Surveillance from a Magic Carpet: Yusuf Saadi reviews Fire in the Unnameable Country

Not everyone at Penguin Canada liked Ghalib Islam’s manuscript, with its long, unpunctuated sentences, “unwieldy” cast of characters and unconventional use of time and structure. Maybe this is why Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House) published Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book drew discussion and controversy even before it was published. Not your conventional CanLit read.

Ghalib Islam himself seems to pose challenges. In his interview with Kelli Korducki for Quill and Quire, he “pulls out a notebook and pen. ‘What is your domain?’ he asks, referring to my area of journalistic focus, and doing away with any pretense of a casual chat.” When Anupa Mistry asks him about his long unpunctuated sentences in their interview for Hazlitt, he responds with, “What do you mean?” This reminded me of the early interviews with Margaret Atwood, long before she became the social media darling-savante we know now. For the record, I miss the crusty young Margaret Atwood, the one who would pause for uncomfortably long after a radio interviewer’s question and then respond with terse and often caustic replies. By the way, Margaret Atwood was Ghalib Islam’s MFA thesis supervisor and probably for that reason (because she has otherwise stopped doing it), she has blurbed his book.

Ghalib Islam, 32, was born in Bangladesh and moved to Toronto with his family when he was seven. He grew up in the densely populated and underserved area of Jane and Finch. According to Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country is in part a response to growing up amongst the imposed categories of race, religion and socioeconomic class.

Former Descant editorial intern Yusuf Saadi reviews Fire in the Unnameable Country. According to Yusuf, he and Ghalib “are family friends whose parents have known each other since immigrating to Canada from Bangladesh … Pretty much everyone in Bengali culture is related somehow.”

Hamish Hamilton pages

Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 448 pages.

Language and Imagination: A Review of Fire in the Unnameable Country

by Yusuf Saadi

Early in his debut novel Fire in the Unnameable Country, Ghalib Islam presents a scene in which the narrator dreams of roaming the landscapes of an unnameable country “naked as Adam,” the first namer. Hedayat, who addresses himself as “your humble narrator,” then assigns names to things in the world that language hasn’t yet claimed. A tension emerges that haunts the novel between what can be named, controlled and monitored and what is beyond language’s ability to classify in any straightforward sense. The history of the unnameable country is “as precise as the wind;” to try and contort it into a realist narrative is impossible. Thus, the narrative moves in and out of time, switches languages, playfully disregards punctuation and changes tenses and points of view, often within a few sentences. For example:

immediate lightningflashes/  sounds climbed dendrites in my father’s skull, sounds that flecks of wind, pushed words, and my father could catch them, though most jagged syntax were sliced metal to the ears as nerves grow leaf and sepals from the bones in his hand.

When the roaming narrative works, and it mostly works, it’s almost vertiginous because it shapes itself from multiple angles simultaneously. Although there are moments when it feels unnecessarily wordy, the truths told slant defamiliarize the world, presenting it as frequently terrifying and often quite beautiful.

The unnameable country’s constantly changing borderlines are initially occupied by the Soviets and later invaded by the Americans, and embody the colonial histories of various countries. Hedayat decides to wait in his mother’s womb for several years for the wars to end before “passing endocrine signals to mother wanna get born now.” The novel follows Hedayat’s recursive genealogy with a postmodern self-consciousness that revises itself even as it is narrates. Several clever dystopic elements are utilized: the government is able to read and record the thoughts of its citizens onto magnetic thoughtreels. The thoughtreel department is called Department 6119, echoing Orwell’s infamous room 101 in 1984. The novel frequently feels like a contemporary version of 1984, drawing upon Orwellian elements and updating them for our political climate. The unnameable country is also converted into a giant Hollywood film set covered in cameras and mirrors for an endless reality show. The novel captures the sense of living through the War on Terror and our contemporary surveillance culture.

There are other clear influences, including Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While Fire in the Unnameable Country possesses characteristics of magic realism, it forges its own niche by combining folkloric magic with technological dystopia. The book’s strength is that whereas the plot, events and characters certainly feel absurd, they also possess  an authenticity that rings strangely true. Having a reality show that runs 24/7 by turning the country into a film set feels eerily real to me as someone who has grown up watching the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq on television and computer screens. There are other allusions embedded in the text, including a paragraph that mimics Ginsberg’s “Howl” and an allusion to Paul Celan’s image of “black milk,” echoing canonical political literature of the past in order to build on them.

Ghalid Islam

Ghalib Islam

The narrator’s grandfather is a poet, and describes himself as “a writer in the style of certain modernists for whom poetry is a description of the effects of war on language.” Similarly, the novel examines war and culture’s effects on a language whose speakers are aware that the government spies on its own citizens. Thus, it is necessary for Islam to invent the fragmented syntax he employs. Punctuation is sparse, images impressionistic, words compounded, nouns turned into verbs and articles like ‘a’ and ‘the’ frequently absent, as when the narrator recounts his own birth: “my mother continues cursing, as another big push and something greymucus and pink is emerges emerging from inside her until finally my owl’s screech ear-rending howl.” The text will not be particularly difficult to readers familiar with postmodern fiction, although it does require a bit of patience while it teaches you how to read its sinuous sentences and internal logic. There are numerous standout lines and images, such as the narrator’s grandfather walking through the Ministry of Radio and Communications “clutching his tie, which fluttered like a disembodied tongue” and the man “who was still so modest that he did not leave footsteps when he walked.”

Ghosts roam the unnameable country, drinking blood boiled on stoves and are enlivened by being remembered. The occupying Americans decide on a leader for the unnameable country by testing to see who can scream the loudest and for one stretch of time the narrator is imprisoned in his own house as the occupying army will not let family members travel between rooms without identification. I found a haunting beauty in the rhythmic paragraph that begins, “Today I saw a man murdered in the street. How did they kill the man. This is how they killed the man. A bullet kicked up his hair and he bit the grey asphalt as if it was his bread.”

Another strength is that, as it threads the delicate balance between named, nameless and unnameable, Fire in the Unnameable Country maintains an openness to interpretation. For example, there is mystery in the government setting up mirrors throughout the city for the endless Hollywood film. The city’s name itself, La Maga, almost an anagram for ‘game’ or ‘image,’ hints at how to read the mirrors without telling us explicitly. Are they meant to show how Western colonialism and occupation distort people’s sense of their own identities? Do they imply the ‘hyperreality’ of the war? Are they meant to show how war is trivialized into entertainment for corporate profit? This also entails the question of how the novel addresses itself as an artifact of potential distortion and entertainment. The story feels rich enough to be interpreted in multiple ways, and for the most part the elements are described well enough to exist as things in themselves rather than as literary symbols.

However, there are scenes that rely too heavily on symbolism. At one point, Hedayat visits the Warren animals, people who were displaced from their homes by fires and have become animals precariously living underground. The animals — rabbits, frog, spaniels — function as metaphors for dehumanization caused by occupation and displacement, and suggest the importnace of memory to the understanding of “human” itself. Yet, they are not described vividly enough to first exist as breathing characters in a living world. We are never provided with any of their particular stories, which would perhaps be expected on a medium like television news, but doesn’t live up to the fiction’s duty to tell individual stories, and particularly the task the novel sets for itself of reviving their ghosts through memory.

