The Town Crier Presents: Naben Ruthnum’s “Doctor Burke and Family”

A Toronto Ghost Story // Naben Ruthnum

The house of Doctor Burke on Dunn Avenue

In the spirit of the somewhat macabre history of the 17th century Puritan settlements in North America, The Town Crier presents its first-ever fiction offering in the form of a short story rooted in the Canadian Gothic tradition. Just in time for Hallowe’en, this twilight tale from Journey Prize winner Naben Ruthum promises shivers up your back and whispers in your ear.

We ask you, then, to dim the lights and enjoy the peculiar story of “Doctor Burke and Family.”

Naben Ruthnum won the 2013 Journey Prize. He is currently living in Toronto and working on a novel.

* * *

There was only one funeral. Dr. Burke requested that Madeline’s body be kept cold until the baby’s fate was certain—an easy enough task in December. Owen died five days after his mother, and two days after that, they were deposited in coffins of pine timber. Cut, the funeral director promised, from the same log.

“I’m surprised he didn’t toss the little one in with the mother,” said Mrs. Combs, the domestic who’d accompanied Madeline on the move from England to Toronto. Miles Tripp had sat next to Mrs. Combs at the funeral, after Burke had left the church, with the reverend still speaking and a minimal spread of cold victuals lying untouched in the next room.

“Burke is devastated, I’m sure,” Tripp said, stunned by the hatred in the old woman’s voice. “You musn’t say that.”

“Musn’t I? He killed her. Been killing her for a year. You think she wanted to leave London for this place? The ice, then that awful heat, then the ice again?” There was a Gladstone bag next to Mrs. Combs, and she sorted through it with her thick hands as she spoke, coming out with a folded sheet that she pushed into an inner pocket of her coat. Continue reading

“Get Excited!”: A Conversation with Charles Yao of Little Brother

About Talent, “Oatmeal-y Good-for-You” CanLit, and the Importance of Excitement // Gavin Tomson

Little Brother No. 5

For a new and relatively small Toronto-based literary magazine, Little Brother has been extraordinarily successful. The magazine, which recently launched its fifth issue, has published work by the likes of Jeet Heer, Haley Mlotek, Mariko Tamaki, and Andrew Kaufman. Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote about Little Brother (and Hazlitt) in The Globe and Mail—a rare honour for a Canadian lit mag. Jess Taylor’s story “Paul,” in issue three, won the Gold National Magazine Award for Fiction, beating older and more-established writers, such as Michael Winter, Jessica Westhead, and Pasha Malla. Dazed & Confused listed LB as one of “the best alt-lit reads from Canada right now”  (though Little Brother doesn’t really publish alt-lit).

I met LB’s co-founder and art director, artist and graphic designer Charles Yao, to talk about the magazine and retrieve a few copies. Shortly thereafter, we had the following online conversation.

Gavin Tomson: How did Little Brother get its start?

Charles Yao: Emily [Keeler] used the money she got from a freelance assignment to make the first Little Brother. That was in August 2012. The plan was that she’d solicit the writing (we didn’t—and still don’t—do open submissions, per se), and I would take care of the art directing. Those are our individual strengths, so it was a good match. We also live below this great printer named JP King, who runs Paper Pusher. He literally lives above us. He printed the first issue on his Risograph. I have a video of us hand-collating the first issue! Continue reading

Adam See’s Political Convictions in the Classroom

On The Merits of Controversial Progressiveness // André Forget

Do students already agree with See’s political views?

Adam See, adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College, wrote an open letter to his students in the October issue of The Walrus in which he explains his philosophy of teaching. Specifically, he speaks about how he cannot pretend—and more importantly, shouldn’t pretend—to be objective about his progressive political convictions. His argument, a reasonably convincing one, is that because nothing is neutral and students have been receiving political programming since day one, it is important for him to be honest about who he is and what he believes, and to challenge his students’ own orthodoxies.

The piece, while well-written and earnest, is essentially leftist boilerplate about the importance of critical thinking, the kind of thing most people who hold a bachelor’s degree in the humanities are all quite familiar with. These platitudes struck me as being slightly troubling. When See encourages his students to “live loudly and actively. Piss people off. Challenge institutions,” he is clearly speaking about very specific people and institutions;  one does not imagine he would take kindly to bigotry, homophobia, a challenging of CWILA’s legitimacy, or any number of other freely expressed views, nor should he.

Continue reading

Writing and Place at IFOA Weekly

Authors Discuss Toronto, Egypt, and Vietnam in Their Books // Caryn Cathcart

Toronto becomes a place of dedication in Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable

The concept of place is not limited to geography. It also encompasses culture, character, history, politics, perspective, language, and inspiration. In fact, place can exist entirely beyond geography—it’s found in distant mythologies, online communities, and even the ever-fickle human memory. It is no surprise that the theme of writing and place proved incredibly rich for IFOA Weekly’s latest Open Book Literary Salon.

