Stalin’s Daughter: Descant congratulates Rosemary Sullivan on the international success of her new biography

Joseph Stalin’s monstrous regime was responsible for the deaths of millions in the first half of the nasty twentieth century. His own son tried to commit suicide to escape his father’s cruelties and his second wife shot herself in the heart. Then there was red-haired, blue-eyed Svetlana: Stalin’s daughter.

HarperCollins Canada, June 2015.

HarperCollins, May 2015.

On June 1, Ben McNally Books hosted the Toronto launch of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Rosemary Sullivan confessed to the (demographically mature) crowd that before embarking on her biography writing career, 30 years ago, “I had that typical academic snob reaction to biography writing. But then I read one about Oscar Wilde and thought – wow, I could do that?”

She’s written a biography of Elizabeth Smart (1991) and her 1995 biography, Shadow maker: The life of Gwendolyn MacEwen won a Governor General’s award. In 1998 she wrote a biography on the early years of Margaret Atwood, obtusely referenced later by Atwood herself as erring on the too-nice side.

Biographer, poet, professor, Rosemary Sullivan.

Rosemary Sullivan: biographer, poet, professor and long-time Descant contributing editor.

Stalin’s Daughter begins in 1967, detailing the defection of 41 year old Svetlana Alliluyeva to the US (after her father died she took her mother’s name because — her father was Stalin). According to a review in Newsweek, “Sullivan’s account of the defection reads like the climax of a spy thriller, which in a way it was. And over the next 600 or so pages, the pace rarely lets up.”

But before her defection, a public relations coup the cold-war era US could not have dreamed, Svetlana suffered the loss, at age six, of her mother, to suicide; lost her first love (daddy Stalin sentenced her much older Jewish filmmaker boyfriend to a labour camp in the Arctic Circle); was married and divorced twice; had a child from each marriage; and experienced a number of disappeared relatives and friends. Her half brother (the one who attempted suicide as a young man), died in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and her 40 year old brother had died of alcoholism. And yet, according to The Telegraph, “This material is presented with a plainness bordering on understatement. ‘It was all very sad,’ Sullivan says of a situation the rest of us would find unendurable.”

Several of Stalin’s Daughter reviewers quote Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” In the case of Stalin’s daughter, this is perhaps the most egregious understatement when home-sweet-home was Stalin’s Kremlin.

When she defected while on a trip to India (that’s another story; Svetlana’s life is full of these), Svetlana’s son was 21 and her daughter was 16. They were waiting for her at the Moscow airport but she never arrived. Not surprisingly, the grown children later shunned their mother, except for a brief Russian-goverment sponsored reunion with mother and son, many years later.

Svetlana Alliluyeva published two volumes of memoirs after her defection, earning her $1.5 million in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She married American architect Wes Peters, former son-in-law of Frank Lloyd Wright and his crazy widow, Olgivanna, and at the age of 45 she had a daughter, Olga, with Peters. But this marriage was also to end in divorce and much of the money Svetlana had earned from her memoirs went to paying off her husband’s debts.

Svetlana and Olga spent the next few years moving around the US before they  returned to Russia (Svetlana denounced her US citizenship), and came back to Wisconsin in 1986. Svetlana then moved to England in 1990 and returned to the US in 1997. When she died of colon cancer in 2011, age 85, Lana Peters was living on welfare in a Wisconsin seniors’ home.

Critical reviews of Stalin’s Daughter have been positive. While they agree on the page-turning thriller aspect of the book, there is some disagreement about Rosemary Sullivan’s treatment of her mercurial, peripatetic subject.

In The New York Times review, Stalin’s Daughter is described as “not a highly opinionated book. It paints a strong but slightly distant portrait of the headstrong Svetlana.” According to their Sunday Book Review, “Sullivan tells a nuanced story that, while invariably sympathetic, nonetheless allows readers the freedom of their own interpretations.” From the Los Angeles Times: “Sullivan does a nice job of conveying her subject’s point of view without accepting it as the last word. She recognizes the neediness that fueled Alliluyeva’s love affairs and ill-judged final marriage.” Closer to home, a Globe and Mail reviewer says that Rosemary Sullivan “displays palpable sympathy for her subject.”

Is Sullivan too easy on Svetlana Alliluyeva? Do her 40 interviews and years of research pay off in this doorstopper of a biographical-historical thriller?

There’s only one way for you to find out: the book is everywhere, including your local independent bookstore.

Margaret Atwood is reading it. I know this because on Tuesday she tweeted: “Reading Rosemary Sullivan’s bio Stalin’s Daughter. Closeup of a paranoid autocrat. Stifling scientists+ press, enemies list, reign of fear.” Not a review, just a description. From @MargaretAtwood.

Rosemary Sullivan reading from Stalin's Daughter, at Descant's grande farewell party in March. Rosemary has the best reading voice I have ever heard. (Photo credit Vera DeWaard-Toole)

Rosemary Sullivan reading from Stalin’s Daughter at Descant‘s grande farewell party in March. Rosemary has the best reading voice I have ever heard. (Photo credit Vera DeWaard-Toole)

And what about Svetlana’s daughter? Olga, now Chrese Evans, sells vintage clothing and Tibetan artifacts out of her Portland, Oregon shop. She’s performed stand-up comedy (when Rosemary Sullivan mentioned this at her Toronto book launch, people gasp-laughed, trying to assimilate the information that Stalin’s granddaughter was, among other things, a comic). She and her mom used to talk often on the phone, each with a glass of wine in hand, and Olga/Chrese would send her mom herbs when she was ill, knowing her mother’s distrust of the medical establishment. They were close.

Reminds me of another Philip Larkin line: “What will survive of us is love.” Eventually.

$24,700: Canadian lit mag contests you can win before December 31, 2015! (yes –> you)

You can’t have all $24,700 but if you win first place in each of the following contest categories you’ll be $18,750 closer to feeling like a respectable adult. Not that we do it for the money, I hasten to add. Just sayin’.

Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver

Last year I posted a longer piece on contests and deadlines so if you want to read about why you should bother submitting, you can check that out (Lifelines for Deadlines: 10 Reasons Writers Don’t Take Summers Off). Otherwise, here’s the updated list for 2015, organized chronologically. The first deadline is July 15, 2015.

Submission costs are in brackets. Remember, this fee also gets you a subscription to the magazine. Some of the prize monies have doubled since last year (I’m looking at you, Prism and Room). There’s a new literary contest on the theme of Canadian time zones (from the folks at Geist who brought you the first Tobacco Lit Contest last year) and Room has its first cover art competition.

Nota bene: no two magazines share the same rules (as far as I can tell). I’ve done my best to double-check, but hey, it’s the internets, so make sure you’ve got the right contest year page.

Good luck!

July, 2015

Room magazine’s fiction and poetry competition deadline is July 15, 2015 ($35). First prize is $1,000 (last year it was $500), second is $250 and honourable mentions get $50 in each category.

