And what an end it is? Or is it the beginning of something else?
On June 19, K.R. Wilson joins us for our final event of the season. It’s going to be epic!
From Guernica Editions, Call Me Stan is a Tragedy told in Three Millennia, that is also very very funny!
“When King Priam’s pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there–one cross over. Stan has been a Hittite warrior, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary for the caravans of the Silk Road and a Great War German grunt. He’s been a toymaker in a time of plague, a reluctant rebel in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn’t die, and he doesn’t know why. And now he’s being investigated for a horrific crime. As Stan tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic perspective to three thousand years of Eurasian history. Call Me Stan is the story of a man endlessly struggling to adjust as the world keeps changing around him. It is a Biblical epic from the bleachers, a gender fluid operatic love quadrangle, and a touching exploration of what it is to outlive everyone you love. Or almost everyone.”
K. R. Wilson grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he obtained a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Calgary. In 2018 his debut novel, An Idea About My Dead Uncle, won the inaugural Guernica Prize for unpublished literary fiction, and was published by Guernica Editions in 2019. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with his wife and daughter. Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia is his second novel.
It’s always sad when Junction Reads comes to an end, but it is especially meaningful this year, as we are saying goodbye to two years of our bi-weekly virtual events. It was wonderful to be able to speak to authors from across Canada and it this experience that has made us see how important it is to maintain these online and accessible readings. Stay tuned for more information about next season. We hope to return to the Anansi Book Shop once a month, which we hope to livestream, and we will continue our online events welcoming authors and audiences from all over the world.
The month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.
– Lady Gregory
It feels like the closer we get to summer, the more these months become my favourite. I love May because it feels like it is the period at the end of a long run-on, unpunctuated winter sentence. I love May because I start to pull together my summer reading list and look at our schedule for next year. May is exciting!
This month, we welcome two more authors to share their work.
In Reversing Time, one boy’s quest to change history “the odds are definitely against Simon, racing home from school every day a step ahead of the school bullies–until he finds the talisman. Even as the talisman begins to destroy his family, Simon discovers that he belongs to a tribe of people with the power to travel along the length and breadth of their own life lines. Simon is shocked to learn that they expect him to help halt humanity’s destiny: extinction. A fast-paced fantasy YA novel, Reversing Time tackles vital themes in today’s society–such as climate change and the environment–within the context of an exciting page-turner.”
“Charlotte Mendel was born in Nova Scotia and spent three years travelling around the world, working in France, England, Turkey, Israel and India. She is the author of Turn Us Again (Roseway/Fernwood, 2013), which won the H.R. Percy Novel Prize, the Beacon Award for Social Justice, and the Atlantic Book Award in the Margaret and John Savage First Book category. Her second novel, A Hero (Inanna Publications, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and was a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards in the General Fiction category. Charlotte currently lives in Enfield with twenty chickens, four goats, three sheep, two cats, two children, one husband and thousands of bees.”
“The basic damsel-in-distress gig sounds perfect to private investigator Ashley Smeeton, who’s got her own personal and professional struggles in Montreal. Against the backdrop of the winter Carnaval, the job first takes her to Paris where she’s drawn into an unsettling world of mirages and masks, not to mention the murderous Bortnik brothers. When she returns to Montreal, a city rife with its own unreasonable facsimiles, the case incomprehensibly picks up again. Convinced she’s being played, Ashley embarks on an even more dangerous journey into duplicity. In a world of masks behind masks, it’s hard to say where the truth lies.”
“Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there, which surprised no one but her. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things best forgotten. Her well-received domestic mysteries, After the Winter and The Au Pair, feature evocative settings and uninhibited female revenge, with a seasoning of moral ambiguity and noir. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and domestic suspense.”
Only four more readings of the season. Why not join our mailing list? We’ll send monthly invites and news about our new upcoming in-person events and our continued online events. Are you an author looking for a place to share your work? Contact us today for more information. email@example.com
“Spring is made of solid, fourteen-karat gratitude, the reward for the long wait. Every religious tradition from the northern hemisphere honors some form of April hallelujah, for this is the season of exquisite redemption, a slam-bang return to joy after a season of cold second thoughts.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
It has been said that April is the cruelest month, but I do not, I cannot, have faith in such a statement. It’s kicked off with laughter (if your foolish joke lands) and it ends with a very real promise of warm sun on your face (not like the now you see it, now you don’t sunshine of March).
