It’s September! We’re happy to host our next Plots & Pandemic Series event! Join us on Sunday, September 20, 2020, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. EDT. Guests can interact with Farzana Doctor and with each other. We will begin with a short reading followed by a group discussion and Q & A.
Farzana is an author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and Seven, which was released in September 2020. Farzana was recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now”. She is also an activist, part-time psychotherapist and amateur tarot card reader.
David’s Cornerwill be a series of entertaining videos for writers. More info to come soon.
Is there something specific you’d like to see? We’d love to hear your ideas. Is there an author from our list you’d like to see interviewed or featured in any of our events? Let us know. Email us at email@example.com or comment below.
One of the biggest benefits of a book club (book clubs) is that you don’t get to always pick the books, other people do. Now, let me tell you, as a teacher and librarian it’s not easy giving up that control or the power, but if you do, when you do, you may discover some happy surprises.
The books I have read because I have had to as a reviewer, or as a book club member, are too many to list. As a reader, my tastes lean to historical fiction, literary fiction, Canadian fiction and memoir. I tend to really favour female protagonists. As a secondary school librarian, I read social justice (diverse literature) and YA. For my beloved SUCCESS program at school I also include picture books. I read widely. And here is the rub, even after all these books and all this time, I still get it wrong.
For example, when I joined The Authors’ Book Club, David Albertyn, our co-founder, sent me a copy of his novel Undercard as a thank you. He even wrote a lovely dedication inside. I read the blurb and the synopsis, thought, “that’s nice” and filed it on my book shelf. To be fair, I did think I would show it to my husband or middle son, because it might appeal to them. I mean boxing? Vegas? A thriller? Not exactly my cup of tea.
And here we are. Six months later, a global pandemic, David’s U.S. release and an Authors’ Book Club event where I am moderating. I can’t exactly show up when I haven’t read the book. And you know what? I love it. It is a story of friendship, intrigue, passion, history, boxing, racism, policing, military and so many other issues all woven in. Mostly though, it is a well-paced story with likeable characters who you want to follow on their journey. And really, isn’t that it? Characters we care about, on a journey we can relate to. Isn’t that the essence of good storytelling and what readers want in a book?
I don’t like boxing. I have never been to Las Vegas. I am not a supporter of the police, or the military, and on the surface that is what this book is about. But dig beneath the surface and it is a fast paced, rewarding read with relatable, interesting characters, and that is what readers want.
So, if someone in your book club picks a book that doesn’t appeal. Or, if you get a book as a gift that you would never pick for yourself, take a chance, dive in and actually read it. Take it from me, a seasoned reader, it could be worth the chance. Just read.
Fiona Ross is teacher librarian and book club consultant with The Authors’ Book Club. From the time she read her first novel, Bimbo and Topsy by Enid Blyton at age 6, she was hooked on fiction. Fiona is an avid reader, a teacher librarian, a current member of two book clubs and past chair of the Secondary Fiction Review Committee at the Peel District School Board. She also serves on the planning committee at the Festival of Literary Diversity, (FOLD). Although her job demands lots of YA she occasionally tries to read a book aimed at adult readers.
In Curry,Naben Ruthnum grapples with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing and depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. Curry is a dish that doesn’t quite exist, but, as this wildly funny and sharp essay points out, a dish that doesn’t properly exist can have infinite, equally authentic variations.
Get a taste of Curry in the following excerpt, and read Naben’s thoughts on the passage below.
The second curry of note I’ll mention is Homecoming Shrimp Curry, which has become the staple meal I associate with Christmas in the Ruthnum household. It’s shouldered aside kleftiko and a Persian fish dish with a walnut stuffing as the go-to son-pleaser for my annual returns home, and my parents like it just as much as I do. It’s a deep greenish-brown, a shade you don’t often see in Indian restaurants outside of perhaps a saag: while Westerners may like brown food, they don’t like it to actually be brown. The sauce has a density earned by its ingredients and process: Mom makes the masala with large, motherfuckering onion chunks that would be the star of the dish if the sauce didn’t take a midmorning whirl through the food processor before being returned to the pan. The huge shrimp, decanted frozen into a colander from a frozen bag, like chilled practical effects from a 1980s alien-invasion movie before the sauce catches up to them and they’re subsumed into the curry, white and pink peaks in the murky simmer.
Time and varying heat are key to this dish’s success, a daylong process of heating, settling, cooling, and boiling whose alchemy seems beyond science. That’s often part of curry narra- tives, too: the ineffable, inexplicable Eastern magic performed on electric Western stoves. Top British chef Heston Blumenthal, on his television show In Search of Perfection, where he sought to make perfected versions of classic dishes such as hamburger and steak by seeking out their ur-versions and distilling histor- ically successful processes into a measured, modern method, had scientists do a study on the use of yogourt in the marinade for chicken cooked in a tandoor for his tikka masala episode.
