I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.
Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.
OK, so as authors we are told constantly that we have to market our own books. The publishing industry, for better or worse, has largely washed its hands of promotion, except for the lucky and most commercial few. The rest of us are largely on our own.
Authors must have a website (check), keep a blog (check), have a Twitter account (yup), and a Facebook page (uh-huh), and use them regularly. Some writers have mailing lists, guest blog, write op eds and so on, all in service of selling more copies. It’s a big job and very time-consuming. If done well, it’s breathtaking to watch. If done clumsily, the result is painful to behold.
Promoting a finished book can take over your life to such an extent that there’s little room left to dream up, research, or write a new one. This seems problematic to me. After all, if we’re not writing, then what’s the point?
So, I’ve been wondering: how much flogging is too much?
It’s a question I’ve been thinking about increasingly as my inbox is clogged again and again by the newsletter (one I never subscribed to) of an author who has made it his full-time job to promote a newish book (actually, it’s over a year old). And each time the newsletter arrives, announcing a new lecture, reading, or reminding me what a good gift the book would make for whatever occasion, I find myself a little more irritated than the last. Annoying readers can’t be a good marketing strategy. The fact is, I own the book and I’ve read it, so why am I being bombarded with pitch after pitch? When is enough enough? And how can an author avoid going over the same old territory again and again?
As part of Canada Reads, Coach House Books posted what I think is good advice on how authors can use social media more effectively than the above-mentioned author has:
Just remember you’re a human being, not a marketing bot. Converse with other authors, express opinions on cultural (and other) issues, wish your mom a happy birthday—and if your book comes up now and then (a good review, a reading on the horizon), great. But remember that you’re a person first and an author promoting your book second.
Also important to remember: not only are you a human being, but so are your readers. Many of those readers are fellow authors, artists, and all-round smart people. They are not just buyers or cash cows or vehicles for gushing blurbs that pop up on Amazon. They are the reason you rewrite a sentence 12 times and the community for whom you stay in the library until closing. Talk to them. Listen to them. Don’t just bombard them with junk mail.
Now, off to work.
[Photo: lonely radio]
Maisonneuve Magazine is published out of Montreal and “has been described as a new New Yorker for a younger generation, or as Harper’s meets Vice, or as Vanity Fair without the vanity.” The quarterly offers “a diverse range of commentary across the arts, sciences, daily and social life.”
When the publication asked its contributors to share their favourite reads of the year, Crystal Chan chose Epistolophilia by yours truly. Here’s what she says about it:
The book…evolves into a meditation on those at the margins of society (women, Jews, gentiles in Holocaust literature, Lithuanians, the mentally ill), and the power and place of archives and texts. What does it mean to be a woman who writes? By embedding herself into her book, Šukys managed to write a book that’s equal parts biography, personal travel memoir, and anthology of wartime correspondence, but that also transcends these genres. Most of all, this is a book-length essay in the tradition of Virgina Woolf.
My favourite line is the last one. To be considered as working in the tradition of Virginia Woolf — what a gift.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Bonnes Fêtes, su šventėm!
May the coming year bring you peace, good health, and good writing.
As I posted on Facebook, I will admit that my hands shook for a while after learning the news that my book, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė has been long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize in Literary Non-Fiction. It’s an enormous honour.
THE CHARLES TAYLOR PRIZE commemorates Charles Taylor’s pursuit of excellence in the ﬁeld of literary non-ﬁction. The prize will be awarded to the author whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception. The prize consists of $25,000 for the winner and $2,000 for each of the runners up as well as promotional support to help all shortlisted books stand out in the national media, bookstores, and libraries. Authors whose books have been shortlisted for the prize will be brought to Toronto for the awards ceremony. The winner will be invited to read at the International Festival of Authors, held in October at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
I keep wanting to sit down and write a thoughtful post for the blog, and then something happens that I realize I should share: a reading, a review, and so on.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled.
So here’s this week’s announcement: my book has been shortlisted for a literary prize.
The shortlist for the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s Mavis Gallant Prize in Nonfiction is very short indeed. It comprises 3 books.
- Julija Šukys, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė
and two others:
- Taras Grescoe, Straphanger
- William Marsden, Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change
Grescoe and Marsden are both seasoned and award-winning writers, so I’m particularly honoured to be in their company. The winner will be announced on November 20th, at the Quebec Writers’ Federation Gala.
