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Mended Maps: Language, Identity, and Home-Making

A recommended reading list by author of the new book Fungal

Book Cover Fungal

Copies of Ariel Gordon's latest, Fungal, are up for giveaway until the end of June

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My first writer-crushes were on Anne Szumigalksi and Robert Kroetsch. I loved the vividness of their language, of their ideas, but I also deeply appreciated their place-making, what I call home-making. 

I was most drawn to Kroetsch’s novels, which were so sexy and weird: The Studhorse Man (1969), Badlands  (1975), and The Puppeteer (1992). And I loved Szumigalski’s poetry, especially in poems like In Praise of My Own Breasts, here in its prose-poem iteration: "A lover told me one breast is a giant puffball the other a coconut.  One is full of sweet milk the other of ripe spores. He didn't say which he admired the most."

I was writing poetry, learning to love poetry from teachers like Deborah Schnitzer and Catherine Hunter, while training to become a science journalist. Eventually, my education and my vocation converged in nature-y non-fiction that is focused on urban nature. On the urban forest and climate change, wild turkeys and wildfire smoke. 

My idea was to meld the feminist personal essay with science writing. I was already obsessed with trees, mushrooms, and cities—my city—and those two things together set the course of not only my creative nonfiction but also my way of being-in-the-world for the next decade. 

Each essay in Fungal is about mushrooming. But they’re also maps that I’ve been handed by my settler ancestors, by the authors of late-stage capitalism, that I’ve attempted to mend and amend. By ripping and re-stitching them, by making spore prints and muddy palm-prints over top of its official landmarks and place-names. 

Eventually, my education and my vocation converged in nature-y non-fiction that is focused on urban nature. On the urban forest and climate change, wild turkeys and wildfire smoke.

So for this recommended reading list, I’ve included some new and new-ish books by people that feel like they’re doing work in a similar vein, each with their own ways of home-making. They’re all better and smarter than I am and I am so inspired by their work.

Book Cover Imagining Imagining

Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity, by Gary Barwin

I am a great admirer of Gary’s: I am inspired by his ability to play, to collaborate. (Case in point: for ages, his FB handle was Moribund Facekvetch, which I actually prefer to his real name.) The author of 26 books, including surrealist poetry and a pair of wildly successful novels, this is Gary’s first collection of CNF.  I admire how this Hamilton-based but Ireland-born Jew of Ashkenazi descent takes on the big questions—identity, language, culture—while walking the reader through the dark woods with his dog, Happy. (He named his dog Happy!) I admire how Gary moves, as a writer, from sentence to sentence, from joke to joke, idea to idea. For instance, in his essay about aging, his “lazy” right eye, and how he has reconciled his personal and familial history, Gary writes: “The past is tricky. Sometimes we have to make it again. Ship of Theseus: solved.” A page later, Gary responds to a park ranger shouting at him to abort his crossing of a rushing river: “But I’ve put my wallet in my shoe and thrown it across the river already.” As a reader, you are the wallet, the shoe, the river AND Gary.

Book Cover Going to Ground

Going to Ground: A Journey through Chronic Pain, Aging and the Restorative Powers of Nature, by Luanne Armstrong

I loved Luanne’s beautifully-written Light Through the Trees (2012) and pledged to re-read it every year. So I was very excited about another essay collection from this writer based in BC’s Kootenay region. Luanne has written 25 books to date, in almost every genre including poetry. While like Light Through the TreesGoing to Ground focuses on Luanne’s family’s legacy of farming, on land-use, history, walking and how it has all affected her writing, this is an older woman’s book. Pain and loss lurk in the margins, but never overwhelms the reader. I am ever-so -slightly afraid of aging, of the various aches and pains I already tow around with me as a woman in my early fifties. So my first read of this book felt dangerously bracing—like going for a walk in minus 50 C in a fall coat—but the more I return to it, the more I feel like it is necessary for me and, hopefully, for you.

Book Cover Garden Inventories

Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place and Belonging, by Mariam Pirbhai

Sometimes, you read something and it’s so good and so close to your own interests, things you’ve been meaning to write about, that it makes you ache a little. In admiration but also with a kind of benevolent envy, because you wish you had written it. Mariam’s Garden Inventory, which takes on suburban land-owning (so many non-native plants! So much grass!) and the sociology of cottage-owning, of leisure and class, is very good. This is the Waterloo-based writer’s first book of CNF—after a novel, a book of short stories, and a career as an English prof—but these essays are brimming with fully-formed thoughts and feelings about urban/suburban nature and about home-making as an immigrant-settler. There is also a richness of language here that I appreciate as a poet-writing-CNF: how/when do you bring in literary flourishes, embroidering your text with beauty, when writing about things that are complex, even difficult?