Montreal-based Vallum magazine of contemporary poetry also has a July 15, 2015 contest deadline. They’re accepting up to three of your poems ($25). First place winner gets $750, second place $250.

August, 2015

UVic’s The Malahat Review has several contests. The first deadline ahead is August 1, 2015 ($35), for their Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. One winner is awarded $1,000.

Geists short long-distance writing contest deadline is August 1, 2015 ($20): “Send us a story, 500 words or less, fiction or non-fiction, that unfolds in two or more Canadian time zones. This could mean a physical unfolding (like a road trip) or an implied or non-physical unfolding (like a phone call). The details are up to you!” First prize $500, second prize $250 and a third prize of $150.

September, 2015

The Capilano Review‘s fifth annual Robin Blaser Poetry Award ($35) accepts a maximum eight pages per entry. First prize is $750, runner up takes home $250. The deadline is September 15, 2015.

A few esteemed Canadian lit mags from my own collection though not necessarily the latest.

A few of my esteemed Canadian lit mags — though not necessarily the latest issues.  I like to think of them as part of my vast collection of Canadian literature, not symbols of failed contest submissions.

November, 2015

The Malahat Review‘s 2015 Open Season Awards deadline  for poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction is November 1, 2015 ($35). Winners in each category receive $1,000. $1,500 (thanks for the update, @Malahatreview!).

UBC’s Prism also holds three contests but only one remaining with a deadline this year. Their creative non-fiction contest deadline is November 2o, 2015 ($35). First prize is $1,500, runner up gets $600 (up from $300 last year) and second runner up takes home a generous $400 (up from $200 last year). Prism also has a fiction and poetry contest (deadlines are January 15, 2016). Note: this information is not yet posted on their website as of June 16, 2015. We got the scoop thanks to the old fashioned method of making a telephone call. Thanks to Prism‘s Claire Matthews, executive editor, promotions.

Prairie Fire‘s contest deadline is November 30, 2015 ($32), for prizes in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. In all three categories, first prize is $1,250, second prize is $500 and third place winners receive $250.

Room magazine’s first cover art contest deadline is November 30, 2015 (contest opens in September, 2015). First prize is $500, second is $50.

December, 2015

Atlantic Canada’s The Fiddlehead‘s 25th annual fiction and poetry contest deadline is December 1, 2015 ($30). First place winners each receive $2,000  and honourable mentions each receive $250.

Freefall’s annual poetry and prose contest deadline is December 31, 2015 ($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 the year. For each category, first prize is $500, second is $250 and third prize winners each receive $75.


In case you’re wondering, Descant maintains a limited social media presence through our website, blog, Facebook and Twitter. The magazine itself is no longer in production. If you’d like us to help spread your literary news please tweet us the info: @DescantMagazine.

Is your name here? A joy-filled send-off, a reverse mullett & the perfect gift to mark Descant’s 45 years

It’s not that we’re still hungover from our grand farewell party, but we are in a way still recovering.

On March 25th, 2015, about 300 people crowded in to Toronto’s Revival Bar to celebrate and honour 45 years of Descant magazine. When Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen announced the imminent close of the magazine in December, plans were soon underway to mark the occasion. Associate Editor-in-Chief Jason Paradiso took on the new title of chief party organizer and three months later there we were, in a room packed with friends, well-wishers and performers. Forty-five years of Descant had come to an end. There was plenty of vodka.

A packed house for Descant's farewell bash at Revival Bar in Toronto, March 25, 2015.

A packed house for Descant‘s farewell bash at Revival Bar in Toronto, March 25, 2015.


Between sets we yakked and drank, which we are good at given our experience at Descant launches. Some of us are, ahem, more experienced than others ;-).

A total of 14 writers and musicians performed for the crowd (see list at end of post), ably coordinated by MC Antanas Sileika, writer, director of the Humber School for Writers and a Descant co-editor in the 1980s. In the co-editor’s diary for Bibliomania, Issue #133 (2006), Antanas writes: “I continue to measure stories which I read, wondering if I would have published them in Descant.”

Antanas Sileika...

Writer and Director of the Humber School for Writers, Antanas Sileika.

Cathy Petch played her saw for us and recited her poem "Chewbacca" which we published in the winter 2014 issue and she performed...

Descant contributor Cathy Petch played her saw for us and recited her raunchy love poem, “Wookie Love,” a crowd favourite you can should watch her perform here.

Between performances and trips to the bar, we gave away $3,000 worth of raffle prizes including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers fall course and a box of books worth $450 donated by House of Anansi Press and Coach House Books. In a room of hundreds, one lucky person managed to win two of the nine prizes.

Jacob Scheier and Whitney French....

Poets Jacob Scheier and Whitney French wrote something for the evening that they performed together.

The long narrow space at Revival was conducive to a reverse mullett effect: party at the front, business at the back. More than one performer commented on the chatting nearest the front doors, while those seated in front of the stage were quieter and focused on the performers. I admit that I sometimes found the loud chatting distracting until I realized it was exactly the kind of event we’d hoped for: compelling performances as well as a place to catch up with old friends and tell loud funny stories. And then Anne Michaels was introduced.

I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that I am an unabashed admirer of Anne Michaels’ giant talent. So when she stepped onto the stage I hoped I would be able to hear every word of her reading. Karen had asked her to read her poem “Above Lake Superior.” In 1995, the AGO commissioned Anne Michaels, one of 10 Canadian writers, to write about a painting in the AGO collection for their Reading Pictures project. Anne Michaels chose Lawren Harris’ Above Lake Superior and Descant published the poem in issue #92/93 in 1996 (to our knowledge, it is not published anywhere else).

“Above Lake Superior” is a few pages long and begins, “Unless you’re really enlightened,/you need a height to see where you are.” Within about a dozen lines, the entire room at Revival was quiet and the silence seemed to deepen with each stanza (except for a few comic lines, especially “‘Many are cold,’ he said,/ ‘but few are frozen’…” which struck a chord for us Torontonians, this year especially). A few partygoers tweeted her last lines, “Because/what are we? Bones and light.” Anne Michaels got rockstar applause.

All the readers and musicians that night are part of Descant‘s extended family and we were moved and honoured by their performances.

Sam Cash...

Sam Cash closed the last set with a ballad and a shout out of thanks to Karen Mulhallen.

Although Jason Paradiso organized the bash, with help from me, Matt Carrington, Michelle Ferreira, Rebecca Payne and Paul Fowler, our long-time Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen designed the evening and was involved in every step.

Except one.

Larissa Kostoff, longest-serving Descant co-editor and friend of Karen’s, secretly proposed a wonderful idea for a group gift for Karen. With the help of graphic designer Ansel Schmidt, a framed image was created using all the Descant covers and names of contributors since 1970. All 147 covers (this accounts for several double issues) were reproduced on a 60″ by 27″ poster. More than 2,500 names of Descant contributors were laser-etched onto transparent acrylic panes which were then mounted in front of the poster. From a distance of a few feet it looks like a colourful image of Descant covers, but up close you can read the names of all the people that Descant has published in almost 45 years. Simple and elegant. And very heavy. To Karen’s surprise, Larissa presented it to her on stage, with the help of former Descant Managing Editors Maria Meindl and Mary Newberry.

A fitting farewell gift for Karen Mulhallen, now installed in her home. But what you want to know is: where is my name?!

A fitting farewell gift for Karen Mulhallen, now installed in her Toronto home. The oak frame was handmade by Chatham sculptor Mark Jeffrey.

When Descant board member and party benefactor Andrew Smith had a chance to see the gift up close, he commented on the power of a simple list of names. For one, it has a stunningly democratic effect. All literary magazines like to trot out the names of the more and most famous writers published in their pages and we are certainly no different. But within this oak frame, alongside the heavyweight names like Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood, are the names of many other hardworking writers: yours, perhaps? I took a few closeups (including the one with my name, ‘natch) so let me know if you’d like a picture of the panel with your name. Then you can play the “who am I beside?” game.

Is your name on the same panel with Mordecai Richler?

Is your name on the same panel with Mordecai Richler?

On behalf of Descant‘s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen and the rest of the Descant family, heartfelt thanks to all of you who came out to support us at our grand finale. Friends came from across Canada, the US and England to say goodbye. The hundreds of back issues we brought to give away that night were indeed all taken to new homes.

Mounted on the wall in Karen Mulhallen’s home is a list of names against a grid of colourful covers representing 45 years of hard work, joy-filled moments and an enduring legacy to the Canadian literary community.


The wall beside the piano turned out to be the perfect place.



We are grateful for the support of all the marvellous performers at our party. In order of appearance they were: Alex Maeve Campbell & Rory “Gus” Sinclair, John B. Lee, Michael Helm, Cathy Petch, Joseph Maviglia, Marilyn Gear Piling, Anne Michaels, Robert Priest and band, Paul Dutton, Whitney French and Jacob Scheier, Rosemary Sullivan and Sam Cash.

Big generous thanks to our generous raffle prize donators: Maia-Marie Sutnick (AGO tour), The Door Store ($250 gift certificate), Coach House and House of Anansi Press ($450 worth of books), Urbanfitt ($250 gift certificate), Jennifer Toews (tour of Thomas Fisher Rare Books library at UofT), Humber School for Writers ($500 scholarship), Sphinx Pilates/Eldoa ($170 gift certificate), Canadian Opera Company ($250 gift certificate), and Dr. Alexandra Palmer (tour of ROM’s textile collection).

Last but never least in our hearts, thank you to all our volunteers that night: Trevor Abes, Michael Chen, Vera DeWaard-Toole (programme design), Jann Everard, Michelle Ferreira, Jules Goss, Kim Griffiths, Greg House, Justin Lauzon, Sophie McCreesh, Stephanie McKechnie, Maria Meindl, Mary Newberry, Joshua P’ng and Rhiannon Wong. Artist Shannon Gerrard granted us permission to use her work on our programme cover.


Saying goodbye: Karen Mulhallen prepares for Descant’s grand finale

When I email Descant Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen to confirm our interview appointment the next day, she responds with the news she has slipped on the ice that morning and hurt her arm. Of course I say we should reschedule at her convenience. But Karen is a self-admitted workhorse and powering through is one of her greatest strengths. It’s what helped get Descant through four decades of publishing in an increasingly precarious industry.

“I hope you’re not going to ask me that question,” she says to me when we first set up the interview. Since December, when she announced the news of the magazine’s closing, friends, colleagues and complete strangers have been asking her: How do you feel about this? How does it feel to say goodbye to Descant after all these years?

“What am I supposed to tell them?”

I promise I won’t ask her.

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen

I meet Karen at her home near Kensington Market in Toronto. Over a pot of tea — or bottle of Prosecco, I can’t remember now — we talk about the magazine that has been her full-time labour of love for more than forty years. Before we start the interview we discuss plans for the big party, Descant‘s grand finale, on March 25th. While editing the programme for the final bash, Karen updates me on what still has to be filed and sorted in the office. It’s been like this for three months — dealing with the end while planning the literary celebration of the season.

Those of us involved with the magazine are familiar with its origin story: that Descant began in 1970 when a group of University of Toronto graduate students produced mimeographed copies of the first issue. Karen Mulhallen was not the first editor of the magazine; she was the assistant editor of issues three and four, and became the editor shortly thereafter. From 1972 until the last issue printed earlier this year, the magazine has been perfect bound (sections sewn or glued together with a cover, like paperback books). There are about 25 contributors per issue, in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, as well as visual artists, in photography, painting and mixed media. A number of issues include a full-colour gatefold (the literary version of a centrefold) and since issue 133, the magazine includes colour in the text as well.

There’s no question that Descant is a beautiful magazine and one of the most respected literary journals in Canada.

Descant's third issue, in 1971. The cover image is from a photograph taken by Karen Mulhallen.

Descant’s third issue, in 1971. The cover image is from a photograph taken by then-Assistant-Editor, Karen Mulhallen.

For the first six years after she became editor, the magazine was housed on the lower level of Karen’s home. She explains, “it just became a part of how the house functioned.” In the 1980s, Karen hired Maria Gould Meindl to be Descant‘s first managing editor. Maria sold subscriptions to help cover her salary and was, according to Karen, a quick study and committed apprentice and colleague. Recalling those early years and her work with Karen, Maria says:

“She was brilliant, gorgeous and fiercely committed to the magazine. I was a little scared of her, to be honest. I knew I had a lot to learn, fast. She also put a lot of faith in me.”

It’s still true — Karen has a directness that, combined with a quick mind and an unflinching aesthetic, can intimidate those who don’t know her well. It’s also true that putting her faith in people and their nascent talent are what has made the magazine such a success, in Canada and abroad. In 1983, several years before his novel The English Patient catapulted him into international literary stardom, Descant published an entire issue on Michael Ondaatje. “I was just dazzled by his writing” Karen tells me.

Descant's winter and summer magazines are typically miscellaneous issues. The other two are organized thematically. Over the years themes have included places (North Africa, Latvia, Turkey, Venice and more),

Over the years themes and special issues have included places (North Africa, Latvia, Turkey, Venice, India, Berlin …), people (like Michael Ondaatje, above, and Dennis Lee), and topics such as music, gardening, dance, comedy, sports, birth, memory, war, writers in prison, space, fashion, hotels, comics and the search for happiness.

I have no idea how to describe Karen’s literary or artistic tastes because she is impressed by such a wide variety of styles. In one of the many emails of condolence she has received since the announcement of Descant‘s closing, a longtime friend points out that Karen is unusual in this way: her personal style and tastes have not dictated what gets published in the magazine. Karen is also known for cutting writers and artists a lot of slack when others find them … challenging.

