2015/2016 Creative Non-fiction, Poetry, and Fiction Contests Now OPEN!

That’s right: we’ve just opened up our three contests for the coming year and we couldn’t be more excited to see your work!

The skinny:

Creative Non-Fiction Contest

Prize: $1,500 grand prize, $600 runner-up, $400 2nd runner-up
Entry fee: $35 Canadian entries; $40 US entries; $45 Int’l entries (includes a one-year subscription or extension)

Additional entry: $5 each piece
Max. word count: 6,000

Deadline: November 20, 2015

Short Fiction Contest

Prize: $1,500 grand prize, $600 runner-up, $400 2nd runner-up

Entry fee: $35 Canadian entries; $40 US entries; $45 Int’l entries (includes a one-year subscription or extension)

Additional entry: $5 each piece
Max. word count: 6,000

Deadline: January 15, 2016

Poetry Contest

Prize: $1,500 grand prize, $600 runner-up, $400 2nd runner-up

Entry fee: $35 Canadian entries; $40 US entries; $45 Int’l entries (each entry includes a one-year subscription or extension).

Up to three poems may be submitted with each entry.

Additional entry: $5 each poem

Deadline: January 15, 2016

PRISM MAGAZINE IS NOW ACCEPTING ONLINE SUBMISSIONS USING SUBMITTABLE at http://prisminternational.submittable.com/submit

Make sure you read the guidelines, stay tuned for our judges announcement, and SUBMIT SUBMIT SUBMIT!

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Going Down Swinging: A Place for Women in Hollywood Blockbusters

Here’s our monthly offering from our pals at Going Down Swinging

One of Australia’s oldest and strangest literary publishers, Going Down Swinging was conceived in 1979. It now produces print anthologies, audio recordings, multimedia publications, live events and a very busy website.

We’re happy to be able to team up with Going Down Swinging and introduce Australian writers to our PRISMers–and vice versa. We’ll be swapping articles and interviews once a month, so keep an eye out…

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Amid the mayhem of George Miller’s deranged Mad Max: Fury Road, Max (Tom Hardy) asks Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) where they are going on their protracted, gut-slicing car chase. “The green place of many mothers,” is Furiosa’s reply.

In a world of scorched earth and mutated men, where everyone needs a ChapStick and women are imprisoned like cattle in a stockyard, a green place for mothers sounds positively idyllic.

The evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), ruler of the dusty Citadel, has captured and enslaved five young women as his Wives, or ‘breeders’. Fury Road really begins when Furiosa frees the captive Wives and races them towards sanctuary – Joe tearing after her with his army of tumour-riddled War Boys. The Wives’ parting message to Joe, smeared on the walls of their jail cell, is: “Who killed the world?”

In Fury Road there is only one answer: men.

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Fury Road’s recent release has dredged up internet rumblings about its subversive gender politics, instigated by a ‘men’s rights activist’ on the misogynist hub, Return of Kings. He proposed that Fury Road’s guns-and-grilles trailer was a Trojan Horse designed to trick unsuspecting dudebros searching for a “straight-up guy flick” into ingesting “feminist propaganda”.

The dudebros are right: whichever way you look at it, Fury Road is a feminist film. I watched, engrossed, with the glorious feeling that I could put away my armour. I needn’t cringe at demoralising plotlines, sexist dialogue or leering camera angles. There’s no handwringing over women sidelined as love interests or damsels in distress waiting for a man’s protection.

In fact, Fury Road is close to perfect. From the first crunch that is Max chomping on a two-headed lizard, Miller’s lead foot is on the gas. Everything that follows is an operatic orgy of fire and fury that plays one-up with itself. Each time you think you’ve seen the best battle, the craziest stunt or the cheekiest visual gag (Pole Boys dropping grenades from on high or a bungee-jumping, skull-faced guitarist with a fire-spewing axe), the film delivers one better.

For goodness sake, there’s a full-throttle action sequence in a dust storm – a tsunami of red, white and blue underscored by crackling lightning and a crazed Nicholas Hoult screaming, “What a lovely day!”

