How to Disappear Completely: Sophie McCreesh reviews Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear

Writers are divided on the MFA should-I-or-shouldn’t-I question.

Lorna Crozier herself, once head of UVic’s MFA program, has said that writers don’t need to do an MFA to become good writers. Margaret Atwood, author of literary and speculative fiction, poetry, children’s literature and short stories, says that being forced into specializing in particular genres is something that she never had to do and so never felt she had to limit herself. But Julia Leggett entered her MFA program a poet and ended up publishing her thesis, the short fiction collection Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear. As she says in this interview with the Coastal Spectator, writing programs force … writing. This seems to me always the greatest advantage of writing courses of any kind, the trump card in any should-I-or-shouldn’t-I argument.

When I spoke to Julia Leggett she said, “I come down heavily on the side of the argument that if you get the opportunity, you should do an MFA. It gives you the space and structure to work, and you benefit hugely from the input of other writers and people in your field. It’s a great way to network too. [laughs] That sounds callous!” Julia Leggett’s University of British Columbia supervisor for her MFA thesis was none other than Annabel Lyon. So, yeah, connections.

I asked her if she has any advice for our writer readers and without a pause she said:

“Don’t get bogged down in the rules for writing. You need to be honest with yourself about whether it’s working or not, but ultimately you should write what you like. Of course be open to people telling you they don’t get something but trying to follow ‘the rules’ can hamstring you and make it hard to get started.”

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014, pp 186.

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014, pp 186.

Julia Leggett was born in Canada but moved with her family to Zimbabwe when she was just a year old. She returned to Canada in 2000, when she was 18. She told me that she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for her book from her friends and family still in Zimbabwe: “It really reconnected me with my Zimbabwean roots which was such a nice surprise, especially as none of the stories in Gone South are set in or about Zimbabwe.”

The Victoria-based writer recently tweeted: “At least on Facebook, my friends laughed at my jokes. The twitterverse is cold and lonely. It’s like leaving junior school for high school.” Help her feel less lonely: @ozonedrum

Here’s Descant’s Sophie McCreesh with a review of Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear.

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How to Disappear Completely

by Sophie McCreesh

I read Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear in one sitting, absorbing the satire, drama and the dissolution of relationships like a piece of salacious gossip I was trying not to overhear. The eight sharply perceptive stories in this collection give us a diverse community of women and their relationships with their partners, their bodies and their troubled selves.

The characters in Gone South are wounded, sometimes without realizing. Through their internal and external dialogue Julia Leggett evokes our sense of empathy, kinship and community. The reader abandons her own preconceived notions of women’s behaviour as social structures are challenged and ridiculed through true-to-life encounters and experiences. We are invited to see why certain lives unfold the way they do and the complex decisions that lead there.

Zimbabwe-born, Victoria writer Julia Leggett. Courtesy Rhordon Wikkramatileke.

Julia Leggett. Photo courtesy Rhordon Wikkramatileke.

This is a book of challenges in terms of women’s identity and self-actualization. The men in the stories are given power, over the women’s thoughts, dress-sense and social behaviour. Julia Leggett doesn’t hold back when she describes what we don’t want to talk about. For example, we read about a domineering man who abuses his spouse, as well as a failed sexual encounter leading to a man’s outcry about social class. Many of the women characters look to men for validation. For example, in “Snow Bunny” an older woman looks for a sense of meaning in a one-night encounter with a man who works at her hotel resort. A mother loses all sense of self when her husband divorces her, in “Lena Reynolds Gets Divorced.” However, the title story, at the end of the book, dismisses the need for a man’s attention. “Gone South” gives the reader a lasting impression of a dying woman reaching out to her childhood friend.

The story “Thin” verges on magic realism when we meet an overweight woman who eats potato chips, drinks soda and loses 60 pounds in 8 hours. As soon as Chelsey loses weight because of her new diet pills, the reader is slowly pulled from the character’s internal, neurotic self-consciousness to a subtle, perceptive, and even petty judgment of other women:

“I can feel people watching me, and I lap up their looks. I imagine every woman in the bar is comparing herself to me; I hope they feel cowed by the angles of my hips and humiliated by the effortless plane of my stomach.”

In “Thin,” women’s weight and thinness become equated with morality in cubicle worker Chelsey’s mind. Julia Leggett’s masterful pacing highlights the slow reversal of the internal psychology of a woman with very low self-esteem: we see Chelsey switch from negative self-talk to the projection of narcissism onto her peers. This slow, internal change is juxtaposed with the rapid speed of her weight loss. This story’s commentary on the lacerating judgment women can place on themselves and one another reminds me of certain stories in Jennifer Egan’s collection, Emerald City. Julia Leggett shows how the mind can be warped, based on the influence of societal perceptions of beauty.

Julia Leggett draws satire out of Chelsey’s frivolous conceit. She has turned the once self-lacerating internal dialogue into a banal projection of judgment of the physical appearances of other women. The protagonist feels she has physical and moral leverage over other women because she is now considered attractive:

“I hated talking to men before; I felt like a bag of wet flour, I felt sorry for them, stuck talking to the fat girl. Now I feel like I’m fly-fishing, as though I’m nymphing for trout.”

As the reader can guess, various health complications come with this miraculous weight loss. Chelsey’s new relationship with herself is challenged by her attractive best friend who warns her that she must value what comes from within. Compared to Chelsey’s troubling internal dialogue, her friend’s pleas to stop the pills serve as a principle of morality in the story.

I want to draw attention to Julia Leggett’s portrayal of women’s bodies. The majority of these stories centre on bodies as a construct of a patriarchal society. In the epistolary title story “Gone South,we see a woman pleading with her own body, a woman pleading to live:

“Most days I can’t believe I have Cancer. It must be a mistake, I think. How could everything remain so ordinary? Standing in line at the bank to pay the Hydro bill, spilling coffee on my jeans, the way the sunlight strikes the cherry trees and transforms the view from my window into Polaroid picture.”

Each letter begins with an address to her dear friend, Sashi. With each Dear Sashi we experience a new pang of sympathy for the character and her suffering. Throughout each letter, Julia Leggett introduces themes and clues into the narrator (Ruth’s) relationship with Sashi: “I’d forgotten all about my teenage love for Pinky and the Brain.” The fact that the letters are never answered renders Ruth’s deteriorating narrative more poignant. We are given a series of one-sided epistolary vignettes where the banal chores of life are juxtaposed with anxieties about surgery, drug testing and imminent death.

As readers we want to see a world outside ourselves. We also want other readers to understand our subjective world. Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear is a book for daughters, mothers, partners, sons and fathers. The book is not just about women; it is about the human struggle for solace and the insights gained through painful experience.

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Sophie McCreesh is completing her MFA in Creative Writing (UGuelph). She is a co-founder and editor for the magazine untethered and a volunteer reader for Descant. She lives in Toronto.

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