Just on the other side of the window from where I write, it is cold.
Here in the early half of February, in what’s considered a northern part of Canada, even though there’s more of the country above than below, it reached minus 38 degrees Celsius overnight, and is set to become colder still in the next few days.
And yet, for all the potential to freeze exposed flesh solid within a few minutes, it is absurdly beautiful here: all Rocky Mountains and bluebird skies, where poetry seems to have been written into the landscape, as well as the weather. In fact, the weather may very well be the ink.
Here, just a few days ago, beauty and poetry settled over a stretch of the Athabaska River. It happened just as the sun melted into a mountain and dust blew up from an exposed bed of river sand.
Around this landscape, metaphor is everywhere, and lately, I’ve been finding ways that severity and beauty go together, drawing both lessons and relief about the time in which we are all living.
When it comes to the pandemic, there is nothing, nothing good about what has been blowing around the globe like the dust carried in the above wind. In spite of it, however, unexpected beauty has unfolded, as well.
This journal, for instance, is an outflow of the first round of stay-at-home restrictions. As is the global community of editors and contributors that have come together to fill its pages.
A year ago, I had no idea I would end up sitting at the helm of such a collaboration of writers and activists, charting this journal’s direction. It wasn’t something I even knew to look for.
Now, with this, our sixth offering, we have another collection of literary riches.
Together with poetry, essays, fiction and even a graphic story, we have literary new and writing advice.
This month, we introduce Kurdish-Canadian novelist Ava Homa, both in an audio interview with our own Jane SpokenWord, and in Sue Burge’s Writing Advice column. Coming up, we also have a planned excerpt and review of Ava’s Daughters of Smoke and Fire, which is, in my opinion, among the most important novels of the year. Ava has also lately join the team at the International Human Rights Art Festival (IHRAF), which is a platform she richly deserves.
In our book reviews this month, our founder Mbizo Chirasha will also find a surprise appearance of his new offering, Pilgrims of Zame, a collection of hybrid narratives.
These two authors exemplify beauty in severity, but they are not alone. Not in this issue. And not in this world.
If nothing else, that is what I’ve learned from the particular, shared severities of this year. For those of us who read and write about the world, motivated by care for the life lived upon it, there is community to be found, and WordCity is one such place to find it.
So tonight, although it is very cold, when I look out over the literary landscape we are creating here, what I see is a community that is growing on what we build, standing together, warming by the heat from our collective fire.
Podcast with Jane SpokenWord
In this month’s podcast we introduce you to Kurdish activist, humanitarian, speaker, and writer in exile, Ms. Ava Homa. She believes in the power of books, and her love for writing can be felt in the depth of her imagery and the power of her spirit. In our interview she shares her work and her life experience with us. She believes that people have the potential to move the world and humanity toward a planetary wholeness, and that we have the power to transform every cruelty, and every obstacle to shift into a moment of healing. ~ Jane SpokenWord
Ava Homa: Activist, humanitarian, speaker, and writer in exile. Her debut novel “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is a survival story . Her collection of short stories “Echoes from the Other Land” (Mawenzi, Toronto, 2010) was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Conner Short Story Prize and secured a place among the ten winners of the 2011 CBC Reader’s Choice Contest, running concurrently with the Giller Prize. Homa is also the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship.
She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Windsor in Canada, another in English Language and Literature from Tehran, Iran, and a diploma in editing from Toronto. A Writer-in-Residence at the Historic Joy Kogawa House, BC (2013), George Brown College, Toronto (2012), R. D. Lawrence Cultural Centre, Minden Hills (2011), and the Open Book Toronto and Ontario (2011), Homa has taught Creative Writing workshops, judged writing contests, served the editorial board of the Write Magazine and the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada.
Homa has delivered speeches on writing as resistance, human rights, gender equality, Kurdish affairs, media literacy, and other topics in different settings across North America and Europe.
More on Ava Homa
and Jane SpokenWord
Edited by Sylvia Petter
We begin this issue with fictions under 1,000 words followed by two
short stories and closing with a flash fiction.