I enjoyed the madness unreservedly, because it was underpinned by a genuine desire to interrogate the sexism that’s rampant in so many other contemporary blockbusters.

There’s vast enjoyment in Theron’s Furiosa, our road warrior on a mission for redemption, who carries the film’s dramatic weight. There’s also the Wives. These women are not mere damsels in distress; still, Miller teases us in one of the film’s best visual jokes: Max first spots the Wives hosing themselves off by their phallic war rig, adorned in floating linen and removing cruel-looking chastity belts. It seems reminiscent of a lingering Michael Bay shot (of Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who plays ‘Splendid’ here, leaning over a car hood), until the Wives are helping Furiosa beat the blood out of Max, or using their pregnant bellies to shield Furiosa from harm.

Hardy’s Max is shuffling, blockheadedly endearing and poetically combines his two trademarks: strange, barely comprehensible accents and terrifying face masks. But the film belongs to Furiosa, and Theron is doing her best, most complex work. She conveys grief and guts in a twitched lip or a hardened brow, replete with a manufactured twinkle of danger in her eyes.

So throughout the heart-flattening Fury Road, where wit and invention crash into spectacle, I didn’t feel shut out. This is a film that welcomes women viewers. More than that, it feels tailor-made for them.

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Mad Max was a stark contrast to my experience with Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film, helmed by paragon Proud Male Feminist Joss Whedon, is a disappointment on nearly every level. Not only is it a sickening assault of badly choreographed CGI (the film takes nearly two hours of its bloated run-time to produce one nuanced, comprehensible and genuinely exciting action sequence), it is also an insulting backwards step in Marvel’s embattled diversity waltz.

The bright spot in Avengers’ dearth of fleshed-out female characters is usually Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Johansson is an accomplished action star, and one of the few Avengers to successfully helm another action smash-hit, Lucy. Her Black Widow is a cool, kickass superspy. She’s also a ruthless femme fatale firmly of the Whedon mould, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Faith.

In Ultron, Whedon winds back the progress and saddles Black Widow with two problematic storylines: one where she is traumatised by her own ‘monstrosity’ at being infertile; the other where she and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk lock eyes and lips in a sigh-inducingBeauty and the Beast redux. (The woman can drop from a fighter jet on a motorbike, but her job in combat is to soothe Bruce with a lullaby when he Hulks out.)

Both plots offer Black Widow as the sole woman of the team. She alone struggles with her inability to bear children, a worry the male superheroes do not have. She alone is linked romantically to another Avenger. The implication is that, in action, there are certain stories and roles that pertain to women, while others are for men.

Off-screen, Johansson is queried about her underwear and eating habits, while her male colleagues field serious questions. Black Widow scarcely appears in the mountains ofAvengers merchandise, and Johansson’s co-stars joke about how her character is a ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. It seems Black Widow and Johansson are merely put up with in the Marvel world.

Meanwhile, Whedon is policing feminists on how they should view movie sexism and complaining about the superhero genre’s disservice to women, without considering what his own films are adding to the melange. It’s not enough just to write a Strong Female Character™: it’s the world she inhabits, and how she is allowed to move around in that world, that really counts.

If Ultron is a disappointment – and its head-scratching success proof of Alex Pappademas’ theory that “we live in times of lowered expectation, blockbuster-wise” – then Fury Roadis a triumph. For women like me, who have stumbled through the wasteland that is the contemporary action film searching for our ‘green place’Fury Road and the oil-slicked Furiosa might just be it.


Matilda Dixon-Smith is a writer, editor and feminist from Melbourne. You can find her work in the Herald SunOverlandKill Your Darlings and on her blog, Fantasise or Perish.

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Han Kang shows no mercy: A Review of “The Vegetarian”

812I+tp4jcLReview by Kirsten Madsen

The Vegetarian
Han Kang

Translated by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books 2015
Distributed in Canada by House of Anansi

Set in South Korea, and solidly rooted in that cultural context—one of rigid social norms and more than vestigial patriarchy—The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye, a woman whose seemingly small choice to give up eating meat reverberates in larger and larger shockwaves, removing her not only from her family and society but also, ultimately, humanity itself.