The free event, which took place on October 8th at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre,
featured a roundtable discussion between Camilla Gibb, Kamal Al-Solaylee, and Steven Heighton. Freelance books columnist, editor, and publicist Becky Toyne moderated.

Toyne opened the evening with a simple question: Where, for you, is home?
Gibb, who was born in London, England, but raised in Canada, called Toronto her home. She explained that when her roots were severed from London, the idea of home—that critical reference point—became distorted. Only through raising her daughter in Toronto has Gibb been able to adopt the city as her home. Conversely, when Al-Solaylee first moved to Toronto, he fell in love with the city immediately. He described the experience as a true romance, similar to how people often fall for Paris. Though he described today’s Toronto as a more hostile, alien place, his book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (HarperCollins Canada), is dedicated to the city he calls home. Lastly, Heighton explained that he had been raised in Toronto but had also lived in Japan. To answer Toyne’s question, then, he provided an excellent Mavis Gallant anecdote. When Gallant was asked if she considered herself a Canadian writer despite having lived outside the country for most of her life, she answered, “I will remain Canadian even if Canada ceases to exist.” This statement applied nicely to the situation of each writer. Continue reading

Author Notes: Kasia Juno

Puritan Authors Discuss Their Craft // Kasia Juno

Kasia Juno
Natasha Avseenko Swimming with the Belugas

Puritan contributor Kasia Juno, whose poetry appears in our most recent issue, Summer 2014, discusses coldness, comfort, and the practice of “drawing through” one’s writing.

Mid-winter, I was sitting in an unheated flat in Berlin, thinking: This must be the coldest place on earth. But when I Googled “the coldest place on Earth,” it turned out to be in Antarctica, at the Vostok research station. Canada only comes in seventh on the coldness scale: there are recorded temperatures of minus 63 degrees Celsius in Snag, Yukon in February, 1947.

But back to Antarctica. Who lives there? I asked myself. And how do they survive? Same questions people asked me about Berlin (there are no jobs in Europe). As those of you who have watched penguin documentaries will know—Antarctica is a desert, an endless winter desert. There is no reprieve, no compassion. That is why penguin documentaries are some of the most depressing things to watch. Don’t watch them in Berlin, mid-winter. Continue reading

Paris Is No Place For the Young

A Report on the English Literary Scene in the City of Light // Jason Freure

Paul Stephenson Reads at Paris Lit Up

Just off the Rue de Belleville, in a bar called Culture Rapide, Paris’ young, anglophone writers try out their work in the city where Mavis Gallant, John Glassco, and Morley Callaghan came to make their careers. The tiny, colourful Culture Rapide looks more like a Kensington bar than anything else in Paris, and every Thursday night it hosts Paris Lit Up, an English language open mic and reading series. The reading also lends its name to a magazine whose second issue launched last week. The event ran from 8:30 until about midnight with a “read until we drop policy.” Fortunately, no one cared if you ordered another drink between breaks.

I happened upon PLU on September 18. Steve Dalachinsky, a New York spoken word poet recently nominated for an Oakland PEN Award, was headlining. Despite the length of his half-hour performance, Dalachisnky kept the audience compelled. His poems were all anchored in lyric refrains, allowing him to deviate without losing anyone’s attention. He opened with a poem written by a deceased friend, but his first original piece was called “Giverny.” He related his working class upbringing to the world of high art tourism, arguing that “being ignorant is not the same as being stupid.” Between lamenting the commute out of Paris and his relationship with his partner, he recognized the role his mother played in giving him an education in high art without having one herself. As much as he made fun of tourism and his own tourist position, his day trip to Monet’s house in Giverny was more of an opportunity to ruminate on how he relates to art than to France. Continue reading

Paul Vermeersch: My Teenage Obsession

Coming of Age with a Contemporary Canadian Poet // Domenica Martinello

New Poems by Teen Idol Paul Vermeersch

The first living Canadian poet that ever fascinated me wasn’t Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, or even my fellow Montreal-native Leonard Cohen ; it was Paul Vermeersch. The year was 2007 and I was a bright-eyed 16-year-old. It was a time before I knew how to frame poetry as ‘contemporary’ or ‘lyrical’ or as anything other than straight verse. My boyfriend was taking an acting class where he was assigned a poem and asked to translate its emotional resonance into some sort of performance piece, and I was asked to take a look.

The poem was “Lambs,” from Vermeersch’s third collection Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). The image of the fleecy lamb is overworked symbolic territory but Vermeersch renders it newly physical and self-revelatory despite the poem’s brevity. A person, presumably a child, kneels at a fence and reaches out to touch the lambs. “Nothing that you’ve lived through,” the speaker narrates darkly, “has prepared you to believe in harmlessness.” The use of ‘you’ implies the reader, too, is now “criminal,” no longer innocent in the face of “such surrender, such lack of want.” I’d never read anything so startlingly incisive and melancholic, especially not from a Canadian writer barely pushing 30. Poetry, as a rule, is generally uncool in public high schools, at least the ones I attended—especially Canadian poetry, portrayed as all rolling prairies and gruff but open-hearted fishermen.