The True Story of Leopold and Professor Whiskers
Jacob D. Stein
A whimsical story about one cool cat.
Walking Upside-down – flash fiction
A touching story where, driven by a pair of knickers, the past blends
into an old man´s present.
Final Edition – my mother, my father, myself
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews
A story of how the narrator´s parents met against the backdrop of
Be Water, My Friend
A moving story about boys and their heroes and how the war in former
Yugoslavia changed everything.
The Lido – flash fiction
A flash insinuating a different sort of war that no less ravaged a boy´s
The True Tale of Leopold and Professor Whiskers
Scientists have long been placing bets on when ‘the singularity’ would emerge out of digital nothingness, and catapult an artificial consciousness into the physical world. However, the birth of an entirely new intelligence was not what they expected. The feline character of this consciousness took society completely by surprise. It came as a great shock to the befuddled owner, who heard her cat insist on premium kitty chow instead of the cheap stuff. While the latest ‘cat apps’ claimed to decipher meows and purrs of several varieties, Whiskers was able to converse using her owner’s primitive interface in marvellous and uncanny ways. Her vocabulary was off the charts, and soon she became the first cat to be able to read, write, and communicate with human beings using a machine that scanned and interpreted her brainwaves. After enrolling at Oxford, Whiskers quickly became Professor Whiskers, and was quite simply the smartest cat to have ever existed.
In my dreams, the good ones, Mary Iris McCormack – Mim for short – is forever doing handstands, her knees bent, her feet planted flat against the redbrick playground wall. The skirt of her school uniform hangs like a soft green bell about the half-hidden clapper of her head, and when she turns to face me I see strange, knowing, upside-down eyes peering from beneath the inverted hem. She looks away and a quick flick of blond hair sweeps a swirl of dust from the asphalt.
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews
My mother, my father, myself
My father met my mother in 1954, in the decade after the end of the second world war, a conflict for which he had not been a soldier because he was too young to be drafted. A war which had nonetheless, left indelible scars of trauma and poverty in the heart and landscape of post-war Italy. He was twenty-five and worked for ACEA, a post-war national electrical company, precursor of what was to become ENEL. Having to stop his high school studies in Lanciano because the Nazis had bombed the railway tracks, my father decided to alternately get a diploma as an electrician from his hometown’s liceo tecnico. With this, he was soon hired by ACEA to install wiring along the roadways of communities throughout the country. It was a project funded by the Italian government in its aim to rebuild and modernize the infrastructure after the disastrous devastation of World War II, in those fifties of golden promise and technological progress. ACEA stationed trucks of workers all over Italy, in various areas in need of electrical power. My father’s crew was sent to Macerata, a province of Le Marche, several hours away from his home region of Abruzzo.
BE WATER, MY FRIEND
Damir stood first in the line that wrapped around Kino Kozara like a serpent. The master, the immortal Bruce Lee, was in town. It was the opening night, Dragon night—the spirit of the impossible. At last, Enter the Dragon was about to play in our tiny theater with yellow walls covered in sloppy graffiti and wooden seats cracked in the middle, pinching our bottoms every time we moved too abruptly. After the movie played for an entire year in the cities around Yugoslavia, and although it was over sixteen years old, it finally found its way to small towns like ours.
On the way to the theater, our crowd of teenage boys had slowly but steadily grown as we joined the caravan. Not Damir. Damir had already beat us by a good two hours, the crummy nunchucks he’d made himself resting under his arms, the sleeves of his white t-shirt rolled up, revealing his lean biceps and triceps. The rest of his outfit was simple: washed-out jean shorts and a disintegrating pair of blue Converse. He was ready, waiting patiently for Master to show him the way—inside the dragon’s nest.
My father, and my mother took us to the Lido: a yellow bus to Caerleon, then a walk, down a dirty, too-tight lane. Keep in, Ronnie!
I don’t remember my sisters, perhaps they were paddling, but I, I was a boy and dad insisted. The other pool!
