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.”
I sat down with Hollay Ghadery on November 7, to talk about her beautiful memoir, Fuse. It is a collection of memories expressed like short stories, that bring together Hollay’s life experiences and her sometimes raw and always honest reflections on mental illness, addiction, motherhood, family, and growing up biracial. It is truly one of the most poignant and self-reflective memoirs I’ve ever read. I was in tears at many moments while reading.
You talk about how these “truths all came tumbling in and they didn’t come in a manner that made sense” Were there any essays that didn’t make it into the book, or moments that didn’t find space in an essay?
Yes, there definitely were. Sometimes, the stories didn’t make it in because ultimately, I realized they weren’t my stories to tell. They belonged to family members or close friends. Other moments didn’t make the cut because they were not closely linked enough to my thesis—which is saying a lot because my thesis, in many ways, casts a broad net. Then there were stories that are mine but I am not yet ready to tell. Maybe I never will be. Not including them doesn’t make the stories I did share any less valid, nor does not detract from the momentum of the book overall. At least I don’t think so. I told the stories I did tell honestly. As for the stories I didn’t…well, I don’t owe anyone all of me.
The essays in FUSE are so deeply intimate, there are moments when I can feel the courage it took to bear so much pain. Did you know with each essay how deep you were going to go? Were there moments when you questioned whether you were sharing enough or not enough?
I often didn’t know until I got there. At times, I had to prod myself to go deeper—to not settle at what Adele Wiseman calls “secondhand epiphanies.” Of course, many of the experiences I discuss are common, and experienced by millions of other people, but the precise way in which each individual feels the shared experiences is unique. I wanted to tap into the current of shared experience while also exposing what makes my experience worth telling. This was tough, both in terms of craft and personal vulnerability.
“I wanted to tap into the current of shared experience while also exposing what makes my experience worth telling. This was tough, both in terms of craft and personal vulnerability.”
The book is dedicated to your family and you mention in the foreword how afraid you were readers wouldn’t see how much you love them given how honest you are about your experiences growing up. I really felt the love, but I wonder how has the experience been for you and your family?
My immediate birth family has not read the book, so there’s little to report on this front. I know they haven’t read Fuse because they would find the experience too unsettling and I can appreciate that. There’s a large part of me that’s relieved, because no matter how much love I put into the book, I know my parents in particular would feel raw. I’d feel raw having them read it too.
My husband read the book long before it was published and was supportive, and my kids are proud that I wrote a book, but don’t have any interest in reading it at the moment. The stories they are in I have read to them, and they were comfortable with their inclusion.
Members of my extended family have read the book and have been wonderful and supportive. I’m grateful for them.
Motherhood is a strong theme that runs through the book. Both your relationship with your own mother and your experiences as a mother of four. As a mother, I was so moved by the moment with Nuala in bed when you say, “It’s strange how I’m an endless comfort for them and I’ve never been one for myself.” So many of your the moments with or about your kids I think about how hard it is to be a mentally healthy role model when we’re in the midst of our own crises. Do you hope when your kids are older they will read FUSE?
I do, yes. And I think they will. I hope they will see how much they mean to me, and how much I try to get better for them. I also hope they’ll see how none of us are infallible, and it’s not only okay not to be okay, but it’s absolutely normal to not be okay.
You recently published a piece of flash in Sledgehammer, and I laughed that when you shared it, you mentioned your husband Matt is not the man in the shower. Do you feel this conflict with fiction that is also very intimate in subject matter? That with your essays being out in the world, people might think that your fiction is also truthful?
I’m absolutely certain some readers will think my fiction is based on my life. I have been delighted to have people tell me they feel like they really know Matt and I after reading the book—that they have a sense of who we are. And they probably do!
My fiction is fiction, though. Of course, there are parts from my real life that I draw on to inform some (not all) of it.
It’s more typical for people with a confluence of challenges like what you’ve experienced, to go under, and remain quiet. Whether it is the stigma, loneliness, fear of judgement or myriad other reasons. How do you remain solid while remaining so exposed? Does the vulnerability not overwhelm you?
It can be overwhelming, but what overwhelms me more is not talking about it. I’ve seen what silence can do. I’ve spent most of my life being quiet. I’m terrified of that. It almost killed me. I can handle the stigma.
