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View From The Edge
Helen Fogwill Porter's work is deeply rooted in Newfoundland's stony soil HELEN FOGWILL PORTER is the author of a memoir?history, Below the Bridge (Breakwater, 1980), and January, February, June or July (Breakwater, 1988), which was short?listed for the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and won the 1989 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award. A collection of short stories, A Long and Lonely Ride, will be published by Breakwater early in 1991. Joan Clark spoke with Helen Fogwill Porter at her home in St. Johns, Newfoundland. BiC: You grew up across the harbour from St. Johns on the South Side. Can you fill us in on what your early years there were like? Helen Fogwill Porter: The South Side was a community that existed because of the harbour. My grandfather worked at Baine Johnstorn's, a fishing merchant firm. Most of the men on the South Side worked in that kind of place. In the late 1950s, the houses were torn down along with St. Mary's Church, which was 102 years old. The gravestone of Nancy Shawnandithit ?? the last surviving Beothuk Indian, who died in 1827 ?? was lost. The South Side was a community that we thought of as an outport within the city. There were a lot of people like us who didn't have hot water, didn't have a bathtub, but that was pretty common all over St. Johns at the time. BiC: What was it that made you want to write? Fogwill Porter: My father was a great reader. My mother not so much. My father's brother, Irving Fogwill, was a poet, and he was looked upon as a bit of a novelty for that. My paternal grandmother, as I learned later, did quite a lot of writing, but never professionally. She had nine children and a very hard life. But she certainly had talent and loved to read. She died when she was 90 and read until shortly before her death. She used to write sermons for the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. John's, though she was a Presbyterian. I guess she needed the money. BiC: When you lived on the South Side, though your family didn't regard themselves as poor, you lived in close quarters with poverty. I refer to the hungry people who were fed in your kitchen, the young couple picking up coal wherever it could be found, your grandmother's food and clothing parcels. How did all of this contribute to the development of the strong social conscience so evident in your work? Fogwill Porter: Almost everywhere you lived in St. John's in the '30s you had beggars coming to your door. We were always seeing people like that around, and sometimes there would be squatters living just behind us on the hill. I suppose that had something to do with what you call social conscience, which translated into involvement in politics and the women's movement, and so on. Also, the way my grandmother and mother were, never seeming to want to be rich; they always seemed satisfied if they had enough, especially enough to eat. It would make them feel bad to see other people who weren't even that well off. My grandmother's attitude was that you should be good to people. She was a midwife and saw a lot of poverty first hand. BiC. In your play, A Nice Dancer, the mother is a cocktail waitress. In your novel, January, February, June or July, the mother is a hairdresser. In both works their daughters, who are children of wartime romances, see themselves as more refined than their mothers. They long for their absent fathers, acting out this longing through young men, the kind of man who talks slow and nice ... and reads a lot. As you point out in Below the Bridge, the wartime casualties weren't all on the battlefield. Obviously you were much affected by the war's impact on people in your community. Fogwill Porter: I was nine when the war started and 15 when it ended. On the South Side we were very much in the thick of it. All the boats came in there. There was a big American troop ship that brought the Americans to Fort Pepperell. The Americans were here from 1941 to 1962 in what a recent book calls a "friendly invasion ." Every time you looked out, there would be sailors going up and down. Most of them would be American, Canadian, or British, but you would get French, too. "Free French," they were called. They used to wear tilted caps with a little red tassel in the middle. We had regular air?raid drill on Thursday mornings in school and we had to bring tinned food to have it stored away in case we ever had to stay there. Then you had a raid that wouldn't be at the right time and you would have to go down to your cellar. There's a part in Below the Bridge about my mother getting us all together, then being very solemn and saying that if you hear anoth er noise it will be bombs falling. The Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John's burned down in 1942 and 99 people died. Arson was sus pected. The SS Caribou was torpedoed in the Gulf that same year and many civilians, ser vicemen, and crew members died. BiC: I have heard you say that the backbone of a Newfoundland community was and is its women. In the scenarios I described the women are tough. They are often hard on each other. Do you see this toughness, the hard edge, as being the result of their hardship or as a way of coping with it? Fogwill Porter: I think it's a survival thing. You have to build up a wall or some kind of armour for yourself For instance, in January, February, June or July, Eileen tries not to show her feelings. She pretends they don't bother her. I think if for whatever reason you don't want the world to know how bad you feel, You will often appear flippant and a bit hard. Eileen married an American she hardly knew when she was very young, went away, wasn't happy there, had three children very fast, left her husband and came home. She wasn't trained to do anything that could be used to support herself, and got into hairdressing to keep herself and her family off welfare. I don't think you can go through that kind of thing without developing a hard edge. BiC: In many of your stories and in your memoir, the men seem to be more dependent on the women than the women are on the men. Does this reflect your view? Fogwill Porter: I guess it does, largely. In my own family I had a very kind father who was involved more with his children than I think most men were at that time. He did have a severe drinking problem, which a lot of men I knew had. I've often noticed that when there is a big crisis in a family, if somebody dies or there is a terrible illness, the men will get