On Fiction, Nonfiction and Femininity

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Spring Readings

On March 20 I’ll be reading at the Poets’ Corner Reading Series, hosted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

On May 5 I’ll be helping Catherine Owen launch her new collection, Moving to Delilah, at Massy Arts.

On June 19 I’ll be reading at SFU Lunch Poems.

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Jovette Marchessault: A One-Woman Constellation

I first heard about Indigenous Québecoise writer Jovette Marchessault a year or so perhaps after arriving in Canada. I was hungry for information about Canadian women writers, and writers whose work departed from the twin traditions of linear prose narrative and/or lyric narrative poetry which dominated so much of North American writing at the time. I was unaware of the great gulf which divides Anglophone and Francophone literature in Canada, and homesick for the landscapes in which I grew up. The titles of Marchessault’s trilogy, Like A Child of the Earth, Mother of the Grass and White Pebbles in the Dark Forests instantly appealed to me, not to mention the photographs of some of Marchessault’s own sculptures featured on the covers of the English-language Talonbooks editions. Opening them up, I fell deep into the images, rhythms and currents of Marchessault’s narratives, which unfold not only forwards or backwards but somehow in all directions at once. The writing is gripping, wild, fantastical and permission giving, its storytelling voice seamlessly interweaving autobiography, history, cosmology and anecdote. Reading these novels, I felt strangely at home.

Jovette Marchessault by CS

Today these works might be described as auto-fictions, although that category already feels too tight. Lyric, poetic, playful and extremely visceral, they narrate a life which is at once Marchessault’s and also bigger than hers, a world in which spiritual, magical and imaginative realms are indivisible from the physical. Children, animals, birds, ancestors and mythic beings are always present and interconnected even whilst the city of Montreal, its streets and communities, or the smeared windows of a Greyhound bus engulf the reader’s viewpoint. When I first read her trilogy I was only partially aware of the degree to which they are celebrations of an Indigenous worldview; re-reading them now, I feel grateful for having encountered Marchessault’s work when I was still relatively new as a settler here. While not denying life’s hardships, Marchessault insists on celebrating the spiritual richness and wealth of her upbringing as a rural, working-class, Indigenous child, and in particular, the brilliance her grandmother, to whom Like A Child of the Earth is dedicated.

Lesbian and feminist sculptor, visual artist, theatre artist and playwright Jovette Marchessault was also mostly self-taught, and spent many years traveling across the Americas before exhibiting her Telluric Women sculptures and publishing her fictional trilogy between 1975 and 1987. She spent much of the 80s writing and performing for the stage, as well as co-founding a publishing house and lecturing in theatre. Her many honours included a Governor General’s Award for Drama, and the Prix France Québec. Marchessault’s career was exuberant, multifaceted and inspirational, however, even if she had only published her trilogy, she would have facilitated a great leap (not just forwards and backwards but in all directions) for readers and writers to come.

Marchessault died in 2012. I’m surprised sometimes how few folks have heard of her, when I mention her, although while researching this blog post I discovered the Montréal-based Jovette Marchessault Award for Women Theatre Artists, and information regarding a 2019 staging of an adaptation of one of her plays, Night Cows, so her theatrical reputation at least seems robust.

“My origin is celestial,” begins Yvonne Klein’s translation of Like a Child of The Earth, the first volume of the trilogy. To me, Jovette Marchesssault is like a constellation. Long may her multiple bright points of light inspire all, especially “marginalized” (depending on where the “centre” is, of course) readers, watchers and listeners to name their own multifaceted truths.

NB: If you speak French (or even if not) you will enjoy this little video of some of Marchessault’s sculptures. If you have more time, here is an NFB movie about Marchessault and two other formidable Québecoises writers, Louky Bersianik and Nicole Brossard. Here’s a link to Talonbooks, who published Yvonne Klein’s translations of the trilogy.

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Standing on the Rock of Herself

Janet Frame by CS

A writer must stand on the rock of herself and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth.Janet Frame.

I have never been to New Zealand, but some of my favourite writers are from there, and have given me such a strong internal impression of the country and its landscape that I feel I have been there.  Keri Hulme’s The Bone People blew my mind when I was in my early 20s. Katherine Mansfield’s stories have dogged me for years with their rhythms, imagery and representations of time, in particular ever since I read “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” But perhaps the New Zealand I have most visited is that of Janet Frame, whose surreal, time and space bending novels speak of an emotional landscape I recognize even as its constituent elements morph and shift, between fiction, poetry and memoir.

