Middle School: Writing from the Landscape of the Lonely

By Shoilee Khan

Photographed by Eli DeFaria. Unsplash. Girl/Woman.

The last time I felt this alone, I was in middle school spreading a bed sheet under a straggling copse of trees during lunch break. The plan was to lay myself down on the blue-lined fabric, feel the prickle of grass beneath it and read my book. The trees were on a little mound near the side doors of the school and as my classmates passed by, they did what middle schoolers do: they pointed, they laughed, they whispered loud enough for me to hear.

Oh God, look, what a weirdo, what the hell is she doing with a bed sheet? What the hell? What the hell?

The book that I held up to the sky—my head lodged uncomfortably over bumpy ground—was by L.M. Montgomery. It could have been Emily of New Moon, or The Story Girl, or Anne of Green Gables, or Montgomery’s dark, dark diaries because in seventh grade, I ran my finger across the shelf that held her books and I consumed them, returning to the library every three days to get another and another and another.

I crouched between shelves, in stairwells, behind doors, under the covers in my bed, under the trees, reading and reading and reading to fill myself up with the stories of the girls I wanted to be, the girls I could be.

These were girls—Emily and Sara and Anne—who rose up in tall grasses, solitary figures in grand landscapes, powerful and strange, a little bit otherworldly. They were often orphaned, or abandoned, always stepping into the narrative as unwanted, despised young beings who were tolerated and dealt with, love earned, not given.

I emerged from a middle school equivalent of a grand landscape: on the first day of grade six, I crossed a field of tufty grass with my brother at my side. We approached the back of the school, the bodies of other kids appearing like bright summer paint strokes scattered across portables and pavement.

A cluster of girls—older, wearing white shorts that curved up against lean thighs—gasped when they saw me, their faces distorting in the sunlight. My white, cotton hijab was a flag bearing a message with the kind of clarity that pre-teens appreciate: Here she is! Here’s the one who doesn’t belong!

My hijab set me apart, but it couldn’t do all the transgressive work on its own. My hijab was attached to me and I must be at the root of this undesirability; why boys shuddered when they saw my hands (they were too small), why girls questioned aloud whether I was a girl or a boy (because how could they know if they couldn’t see my hair?), why I was so often picked last in gym class (what is the function of picking teams, gym teachers of the world?), why the friends I did have outgrew me and left one by one to forge the connections they needed to survive these brief, dangerous years.

Over and over, I asked myself why? Why don’t they like me? What did I do? What can I do? I must be too much or too little, too something. I must be outspoken, or bossy, or needy, or ugly, or confusing, or strange, or alien, or prideful, or possessive, or clingy, or rude, or unlikeable, or something, something. In incalculable, inexplicable ways, I was undesirable and so I was alone.

By the time I decided that I could do this—that I was bold enough to make this plan and execute it, bed sheet, book, lunch recess—I was just beginning to relish what it meant to be alone. What it meant to take a bed sheet from the linen closet at home, fold it into my backpack, place my book on top, and carry that knowledge with me on the walk to school.

It was a self-created moment of solitary rebellion. I would be alone at lunch, but I had an image of what this could be. It would be my time under the trees. I would be there and you could see me doing what I wanted to be doing and if you wanted to look, you could. You would.


The three years I spent in middle school—the three treacherous, war-like, electrically-anxious, emotionally warping years—are not special, or unusual, but the intense loneliness they cultivated in me were formative in my development as a writer.

My struggle to be wanted, to belong, to be cherished and valued and kept, created in me such a wrenching vacancy that it had to be filled. My small body and everything it held would not have survived if this terrible yearning for fulfillment did not demand a response.

Loneliness can numb you with pain. But that pain creates a vacancy that hungers for sustenance.

My sustenance came in the form of my story-girls. Emily, Sara and Anne were storytellers. Their power and confidence were rooted in an ability to engage others with the stories they told. Indeed, their stories afforded them attention and admiration and even love.

But the stories were also forms of life that they cultivated through observation, through hours spent walking alone thinking, dreaming, and conversing with the natural landscapes that rose up around them. The stories yielded themselves from spaces of isolation and then flowed with life in the company of others. They did the thinking, they did the telling, they did the writing.

