Summer is here—officially! Time for hammocks, beach blankets, the shade of big trees, and books. Lots of books!
In today’s blog post, West Coast LEAF staffers review five books that have captivated us and helped us imagine a world remade by feminism—and not just imagine it, but fight for it.
nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon
In an interview with the Word on the Street Blog, Cree-Métis-Saulteaux author Lindsay Nixon explained that nîtisânak, the title of their 2018 debut book, means “my siblings” in Plains Cree. According to Nixon, this gender-neutral phrase expresses much about queer Indigenous relations—as does the book named after it. In nîtisânak, Nixon writes with nuance and feeling about many forms of kinship: blood family, chosen family, and adoptive family.
Kinship in nîtisânak involves deep tensions. Nixon explores the challenges of being an Indigenous kid adopted into a white family in a pervasively racist and violent society; seeking belonging in prairie punk scenes; coping with grief; falling in queer love; and getting their heart broken as that love goes terribly wrong.
nîtisânak defies categorization according to mainstream English lit genre labels: too poetic to be a conventional memoir, yet not exactly poetry, and definitely not an academic text, though full of eclectic endnotes (lots of song lyrics!) that sent me flipping to the back of the book over and over again. The book’s back cover describes it as “using cyclical narrative techniques and drawing on [ . . . ] Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis ancestral teachings.”
nîtisânak reminded me that feelings and human relations don’t always flow in straight lines.
-Reviewed by Alana Prochuk
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the second novel by Arundhati Roy, is at the same time a beautiful literary work and a feminist manifesto. Except that instead of providing a framework for analysis, Roy deconstructs theory into a thousand tiny moments.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness reminds the reader that there is truth in each moment and yet limits the generalization of that truth. Perhaps no better quote from the book reflects this than when Roy writes:
How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything.
-Reviewed by Elba Bendo
I have long loved concrete poetry, but before reading this book, I didn’t know how deeply connected it could be to lived experience and the real language of a community.
Mercenary English by Mercedes Eng
The back cover of Mercedes Eng’s Mercenary English describes it as “a long poem about violence and resistance in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver.” After nearly a decade of working and living in this area, I discovered this book at local independent bookseller The Paper Hound and felt like I was experiencing a profound new language.
I have long loved concrete poetry, but before reading this book, I didn’t know how deeply connected it could be to lived experience and the real language of a community. Eng weaves everyday experiences living in the Downtown Eastside and working in the survival sex trade into a documentary collage of found, heard, and sensed text.
While taking on the hugeness of colonialism, misogyny, racism, violence, and justice-seeking community action, Eng somehow manages to offer a sensual poetry that left me feeling both pain and nourishment.
Bonus: The book includes a conversation on language, interpretation, and gentrification with poet and scholar Fred Moten!
-Reviewed by Cait Hurley
I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya
The fifth book by prolific author and multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya manages to distill a lifetime of experiences with toxic masculinity into fewer than 100 pages. I’m Afraid of Men is an explosive memoir and an articulation of how masculinity must be reinvented.
The book recounts Shraya’s growing up years—as a child assigned male at birth and regarded as a boy—and her efforts to stay afloat at school and in life while immersed in virulent racism, queerphobia, and hatred of all things feminine. It also describes the impacts of transmisogyny on her adult romantic relationships, the discomfort of being attracted to men despite the threats they pose, and the risks of falling in love with a white, cis man—even one who comes across as gentler than most.
One idea that stood out for me in this idea-packed little book: the dangers of idealizing men whose masculinity seems more consent-oriented and nurturing than the norm, and holding them up as “good men.” As complicated human beings (like the rest of us), “good men” can only disappoint when they reveal their flaws. Besides, praising men for showing basic interpersonal skills is unfair to people of other genders, who don’t get patted on the back for treating others with care. It also sets a low bar for masculinity—and leaves us with every reason to stay afraid of men.
-Reviewed by Alana Prochuk
Plett’s voice is, however, especially important to hear if we have any hope of confronting the impact that hetero-cis-normativity has on people whose gender and sexual identities fall outside its rules.
Little Fish by Casey Plett
Despite its narrative accessibility, Casey Plett’s award-winning debut novel Little Fish is not an easy read. Plett’s voice is, however, especially important to hear if we have any hope of confronting the impact that hetero-cis-normativity has on people whose gender and sexual identities fall outside its rules.
Plett unflinchingly narrates the (occasionally) messy lives of Wendy, a Mennonite trans woman living in Winnipeg eight years after her transition, and her group of trans friends. After Wendy’s Oma passes away, Wendy learns that her Opa—a devout Mennonite farmer—might have been transgender himself. Woven around the possibility of a trans elder in a world where Wendy can count the number of trans people she knows older than herself on a few fingers, the novel deftly avoids the trope of trans tragedy yet does not shy away from exposing the impacts of poverty, suicide, sexual assault, and alcohol dependency on Wendy’s community.
Plett tells a remarkable story of friendship, self-discovery, and possibilities. And while that sounds like a description from a CanLit generator, Little Fish is not like any other CanLit I’ve read.
-Reviewed by Raji Mangat
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