While it was proven that yogourt vastly aided the marinade’s absorption, they couldn’t figure out why. It just did. While this made for an irresistible y[ moment, and I don’t doubt Mr. Blumenthal’s standards or the BBC’s scientist-hiring resources, it strikes me as odd that what seems like a simple matter of chemistry and biology should be insoluble.
There’s no magic or formula involved in the time and heat factors of Homecoming Shrimp Curry, but there is particularity. As in many immigrant households, one of my parents prepared food in the morning and reheated it throughout the day, the knobs on the stove and eventually the button on the microwave enduring twists and pokes as mealtimes came around. In the case of this curry, the multiple simmerings are what elevate it to Christmas dinner and my first off-the-plane meal. The basics are simple, and as I can’t think of a good reason not to include the recipe, I’ll give it to you. Here’s a direct paste of the email that Mom sent me so I could botch the making of the dish:
I called to inquire about the accuracy of this recipe, and it turns out my recall was wrong: Mom does food-process the onions before the cooking starts, not after. The pureeing-of- the-completed-sauce thing comes, I realize, from a Gordon Ramsay chicken tikka masala recipe I used to make all the time when I lived in Montreal, with a roommate who had a Cuisinart. Mom also leaves out the bit about time lapses and reheating throughout the day, but that’s hard to quantify on the page. I don’t follow the turmeric-fry step of the recipe-seems to me that the shrimp cook so fast, they should do it in the gravy where they belong. Then again, my dish somehow isn’t a patch to Mom’s: this is a trope, yes, but it remains true here – I know I can fix it if I master the timing.
There are some moments in this recipe that an Indian- cuisine purist would find harrowing. For example, the ‘fish curry powder from Superstore.’ At the popular food blog Foodàó, Bay Area food writer Annada Rathi rails against these concoctions: ‘That’s when I feel like screaming from the rooftops, “Curry is not Indian!”; “Curry powder is not Indian!”; and “You will not find curry powder in Indian kitchens!”’ She’s certainly been in more kitchens in India than the zero I’ve entered, so I’ll take her word, but I’ll tell you this: every dias- poric kitchen I’ve opened cupboards in contains curry powder, even if it is a home blend of dry spices tipped into an old Patak’s screw-on glass jar. Rathi isn’t a hardliner – she goes on to note that ‘in the course of this article, it has dawned on me that “curry” is the most ambiguous and therefore the most flexible word, a broad term that conveys the idea of cooked, spiced, saucy or dry, vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat dish in the most appropriate manner available.’ The spectacular imprecision of the term speaks to its ability to encompass centuries of food history, cooking, misinterpretation, and rein- vention: it’s truly the diasporic meal, even when it stays at home. Curry is only definably Indian because India is a country that has the world in it.
There is a truth to the tropes of cooking and homeland and curry, but it can’t possibly contain the entire truth: the overlaps in this conversation between writers like Lahiri, Koul, and me are vast, covering our relationships to our parents and a land we barely know compared to the countries where we wake up every day. In the details, the distinct efforts to set personal experience apart – my insistence that Mom has no kitchen secrets and that cooking was never meant to be a key to the exotic but a passage to adulthood, Koul’s universal reflections on whether there is a point when one ever stops needing one’s mom, Lahiri’s foray into cookbook learning – are there, but I wonder if they are present for readers who are drawn to and receive these pieces. Are the brown, diasporic readers looking for commiseration? And are the non-brown ones looking for an exotic, nostalgic tour of a foreigner’s unknowable kitchen? The short answer, I believe, is yep.
This recipe comes at the end of a section of Curry where I discuss the homeland-authentic-magic of the cooking of brown mothers, in reality and in writing. I recall having a tough time with this part, in that I was pointing to a repetitive trope that I found confining, but with the awareness that I was also talking about the lived truth of many diasporic eaters and writers.
That’s why I chose to discuss a curry that had a particular significance to the patterns of my life and to my literal homecomings–home for me being not India, not Mauritius, but rather unexciting Kelowna, B.C. The recipe, pasted verbatim from an email of my mother’s, gave me a chance to talk about curry powder, which is commonly targeted in food writing as being inauthentic and something that no real Indian would ever use. If that’s true, then my family is even further from India than time and geography would suggest, and I’m fine with that. The movements of diaspora and food culture, and the different labels that are appended to spice mixtures ground in Indian factories to be placed on Western grocery shelves are more interesting to me than enacting an authenticity that may have little to do with me, a Mauritian-Canadian whose family cooked with what we could access.
There is an accidental mother’s-magic-trope in here that I’m embarrassed to have missed at every stage of publication, except when I was asked to excerpt this recipe section for a magazine: Mom didn’t include any amounts next to the ingredients. This is a recipe you have to freehand and make several times before you can get it exactly right.
