Monday, May 18, 2009

Broken Arrow: Why must a Scottish Presbyterian Canadian write about sex?

Was that how I wanted to end up, I asked myself. The question was a variation of the one that still nagged at me: Why did I come to New York? In one of my somber, soul-searching talks with Paul Goodman, I phrased it still another way: “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.” This made him pull on his pipe. “That is one of the most beautiful problems you can have,” he said, portentiously. Easy for him to say, I thought, since it was a problem he doubtless never had...
— Joe LeSeur, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara
I sit on the airplane to Edmonton, toward a woman I’ve seen but twice in the space of ten months. Third time the charm. A bag filled with paper, optimism, quiet desperation. The beginnings of one thing. In my carry-on, Elizabeth Smart’s The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, Dany Laferrière’s Why must a black writer write about sex? Two completely different novels, writing the lyric from real experience, writing novels that weren’t novels. Novels that were other kinds of books in disguise. Essays, each a treatise on how we treat each other, how exactly we should.

Both writing books about sex, the halting essentialness of coupling, physical and emotional. How does the Presbyterian “I” manage to keep self together through such talk?

Walking from my daybreak empty street to the bus stop, a grey hush illuminating downtown Ottawa. This part of the city is barely awake, array of crows and pigeons and Canada geese criss-crossing sky between here and what clouds. The steps of my waiting, longing, my hurt. My restraint.

This is a story that keeps telling. I originally began in Edmonton with Elizabeth Smart and I end here, with her. Ending one journey by starting another. If there were endings. There seem only beginnings. This woman of breeding, good grace and refinement from my same certain capital, some six decades before me, who came to resent and revile the provincialism of her home country. Making good her escape. How can one run away from what is bred in the bone? Did she ever manage it? Still. This is a woman who knew about borders. She was constantly fighting to cross them. Returning finally a senior to Canada, a country she was still so ahead of.

To keep, what is held. To hold what is kept, saved. A continued vision of restraint. How to explain what is best kept, only comes through release, through letting go? My own parents, as I used to joke, that I had no evidence they had even consummated their marriage, my sister and I adopted. The unthinkable. We never want to admit that our parents, or even our children, have sex. Perhaps less so our friends. What our house never discussed. My own daughter, old enough now to drink in Quebec and to vote, and I, still waiting for my father to give me “the talk.” Good thing I’m no longer waiting.

Reading Dany Laferrière and Elizabeth Smart, flipping through pages and paragraphs as I wait to board, expectantly. How do I read two at once? Practice. “Let’s each write down what we’d like to do,” Smart writes in her piece, “and draw lots out of a hat.”
A ripple of festivity went round.

We all wrote down what we wanted most to do.

‘Go to a nightclub.’

‘Drive to the next town.’

‘Go to the casino.’



Then, there was a pause. The one who was drawing the papers out of the hat blushed, and handed it on. No one knew where to look. What is it? What is it? Uncle Amos reached across and looked. He turned away. The little bit of love was drained from his cardboard face. He got up and went out. The doctors paid the bill. It was all hushed and strained.
Haven’t I talked enough about these myths of the west? Perhaps this has nothing to do with that. How the west was won and, as Michael Stipe sang, where it got us. Where did it get us? At least not like the Americans, we tell ourselves, who stood facing west from the thirteen colonies with rifles, firing as they walked a straight line. Manifest destiny. Not as bad, we tell ourselves. I’m sure there are those who would beg to differ. Plead, and insist. Myths of the west and the north, and these tales we would tell to abscond, pillage, plunder. Trading manifest destiny for family compact.

