Monday, February 18, 2008

Edmonton on Location: River City Chronicles, edited by Heather Zwicker
As part of my wanting to know just what is going on around me, lately I’ve been reading Edmonton on Location: River City Chronicles, edited by Heather Zwicker (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005). Predominantly made up of engaging non-fiction pieces, part of what makes this collection is the sheer range of material, whether a piece on the Macdonald Hotel by Ted Bishop, poetry by Erin Knight [see my previous note on her here], Edmonton as “city of my groin” by Lynne Van Luven, the question of what a river is for by Myrna Kostash, and a north side story by Ian McGillis (who now lives in Montreal and runs the Montreal Review of Books).

prelude to a city

The first of the upturned stones, city
marker. The airport shuttle, Yellow cab & Remus’s
wife’s minivan carry visitors through the swollen Gateway;
they’ve heard that from the Edmonton International
you can see the curve of the earth.
A heeled rumour commutes Highway 2, merges
between CKUA’s pledge drive and the insulated furnace
of Ed’s new Explorer in the frosted AM rush: a theatre
with screens that’ll be as wide as the prairies,
seats like La-Z-Boy recliners, a royal
blue fortress borne by the flexed tricep of that empty
field off Ellerslie (it’s true—those seats will be to die for). (Erin Knight)
There is an awful lot of history in this town, including a section of the city that has evidence of human activity going back eight thousand years, making it the earliest evidence of such in the province. As Michael Phair writes in the introduction, “Chronicles uncovers little-known facts as well as personal memories of this multi-layered city called Edmonton. For example, although I have been told about the former Club 70, the first bar for “our kind” in Edmonton, Brenda Mann’s “Places of Refuge” is a personal memoir that poignantly recalls how this refuge, the Club 70 bar, was for her both a place of safety that she savoured yet also a painful reminder of the necessity of living two lives in Edmonton thirty years ago.” (Although it does seem odd that Phair writes this last sentence as though I know everything about him, already, and his “kind.”)

It’s difficult to imagine now, how geographically confined was the life I led in Edmonton in the early ‘80s. I had no car, but then, who needed to cross the High Level Bridge to investigate the fleshpots of downtown Edmonton or to check out the Stroll on 97th Street? Even though West Edmonton Mall, in its embryo form of only 220 stores, had opened its doors for the first time in September 1981, it was at least two city bus rides away. Besides, I didn’t have the money for such glitzy temptations. We had our own commercial and cultural hub along Whyte Avenue and environs: Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe for all the crisp new volumes we could salivate over but not afford to buy; the Garneau Theatre for the movies we needed to argue over; the Highlevel Diner for Sunday brunches and late-night coffees; the Strathcona Hotel for a chance to drink cheap beer and gawk at bikers on Saturday afternoons; Zoryana’s for that new second-hand outfit to lift our spirits. The Whyte Avenue of yore seems more diverse and interesting than today’s version, even though it had fewer bars and a less rowdy night life—or is that just my memory, romanticizing events? Only rarely did we venture south or north or west to the shopping malls and assorted emporiums of greed and distraction. We had our own snug world, thank you, our own Groinich Village. (Lynne Van Luwen, “City of My Groin”)
This is exactly the kind of book that any publisher truly engaged with the community around them should be making, and there are publishers such as Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, Montreal’s Vehicule Press and Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press have been doing for years, as well as the (now 35 year old) NeWest Press. One of the more outstanding pieces in the collection has to be Naomi McIlwraith’s impassioned “Why is Squaw Such a Bad Word?,” based upon her experiences as being a “historical interpreter at Ford Edmonton Park.”

According to American Indian theorist and activist Ward Churchill, the word “squaw” arose from the inability of European men, in New England, to say the word “sunksquaw” in the Narragansett language. They corrupted it to “squaw.” I described the similarity between the Cree word for woman, “iskwew,” and the word squaw. For Cree, like Narragansett, is an Algonquin language. In my personal research to enhance my work as a historical interpreter, I have read a number of inspiring books on Native—White relations and women’s economic roles in the fur trade, including Ward Churchill’s book A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (1998), Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870 (1981), and Jennifer Brown’s Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (1980). Until very recently the chronicle of my maternal ancestors has been neglected, and my own understanding of this vital social history necessitates such scholarly investigation.
She continues, writing “Sometimes we act in ignorance of what a word means, ignorance meaning both ‘unknowing’ and ‘demeaning.’” Something I’ve noticed about this city is just how much it has in common with Ottawa (a working-class town and a government town) in terms of a kind of self-dismissal, and just how little outsiders know of what happens within its borders (and just how little they want to know). The big difference for Edmonton is in just how many books are produced about the area (I am trying to correct this for my own city, with, among other things, the newly-published Ottawa: The Unknown City), and just how many references there are to the city. As Robert Kroetsch said to Margaret Lawrence in “A Conversation” from Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1986), “In a sense, we haven’t got a real identity until somebody tells our story.” Or, as Aritha van Herk wrote in A Frozen Tongue (Sydney NSW: Dangaroo Press, 1992):

I lived in a small flat near the University of Alberta in Edmonton. It is important to understand that Edmonton is a city of landscape, divided by the North Saskatchewan river into two halves. The river is large, and in a geographical sense, it is recent: the valley that it traces through is narrow and steep, almost cliff-like. This physical fact necessitates several bridges that reach, not just across the river, but from one side of the valley to the other. The oldest and most impressive of these is the High Level Bridge, a narrow lack lattice that is both aloof and sinister, a landmark that hangs above the valley like a sign. It is the bridge that suicides jump from, it connects the city’s dueling halves of commerce and learning. Although I lived almost on top of it, I never thought of it, that black bridge. We looked at it, made love under it, even dared, drunk of course, to cross its upper tier over open railway ties. But I never thought about it. Until The Studhorse Man.

The Studhorse Man is unquestionably one of the finest picaresque novels ever written. It is no accident that I have written a picaresque novel, or that Robert Kroetsch and I grew up not twenty-three kilometres from each other, across the Battle River, but that does not matter. Then I had written nothing. What does matter is that The Studhorse Man takes place in Alberta, in Edmonton, and in one insane scene, the hero, Hazard Lepage, chases a thousand horses through a howling prairie blizzard and across the High Level bridge. It is an hilarious scene because the horse stampede wrecks havoc with an already snow-bound city; it is written to make the reader choke with laughter.

But I did not laugh. I walked to the window of my cheap flat and I looked out and I saw the same bridge that had just been drawn in black ink on the page in the book I still held in my hand. I stared at it for a long time, holding that paperback book and not daring to blink for fear somewhere would vanish. Someone had dared to write about a place I knew, about me. I finally had a map.
This is Edmonton telling its own story, which can only add to the same of anyone else who comes from this town, or currently lives here. As editor Zwicker writes in her own “Afterword”:

Our conversations are not uncontentious, and there is no single voice for these multiple perspectives. Taken together, the contributions offer a montage of images by turns jarring, moving, comforting, familiar, titillating, amusing, and startling. Above all, the pieces here resoundingly insist that as long as we continue to experience the city viscerally, we cannot die.
For anyone interested in learning Edmonton, another recent book I would recommend is the massive Edmonton: In Our Own Words by Linda Goyette and Carolina Jakeway Roemmich (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004).

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