Naben Ruthnum won the Journey Prize for his short fiction, has been a National Post books columnist, and has written books and cultural criticism for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and the Walrus. His crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Joyland, and his pseudonym Nathan Ripley’s first novel appeared in 2018. Ruthnum lives in Toronto.
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr, follows Dr. Edith Vane, scholar of English literature, who is contentedly ensconced at the University of Inivea. Her dissertation on pioneer housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers is about to be published, and her job’s finally safe, if she only can fill out her AAO properly. All should be well, really. Except for her broken washing machine, her fickle new girlfriend, her missing friend Coral, her backstabbing fellow professors, a cutthroat new dean – and the fact that the sentient and malevolent Crawley Hall has decided it wants them all out, and the hall and its hellish hares will stop at nothing to get rid of them.
Discover the world of Dr. Edith Vane by reading the excerpt and Suzette Mayr’s thoughts on the passage below.
She hears the dripping. A steady drip of the tap in the bathroom across the corridor. A drip that intensifies, pokes into her concentration, fragments her midnight genius. She pushes the exams away, stands up from her desk, slips her keys into her pocket.
She pushes open the washroom door into moonless black. The sound of water running from a tap. She flicks on the switch. Only one fluorescent light flickers on. The ceiling gutted and cavernous.
Her heart startles, clatters in her chest.
A woman in a yellow dress bends over the sinks. Coral, rinsing her mouth.
Coral’s hand stops, mid-rinse, her hand still cupped over her mouth, water drip-dripping, her bloodshot eyes gazing at Edith through the dim reflection in the mirror.
– I’m sorry, Edith half shouts. – I didn’t know anyone else was in here. You scared the stuffing out of me. Coral! You’re back, she sighs. – You’re back from the hospital. I’m so glad to see you.
Edith sighs again, holds out her hand.
Coral’s hand stays cupped to her mouth.
– I was so worried about you, Edith says.
Vestiges of water curl down Coral’s forearm, drip from her elbow into the sink. Edith drops her hand.
Edith knows it would look stupid to leave the bathroom without using it, so she shuts herself into a cubicle, shoots the bolt of the door, and pulls down her pants. Sits down.
She hears the faucet turn on, then off. Then on again.
She pees, wipes, stands up, and refastens her pants. She swings open the cubicle door.
Coral is still standing there, her back still to Edith. Her hair straight and shiny as a red toy car.
Coral’s fingers over her mouth, red.
– I like what you’ve done with your hair, says Edith. – The colour, I mean. Or maybe it’s the light in here. Is it?
Water drips from Coral’s hands, rivulets in the sink.
– Have a good night, whispers Edith, and she scuppers out the door without washing her hands, her urine-speckled fingers firmly pushing into the middle of the orange poster that trumpets PleaseWash Your Hands.
What I wanted to do with Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall was explore the nature of horror and the uncanny but in a less predictable horror setting.
What’s really interesting to me is the notion that at the foundation of the “uncanny” is the familiar made unfamiliar, and that horror isn’t necessarily about big flamboyant moments, but the subtle tweaks to the normal so that the normal becomes less and less recognizable, more destabilized, and the peripheral begins to upstage or even overtake the centre. A university campus as a setting was the ideal place for this kind of writing experiment and exploration because university campuses have so many Gothic tendencies. Classic gothic stories often feature an old building filled with secrets. There are many, many secrets hiding in any university building, no matter how new that building might be. My main character, a stressed out professor named Edith Vane, is preyed upon by her building’s secrets. The building strips away the fragile pretense she has been desperately using to protect herself, and reveals the familiar as creepy, insidious, and maybe even terrifying.
To continue reading, purchase Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hallhere.
Suzette Mayr is the author of four previous novels: Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows, and Venous Hum. The Widows was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region, and has been translated into German. Moon Honey was shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Best First Book and Best Novel Awards. Monoceros was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Suzette Mayr lives and works in Calgary.
Pillow, the titular character in Andrew Battershill’s Pillow, loves exotic animals, which is why he chooses the zoo for the drug runs he does as a low-level enforcer for a crime syndicate run by André Breton. He doesn’t love his life of crime, but he isn’t cut out for much else, what with all the punches to the head he took as a professional boxer. And now that he’s accidentally but sort of happily knocked up his neighbor, he wants to get out and go straight.
But first there’s the matter of some stolen coins, possibly in the possession of George Bataille, which leads Pillow on a bizarre caper that involves kidnapping a morphine-addled Antonin Artaud, some corrupt cops, a heavy dose of Surrealism, and a quest to see some giraffes.
Dive into Pillow by reading the excerpt below followed by Andrew’s comments on the passage.
The crime syndicate Pillow had swiftly and easily and sadly flowed into after his neurologist had told-not-asked him to retire made a lot of noise and very little money, and was skewed heavily to the crime end of organized crime, rather than the organized side.