While it is full of philosophical and literary concerns, Fire in the Unnameable Country is mainly a political novel. It recalls not only the history of occupation, but its extrapolation into the colonizations of the collective imagination and of history. Islam writes: “Fear, he decided, was their chief governing principle. It was meant to make you want less, to efface the past and to tether the imagination so no future but theirs could be loosened into the world.” The implication being that political change cannot be accomplished without the ability to first imagine it, without the language necessary to describe it.  Thus, the narrator, whose hand is blown into grotesque talons by a bomb that kills his best friend, slowly becomes an owl capable of turning its head 180 degrees into the past while keeping his body oriented toward the future, not unlike Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. In Marquez’s style, images are patterned throughout and lines are frequently repeated in different contexts and epochs within the novel. At one point Islam writes, “out of nothing there bloomed the story of a little boy who kicked his soccer ball across the mirror-walls and found it several alleyways later, extending from the arms of a man with two weeping glass eyes who claimed to be his grandson.” The narrative resuscitates the past simply by storytelling and tries to reclaim history through a postmodern lens, void of objective truths. With its imaginative flair, Fire in the Unnameable Country can be read as a celebration of art, particularly fiction with its narrative force, as one of the primary ways of trying to re-imagine a world where dominant narratives try to separate people from their genealogies — their ‘once upon a times’ — and say this is all the world is and can be. Islam writes that:

To know Hedayat requires us to know his father, to understand the father means we travel labyrinth streets to the grandfather, to understand whom requires us to move back still to great-grandfather unto mist and the origin of things: to once upon a time.


Yusuf Saadi has a BA in creative writing and philosophy from York University. He is beginning his MA in English with a concentration in cultural, social and political thought at the University of Victoria in September. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM International, Vallum and The Quilliad. He also recently finished a stint as an editorial intern at Descant, where he did cool things like copy edit, proofread and read submissions.




Lifelines for Deadlines: 10 reasons writers don’t take summers off

It’s just up to you and your flabby and flagging motivation. Nobody makes you enter a contest and nobody waits for you at the deadline, jumping up and down calling your name and spraying you with champagne as you cross the finish line. So why bother? For three reasons – at least.

quotation about beginnings

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” ~ Mark Twain

Contests provide writers with the dreaded and necessary deadline. Sure, you can make all the promises you want to yourself about how many words you will write each day, each week. You can keep that list beside your desk, on the fridge, in your head. But lists get lost, forgotten, spilled on. Nothing motivates like a real-life deadline to start or finish a piece of good writing.

Secondly, Canadian literary magazines work mostly on volunteer labour and it takes them (us!) a long time to get through all the submissions we receive from around the world. It can take up to a year to hear back about your regular submission, although we all strive for a quicker response rate. Contest deadlines work both ways — the magazine you submit to will have to choose their winners shortly after the deadline and so you will know much sooner than with a regular submission if you have won, or can submit your piece elsewhere. By the way, you can always resubmit that piece to the same magazine that held the contest, as a regular submission.

Third, you can win money. Not a life-changing amount, but $500 or $1,500 is nothing to shake a stick at. And it’s better than a poke in the eye with a wooden stick. Which reminds me: root out all the tired clichés in your submissions.

But wait, there’s more! As well as the smug self-satisfaction that comes with being able to say, in mock-casual tones — “Why, yes, I did win a highly prestigious literary contest, gosh, how did you know?” — there’s the knowledge that your writing will be published and read and, bonus, everyone knows that winning one contest can open the door to future publication. A win looks nice in a cover letter, after all.

The following annotated contest list is based on information available online as of today. I have included the links to each magazine’s contest information. Check those for more details and to keep track of any changes to the contests. As far as I could tell, no two magazines have the same entry formats, so do read their instructions carefully. Some are email-only submissions, others are mail-only. A really easy way to whittle down a pile of contest submissions is for staff or judges to weed out the entries that don’t meet the explicit criteria regarding maximum word count, or page formatting etc. You want them to read you, not weed you.

Don’t be easily weedable!

Contest entry fees are in brackets. Most are around the $30 mark. The numbers I have cited are for Canadian submissions only. International fees are more and are listed on each site. Entry fees usually include a one-year subscription to the magazine. In this way, you can’t actually lose. Okay, you can not win the contest, but you will get a Canadian literary magazine delivered to your home (or nearby postal station) for a year. Some of these magazines have been going for decades and all of them are judiciously produced by talented and enthusiastic readers and writers: your kin.

Winning booty varies considerably, but all winners are also published in an issue of the magazine.

The following are listed in order of urgency. I wasn’t going to include the faraway contests — the ones with deadlines in months like “November.” Then I counted on my fingers (I did) and realized that “November” is in fact only four months away from July and probably always has been. Four months is a realistic goal for a short story started this week.

Here’s how to increase your chances of winning: submit only your best. This is the piece (pieces) that you have rewritten many times. If you belong to a writing group, they have ‘workshopped’ your story or poem. You have read it aloud to actual living humans, more than once (kids and spouses count; stuffies, not so much). You have put it away for a month and edited it again. Yes, again. And again. Then you have given it to a writer as good or better than you (they exist) and have considered their feedback. Then you have rewritten it. Again. No one has heard of your neighbour who diligently bangs out a poem a day. But the names Munro and Ondaatje are synonymous with excellent writing, two writers who have said time and again how long and labourious their writing process is. Michael Ondaatje (a Descant contributor) says that writing is in fact re-writing. And Alice Munro reminds us that yes, good writing is hard, very hard, “but no one is making you do it.” I think she means that we shouldn’t whine, that there are much more difficult things people have to do.

Deadlines require lifelines and that’s what writer friends and the broader literary community are all about.

Get your writer friends involved. Set goals as a group, a team. Afraid a particular friend might win and steal your place? Good. Make sure those people are in your group. They will give you great feedback on your own work and raise everybody’s game.

 Canadian Literary Magazine Contest Deadlines: July 15 – December 31, 2014

Room magazine has a fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry competition ($35 each). All contest deadlines are July 15. The fiction and creative non-fiction entries can be up to 3,500 words. The poetry can be up to three poems OR 150 lines of poetry. First prize is $500 and second is $250.

Montreal-based Vallum magazine of contemporary poetry has a July 15th deadline ($25). They are accepting up to three of your poems “on any theme or subject,” maximum 60 lines each. First place winner gets $750, second place $250.

The Capilano Review has a Bowering Contest: “The Capilano Review invites critical discussion — in essay or other format — of any of George Bowering’s many works” (2,000 word maximum). Contest deadline is August 15th ($35) and the winner gets $500.

UVic’s The Malahat Review has several contests: “With a contest for every taste and stage of career, it’s easy to find one that matches your ambition and abilities.” The first deadline ahead is August 1st ($35) for their Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. Entries should be a maximum of 3,000 words. First prize is $1,000. The deadline for their 2015 Open Season Awards (poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction) is November 1st ($35). You can submit three poems, maximum 100 lines each, and a story of up to 2,500 words. Winners in each category receive $1,000 each.

Geist’s inaugural Tobacco Lit Contest is the most unusual contest in this list. They want your 500 word story about, well, tobacco. First prize is $500. That’s a buck a word! Deadline is September 1st ($20). Second prize is $250, third is $150 and even an honourable mention prize of $100. What is tobacco lit? According to their website: “Tobacco lit can be any collection of words that are (in some way) directly or tangentially about tobacco—whether it’s about those who smoke it, roll it or grow it; detailed instructions on how to use it or how to avoid it like the plague; a scathing review of its sociocultural impact on the modern world; or poetry written from an ashtray’s point of view, it’s tobacco lit.”

UBC’s Prism holds three contests. Their creative non-fiction contest deadline is November 21 ($35). Each entry must be a maximum of 6,000 words. First prize is $1,500, runner up is $300 and second runner up is $200. Prism also has a  short fiction and poetry contest (deadlines are January 23, 2015).

Prairie Fire accepts longer pieces for their contest, deadline November 30 ($32). They are looking for short stories up to 10,000 words, poems up to 150 lines, and creative non-fiction up to 5,000 words. First place $1,250, second place $500, third place $250.

