Religious Revanchism in the USA and that Old Antipathy for Women. essay by Olga Stein

olga-stein89

Religious Revanchism in the USA and that Old Antipathy for Women

Anyone committed to educating about or protecting civil rights will see the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court on June 24 of this year as a severe reversal of decades’ worth of social progress. From the standpoint of legal scholars, it is an alarming trend among conservative members of the Supreme Court toward “new originalism.” They also explain that this particular — and until recently, idiosyncratic — approach to interpreting the Constitution was largely a response to civil rights gains made in the 1960s and 1970s. Originalism of this stripe is a means of pushing back against the changes that have been transforming American society since then. Moreover, as the overturning of Roe v. Wade so acutely demonstrates, the significance of this interpretative strategy is that it constitutes an attack on democracy or the founding “idea” of America, its promise of individual safety, prosperity, and liberty for all citizens.

            A great deal in the way of focused scrutiny of the overturning of Roe v. Wade is called for, certainly. Numerous in-depth critiques on the resurgent alliance between the law and religion in the USA do exist, but outside of feminist writing there’s a paucity of attempts to suss the historical roots of the anti-abortion stance in consti­tu­tional liter­al­ism (or more appropriately, “fundamentalism”). It’s imperative, then, that we acknowledge these roots and pin down some of their salient features: American-Christian patriarchy and its indelible chauvinism. A few readers may be surprised to learn here that legal scholars point to Salem’s witch trials as vital lessons concerning procedural failures to protect basic rights.[i] Yet even these experts don’t do enough to lay bare the connections between American Christian conservatism, classical Christian theology (as it crystallized by the Middle Ages especially), and the ways that the appearance and behaviour of the “second sex” continue to be categorized or typecast. I arrive at something like a historical perspective on the reactionism underlying the bans on abortion below. However, I begin with an rundown — temporally narrower — of what the elimination of a 50-year precedent is and isn’t about at present.

            First and foremost, the Supreme Court’s ruling isn’t about protecting the unborn child. If protecting children was a real concern, as countless researchers, journalists, and politicians in the US have argued, there would be far more effective legislation to limit access to firearms. More importantly, single mothers and working class families would automatically be eligible for a host of protections, including guaranteed housing. Health care would be universally available to children and parents of infants and school-aged children. There would also be legislated provisions shielding mothers from job loss or economic hardship. Broad forms of assistance for children and their parents would no doubt be an encumbrance on public funds, but wouldn’t it be only logical to offer such security (and shouldn’t all children born in the USA be instantly entitled to it?)—that is, if infants’ and children’s well-being were the real purpose of anti-abortion laws? Wouldn’t such measures make eminent sense, especially since a hefty percentage of people who experience unplanned pregnancies come from economically challenged communities, are minors, or have been subject to some form of abuse in their surrounding environments?

            Before I get to the actual aims of America’s anti-abortion laws and their supporters, allow me reiterate a few facts in relation to women’s reproductive reality and how it’s instrumentalized by the six-week abortion ban. Since the length of pregnancy is calculated from the first day of a woman’s last period, six weeks’ duration is attributed as a matter of course to anyone who has missed their period—even if conception has occurred two or three weeks after the onset of the new cycle. Furthermore, since a pregnancy test measuring levels of chorionic gonadatropin (hCG) is unreliable in the very early stages of pregnancy, and because many women have irregular periods and may not suspect that anything is amiss if they’re late one week (or several), a pregnancy may very well go undetected until the six-week window, during which abortion is permitted, is closed.

            There’s a clear and detailed explanation of the problem with the six-week threshold in Scientific American’s article, “The Absurd Pregnancy Math behind the ‘Six-Week’ Abortion Ban.” It’s worth highlighting here the following statement by the article’s author, Michelle Rodrigues: “[I]n reality, the six-week ban limits abortion care to only four weeks after conception, and only one week, realistically, from when a person could find out they are pregnant.” This ban—whether by design or willed ignorance—doesn’t take several crucial aspects of reproductive biology into account. It doesn’t allot sufficient time for pregnancy discovery or confirmation. It also mysteriously overlooks the fact that a foetus isn’t medically defined as such until eight weeks after fertilization, which suggests that from a legal standpoint a 10-week ban would make more sense — that is, if we were to establish from the get-go that any ban should exclude adolescents, or rape victims, or persons afflicted with health issues that would be exacerbated by pregnancy (readers should be aware that a large percentage of people have such concerns; and we should unequivocally count mental health conditions among them).

            I hope that it’s obvious by now that the near-total or six-week bans, or the bans that don’t make exceptions for minors or victims of rape, aren’t laws that are truly intended to protect anyone. They won’t protect infants once they are born to young single mothers, or to families already struggling to provide for other children (these are the people least able to travel out of state for an abortion). How pertinent is it that an article published on August 30 in The New York Times, titled “U.N. Race Panel Sounds the Alarm on Abortion Access in the U.S.,” reported that the “influential” Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (C.E.R.D.), which convened in Geneva in August to discuss world-wide violations of human rights, issued findings that addressed directly the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The findings, backed by a 24-member delegation of American officials that included representatives of multiple federal and state agencies, “highlighted the fraught issue of vanishing abortion access in the United States. The [C.E.R.D] urged the Biden administration to safeguard access for ethnic and racial minorities and low-income people — groups that it said would be disproportionately hit by the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.”   

            These laws are never formulated with the welfare of pregnant persons in mind. On the contrary, they’re meant to foment uncertainty and fear, as well as sanction cruelty among those newly vested with powers to make decisions for people seeking pregnancy-related medical care. Consider recent news addressing nearly 30 cases wherein critical treatment for patients with ectopic pregnancies or a soon-to-be deceased foetus was withheld by doctors who claimed they were afraid of being charged with ‘murder.’ In states like Texas, where a foetus is legally deemed a “person,” even life-saving abortions can’t be performed until care providers obtain a sign-off from an official who is legally empowered to grant it, or until the foetal heart stops beating.[ii] Indeed, the 2014 case of Marlise Munoz underscores precisely this. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where Munoz was being kept without any detectable brain activity, rigged Munoz’s body to life support for two months, heartlessly (and, given the astronomical cost per diem, likely opportunistically) violating the categorical demands of the family, for the sake of a dying fetus. The case was widely considered “macabre” even by Texan standards, and the debates it triggered quickly honed in on the moral and political dimensions of the implementation in Texas of House Bill 2 (H.B. 2) in late 2013.[iii] In her January 2014 article for Al Jazeera, “‘Pro-life’ until birth,” Carolyn Jones wrote: “During the passage of House Bill 2 last summer [which aimed to reduce access to abortions], the Republican-controlled legislature rejected amendments that would have ensured postpartum visits for low-income mothers; provided cash, food and health benefits to members of the woman’s household;…and exempted victims of sexual assault and incest from abortion restrictions.” Is there anything that remains vague about the goals of those whose only objective is to prevent abortions?

            Let us go deeper and try to disentangle this snarl of law and religious ideology — nearly always an iniquitous alliance, especially if we consider the history of lawful enslavement or segregation and the legalistic sophistries girding them. To wit, in May, one month before Roe v. Wade was buried, The Guardian published a piece, “Who will be prosecuted for abortion if fetuses are recognized as people?” The author, Noa Yachot, wrote that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stated publicly that on top of the liabilities that already apply to abortion providers there are “thousands of crimes in the federal criminal code that may be used against pregnant people when Roe falls.” Yachot also quoted Dana Sussman, acting executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW): “We’re in a completely different universe when it comes to our willingness to criminalize people,” Sussman said. “State prosecutors throughout those states can use any law that was intended to apply to the abuse or harm of children to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses.” In those states, it stands to reason, a person who experiences a miscarriage will be subject to scrutiny. Instead of concentrating on their emotional and physical recovery, they may find themselves in the distressing predicament of having to prove—unlike anyone standing trial for an actual crime today—that they’re not guilty of having precipitated their own miscarriage. The implications are terrifying. Margaret Atwood is no longer the author of speculative works with merely imagined dystopias.

 

            What needs recognizing is the anti-abortion laws’ full scope, reach, and impact. They’re not just restrictive and widely punitive. They’re designed to reshape American society by curtailing, if not eliminating, the critical opportunities that reproductive autonomy made possible for women. Consider but a few lines from an article written by L. Purdy, published in Journal of medical ethics in 2006: “[Reproductive] autonomy is particularly important for women,…because reproduction still takes place in women’s bodies, and because they are generally expected to take primary responsibility for child rearing…. In 2005, the factors that influence women’s reproductive autonomy most strongly are poverty, and belief systems that devalue such autonomy.” Purdy continues: “Although lack of access to the prerequisites for exercising autonomy is often a result of anti-autonomy belief systems, it can also be a consequence of racism or limitless greed.” Of note is that Purdy identifies three motives for robbing women of reproductive choice, the third of which is profit.

            Pat Brewer wrote an Introduction to Frederick Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, where she explained how the insights gained from Engels conformed with many of the conservative trends she was witnessing: “A campaign is currently being waged by the capitalist class and its governments to reduce real wages.…The job market has been restructured such that full-time work (and its accompanying living wage) is being transformed into part-time and casual employment, predominantly filled by women” (Brewer 8). To be clear, Brewer argued, it’s not that women are currently being pushed out of the workforce; it’s that their contingent status (made more so by the loss of reproductive autonomy) opens them up to increasingly exploitative employment strategies. Casualized employment practices “make women more vulnerable to increased exploitation, by driving down their place in the work force (lower wages, fewer hours, less job security, fewer holidays, more piece work, less safety and less unionisation)” (8).

            One doesn’t have to be a student of Marx and Engels to see the piling evidence backing Brewer’s analysis. It’s available in labour statistics, which indicate that women constitute the largest portion of the contingent workforce, as well as in articles such as “What’s Really Holding Women Back? It’s not what most people think,” published in a spring 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The authors, professors Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic, scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, begin their article with the following: “Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the 1970s and 1980s, but that progress slowed considerably in the 1990s and has stalled completely in this century.” Ely and Padavic collected interview data and discovered a set of pervasive and damaging suppositions about the preferences of women with children: “Unlike men, they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time and shifting to internally facing roles, which derailed their careers…[because] firm members attributed distress over work/family conflict primarily to women.” Yet aren’t such assumptions (frequently also made about childless women, as Ely and Padavic determined) a correlate of traditional belief systems? Unsurprisingly, these views just happen to align at once with upper management’s notions regarding women’s ‘primary’ role (which quickly becomes identical with their ‘obligatory’ role) and employers’ preferences for economizing on highly skilled labour.