The head of the syndicate was a mid-sized player named André Breton. He and his boys bought and sold drugs, made book, loan-sharked and had started two riots for fun. Breton’s syndicate were mostly recruited from his days as a Marxist firebomber in Paris. They’d done low-level hack terrorist stuff until they caught too much attention and bolted the country for a spot in the superstructure and the cash to pay for pretty paintings. Breton was supposed to be a tastemaker: rich people called him in to tell them what art to buy. He used it as a way to launder money and move bribes.
Most of the time, the Breton crew hung out and got high, talked about their dreams and played parlour games until Breton gave them something to do. And tonight what Breton had given Pillow and Louise Aragon to do was guard-dog a deal to buy some stolen coins.
As often happened, Pillow ended up having to wait around outside his apartment, kicking the toe of one shoe with the heel of the other, as he waited for his ride to some place they hadn’t bothered to tell him in advance.
Most of what Pillow did was watch people exchange money. He’d make collections and stand behind Breton at deals, watching the cash and making sure nobody got out of line. It wasn’t usually to muscle anybody. He was supposed to be a former boxer, violence just an impression he made. The heavy wet work was handled by Breton’s two favourites, Don Costes and Louise Aragon.
Pillow was in a very minor, but reasonably comfortable, spot in the organization. He knew what he was to them and what he wasn’t: he wasn’t particularly useful but he had uses; he wasn’t exactly trusted but he was liked; he wasn’t going to make much money but he wasn’t going to cost them much either. Plus, he had used to be a celebrity, which is always worth a very sad and very tiny bit.
After what felt like a long time, Louise Aragon pulled up in a car so old and so black and so heavy it might actually have been a Model T. She screeched to a stop and kicked the huge, steel passenger-side door open. Pillow swung himself into the car and settled in already slumped.
‘How do you do, Pillow?’
Pillow stayed still, suggesting a shrug with just the way he breathed. ‘You have really flexible legs.’
‘Thank you, sir. I’ve never stretched a thing. Sometimes one is just a marvel.’
Pillow nodded evenly, then turned to look at the dark sky framed by black metal through plate glass. He felt the car moving under him, in the way that you can feel things that move faster than your legs carry you and it just feels like sitting down.
Louise was one of Breton’s go-to people. She was thirty-some- thing and half-sad in that way fun people without a whole lot of luck get. She was the kind of friend Pillow had, which is to say a very friendly acquaintance.
‘Do you want to know where we’re going, Pillow?’
‘I’m more curious about those legs – you don’t stretch ’em even a little?’ Pillow feinted like he was going to tickle her leg, reached up and snapped her bra strap when she brought her hand down to defend the leg.
Louise laughed. ‘Bark like the dog you is, Pillow, bark like the dog you is.’
‘Does introducing you to your wife buy me any leeway, Louise, huh? I think it gets me a little and I take space where I find it. Space is everywhere, and we need every little, tiny inch of it.’
Louise flapped her hand like it was a talking human mouth, or possibly a very stupid and hungry bird mouth, then she put both hands back on the wheel and refocused on her incredibly erratic driving.
Pillow rolled his shoulders back and took to stretching them. His shirt lifted up, and Louise poked his bellybutton. She had her bangs pulled back tight. Her haircut looked like a wave that had been ironed.
‘So, just to get it out of the way,’ she said, ‘we’re going to Mad Love. And as always, I am deeply sorry.’
Mad Love was the bar where a good deal of the money and brain cells Pillow had held on to after fighting had gone to die. It was one of the dingiest places he’d ever seen or smelled or touched. The place, like a lot of things, gave him a headache that would make other people’s headaches jealous.
‘Well, that’s a bummer. I guess you should maybe tell me what I’ll be doing there.’
‘What you always do, my man: look tall and try not to fall asleep.’ ‘I don’t look tall, I am tall, and I don’t make any promises about sleeping.’
Louise screeched the car to a stop in an alley that looked like every other alley. ‘Can you at least promise to dream well then?’
Pillow pulled one long strand of hair loose from her head and let it flop unevenly down the middle of her face. ‘For you, I’ll try.’
Louise looked at Pillow for an extra second and smiled at him in the way you’d smile at a picture of a really cool building that’s already been torn down.
My default answer to the question, “What do you hope readers take from this book/passage?” is whatever they want! I’ve always thought that once your book-children go out in the world, they’re full-grown adults. Part of the fun of reading is the freedom to interpret books however you want to, and part of the fun of writing them is seeing what people take away from it.
So, sure, my default answer is cop out (a sincere cop out), but in this case I have another one. What I hope people take away from this book, and this passage of the book particularly, is Pillow the character. While this is a novel about a plot to steal a valuable coin from a group of Surrealist poets in a crime gang, what this book is really about is Pillow, a broken down boxing champion looking to find love and take as many trips as he can to the zoo.