Atlantic Canada’s The Fiddlehead contest deadline is December 1 ($30). That’s 150 days from today! They accept short stories up to 6,000 words and up to three poems, 100 lines each. Winners do not receive any money, but they are published in the issue and interviewed on their blog site as well. Correction! Winners receive $2,000 (one in poetry one in fiction) and runners up each receive $250 (two in each of those categories). Sorry, Fiddlehead and thanks for the correction.

Freefall’s annual poetry and prose contest deadline is December 31st ($25). If you don’t celebrate Christmas, for reasons of religion or reluctance, then this deadline will keep you busy the last two weeks of December. Who am I kidding — it’ll keep you busy the last few days of that month! Prose entries must be a maximum of 3,000 words, and they accept up to five poems per entry. For each category, first prize is $500, second is $250 and third prize is $75.

Good luck!

caption about finished

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” ~ Annie Dillard

An Interview with Gillian Wigmore: on what it really takes to write a novella

Gillian Wigmore has dried food all over her house. She and her husband are taking their two children, 11 and 12, on a kayak trip through the Broken Islands. As well as being a poet and fiction writer, a wife and mom, and her job as a full-time coordinator at the Prince George Public Library, she’s helping to organize dried meals for the family’s two-week holiday. Partway through our interview she mentions something in passing and I have to ask her to repeat it to make sure I heard correctly: she’s also working on her MFA through UBC. So, yes, she’s busy. But she is also gracious and gives up a half-hour lunch to talk to me about her new book Grayling, which we reviewed here.

Gillian Wigmore grew up near the small town of Vanderhoof in central BC and the largely rural and agricultural setting shows up in her writing. She has been described as a poet of place and noted as someone who pays careful attention to the specific plants and animals that inhabit her landscapes. In her 20s, Gillian spent some time as a guide for river rafting and ocean kayaking (“but canoes are the best!”) out of which grew her lifelong passion for such trips.

I asked her if she had any hobbies and immediately regretted the ridiculous question. When would this woman have a minute for anything else? And why, in such a full life, would she need a hobby?

Then she said, “Playmobil.”

Playmobil? She laughed and said, “Yes, I’m addicted to those little things. I say I buy them for my kids, but really I think they’re for me!” Did not see that one coming. But it makes sense — that a busy writer would enjoy an excuse to play with colourful little characters, that, as a mom, she must be constantly picking up.

In a telephone interview, a person’s voice is all you have to get a sense of who she is and what she’s like. Gillian Wigmore’s conversational speech is articulate and thoughtful. I got the sense that she takes everything she does seriously, but in a practical way. She’s a woman who gets things done but doesn’t make a big deal about it; competent, not overweening. I am left with the impression that I could talk to her about anything, from intellectual and  spiritual matters to the best type of manure for my garden (not that that isn’t a spiritual matter, I hasten to add). In short, Gillian Wigmore is the kind of person who would make a great companion on a long kayak trip.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

What has it been like to have your first novella published?

GW: It’s been wonderful. We had a great launch here in Prince George and all my friends and family came out to support me. Then I had a wee mini tour of Vancouver and Victoria, for my publisher [Mother Tongue].

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Are you pleased with the attention Grayling is getting?

Yes! The thing about fiction writing is that you actually get reviews, sometimes even before the book is out. But with poetry you’re lucky if you get even one review, two years after the book is published. It’s such a shame.

What was your inspiration for Grayling?

GW: I wanted to go back to the landscape around the Dease River because of a trip I took there with my family in 2007. My son was three and my daughter was four then and it was the beginning of our life on the water. It was a very important trip for our family. It was so beautiful there and I hadn’t seen that landscape in literature before. It just seemed a privilege to get to try and do that myself.

I know you’re going on a two-week kayak trip soon -

GW: We leave this weekend! We’ve been busy dehydrating dinners this week and we still have to get my son a new life jacket. You should see our house, there’s stuff everywhere!

Do you bring a notebook with you on those trips?

GW: I do take a notebook but it’s more of a journal, to record the events. But I did go back and mine old journals for landscape details for Grayling.

What about the story itself, where did the inspiration come from?

GW: I let the characters introduce themselves to me and let them take me on the journey.

Oh dear. You do realize that at least half of our followers will stop reading at this point? Jealousy is ugly that way.

GW: [laughs] But it’s true! I just started typing. I knew if I put a fellow on the river, eventually he’d have to get off that river.

That reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut quote, “somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

GW: Exactly!

How long did it take you to write Grayling?

GW: It took three months to write and then years to edit. The three months was so much fun. Every night was a journey. I’d head down to my desk in the basement and it was like, “here you go, Jay.” I read every sentence out loud, many times, to make sure I got the sound just right. I rewrote the whole book a few times myself then I worked with an editor for Mother Tongue, Jack Hodgins, for at least seven more drafts. Jack is such a great teacher and I am so grateful for the experience but it was hard work. After I sent him my first revised draft, he sent me back 30 pages of single-spaced notes. And then I cried! The next time he said “Great draft” and sent back 20 pages of single-spaced notes. And for each draft I wept – at  how hard it was. But after we’d whittled it down to four pages of notes, we knew we were close.

You are a published poet – why the move to fiction?

GW: I am first and foremost a reader and I read a ton of novels. I just wanted to try, to see if I could do it. I like a challenge! But it’s quite different in that I had to approach the writing of fiction more like a job and make myself do it every night. I had to be meticulous about sitting down and doing it. Whereas with poetry, I never force it. I just let them come – then of course I do a lot of editing. But that initial poem just has to arrive. And novellas are addictive, they’re so much fun to write. There’s more room to move around in a novella than in a short story. Short stories require a certain kind of succinctness, an epiphany that leads to a particular ending. I don’t think I can write anything with any answer already set. Grayling felt like a question I didn’t know the answer to.

You have published two books of poetry and you have one coming out in the fall. How would you say that Grayling, as a work of fiction, is different from your poetry?

GW: My poetry is really effusive, it doesn’t hold back at all, but Grayling is spare. I wanted it to be a spare story. The landscape seemed to call for it, a judicious use of language and small sentences. I didn’t want to editorialize at all. I wanted the place to speak for itself. This was part of the difficulty with all those drafts, trying to strike some kind of balance between fleshing out the characters and describing the landscape, but staying true to my vision.

When I read your interview with poet Ariel Gordon, I couldn’t understand how it was that you could write at all, your life seemed so full and busy.

GW: [laughs] Well it was very busy then and for a while I just didn’t get much writing done. But now I’m really trying to fit it in. I’m finishing up my MFA right now through UBC and I work full time. In the next six weeks, after I get back from the kayak trip, I’ll get up really early and write for an hour in the morning. I’ve usually been a nighttime writer. When you start your day writing, it turns you into such a dreamy person for the rest of the day. It’s hard to come back to reality.

Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore, at home on the water. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore is a BC-based poet and fiction writer. She has published two books of poetry, home when it moves you (2005) and Soft Geography (2007), for which she won the ReLit Award and was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her third collection, Orient, will be available this fall with Brick Books.


Between the Shores of the Sacred and the Profane: Descant’s Jack Hostrawser Reviews Grayling

Grayling, Gillian Wigmore’s debut novella, follows a man on a canoe trip and personal journey through a dark night of the soul. There’s not a lot more I want to or can tell you about it, specifically, and this is what Descant reviewer Jack Hostrawser and I debated before agreeing on a suitable style for his review, below. Like the northwestern British Columbia landscape in which it is set, Grayling often camouflages more than it reveals.

number of pages, MotherTongue Publishing...

Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore, Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages. Cover painting by Annerose Georgeson.