            What Ely and Padavic don’t make explicit, unfortunately, is that the idea that woman aren’t whole (or wholesome?) if they’re not caring for children — a belief the two scholars found circulating even in corporations where women’s advancement is declared a company mandate — is part of entrenched gender ideology. Furthermore, this set of long-held and interrelated convictions constructs women’s essential purpose — when all other fugacious pursuits are swept aside — as maiden (and virgin), then wife and mother? Virtually the same belief system framed the 19th-century, Victorian-era middle-class home as the natural domain of women, without regard for age, education, and individual aspiration.[iv] Today’s extreme right in the USA would like a return to a version of Victorian society, with a few minor differences: the present-day iteration of these traditional arrangements would make room for working women, but in contingent and lower-level employment so as to capitalize on the labour of poor, racialized, immigrant women, and other marginalized groups, like temporary agricultural workers. This way religious fundamentalism and neoliberalism become bedfellows in an alliance that legitimates and perpetuates both the sexual division of labor and the exploitation and oppression of women.[v]

            How can we doubt, then, that young and working-age people will be made vulnerable by anti-abortion laws in multiple ways. In “What the ‘Roe v. Wade’ Reversal Means for Educators, Schools, and Students,” published in EducationWeek, Sarah Schwartz reports that “many education groups condemned the court’s decision… [since] the decision stands to reshape the contours of the school-age population and the people who work in it.” Not only will the Court’s decision be “putting new demands on schools in a system that some experts argue already fails to support teen parents in academic success and graduation”; it will also affect educators, given that approximately “76 percent of teachers are women, and most don’t have access to paid parental leave or health plans that cover abortion.”

            Of course, this grossly understates the potential impact of anti-abortion laws on careers in general, especially those that require individuals to earn postgraduate or professional degrees. Think of practices such as law, medicine, graduate-level research or teaching. These are but a few examples that instantly come to mind; numerous other professions entail years of intensive study and on-the-job training.

            I often wonder wistfully what my academic career would’ve looked like had I not married in my early 20s and born two children in quick succession. The majority of my current colleagues decided to have children in their late 30s and early 40s, and then — usually — they limited themselves to one child. Ageism and gender bias already conspire against women’s interests in many professions (academe included). The postponement of one’s career even by five years generally means that one is left watching from the sidelines as other colleagues, often jaw-droppingly less accomplished (too often younger and male) are handed coveted positions.

            As for elite sports, it goes without saying that the repercussions of abortion bans in the US will be momentous. Even before the overturning of Roe v. Wade, hundreds of top-ranked athletes, coaches, and players’ unions for two major women’s sports leagues, filed an amicus brief that outlined the devastating effects on athletes if abortion were made illegal. On June 24, the very same day the Supreme Court overruled the decisions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Time published an interview with former American swimmer, Crissy Perham. The two-time Olympic gold medalist had never before acknowledged publicly that she had an abortion before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The abortion enabled her to continue training, win a major competition, and then qualify for the Olympic Games. Her story, one that must mirror those of countless other professional athletes, is punctuated by what “she sees [as] a terrible hypocrisy in the timing of today’s Supreme Court ruling, coming a day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated equal athletic opportunities for women and girls.” “How ridiculous is it that 24 hours ago, they’re praising Title IX,” Perham said. “And literally the next day, they said, ‘By the way, if you get pregnant, you’re gonna have to have a baby.’”

            Consider the willingness of even well-meaning employers in those states where the abortion ban is now in effect to hire or promote employees of child-bearing age. Aren’t they’re more likely to tell themselves now that it will be less problematic to hire men? Think again about the broader long-term social and economic objectives of anti-abortion laws. Better yet, take another look at Brewer’s arguments regarding the mounting offensive to push women back into traditional roles: “The family is the one major sphere of capitalist society in which labour replacement services can be absorbed without payment — women pick up the burden unpaid…. Monetary concessions for the one-wage household have been put into place…. If women [employed part-time or on a contingent basis] have children, their wages barely cover their childcare costs and jeopardise any family allowances paid by the state” (Brewer 8). In other words, mothers with children at home are strongly discouraged from finding work or maintaining the jobs they had before giving birth.

 

            A number of articles and essays have been catching my eye of late because they’re pertinent and offer additional clarity. Some are recent, with authors responding to the June 24 decision. One such piece is by Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Brennan Centre for Justice is a “nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving systems of democracy and justice.” The article, “Originalism Run Amok at the Supreme Court,” published on June 28, gets at some of the manipulations (the plainly specious arguments) that bore the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Waldman writes: “Justice Samuel Alito’s use of originalism in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization shows it to be dangerous and reactionary.” Waldman adds: “Dobbs distorts history too. Abortion was legal at the time of the founding (up until quickening), but faced bans later in the 19th century. But here was the heart of Alito’s opinion: ‘The Court finds that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.’ What that means, in practical terms, is the Court looked to a time when women could not vote or sit on juries, when Black people were slaves, when sexual orientation was a shameful secret….in terms of the Constitution, it would repeal the 20th century.” Please note the other significant upshot of Waldman’s analysis: since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, it’s no longer possible to dissociate current-day law (or, in this case, the “majority opinion” representing the lex terrae in the US) from the societal rules, conventions, and prevailing religious beliefs of the 18th Century.[vi]

            Another recent essay is Dayna Tortorici’s rousing “Your Body, My Choice: The movement to criminalize abortion,” which n+1 Magazine published in its Summer 2022 issue (titled Unreal). Tortorici doesn’t mince words or their meanings. She begins by declaring, “Those who wish to ban legal abortion are not ‘pro-life’; they are pro-criminalization. Those who wish to protect the right to abortion are not “pro-choice”; they are anti-criminalization. Reframing the conflict in these terms clarifies the stakes.” Here you have it then: an unambiguous statement of what anti-abortion is and isn’t about.

            Referencing philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, and pointing out the hypocritical neglect of conditions that predispose pregnant workers to miscarriages, as well as the absence of consideration for the precarious circumstances into which children of impoverished parents are born, Tortorici decimates anti-abortion supporters’ arguments on philosophical and empirical grounds.[vii] She follows this up with the question: “What motivates the criminalization of abortion if not an invidiously discriminatory animus against women and people interpellated as women by the Court?” Precisely. The next thing that needs asking is Why? But Tortorici doesn’t supply an answer, or at least not one that digs deep and far enough into the past to explain the “serious gender revanchism” she sees being driven by “white, religious, conservative men who dismiss the evidence put forward by medical professionals that the treatment in question saves lives.” Yet explanations for belief systems that deprive people of reproductive autonomy can be marshalled, especially if one is willing to trample on some of Christianity’s oldest, most cherished articles of faith.

 

To be continued

 

End Notes

[1]In an article, “How the Salem Witch Trials Influenced the American Legal System,” Author Sarah Pruitt quotes Len Niehoff, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, to demonstrate the Witch Trials’ continuing relevance for today’s legal scholars. Niehoff states: “It is in my view difficult to draw a direct line from the Salem witch trials to a specific existing legal doctrine, but I would argue that they have had an immense influence on how we think about the law….The trials are filled with cautionary tales about how catastrophically bad things can go when legal proceedings fail to offer certain minimum guarantees.” Niehoff goes on to mention that these became a useful reference for attorneys defending accused Americans during the McCarthyist period. For more scholarship on the subject, see Martha M.   Young’s “The Salem Witch Trials 300 Years Later: How Far Has the American Legal System Come? How Much Further Does It Need to Go?”

[1]In 1989, the supreme court upheld a Missouri law that stated in its preamble that “the life of each human being begins at conception,” and that “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and wellbeing.” In effect, this served as a precedent for establishing “fetal personhood,” and according rights to a foetus even in the earliest stage of development. See legal scholar Michele Goodwin’s book, Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. Goodwin refers to Black women as the “canaries in the coal mine.” Yachot supplies the following telltale stats: “A study by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) found that 52% of cases of women targeted for pregnancy outcomes between 1973 and 2005 were Black, despite Black women making up about 14% of people of reproductive age.” Regina McKnight, a Black woman in South Carolina, was the first woman convicted for “homicide by child abuse” for a stillbirth due to drug use. As Goodwin points out, her case “inspired similar prosecutions of other poor black women and then of other women.” McKnight spent seven years in prison before her sentence was overturned.”

[1]See Rachel E. Swindle’s “House Bill 2: The Effect of Reducing Access to Abortion Providers on Educational Attainment in Texas.” Based on her findings, the author asserts “that the effect of H.B. 2 is associated with a decrease in graduation rates of over six percentage points and is significant at the 99.9% level.”

[1]I recommend Anita Ilta Garey’s book Weaving Work and Motherhood. Garey writes, for example: “Parenthood and employment are gendered institutions; that is, the system of social relations embedded in these social institutions are organized differently for men and women and perpetuate gender differences.” Garey argues that certain models that figure women’s ‘orientations’ toward either professional or domestic spheres unnecessarily bifurcate these preferences, tendencies, or aspirations; it’s as if women can’t negotiate the demands of both, or as if one sphere doesn’t enrich or make possible the other.

[1]Nor is the “the rejection of feminist ideas that confront th[is] naturalistic fallacy” confined to the USA, argues Gabriela Arguedas-Ramírez. Latin America became rife with it, particularly after US-led insurrections in the 1970s that overthrew left-wing governments and their then left-leaning Catholic supporters. Associate Professor Arguedas-Ramírez, who is a member of the gender studies department in the London School of Economics, published a piece on the Religion and Global Society blog of the LSE (the piece is part of a larger regional research project on anti-rights and anti-gender politics in Latin America). In “Gender Ideology, religious fundamentalism and the electoral campaign (2017-2018) in Costa Rica,” Arguedas-Ramirez wrote: “For these neoconservative movements, there is a morality of sexual difference defined by nature. The notion of gender as a socio-historical product is incompatible with patriarchal values and traditions, which are structural within religious fundamentalisms. From a neoliberal perspective, the denial of feminist postulates and gender theory has to do with naturalized ways of perpetuating and justifying the sexual division of labor and the constant exploitation of women’s bodies, particularly of impoverished women and women of color (on this, see for instance Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici).” In the second footnote to this piece, Arguedas-Ramírez informs readers: “It is crucial to bring to this discussion the historical account of how evangelical missions (and its ramifications) came to Central America and established their operative centers and alliances with right wing political parties and the local oligarchy during the Cold War. The U.S. foreign policy targeted Social and grassroots organizations related to the liberation theology, which was considered a leftist distortion of Catholicism. One of the political and cultural instruments used to halt their expansion was evangelicalism.” See also Michael Cangemi’s “Catholics, Evangelicals, and US Policy in Central America.”

[1]For a Canadian perspective and analysis, see “Roe v. Wade’s fall sets a ‘frightening precedent,’ retired Canadian Supreme Court justice says” by Sean Fine. This piece offers a retired Canadian justice’s reliable analysis how legal precedent was violated by the Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization decision and the implications for other precedents. Another excellent explanation of the attack on substantive due process that the originalist strategy deployed can be found in “The Attack on Substantive Due Process: Roe v. Wade and Beyond” by Helen Guan, published in Spheres of Influence, a Canadian online publication.

[1]Tortorici is armed with helpful data: “Pro-Crime would have us stay in the realm of the hypothetical forever, as if plain facts were not before us. According to the Turnaway Study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, people who are denied abortions are almost four times more likely than those who are granted them to wind up in poverty, even if they began on equal economic footing. Sixty percent of people who seek abortions in the US have at least one child (CDC), and almost half are poor: 49 percent live below the federal poverty line. An additional 26 percent are low income (Guttmacher Institute, 2016). The median cost of a first-trimester abortion is $508; a second-trimester abortion, $1,195; and a later-term abortion can cost $3,000 or more (Guttmacher, 2018),…Meanwhile, the average cost of raising a middle-class American child from birth to 17 years of age is $233,610 — $292,051 in 2022 dollars (USDA, 2017).”

