The Blue Castle- L. M. Montgomery

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Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle. Jewels that queens might have worn; robes of moonlight and fire; couches of roses and gold; long flights of shallow marble steps, with great, white urns, and with slender, mist-clad maidens going up and down them; courts, marble-pillared, where shimmering fountains fell and nightingales sang among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women–herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance men died. All that supported her through the boredom of her days was the hope of going on a dream spree at night. Most, if not all, of the Stirlings would have died of horror if they had known half the things Valancy did in her Blue Castle.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle

This is the sort of book that makes me so glad to be a reader. Montgomery is an EXTREMELY talented and beautiful writer. Recently I’ve been finding myself wanting to read more of her work because it’s honestly like a balm. There’s  a feeling I would get very often as a child when I was discovering the world of literature and everything was fresh and new; it’s a feeling  that as an adult I rarely get close to reliving, but in this book I did see some glimmers of it.

I’d never read any Montgomery books outside of the Anne series and anyone who’s read those books knows how special they are. This story took me back to my preteens in Africa when I was first introduced to Anne by my aunt who then lived in the Maritimes (Nova Scotia). Now that Canada is my home, and because I’ve visited Prince Edward Island, Montgomery’s beloved home, I have to say I feel even more attached to Montgomery now, knowing first-hand where she got much of her inspiration from.

This is the story of 29-year-old spinster, Valancy Stirling, the old-fashioned and archaic word for single woman being used because those were conservative times where a woman who was single after a certain age was considered to be a loser. As the book said, “She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured–the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.” Our heroine is single, miserable, and part of a large clan where she sees herself as invisible, has a lot of fear, has no friends, and has never really known happiness in her life. In her sad existence, all she has is her blue castle: her imagination. A pivotal experience in her life (no spoilers), however, changes her life forever.

I loved the new Valancy; I fully support women who have thrown off their shackles, decided enough is enough, and have decided to live authentically. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of feminist texts that have reminded me what this empowerment means and just how important it is. Rereading Audre Lorde and rediscovering her famous quote,  “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”, made me think of how apt it was in Valancy’s case, and how life-giving it is when we realize that we can totally be free:

“‘I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed,’ she said. ‘After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks–I shan’t worry over it. ‘Despair is a free man–hope is a slave'”

The freedom and life that Valancy experiences after the big turning point in her life warmed my heart. And it made me laugh to read how Valancy’s relatives thought she had gone mad because of course free-thinking women have clearly lost it.

What I also adored about this book was Montgomery’s veneration of nature. Although the book is set near Muskoka, Ontario, Montgomery got her nature-writing muse from PEI which is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful places in Canada. Montgomery’s descriptions of nature makes you want to be in it:

“…the woods, when they give at all, give unstintedly, and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervales, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them. Then the immortal heart of the woods will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how widely we wander we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship.”

Highly recommended! One of my favourite reads of the year ❤

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A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand

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“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here

If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading  Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book.  Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.

This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of  Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as  immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:

“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”

This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants:  immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:

“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.” 

In this Brexit era  when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.

I appreciated this book for  highlighting the  traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:

“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”

 “She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”

“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”

This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.

 

 

 

 

Book Launch- Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

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I attend quite a few talks and discussions and I’d never really thought about sharing my thoughts on them. After tweeting about my most recent event attendance, a few of the people I follow on Twitter suggested I put the information on my blog so that they could have easy access to my tweets on the subject, and I thought that would be a great idea.

On October 7, 2015 Simon Fraser University hosted Yves Engler’s book launch for “Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation.” The mention of Patrice Lumumba in the synopsis completely sold me and I’m glad I attended. I’ve noticed that I’ve always lived in countries whose history and culture has been dwarfed by their more powerful and better-known neighbours; the history of these countries is often not really well-known. This is definitely the case with Canada, a country that is rarely thought of as an offender.  This talk brought to the fore Canada’s involvement in Africa, both in historic and modern terms, and it was quite horrific for someone like me: an African who lives in Canada.