But there are two scenes I will tell you about. One involves Leonard Cohen. No, not in a sleeping bag (sorry to interrupt your fantasy). The main characters in Grayling have a protracted conversation about the academic and existential meaning of Cohen’s poem-turned-song, “Suzanne.” The scene sticks out and I wondered: What was this long discussion doing there? Why “Suzanne”? Then I remembered — it’s exactly the kind of conversation friends have on a long camping or canoe trip like the one in Grayling. Someone starts something, apropos of nothing, and suddenly everyone’s an expert and wants to weigh in; as though we crave intellectual stimulation but nothing too serious. These are conversations that feel tinged with a sagacious quality simply because they are happening on water, or under stars; they mean everything and nothing. (You know that they’re half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there). But there is another reason why this scene does in fact fit in so well, but I didn’t see that until I’d finished the book. And then it took a while again, until the book was finished with me. Grayling echoes like that.

There’s another scene that I understood immediately and profoundly. The main protagonist bathes a woman in a makeshift bath he has invented for her near the shore. He washes her body carefully, methodically. If you have ever washed the body of a parent or an ailing spouse, you will understand the attention that Gillian Wigmore pays to the gestures in this scene to evoke this deliberate act of devotion. And yes, it’s even more powerful because it is a man washing a woman.

I like how Jack has quoted longer passages of Grayling in his review, rather than excise a sentence here and there. Gillian Wigmore is a published poet but I agree with Jack that Grayling isn’t self-consciously poetic. Like the river landscape in which it’s set, Grayling winds an enigmatic story between the rocky shores of the sacred and the profane.


Chaos Theory: A Review of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling

by Jack Hostrawser

In Grayling, Jay sets out in a canoe on the Dease River, trying to make a clean break from his past. A mysterious woman, Julie, saves him from hypothermia then talks her way into the canoe, interrupting his isolation and sending the trip in new directions. Throughout their voyage the book tries to navigate our relationships with intimacy, meaning and the wilderness itself.

“He thought of deer leaping over bushes, out of the path of the fire. Animals too small or slow to get away from the flames occurred to him: beaver and rabbits, their twisted forms vivid, black and red, in his mind. He shivered and paddled on, away from the burn.”

Gillian Wigmore moves from the big questions to focus on detail and character, and she has a poet’s eye for details: her real-life outdoors experience is evident immediately, as well as her talent as a writer. The book is built of a focussed prose that sets to work with energy and draws the meandering river patiently. Her writing has a patience that allows the novella to feel fuller than its few pages suggest.

As the active, observant prose accumulates you realize that the novella is managing, in only one hundred and eleven pages, to carve out a multi-levelled parable that addresses our relationship with sexuality, nature and existentialist fears. Gillian Wigmore crafts a two-person story with depth and convincing, hard-earned humanity, whose characters’ individual needs and desires tangle compellingly. Jay lives a bitter coping strategy that evolves quietly across the narrative in a frustrating and poignant way. Julie begins as an enigma but reveals herself as the two grow closer. These are two people as stubborn, hopeful and frustrating as any of us.

“He looked at her and wondered if she’d decided something while he was sleeping. She didn’t look decided, she just seemed tired and a little dirty. Her hair under her bandana was tangled in clumps. She had soot in the crease of her nose. He saw her small hands around her mug, no rings of dirt under her nails, and he saw her lashes against her skin as she watched the fire, and he felt like there wasn’t a time before he knew her. His world had shrunk to the state of her body and their minds and the particular gravel bar they’d beached upon.”

Gillian Wigmore seems to be a visual writer more than she is a musical one and I think her sentences sometimes miss the mark, overplayed by narration that momentarily loses faith in its ability to enact the emotions it describes. But it was never the individual sentences that made me like this book; it was her reach. The ideas are big — so big I missed some the first time I read it (a certain blog editor had to enlighten me) and I had to reread it immediately to see everything I had missed.

Grayling aligns the minutia of fumbling human relationships with a wilderness that has been both predator and muse since we first tried to lift our heroes into the stars. It takes courage to risk an ambition like that. Gillian Wigmore stands fast and determines to do things I didn’t think could be done in the short space of a novella. And despite the size of the task, she pulls it off.

The final scene enacts a twist that puts everything before it into question. Her conclusion opens new possibilities as it steals away our expected ones; there is never a perfect, clear answer to our questions or our demands. Instead it is simultaneously sun-baked granite, dark pine trees, rough water and the “cold contracting muscle” of a glimmering grayling. You have to leave your calculations and preconceptions at the shore. In the chaotic rush of the Dease, even the pearlescence of a common fish could be sacred.

 ”Another him, one from even a year ago, would have exclaimed at the sight, would have even appreciated exclamations from others, but he stayed quiet, trying to soak the sight in: the swath the river cut into the earth, inarguable, ageless, so enormous and unapologetic he felt as dwarfed and bent as the trees. He couldn’t hold his eyes open wide enough to see it all: the scooped expanse of sand stretching skyward, the small birds swooping out from holes in the cliffs and soaring. The sound of rocks breaking off and crumbling into the river echoed down the valley. In the bow, she was still and silent, too.”

Grayling is a careful but slippery, quiet but brash and ultimately beautiful novella.


Jack Hostrawser received the York University President’s Prize in short fiction and is published in Existere, Steel Bananas and The Quilliad. He sometimes chases tornadoes and is being taught patience by an old motorcycle. He is currently production editor at Descant (for the fall 2014 Berlin issue), when not working on his first novel.

Image 3


[And now this, because you know you need it.]



The Future is Hear: Writers and Readers in the Age of New Media

I attended a conference on the future of the book in March and wrote a blog post about what I learned: that the future of the book will involve curating more than single-artist creativity; that “reading as something you do by yourself will be outmoded for our children’s children”; and that the future of the book is being developed in the gamer world. And then I promptly went back to my work as a solitary editor and writer, who reads novels and poetry at night and to small children whenever she can.

courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, Young

courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, Young.

Nikolina Likarevic, who has joined the Descant team through a practicum opportunity with Ryerson University, expands on the ideas of the future of the book in her post below. Nikolina sets the discussion in the context of old vs. new media and provides us with some useful links to explain and support her ideas. (Plus, she gets bonus points for being the first Descant blog writer to use the verb “descant”).

Let us know what you think in the comments section that follows. Do you see this future as really that different from what’s going on now? Is the predicted difference one of degree or kind? And, in this new literary world where everyone shares their ideas and there are no more celebrity writers, um, dare I be so pedantic as to ask: who gets paid, how much, when, and will it be even worse than it is now?

Margaret Atwood, one of our most celebrated and well-known writers, writes alone even though she is one of the biggest proponents and users of new media. Would she be willing to have her next novel “curated” by online readers and editors?

Would you?


The Future Writer: Creative Collaborator

by Nikolina Likarevic

It’s easier to change one’s terminology than it is to change one’s ideology.

To fit in a new media world, many writers will need to consider shifting their professional ideology from solitary genius to creative collaborator.

Creative communities made up of writers and readers are cropping up all over various new media networks. New media is anything that provides around-the-clock access through digital networks (like YouTube, Facebook and blogs) on digital devices, with constant feedback from other digital network users. This means new media actively promotes a creative, collaborative culture. In this culture, no one person is an expert, or solitary genius; instead everyone contributes to an idea.

courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Sean MacEntee.

courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Sean MacEntee.

For instance, with this blog post I am directly communicating with Descant blog readers, because readers can debate my ideas — which I have come to through collaboration in long conversations in seminars and speaking with publishing experts — in the comments section at the bottom of this post. Readers can communicate with me in real time, and together we can build on and/or debate my ideas. In fact, in the Western literary culture of the near future such statements as “my ideas” will likely be irrelevant as ideas become more about the collaborative effort of many individuals in real time.

If technology is the future, and new media changes and is changed by technologies and networks, new media will likely morph the future publishing industry even more than it already has. How can writers access these changes?

  1. By co-operating with each other.
  2. By reaching out to their readership, writers can become creative collaborators.

But before a writer can become a creative collaborator, an ideology shift is in order.