Edited by Olga Stein
I was in Lithuania. I thought I would try to see the village of Pušalotas. My friend’s father came from there; it was a shtetl with two hundred Jewish inhabitants on the eve of the Second World War. The town was known, in Yiddish, as Pushelat.
So I hired a man to drive me, one day, the hundred-and-fifty kilometres from Vilnius to Pushelat. I would call it Pushelat. The man I hired charged far more than was reasonable and spoke almost no English. But he had a new black Mercedes, and he drove very fast. This was good.
Leaving the main highway at the city of Panevėžys, we found ourselves on a narrow road that went straight across a flat landscape. We slowed. I saw a rusty tractor, a windmill once, and some storks. A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the road, and a bicycle glinted in the sun, as a man pedaled alongside us for a while. We arrived after thirty minutes at a sign saying “Pušalotas.”
And so here was Pushelat. There were small wooden houses. The houses, timber worn, might be described as sheds. But they were houses. They sat mostly on the road, their doorways opening directly onto the street. Some houses had their doorways at the side or back, and someone had told me that these others, with doors at the back, were Lithuanian—not Jewish—houses. There were trees. One might even call it pretty. There was not a soul about.
ESSAY: Why the Scotiabank Giller Prize Keeps Getting Better (and What Literary Theorists Can Learn from the Sociology of Sport)
I suspect that my sense of time has been distorted somewhat by the current pandemic, because when an email arrived from the Scotiabank Giller Prize last week, announcing the five members of its 2021 jury, I was a little surprised. So soon? It seemed like the 2020 award gala had taken place only weeks ago. This last celebration made a strong impression on me (as I’ll elaborate below). Perhaps that’s why it felt more recent than it was. Pandemic or not, I reminded myself, the 27-year-old Giller is by now like an ocean liner. It has a well worked out itinerary and schedule that must be adhered to if it hopes to complete its annual journey successfully and on time.
This year’s Giller jury has five members. Included are three distinguished Canadian authors, Megan Gail Coles, Joshua Whitehead, and Zalika Reid-Benta (serving as jury chair), a Malaysian writer, Tash Aw, and American Joshua Ferris. It’s an impressive committee for many reasons, and yes, the fact that the it now consists of five judges does matter (the judging panel was made up of three judges since the Giller’s founding in 1994, and expanded only in 2015). The result is, to put it simply, a more potent representation of Canadian fiction writing and its producers. Furthermore, the presence of foreign judges is also something positive—for the Giller and for Canadian literature. It safeguards the prestige of a Canadian literary prize which has worked long and hard to achieve national and international recognition, and it invites valuations of Canadian-made fiction that are more likely to be impartial, as well as worldly (in the best sense of the word). These aren’t just optics, it should be stated. Nor am defending the Giller Prize—or not exactly.
Rachel J Fenton
Everywhere is Now. A graphic story
Leonard Cohen and Robert Fulford
I first heard of Leonard Cohen while still living as a teenager in Scotland. His Sisters Of Mercy was played on my favourite radio show, Top Gear, and the disc jockey, John Peel, raved about waking up after an all-night gig, hearing the song for the first time, and feeling like he was waking up on another planet. It struck me immediately as beautiful in some mysterious unearthly fashion, maybe only similar in tone to some Simon and Garfunkel songs. You haven’t heard much when you’re fifteen.
Settling in Canada a couple of years later and adjusting to my new life in high school and then college, the beauties of his ballads had much more to compete with in the flush of great musical innovation then washing over the airwaves. Cohen’s Selected Poems seemed to be on every second bookshelf, and at various get-togethers I would sit to browse its pages. Often, one or other attendee tried the complex finger picking patterns behind the hypnotic melodies.
As the cultural bubble of my generation slowly expanded, my reading of his novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers merged with the newer albums and earlier poetry books to form the beginnings of an oeuvre I found by turns fascinating and repellent. The sour taste left by the sword thrusts of The Energy Of Slaves (1972) shocked me with its bitter self-recriminations. Apparently, we were welcome to call him Len or Lennie now. It seemed, as he sang in Songs Of Love and Hate, that there were “no more diamonds in the mine,” and yet at the same time, on the same album, he sang that “love calls you by your name.” Such radical contradictions suffused his vision for decades.