It should be lots of fun, and I’m thinking of getting a new frock for the occasion! I’ll keep you posted and share some photos of the event.
There is a whole slew of prizes that will be handed out on the 20th. You can read about all the nominees here.
Šukys’s great respect for her subject inspires respect for her own book. “When I read [the letters]” Šukys writes, “I feel as though she is speaking to me directly…” And that’s also how readers of Epistolophilia feel, as though Šukys is personally telling us the story of this incredible, and incredibly important, woman over a cup of tea.
— “The Portait of a Lady,” by Mélanie Grondin, Montreal Review of Books
Thanks, Montreal Review of Books!
Andrew Westoll. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery. Harper Collins, 2011.
Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a deeply humane account of chimpanzee lives, and a troubling testament to how monstrously we’ve treated our closest cousins on this planet. The book tells the story of thirteen former research chimpanzees living out their days at a sanctuary located on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, a stone’s throw away from where I live. Westoll was invited to live at the Fauna Foundation for a time, and to write the biographies of its primate residents. The framing narrative presents the author learning the ropes of chimp care: the weekly habitat wash that involves complex herding of chimps from one room to the next and the sanitation of feces-encrusted toys; the complexities of medication-laced smoothie production; and the annual fumigation of the Chimp House called “Operation Cucarachas,” when human and primate residents alike live outdoors.
One chimpanzee named Tom sits squarely at the heart of the book. A kind of old soul, Tom seems to change everyone he meets, whether human or chimp.
At Fauna, Tom can often be found slumped against a wall, one hand clinging to the caging above or resting on a windowsill. In this position he looks like he’s slumped on a sofa in a seniors’ home midway through slipping his arm around his sweetheart. When Tom walks on all fours, when he claps to get Gloria’s [his caregiver’s] attention, or simply when he’s lunching, the calmness of his movements suggests he knows all about time – how it works, how it can ravage you, how best to reconcile yourself to these facts. Something about Tom puts the lie to the old cliché time heals all. (29-30)
Tom is the face of Fauna Sanctuary and of the wider movement to protect and provide sanctuary to chimpanzees, and Westoll argues that the footage of him climbing a tree for the first time since his capture affected US Congress Representatives so deeply that they moved forward with legislation to protect great apes. The book is dedicated to Tom.
The tragedy of the chimpanzee, Westoll tells us, is that they are simultaneously so similar to and so different from humans. Chimpanzees and humans share all but a fraction of our respective DNA, yet chimpanzees are creatures with distinctly non-human social rites and needs. Of course, when chimps are raised by humans, they disconnect with fundamental aspects of their own species, and become more like humans. All the chimps at the fauna sanctuary occur somewhere along this chimp-human continuum. Regis loves to paint and listen to music, Rachel carries her gorilla baby dolls with her everywhere she goes, and Toby feels handsome when wearing a scrunchie around his wrist. But as quirky and sweet as Westoll’s descriptions of each chimp’s particularities are, his accounts of the horror that these animals have experienced and witnessed is unflinching. He tells of “knock-downs” with dart guns, countless surgeries and recoveries without pain killers, of years-long solitary confinement in cages suspended above lab floors, of viral infections then experimentation with vaccines. Westoll deftly tells the history of chimpanzee captivity, breeding programs and research. He weighs their outcomes and benefits to human health against the undeniable suffering undergone by its subjects. In the end, he comes out squarely against such research and in favour of chimpanzee sanctuary for all remaining research subjects. It’s hard to read this book and not to come out with the same conclusions.
I must admit that I began reading The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary because Andrew is a friend. It’s not generally the sort of book that I read, and I wondered about the appropriateness of posting a Life-blood review about it, given that its subjects were animals.
But I needn’t have hesitated.
Above all, Westoll demonstrates that these chimpanzee lives matter. That these thirteen strong and troubled creatures deserve the care and dignity that any survivor does, because they carry similar scars and memories. And that their stories too deserve to be told.
Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Myrna Kostash is a fulltime writer, author of All of Baba’s Children (1978); Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980); No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987); Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993); The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir (1997); The Next Canada: Looking for the Future Nation (2000); Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River (2005); The Frog Lake Reader (2009); and most recently, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey into Byzantium (2010).