“I’ve seen what silence can do. I’ve spent most of my life being quiet. I’m terrified of that. It almost killed me.”
The essays are not structured chronologically. How did the essays come to you and how did you decide the order in which they appear in the book?
The essays were triaged: which one felt the most urgent to tell (it was the title essay, Fuse, for the record), and which came later on, when things felt less desperate (Monster was the last essay I wrote, after the book was already accepted for publication).
The order was another matter. There was some moving around and earlier editors and readers helped with some of that. For me, the order reflected my trying to establish the issues first, and then explore them further as the book progressed.
I’d like to say the process of ordering the book was very intentional on my part, but it was really…a feeling. The final order of the book was done by instinct more than logic. Like with memories, how they jump around but are connected. I tried not to overthink it too much and ordered the chapters in ways that felt organic.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a writing consultant with River Street Writing. Hollay earned her BAH in English Language and Literature from Queen’s University, as well as her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and reviews have appeared in literary journals across Canada, including The Malahat Review, Grain, Understorey, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, and Room. FUSE is her first book of non-fiction. Hollay lives in small-town Ontario with her family.
On October 24, I sat with Jessica Moore, author of THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, a book of narrative poetry that carries the truth throughout on a wave of emotion. We discover while reading, what lies beneath the grief, the loss and the trauma.
We got to talk about the before and after grief, the ocean and the binaries of before and after.
Although it moves like a prose story, it’s told in fragments of memory. And the words are italicised, capitalised or in quotes and we’re never quite certain who’s speaking. Can you talk about this abstraction of voice throughout?
I like this, “fragments of memory.” It feels true. The way memory surfaces like shards of glass caked with dirt. There’s something intensely satisfying to me in reading, and creating, works in fragments.
And yes, this is a work of many voices. Almost kaleidoscopic. The most consistent interlocutor is ALL CAPS, boisterous, bold, sometimes crass, bit of a know-it-all, foil to the narrator’s lyricism. Sounds like a sailor. ALL CAPS knows the narrator intimately (even interiorly). This voice helps nudge the story along and won’t let the narrator rhapsodize or obfuscate for too long.
Other voices include: the boat builder, the mother, story, transgression, the mysterious “we,” and layers of the narrator. I think this story would have been impossible to tell in just one voice. There is something in this about memory, and repressed memory, and fragmentation / abstraction. And also, the book is an accompaniment of the boat builder’s discovery of events, and the narrator’s remembering of events in her own life. If it were all told in one voice, it would need to be an omniscient and distant voice looking back on all of it. But this story is one that unfolds in tandem with the writing, and reading, of the book:
I: I’m following you, I’m trying anyway, sorry about the times when I try to take the lead
Story: only one of us can lead
I: I was never any good at ballroom […]
Story: Remember: what haunts you wants a form that is like none other
In the book, you speak of how cautious you are with words. “I hold his story like a child with a hot bowl of soup in two hands.” The power is evident and then there are also moments where you use French and you speak about how some emotions are better conveyed in other languages. As a translator, how do you approach writing poetry in English when you know there might be a more potent expression in French or vice versa, if that’s ever the case?
As a translator, I am exquisitely aware of the space between languages—the shadowy corridors between French and English—as well as the space between thought and language, or idea and word. I am enamoured with that liminal space, before or behind words, and try to cultivate a consciousness of it. It’s not often that I would rather use a word in French than one in English, but for this book I allowed myself that luxury whenever it came up, since French (and language in general) has such a prominent place in the story. I love, for example, the words grisaille [greyness, but also gloominess, and seems to almost contain a drizzle in it] and miroitant [shimmer, or gleam, but also contains within it the word miroir, suggesting a mirroring], more than their English counterparts, and so I inserted them into the part where the boat builder swims to look in the eye of the whale.
I was very conscious of holding not only the boat builder’s story, but also my mother’s story with this book. Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell? I grapple with this throughout, returning again and again to the affirmation that this story is mine as well, this is the way I lived it, absorbed and inhabited the stories of others.
On the power of language: words can be everything and nothing. I was especially interested in this around the trial, when the director of the boat school, Kameneff, was charged with (and eventually convicted of) pedophilic abuse. When interrogated about the abuse on board, he tended towards benign words like “affection, jeu, sensualité” [affection, play, sensuality].
