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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

May Reads

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

If you happen to be out there, like I am, looking for Japanese fiction NOT written by Haruki Murakami, I have good news! Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has no missing cats, no awkward sex scenes, no parallel worlds, and it is marvellous.

Set on an island and narrated by an unnamed woman in the near future, The Memory Police is about a society in which objects and ideas are subject to constant change because the government has the power to remove them from society. For example, at one point birds simply cease to exist. All birds are removed from the world and destroyed. All images of birds in print and references to the word “bird” are redacted, and shortly thereafter people stop having any memory whatsoever of birds, practically or conceptually.

Of course, it seems impossible that a world without birds, or ribbons, or novels, can even exist. But each loss is absorbed by the island’s inhabitants who adapt and carry on with their lives. Later calendars are removed, which not only causes people to lose track of time, but actually stops it, plunging them into an endless winter, inhibiting food growth and production, creating scarcity.

As in all dystopian worlds, there are people who do not comply with the government orders, and in the case of this book, this means that they maintain memories while those around them do not. One such person is the narrator’s mother, who was abducted by the Memory Police years earlier, when the narrator was a young girl. Another is the narrator’s editor, known to us simply as “R”.

That the narrator of this book is a writer is significant, because she is in the literal business of committing reality to record. Therefore, when novels are made obsolete, she must give up her livelihood and take on a new job, intriguingly as a typist - she is still committing words to paper, but not writing fiction. R encourages her to continue writing her novel, in secret, but it is an endlessly laborious process, since she has lost an understanding of what a novel is, or why one might exist.

R, like the narrator’s mother, is unable to forget things in the way that society requires, and as more objects are lost his life becomes further endangered. With the help of her elderly neighbour and friend, the narrator constructs a secret room in her house for R to hide in. She ensures that he has food and company, and delivers messages to his wife and their brand new baby.

There is so much good stuff here! It’s impossible to read about R hidden away in the narrator’s house and not to think of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis in a secret room behind a bookshelf. I was also reminded that Big Brother’s control of language leads to the control of ideas and ultimately reality in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or how about Atwood’s Gilead, which denies its female citizens the ability to read in The Handmaid’s Tale?

While The Memory Police echoes these texts, it is singular in addressing how important language is in building concepts and knowledge. How much we rely on memory to understand ourselves, for example. How personal relationships can sustain us in times when all other comforts have been removed.

It’s incredible. Read it.

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath

Until very recently, I had never heard of Gabby Rivera. I do, however, listen to Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, and Rivera was a sparkling guest on that show, talking about this novel as well as her work in creating queer Latinx superhero America Chavez for Marvel. Let’s just say all signs pointed to my kind of author.

We meet the titular Juliet at the end of her first year of college. She has returned to her Bronx home for a short visit before beginning a summer internship with her beloved hero, author Harlowe Brisbane. Brisbane’s book Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind deeply impacts Juliet’s budding feminism. It’s a dream job, really, one that will also count for academic credit. Still, when Juliet leaves the Bronx it is with a heavy heart. Her girlfriend Lanie will be far away from her for the summer, working at an internship in Washington D.C. Equally upsetting for Juliet is the fact that when she officially comes out to her family, the night before departing for Portland, her mother fails to be supportive, suggesting to Juliet that this is merely a phase.

Before I say anything else about this book, please keep in mind a certain (I’m going to say still relevant) sketch from Portlandia. Indeed, the dream of the 90s is alive in Juliet Takes a Breath. Here’s a short list of what you’ll encounter in this remarkable debut novel: veganism, body hair politics, safe spaces, astrology, alternative therapies for menstrual pain, polyamory, Ani DiFranco, and, like, a whole lot of weed.

I mean, what decade does that sound like to you?

It excites me a little bit to think that folks are still out there singing Ani DiFranco songs while they hand roll cigarettes and drink tea out of mason jars. I hope that’s true. Either way, it is absolutely true in Juliet Milagros Palante’s post 9/11 Portland, and you should definitely check it out.

There are a lot of coming of age stories out there, but this one deserves your attention because it is so sweetly earnest and so thoroughly about women. What a treat to witness Juliet work through some of life’s hardest lessons, including the one about how you should never meet your heroes. Juliet is also pretty savvy, but she has a lot to learn about contemporary queer theory. She is just beginning to know how much she has to learn, which puts her in good company, I imagine, with many of us in this world. Learning from Harlowe’s former intern Phen (who, frankly, is a bit more of an ass than he needs to be) is a challenge for Juliet, but one that she ultimately rises to, by remaining humble and listening carefully.

Who among us could not benefit from facing the same challenges?

I’m not going to lie to you. This book is tough and you should absolutely read it.