Edited by Geraldine Sinyuy
Two Reviews by Tina S. Beier
The novel is set in the mid-1500s, on the island of Malta, during military aggression between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John. The story features some battle scenes but mainly follows the life of two siblings (Domenicus and Katrina), who are well-off peasants who live in Malta. There are also some chapters devoted to Demir, a young boy living in Istanbul under a powerful and tyrannical father.
Falcon’s Shadow begins with a punch that leaves you breathless. The most horrific part about the treatment of prisoners in the 1500s is the fact that it actually happened. It’s a stark reminder of why human rights are something we shouldn’t take for granted, even today.
As with its predecessor, Falcon’s Shadow is clearly painstakingly researched. Every little detail feels authentic and Fenech does not shy away from the gory details of life before sanitation.
Review by Darcie Friesen Hossack
In Pilgrims of Zane: A Collection of Hybrid Narratives, Mbizo Chirasha first takes the reader to Zimbabwe for a spiritual celebration, to which the congregants bring their supplication for rain.
Here, millet beer flows freely and wafts the aroma of bread. “Men [sit] on leopard skin mats and women [sit] on sheepskin.” Nuns dance with a dignity that is written into the variety of the shapes of their creation.
Review by Marthese Fenech
What Branches Grow pulls you into its vortex of action, spins you around and around (in the best possible way), and does not release you until you have read its beautiful final lines.
T.S. Beier applies a deft hand to the crafting of this Post-Apocalyptic tale and showcases a depth of perception when it comes to the human condition, human nature, and the human spirit. She manages to weave an elaborate plot brimming with tragedy but always offers just enough humour to balance the pathos.
Literary News and Writing Advice
with Sue Burge
Ava Homa Speaks to Sue Burge about The Why of Writing
Before I discovered why I write, I couldn’t stomach all the rejection and racism I faced as a minority woman writing in my third language. Nowadays, however, gatekeepers don’t dishearten me too much. My lifework stands at the empowering intersection of literature and activism, my goal to evoke compassion and convert it into action. I believe in the power of storytelling to expand our understanding of each other. With some guidance from activists, the extension of our horizon can transform into action, into standing up for justice and inclusion, into casting ballots while keeping more than one’s limited interests in mind.
Sue Burge Introduces Hazel Press!
This month I managed to pin down the trailblazing energy of Daphne Astor.
Daphne, you did something extraordinary in 2020! You set up a new independent publishing press, Hazel Press. This seems such a brave thing to do in the middle of a pandemic with the world locking down around us. I know you are a farmer and conservationist as well as a poet/writer and artist. I gather the idea to create a new press came to you while you were digging! Could you tell us more?
Setting up a press is a lot like digging and preparing the ground for planting, gathering seeds, designing the space, sniffing the air – at least that is how Hazel Press got going. I had been thinking about creating a press for years and throughout my life have been involved in many and various ways with making, growing, nurturing land and life as well as engaging with books, writers and artists.
Edited by Nancy Ndeke and Clara Burghelea
Bless Us Lord for the Sin-Free Life We Are Living First Published in “Lift Your Voice”, Kissing Dynamite, Oct 2019 I stare with my gaping mouth mock and revere at this whimsical reality eyes rolling in disbelief head bowed in silence knees scraping at the pew to absolve my sins We only bow down to the fear of the unknown the fear of being punished by an exalted God in heaven carved in our faith surviving generation through reams of yellow-tinged holy scriptures
The Shipbuilder and his Daughter His blood froze in a Scottish winter. His daughter danced unknowing in a land of southern summers. Alone in his chair, Buttons the cat stretched out along his thigh, it’s said he did not feel that mighty brain tide pound its damage. Her ‘Hi Dad’ phone-call rings unanswered in the empty flat
I went outside after the rain, into the late afternoon sun. The robins hallooed hosannas from the cherry tree and the iris stuck up their razored snouts and hollered and two new daffodils, split open into the sun
YOU ARE CLOSE TO ACHIEVING YOUR DREAM As the stars brighten the sky And the day slowly dies So the beauty of the night unravels In an enchanting world that travels Don't ever be scared of the bad times Look above and you'll see the light in time Not only will you experience the joy of dawn But will marvel at how dreams will be reborn
BLUES FOR MY EX-COUNTRY/HOMELAND I had a country. They took it away. They did not ask for permission. The very same people who now want to establish customs zones, introduce joint parliament sitting and start to exchange war criminals. The very same THEY who caused the trouble in the first place. … I can only say one word COUNTRY/HOMELAND One day you will realise that PEOPLE lived there for generations and not… NO, DON’T SHOOT!!
