Secrets of the Hospitality Suite

by Antanas Sileika

ifoa

Aspiring writers dream not only of publication, but of standing on the stage at Harbourfront Centre, and then, maybe best of all, sharing drinks with other authors in the Hospitality Suite.

That was part of the dream I wrote about in my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller.

When I returned to Toronto from Paris, where we’d run a literary journal called Paris Voices out of the bookstore (Shakespeare and Company), the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) down at Harbourfront Centre was like a literary Manhattan compared to the grubby literary digs at S.&Co.

High profile writers came through there, the likes of Tobias Wolff and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Anybody could go down to listen to them at the Festival, but every aspiring writer wants to do more than sit in the audience. In my overheated literary imagination, I envisioned a hospitality suite that included a Canadian version of the Algonquin Round Table. Who would be our Dorothy Parker? Can a Canuck even be Dorothy Parker?

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An Experiment in Creativity

By Sofia Mostaghimi

Photographed by Rodion Kutsaev. Unsplash. Girl/Woman.

To become less photogenic
Over the years my mother became less…

My ex-boyfriend started dropping off stray cats at my doorstep after we broke up…

– Notes of stories-in-waiting, from my notebook.

In 2012, when I was doing my MA in creative writing at the University of Toronto, some of us were paid ten dollars to participate in a study in which researchers sought to measure our creativity. We were asked to write a short story, make associations (things like “dog… cat”), watch videos and guess at the relationship between the actors (“Was the woman in the blue dress Todd’s boss or his wife?”), and decipher long sentences (“John said to Mary who talked to Liz who asked Larry to tell John not to say anything to Mary that…”).

I don’t know what my “score” was. We were never told; though feeling insecure as I was in my new program, I sometimes wondered about it.

The creative process is one that baffles and mystifies. When I tell people I’m a writer, their most common response is often, “It must be pretty hard, to come up with all those ideas…” I tell them not really. What’s hard to come by—though—is time.

Scan the internet and you’ll find various articles written about the creative process; it’s dialectical—no—it’s a byproduct of mental illness. Inspiration is akin to possession. Or else, cartoonish charts delineate famous writers’ routines (when I read these I’m always struck with how much damn money and free time these white, male writers had. How am I supposed to replicate a daily walk through the woods then write until dinner is served at sundown?). Or, and most comfortingly, that most writers write their masterpieces around age 40 (I have time!).

To create something from nothing is one way to look at it, but I think it’s the wrong way. What you’re doing, really, is transforming one idea or many disparate ones, into something new. Creativity is as much a process as it is a filter.

For fun, let’s explore a story idea I wrote into my notebook recently:

“To become less photogenic
Over the years my mother became less…”

I drew this idea from the fact that lately—and for reasons unknown and tragic to me—I am becoming less photogenic. My mother also recently pointed this out to me (I think a mother’s honesty may also be a key requisite to becoming a fiction writer).

I’m reminded of Nabokov’s Lolita here too: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident…”

So: photogenic can be a loaded word, wrapped up into ideas about youth, beauty, longing, loss, grief, and some indecipherable, innate quality in a person.

Now fiction gets more interesting for me when it deviates from my literal truth. I also wrote: “Over the years my mother became less…” Maybe I transformed it into “my mother,” because she deigned to tell me an annoying observation, or because I connected it to Nabokov. Whatever the case, I’ve got the beginnings of a story dynamic in those half-formed sentences. A young woman living with her mother, both aging (badly, bitterly), fading beauty in the age of Instagram and plastic surgery (hopes confounding with resentment), but also this idea of becoming “less”…

Still, we have a dynamic but no plot. Rookie mistake. Sometimes, it helps to crash one idea against another. In the same notebook, I found this one a few lines below:

“My ex-boyfriend started dropping off stray cats at my doorstep after we broke up…”

Alright, so now we’ve got an aging mother, possibly obsessed with her own fading beauty, and a grown daughter, living at home, whose ex-boyfriend is aggressively and literally insisting she become a cat lady.

I imagine my process to be the opposite of how white light splits and disperses through a glass prism.

But I suppose all creativity must also be drawn from some unconscious well within ourselves. I’m almost thirty. My mother is aging. I look like crap in lots of photos nowadays. I’m pulled between a desire to focus on my work and use up the last bit of my twenties in some roaring, fashionable way. I’m wondering what it’s going to mean for me, for my mother, to be not as young as we were? I’m scared of that. I am.

Maybe creative processes baffle so many because it isn’t sequential. It’s messy. It can’t be quantified, only felt. And I like that idea. I like that idea, a lot.


