Sunday, March 22, 2015

Starting a Novel- An Insurmountable Challenge?

The past couple of months I have been working on a novel set in the Victorian period about a woman who wants to be a travel writer. This is a project I've been thinking about for several years, maybe almost ten, researching, writing scenes and character sketches in between working on Young Adult fiction. This year marks the start of trying to write a draft.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish
dress, 1756. She is credited with bringing
 the small pox inoculation from Turkey
back to England.

I started thinking about the project during my Master's when I read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters from Turkey. I was fascinated with the liberty of traveling to a foreign country, combined with the restricted lives Victorian women lived. For my own novel, I imagine a woman traveling to India, a place I have visited. Yet most Victorian women didn't travel in India, they lived there, not as settlers they way they did in other outposts of empire such as in Canada or Australia, but as wives to temporary, but long-term employees of the Empire. Through reading I learnd that India, was not as I imagined a place to escape to, but a place with an even more rigid social structure than society in England. A character started to unfold in my mind. What if my Victorian woman protagonist chafed under these restrictions? What if she wanted to travel and write instead of marry and propagate? What if she read female writers like Emily Eden and Isabelle Bird, but didn't have enough money to be like them?

My questions have led to some exceptionally rich research reading. Judith Flanders',  Inside the Victorian House, A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, taught me about Victorian women through the outlines of their homes. Ruth Brandon's Governess: The Life and Times of The Real Jane Eyres, made me think deeply about the lives of Victorian governesses. Margaret MacMillan's Women of the Raj provided details about the lives of women who went to serve in Victorian India. Most recently Emily Eden's Up The Country, a collection of the author's letters in the 1840's from her travels across the subcontinent has helped me imagine what writing my protagonist might have read that spurred her on to travel herself.


While certainly not an expert in the field, I now know a lot about the history of flush toilets and the development of septic systems and disease. I know about cholera belts that were to prevent disease by keeping "women's organs" warm.  I learned about "bokkus" boxes where visitors in British India left their visiting cards in a box to let someone know they intended to visit. I know that Whiteley's Department store in London was where women heading to India bought their goods. 


For the past six weeks I've tried to wade through all my notes, scenes, and character sketches to try and write some preliminary chapters. This has not been straightforward. Some scenes are in third person, some are in first, others are in present tense while others are in past. Not all are in the time period, or deal with the same plot. Scenes are written in different styles. I found a twenty page intro that read like a children's story. Luckily, they are all from the point of view of the same character, a hungry girl named Alice, who is neither girl nor woman, too old to be a girl, yet not married, so not really a woman. A whole entourage of characters have emerged around her, a kindly mother, a cousin who encourages her reading and writing, an eclectic aunt, a mentor who won't marry her.

Through all the many pages, I found one paragraph that I liked. One paragraph. This is both dispiriting and yet, even in my frustration, I was happy to find one small section that worked. Yet how does one face an entire novel of 75,000 words when one only has 150 written? It's enough to make you give up. There are other things that make me want to quit before I start: is writing about white women in India problematic? Have I done enough research to pull this off? What if my premise itself is wrong?

Whenever I face what feels like an insurmountable writing goal, I think back to my favorite writing book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. The title comes from a chapter where Anne's brother as a child feels overwhelmed by an assignment on birds that he has left to the last minute. Anne's father advises her brother to tackle the assignment "bird by bird." Any difficult or insurmountable task must simply be started and worked on bit by bit. Every novel originally begins with one good paragraph, or even one good sentence.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

Trans Stories Part 2

I took a brief respite from reading for research this weekend to delve into Kim Fu’s For Today I Am Boy. What a wonderful book! Fu’s novel was on my reading list as part of my research on Transgender lives, but it’s also great fiction. For Today I Am A Boy tells the coming-of-age story of Peter Huang, a woman trapped in a man’s body. Peter grows up in small-town Ontario and eventually moves to Montreal, where he works in restaurants, dresses in women’s clothing on the weekends and lives a life of deeply sublimated desire.  For Today I am a Boy tells a story of transgender angst and pain in a way that make me think of the famous Emily Dickens poem, "Tell all the tuth but tell it slant." Fu comes at her story from an angle that gives it depth and a deeper picture of the way gender dysphoria affects people.


I’ve read several other transgender novels this past year, all of which I have enjoyed immensely. Mostly I've read YA novels that have dealt with transgendered teens in a more straightforward narrative. Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger is the story of a girl named Angela who feels she is really a boy named Grady and goes to high school under this new identity. I chose this novel because I really wanted to read about Female to Male Trans people. The novel has quite a light tone for a transgender story. Grady deals with bullying, his crush on a beautiful girl, but also his father’s annual Christmas pageant.



