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Refuge of the Monkey Writers

by Wendy Parker

"So what are we supposed to write about?" She looked across the tops of beer glasses at him with a pouting gunslinger face she was affecting this week.

"How the hell should I know? Write what you know. Tell me about the culture of your neighbourhood."

She remembered how she had started her day that morning in her parents' west-end kitchen. What did she know? She knew how to eat Shreddies, read the local tabloid and listen to a couple of middle-age talk-jocks giggle about transsexual golf pros. She slid down in her chair and tried to make a story out of it. No matter how she twisted it, it fell short of the book they'd been dissecting in class, the one about that orphan kid trapped in a boat with a tiger.

She sighed. She had never seen a tiger, her family was ever-present in her life and she had been in a boat exactly three times, at her uncle's cottage.

"The stuff I know is dull. My life is white-bread boring."

He turned back to her, exasperated.

"Find something interesting about it. Examine your life. Probe it. Seek out the hard kernels of truth and write about them."

"Right."

She wondered if she hated him, this transplanted Brit who had travelled so far to teach them how to be writers. He should have brought answers. He was from a great culture with a millennium of experience in these things. Things that her life lacked. Like crumpets, Shakespeare and opera. Like the feeling that you could make half the world speak your language and study your poets. Like a sense that your life really meant something to the world. He'd given them nothing of that. Instead, he had brought more questions.

Today he had started the class by asking them why contemporary Canadian literature was so focused on small-town childhood. What was the matter with them, he had demanded.

He had been constantly in their faces, haranguing them, staring them down. Why were they so fixated on an idealized past? Did they lack confidence in their culture? Did they have a real culture at all? Or were they content to reheat leftovers from foreign hacks and dead icons?

Dead icons, she had asked him.

"You know, like Robertson Davies or Margaret Atwood."

"Margaret Atwood's not dead," she had protested.

He had brushed that off.

"You know what I mean."

Every session was the same. He would dance in front of them, striding from side to side of the classroom, flinging a long arm out at them in accusation or retreating into himself like Richard Nixon, glowering out across the rows of seats. Why this dearth of urban insight? Why these tedious yarns of prairie childhood and rural schooldays? Why did Canadians smother themselves in a literary poutine of history? The past -- and such a pedestrian past it was -- hung like a bloody pall over the country.

What, he demanded of them, was the meaning of it?

His contempt came off him in waves. She knew what he thought of them. White wogs, hockey goons, jumped-up shanty trash, little more than the Empire's monkeys.

In response to his challenges, the monkeys would doodle in their notebooks or stare at the ceiling or gaze at him slack-jawed as if he were speaking in tongues.

She, meanwhile, would measure him for a coffin with her eyes. Surely he knew the answers to his own questions. The man had a doctorate in literature. He was published in hardcover. He wasn't stupid. He knew what was going on. He didn't have to stand up there and rub their noses in it.

She recalled a night on the Bathurst streetcar, heading to the subway from a waterfront fireworks display. Just after midnight. She and her boyfriend were drained from a long day in the metallic lake air. The streetcar was three-quarters full of workers and shoppers, half of them snoozing on the hard benches. She had glanced around the car, recording the Chinese newspapers, drowsy dark-haired children, tiny women with oversized bags at their feet, knots of tired men chanting Cantonese in hushed voices. Shocked to notice, at last, that she and her boyfriend were the only non-Asians in the car. Here in the city of her birth, where she had gone to school, attended Guides, taken first communion, hosted bridal showers, caroused with friends, won her BA and, finally, enrolled in this highly-touted writing course to pursue a lifelong dream.

Write what she knew, he had said. But what did she know of the people on the Bathurst car? How could she ever make sense of the weirdness she had felt that night? Or the thing that this place, her hometown, had become?

Sure, she loved the diversity. Who didn't? The mixing of languages and foods. The sheer energy that comes with massive continuous infusions of new blood. It was the source of pride and identity. Unique. The best. World-class. The way of the future. But culture? You've got to be kidding. What culture? Today's? Yesterday's? Next week's? Whose culture? Mine? Yours? His? Hers? The culture of the Bathurst car on a midsummer night? She didn't speak its language or comprehend its shape. How could she grab hold of it long enough to write about it?

Who moved my cheese? Where'd my city go, dude?

Should she confront him with it? Maybe he would understand the Bathurst car and tell her how to deal with it. Create a world-beating kick-ass story from it. Sure. And maybe the ceiling would split open and the November clouds would rain toads on their heads. Toads of understanding. Toads of clarity. Toads of feeling at home in this strange place.

