Brenna Clarke Gray Reviews New Short Story Collections for EVENT 49/1
Brenna Clarke Gray Reviews:
Seyward Goodhand, Even That Wildest Hope, Invisible Publishing, 2019
Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, Eds., Bawaajigan: Stories of Power, Exile Editions, 2019
There is something about innovative short fiction that is wildly exhilarating; reading it feels like being on the cutting edge of what’s next. Seyward Goodhand’s debut book, Even That Wildest Hope, and the collection Bawaajigan: Stories of Power, co-edited by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, are two such innovative collections. These wildly different texts both embrace the speculative in the truest sense of the word, not as an apology for genre fiction, but as an exploration of what the magical, the fairy tale, the dream and the grotesque have to offer as tales of contemporary life. Both collections respectively offer a what’s-next view of 21st-century Canadian and Indigenous literatures, playing with form and content in sometimes delightful, but always challenging new ways. Reading them feels both important and immediate.
Goodhand’s Even That Wildest Hope is a dizzying arrangement of gender and sexual politics, contemporary questions of ethics and monsters under the bed. These fluid, contemplative stories take their time developing. Goodhand thanks both David Mitchell and Zsuzsi Gartner in the acknowledgements, with the latter also providing the book’s cover blurb, and the legacy of both writers is clear in these pages. Indeed, the collection reminds me strongly of Gartner’s phenomenal Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, if the latter replaced its meditations on popular culture with a more literary well to plumb. Like Mitchell and Gartner, Goodhand isn’t particularly concerned with respecting the lines between fantasy and reality. Here female bodybuilders devour cute and fuzzy (but live and still moving) galatraxes (a fictional woodland creature) in basement bathrooms, fur traders carve near-human children who in turn poison their fathers on the outskirts of cities, and a businesswoman is followed around by a slug-like creature oozing hope and pain. Goodhand asks her reader to sit awhile with discomforting images and examine how they reflect discomforting truths of the modern moment. In these stories, Goodhand reveals a lingering fascination with the grotesque things we must all do to stay alive.
And yet, it seems to be the staying alive, the humanity, that matters most in these stories. Our protagonists find grace within and despite their often grotesque moments of struggle. One of the tightest, most interesting stories in the collection is ‘Felix Baumgartner’s Guardian Angel,’ wherein the titular character recounts the day Baumgartner broke the sound barrier in freefall while she wrestles with her love for the man and her hatred of his choices; she, not blessed with the free will he so abuses, confesses, ‘I wish I weren’t your guardian angel.’ Likewise, in ‘Hansel and Gretel, and Katie,’ the witch becomes a humane if not altogether sympathetic figure, acting within her circumstances; in this version of the story, she kills a Jersey cow, her closest companion, to feed the children, both sadly and proudly asserting that her choices ‘kept us human.’ In all of these stories, characters who are profoundly circumscribed find ways to enact rebellious acts of love, though sometimes in ways inscrutable to the people around them. Or to the reader.
The intertexts here are deep, and rich, and also require quite a lot of hard work to understand. This book is not intended for the casual fiction reader; the first story, ‘Enkidu,’ an extended meditation that reimagines the story of Gilgamesh, makes that very clear. Goodhand demands an engaged and committed readership, one that brings a relatively comprehensive literary knowledge to their reading of this text. I often felt alienated from these stories, and that’s clearly not by accident (even with a doctorate in literature in hand, I was often dashing to, dare I admit, Wikipedia to check up on character names and suspected allusions). Goodhand extends an offer to her reader: Will you do the work to understand the depth and complexity of these stories? I admire the courage underlying Goodhand’s choice to trust her reader; this is not an offer every reader will welcome, but those who do will be rewarded for their efforts. Goodhand is clearly exceptionally well-read, and her facility with a broad range of references is simultaneously admirable and intimidating, but the allusion is never merely there for the sake of posturing; these are well-crafted stories that are ultimately worthy of the attention they demand.
In the introduction to Bawaajigan: Stories of Power, Adler expresses a desire to address the lack of themed anthologies of Indigenous writing with one that centres the dream. Dreams and visions in this collection are broadly conceived, working to complicate the boundaries that a contemporary settler-dominant society take for granted as truth: ‘blurring the edges of reality; blurring dream-world and spirit-world; blurring past, present, and future; offering dream-magic power and a glimpse beyond what we think reality is.’ This framing allows the authors in the collection to play, and indeed even in the darkest stories—those that deal with the spectres of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMWIG) or residential schools—there is a distrust of assumptions about reality and a willingness to explore the margins of the world we perceive.
Indeed, much of what works so well in this collection is a studied commitment to centring a range and multiplicity of Indigenous worldviews and spiritual experiences without explaining them to a settler audience. Indigenous languages live in the text largely unglossed, and spirituality and ceremony are referenced without additional context. And yet, the experience of reading this for me, as a settler reader, was not at all alienating; I felt invited in as a guest, expected to make an effort to understand and to listen quietly, but not shut out of the storytelling.
There are some clear standouts in this collection. Richard Van Camp, prolific and nearly always letter-perfect, has two strong offerings, with ‘The Truth Between Us,’ a tale of women turning to the spirit world to gain vengeance for their fallen sisters, being particularly notable for its characters and bite. Yugceten Anderson’s ‘Melinda Irene and Madame Bouvé’ is the most formally interesting story in this collection, taking the form of a diary scrawled onto loose-leaf paper by a brutally abused young woman who is either losing her mind, giving up hope for her own life…or playing with the reader. And in ‘Bead Dreamers,’ Autumn Bernhardt gives us my favourite protagonist of the collection, Clarence, the quiet and gentle beader who loves Kung Fu movies and pictures of sunsets. But perhaps the greatest joy of reading this book is its excellent quality; there isn’t the unevenness expected in many multi-authored collections, and the editors have attentively arranged the stories to maintain a highly readable, engaging and well-paced structure throughout.
There is much to admire in both of these texts. Ultimately, Bawaajigan: Stories of Power is the more accessible and welcoming of the two, but both texts require readers willing to work to unravel meaning from complex, nuanced tales. These texts are both so comfortable playing in speculative worlds and inviting readers to consider the power of the magical within the mundane, and reading them makes the world feel a little less ordinary, and a lot more avant garde. If these are a portent of what is to come in the world of fiction, we are all in very good—if sometimes very dangerous—hands.
—Brenna Clarke Gray