There is no past or future. Using tenses to divide time is like making chalk marks on water.--Janet Frame.

Frame thought of herself as a poet, but never published as much poetry as fiction, or received as much acclaim for her verse, perhaps because everything she wrote was imbued with her poetics, except on a larger, more narrative scale. Her novels are complex, psychological and often surreal. My favourites include Faces in the Water, Scented Gardens for the Blind, and Living in the Maniototo. The latter blurs autobiography and fiction, relating the story of a woman immigrant to the US living with room-mates she barely knows–or at least that’s how things appear. Little is what it seems in a Janet Frame novel. And if her novels provide a degree of challenge, her short stories offer a deceptive simplicity. So little–and then so much happens. Time stands still, then leaps forward or backwards, exemplifying the kind of associative, patterning structure of poetry. Fierce uniqueness, a strong voice, sense of poetic descriptive detail and an ability to reveal, with the flip of a wrist, the chasms that underlie ordinary life.

I have discovered that my freedom is within me, and nothing can destroy it.–Janet Frame.

Janet Frame might never have been a writer. She grew up in poverty, and endured family tragedy: the loss of two sisters to drowning. Famously, she came perilously close to being lobotomized after being committed to an insane asylum with the Gothic moniker of Seacliff, because she had been erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia. Looking at her life-story from the viewpoint of the 21st century, she shows many signs of being on the spectrum, i.e. living with a neurologically different but entirely functional brain, although there has been some controversy about this suggestion. Either way, Frame’s writing career ultimately gave her a way to communicate with others and be in the world while retaining the space she needed around her to remain well, and her work speaks eloquently about the inner experience of difference, while also challenging European notions of linear time and the unified self. 

... it is imperative, for our own survival, that we avoid one another, and what more successful means of avoidance are there than words?--Janet Frame.

After reading her three-part autobiography, An Angel at My Table, it’s difficult to think of Frame’s work without referencing her life: her struggle with her rotting teeth, her ecstatic visit to Majorca after receiving a travel grant, the day she simply walked out of a primary school classroom, abandoning her fledgling career as a school teacher, never to return. But it is her work she should be remembered for, space it opened up for the acknowledgment of a kind of madness, which is to say, all human consciousness, and the brief bright flames of our untrammeled minds.

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I am

I am–yet what I am, none cares or knows;/My friends forsake me like a memory lost:–/ I am the self-consumer of my woes …” English poet John Clare wrote these lines in 1844 from the asylum in Northampton where he spent the final years of his life, after being committed there in 1841. His words testify to the terrifying loneliness of being at once physically imprisoned and also, on a psychological level, without edge.

Clare was born in Northamptonshire, England in 1793 to ailing and destitute field labourer parents. At the age of seven he began work as a goose and sheep herder. He had little schooling, although he was a fiddle player and a traditional singer, as was his father, and what schooling he had ended when he was eleven. Two years later, a local weaver lent him a book of poetry, and shortly afterward he began writing poems, often at the expense of his fieldwork. When Clare was 26 and still a manual labourer (as he remained, even after publication) a bookseller in the nearby town of Stamford came across some of his poems and sent them onto his cousin, John Taylor, a bookseller and publisher in London. Taylor went on to publish Clare’s first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, which met with both commercial and critical success.

Unfortunately, the image crafted for him then by well-meaning, urban critics–that of the naive, salt-of-the-earth peasant, the “genuine” poor person, in touch with the land–left him little room to evolve. His subsequent, more complex and occasionally political works were, perhaps inevitably, less well-received. Unlike Shelley or Byron, he described, rather than fantasized. He also raged against social inequality, and enclosure, the process of enclosing and privatizing common lands which he had watched destroy his community and landscape from the age of 16 on, a process which “came and trampled on the grave/ Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.”

John Clare, old and young, by CS

Nevertheless, the publication of his first book enabled him to marry, and to save his parents from the poorhouse. His subsequent move out of his native village of Helpston, along with his wife, Peggy, and their nine children, to a more secure home in a different village was less successful. Clare’s sense of himself and of reality itself became more porous, and he became increasingly obsessed with his first (dead) sweetheart, Mary, to the detriment of his own marriage. Peggy eventually had him committed to an asylum in Essex, from which he famously escaped on foot, travelling the hundred miles home in four days in the summer of 1841. After five months at home, however, he was committed again, this time to the Northampton asylum where he died, aged 70, leaving behind thousands of poems. His work remained under-appreciated for more than a century, until being rediscovered in the 1960s. Since then, his work has gradually received more and more attention–and been appropriated variously by activists of different stripes.

