It’s August! We’re happy to host our next Plots & Pandemic Series event! Join us on Thursday, August 20, 2020, 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. EDT. Guests can interact with Adnan Khan and with each other. We will begin with a short reading followed by a group discussion and Q & A.
Adnan is a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. He has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and was awarded the 2016 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer award. His debut novel, There Has To Be A Knife, was named a best Canadian novel of 2019 by the CBC, and called “a raw, gritty, shiver-inducing—but very readable—account of a young man in a spiral of grief and self-destruction,” by Kirkus Review. His film work includes co-writing the screenplay Shook, for Scarborough Pictures, and his non-fiction has been published in The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, among others. Alongside this, he is regularly invited to speak on panels, has taught non-fiction at the University of Guelph, and is the fiction editor at Puritan magazine. His writing is represented by the Transatlantic Agency.
The Pine Islands, written by Marion Poschmann and translated by Jen Calleja shows how a bad dream leads to a strange poetic pilgrimage through Japan in this playful and profound Booker International-shortlisted novel.
Curious to read more? Get a taste of The Pine Islands through the excerpt below!
When the curtain went up the actor was already standing in the middle of the stage. He wore a floor-length brocaded robe with a wide cloth sash passed around his waist, an enormous bow tied at his back. The years behind the white make-up couldn’t be discerned from the back of the auditorium. Delicate features, red lips, a visage of consummate elegance. He held a fan in his hand, and when it began to stir Yosa gripped Gilbert’s arm and held on to it. Gilbert stiffened, looked past Yosa and attempted to watch the action on the stage. He made an extreme effort but was unable to determine that anything was happening at all. The actor moved at a snail’s pace, he turned around himself infinitely slowly, put his foot forwards once extremely cautiously, let the fan sink a tiny fraction. If it was supposed to be a dance it was the most tedious dance Gilbert had ever seen, no mean feat when dancing was overwhelmingly boring for the spectator in the first place. Mathilda had once coerced him into accompanying her to a ballet performance, and he swore to himself after the first ten minutes never to go again, in case of doubt he should undermine his good nature, be tough, say no, he tormented himself through the whole one and a half hours, fidgeted in his seat, sucked on boiled sweets and at least succeeded in making sure Mathilda never approached him with such a suggestion ever again. However, when he compared the European ballet with the Japanese kabuki dance, ballet was frankly thigh-slapping, popular, primitive entertainment. The kabuki dancer moved in millimetres, he required many minutes to open his fan even halfway, it was like watching an amoeba for entertainment, and Gilbert clawed his hand – the small, cool hand of the Japanese man clasped to it – into the armrest, and bored his fingernails into the velvet.
Suddenly the curtain fell. Gilbert had managed to grasp not the slightest narrative, no progression, but Yosa relaxed, drew back his hand and informed him that the first piece had come to an end. It had been a quarter of an hour at most, which had nevertheless felt like an infinite expanse of time. The Japanese audience members sitting around them unpacked picnics and consumed them without leaving the velvet seats. Yosa offered him a small, sweet, rubbery ball made of rice flour wrapped in a salty oak leaf. Gilbert ate the sweet, leant back in his seat, listened to the prattling, boisterous multitude, and in a single blow he was pervaded by the tense anticipation of the audience. The Crossroads of Illusions – this is how Bashō had felt as he bid farewell to his previous life and was resigned to the idea that he would hike 3,000 miles. The practice of hiking as a journey through life, meaning that one stands at the crossroads and is able to choose whether one goes or stays, whether one keeps dreaming the dream one is currently dreaming or exchanges it for a different one. And, according to the teaching of Buddhism, when measured against the eternal truth, one choice is as unreal as the other. Gilbert now waited for the curtain to rise again. He was ready to give up all resistance. But he primly put his hands in his lap so that Yosa was unable to touch him.
The actor was now wearing a white robe with a hood that completely covered his face. He also concealed himself behind a parasol, which he half closed, then opened again, put down in the scenery, then picked back up. It was snowing on the stage, the actor’s feet, wearing white, split-toed tabi socks, pushed through the sparse flakes, the stand where he kept placing the parasol was covered with paperboard depicting a snowdrift. The set emitted an altogether depressive atmosphere, and Gilbert wondered whether this performance was really the best thing for Yosa. He himself was now eagerly waiting for the actor to take off the hood and once more show his feminine features. The slow-motion effect, he now realised, solely served the intensifying of a quasi-sacred concentration. And, in fact, the hood did eventually fall back. Gilbert clenched his hands together, eventually the white robe fell and unveiled flame-red brocade, there were multiple costume changes without a pause in the dancing, indeed two dark figures scurried around on the stage who, in their dark clothing, weren’t really there at all, and who, behind the slowly rotating parasol, released the actor of the sashes, the belts, ripped the upper layers of material from his body, and he burst out from behind the parasol in completely new garments. To Gilbert’s astonishment the costume changes took place in a matter of seconds, a real metamorphosis which called for an extraordinary amount of dexterity on behalf of the helpers, and enormous agility on the part of the dancer. His respect for the performance grew, because this finesse was also manifested in the gentle, slow-motion movements. He wasn’t entirely sure whether the woman on stage, whose intricate gestures he had grown to admire, should be the one he fell in love with or actually the man enacting this extraordinary control of his body, or whether he didn’t much more wish to be this lithesome actor himself, or, more specifically, to possess his exceptionally stunning beauty. Gilbert furtively tried to hold his own hand in such a perfectly graceful way in the dark auditorium, the way the dancer demonstrated, so utterly enticing, so convincingly feminine, which no woman on this planet would have been able to accomplish. Dear Mathilda, he formulated in the silence, it was an ambivalence that no one could match up to. No one at any rate who was real and alive.
