In her novel Probably Ruby, Lisa Bird-Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2021), takes us through the twists of fate and conscious, if sometimes questionable, choices in the life of Ruby, an Indigenous woman adopted at birth by a white couple. Big- hearted Ruby searches for identity and a sense of belonging and, along with the reader, comes to recognize that those two things don’t always equate.
Chapters fraught with the heartache of lost children and substance abuse exist right alongside glimpses into joy and friendship and the complicated love of family. What is wonderful about this story is that we see Ruby as whole, as containing all the elements of a life despite, and sometimes because of, her search to determine who she is in a world that wants to prescribe that for her.
What Bird-Wilson does not ask us to do is to feel sorry for her protagonist. Ruby is loud and raw and lovely, and her big booming laugh rings through the pages. She is self-aware even as she becomes mired in the consequences of bad choices. And Ruby is brutally honest.
“Something Ruby didn’t tell anyone: she could spot an Indigenous adoptee a mile away. Pick them out of the crowd like it was a serious parlour game. Sixth sense. And it wasn’t just a visilibility thing…. likely, she thought, because of that window, a blank spot like a slipped stitch in a knitted scarf — once it was missed there was no going back to fix it. It just existed.”
Ruby tries really hard. She is always moving forward, learning American Sign Language, “back when she wanted nothing more than to learn a secret language. If she had a superpower it would be invisility. Pretending to be deaf was the next best thing.”
Ruby’s stories are interspersed with those of others, women who gave up babies because there was no other choice, men who survived abuse by priests at residential schools. There is a fluidity to the book, the stories weaving into each other and connecting us to Ruby, her big laugh reminding us that she doesn’t want our pity. She only needs us to see her as joyful and flawed, perfect and terrible, to witness her life as a whole, and to love all of her.
“As she danced, the image of a river came to her. A river branching into multiples of itself, no longer a single stream but a delta. And if her life were such a delta she might let the flow take her in a direction far from the current she was in now.”
So begins our adventures with Sylvie, the wildly engaging, funny and flawed protagonist of the award- winning If Sylive Had Nine Lives, a novel by Saskatoon’s Leona Theis, published by Freehand Books.
Playing with structure, plot and voice, Theis takes us on a raft ride down the what-if streams of a life. At times hilarious, in others poignant, each chapter of this novel is a reflection on the choices a person could have made, should have made, forgot to make or fell into. From an almost-cancelled marriage to falling for an old flame; a sister she mocks to an aunt who picks her up at each failed turn, these stories haunt with the notion that one moment, one decision can affect a lifetime.
Sylvie is fervently human as are the characters surrounding her and the world they act upon and which impacts upon them. A master of language, Theis renders these stories in prose that makes you catch your breath, makes you want to read that sentence or paragraph one more time, the beauty of word choice and image filling the reader with longing, joy or laughter.
I should have written this review long ago, but better late than never. Read Sylvie!
(In this time of pandemic, when travel seems a distant memory, I thought I’d share this piece (edited for length) I wrote last year for Freelance, a Publication of Saskatchewan Writers Guild)
Once upon a time, in a far-away land I knew nothing about….
Many of us write stories and poems set in unfamiliar cities or cultures, geographies, or climates. And many of these we can successfully imagine or research from the comfort of our home and computer. But if a writer’s work is set in a place truly foreign to them, travel might be considered an essential act of research.
It took a while to fully appreciate the impact of my trip to Java, Indonesia for the novel I recently finished. Loosely based on my dad’s time with Dutch forces in the East Indies at the end of the Second World War, the story explores the journey of a young man finally released from Nazi occupation only to be drafted and sent to reclaim the colony from an Indonesian Independence movement begun under Japanese occupation. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s taken months, or shall I admit, years, of research. And some enlightening travel.
With gratitude for Saskatchewan Arts Board funding, I embarked on a month-long wander of Java in the summer of 2016. I’d thought the novel was about two-thirds finished—how wrong I was. Trip notes and photographs became reference points and memory aids. Add a few strokes of the colourful Bahasa Indonesia I’d learned, and the story came alive, burgeoning with the sights and sounds of cities drenched in history and heat, the dense smells of the jungle, the sing-song of Javanese voices, and the cultural nuances of a place imbued with river myth and temple story. Setting and characters, themes and plot—the impacts were enormous.
Up until the trip, I’d thought myself a bit of a fraud trying to write the story without having set foot in the country. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sensory and cultural information. How to use it? How to keep it from overwhelming the story? The joy at having a foreign world opened up to me, became the challenge of deciphering the copious notes I’d taken, choosing which experiences were relevant to the story, and capturing it all in words. Turns out, the challenge was not unique to me.