I found fierce power in walking alone in the woods at lunch and across the field that took me to and from school each day. In giving names to trees, to the sun, to the moon—just as Anne did, just as Montgomery herself did—there was power and control and the fruition of illuminated life in everything I saw and touched. Dandelions were beats of sun. The sky was an escape made for human wings. Even the pavement deserved the kindness of soft steps, of a greeting.

Everything was tender and loved and there for me. I cultivated my own friendship with a circlet of fat pines. I greeted them with salaam every morning and afternoon. My small hands brushed their trunks, gripped the ridges of their tree-bodies, held onto the sturdiness of life that they offered. These tree-friends became guardians, became such solace that to this day my heart softens at their sight. I did all this as comfort, as a way of braiding the everyday miseries of middle school, the everyday effort of growing up into a rope I could climb.

In my backpack—folded over the bed sheet and tucked under my book—were the pages of a story I had written for the public library’s annual short story contest. It was a story I didn’t know how to finish. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be or what it should mean. I wrote about a girl who was twisted up and worried and angry and frustrated and feeling woeful about her friendships, about how unfair it was to be misunderstood.

I wrote about her hijab. I worried about writing about a girl and her hijab. I worried about writing about myself. So I lay on my blue-lined bed sheet and I tried to write an ending that would suffice so I could submit it that afternoon, so I could wait for my moment to arrive, for someone to unfold my pages and think that here was a girl who had written something good, very good, and there is truth in here, and good, good things and yes, this is it. This is the story we’ve been waiting for.

My story-girls told stories. They were white and ethereal, with slim ankles, and toes with nails shaped like seashells. They belonged before they didn’t belong, and they could rise up and up and up because when they told their stories, something changed: inside them, around them, through them. Pen to paper that day on the bed sheet, grass prickling, I discovered a double-loneliness. The barely perceptible realization that I didn’t fit inside the stories I loved, not in the way I had learned to imagine them. Where does a girl like me rise up? What landscape does she belong in? What stories does she tell? Who does she tell them to? Who will listen?


That day—and many times after that for the next few years—I learned to smooth my hands over the curves of loneliness. I learned to hold the thing against my body and feel its solidity like it was the trunk of a tree I could lean against, hard, sturdy, a plane of stability. Loneliness that starts young becomes a friend, but not before you’re shocked by the clutch of it. Not before you learn to sink into it and feel it rise up around you, inky and voluminous with heaping waves.

The tumultuous energy of friendships made and lost, the frantic desire to be good and whole and worthy, the confusion of desire and being desired, this is middle school, but it is also every day after that. Loneliness is not a yearning for the solidity of companionship. You may have companions—I did and I do—but still gasp from the insatiable quality of yearning. This kind of hunger will not be filled by a life partner, by a friendship, by familial relationships, or—as I’ve become more aware and increasingly afraid of—by the work that I do. Nothing that ordinary will fill that vacancy.

Loneliness is a yearning, a constant churning hunger for the thing that will fill you, quiet and complete. As long as you are hungry—even in this painful, wrenching way—you will keep looking for the thing that could feed you. And you will know that the looking is the feeding.

The looking is what happens when you’ve sunk in the landscape of the lonely. When you’re standing alone in the woods, or sitting in a parking lot trying to breathe. The looking is the creating; it’s the naming of the leaves and the greeting of the trees. It’s the packing of a bed sheet and a book and a plan. It’s the writing through it and because of it. Loneliness cultivates an awakening, a slow rise in a grassy landscape that belongs to you.

greenandgoodShoilee Khan’s fiction has appeared in a diverse collection of magazines and journals including Adbusters, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly and Other Voices. She teaches English in the School of Communication and Literary Studies department at Sheridan College, and is the host and curator of Bluegate Reading Collective, a reading series in the Peel region.

Khan is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Ian Kamau

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We asked Ian Kamau five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Ian Kamau: Everyday life and memory. The smallest things. Moments. A feeling.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Kamau: I am writing the history of my family in combination with my present.

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Kamau: Somewhere quiet. In private, in public, on paper, on a phone.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Kamau: How did you keep going? What have you lost because of your work?

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Kamau: A story about my father and I. Stories about my neighbourhood. Stories about my inner world.

Ian Kamau. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA. Ian Kamau is a writer, music maker and designer; an artist who believes in the pursuit of actualization, especially by marginalized individuals and groups. He is interested in exploring the value of art to society. Born and raised in Esplanade—a neighbourhood in downtown Toronto—to Trinidadian parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. His parents are documentary filmmakers; his mother a producer, his father a writer and director. He grew up around ideas, social movements, education and all forms of creativity.

