About the Author

Ian Williams

Ian Williams is the author of Not Anyone's Anything (stories, Freehand, 2011) and You Know Who You Are (poems, Wolsak and Wynn, 2010). He completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Toronto and is currently an English professor at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Williams has held fellowships or residencies from Vermont Studio Center, Cave Canem, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy. He was also a scholar at the National Humanities Center Summer Institute for Literary Study. His writing has appeared in Fiddlehead, Arc, Contemporary Verse 2, Rattle, jubilat, Confrontation, The Antigonish Review, Gargoyle, Folio, Pebble Lake Review, Callaloo, Descant, and Matrix Magazine. He divides his time between Ontario and Massachusetts.

Books by this Author
Not Anyone's Anything
Excerpt

We try to break up every night before he goes home. It sounds so high school, doesn’t it? Break up. Me and Goran broke up. Girl, you won’t believe who broke up. Then comes the R&B heartbreak anthems, one hand up in the air testifying. Then comes the girls’ night out, girl power, we don’t need no man, Ima survivah, yeah! This is exactly why Goran and I have to break up before the night’s through, to ward off all that drama. I don’t have time for that.

“Me? Is it me?” Goran asks. We’re walking from class to his dorm on the west side of University of Toronto, then I’ll walk the rest of the way to Koreatown alone. “You’re dropping the course because of me. There’s no other reason far as I can tell.”

“You got me. I plan my life around you,” I say.

“No shame in that, babe.”

Babe registers, but I ignore it. “I don’t have room for Korean.”

“But you’re Korean.”

I let that one go too. “With the store and the other summer course, I’m just maxed out.”

“And I’m dicking around in grad school.”

“Pretty much.” From what he tells me, it just sounds like he’s reading comic books. They’re graphic novels, he says in my head. Whatever. Try Applied Econometrics then talk to me.

“Was the vocab quiz that bad for you?” he asks.

I hand him the rolled-up quiz and wait for him to gloat.

“Sixteen. Ouch.” He slurps in his breath.

“All right, Einstein. Take it easy.”

“Didn’t you study, Soo? I got eighteen and I’m not even — ”

I wag my jaw. We’ve reached his dorm. Goran cups my elbow and gives me a greasy, gold-chain, chest-hair smile.

“You can’t drop, Soo-bella” he says. “How you gonna throw away our one week together as if it’s nothing to you?”

I start walking. He runs ahead and intercepts me.

“Seriously, Soo, Soo Soo Soo, sixteen isn’t bad. Just make yourself some flash cards and go through them every night.”

There’s a brief, stunned silence before I let him have it: “My cumulative gpa is 3.86, so I think I know a little bit about study­ing. You know, with my Korean smart-genes and all. I might not be in quote unquote grad school yet, but I can figure out how to memorize some words.”

“Take it or leave it.” His eyes are grey. He looks geometric. A sundial for a nose, the rest of his triangular face divided into planes — planes of his cheeks, planes of his jaw, planes of his eyelids. A man based on a Picasso. His hair looks like a helmet made from a spiky animal.

I smile tightly. “Ciao. It’s been good knowing you.”

This is breakup number one, where I don’t hurt Goran as much as I intend to, because, I guess, well, technically, we’re not going out.

I know what he’s thinking as I walk away. She’s such a typical Asian girl, all she cares about are her grades, and pleasing her par­ents, and when any little thing goes wrong in a course she’s quick to drop it. As if it’s a crime to care. And I’m not typical. You’re typical, you smug, condescending kojaengi. Try to tell me how to study. 3.86 yo. After work, I’m so dropping him. It. I mean it. Korean. Do you? I do. Do you? Please. Like he’s anything. Are you mad because he beat you on the quiz or because he doesn’t have the hots for you? I don’t have time anyway. Because you spend all your time working at the convenience store or because you’re studying for quizzes you can’t ace? Listen, I’ve got my priorities straight.

