Jules' Tools for Social Change: A Farewell Fave Five

July 11, 2018 by Julia Horel

With many Capital-F Feelings, I must announce that this will be my last column, as I’m leaving Team All Lit Up this month for a new opportunity. To celebrate and say goodbye, this last column is a list of five books that have particularly impacted me in my time here. Let’s call it Jules’ Fave Five. Ranking these books is impossible, so the list is in chronological order (oldest to newest), not in order of preference.

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Dear Reader,

Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.

With many Capital-F Feelings, I must announce that this will be my last column, as I’m leaving Team All Lit Up this month for a new opportunity. To celebrate and say goodbye, this last column is a list of five books that have particularly impacted me in my time here. Let’s call it Jules’ Fave Five. Ranking these books is impossible, so the list is in chronological order (oldest to newest), not in order of preference.

Thank you for reading and enjoying along with me! 

‘Til we meet again,

Julia

 

Joy is So Exhausting
Susan Holbrook
Coach House Books, October 2009

Scene: a Queen West pub (for the non-Toronto folk, this means a hipster bar, artfully run-down). A brand-new publishing professional cautiously slips in the door and surveys the noisy crowd. This isn’t the sedate, seated affair she’d imagined when she heard the words “book launch.” She feels out of place. Everyone here seems to know one another, and she hasn’t even read any of the books launching tonight. The first readings are wonderful and entertaining, but she knows there will be poetry, and she braces for bewilderment.

Then Susan Holbrook steps to the mic to read from her collection Joy is So Exhausting, announces “this might sound familiar to some of the women in the audience,” and reads this:

 

Your First Timpani?

Take a deep Brecht and relapse. It’s much easier to insult a tanager
when you’re religious. It takes pratfalls. Most Wimbledon need a few
triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o’-shanter.
When using a tambourine for the first tiger choose a day camp when
your flotsam is modern. Refer to the diamonds so you know what to do.

 

As I wrote for Brick Books publisher Kitty Lewis’s Celebration of Canadian Poetry series in 2015, “the sudden understanding that wordplay is poetry hit me like a ton of … timpanis. This wasn’t simply replacing some words in a found text with similar words; this was careful attention to sounds, syllables, and rhythms that created something both wholly familiar and completely subversive. By the time Susan reached the line ‘Slide the outer inversion taboo all the wahwah into your Valhalla until your finches touch your bongo,’ all the women (and some of the men) in the audience were howling with laughter, and I was a fan for life.”

 

 

Bedtime Stories for the Edge of the World
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan
ARP Books, October 2012

Bedtime Stories for the Edge of the World re-imagines eight colonial North American myths from the perspective of women who question, subvert and fight back against the oppressive, puritanical norms and values of their times and places. I was so enthralled with this book that I immediately wrote to the publisher with breathless enthusiasm:

 

I just wanted to tell you guys how much I LOVEEEEEE (really cannot overstate it) Bedtime Stories for the Edge of the World ... for the right reader, it's an unbelievably amazing collection. It's all at once gritty and harsh, but inspiring and altogether mind-blowing. I need more adjectives in my vocabulary. The order of the stories is perfect; I read it over two sittings and felt like every story set the bar so high I was sure the next would fall short, but then it didn't. The stories feel like they're the real stories, and the more well-known versions are the politely glossed-over ones for the masses. As a reader, I'm now in on this secret of the true stories that only a select few get to know.

 

I don’t think this brilliant little collection has ever gotten the recognition it deserves, and I urge you to give it a look if you’ve missed out on it.

 

Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space, and Resistance
Ghadeer Malek and Ghaida Moussa
Inanna Publications, March 2014

I have a special connection to Min Fami: in November 2011, I corresponded with a friend-of-a-friend, who was looking for advice on where to pitch an anthology of writing by Arab feminist writers. I reached out to Luciana Ricciutelli at Inanna Publications to ask whether she was interested in hearing from the editors of this collection. She said it was “right up her alley!” and the rest is history.

Min Fami was published in spring 2014. I attended the Toronto launch, and as I relayed in my blog post, found the readings and extensive conversation between the writers, editors and audience members all at once fascinating, heartbreaking, inspiring and humbling. I developed a social media friendship with one of the contributors, and we continue to stay in touch.

Four years after reading this book and attending the event, I still think about the role of language in colonization, and what it means to be a unilingual anglophone in a world where English is the dominant language. What nuances are lost when stories are translated to English, and when writers with other mother tongues are forced to think and write in English to reach their markets? What knowledge and experiences are lost when people lose the languages of their families of origin? But can we also gain from these processes of finding new ways to reach one another? As co-editor Ghaida Moussa said in our interview: “We stumbled with our own language and English skills, we dealt with guilt and shame and a sense of loss, we were deeply aware that we wouldn’t reach a big part of the people we wanted to reach and that we were complicit in processes of cultural imperialism, and at the same time, we discovered a beauty in the breaking of language breaking, in playfulness that emerges as resistance, in our shared inauthenticity.”

 

 

Tell: Poems for a Girlhood
Soraya Peerbaye
Pedlar Press, October 2015

Tell: Poems for a Girlhood, winner of the Trillium Award and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, is a collection of poetry partially based on the Reena Virk murder case. Virk was an Asian adolescent whose drowned body was found in the Gorge Waterway in a Victoria, BC suburb, in 1997.

I think I said everything I could say about Tell in my interview with Soraya for the Jules’ Tools column in November 2015:

 

I read Soraya's book and found myself deeply affected, particularly by the poems that call out the assailants' whiteness, and by those that describe the physical locations of the murder in vivid detail. I found the collection haunting and terrifying, and asked myself what I should be taking from the book; I can't take any hope. I think what I've decided on is that my job as a reader is simply to bear witness and to take the discomfort and sit with it. It's ours to bear until we can confront racism and white supremacy and eliminate violence forever. I urge you to read this book and bear witness with me. 

 

Soraya’s thoughtful responses to my interview questions are also worth another read as a companion to the collection.

 

 

Scarborough
Catherine Hernandez
Arsenal Pulp Press, May 2017

Scarborough was long-listed for Canada Reads 2018, was named a Globe 100 Best Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the 2017 City of Toronto Book Award. It has been optioned for a film. It deserves all these accolades and more.

I live near Scarborough, but I have not experienced the Scarborough of this book. I know and love some people who have and some who currently do. Scarborough gutted me. It's honest, unflinching, unsentimental. There are characters to love and ones to hate. Realities of poverty are portrayed as matter-of-fact: of homelessness, of dirtiness, of children being helped by neighbours until the neighbours discover lice and the doors close. Of constant racism, of long work days that don't pay the bills, of exhaustion, of hopelessness. And of people who care for one another, and of forgiveness so pure that I cried (more than once).

In her press Q&A, Catherine says: “Every time I would tell a Scarberian I was writing a novel about Scarborough, their reaction would move from disbelief to complete elation. I would often hear things like ‘Us? You wrote a novel about us?’ as if there is nothing worthwhile to say about their lives.”

I’m so glad she chose to show them there is so much to say about their lives.

 

* * *

Thanks so much to Julia, for her amazing column and also for being one heck of a colleague and friend: we'll sure miss her! (Cue the crying.) You can catch up on previous Jules' Tools columns here.


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