Cris Beam’s I am J, also a YA novel, is a heavier read, also about a boy trapped in a girl’s body. J cuts himself off from his family and their inability to understand that he is a boy as he takes on his real male identity. This book, with its detailed information about alternative schools for queer students and the process of taking hormones is both informative and has a deeply developed character and an interesting storyline. I like to imagine teens reading this book and taking solace and guidance in their own gender quests.



All three of these novels helped me understand on a deeper level what I read about in Kate Bornstein’s useful (and occasionally hilarious)  My Gender Workbook. In Bornstein’s book I learned several things. Primarly, I now understand that gender and sexual orientation are two very different things. Prior to that, the grouping of trans people within the queer umbrella had always confused me. Weren’t transpeople automatically gay since they were lumped with gay people? The answer is no. Gender and sexual orientation fall on two different axis and people fall in lots of different places within the quadrant. For example you can be a Female to Male trans person who likes men, or a Male to Female trans person who also likes men.


The second most important thing that I learned from Bornstein’s book has to do with why someone like me should learn about transgender people. I have to admit that sometimes my reading feels like curiosity, like voyeurism: who are these people and what are they like? What are their bodies like? Yet my interest is deeper than that. Reading about a variety of people's differences, be it culturally, sexually or in another way, deepens my tolerance for difference. As an educator, my students come from a variety of backgrounds and I strive to be compassionate to them all. Reading about trans people on a theory level helps me understand, but reading fiction about them helps me empathize.


I also highly recommend Kate Bornstein's A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today. Not only is Bornstein utterly hilarious, her story (and title) is compelling reading. And unexpectantly, her experience as a  scientologist is even more fascinating than her gender journey. Who knew that scientologists operated off a ship off the Californian coast?



Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Best Wishes for Good Health in the New Year

Gung Hai Fat Choi to everyone! That means Happy New Year in Chinese. (Okay, the Year of the Goat began a few weeks ago, but I'm catching up on things, so I'm a little late.) When I talked to my sister on the weekend she told me about the dragon dance she saw in Vancouver and I was a little sad that no such festivities were taking place in Kingston. When I used to work in Markham, Chinese New Year was the biggest holiday my school celebrated, complete with a dragon dance and yummy treats. Since I was feeling a little left out of the festivities, I decided to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls since it was also the Vietnamese New Year, the start of their lunar calendar. (Being Jewish I have a fondness for cultures that celebrate their new year at times other than January 1st.)

I tried making Spring Rolls a number of years ago and was very frustrated that the rice paper kept ripping and tearing. My friend Dianne gave me some good suggestions about working with the paper, and this time my Spring Rolls were delicious and appreciated by all my family, even my youngest, and most fussy eater. (I highly recommend making these for fussy eaters since you can tailor each spring roll according to their individual tastes.)
Here's the recipe for the rolls.

8 spring roll wrappers
lettuce (about four leafs)
2 ounces rice vermicelli noodles, cooked
8 large shrimp (cooked, without tails) - You could also use fried tofu or cooked chicken
cucumber, thinly sliced (or carrots or peppers, or all three)
fresh mint and cilantro
3 or 4 green onions, chopped
Hoisin or other dipping sauce

Prepare all your filling ingredients. Then, dip a single rice paper wrapper in a bowl of hot water for a minute. Next, lay the wrapper on a damp towel and let it sit for about 30 seconds. Lay your ingredients in the center of the wrapper, using the lettuce as a cushion. (Okay you don't have to use the lettuce this way, but I liked the way it looked.) Then, fold the bottom of the wrapper up, then the sides in, and finally the top over. You can use a little water to seal the edges, but I found the wrap stayed together well.

There's another reason I've been thinking about Vietnam lately. One of the families from my son's class at school has several adopted children from Vietnam. The family has been in the news a lot because their youngest two children, twins adopted from Vietnam, have some serious health concerns. I've been watching their story unfold on Facebook and on the news. Bihn and Phuoc Wagner have Alagille Syndrome. Phuoc received her transplant from her father a few weeks ago. Although the media portrayed the Wagner's family situation as a difficult choice, it was in fact the medical staff at Sick Kids who made the decision that Phuoc should have the transplant first. Phuoc is recovering well, as is her dad, and a number of people have come forward to be tested as donors for Binh. I haven't heard yet that they have a specific donor for her yet, but
the medical team sound confident that Binh will have her surgery too.

Although I don't know the family, I've been thinking about them all the time and hoping for the best for them. Since I couldn't be a donor myself, I was happy to help the family a little by donating to their gofundme campaign. Binh and Phuoc's transplant is covered by health care, but there are lots of other transplant expenses. The Wagner family is half way to their fundraising goal, and if you donate too, they might be able to make all their costs. It would be a great way to celebrate the lunar near year.