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Tumanov, V. “Mary Versus Eve: Paternal Uncertainty and the Christian View of Women.” Neophilologus 95 (2011): 507–521, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-011-9253-5

Waldman. Michael. “Originalism Run Amok at the Supreme Court: The constitutional theory is now a threat to modern life.” Brennan Center for Justice. Analysis & Opinion section. 28 June, 2002, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/originalism-run-amok-supreme-court.

Yacht, N. “Who will be prosecuted for abortion if fetuses are recognized as people?” The Guardian. Law (US). 18 May, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/law/2022/may/18/abortion-prosecution-fetal-homicide-law.

Young, Martha M. “The Salem Witch Trials 300 Years Later: How Far Has the American Legal System Come? How Much Further Does It Need to Go?” Tulane Law Review, vol. 64, no. 1, 1989, p. 235–.

 

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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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Don’t Ask Me Where I’m from during a Gynecological Exam. non-fiction by Domnica Radulescu

picture radulescu

Don’t Ask Me Where I’m from during a Gynecological Exam

In general, don’t ask me where I’m from, all right? Don’t tell me about my accent and how it’s cute and interesting, or that it’s so cool I come from such and such a place and how you know another person from my country or a neighboring country, who is your sister-in-law’s nanny or cleaning woman or dentist. Control yourself. Keep your selfish curiosity about my origins and accent and where I’m from. I haven’t asked you about any of that because truly I don’t give a damn. And neither should you give a damn about where I’m from. Don’t ask just so you can establish your Americanness and my foreignness; just so you can feel good about being interested in other cultures; just so you can tell the next person with an accent that you met another person with an accent; or so you can tell your sister-in-law that you met someone else from the same country as her cleaning lady. Really now. Why would you need to know about my origins and my accent, unless you are a linguistic anthropologist studying accents in the English language, and you are working on some study about the sociopolitical or ethnographic importance of accents.

If you are a linguistic anthropologist, shouldn’t you be savvy and sensitive enough not to be asking such questions in this uncouth manner, or not at all? And if you insist on going ahead, then clearly you haven’t learned a thing about the need for thoughtfulness in all human interactions. You know nothing about the tender spots that us immigrants, refugees, exiles, in these blessed United States (where, by the way, I too am a citizen just like you) carry imprinted deeply in our psyches. Nor do you grasp the duplicities and layers of identity, the landscapes and realities carved in our flesh and hearts! Furthermore, your work on the sociopolitical value of accents is worthless no matter how famous you are and how prestigious the press is that’s publishing this great study of yours. So, when I am in the grocery store and I ask where the aisle for sun-dried tomatoes is, or gluten-free breads, don’t you even think of asking me where I am from and what kind of accent I have! Just tell me where the sun-dried tomatoes and the gluten-free breads are, if you have any.

Most importantly — sun-dried tomatoes and gluten-free bread aside — don’t you even get anywhere close to thinking that you can ask me about where I’m from or mention that my accent is lovely during a gynecological exam. I am lying here with a huge thing, a probe, an instrument inserted inside my vagina. I’m vulnerable and worried, wondering what the result of this examination might be. Yet, as you examine the depths of my reproductive system, the cervical tunnel, the cave of my uterus, the pear shaped balls of my ovaries, and as this wonder of modern medicine, the ultrasound probe, is probing like mad inside the most intimate cavities of my body, you think it’s all right to comment on the loveliness of my accent — as you dig deeper, both literally and figuratively — and ask about the origin of my accent, and then announce how exciting it is for you to find out about people’s origins and accents. 

I have a bottomless bag of insults, swear words for every part of male and female genitalia, and every action performed by those different parts, that I badly want to hurl in your face in the four or five languages I speak. But frankly, I want to keep you on my good side for now because you are the one with the probe inserted in my vagina, and I’m the one lying here vulnerable with my legs on the stirrup, each pointing to a different cardinal point — that is, towards the many universes of my accents, my origins, my homes, and all the parts of me that you so callously just disrespected. So, I go along and tell you about my birthplace and my accent, biting the heavy bitter nauseating bullet of this question about my accent and my origins, which I’ve heard a million times already. Meanwhile, I fantasize about all the ways I should have answered. I promise myself to act on my plans for initiating a form of activism that is a stand against questions about people’s accents and origins. I swallow my tears of rage and even smile as you go on probing my insides and sharing your interest in foreign accents. I have to keep you on my good side. You are the one with the probe and I am the one with the foreign vagina.

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Domnica Radulescu is a Romanian American writer who arrived in the United States in the early eighties as a political refugee.  She settled in Chicago where she obtained a PhD in Romance Languages from the University of Chicago in 1992. Radulescu is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Train to Trieste (Knopf 2008 &2009), Black Sea Twilight (Transworld 2011 & 2012) and Country of Red Azaleas (Hachette 2016), and of award-winning plays. Train to Trieste has been published in thirteen languages and is the winner of the 2009 Library of Virginia Fiction Award. Radulescu received the 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Radulescu also published fourteen non-fiction books, edited and co-edited collections on topics ranging from the tragic heroine in western literature to feminist comedy, to studies of exile literature and two collections of original plays. Dream in a Suitcase. The Story of an immigrant Life is her first memoir, and it was released in January 2022.  Radulescu is twice a Fulbright scholar and the founding director of the National Symposium of Theater in Academe.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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The End. non-fiction by Susan Glickman

Pastel drawing of Rachel and Toby, 2021, by Susan Glickman

The End

A dear friend had to put her dog down recently, and in commiserating with her I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, about the inconsistency between our society’s attitude to the silent suffering of our pets and that we maintain towards the (not always silent) suffering of our human companions. Too often I’ve watched people I love endure treatments that don’t work until they are ultimately consigned to “palliative care” – which may be, in fact, neither palliative nor caring. For example, a nurse in one such facility explained that she had to ration morphine “because it is addictive,” despite the fact that the patient she refused to give it to was my dying 85-year-old mother, who had insufficient time left in which to become an addict.

Veterinarians advise us when it is time to say goodbye to our pets, confident that they can read their body language. They believe, and we usually agree, that it is truly compassionate to ease animals into a painless death rather than forcing them to carry on until whenever their bodies finally collapse. We hold them and comfort them and tell them we love them, and then we let them go. But doctors do not recommend this for our friends and relations. On the contrary, most physicians will encourage us to try whatever procedures are available to ward off the inevitable.

We have all become victims of aspirational statistics: not just patients, but their families as well. Sometimes those families have to make decisions for patients too ill to choose for themselves and if there is the slightest possibility of even a few more months of life, no matter how pitiable that life’s quality, they feel compelled to take it. The result can be putting people through torture in the hope that they might live just a wee bit longer.

I used the word “torture” advisedly. Not because I think doctors are sadistic or that people are unloving, but because that is how ailing bodies experience many potential cures. This is especially true of the surgery followed by chemotherapy that every dying person in my own cancer-prone family underwent, and that failed to prolong anyone’s life significantly once you subtracted all the time they spent getting and recovering from such procedures from the time those procedures supposedly “added” to their lives. But every single one of them opted for radical intervention.

Why? Because doctors offered it to them.

Doctors cannot help themselves, being professionally compelled by what Abraham Kaplan called “the law of the instrument.” That is, to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Deciding to use that hammer may be easier in countries like Canada with socialized medicine, but my American friends and relations don’t seem to hesitate either, whatever the expense. Mexicans may dress up as skeletons to commune with their departed loved ones on the Día de los Muertos, but in the northern parts of this continent we aren’t very good at accepting that death is the natural end of life.

Or we weren’t, until Covid. The pandemic inspired many folks to suddenly make wills and put their houses in order. Everyone was sorting, filing, and purging. Farewell, jacket worn once and held onto for sentimental reasons, shoes that pinched, garish scarves; Au Revoir, Lego bricks belonging to now-adult children, their abandoned teddy bears and jigsaw puzzles; Adios, unconsulted cookbooks and unread novels. Because Goodwill shut its doors and the usual charities were not accepting donations, fearful that the coronavirus might be transmitted on castoffs, anonymous stuff piled up on sidewalks for passersby to forage through or was advertised as “gifts” on Facebook neighbourhood groups.

Not all this discarded gear was broken or tattered. Perfectly good musical instruments, sewing and knitting supplies, exercise equipment, and travel guides were tossed because of their owners’ belated recognition that some possible futures were mere fantasies. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Having attended far too many funerals before I was legally an adult and having lost far too many friends subsequently, I myself have always been prepared to depart. I never go on a trip without thoroughly cleaning the house, paying the bills, organizing receipts for the current tax year, and reminding my children where to find important documents, passwords to bank accounts, keys to the safety deposit box, and so forth. I have drawn up a living will as well as instructions for my literary executor about what to do with my unpublished manuscripts and all those bankers’ boxes full of book drafts and literary correspondence.

 Death has always perched on my shoulder like a pet raven.

And yet. And yet. My own beloved dog is almost seventeen years old, and every day I get with him now seems like a gift. If he got ill, would I have the heart to say goodbye a nanosecond earlier than necessary? He cannot talk, so he cannot plead, “Let me go please; it’s time.” He cannot give me absolution in advance, as my grandmother did when I offered to cancel my flight back to England so I could stay with her until the end. “Go, darling,” she said. “There is nothing more for you to do here.” Forty years later, when I was about to travel in the other direction after a visit to a dying friend, my darling Helen simply said, “We shall never see each other again.” I was the one who broke down crying, not her.

When the time to say goodbye arrives, will my dog be able to tell me so?

And will my family let me go, when my time comes?

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Susan Glickman grew up in Montreal and lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently What We Carry (2019), four novels for adults, including The Tale-Teller (2012), a trilogy of middle-grade chapter books, a work of literary history, and a selection of essays, Artful Flight (2022).

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Literary Spotlight. Grandmaster in Flash! Michael Loveday in conversation with Sue Burge

Michael-AUTHOR PHOTO 3

GRANDMASTER FLASH! An interview with Michael Loveday.

This month I’m so pleased to be interviewing Michael Loveday, an expert in flash fiction and, in particular, the novella-in-flash.  As a poet, I’ve often wondered if I could transition to prose, and Michael’s journey has given me inspiration and reassurance!

Michael, could you describe the moment when you first thought, “I’m a writer” or “I want to be a writer”?  Was it a gradual revelation or a sudden epiphany?

I remember having to write a book review for a journal, about 10 years after I’d begun writing, and I wasn’t especially looking forward to it. I said to myself: I will sit down for one hour in a café with a pen and a blank page and complete the review within that time. I knuckled down to it, wrote the review in what I felt was a creative way, and left the café elated that I’d completed a kind of creative “assignment” under time pressure. I remember having the thought: “Yes, I’m a writer now!” Which is kind of amusing in hindsight. I’m not sure it was the greatest review, but the feeling within me was clear. And yet it arrived 10 years after I’d first started writing. So I guess it was a very slow, gradual onset that led to a belated awakening.

You started off as a poet, establishing the only magazine in the UK dedicated to the sonnet, 14 Magazine, which is still running under a different editor.  What attracted you to poetry?  Do you still write it?  What aspects of poetry helped you to transition to the world of flash fiction and the novella-in-flash?