Alongside established and well-known authors, Descant has always published new and emerging writers, many of whom have gone on to successful writing careers. You would be hard-pressed to name a successful Canadian writer who has not been published in Descant. I can say that honestly as I have recently been going through the entire list of our contributors.

I ask Karen to estimate how much time she has put into Descant and before I can finish my sentence she says “forty hours a week.” I clarify, “no, I mean you personally, how many hours?” She repeats her answer with the tinge of impatience that determined people get when faced with mundane questions. “Even when you were working, full-time?” She nods and I cannot resist the urge to blurt out, “but how is that possible when you worked as a Ryerson prof and have published so many books over the years?” (Later, I ask her if it’s 14 or 16 books and she says with a shrug, “more than 16 now. But why do people need to count these things?”). She tells me, “I didn’t think about it. I just did. If you think too much about it you go crazy.” She says that without children and not much time spent in front of the television or radio (“I don’t like things projected at me”), she incorporated the work of the magazine into her daily life: “If I couldn’t sleep for some reason, I’d just get up and work on the magazine.”

Karen Mulhallen at a launch party for Descant.

Karen Mulhallen speaks at a launch party for Descant.

I have seen this dogged determination recently in the labour of closing the magazine. The infrastructure that supported Descant and helped it grow for more than forty years is now almost completely dismantled. Karen has single-handedly, and with some help, sorted through decades of financial information, materials for the archives, and that middle ground that all of us dread: files marked “miscellaneous.”

One afternoon someone dropped by to see about buying one of the office computers. I was busy trying to sort through one of the filing cabinet drawers but eventually I became aware that there was some kind of problem with the way the computers were wired in to the table. Before I could even offer to help, Karen had found a screwdriver and crawled under the table where she could better survey the problem. Then, pink cashmere sweater and skirt notwithstanding, she lay on her back and went to work. In our interview she tells me that her basic operating principle has always been, “we can make it work.”

As well as the 167 issues of the magazine, Karen says she is proud of the outreach programmes Descant has spearheaded, including SWAT (students, writers and teachers workshops), Operation Springboard (writing workshops with young people in conflict with the law), Now Hear This! (literary workshops and support for at-risk youth), and grief-writing workshops. Descant‘s quarterly launches, often standing-room-only, are another kind of literary outreach and Karen’s eyes light up when she talks about them. Although she does often make some introductory remarks at the launches, it’s the production editor’s night and she defers to their plans for the evening, including the choice of readers.

In response to the question Why is the magazine closing? her answer is characteristically unequivocal: “It’s really simple, it’s not complicated at all. As arts funding diminishes and costs rise, we can’t meet the deficit.” But she did try. Since 2010, when she announced she would retire in 2014, she has tried to find some one, or some organization, to take over the magazine. While there were a few nibbles, no one came through with the time and money that it would require. At the last hour, the current group of co-editors discussed the possibilities of taking over the magazine but, like others Karen had approached, we just couldn’t see how to make it work without the linchpin who has held it together for almost 45 years.

"Descant": noun; a discourse on a theme or subject

“Descant”: noun; a discourse on a theme or subject

Even as core funding has dwindled, Descant reader subscriptions have steadily increased. I asked Karen when the magazine’s volunteer ranks got so big and she said she really noticed an increase at the monthly editorial board meetings about five years ago. She is clearly proud that these meetings have always been open to anyone who wanted to participate, no questions asked. You could just walk in, pick up a submission, read it and turn to the person next to you to discuss it.

I ask her the inevitable question about the legacy of the magazine:

Descant has published important writing and art that comes out of a particular time and place … we’ve made a permanent record and helped people grow in their craft and provided a sense of community. Magazines have to be committed to be a record of the thinking of an era and to the artists who make that thinking available to our era … we need to make this available to other people. No one goes anywhere alone. We go there together.”

Karen refutes the perception that if you’re around long, you’re necessarily staid. She says that the goals of a literary magazine are no different than when she started: “to publish people and help them grow and be better at their craft.” What does she make of factionalism in the literary world? “I pay no attention to that. You have to acknowledge development of the culture … you have to help grow the culture and support the whole prospectus.” Maria Meindl notes that:

Descant kept changing, reflecting Karen’s endless curiosity and willingness to reach out to new artists and new communities. It kept growing and reaching out into the world, thinking of new ways to reinvent itself. Just the idea that a magazine CAN do that, for as long as Descant did is incredible.”

Descant‘s last launch was this past January, for issue 167. It was a packed house and I heard more than one person say it was the best launch they’d been to. There was a joie de vivre despite, or perhaps because of, the bittersweet celebrations. Karen was surrounded by old friends and several generations of managing editors. But at one point, when I looked across the room to find her, she was standing alone and I saw her wipe her eyes. In our interview she explained that it was contributor Jim Nason’s comments that really got to her. Before he read that night at the launch, he told the audience how he’d submitted a poem to Descant in the 1980s and got a note back (from Maria Meindl) asking him if he could rewrite it. “Now he’s an author and owns Tightrope Books. There was 30 years in front of me,” Karen says softly. “That’s when I started crying. You know, 30 years? There it was, in that moment, in Kensington Market.”

Near the end of our interview, Karen pulls back a sleeve and we stare at the nasty looking purple mark on her arm from her fall the previous morning. She runs a finger over it and I ask her how it feels. She stares at me for a moment then says, “It hurts. You always know it could happen, but when it does it’s such a shock. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”


1970 - 2015

1970 – 2015


Please join us to celebrate Descant‘s 45 years of publishing new and established writers and visual artists. Antanas Sileika is the MC for our big bash. We’ll be giving away back issues of the magazine so if you or a friend were published in one, now’s your last chance to pick up another copy. We have some crazy-big raffle prizes as well, including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers.

When: March 25th, 7pm

Where: Revival Bar, 783 College Street, Toronto

Catered appetizers and cash bar. Visit our Facebook page for more information.




Curious about our last launch? Come, dressed as you were!

In a Cabinet of Curiosities, issue #167, marks the end of 45 years for Descant. This means Nikolina Likarevic is our last production editor in a long line of talented, hardworking and energetic PEs. We appreciate Nikolina’s commitment to this issue, her quiet and swift way of jumping in to help (everyone) when there’s a question or problem, and her continued enthusiasm at a difficult time for many Descanters. Here she is to tell you about our next, and last, launch. And do take Nikolina’s fashion advice for the occasion!

Note: Mark your calendars as well for our Grande Finale farewell party, on Wednesday, March 25, at Revival. Yes, Revival. We are indomitable… in spirit.


Leaving you with a Bang … and Some Curiosity

by Nikolina Likarevic

“The work of your team has been so vital to Canadian literature, and to the emerging voices of new writers.” ~Georgia Wilder, contributor to issue #167

Cover for issue #167. Installation by William Fussner.

Cover for issue #167, by William Fussner.

