by Joshua Whitehead
“Who am I now?”
This is a question I’ve always asked myself. This notion of ‘whoness’ always being a haunting thing that contradicts my expectations, alongside the temporal check-in of the ‘now,’ like a perpetual measuring tape that situates me between life’s fundamental hurdles. And thinking on this in all of its depressing isolation — my next entry I’ll try and write with people, I promise — I channel Walt Whitman, who, very often, makes me feel a whole lot better about my life (I often correlate it to his Santa Claus beard). In asking the question of ‘Who am I now?’ I offer up a quotation by Whitman in which he so confidently boasts, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.” Perfect. I feel well. Thanks Walt.
I’m sure you have found, or will find, these notions in the work of our five writers at the Wednesday night Mainstage event: André Alexis, Doretta Lau, David Alexander Robertson, Martha Baillie, and David Bergen. Their ideas are large — they contain multitudes.
Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances I missed the first reading as done by André Alexis. I do apologize. I was told his reading was superb!
I did, however, arrive just in time to hear Doretta Lau read from her novel, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? An eclectic, time-travelling narrative which tells the story of a variety of young Asian Canadian who come of age in the 1990’s. The stories feature time-travelling tech-savvy future selves who send retroactive (and yet futuristic) text messages from across a galactic digital system in order to forewarn, congratulate, and/or criticize their younger selves. These texts contain ominous, cryptic, foreshadowing messages about future moles, hopeful scratch tickets, a case of herpes, and a serious bout of self-inflicted Münchausen by proxy.
Lau’s How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, although seemingly unruly in its style, offers some serious contemplation as per ideas of national and personal identity. Notions of contemplation, self-reflexivity, and grandeur are situated within the very title of the book itself. ‘Whoness,’ as per Lau, being a question that is tossed around and as transformative as the temporal energies of our time-travelling hero/ines. Lau transfixes the notion of ‘now,’ allowing it to become an irrelevant thing; for what is ‘now’ but a second past?
Next was David Alexander Robertson who shared with us The Evolution of Alice. The premise behind Robertson’s novel was the interplay between memories and lived experiences. I’ve been a big fan of Robertson’s work ever since I read his graphic novel, 7 Generations (which I highly suggest you read!) so I was superbly excited to hear him perform. He read for us an excerpt from a section entitled, “Staring at the Sun”. The scene opens to a living room; the television is dimly lit in the background providing pedagogic entertainment to a small child. The child, Alice’s daughter Grace, repeatedly smudges the screen with fat fingerprints in order to answer Dora’s exploratory questions. “Where?” asks the inquisitive pink-shirted cartoon adventurer. Ah, there it is. A print blurs the yellowing pixels on Dora’s on-screen map. But this is a memory — a regenerated snapshot of a day since past. The scene refocuses. Alice is alone. The child is gone. A mundane midday television show plays instead. “I’d do anything to have to use windex,” Alice mentions. Anything.
For Robertson, memory, or moreover the past, as compared to Lau’s futuristics, becomes a blurring thing. Memories crawl over Alice like goosebumps — an uncomfortable feeling, yes, but a welcome one too. The house is empty. The words are heavy. Grace flashes in bursts and blends into the breeze. She is gone. We are asking ‘what-if?’ and ‘how come?’
In a final scene a swing lolls in an open field. The grass is giggling. She is there.
“We are going away.” Alice protests.
“How far?” her children ask.
As we witness Alice, in the short vignette that Robertson read us, evolve I was reminded of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which a former runaway slave, Sethe, reconstructs the memories of her dead child, so aptly remembered as Beloved. It’s not the content of the two novels that I link as much as a notion that Morrison introduces in Beloved known as ‘rememory’. This concept is understood as an act of remembering a memory; when a memory is revisited either physically or mentally. Interestingly the word is not a verb but a noun. It is an actual thing. This concept I see deeply imbedded in Robertson’s work. The past is always a haunting thing — nostalgia always stings. Grace, Alice’s dear baby, is not a fleeting image, a harmless verb, but an actual thing, a biting noun; a ghost brought to life through desire; a phantom that feeds through necessity — ‘whoness’ being a leeched identity. But through memory, or ‘rememory,’ one can begin to identify one’s self as a human being with unrealized potential, one can become one’s own best thing.
