On Writing Vulnerability

lone writer

lone writerWhat’s at stake when we write? What are we risking—metaphorically, materially, and emotionally—when we sit down to tell our stories? For me, these are key questions that separate the best writing from the merely mediocre.

Let me clarify. I’m not suggesting that what we risk in the subject matter of our writing—moral and ethical lapses, sexual and social transgressions, unresolved guilt from childhood—will on its own spin coal dust into gold. It’s not enough to simply reveal, or (as the lapsed Catholic in me might attest) to confess our sins through non-fiction. Simply sharing our own stories is not, for me, the greatest or deepest form of risk, although it may be key part of the process.

I’m talking more about digging a little deeper, muddying what we think of as the truth, challenging and unpacking the familiar grooves and patterns in our brains and hearts that have created personal myths, the tales we tell ourselves again and again about ourselves, the world, and our place there.

Truth, as we all know, is a slippery, dastardly slope. Searching for truth is to search for some kind of certainty and ground that simply does not exist. It’s the stories we tell ourselves over and over, the details we choose, the subjects we fixate on—that come to feel like truths, when perhaps what’s most powerful, that glint of light in the giant rock pile, might be lying just underneath.

The risk in writing non-fiction, then—the risk involved in allowing oneself to be vulnerable as a writer—comes in two forms. The first is a sort of philosophical or ethical high-wire act, a solo improv dance party on a filament of electric string stretched high above the Grand Canyon of our own psyches. In this type of risk, the writer grapples with a fundamental question, considering the many sides of the equation. As researchers of the human condition, the question itself then becomes important. How do we frame that question? What are we really trying to tease out? That’s the first step.

The risk—the vulnerable space that gets jimmied open, bit by bit, once we have our question—is in the act of honest probing, of challenging what we hold as truth; the insistence on turning stone after stone over, and then grinding these stones down to a fine powder that returns back into dust. It’s not just in surveying the pile of stones, choosing the prettiest, the ugliest, the most metaphorical, and so on, and holding it up to the light to say this stone is the truth.

Do you dig?

It’s the process of stone-turning. The act of laying one stone upon the other and then re-arranging the pile that generates the kind of mysterious and vibrating energy that can come to feel like truth.

I’m thinking here of the work of some of the non-fiction writers I admire, folks like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, for example, who act not as judges and final arbiters of the world, not as human juries, not as gods or goddesses passing judgment from up high, but as witnesses. They recognize, through writing, that we are each part of a grand, unknowable, ever-evolving project. A mystery. To feel our way toward the truth means pulling our gaze further and wider than might feel comfortable, even as we peer fiercely and deeply into the tiniest bits of the cosmos, the molecules and atoms of feeling and matter and sensation. Vulnerability here means to risk undoing the great claims we’ve made in other parts of our lives, to hold ourselves to account, and to recognize, without expectation or agenda, that knowledge and wisdom are part of that organic, shifting, living process—not a set of moral laws or codes. So to be vulnerable as a writer within your text means to become deeply comfortable with uncertainty, with asking questions that have no simple, pithy, aphoristic answers.

The second way we make ourselves vulnerable when we write is through form. To allow the text to live, to breathe, to occupy its own space and time—this requires a series of decisions, small and large, on the part of the writer. Foucault understood that the creation of knowledge is always a political and ethical act that involves such considerations. Cutting, for Foucault—whether that cut is a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a comma—is a deeply personal choice that reveals intimately how we see the world, how we understand relations of power and accumulation of meaning through the lens of our own consciousness. How text is arranged, what we choose to include or not include, when to cut, especially—these are the workaday issues of the writer. To be confident and bold in vision, yet to remain humble and open within this process—is to create and allow the space, in other words, that makes art art, if only because it replicates the gorgeous, terrifying, contradictory, exhilarating pulse of life. All of this boldness and listening requires another type of vulnerability. If we consider some of the great prose stylists—we might consider again Woolf, or Toni Morrison, or Teju Cole—their vulnerability as writers comes from marrying a sound, solid structure—a world view, if you will—with a tender, ephemeral, pulsing uncertainty. Nothing is locked down. The text tends toward openness, not closure. Put differently, the text involves both a body (the structure) and a soul or spirit (the voice, or style), and the relationship between the two is always symbiotic and changing.