I head west to see her again, my lover who waits for me, weeks before our Toronto begins, preparing herself for a Master’s Degree in Literature at Ryerson. Where are the myths she might hold? The oldest daughter of Lebanese immigrants who escaped into Ontario just in time for her arrival. As she emerged, head first, in factory-laden Windsor, far away from her new father, working to provide them a home and a future, Toronto. What were the stories they told themselves as her parents left behind origins, their home country, and moved another continent, into Trudeau’s multicultural dream? As John Ralston Saul wrote, multicultural stories coming out of the stories that had long formed by the beginnings of European occupation, our Canada made out a Metis foundation. They myths of the two founding cultures since appended, corrected, pointing out English and French and Aboriginal, writing Canada at the source a Metis nation.

No sex please, we’re Canadian. A country they tell as invented by Scots. Scotland’s revenge on the English. There are stories we tell ourselves and keep telling, and go no further. In the United States under Bush, the best defence a head buried in sand, teaching abstinence and the dangers of condoms, and the new slate of teen pregnancies that quickly respond. How could they think that informing a population is therefore allowing permission for wild, wanton ways? The bunkers we hide ourselves in, hide ourselves under.

Mirimachi novelist David Adams Richards, who once wrote an essay referencing his son, then a year old. That he’d rather his son watch adult movies when old enough, than the Canadian classic Porky’s. How sex shouldn’t be hidden, or stolen. An open, shared experience, and not something tricked through a hole in the wall of the girl’s showers.

Sex as hidden, furtive. What my house never discussed. The “talk” my father never gave. In my grandmother’s house, the Playboy calendar all the boys snuck upstairs to our uncle’s bedroom to peek, Dorothy Stratten, 1980. What month was she? I remember Dorothy Stratten, the beautiful blonde model from Vancouver, brutally murdered by her jealous boyfriend. Where did that Hemingway woman fit in?

Elizabeth Smart, who wrote her mother and her father and her Canadian childhood behind her from England. She, who could never completely leave. And Laferrière, who could never completely enter. Laferrière, who knows of and writes his America, but is better suited to Canadianism.

There is the Ottawa Valley, and what I learned while back on the farm. There is Ottawa, where the naive farm boy adapted, and became something else. Learned a few things. And then there is Edmonton, where the layers of eastern Ontario self melted back and furthered. And then there was her.

When I was twenty-six, it was my first foreign destination, leaving Ottawa Valley for the wilds of Toronto. Do I even count the day I spent there at eighteen, a failed exam writing for Ryerson in the computer department? What was I thinking? Our American city, they say, although Calgary could be that close second, more Americans per capita than anywhere in the country. What does it matter now, in these days of bled borders, and cultural internationalism. The man on the airplane beside me watching Slumdog Millionaire, with time enough on this flight to add Baz Luhrmann’s Australia as well. Here we are, made up of us and of them; here they are, made up of themselves and of everyone else.

I have begun to leave my own books in airports. I wonder what might happen to them there. In Toronto, where I used to leave poems on the subway, on the seat just beside. Do they ever get picked up, or do they fall to the floor, tramped on and swept up at the end of another long endless commuter day?

Dany Laferrière, perpetual outsider. A journalist who escaped Haiti during Papa Doc’s brutal regime, twenty-four hours after a friend of his murdered, to end up in Montreal. His first novel, How to make love to a negro (without getting tired), was so brilliant because everyone in Montreal feels an outsider, whether English, French, Cree, Haitian, Mohawk, European, black, white. The Jewish population. Everyone is a minority. There is no majority in Montreal, even if there is. How perfect, for him to emigrate to a country where so many feel lost, as though they don’t even belong, the 1970s and 80s of Trudeau’s multiculturalism, the echoes of the same simple (yet complicated) question, of just who we are. Who are we? Laferrière writing the same “America” that Don Delillo does in his Underworld, the abject wealth of an expanding myth, the overwhelmingness of such, but writing out of that essential same question.

Everyone who read that first novel (if they read it at all, able to get past the provocative title) could see themselves reflected, there. How are the rest of us to compete? Not that this is a competition, one might say. No, it isn’t. Not when you’re winning. Not that anyone would mistake this for winning.

I am no longer here, I have already entered her Toronto. Ours.

In an hour or so I will land. I will tell her the books I am reading.

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