Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2022 — Shortlisted
A neurotic party girl's coming-of-age memoir about learning to live before getting ready to die.
Tara has it pretty good: a nice job, a writing career, a forgiving boyfriend. She should be happy. Yet Tara can’t stay sober. She’s terrible at monogamy. Even her psychiatrist grows sick of her and stops returning her calls. She spends most of her time putting out social fires, barely pulling things off, and feeling sick and tired.
Then, in the autumn following her twenty-seventh birthday, an abnormal lump discovered in her left breast serves as the catalyst for a journey of rigorous self-questioning. Waiting on a diagnosis, she begins an intellectual assessment of her life, desperate to justify a short existence full of dumb choices. Armed with her philosophy degree and angry determination, she attacks each issue in her life as the days creep by and winds up writing a searingly honest memoir about learning to live before getting ready to die.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the author
Tara McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi’kmaw multidisciplinary artist and writer. She is the host of Drawn & Quarterly’s Indigenous Literatures Book Club, a critic of experimental and independent Montreal theatre, and an editor for Insomniac Press. She is the author of Girth and Scorpion Season. Tara lives in Montreal.
- Long-listed, First Nation Communities Read Award, Young Adult Category
- Short-listed, Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Excerpt: Nothing Will Be Different: A Memoir (by (author) Tara McGowan-Ross)
“Them Changes” by Thundercat.
August 2019. Montreal.
Eve was explaining the way the Pap test works, in a lot of detail. I was loving it. I was wondering if Ben told her I was a nerd or if she did this for everyone.
Ben was my doctor. A thin, almost gremlinish man, he was not tall but was very long — long fingers, a long and perpetually craned neck. He had a bald spot, but also very pretty dark curls. He also had extremely large, kind eyes and a very impressive bedside manner, for a doctor.
I am not a doctor hater. I admire and respect doctors. I just think that in order to get through med school you either need to be a megalomaniac or a weird nerd, which is why visits with doctors are often so uncomfortable. Ben had never made me uncomfortable. One time, I asked him to prescribe me weed (before it was legal), and he said no, and I cried — but not because he was mean, just because I admire and respect doctors, and being told no by people I admire and respect makes me embarrassed. When I’m embarrassed I cry. So, that was really not his fault. Weed was also legalized quickly thereafter. You’re not my dad, Ben.
I had recently asked Ben for a Pap test. He said that he thought it would be better if Eve did it. Eve was the nurse practitioner at his office, he explained. She was a woman and well-trained. While this would have made sense if I had ever indicated that I was uncomfortable, in any way, with a male doctor performing routine medical procedures on me, I had not — and this change of plans made me feel rejected. Why didn’t Ben want to look at my cervix? I booked an appointment with Eve, feeling both the sting of the repudiation and extreme embarrassment about how affected I was by the whole thing. Were Ben and I not at that point? The cervix point? Why did I care? I made a mental note to talk to my therapist about it, while I changed the subject by showing Ben a new mole that had recently appeared on my knee.
So there I was, with my skirt up around my hips, squatting off the end of the table so that Eve could scrape my cervix. Eve had drawn the navy-blue curtains shut around the examination table, even though we were in a closed room, which was a classy touch. Everything in Eve’s office was shades of dark blue, except for her triumphant diplomas, of which there were many. The diplomas were in big, beautiful mahogany frames. Eve’s office was neater and better decorated than Ben’s examination rooms. Eve’s clothes were nicer than Ben’s clothes. Eve was extremely helpful. Eve had an even better bedside manner than Ben.
I was less impressed by her good bedside manner, probably because she was a woman and because she’s a nurse. As she cranked my vagina open with a plastic speculum, I thought, judgmentally, that nurses had to have better bedside manners because they dealt more directly with patients. As she inserted a long swab into my vaginal canal and started to scrape my cervix, I decided that wasn’t fair, and who was I to undervalue this person’s labour? She makes less money than a doctor, after all, and was she not at least as skilled? I applauded myself, silently, for catching my critical rhetorical error as Eve deposited my cervical mucus onto a piece of glass. My leg started to cramp from holding myself half-suspended off of an examination table. As a society, we have a problem with systematically undervaluing the work of women, I thought. I have to work on my internalized misogyny. I was genuinely proud of myself for thinking these things. I miss Ben.
“All done!” said Eve.
“Oh, really?” I said, pulling my skirt down and heaving my rear end back onto the table. “So fast.”