Kamau is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with David Bradford

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We asked David Bradford five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

IFOA: Why do you write?

David Bradford: I think Elizabeth Gilbert once said she writes because otherwise, she’d chew her own arm off; or something like that. There’s too much in here, and I need to channel it through something kind of healthy and writing has worked out in that regard.

But beyond that, my writing comes from the same urge behind most repetitions (mine anyway): to convince that the way I think is real.

IFOA: What are some of the themes that you explore in your writing? Why

Bradford: I really value just doing the day in, day out practice thing, and I’m happiest just following my more reflexive readings within it.

However, my work often deals in the fleshiness of words invested in what I think of as a non-linguistic end (i.e., making any sense of things), and the faith built into and out of that. That is, some things cannot be known, or explained. But then we all put words to them anyway. Words are slippery from the get-go, but we still go about trying to be known by them.

If there’s a place I return to, it’s the life that comes out of performing, that largely unresolvable discrepancy; the frontispiece liminality of any practice, to me, worth its salt. Within that scope, themes I return to include complications of identities, partnerships and totalizing cultural spaces.

IFOA: What are some of the genre you explore in your work?

Bradford: I primarily write poetry, but I’ve also grown into playing with lyrical essay and new narrative elements in my work. For instance, an upcoming chapbook of mine with Blank Cheque Press is a winding, gushing monograph about novelist Nell Zink.

IFOA: Who is your favourite author, poet or writer?

Bradford: My favourite poet as a reader right now: Allison Titus. My favourite poet as a poet: maybe Mary Ruefle or Fred Moten.

IFOA: What inspires you?

Bradford: I’m currently working on finishing up a shape-shifty poetry manuscript concerned with what the various strategies for making sense of the world via something as contrary to it as poetry may look like. It’s something like my attempt at a personal ontology of uncertainties. It deals in trauma, totalities of knowledge, community, and sex. It’s all over the place.

David Bradford. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA. David Bradford is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph and leads the Slo-Po group reading series. His work has appeared in a variety of places, including Lemon Hound and Prairie Fire, and his latest chapbook, Call Out (Knife|Fork|Book), is forthcoming in 2017.

Bradford is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Canisia Lubrin

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We asked Canisia Lubrin five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Canisia Lubrin: Staying curious and open to “inspiration” from anywhere is important to me. I suppose this means that I value how the facts of life, things as they are—imperfect, worthy, enervating, senseless, the full range—offer an abundance of descriptive impulses that send me slipping into many imaginary spaces.

Once I can recognize a descriptive escape-route into a subject, I will follow nearly every clue down its road, usually the more challenging the better.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Lubrin: Stories that I end up writing are carried around with me until I can feel and trust their wholeness. In that sense, the story isn’t named and claimed until I write some draft of it. Some doubt in me—as much as I’d like to offer an absolute answer—toward the very act of naming and claiming that very thing is keeping me from offering a more concrete response.

I’d like to think that every story I write is part of the larger “story” that I absolutely must tell. Perhaps I’m just doing so interstitially because of the forms of storytelling that currently exist. I’d offer that each part of that story is given its own name and identity, much the same way as the arm’s identity differs from that of the head and torso even though these are all parts, ostensibly, of the same body.

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Lubrin: I think I can write almost anywhere as long as the space isn’t moving. I suffer terrible motion sickness. I’m always after the feeling though. Feeling that lets me break into a heightened attention to the craft and the subject of the work. Place can do that for me but not always. What is clear is that my intention is rarely ever a big factor: I may want to spend an hour in the forest or by the river or in an alley or on the beach because I feel something of the place will open up a kind of knowing in me.

But, more and more, I am learning to trust that my impulses and motivations for writing rarely ever come from a place of knowing, but from my need to question things that confound me. I’m after discovery.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Lubrin: What is the one thing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing?

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Lubrin: There’s no shortage of writing for me right now: I’ve just finished editing my first poetry collection and my first novel as well as a collection of short stories currently take up most of my writing time.

Canisia Lubrin. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.Canisia Lubrin serves on the editorial board of the Humber Literary Review and on the advisory board of the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. She completed an MFA in fiction at Guelph-Humber and is the author of the poetry collection, Voodoo Hypothesis, forthcoming this fall from Wolsak & Wynn.