Words, sometimes all powerful other times empty balloons. They give nothing back.
I was also very curious about the wielding of words in the writings of Foucault, who influenced Kameneff. Words can be so innocent. In The History of Sexuality Vol. I, Foucault describes the case of a “village simpleton” named Jouy who is found taking girls into the ditch to play a game called “lait caillé,” curdled milk, involving money in exchange for sexual favours. When Jouy is caught, he’s sent off to a mental hospital. In Foucault’s argument—which has nothing to do with protecting children, everything to do with his larger theories around surveillance and control (the State has no business in matters of sexuality, mental hospitals are no better than prison—both built with an intent to control and survey)—the caresses in the ditch are described in words such as “inconsequential” and “bucolic pleasures” and the little girls are labeled “knowing,” cunning, shrewd.
Someone always gets thrown under the bus and here it’s little girls, the ones you toss a few coins to for caresses the older ones won’t give. Caresses is a sweet word. Language is everything.
“Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell?“
The book speaks to the binaries with which we see things, the black and white, the before and after. You repeat: “nothing so horrifying as something different in the shape of someone you know.” This speaks to the horror of the boat-builder’s experience on École en bateau and how it threatens to erase the “rapture” of those times, but also to your own personal grief and trauma. Was this a theme you wanted to explore before this story came to you or was it born out of conversations and experiences in life and with the boat-builder?
My first instinct is to say that the subject of binaries arose quite naturally from this story—and I was so delighted when I learned that, because of the placement of their eyes, whales and other cetaceans can see two completely separate realities at once, leading some authors to suggest that they may be able to get beyond binary thinking. But I realized recently, on a night walk with a friend (which we started taking during lockdown last year), that I’ve been thinking about binaries for over twenty years. When I was 22 I was convinced that balance was not to be found at the precise midpoint between two extremes—was not equal measures of war and peace, for example, or rapture and pain, but lay in something quite apart, wholly other, which the end of the book gestures to without ever quite reaching:
Suddenly I am like a sky something boundless and wild borderless, fluid
I love thinking and talking about binaries and the beyond—anytime anyone wants to take a night walk!
I am fascinated by the weight of stories—which is a large part of what this book is about, as well as memory, inherited trauma, binaries and the ocean—but I did not enter the writing with any intention of bringing these themes to the surface, or of exploring the way I personally have felt the weight of inherited trauma as a result of abuse, or my own separate grief. They arose through the quiet process of tending to the work of creation, as truths often will.
Throughout the book the binary of before and after is also explored. That after a death or trauma, there is an invisible line we cannot cross. That going back to the happiness, the good times is a betrayal, sort of. It feels important we be able to remember the good, even though we are haunted by the bad. Can you talk about that and how has writing THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN impacted you personally?
I suppose I’m seeking a place where we can hold both, side by side:
And how, I want to ask, can we hold two truths— just hold them, side by side, without explaining, denying, justifying, negating—two truths as though we had heads with one eye on each side
…as though that might gesture to something beyond the toggling back and forth we usually do, either / or, this or that. Some other truth, some other possibility beyond binaries.
In my book, “the author of the book” is based on a real person who was on board the École en bateau at the same time as the boat builder (he wrote a novel, which the boat builder mailed to me, touching on what happened at the École). He spoke most arrestingly about this before and after—for ten years, he said, he remembered only the rapture of that time, the unbelievable freedom and adventure. Then, as part of his process of healing, he had to open “Pandora’s box” and do his own reckoning, at which point he entered ten years of horror eclipsing all the rest. He is one of “those who’ve lost that luminous / before, and now have this, this always-two so hard to hold.”
Then, after years of waiting, the author of the book witnessed Kameneff’s trial and conviction. “His nightmares stopped after the trial / and haven’t returned.”
The greatest impact for me in writing this book was the chance for more healing in my relationship with my mother. I was terrified to be telling parts of her story which had impacted me so deeply, terrified of how it might hurt her. The conversations we needed to have before the book’s publication were painful, but we were both brave and stayed with it, and she was supportive of the book becoming what it needed to be. My editor suggested inviting my mother into the creation of the book itself by asking her to author the brief description of the École en bateau, which (although my mother had nothing to do with the École) felt to me like a brilliant and subtle—almost secret—way to bring her in. It meant she was not just being written about, she was part of the process of creation.
“Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings?”
The Ocean, plastic and whales: It’s hard to not talk about the ocean, the plastic island, the pollution, the melting arctic. In THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, the ocean and the whales who inhabit it, feel like they’re stuck in the confluence or conflict of human seeing, looking and maybe even seeking. The DJ playing whale music at an art gallery with two plastic water bottles on his table and then on page 108, you share hope in discovering organisms might be evolving to be able to better digest plastic yet we turn off videos of the melting arctic. Do you see this as a conflict of desire v. empathy or is it really just greed and love converging, leaving people so confused they just choose to not see?
When I stop and allow in the fact of what’s happening to the oceans and reefs and whales and all the marine creatures, it’s just heartbreaking. Your question returns me again to binaries—I can feel myself toggle back and forth between alarm or consternation at small gestures, such as people using takeout cups instead of bringing their own, and a more complacent (willed ignorance?) place where I, too, buy takeout cups and single-use plastics. This is on the minute level of the larger terrible thing. “Who wants to hold horror / in the mouth too long”? asks the book. We still have to live, and living in constant outrage or despair would only wreck us. The waxworms that seem to be able to digest plastic did fill me with hope when I first learned about them, but there are still all the whales and dolphins and seabirds dying ghastly deaths because of our plastic waste.
It’s important for me to remember that the vast, vast majority of waste comes from industry, not individual consumption, and that to change things at a level that would truly make a difference for the oceans (and the rest of the natural world) means looking to policy, seeing from a wider view. But there is still part of me that sees something terrible in individual choices to participate in disposable culture, in that they are a symptom or evidence of the same kind of thinking.
Desire vs. empathy… greed and love converging… I think it is more about the systems and structures that are in place, the logic we live within, the options that are presented to us. This includes the madness of the pace of our lives and the confines of capitalism. Plastic makes everything extremely easy and convenient. I have experienced vastly differing logics—for example, Nelson, BC, where there’s a tacit disapproval if you come to the coffee shop without your own mug—I found it so reassuring to be inside this logic—and New York City, where everyone eats takeout all day in their mad rush from one thing to the next, where every bagel comes with plastic cutlery and a thousand paper napkins.
Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings? I’ve learned from writings by various authors including Robin Wall Kimmerer that Anishinaabe and many (most?) other Indigenous languages refer to animals and plants and even stones and waters as them, rather than it, meaning all of these elements are seen as beings in much the same way humans are beings. I think this points to a terrible impoverishment in English (and other Germanic, and Romance, languages). It seems to me that if our language reflected it, we would be oriented to care for the natural world differently. More deeply.
And, yes, I certainly experience a kind of willful not-seeing at times (“I skip past videos of the Arctic ice melting”)—if I let it in, all the time, I would be drowned in panic. If I think about what my kids inherit. But it feels important to choose moments when I can consciously, deliberately allow it in. Feel all the feelings about the oceans and the polar ice and all of it. There’s that saying, “don’t worry, pray,” which I have found helpful—turning anxiety into deliberate intention—but of course we can’t stop there. The next step then is to turn that sorrow/rage/despair into action—here’s where I, and the narrator, feel at times like “becoming a warrior, running away”—i.e. becoming a full time activist, because what, truly, is more important?
Within all this, it feels so vital to remember to love the world:
I never want to look at the world and see only trash & shattering
someone needs to keep vigil keep valiant keep a veille
light treetops catching light
winnowing shadow river river
never let this be obsolete
Jessica Moore is an author and Booker-nominated literary translator. The Whole Singing Ocean is her most recent book. Jessica’s first collection, Everything, now(Brick Books 2012), has been called “a powerful journey through love and loss – serving, ultimately, to unsettle any notion of a boundary between them.” The book is partly a conversation with her translation of Turkana Boy(Talonbooks), a poetic novel by Jean-François Beauchemin, for which she won a PEN America Translation Award. She is a former Lannan writer-in-residence and Banff International Literary Translation Centre alumnus, as well as a former VP for the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. Her translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s moving and unusual story of a heart transplant, Mend the Living, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize. Jessica lives in Toronto, near the shores of Lake Ontario, that inland sea.