Writer Han Kang gives us Yeong-hye in three parts, showing her first from the perspective of her domineering, unfeeling husband, to whom she is initially a bore and later, an embarrassment. In the second part of the novel, we see her from the point of view of her brother-in-law, a video artist, who is overcome by sexual desire for Yeong-hye, and draws her into a performance art piece of shocking vulnerability. Finally, it is her sister In-hye, left to watch over Yeong-hye when she is consigned to a mental institution, who narrates.

These are interesting stylistic choices on the part of the author. In showing us Yeong-hye from outside perspectives, she renders a powerless woman voiceless. We only hear from the subject of the book in a few brief passages, where she narrates dreams of blood and sacrifice, “intolerable loathing, so long suppressed.” (28)

The woman at the centre of Han Kang’s novel is described by her husband as utterly passive, “in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm” (3); by her brother-in-law as so sexually charged she “radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary”(64); and by her sister as “an inchoate mass formed of darkness and water, standing tall like a ghost.”(137)

The Vegetarian made me think about a lot of things. Resistance, for one. The body, the mouth and what enters it, has always been the last refuge for the most powerless of resisters: the hunger striker, the anorexic. Yeong-hye rejects meat, at first, dreams of dead animals. Later, she rejects food altogether, and along with it humanity. She aligns herself with the vegetal over the human, begins to identify most with the trees and upends herself—literally, standing on her head—to allow her roots to spread.

It would be too easy to see this book, translated in English, and to a Canadian reader, as an indictment of a rigid, unfree society. After all, Yeong-hye’s husband’s horror at her choices—to avoid meat and to stop wearing her bra—seems parochial at best, grounded in intolerance. I see Han Kang’s ambition, and her skill as a writer, transcending this interpretation. The Vegetarian has more challenging and universally relevant things to say about power, sexuality and responsibility.

The metaphors here couldn’t be stronger, but the beauty of Kang’s writing is that the specific images are greater than vegetable world they invoke. The physical body of Yeong-hye, lying motionless as her husband rapes her, draped passively on canvas sheets, painted in flowers and entered by her brother-in-law, and finally, restrained, intubated, and invaded by medical authority, is more powerful than the ideas that are layered over it. Deborah Smith’s translation does justice to Kang’s simple yet specific prose.

People who review books often talk more about picking them up and putting them down than reading them. To put it in those terms: whenever I picked up The Vegetarian to read, I found I couldn’t put it down, but once I did manage to put it down, I found it a hard book to want to pick up again. I resisted it a little, because I could tell from the opening pages that Han Kang would not relent, and there would be no mercy shown to Yeong-Hye. It’s hard to watch someone suffer; mental illness makes us uneasy because we can’t attack it with reason. Neither can we save the oppressed using the logic of the dominant society. Reading this book forced me to search for the tools available to save Yeong-Hye and then, like In-hye, who pulls her sister’s bloodied body from the doctors’ probing ownership, to question their utility. Perhaps that questioning is the point.


Kirsten Madsen’s short story, “Mule Deer”, was runner-up for the 2015 CBC Short Story Prize. Her fiction has been published in Prairie Fire and The New Quarterly. She was a finalist in the Writers Union of Canada short story competition in 2011 and 2015. She lives in Whitehorse, Yukon.

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Nobody Really Talks to Each Other: An Interview with Shawn Curtis Stibbards

Interview by Christopher Evans

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For the Vancouver launch of his debut novel, The Video Watcher (Biblioasis, 2015), Shawn Curtis Stibbards did something I hadn’t seen a reader do before: flip through the book at random and read whatever passage his finger fell on. It proved an effective way to convey both The Video Watcher’s dark atmospherics and the main character, Trace’s, disconnection from his environment. Stibbards is a secondary-school teacher, musician, and writer, whose poetry and fiction has appeared in Grain, existere, Vancouver Review, Toronto Quarterly, and Dalhousie Review. He lives in North Vancouver, where the novel is set.

