Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The November Cultural Roundup

In 1980 I started a Cultural Journal where I recorded the films I had seen, the books I read, etc ... in an old diary style blank book that I found in Chinatown because I'm ... anal, I guess, and feel the need to categorize everything incessantly. The other day I was wondering why I am still recording this information on paper (much as I love paper)? So here we are ... the inaugural post on a cultural round up of the month's activities. 

T.S. Eliot: Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot
The Captain's Death Bed by Virginia Woolf
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Carlos (France, 2010) directed by Olivier Assayas, 165 minutes

Interview of Joan Didion by Margaret MacMillan at the International Festival of Authors, Harbourfront
Karen Mulhallen at the Draft 7.2 Reading Series, Only Cafe

Art Exhibits
"Struggling Cities from Japanese Urban Projects in the 1960s" exhibit at the Japan Foundation

Monday, November 28, 2011

Through a glass romantically …

The Captain's Death Bed by Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press, 1950) 224 pages 

But no living writer, try though he may, can bring back the past again, because no living writer can bring back the ordinary day. He sees it through a glass, sentimentally, romantically; it is either too pretty or too brutal; it lacks ordinariness. Virgina Woolf

When I was younger and put pen to paper (and back then it really was pen to paper) I always felt intimidated at the notion of trying to write a personal essay. The first essays that I eagerly read (outside of an academic context) were those of Virginia Woolf. I voraciously pursued all of her writing: fiction, biographies, diaries, essays, and all things Bloomsbury.

You can imagine my excitement in finding this final edition of Woolf's collected essays at the St. Michael's College Book Sale this fall when I realized that this was an edition printed by Woolf's own Hogarth Press and edited by her husband Leonard Woolf. I love everything about this book: it's size (5"x7 1/2"), the way it feels in my hands, the smell of the book, the green hard cover, its yellowed pages and even the slightly cryptic inscription left by a friend (or possibly lover?) in fading blue ink on the front page:

See p. 90
All good wishes
from H.G.
Jan. 1, 1959 

Was it a teacher who left the message for H.G.? A lover? A doting parent? Surely it was a man, one who sought to instruct, to advise and set one on the right course ...

Woolf, that most modern of writers, had a passion for late 18th c. and 19th c. eccentrics and geniuses and a deep reverence for the masters of art and literature. But why would she pursue such an obscure collection of thoughts and ruminations you may ask. (Although, confessedly, why would I want to read about the doings of artists and writers from almost a hundred years ago here you might also inquire).

You might understand her interest in the English art critic John Ruskin (with his "petulant eloquence"), the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev ("he chose to write with the most fundamental part of his being as a writer"), Thomas Hardy ("that faculty for putting the telescope to his eye and seeing strange, grim pictures") and her own father the writer/critic Leslie Stephens ("If one moment he rebuked a daughter for smoking a cigarette ... she had only to ask him if she might be a painter, and he assured her that so long as she took her work seriously he would give her all the help he could.") As a writer, her thoughts on "Modern Letters", "Reading" and the "Cinema" intrigue me but what of the other essays?

They are as numerous as they are obscure: the ornithologist (White's Selbourne), the sea captain from the Napoleonic Wars turned novelist (The Captain's Death Bed), a governess to the well born (Selina Trimmer), the pastor kept a largely uneventful diary for 65 years (Life Itself), the painter Walter Siskert (Walter Siskert) ... and then are some that are a tad underwhelming: imagined rides on "aeroplanes" (how odd  it seems to pair Woolf with an "aeroplane" (Flying Over London) or getting a dose of "gas" at the dentist (Gas).

But what could this offer a 21st c. writer/reader like me, even an avid follower of Woolf's? Even one who is such a lit geek that she has photo of Woolf over her writing desk and mug with her face on it. Even I find my fixation strange. But ... in the manner of those who are besotted with all that the person they love is involved in, I am fixated on all that Woolf is interested in. Yes she was a snob, could be a nasty gossip, said vicious things about the Jews despite being married to one whom she clearly loved and doted on, was a bit too beguiled by the aristocracy, cared not whit for attire and feminine accouterments as she aged and acquired that haphazard look that some older women have when they are not careful with their dress. But how she dazzled with her prose, how playful and quick she was ... how she soars when she writes leaving us lesser mortals here below pining to be up there in the clouds with her.

Woolf at work ...
The proverbial jewel in the crown in this collection is the essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that speaks of the importance of character in fiction and likely that was why it was placed dead center in the collection. I'd like to address that essay in a separate blog.

And because of Woolf, specifically because of Woolf, I have tried (tepidly, fearfully, at first) to write my own essays on small and obscure subjects - hence the blog and other small bits of ephemera. The smallness of the topics incite me to write further because even though the topics are odd and perhaps deemed irrelevant by some, she infuses beauty and clarity in all that she writes.

I have a theory: read well (and hope to) write well. I also have a mystical desire to touch the books that were produced by her own press with a not so secret hope that the magic and power that infuses her books will be transferred in a small way to me as a writer, as an acolyte.