My first poem (as an adult, as opposed to the dabbling I’d done in English classes at school) was a response to a canal-side walk I’d undertaken with my father, at a time (back in 2001) when he’d just been through a health scare. I was going through my own health difficulties at the time and our walk really imprinted itself in my mind – both the emotions of the conversation and also the physical setting of the canal. I don’t really understand why I chose to write a poem about it, rather than a short story, or a piece of reflective writing – I wasn’t even reading poetry at the time. So that aspect of the impulse remains a mystery. Anyway, the poem happened, and I got hooked. It was a way of distracting and entertaining myself during my recovery, and then I just kept going.

Michael Loveday - pamphlet photo

In terms of moving into fiction, in 2011 I’d had my first poetry pamphlet published, but also I was itching for something new after 10 years with the form. I’d written some short-short stories and narrative prose poems during my MA (2009-2011), and gradually the fiction seized more and more of my attention, until the poetry more or less fell aside for the next 10 years. Partly because journals seemed to accept my fiction submissions more readily than they accepted my poems, so I didn’t want to keep pushing a boulder uphill. What aspects of poetry helped me make the transition to flash fiction? Maybe the attention to detail – to vivid word choices, to the music of sentences, to concision – is something common to both forms. I think it did help that I’d spent 10 years bashing out bad poems – a sort of apprenticeship in writing.  

I’m sure they weren’t bad poems!  I love that idea of an apprenticeship in writing…Your new book, a collection of short short stories, is coming out soon.  There are so many definitions for this kind of short fiction: mini-sagas, dribbles, drabbles, micro-fiction, flash fiction, short short stories.  What advice would you give to someone who wants to navigate through these forms.  Sometimes it’s down to the word count, but are there any key differences?

I love the term mini-sagas! Hadn’t encountered that one before. I would say that some of these terms are definitely distinct from each other – for example, “dribbles” have 50 words, “drabbles” have 100 words, “micro-fiction” has been generally understood to be stories under 250 words.

From the language of it, a “mini-saga” sounds like it really ought to be a “very condensed epic” – i.e. something short in word length, with a beginning, middle and end in which a set of events are narrated, taking place over an extended period of time. In a similar way, “short-short story” I have always felt is more inclined to have a distinct beginning, middle and end, with actions/events occurring in a given time and place.

Whereas, for me at least, “flash fiction” as a category feels broader and can be much harder to pin down – apart from having an absolute upper limit of 1,000 words in length, “flash fiction” could comprise anything from a stream-of-consciousness monologue of someone’s inner thoughts in a very individualised voice, to an exchange of pure dialogue – without action or description – between two characters, to a very action-driven story that vividly specifies physical detail and setting, to a fable that relies on generic, archetypal figures rather than characterised individuals and settings, to something atmospheric and meditative that feels quite similar to a prose poem while still containing narrative movement, to a “narrative situation” implied by a till receipt (i.e. the story is actually written like a till receipt), and all number of weird and wonderful things in between. And even though flash’s ceiling is set at 1,000 words, it’s probably fair to say that most published flashes do tend to sit somewhere between 250 and 750 words in length. So the 1,000 word limit can feel a bit irrelevant – it’s actually relatively rare to encounter published flash fictions that are 900 to 1,000 words long.

I think “dribbles” might be akin to “mini-sagas” as they also have 50 words.  It was something The Daily Telegraph newspaper innovated.  I think even Salman Rushdie had a go!

Your craft guide, Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, came out this year. Would you ever tackle a novel or is there something very specific about the novella-in-flash that appeals to you? Is it difficult to market this genre?  It’s still unusual in the UK to find novella-in-flash.  How do you tackle being “niche”?

Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash-web

I would like to tackle a novel, one day, yes. If I have an idea that feels like it could fit the novel form. There is certainly something about the novella-in-flash that really appeals to me – that fusion of compression and expansion. And the potential for the flash fiction writer to act like a novelist. Personally, I don’t see it as difficult to market this form – there are plenty of novellas-in-flash that have sold well in the broader marketplace for literary fiction (for example, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers are three well-known works of literary fiction that could be described as novellas-in-flash), as well as plenty of novellas-in-flash that have been very popular within the flash fiction community exclusively.

It’s really hard to answer the last question! If you’re part of the flash fiction community, the novella-in-flash doesn’t really feel “niche”, at least not to me. It feels like an extremely popular form, with a lot of buzz surrounding it. I’d say it’s no more “niche” than the story cycle is for novelists and short story writers – it’s “a niche” that happens to be really quite popular and have an enthusiastic following!

That’s really interesting and makes me reflect on the wide variety of writing communities which are around and the rich opportunities they offer to all writers.  I love your idea of thinking of these communities as “a niche” rather than “niche” – that sits much better! What advice would you give to writers who have tried flash fiction and might be ready to tackle something longer and more sustained?

Immerse in your characters’ lives and spend more time getting to know these people than you would for a one-off flash fiction. Let yourself fall in love with them more. And then be patient and see what unfolds!

As a creative coach you come across all types of practitioners: writers, musicians, artists.  Do you think we all have the same doubts in common?  Is there one golden nugget of advice you would give to creatives to help them sustain their vision/practice?

I suppose some doubts arise from experiences common to most forms of creative practice – fear of embarrassment, the pain of rejection or perceived failure, finding the will and making the time to be persistent and to practice regularly, and so on. And a smaller number of doubts are perhaps very industry-specific, maybe arising from technology or equipment or materials, or environmental constraints, or something technical about craft. But I’d say there are certainly core aspects to being a creative practitioner underlying these experiences, and it’s remarkable how many creative people are thinking and feeling similar things, whether on a fleeting or sustained basis, even if they aren’t telling people out loud.

Something I do tend to recommend to people is to find mutual allies who can support your creative practice over the long term. Plus I recommend keeping a journal – exploring your specific creative projects, the practicalities of your creative process and habits, and your longer-term creative journey. It can be a place for supporting yourself and finding out new things about what you really think and feel and yearn for.

That’s such good advice, I really like the idea of this kind of reflective journal. What’s next for you Michael, are there any new forms you would like to try, or even to invent?!

What’s most immediately next is a chapbook of short-short stories (Do What the Boss Says) due out in November from Bamboo Dart Press, which I’m really looking forward to publishing. It’s a miscellaneous set of stories tied together by the common subjects of family, childhood, and the adult-child dynamic, but with plenty of weird or surreal or fable-like elements arising in the midst of it. Aside from that, what’s next is a poetry manuscript I’m working on. I’ll have to have a think about how it might include new forms – thanks for the suggestion! And thanks, Sue, for your questions. I’ve really enjoyed the process.  

Michael Loveday is a fiction writer and poet, and has been an editor and tutor of creative writing for more than a decade. His publications are: the craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022); the hybrid novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018); the poetry chapbook He Said / She Said (HappenStance Press, 2001); and, forthcoming in November, a collection of short-short stories called Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood (Bamboo Dart Press, 2022). Michael lives in Bath, England, and mentors novella-in-flash writers through his online programme at www.novella-in-flash.com.

Three Men on the Edge - Book Cover

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Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Domnica Radulescu’s Dream in a Suitcase, an extraordinary story of our time, surfing on the geography of exile. a review by Michèle Sarde

Domnica Radulescu’s Dream in a Suitcase, an extraordinary story of our time, surfing on the geography of exile

By Michèle Sarde
Translated from the French by Dana Chirila

Can a dream travel in a small suitcase and eventually become reality?

To answer this question, writer Domnica Radulescu puts on paper a gripping account of her life and her writing. In the 80s, the narrator left her native Romania with a small suitcase containing a few summer things, a first volume of short stories entitled “Yes but life”, and a legal visa for Italy. Later, she will fulfill her destiny as a refugee in America, then as a global citizen of a free country. This novel about exile and the kingdom, about nostalgia for the lost homeland and a fearful, hard-earned access to a new homeland, about loneliness and the sense of exclusion, ends with that form of resilience that is the writing of a book, then its publication—a universal homeland, a planetary homeland made of all the small belongings that constitute our countries of birth and adoption. Only art can unify in an identical nostalgia each of our individual lives that we must live to the full before the Great Departure.

As in a fairy tale, the dream cooped up in the small suitcase that the young Romanian woman carries away from a country where she cannot live freely will lead the reader into a zigzag of adventures, on the roller coaster of the back-and-forth between her native country and her adoptive country, in a frantic odyssey whose Ulysses is a woman in search of an Ithaca constantly within reach, yet just beyond her grasp.

Is it possible to return to a native country more democratic and more livable after the revolution against the Ceausescus? To a first love fractured by history and time? To a model of the female bound by old conventions? Step by step, this book will shed light on why such homecomings, whether geographical, historical, or generic, are literally impossible. And for good reason! But it will also show how these returns and flashbacks allow the character to move forward.

This is the story of a wandering: between the life of a woman, mother, lover, and the life of career, work, creativity. Between two husbands, two children, two languages, and so on. But the metaphysical question or that of identity is not about “who”, but about “where”. Where am I? Where is my real home? Bucharest or Chicago? Brasov or a small town in the Confederate South? The answer is in resilience, in art, in the novel, in the theatre, which make it possible to overcome all these contradictions. The kingdom is in the book.

This book could be called simply “A Life”, like the novel of the same name by Maupassant. Not just any life. The life of a woman of our time, able to take her story to dizzying heights. Maupassant’s book Une Vie is a fiction written by a man about a fully submissive female doomed to disillusionment and self-destruction. In Dream in a Suitcase, the life the heroine dreams of will not lead to boredom, a succession of disenchantments, abandonment, and death. This life will be worth living. She will be tossed away, torn from her roots, carried away by the winds of history, but standing tall like the tree in the yard of the Confederate sheriff’s house that she has made her own.

Dream is simultaneously the memoir of an émigrée, the saga of a refugee in search of the American dream, and testimony to the experience of an increasing number of migrants who cross the planet by land, air, or sea, to achieve a peaceful life for their children and descendants.

It is also a history lesson on totalitarianism in the last century, including the one imposed by the Soviet regime on the satellite countries that emerged from the Second World War, with its incessant surveillance, its privations and the omnipresent shadow of the Securitate, the terrible police that hunted down citizens even in their most intimate actions, even in their most private whispers. Its secret agents haunt and feed this story with an incurable trauma, an open sore on a wound that will nevertheless become the very source of writing. Expatriation in a land of freedom will unleash in the author a sincerity, an honesty, even more exceptional for having grown up in a country of censorship and terror.

First there is Romania, the native country, the magical aura of the Carpathian forests, the hills inhabited by mythical shepherds with their flocks, the landscapes, the smells and flavors of almond and rose jams prepared by maternal hands, the reminiscences of a small street, a mountain path, the taste of a last kiss, the immeasurable pain of separation on a station platform. Everything that could not be named in a country petrified by the gag on speech, and whose true goal of clandestine escape is called freedom of expression.