When my underwear was back on, I asked her for a breast exam. I told her I felt myself up often, which was true, and that I had noticed a few small lumps in my left breast, and I wasn’t sure what was normal to be there and what wasn’t. I’d never had a breast exam before. She explained that my lack of breast exams were a normal result of my youth, and that most lumps were benign, and that she’d be happy to take a look. I took off my shirt and she very gently — maddeningly gently — pressed into the flesh of my breasts and lymph nodes in my armpits. I wasn’t sure if she’d ever examined a big person before. That’s just skin and a bit of fat, girl, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. She was going to have to really get in there if she was going to feel anything.
I had to really get in there, to feel it. I’d found it first when I was lying on my back, on my mattress on the floor, probably watching television. I’d been working my fingertips into the plethora of tiny aches and pains all over my body — a mass of tight tissue in my left quadricep, the tension in the soft parts between my iliac crest and the pillowy expanse of my stomach. I had moved up to my head, and worked down again: my fingers on my sinuses, trying to push the liquid out — to somewhere, I didn’t know where. My fingers making cold, shivering indentations when they found the tightness in my trapezius or the guitar string rigidity of my levator scapulae. On my chest, my hands moved the fat and breast tissue out of the way to uncover my constantly rigid pectoral muscles. That’s when they found something. It was an accident. I was on my way to do something else. I only found one, at first: it was a little bit swollen, angry. Searching around more, I found another one in the corresponding armpit.
“Hm,” I said, on the bed. I wasn’t scared. There was no reason to be, yet. I made an appointment with Ben.
Now, Eve was doing the same thing, but while she had an embodied understanding of my breasts and the role they played in my life — unlike Ben, I guess, fine — she was exploring with altogether too much care: she didn’t want to go looking, lest she burst a blood vessel or trip a nerve. We had just met. She didn’t know how I would react.
“I don’t feel anything abnormal,” she told me, cheerfully. I told her that I usually couldn’t, either, unless I was lying down with my arm up. I adjusted my arm position, and took her smaller hand in my bigger one. I guided her hand to where the lump was. Under my left nipple, just off to the left side.
She was very close to it, but she hadn’t found it yet. I knew, from her examination pattern — one press directly in before cocking her hand to one side and then the other — that she would find it soon. Pinching a little, pressing up, assessing. “Nothing here,” she said, but she was about to find it. I waited. Her hand touched it. “Yeah, a bit of firmness but no —” Her hand moved, but the lump did not. She got a different angle, tried again, and it was still there. She stopped moving. Her fingers had traced over the lump — found its edges, its borders. The lump was sliding around under her fingers. As the lump shifted, it turned my stomach. It didn’t hurt, but the whole makeup of my breast moved as it did. There was a nervous, uneasy feeling that spread down the left side of my body. She ran her fingers over it a few times, confirming. She was thorough. “Okay,” she said, finally. “Okay, yes.”
Emboldened by evidence, she made a perimeter sweep of the immediate area. She found more, hiding: smaller lumps. Multitudinous. Ones I did not find. I felt myself start to sweat — sour, vinegar sweat. She had found a small colony of firm, round things. One was cherry-sized, and the others peas. Like a planet and two soft moons.
“There are a few things here.”
Dread arrives as sensation in your body and it is cold. Dread fills your stomach like a vase is filled with water. The coldness has a voice, and it’s calm. It’s certain. It has something to say to you from somewhere primordial, intuitive, and all-knowing. It says something is wrong with you.
“Okay.” She stopped moving her hand, and then removed it completely. “You can get dressed.”
Tara McGowan-Ross is an unpretentious poet and philosopher weaving together meaning from the pain, grief, heartache, as well as simple joy of being alive. Nothing Will Be Different is a meditation on amor fati: the love of fate, the love of what is. By being with all of it: trauma, profound loss, the reality of death, addiction, precarity, the gig economy, hard work, love both dizzying and secure, sex, and insatiable desire, Tara shows us that transformation comes not through a battle against what is, but from the willingness to be changed by it.
Clementine Morrigan, author of Love Without Emergency
The memoir is honest and raw, but also deeply funny in its portrayal of grief, mental illness and addiction.
This delightful book, appropriately enough, works like your favourite mixtape. It's got everything you want, and somehow it all fits. The arrangement is unexpected but, in retrospect, seems obviously right. Here is softness and pain, intimacy and revulsion, flourishing and sickness. And McGowan-Ross just sounds so good.
Sasha Chapin, author of All The Wrong Moves
This book is a must read if you want to know what it's like growing up Millennial and urban in Canada (it follows her from Toronto, to Halifax, to the tree planting cut-blocks of British Columbia and to Montreal where McGowan-Ross now lives).
Tara McGowan-Ross unravels history and present in raw, unflinching prose that is at once funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical. A coming-of-age reflection that is searing in its honesty, energy, and depth, McGowan-Ross treads difficult topics such as death, loss, addiction, and grief with wryness, wit, and depth.
juror comments for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize