitation, she dropped her arm and tucked the pilfered book back into the waistband of her shorts. Fuck them. She was keeping it because this book was for her, right? Even if she was no goddamn Guide Recruit.