“Hearts Hot and Time Passing:”* Looking back on the early 2000s and its girl outlaws who broke the rules
We’re action girls. We get down to business. Time’s a-wasting.
-Zoe Whittall, 2002See more details below
We’re action girls. We get down to business. Time’s a-wasting.
-Zoe Whittall, 2002See more details below
I have a distinct memory of the first time another writer gave me permission to write about the things I felt were important to me.
It was 2003, and I had recently moved back to Toronto after an ill-advised stint in a less-than-welcoming Vancouver. With my newly minted (and largely useless) Women’s Studies and English Literature degree, I had stupidly travelled out west to be with someone I loved—young, misguided love, all that—and the inevitable breakup pushed me back to the city where I was born for what I had thought would be a temporary hiatus. It was supposed to be a pit stop while I got my life together and settled on a new direction, and the uncertainty of it all left me riddled with anxiety.
2. She passed the funeral parlour on Marlon Road, the one between her house and her job at Stedman’s department store. The undertaker outside was smoking, looked at her longer than he should, as if to say. “You’re next, baby.”
A childhood friend had kindly offered up a room in his grandmother’s now vacated apartment. She had gone blind and to a home, and for a mere $300 a month, I could live there with him as long as I committed to improving our run-down side of the duplex for future tenants. Situated on Queen Street East in the not-yet-gentrified community of Leslieville, the apartment was a rodent-infested, dingy throwback to decades long past. It was equipped for someone losing their sight, and I was unwittingly charged with packing up a lifetime of the elderly woman’s belongings in exchange for a soft—if filthy—place to fall.
4. When Judy got home she checked the pilot light again. Again. Again. Again. She noticed a hole in her left sock.
One day, while I was not doing a terrible, dehumanizing shift at a fundraising call centre in Parkdale, I was in the bathtub reading issue 23 of Broken Pencil, “The Magazine of Zine Culture and Independent Arts.” With my meager earnings I had picked it up from the now closed Pages Bookstore on Queen West (RIP), and there, on page 91 of the magazine, was a brief, sparse, one-page short story by Zoe Whittall called “Check Mate.”
5. Obsessed, prepossessed, infatuated, fixated, besotted, gripped, held, monomaniacal. A visionary.
At the time I read this piece I was what you might generously call “marginally published.” I’d managed to get some (admittedly terrible) things out into world via my alma mater’s daily student newspaper, and was the proud holder of a lonely literary journal publication credit with the now defunct feminist publication, Fireweed. I’d experimented with some teenage zine publishing, and had in my possession a very shaky draft of a first novel that I’d written during my sad, rain-soaked days in Vancouver. I had a hard time referring to myself as a writer. I was unmoored and desolate, in a shitty apartment with a shitty job, unsure of what exactly to do with myself.
9. Fatalistic, skeptical, negative, dubious, abrogating, neutralizing, pessimistic.
But clear as day, I recall Whittall’s piece in that magazine saying, “there is room for you and what you’re writing in literary culture.” Perhaps more importantly it said, “we’re making room for you.”
10. The doctor said: “People with your condition either kill themselves or go on medication.” She took the script into the candy store. She bought liquorice and felt lighter.
That 2003 short story was a fragmented and impressionistic numbered list about Judy, a woman suffering from what I perceived to be anxiety disorder, later retitled “Judy Thirteen” and published in Whittall’s second collection The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare Books, 2006). Not only did I think, “I want to write just like this,” the piece opened up my limited knowledge of contemporary literature to include a group of writers who were operating in a distinctly different fashion than I was accustomed to. These women wrote prose, and poetry, and prose poetry, all about the things I actually thought and cared about. They rejected traditional structure and “suitable” subject matter. They saw performance as part of their process, and celebrated each other and their connection with readers. They got on stage and read fearlessly, hilariously, and without worrying about rules. They didn’t see platforms for themselves so they built them. They created a community where one was glaringly missing.
These weren’t the dusty CanLit stereotypes we’ve all been groomed on at that early stage of life. The Handmaid’s Tale. Beautiful Losers. Fall on Your Knees. Fifth Business. The Stone Diaries. Barney’s Version. The English Patient. This was different, exciting, combative, authentic, and innovative—a big, talented “fuck you” to what was expected of them. It was fun, and I—young, lost, and grappling hopelessly with my first manuscript—was completely hooked.
Inspired, Whittall’s work opened a door for me to dig deeper, and in the subsequent years I found a wealth of writers who were doing similar things on the fringes of what was deemed “capital L literature.” Lisa Foad, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, Amber Dawn, Mariko Tamaki, Anna Camilleri, to name only a handful. I gobbled up books from Canadian publishers like Whittall’s first home, McGilligan Books, and the renegade favourite, Arsenal Pulp Press. I subscribed to small, experimental literary journals like Broken Pencil and Emily Pohl-Weary’s Kiss Machine (again, RIP.) I bought anthologies like Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, and Red Light: Superheroes, Saints, and Sluts. I went alone to readings and performances at local bars. I actually started submitting my work.
