Author Note: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham ThammavongsaSouvankham Thammavongsa is the author of the story “Mani Pedi,” featured in Issue 30 of The Puritan. The story follows a tomato can boxer who has to leave the sport or inevitably suffer brain trauma. After drifting through several menial jobs, his sister recruits him for her nail salon. As his sister tells Raymond, “… they didn’t leave Laos, a bombed out country, in a war no one ever heard of, on a raft made of bamboo to have him scooping out ice cream or frying cabbages with old grease oil.”

Thammavongsa read part of “Mani Pedi” at The Puritan’s Black Friday launch party this past Friday at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern. The winners of the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence were announced (see The Puritan for details), short stories were read, and then there was dancing. The Puritan sends out its thanks to all the readers and listeners who came out to Black Friday.

Here, Souvankham Thammavongsa tells The Town Crier a little bit about the writing of “Mani Pedi.”

Town Crier: Do you have any interesting factoids you’d like to share about yourself and/or the story?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: Mitch Chuvalo was my high school History teacher. I went to York Memorial, which is on the corner of Keele Street and Eglinton West in Toronto. Mitch Chuvalo is George Chuvalo’s son.

Town Crier: What was the story influenced by?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: A few things:

My brother. He wanted to start a sign-making business like my father. He was going to call it “Chick-A-Dee Signs” and the slogan was going to be: “We do signs! Cheap! Cheap!” It was something my father said at the shop whenever someone came in the door. At first it was,“We do signs!” but then people would ask him“Cheap? Cheap?” and so after a while my father started to say “We do signs! Cheap! Cheap!” to get to the point. My brother’s slogan for his business was something that always stuck with me. My brother became a welder and it was just too good to not be in the world somewhere.

I was reading a New York Times report on nail salons. It was about the women who work there and why they stay. The kinds of health problems workers had and the chemicals and conditions they were exposed to.

There’s also watching Manny Pacquiao fight. He looks like my father. It’s too close. I can’t stand to watch a man with my father’s face get punched in the face.

I thought it would be fun to write a female character and have her not worry about being nice and kind. A woman who didn’t believe in the power of true love, but to give that to a man to believe. I also wanted to get you to love her too, as she is. It was fun to write her dialogue.

Town Crier: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: “One Arm,” by Tennessee Williams. It’s about a boxer who loses an arm and still has to use his body to make money by becoming a prostitute.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s story “How to Pronounce Knife” was shortlisted for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Author Note: Anna Leventhal

Anna Leventhal

Anna Leventhal wrote the story “L’Horloge” for the Summer Supplement, “À la prochaine fois”: 1995 and Literature in Post-Referendum Quebec” in The Puritan Issue 30. The story is set in a retirement home in Laval in the 21st century.

Anna LeventhalI wasn’t sure at first how to approach writing about the ’95 referendum. I was a teenager in Manitoba at the time and don’t have any personal experience of it to speak from; I could have put myself in the shoes of someone who did, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the repercussions of the referendum (and separatism in general) in terms of Quebec national identity today, and what that means, if anything.

I decided the best way to do that was to write as an outsider. My previous stories set in Montreal were insiderish, to a certain extent. Even though the characters were a mix of Quebecois and from elsewhere, there was a general feeling of insularity, maybe even cliquishness—a sense that everyone belonged in some way to a broad, shaggy, but still cohesive civic structure, even as they often felt estranged or alienated from it. There was a shared vocabulary or set of touchstones that were maybe obscure enough that they felt like they came from, if not an “authentic” Montrealer (whatever that means) then at least from a fairly successful sleeper agent. For this newer piece, I took a bit of distance and used a narrator whose perspective is that of another kind of person who’s a big part of the “Montreal experience”: an anglophone emigre who stops here for a bit on her way to somewhere else. For a lot of people, especially young anglophones, Montreal is a kind of Neverland, a sandbox they play around in for a while until they mature and get on with their lives. And it’s a place that’s so thick with myth, so brimming with the ideals and expectations of generations of people with very different backgrounds, it can be hard to figure out what it really is. Of course, the Neverland thing is part of the mythology too.