Book Cover Critical Fictions

Critical Fictions, by Hannah Godfrey 

This is a startling book, for what it reaches for, for what it brings in. Hannah is an artist and curator living in Winnipeg but is originally from the UK. In Critical Fictions, Hannah writes about five queer artists, their work and their practices, but also responds to them with creative texts. This is therefore a double ekphrasis, on both creative and critical fronts, and it is very interestingly done. I have none of Hannah’s abilities: she writes with such delicacy, such sensitivity, while also bringing in queer history and theory. We can all only do what we can do—and you should know that I am deeeeeply-in-love with Fungal at the moment—but I am glad that someone can produce work like this. I particularly enjoyed the section on Derek Dunlop’s work, where Hannah engages with his 2019 show Forms of Place, which included metal artefacts pulled from the Assiniboine River near the Legislative grounds, a popular cruising trail for men. It adds another layer of sediment, of history and remembering, to my own mudlarking/mushrooming practices.

Book Cover alfabet-alphabet

alfabet / alphabet: a memoir of a first languageby Sadiqa de Meijer

This slim essay collection—the Kingston-based writer’s third book—is as much poetry as it is CNF. I approve of that hybridity, especially as a poet who has snuck poems into both her books of CNF. My grandmother Adé was a Dutch war bride, giving birth to my mother in Vancouver as a malnourished 19-year-old. My grandmother spoke three or four languages but never taught any of her five children those languages, the whispers of “displaced people” a smoke, a fire that threatened the edges of their rural Thunder Bay property. My Oma saved her Dutch, the way Sadiqa’s family did, “for private subjects that arise in public: money, or strained relations, or ailments.” As someone who doesn’t know a single word of Dutch, I needed Sadiqa’s treatise on language, home, and belonging, as an immigrant to Canada, her home-making as a person of Dutch-Kenyan-Pakistani-Afghani descent. 


Book Cover Apples on a Windowsill

Apples on a Windowsill, by Shawna Lemay

I loved Lemay’s Calm Things (2008); it was one of the books that helped me imagine a future as a writer of poetry and CNF. I also loved the Edmonton-based writer’s way of being in the world, her negotiations and adaptations, as a writer but also a mother and the partner of a painter of still lives. My thoughts on beauty are the same as my thoughts on mountains as a person from the prairies: distrust. But I like Lemay’s ruminations on beauty, on making meaning in the modern world, on marriage. And I would follow her anywhere, so I am looking forward to spending more time with this book.

Book Cover The Good Walk

The Good Walk: Creating New Paths on Traditional Prairie Trails, by Matthew R. Anderson

I have heard good things about these walks and this person from another great walker/storyteller, Ken Wilson, so when Matthew R. Anderson came to Winnipeg to launch The Good Walk, I was in the front row at McNally’s. His writing about walking in his home province in Saskatchewan as “memoir, travelogue, and manifesto” was super inspiring. Though I have no interest in doing the Camino or the Cotswolds, I find myself intrigued by the idea of a long walk on the prairies. I feel like there’s something I could learn from that, though I am very good at my own walks, which are often slow and rambly and don’t cover much ground. And I am sure there is lots I can learn from this book.


Book Cover Fungal

Learn more about Fungal: 

Fungal is a wide-ranging collection from Ariel Gordon where she explores her fascination with all mushrooms, not just those you can eat. In these engaging essays she takes the reader through ditches and puddles in search of morels, through the hallways of a mushroom factory, down city sidewalks and beside riverbanks as she considers things found and fungal. Along the way there are entertaining stories of the perils of mushroom identification, including mailed mushrooms that have liquefied, or terrifying thoughts of Canadian geese being fed hallucinogenic mushrooms, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the ways mushrooms knit our ecosystems together and the ways we knit our lives and communities together. Smart, funny and poetic, Gordon moves seamlessly from the natural world to the personal in these essays, examining the interconnectedness of all things and delighting in the rich variety of the world around her.


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