Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Jason Timermanis on Libraries, Voice and Best Canadian Essays 2017

In mid-90s suburban Toronto, you could walk into any public library, stand in front of a book shelf, and find tiny red maple leaves dotting the spines of certain books. This Canadian self-promotion was dreamed up by the public library system and served as a counter measure to our southern neighbour’s cultural spread northward. It was a clever way to draw the eye away from the American books crowding the shelves and to our own Canadian talent squeezed between them. This was how I chose my reading material as a teenager: look for the maple leaf stickers, jagged red thumbprints marking the presence of fellow Canadians. It’s still a technique used today (I’m looking now at my Toronto Library copy of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, the last s on the spine hidden by a red leaf).
     As a teen, I loved what a library did to people’s tongues. Passing through the doors, tongues retreated into the backs of mouths like dumb animals chased deep into their caves. A different kind of voice ruled. Its only sound was the shush shush of paper rubbing paper. The sound of humans talking through trees.
     I loitered in my neighbourhood library, a chain-smoking scarecrow of a 15-year-old, reading in the corner until closing time. This was in Mississauga, Ontario, a Toronto suburb city of half a million. The city’s heart, called Square One, was a giant shopping mall ringed in parking lots. From this bland, consumerist core, one could travel south, down through the car-dominated sprawl, past the Indian and Chinese communities, then over the Queen Elizabeth Way highway, towards Lake Ontario where the citizens became whiter, the houses larger, and where my library stood.
     Mississauga derives its name from an Ojibwe word meaning River of the North of Many Mouths. My grade school was named for the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. From my quiet cul-de-sac, I caught the city bus to school on a road called Indian. Yet all these Native words were, for most residents, merely a flourish, a limp nod to a history we knew little to nothing about. 
     On Indian Road, my family briefly attended a United church when I was nine or ten. While sitting in the Sunday school classroom in the basement of the old building, the other children pointed to a cellar door.  Under the dirt floor of the cellar, they whispered, was an Indian burial ground. Taking our cue from the 80s horror movies that we snuck into theatres to watch, we white children feared Indians would burst from out of the packed earth to reclaim their sacred land. They were something we scared each other with to pass the time.
     My library was next door to my high school. Though I got off the city bus in front of the school in the mornings, often I skipped class to wander over to the library and explore the shelves. My friend’s mother, a retired ballerina from the National Ballet who regularly offered up her living room as home base for the neighbourhood’s wayward teens, was one of the librarians. Her presence carried the feeling of a friend’s home into the library.
     I started with the maple leaf books. It wasn’t patriotism at that age but an easy organizing principle for tackling the row upon row of books that greeted me. Amongst the Canadians, I found gems that spoke to me at that age, like the teenage memoir Diary of a Street Kid by Evelyn Lau. Lau was a West Coast 14-year-old who cracked under the suffocating pressure of her parents’ expectations and took to the streets of Vancouver, falling in and out of drugs and prostitution while becoming a celebrated poet. As a young writer myself, and one prone to bolting, I could relate. At 14, rebellious and eager to escape the suburbs, I had taken the train into the city to disappear into the Toronto shelter system, pretending to be 16 so the Children’s Aid Society wouldn’t apprehend me. During that time, Lau’s work had been a kindred spirit, “like the arm of a friend not inside the frame” (from the poem "Not Staying" in Oedipal Dreams).
     I fell in love with a book by Australian-Canadian writer Janette Turner Hospital called The Last Magician. Taking as inspiration Sabastiao Salgado’s photographs of the workers of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil—thousands of earth-stained men crowded on rings descending down into the dark—her book imagines an orderly Brisbane hollowed out from below by sinners tunneling beneath it in a Dante’s Inferno of criminality. I wanted the ranting, impulsive characters of her book to burst up through the carefully trimmed and chemically sprayed lawns of my neighbourhood and rupture its sterile serenity. Instead, I was the one to wander underground, into the storm sewers, to sit on ledges above the flowing water and smoke cigarettes. Holding a lighter up to the walls, I marveled at the graffiti of those who came before me and wished that I had known them.