April at Junction Reads is going to be great. We’ve got Cary Fagan joining us for #TheFirstThirty with GREAT ADVENTURES FOR THE FAINT OF HEART (follow us on Instagram for more details). Stephen Henighan returns on Sunday April 10 with THE WORLD OF AFTER and Edith Blais joins us with her incredible memoir, THE WEIGHT OF SAND.
This month, we’ve got two very different books to talk about and we cannot wait.
On April 10, Stephen Henighan returns to Junction Reads with his latest novel, THE WORLD OF AFTER. It might make you think about an April Fool’s joke that went horribly wrong and it might make you think about those important friendships you once had, but that ended or fizzled out.
Stephen has published several novels, short stories, and non-fiction titles. “For his fiction Stephen has won the Potter Short Story Prize and a McNally-Robinson Fiction Prize. For his non-fiction he has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Canada Prize in the Humanities, a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award.”
From Cormorant Books: “When Kevin, an Irish Montrealer, attends graduate school at Oxford University in the early 1990s he meets Leon, a London Jew from a Communist family, and Alex, a Soviet defector’s son raised in Toronto. As the trio begins to form a complex and conflicted friendship, Alex pulls away and spends more of his time tutoring a charming, yet troubled, upper-class undergraduate and less of it with Kevin and Leon. In a fit of jealousy, Kevin and Leon play a prank on Alex and the undergrad, a prank with dire consequences.
Ultimately, the three young men go their separate ways, but what happened that night binds them together and helps lead them to freedom and self-discovery in a post-Cold War world.”
This reading is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and The Writer’s Union of Canada Public Readings Program.
On April 24, we will meet Edith Blais, who will share a reading from her incredible memoir about her kidnapping and 450 days of captivity and her incredible escape in March 2020. In The Weight of Sand, “Edith Blais describes her harrowing hostage experience for the first time—and reveals that writing poetry in secret helped save her life.
Edith recounts the prolonged terror of her months as a hostage, enduring violent sandstorms, constant relocations, grueling hunger strikes, extreme isolation, and the unpredictability of her captors. She also shares the luminous poems she wrote in secret with a borrowed pen, which became a lifeline of creativity and one of the few possessions she smuggled out in her escape, strapped to her leg under her clothes.”
From Greystone Books: “Edith Blais is a chef and self-taught writer and artist who chooses to lead a simple life. In 2019, she and her traveling companion, Luca Tacchetto, were taken hostage by an Islamic militant group in the Sahel region of Africa. Her writings during her fifteen months of captivity became the basis for her first book. Edith escaped her captors in March 2020 and currently lives in Sherbrooke, Quebec.”
Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Points In Between
Ceilidh Michelle’s memoir of her experience living on the streets in California is a moving story about poverty, homelessness and community. We sat down on January 23 to chat about her experiences and how they were translated into this beautiful book published by Douglas & McIntyre.
Vagabond takes place over a 3–4-month period. It’s not a long time, and yet we meet so many characters. Are there any people you keep in touch with? Any moments or people that left a strong impression or that you still carry with you?
CM: I think as writers and storytellers you’re always going to carry elements of your experiences with you. I carry everything I’ve ever lived with me all the time and some of that will come out over the years in different incarnations. Because of social media we’re able to have these pseudo connections with people and so I’ve been able to connect with some after all this happened. One of the people in the book reached out to me recently because they saw that I wrote this book. My first reaction was, shit, you’re going to read this, oh and you’re in it by the way. But it’s hard. I live in Canada and most of the people I met live in America and our lives at the time were so transient that even if I wanted to reach out to them, it would be very difficult. For our own safety, many people change their names and so, I wouldn’t know where to start.
How did you record your experiences at the time and how much of Vagabond is memory and how much is from journals or conversations after that time?
CM: I carried a notebook with me everywhere I went and I anything interesting I wrote down. Even to this day, I love writing down interesting dialogue and words that I overhear out of context. I was writing down everything sort of like a travel journal. There were so many weird things I couldn’t not write down and I’m so grateful to my younger self that I had the wherewithal to take notes because now I have this record. I was also traveling with many artistic people. There is one instance where we go on this escapade into Compton. We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth, so there were a lot of perspectives I was able to get from other people, which was cool.
“We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth.”
Vagabond is not a linear story. It’s not like a journal with dates and times stamped on each page. This leaves these absences or disconnections in the voice. It feels like a real experience reading.
CM: It’s kind of like now. You’re in these situations of emergency and survival. Days fall off and go past. I find a lot of weird parallels living right now and living then. I don’t really believe in the linearity of time. It doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Your life can transform in the same span of time where a week before, nothing happened.
Poverty is an important part of Vagabond. There is a sense that many cannot escape the cycle of homelessness, hunger, and addiction. At one point in the novel, you say that needing charity was a constant shame. How has that changed for you or how has your perspective changed since living your experiences in Vagabond?
CM: I think back then I felt that there was less of a cost. Homelessness for me was circumstantial and I believed I could bounce back easily. I was twenty and I had no sense of consequence. I bounced from place to place and crashed on people’s couches, and it was fine. As I get older, I’ve gotten angrier. I had to control myself when I was writing Vagabond to not make it a rant about housing being a human right. I can’t even wrap my mind around the fact that some people in this world believe that other people don’t deserve water or shelter. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to marry this sense of defeat with the injustice, like what can we do? I hate the sterility of corporate gentrification and I’m watching cities fall so it’s really and it’s just totally disheartening. But I don’t want to be defeated by that, so I focus on thinking about what I can do, as an individual.
I think you did that beautifully here. Vagabond isn’t political. It’s a genuine sharing of experience and thought. The people you met got to speak for themselves in the issues of homelessness and there were so many diverse experiences and opinions.
CM: I hope they feel that they got to speak for themselves because so much of their experiences was not my own ideology. There is a lot of like weird ageism with homelessness, like it’s something you’re just expected to outgrow. Like, homelessness is fine for young people, you know to be bohemian, to embrace poverty and this #wanderlust or whatever. I think the elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.
There are many moments in Vagabond where you were vulnerable to some scary people or situations. In one section, a character says, it’s best to be invisible, being a woman is a dangerous trade. What was the scariest moment for you?
CM: I think the scariest moment for me was when I got home. The ending of the book was also scary. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it, but the ending was very sobering for me. To realize that some people would make it and some people wouldn’t and I don’t think that any of it really caught up with me until later. I think I was quite foolish, but I was just so young that when I was out on the street it never really occurred to me to feel fear necessarily. There was one night when I was sleeping alone, and I had a switchblade with me. A group of men walked past, and I was terrified they were going to spot me. I realized that all of these true crime stories and things that you hear are real stories, they are real women, sisters and daughters who go missing all the time. As a young person I didn’t really know what that meant, but it caught up with me later, like PTSD. I can’t believe I did that.
Are there any experiences or moments you wish you could go back to?
CM: That is a complex question. I don’t know. Circumstantially, I don’t think I could really go back. I couldn’t do it physically. Looking back, I think maybe I wouldn’t have always tried to find a boy or a man to protect me. I was raised in a very overbearing evangelical environment. You needed to either be subservient to a man or you needed to find a man to protect you so even in this most vulnerable and independent living situation that I found myself in my first motivation was to find a male to protect me. That so often backfires on young women because men are dangerous a lot of the time. You have to be careful around them especially ones that you don’t know. If I could go back – and what I’ve learned from most situations – I’d seek out more women. Especially if I’m in a vulnerable situation. I’ve gotten a lot of good mentors that way.
“The elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.“
You embarked on this journey to find a Yogi in California and that doesn’t end up happening. I’m curious if you still practise if it is still an important part of your life.