Unlike the Romantics, Clare viewed the natural world for what it was, and not as a grand metaphor for human experience. His poetry catalogues English rural life and land at a moment when both were under threat from the rise of industrial capitalism. It would be a terrible mistake, however, to view his work only as a kind of sentimental or anthropological record–his keen sense of irony, detail and music, and his unique and richly-inflected mix of dialect and elevated language all testify to his skill as a poet, and his work has the power to confound, chill and delight, even today.

Some of my ancestors on my mother’s side were Northamptonshire labourers. I’d like to think they may have known him, or seen him composing in a field or fiddling in an alehouse, the younger Clare, so full of eager intensity, somehow carrying the older Clare on his back, as both burden and witness.

John Clare Cottage, Helpston
Statue of John Clare, Helpston
John Clare’s grave, Helpston: “A Poet is Born Not Made”

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Real Change

Who do you


for real change?

                        –Bud Osborn

Bud Osborn, from photograph, CS

I got to know Vancouver poet and activist Bud Osborn in the early 2000s, after inviting him to contribute a Note on Writing for EVENT magazine, of which I was Editor at the time. I was very moved by what he wrote, which was generous, delicate and searingly honest, as always, and we ended up meeting for coffee. It turned out Bud was working on two nonfiction projects, one about his brief visit to Korea, and another about his early life. Bud was hoping to publish the latter as a memoir, and I offered to help him edit it and pitch it to publishers.

We worked on the manuscript for some months, but were unable to secure a publisher. Bud’s health was poor, and after a few rejections he chose not to pursue things further. Nevertheless, scenes from the it have always remained with me (including a harrowing account of the day his aunt killed her own mother, Bud’s paternal grandmother, and then turned the gun on herself). I’m saddened that the project never reached fruition. It seems like work that would, if anything, be more relevant now than ever. Fortunately, his poetry lives on in many forms (see links below).

Walton Homer Osborn III was born in Michigan in 1947 and spent his childhood in Toledo, Ohio. It was a difficult beginning: his father committed suicide when Bud was 3, and at 4 he watched his mother being raped. His mother went on to marry seven times. Despite the trauma that surrounded him, Bud found joy in poetry, and was a powerful runner. Afraid of his given name, the same as his father’s, he took to calling himself Bud, a name another kid once called him, an image of hopefulness, but also of unfulfilled potential. 

After first moving to New York, he fled to Toronto to avoid conscription into the Vietnam War and ended up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1986. Alcohol and heroin use drove him to theft, including stealing books from UBC Bookstore. At 45 he entered detox, and emerged with a new love of the neighborhood that had become his home, choosing to move back there rather than walk away.

With community organizer, Ann Livingston, he then founded VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and lobbied for harm reduction and legal supervised injection sites, a dream finally realized with the opening of Insite in 2003, after which Bud turned his attention to campaigning against the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside. 

All this time he was writing, performing and eventually publishing his poems, winning the City of Vancouver Book Award for his collection, Keys to Kingdoms, in 1998.  His faith in poetry as a voice for the disenfranchised, and in the power of speaking the truth as a way to change people’s minds was unwavering. In clear, stark language, his poems lay out gripping narratives of desperation and mercy, punctuated by rhythmic and sometimes syncopated line breaks, always with an eye and ear for telling detail, devastating dialogue. Events and images fill each line without the luxury of recollecting in tranquility, yet throughout, just behind the lines, there is always a watchful, listening presence capable of sardonic humor and unsentimental compassion.  

Bud died of pneumonia in May, 2014. Since then, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have increasingly contaminated the illegal drug supply, and in 2016 BC declared its opioid crisis a public health emergency. In June 2020, the number of overdose deaths in BC was the highest ever recorded for the second month in a row, and reached 728 fatalities so far this year, as opposed to the 195 related to Covid-19. I wonder what Bud would have had to say about that. NB, for folks in Vancouver, see VANDU FB page (link below) for announcement about a march of remembrance & protest happening August 15.

VPL Literary Landmarks Page; Globe and Mail obituary; Performance of “Amazingly Alive;” VANDU Facebook page.

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“I love myself when I am laughing …”

and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” –Zora Neale Hurston.