The Video Watcher is your first novel. How did you approach writing it? How was the approach different from writing a short story?

The novel actually started as a short story, “Alex’s Party and her Mother,” which I wrote back in the fall of 2005. My family was away in Japan at the time, and I was doing a lot of silk-screening and needed to occupy myself while I waited for the paint to dry. The bedroom conversation between Trace and the mother was one of the first things I wrote, and I was immediately excited by it. Trace intrigued me as a character, because unlike me, he doesn’t moralize, and I was curious about what would happen if I tried to write a novel about my college years with him as the protagonist. At the beginning I didn’t have any idea about the novel as a whole, but just wrote scenes that interested me, coaxing myself along with the promise of another beer if I could get another hundred words written.

The novel has been favourably compared to the work of Raymond Carver and Bret Easton Ellis. Do you think these comparisons are apt? Are there other writers to whom the story or the writing style is indebted?

Carver has certainly been an influence on some of my short fiction, but less so I think on the novel. What Carver did give me is the courage to write stories that seemed to go nowhere (because the characters are going nowhere.) But the milieu in most of his fiction is different from the one in The Video Watcher, and also, with Carver I get the feeling that readers are intended to laugh at his characters (at least in the stories edited by Gordon Lish), not sympathize with them.

As for Bret Easton Ellis, he and Joan Didion were big influences when I started writing this novel. Up to that point I’d had trouble figuring out how to write about shallow, disconnected people and Ellis and Didion offered me models. However, as the novel progressed, they became less of an influence, and the styles and approaches of other writers became more dominant, (e.g. Raymond Chandler, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and even Henry James, as well as that of some Japanese novels: Shintaro Ishihara’s Season of the Sun, Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue, and Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.

The novel’s protagonist, Trace, is often cast as an observer; sometimes he simply watches passively as his life unspools, while other times he seems locked by fear, his inaction almost like paralysis. What is it about the act of watching that interests you?

I don’t think anyone will argue that we have been become more and more passive and voyeuristic. This tendency has only accelerated over the last fifteen years with the proliferation of electronics; human beings are quickly being reduced to their eardrums and eyeballs (and occasionally sex organs.) This is one reason behind modern Canadian culture’s obsession with victims. This tendency also even spills over into our sexuality, and I would be curious to know if more people want to be passive nowadays in the sexual act than a hundred years ago.

Going back to the novel, the characters in it are distrustful of their emotions and impulses, and feel it is safer to be acted upon than to act, mostly because they don’t want to be blamed. But of course they aren’t blameless, and that it is one of the things I want to point out: the complicity of the bystander.

As for the voyeurism, people nowadays are very inhibited, particularly men, and in many cases can only act out their masculinity vicariously.

Video WatcherThe Video Watcher’s North Vancouver setting plays a big role in the novel; tonally, it’s a wildly different version of the city than what’s presented in tourist brochures. Is there something about North Vancouver, in particular, that encourages the type of disillusionment that Trace feels, or could the story have taken place anywhere?

One of the great problems of this city is that we have leaders that seem more concerned about how Vancouver looks to outsiders than how it appears to itself. Tourism is supposedly so important for our economy (so we are told) and our leaders spend most of the time keeping up a façade, but every so often—with the Canuck riots, Robert Pickton, the Bacon Brothers—another story emerges.

As for taking place in a different area of Vancouver, no, I don’t think it would be the same story. There is a certain detached/proximity one experiences living on the North Shore (West Van included.) Geographically we’re close to downtown, but made to feel detached by the harbour and transcendent by the fact that, in many areas, we literally look down on the city.

There are some interesting discrepancies between the way Trace experiences the world and the way the world experiences him; while he views his surroundings in a highly-sensorial way and is sometimes over-sensitive to the reactions of others, he consistently feels unseen or unheard himself. Does that tension reflect the way you felt when you were Trace’s age?

In my late teens and early twenties, I was actually a much less sensuous person than Trace. Whereas he retreats into sensations, I retreated into idealism and fantasy. But yes, I was quite sensitive to the reaction of others.

