In this month’s instalment of Feminist Book Club, we are covering all of our generic bases: poetry, novels, and short stories that defy the conventions of the short story. We’re also welcoming Tajja Isen to the team! Check out her bio on the About page. And if you feel like it, let us know what you’ve been reading!
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill
Normally I don’t like funny books. I’m suspicious of books that make me laugh because I’ve been taught, as an English major, that good literature is serious literature. But O’Neill’s reckless coming-of-age novel reconciles humour and seriousness in a way I couldn’t help but accept, even adore. The main characters – Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay – are offbeat and disheveled nineteen-year-old twins who were once famous Quebecois child stars. Despite their uniqueness, their struggle to grow up is entirely relatable. The special thing about this book is that the relatability allows the reader to take the story seriously, yet it results from humour. Nouschka’s narrative voice creates comedy by focusing on the truths of growing up and everyday life. Her humour is honest, using ornate similes to portray something a little bit sad, yet comical because it strikes the reader as true: “Pigeons shifted back and forth from one foot to the other, like old ladies with bags of heavy groceries in either hand.”
The comic realism of O’Neill’s metaphors mirror Nouschka’s attempt to come to terms with life in the real world – something her brother is incapable of. In fact, Nicolas and the other male characters are Noushka’s main obstacles in asserting her independence. Nicolas is domineering, her father is an absent narcissist, and her new husband is too self-obsessed to take her happiness into account. Growing up, for Nouschka, is a push to assert her ability to live on her own, out from under the patriarchal roof. While Nicolas and the others remain tied to “the personas they had created when they were fourteen years old,” Nouschka does not share their naïveté. Her harsh, bluntly hilarious one-liners tell us that she’s savvier than that. She can see that beauty and greatness exist here and now, not upon some lofty ideal.
All in all: if you want a girl-power read with a badass protagonist and the perfect amount of humour, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a pretty good bet. – Jordan Day Weir
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
I picked up this short story collection at Toronto’s TYPE Books back in November. It had been on my radar for a couple months, having received glowing mentions by Roxane Gay and Zadie Smith (two writers whose book recommendations can easily make my wallet unsnap), but I let this one swim around in my awareness for a while before I felt like the time was right to acquire it. Though I started it that same day, I didn’t really break ground on it until earlier this month, when I finished it over a couple days post-end-of-term. Set in 1960s America—with a few stories teetering on the edge of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act—the collection probes the myth of colourblindness in the context of desire and relationships, showing us in often uncomfortable ways the limitations of empathy and good intentions.
“Uncomfortable” is a key word for me here. Collins burrows into the issue of inhabiting a biracial body—a body often policed for not being immediately legible—to write from and of some highly discomfiting subject positions. There’s the woman who takes pride in her ability to almost “pass” as white, accepting her lover’s comments on her near-success (how white she seems for a non-white woman) as the deepest of compliments. There’s the white boy so insistent on his capacity to transcend the racial divide that he tells his non-white girlfriend that he “want[s] to be a Negro for [her]” (56). Collins puts these characters out there and she judges them, hard. These stories have teeth. In the title story, she includes each character’s race in brackets and inverted commas every time she mentions them, a simple move that, by the end of the piece, seems to have lathered into pure rage. That story alone is worth the price of admission.
Part of what kept me from getting into the book at first was one of the things I ended up really admiring about it—its formal variety. While the short story is an elastic form and collections are ripe for various kinds of stretches, Collins’s angle is decidedly cinematic: one story consists entirely of exterior shot description; some pieces are exclusively composed of script-style dialogue; one calls itself a “Treatment for a Story”; others follow the contours of short fiction more traditionally. This experimentation is related to Collins’s filmmaking, the work for which she was primarily known during her lifetime, with her fiction coming to light only recently. We’re lucky it did—the collection is a wonder; clear, piercing and sly. It answers the question that its title poses, but that doesn’t mean the answer is easy to hear. – Tajja Isen
The Break by Katherena Vermette
You know that feeling when you read a book and just know that it will be one of the best things you read all year? That’s the feeling I got when reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break. Set in a small town in rural Manitoba, The Break tells the story of a violent rape and assault and the Métis community’s attempt to understand, solve, and recover from the crime. Reminiscent of William Faulkner’s novels, The Break begins with a family tree that traces four generations. Each chapter tells the story from a different character’s perspective — 10 voices in total — sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. And so as each character tries to understand what happened that night, the reader follows along with them.
This is not just the story of a violent crime, but of the history of settler colonialism and its aftermath: systemic racism, poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, abandoned children, and so much trauma. As the mystery unfolds and you find out who is responsible for the crime, Vermette masterfully ensures that the reader is able to have sympathy for all of those who are involved in and impacted by this crime. While it might be all too easy to point the finger at an individual, Vermette makes it clear that this violence is not just tied to an individual, but a history, a culture, and a lived reality.
This is a hard read — as Vermette’s inclusion of a trigger warning at the start of the book suggests (“Trigger Warning: This book is about recovering and healing from violence. Contains scenes of sexual and physical violence, and depictions of vicarious trauma”). But it is also a necessary read in a moment where Canadian male authors are joking/not-joking about awarding an “appropriation prize.” The Break asks us to enter a world that might not be familiar to us, to inhabit it, and to feel the pain of each character. It is a novel of female strength, tenderness, and forgiveness — one that will break your heart, just as it should. — Margeaux Feldman
milk and honey by Rupi Kaur
This is the kind of poetry that will make you race through the pages, with quicksilver fingers as you stroke the pieces of soul she has somehow captured on the page. And you’ll want to slow down, mesmerised by the simple illustrations and white space that give you room to breathe after her words take your breath away.
I first found her work on Instagram—yes, she’s also the artist with the period blood picture. She did an entire series of work on menstruation, reclaiming public space for our bodies and bodily functions. Kaur writes of the intimate realities of being a thinking, feeling, loving woman, and I often find myself nodding along to her art. She finds the most beautiful ways to describe tangled emotions. You cannot help but imagine her complexly.
I can’t do them justice—her words are enough:
you were so afraid
of my voice
I decided to be
afraid of it too
“the hurting” reads like a trigger warning. Bring tea and your worst memories, it will hurt like hell but she will catch you on the other side.
he placed his hands
on my mind
for my waist
or my lips
he didn’t call me
he called me
“the loving” is a slowly rising blush on your cheeks at the memory of last night, or that other time on the roof, or when your partner looked at you that particular way and sent your heart into freefall.
i didn’t leave because
i stopped loving you
i left because the longer
i stayed the less
i loved myself
“the breaking” is an inevitable wind, blowing against a tree that may bend but will not fall. It feels rooted, grounded, aching but whole.
loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself
“the healing” is where Kaur catches you, tells you she sees you and loves you as you are.
And there’s one more I want to share with you, because I am aligning myself in these intentions:
i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your
spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that
Whether you devour this book in one sitting or read a single page that fills your mind for weeks at a time, it will change you. You can follow Rupi Kaur on Instagram, @rupikaur_ – Rebecca DiemTags: american literature, book club, books, canadian literature, novel, poetry, reading, reviews, short story
This post was written by Margeaux