And then there is America, first an idealized figment of a young girl’s imagining, hungry to build her life, who knows nothing of the obstacles and torments of immigration, even in a country made up of immigrants who must drop off their suitcases when entering and erase the memory of their homeland to become full citizens. That is precisely what the narrator refuses to do, resolved to hold onto her suitcase and to build a new life for herself and her family without renouncing the other one. This she will achieve by blending the Romania of her childhood, youth, and first loves, with the America of her adult life. Gradually, as she puts down roots in a small town in Virginia, she will experience other loves, bear children, gain tenure at the university and win recognition of her talent as a writer. Like so many other women, she is a Mother Courage, who will eventually find her home and her spacious garden with its majestic oak reigning over a “people” of trees dominated by apple trees, a magnolia, and young maples. And make it her home.

From one end of the book to the other, Romania changes. And the American dream vanishes from the little suitcase and traverses all those ups and downs we call disappointments, disenchantments, regrets. But the narrator moves on too. Never mind where! Exile is everywhere to be sure, but the kingdom is within ourselves and others, in love for children, husbands, lovers, friends, and especially in writing, the finest form of sharing between the self and others.

The alternating sense of exclusion of a nomad wandering between two worlds and that of a citizen of the world at home everywhere is the very fabric of this unclassifiable book, and ultimately embodies the diversity of genres.

Its carefully constructed architecture avoids bland chronology and tracks the back and forth, the detours, and the entangled strata of the past, by repeating them, reviving them in other forms, imparting different colors and meanings. Their echoes give this book a lyrical and poetic tone whose keyword, the Romanian word dor, untranslatable, expresses the very essence of that feeling, the blues, declined across many registers. The nostalgia of being at home in the very heart of elsewhere reveals too that it is elsewhere itself that becomes our homeland. Only the dor can evoke with such grace and accuracy the torments of separation and its melancholy, this aspiration, this inexplicable desire, this longing for all that has been lost, all that could have been lost, all that one might have had without having it: “an inexplicable longing and yearning for everything you lost or might have lost or might have had but never got”.

The originality of this theme is that it is viewed through a woman’s eyes. In a world of men, woman is a perpetual exile, forced by millennia of servitude to adapt to a world forged and administered by triumphant virility. The narrator must overcome a host of obstacles to achieve this freedom to be a mother, a teacher, an artist, and even a lover, without returning to square one: submission to a husband or to a system that confines women within a category from which they have never entirely broken free.

Dream tells a simple, universal story, one in which all of the world’s women will recognize themselves. It recounts the difficulty of successfully leading one’s life on all fronts at once—family, children, career, creation, love—within a space of time limited by the fatal biological clock that obliges young women to succeed and achieve everything simultaneously. But this story is further complicated when you come from elsewhere, when you have a foreign accent, habits, a culture and a distinctive mentality, and when you do not know the codes of what has come to be your children’s homeland. The young Romanian woman will discover them little by little and adapt them to her mold, not mold herself to them. She manages to remain Romanian while becoming American in the full sense of the word. This is the strength of a people of émigrées. And literature accompanies this transformation not only as a tool but also as a source of inspiration, because the successful immigrant transforms the host society as much as the latter transforms her, and this is how racism and xenophobia may give way to understanding and sharing.

To wage this war and achieve peace with oneself and with others, with one country and another, with one language and another, this Mother Courage has all the qualities of courage and dignity that such struggles demand. But what strikes the reader in this protracted inner struggle is the love of life that carries her along and keeps her standing, looking to the future with eyes wide open. An example of resilience illustrated by a firm, direct, precise, often lyrical style, infused with a humor that vanquishes anger, a spirit of mild derision, in which many readers will recognize themselves.

The narrator-turned-author will eventually open the little suitcase, worn out by so many round trips, and she will transform it into a trunk where the dream will multiply. And from the contents of the trunk she will make a novel, transforming the dream not into reality, but into fiction. From this duplication will emerge two young women, the author and her character, the girl on the departing train and the girl who watches her into the distance. The first will be material for the fiction of a first novel. The second is the one that tells us the true story in this masterful memoir, which contains them both, author and character, but also the two homes, the two continents, the two languages, the old roots and the new. And the miracle will happen, publication and success. This new adventure, at the very heart of the existence that started as a fantasy sealed like a genie in a bottle, is told with honesty and exceptional simplicity. Certainly, with it comes the dream of celebrity, but the payoff of glory is a bitter potion, a reality that the author turned star evokes as sincerely as she conjures the tomorrows that disappoint and the drawbacks of fame that anchor the ephemeral in the history of literature.

Dream tells the in-between of writing and publishing, succeeding and starting again. A woman who has met life head on, a refugee who has integrated without losing her identity, the very symbol of America’s ability to Americanize all she touches. Between young America and old Europe, migrants are the new pioneers of a citizenship that spans the world, America being its microcosm.

An extraordinary story of our time, surfing on the geography of exile to make it the place where we are everywhere at home, told in a feminine language translatable into all the others.

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MichèleSarde

Michèle Sarde, Professor Emerita at Georgetown University, is a French novelist, essayist and biographer. Her work focuses on women, as well as personal and historical memory. Sarde’s numerous books include Colette: A Biography (Académie française award), Regard sur les Françaises (Perspectives on Frenchwomen, Académie française and Académie des Sciences morales et politiques awards), Vous, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jacques the Frenchman: Memories of the Gulag, Revenir du silence (WIZO award, to appear in English with the title “Returning from Silence: Jenny’s Story”). www.michelesarde.com

YŪKO TSUSHIMA, (2022) Woman Running in the Mountains. a review by Livi Michael

YŪKO TSUSHIMA, (2022) Woman Running in the Mountains, New York Review Books £14.99 trans Geraldine Harcourt, Introduction Lauren Groff.

Woman Running in the Mountains; Yuko Tsushima (New York Review Books: 2022)

This novel, first published in 1980, begins with a section called simply, Midsummer. On the first page, the central character, Takiko Odawa, is woken by labour pains. She sets off alone and on foot from her parent’s house without waking them, to the hospital, where she gives birth to a baby boy.

We learn that her pregnancy is the result of a brief affair with a married man, and is a source of shame to her parents. Her mother has repeatedly suggested that she should have an abortion or give the baby up while her abusive father reacts with violence, regularly beating his daughter. There are telling details of the deprived neighbourhood in which she lives, and Takiko’s refusal to walk with her head down. Thus far, we appear to be in the territory of social realism, or naturalism. Tsushima has a lot to say about attitudes, customs and regulations concerning women and pregnancy in late twentieth century Japan, the socially and legally enforced prejudice against single parenthood.

However interesting this is, it is not all this novel has to offer. In her introduction, Lauren Groff says that the text offers the reader ‘astonishing, glittering moments of wonder’ while never forgetting the darker details of poverty and discrimination. She suggests that ‘the ferocious truth of this book’ is that out of the daily struggle with drudgery ‘greatness arises.’ Takiko, subject to all the constraints of poverty, prejudice and violence, has a visionary sense that responds to nature, to sexuality and motherhood. At first, this takes the form of dreams and reverie, but as it develops, Takiko’s world changes. She moves from a passive acquiescence to men’s overtures to initiating sex firstly with a previous boyfriend and later with Kambayushi, a man she works with, whose own son is disabled. Her feelings for Kambayushi are strongly linked to her feelings for her son ‘to see Kambayushi’s face was to try out her feelings for Akira’. The scene where he talks about his love for his son, who will never mature as other children, is one of the most moving of the book.

Tsushima avoids the easy trajectory of romance. Takiko remains alone with her son. Yet there is a transformation of a different kind, accompanied by some exquisite descriptions of nature. While there is a suggestion of female solidarity throughout the novel, it is Takiko’s connection to the natural world that empowers her. As the narrative unfolds, the boundary between the ‘real’ world and the visionary diminishes until almost imperceptible linguistic shifts suggest that the two have merged. In her chapter in The Short Story in German in the 21st Century, Áine McMurty reflects on Yoko Tawada’s ‘reflexive re-embodiments of linguistic and geographic spaces’. This phrase can usefully be applied to Tsushima’s novel. It slips unobtrusively between the real and the surreal and a visionary sense that originates in Takiko’s body. By the end, Takiko has ‘groped blindly in the intense light of her own body’ towards a different path.

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Livi Michael has published nineteen full-length works of fiction for adults, young adults and children, as well as a number of short stories in magazines including Granta. He has a PhD in Literature and leads the MA in Publishing Programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.

www.livimichael.co.uk

Livi Michael

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Books Not for the Beach. a review of books by Gordon Phinn

GordonPhinnPhoto

Books Referenced:
This Is Not a Pity Memoir, Abi Morgan (HarperCollins 2022)
A Life in Light, Mary Pipher, (Bloomsbury 2022)
The Organist, Mark Abley (University If Regina Press 2019)
The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer (Canongate 2022)
They Have Bodies, Barney Allen (ed. Gregory Betts: University of Ottawa Press 2020)
This Time A Better Earth, Ted Allen (ed. Bart Vautour: University of Ottawa Press 2015)
The Abortion Caravan, Karin Wells (Second Story Press 2020)
The Freedom Convoy, Andrew Lawton (Sunderland House 2022)
Solace, Eva Kolacz (Black Moss Press 2021)
Apricots of Donbas, Lyuba Yakimchuk (Lost Horse Press 2021)

Books Not for the Beach

    Reading in a recent New Yorker that James Patterson, the best selling thriller writer (over 400 million sales so far), accessed and then maintained his status by publishing several titles per season, supplying the outlines of his 260 novels to ghost writers who actually spill the words onto the page, and that his method is a repeat of the Stratemeyer Syndicate of the early 20th century that churned out hundreds of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels from a “legion of ghostwriters” tucked in behind the names Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, rather put my teeth on edge as I prepared to contrast and compare memoirs to more literary memoirs.  I was relieved to hear that critics complain of his “generic characters, workmanlike, plot-driven prose” and the whole scam of “churning out multiple titles with the aid of co-writers”, but yet somewhat disappointed to realize that a finely tuned and entertaining genre film like The Lincoln Lawyer, with great ensemble acting by Matthew McConnachy, Marisa Tomei and William Macy was sourced in such a paint-by-numbers typing pool.

     Well, this happens and that happens, in formulaic novels as in life, and our charming naivete is slotted into the grimy comeuppance of unsightly corporate profits, some of which no doubt covers the ass of literary lost causes.  The marketplace shows no mercy for those who would refuse its harness.

     When Abi Morgan’s reminiscences This Is Not a Pity Memoir found its way to WordCity’s harbour I was intrigued to be reading the somewhat anguished testimony of an accomplished and insightful script writer, whose TV series The Hour and River had complemented her fine film scripts like The Iron Lady and Suffragette, impressing this movie buff no end.  While its fast paced chatty delivery often outpaces the reader’s desire for a mellow escape and gets the breath going in anticipation, the subject matter is one severe and virtually terminal medical trauma.  After witnessing her spouse falling foul of a new miracle drug to treat his MS, collapsing into incoherence and then an induced six-month coma followed by a recovery in which he recognizes everyone in the family but her, the poor woman goes through the fires of hell, waiting and wondering and waiting again.  This is exacerbated by her very own diagnosis of breast cancer, followed by the usual trial by fire of chemotherapy, now familiar to us all.