CM: I do practice yoga, but I find a person’s spiritual journey kind of hard to talk about. I think it’s kind of private but I also I think it’s such a blundering track. Two steps forward, one step back and I think that was really reflected in my experiences in Vagabond. There’s so much subculture built up around spirituality now. It’s expensive and it’s inaccessible and you have to pay a premium or wear the right clothes. I think spirituality functions better when it’s quiet and done in private.
What are your thoughts about the ability of literature and writing to make social change? Do you feel it is still as powerful a tool today than yesterday or less so or do you think that our stories merely exist for our own personal feelings?
CM: I hope that writing has an impact when it comes to social justice. I know there are a lot of gatekeepers and I know that it’s hard for writers to survive financially. You have to hope writers have the time, which is the ultimate gift. I’m seeing a lot of people getting the ability to speak now in a way that we never have before, especially in Canada. I’m proud of what people are doing in publishing right now. They’re working hard to make sure that there’s justice and equality in publishing. I’m very grateful to everyone in Canada who’s doing that right now. Ultimately, writing should be about your personal feelings. There are so many fictional books I love to just sink into like a warm bath and I’m so grateful for the escapism so please more fantasy and fiction and all kinds of stuff.
Ceilidh Michelle is the author of the novel Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, which was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction. Michelle has had work published in Entropy, Longreads, The Void, Broken Pencil, Matrix Magazine, McGill University’s Scrivener Creative Review, Cactus Press and Lantern Magazine. Ceilidh holds an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia. Ceilidh calls Montreal, QC, home. You can find her on Instagram @ceilidh_michelle.
We’re at the worst of winter. Shorter days, mean longer nights, it’s cold where I am, and it’s about to get colder. Every morning, when I see the sun shining through the window, I imagine, maybe it’s not that cold. I dream of warm spring rain falling and carrying it away. When I flick on the stove, I think about sitting by a roaring fire in a big cottage somewhere. I go online and search beach vacation and I just look at the stock photos of people running in the sand, frolicking in the water.
What is her point, you might be asking? Well, my point is that winter is for dreaming. Winter is for sitting in your favourite chair and imaging another world. I’ve said it before (maybe even in my last post), winter is for reading! And because winter is for flying and traveling around the world, we’ve got two PERFECT books to talk about this month.
“Grace Porter is reeling from grief after her partner of seven years unexpectedly leaves. Amidst her heartache, the 30-year-old library tech is tasked with reading newly discovered letters that Amelia Earhart wrote to her lover, Gene Vidal. She becomes captivated by the famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. Letter by letter, she understands more about the aviation hero while piecing her own life back together. When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her life becomes more intertwined with the mysterious pilot and Grace begins to write her own letters to Amelia. While navigating her third trimester, amidst new conspiracy theories about Amelia’s disappearance, the search for her remains, and the impending publication of her private letters, Grace goes on a pilgrimage of her own.”
On February 20, we welcome Cheuk Kwan with his collection of essays, HAVE YOU EATEN YET? In this collection, Kwan takes us on his documented journey to Chinese restaurants around the world. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Register at EventBrite. PWYC. Tickets are $0-$20. All proceeds go to the author.
“From Haifa, Israel, to Cape Town, South Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs and restaurateurs have brought delicious Chinese food across the globe. Unravelling a complex history of cultural migration and world politics, Cheuk Kwan narrates a fascinating story of culture and place, ultimately revealing how an excellent meal always tells an even better story. Dotting even the most remote landscapes, family-run Chinese restaurants are global icons of immigration, community and delicious food. The cultural outposts of far-flung settlers, bringers of dim sum, Peking duck and creative culinary hybrids like the Madagascar classic soupe chinoise, Chinese restaurants are a microcosm of greater social forces—an insight into time, history and place. From Africa to South America, the Jade Gardens and Golden Dragons reveal an intricate tangle of social schisms and political movements, offering insight into global changes and diasporic histories, as the world has moved into the 21st century.”
As we start a new year, you may have your to-be-read list in front of you and you might be thinking about all the books you want and need to add to that list. Have you set yourself a challenge? Will you read 50 books this year? Will you read over 200? Or, like, me, do you set a time per day or week that you dedicate to reading?