Lacking the sufficient experience with the form, and unable to truly appreciate the poem’s deeper dimensions, I settled for reading it aloud to myself obsessively. Then I got an English degree. Continue reading

“Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse”: Fiction Along the Korean Penninsula

Puritan Authors Discuss Their Craft // Robert Earle

“Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse”
Korea Under Japanese Rule

Robert Earle’s short story, “Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse” appeared in The Puritan’s 26th issue, Summer 2014. The story follows a Korean man, Sung Wei, and charts his journey from a child living in Korea under Japanese rule to prisoner of war to religious leader over the span of several decades. His story explored the contradictions inherent in war, sex, piety, and nationalism.

“Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse” epitomizes something about my fiction:  many of my stories seem to have flowed from different pens.  This shows up in varying diction, characters, cultural and historical backdrops, and themes. Some time ago I became fascinated with the two Koreas and their leading figures. That led to a number of stories that are loosely related to “Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse.”  There is a fierceness about the Koreas, trapped as they are between China and Japan, that generates extraordinary contradictions between North and South.  My protagonist, Sung Wei, embodies that fierceness, and he’s obviously a man of many contradictions.  Since I also find the worldwide spread of Christianity intriguing, I use him to probe its role in the East. The malleability of Christianity is breathtaking.  Here is a religion that emanated from a time and place utterly alien to contemporary New York City and certainly alien to the Korean peninsula, and yet it finds spokespeople everywhere—each interpreting the Christ story to suit contemporary needs. Continue reading

“Fetishizing Nostalgia”: On Mennonite Literature and Newcastle Poetry

Connecting Two Literary Cultures // Julienne Isaacs

Mennonite Literature
Canadian Mennonite Literature

When I graduated with my first, shiny new degree, I thought I knew one thing for sure: almost any piece of literary fiction in the world would interest me more than Mennonite literature. Though culturally “non-practicing,” I am Mennonite by heritage, and to my relatively unworldly, baccalaureate self, international literary fiction seemed to surpass local Menno lit both in style and diversity.

What bothered me then about Winnipeg’s literary scene was its apparent insularity—its seeming determination to glamourize a residually religious literary subset obsessed (for better or worse) with Mennonite history and its inherent hierarchies.

The danger of such cultural inwardness, perhaps, is that it begins to look exclusively within its own frameworks for answers, for inspiration. It delves into the local past at the expense of the non-local present. It stops registering the gaze of the outsider, with her alien preoccupations, as significant. The conversations grow stale, tilting toward the circular. Continue reading

Jay Winston Ritchie: On Coolness, Art, and Identity

A Review of Something You Were, Might Have Been, or Have Come to Represent by Jay Winston Ritchie // Gavin Tomson

Insomniac’s Newest Title from Jay Winston Ritchie

How do others see me? How do I see myself? How do I reconcile these two perspectives? These are questions that the young and generally self-absorbed characters in Jay Winston Ritchie’s debut collection of stories struggle in various ways to answer. But perhaps the question that presses most profoundly on their minds, whether consciously or not, is: how can I become cool and famous?

Something You Were, Might Have Been, Or Have Come to Represent (Insomniac), like other books coming out of Montreal, is concerned with characters who are themselves concerned—even obsessed—with coolness. Ritchie states in his “Acknowledgments” that the collection was “inspired by and written to the music of Jordon Hassock” and many of its stories are about Montreal-based musicians who want to go viral. A few, such a­s Triangel, the protagonist from “Mermaids,” have already made it; Triangel’s first full-length album receives a 10.0 from Pitchfork. Yet most of the characters, such as the relatively unknown Josh from “Will You Please Chew More Quietly, Please?” are nowhere near; Josh begins each day at a call centre, what David Graeber would call a “bullshit job”, by sitting down at the computer and Googling his name.

Ritchie, a Concordia student (he’s part of a scene that includes Claire Milbrath, who did the art for the book, Ashley Opheim, who designed the cover, Jon Paul Fiorentino, who edited it, as well as Julie Mannell, Alex Manley, and Guillaume Morissette), remains true to his demographic. He sets his stories in the types of places young Montreal musicians tend to hang out. Scenes in Something You Were take place in music venues, lofts, basements. Throughout the characters reference The Simpsons, South Park, The Jonas Brothers, Mad Men, and Gawker as casually as pastors reference the Bible. One such scenester, Yula from the story “Michael Jordan,” goes so far as to liken Brooklyn to the moment in Twin Peaks when Maddy first appears and “everything gets this ultra-spooky vibe because it’s like Laura is walking around.” Continue reading