Award-winning writer Barbara Joan Scott walks us through the two quotations that open and close her debut novel The Taste of Hunger (Freehand Books); a fictional saga of a Ukrainian immigrant family, bookended by words from Dennis Lee and Sappho (by the way of Anne Carson).
When Olena is forced by poverty and custom into marrying Taras, a man twice her age, at fifteen she is too young to formulate what she wants beyond a vague desire to ‘get out, away’ from her father’s crumbling farm. But she knows very clearly what she doesn’t want: marriage to Taras, and to be taken ‘away’ to a homestead requiring even more labour than her father’s. Her fury at being denied even the chance to discover what she wants leads to acts of resistance that affect everyone around her. But it is Taras’s stubborn desire to marry her against all reason, putting his own wants above those of another human being, that sets all the events of the novel in motion.
This quotation, which opens the book, haunted me from the moment I read it, and became part of the warp and weft of the novel in a number of ways: Olena’s stony insistence on making a life she wants, refusing the one thrust upon her; Taras’s hope that she will one day come to want him as he wants her; their daughter June’s wish for the unified family of which she gets only the briefest glimpses. All of them yearning for something tantalizingly out of reach. Sappho’s fragments — of poems meant to be sung, the music forever lost to us — call across spaces of longing: on the part of the poems to be whole, on the part of the reader to swallow them whole, longings that can never be satisfied. In The Taste of Hunger, because the fulfillment of one character’s desires means another’s must be frustrated, the reader’s wish to see the characters achieve some kind of wholeness is necessarily splintered.This is why I chose “The” (not “A”) Taste of Hunger as the title, for that sense of an ineffable, permanent state of longing, something beyond the senses. Music especially can instill that ache of response which is part joy, part sadness. When Olena hears a neighbour’s violin calling across the fields, she discovers there was “No place for her yearning to go. It writhed inside her, riding the ragged notes of the violin, and she wanted those notes to last forever, so she could remain impaled on this longing.”It seems to me this prayer, “I want,” defines the human condition, and that often our circumstances, particularly the circumstance of poverty, curb our wants, so that we hunger for things we cannot name, because we have never seen or heard them, and these are the most powerful hungers of all. Even the circumstance of North American prosperity, with its clamour of voices telling us what we want and offering same-day delivery of satisfaction, cannot blunt the true nature of hunger, sating only momentarily, leaving us still searching. As the violin whispers to Olena: “some hungers can never be satisfied, some beauty is too terrible to gaze upon, some joys butt up against pain so close you have to take them all together or not at all.”And yet, as Dennis Lee says in the epigraph that closes the novel, about the divine nameless hunger that pulses through us all, and that makes the seeking more important than the arriving:
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Barbara Joan Scott‘s first book, The Quick, won the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and the Howard O’Hagan Award for Best Collection of Short Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book. In 2015 she received the Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence. The Taste of Hunger is her debut novel. She lives in Calgary.