Lubrin is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Catherine Graham

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We asked Catherine Graham five questions about her latest novel, Quarry; the 80s in southern Ontario and juggling writing projects for her book launch on June 1 courtesy of IFOA’s Toronto Lit Up.

IFOA: Quarry is your debut novel. Tell us a little bit about the different creative processes you went through while writing your first novel?

Catherine Graham: As a poet, writing prose was a very different experience for me. With poetry, I work with fragments, images and often incomplete thoughts to give the reader space to develop their own interpretation. Prose, on the other hand, demanded expansion. It was a place to round out thoughts and images by building scenes and bringing them to life through character, description and dialogue.

The image of a coiled spring comes to mind when I think of the difference between the two—compact for poetry, stretched for prose.

When writing Quarry, I started with poems I’d already written and then wrote bridges of prose between them. I liken the process to learning how to ride a bicycle—the poems were my training wheels. Once I felt confident enough with the prose, I could let the poems go. Looking back now I see how I was trying to transition myself from one form to another.

IFOA: The story is set in 1980’s southern Ontario. The title is Quarry. What’s the significance of “place” in the story?

Graham: The central image in the novel is a water-filled limestone quarry. At its edge, sits the bungalow in which Caitlin Maharg and her parents live. As the story builds, the quarry serves as metaphor for Caitlin’s journey. Layers of stone, watery depths and seasonal changes all connect to the complexities of her inner and outer lives and often mirror what’s happening to her.

IFOA: I understand you grew up beside a water-filled limestone quarry and like Caitlin Maharg, you lost your parents at a tender age. Is Quarry more fact than fiction?

Graham: Yes, like the protagonist in Quarry, Caitlin Maharg, I too lost my parents as a quarry-cover-jpeg-2teen/young adult. Even a cursory glance at my life story will reveal many of the same touch points that anchor my novel. Some have asked if this story is autobiographical. The answer is—it’s complicated. While Caitlin Maharg and I share many experiences, the novel is certainly not an autobiography.

Of all the characters in the book, the two most true to life are Caitlin’s parents: Donald Maharg and Mary Ellen (Rusty) Maharg. Their portrayals more or less accurately depict my own parents, including their first names. This was purposeful as I saw the book as a tribute to their lives, a way of keeping them alive, having lost them before I could know them as people and not just as parents. The novel was a way to mark the places they once held in this world like fossils in a limestone quarry.

The rest is largely fictionalized. Although, as with most novels, certain living people may see themselves as characters. I share many of the experiences of my protagonist—working as a lifeguard, selling bus tours in Niagara Falls, attending university and struggling with body image issues.

Quarry contains elements of my life but Caitlin’s story is not mine and neither is my story hers. I hope readers will take the book as a whole unto itself and won’t be concerned with what’s real and what isn’t. Besides, what is the truth? As Caitlin Maharg discovers: All of life is a bend of the truth, the curve in the question mark.

IFOA: You are also launching a poetry collection in the fall. Were you writing Quarry and The Celery Forest at the same time? How easy was it to switch back and forth between genres?

Graham: I had to concentrate on each genre separately. I carved out writing space for both to avoid switching back and forth. My editors—Alexandra Leggat of Two Wolves Press for Quarry and Paul Vermeersch of Wolsak & Wynn for The Celery Forest—are happy with the results. I respect them both so much that their affirmations gave me comfort. It was time to let these two manuscripts go. It just happened to be during the same year.

IFOA: You also teach creative writing at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. What is the ultimate advice you give the emerging writers you mentor about the stories they write?

Graham: I tell them to make time for writing, even if it’s five minutes a day. Try and keep some kind of connection to the writing life to avoid resistance. It’s easy to tell yourself: I’ll write tomorrow. And then tomorrow turns into a week, a month, a year.

In terms of their overall writing journey, I encourage them to keep learning the craft. Read more, take more courses, join a writing circle or work alone. Keep writing, reading and learning.

Catherine Graham. Two Wolves Press. Quarry. Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections including Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects; a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award and the CAA Poetry Award. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies where she teaches creative writing. She was also the winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW. While living in Northern Ireland, Graham completed an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world. Quarry is her first novel.

IFOA and Two Wolves Press invite you to the release of Quarry on June 1 at 7PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series. Mary Lou Finlay, radio and television journalist, will interview Graham at the launch.

For more information, click here!

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