I don’t recall exactly how I came across the work of Zora Neale Hurston, in the days before Internet searches, but it was likely via Alice Walker, who wrote about her in an essay in 1975, and went on to erect a headstone at her previously unmarked gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. In my third and final year studying English at university, tired of the same old same old, I decided to write an optional thesis on Hurston’s fiction, but never pulled it off for numerous tawdry reasons, including not having enough words to do her justice. Nevertheless, her work and life stayed with me. 

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, and raised in Eatonville, Florida, in what she describes as a life-affirming community of empowered Black Americans. She was encouraged by her mother, and thrown off course by her mother’s early death, which resulted in Hurston moving away from Eatonville at the age of 13. She only returned to high school in her 20s, after lying about her age in order to qualify. One of the bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance, she published novels, stories, collections of folklore and oral history, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, traveled throughout the Caribbean, including time in Haiti and Jamaica, taught, produced theatre, studied anthropology at Columbia, and even received a Guggenheim. Despite her achievements, she died in poverty and her funeral was funded by friends and neighbours. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in an astonishing seven weeks. It is a great novel, written in rich prose, powerful, comedic and character-driven, which follows protagonist Janie Mae Crawford’s search for fulfilment from adolescence to mature womanhood, charting the evolution of her understanding of love and freedom through a succession of relationships with men. Praised by many, Hurston’s novel was panned by Richard Wright, and other Black intellectuals, not least because its focus was intraracial, not interracial; rural, not urban. Male Marxists, such as Wright, did not approve. They wanted more unrest, and disliked her representation of Black Southern dialect. Hurston was enraged by this response. She moved judiciously through the social and political world of whites, but didn’t subscribe to its categories and requirements. In celebrating what was, she stood accused of resisting change. 

Hurston became more right-wing as she aged.  I imagine I would have disagreed with some of her views, however I can’t help but admire her versatility and endurance. Her biography of Cudjoe Lewis, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, was only finally published in 2018, under the title Barracoon. Returning to her work now, I appreciate her risk-taking and orneriness, and her drive to record and celebrate what she saw and who she was, without apology. 

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The We of Me

I first came across Carson McCullers while living in Japan. These were pre-Internet days, more or less–certainly pre-ereader–and I was living in eastern Hokkaido, far from any English-language bookstores. I ran across The Heart is a Lonely Hunteron the library shelves of a different KPU–not Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where I now work, but Kushiro Public University, where my partner Wayne was teaching on an exchange program at the time. I checked it out, and rapidly worked my way through the library’s other McCullers titles (The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, the short stories) which were there courtesy of one of the English professors, who had a particular passion for her work. It’s impossible for me now to entirely separate the experience of living through an icy Kushiro winter from the reading of McCullers’ hot, scorching Southern narratives, or the liveliness of her prose from the experience of living in another language, one I began to learn and speak painfully slowly, and never entirely to read during my ten months there, during which I alternately relished and was disoriented by the absence of comprehensible written language in my surroundings. It was an unforgettable year, filled with wonder and friendships. It was also the year I began, very tentatively, to write fiction. 

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” The first sentence of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, can in a sense be read as a summation of her entire oeuvre: setting comes first (always the South, its small towns), then her chosen protagonists, outsiders of one kind or another, often very different from each other, even in this case; and finally, a celebration of love & loyalty between unlikely partners, or those who might be seen as such. But not only this–there’s a certainty about the voice here, its invocation of the storyteller’s power to conjure a world we as readers are invited to accept, without fuss. Yes, it’s a “hook”–setting up a mystery, raising some dramatic questions. But it’s also a provocation: don’t assume, it says. Don’t assume you know where this might be going. Don’t assume you can possibly know the depth and mystery of the love between these two people, whose understanding of each other is entirely their own. Now look again: the town and the mutes are held together, and set apart from each other, by a single comma. It’s a precarious sentence, easily unbalanced. Take away any one of these elements (town, mutes, togetherness) and the whole thing might just fall apart: such is the fragility of human connection, the “we of me” so yearned for by 12-year-old Frankie, the protagonist of The Member of the Wedding.

 McCullers’ first novel, published when she was only 23, was an “instant” success, but her personal and writing lives were anything but easy. A lesbian, whose love affairs with other women, such as Anne-Marie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, have been routinely trivialized by biographers, she suffered from poor mental and physical health throughout her life, and was alternately married to and divorced from a man whose alcoholism and violence threatened them both. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view her life or works as “tragic.” She lived for a while in the famous creative hotbed of February House, alongside Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee and Richard Wright, and pursued her artistic, romantic and spiritual goals with an ongoing intensity despite the limitations imposed on her by an early stroke. She died at only 50. Short and intense, the three novellas, or short novels, which followed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding) went on to perfect the form, and make it her own.