However, you choose the words you’ll read, Junction Reads is a source for recommended books. There are short story collections, memoirs, novels, personal essays and not only do we have a vault of past readers (with videos and interviews) to choose from, we have upcoming authors with newly, or yet to be, released books that you will definitely want to add to your TBR list.
On January 9, we kick off the new year with Nic Brewer and her powerful debut novel, SUTURE. It is innovative story-telling with provocative prose and great characters. From Book*hug Press: “Suture shares three interweaving stories of artists tearing themselves open to make art. Each artist baffles their family, or harms their loved ones, with their necessary sacrifices. Eva’s wife worries about her mental health; Finn’s teenager follows in her footsteps, using forearm bones for drumsticks; Grace’s network constantly worries about the prolific writer’s penchant for self-harm, and the over-use of her vitals for art. The result is a hyper-real exploration of the cruelties we commit and forgive in ourselves and others. Brewer brings a unique perspective to mental illness while exploring how support systems in relationships—spousal, parental, familial—can be both helpful and damaging. This exciting debut novel is a highly original meditation on the fractures within us, and the importance of empathy as medicine and glue.”
Register now and pay what you can. All registered attendees have a chance to win their very own copy from Book*hug.
On January 23, Ceilidh Michelle joins us with her humorous and lyrical memoir, VAGABOND, Venice Beach, Slab City and Points In Between. From Douglas & McIntyre: “At twenty-one, Ceilidh Michelle was homeless, drifting through countercultural communities along California’s coast, from Venice Beach to Slab City to Big Sur. This restless and turbulent time began when she was sleeping on her sister’s couch in Vancouver and decided to become a yoga disciple in California. Denied entry at the US border in Washington state, and stuck overnight in the Greyhound station, her already shaky pilgrimage began to take another direction, away from the inward sanctuary of an ashram and toward the sea and light and noise of Venice Beach, and eventually up Highway 1 to the desert.” Register now and pay what you can. All registered attendees have a chance to win their very own copy from D & M.
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On December 5, I sat down to speak with Yejide Kilanko about her latest novel, A Good Name, a complex and tragic story about a marriage; the unreachable American dream, and the oppressive expectations of family.
“Twelve years in America and Eziafa Okereke has nothing to show for it. Desperate to re-write his story, Eziafa returns to Nigeria to find a woman he can mold to his taste. Eighteen-year-old Zina has big dreams. An arranged marriage to a much older man isn’t one of them. Trapped by family expectations, Zina marries Eziafa, moves to Houston, and trains as a nurse. Buffeted by a series of disillusions, the couple stagger through a turbulent marriage until Zina decides to change the rules of engagement.” Guernica Editions
It will be hard to talk about this novel, without touching on the burden of family expectation, or cultural expectations. There is point in the novel where Zina says: “one should never underestimate the destructive power of the village gossip.” How does this play a role in Eziafa and Zina’s dysfunctional marriage in A GOOD NAME?
Zina was right. Village gossips are skilled at airing people’s dirty laundry in public. And in the world, she and Eziafa grew up in, one followed the rules and did everything not to attract their attention. Family expectations and cultural expectations play significant roles in AGN. Eziafa went back to Nigeria to find a bride because of his mother’s demands. And his ideas about what it means to be a man, a husband, are shaped by his cultural socialization. Zina entered into the marriage because of her parent’s wishes. Her decision to challenge cultural expectations changed their marital rules of engagement.
Eziafa is a character I feel like I have to hate. He is so self-centred and deluded, but as a reader, I also felt sorry for him. How did you manage to create such a selfish character and yet trigger so much sympathy?
I was relieved when one of my first beta readers echoed your comments. It is easy for us to have strong negative feelings about self-centered and deluded people. I knew I had to provide readers with enough information on Eziafa’s thought processes. When we catch glimpses of other people’s humanity, we may be open to understanding why they act the way they do without needing to approve or disapprove of their behaviour.
Friendships are very important in AGN. As a connection to home or a welcome to a new life and new love, but they are not just a beacon or promise, they are warning signs, flashing lights that Zina and Eziafa ignore. Can we talk about the development of these secondary characters? Felix, Nomzamo, Raven, Jovita and even Billie Lou? I’d love to talk about their names as well. First names and last names are very important and I wonder how important naming these secondary characters became?