Morris shares her research about the multitudinous ways young black women are mistreated in school. She draws on quantitative data from school districts and interviews with black students, many of whom former attendees of schools in juvenile detention centres. Though the research is all American, it is not a stretch to consider that these same problems exist in Canadian systems. If you don’t believe me, have a listen to Sky Bowen on this episode of Anti-Racist Educator Reads, who will remind you that indeed Canadians are no less racist than our sourthern neighbours.

What becomes achingly clear through the stories Morris hears from young black women is that they are consistently not seen or cared for by the adults whose job it is to see and care for them. White teachers are threatened by what they perceive as hostile behaviour, quick to call in authority when challenged, and consistently fail to personally connect with and appreciate their black female students. This is not an individual teacher or district problem either. It is universal.

The absolute minimum we white educators can do is continue to reflect on our practices and how they are driven by ingrained beliefs, ones we are often not conscious of. Consistently ask questions: How does this lesson or text make my black students feel? How am I including their voices in this class discussion? How am I acknowledging their unique experiences in every interaction we have? How am I helping my white students to be better listeners and sharers of space? Then ask those same questions in considering your Muslim, queer, and indigenous students. Then keep doing it, forever.

To avoid these questions is to contribute to the world that Morris describes in this book, one where black students are not just ignored, but actively “pushed out” of our learning spaces. And who can live with that reality?

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: reading a book is not exactly the same thing as doing the work of social justice. But this book made me think about changing the way I do my work, and that is something. A start.

This book is a sweet surprise that came to me via the series of the same name, currently airing on Amazon Prime. Plum Kettle is a ghostwriter for Kitty, the editor of a girls’ fashion magazine, answering readers’ letters about relationships, personal trauma, self harm, and body image. When she gets the job she is told, “I hear that you’re smart, but I don’t mind that,” which pretty much defines her experience working for the Austen publishing empire. Still, she takes the job seriously and provides thoughtful replies to all of Kitty’s “girls”.

Plum’s life is defined by her weight, and her narrative is compellingly connected in all ways to her relationship to food, how she looks, and the outside world. She is saving up for weight loss surgery, imagining herself post surgery as “Alicia”, her true self, who is thin and fashionable and who never needs to hide from the judgment of the world.

Plum’s journey towards surgery is interrupted by two important characters. The first is Verena Baptist, leader of Calliope House, a feminist collective of nurturing women who set Plum on a journey to self-love and healing. The second is Leeta, a representative of the terrorist group called “Jennifer” who invites Plum to get in touch with her rage at the many ways society harms women. As a terrorist organization, Jennifer is a bit more fleshed out in the TV series, but in both texts it exists to provide vivid and public punishment of men known to be sexual predators. Jennifer’s tendency towards violence is tempting to Plum, but definitely in conflict with her lifestyle, which until now has been focussed primarily on retreating into the background and hoping not to be seen. The two organizations, Calliope House and Jennifer, offer two opposing ends of what I guess might be called a spectrum of feminism. They both allow Plum to become a more actualized person, and through her story we learn, kind of accidentally, about all kinds of feminist thought and action. It’s awesome.

We all know that violence is not the answer. I don’t disagree, but I will say that reading this revenge fantasy about a group of angry women vigilantes seeking justice against rapists and harassers was incredibly satisfying. Not unlike Naomi Alderman’s The Power, this book invites us to imagine what the relationship is between power and gender, tyranny and freedom. It’s a sweet tale led by an atypical leader, which is my whole hope for what the future will bring.

Narrator Sequoyah begins his tale like this: “The period in my life of which I am about to tell involves a late night in the winter of 1989, when I was fifteen years old and a certain girl died in front of me.” And if that isn’t an invitation to read on, I don’t know what is. I hesitate to make this comparison, because the books are otherwise not similar at all, but the introduction reminds me of Catcher in the Rye with its smarmy old Holden Caulfeld saying, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” It’s an introduction that promises a lot.

At fourteen Sequoyah becomes a ward of the state when his mother is incarcerated for possession and drunk driving. He lives in a shelter, “waiting for her to straighten up like she said she would,” until, at fifteen, he moves in with a foster family, Agnes and Harold Troutt and their other foster children, George and Rosemary. They are loving and kind to all three children, if a bit distant. They give all three children the freedom and space to explore interests, which overall is good. At times though, their lack of engagement in the day to day lives of all three seem a bit neglectful. Seventeen year-old Rosemary is clearly suffering, and I feel like the Troutts could have been a bit more involved in trying to help her.

Sequoyah settles into the Troutt family, enjoying a kind of quiet stability that has been rare in his life until now. He is immediately taken by Rosemary, not romantically, he is quick to point out, but in some deeper, elemental way. They become close friends and Sequoyah begins to learn about Rosemary’s troubled past.