     This double whammy of almost unendurable suffering and mental torment continues for a couple of years while the author works on scripts, meets with producers and actors and, you know, makes ends meet.  That there is a second home for these hapless Londoners in Puglia, with garden and pool, skiing vacations with the children, and birthday parties in reserved private rooms in bespoke restaurants and the now customary mask-wearing paranoia of the period seems only to embroider the gut wrenching pain of the life impasse stoically endured.  I was filled with admiration for the endurance quotient of the entire extended family.

     Morgan’s stacatto style, all Brit-chatty, rolling over itself with the emotive free fall women specialize in much more than men, certainly hurries the reader through the day to day dramas of the family in waiting, and its use of the conversational sets it apart from a more literary approach, where sentence and paragraph structure is carefully weighted against the emotional tenor of the memories accessed.

     Such is the case with Canadian poet Mark Abley’s 2019 memoir The Organist, a deep consideration of his childhood and family, particularly his father, a church and theatre organist in both England and Canada, his lifelong struggle with melancholy and the pose of the misanthrope that often overtook his love of music and dedication to teaching its rudiments to the young.  In the course of retelling Abley wisely chooses to include old letters and the memories of others to contrast with his own rather self-centered recall.  His measured and meditative approach, combined with a poet’s sensitivity to language and expression sets it apart from the many celebrity memoirs that seduce their audience with all-too-familiar life lessons whispered in your ear.

      Another memoir caught my attention during this traverse: A Life in Light, recounting Mary Pipher’s years from rural childhood to urbanized maturity, emphasizing those moments of blissful joy that interrupt the trail of the tawdry and boring that most of us travel through on our way to the somewhere we’ve been assured exists.  While Pipher examines her journey, a fascinating one at that, through the lens of the trained psychologist and ‘cultural therapist’, Abi Morgan sees her drama as just that, a drama, a roller coaster ride through a circus of highs and lows that resolves itself in a release from illness when the show is over, graduation from schooling, a life less threatened and a studied avoidance of happily-ever-after chortling, and Mark Abley makes a poet’s map of the father-son territory in the light of such classics as Father and Son, each creator carves their life statue with the care appropriate to their tradition.  And that such streams of expression continue alongside each other on the shelf, catering unabashedly to the democritisation of taste, speaks volumes to the modern myth of society being somehow post-literary.

 

*

 

     It’s always good to have a few non-literary friends on hand, mainly to remind you that there is life outside the wordy bubble that so entrances you.  The sort of folks who read books, often popular ones, but are a bit fuzzy on what literature actually entails.  The ladies often will enthuse over the likes of Amy Tan, Jojo Moyles or Diana Gabaldon,  the guys John Le Carre, Henry Miller, Hemingway or Sedaris.  These were books they enjoyed rather than those whose reputations they’d been pumped up with and essays squeezed out reluctantly.  You carefully avoided the more esoteric references that would challenge their assumptions, not to mention any Canadian other than Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, relieved that they did not regard you as some kind of freak as they breastfed their babies and chattered about the Stanley Cup play-offs.  Plus in my day they were always up for enthusing over the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison, whose cultural contributions, let’s face it, could often be just as refined and hard hitting as any wordsmith.  This, of course, is the world not only before hip-hop and rap but the 24/7 access to all of music history filed away in the many streaming services.  It’s all there, if you can be bothered to track it down.

     When I began my ecstatic trek through bookworld decades ago I was blessed with many examples in that category and it became known that I was now reviewing the works of others instead of fussing with my own.  Somehow, amidst the detritus of memories, dreams and reflections that clutter up the brain function, I recall turning to one pal and commenting, more or less, ‘Well I’ve discovered that I have an opinion on almost everything’.  Much to her amusement I might add.  And so it has proven to this day, whether it relates to matters of content, style, wit or expression, reaction is rarely tempered by confusion.  That is but for those mysterioso enigmas like Geoff Dyer, that literary iconoclast who smartly eludes any effort at pigeonholing with volume after volume of fiction, non-fiction, studies and memoirs, who continues his effortless meander through a mind refracted by the many lenses he has appropriated on his way to nowhere in particular and almost by accident creates a cultural road map to an undiscovered country he’d like to lay claim to, should he ever rest from roaming, which I doubt.  It’s the journey not the destination that counts don’t you know.  And for what it’s worth Zadie Smith thinks hima national treasure”.   The Last Days of Roger Federer, the latest of twenty or so missives from the adventure, is as enigmatically entertaining as any of its predecessors. Nominally about the fading days of tennis stars, the process of quitting/having death quit you, or cutting out early to set up the come-back, it soon morphs into a study of endings in many genres and art forms.  Needless to say he glides effortlessly from painters to philosophers, writers and musicians.

     Wagner, Nietzsche, D.H.Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Louise Gluck, Beethoven, De Chirico, Annie Dillard, de Kooning, Keith Jarrett, obscure blues artists like R.L. Burnside, all are mixed in with aging tennis stars  like Borg and McEnroe, and going to gigs by The Clash and Art Pepper, attending Burning Man, giving up marihuana, experimenting with DMT and coping with the decline of his own aging joints and muscles, long strained by his own decades of obsessive amateur tennis.

     All is delivered in a sleekly giddy ride through the author’s many loves and devotions, spiced with the self-mocking wit that has become Dyer’s trademark.  Make no mistake, this lad is funny.  Funny and smart, funny and knowledgeable, funny and writerly, stringing words into sentences and paragraphs, funny and philosophical as he fails to work out the kinks of his Nietzsche obsessions, funny and informative as he quotes diverse sources on his subjects of preference.

     Often that wit is rolled into the rolling tide of reflections on this, that and the other and cannot be successfully exorcised for the quick quotable chuckle.  And at times the comeliness of his construction stops you short on that quest: “You would think that works made late in an artist’s life would mean more to you as you get older.  It seems no bad thing that I started listening to Beethoven’s late quartets when I was roughly the age he was when he composed them.  Even if they were and will be forever beyond my comprehension musically, I was ready for them in other ways.  At twenty-five I didn’t even try “The Wings of the Dove” or “The Ambassadors”; I deliberately left late James – let alone what one scholar calls ‘late late James – for later, and now it’s too late.”

     And later, thinking over delays between purchase and reading, with Joseph Brodsky as the test case, we see “Something happened with Louise Gluck: I made only limited progress with poems 1962-2012

     When it came out, but prompted by her Nobel Prize win, I went back to it and am now within her austerely embodied consciousness, its gaunt sensuality and granite lyricism.  The unapproachable intimacy of her work almost insists on some kind of hesitation on the part of the reader as an appropriately faltering response.”

      From time to time in the unfolding of his fragmented yet cohesive vision, where shifting from Andy Murray to Bob Dylan and back again becomes hardly deserving of further comment, he comes to the witness box and confesses: “During an onstage discussion with John Berger about his creative longevity, how he managed to write so many books over such a long period of time.  It was, he said, because he believed each book to be his last.  To encourage me my wife points out that I’ve been saying I’m finished as a writer ever since we’ve met, more than twenty years ago.  During this time I’ve written a lot of books.  In a Berger-like way it’s the belief that I’m finished that’s kept me going, but since the gravitas he brought to my question sounds entirely inappropriate, my now preferred explanation is that each book has felt like getting in an extra round before time is called.  But at some point time will be called and I’ll be proved right.  Keep saying ‘this is the end’ often enough, as I said on the first page of this book, and you will have the last word.  It’s a reason to keep talking, to keep on keeping on.  ‘I finished my book!’ I wrote to a friend.  Now, after six months of doing almost nothing, I wonder if I got that the wrong way around, has it finished me?”

      A musician not quoted by Dyer, despite contemporaries like Peter Hamill and Jim Morrison being consulted for stoner eloquence, Robert Fripp has been fond of saying that sometimes the band begins by playing the music, but then, if the alchemy is just poured in the correct portions, the music opts to play the band and we are all elevated into the zone.  With Dyer, the writer enamored of all the arts and sports, he opens by plotting his course, or seeming to, but ends up with the course playing him for all its worth.  And believe me, it’s worth it.

 

*

 

    Those of you who care to recall college, particularly those who harnessed themselves to Literature, either the English or Canadian variety, will remember, with varying degrees of fondness or frustration, those critical editions of classic texts, often but not always novels, that attempted to place you in the driver’s seat for an author and epoch long gone, allowing you something more than  glimpse as to what it might have been like to read, say, Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure shortly after its release.  The University of Ottawa has a line of such editions and I am discovering that they can be as fascinating as our major league competitors from the US and UK.

     Take a breather from Joyce, Fitzgerald, James or Woolf and allow me to introduce you to Barney Allen, scion of a prominent Canadian family who pioneered the creation of theatre chains in the days of silent film and whose dutiful participation in the family empire left him sufficient energy to compose a quartet of novels, ascending, as Gregory Betts points out in his illuminating introduction and analysis, from the modernist avant-garde to the “ripping yarn” of 1965’s The Gynecologist, where “all highbrow literary intentions were set aside in this story of a doctor’s steamy affair with his patient.”  Regardless of his literary contribution or lack of it, Mr. Allen is a quixotic chapter in the rather stunted growth of the Canadian avant-garde and deserves further attention, as much for the repressive reaction to his then shocking modernism as its pallid reproduction of other’s innovations.  The early novels of Hugh MacLennan, (Strange Fugitive/Such Is My Beloved/More Joy in Heaven) with their pointed societal critiques, serve that cause with significantly more aplomb.  While it is easily recognized that the text does focus on the shape and substance of bodies (hairy chests/heaving bosoms/luscious thighs) and the fleshly lusts of both sexes, repressed by convention but ever ready to spring forth, there is also an inordinate amount of fashion plate detail to satisfy any Vogue aficionado.  These folks are dressed.

     They Have Bodies comes to us as a novella (140pp) length narrative, once deemed offensive to Toronto society’s powers that be and forcibly removed from all sources immediately upon publication by those righteous defenders of public morality, the police, leaving the small US edition to fend for itself.  As one critic reports in the contemporary jargon, it was ‘disappeared’.   But only for a century.  Only in Canada you say, pity.

     Its sexual frankness, which pivots on the maid’s willing enthusiasm for sexual contact more than the expected power play of her employer, seeing her as a fully sexual being in her own right regardless of class, effectively joins the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Barney Rosset in that cultural struggle to assert one’s erotic civil rights in the face of centuries of puritan condemnation and punishment.  Internationally it will likely be seen as not much more than a fascinating footnote to those more ambitious works, but nationally, with our own cultural avant-gardists, Elizabeth Smart and Sheila Watson notwithstanding, so thin on the ground, it gains, and likely will retain, a significant niche.  Its use of stream of consciousness, alternating with conventional narrative and gauche irruptions of the theatrical that ape but fail to equal the stylish wit of, say, Bernard Shaw, the work makes for a poor neighbour to the genius dazzle of an Ulysses. And as such professor Betts, being perhaps our most prominent scholar of the field in all its manifestations, while providing all the right signposts to further study, has a tendency to overlook its weaknesses.  That the book was rigorously suppressed in its day fits with the timelines of state censorship ranging back to the 17th century, but stops well short of establishing any but the most paltry of literary achievement.  In placing the then shocking findings of Freud in a fictional template, Allen perhaps fulfils a personal mandate yet fails to convince the reader of his characters’ reality outside of his authorial manipulations.   The work may be, as Betts suggests, “the first sacrificial entry of the Canadian literary avant-garde” and a port of call in an ongoing voyage of discovery in one or more doctorates but rather falls flat in terms of literary excellence or even pleasure.