To make this issue of vulnerability concrete, I turn to one of my favourite Canadian non-fiction writers, one of the fiercest truth-seekers I know, Sierra Skye Gemma. In a stunning essay she wrote earlier this year for the Globe and Mail, Sierra considers the issue of sexual education of boys in the age of ubiquitous online pornography. How, she asks, might a liberal, sex-positive mother support a healthy relationship to sexuality in her teenage son? As a parent, how does one balance the desire to nurture an ethical and humane relationship to others with a freedom to explore, choose, learn, and grow? Sierra moves through this piece with a strong, tender, and admirable honesty. Like Solnit and Dillard—or Woolf, decades earlier—she moves effortlessly and organically across the page, complicating her central questions with insightful, incisive arguments and deeply personal revelations. No forced epiphanies and awkward summaries here. No neat morals or clumsy dogma. No axes to grind, either.

As writers, allowing ourselves to deepen our relationship to vulnerability in writing allows us to come closer to touching and experiencing the world in all its difficult, painful, and glorious contradictions. Vulnerability can serve as a vehicle to move beyond and through the personal towards larger, more complicated human truths, and in turn, to feel greater compassion and empathy for others.

Being vulnerable on the page does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve, necessarily. It does not necessarily mean wearing a sleeve, or anything at all.

It does, however, require a commitment to looking deeply and honestly inside. It requires and demands the fundamental tools of the explorer: curiosity, courage, resilience, the willingness to get lost and then find your way out.

It might also require a heart.


The good news?

The last time I checked, we all—even the jaded cynics and skeptics among us—have hearts.

Comics Criticism: A Reading List

Comics Criticism

Comics CriticismLiterature is a dialogue, albeit often an insular one. For comics to occupy a position as a mature literary form, they need to be a part of that dialogue.

I didn’t realize until this week that there’s a crisis in comics criticism. Evidently, I’m part of the problem since I rarely read any comics-specific websites, unless someone links to a review or I’m doing research. It’s partly a lack of interest in an insular dialogue, partly that Canada and Europe, where I’ve worked, always seem like an afterthought

American comics publications sometimes refer to a “North American comics scene,” which seems to be a term used exclusively by Americans, possibly patting themselves on the back for their international outlook because they talked about a Canadian just last week, and know that Drawn & Quarterly is located in Montreal. But I feel about as included under this term as I would when reading American children’s books, with their strange language like “neighbour” and “fifth grade.”

Possibly, the problem is that Canada is too small for publications only about comics; possibly it’s that I like reading about a variety of books, both with and without pictures in them; possibly it’s that comics, at present, need to be placed alongside poems about rural Manitoba and essays on Joseph Boyden to give an air of legitimacy to the general public and those who make decisions about publishing and arts funding in Canada.

Either way, comics criticism—and in turn comics—stands to reach a wider audience when it’s not singled out. To put comics on a comparable footing with other fiction and non-fiction, we need a mature critical debate around literary comics, one that deals with all the issues regular literary criticism has to confront.

Comics criticism and coverage, particularly that published in mainstream periodicals, suffers all the same issues as regular literary criticism, disproportionately favours the white, the male, the Western. Need a cover for your graphic novel issue? Why not another Seth or Chris Ware illustration!

It’s easy to overlook what we don’t see: problems, creators, entire forms of media.

The same blindness leads to issues like the Angoulême debacle this year. There are enough issues with diversity in comics publishing to rely on a dialogue solely between creators (which is not to say mainstream media doesn’t suffer the same problem).

Whether you’re new to reading comics or exhausted by commentary from critics who just finished skimming an Intro to Graphic Novels syllabus, here’s an annotated reading list of the critics and websites I’m reading for comics criticism.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Other publications are starting to do a good job of integrating comics into their books coverage, and a growing number of smaller websites are publishing lots of great comics artists. And if you find yourself inspired to start reviewing graphic novels yourself, start with artist Dylan Meconis on how not to write comics criticism.

Hazlitt is one of the best places on the internet for new comics and critical writing of any kind. They’ve been publishing some of the best Canadian and other comics creators online like Jillian Tamaki, Walter Scott and Michael DeForge, as well as work in less typical formats, like Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Swim Through Fire, which plays with the scrolling format of the screen in a really interesting way, or Sholem Krishtalka’s Berlin Diary (more on that later this month). Beyond the comics, Hazlitt publishes essays on writers you don’t realize you want to read yet and stuff that nobody else is even thinking about, like how video games are affecting literature.

Some sites report on gender bias, while others try to do something about it: Hire This Woman falls in in the latter category. ComicsAlliance’s column profiling female creators is an unsubtle effort to get them more work, showcasing a diverse range of women working in genres from literary comics to webcomics to mainstream titles like Adventure Time. It’s great because they don’t ask creators any stupid questions about gender. However, they haven’t published a new column since May and I’m hoping it’s not dead.