One should never underestimate the destructive power of the village gossip.
Zina, from Yejide Kilanko’s A Good Name
I’ve always felt that one does life better with the right friends. In an earlier interview about AGN, I had talked about how character naming is a crucial part of my writing process. As a Yoruba woman, I grew to believe that the names given to babies shape their personalities and destinies. Therefore, I spend quite a bit of time pondering the names I give to all my characters. Nomzamo’s Zulu name was a nod to Winnie Mandela. Her Georgia peach namesake exhibited her boldness.
The pacing of the novel matches the slow revelation of character: Eziafa is a man who unfolds, revealing himself a little bit at a time. Zina is a woman who goes along with the life she is supposed to live, until she can no longer. How did you think about plot and character when you sat down to write AGN?
Goal, motivation, and conflict are essential story building blocks, and they are what shape my plotting and characterization processes. The characters have a way of telling you what they want. After my first novel, I started writing with a detailed outline. I found that breaking down my chapters into scenes helped with the pacing. The length of time it took to birth AGN also helped with the crucial simmering process.
The perspective is balanced between Zina and Eziafa, but Eziafa dominates as his presence is so large. The novel opens with a lot of Eziafa and closes with more Zina. This matches Zina’s coming into her own, as she finds her own voice, she takes up more space in the novel.
I’m glad you noticed the balance. I had mentioned earlier that I knew I had to provide readers with enough information about Eziafa’s ways of thinking. That’s why he took up space at the beginning of the novel. And as Zina grew from a teen to an adult and made more independent decisions, she claimed more space.
When we catch glimpses of other people’s humanity, we may be open to understanding why they act the way they do without needing to approve or disapprove of their behaviour.
As always, at Junction Reads, we get insightful questions from our audience. Here are a few of them. Dividing a large manuscript into several parts is a fascinating process. Do you consider the resulting three books to be a series, or as freestanding books?
All three books, the published ones which are Chasing Butterflies and AGN, and the work-in-progress, In Our Own Ways, came from the manuscript I’d titled, When Land Spirits Cross Big Waters. They are all freestanding books with some similar themes. The central character in Chasing Butterflies, Titilope Ojo, appeared in AGN. Readers wanted to know what happened to Titilope, and I thought it was an excellent way to tie up her story.
What made you interested in writing about couples?
I’m interested in exploring intimate partner relationships and understanding why people act the way they do. I think I write about couples because their interactions offer layers one can peel back.
Have you always combined writing and your profession in mental health? Or did you begin writing later?
Writing came first. I started writing poetry when I was twelve and became a social worker at thirty-three. Writing is a solitary pursuit, while social work practice demands interaction. They complement each other.
You’ve published so many different types of writing: novels, short stories, kids books… how do you choose whether an idea becomes a novel, a short story, etc?
I appreciate this question because it made me think about how this determination happens. With my children’s books, I’m deliberate about the themes. I want to write about mental health issues, special needs, grief, on topics we don’t usually talk about with children. My poems come in a self-assured way. There are no doubts about what they are. It’s hard for me to explain. In my short stories, whether flash or longer, I write about themes I want to explore immediately rather than teasing them out for years which is what happens with my novels. I’m grateful that I can explore life in many ways.
Yejide Kilanko was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. Her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, is a Canadian national bestseller. The novel was longlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Literature Prize. Kilanko’s work includes a novella, Chasing Butterflies (2015), and a children’s picture book, There Is An Elephant In My Wardrobe (2019). Kilanko’s short fiction is in the anthology, New Orleans Review 2017: The African Literary Hustle. When she’s not busy dreaming about more stories and poems, you’ll find Yejide online playing simultaneous games of Scrabble. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she practices as a therapist in children’s mental health. (Transatlantic Agency)
On November 21, I had the honour of sitting with Wayne Ng to talk about his new novel, LETTERS FROM JOHNNY. Published by Guernica Editions, the epistolary novel has Johnny at its centre. “Set in Toronto 1970, just as the FLQ crisis emerges to shake an innocent country, eleven year old Johnny Wong uncovers an underbelly to his tight, downtown neighbourhood. He shares a room with his Chinese immigrant mother in a neighbourhood of American draft dodgers and new Canadians. In a span of a few weeks his world seesaws. He is befriended by Rollie, one of the draft dodgers who takes on a fatherly and writing mentor role. Johnny’s mother is threatened by the “children’s warfare society.” Meany Ming, one of the characters by the rooming house is found murdered. He suspects the feline loving neighbour, the Catwoman. Inspired by an episode of Mannix, he tries to break into her house. Ultimately he is betrayed but he must act to save his family. He discovers a distant kinship with Jean, the son of one of the hostages kidnapped by the FLQ who have sent Canada into a crisis.”
