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.”
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?“
Have you started curating your “beach” reads list? These summer reads may or may not be read on a beach, beside or pool or even outside, but they will be read! This summer, more than ever, we will need books that can transport us to the beach, to the streets of Paris, to our favourite camping site, or simply to another place and time where we can watch the narrators live and experience worlds outside our own. Nora Decter and Julia Zarankin have two such places on offer. From mosh pits and music to beaches and birds, these two books will change the way you think about family, life and love.
Just two more books to add to your summer reading list! Consider purchasing from your local Indie book shop, or put them on hold at your local public library!
“In her teenage narrator, Jolene Tucker, Decter gets it all right: the angst of youth, that simmering rage and bewilderment, looking in the mirror wondering who you are and what your worth to humankind may (or may not) be—Decter nails that mindset, really, she does.”
Junction Reads with Nora Decter
I am excited to welcome Nora Decter to Junction Reads to chat about How Far We Go and How Fast. Her debut has been described as “a novel for teens about girls with guitars, lying to your parents and to yourself, and the transformative power of a mosh-pit.”
Published by Orca Book Publishers, the novel has been classified as YA fiction, but the voice and prose of this book will be appreciated by all readers. Join me as we sit down to talk about writing, reading and how it feels to have such a great book out in the world.
“The first time I went birding, I went initially to stare at the birders because I had had a completely indoor life… My family didn’t camp. We didn’t do the outdoors, so this is a totally different new world for me…I saw my first red-winged blackbird and it completely changed my life. It made me see in a different way.”
Junction Reads with Julia Zarankin
I have fallen in love with birdwatching, bird feeding, bird housing and so I feel close to Julia Zarankin’s experience in Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder, but you don’t need to be a birder to appreciate how an obsession can become a life-changing hobby.
The book tells the story of Julia’s “unlikely transformation from total nature-novice to bona fide bird nerd. ‘It’ also tells the story of the unexpected pleasures of discovering one’s wild side and finding meaning in midlife through birds.”
In Toronto, the snow is falling and the fall leaves are dancing in the wind down my street. I am sitting here finishing Becky Blake’s Proof I Was Here with Hannah Brown’s debut novel and Faye Guenther’s short story collection beside me. It’s pretty damn cozy.
We are coming up on our 6th anniversary and for the first time in Junction Reads history, I will have time to read all the books ahead of our author readings. I am glad for my dogs because without them, I might never leave the house.
We will be hosting almost weekly events in the new year and each will be a quick chat about one book with one author. Many of us have been locked to our screens with all-day zoom meetings and want nothing more than to read a book. We will pack each event with a quick chat, a reading and Q and A that you can enjoy while sipping a single cup of tea.
January 17 at 5:00pm: Join me as I welcome Becky Blake and her novel, Proof I Was Here. I have so enjoyed walking through the streets of Barcelona with Niki and Manu as they travel through pain and trauma. You can purchase it directly from Wolsak and Wynn.Get your tickets here.
January 24 at 5:00pm: Hannah Brown will chat about her debut novel, Look After Her. Published by Inanna Publications last year, it is a novel about secrets, sex, love and art, set in Europe during the rise of fascism. Get your tickets here.