That, I believe, is The Evolution of Alice.
Next to read was Martha Baillie who patiently guided us in The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. The protagonist of Baillie’s novel pieces together a life through archival research, that is, the life of Heinrich. If you’ve ever delved into an archive of any sort, or you’ve come across a love note in an old book, a photograph from the past, a memento from an ex-lover, you are well aware of the past’s ability to become interchangeable with the present — for time, place, space to blur in a mishmash of undecipherable symbols. These notions, I believe, sit at the core of Baillie’s novel: this is how one searches for Heinrich Schlögel.
“The sentences,” as described by the novel’s protagonist, “that Heinrich loved best were hard as rock candy and lasted.” The protagonist, approaching the question of, ‘who am I now?’ self-reflexively asks, “Should I address him in the past tense?” The story then shifts to the point of view of Heinrich Schögel — our reanimated archive. Heinrich seems a quiet boy, introspective, curious. In one scene, Heinrich travels down a road gathering the corpses of a variety of dead birds. He collects them in a bag, which, has now become useful in another manner, in that it not only carries bread, cheese, and fruit — but also dead birds. Heinrich, sitting down, removes the birds and inspects them. He examine the colours that reflect off their wings when a certain degree of sunlight reflects off their feathers. “The hardness of a beak,” Heinrich says, “the softness of an eye — these are mine.”
Baillie’s protagonist formulates an important observation, in regards to not only the novel but also to our own lived experiences as human beings, noting, “It is mostly for speculation that we exist for others and ourselves.” I love this quote. I think it is an important gesture to be conscious of the fact that we are all searching for our ‘self’ through the eyes of the other — searching for our selves by constructing another. For Baillie, the past and the present are interchangeable. Baillie’s protagonist, in a final gesture, comes to the conclusion that, “I am choosing the present tense.”
André Alexis calls time. Baillie stops. There, in the spotlight, hovering in the random bits of dust and dirt that kick up from Baillie’s closed book is the question we are all asking of Baillie, of Heinrich, of ourselves, ‘Who is he now?’
Lastly we have David Bergen who read from his latest novel, Leaving Tomorrow. He opened with a vivid, anything but nostalgic line, “The thing to do when you’re in junior high is fight.” Thus, we are introduced to Bergen’s protagonist, Arthur, a well-read, witty, slick-tongued boy in Alberta. Arthur is a lover of literature, philosophy, and the brother of a boy who fights. He finds pleasure in the bewilderment between he creates in his mother — a bewilderment caused by a fascination with language. “Who taught you to talk like that?” she asks. Arthur also uses the power of words to bewilder his bullies by forever cursing them as ‘scallywags’. “Fight you dick!” one of Arthur’s bullies yells. “It’s against my principles,” he replies. Fighting, as Arthur describes, “is for baboons and lions seeking mates.”
Arthur is a lover, not a fighter; a lover of characters. He is a boy who wants to be someone else. A boy who craves the possibility of having his arm drawn behind the curtains into bizarre saloons and can-can girls (who he undoubtedly will love, for any touch from a girl, Arthur notes, automatically conjures up those feelings). He craves the illusion of another self. A mirror. A comparison in which to gather his ‘self’.
Wednesday’s Main Stage Event was a wonderful night that sparked a wide range of introspective questions for me. I learned a great deal, in terms of not only writings styles but in formulations of self-identification, from each writer. I came in, pen in hand, thinking to myself: Okay who are these people? Who are their characters? What means ‘who’? Usually what I’m looking for is a snappy one-liner, a poetic quote to enjamb my thoughts, a reference to a book I should probably read. This night was different. I was not only asking ‘Who are you?’ about each writer and their characters — I was asking it about myself. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I too am a second past; that I am constantly regenerating memories of identification; that I far too often condemn the present tense; that I’m far too often waiting to be drawn behind the curtains. And I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘whoness’ is not singular; it is both a noun and verb — it is fragmentary. So I’m all aboard with Heinrich in his proud statement of “these are mine[!]” I too contain multitudes. I too am large.
Who-ness. I want that. I think? Is that even a thing? And if I ever figure it out, well, maybe, for truth’s sake, I’ll let you know. But who knows?