     Books, in a lot of ways, would ruin me for people. Each book was a mind split open. In them I found what was missing for me in the world outside the library where most people spoke in dribs and drabs, in niceties that were like empty-handed offerings. It could take months, years to catch the thread of a story in someone and pull it, to take their tongue and tie it to a stick and slowly unwind the story from their mouth. Who had the patience when there were libraries and the quick high of confession? We have the expression she’s an open book for people who share themselves widely and deeply in their daily life, but where did these fabled people live?
     My teenage library days came back to me while reading Best Canadian Essays 2017. Lopsided towards the first-person confessional, the collection is full of writers vulnerable and raw with what is often easier to share on the page, once removed from another human being; where writers can reveal their pain without ever looking anyone in the eye.
     Francine Cunningham, in her essay "Still, Small Voice," shares how mental illness can make the simple act of choosing produce in a supermarket debilitating:
How do I know the first one wasn’t the right one? It didn’t feel good. But then again, does this one? I step back in front of the pile. Pick up the first bunch of kale in one hand, hold the other in the other hand. I look down at my feet because if I look around I will see the people staring. I know they’re staring.
     I imagined Francine in the Mississauga of my youth, standing in the produce section of a grocery store, admiring the vegetables as the sprayer turned on and bathed them in a fine mist, everyone oblivious to the grabble grabble of her gut chasing her into high octaves of anxiety. All anyone might’ve noticed was, perhaps, once or twice, a glimmer of something reaching and desperate peering out from a crack in her fa├žade during talk of the weather or a kid’s soccer tournament. And that was the way it was meant to be, and largely still is with mental illness, in Mississauga and beyond. Don’t leave the house without that part of you bricked over with a smile, and if you must share it, save it for the closed confessional of the page, where people can choose whether to open that book and read that story.
      “Depression often seems like the exact opposite of language. It takes your tongue, your thoughts, your self-worth, and leaves an empty vessel. Not that different from colonialism, actually.” Alicia Elliot writes this in her essay, "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground," looking at the generational legacy of family depression in her Tuscarora tribe, and its relationship to the attempted eradication of all Native people by Canadian colonialists. The braided threads of depression and colonialism threaten to kill the ability to speak using any voice, verbal or literary. 
     Elliot’s essay reminded me most of my old neighbourhood for illustrating how a double silence can exist in a place like Mississauga: the personal one of feeling your own story silenced by what is or isn’t considered appropriate to speak about openly, but also the macro silence of a neighbourhood hanging Native words up like exotic trinkets on road signs and school names while speaking nothing of the lives that made those words. I was primed to be the next generation living in that kind of fog. As a child, I was gifted a dreamcatcher, bought from some kiosk at Square One and suction cupped onto my bedroom window where it hung like a blind spot that would’ve grown to eclipse my vision had I not learned from the stories of Native people found in the library.
     Towards the end of high school I did meet someone open like a book. Appropriately, it was a librarian, an older Scandinavian woman, drole and witchy, who worked part time in the small high school library while also teaching a social science class. She had the blistering frankness of books.
     She shared with us that one of her shoulder blades was atavistic, a genetic throwback discovered during an x-ray, and was to appear in a textbook.  She interpreted her dreams and ours, suggesting that my recurring dream of floating, overwhelmed in the vastness of space was my connection to the collective unconscious. She said that if we felt like it, we should drop out of school. Go travel the world. See things. And I would go on to see the world. At 19, I left Mississauga for good, the city that I had retreated from into books, and though I never really crept back out of books, I’ve found places that speak to me, out in the world, beyond the cocoon of the library.


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Jason Timermanis is a Canadian writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Exile, Matrix, Spacing, and the anthology Second Person Queer. He was the 2014 winner of the Carter V. Cooper prize for short fiction by an emerging writer. Jason has studied writing at Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Arizona. He currently resides in Toronto. 

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