Here is a link to the Storify I made from my Tweets, and also screenshots of the tweets are below:

Y.E. part 1 Y.E. part 2 Y.E. part 3 Y.E. part 4

And a link to @dtseghay’s great, personal book review: Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

She Would be the First Sentence of my Next Novel- Nicole Brossard

“I am a woman of the present, on the ludic side of things, from where it is possible, between words, to glimpse our little superstitions, our fine morality, our sweet obsessions in full swing. I am an urban woman on the graffiti side of the wall, on the sleepless side of the night, on the free side of speech. On the body’s side, where the tangible world is revealed from unknown angles, full of resources; on the side of writing, where the skin is a fervent collector of dawns and laughter, of bygone smells and new ideas.” – Nicole Brossard, She Would be the First Sentence of my Next Novel

This is a very intriguing and poetic novella. Nicole Brossard writes about her experiences as a woman writer in her hometown of Montreal, as well as her process of writing books. At first I found her thoughts a little bit odd; for example, she was strongly against the traditional novel format, but as I read more of this book which is part poem, part essay, part autobiography, it became clear that what she was rebelling against was patriarchy, which she believes limits writing.

As a result she calls her books “anti-novels.” She talks about writing in the feminine, as a way to break the bonds of patriarchy.Instead she prefers to write in fragments, to experiment with writing:

“This being said, we can claim that by generating hybrid texts containing only brief narrative interventions with a poetic resonance, writing in the feminine has, so to speak, led a second generation of women writers to preferring the story in a form of quick sketches and outlines, where precedence is given to the I of childhood memory as well as to an introspective I increasingly isolated from history and solidarities.”

“It is through Man’s fiction that we have become fictional, so let us exit fiction via fiction. We will exit in the story of our own design.”

And her book is very focused on women. In it, women have conversations about literature, about feminism, not feeling worthy, and the Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” which contributed to the new Quebecoise feminist literature.Again and again, Brossard helps us see just how having a patriarchal literature has hindered women:

“For example, she knew very well that if she had been a man, she could have entered and exited history at will, claimed a collective, national or mythical image-reservoir as her own, confident that all of this belonged to her…”

The ability to enter an artist’s mind and see their creative process is something I always enjoy doing and it helps me appreciate their work more. This book has very strong feminist material, and it gives food for thought about literature written by women for women, as well as discussing how Quebec literature has changed since the Quiet Revolution.

Beautifully-written and thought-provoking.

Margaret Macmillan at the Vancouver Public Library

 

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A few weeks ago I attended Margaret Macmillan’s talk at the Vancouver Public Library. I came across Macmillan because my professor  recommended her book, The War That Ended Peace , to the class. It hadn’t hit me that this is the centennial year of the start of WW1 so it is apt that Macmillan’s book is becoming more talked about now.

It was really a novel experience to be around people who liked history as much as I did although I was disappointed that there were very few people in my age group  there. It was an even better experience to listen to someone speak who has a connection to history herself ( Macmillan is the great granddaughter of  David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the first couple of years of WW1).

I found the event absolutely engaging. If I’d taken any History courses during my undergrad, I’d have loved to have had a professor like Macmillan. It’s so clear when someone is passionate about their work as she is. Macmillan said she loves “moments in history where issues become clear even when they are not settled.” She gave a lot of food for thought.

I found it interesting that Macmillan said there were a lot of parallels between the time pre-1914 and our present time, namely, we have become used to peace like our forebears did. She also made very interesting observations about Europe in those days. Europeans were overly-confident  about their progress and about how powerful their continent was. They believed any war that would take place would be short-lived. They also believed that it was only a matter of time before China and the Ottoman Empire  were divided up among them. They believed in the evolution of the human race and that Europeans were too civilized and advanced to go to war. Macmillan referenced the 1909 book entitled “The Great Illusion” where the author believed that war was unlikely as it profited nobody.

Interesting fact: When WW1 broke out, 30,000 works in England were published to discuss the cause of the war, whose fault it was.  It was more than just the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. This is of course worrying because  if we’re not sure of the cause how are we going to deal with similar situations today?

In history there are a lot of “what if’s”: What if there had been no WW1?  Would there have been a Russian Revolution, and by extension,  a Stalin, communism, or a Cold War?  If the Ottoman Empire had still been intact, how would the Middle East have turned out? Is it possible that the British and French empires would still be in existence today, and that the USA would not have been as powerful as it is today if WW1 hadn’t broken out?