Fun fact, I initially wanted to call this book You feel me?, and was promptly informed that this is an aggressively terrible name for a book. Pillow, the title, emerged after all the major edits had been done on the manuscript, and, after a long time of having no idea what to call this book, we settled on the final title weirdly quickly, and it just felt right. The longer I worked on this book the more I realized that Pillow, the character, is the emotional heart of the book.
Andrew Battershill is a novelist from British Columbia. He was the co-founder ofDragnet Magazine and the fiction editor ofThis Magazine. He was the 2017-2018 Writer-in-Residence at the Regina Public Library, and the 2018 Writer in Residence for the City of Richmond. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Y, by Aaron Tucker, follows J. Robert Oppenheimer: reluctant father of the atomic bomb, enthusiastic lover of books, devoted husband and philanderer. Engaging with the books he voraciously read, and especially the Bhagavad Gita, his moral compass, this lyrical novel takes us through his story, from his tumultuous youth to his marriage with a radical communist and the two secret, consuming affairs he carried on, all the while bringing us deep inside the mind of the man behind the Manhattan Project.
Discover Y by reading the excerpt and Aaron’s thoughts on it below.
They stayed at Perro Caliente for two months, and during that time he and Kitty would ride together under the heat of pride and competition across the hardest New Mexico trails, each admiring the other’s meagre movements of control, a flex of legs rarely aided by spurs in the stirrups, instead a light tap with the side of a palm or tug upwards on the reins, their mutual wonder a recognition of each other’s shared muscle memory. She was there even though she was married to another man; in fact, he knew Kitty’s husband, Richard Harrison, a friend and doctor, and the two men would sometimes share notes and drinks in the restaurants near Berkeley, spaces crowded with noise. Yet he didn’t feel the yank of guilt and instead relished his and Kitty’s overlapping, a low and constant rumble like the engine of his exquisitely curved Chrysler coupe as he drove Kitty around, the speed of the big car accented by his half-attention to driving and her describing how the two of them would soon stride into rooms together, powerful and charming and overwhelming. Although she was married, he would burst into parties pronouncing her his fiancée, and Kitty would emerge, inflorescent, from behind him, bursting out in unthinking laughter, her body unconfined by the distant and overwrought movement Jean showed even in hesitating when turning the kettle on, Kitty bathed in the scent of orchids, the large petals drooping over his thin fingers as he thrust the flowers excitedly towards the hosts. He would overhear her tell her friends, “I simply adore Robert,” and knowing that he was listening, would explain how he would expand when he was in a conversation, become as large as the room in the way that a soft bulb glows and settles over every person and thing.
They remained that way all through the summer, winding through the pines and spindly birches that blanketed the mountains, only stopping to build a secluded fire, eat and, sharing a sleeping bag, groan against each other, “Robert,” him above her and her hands clenching and pushing him further into her, “Robert,” the stars just above them, white, large, blossoming. She told him how brilliant he was, how he was going to conquer the future, that she would conquer it with him, barbarians consuming mussels soaked in garlic butter and leeks, duck confit piled beside black currants, drinking the best wines of every city, of every decade, and he saw in her imagery sattvic, Krishna explaining the best of the three kinds of food,
Where vigor, life, power, comfort, health Content are strengthened, food Bland, solid, cordial, savory Is relished by the good,
and she repeated to their guests at Perro Caliente, to an amused Katy after she handed back Kitty’s underwear, left at her ranch home, looking at him with bemusement and caution, and Kitty left that August pregnant with their son, Peter.
Although Y looks like a piece of historical fiction on its surface, in my mind, its heart is the love triangle between Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty and his mistress Jean Tatlock that is the affective centre and prime mover of the work. It is through Robert’s relationships with these powerful and engaging women that his own perspectives of the world, and his actions within, come to bear. While Jean and Kitty are not opposites, they do represent two separate and appealing paths for Robert that roughly parallel his feelings about his leadership of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and the subsequent use of the atomic bomb: Jean embodies much of the doubt he has about himself and his work, while Kitty is more aligned with his ambitions and sense of patriotic duty.
The second chapter, from which this excerpt has been taken, details Robert and Kitty’s blossoming romance. Importantly, the two bond over their mutual love of New Mexico and horseback riding, and their passion for each other is crystallized in the beginning of their bold and unapologetic affair. For me, this passage shows how the two are unbridled and completely enamoured with each other, providing essential nourishment for the other; yet, the relationship is not quite equally symbiotic, even from the beginning. Kitty has to fold parts of herself into Robert’s ego and drive, become his wife and put aside her own dreams, and, despite her immense love for him, there is a well of tragedy there. She empowers Robert, but Robert drains a key energy from her.