Nevertheless, it’s some of her short stories that most stay with me. Wunderkind, which draws on her early experience as a piano-playing prodigy, and Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, published in The New Yorker in 1941. In the latter (spoiler alert), a harried music professor is discovered to be a harmless congenital liar, only for her accuser to discover that the rational world he so trusts in may not be so law-abiding after all. Whimsical yet profoundly affecting, by its ending the story achieves an almost prodigal degree of lift-off; it’s also one of the best defences of fiction I’ve ever read.

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Cosmic Cups of Tea

“Never knowingly understood,” Scottish poet, songwriter and performance artist Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow in 1923 to Jewish parents with origins in Eastern Europe. Suffering from what he termed a lifelong “neurosis,” he experienced anti-Semitic bullying at school, was drummed out of the Royal Air Force for “dreaminess” and only came into his creative own in his 40s after finding inspiration working with children as a teacher. He started writing poems and songs in a stream of consciousness style, and accompanying himself on the piano or harmonium, and after being discovered by a promoter was eventually featured on various BBC programs, eventually reaching a wider audience via Radio 1’s popular John Peel Sessions. In 1967, he appeared in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film as the tour guide, Buster Bloodvessel. Later in life he lived in London and was often to be seen cycling about the capital, dressed in his signature fez and plus-fours, distributing stickers. A dedicated member of the Noise Abatement Society, he despised cars, whistling audience members and other egregious invasions of his sonic field. In his flat he kept a wax ear stapled to the wall with six-inch nails. 

Ivor Cutler: drawing by CS

Cutler’s mournful, pedantic Glaswegian articulation of bizarrely juxtaposed imagery and language is both delightful and vaguely disturbing. He produced several LPs, numerous children’s books and poetry pamphlets, and was a whimsical illustrator of his own work. Listening to his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, ridiculously exaggerated accounts of a grim Scottish childhood, I hear the hiss of a cassette tape late at night, and am reminded of the stuffy, overheated living rooms of my working-class grandmothers, or else the Geordie village my father hailed from, the green-painted benches of its wave-whipped sea front exposed year-long to the unforgiving winds of the North Sea. Even a superficial sampling of Cutler’s work offers its listener tenderness, hope, reminiscence and puzzlement, not to mention advice to the entrepreneurial and singularly unappetizing meals. Zen koan, surrealist memoir, Kafkaesque dream narrative or provincial cri de coeur, it’s all in there, mixed up with many chipped mugs full of silliness and joy.

It was my brother Ian who introduced me to Ivor Cutler. His covert, late-night radio listening during our teen years naturally included the John Peel Sessions. Decades later, he had a particularly lucky day.

Ian Stonehouse: I met Ivor Cutler in Camden Town in 1997, at 3.45pm on Thursday, July 10th to be precise. I’d been on a late lunch break, heading back to work at a film/video production company, and was standing at a pedestrian crossing when he appeared next to me with his bicycle. I said something profound like “You’re Ivor Cutler aren’t you?”, followed by a rambling monologue about how much I loved his music and poetry, especially the song ‘Paddington Town’. I explained how I’d once specifically listened to this song on my Walkman whilst sat on a bus in Paddington, and how special the musical cadences were and proceeded to sing an excerpt (“Far from home, I’m seven stops from Paddington Town”) just to illustrate the point.

I don’t recall what, if anything, he said to me but as I was talking he kept handing me sticky labels from out of his pocket that he’d had printed. I think he gave me about four or five of them, one of which was about lengthening your stride by a few inches in order to save an extra few percent of insects; another had his phone number written on the back in wobbly handwriting. Then the crossing lights changed, he said goodbye and got on his bicycle and rode away. When I got back to work I immediately wrote the date and time on the back of one of the stickers so I wouldn’t forget. Much later in life I found out that one of his main methods of communication was via sticky labels with his “Cutlerisms” printed on them.

Ian’s stickers (front)
Ian’s stickers (back)

Cutler’s Cutlerisms included “Befriend a Bacterium,” “To Remove This Label Take It Off,” and “Imperfection is an End. Perfection is Only an Aim.”

Ivor Cutler died in 2006, aged 83. If you haven’t discovered him yet, I suggest you do so. It’s at least as easy as looking for truth with a pin.