Sixteen isn’t bad. Like hell it’s not. I registered for Intermedi­ate Korean to offset the Econometrics grade this summer. Twelve weeks, mw 5:00-7:30 p.m. On the advice of some Korean friends, I faked my level of fluency to get in. Tell Professor Yoon that your parents mostly speak English to you at home, that you speak a little Korean to your grandparents or something, but that you can’t read well or understand too much. Not much of lie. When I was a kid, my parents sent me to Korean school on Saturday morn­ings, then that fizzled out, which means I read like a second grader. My parents have a mix of embarrassment and pride about my ability. In Korea, it would pretty much amount to illiteracy. She’s really Canadian, they tell our long-distance relatives. She can’t even read Korean. I understand enough Korean to understand that.

As I’m walking to the store, the R&B backup singers begin in my head. Tell me how you go’n drop him, Soo? It. Will you drop it like Newton’s apple? or like a bad stock? like it’s hot?

(I’ll miss the big social experiment that is — was, it’s dead to me — Intermediate Korean. It was made up of sixteen other Korean girls of varying Koreanness, from cover-your-mouth-when-laughing girls to girls like me, born in Canada, Korean more by ethnicity than culture, like non-religious Jews. Most of the class fell in the middle — here since age ten or eleven, a hint of a Korean accent when pronouncing unfamiliar English words.)

like leaves in the fall? like rain in the spring? like a man crossin’ the Falls on a tightrope in the wind?(And I’ll miss Goran, the one white guy in the class, the lone ranger. There. I admit it. First class he sat his gangly self next to me and said, Is this Baroque Art? I said, Korean. He said, Ooh honeychile, I in the wrong place. But he’s actually a PhD student in East Asian Studies, trying to fulfill a third language requirement. He’s “researching” Japanese graphic novels although he’s Serbian — his parents — and accepts his destiny of becoming Toronto’s most overqualified burger flipper when he graduates. A side effect of the comics is that he thinks he can be anybody: Korean, Serbian, Newfie, Japanese, Jamaican, Italian, Quebecois, Ghetto. A week in his company and I’ve already adopted ciao and yo.)

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Personals

Personals

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also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Excerpt

PART 1
XX + XY
 
LATE SEVENTIES
 

XX

1.
Both of their mothers were dying in the background.
 
 
XY

1.
Both of their mothers were still alive in the background.
 

XX

2.

Before she died her mother was prickly. Before her mother died she was. One more time. Before her mother died she, her mother, was prickly. One more time. Before her mother died she, her mother, prickled her, Felicia.

In the days before she died, her mother flew into unpredictable rages over the littlest things. Felicia said sardines instead of tuna when passing the tin and her mother blasted her.

Why you working yourself up so? Felicia asked.

Because a tuna is a big fish and a sardines is a small fish. A sardines—you hear the nonsense you have me saying?

Her hands vibrated so badly she couldn’t open the tin, the can, the tin.

At the next meal, Felicia didn’t pour tomato sauce quickly enough into a pot, a sauce pan, thereby essentially, judging from her mother’s reaction, assassinating the Archduke.

All the nutrients done gone already, her mother said. We might as well eat hair. You happy with yourself?

Later that evening, up in the room they rented from a Christian lady, a retired British-trained nurse, who stored her medical equipment in two trunks under the window, Felicia took her mother’s blood pressure. It was 190 over 110.

See. You provoking me. You provoking me, man.

Two days later it was 205 over 115. Her mother said it was because she had climbed the stairs. Or it was because because because the machine was broken. But when Felicia measured her own pressure, it was 110 over 60, which, instead of confirming the sphygmomanometer’s reliability, caused her mother to worry and divert the conversation to Felicia’s iron levels. She demanded menstruation details, when, how long, how heavy, what colour. Where could she get good beef — West Indian beef, not from these anemic snow-eating cows. The cast iron pot—the soap Felicia used had wrecked it. Nutrients, her mother said that a lot before she turned into a seahorse and drifted off.