In a Cabinet of Curiosities, issue #167, will be the last issue of Descant magazine. It is sad and strange saying goodbye to Descant, but it is also an honour to be a part of it and the outpouring of love and support has kept us all  going. Thank you!

In [our] Cabinet of Curiosities, humanities fragments – memories and mementoes burdened by technology, time, human nature, the drive for equality – erupt in art, poetry, prose and criticism. Josh Stewart feels the apocalypse is near. Narrating from a child’s view of the world, John Lofranco ponders the delicate and painful putting away of childish things. Generations divide and characters search for equality in Georgia Wilder’s short story. Mark Kingwell leads us into the heart of evil, challenging language in mental health and crime. Jim Nason explores personal loss, the death of a father, and national trauma. Kay Armatage explores the neglected history of women through films and film festivals. In A Cabinet of Curiosities tells us there is always a place for nostalgia, a time to live in the moment and a need to think of the future.

There are still memories to be made. Find out what lurks In [our] Cabinet of Curiosities at our launch:

When: January 29th, 2015, at 7 PM

Where: Supermarket Restaurant and Bar

We’re going to create our own memory theatre. Bring your stories, mementoes or wackiest outfit from the back of your closet. Come and share in old and new memories: Descant’s, yours and the ones in our new issue.

There is no entrance fee and, as always, there will be great raffle prizes and delicious nibblies. Our talented line-up of readers includes:

Kay Armatage reading from “The Geopolitics of Women’s Film Festivals: Fem-Cine, Santiago.”

Josh Stewart reading from “A Song of Empty Aisles.”

John Lofranco reading from “Thorsteinn.”

Georgia Wilder reading from “Coco Divine and the Lightning Police.”

Mark Kingwell reading from “Can’t we Talk about Evil?”

 Jim Nason reading from “All the Manure.”

Jim Nason, owner of Tightrope Books and contributor to Descant #167.

Jim Nason, owner of Tightrope Books and contributor to Descant #167.

There are plenty of raffle prizes for you to win thanks to generous donors like Brick, Brokenpencil, Hart House Review, White Wall Review, Tightrope Books, ChiZine Publications, Inanna Publications, Black Moss Press, The University of Alberta Press, and more.

For more information about our launch and to RSVP, visit our Facebook event page. Or, tweet us @DescantMagazine.

I hope to see you there!

– Nikolina


Nikolina Likarevic joined 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.). Contact her on her personal blog here or on Twitter (@NLikare).


Important Notice From Karen Mulhallen, Editor in Chief of Descant Magazine

After long and painful negotiations and deliberations for four years, buy information pills with the literary and arts community, approved with the arts councils and donors, with our co-editors, and our foundation directors, we have jointly decided that Descant magazine in its present form is no longer sustainable.

In A Cabinet of Curiosities, Descant 167, Winter 2014, will be our final issue.

This has been a very hard decision to make. For the last three years Descant has been in a deficit position, and as head of the Descant foundation and Editor in Chief of the magazine, I carry all the debts.

Our vigorous fund-raising campaign this fall was very successful and I want to thank all of you who donated to the magazine. Unfortunately, we did not raise enough money to offset the shortfall. Grants have been in decline for more than five years, although other revenues such as sales and subscriptions have held steady or increased. We have cut costs everywhere we could, but many expenses over which we have no control have continued to spiral up.

I have personally searched for a solution, but have been unable to find either a patronage base or an editor (or editorial collective) to replace myself and take over the magazine, and be responsible for its publication and its foundation.

Descant has an enormous community. It is an international magazine with a strong focus on Canada and on emerging artists. We have trained dozens of interns, hundreds of editors have worked with us over the years, and thousands of writers and visual artists and musicians and dancers have been published in our pages.

Our issues have examined cities, like Venice and Berlin, countries like China and Latvia, regions like North Africa, artistic practices like music. We have published special issues on writers, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, Barbara Gowdy, and composers, R. Murray Schafer, themes like History of the Book, Romantic Love, Hotels, Fashion.

We couldn’t have done it without all of you.

We are now in production with our Winter issue, number 167, and the launch date will likely be late January 2015. We are also planning a huge celebration on the cusp of Spring. Check our website for news or send the office an email to get on our email list.

The co-editors and I are proud to have been able to publish for so many decades. It has been a pleasure and a privilege. We thank you all.


Passion and Persistence: Carrie Snyder on Writing and Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder sets herself a new challenge with each book.

“I’m most naturally a literary writer,” she told me by phone from her home in Guelph. “I like to write beautiful, lyrical, poetical sentences. And that’s a good skill to have. But for this book, I wanted to try to write a plot-based page turner where every word was in service to the plot.”

Published by Anansi, 2014, 363 pages. Shortlisted for the Writers Trust fiction award.

Published by Anansi, 2014, 376 pages. Shortlisted for the 2014 Writers’ Trust fiction award.

When the voice of old Aggie Smart came to her, she told me, “I didn’t feel I had to develop a voice for her. I just heard her.” She started to write about Aggie, and kept writing with relative ease, then thought, “this is too easy.” In record time, Carrie Snyder found herself with 30,000 words of a novel but it wasn’t quite coming together. Something was missing. She left it for six months and in a flash of insight she figured out the identities of two strangers who became key to the plot of Girl Runner. Five months later she sent the finished draft to her agent. This fall it was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award for fiction.

Whether you are a new or experienced writer, you know that good writing rarely comes this easily. When it does, you do what you are told and you write like a maniac, worried that the ideas will dry up, the characters stop talking to you and your capacity to prevent comma splices is snuffed out.

For Carrie Snyder, writing a plot-driven novel “really forced me to be clear. I just knew exactly where I was going… I knew the scenes I needed to write. I was in a kind of frantic state, a desperate feeling that I had to clear things out of my head. I was holding too much for one brain!” It wasn’t as though she was a magical conduit for her characters, taking dictation from their parallel universe: “It was more a process of discovery. I’d plot out a scene but then realize that a certain character couldn’t or wouldn’t do X. It’s in that sense that they tell me who they are.” None of the characters in Girl Runner is based on people that Carrie Snyder knows, “but they seemed very real to me. I knew how Glad moved, for example.”

The missing piece for Girl Runner turned out to be the real-life story of Canadian women athletes. In 1928, Canada sent its first women’s team to the Olympics and the women on the track and field team at these Amsterdam games did so well they were dubbed “the matchless six.” Aganetha Smart, the protagonist of Girl Runner, is loosely based on this story. Aganetha, or Aggie, discovers early, on her rural Ontario homestead, that her passion for running supercedes everything else. She runs barefooted around the family property, sees things she shouldn’t and runs away. Eventually, she makes it to the Olympics.

Carrie Snyder was careful to purposely limit the amount of research she conducted for Girl Runner: “I looked at microfilm newspapers from the time, studied the photographs of Toronto and rural Ontario from the early twentieth century, and even ads and other news stories in order to tap into the culture of the time, but I wanted to be careful not to do too much research. I was writing a novel, a fictionalized version of a time and historical events.”

