7 Books of Essays by Canadian Women
When I was writing my own book of literary essays, Calm Things, I was looking around for models and mainly drew from sources outside of Canada. I loved the essays of Annie Dillard, John Berger, and the diaries of May Sarton. I was inspired by Susan Griffin and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. But I hadn't found the type of personal, thinking essay that I hoped for. Perhaps they were out there and I simply didn't connect with them. My book was published in 2008 and so was Susan Olding's Pathologies. Though we were both writing essays at about the same time, Annette Woudstra published her books about living in Africa the year before. Anne Simpon's Marram Grass came out the year after mine. So we were more or less unknown to each other (though Annette and I were and are close friends), each of us writing our essays. Since then, there have been others, some of which I've included below and I'm sure there are many I've missed.
Pathologies by Susan Olding is brave and at times heart-stopping. She writes elegantly and incisively about family - her father the pathologist, her sister-in-law who is diagnosed with breast cancer, but the most compelling essays in the book are about the adoption of her daughter from an orphanage in China.
"Why do you adopt a Chinese baby?" The young man's expression was dignified and serious. His was not an idle question. He deserved an honest answer. But what to say? I looked at my daughter, still sleeping. Her head was tipped back. Her cheeks were softer than a peony blossom. Beneath their closed lids, her eyes briefly fluttered and then fell still. "Because we love her," I said at last. He smiled broadly then, and gave me the thumbs-up.
The Marram Grass by Anne Simpson contains essays about art, poetry, nature. She contemplates how we see, empathy, and our interconnectedness. In her work I find a kindred spirit.
Most days I walk with my two dogs on the Fairmont Trail, off the Harbour Road, in Antigonish County, through a tract of land that is sometimes whiskered and tipped with the first frost, or densely overgrown and haloed its the black flies of summer, or extravagantly wet and muddy, every leaf running under water. Occasionally I catch glimpses of snowshoe hares and grouse; once I encountered a black bear that had been feasting on wild apples (it looked at me quizzically, and I backed away as a person would do for royalty, calling for the dogs - no, yelling for the dogs to follow).
Annette Woudstra's The Green Heart of the Tree was written when she lived in Gabon with her young family. Influenced by the contemplative stance of Tim Lilburn and the raw enthusiasm and depth of Annie Dillard, these essays might also remind you a little of the writing of Karen Connelly.
What comes up next is always unknown. We don't belong here, we are nothing to Africa, we are homeless, we are odd. We rent a house with a large yard: it has three cool white bedrooms and a neat blue-tiled kitchen. A block away is the main road to town. Beside it, families live in wood shacks without doors and their children play in the dust kicked up by passing cars and trucks. In the rainy season, if it rains hard or long enough, sometimes a house there will be washed away, sometimes people drown. Or rainwater floods the latrines and the dirty water runs and then dries through the houses and people get sick. We live beside them, but the road we walk to meet is precarious and obscured.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn's Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry has meant a lot to me and I return to it often. It's the conversation I want to be having with women writers but am too far away or busy or disconnected to have. In these pages I found community. Just holding the book in my hands reminds me that I need to re-read it yet again.
"The story goes that John Cage left the gallery where he had been looking at Mark Tobey's painting, Threading Light, and as he stood on Madison Avenue staring at the pavement, he realized the beauty of the sidewalk - its nuances, its detail - was every bit as intriguing as Tobey's painting. Tobey, who was considered a mystical artist, inspired a generation of painters, including Emily Carr and Jackson Pollock, and believed that the search, not the outcome, was the only valid expression of the spirit. His most well-known painting was an expression of light as a unifying idea, a gesture towards a larger relativity; lines, intricate weavings, were interconnected, moving symbols of spiritual awareness."
Flight Calls: An Apprentice on the Art of Listening by Brenda Schmidt begins with a wonderful essay titled, "Noise," in which the author describes taking an "auditory brainstem response test" due to experiencing tinnitus. Schmidt, a birder, artist, and a poet, writes about Saskatchewan with a keen eye (and ear) and a unique love for place.
An English professor, fellow writer and bird enthusiast once asked me why so many poets are birdwatchers. I suggested it had something to do with song, for birds sing to communicate and lyric poems were originally written to be sun, but now I suspect that's not the reason at all. There's a snowfall warning in effect for the area. It's been snowing all day and I've spent much of it at the window. I never know what to expect when I look out. I think about his question again as I scan the trees for the Mourning Dove that showed up at our bird feeder a few days before. I feel sorry for it. They don't winter here but for whatever reason the bird did not travel south.
Jenna Butler's A Profession of Hope is about small organic farming but also about how it is possible to live in a caring and profoundly mindful way. You might remember Jenna from a recent post on this blog. Normally I skip over back cover blurbs, but I think the one by Alice Major describes the book perfectly: "A Profession of Hope is a memoir, paean and plea for caring. Jenna butler makes a passionate, lyric case for a small organic farm 'two scant growing zones off the Arctic' and - as poets can do so well - she connects the local and immediate to the big issues of human life on this planet."
What makes us step away from a stereotypical urban life? For some, perhaps it's a small departure: a handful of chickens in the backyard, a few raised beds for beans and greens or a rooftop garden if the condo building permits. For others, it's the whole hog: departing city life altogether for a different way of being. Either way, there's a shift that happens within some of us, and the desire for change - to be closer to the earth, our food and the seasons - becomes a necessity.
Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines/Sex,/Blood Loss & Selfies by Margaret Christakos is exactly as the back cover promises: daring, erotic and original. I read this book when I didn't really have time to read it, madly dog-earing pages, and know that it's one I'll come to again and again. There are essays about menopause, daughters, selfies and the writing life. The writing is contemporary, intense, delightful, and fresh. This is a necessary book, a book for our times. I would have bought it for the essay on selfies, alone.
Plus you can look imperfect, in fact, you must look imperfect, in a selfie, and across dozens of selfies the imperfections become a catalogue of becomingnesses. It was this becomingness archive I wanted to build, to say that I had a world folding open and open again as I became an older woman reproducing new versions of herself instead of reproducing in the domestic economy. There was a lot that was luxurious and radical about the activity.