Continue reading by purchasing a copy of The Pine Islandshere!
Marion Poschmann was born in Essen in 1969. Recognized as one of Germany’s foremost poets and novelists, she has won both of Germany’s premier poetry prizes. She is the author of four novels, the last three of which have been nominated for the German Book Prize, and she won the prestigious Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize in 2013. The Pine Islands is her first novel to be translated into English. Learn more about Marion.
Jen Calleja is a writer, musician, and literary translator. She has translated works by Wim Wenders, Gregor Hens, Kerstin Hensel, and Michelle Steinbeck, and her translations have been featured in The New Yorker and The White Review, among others. She was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library, and her reviews, articles, interviews, and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Modern Poetry in Translation, Brixton Review of Books, New Books in German, and elsewhere. Her first poetry collection, Serious Justice, was published by Test Centre in 2016. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
My first novel The Work is about a woman who falls in love with the charismatic leader of a theatre group and stays with him for two decades, even though — at least on the surface of things — there’s not a lot in it for her. The question I get asked most often is whether it’s based on personal experience.
The answer is, yes and no.
Have I stayed fruitlessly loyal for years and years? Ooooooh yeah! And I wanted to get inside that experience in The Work. I have lived through a prolonged romantic obsession; I see these sorts of relationships around me all the time, but they’re not common in literature. They’re difficult to write about. I guess a short, self-destructive love affair provides a better story arc. Yet I’m fascinated with what makes a person stay and stay and stay … and stay. What is she getting out of it?
Rebecca, my protagonist, is competent — too competent at times — yet she falls prey to someone who manipulates and takes advantage of her. I tried to understand what, in her personality, might make her susceptible, but mostly I wanted to show that anyone is susceptible.
And what about the theatre group, SenseInSound, which functions on the borderline between therapy and self-expression, and has many cult-like qualities? I teach a form of movement (Feldenkrais Technique), which required a long, intensive training, and I’ve also participated in various of disciplines that unite body and mind. (And by the way, they’re almost always referred to as The Work.) In my PhD research I’m studying the history of physical culture in 19th and 20th century Europe, so I know the territory.
I have never had an experience where a leader or teacher abused their power — or not seriously — but I know it happens. And I absolutely see how it can. I drew from my own experiences then speculated … What if…? What if someone crossed the line right now?
But I didn’t want to make this aspect of the story cut-and-dried. I didn’t want to show a cult leader pulling people into his orbit and spitting them out as broken souls. People benefit from The Work, or at least, they find a way to present their experiences in a positive light. In the end, The Work is the main character in The Work. It’s beneficial in small doses, but when people entangle themselves with it too closely, it becomes harmful.
The theatre company spends a long time in process, continually reshaping its plays, building them, then tearing them down and rebuilding them again. These sections of my book almost wrote themselves, and I think that’s because I love process so much.
My fascination with process is the inspiration behind my reading series, Draft, which I founded in 2005 in the Leslieville area of Toronto. We invite both emerging and well-known authors to share their work-in-progress at the readings. Reading new work to a sympathetic audience can sometimes provide more ideas for revision than ten pages of comments. And for the audience, there’s something special about hearing work that is unfinished. It means that you are actually part of the author’s process. You’re part of the writing.
It took me a long time to write my novel — not because I was keeping some kind of noble distance until it was ready to be shared, but because I couldn’t seem to make The Work work. Of course I got impatient, because I kept running out of money and wanting to do other projects. From an artistic point of view, though, I enjoyed my long engagement with The Work. I prefer being in process to finishing a project. I could have kept on changing the book forever, but I knew it was time finally to polish it up and move on.
The Work is the first part of a trilogy, which moves backwards in time. It looks at The Work in different eras. One book takes place in England in the 1950s, and the other is divided between Berlin in the 1930s and 1980s California. These prequels show The Work not just in different, eras but in the hands of different practitioners, and they draw on the historical research I’ve been doing for my PhD. As a writer, I find this daunting project reassuring. It’s always good to know there’s plenty of Work on the horizon!
Maria is the author of The Work. Her first book, Outside the Box from McGill-Queen’s University Press, won the Alison Prentice Award for Women’s History. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review of Canada, Descant and Musicworks, as well as in the anthologies, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die and The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She has made two radio series, Parent Care, and Remembering Polio for CBC Ideas.
