NOW Digital Residency: Ontario's Best Books
As part of this month’s Ontario’s Best Books Digital Residency, we’re profiling some of this province’s prominent authors. See all of the profiles here.
What’s your most recent work about?
It’s a hybrid memoir told through the prism of urban parks and the city’s avian residents. A few years ago, I met a local musician named Jack Breakfast who had lost his heart to birds and I followed him for a year through seasonal shifts and migrations, bad weather and near accidents. I ended up writing a kind of ode to common birds and small things. There’s a presumption that birding appeals to the part of us that covets the ‘rare commodity’ but it’s the unheralded and overlooked – all that we don’t typically recognize or celebrate – that attracts me. What and who are we missing? What are we failing to imagine? Writing this book put me in touch with Toronto’s wild and creative under-stories.
Do you have anything specific you do for your writing process?
I’m restless and like jumping fences so I work on multiple projects at the same time. I write for adults and kids. I also do some scholarly writing. They are all different ways of telling stories. The space between projects is very fertile – as is the option to choose what I will prioritize on any given day. I like to build playlists for my projects so a productive trance sets in the moment the first track begins. And, of course, sometimes there’s no time to write sometimes it doesn’t feel like a necessary activity or the right reply to life and I’ve come to realize that’s okay too.
Describe one opportunity that improved your life as a writer.
Being given a stipend and a ‘cabin of my own’ at age 26. It was a Banff residency in creative non-fiction. I had never had the luxury or gall to imagine myself a writer before then. So that summer opportunity was huge and emboldening.
What’s one thing Ontario creative industries could do to be more inclusive of authors from indigenous and diverse communities.
I love seeing BIPOC writers supporting each other. It’s a way of subverting this ridiculous structure of identity/commodity capitalism that, for ever and ever, has meant only a few chosen people get anointed and promoted within the narrow terms of ‘CanLit.’ I think creative industries need to recognize that ‘inclusivity’ is a radical and foundational practice and cannot be based on superficial checklists and cursory head counts. The presence of authors from Indigenous and diverse communities should not be seen as simply additive but transfigurative of this country’s literary cultures.
What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had shared with you when you were first starting out as a writer?
When I was starting out, the late poet-painter Roy Kiyooka said something that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time but it stayed with me: “Listen to the work. Serve the work.” I think he meant listen/serve/protect the work over the blaring noise of commerce, public opinion, ego, etc.
Do you have any favourite Ontario authors or books?
Too many to list! But over the past few years it’s the students I’ve mentored through the Humber School for Writers and University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA that have really inspired me with their hunger for story and their commitment to forming a personal aesthetic and craft.
Name a person in your field who you think deserves more attention.
I am very interested in nature writing and particularly how we ‘story climate change’ (to borrow Cate Sandilands words). There are two artists whose work is reshaping the way I think. Julie Flett is doing profound things in visual storytelling, often starting with the land and emplacing human story within a larger narrative cosmos of plants and other living creatures. Another artist who is correcting the idea of human dominance and exceptionalism is writer Hiromi Goto. Everyone needs to follow Hiromi. I won’t elaborate. Just follow her writing, posts and paths through the woods. Both Julie and Hiromi show it’s possible to see our world another way.
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