     State censorship has been eroded by patient and fearless challenges over the decades but as we have seen in the past few years, not entirely pacified.  Dissent can still come with a hefty price.  I suspect it always will.  When one challenges the established order, the holders and exploiters of power and control, with their exercise of hidden agendas and manipulation of us debt ridden puppets at their pleasure, one takes the wrath that is freely passed around by those functionaries afraid of their own loss of status.

 

*

 

     In our contemporary geopolitical environment where contemporary autocracies compete with the fabled rise of fascism for depth of repression and infamy, the topic of the Spanish Civil War is never far from reference.  The University of Ottawa’s series of reissues Canada and The Spanish Civil War hopes to remedy any lack in the cultural and historical crossfire.  And as I recall from the arguments still resounding over George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, those embers can easily be relit.  As Pete Ayrton remarks in the introduction to his fine and perhaps exhaustive anthology No Pasaran! (2016), although a small war in comparison with the two giants on its flanks it “continues to punch above its weight in terms of cultural and political resonance.”  With its forty odd contributions from the likes of Andre Malraux, Luis Bunuel, Arthur Koestler, Muriel Rukeyser, Joan Sales and John Dos Passos it can and does serve as one of several foundational texts.

     Under consideration here is Ted Allan’s contribution This Time a Better Earth, edited and introduced by Bart Vautour.  Author Allan will perhaps be better remembered for his 1952 work The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune, and his award winning screenplay for the film Lies My Father Told Me, this carefully fictionalized memoir belongs on a shelf with its contemporaries as the sobering distance of history shakes down the competing myths and ideologies to produce the balanced portrait we know is there, ready to instruct.  The camraderie and naive idealism of the young men volunteering for what became the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion is admirably evoked as they buck up their nerve to fight off the growing threat of fascism as exemplified by Franco’s Royalist rebels backed up by Hitler’s bombers and Mussolini’s troops.  It is still unclear whether Allan, as ‘Bob’, actually had the extended romance with ‘Lisa’, based on the very real war photographer Gerda Taro, whose death on the field of battle was turned into a useful martyrdom for the Communist cause with a cast of thousands at her Parisian funeral cortege, but the frank and unsentimental portrayal of their love bond is as convincing and touching as the male bonding of the men under fire and repeated bombardment.  I must say I found the descriptive realism quite riveting, albeit in the small doses the novella supplies.  Critical editions encourage the sober scholarly reexamination but I suspect even a casual reader could be enthralled with this slice of political and cultural history.

 

*

 

     The recent reversal on abortion rights by the US Supreme Court has returned the spotlight to civil rights issues we thought resolved decades ago.  The tributaries to this resuscitated river of raging patriarchy are many, and deserve a deeper study that I can give here, but of interest to Canadian readers is the recent account by Karin Wells of 1970’s The Abortion Caravan, where a couple of vans and  a car with approximately seventeen women, made their way across the country from Vancouver to Ottawa to alert the populace and then Liberal government lead by Pierre Trudeau to the plight of the many women dying from botched backstreet abortions and the dire necessity for the loosening of restrictions.  Such were the times, an epoch still smarting from the fifties’ commie paranoia, that these women liberationists were seen as dangerous lefties by the RCMP and their progress carefully monitored for any eruptions of threatening radicalism.  Don’t forget this is 1970, (about five months before the eruption of the October Crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act), when long distance phone calls and the odd newspaper headline were the paltry means of news transfer as the women made their way through the prairie provinces and into Ontario, gathering more supporters along the way.

     Women’s Liberation groups were well established in many towns and cities by this point, but this seems to have been their first collective action and the growing pains of diverse competing agendas, with some looking to smash the stranglehold of patriarchy and others the complete overthrow of capitalism, now looks quaint and naïve.  Now we might man the barricades while making plans for next weekend.  Yet their bravery and determination in the face of a government satisfied with the previous year’s establishment of therapeutic abortion committees in hospitals to which women could appeal, only through their doctors of course, has to be admired.  It should be noted that approximately 19 out of 20 requests were refused.  And in the face of the US anti-Vietnam protests, huge after the shootings at Kent State, their own protest seemed somewhat insignificant, even to them in their fervour.  But they followed through and wound up in Ottawa with hundreds joining their march to 24 Sussex Drive, where they spontaneously squatted on the lawn and eventually deposited the symbolic coffin, topped with those gruesome reminders of suction pumps, knitting needles and lysol, on the porch of the Prime Minister’s residence for the grand irreversible gesture.  This was more or less repeated in the following days in Parliament, where, with fake id’s, ladylike clothing, white gloves and hidden chains they quietly occupied the public galleries and began to shout their slogans one by one, confusing security and bringing debate to a halt and humiliating headlines to the following days’ papers.

     Their efforts, mostly self-funded and what you might call barebones, certainly brought public attention to their cause, although the laws were not modified for many years, those same years during which Henry Morgentaler repeatedly challenged the status quo with his independent clinics.  With this book author Wells has served the cultural history of Canada well and with honour, reminding us of the long struggles until the repeal, under then new Charter of Rights in 1988, of the shaming and injury of women seeking to return control of their bodies from those male elites who assume they know better.

 

*

 

     That comparisons can be made to Andrew Lawton’s very recent book length report The Freedom Convoy might surprise and even offend some, yet I feel they should be indicated.  Determined idealists crossed the country, initially on their own dime, convinced that government policy was harming a goodly portion of the populace while trashing our cherished civil rights and were adamant that their demands should be met, or at least listened to.  The distance between 1970 and 2022 can be measured in a number of ways: diversity of participants; sudden amassing of finances; instant, or close to it, communication between community members and on out into the world.  At times it became like a continuation of the Vietnam-era chant: “the whole world is watching!”  It seemed like our national response was somewhere between pride and embarrassment: pride that we were finally being paid attention to, embarrassment that we’d been caught with our pants down.  But that’s just me; in the raucous debate that the convoy aroused there were many mes with pointed opinions.

     Lawton’s recounting of the unfolding drama strikes me as a sober and relatively unbiased assessment of the confusions aroused by the numerous online commentators, the misrepresentations of the mainstream media and the dysfunctional and uncoordinated response of the various levels of government.  Every claim and assertion is carefully footnoted for those who might suspect otherwise.  That further accounts will appear in the months to come is a given, but this is a fair start.

 

*

 

     Eva Kolacz third book of poems is a very welcome addition to her growing accomplishment.  The lyrics show a maturity and what I might call a more pungent lyricism than was previously shared.  Ribbons of underlying melancholy are resolved into gifts of submission and acceptance.  As the poet charms herself into an embrace of the stern blows of fate’s severities we too are charmed by the beauty of the language on which that embrace travels as it performs those shapely incisions in our perturbed defenses.  This is a collection I found myself turning to in those odd moments of distraction, when the small gifts of insight can render confusion radiant.

Solace

 

Offering me only a few seconds at a time of yourself

Is not enough.

Did I miss the point altogether when asking you, solace,

to give me back my peace of mind?

 

I long for the loving song of nothingness.

 

In other words, I’m here, waiting

behind the ornament of a smile covering my true appearance;

there is always more than one could see –

the length of unwanted thought inside the flesh, aching.

 

I’m older now, still balancing

on the tightrope six feet above the ground

with no mat below, not forgetting where I came from-

although my disconnection with you seems to be unstoppable.

 

*

 

     As the cancerous poison of war makes its way around the planet, stirring tribes and ideologies into murderous rage and thrusts of vengeance, our sympathies flow to those struck down by ruthless military might, whether armored and uniformed or scruffy and militant.  Once it was Yugoslavia, the former, then Rwanda then Serbia now Ukraine, with the many eruptions of the Arab Spring filling in any gaps.  While the futility of neutrality feeds our sense of same and purpose, we try to tend the wounded, feed the hungry and provide safe haven for the refugees.  Journalists, activists, diplomats, poets: each have their role, even as they criticize the other.  That’s how tragedy prompts humanity.

     Apricots of Donbas, bi-lingual collection of poems from one of the leading lights of contemporary Ukrainian literature, Lyuba Yakimchuk, and midwifed into English by three translators, Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Roschinsky and Sevtlana Lavochkina, is something of a poetic passport to that region’s suffering.  And it is brought to us by Lost Horse Press in Sandpoint, Idaho.  While many of the poems reflect the hostilities in the region of Luhansk where the author once lived in the 2014/15 period, there are a number which approach the ‘warfare of the kitchen and bedroom’, the politics of the familial and personal, some of which reek of the acerbic and satirical, drawing our grins and chuckles in this landscape of the grim.

     As the bulk of poems were previously included in the 2015 collection “Abrykosy Donbasu” and 2009’s, “, iak MODA”, little of the text reflects the current hostilities of the Russian invasion and more the internal conflicts of the nation itself, which, like all civil wars, have deep historical roots.  And whether we as readers choose NATO or Russian propaganda as our online influencer of note, the poetry stands or falls on its own merits, which I would say are mixed.

     While there is much to recommend in these pages, it is marred by occasions of the clichéd and obvious, marring its potential for sublime.  Whether that lies at the feet of the poet or translators is beyond my remit, but the recitation of awards, prizes and praise given to Yakimchuk, accolades for her spoken word performances, description of ‘a fashion icon for VogueUA’ and being ‘the mother of a ten-year-old’ seem somewhat superfluous to the actual architecture of the stanzas and stirs some dull suspicions.

 

The return

 

we want back home, where we got our first grays

where the sky pours into windows in blue rays

where we planted a tree and raised a son

where we built a home that grew moldy without us

 

but the road back home blossoms with mines

needle grass and fog cover the open pits

we come back bitter, guilt ridden, reticent

we just want our home back and a little peace

 

if only to go there, to breath in the scent of mold

pulling yellowed photographs out of family albums

we’re going home where we won’t grow old

parents and graves and walls waiting for us

 

we will walk back even with bare feet

if we don’t find our home in the place where we left it

we will build another one in an apricot tree

out of luscious clouds, out of azure ether

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Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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The Knights of Malta trilogy. by Marthese Fenech

This page is a surprise book birthday present for Marthese Fenech, whose decades-in-the-making trilogy reached its epic conclusion this month. Mar is not only a WordCity Literary Journal contributor and supporter, but a friend and an inspiration. With her brave and capable women characters, Mar’s historical fiction, and Mar herself, embody the spirit and strength of our September theme and we couldn’t be more proud to present not only a poem by Mar, previously featured in WCLJ’s very first issue, but this spread featuring all three books in The Knights of Malta trilogy. Congratulations to Marthese Fenech, our brilliant, fierce and unwavering friend who is also our beloved “fucking hurricane”!

Marthese Fenech - Author

The Flying Habits of Butterflies
by Marthese Fenech

Butterflies do not fly very high. 
They grace forest and canyon and sunny woodland glades
play on streams of light 

splashing through leafy canopies. 

They rise and fall. 
Pass into shadow and out. 
Delicate

even the light might bruise them. 

Is that why
they stay close to the ground?

