Canadians in New York
by Elizabeth Hay,
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|Meditating In Manhattan
by George Calt
IN New York, the Canadian Elizabeth Hay sought solace in a very personal meditation on home. The initial impulse is I inderstandable. Gotham, repository of the American dream as well as the psychotic American nightmare, does crank LIP one`s nostalgic attachment to Canada. But most Canadians in New York make a mental note of their distinguishing national characteristics and then head out to marvel at the exotic street life or take in
the theatres and museums. Hay stayed with her obsession about the Canadian identity and worried it into a small book.
She has written many brilliant passages along the way. The whole construct amounts to less than the sum of its parts, but I`m not sure that`s a flaw, since Captivity Tales isn`t an argument. It`s more a poetic compilation, like a Hieronymus Bosch scene, pulsing with images and sounds that resonate against one another. But not quite as colourful as Bosch`s paintings. Hay`s palette is much darker, more northern, more dour.
Trapped in a dismal New York apartment with two pre-school children, Hay was homesick. And the homesickness seems to have been not only for that other place, Canada, but for that other time, when she roamed freely, unencumbered by motherhood. That`s a demon most new parents face, and while Hay is almost always perceptive in her remarks about maternity, they are really tangential to her main theme. Or is it the main theme that`s tangential?
For me she`s most powerful as a chronicler of her own domesticity. When she steps outside her family`s life and pursues her putative subject -- other Canadians who have lived or are living in New York -- she`s less compelling.
Canadian artists in New York, how they were enlarged or diminished by It` how they settled or fled, how they survived: Hay composes her incantations from the notes of many lives, always listening intently for a pattern. David Milne, Paul- Emile Borduas, Glenn Gould, Marshall McLuhan, Ernest Thompson Seton, Teresa Stratas, Emily Carr, William Ronald, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, all landed in New York searching for something big. But a Pattern? The simple verity is that they went to New York because it was the intellectual and artistic capital of North America. Hay is searching for more oblique truths. If she never arrives at any overarching epiphany, she`s certainly an amiable companion on the journey.
Along with these artists, Inuit and other aboriginals populate Hay`s pages. "Captivity tales" in British North America were the stories of Europeans who were carried off into the bush by Natives. The implication is that aboriginals lost in New York echo those early bush captives; she apparently also wants to imply that these rootless aboriginals in New York are somehow parallel to the white Canadians marooned there. This last thought is to me romantic twaddle, but a writer this good can be forgiven a few lapses.
And that tiresome grail, the Canadian identity -- does she bring us any closer to it? Not really. But the quest yields some lovely lines. Here`s a taste: "Canada`s mythology is the mythology of not having one, of being inarticulate about our past. Like a deep blush, this can be eloquent in itself."
Captivity Tales is a bittersweet chorale of whispers about absence and longing. I recommend bending an ear.
BUT IS IT ART?
by Glenn Summi
WITHOUT WINGS by Jackie Manthorne Gynergy/Ragweed, 170 pages, $9.95 paper (ISBN 0 92188129 0)
WOMAN IN THE ROCK by Claudia Gahlinger Gynergy/Ragweed, 165 pages, $10.95 paper (ISBN 0 92188126 6)
THROW IT TO THE RIVER by Nice Rodriguez Women`s Press, 156 pages, $11 95 paper (ISBN 088961 1874)
ANYONE who has seen the brilliant documentary Forbidden Love knows that a few decades ago the only books with lesbian themes were novels with titles like Man Hater and Girl`s Barracks (sic) -- books that usually concluded with the lesbian characters murdered or "cured" by the love of a good man.
Today there is no dearth of more affirming gay and lesbian fiction; every month, it seems, some new anthology is released. How did this change come about? The small presses, for one, have actively sought material from marginalized writers, with some publishers exclusively printing gay and lesbian work in an attempt, one supposes, to redress the situation.
The existence of these specialty publishers, however, can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they bring attention to writers who might be ignored by more mainstream houses; but on the other, they run the risk of accepting a work simply because it fulfils a political mandate, often oblivious to any artistic shortcomings.
This last point is made painfully ohvious by Jackie Manthorne`s Without Wings, a collection of interwoven lesbian stories.
The thematic framework of the book is fine. Characters, ranging from college students to middle-aged nurses, deal with issues such as promiscuity, illness,
date rape, and finding Ms. Right. The characters are all loosely connected -- it`s rather like a lesbian Middlemarch. For instance, when an older woman has a heart attack, the nurse who attends her is a friend. This same nurse is later raped by another friend. On the level of plot, then, the book is mildly entertaining but banal, like a trashy soap opera.