In 2008 the Writers’ Guild of Alberta presented Kostash with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement. In 2009 she was inducted into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded her the Matt Cohen Award for a Life of Writing.
A deep-seated questioning of her inherited religion resurfaces when Myrna Kostash chances upon the icon of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. A historical, cultural and spiritual odyssey that begins in Edmonton, ranges around the Balkans, and plunges into a renewed vision of Byzantium in search of the Great Saint of the East delivers the author to an unexpected place—the threshold of her childhood church. An epic work of travel memoir, Prodigal Daughter sings with immediacy and depth, rewarding readers with a profound sense of an adventure they have lived.
Prodigal Daughter has been awarded the 2011 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the 2011 Writers Guild of Alberta Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Nonfiction.
Julija Šukys: Like all good texts of creative nonfiction, Prodigal Daughter is a hybrid text. It’s part travelogue, part historical exploration, and partly a narrative of a personal and spiritual journey. The unifying thread and the organizing metaphor (if that’s not wrong way to think about him) is Saint Demetrius. He’s a complex figure who is appropriated and venerated by a number of cultures and historical narratives. Can you talk a little bit about how Saint Demetrius came to be at the centre of this book for you?
Myrna Kostash: There are 2 versions of this “origin” narrative: the one in the book and the one that is the more truthful story, which out of discretion I have not used. But the published version is close enough: in search of an entry point into a book about Byzantium that I had wanted for years to write, I came across the figure of a saint venerated in the Orthodox Church whose story as told by the Church was exactly the perfect “hook” for me. St Demetrius, according to the hagiography, was martyred in the northern Greek city, Thessalonica, in 304, for the crime of professing faith in Jesus Christ. A couple of centuries later, however, he reappeared in the form of a saint working various miracles in defense of his beloved city, Thessalonica, which was under sustained attack and siege by barbarian marauders. Historically, these barbarians were Avars and Slavs from beyond the Danube, and they never did succeed in taking the city, although they settled in the region, Macedonia. It was this coherence of Slavic ethnicity and the Orthodox spirituality of Byzantium (I was baptised into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada as an infant) that inspired me to begin this book’s journey: I had a subject.
What did Saint Demetrius stand for when you began the journey of Prodigal Daughter, and what does he stand for now that you’ve come to the end of this particular chapter of writing and life?
For the first three or four years of the project (it did take ten!), I was obsessed by the ethnic implications of “my” saint, namely that a Greek saint, who performed miracles to defend his people, eventually also became a saint venerated by his enemies, the Slavs, my people, when they became Christians. But, as the book discloses, there were a number of turning points in my journey with Demetrius that complicated this simple ethnic formula, points which rerouted my journey, first into an enfolding within the Byzantine world in the Balkans and Constantinople, and second within the Church herself. Having written the book, I am now a faithful member once again of the church of my childhood, and the travelling icon of St Demetrius still goes with me where I go. What he “stands for” is of neither an ethnic nor historical nor even cultural significance but for what all saints stand for in Orthodoxy: an ideal representation of a human being “who is what he ought to be.”
In part, this book is about your somewhat reluctant return to your childhood roots in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. You’re a feminist, a leftist, and a humanist. All this makes for a fraught relationship with your childhood church, so you naturally moved away from it as a young adult. After what you describe as a number of failures of the core ideologies of your youth (the Left, student radicalism, even feminism), you recently found yourself yearning for something else: new meaning and a sense of the sacred.
Can you talk about this path back to Orthodoxy? How did your journey across greater Macedonia and the history of Byzantium help repave an old path differently for you?
I certainly had no spiritual intention for this journey. As with all my previous books, I was initially motivated by intense curiosity about history, and, in the case of Prodigal Daughter, by all the narratives – stories – that have been told about Byzantium, the Balkans and Eastern Christianity, all of which form a kind of cultural grammar for me (and which for most other people, I imagine, represent a triple whammy of exoticism if not downright weirdness). But even so I admit that on previous travels through the region I was always drawn to Orthodox churches as spaces of genuine repose and reflection. Even socialist feminists need that! Perhaps it was just the familiarity of them that drew me in; I certainly wasn’t very interested at that point in the content as opposed to the form of the life of worship they embodied.