I loved the strikethroughs, language mistakes and run on voice of Johnny. How difficult was it to learn to speak with Johnny’s voice? Particularly choices like “verses you to a fight” instead of challenges to a fight. It feels so perfect and I imagine little Johnny’s finger scrolling through his new dictionary as the story moves forward.
I love talking to children and youth and of course I’ve been doing it for the past 30 plus years as a social worker. So, to be honest, tapping into that voice, especially when coupled with my biographical elements, made Johnny-speak feel natural and easy. I was essentially channeling much of my childhood and the many characters who’ve dotted my day job.
There is honesty in letter writing, particularly to a complete stranger like a pen pal and it also feels like we’re watching Johnny mature through his writing. What is it about the epistolary voice that drew you to it as the best choice for LFJ?
I had tried 1st and 3rd person POVs. But given that so much of the novel is based on biographical elements, they felt like artificial barriers, neither giving me the voice, the intimacy nor confessional tone I was looking for. I also wanted to give readers a natural, authentic experience that wasn’t hindered by an authorial presence. Letter writing comes with great risks, rendering the writer completely vulnerable. That sort of stripping away of Johnny’s boundaries and privacy felt exactly like where I wanted the reader to be – up close and completely immersed.
The novel is set in the middle of the October Crisis. Communism and an underlying anti-“the man” theme run throughout. There is Rollie, the draft dodger and the repeated run-ins with the principal and Children’s Aid. Was it a deliberate mash-up of historical events and personal crises, or was this a time in your own personal history that stood out?
Most of us have poignant memories of our childhood if not whole stories worth sharing. When LFJ was first written as a short story, it was very much about him and Henry St. Years later I returned to it and felt that I had more to say. I saw broader themes of change and coming of age, not only for Johnny, but the community around him, and the country. Like most children, I looked for heroes, and a sense of belonging. I was only eight during the FLQ crisis but I remember how it consumed people. Situating it within the crisis and during the early days of Toronto’s branching out from WASPY-ways became deliberate. It gave me an historical backdrop to amplify and parallel an immigrant boy’s story with a community and a nation trying to grow up.
Most of us have poignant memories of our childhood if not whole stories worth sharing.
Your childhood neighbourhood (Henry Street) and the neighbours, play a big role in the novel. But there is also this bigger backdrop of separatism and the Felquistes planting bombs and killing people. The Irish police woman sums it up nicely, “sometimes a country is like a family. We don’t always get along. Sometimes neighbours don’t either.” How did community and your own personal history influence the story?
Just about every character in the story is a derivative of someone from my childhood. The tree-lined urban oasis of Henry St. was a ghetto of rooming houses for draft dodgers, students, immigrants and more established residents. We grew up with very little, including parental supervision as I was very much free-ranger, roaming the streets and alleyways of Chinatown and downtown Toronto. Really, I thought it was the best place to live. Thus, the setting is integral to both my childhood and LFJ.
How can I not ask about hockey? Have you been in touch with Dave Keon or his son? I’d love to think about Dave Keon reading little Johnny’s letters.
Dave Keon’s persona was that he is a humble, gentleman, in it for the team, a real sportsman who believed in fairness and respect. He’s also a very private man. It would be disrespectful of me to publicly share his thoughts and feelings about anything. I respect him too much to do that. What I am prepared to say is that he personally answered every piece of fan mail, and that the persona I spoke about is not a facade. He really is a class guy if that doesn’t sound too archaic.