I thought, “if this is what literary culture can be, I’m all in.”
Nostalgia is a tricky thing because it tends to make the past look better than it was, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen a movement in literature as exciting and inspiring as that particular time period since. After years of being told by academic institutions what literature was and what it was supposed to do, Whittall’s story blew that apart. The stories and poems I went on to discover hit me with a lightning bolt of possibility. Now, with the benefit of more than a decade of distance, I’m sure what she was part of, what she helped start, was the kind of vibrant, supportive culture that paves the way for a variety of new voices to take root.
These writers didn’t see a place for themselves in the status quo, and consciously or not, they made their own world and welcomed others into it. Not only that, but the candor in which they spoke and wrote about the intricacies of their life experiences actually brought a great deal of solace to the readers that came to love their work. Many of them, in turn, have deservedly become a dominant and welcome force in contemporary Canadian literature.
Though I look back on that literary period with great affection, Whittall is a little more realistic. “I remember 2001 to 2005 as very difficult,” she tells me of the time before she garnered mainstream attention. “The city was very expensive. I had a lot of problems. There's a loneliness to being in your early twenties and outside of school and broke all the time.”
Now excelling far beyond the (excellent) scrappy small press short stories she published in the early 2000s, Whittall has firmly secured her position as a vital voice in Canadian letters. No longer relegated to the margins, she’s been honoured with awards and mainstream attention, and been published by some of the more prominent venues in Canada. At only thirty-eight, she’s now a highly regarded critic, has written three books of poetry and three novels, and has been anthologized in countless, now classic feminist and queer collections. As if that weren’t enough, she currently writes for the beloved Canadian television show, Degrassi. Whittall’s first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, was named as a top ten Canadian novel by Canada Reads, and her second, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, has been optioned for film.
“I think when you are perceived to be in some sort of specialized ghetto, writing only for urban or queer and ‘marginalized’ folks, it really is great to know your work can be read and appreciated by anyone and everyone if they give it a chance,” she told the CBC in 2010. “Some of my biggest fans continue to be people outside of my community, which I love.”
This popularity may have something to do with the fact that Whittall is not one to devote herself to unnecessary poetic obscurity—her extensive body of work is littered with the kind of fun pop culture nods and familiar urban anxieties that have made her a favourite amongst women navigating the unchartered waters of adulthood. She’s written poems “about” Judy Blume, Rayanne Graff, Boy George, Axl Rose, Corey Haim, and Molly Ringwald. She’s even written a poem—a personal favourite of mine—hilariously titled “Law and Order: An Erotic Primer.” I’ve maintained hers is the kind of poetry written for those who hate poetry, and I mean that as the highest praise. She’s accessible, whimsical, meaningful, funny, and gutting, lacking the dusty stuffiness and patronizing tone that puts so many would-be-readers off of the genre.
Only Happy When It Rains
reminds me of Chloe
in a Mission thrift store, San Francisco
deciding which pink ball gown
complemented my combat boots
Now she has two kids under three
And a husband.
(“Mission and 21st,” the Best 10 minutes of your Life, 2001)
Whittall’s work is not an ego-driven exercise in aesthetic craft. It’s not the snobbery you find in the poetic status quo. Instead it’s the product of a sensitive and hyper-analytic mind deftly capturing a familiar shared feeling. To see her read on stage about the trials of falling in and out of love, being in the throes of a panic attack, or the terror of hypochondria is to see deep inside ourselves, for better or for worse, and it’s hard not to be grateful for her candor and authenticity. The scenes she draws upon are beautifully simple, yet the ideas she examines are suffocatingly large.
I hate it when people put their bus transfers in their mouths for no reason, take off their socks and shoes on a slushy cold bus. I hate it when doctors mix you up with other patients. What part of me isn’t a fucking STAR? (“Love is Not an Acceptable Title For Anything,” The Emily Valentine Poems, 2006.)
In Whittall’s twitter bio she refers to herself as a “Retired Riot Girl,” a title that suggests an homage to her roots in zine culture and feminist performance. In the early days of her career, a great deal of Whittall’s work was collaborative in nature, a testament to her devotion to community. In the nineties she founded the successful reading series Girlspit, and was a fundamental part of Pretty Porky & Pissed Off, a fat activist and performance art collective that existed from 1996 to 2005. The queer politics and unabashed feminism PPPO brought to the stage honoured DIY, Punk and Riot Grrrl aesthetics, and the collective became a key part of the international fat acceptance movement.
Whittall would eventually dedicate the McGilligan Books anthology Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws to PPPO: “For Pretty Porky & Pissed Off - the best group of outlaws a girl could ever run with.”
One of Whittall’s beloved outlaws is founding member, Toronto-born Mariko Tamaki. Best known for her 2008 multi-award winning graphic novel Skim, and it’s currently Governor General’s Award nominated counterpart, This One Summer, Tamaki too has roots in the culture I was so drawn to when I was first starting out.