But on the level of prose, the book couldn`t be worse. On each of the book`s 170 pages is a cliche -- and cliches, as any writer knows, are tired images that make the reader`s mind go blank. On one page I spotted six: "ranting and raving," "strong as an ox," "shop until you drop ... .. water under the bridge, the honeymoon is over," and "raise their ugly little heads." When spoken by a character, cliches can reveal that person`s station and education-, when used, without irony, by an omniscient narrator, they imply a feeble imagination.
At times Manthorne`s prose is unintentionally funny:
The wind stirred, and clumps of snow fell from the trees like clots of Hood from a recent Wound. [She] stared up at the sky. It was a sickening shade of yellow, reflecting the never-extinguished lights of the city. I feel like that looks, she thought.
It`s not just the gruesome image of the blood clot (does the author have no sense of colour?) that irks, its the lumbering "I feel like that looks." A few pages later, in a story with the promising title "No More Words"), Manthorne writes of a character`s "blatant display of disinterest." Confronting yet another editorial gaffe, the reader is tempted to put the book down, blatantly uninterested. It`s hard to know who benefits from a book like Without Wings. Not the author, not the publisher, and certainly
not the lesbian reader in search of books that reflect her life and times.
Unlike Manthorne`s book, Claudia Cahlinger`s Woman in the Rock is not
explicitly lesbian in subject matter. Rather, it deals with incest, child abuse, and recovery -- all particularly timely in today`s tabloid era.
Written in a dense, highly poetic prose, Gahlinger`s story is worth telling, but it is lost in a stream of random impressions and anecdotes with little direction.
Luciana`s story is a poignant one: from the age of three, she is routinely abused by her dying father; after his death, her mother permits various towusfolk to further abuse her each Saturday night. To maintain her sanity, she detaches from her body, creating different personas and living in a nightmarish world (if danger and uncertainty.
In evocative prose, Gahlinger summons the mysteries of childhood. After seeing the world through the fractured perspective of Luciana, we see through the eyes of her siblings, and Gahlinger has a special sensitivity to the way children think and feel.
But juxtaposed with the scenes of childhood are scenes from Luciana`s adult life, where she`s engaged in fire rituals and fishing. The fire rituals (she practically sets herself aflame) are meant to exorcise her childhood demons, but its unclear what the fishing is meant to do. Oh, there is much mythologizing about this or that Goddess, but essentially it seems like a lot of New Age flimflam.
The book`s central story -- recovering from abuse and finding inner strength -- is powerful on its own; it doesn`t need monotonous trips to the sea that read like a bad mixture of Hemingway and Woolf.
In Nice Rodriguezs case, there is no question of monotony. Throw It to the River, a collection of stories, is so confident and beautifully written that I was surprised to (I discover it`s the author`s first book.
"Once upon a time in the tropical village of Munoz, there lived a girl who didn`t like dresses," reads the book`s opening I lines. With these few words, Rodriguez has staked out her (hitherto uncharted) literary territory: the lives of
Rodriguez, who currently lives in Toronto, is especially good at capturing the emotions of the young. The story "When You`re Six" unsentimentally depicts a year in the life of a six-year-old lesbian. The second-person narration ("Being a butch is a pain in the ass. Even at six, you know that") effectively captures the immediacy of the child`s world
her resentments, loves, and fears.
Another story, "Innocent Lust," details the unrequited love of a girl for a schoolmate -- overworked material, certainly, but under Rodriguez`s sure hand, charming and fresh. And in "Beauty Queen, Beauty Queer," a mother constantly urges her daughter to become more ladylike so she can capture the Miss International title -- this despite the daughter`s affection for other girls and a penchant for self- mutilation.
Many stories assume the relaxed, ironic tone of contemporary fables (there is a hilarious story about a lesbian hen); but even within this genre, Rodriguez manages to achieve different effects. And the author subtly paints a grim portrait of a victimized society. When two girls ask themselves who gets "a good break" in the Philippines, they come up with a list: the beauty queen, the politician`s mistress, the dancer in Japan, the mail-order bride, the maid in Hong Kong, and Miss Saigon.
By turns erotic, funny, and tender, Rodriguez`s writing is filled with startling details. One character "unknowingly [tucks] dimes in her earlobes as if they were coin keepers." In another story, a teenager requests her ex-lover`s pubic hair as a memento of their affair. And in the final story, "GI Jane," a woman writes a letter to a mythical white woman, imagining their whole life together, including the woman`s death if she proves unfaithful.
This is accomplished writing, fuelled by a keen imagination and an affection for language. Rodriguezs work deserves a large audience.