On October 17, I had the great privilege of sitting down with S.M. Freedman to talk about THE DAY SHE DIED her latest novel. The Day She Died is centred on Eve, who, on her 27th birthday crashes her car into a window. The novel follows her, brain-injured and lost, as she navigates her life through half-remembered truths and the outright lies she’s told her self. A story about intergenerational trauma and deciding whether life is worth living.
Here is a follow-up to our discussion. Thanks very much to Shoshona and to our audience members for adding to the discussion with their own questions.
Talking about a mystery novel is very challenging. The potential for spoilers talking about any novel is scary, but THE DAY SHE DIED feels different. There is a chronological present-day narrative and chapters in the past, with revelations timed so perfectly the suspense, the uncertainty, the anxiety is intensified throughout and it’s all plot. Your decision to move back and forth from past to present, makes sense when you think of Eve’s brain injury and her trying to remember, or forget. Did you outline or map out scenes/timelines before you sat down to write, or did the plot come as a natural exploration of story?
You’re right, talking about a mystery novel is so challenging! I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I’m not giving something away. Regarding whether I plotted out the story or just let it flow, I did a bit of both. In general, I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense. My brain just doesn’t work in a linear fashion. With each book I write, I become more disciplined about plotting my stories ahead of time. I usually have a detailed outline for the first third of the book, and I know approximately where the story will end. This gives me a guidepost to work toward when I get to the messy middle.
When you plot a novel, do you start at the beginning or the end? Most mystery novels begin with a death, and THE DAY SHE DIED is no different. Did the plotting change where you, as a writer, started the writing?
I start with an overall idea of the story arc, and where I want the story to end. Then I get into the nitty gritty of filling in the details. I’ll work out as much as I can ahead of time, but I always discover plot points or details along the way, and they sometimes take me in unexpected directions.
Eve struggles throughout the book with remembering/forgetting/revising her memories. As a reader you’re never quite sure what is a secret being remembered or rewritten so that it can be forgotten. It’s a psychological journey and a study in the effects of trauma. Can you speak about the research that went into understanding this on a deeper level?
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt. An enormous amount of research was needed to map out Eve’s psychology, including what kinds of medication and treatment she would have been given. I also had to learn about traumatic head injuries, and I spent a long time researching near-death experiences to understand what Eve might have gone through during the car accident.
I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense.
The legacy of trauma is another important theme in THE DAY SHE DIED: There are three generations of women at the heart of the story, Eve, her mother Donna and Button. About half way through the novel, Button, Eve’s grandmother talks about her faith and learning at the knees of her own grandfather, a rabbi. She says Eve grew from “those roots of belief”. Although she’s speaking of faith, as a reader, I can’t help but think it is the unspeakable experiences of Button and perhaps her own grandfather that may have nourished the soil. Can you talk about how you placed trauma in the novel and its effects on each of the characters?
That’s it exactly. Intergenerational trauma is a huge factor in this story. Button was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, and though her life experiences aren’t explicitly written on the page, they informed her parenting of Donna. Donna also has a legacy of trauma, and those experiences fuel her work as a lawyer. Her focus on protecting abused children doesn’t extend to her own daughter, and her disconnect sets up Eve to be a victim, continuing the cycle.
Quicksilver is used throughout the novel as both metaphor and a physical space in the novel. Was this an idea that came to you as you sat down to write or did you know ahead it was a perfect metaphor for the mind and memory?
You know how some ideas come to you, and afterward you can never figure out why or how? It didn’t start out as a deliberate metaphor. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was dripping and foggy and secretive, where even the air was weighted with sin and guilt. I kept imagining these tangled dripping quicksilver plants along the riverfront. Then I discovered Dutch artist M.C. Escher’s reflective spheres. I became fascinated with the concept that silver could be painted as a reflection rather than a colour. So, the silver became both a metaphor for hidden secrets, and a mirror reflecting Eve’s guilt back at her.
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt.
You were a private investigator in Vancouver for years, also an actor and graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Can you talk about how your experience as a P.I. and as an actor influences the development story/character and what part it’s played in your writing in general?