drunk and the women will handle things. I have to say that, looking around me today, looking at the single mothers and people that I know, when there are children involved, it seems the mother is the one that the child will turn to for help. BiC: The sense of recognition that your characters evoke is very strong. Fogwill Porter: Well, I hope so. One question you often get when you decide to set your work very solidly in a certain region is whether anybody outside that area will want to read it. I feel that in any kind of work, character is by far the most important thing. I think you can only make people seem real if inside your head you know these people very well. I find it easier if the characters are very much like people I know. They are not those people, but they often look at things the same way. I think that is the only way I can operate. BiC: In your novel you write about teenage sex and abortion in a frank and candid manner. Considering the recent censorship here of the highschool anthology Themes for All Times, do you think it likely your novel will ever be used in Newfoundland schools? Fogwill Porter: I'm on an ad hoc committee that was set up by Philip Warren, the minister of education, after the censorship of some short stories and poetry in that anthology. One of the books that came up for review by this committee was my own novel. I reported on it the same way I would have for any other book. I would say from past experience that the novel will not be in the curriculum, certainly not within the next few years. BiC: Has any of your work been censored in Newfoundland? Fogwill Porter: Yes. Years ago I wrote a poem called "Full Circle," which had to do with child abuse and the circle of poverty through several generations in a family. The poem appeared in various publications. In 1979 it was selected by the editors of a junior high school anthology. just when the book was ready for publication, it came to the attention of Chesley Brown, who was the director of curriculum in the department of education. He refused to allow the poem to be included in the anthology. BiC: I've read "Full Circle" and I would say that it is the kind of poem that should be in a junior high school anthology. Where do you think this repressive attitude comes from? Fogwill Porter: I don't think it is only happening in Newfoundland. I have certainly heard a lot about censorship in other parts of Canada. I have a problem with how I feel about censorship when it comes to pornography, the kind of pornography that I consider to be hate material. I don't know if I can always go along and say there should not be any censorship; I don't know if I can go as far as the civil libertarians do. I also have trouble with the fact that women have been censored out of history and to some extent out of literature. It is a form of censorship that nobody talks about much. But to get back to your question about the repressive attitude that is at work in our educational department, I suppose churches are partly responsible, as well as the view that if you don't talk about something, it will go away. BiC: Your work deals candidly with homosexuality and alcoholism. Has this been hard for a writer who has spent all of her life in Newfoundland? In many ways St. John's is a small town, and you are very well known here. Fogwill Porter: Yes, it has been. I've already said that my father had an alcohol problem. So did both my grandfathers. In one story, "Unravelling," I disguised the situation by using a son instead of a daughter. There was a fear there because I remained very close to my father. Fie read a lot and probably saw through it anyway, if he ever read it. I don't know if he did or not. I find it more of a problem in a family. I seem to be able to face people outside the family or outside a close friendship. I think these two ?? alcoholism and homosexuality ?? are the two hardest things for me to write about. I have a son who is gay, and that probably partly explains my interest in the problems and the life that surrounds homosexuality. I remember in the early days of the women's movement a lot of people would say to me, why are you involved in this? You have a nice husband, your husband is good to You. That would be the kind of reaction you would get, especially at first. I suppose it's the same for homosexuality. My feeling is that people who are homosexual are that way because it is something we don't really understand, probably something genetic. It is the same as your sex or the colour of your skin. Yet homosexuals have been persecuted and maligned for years as if they were deep?dyed criminals. The story I wrote about homosexuality was based on an incident in which someone was dismissed from the Salvation Army because of an episode that was similar to what was in the story. For years I Wouldn't think of getting that published in Newfoundland because I thought people would recognize the situation. BiC: Would you then be asked to leave the church? Fogwill Porter: I have a strange Salvation Army connection. My husband was a member of the Salvation Army and I once edited a history of the church for them, but I'm not a member of it. They can't ask you to leave something that you don't officially belong to. But some of them might have been hurt by the story. Most of the response has been positive, believe it or not, particularly with the younger ones. It's funny. You write something and publish it and then you hope certain people won't read it. BiC: Your work is often about ambivalence and entrapment. In three stories ("In Broad Daylight," "A Different Person," and "A Long and Lonely Road") the ambivalence is about needing and not needing men ?? and sex. This ambivalence is also central to the novel where the mother and her three daughters crave, if that isn't too strong a word, male attention. At the same time they are hard done by as a result of their dependence on men. Fogwill Porter: I think it's a woman's dilemma. Maybe a man's, too, but it seems to be more often expressed from a woman's point of view. This business of wanting a man (or men) and not wanting him at the same time. You have Your body and Your head. You have two parts Of Yourself talking to you at the same time. I have never been able to come to an attitude where sex is something You do, whenever You want to, wherever you want to, and with whomever you want to. I like it too much the other way. But I think it has resulted in a reasonably happy life. BiC: In the short story "The Plan," the ambivalence is between life and death. Life is seen as