Letter writing comes with great risks, rendering the writer completely vulnerable. That sort of stripping away of Johnny’s boundaries and privacy felt exactly like where I wanted the reader to be – up close and completely immersed.
The sequel has been shortlisted for the Guernica Prize. The Family Code finds Johnny years later in another important moment in Toronto history. How did you discover Johnny’s more mature voice? How is life for Johnny in your new novel?
The Family Code is a completely different novel actually.
The sequel Johnny Delivers, is still being drafted. The voice hasn’t come as easily but I’ve extrapolated that street-wise, independent wanderer child into a parentified 18 teen year old. Thus, he’s rather cocky, believing he’s ready for prime-time. Why shouldn’t he believe that? He’s a master at holding everything and everybody together. The challenges in his life are edgier, the stakes are much much higher for him. Bickering family, mah jong, egg rolls, drugs and a very seedy Yonge St. form the backdrop. But he’s not quite ready for the big show, and won’t be until he reconciles his own infallibility. Shadows replace the child-like charm as he’s learned to spell, write and drive a car. Plus a first love. Can’t be 11 forever. Readers will grow with him.
Some have described your novel as YA and others see it as a novel for adults. Who do you think about when you imagine a reader of Letters from Johnny? Did you find it difficult to write or incorporate the very adult themes (FLQ crisis, murder, child welfare) while narrating from a child’s point of view?
I wrote LFJ for the generation who lived through and with the cultural references of 1970. I imagined only they would appreciate the many pop references and understand the tectonic societal shifts happening at that time. The child’s perspective was a shameless hook to our love for nostalgia and our romantic notions of childhood innocence, even if they are imagined. Honestly, I didn’t anticipate nor even consider the younger readers enjoying it as much as they have. However, a child’s perspective allowed me to use humour, dramatic irony and the unreliable narration to indirectly and perhaps more effectively tackle some of the sub themes–whether they were about race, class or dislocation. I love how a child’s lack of filtration and innocence allowed us to see things that might otherwise obfuscate truth.
Wayne Ng was born in downtown Toronto to Chinese immigrants who fed him a steady diet of bitter melons and kung fu movies. Ng works as a school social worker in Ottawa but lives to write, travel, eat and play, preferably all at the same time. He is an award-winning short story and travel writer who continues to push his boundaries from the Arctic to the Antarctic, blogging and photographing along the way. Wayne was recently nominated for the Guernica Prize for his latest book, THE FAMILY CODE.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, summer reading has nothing on winter reading. Curling up in a chair with a cosy blanket and a comfy pillow, I can’t wait to finish A GOOD NAME from Yejide Kilanko. I am a short story super fan and Frances Boyle brings our first collection of the season, SEEKING SHADE.
You can register now for both events. As always, you have the chance to win your very own copy of the books. Thanks to the publishers for supporting our events with these great raffles! Pay what you can in support of our authors. See you there!
December 5: Yejide Kilanko joins us with her novel (and fabulous eyeglasses!). A GOOD NAME from Guernica Editions is a must read. I’m about half way through and the tension is incredibly taut.
“Twelve years in America and Eziafa Okereke has nothing to show for it. Desperate to re-write his story, Eziafa returns to Nigeria to find a woman he can mold to his taste. Eighteen-year-old Zina has big dreams. An arranged marriage to a much older man isn’t one of them. Trapped by family expectations, Zina marries Eziafa, moves to Houston, and trains as a nurse. Buffeted by a series of disillusions, the couple stagger through a turbulent marriage until Zina decides to change the rules of engagement.”
“In Seeking Shade, ordinary situations are imbued with extraordinary emotion as women and men explore identity and independence, navigate complicated relationships and confront the fallibility of mind and body.
A reckless young woman dances through the Second World War—and through the lives of many a man in uniform. A graduate student considers a popular film and revisits a past tragedy as she watches flames devour her apartment building. A hardworking man struggles to come to grips with his own helplessness at three stages of enforced quietude. A wife and mother questions her health—and her sanity—when she is plagued by phantom pains and visions of ghostly twins.”