Since he has not been well parented, Sequoyah is a person who makes reckless and sometimes dangerous decisions. He breaks into Rosemary’s room while the rest of the family is out and snoops through her things. He dreams up ways to punish her best friend Nora, who dislikes Sequoyah and is always unkind to him. But there’s a river of integrity in Sequoyah that Rosemary lacks, and when she shows him Harold’s stash of gambling winnings hidden in the shed - a whole bunch of bundled up hundred dollar bills - Sequoyah is adamant that it must be left alone.

Despite the fact that we know Rosemary’s fate on the very first page of the book, the development of her relationship with Sequoyah remains a compelling narrative. He does not trust many people, but is intensely loyal to Rosemary, in a way that might only be possible in your teen years. And yes, this is a coming of age novel, like many others, but it is also a story of building human connection in a world that has actively prevented Sequoyah from doing so. It is a tale of regret and trauma, but also a tale of resilience and love. I think what I’m saying is, it’s hard to classify. But these characters will stay with you in a very memorable way.

As I write this, the story dominating Ontario news is that of a London Muslim family who, while out for a stroll, were run down by a twenty -year old pick up truck driver. Four of five members of the family were killed. A nine year old son survived.

Having so recently read They Said This Would Be Fun, I am carrying Eternity Martis’ story with me while I reflect on this hateful and tragic event. The first draft of this piece jokingly asked, “Is there anything at all good in London, Ontario?”

Now I’m not joking. I’m asking for real.

If you and I have ever talked about Western, then it’s likely I’ve told you that I spent one very bad year there when I was nineteen, homesick, and isolated. And while there have been significant changes to the world between 1990, when I was there for first year, and 2010, when Martis arrived, I’m not so sure all that much has changed at the school. I’m hopeful these last ten years were better than the twenty before them.

But then there’s the news, proving me wrong.

Martis begins her story at the end of Frosh week, that hallowed tradition of gathering thousands of newly independent teenagers together in a place with loads of booze and no supervisors. She lives in residence with Taz, her best friend from home, and hopes to start fresh, leaving a controlling ex(ish)-boyfriend behind in Toronto. As these things go when you’re young, though, the break-up is messy and doesn’t really take. Martis’ first few months at Western are a struggle in all kinds of ways, partly because of this unhealthy relationship, and partly because she’s found herself in crisis in a brand new place with only one person, Taz, for support.

Traumatic experiences begin to pile up for Martis. She is drugged and sexually assaulted by her ex(ish)-boyfriend in her dorm room while the rest of the floor parties on, oblivious. She goes to a bar for Hallowe’en and encounters a threesome of white folks dressed as “cotton pickers” and wearing blackface. They hover near her, leering, clearly intending to provoke her. Both on and off campus she is surrounded almost exclusively by white people, many of whom comment on how she’s the first Black person they’ve ever spoken to. Her narrative is both reflective and unflinching, impossible to turn away from.

As she progresses through her degree, Martis ultimately begins to connect with a community that reflects her identity and interests. She begins to learn about feminism and critical race theory, becoming an activist and getting to know herself better. There are long sections of the book that, to me, were unnecessary. She interrupts her story to speak about Robyn Doolittle’s Unfounded, for example, exploring campus assault more generally in a Canadian context. Or she writes about intersectionality, summarizing the ideas of Kimberlé Crenshaw. While context is important, for sure, to understanding individual and collective experiences, I didn’t feel that these digressions were especially helpful. Plus there was nary a footnote or citation for any of the clearly specifically researched details. My hope is that this same contextual information I found unnecessary is exactly the thing to kindle understanding and action in younger readers, who I hope are finding this book.

I must admit that I was first drawn to Martis’ story because I think Western is a shitty place with a super-colonial, fake Ivy League reputation. See, for example, the many years this racist prof did racist research there. It is absolutely no surprise to me that Martis struggled in all the ways she describes: black face, people shouting racist and sexist insults at her from their cars, ignorant and insensitive white classmates and teachers. But one of the awesome things she does with her storytelling is to embed these extraordinary experiences within the many ordinary pursuits of an undergraduate student. Who among us can say that we didn’t pre-drink at home before going out? Hook up with thoroughly inappropriate partners? Struggle to work in groups with idiots? Martis describes her own encounters with these types of experiences while also clearly representing what it feels like to do so while permanently bracing for the next microaggression. Or, honestly, more often, macroaggression. The stress she bears as a result is profound. It affects her physical and mental health and every one of her relationships.

They Said This Would Be Fun is a great book. It’s also very Canadian in scope, which is significant during these times of persistent exposure of American racist behaviours. I’m certain that any number of racialized undergrads at schools across the province could describe very similar experiences (I’m looking at you, Queens) and I’m looking forward to reading their stories.

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