an entrapment. In much of your work people are variously entrapped: by an elderly parent, loneliness, alcoholism, aging, marriage. In January, February, June or July the entrapment is an unwanted pregnancy and poverty. This sense of entrapment in your fiction is so strong that it must be informed by place. By place I mean not so much The Rock itself but an island community. Do you think living and writing from an island contributes significantly to a sense of entrapment? Fogwill Porter: You certainly are conscious of it. When I go to Halifax, and even more so to Montreal and Toronto, and go to the bus station and see how many different places you can go by getting on a bus, it's amazing to me that it's so easy for people to travel. When you live on an island there is that dimension of not being able to get away. But thinking of Sinclair Ross and his work ?? As For Me and My House, "A Lamp at Noon," and "The Painted Door" ?? I immediately think of entrapment, and lie was on the prairie. Maybe it has more to do with isolation than just being on an island. I have never been isolated personally, I've always been surrounded by friends and family. But if you're a certain kind of personality, at certain stages sometimes that kind Of support doesn't matter a row of beans. If there's an entrapment, I think it's an entrapment of personality more than place. BiC: Your work and your life seem to me to be inseparable, more so than with any other writer I know. You have been and are involved in social causes. A great deal of your life is spent helping your very close family and friends, no doubt at considerable cost to your writing. Do you think of your work and your life as being all of a piece, seamless, with fewer divisions than is the case with many writers? Fogwill Porter: If I Could stand hack and look at my work as you are doing or as somebody in the future might look back at it, I think I could see it as all of a piece. But I car* see that now. Now it's more like a puzzle, a problem. Why can't I do one thing or the other? There is always tension. When I started writing, I had four young children. Then the tension was between my writing and the family. Then you get to the age I am now when you think you won't have any of this, and something always comes along to take the place of writing. BiC: Well, you see the need. Fogwill Porter: Yes. I think sometimes I work best when things are not going well for me financially, because then I feel, well, I have to work. I have to do this. Money would never be my primary motivation for writing. I'd write regardless. But when you know you can make money writing, it's helpful in the sense that if you don't make your money writing, you will have to make it some other way. BiC: Would you say that the fact that you have tried different kinds of writing ?journalism, history/memoir, documentary, playwriting, fiction, poetry, songwriting ?? has been the result of necessity or inclination.' Fogwill Porter: I think it's been more the result of inclination. Most of the time, the genre or discipline I have chosen to express myself in has been one that seems right for the idea I've had. BiC: I've heard you say that you think fiction and poetry writing are regarded by many as being on a higher plane than non? fiction writing. Can you comment on this! Fogwill Porter: I am part of a community of writers and have been for years. We have always taken it for granted that what we wanted to do, our top ambition, was to be recognized for our fiction. It is only recently that I have started to question this. I guess I started to notice it after I got the Library Association Award and was short?listed for the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. I had been writing for 25 years, but because of the novel people started to notice my work. I have written a lot of good stuff, as good or maybe better than the novel, that most people will never see. I like fiction. I like reading fiction better than any kind of writing, but sometimes I think that socalled non?fiction gets short shrift. Even the word itself, to be non anything, nobody wants to be writing non anything. What I have been questioning myself about a lot lately is why does it seem so important to me to write fiction. Nobody has ever got together and said, "Fiction writing is the top. It is the writing," but that's the attitude. This is not just in Canada, the United States, and Britain, but the whole world. Look what the Nobel Prize is given for. Fiction writing is considered more creative. Probably there is more risk in fiction, but a lot of people write non?fiction on spec. In that case the risk is as great, but fiction is still the big cheese. BiC: There's a lot of music in your writing, especially golden oldies and hymns. The title of your novel comes from that old chestnut "Shine on Harvest Moon." Does music play a large part in your life? Fogwill Porter: Yes. Of course sometimes I'm dealing with singers my characters would like, not necessarily those I'd like. I'm not a singer except for singing for fun with a crowd. I don't really play an instrument, but I love listening to music. I think people like Dory Previn, Joan Baez, and Rita MacNeil are really singing poetry. Dolly Parton's song "Coat of Many Colours" is to me like a short story. I tend to he drawn toward Country music. For years I thought that was the kind of thing You weren't supposed to like, but now its my favourite. BiC: Do you see yourself primarily as a Newfoundland writer? A Canadian writer? Or a writer in a global village who happens to live on the northern edge of a continent? Fogwill Porter: I see myself mostly as a global writer working from the edge. I am a Newfoundland writer because this is where I am and where I have been, but I think most writers are writers regardless of where they are or wherever they come from. BiC: Can you see yourself writing from anywhere else but Newfoundland? Fogwill Porter: No, I car*. I love to travel hut I'm really rooted here. I've noticed something in reading books from elsewhere, but particularly novels and short stories written by Canadian women who live in other parts of Canada, what I Would call the Mainland, particularly Ontario and the West. There's a current running through the books, usually a girl or a Young woman, that what she wants most to do is to get out of that town. I have never felt like that in my life. Things haven't always gone well for me, but I've never felt my life would be better if I lived somewhere else.

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