Sofia Mostaghimi. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.Sofia Mostaghimi‘s stories have appeared in The Hart House Review, Joyland Magazine, Flyway: The Journal of Writing and Environment, Echolocation, as well as two anthologies: Aestas 2014: A Fabula Press Anthology (3rd place winner) and You Care Too Much: Creative Women on the Question of Self-Care. A graduate of the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Master’s program, she teaches, lives, and writes in Toronto.

Mostaghimi 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!

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!

Q&A with Ivan Coyote

coyote-ivan_cr-sarah-race-photographyIFOA: When did you know that it was time to write Tomboy Survival Guide?

Ivan Coyote: I thought about this book for years before I started writing it, got a concept back in 2009 or so, started, then stalled. Worked on a couple of other projects, then came back to it, stalled again, switched up the vision again and then got back to work on it. But it was a book that was banging around in my head for longer than most. I had the title first. That never happens with me.

IFOA: You have been visiting schools for 15 years now and working with students and teachers to tackle the difficult subjects of family, class, gender identity, and social justice. Why is it important to you that kids have these conversations?

Ivan Coyote: Because they were conversations I really needed when I was growing up but was never afforded the opportunity to have. Even when I first came out into the feminist/lesbian/queer scene in the late eighties (I know!!) the class discussion wasn’t happening, at least not in the way I saw or that resonated with me. Kids are smarter these days than I remember us being at that age. Diversity isn’t a buzzword in the hallways these days, it’s a reality. So we have to make a space for the youth to have these conversations and ask their questions, and speak their own minds to them.

IFOA: Which is your favourite medium of storytelling – film, music, the written word or the spoken word? Why?

Ivan Coyote: I love and am inspired by them all, and incorporate each of them into my own craft.coyote_tomboysurvivalguide

IFOA: What is next for you?

Ivan Coyote: I’m working on a few things. Many irons, different sizes of fires. Touring the live show of Tomboy Survival Guide, we’re doing Dublin Fringe this fall, and a couple gigs at NAC for an audience that will contain many international presenters, so that’s exciting. Writing a new show, working on a collection of shorty short shorts, and carving out a chunk of time late summer to get seriously in the saddle on the new novel. deciding what I want the next couple of years to look like on the home front, too, and making off road life more of a priority than it has been.


Ivan Coyote will discuss Tomboy Survival Guide with Rachel Giese on April 5. Do not miss this inspirational one-on-one discussion.

Event information and tickets here!

Looking back at Five Artists, Five Ways with Ania Szado

Visual art and writing—when obsessions collide

By Ania Szado

Some 30-odd years ago, cartoonist Seth and I were both students at Ontario College of Art. At the time, I was familiar with him by reputation of his talent, and impressed by his dashing personal style. I was less memorable as a visual presence, as was my student art. A few years later, when I stopped painting to focus on writing, I felt I’d finally found my medium.

And yet. All these years later, I still yearn to paint. My social media feeds are proof that many of my writer friends have been feeling the same desire. We’re picking up sketchbooks, acrylics, oils. Why?

I attended IFOA’s Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel round table hoping for clues. Seth brought together Nina Bunjevac, Jon McNaught, Chris Oliveros, Michael DeForge, and Nick Drnaso. Like me, these artists had started by making visual works without text.graphicnovellists2

 

“Drawing an image is powerful,” noted Seth.

It is. I had a piece in a self-portrait show recently. It made my mother weep—and not in pride or joy. “This is how you see yourself? It’s so dark.” It prompted my boyfriend and the show’s curator to ponder why someone who always seems so happy would convey such a picture of despair.

I brushed it off as an issue of style, not an unveiling of the soul. Seth asked about drawing styles. He said that many comic book artists are reluctant to discuss style. But for me, style is a far more comfortable subject to address than the emotional basis of a creative work, inasmuch as style often has a functional basis and role.

jung_emily-12

One panelist said his style came from a love of linocut. Another, from a scarcity of time (“no crosshatching”). Michael DeForge’s style came out of making band gig posters, whose purpose “is not to invite people in, but to keep them out.” That struck a chord. It’s like showing artwork in public for the first time in 30 years, and choosing a piece that pushes away the gaze.

jung_emily-11

If ever I explore that dichotomy, it will be in fiction. I’m less exposed in my fiction than in my paintings. That gives me the courage to write. But for Nina Bunjevac, personal exposure drives creativity. Seth asked why she made a book about her family. “How could I not?” she replied. “Who else has a father for a terrorist?!”

Why make art of any kind? “It’s not logical to want to do it,” said Chris Oliveros. “It’s an obsession.” Jon McNaught said making art “is a way of holding onto something.”

jung_emily-15

There is an obsession to capture and create. Sometimes we start with the image and feel compelled to begin working with words. Sometimes, like many of my writer friends these days, it’s the opposite. Either way, as Seth said, “At some point, you want to tell something. Drawing an image is powerful, but there’s something about telling a story.”

 

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