Is she loathe to test her wings 
because she might fail? 

What made her think she’d falter? 
Who told her to stay low? 

Someone concerned 
that the beating of her wings 
might cause a hurricane.

Or that she might achieve 
the full potential of flight

Touch the sky. 
Reach above

The sky is never the limit.
Just a page to write on.

And yet, butterflies do not fly very high. 

Even when we could carry each other up  
with the collective wind 
of our own beating wings. 
 
A defiance against those 
who would have us stay low

Rise.
Grace the sky.
 
And if it pleases
bring forth 
a fucking hurricane.

From the publisher: The ghosts of war leave no footprints. When legendary Ottoman seaman Dragut Raїs attacked the Maltese islands in 1551, his army left Gozo a smoking ruin emptied of its entire population. Among the five thousand carried into slavery is Augustine Montesa, father of Domenicus and Katrina. Wounded and broken, Domenicus vows to find his father, even if it means abandoning Angelica, his betrothed. Armed with only a topaz to serve as ransom, he sets out on a journey that sees him forcibly recruited from the streets of Europe and thrown into the frontline. On Malta, Katrina struggles to find work after the Grand Master has her publicly flogged for speaking out against him. When at last, she stumbles upon a promising position, all is not as it seems. Her job forces her to confront a terrible truth—one that may prove disastrous for Robert, the man she loves. Hundreds of leagues to the east in Istanbul, Demir, son of a wealthy Turkish bey, works hard to become an imperial Ottoman horseman, despite having to endure the cruelty of his father and half-brother. Life takes an unexpected turn the moment Demir encounters a young woman, stolen from Malta, brought into the household as another of his father’s servants. Falcon’s Shadow sweeps from quarry pits to sprawling estates, tumultuous seas to creaking gallows, the dungeons beneath the bishop’s palace to the open decks of warships. Fates will collide at the Battle of Djerba, a momentous clash which unites lost kin, only to tear them apart once more.

From the publisher: The violent clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John on the island fortress Malta serves as the backdrop to Eight Pointed Cross. Young siblings Domenicus and Katrina Montesa live under constant threat of raids by the Ottoman Turks, the staunchest enemies of the Christian knights. All the while, hundreds of leagues away in Istanbul, Demir’s dream of becoming an imperial horseman in the Sultan’s cavalry is his only salvation against relentless torment by his cruel brother. The Turkish invasion of Malta and the island’s bloody defence will forever change the lives of the three protagonists, whose fates are intertwined not only with each other, but with nobles and peasants, knights and corsairs, tyrants and galley slaves, on both sides of the conflict as the novel sweeps across the Mediterranean world of the sixteenth century—from Malta, a barren Christian outpost, to Istanbul, the glittering seat of Islam, from filthy prison cells to lush palace gardens. Against soaring sea-cliffs and open sea-lanes, the men and women of Eight Pointed Cross face corruption and oppression, broken vows and betrayal, as two great empires collide. Surviving this battle-soaked world of swords and scimitars will test the limits of every character’s courage, loyalty, and love.

From the publisher: 1565. Malta stands on the precipice of one of the bloodiest battles in history. An elite Ottoman army, 50,000 strong, prepares to depart Istanbul, the seat of the Empire. Deeply conflicted, Demir must sail alongside the host determined to conquer his mother’s homeland and crush the Order of St John once and for all. Testing his loyalty is the knowledge that Angelica, the half-sister he has never met, dwells on the tiny island.

As the Maltese garrison braces for the incoming storm, knights and civilians stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the walls. Domenicus and Robert volunteer for the ramparts of Fort St Elmo, the most precarious position on Malta. Angelica finds herself locked outside the city gates and scrambles to a hilltop citadel, where she helps establish a makeshift infirmary. Katrina takes up a bow and stands a post, shielding her town as the Ottoman tide crashes against it.

For several blood-soaked months, Malta is the stage upon which fierce combat rages. Heads are fired from cannons, field hospitals set ablaze, knights crucified, and soldiers melted where they stand. As the land exhales swirling ash, and narrow streets choke on rubble, no one escapes the fiery currents of war unscathed. The body count surges. Hope scatters with the smoke. Outflanked and outnumbered, can the defence hold out until a much-delayed relief force arrives from Sicily?

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Marthese Fenech is the number one bestselling author of epic historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Turkey. She has also written the pilot episode of a television series based on her books.

Research has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped.

Obstinate curiosity has led her to sixty-five countries across six continents. She does her best plot-weaving while hiking mountain trails, wandering local markets, paddle boarding cliff-sheltered bays, and sitting at home with her Siberian husky curled at her feet.

The youngest of five, Marthese was born in Toronto to Maltese parents. At twelve, she moved to Malta for six months and was enrolled in an all-girls private school run by nuns; she lasted three days before getting kicked out for talking too much. Back in Toronto, she started a business editing and selling bootleg heavy metal concerts. She later worked with special needs children and adults, witnessing small miracles daily.

Mar has a Master’s degree in Education and teaches high school English. She speaks fluent Maltese and French and knows how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish and Italian. She took up archery and wound up accidentally becoming a licensed coach. A former kickboxing instructor, she snowboards, surfs, scuba-dives, climbs, skydives, throws axes, and practices yoga—which may sometimes include goats or puppies. She lives north of Toronto with her brilliant, mathematically-inclined husband and brilliant, musically-inclined dog, known to lead family howl sessions on occasion.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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3 poems by Romana Iorga

Romana Iorga

You Never Wanted It Anyway

1.

This evening drips languorous
poison into my veins.

You tilt the blue 
shade away from your pillow.
My shadow 

leaps on all fours
onto the wall, hangs upside 
down by its nails,

sprints across the ceiling.

Outside, the sky is burning,
a mad woman in her twilit garden.

2.

Sinking deep is almost too easy.
It’s like dropping a coin
in a well. It’s like watching it 

fall, listening for the plonk 
that never comes.

Your mouth twists when you say them,
those words you rarely mean.

After the shower, I take pictures
of footprints on the floor,
a presence that takes no time 

to disappear.

3.

Last fall we strung a see-through tarp
between our cherry trees
to catch the fruit.

We caught the rain instead.
The cherries lolled about
like eyeballs
inside the sagging paunch.

And so, we lay under the pool 
of rain, stabbing its heavy 
belly to make it bleed,

the water warm, already breeding 
flies, or something worse than flies,
something without a name.

Maybe we lost it then, 
what neither of us wanted.

For it was lovely, that distorted 
sky, the two of us sufficient 
unto it. We laughed at moving 

shadows while the sun
erased the remnants of what 
nearly was, or could have been,

then wasn’t.




 
Adulterous


The house was silent, as if 
the rocks hitting it made 
no sound, didn’t echo 

through empty rooms 
like a black wave,
engulfing the woman 

who crouched under 
the kitchen table, 
hands over ears, eyes shut 

to keep death 
from sprawling inside her,
from ripening 

in her skin, from slithering 
out when the first rocks 
were to find her. 

The black wave snaked 
through eyelets on the blue 
tablecloth, simmered 

in the green coffee pot 
on the stove, jumped high, 
touched the ceiling with thirsty 

fingers. The woman 
opened her eyes, crawled 
to turn off the range. 

Her legs took her through 
unfamiliar rooms. 
Those books, that furniture 

belonged to someone 
she vaguely knew. 
Hand on the doorknob, 

she watched her fear 
still rocking under the table; 
the black wave 

still lapping on her face.
Her death uncoiled 
and swam up, rushed 

out through cracks 
in her skin, bloomed red 
on the trampled 

flower beds. Blades 
of sound hacked 
through bruised air. 

The crowd knelt 
by the blossom, watched it 
open its petals—

slowly, as if 
in a dream. The air 
hummed with its scent.
Years later, the black wave 
found them all 
in their own hiding places, 

filled their lungs with that 
scent, sealed nostrils 
and mouths, steeped them 

in their skins. 





 
My Body Is Also a Word

Precise as a clock when the mind isn’t. 		
The only thing I have that tells time 
accurately. 	

It searches for its futures 
in the crooked lines on its palm, 
in the stretch marks that point like roots 
toward the bigger body of the earth. 

Its face is wrapped in a shadow. 
It only knows the faces of its children.

It’s loud. So loud. It slams its gaze 
against tall windows at dawn: Out! Out!
	
It springs from volatile pelt, 
prowls the dark cages 
of sleep, rips through dreamflesh 
with new fangs. It has a clear conscience.

In a crowded room it looks 
smaller, but so does everyone else. 
It feels smaller, like many do 
but don’t show it. It learns to hide 
in plain view, sometimes successfully. 

It has the sleek hide of a loved pet 
but doesn’t like to groom itself. 
It thinks of itself as unloved for the drama. 

In the clear eyes of its children it grows 
banyan roots. It fosters attachments 
on rainy days, ploughs through the light 
with a cloven foot. When asked 
to surrender, it does so on second thought. 

It goes to bed out of sheer exhaustion, 
but also for the love of that furry 
animal, sleep. It dreams of innumerable 
children. It dreams of a childless life, a lonely 
death on some forlorn mountain peak.

It has the aura of a double-edged 
sword, the cry of a loon. 
It swaddles the moon, swallows it 
whole. It gives birth to twins.

It glows from within with the core 
of a star but dares not look 
in the mirror. It fears what it can’t see.

It smells like a secret. 
If asked, it can fly all night. 

It wakes up before birdsong 
and fills the rooms with morning. 
It never learns to make the right coffee. 

It breaks rules now and then just to keep alive.

It loves sweets and their absence. It loves 
love, the unattainable kind, unrequited, or lost. 
It gives in to hatred now and then 
just to keep alive. 

It grows branches, sprouts blossoms, 
calls them children or poems. 
It takes care of some, ignores the others.
Reverses the order the next morning. 
Thrusts deep roots into guilt, 
into memory. Loses both on a good day. 

It gathers baskets of sin, 
armfuls of flaws just to keep 
alive. It flies on broomsticks and fallen 
leaves, then dreams itself fallen 
or crushed or rotten. 

It dares not dream of redemption.
It thrives like any common flower 
in unhallowed grounds.

It makes its own spring with one swallow.

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Originally from Chisinau, Moldova, Romana Iorga is the author of two poetry collections in Romanian. Her work in English has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including the New England Review, Salamander, The Nation, as well as on her poetry blog at clayandbranches.com.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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3 poems by Lisa Reynolds

Lisa Reynolds

Haiku									
his seed
planted 
without consent





Advice
One day she may come to you
Body bruised, lip split from
The wrath of him
Trust me when I say
It is you who she needs
You who can help her
Feel whole again





Choice
Choice is a word you want her to know
Choice gives options when life is questioned
Like should she or should she not
Choose herself over him 

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Lisa Reynolds is a Canadian writer of poetry and short stories. She is a member of The Ontario Poetry Society, the Writing Community of Durham Region, and an associate member of The League of Canadian Poets. Her works are published internationally in anthologies, literary journals, and magazines. Her poems, Advice and Choice are two from her collection of five, that will be featured at an upcoming CROSS CURRENTS Indo-Canadian Arts exhibition, and published in the 1st edition of “Verses on Walls/In Between The Lines” along with complementary Art.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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