Mey Rude’s tastes run more towards superhero, action and cute webcomics than mine, but she does an amazing job every week on Drawn to Comics of investigating diversity in mainstream, literary, and webcomic titles, tracking who’s scripting queer, trans, and racially diverse characters, and how. The best thing about her column is that she considers everything on equal footing, whether it’s Batgirl, Meags Fitzgerald’s Long Red Hair (Conundrum), or Leah Haye’s Not Funny Ha-Ha (Fantagraphics) book about two women who have abortions; she’ll address the work by its merits, not whether it’s the first thing she’ll pick up at the store.

Sometimes a dialogue requires listening instead of reading. Inkstuds is an essential comics podcast. Robin McConnell has interviewed nearly everyone in comics in North America and much of Europe over the past decade, from artists who’ve made a couple of zines to bestselling authors, including creators he interviewed both when they’d made a couple of zines and after they’d become bestselling authors.

shadow manifestoJeet Heer
 is the first name that comes to mind for Canadian comics critics, writing essays that meld cultural criticism and comics criticism in every sort of periodical since before Canadian newspapers even thought of running some variant of the “comics: not just for kids any more” headline every few months. He’s now a senior editor at the New Republic—an excellent demonstration of how people who read comics also have intelligent views on politics, race and other issues not considered “kid stuff.”The LA Review of Books’ graphic reviews of graphic novels are one cool thing that’s happening in book reviewing. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to their review section). Every artist does something different with their review, from drawing themselves to redrawing the book’s artwork. Their regular written reviews and essays on graphic novels are also worthwhile reads.

I can’t get enough of comics artist and critic Annie Mok’s writing since her comic-essays started appearing in Rookie Magazine last year. Her writing does everything great literary criticism should, interweaving themes and topics from Tove Jansson to Guy Maddin to racism in comics (this one, for example), and she even has a comic about James Joyce.

Not strictly a critic to read online, Bart Beaty is the top scholar in the country for research on international comics; I found his work through his book Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (UofT Press). He’s not only interested in Europe–his last book was on Archie comics, and you can read an excerpt from it in The Walrus and follow his ongoing research into North American comics at the University of Calgary.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and journalist, and her blog is a collection of postings of old work in comics journalism, posts about her own work and feminism. She also discusses work and working methods on her blog and in a weekly newsletter, and though it’s informed by her work in comics, most of it is applicable to people working in any creative field.

Laura Kenins is a writer, editor, and comic artist currently based in Halifax, NS. Her comics and writing have appeared in kuš! comics, Truthout, The Coast, Quill and Quire, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. Find Laura’s work online or follow her on tumblr. 

In Translation – Translated Fiction and The Man Booker International Prize

man booker prize

 I know I’m four days late to the game but I felt that a post about the Man Booker International prize couldn’t go amiss.

man booker prizeWhat is particularly remarkable about this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize is that it has been translated by Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old, who started teaching herself Korean in 2010, aged 21, in order to translate more works by Korean authors into English. I am so impressed at her dedication and passion for Korean literature.
As I’m sure you are aware – or possibly not? – the Man Booker International Prize is awarded to a work originally written in any language but available to read in English i.e. translated works. It’s a fantastic way of promoting works from other countries and getting people reading outside their own “culture”. And what is particularly special to see is that the prize money is split between translator and author. Translations of works of fiction are news works in their own right, since the translator cannot simply translate the words. There are certain words, phrases and ideas that simply do not exist in the target language (language being translated into). There are concepts and cultural ideas that would be unknown to an english speaking audience. The translator must, therefore, work hard to make the story accessible to its target audience, whilst being faithful to the author’s style and voice. It is no mean feat. I can say that as someone who has dabbled in literary translation myself. It’s challenging, wonderful and hair-tearingly difficult in equal measures!

On Translated Works…

But the news of the Man Booker International Prize has got me thinking about reading in translation in general. Having studied Spanish and Italian at university, I’ve read my fair share of books. And my fair share of translations (Shh! Sometimes I read them in English too!) However, in English speaking countries I think there is still both a lack of awareness of translated fiction – how many people are aware that the Shadow Of The Wind is originally a Spanish novel? And there is also a suspicion of translated fiction – the idea that it is somehow more highbrow and scary. Yet, in other countries reading works translated from English into their mother tongue is completely normal and accepted willingly.

What is it that we fear from translated works? As Liesl Schillinger wrote recently, Every act of reading is an act of translation. We impose our own worldview and life experiences upon every book we read. Therefore my reading experience will always be completely unique, reflecting my unique background and personality. Books should just be books, and not separated out into English fiction and translated fiction. In fact, in my original blog I had separated out English literature, Spanish literature and Italian literature but I had a rethink and that just seemed crazy to me. I read books because they interest me and because I’m keen to find out what happens. For me there’s no difference between reading a book in Italian and reading an Italian book in English – if the translation is good, of course!