From 1993 to 2010 she ran The Writing Space Press with Diana Kiesners. She was a member of the editorial board of Descant magazine from 1995 to 2001. In 2005, Maria founded the Draft Reading Series which specializes in unpublished work by emerging and established writers.
I wrote my first novel, The Devoted, while still living in my hometown of Boston, fresh out of a grad writing program and keen to tell a story that I felt passionate about. It took four or five years of struggling with scenes and characters and memories from my own childhood, but it didn’t really come together as a story until I realized that I had to step into risky, unknown territory, both from my own realm of experience and also beyond it.
The Devoted is inspired by both my Irish Catholic roots and my lifelong interest and research into Buddhism in America, particularly the experience of women exploring Buddhist practice. The novel is about a Boston Irish Catholic woman who, disillusioned by the sexual abuse scandals of the church that broke in the early 2000s, converts to Zen Buddhism. After heartbreak and betrayal, she becomes trapped in a manipulative sexual relationship with her Zen Master. The book raises the question of how the #metoo movement can play out in spiritual spaces, where powerful, respected teachers have abused their authority with vulnerable students seeking a spiritual experience. It also explores the healing and redemptive power that faith, both Catholic and Zen, can bring to our lives.
To write the novel, I had to immerse myself in research about both Catholicism and Zen, reading religious texts, but also Zen poetry, koans, and folktales from Buddhist cultures. I read the fascinating memoirs of medieval Buddhist nuns and was surprised to discover their honest, forthright discussions of the discrimination they encountered. In one Tibetan nun’s account, she sings mournfully of how her Master refuses to believe she can achieve the same level of spiritual accomplishment as the monks that surround her; she defiantly declares she will prove him wrong.
Many of my readers assume that I’m more familiar with the Catholic portions of the story, but even though my family has Irish Catholic history, I was raised without any particular religious affiliation, free to explore and visit religious spaces without any sort of official allegiance. To write my character’s strict Catholic upbringing, I had to dive deep into Catholic stories, songs, and doctrine, questioning my family about their own memories and jokes and superstitions. When writing scenes set both in Catholic churches and Buddhist Zendos, I felt as much of an outsider as my character, stepping tentatively inside the temple for the first time. What if I got some crucial points of doctrine or ritual wrong? What if I inadvertently disrespected someone else’s sacred space? For the early drafts of my writing, I hovered nervously on the edges of writing these scenes, afraid to offend or to misrepresent, afraid that I didn’t have what it took to write the scene authentically. Writers often struggle with this question of authenticity — do I dare tell this story? Is it my story to tell? Can I do this story justice?
For me, the line came when I realized I had written cautiously around the edges of the real issues I wanted to address. To really show my character’s experience on the page — with her family, with her Zen Master, singing in church and running away from it, fighting with her brother and falling in love and betraying people all on her messy quest for personal grace — I had to walk into those rooms with her. I had to do my homework, get the research right, walk into those spaces myself whenever I could, and in my imagination when I couldn’t. I visited Zen and Tibetan temples, and wandered in and out of Catholic churches; I read and listened; and at some point, when I had done the work, I had to sit down at my desk, take a deep breath, and begin.
Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted published by W.W. Norton and Penguin Random House Canada. The novel was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Hawthornden Castle, and the Ontario Arts Council.
Hello, my name is Fiona, and I am a book club addict.
I am currently the member of two book clubs, but I have also been part of book clubs at work and review committees for work and book magazines. I started reading novels at age 6 (Enid Blyton) and have never stopped since. Full disclosure, I am an English teacher, drama junkie, teacher librarian and a member of the planning committee for a wonderful literary festival called the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity). I adore the printed word.
One of my greatest joys as a book club member and organizer has been actually meeting Canadian authors. Hearing in person the behind the scenes stories makes everything more vivid and alive.
The wonderful Ann Y.K. Choi was the first author to attend our book club, it was advice she received early in her career from fellow author, Terry Fallis. So, thanks to Ann, my book club met her in the spring of 2016 and Terry in the fall to discuss Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety and One Brother Shy respectively.
This past fall we also hosted Uzma Jalaluddin to talk about her romantic reworking of Pride and Prejudice called Ayesha At Last. It was yet another very successful meeting with fantastic conversations and insights. When organizing with an author I have reached out via Twitter for a contact email and have found authors surprisingly forthcoming. Our book club has met with authors at a restaurant and we cover their meal as a thank you for their visit, although Terry chose to meet us at one of our homes.
Canadian authors have so much to offer us. They can entertain and instruct while using art to hold up the proverbial mirror and let us see our strengths, weaknesses and follies. They deserve to be supported and promoted and book clubs, those gatherings of voracious readers and purchasers of books, are an ideal place to combine both of those passions. Please read and buy Canadian, and if an author is available to speak with your book club, take them up on it. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.