When Man Booker-nominated author, Alison Pick, started research for her novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, she started where we all do. “I’m a big believer in the internet,” she says. “But it doesn’t give you the colour of the light, the landscape, and geography. It doesn’t allow you to feel the setting of one hundred years ago. I was given a sense of context to be physically in the setting and to have a visceral reaction to it.”
For her book about Jewish pioneers trying to create a utopian kibbutz , a communal settlement in what would later become Israel, Pick explored letters and diaries found in the archives at Kibbutz Ein Harod in Israel where she traveled several times over two and a half years, on a Chalmers Arts Fellowship.
“I was less the stereotype of an artist who is inspired by the place. My trip was more clinical and fact-finding,” she says. Pick spent the bulk of her time with a translator who helped her to sort through mostly unpublished documents. “I came away with a sense of the emotional tenor, the atmosphere of the time and place… I was able to inform the fictional characters with real events and people.”
Yes, yes, and yes; my experience too. But unlike me, Pick went to Israel early in the project. She believes the ideal time for travel research depends on what the book is and what the writer is looking for, but going earlier is likely better.
I’m of two minds on that one. Because I’d written so much of the book I knew exactly what I needed/wanted to see when I went to Indonesia, and planned accordingly, visiting cities important to the history I was trying to portray—a colonial-style coffee plantation, the jungle. But had I gone earlier, perhaps I’d have been more open to experiences I hadn’t anticipated or wasn’t looking for that might have impacted the plot itself. Hindsight, gift, or curse?
Because poets do things differently, I thought I’d asked Saskatchewan’s own Tracy Hamon for her thoughts on travel research. Her 2014 book of poems, Red Curls, follows the life and work of Austrian artist Egon Schiele and his relationship with mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. A little more than a third into the writing, she traveled to Austria and the Czech Republic to see what inspired Schiele’s work.
Hamon explored museums, galleries, and art centers. In Vienna and Czesky Krumlov she walked past the exact scenes recorded in Schiele’s paintings, wandered Tulln where he grew up and his father worked the trains, retraced the artist’s steps to where he’d watched his orphan muses or enjoyed the gardens.
“It wasn’t just about the artwork and responding to it. I grew weary of that and started responding to the places he lived and the sights he’d painted, their texture and atmosphere,” she says. “I don’t think I could have finished that book and given it what it needed if I hadn’t gone there. I didn’t have the vision of the book and that trip helped me to shape the manuscript into what it became.”
While I didn’t have access to much Indonesian archival material, I could imagine the historical drama by paying attention to the Javanese people, how they reacted to the Belanda,who’d come to visit (I am a Canadian child of Dutch immigrants) and by asking myself questions about my own biases and assumptions. I vividly recall watching a toddler sit in the shade of bamboo and teak, looking out over a tumbling river as he gummed the banana his mother gave him. And I wondered at the impact of the jungle on his future world view. How different from my novel’s protagonist, raised by the streetcar’s bell and tick of a clock. Why, at first, was the muezzin’s 5:00 a.m. call to prayer annoying, and then hauntingly beautiful only after I’d met those who rose at dawn to pray? Why did I initially assume my host uneducated or the batik seller poor, neither of which were true?
These are hard questions – sometimes mortifying – but necessary questions. As Alain De Botton writes in The Art of Travel, “A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”
In order to build a plausible plot and believable characters, a writer needs to know as much about the angle from which their writing comes as what they are writing about. And that, perhaps, was the biggest lesson of my travel; to see things as they were, not how I imagined them to be. That, and just how god-like and angry a rumbling volcano can sound when one is perched at its lip looking down into its cavernous sulfur-belching mouth. But I digress.
And there’s another tip. Not everything you see or experience will be useful to your writing. It can’t be. “Your main allegiance is to the book,” says Pick. “So that may mean not including every person or place or event from your travels. You might think you have to tell it exactly as it was. But you should be more pre-occupied with how the material serves the story.”
So important; serve the story. My volcano experience was astounding, but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a place for it in the novel. Another darling killed.
Despite different intentions, different approaches, different outcomes, all three writers agree we could not have written the same book, captured the places and people, imagined the stories and poems without having touched the earth where our characters walked. Well-planned travel, approached with an open mind and attention to the needs of the story, is truly a gift to yourself and your work as a writer.
How else could I have found words to describe the doors of warehouses yawning open over the sewage filled canals in the port of Surabaya. Or pillars of sky-blue barrels and bamboo baskets waiting to be filled with fish for the market. Or the intelligent eyes of a woman crouched in a narrow street shaving coconut into a basket and surrounded by stalks of pungent lemongrass and brightly colored peppers. I don’t feel like a fraud anymore, my words given a little authenticity because I was there too.