Carrie recalled Carol Shields’ story about the time a reader wrote to correct Carol on the description of a particular Winnipeg street (whether it was a one or two-way). Carol Shields (whose Pulitzer/Governor General’s award-winning The Stone Diaries is another Canadian story about an old woman reflecting back on a century of life), responded to the criticism of her urban inaccuracy with the observation that she was writing about her own version of a fictionalized Winnipeg. Carrie Snyder is quick to point out that she herself has written a fictionalized version of a Canadian Olympian.

“I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground, and I figure that will be that… I have a sense of impermeability, of elasticity, of bouncing off of something hard, and believing in the first instant that I’d been hurt, then understanding the pain is superficial. It is already gone. This is called recovery.” ~Aggie

There are some scenes that I saw cinematographically (mark my words, this book is  headed for the screen although I have no doubt it was not written with that intent; it reads like a book, not a book wanting to be a movie). In particular, there’s the scene where the young Aggie dances on the family’s barn roof, defying gravity, mortality and her pleading mother below.

“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” ~Aggie

But the scene that has stuck with me most is rather small and insignificant. I won’t even bother to look it up now because I can describe it from the image in my memory: Aggie, in her late 80s or 90s, is by the front door of the family house she now shares with her sister Cora. I think Aggie is wearing a velour track suit, but I might have added that part. She is bent down and tying up the laces on a pair of plain, worn sneakers because she is going out for a run. She doesn’t run like she used to, she tells us in the reflection of this scene, but she still has the desire, the passion. The will. Of all the gender politics that affected women athletes in the early part of the twentieth century evident in Girl Runner (for example, women were forbidden to run in certain Olympic events when some watchers claimed they saw the women swoon with exhaustion at the finish lines, and there was concern about the jostling of their baby-making organs), it is this scene of an almost-century-old woman bending down to lace up her runners to head out for a run that stuck with me most. There are politics and there are law makers. But there are always people who persist, within or without a spotlight; people who bend down, lace up and get on with it.

“I never ran because I was strong… It wasn’t strength that made me a runner, it was the desire to be strong. I ran for courage.” ~Aggie

This is a book about many things, as good books are, and one of them is the bond between women: mothers and daughters, sisters, and close friends. Aggie’s close-knit family is held together by a mother who is the local midwife but also provides a necessary, if secret, service, for young women. Her relationship with her daughters is tender and wise. Aggie’s closeness with her older sister Fannie leads to the heartbreak of her life, and her relationship with her cantankerous sister Cora punctuates the near-end of her life with a tragedy whose guilt she cannot outrun.

Whether or not you are a runner (I’m not; not even when my bus is early), the relationship between Aggie and her best friend Glad, a runner with whom Aggie trains and competes, is compelling. Their life together in downtown urban Toronto is rather bohemian, particularly about men and sex. There’s definitely something more than friendly competition going on between the two women, at least from Aggie’s perspective.

But there’s nothing other than rigorous training going on between Aggie and her coach:

“I almost hate him. How can I hate someone I’ve only just met? I haven’t learned to recognize the subtleties of his trade, the way a good coach directs onto himself his athlete’s frustration with her own limitations, distracts her from doubt, and gives her that extra flare of necessary rage, that compulsion to continue.” ~Aggie

I should say that at the heart of the book is also the relationship between Aggie and her brother, George. Despite his drinking and gambling, and the squalid circumstances of his secret home life, he does what he can to support his sister’s Olympic dreams but in the end, she misses her opportunity to repay him and … well, just keep the Kleenex nearby for that part.

Visit Carrie Snyder's Obscure CanLit Mama blog and learn when in life she herself became a runner. Also, you'll see some lovely pictures of her four kids (yeah redheads!). Follow her on Twitter @carrieasnyder.

Visit Carrie Snyder’s Obscure CanLit Mama blog and learn when in life she herself became a runner. Also, you’ll see some lovely pictures of her four kids (yeah redheads!). Follow her on Twitter @carrieasnyder.

I can hardly summarize or explain such an intricately plot-driven story, with more twists and turns than an Olympic bobsled course (does that make sense? I don’t bobsled either; not even when my bus is late). It covers the span of two world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish ‘flu and, near the end, a rather modern kidnapping. So how did Carrie Snyder manage to keep track of it all and finish it in record time? “I highly recommend Scrivener,” she told me, referring to the software. “Not as something that will make you a better writer, but as a tool to help you organize and keep track of things. I used to use a word doc and several excel spreadsheets but Scrivener is a much more efficient organizational device.”

Carrie Snyder teaches a third-year Creative Writing course in the University of Waterloo’s English Department so I asked her what other advice she might have for our writer readers. She said that she tells her students to “turn off the judging part of your brain and follow what’s interesting to you.” She told me she writes this way, unselfconsciously, passionately: “When I’m choosing the subject for a major project, like a book, I want to write about something that matters to me deeply, something that I want to spend a lot of time thinking about. I think it has to be a kind of personal obsession, something that’s morally or ethically important to you.” I’m guessing that when she gets going on a new writing project, Carrie Snyder, like Aggie Smart, prides herself “on being impossible to cajole.”

For readers of this blog post, Girl Runner publisher Anansi will give you an additional 15% off the book’s already discounted-for-Christmas price. Go to the Anansi website and type in the secret passcode (“Descant” … shhh!) on the third and final checkout screen. This offer is good until Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (and thanks, Anansi!).

Carrie Snyder’s first short fiction collection, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award and her second, The Juliet Stories was a 2012 GG finalist.

I’m giving Girl Runner to a runner friend for Christmas, but not because she’s a runner. I’m giving it to her for a particular scene in the book that I know will blow her expensive sneakers off and leave her gasping for breath.



Literary Salons: made in Italy, here in Toronto

The literary salon is un altro cultural institution for which we can thank the Italians. About the same time Italians created the newspaper (after they invented ballet and long before they organized the first film festival), educated and well-to-do sixteenth century Italian women began hosting these indoor conversational gatherings. Attendance was by invitation only so the women played gatekeeper as well as host and were often expected to direct and  moderate conversations about the arts and socio-political events of the day.

These salons (from the Italian salone, “large hall”) spread to France and grew in popularity with the chatting classes. Their effect on French history and the Enlightenment has been noted by scholars. The organized salon spread throughout continental Europe, England (e.g., the Blue Stockings Society) and Latin America; to read its history is to understand how women influenced the politics and culture of the day, despite, or perhaps because of, the sharp divide between the public and private spheres.

My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.

~ Jane Austen

More recently, in 1930s and ’40s North America, Gertrude Stein hosted some of the great artistic minds of her time, including Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mildred Aldrich, Élisabeth de Gramont, Ezra Pound and Henri Matisse in what became known as the Stein Salon. Fast forward eighty years and it’s easy to see why the literary salon in particular is no longer the event it once was. So much of our so-called public conversation about the arts now happens online which is, and is not, an actual place. Like our homes are, and are no longer, part of the private sphere.