My training as both an actor and a private investigator has influenced my desire to dive deep into research. I’m always digging for another layer, especially in terms of character development. I love weaving the tapestry of a character, blending good with evil, kindness with cruelty, humour with grief. I blend and mix and add layers until the character becomes a real person.
From her website: “S.M. Freedman studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and spent years as a private investigator on the not-so-mean streets of Vancouver, before returning to her first love: writing.
Her debut novel, The Faithful, is published by Thomas & Mercer. It’san International Amazon Bestseller, reached the Quarter Finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and was selected by Suspense Magazine as a “Best Debut of 2015.” The sequel,Impact Winter, was published in 2016, and she is currently working on the third and final instalment in the series. The Day She Died was published by Dundurn Press in April 2021 (audiobook by Tantor Media) . Her next novel, Blood Atonement, will be available from Dundurn Press in Fall 2022. It tells the story of a woman who, when other Fundamentalist Mormon Church escapees are killed, must determine if her alter personality is the murderer, or if she’s the next victim.
She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two children. She’s a proud member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.“
November 7 with Hollay Ghadery and November 21 with Wayne Ng. It’s a Guernica kind of month.
I hope you know that nobody is the boss of you, but you, but let me take a moment to tell you what you should be doing in November. You should be reading books. Specifically, Hollay Ghadery’s memoir, FUSE and Wayne Ng novel, Letters From Johnny. As I sit here, in my writing and reading space, I am watching the leaves get blown from their trees and I am comforted by the piles of books beside me. Like a blanket, they’re going to be there for me when I need them.
Hollay Ghadery’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry has been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The Fiddlehead. In 2004, she graduated from Queen’s University with her BAH in English Literature, and in 2007, she graduated from the University of Guelph with her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of the Constance Rooke Scholarship in Creative Writing, as well as Ontario Arts Council grants for her poetry and non-fiction. Hollay is the force behind River Street Writing—a collective of freelance writers who create exceptional content, and provide creative consultancy services for personal and professional projects.
FUSE, published by Guernica Editions, draws on Hollay’s “own experiences as a woman of Iranian and British Isle descent, writer Hollay Ghadery dives into conflicts and uncertainty surrounding the bi-racial female body and identity, especially as it butts up against the disparate expectations of each culture. Painfully and at times, reluctantly, Fuse probes and explores the documented prevalence of mental health issues in bi-racial women.”
“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.”
Letters from Johnny, also from Guernica Editions, is “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.”
You can register on EventBrite for both of these readings. They are PWYC events and proceeds go to the authors. I hope you’ll join us. All registered attendees have a chance to win a copy of the books from Guernica!
Heidi von Palleske joined us at Junction Reads on September 26 to talk about TWO WHITE QUEENS AND THE ONE-EYED JACK, the first of her Glass Eye trilogy, that spans decades from Germany to Canada. It was an absorbing read and the characters are still alive in my mind. I am excited to see some of them again in book two. You can purchase the book directly from Dundurn Press. Or visit one of your favourite Independent Bookstores.
Writing a Trilogy: Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is the first in the Glass Eye Trilogy and so I have to ask about decisions you may have made with foreshadowing and what and how you decided to share details in the first book and what you knew needed to be held back for the second and third? Have you outlined all three books?
I actually did not know that it would be a trilogy when I wrote the first book. It was only when I ended it that I was aware that some of the characters still had more to say. Still, I dragged my heels, anxious to get onto something new. Then readers started to say that they, too, wanted more of the characters and so I read through the first book and it became clear where the next book would start. The second book is complete, and awaiting notes, and the third nook is roughly outlined. I do, always, leave room for the characters to reroute the story, however. I can tell you that book two starts around 9-11 and that book three starts on the day of the Toronto blackout and ends with the first Pandemic Lockdown.
“Writing everyday meant that the Muse knew the door was open at the same time each day.”
Heidi von Palleske
I have read that the final draft is very close to the first draft and that in writing Two White Queens, you essentially sat down every day and wrote it from start to finish. This is an incredible accomplishment. How the heck did you do it?
Honestly, the more I made daily writing a priority the easier the writing became. I remember my younger days when I would wait for the “muse” to descend upon me. Writing everyday meant that the Muse knew the door was open at the same time each day and so inspiration became easier as I became more focussed. The other part of the equation is that there is writing time and there is thinking time. I thought about the details of my interwoven plotlines a lot before and during the intense period of writing Two White Queens.