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Not Remotely Depressing At All

Leslie Marmon Silko: drawing by CS from unattributed photograph

Writing (and reading) fiction about difficult, aka “unpleasant” things can be, well, difficult. Generally , it seems, readers look to fiction for reassurance, escape, uplift and validation, and perhaps rightly so, given how hard it is just to stay alive. 

I, too, read for these reasons. However, I also take great comfort and inspiration from work which is challenging, even frightening, repulsive, or, that most commonly-used adjective: depressing. Why is this? Perhaps because it gives me hope when someone has the courage to tell it like it is; also, because reading such work provides a welcome break from the nullifying social obligation to be cheerful all the time. I feel so much less alone afterwards. Smiley face.

In the mid to late 90s, I was not having a good time. One of my coping mechanisms became reading “difficult’ books; arguably, it still is. One of the books I read at that time was Laguna Pueblo poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s monumental epic, Almanac of the Dead. Published in 1991 and clocking in at 763 densely-packed pages, Almanac of the Dead takes as its focus the unremitting evil that is White European colonial culture and the damage it has wrought in the Americas. Or rather, more significantly, the long-predicted and much-awaited future collapse of said culture, and return to indigenous sovereignty and values as symbolized by the emergence of a giant, stone snake at the mouth of a uranium tailings mine in the Laguna Pueblo. Geographically the novel centres on Tucson, Arizona, but ranges as far as the Caribbean, Mexico and the US East Coast in its depiction of vast criminal and insurgent networks.

With over 70 significant protagonists, the novel manages to convey a complex, multi-dimensional communal reality, while also focusing in on unforgettable events and individuals, including Sterling, an older Laguna Pueblo man who functions as a sympathetic touchstone at the heart of all the intersecting narratives. Innocent and trusting, Sterling has nevertheless become infatuated by toxic elements of White culture and begins the novel in exile from his community after guiding a Hollywood film crew onto its sacred lands. By the end of the novel Sterling has returned to the Pueblo with a new perspective: “Sterling saw them over and over in dreams; ghost armies of Lakota warriors, ghost armies of the Americans leading armies of living warriors, armies of indigenous people to retake the land.”

Upon its publication, Almanac of the Dead received both praise and criticism. Some critics expressed outright disgust and revulsion toward not just the form and content, but the underlying message of the book. One of the key elements of the novel is its focus on spirituality, psychic powers and what might be termed witchcraft, i.e. the harnessing of spiritual or paranormal energies to enact social (as well as individual) change. This particular element of Silko’s panoramic realism also unsettled many, not least because it unseats White Romantic notions of a human-centric, benign Nature, not to mention Christian god: “The snake did not care if people were believers or not; the work of the spirits and prophecies went on regardless.”

 More recently, the novel has been criticised for its depiction of queer characters. It’s true that two of the more prominent characters, Beaufrey and Serlo, are upper-class gay men who participate in drug trafficking and sexual exploitation. Like many of Silko’s characters, it could be argued, their marginalization has rendered them vulnerable to the delusions of the dominant culture. Ultimately, however, I believe the novel’s restless structure teaches the reader not to identify with or draw conclusions about individual characters but rather to engage with the larger psychic, cultural and moral forces that are, in a sense, its true protagonists. 

Silko herself acknowledges the novel’s power. “If you make it all the way through Almanac, it makes you strong. It’s like one of those stronger remedies. You do have to tell some people, hey, if it starts to bother you, put it down. Rest.”

When I read Almanac, it was the summer and I was on my (first and only) road trip down the West Coast. The conditions under which I first read books are often forever intertwined with my feelings about them. Almanac accompanied me through long, sleepless nights in KOA campgrounds. My progress through it was interrupted by grocery runs to Californian health food stores where undernourished white hippies, clearly stoned, complained about the lack of probiotics. And while in its midst, I fondled the giant varnished balls on a roadside statue of Paul Bunyan’s ox, survived a night surrounded by black bears in a redwoods wildflower meadow, and viewed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. Throughout, I was hungry for truth, and to know that the presence of a clear-eyed yet passionate witness could somehow facilitate change, even for those who might never live to see it.

Today I’m still grateful for the courage and vision that led Leslie Marmon Silko to embark on the perilous journey of writing this novel. It’s a challenging read, and evokes visceral reactions in many–how could it not?–yet it’s a world I return to again and again for mental renewal and, believe it or not, comfort. In June 2020, its multi-faceted depiction of our current condition appears more accurate and necessary than ever. 

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