And yet — still we gather. In each other’s kitchens, living rooms, the local pub, a favourite restaurant. The cleverest blog post, or carefully worded comment, lacks the incantatory power of in-person conversation, the back-and-forth, interrupted, built-upon, rebuffed, ridiculed and sometimes alarmingly incisive ideas of others. Always often entertaining.

Writer and Descant volunteer Trevor Abes, production editor for our now-sold-out comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero, attended the first in a new pop-up literary salon series in Toronto last week. I asked if he’d let us know how it went. It’s a pop-up in that the location is only published the day of the event and the venue will change each time. It’s pricey, at $30 a ticket, so if you’re interested in attending the next one, you’ve got a few months to save. But if your work is chosen for the event, your talent is your ticket.

Here’s Trevor to tell you about his experience.


Hear, Hear for Hear Here, Toronto’s Newest Arts Salon

by Trevor Abes

Hear, hear for Hear Here, a quarterly series of salons, each held at a secret venue revealed only on the day of. The series features poets, novelists, visual artists, singers and musicians both handpicked and curated through submissions. Its creator, Toronto businessman Alfonso Licata, wants to contribute to Toronto’s arts community by putting the revered in the same room as burgeoning amateurs. He also set himself a synesthetic challenge in terms of the changing venues. Think of the name, Hear Here. It poses several questions: not only, how do we optimize the act of listening in a given space, but also, how do we listen to a space to ensure we make the most out of it?

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

The atmosphere at the first installment—held on November 20th in the airy lobby of Toronto’s Metro Centre, and delightfully hosted by standup comic and professional clown Anna Sapershteyn—was not what might be expected from an event in the touristy section of King Street West, where dinner and a live show will run you a few hundred bucks. What could have been a pretentious affair, with unapproachable cliques talking in corners, turned out to be an effective remedy for the nervousness we feel when introducing ourselves to strangers. There were multiple stages, areas for quiet thought, and room for aimless strolling and casual encounters. Attendees weren’t forced to listen to any reader or musician; rather, they were invited to and had the option to stand up close, sit on a nearby bench or hang back at the bar to chat out of earshot.

The visual art at Hear Here no doubt inspired spiritual commutes with Sara Mozafari’s “A Woman on the Subway,” self-discoveries behind Bryan Belanger’s Manufactured Masks exhibit, and unplanned romps through Dante Guthrie’s psychogeographies, to name only three.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Café, the caterers for the evening.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Cafe, the fabulous caterers for the evening. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

First up was Claudio Gaudio reading from his novel Texas (Quattro Books), about a U.S. diplomat kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. The book’s stream-of-consciousness style— which crosses continents and centuries from one line to the next—was a proper intro to a diverse lineup including dub poet Lillian Allen, digital media artist Bryan Belanger, and the stunning vocalist Yvette Coleman.

Claudio Gaudio. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Claudio Gaudio, reading from his novel Texas (Quattro, 2012).  Read our review of Texas here. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Composer Jason Nett, armed with guitar and loop pedals, told us his career was about “taking the spontaneity of what I play in my living room and sharing it without too much refinement.” He made beats in real-time, layering riffs into the order he wanted, then soloed over them with all the flair of Slash mixed with Bill Frisell. He played with abandon, eyes closed, swaying back and forth as if lost and loving it. I felt lifted, as you do when the song you need happens to come on the radio.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

After Julie Joosten read from her Governor General’s Award-nominated poetry collection Light Light (BookThug), I spotted poet and novelist Barry Callaghan eating a slice of pizza with his wife Claire. If he were in a restaurant or on the street, I may not have approached him to say hello. But this was a salon, after all. We were here to meet fellow artists, mingle and make connections, spurred on and comforted by the knowledge that everyone was here for that same reason. I shook Mr. Callaghan’s hand and asked him how he was carrying on. He said, “All right, though I wish people would’ve been quieter so I could’ve heard the poetry.”

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Novelist Richard Scarsbrook received the most laughs for his theatrical reading about the ontology of oral sex from The Indifference League (Dundurn). He began with one of his poems, and was the lone performer to call the crowd toward him saying, “I’m moving on to the prose now, you can come closer.”

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

The surprise of the night was writer Emily Halliwell-MacDonald, a recent Master’s recipient from Queen’s University whose short fiction submission to event organizers earned her a headlining spot. She counts Hear Here as one of her first readings. Imagine that. Reading on the same night as Lillian Allen and Barry Callaghan, and not as an opening act, but in between them. And she didn’t break a sweat.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Hear Here returns February 2015 with a theme: revolution.

Submit your work here.


Trevor Abes is a writer with a penchant for hip hop and conceptual art. His work has been published in Torontoist, The Toronto Review of Books, Sequential: Canadian Comix News and Culture, and untethered magazine. Trevor was the production editor for Descant’s (sold out!) comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero. Please visit and follow him on Twitter @TrevorAbes



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.


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.


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.





In Writers We Trust: an evening at the 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards

In a week filled with (yet more) talk about how little Canadian writers earn, prompted this time by articles in The Globe and Mail by Elizabeth Renzetti and Camilla Gibb, it felt good, so good, to sit in an audience and watch a total of $139,000 be awarded to Canadian writers.

At last night’s 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards, hosted by Globe and Mail Arts Editor Jared Bland, six writers won prizes of either $10,000 (Journey Prize), $20,000 (Matt Cohen and Vicky Metcalf Awards) or $25,000 (Latner Poetry Prize, Engel/Findley Award, Rogers Fiction Prize). I think Vicky Metcalf Award winner Cary Fagan summed up the bittersweet moment when he showed us his new boots from the stage and said that the next morning he’d be running to the bank to deposit his cheque to pay off some bills. There is really nothing at all glamorous about being a Canadian writer. Except the award ceremonies.

2014 Writers' Trust Award winners:    Cary Fagan (Vicky Metcalf    ), Miriam Toews (Rogers Fiction Writing), Ken Babstock (Latner Poetry Award), Susan Musgrave (Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement) and Tyler Weevil (Journey Prize)

2014 Writers’ Trust Award winners: Joan Thomas (Engel/Findley Award for mid-career); Cary Fagan (Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People), Miriam Toews (Rogers Fiction Writing), Ken Babstock (Latner Writer’s Trust Poetry Prize), Susan Musgrave (Matt Cohen Celebration of a Writing Life Award) and Tyler Weevil (Journey Prize)

If you’ve never been to an event like this I can assure you that it’s pretty much what you covet and fear most. It’s fun to see the people you recognize from book jackets and television interviews in the flesh. Last night there was free wine and beer and fancy appetizers, all delivered around the room by good looking servers wielding silver trays. The place seemed full of very tall and slim and beautifully dressed people who have the keen and skilled eye to look past you if they don’t know you. Even the people you do know will look past you to find someone more… connected. It’s the kind of event that most writers would hate, were it not for the public recognition and the big fat cheque.