Anyway, the narrator of this story is one of those people who kind of knows she’s just passing through, and she’s sifting through layers of other people’s identities and their ideas of what Quebec is, and their expectations of it, their demands and pleas and resignations. To me that’s what the referendum is about: your expectations of what a place can be, your highest hopes and brightest ideals, which are always bound in some way to your fears and darker impulses.

The Horloge residence itself is inspired by a trip I took to Laval. The building is a real place, though I never went in, only had it pointed out to me from a car window. I liked the idea of writing a Montreal story that mainly takes place in Laval. It’s very un-Richler, un-Roy, un-O’Neill. It’s not gritty or urban or diverse or picturesquely desiccated. It’s not even actually Montreal. I also wanted to capture those situations that are both too intimate and somewhat alien, where you don’t quite have enough information to figure out what’s going on; all you have is inference, conjecture, and half-caulked guesses. A care home in Laval seemed as good a place as any to do that.

Originally from Winnipeg, Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her first book of short stories, Sweet Affliction, was published by Invisible Publishing in spring of 2014, and is available in bookstores across Canada, and online. You can follow her on Twitter at @annalevz.

Author Notes: Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska

 Jowita BydlowskaJowita Bydlowska published the story “Helen is Not My Friend Anymore” in Fall 2014’s Puritan Issue 27. She was also a featured reader at The Puritan’s annual Black Friday bash. In the following post, Jowita answers our question about the making of “Helen is Not My Friend Anymore.”

About a year ago, I went to a magazine launch party.  At this party, there was a leering kind of man with very bad breath. He spat a little as he talked, too. So he leered, breathed, and spat at me, and I kept thinking about this lovely woman I knew who used to be married to him. She stayed married to him for a while. I wondered what it would be like to be married to him, to kiss him and wake up next to him every morning. I’m sure that despite occasional leering, he was a lovable human being—he is well-respected in his field and has a lot of friends—but (because I’m a jerk?) I imagined that being married to him would be very unpleasant. I couldn’t stop imagining it. When this happens—when I can’t stop imaging something, I end up writing about it.  So I wrote about being married to a man I hated. I don’t hate the man I’m with so I had to become someone else while writing it, too, and eventually that character took over and I just wrote down her thoughts.

In my writing I always try to explore that kind of imagining. Every situation is a “what-if.” This started with my being a child and having to go to church. The mass would last an hour or so. My boredom was immeasurable. Everything moved so slowly. It was the same thing week after week. Same readings. Same whiny old ladies singing. Uncomfortable, upset Jesus on a cross in every corner. I was dying to do something to stir things up. I would sit in my pew and picture myself running toward the altar and throwing myself at the priest, shouting and ripping the funny hat off of his head. This obsessive thought was terrifying. I was convinced I was possessed; it was Satan who was putting the thought in my mind, and one day I would have to do it.  It was around that time that I started channelling those kinds of what-if thoughts into writing. It was that or I’d become a lunatic. I became a lunatic anyway, and an agnostic, but also a writer.

“Helen is Not My Friend Anymore” is going to be included in a trilogy of three novellas that I’m writing.  The trilogy explores male-female relationships, the concept of belonging to a specific place (a city), and also poetry. The working title for the trilogy is Wolves Evolve. The title comes from the poem by Christian Bök called “Vowels”:

loveless vessels

we vow
solo love

we see
love solve loss

else we see
love sow woe

selves we woo
we lose

losses we levee
we owe

we sell
loose vows

so we love

less well

so low
so level

wolves evolve

Author Note: Finn Harvor

Finn Harvor

Youtube, Literary Tears, and Hip-Hop Poetry

Finn HarvorFinn Harvor’s poem “nHI-lizm was featured in Issue 20 of The Puritan. Here he discusses his writing process and influences, both literary and musical.

Town Crier: Does your poem or story have an interesting origin story/compositional history you’d like to share? This could include interesting factoids or bits of research that informed the poems or the story.

Finn Harvor: I was reading a lot of comment threads, especially at places like YouTube or weird political sites. A lot of texting argot—also, a lot of bleakness, for example clips of people dying in a boat (THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE) and some guy commenting underneath: Hahaha, LOL, suckers.