As for feeling unseen and unheard—particularly by the opposite sex—heterosexual relationships were highly politicized during my university years (and probably still are) and there was the constant fear that one would be misinterpreted, or blamed. I thought this fear was exclusive to myself but I’ve talked to others and realize that it was widespread—men felt it was too risky to act while women complained about men’s inactivity.

Rather than from a lack of relationships, much of Trace’s loneliness seems to stem directly from the relationships he does have—two best friends he doesn’t like very much, an aunt who talks over or through him, female acquaintances who are largely indifferent to his existence. Are these types of relationship dynamics something you’ve observed first-hand, through your job as a secondary-school teacher?

Communication is definitely one of the main themes of the novel, one of the reasons I started the book with a comment about nobody really talking to each other. To hear someone you need to be calm, and no one in this novel is calm enough to listen. Also, to be secure enough to speak one’s real mind one needs to be part of community, and that’s what Trace doesn’t have. None of his friends are friends with each other, thus making Trace’s relationship’s insular and claustrophobic, with no third person to serve as a reference point.

Students nowadays face a different problem. Whereas Trace’s relationships are private—e.g. what goes on at one of Alex’s party pretty much stays at Alex’s party—young people nowadays exist in a sort of 1984esque world of constant surveillance, only it’s not Big Brother watching, it’s their own ‘friends.’

The Video Watcher is full of 90s-specific media and entertainment references: Guns N’Roses, paranoid radio call-in programs, late-night reruns of old slasher films on TV. As the title suggests, Trace spends much of his consuming this media, but rather than relaxing him, his choices heighten his feelings of alienation and disaffection. Do you think this kind of media-driven loneliness is as prevalent today as it was in the 90s? Have things changed?

Trace’s use of media is similar to his use of alcohol. The slasher films, in the short term, do actually relax him, providing the excitement and drama missing from his life, a distraction from the banal emptiness of his existence, and a sense of conclusion, (i.e. promiscuity is punished, the virginal protagonist escapes, Jason Voorhees is stopped, etc.) Unlike the random ‘horrors’ around him (e.g. wasted youth, abuse, divorce, suicide, abortion), the horrors on the screen are contained, the violence cathartic. Of course, you’re right, the movies distort his sense of reality, and offer no positive models on how to interact with others around him.

Have things changed? They’ve gotten worse. The slasher films and the hard rock were at least forms of art, by which I mean that artists were trying to make sense of what they were presenting. Nowadays ‘presenters’ only seem to want to shock us with raw, undigested facts. In that way, everything has become sensational and pornographic.


Originally from Victoria, BC, Christopher Evans now lives in Vancouver with his wife, young daughter, and two disgruntled cats. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in GrainThe New QuarterlyRiddle Fence, and other fine publications in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the USA.

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The Tuesday Prompt: Guns Blazing, or, Absolute Carnage, by John Vigna

 

Author-photo_JVignaSmlThis week’s prompt is by John Vigna, author of Bull Head (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012) and Creative Writing lecturer at UBC. John goes out of his way to be friendly and welcoming to everyone and constantly has helpful advice to share. This prompt is no different. John offers his thoughts on writing from prompts and how to continue to grow as a writer.

I confess I don’t use writing prompts. Sure, they can be useful, especially if you are stuck and need to noodle around to find your way further into the honesty of your story, starting with character, scene, conflict. But be vigilant: prompts can feel like busyness, like you’re really doing the work. You’re writing, leapfrogging from one prompt to another, perhaps amassing some wonderful material.

But, is it the nuanced practice of avoidance? The illusion of doing real work? It’s vital to be brutally honest with yourself on this point. Challenge yourself to write that one true thing that you’re avoiding. Write with your guns blazing, the barrel hot and smoking, no bullets left in the chamber, the bluing on your hands, shells scattered at your feet and absolute carnage everywhere. It takes verve and resilience and strength. Fearlessness and faith. Bushelfuls of it. All of this comes from repeated practice. It’s this practice, prompt or not, that forges your ability to hammer out the truth. Trust yourself. You’ll take your writing next level.