I cannot bring her back in her "ordinariness" in my imagination, only "sentimentally, romantically" but that will suffice for me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's Sexy Time ... or is it?

Fresh Girls and Other Stories by Evelyn Lau (HarperCollins Canada, 1993) 109 pages

Evelyn Lau's writing represents perfectly, for me, the internal conflict I have as a writer wrestling with the concept of how much sexual detail in my writing is too much? Once, a friend who was trying to "help" me with my writing showed it to someone (mercifully I have forgotten the writer's name) who was to assess my work. He was an established writer of some sort although I did not recognize his name. The verdict that came back was: "too ethnic, too sexy".

Hmm. I thought (rather cheekily as I was unpublished then): wrong. Not only wrong, but one day you will regret you uttered those dismissive words. Still I struggled, continue to struggle with it. How much sex is too much sex in a literary piece? When it arouses you? When it repulses you? When it removes you from the story?

Lau's writing on the sex trade in this book is perhaps, not so strangely, soulless and cold but likely that is her precise point. I don't want to make the error of assuming that the Janes, the Marys, the Sabinas, the Carols and Monicas (how oddly non-ethnic these names seem now) who populate her stories of working girls in this ten story collection represent her specifically but I think we can infer that at least a portion of their thoughts may represent Lau's own feelings from her time spent as a teenage prostitute. No need to go into all that. I think we talk too much about that aspect of her life. Read Lau's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid for a frightening trip back into that world. She went through it, she survived it and is now thriving as a respected and critically recognized writer/poet.

When I read this collection I see and feel the characters' pain and loneliness and feel not a speck of arousal regarding the scenarios depicted: relations with married men, older and old men, a surprising number of medical professionals, businessmen, masochists, doting lovers/clients, fathers and husbands. They are largely into S&M, mostly bottoms, not tops and it is sad, painful to hear it from the women's perspectives who seem so detached from the process of satisfying them.

Dominatrix, working girls, women in hopelessly one-sided relationships with married men, women with esteem issues, women with Daddy complexes, women who hint at pasts of incest or abuse - depressing and distressing. I don't want to castigate working girls but I would rather it was not positioned as a career option either lest someone interpret this as tacit approval of the shenanigans.

The problem with these roles although they might appear superficially empowering - these women are not shackled in unhappy marriages, no children encumber them perhaps, they have some autonomy, they literally, and figuratively, wielding the whip in the relationship with men - is that these advantages are ephemeral. Once your physical and sexual appeal diminishes you are relegated to the dust heap by men.

These women seem to be continually relegated to second or third place by men who must defer to wives, professions, children, or the insatiable need to try a "fresh girl" once the appeal of this one has worn off. The women in these stories (while sexually engaging their lovers or clients) openly long for a walk by the pier, a good glass of wine, to listen to poetry undisturbed, to be cherished as a wife, as a daughter. They don't seem to want sex. The ability to humiliate the client, yes. The ability to inflict pain, yes. Power, yes. Sexual pleasure, not so much.

Yet Lau's voice is brave, revolutionary, still threatening. Take a look at some of the comments posted on the Globe and Mail website after the recent announcement that she was selected to be Vancouver's poet laureate. The negative ones range from vitriolic to psychotic. Then again, that might just represent an average comment section on a news site.

She can write beautifully about terrible things. That is the artist's job. To write with passion and beauty and clarity about things which are, at times, terrifying to behold.

But I'm digressing a bit ... again I wonder, how much detail about sex is too much? I think the amount and quality of detail is important. Is this vehicle primarily written to get you off or to add texture to an intense, impassioned story? Is it clumsily and poorly written, cliche ridden? Is it boring - even explicit sexual content gets boring (porn anyone?). If it becomes any of these things - clumsy, cliched, boring or serves the god of Eros rather than the gods of literature then I would say it's too much.

If it engages the reader, arouses intense feeling, possesses beauty in the description, allows you to connect with the writer then I would say ... let a thousand orgiastic flowers bloom.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Black Like Her

Ambiguity about my racial identity (how others perceived me specifically) has shadowed me since I was about eight or nine. In my teenage years, I found myself in a very curious dilemma. Often, many times, I was asked about my ethnicity. People seem to have a burning need to place you in a racial or ethnic box of some sort. Maybe so they can figure out what to think of you.

I was often asked if I was indeed Italian despite my very Italian first name and surname. I went by the more ethnic sounding Michela Alfano then (the name on my birth certificate). If I answered yes, the question On both sides? would inevitably follow. Yes, I responded, on both sides. A strange look followed, the wheels and cogs of their tiny minds turning, straining. I would try and allay the uncomfortable silence with a joke. You thought I was Ukrainian right? (Or some other ridiculous possibility.) No, they often asserted. Something else. Another awkward pause. But I always knew what they were thinking. And sometimes they would say, You aren’t going to be insulted are you? I thought you were part black. Sometimes this was said shamefacedly as if they felt they were dealing me a terrible blow. Sometimes it was said in a tone with a vaguely malicious tint. Why did I never just say, Why would I be insulted by that?