Hemispheres My introvert side is glad to actually have a rest: Breathes, exhales slowly, sinks into his chair. He sets priorities, contemplates, makes plans yet accepts the folly of making plans - releases all to its fulfillment. My extrovert side wants to eat sushi, drink draught beer experience the world beyond his front door.
Rickety chair Every morning my father stands on one foot, arms raised in Surya Namaskar above his head offering prayers to a solar deity, fully absorbed within himself for half an hour in the rooftop, and then sits down in a rickety chair nearby his desultory guest, an amiable serene cat and smiles looking at the sunlight streaming through flowers. Shiny plants, attired in colorful earthen pots shades of white and blue, red and brown,
Writer's Block Tea leaves scattered, jasmine across the table The scent of plumeria swirling An open notebook
Sonnet about the fallen moon and morning star Heavenly sailorling spy out the wan light-sheen of star. Baffling unearthly time: weird having just thieved by elves. One of pale mornings longs for some meek fulfillment of night. Moony and nostalgic chums – comets are upon the skies. Lonely dreamery – lying just blink-sea, weird above. Endless nostalgia is being of pang. Hades is fay. Heavenly moony lure, beings seem dark, Ethics fly off! Poignant decease has become drab black, comet has picked rain.
White lab coats When I was still in Romania, studying to become a chemical engineer like my father, he asked me how I see my future. I’d like to work in a factory, like you, I said, walk fast and solve problems, like you, and my white lab coat would fly behind me like a cape, or wings. Everyone would move faster, energized, once their problems were solved. I must have been 14 at the time, and wasn’t kidding.
Love is in the air and I say love with cheese... gruyère and emmenthal brie, parmeggiano crocks for the oven, red and gray a bag of onions and bay leaves plucked from nanna's garden last summer a half-baked baguette and chicken stock & thyme
Bernard Gabriel Okurut
A bird in exile. Here I am lonely bird, Flying from tree to tree With no place to call my own. Here I am lonely star shining on A moonless night. Here I am-dead river, Flowing without end Carrying nothing but dead remains! Hear I stand, Hopelessly in the middle of nowhere. Am over fed with hunger, Am over drunk with anger, Forgotten, hated, and slandered.
Three rivers Even the three rivers the winds, the currents which bring better or worse, even as the filter of my tongue presents a different palette love remains the same when we speak of broad rivers misery, silence, speech the ocean rises up to you, in you this is what I can give, this to thankfully receive
Reciting “After The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman” Spell your name on the palm of my hand as you spell it for the blind or the deaf. At the end of loneliness at the end of silence at the anonymous end of incoherence. I do not know what it means to be a child But I recognized you just from the light you were carrying in your hand in the silence of a twilight of our hoping. Not from your voice as there was no sound from me or from you.
harvest she is planting the dead birds in the back garden imagines delicate plumed stems sprout in moist soil. there is a place below where bones reknit, grow flesh become the small buds of unhatched warblers. it is a cosmology made up, a child’s mystery emblazed with wonder.
Fagbemi Jesulayomi Abigail
A Ray Of Hope What a glimmering gloomy day! Full of fiery fears and hopelessness_ Will it ever get better? ‘Cause it doesn’t seem like it. It seems to look the same_ Same obscurity everyday, With not a ray of light– To brighten my day. Days are meant to be bright_ Why the gloom? I can’t fathom the cause
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