 


 

John Vigna’s first book of fiction, Bull Head, was published to critical acclaim in Canada and the US in 2012 (forthcoming in France by Éditions Albin Michel in 2015). It was selected by Quill & Quire as an editor’s pick of the year and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. John was named one of 10 writers to watch by CBC Books. His fiction and literary non-fiction has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and anthologies is the recipient of many grants, fellowships, and awards including the Dave Greber Award for Freelance Writers, winner of the subTerrain Lush Triumphant fiction contest and finalist for a Western Magazine Award, Event’s creative non-fiction contest, and the CBC literary non-fiction contest. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and is an alumnus of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

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“I just hashtagged in an interview. Gross.” Meet the Editor: Claire Matthews

10455760_10152772251488176_68188109220739395_nAnd the final editor is here! This week we’re introducing PRISM’s Executive Editor, Promotions Claire Matthews, who shares why she loves working for PRISM and the merits of reading Twilight.  

What do you do for PRISM international?

As the Promotions Editor, I run the website, social media, and the contests. I promote PRISM! I could expand on that, but that’s pretty much what I do, condensed down. Oh, I also eavesdrop on Chris and Dom’s conversations, which is the highlight of any day in the office. They’re seriously funny guys. Then I post it on Twitter.

What is your favourite thing about working for PRISM

Being drunk with power. Constantly. Obviously databasing. For real, my favourite thing about working for PRISM is not having to be serious all the time. I love literary journals and magazines, I really do, but I think there’s a tendency to be serious and conservative all the time. And, straight up, that’s boring. If somebody falls asleep reading a blog post I’ve written, I’ve failed at my job. Basically, PRISM allows us the opportunity to be ourselves: sometimes serious, but most of the time pretty ridiculous #pizzapug. That’s right. I hashtagged in an interview. Gross, I know.

What do you write? What writing project are you working on now?

I write creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. I’m a sucker for memoirs, poetry suites, and writing about things that make people uncomfortable (blowjobs, Pap tests, Translink). Currently, I’m working on a few projects. Yes, I’m that person that reads four books at once as well. My thesis is a memoir about doing 52 hikes in 52 weeks, which I started the first week of January. I’m also working on a novel. And another memoir collection. Maybe if I focused on one, I’d have one finished by now.

Why might it be useful for an English student to read the Twilight series? 

Although Oxford University gave some super serious answer, I don’t know that mine is anywhere near as intense. Do I think it would be useful for an English student to read Twilight? No, not unless it’s an exercise in editing. Burn, I know. (Do people still say “burn”? Is this how you know that you’re getting older, when you start asking that question?) The only great thing that has come out of Twilight is that these books have gotten non-readers to read. And that’s amazing. If somebody picks up Twilight, likes it, and wants to read more, they might read some well-written horror/fantasy that they otherwise wouldn’t have sought out. If even a handful of people buy a handful more books, then that’s really all that matters. Also, Stephanie Meyers tells a damn good story. I read the Twilight series when they first came out and was surprised that I wanted to keep reading them. She keeps it simple, suspenseful, and throws some glitter on an exhausted genre. So yeah, there’s something to learn from it, but I feel like there are definitely better books that accomplish the same thing.

Do you have any strange rituals/habits that help you with your writing process?

My mind needs clearing and focusing a lot and I find the best way to do it is to go for a walk or a hike. During these two activities, I always seem to think about writing and just focus on what I’m working on. Also, whenever I write by hand, I end up resting my head on my left arm, so it basically looks like I’ve fallen asleep on my desk. It looks ridiculous, but focusing less on what’s around me and just on the page is what I need to do more of. Plus, heads weigh around 11 pounds and that’s tiring.


Claire Matthews is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in PlenitudeJoyland magazineRoom magazine, and pif magazine. Her poetry was shortlisted for the CBC Canada Writes Poetry 2013 Prize. In her spare time, she makes soap and drinks whisky.