But, when it came time to write the book, I realized that, if I were to understand the Byzantine world in which St Demetrius came to be venerated, I had better reacquaint myself with the closest representation of that world in our own time, namely the Orthodox Church. I was living in Saskatoon at the time, as writer-in-residence at the public library, and so I decided to go to a Ukrainian Orthodox church there, to Sunday services on a regular basis. There was much I had forgotten about the forms of worship and much that I never had known or understood (in my childhood in the 1950s the services were entirely in Ukrainian, a language I barely spoke), so I began to read seriously about the history and theology of the Church. For the first time in my life, I read the New Testament, in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible, had a host of questions about what I was reading, and sought the conversation and counsel of a Ukrainian Catholic, Byzantine rite, priest and theologian at the University. He was absolutely brilliant – a deeply consoling mixture of intellectual erudition and spiritual intuition – through whom I became aware of and was prepared to acknowledge something which I mention only glancingly in my book, a deep yearning for the Divine.
Of course, this journey back into Christianity would not have succeeded had I not been convinced, and remain convinced, that there is no contradiction between the core and enduring values of (socialist feminist) humanism and those of the basic Christian teachings. The elaborate mysticism of Orthodox theology is something else, however. I’m still on that journey.
One of the purposes of this book, it seems to me, is to shed light on an ignored and forgotten era: the 1000-year history of Byzantium. Prodigal Daughter is an attempt to engage seriously with the Balkans, a place that still today is so often dismissed as backward, laughable and even murderous. What was the impetus to fix your attention on that time and place?
When I was travelling around eastern and south-eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s (for my books Bloodlines and The Doomed Bridegroom), I became aware of a persistent mythology about “where Europe ends.” Wherever I was – Athens, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Prague, Cracow, Warsaw – people locally insisted that where they were was precisely where Europe “ends.” Which is to say that, where it ends, “Asia” begins. “Asia” signified Turkey in some cases but mostly it signified the Europe that was Orthodox, used the Cyrillic language, had been included in the Ottoman or Czarist Empires, had fallen within the Soviet bloc of countries, had been inflamed by “ancient communal hatreds” well into the 20th century, or some combination of these.
What struck me most was that, first, my relatives who still live in Ukraine were thus “outside” Europe, apparently, and, second, that a large part of the territory “outside” Europe had fallen historically within the borders of Byzantium or been contiguous with it. I was incensed. How was it possible that such disdain and ignorance could be expressed about a thousand-year Empire of astonishing political, cultural and spiritual achievement? (By the way, Byzantines never called themselves such – the term was first applied by a Renaissance German scholar – but named themselves Romans right to the end, as successors to the Late Roman Empire. The city of Rome “fell” in 476 to a Germanic army but the Roman Empire just kept on going, from its new capital of Constantinople, until its defeat in 1453 to the Ottomans.) So began my project to bring into view through a work of literary nonfiction at least some aspects of this world of European otherness.
It’s interesting (actually, maddening) that the first publisher I approached with a proposal to write under the working title Demetrius: Seduction by a Saint, turned it down on the grounds that “we’ve never heard of St Demetrius and we don’t care; write about St Francis.” Of course this did force me to think about how I would make anyone care about St Demetrius – by making the reader care about the narrator, that is me, as it turned out – but I admit that if I read about one more narrative of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, I’m going to scream.
Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
Julija Šukys: You are a writer who is very rooted in Western Canada and in the Ukrainian Canadian community, and as such, there’s a sense in which you write from the margins of margins (just as I do). You too write from an Eastern European tradition that largely goes ignored in this country and in the English-speaking world in general. You work in Edmonton, a place that remains on the margins of most Canadians’ imaginations. You write as a Canadian, and we ourselves constitute one big margin in the English-speaking world. Finally, you write as a woman, and if the recent VIDA statistics on women and publishing are accurate, then this last fact too still makes us marginal.
What does this kind of marginal perspective bring to you as a writer? How does your gaze encounter the world differently because of your marginality? And are the margins moving to the centre at all? Do you see more space for stories like yours now than before? For example, you recently won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen lifetime achievement award (congratulations!). Should this award give other marginal writers and writers of nonfiction hope that our work may find a more central place in the world of reading and publishing?