As well, the passage reflects a further contradiction and tension within Robert: his respect and care for the New Mexico landscape that he also destroys by leading the Manhattan Project. The incorporation of the poetry here reflects Robert’s interior struggles and his constant turning to the texts of his life for ethical and spiritual guidance.
Aaron is the author of two collections of poetry, irresponsible mediums: the chesspoems of Marcel Duchamp and punchlines, as well as the two scholarly manuscripts Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Popular Cinema and Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema. His current collaborative project, Loss Sets, translates poems into sculptures which are then 3D printed; he is also the co-creator of The Chessbard, an app that transforms chess games into poems. In addition, he is a lecturer in the English department at Ryerson University.
Queen Solomon, by Tamara Faith Berger, chronicles the erotic awakening and mental disintegration of an intense young man who meets Barbra, an Ethiopian Jew, when she is brought into his home by his father for the summer. Terrified of Barbra and drawn to her in equal measure, our narrator finds himself immersed in compulsive psychosexual games with her, as she binge-drinks and lies to his family. Seven years later, as our narrator is getting his life back on track, with a new girlfriend and a master’s degree in Holocaust Studies underway, Barbra shows up at our narrator’s house once again, her “spiritual teacher” in tow, and our narrator finds his politics, and his sanity, back in question.
Get a taste of Queen Solomon in the following excerpt, and read Tamara’s thoughts below.
Ariane worked with me during sex to change my ‘bad thinking.’ She actually called it ‘traumatized thinking’ – a need to smother all my bad thoughts with sex. Ariane said I had textbook sex addiction, that my shame from Barbra and the failed way it ended meant, in fact, that I hated myself.
For two years, okay, this is what me and Ariane talked about. I mean, this is what we worked on during sex. I didn’t tell Ariane that it was not always therapeutic. In fact, some- times it even made me feel worse. Like, Ariane would tell me in sex to go slower and why, and then harder and why, how to lick her, how to suck her and why and why. I secretly did not always subscribe to her method, even though I did like that we had a lot of sex.
What Ariane ﬁxated mostly on about my relationship with Barbra was that she thought that I thought that Barbra wanted to be submissive because Barbra explicitly told me to hurt her.
‘I was mistaken about that,’ Ariane deduced. ‘Barbra was obviously not a submissive.’ Ariane said that what we did was s/m 101. She said what Barbra did is called ‘topping from the bottom.’
Uh, does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean you make up all the rules? I wanted to ask her. Does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean that the knife is always truly yours?
I did not tell Ariane about our speciﬁc scripts. I did not tell Ariane about what truly happened at the ending. I told her my scar was from surgery when I was fourteen after I broke my collarbone. I told her, in general, that Barbra asked me to do something and I did it. I told her that we didn’t really have to say yes or no. It was a system, I explained, of complicit synchronicity. Ariane scoffed. She continually tried to school me. In sex, she said, the woman must lead.
‘This is ancient knowledge. Stuff the Tantrics believed.’
Did the Tantrics believe that a turned-on and traumatized woman could be actually violent? Tantric is outdated, I thought. What did they know about consent?
Ariane assured me that my true self was not chauvinistic.
She said that all real men worshipped cunt.
Ariane said, ‘If you love cunt, you actually have to know how to treat it. If you love cunt, you have to know your way around its complex abyss.’
Sometimes I thought Ariane only liked me because I made her feel worshipped. I loved Ariane’s body. She was long- armed, big-nippled, bluish-skinned. When we had sex, I usually licked her pussy for an hour. Between Barbra and Ariane, I’d practised cunt-licking. Girls always said that they loved my way of licking. I always signed my name on their thighs. I licked them and tricked them, massaged them and slapped them. Pussy foam, pussy oil. I liked period pains. I got off being smothered. I liked to see girls get really wild. Licked-open cunts liked to get really wild.
I told the cunt to sit on my face.
I said to the cunt, please hump my whole head.I loved cunts lodged with matter. I loved a maw full of cunt on my pillowcase.
I would like readers to get a rise out of this section, to get a little dizzy between the head and the crotch. At first, the terms are flipped around victimhood, setting up a guy who has been sexually traumatized while Ariane, his girlfriend, is the dominant sexual presence. As this section progresses, the reader learns that the narrator had an S/M relationship with Barbra years ago where he was clearly in over his head. He is thus stuck between two dominant female lovers, while he remains linguistically in charge. I actually wrote this section as an ode to cunnilingus, and that’s how I would love to have it stand, yet I’m also aware that there’s some pretense in my narrator’s braggadocio.
What I’d like readers to take away from this section is that sex gives us knowledge. Ariane says that if you love cunt, you have to know your way around its “complex abyss.” While Barbra, the hidden character in this fragment, seems to have taught the narrator everything he knows: how to ‘top from the bottom,’ how to play mind games in sex. Mind games go with cunnilingus.