Ridding Ourselves of Solitary Genius, Finally

Writers have been working with publishing houses, editors and literary agents for a long time. How is new media so different than the collaboration that has already been happening?

New media demands a fluid relationship between author and readers, and even between author and author. New media ideology is all about changing the long held concept of “the expert,” or solitary genius, that one person can and should claim responsibility over an idea.

From the Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. Author John Green collaborates with his brother, Hank Green, using YouTube, and their thousands of subscribers create and collaborate with them:

The end of the expert is explored in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Author Douglas Rushkoff comments on how Aristotle’s idea of stories having a beginning, middle and end has become less relevant. An example he uses is the kind of storylines on The Simpsons and Family Guy. The storylines for such TV shows rarely end with the traditional “resolution.” If one idea starts the story, it rarely becomes the middle and/or end discussion. Rather, these storylines display what I would call a tangent mentality. Start with X, X leads to D, and D leads to Y, and you never really feel like you get to a Z. This tangent mentality distorts the A→Z storylines we are used to.

And new media facilitates and encourages this. Now that information and stories are accessible to millions of people and can be commented on and created by millions of people (for example, Twitter and video blogs, or Vlogs), commentary can continue as long as the digital network exists and there are users on that network. Tied-up endings are no longer paramount.

In a story culture where no ending or resolution is in sight, how can one person (i.e., an author) be held responsible for representing the beginning, middle and end? Tangent mentality suggests there is no line between creator and reader, and that ideas flow from person to person and snowball, becoming greater for it.

How to Become a Community Creator: With Each Other

Is new media killing the publishing industry? Professionals are saying significant changes are forthcoming. (Take a look at the article “Literature Is Not the Same Thing as Publishing,” for more about the publishing industry.) The large presses and news conglomerates often cannot adapt quickly enough to keep up with new media. Yet, if you’re a writer or artist, having new media at your fingertips is invaluable.

New media, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, make it easier than ever for writers to find their own representatives (i.e., managing editors and literary agents) and to access smaller presses. Whichever way these relationships are fostered in the near future – whether writers hire editor(s) for assistance with grammar, ideas, and/or collaboration – as the “big” publishing industry shifts, editors will have more recognizably collaborative roles.

made of this article

A wordl cloud made from the text of this article.

Additionally, as Douglas Rushkoff discusses, in a new media culture where everyone’s opinions are heard at once, it is vital for writers to come together and create community.

This ensures a support system for writers (and editors, literary agents, etc.) and the possibility to collaborate with others. In a new media culture it is important for writers to have the opportunity for validation and to fully descant on their artistic projects.

How to Become a Micro-Community Creator: Readers

Writers (with the editor, literary agent, and/or fellow writers, etc.) can work beyond their kitchen tables by reaching out to potential or existing readers through new media.

With digital networks the author can be interactive. For example, the writer can:

  • Discuss writing/ideas in blog posts and readers can comment.
  • Create storyboards of their process online, on such programs like Twine, or share their notes on Google Drive.
  • Create videos, and/or Vlogs (video blogs), on YouTube.
  • Set up a funding platform on Kickstarter, or Subbable, where readers can actively support the art about which they are passionate.

These interactive networks give readers the chance to share what they love with the creator(s) and other readers – to create a micro-community. On such digital platforms readers can respond with their own art and collaborate with other readers and the author to create more art.

If you search author “Stacey May Fowles” (former Descant circulation intern!) on YouTube, you’ll find a video titled “Books in 140 Seconds: Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles,” in which readers Jen Knoch and Erin Balser give a 140 second review of the book:

Authors interested in creating a virtual community can create a YouTube channel and comment on videos like the one above, or link to them on their blogs. This increases the chances of them being seen by more people and connects the author’s readership/viewership. A potential collaborative project, based on the content in the above video, could be an author reaching out to reviewers for a virtual interview.

In this way, new media offers up the possibility for writers to organize which communities they want to be a part of and to communicate with their readers, creating micro-communities based on their particular cultural productions.

It’s looking like writers in the near future will be nothing without their micro-communities.


Nikolina Likarevic joins the Descant team through a practicum for the MA in Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. Currently, she is working on a science fiction novel and on creating a career out of writing and her other interests (cultural studies, new media, political science, etc.). Feel free to contact her on her personal blog here or on Twitter (@NLikare).




On Launching and Leaving

The beautiful cover of Descant 165, chosen months ago by Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen, turned out to be prescient on the eve of our launch party. But despite the deluge Tuesday night, we had a great turnout. Guests who didn’t quite make it before the heavens opened, arrived sopping wet regardless of umbrellas and mad dashes from cabs. But as drenched Descant Co-editor Paul Fowler pointed out, we’re not made of sugar.

Descant Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen...

Descant Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen, more than 44 years at the helm of one of Canada’s most distinguished literary magazines.

Production Editor Ekraz Singh not only put together a gorgeous issue, but she pulled off a great party too. Hot nibblies, cold beer and a room full of lit-loving friends. As good luck would have it, the guest who bought the most raffle tickets won the big box-o-books from ChiZine Publications. There must have been 20 novels in there, each one weirder than the next which suited Darren just fine.

Descant Production Editor Ekraz Singh

Descant Production Editor, Ekraz Singh, telling us about the raffle prizes.

Descant staffers Kim Griffith and Sophie .... at the "merch" table. I won the 3 copies of filling Station. No, there's no conflict of interest there.

Descant staffers Kim Griffiths and Sophie McCreesh at the “merch” table.

We had a surprise guest (I invited him on Twitter and he came, hence the surprise). Paul Carlucci braved the storm warnings and came in from Hamilton to celebrate with us. Last month Paul won the Danuta Gleed award for his first collection of short stories, The Secret Life of Fission (Oberon Press).

Paul Carlucci (in distant left, facing camera) asking Descant co-editor Jason Paradiso if we would pay for his gas from Hamilton. Contributor Assia Messaoudi in foreground checking out the raffle table.

Paul Carlucci (in distant left, facing camera) asking Descant Associate Editor-in-Chief (Production) Jason Paradiso if we would pay for his gas from Hamilton (no). But we did offer to walk his dog.

I was struck by the different styles of our four readers –Heather Babcock (“Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards”), Assia Messaoudi (“dear stranger”), Mary Corkery (“Conversation”) and Mark Kingwell (“Parties, Parties, More Parties”). Beneath Heather’s straightforward prose, lurks something sweaty and uncomfortable. Assia’s poetry-from-the-margins drew a number of nods and murmurs from her audience. Mary’s poems about her sister’s struggle with cancer were intimate and harrowing.

Heather Babcock

Heather Babcock

Mary Corkery

Mary Corkery

I think everyone clapped a little bit harder when it was announced that this was Assia’s first publication. Descant has published a lot of firsts who went on to award-winning acclaim, so we’ll keep our eye on this young woman.

Assia Messaoudi reading us "stranger aldkjfad".

Assia Messaoudi reading us her “dear stranger.”

Mark Kingwell, longtime contributing editor to Descant, told us a funny story and, I think, coined a phrase. Once upon a time he was in a bookstore in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He pulled out a slim volume from the shelves, Parties: Scenes from Contemporary New York Life, by Carl van Vechten, a patron of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and later the literary executor of Gertrude Stein. And, according to Mark, “a great narcissist.” Mark said he knew he’d found something interesting, but, in one of those later hard-to-explain moments, he put the book back on the shelf and walked out of the store without it. Despite the fact that it was only 98 cents. Ok, American. But still.

Then it set in: leaver’s remorse.

I know this feeling. It has a similar sinking feeling to buyer’s remorse, but where buyer’s remorse usually fills us with disappointment, frustration and anger, leaver’s remorse is tinged with sadness and longing. Probably because it begs the bigger existential questions.