Three hundred guests filled the Glenn Gould Studio of the CBC building for the event. It’s the perfect size venue to encourage a sense of celebration but also neighbourliness. Although I was not in reserved seating, Miriam Toews was sitting in front of me and I easily spotted many writers, both well-known and emerging, sitting around me. There was even a woman sitting on an aisle seat who spent the time knitting. The occasional flash of her knitting needles was no more distracting than the glow of mad tweeting that was going on in a room full of family, friends and publicists. The stage was filled with a stunning set decoration of stylized book spines, by Kalpna Patel  (if you live in Toronto you may be familiar with her work in the windows of Type Books). I would suggest to the organizers that next year they crank up the music that accompanies each winner to the stage. The faraway strains of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra sounded more like someone in the front row was trying helpfully to play something on their phone.


The Writers’ Trust was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Pierre Berton, David Young and Margaret Laurence and has since given almost $4,000,000 to Canadian writers. No other NGOs or foundation give as much financial support to Canadian writers. Each year, The Writers’ Trust gives almost 100 writers a total of more than $400,000. Through their Woodcock Fund, they have helped “writers in crisis” with a total of more than $1 million.

“The Woodcock Fund is a quick-access emergency resource that aids established Canadian writers who face an unforeseen financial crisis. Help is given to writers in many different situations providing them momentary relief, a period of financial stability, and the opportunity to complete their current writing projects.

It is the only program of its kind available to writers in Canada, and is often the last place authors can turn for help.”

I know people who have benefitted from this program. I have writer friends who are struggling to hold down several jobs (by “several” I mean three in one case, and four in another), or to get off social assistance (two national award-winning authors in this case). So yes, we need an office of Writers In Crisis. When a writer is awarded ten or twenty thousand dollars, it goes to plugging holes, not exotic trips, new cars and fancy clothes. Cary Fagan‘s boots looked very serviceable to me. Probably chosen to last him another 10 years. Or more.

Susan Musgrave was awarded the Matt Cohen Prize for “living a writing life,” a life supported by the income generated through one’s writing, something not possible anymore, noted her prize-giver. The award-winning BC poet told us the story of how she came to choose her outfit for the evening. Though she’s normally a jeans-and-t-shirt person who wears “two left-foot gumboots I found years ago, although one has a rip in it now,” she explained that her silk patterned shirt and black blouse were bought while shopping with Matt Cohen, many years ago in Yorkville (yes, they cost a fortune even then, I overheard her say later). She said that when she knew Matt (he died in 1999), they joked that if they ever won lifetime achievement awards, they’d know the jurors had been talking to their doctors. And there she was, standing on the stage accepting her lifetime achievement award, named after her friend Matt, with whom she went shopping forty years ago and bought a swanky outfit… just in case.

A big cheer went up for the inaugural Latner Poetry Prize winner, Ken Babstock and I know why. I’ve met him at a couple of literary events and he’s unpretentious, warm and funny. Okay, and talented. Like the other award recipients, his voice cracked when he thanked his partner (and young son, Samuel). The Latner Poetry Prize is awarded “to a Canadian poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work [at least three collections] and in hope of future contributions to Canadian poetry.” Ken joked that his wife might indeed be glad if the award was for lifetime achievement (versus mid-career), alluding again to the difficulties of trying to make a writing life, especially with a family.

Ken Babstock, talking to a journalist after winning the inaugural Latner Writers Trust Poetry Prize ($25K!)

Ken Babstock, talking to a journalist after winning the inaugural Latner Writers Trust Poetry Prize ($25K). In 2012 he won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection Methodist Hatchett.

My personal interest in attending the ceremony had to do with the Journey Prize. Lori McNulty’s short story “Monsoon Season” was published in Descant 163 earlier this year and was one of the three shortlisted stories for the Journey Prize, along with Tyler Keevil (“Sealskin” in The New Orphic Review) and Clea Young (“Juvenile” in The Fiddlehead). The Wales-based Tyler Keevil won the $10K prize coveted by short story writers.

I was struck by the eloquence of Jennifer Lambert’s introduction of Joan Thomas for her mid-career Engel/Findley Award. Moments before the writer took her place at the podium, the chair of the Writers’ Trust Board of Directors and editorial director at HarperCollins Canada described the winning prose as “lightning-bright” and full of  “those small vanities that undo us, those veins of bravery that sustain us.”

Miriam Toews‘ acceptance and thank yous required another kind of bravery. Her winning novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is based on the real-life fact that her sister committed suicide in 2010. Evidently struggling to maintain her composure, she said that her book is in part a testament to her beloved sister’s long struggle with mental illness and the love they had for one another. It never bothers me at all when people are emotional in front of an audience even though it’s often horrifying for the person on the stage, under the bright lights. When Miriam Toews thanked her family (clearly the loud cheering section seated in front of me), she informed us that, sadly, her mother “couldn’t be with us tonight because… she’s at a Raptor’s game!” Biggest laugh of the night, within seconds of the most tears shed, just like All My Puny Sorrows. Miriam Toews‘ words to her publicist, a woman without whom she “would be curled up at home in the fetal position,” were as moving as the thanks given to family members that night. She said her publicist “is my lighthouse… my pal.”

Tyler Keevil, 2014 Journey Prize winner, talking to a new fan after the ceremony.

Tyler Keevil, 2014 Journey Prize winner, talking to a new fan after the ceremony. Kalpna Patel’s work in the background, right.

After the ceremony the room emptied quickly for the post-reception (there was one before and one after the ceremony). I stayed near the stage to take some photographs and talk to the winners (I was honestly surprised at how few guests took this opportunity; was it the free booze?). To my delight, when I congratulated Cary Fagan, he asked me my name and when I said I’m a Descant co-editor his face lit up and he told me that Descant published his first story back in 1977. How nice was that?

Joan Thomas‘ acceptance speech was memorable in its big picture and political scope and I took the opportunity to tell her this. She looked relieved and said she felt badly that she wasn’t as funny in her thank yous as the other winners. So you see, writers? The self doubt and recriminations apparently never end. It’s god-awful normal.

On my way out of the auditorium there was this moment when the din of the reception hit me; a cacophony of unintelligible chatter. I was so stunned by the suddenness of it that I stepped back into the auditorium for a second in order to brace myself. There’s no point in attending these events unless one is willing to participate, meet new people, chat up famous faces (or try). But for many of us, it does take some bracing. Maybe in fact for all of us. After all, we were there to celebrate, honour and award the work of people who make something beautiful of our miseries.

Congratulations to all the nominees, jurors (a stunning list of CanLit who’s who), and winners of the 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards. As Elizabeth Renzetti says in her Globe article, it’s not true that no one ‘has to’ write books. Without works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children and young people’s fiction, we would have no culture: no shared expression for all our puny sorrows.

In writers, we trust.