At the same time, I was working on a mega-novel project (poems are part of it). One of the characters is a white rapper from Regent Park who signs up for a tour in Afghanistan. He’s Canadian, but culturally his mindset is American … a pretty common phenomenon. America isn’t just a geographic entity—it’s a state of mind. Everyone on the planet is influenced by that to some degree. And so a certain kind of macho becomes “American,” even though machismo, bleakness—well, they’re universal.

TC: What was it influenced by? (e.g., Were you listening/watching something when you began to write? Were you in a meeting or class at the time? Was it after a film, art show, concert? Were you on hallucinogens?)

FH: See above. Also, an album by Cypress Hill called Black Sunday.

TC: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately, or a poet/fiction writer you’re jealous of, or a story/short story collection you wish you wrote.

FH: I read some good work by Russell Smith recently in Young Men. But I’m not sure I was jealous of that even though I think he’s underrated and deserves a bigger audience. Ditto about a story by Matthew Firth that appeared in The Puritan.

I’ve read several short collections of Korean writers from the mid-20th Century. That was a brutal time: Japanese occupation, followed by short-lived US/USSR liberation in 1945, followed by more occupying governments, followed by around a year or so of peace—then, the Korean War and decades of dictatorship. Young Koreans smile a lot, seem similar to young Canadians, but their historical framework is entirely different. Some brilliant writing was produced around this time, mainly short fiction: The Rainy Spell by Yoon Heung-gil, The Grey Snowman by Choe Yoon, Chinatown by Oh Jung-hee … the list is pretty long. And a surprisingly high percentage of it will make your eyes water when you hit its last lines.

The best Canadian poems I’ve read recently are some works by my brother in a book he put together called “Death Haiku.” I can’t really talk about that in detail because I get emotional (he died). But he was a very strong writer that not many people knew about and he should be remembered. Another is “At Gull Lake, 1810” by Duncan Campbell Scott. That one goes back a bit, but it’s got so much power it’s spooky.

TC: How have things changed for you as a writer since you wrote and published the work(s) in The Puritan? Has your approach to writing, subject matter, style, or whatever changed in good/bad/intriguing ways? How do you look back on past work, with pleasure or pain?

FH: I’m trying to convert some of my stuff into videos.

TC: Because we are running various blog posts on music, we have a question on song lyrics. Did music lyrics have anything to do with the piece we’re publishing? Were any particular lyrics important to you in your development as a writer? Is there any recent lyricist you’ve been digging, and why? Is there any piece of writing, by you or someone else, that you would like see turned into a song? Why?

FH: Oh, it’s a hip-hop poem, I guess, so that’s an obvious music influence. I don’t know where to go with this one except to say it was an influence but I wasn’t trying to be hip-hoppy; I was trying to reach into what I thought was hell. My personal theory about hip-hop is that it originally had no particular self-consciousness—it was purer than that. My impression is that it’s in right now in poetry circles to diss hip-hop type work as poetically crude. I think that misses the point. There are all sorts of good and valid ways to make decent art, but one thing they all have in common is that the result is vital. That’s why hip-hop has become such an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. You can actually feel it viscerally. Maybe there are people out there who just pull a giant blank when they hear it. But people who “hate” it but still groove to it need to do a little more thinking about a possible disconnect between their ideas and their bodies.

In terms of turning a poem into a song, I don’t have any titles in mind but I’m sure there are plenty of good candidates out there. I definitely think poets should experiment with media, though. Not just music-related … poetry and art, poetry and performance. And I think turning poems into image-and-text work à la graphic fiction is a good idea (music could also be integrated with this last one). Some of these ideas, such as performance, have been around for years, and consequently can seem corny. The coolness factor of these approaches fluctuates with fashions. But the main thing is, try to reach a vital place when you’re creating.

Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, occasional musician, and academic. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work has appeared in The PuritanEclecticaCanadian Notes and QueriesThe Brooklyn RailDark SkyPRISMThe Globe and MailThe Toronto StarThe Canadian Forum, This MagazineRabbleThe Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. He has had work broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and won grants and awards from the Canadian Council, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. As an academic, he has written on Thomas De Quincey, William Blake, Yoon Heung-gil, and Richard Kim. He has presented papers to conferences in Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Helsinki, and Jember, Indonesia. He has had group and solo shows of his art, and has experimented repeatedly with art-and-text narratives.