Myrna Kotash: These are big questions I’m not sure I can cover here except in short-hand as it were. To begin with: the Matt Cohen prize for a life of writing came as a huge surprise. Frankly, I didn’t realize anyone at the Trust (jury members are all in Ontario) had noticed that one can have a “writing life” in Edmonton. As Matt had been a friend, this award meant a lot to me. But I cannot say it’s resulted in my work receiving any more attention (any less marginalized): for instance, to date, ten months after publication, Prodigal Daughter, has received only three reviews, two in Alberta and one in Winnipeg.
So as far as this book is concerned, I don’t feel the least that there is “more space” for stories like mine, but it’s a gamble I have to take as these are the stories I want and must write. It’s no good wishing I were on the Globe’s bestseller lists when I’m not willing to make concessions to being there, namely living in Toronto in the thick of things and writing about market-friendly subjects. The only one of my books that was a bestseller was my very first, All of Baba’s Children, which was based on interviews with Ukrainian-Canadians in Two Hills, Alberta, of all places. To this day I cannot tell you why I chose the subject (I was still living in Toronto as a freelancer in 1975 when I returned to Alberta to do the research, and never went back to Toronto) or why it made such an impression. It’s still in print, being read by a new generation. For awhile in the 1970s, being a women’s liberationist or “women’s libber” as feminists were called back then, was a boon for a young writer like me in Toronto when feminism was so new and provocative and creative. A number of us women writers came into our own then thanks to Canadian magazines that were trying to keep up with the movement. But that’s all over and, as the VIDA survey revealed, women are again vastly underrepresented in the magazines.
My second book, about the 1960s in Canada, was an almost complete flop (lots of reviews but mostly negative) as it managed to be celebratory about left-wing radicalism just as the Reagan and Thatcher era was opening. Since then, I’ve written back and forth between what I call my New World and Old World subjects, all of them until Prodigal Daughter receiving the kind of attention that has disappeared from the publishing world for mid-range writers like me: the reviews, the promotion trip, media interest. Add to that the fact that nonfiction even in its literary or “creative” mode is largely neglected at festivals, conferences and writing programs, and no one should be surprised that a Ukrainian-Canadian left-wing feminist nonfiction writer is not at the epicentre of Can Lit.
Finally, I’d like to talk about the writing process of creative nonfiction. I’ve heard you say that the hardest thing about writing CNF is finding (or imposing) structure. In your book, you had to bring together a vast amount of historical data, competing narratives of Demetrius’s life, a travel narrative, and spiritual journey. Talk a bit about your struggle to find structure in this book. Is structure always the key struggle for a writer of nonfiction? If so, why? What, in your view, makes for a successful piece of creative nonfiction?
Creative or literary nonfiction is rightly called a hybrid genre, as you pointed out at the opening of this interview. The problem of structure is central, as the various elements of this hybridity – travelogue, memoir, historical summary, reflection, scene-setting – each demands its own kind of structure. How then to unify them all within an overarching structure?
My first thought was to organize the material chronologically, that is following the historical development of St Demetrius himself, from early Christian martyr to saint in the Byzantine church to his reception among the Slavs. All the other material I had gathered from my travels, interviews, reading and note-taking would be sorted accordingly. This was my first draft. I sent this this to an editor I had worked with on Bloodlines, an editor perfectly in tune with what I try to do with nonfiction. Her suggestion was the single most important intervention into the question of structure: that I organize the material not according to (impersonal) history but according to how it had happened to me. Thus: I had first approached Demetrius from a remembered childhood memory of the Slavic Orthodox church, then I had sought him by travelling around the ancient Byzantine world in the Balkans, and finally had encountered him in his most spiritualized aspect, the young martyr whose story could not in fact be known. The next seven years of writing were simply the effort to order and reorder within that overall structure.
They also involved the arduous process of allowing myself to speak more intimately about myself than I’ve done since The Doomed Bridegroom. In the case of that book, my most experimental work of creative nonfiction, it was merely a question of revealing myself as an erotic subject. It was even harder to reveal myself as a seeker of the sacred within the Orthodox Church. (Somehow I think it would have been less fraught had I been on a spiritual journey with yoga, say.) I’ve taught writing classes in creative nonfiction for years and I always tell participants that we writers of creative nonfiction must always answer two questions before we’re done. One: why am I telling you this? Two: what does it have to do with me? I’ve never had trouble with the first, as my subjects have always been urgent or intriguing; but the second has demanded a closer introspection than I have been prepared to undergo, until St Demetrius made me.
July 3, 2011