Firstly, we should be kinder towards these often ignored translators, their work is difficult and often goes unrewarded. And secondly, dear reader, go out and widen your book choices. If you only ever read English classics, go buy an Inspector Montalbano (they’re fantastic! The details about the delicious food he eats is such a lovely touch of Sicilian life). Don’t shy away from translated fiction, it needs love too 🙂

What do you think? What books have you read in translation? If you haven’t read any, what’s stopping you?

Donald Trump Doesn’t Read Books

Donald Trump Does Not Read

According to New Republic, when asked about the last book he had read, Donald Trump replied, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,” …

Donald Trump Does Not ReadI think, considering the current goings on in the US that a blog post about Donald Trump wouldn’t be out of place, plus it follows on rather nicely from my post last week about making time for reading.

Firstly, to say you don’t have time to read – as I’ve mentioned before – is nonsense. If you don’t read it’s because it isn’t your priority. I’m sure Trump finds plenty of time in his day to Tweet bigoted bullshit or watch a baseball game. He just isn’t interested in picking up a book – despite making plenty of money from those he has “written”. But secondly, it is truly alarming that someone running to be president of the United States is so uninterested in self improvement and a widening of knowledge. Not that it comes as much of a surprise that Trump isn’t interested in either of those things!

However, as Harry Truman – himself once president of the United States – once said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” All leaders should indeed be readers. In fact, successful people tend to read an awful lot. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk… The list goes on and on but they all share a common passion for reading.

Reading opens your mind to new perspectives, different ways of viewing a topic, and, most importantly, it makes you think. We live in a world where too many people take information at face value and don’t stop to question its veracity. We live in a society of Facebook memes wrongly attributing quotations to random famous people. Where it is easy to mindlessly “share” information without thinking about where it has come from. Is it a surprise, then, when someone like Trump comes along and suddenly seems to be a serious candidate for president? Or is it a rather inevitable outcome?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, once said: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” I think it’s safe to say that Trump is not a wise person. An excellent self-marketer and a remarkable salesman he may be, but that won’t help run a country.

So what are you – a non Trump – reading right now, dear reader? Anything you can recommend? I’m currently enjoying Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and I’ve just started listening to an audiobook version of Frankenstein. I’ll be popping up reviews of both as soon as I’m ready! Stay tuned for those.

There’s Something About Libraries

I still remember those occasions when I was very little when I’d get the chance to go into the library in my village. Libraries are a way to escape reality – on many levels.

libraryOften it was after having been on a walk with my mum and our dog at that time, Teasel. She was left tied to a tree outside while we got to go in to that cave of book wonders. There was a certain dusky, musky smell that would hit as we walked in to the cool, dark, hushed room. An old, Victorian schoolhouse, the library had high ceilings and high up windows, and an old creaky wooden floor.I’d be allowed to wander down the aisles, staring at all the beautiful, differently coloured spines, until I’d made a choice and chosen a new book to take out. We’d then go together, hand in hand, to the smiling lady at the desk and she’d ask for my library card. Upon being proudly presented, the card would be beeped, the book stamped and, after some hanging around while the adults chatted, we’d be off again, back outside with the new book clasped tightly in my arms.

Many years later, I had the amazing privileged to study as an undergraduate at Oxford university. Truly a book-lover’s dream. Every college has its own uniquely beautiful library, each faculty (or department to use a simpler, less Oxfordy name!) had its own as well. And then, of course, the mother Queen of all libraries, there was The Bodleian. I never got over the awe of being inside that book heaven. Although, anyone who has read The Historian will understand my slight creepings of fear when entering the darkest corners of the library alone!  😛

But what about now? What about in real adult life? How many of us use the library nowadays? How many of us even have a local library now?

Only last month a BBC article revealed that a staggering 8000 library jobs have disappeared in the last 6 years. 343 libraries have been closed, with plans for another 111 to be closed this year. Here in the UK, “Our public library system used to be envy of the world.” And now look at them.

The battle cry of those in favour of library closures would seem to be, What on earth do we need libraries for in this day and age? We have the internet. Everyone has tablets – no one reads physical books…. But this simply isn’t true. Libraries allow people of all classes and walks of life to access the same materials. They open doors to learning for children who come from poorer backgrounds. They provide a safe space to study for those from unstable homes. And they are a place of community in an ever more insular society.

As fellow book lovers I’d love to know your thoughts on this matter. Do you still use libraries? What do you feel about the closures?


PS Don’t just listen to me bang on about this. Here’s a few, possibly  definitely more articulate – words from Caitlin Moran about why we need to save libraries. Go take a listen to her for she is very wise.