 

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Saucy, Yet Honest: a Review of “Adult Onset”

Review by Rhonda Collis

9780345808295Adult Onset
Ann-Marie MacDonald
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014

Domestic novels are challenging. How do you make child rearing interesting when, in reality, it can be mind-numbing, unappreciated work? This story, about middle-aged Mary Rose McKinnon left to care for her two young children on her own while her wife is away, takes place in current times. Not only is she frustrated by the domestic life of a stay-at-home mom, she also feels the increasing responsibility of looking after her aging parents.

The novel takes place over the course of one week during which Mary Rose, a successful YA writer now aged 48, experiences pain in her arm that causes her to think back to her childhood when she suffered chronic paediatric bone cysts. This pain—coupled with the friction between her and her toddler Maggie (that almost causes her to lose control)—brings back suspicious childhood reflections: dark and murky visions that might suggest abuse. As the story progresses, she searches for answers with increasing desperation and determination, grilling the well-drawn and interesting minor characters—her elderly mother and father, her brother and sister—with questions about what might have really occurred.

Somewhere around the middle of the book the plot finds its stride, the tone quietens from a clutter of bells and whistles to one of calm and confident momentum. Instead of reacting, Mary Rose takes on a sense of purpose. She tries to get to the bottom of things by going deeper into her memories, rooting out the really ugly stuff, terrible things said to her by her parents when she ‘came out’. She becomes someone to cheer for. Macdonald accomplishes this without losing any of the humour threaded through the narrative.

She is going to go down to Postal Station E and give some petty bureaucrat a big thorny piece of her mind. Why seek out bad drivers upon whom to vent one’s spleen when there is a Crown corporation to hand? Fucking posties, fucking pensions and benefits and backaches. She swings round with the pot and almost clocks the child on the head. “Maggie! Thank you for coming when Mumma called, sweetheart.” (311)

MacDonald’s experience working in theatre and media comes through in the style of this novel with its various nods to social media, email, glib clichés, punchlines, tongue-in-cheek humour, product trends, etc. This narrator is aware of everything cutting edge. Mary Rose sports the cool nickname, Mister, for the MR of her name and has thoughts that are italicized and draw attention like a drumroll might. Later in the book, the italics become more than fanciful thoughts; their tone becomes darker, deeper, and the source of them unknown.

Overall, I enjoyed this book but I have to confess to feelings of frustration in the first half. I knew it wasn’t necessarily the writing, although the kitschy escapist humour grated on me at times. I finally realized that it was Mary Rose’s life itself, and how it so painfully articulated those bad parenting days. MacDonald is very skilled at making you feel the urge to escape the humdrum repetitiveness of Mary Rose’s day-to-day life. Escape from the chaos and claustrophobia came in the random sections of backstory that offered a chance to take a breath, perhaps because they were often narrated by Mary Rose’s mother or father, completely different voices. It was during these flashbacks that I allowed myself to really sink with relief into the narrative.

It seems to me that what is integral to this story is the challenges that any one being will bring to parenting, and the terrifying realization that our stuff can affect our children. Mary Rose brings all kinds of stuff she cannot fix: the suspected abuse and chronic pain mentioned earlier, and her parents’ initial cruelty and absolute denial when she ‘comes out’ as queer (society’s treatment appears to be much more tolerant). I liked that this novel wasn’t just about gay parenting, but this layer succeeds in adding one more obstacle for Mary rose to overcome and makes her trajectory that much more nuanced.

This novel is very different from MacDonald’s previous two, The Way the Crow Flies (2003) and Fall on Your Knees (1996). Yet, as always, she has astutely reflected the time period during which the story takes place, host to not just Mary Poppins, but “a real-life hard-ass Mary Poppins.” (11) MacDonald’s is a saucy yet honest and enjoyable treatment of her characters’ contemporary family issues.

 


Rhonda Collis is on the editorial board of PRISM international. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in RoomOn Spec, The Antigonish ReviewTheVancouver Review, The Bridport Anthology, Smartish Pace, ARC, Fiddlehead, subTerrain, and others. She lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two daughters.

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