And then over the weekend, her pressure went down to 146 over 90. They both laughed.

I telling you I know what I doing. Don’t feel I don’t know.

Her mother had taken to eating two cloves of garlic at each meal.

Sunday night, after the women wrapped their hair for bed, they leaned against the headboard in their rented room in the Christian woman’s house and excoriated the choir director for favouring the tenors. When her mother fell asleep, Felicia read a little Great Expectations for school. Three pages and she was out.

Her mother woke up and took the bus from Brampton to work in Toronto before she died. Obviously. When else would she take it?

+

Point taken. Yes, and then the office buzzed Felicia during period 4, Home Economics, and told her to bring her things with her, there had been an emergency.

But her mother was not in Emergency at St. Xavier hospital. In fact, Emergency was taped closed. Felicia imagined the worst, that her mother wasn’t simply dead but that a grenade had gone off in her chest and destroyed a section of the hospital. A police officer directed Felicia and a couple with a baby to an alternate entrance.

Felicia found her mother in Palliative, sharing a room with an elderly woman. It was strange to see her mother sleeping in public. She was normally a vigilant woman with chameleon eyes that seemed to move independently from one point of suspicion to another. Now, although they were both closed, she seemed uneasy, perhaps with the fact that her bra had been removed by strangers and her breasts splayed unflatteringly sideways.

Between the two beds, a man stood holding his wrists like the Escher print of hands drawing themselves. It would become his characteristic position. From forehead to jaw, his head was the same width as his neck. From shoulders to feet, he seemed constrained in a tight magic box, ready to be sawed in two. Put together, he comprised two rectangles stacked on each other—a tall, abstract snowman. His pants were wet from the knee down. Despite that, Felicia presumed he was the doctor because he was a man, a white man, a middle-aged white man, wearing a pinstriped shirt, but it turned out he was only a man, a white man, a middle-aged white man, wearing stripes and grip­ping his wrists.

Unconscious, Edgar said.

Unconscious or sleeping? Felicia asked.

Unconscious, he repeated. He presented the woman in the other bed as proof of his medical expertise. My mother. She’s sleeping.

His mother’s mouth was open. There was brown industrial paper towel on her chest to catch the leaking saliva. She gave the impression of needing to be laced up—as if by pulling the strings of a corset one could restore her mouth, her skin, her posture, to their former attentiveness.

She’s not going to make it, Edgar said. He flicked the bag of intravenous solution with his middle finger, then looked for some change to register in his mother. Seconds later, she began coughing. Her cheeks filled with thick liquid as Edgar searched for a cup, her spittoon. Felicia happened to swallow at the same time as his mother and while looking at the lump go down the woman’s throat, she felt the phlegm go down her own. She pulled the collar of her coat tight around her neck.

Felicia turned back to her mother. Her mother was so careful about applying makeup and now there was no trace of it on her. Where were her earrings? Her nail polish looked more crimson than red. Felicia knocked on her knuckles.

You hearing me? Felicia leaned in. You hearing me?

She thought she saw her mother frown. She frowned. Or perhaps it was a deception of light, the passing accident of light reflected from someone’s watch face.

Felicia heard the jaunty jingle of keys behind her.

So what brings your mother here on this fine autumn afternoon?

Without moving the rest of her body, Felicia twisted her cervical vertebrae to see if he was serious.

Mutter, here, couldn’t breathe, he offered. It’s her pneumonia. He put an odd stress on the her as if he were settling a dispute between feuding children: it’s her doll, let her have it. They think the cancer might have spread to her other lung. We’re waiting. It’s not easy. The waiting. Not easy at all. Come on, get in there.

Felicia turned around fully. She hadn’t seen snow since arriving in Canada.

Edgar was slouching in one of the chairs in the middle of the room, organizing his keychain. His hair was the colour of the dried oak leaves around her school.

What do you know? she said.

I’m just telling you how it goes. I’ve been through this once, twice, be—

No, I mean what do you know about my situation?

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