Last Friday, I met a friend for drinks at Reposado, where I had a curious experience. I walked to the back patio and found my friend perched at the corner table, looking very glamorous, sipping a margarita, surrounded by other stylish people, whom she introduced as architects she works with. I, being the only non-architect, was very interested in hearing about the world of adaptive reuse and mixed use building, but not five minutes into our conversation someone interrupted my question and shifted gears. “I don’t mean to seem like a stalker,” this guy said, “but are you a writer? Were you by any chance having brunch with another writer about six weeks ago at Union?”
I nodded, recalling my poached eggs and peas in hot sauce very well. He proceeded to tell me that he and his boyfriend had been sitting at the table next to us – dreadfully hungover. In fact, they were so hungover that rather than having their own conversation, they’d simply put their heads on the table and listened to two hours of my friend Diane and I talking about what we’re currently writing. So this guy knew everything about me! He knew all about my memoir and the revisions I’d been struggling with at the time, and he knew about my next project, the historical novel I’m trying to get underway. But what was most eerie was that he also knew about my fears and insecurities in embarking on this novel and he quoted verbatim what I’d been saying that caffeine-fuelled morning, as I poured my heart out to Diane about my desire to write the novel from three different perspectives, one of which would belong to my great-grandfather. He was an internment camp doctor during the Second World War. But I have this fear – phobia, really, or mild phobia, let’s just say – of writing from the male perspective. And especially a perspective so removed in not only gender, but also place and time.
Thus my writing and my writing hang-ups became the strange focus of our conversation, making my cheeks burn very hotly, and I felt compelled to reflect on what’s at the root of my hesitancy to doff my gender and identity. Maybe it’s simply the fact that for the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been immersed in writing a memoir…. And much as I’ve enjoyed the process, the memoir genre does have limits. While a certain creative latitude is at the memoirist’s disposal, changing one’s gender or throwing in a rape scene (unless it really happened) simply aren’t options. And there’s the rub. Much as I’ve loved the self-disclosure of writing memoir, I knew at the end of the process that I wanted the creative freedom of writing fiction. So my mysterious run-in with this architect who ventriloquized my fears and anxieties as a writer so well (sadly, I didn’t manage to catch his name, even though we spoke for two hours) made me think about where I’m going and the direction in which I want to grow. More imaginative risks. Proliferating “selves” that go well beyond my own.
The author who’s brilliant at this – and whose Giller Award winning novel I was recently reading on my trip to Spain – is Joseph Boyden. I love how Through Black Spruce takes the reader into the minds of two characters who are polar opposites of each other. Will Bird is a dare-devil bush pilot lying in a coma, as he narrates in a strange, dream-like fashion, the story of his tormented past. Annie Bird is his eccentric, beautiful niece, who’s on her own journey to find herself; she leaves the native reserve where she grew up to become a model and have a taste of the high life in Toronto, Montreal and ultimately New York. The novel oscillates between these two very different voices, which are both utterly convincing, and yet, what’s most striking is how Boyden artfully reveals deeper similarities between their characters, emotions, fears. I feel that any writer could learn a lot from reading Boyden, particularly on the craft of inhabiting other identities and creating voices that are distinctive and real.
Photo from: here