Yet the most frightening scenario was the one that follows (an anecdote that I recall in an essay called "My Heart of Darkness"):

At the age of nine, I often accompanied my mother to her Saturday job. She operated a stand in the Farmers Market in Hamilton where I grew up. It was a long grueling day; we usually arrived at 6.30 a.m. The back of our yellow truck, with my father’s name in the title, “Frank’s Kitchener Cheese”, emblazoned on the side in big red letters, had been retrofitted in the back to open up into a window with display cases that faced the aisle of customers in the market. We unpacked the boxes from the back of the truck and set up the blocks of cheese, the bags of olives and grated Parmesan on the shelves. We sold the goods through tiny windows on either side of the back of the truck. 

To say I “worked” there would be a laughable exaggeration. My working habits were fitful and lackadaisical. I was, admittedly, a lazy kid. The immigrant work ethic was not for me at that time. I would more likely be found wandering through the market down the aisles of fruit and flowers, meat and cheeses, looking at the produce and talking to the people that worked at the stands who came mostly from farming communities and small towns outside of Hamilton. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the freedom to wander around the market unfettered at such a young age.

I often played a game where I stopped at each stand and pretended to purchase different goods, marching along and simulating the gesture of packing the food away into my imaginary cart bulging with food. I know I played this game a number of times but once, and probably the final time, I acquired an entourage of three rather rough looking girls who were approximately my age. My memory may be skewed but I am fairly certain that two of the girls were white and one was native Indian. My eccentric, if playful behavior, attracted their attention and I became a source of interest to them. They began mimicking my gestures (which I quickly ceased doing).

As they followed me around they began to play an unnerving guessing game, trying to determine my ethnicity: going from the absurd to the possible: Maybe she’s Polish? they whispered. Maybe she’s Greek? A Chink? Or maybe a Wop? This was accompanied by snickering and laughter. I was never one who could be accused of having a poker face nor any amount of physical courage whatsoever; my fear must have been palpable. I made my way back at a much hurried pace to the stall where my mother worked, my game now forgotten, praying that I would reach it before they leapt to the logical conclusion of their guessing. I felt I had to elude them in this elaborate cat and mouse game because each guess at race or ethnicity was a shade darker than the last … I felt the urgency of having to get back to safety before they hurled the final epithet.

As I neared my mother’s stall and as I catapulted myself into the doorway of the truck, they lobbed the final blow: Maybe she’s a nigger! with such irrepressible glee that I was relieved to have escaped into the smothering closeness of the truck which doubled as a stall. I felt I had made a narrow escape. I had eluded them but just barely. I was shocked and hurt (but why was I shocked and hurt?) by their conjectures. They saw me in a way I did not see myself, in a way that my circle of friends and family saw to be pejorative and ugly. 

For me to be mistaken as black was something my mother could not wrap her head around – it was absurd and strange to her. I looked like my father. I was completely his own. He had thick, nappy hair (curlier than my own even – he resembled his own mother) with very full lips and a generous nose. He had dark olive skin and tanned very darkly. My mother could not even entertain the idea that anyone would think that of me and she was duly indignant.

In a perhaps not so odd twist of fate, I started to consciously physically emulate the type of person that I was assumed to be by some. I teased my abundantly curly hair into an enormous Afro and tamed it with Afro Sheen. It was so large that people would openly stare at me on the street, at school, at work. I wore cosmetics that were specifically designed for darker skinned women in dark browns and deep plums on my lips and cheeks.

And then I began to notice something very odd. Many times on the downtown streets of Hamilton, I would be greeted as "Lala". So convinced were the greeters that they would march right up to me and say, "What's up with you Lala? I was calling you!" This happened a number of times. Lala, it turned out, was a very light skinned black girl with an enormous Afro whom I had not met but had heard of. I never did meet the elusive Lala face to face but I think I had caught sight of her once.

My close friend Y and I were on a bus on King Street near James in the downtown core and she happened to look out the window and spotted a face in the crowd. Y turned to me and said, "She looks like you!" I turned towards the girl on the street. She did indeed look like me (with better skin and a prettier face). And I thought to myself, "So! That's her!" I had met my doppelganger.

When I heard tales of rumours that I had been here or there (and I knew that I had not indeed been here or there), I suspected that it was Lala.

Since that time, my racial identity has remained murky and when someone guesses now it is usually their own ethnicity as if they are seeking a kindred spirit: Venezuelan? West Indian? South American? Spanish?

Nope, try again. We'll get there eventually. It doesn't bother me now so much although I do often wonder: why do you need to know so badly?

Portions of this essay were originally published in an altered form in Italian Canadiana
v. 22, Nov. 2009

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering ...

The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot 

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
                                For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
                                Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
                                For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.