Staff Picks: Summer Readings

The IFOA staff is recommending a range of titles to quench your literary thirst this summer. Enjoy!

Pastoral by Andre Alexis (Coach House Books)Pastoral by André Alexis (Coach House Books)

Pastoral is the first installment in Andre Alexis’ quincunx (a five book series) which also includes Canada Reads 2017 winner Fifteen Dogs, and his most recent novel, The Hidden Keys.

Pastoral elegantly follows the personal meanderings of a young pastor, Father Christopher Pennant, and a recently engaged woman, Liz Denny, in the small town of Barrow as they struggle with their own doubts and questions about faith and love. Alexis beautifully reinvigorates the pastoral genre through his story about a modern-day Canadian town in the lush countryside, exploring how the land’s beauty and mystery affect the lives of the townsfolk who live there.

As always, Alexis’ unique insight into the human condition is startlingly evident as he takes readers on a gentle but compelling journey through the seemingly simple lives of his richly detailed characters. Pastoral is a perfect read for the summer season!

Brianna


A Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series "Lose" by Michael DeForge. Koyama PressA Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series “Lose” by Michael DeForge (Koyama Press)

I’m reading A Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series “Lose” by Michael DeForge. Graphic novels straddle both the literary and the visual worlds, and DeForge works beautifully within both mediums. A great book to start with for anyone who is interested in getting a taste of contemporary graphic novels!

Here’s a quote from Koyama Press because I cannot describe it better: “He has crafted a phantasmagoria of stories that feature a spider-infested pet horse head, post-apocalyptic dogs dealing with existential angst, the romantic undertones of a hired hit, and more.”

— Emily


Stopgap by Liam Card. Dundurn Press.Stopgap by Liam Card (Dundurn Press)

Local Toronto author, Liam Card, brings the mystery of the paranormal to Oakville, Ontario with his darkly comedic novel Stopgap. Written from the POV of a ghost, who while enjoying the blissful life of an invisible voyeur finds himself in the middle of an ethical dilemma that would change the world. Full of quippy remarks, thoughtful deliberations and digs about life in the GTA, this novel make for a quick read to lift your spirits this summer.

Madeline

 

 

 


Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway (Anchor Canada)Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway. Anchor Canada.

I recommend Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) for reading anytime of the year. An accomplished playwright, pianist and novelist (all things I wish I was), Thomson Highway is an author I can never recommend enough.

A bestseller when it came out, his debut novel is a story about sibling love and rivalry, education, and religion as the reader is welcomed into the world of these two Cree brothers trying to navigate two worlds, two languages and two cultures. Especially given the conversations going on at the moment about what this 150th year means for Canada, this book is poignant and pointed wrapped up in beautiful language. Pick it up at your local library or indie bookstore, but be ready for a good cleansing cry.

— Rebecca


SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. Drawn and Quarterly. SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)

I find that summer is a time for a chuckle-inducing read and Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy definitely does that. The comic as the X-Men meets Harry Potter starring misfit teens and collects the 4 year webcomic with additional strips to create a cohesive storyline.

It’s hilarious and will look good in a selfie with a cold beverage of your choice. Tamaki also co-created This One Summer with her cousin, Mariko Tamaki, which won a Printz Honor, and a Governor General’s Award for Jillian Tamaki.

— Ardo


These are our recommendations. Tell or show us your summer recommendations at either @internationalfestivalofauthors on Instagram, @ifoa on Twitter or International Festival of Authors on Facebook.

5 Questions with Diana Biacora

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We asked Diana Biacora 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?

Diana Biacora: I draw inspiration from anything that sparks my interest from real life.

From everything I see, touch, taste, smell and hear.

I particularly enjoy drawing inspiration from my travels, and the observations and experiences I’ve had in other parts of the world. Experiences that are new, foreign and unfamiliar.

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

Biacora: I think we all have several stories that we have to write at different stages in our lives. Sometimes the stories come out immediately, other times it’s years after. No matter what, they are always there. It’s a matter of timing, listening to ourselves and being open.

The story that I have to write right now is about two childhood friends.

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

Biacora: I have a room with a desk and a big window with lots of plants. Sometimes I write in coffee shops, in public libraries and my backyard.

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

Biacora: I’m always interested in the process and the different ways in which all artists conceptualize their ideas into something physical and concrete such as a novel, a poem, a play, or a painting. I’m fascinated by different approaches and practices for my own growth and learning as an artist.

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Biacora: I’m writing a piece that will hopefully turn into a novel. It’s about the childhood friendship between two girls.


Diana Biacora. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA. Diana Biacora is a first year MFA student in the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing program. She writes fiction and non-fiction. She lives and writes in Toronto.

Biacora 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!

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!

5 Questions with Nadia Ragbar

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We asked Nadia Ragbar 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?

Nadia Ragbar: It all comes through observation, both in the world around me, but also in keenly observing my own feelings and internal tensions in response to what I’m seeing or thinking.

I am inspired to physically sit and write when I have witnessed that lovely, bubbling creative spark in other people’s work and art.

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

Ragbar: The story I most need to finish no matter what is the manuscript I’m currently working on. It’s the first novel I’ve ever written and I absolutely have to see it to completion before I die. Or else.

Also, I think I might need to write a screenplay for a teen comedy.

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

Ragbar: I write at home, toggling between pen and paper, and on the computer. Writing by hand helps me get a shape out, but typing with both hands helps me write faster, and get more complex thoughts and sentences out.

I also have a weekly writing date with a good friend at a coffee shop. I never thought I’d be able to write in public, but these meetings have been really productive and I got over my self-consciousness when I saw everyone else in there frantically Dear Diary-ing, as well.

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

Ragbar: I would ask any career writer how they managed to balance between being a dreamer in their heads and being a realist in the world, at the very starts of their careers. I have a hard time keeping a foot in both.

Toni Morrison, three practical tips, maybe?

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Ragbar: I’m revising a draft of a novel manuscript about conjoined twins. The more dominant twin is a boxer, and the other a bookkeeper who hates boxing and secretly wants to separate. It’s a story about belonging, loss, compromise and connection. Ultimately, it’s a story about family, and finding your unique place in it and in the world.


Nadia Ragbar. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.Nadia Ragbar‘s work has appeared in Broken Pencil, Echolocation, Dragnet Magazine, and The Glass Coin. She lives in Toronto.

Islam 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!

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