Now lauded for her foray into graphic novels with her cousin Jillian, Tamaki’s career has long been focused on the struggles of young women and the plight of the outsider. Her first book, a novella titled Cover Me (McGilligan Books, 2000), tackles the easily identifiable terrain of an adolescent named Traci Yamoto. With purple hair and sequined boots, this riot grrrl engages in self-harm, rebels against her family, and feels the crippling isolation of youth. In reading it, one can easily see the roots of Skim;
Staring into one awkward gaze after another, it occurred to me that I had no friends. More than once I paused to wonder why an awkward recluse who refused to leave the confines of her house and had tried to K-I-L-L H-E-R-S-E-L-F was so fucking interesting. I had the sneaking suspicion I was good-deed-of-the-month for my high school class. (Cover Me, 2000)
Tamaki went on to publish seven books in total, and was reviewed in The New York Times. When I corresponded with Tamaki about the time period that the publication of Cover Me falls into, she let me know that Whittall was a vital force in the formation of her literary voice.
“Before I moved to Toronto, back to Toronto, in about 1997 or so, I took part in a lot of open mics in Montreal, which is where I first met Zoe. Zoe ran Girlspit, which was the first place I'd ever had to read anything I'd ever written in public,” she tells me. “Back then I was just kind of in awe of Zoe. I would see her perform on stage and she was an amazing poet and songwriter.”
In an interesting bit of CanLit trivia, the two women were roommates in 1998 and again from 1999 until 2002. “(Living with Zoe) undoubtedly had an impact on me,” Tamaki continues. “Just living with someone who is a voracious and productive and beautiful writer is an incredibly inspiring thing. I would watch her fill up endless journals and it made me feel like, if I wasn't writing, I was not doing something I should be doing.”
The beautiful thing is that, though I spoke to them separately, Whittall conveys a near identical feeling towards Tamaki. Regarding the publication of Cover Me she says, “It made me think I could maybe have a writing career and didn't have to live in perpetual underdog world.”
There is a sense from talking to Tamaki and Whittall that we are lucky they found and propelled each other forward in a climate that was not necessarily welcoming to them. Their relationship is a testament to the importance of a community that relies on support rather than competition.
“I think that we felt a bit apart from the mainstream alt lit world at that time because we were queer and we wrote about queer things,” Whittall tells me. “There were more divisions back then, even in the small press world, which was very male and straight, even amongst the weirdo anti-establishment publishing folks. I used to think that being rejected by lit magazines was about that, but it was probably also a lot to do with the fact that I was producing bad work and didn't realize it. Everyone goes through that when they're starting out, though. But I think that arrogance is what allows you to take risks and make small advances that lead you to the places you want to be.”
Tamaki also highlights how the Toronto she knew was a breeding ground for this kind of creativity outside the mainstream. “Toronto is an incredible place to be as a writer because it feels like there are endless opportunities for your writing,” she says. “You can be on the radio, you can publish something in Fireweed or Kiss Machine, or you can go on an open mic. It was like there was suddenly this motivation to make as much work as possible. Like there was a place for it to go, and there was someone who was expecting you to make it…It's a very sisterly feeling for me (regardless of who's in the audience) to share my work.”
In writing this, I’ve come to realize there are so many valuable things the Toronto literary community has lost over the last decade, each falling victim to a shrinking publication market. Vibrant reading series and performance nights; The Toronto Women’s Bookstore; Pages on Queen; Kiss Machine and Fireweed; feminist publisher McGilligan books. So many young writers blossomed because there was a place for them to grow, and it’s important for us to develop new venues if new voices are to thrive.
In January of this year, Zoe Whittall organized a reading at The Steady on Bloor Street and invited me to take part. More than a decade after I discovered her work, I got to be on the same stage as her, and was struck by how familiar the energy of that evening felt, how similar it was to the era in which I first read her. It seems she hasn’t lost that fundamental interest in bringing people together, and as rapt listeners sat cross-legged on the floor while Mariko Tamaki read a comical piece about temping for a unicorn, I thought that we need more nights like this in Toronto for a robust literary community.
It’s clear that there was a particularly vibrant environment, one that encouraged these women to write about what spoke to them, and to succeed via mutual encouragement. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’ve all been the beneficiaries of that cultural past. If anything, looking at Whittall and Tamaki—these two award-winning, prolific, and beloved writers and their history together—we should feel galvanized to continue to create a similar spaces and work that encourage new writers to flourish.
It certainly worked for me in that run-down apartment in 2003.
Stacey May Fowles is a writer and magazine professional. She is the author of the novels Be Good (Tightrope, 2007), Fear of Fighting (Invisible, 2008), and Infidelity (ECW Press, 2013). Her essays have been widely anthologized in collections like Yes Means Yes, First Person Queer, and Nobody Passes. She is a regular contributor to the National Post and currently works at The Walrus. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.
*The title of this piece is taken from “Fevers, Fall Outs and Fast Foods,” by Zoe Whittall, from the anthology Brazen Femme, 2002.