It’s not like Mark could just slap his forehead and head back to the bookstore, fingers crossed the book was still there. He was back in Toronto before the full force of his leaver’s remorse set in (I’m leaving that rhyme there; it has rap potential). Instead, when he would hear that friends were traveling to New Hampshire, he’d ask them to look for the book.

He went so far as to draw a map of the inside of the bookstore and exactly where he’d last seen the volume. A map of where he’d been and what he didn’t bring back with him. A treasure map; a cartography of regret.

[If you were looking for a writing prompt today, look no further.]

Descant Contributing Editor, Mark Kingwell.

University of Toronto philosophy prof and Descant Contributing Editor, Mark Kingwell.

You’ll have to read Mark Kingwell’s contribution to find out what happened (you had to know I was going to say that). Lucky launch goers bought their copies for $10 and a year’s subscription for $20. Look for Descant 165 at your local book and magazine stores. Or have it delivered to your door four times a year.

You won’t regret it. No matter what you’re made of.

Cover art by Scott McKowen.

Cover art and inside illustrations by Scott McKowen.

Summer Launch: join us and let Descant 165 take you away

We celebrate each new issue of Descant with a big party. Our launches are free and open to everyone — plus, we provide great nibblies. It’s a great way for us to connect with our readers and contributors and carry on our conversations about writing and art in person… with a beverage in hand. If you haven’t been to one of our launches yet, come out and meet us on June 17, at Pauper’s Pub in Toronto.

Our summer launch is listed by blogTO as a top 10 summer 2014 book and literary event!

Production Editor, Ekraz Singh, is very serious about summer. Especially this summer, which, just a short time ago, didn’t even seem possible.

Cover art by Scott McKowen.

Cover art by Scott McKowen.

Ekraz is the person most intimately involved with the issue, so I’ll let her tell you about it.


Descant 165 Summer Carnival

Our Descant 165 summer issue will take you places you may, or may not, want to go. Our cover artwork by Scott McKowen, who has created numerous posters for productions of Shakespearean plays, features the goddess Diana holding Pericles’s ship in a protective embrace while generating wind and waves. The airy current is carried along throughout the issue as the stories, poems, essays and artwork contained within its pages have the potential to sweep readers to tropical destinations, modest towns, marvellous cities and the interior landscapes of sundry personae.

Through “Something Sour, Something Sweet,” Patrick Roscoe lures you several miles inland from a coastal town, far from any streets or lights or neighbours, into a hut that stands on the edge of a field filled with thistles and weeds — a place where you’ll witness a mother do the unthinkable.

With “Pilgrims and Indians,” Craig Hartglass pulls you into a snow-swept town that’s fully equipped with a skating rink and is frigid enough to make you want to put away the popsicles that the sweltering heat in Heather Babcock’s “Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards” might make you crave.

Clockwise, top left: Ekraz Singh, Jack Hostrawser, Yusuf.. Kim and Sophie.

Descant staff, clockwise, top left: Ekraz Singh, production editor for our summer issue, Jack Hostrawser, Yusuf Saadi, Kimberley Griffiths and Sophie McCreesh.

Jerome McGann puts us on a tilt-a-whirl in the form of “Some Incidents in the Life of My Old Pal Virgil” (a tribute to his good friend, Virgil Burnett). Gordon Massman shows us the sexier side of beloved cartoon characters in one of his poems. Alan Bao escorts us to China in “Waiting for the Rain,” where we can absorb colourful scenery and witness a young man struggle to understand his roots. Glen Sorestad showcases fragments of Cuba in his contemplative poems, “The Cuban Master Poet Reflects” and “Guantanamero.” Patsy Short transports us to nineteenth century Paris in “Opening” where we find out what happens after Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

Andy Verboom, winner of this year’s Winston Collins/Descant Poetry Prize, invites you back to his last day of school to watch him burn all of his books in “Rite.”

Andy Verboom, reading  his prize-winning "Rite" at the launch of Descant 164 in April.

Andy Verboom, reading his prize-winning “Rite” at the launch of Descant 164 in April.

Descant co-editor Rebecca Payne’s “Dear Ms. Gallant” is a salute to the brilliant Canadian short story writer who died this past February. Many more engaging writers — including Stephen Behrendt, Andrew J. Khaled Madigan, Kayla J. Schwartz, Mary Corkery, Robert Hirschfield, Assia Messaoudi, Cara Evans, Stevie Howell, Matthew Walsh, Charles Fraser, Milton P. Elrich, Jami Macarty, Kay Armatage, Mark Kingwell, and Karen Mulhallen — are sure to entertain and transport you.

Want to get your hands on a copy of the issue? Descant’s summer reader will soon be available from booksellers across the country and at our launch party:

 Tuesday, June 17th at 7pm

Pauper’s Pub (second floor, piano room) Toronto

Our five scheduled readers include some of the best emerging and established Toronto-based writers:

  • Heather Babcock explores the voids created by death.
  • Mary Corkery sheds light on an unconventional, inaudible conversation.
  • Stevie Howell takes you inside an outpatient methadone pharmacy.
  • Mark Kingwell candidly rifles through lush slices of New York’s past.
  • Assia Messaoudi dives into the dark depths of the urbanite’s lonely condition.

Thanks to our generous donors, you’ll also have the chance to win raffle prizes from North American literary magazines and publishing houses including Brick, Echolocation, Existere, Glass Buffalo, filling Station, Prism International, Riddle Fence, ChiZine Publications, Coach House Books, Goose Lane Editions and Thistledown Press.

As always, copies and subscriptions will be sold at launch-only discounted prices of $10 and $20 respectively.

For more information about the readers, updates on the launch and to RSVP for the event, please visit our Facebook page.

We look forward to seeing you!

By Ekraz Singh


Ekraz Singh is a nearby-Toronto writer and editor, and production editor at Descant as well as executive editor at Existere. She is currently working on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter: @EkrazSingh

Griffin Shortlist Evening: straight to the heart of poetry

I had a most extraordinary experience of silence last Wednesday night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading, here in Toronto. In a packed theatre you expect a certain amount of noise — a cough, shoes shuffling, program pages turning – even where there should be none. But it seemed to me there was indeed actual silence between the words and the lines of Anne Michael’s poetry. She read to us with a seriousness and intensity that both dared and demanded our complete devotion.

The Griffin Poetry Prize, the most generous poetry prize in the world, awards $65,000 each to a Canadian and an International poet. Each of the finalists gets a cheque for $10,000. And everyone gets a night of hearing some of the best poets in print today (for only $17.50!). Brenda Hillman, this year’s winner in the international category was, like the other finalists, emphatic in her thanks to the audience: “Thank you for coming, thank you for reading poetry.” Brazilian poet Adélia Prado received the Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d never heard of her before but this weekend will search for translations of her work.

“The smallest of poems is a servant of hope.”

~Adélia Prado

All of us at Descant send our congratulations to each of the finalists and especially to Canadian winner Anne Carson, whose “Short Talks” we published in 1991 (Descant 74). On Wednesday night, the tall and regal-looking 63 year-old told the audience that a friend of hers said he liked her (first) book by the same title, but he admitted he thought it was called “Small Cocks.” Through the surprised laughter I heard her say, “I thought I’d called it that, too!”

Of the many beautiful, funny and moving words I heard that night (and Sue Goyette’s line, “the ocean is the original mood ring” is all three), it was that sudden and profound silence that I keep thinking about; a silence borne of words, in between words — made of words. It brought me, in Brenda Hillman’s words, “straight to the heart of poetry.”

Griffin Logo_0As it was Descant volunteer Justin Lauzon’s first time at the event, I’ll let him tell you about it in more detail.