Or maybe she should ask him to read the list of nominees for this year's Tannenbaum prize. She had read the list in the morning paper, and it had made her sigh over her white-bread toast in her parents' vanilla kitchen.

In class that day, she had wanted to leap up and order him to read the list aloud. Explain it to them. Then watch their monkey hearts slide into their boots. Top honours for the city's writers and what do we have here? A world-famous Nigerian novelist savaging his political enemies back home. Ditties from a Caribbean childhood. A newcomer's coming-of-age adventures on a tea plantation in Southeast Asia. Exciting stories written by exotic people from other places, other cultures, other times.

What were her chances of breaking into that bright shiny lineup? What could she counter with? Sunday afternoons in Etobicoke? Hockey nights at a North York sports bar? Shreddies with Fred and Lemar? Pu-leese!

She knew how it would sound if her thoughts were broadcast over the classrooms loud speakers. Petty, redneck, déclassé, bordering on racist. Not pretty. But she couldn't help the way she felt, could she? She had glared at the man on the stage and envied him for his two thousand years of cultural self-assurance.

How could she write what she knew? Her feelings were ignoble. They were unworthy. No one wanted to hear them, let alone read about them. Her culture -- her disappearing, white bread, suburban, middle-class culture -- was the stuff of jokes, not literature.

So she understood why Canadian writers would take refuge in the comfort of long-ago small towns.

She mooned over an untasted beer and listened to her classmates chatter about the week's assignment, which was to write a 1,000-word story set in their own neighbourhoods. She envied their excitement. But wait until they got deeper into their stories. Wait until they experienced their own Bathurst car moments.

Carl, a suburbanite from the east end, noticed her silence and touched her arm.

"What's the matter, Jennifer? You feeling all right?"

She smiled at him and shook her head. How could she even begin to tell him what was bothering her? She asked him, instead, if he had seen the list of Tannenbaum finalists.

"Yeah, and I'm going to have to hit the bookstore. I haven't read any of those books. To be honest, I haven't heard of half the authors."

"None of them seem to be from here," she said.

"No."

"None of them seem to be writing about here. The stories are all about somewhere else."

"So?"

"Here must be pretty boring, eh?"

"Well...." He squirmed uncomfortably and stared at the table.

"The people here must be pretty boring, too," she persisted, "if they can't even produce a nominee for their own book prize."

"It doesn't happen that way all the time. Look at last year's winner."

"Welsh. Writing about Cardiff."

"I liked the book though."

"That's not the point."

Carl touched her arm again, then quickly turned away to join a conversation that was raging across the table. Something about crazy landlords. She listened for a few minutes, then slumped down in her chair and wrapped her arms around her chest. Her classmates were like her, young grads and senior undergrads from suburban neighbourhoods like her own. Most of them were serious about writing, and dreaming about lives as successful writers, just as she was. And yet, they were so different from her.

They were unconcerned that none of the nominees on the Tannenbaum list actually came from the city. It didn't matter to them. They didn't think about it. Nor were they bothered by his suggestion that they were a bunch of mimicking monkeys, taking refuge in a fake past because they couldn't or wouldn't deal with the present.

They saw nothing wrong with judges who valued other people's cultures above their own, or a city that had become a bus stop for touring writers.

Maybe they were right. Maybe she was reading it all wrong. Maybe there was something wrong with her. She stared into her beer again and listened to the voices around the table, until she felt him watching her. She raised her head and when their eyes met, she was surprised by what seemed to be kindness in his.

"What?"

"Those writers, the ones you resent so much, you should take a closer look at them," he said. "Read them. Learn from them."

"What could they teach me? I'm not like them at all."

"In some ways, you're very like them. Look at the countries they're from and think about the things they write about. At one time or another, I'll bet every one of them felt exactly the way you're feeling now."

She thought about that for a minute, trying to see the world through their eyes.

"I still don't understand how that would help me," she said finally.

"Maybe that's what the judges are seeing too. Maybe that's what they're responding to."

She thought about that too.

"So you're saying I should read them before I get all bent out of shape."

"Couldn't hurt, could it? In light of your own problem?"

"No," she said. "I guess it couldn't."

"So," he said, smiling at last. "Tell me about your neighbourhood."

She smiled back, but she still couldn't think of anything she wanted to say about her neighbourhood.

Maybe it was just her.
Rupert's Comments:

What the heck is Canadian writing anyway? What is Canadian? For a distinctive American take on the subject, check out the Hudson Institute's erudite discussion of What is a Canadian? and see how long you can keep your breakfast down. Gotta love those Hudson "scholars," eh?

2058 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:13

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