The history of the time (20 years after WW2 all the way up and through the cold war) is an important aspect of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like its own character, as it can sometimes feel in other historical novels. How did you balance research and your experience growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario, to create such an authentic backdrop?
Well, I grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario, on a farm that in some ways looked a lot like the home I created for Hilda and Jack. My father was a German Immigrant who came to Canada, like many Germans, right after the war. My own experience of being a first-generation German-Canadian coloured the novel, I am sure. That, of course, is clear in everything from the German guilt to the German food! As far as the history element of the book, I tried to create a backdrop where historical events take place but they do so only in terms of how the events touch the characters. It was important to me that each character have a clear, individual journey while the era and the events weave those journeys together. Each of us has a desire or a path, but we are also a part of the fabric of society and connected to its history. The question during the historical aspect of the research was always, “How does this affect each character?”
The Art in the background: I love when other art forms exist in fiction, in particular when characters are artists and the writer has to not just write their stories but create their art and present it to the reader as believable and beautiful? Considering your last novel, They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore I feel like art is important to you, Can you talk about the process of making it important to your characters, as well. The music, the visual art, the photography.
Hah! Full disclosure here – I cannot even draw a stickman. Seriously, if I were to draw a stickman I am certain many might ask, what is that? With ‘They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore,’ many readers assumed I must have had a visual arts background and that I must have attended OCAD. I simply have a huge respect for other forms of art. And art affects me in profound ways. Moves me. Now, ‘Red Trains’ came to be because I was researching two Canadian sculptors, Florence Wyle and Francis Loring, wanting to write a script. The script was never written, but I researched so much about sculpture that much of it ended up in the novel when it was written. After that, I have been known to haunt museums and to drive to other cities just for an art exhibit. As far as opera goes, well maybe next lifetime! Opera touches me greatly. It is often the music and the voice, without the actual meaning, that touches me. Hmm…. maybe some ballet in book three is needed!
The funny thing is that people have been sending me music, telling me that they imagine Bleach to sound like one band or another. I have had people say they wish that the band Bleach really existed, that they could hear their music in their heads. And I have had a few painters who have told me that they want to do the painting I describe as Gareth’s greatest work when, and if, the book becomes a film. I now actually own a very beautiful painting, done by the artist John Nobrega, of his vision of Blanca and Clara. Across the top are the words, “ZWEI WEISSE KONIGINNEN” which means Two White Queens.
“Come away, oh human child, To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping Than you can understand.”
There are so many wonderful characters in the novel. At the centre are Clara and Blanca, the Two White Queens, Jack, his best friend Gareth and Tristan, Gareth’s older brother. But then there are also others, the family members, Elaine and Mark, Hilda and John, Faye, Bob and the grandfather, Siegfried, Esther. The perspective isn’t so much omniscient as it is a fluid movement among all the characters in the novel. Each of them is given their own voice. Was this intentional, or did they all come out with voices so strong you had to give them all their own POV?
That is a tough question. I think it was a bit of both. It did take some juggling to balance the voices and, of course, some ended up having a stronger voice than I first imagined. Siegfried for instance. And you are right, it is not a omniscient narrative in the traditional sense. When it is one character’s POV we don’t jump into another’s head, but certainly we do visit the thinking of all of them. Some more so than others. Esther, for instance, is an important, but secondary, character whose thoughts we visit quite a bit. The fluid switching of POV is something I have been playing with for a while. There is an experimental book, not yet published, written between ‘They Don’t Run Red Trian Anymore’ and ‘Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack,’ where I play with non-linear, snapshot scenes that paint a picture. I like to call it ‘Impressionistic Writing,’ where there are many POV’s and many small stokes but, when the reader steps back, a whole picture is painted and the story all comes together as one story, even though it seems at first to be many small stories. I do this as well in Book Two. As you know, ‘They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore’ was very different. It was a first-person narrative, very confessional in feeling, though not linear. I thought switching to a third person narrative would be very difficult after that book, but I found it quite freeing.