Griffin Poetry Prize 2014

As poetry lovers young and old walked across the second storey bridges in Koerner Hall, we were ushered in by the sound of trumpets playing from one of the balconies of the original brick building. If this sounds pretentious, don’t be fooled. A night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading is both intimate and humble, even if sprinkled with a few brass instruments. I was taken aback by the elegant modern design of the Koerner building, which merges the old brick façade of the Royal Conservatory with so much light coming in through the three-storey windows.

The evening began with an introduction by Scott Griffin, the big cheese, during which he announced Margaret Atwood’s retirement from the Griffin’s Trustees. Atwood has been on the board since its inception in 2000, but now, after voluntarily stepping down, has been succeeded by poet Karen Solie and prolific Irish novelist (and poet) Cólm Toibín.

Each writer was introduced by one of the judges, all of whom praised the tough competition this year, which amounted to a whopping 539 book entries, from 40 countries, in 25 languages. Scott Griffin thanked the immense, if not herculean effort of the judges. On stage, there was one less chair than there were people, forcing the writers to play a strategic game of switcheroo musical chairs, each speaker taking the seat of the following one, shifting positions throughout the night, constantly gaining a new perspective.

Image 2

The international poets kicked off the readings, beginning with English poet Rachael Boast (Pilgrim’s Flower, 2013) who said “it’s lovely to see so many people here this evening. The last poetry reading I gave was to six people. Six of my students. In a disreputable pub.” It was a great introduction into the intimacy of the rest of the event; though 1000 people were in attendance, the whole thing seemed very personal. American poet and social activist Brenda Hillman (Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, 2013) told a moving story of her father in intensive care, who, as a farm boy, chose a pig’s valve instead of a plastic one for his heart surgery. After a few stumbled lines of thank yous, American poet Carl Phillips (Silverchest,2013) stood at the podium and commented, “I don’t say a lot during readings because it usually comes out…stupid.” The audience chuckled as he went on to read the first of four poems that clearly spoke on their own.

Brenda Hillman....

Brenda Hillman, poet and social activist, won in the international category.

But no one sounded stupid, and it was refreshing to hear experienced poets talk about, and read their own work. Hillman spoke of poetry as “an investigation of the mystery of existence.” Canadian poet Sue Goyette (Ocean, 2013) commented on how the environment in the theatre had changed over the course of a couple of hours: “I can feel the air is different now. When we first sat down it was just plain old air, but now it’s fortified with all these poems. I’d be doing a lot of inhaling if I were you.” And when Toronto’s own Anne Michaels finished off the night with an interweaving selection from Correspondences (2013), she closed with a beautiful line that summed up the elusive nature of poetry: “the line break forever [changes] the word above and the word below, altered by breath.”

Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences.

Descant contributor Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences. Our evening program was constructed like her beautiful book — accordion architecture that circled back on itself.

As a welcome change, the writers didn’t take themselves too seriously, and some really had fun. After Carl Phillips read one of his solemn final lines, “why do we love at all,” he paused to grab his water, then added wryly, “because it’s actually quite rewarding.” The audience howled. He said that the final line was good at the time, but now seemed a little dramatic. Anne Carson (Red Doc>, 2013) read from Short Talks, and got the audience to participate with a word or line which we recited on cue (“deciduous?” a thousand voices queried enthusiastically).

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year and...

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year. She also won the inaugural prize in 2001.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Griffin Trustee and former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass presented the award to Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, “a sexy, mystical, Catholic poet.” She came on stage with a translator and read her speech in Portuguese, and at the end gracefully thanked the audience herself with both “thank you,” and “merci,” a simple touch that spoke volumes of her charm.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Maria Rosenthal, who translated Tomasz Rozycki’s Kolonie (2006), did a joint reading with the Polish poet. Four poems were read, in both English and the original Polish, the latter elegantly read by Rozycki, in a near duplicated cadence from the English translation. Rosenthal thanked the Griffin Trust for including translations in the competition because “not everyone understands the art that goes into it.”

To close, Scott Griffin presented each writer with a leather-bound copy of their own book. The final prize was given out the following evening and the poets seemed to enjoy the low pressure of the shortlist reading night. And it’s precisely that atmosphere that will bring me back next year, whoever the nominees may be, for this much needed celebration of poetry.

By Justin Lauzon


Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He has reviewed Texas, Kafka’s Hat and, with Jack Hostrawser, co-authored this review of Rove for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

The Novella: neglected middle child of prose

A canoe is not a small ship, a shrub is not a miniature tree, a child is not a pint-sized adult and a novella is not a short novel (sorry Merriam-Websters). It is the middle child of prose, defined against the (longer) novel and (shorter) story. And like a middle child, it is often left out and therefore free to make its own discoveries and carve its own path.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

We’ve all read a number of novellas. The list of possibilities is impressive and includes: The Awakening (1899, Kate Chopin), Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad), The Metamorphosis (1915, Franz Kafka), Of Mice and Men (1937, John Steinbeck), The Stranger (1942, Albert Camus), The Little Prince (1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), Animal Farm (1945, George Orwell), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, Carson McCullers), A Clockwork Orange (1962, Anthony Burgess), Black Water (1992, Joyce Carol Oates)… Goodreads has a list (of course) of the “greatest novellas.”

Historically, some consider that English novelist, dramatist and spy, Aphra Behn, published the first novella. Oroonoko, a love story about an African king, slavery, dismemberment, decapitation and death was published in 1688 (she died the next year, at age 49). Of course the Russians made the novella into an art form. Ivan Turgenev published the autobiographical novella First Love in 1860, about a young man in love with a woman that he eventually discovers is his father’s lover (in a creepy scene involving a riding crop) and everything ends horribly (misogyny alert).

A novella is defined, in part, by its length — somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words (whereas a novel is generally somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words). This translates to about 100-150 pages. While length isn’t everything, it does limit and guide structure. The novel has the luxury of more pages with which to explore sub-plots; a novella does not.

Novellas tend to focus on the personal, psychological journey of one main character, through one point of view, and usually over a period of just a few days.

Although, there are exceptions. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie covers 20+ years (1969, Muriel Spark). Like the novel, the poem and other written forms, “although, there are exceptions” could be added to each of the points I make here. Language is slippery like that. So are writers.

A novella does not usually have chapters. Like the short story, passages of time or changes of location are differentiated with extra paragraph spaces, or sometimes a blank page but not chapter numbers or titles.

Novellas are not easy to sell. I once came across what I thought a comical piece of advice to writers on a well-known publisher’s website. In answer to a writer’s question about how to get his novella published, the expert responded with something like, “my first piece of advice to you is to expand your novella into a full-length novel.”

Novellas are often published with other short stories, such as the case with Mavis Gallant’s The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Stories (1984) and Stephen King’s Different Seasons (1982), a collection of four novellas, three of which ended up on the big screen, including the popular “Shawshank Redemption.” Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin,” considered by some to be a novella, was published in her short story collection Open Secrets (1994). By my rough estimate, this story is about 17,000 words, so a bit on the short side for a novella. And it’s much more complicated than many novellas in terms of passage of time, so again not neatly a novella. (But that’s Alice Munro for you. For each rule writer’s learn, any Alice Munro story can be held up as an example of breaking it).

Years ago, Descant sponsored a novella contest. Unfortunately, the time and money required outran the staff and volunteers at hand, so we didn’t keep it up. But our very own Michelle Alfano, now Descant’s assistant-editor-in-chief (administration), published a novella. Made Up of Arias won the 2010 Bressani Prize for Short Fiction. Michelle managed to pack a lot of character into the slim volume:

Lilla, Joey and Clara Pentangeli, their father Salvatore and their mercurial mother Seraphina live on Paradise Street behind a giant billboard, in a charmed world filled with operatic heroines. Seraphina idolizes Maria Callas. Between bouts of housework, she re-enacts Violetta’s death scene from La Traviata, dresses in a kimono like CioCioSan in Madama Butterfly, and concocts outrageous tales for her three enchanted children.