I hope that readers can overcome any aversion to a male narrator synthesizing his lovers with the word cunt. I love the power of this word. I think it consistently grows in erotic and syntactical meaning. Cunt is hot and “lodged with matter,” as my narrator understands.
Tamara writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is the author of Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore (2004), (republished together by Coach House Books as Little Cat in 2013), Maidenhead (2012) and Kuntalini (2016). Her fifth book, Queen Solomon, was published by Coach House Books in October 2018. Maidenhead was nominated for a Trillium Book Award and it won the Believer Book Award. Her work has been published in Apology, Canadian Art, Taddle Creek and Canadian Notes and Queries. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
Amanda’s newest book, Disfigured, is a compelling look at fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to Disney, showing us how they influence our expectations and behaviour and linking the quest for disability rights to new kinds of stories that celebrate difference.
Read an excerpt below!
Look at you, getting coffee, getting groceries, going on trips in an airplane. Pretending that you’re as able-bodied as the rest of us! It’s all just so inspiring.
At the beginning of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is disabled in several ways. She has amnesia and can’t recall her life beyond the six years immediately preceding her present. As the film progresses, we come to understand that she is also intentionally being disabled by her captors, the Kree, who are dampening her powers by keeping them artificially restrained.
But Carol, as most superheroes are wont to do, wrestles her way through to a happy ending. She does this both physically – through wreaking joyous, unrestrained havoc on her enemies – and emotionally, by distancing herself from the wild, perseverant machinations of Yon-Rogg and asserting her right to occupy her body and power in whatever way she sees fit.
I don’t have anything to prove to you. I don’t have anything to prove to you. I don’t have anything to prove to you.
I whisper the same thing to myself at night. The ‘you’ wears many faces.
Once, while I was sitting at my desk during lunch period in fifth grade, a student sitting beside me asked if I could reach under my seat to grab her pencil, which had rolled under my chair.
‘She can’t,’ my red-haired nemesis said behind me. ‘She’ll have to bend over and take the pickle out of her ass first.’
The rage that came over me was immediate and hot, overwhelming. I slammed my chair back into her desk so hard that it tipped her own desk over, pushing her so the chair she sat on teetered back on its hind legs. Wobbly and ready to collapse, exactly the way I felt. Her laughter was immediate, tinged with surprise and a sliver of terror. I heard the rest of the class laugh, too. Twenty-seven years later, I can close my eyes and hear that laughter exactly as it sounded on that day so many years ago.
I have never wanted to be a superhero, or a demon, something other than I was, as much as I did in that moment. To push the chair away from my desk and turn around and send that girl sweeping up through the air and back against the wall so hard that her skull cracked; to see her face split open upon impact and watch the blood and the brain matter trickle out down her cheeks. I wanted to stand over her as she screamed and grind her face into the floor. I wanted to turn an arm back toward the rest of the class who had laughed with her – who had always laughed with her – and do it to them, too. I wanted to see them cower, to see them lose themselves in awe. I wanted them to cry and scream and beg for mercy.
But I also wanted to be right to withhold that mercy – I wanted my anger to be justified, to make sense, to be understandable. To mete out punishment that was as clear and unbiased as that from a goddess. I wanted them to love me, to be terrified of me, to want to be me. I wanted all of this even though I knew, already, that in a few years I would go to a different high school and meet other people and move on from this part of my life. I wanted all of this even as I gasped in my rage and pulled my chair back up to its regular position and heard the girl behind me right her own desk and chair, her laugh shaky and hard. I wanted all of this through the rest of that afternoon as I stared at my desk red-faced and hot.
I wanted all of this through the next day, and the next, and the day after that one and the week after that. Limping through the hallways, limping through my life.
I have not stopped wanting all this.
Eventually I moved on to high school. I met other friends; life was indeed different. I travelled and lived in different cities and had lovers and felt beautiful and many of the things I had wanted came true.
I still have not stopped wanting all this. These triumphs, these vindications.
I go back, and back, to that day. I still want them to love me, even though I know it isn’t worth it – even though I know, more importantly, that my anger and rage at the unfairness of it all is directly tied to the fairy-tale/superhero lens through which I was already, unconsciously, viewing the world. If my world was unfair, surely that meant that things would swing back around eventually. Surely events would put themselves to rights, surely I would get my happy ending, too, even if it took a little while – because isn’t that what happened in all of the stories I was told? Life could be unfair but the world itself was a fair place. Be good, do good work, and you would either be rewarded or find the strength within yourself to put your world to rights. That’s just how it went.