Was WW1 inevitable? Macmillan doesn’t think so. She believes that a couple of main factors were the reason. Globalization was one; this made people more suspicious of each other as they became intimately linked, Germany and Great Britain in particular. There was an 1896 pamphlet entitled “Made in Germany” that contained  protectionism against Germany, who was seen as a threat economically.

The second reason was the growth in nationalism as the public became more literate and informed. Mythical histories formed, the popularity of social Darwinism which helped propagate the idea that struggle is good was also an issue,  and the fact that military was seen as noble was not to be questioned all lent a hand here.

During the very short Q&A section, the first question from the audience, and I could see this one coming, was to ask Macmillan her thoughts on the crisis in the Ukraine. What I’d like to say here is that I’ve heard a lot of people question the value of humanities degrees (and I have one so this is speaking from experience),  yet at this time where Russia and the Ukraine are making the news, people see the need of turning to a public intellectual, a humanities scholar (historian), for assurance and  clarity.

In response to the question about the Ukraine, Macmillan stated that it all depends on Putin, which makes sense. The Ukraine can’t respond with force but the crisis has the potential to bring in other powers.

Another interesting question was about social media. Macmillan stated that although it’s good that we get messages a lot quicker, it does put a lot of pressure on the government to make quick decisions in times when they really should be taking their time to think things carefully.

And I loved this line from Margaret Macmillan, it sums up my approach to social justice and advocacy: “We keep trying and I think we have to keep trying.”

Slightly off-topic, I met a very interesting lady at the event. She writes lyrics for The Raging Grannies. She talked to me about her life, how she stopped working as a fashion designer to do activism work. I’m not sure how old she is, only that she shares a birthday with Nelson Mandela, but the fact that she’s still going strong, writing, and going to protests really inspired me.

Here is one of the songs that she wrote:

BE A THORN OR BE A SPANNER (to the tune of The Rose by Bette Midler)

“Be a thorn or be a spanner…

Be a sharp stick in the spokes,

Be a challenge…be persistent…

Be a poke…or several pokes!

Be a voice of new direction,

Be a satire! Be your age!

And remember…all you Grannies…

It’s up to us to rage!

 

Be a rose…or be a bouquet,

Be gently firm…or tough.

Come on, y’know it’s OK

To rebel!…Enough’s enough!

Just remember that we’re called on

To be thorns in the side…

Or a spanner in the old works…

From which a new world will arise!

– Barbara Calvert Seifred

 

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative – Thomas King

 

“There is a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes.”– Thomas King, The Truth About Stories

I realized that I had read a few of these CBC Massey lectures in a college lit class that focused on Native Canadian and American literature. It was really rewarding to re-read them after a relatively long interval as I have learned more Native Canadian history in the interim (residential schools, Idle no More movement, etc).

The lectures were  brilliant.  King manages to be witty, snarky, sarcastic and informative all in one. He exhorts “the story,” and I must say that even as a reader I hadn’t really considered  the real significance of the story. As King said, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”King talks about the importance of oral storytelling, a dying art and one that often isn’t respected. He talks about the importance of decolonizing stories, and the need to place equal importance on all stories, regardless of origin.

“You’re not the Indian I had in mind” was probably the most interesting  lecture to me, talking about the stereotypical Indian and questions Indian identity:

“For to be seen as “real,” for people to “imagine” us as Indians, we must be “authentic.”

Definitely a must-read for everyone. A link to the CBC Massey Lectures here: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2003/11/07/massey-lectures-2003-the-truth-about-stories-a-native-narrative/

 

Off-topic: The Native Canadian/American struggles remind me so much of colonialism and postcolonialism in Africa; there are so many parallels. Reading the part of Mandela’s autobiography  when he and Winnie Mandela stopped over in Nunavut after he was freed from prison, struck me. Mandela was surprised that  the Native Canadians who lived up there knew him and were inspired by him. A reminder that heroes are universal and their zeal and hope can impact other groups . Some struggles are universal.