Through smoke

By Ayesha Chatterjee

from bottles and bones by ayesha chatterjee

People often ask me if my new collection, Bottles and Bones, has a theme running through it, and I was surprised the first time I found myself saying that it does. I usually have the attention span of a fruit fly and can’t stick to a topic for longer than three poems (if you read my poems, you’ll see how very short they generally are, so that should give you an indication). But a few years ago, I stumbled across a term used in perfumery, fougère, which is a class of fragrances and is also French for ‘fern’. Think Drakkar Noir or Brut. Think oakmoss (a species of lichen. It’s all right, I had to look it up too) and sharp and spicy. But also soundless and green and soft and new. I was hooked.

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A Different Toronto

By Ann Y.K. Choi

K & Y Convenience. Queen and Bellwoods. Photo taken by Ardo Omer. Photo edited by Emily Jung.

As an outsider looking in, our neighbourhood in the 1980s could be perceived as sketchy with the Madonna-inspired prostitutes sitting on the side steps of the imposing Ukrainian church at the corner of Queen and Bellwoods, and the homeless asking for loose change outside our variety store. Our best sellers really did include cigarettes and condoms.

But for my family and the characters in Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, the neighbourhood was a vibrant reflection of the residents and our working-class background. The store allowed us to connect with everyone from immigrant families to starving artists–writers, musicians, and actors–who lived on white bread and cola but paid for brand named foods for their pets. And, although we were robbed frequently and our home vandalized, we felt a strong sense of belonging. People looked out for each other. One vivid memory of this was when someone set the entrance to our apartment (above the store) on fire in the middle of the night. One of the prostitutes who worked on our street corner called 911 and rescued us.

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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!

Danila Botha remembers Recklessness: The Art of Writing

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This past September I had the pleasure of starting my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. So far, I’ve taken an incredible poetry workshop with Dionne Brand, who’s been one of my literary heroes for years, an amazing plenary class with Michael Winter, and I’ve heard amazing guest speakers, lectures and performances.

This is also the year the program was celebrating its ten- year anniversary at IFOA, called Recklessness: the Art of Writing. Program coordinator and author Catherine Bush introduced the theme by explaining that “the energy of reckless abandonment is heedless and endlessly hopeful”.

The selection of readers, all former graduates of the program, ranged from spoken word to poetry, memoir, novels, music and plays. Each reading was unique, and intensely powerful. I was overcome by the privilege of being part of the program, and by the experience of hearing so much incredible talent on stage.

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The evening began with a rousing spoken word performance by poet and novelist Andrea Thompson. Andrea was one of the pioneers of slam poetry in Canada, and her performance referenced some of our “ancestors of verse” including Lillian Allen. Her poems also addressed issues of race, and community “God they asked for strength/each other they asked for direction” with the line, “still our history will not be undone” resonating in my mind and heart for hours.

The second reader was Liz Howard, who read from her wonderful, Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. There’s really something special about hearing one of your favourite poems read out loud, hearing the emotion and cadence and rhythms as the poet intended them. Hearing Liz read from Look Book, with its precise everyday imagery juxtaposed with heartbreak was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard. “I go back into our clapboard/house to look at the Sears/catalogue and dream I am a girl posed into happiness… somewhere my birth father is drunk and homeless/half mad when/the cops ask him for his name/he’ll say December”

Ayelet Tsabari, author of the incredible Sami Rohr Prize winning short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, read from her forthcoming memoir. With beautiful honesty and openness, Ayelet read about her travels to India in her twenties, and the journey to giving herself permission to write. She wrote about the struggle to write in English after growing up in Israel, describing her fear that the language was like a “lost genre.” Her desire to write, “to introduce chance into my life, to coax the stories into the open” was inspiring to every writer in the room.

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Mark and Marichka Marczyk met and fell in love during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in Novemeber 2013. Together they created Counting Sheep, a “guerilla folk opera” a performance that retells the Maidan revolution with spirited punk and haunting folk music, with vocals by both Mark and Marichka. Behind them were screens that projected poignant war visuals, that were made more disturbing when juxtaposed with cartoon montages, nature and children.

Multi award winning author Shani Mootoo read from her new novel in progress. It brimmed with intelligent characterization and the type of sharp humour that made her last novel, the Giller shortlisted Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab such a pleasure to read.

Poet and librettist David James Brock read from an opera designed with composer Gareth Williams as part of Breath Cycle, a concept community opera project for people with cystic fibrosis. In his sensitive and funny reading, he perfectly captured the tender and sweet experience of a teenage girl with cystic fibrosis, sneaking out to meet a boy she has a crush on.

Playwright and poet Motion performed some dynamic and compelling spoken word. Her poem, For Maya, spoke profoundly to the experience of every writer: “when Maya wrote me notes of hope/ Toni threw me rope/ and Alice covered my shoulders with a violet cloak… I found the words to bring me home… I can still write/I can still save my life”

Current MFA student and winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award Adnan Khan read a potent scene from his debut novel in progress. As in his National Magazine Award nominated essay, Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here, he addresses issues of racism with intelligence and sensitivity. His character Omar’s experiences developing feelings for a friend (whose family then treats him with mistrust and hostility) invests the audience emotionally and makes everyone want to read the rest.

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Playwright Judith Thompson wholly transformed herself into an Iraqi mother, the protagonist of the third monologue in her brilliant and chilling play, Palace of the End. Set before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the audience sat transfixed, moved to tears as the character described being tortured in front of her children.

The evening ended with a wonderful reading by the amazing Zoe Whittall, whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People was recently short listed for the Giller Prize. Zoe is one of my favourite writers, and her work has inspired me tremendously. She read a scene from the point of view of Kevin, a writer who has decided to exploit the scandal that is erupting in his town. Full of brilliant social observations, and winking references to the struggles of all writers, it was the perfect ending to an incredibly inspiring and remarkable evening.

By guest blogger Danila Botha. You can follow Dinal on Twitter @DanilaBotha

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