Clara and Blanca have albinism and inside the book, they are targeted by family and others in their life. They’re called ugly; they’re described as fairies and they are set apart by many characters in the novel. How important is it to you that art, in particular literature and film, include subjects with differences?
I am glad you asked this question. I have spent a great part of my life working in film. Casting, with its obvious stereotypes, has been something that has always bothered me. Heroes and romantic leads are mostly cast as what is generally considered attractive. The best friend can never look as pretty as the lead. God forbid that someone with a scar on the face play anything but evil. (I have a scar and my career was mostly villains and the ‘other woman’) When I looked into this more, I found out that there were around 68 films made in Hollywood between 1960 and 2006 – the majority between 1990 and 2003 – where people with albinism were soulless, murderous, or deranged villains. Yet I could not think of one film where an albino actor was cast, or an albino character was written, as brave, loving, human, or real. Considering the atrocities that people with albinism face in some parts of the world, because of supernatural beliefs and discrimination, I think this is very irresponsible. On top of the fact that the two girls have albinism, there is also the question of how twins are portrayed in film and literature. We know that twins are fetishized and sexualized. So, I wanted to make Clara and Blanca real, flesh and blood, personalities with dreams and desires and problems, without shying away from how people who appear to be different are often bullied and discriminated against, not only in books but in reality.
You know, often a kid is bullied for being different, whether that is in appearance or in thinking. If we changed how people are portrayed in film and fiction, then perhaps we can change how people are perceived and treated in our actual world. As you know, my novel has been optioned for a film or limited TV series. My great hope is that an actor, or twin actors, with albinism, be cast in the roles of Clara and Blanca.
Clara and Blanca felt like a great gift to me. And in the end, I think they are rather heroic!
Heidi von Palleske is is an award-winning novelist, script-writer and actor. Her first novel, They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore, published in 2017, won the HR Percy award. She has been a runner up for both the Toronto Star short story competition and the poetry Guild poetry competition. Her short stories and poems have been published in Raskolikov’s Cellar, Beggars Press and Pottersfield Portfolio. Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack was a Loanstars top ten pick for new releases for Winter 2021. The book was optioned and recorded for Tantor Media, as an audible book scheduled to be released October 19, 2021, narrated by Heidi herself. Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack has also been optioned by academy award winning Bunbury Films for screen rights.
Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is also the first book in the Glass Eye trilogy.
I don’t know about you, but Fall is when I get most excited about books. Sure beach reading has its pluses and who doesn’t love consuming delicious books with your feet in the sand, but this is the season I’ve been waiting for.
Sitting in a chair with a blanket across my legs, I’ve got two books on the go right now. And I am so excited to talk about them!
S.M. Freedman is coming on October 17 to talk about her suspenseful THE DAY SHE DIED. It is a book that explores the deep love of childhood friendship and what it means when you feel your life falling apart.
“After a traumatic head injury, Eve questions every memory and motive in this mind-bending psychological thriller. Eve Gold’s birthdays are killers, and her twenty-seventh proves to be no different. But for the up-and-coming Vancouver artist, facing death isn’t the real shock — it’s what comes after. Recovering from a near-fatal accident, Eve is determined to return to the life she’s always wanted: a successful artistic career, marriage to the man who once broke her heart, and another chance at motherhood. But brain damage leaves her forgetful, confused, and tortured by repressed memories of a deeply troubled childhood, where her innocence was stolen one lie — and one suspicious death — at a time. As the dark, twisted pages unfold, Eve must choose between clinging to the lies that helped her survive her childhood and unearthing the secrets she buried long ago.”
On October 24, Jessica Moore returns to Junction reads with her narrative poetry in THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN. We don’t normally include poetry in our readings, but Jessica’s prosaic memoir is exceptional on so many levels.
“Part long poem, part investigation, this true story begins with a whale encounter and then dives into the affair of the École en bateau, a French countercultural school aboard a boat. The École was based on the ideals of ’68, but also twisted ideas about child psychology, Foucault’s philosophy and an abolition of the separation between adults and children. As more troubling details are revealed, the text touches on memory, trauma and environmental grief, ultimately leading to buried echoes from the author’s own life and family history. At the dark heart of The Whole Singing Ocean is the question: How is it possible to hold two things—rapture and pain—at once?“