I didn’t fantasize, back then, about what the world might look like if it actually was fair, if there was no need for superheroes at all. I didn’t imagine what life might have been like in a world without bullying. I took it for granted that the bullying would come, because I walked differently and occupied a different space and the world I lived in told me that was what happened to bodies that were different. It seemed easier to imagine a world where I had magical powers than a world where different bodies just existed together side by side.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In an article for nbc’s Think on the famous quote from Martin Luther King – a quote that was itself inspired by a sermon by the nineteenth-century clergyman Theodore Parker – writer Chris Hayes notes, ‘The claim expresses a specific kind of informed optimism, an eyes-wide-open faith in humanity. Obviously, there is evil and trial and tragedy and hatred all around us and yet good, ultimately, does prevail. In the same way you can’t tell the earth is round as you walk on it, the trajectory of history is imperceptible as we struggle through it; but rest assured its contours are there.’
What happens, though, when your eyes have never been wide open in the first place? If you are a disabled person whose life has been one sidelined narrative after another – the disfigured witch or the monster or the dwarf, the ill child as beatific sacrifice so that her parents might see God and better themselves – where is the moral arc of your own story?
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but sometimes that arc takes a preposterously long time. And in the world we’ve built, it’s easier for us to imagine that only superheroes – or perhaps fairy godmothers — can bend the arc for us. Everything else just takes too long.
What might it have meant to me – at eight years old, at ten – to know, deep in my bones, that I didn’t have anything to prove to the classmates who told me that I walked funny, who sneered at the way I ambled through class? To understand that I wasn’t waiting to become a princess or a superhero or even waiting for an unconventional rescuer, but instead was not in need of rescuing at all because there was nothing wrong with my body?
What does it mean for me now, at thirty-seven, to understand that the world still sees my body in this different way? As a disabled woman, I am at once hyper-present and completely invisible. My limp can at times be mild, and so I can sink into the background – an undercover agent in the able-bodied world, which is a kind of superpower and disguise that doesn’t feel quite right, although it feels better than those long-ago days at school. My disabled body, bereft of both fairy godmothers and superhero change, is either an object of pity or an object of tender fascination, but rarely something other than that. We are sad Tiny Tims or we are everyday superheroes, inspiring those who can walk and run just fine with our inhuman strength in completing the impossible ordinary. Shopping in our wheelchairs, walking with our canes. Navigating the world with our guide dogs and scooters and other supports – augmentations that aren’t sexy like the claws that come racing out of Wolverine’s hands or the arc reactor in Ironman Tony Stark’s chest or the impossible body that gets to be Steve Rogers’s, but are nonetheless that we use to make ourselves be more.
Building a world that either accommodates these tools or makes it so the tools aren’t necessary in the first place (why the need for a body that can fight wars if you build a world where there are no wars?) is a particular kind of magic, it would seem. One that still eludes us all.
A little over two years ago, I walked to work at the hospital one day and felt, as I battled the wind, the familiar words that pound through my head on a regular basis, in rhythm to my lopsided, hurried gait.
You don’t walk like everybody else.
YOU DON’T WALK LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.
It’s not unusual, this refrain. I think it every time I hear my footsteps on the ground. I hear it every time I catch my body passing by a window. And yet, for some reason, that day something changed.
It’s not that you don’t walk like everybody else, the little voice continued. It was my voice speaking something I had known all along.
It’s that no one else in the world walks like you.
Why did it take me thirty-five years to realize this? Something to do with the way we tell stories – something to do with how we understand the body in both its regular variety and in what we perceive as its superhuman form.
‘We are capable,’ writes Tobin Siebers, ‘of believing at once that the body does not matter and that it should be perfected.’ And so we fantasize about eradicating disability in the same way that we fantasize about superheroes and magic – taking it for granted that the different body is aberrant in the same way superheroes are aberrant, gifts though these differences may be; longing for an act through which we will individually restore the world because systemic overhaul is too grand an undertaking. We’re all for subverting stories until the subversion requires a change in the real world that involves work, at which point we fall back to our regular narratives and look to the one who’ll come to rescue us. We take it for granted that the world is flawed and in need of a Captain Marvel to save it; we take it for granted that the disabled body is a bug in the system and do not, instead, celebrate its difference as a feature.
But my walk, my legs, my body – I am, all of me, a feature. (We are, all of us, a feature.) I have no fairy godmother because I have no need of one. I am not waiting for an unconventional white knight to come crashing up a causeway to my castle because I have seen the castle and its darkest heart and nothing in it scares me anymore. I have no need of rescue. I want more than the stories that posit the strong as those who survive and protect the rest of us. I want stories where people are not applauded for embracing difference but instead reshape the world so that difference is the norm.
I have nothing to prove to the world because the world has everything to prove to me. It is the world’s responsibility to make space for my body, my words, my lopsided gait – our bodies, our words, our ways of moving through the world – to hold my childhood dreams of being a princess and a superhero close and help me understand that there is no need to want to be either. To start telling different stories about a body that might just look like mine, and reshaping the world to fit them.
I am already enough. There is no need to be more.
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Men and the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.