The Malahat Review sponsors a novella contest every two years. Their next deadline is February, 2016. Not many literary magazines will publish a novella for the obvious reason that they take up so much space. Publishing one writer’s novella means not publishing several other short story writers. But here is a link to a list of places that do consider novellas for publication.

Quattro Books Logo

Quattro Books, in Toronto, consider themselves “the home of the novella” (literary only, not genre). Their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest inspired my idea for this blog post. From June 1st to July 31st, 2014, they are accepting submissions for their novella competition. If you win, your  manuscript will be published this fall — yes, you could go from an idea to a book-in-hand in less than six months. Of course, in that same time, Stephen King will have written two blockbuster bestsellers, but don’t think about that. Think about the launch party and how great it will feel to be both a contest winner and an author, all in one fell swoop. (Just make sure you avoid clichés like that). One of Quattro’s Ken Klonsky Novella Contest winners for 2012 was Terri Favro, for The Proxy Bride (in which there are chapters). Writing tip #54: Always a good idea to read the work of previous winners before entering a contest.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

I’m rereading James Joyce’s novella The Dead. If a short story is something to sink your teeth into and a novel something to which you lend your heart and soul, The Dead suggests to me that a good novella merges these two experiences. A novella is intense, like a short story, but it also refracts and extends your vision, similar to a novel. And, recalling the ending of James Joyce’s brilliant story, I want to add that the novella can bring you, suddenly, to your knees.





Descant feature volunteer interview: Jann Everard

One Sunday afternoon each month, Descant volunteers, interns, co-editors and staff meet to read submissions and discuss the business of running a literary magazine. Sometimes people ask me about the kinds of people at these meetings (I know what they’re really asking is: what kind of people are judging my writing?!). There have been up to 30 of us at these meetings although generally it’s closer to 20. Some have degrees in English, though certainly not all. Some are interns, and come from a publishing program at Ryerson or York University. And some, like Jann Everard, come in off the street — Word On The Street, that is.

Michael XXXX, Descant's Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous WOTS spot.

Michael Chen, Descant‘s summer 2013 Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous Word On The Street spot, September 2013.

When we set up our tent for the annual event last fall, in Toronto, I grabbed a bunch of colourful flyers and started pacing our allotted 12 feet, looking for a friendly face to accost, in a literary manner. One of those faces turned out to be Jann’s and soon enough she and I and Michelle Alfano, now our Assistant-Editor-in-Chief (Administration), were chatting about writing and mutual friends and, of course, Descant. Jann came to our next launch and then editorial meeting and has come to each one since.

Jann Everard is well published — that is, she has been published often and in good places. She has had three essays published in The Globe and Mail, “Facts and Arguments,” she’s had short stories published in Grain and The Antigonish Review (this spring), as well as Room, The Fiddlehead, The Dalhousie Review, and at least a dozen other publications. In fact, reading her writing resumé could be considered a good introduction to Canadian journals! Here is just a selection of her publications.

Her answers to the following questions about being a writer are candid, useful and funny. While she admits in this interview that she struggles with getting to the page, in the eight months I’ve known her, I’ve come to regard Jann as a serious and dedicated writer. She is also, as other serious writers are, a great support to all her writing friends.

And of course, she’s a great addition to our Descant family.


Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

When (or how) did you first know you wanted to write?

JE: I suspect that every avid reader has a moment when they are inspired to give writing a try. I took a break from employment to be with my kids when they were young so I tried my hand at writing children’s books first. I took a course with Sharon Jennings, author of some of the Franklin’s First Readers. All those early efforts still sit in my files. Children’s books are harder to write (and get published) than people think.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

JE: I don’t have much discipline. I don’t get up a 5:00 a.m. to write. I don’t write every day. I fit writing around the rest of my life. But years ago I went to a CANSCAIP event and the keynote speaker said something that resonated. I don’t remember her name but she had four young kids, a full-time job and had published five or more books. She said it was important for her to see herself as “a writer who is a mother” not “a mother who writes.” I still fall into the latter camp. But I see a time, very soon, when I will finally be a writer first.

What do you find easiest and hardest about the writing life?

JE:  I didn’t start writing seriously until after a 14-year career in the Ontario Ministry of Health and a few years at home. I have an MHA, not an MFA. At work, I spent a lot of time writing briefing notes and policy papers. So I had a steep learning curve when it came to creative writing. I took some courses and went to workshops to help me get started but, for the most part, I learned through trial and error. It was hard to figure out who I was as a writer. After children’s writing, I explored travel writing and poetry. I sent a couple of personal essays to the Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” and they were accepted. So then I looked into creative nonfiction. It wasn’t until writer/editor Deb Loughead rejected a piece I’d submitted for an anthology, with a kind note suggesting I submit it to Room Magazine, that I started to look closely at the adult short story as a form. It took me a long time to get to that point. Others may be surer from the start.

The easiest part of being a writer? What’s better than sitting in the local pub listening to other writers read to you?

What do you know now that you wish your first teacher or mentor had told you, but didn’t?

I’m sure my early writing teachers told me everything I needed to know. But did I listen?

One of those early teachers was Sarah Selecky. I told Sarah I had trouble revising my work. So Sarah developed a course on Deep Revision. She was very gentle. We sat in her living room with soft lighting and herbal tea. She guided us through various techniques to help see our work with fresh eyes. At one point she suggested we cut our MS into pieces and physically rearrange it. I couldn’t do it. I was still in love with my imperfect draft. I wish she’d beaten me over the head and forced me to hack at it with scissors! I still find revision hard.

(Btw, Sarah has been offering much of that instruction free on her website as part of the run-up to her contest deadline.)

What are 3 things you think a new writer should know?


1) Your work will be rejected.

2) Your work will be rejected, even though it is good work.

3) You will rarely be given a reason why your work has been rejected.

Corollary: I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding a group of people who will provide constructive criticism. Treasure those people. Buy them drinks. Return the favour when they need feedback. Analyzing someone else’s work hones your own skills. It forces you to ask what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s also important to recognize that the kind of feedback you will need (or can give) will change and evolve with time. In my early career, all the people in my critique circle were women. I purposely sought out some male writers to help me later on. I needed to know that my male characters rang true. Some of my original writing friends are now working on, or finishing, novels. I feel less equipped to help them with structure, but I can still offer them copy editing.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

JE: Meeting other writers. They are a diverse and interesting group, for sure! I’ve made some close friends in writing classes. I obtained my current part-time job (totally unrelated to writing) through a connection I made in a writing class.

What is the thing that (negatively) surprised you most about being a writer?

JE: That what I spend on paper, ink, postage, journal subscriptions and books is always so much more than what I am paid as a writer. While I was flattered to discover recently that a college in NYC had used a story of mine in a workshop, I was disturbed to find out that 1) it was available to them online through an academic listserve without my knowledge, and 2) creators are not compensated when universities make these arrangements.

Have your parents ever read your stories and what do they think/say?

JE: They have read a few. By the time a story makes it to print, I’ve moved on. It seems anticlimactic and I’m not good at self-promotion. If it’s near Christmas, I’ll slip a journal with my writing into my father’s stocking. He has written several military history books and, at 87, is still a prodigious reader. He thinks my short stories lack proper endings.

What’s the longest you’ve waited to hear back from a magazine?

JE: Up to a year. I’ve also had stories rejected that I’d previously withdrawn. And one journal rejected the same story twice, even though I hadn’t resubmitted it. That felt harsh! But these moments have to be laughed off. Journals are often volunteer-run. We all make mistakes.

What’s your advice to new writers about handling rejection?

JE: Have lots of dark chocolate on hand. I mean lots.


Jann Everard is new to Twitter! You can find and follow @JannEverard.