Alissa McArthur

The Sweetest One

Melanie Mah The Sweetest One Cover
By 
Melanie Mah
Cormorant Books, 272 pages, $21.95
2015
Reviewed by 
Alissa McArthur

The small-town coming-of-age story is hardly new terrain, but Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One offers a unique hook: What if three of your older siblings died at age eighteen after they left town? The narrator of Mah’s first novel, Chrysler Wong, longs to leave the fictional town of Spring Hills, Alberta, but is paralyzed by her belief in a curse against her family. 

When we first meet Chrysler, she is five months past her seventeenth birthday, when her last living sibling, Trina, abruptly ran away. Despite a keen interest in science and writing, Chrysler isn’t thinking about graduation or university—“I’m gonna die this year, so what’s the point?” she asks. Piling on to her fatalisitic outlook, her classmates have taken to calling her “Dead Girl.” Yet Chrysler can’t fight her natural curiosity about the wider world as she reluctantly learns to take agency over her own fate.

Mah intersperses Chrysler’s story of trying to live a normal teen life with her memories of her dead siblings, Reggie, Stef, and Gene. Each successive loss compounds the family’s suffering, driving the Wongs toward further misery. Though Chrysler does her best to enjoy what she views as the little remaining of her life, her relationship with her abusive father and withdrawn mother is strained at best. Chrysler is in stasis, her belief in the curse gradually fastening her to a life of resignation working at her parents’ store. She tamps down her desire to explore and sees “travel, leaving, [as] a kind of betrayal.”

Though the novel is ostensibly about Chrysler’s journey, the flashbacks are the true driving force. Mah slowly reveals the tragic circumstances behind each siblings’ death while Chrysler treads water, afraid to participate in teenage rites of passage like going to parties and learning to drive. Chrysler’s reluctance to be intimate with her peers, including her boyfriend, is understandable given her circumstances but slows the story’s momentum in the second half. Her hesitation and anxiety, brought on by loss, rings true, but also makes for an uneven reading experience.

Ultimately, the unfolding of the family tragedy and Chrysler’s spirited narration make the novel worthwhile. Mah convincingly portrays a family fractured by grief and isolated by the town’s barely concealed racism. 

Her intriguing twist on the bildungsroman and likable protagonist makes The Sweetest One a compelling debut.

Alissa McArthur is a member of the Growing Room Collective. She holds an MA in English literature from UBC and writes and edits out of Toronto.

Scaachi Koul: On Writing About Family and Trying to Keep Secrets

Scaachi Koul

Covering everything from the state of Canadian media to adult summer camps to racist marketing in the beauty industry, Koul’s writing is as thoughtful as it is funny. Her first book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (Doubleday, 2017), is a sharp and poignant essay collection that covers family, friendship, racism, immigration, rape culture, and online harassment. In the following interview, Koul speaks to Room about writing her first book, keeping family secrets, and why representation matters.

In Conversation with the Editors of Room's December 2018 Issue

Spring may not have sprung wherever you are, but at least we have Room 41.4 to look forward to. This is your chance to be published alongside Kim Fu, author of For Today I Am a Boy and The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore and an interview with Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Don’t forget to submit your best writing on any theme before April 30, 2018! Underrepresented writers—including but not limited to women and nonbinary writers who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour, queer and/or disabled—are especially encouraged to submit.

An Interview with Scaachi Koul

Scaachi Koul

Scaachi Koul has risen to prominence over the last few years as perhaps the most recognizable young voice in Canadian media. Currently a culture writer at Buzzfeed, Koul has gained a huge following on Twitter for her unique blend of self-deprecating humour and scathing commentary on racism and misogyny. Koul spoke to Room about female mentorship, racism in Canada, and the challenges of self-care. Look for a longer feature interview with Koul in Room’s upcoming issue 41.1, Family Secrets.

Currents: In Conversation with Ricepaper Editors Karla Comanda and Yilin Wang

Ricepaper Magazine has been publishing literature and art by Asian Canadians since 1994. Though they transitioned to digital only in 2016, Ricepaper is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for a print anthology, Currents. We spoke to Ricepaper’s fiction editor Karla Comanda and poetry editor Yilin Wang (also a Room collective member!) about the campaign, and changes to their magazine over the years.

Family Secrets: An Interview with Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson is the founder of Lit Mag Love, an online course that supports writers in their efforts to submit to literary magazines, the former managing editor of Room, and a current member of the editorial board. She will edit our March 2018 issue, "Family Secrets," which is open to submissions until July 31, 2017. Assistant editor Arielle Spence asked Rachel a few questions about the nature of secret-sharing, her own family secrets, and what she looks for in a submission.

Paper Teeth

By 
Lauralyn Chow
NeWest Press, 178 pages, $19.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Alissa McArthur

Alberta writer Lauralyn Chow opens her debut short story collection Paper Teeth with a description of a Chinese restaurant. There’s an English menu, a Chinese menu, and an “unwritten menu of non-replicable Chinese dishes, food that no other table is served,” setting the table for Chow’s humourous exploration of family tensions. The interconnected stories in Paper Teeth follow the Lee family of Edmonton. Unlike their parents, the Lee kids—Lizzie, Pen, Tom, and Jane—never learned Chinese, opening a communication gap that widens throughout their lives. 

The ten stories, each named after a Chinese restaurant menu item, provide brief, funny glimpses into daily life with the Lees. Although the stories span from the 1920s to present day, Chow eschews the familiar tack of the multi-generational immigrant epic. Instead, she offers amusing and poignant snippets in her rambling comical prose. Chow’s stories resist a linear narrative of the “immigrant experience” by dropping us into the middle of familial conflicts with no discernible beginning or end. Time bends and loops throughout the stories as Chow telescopes events from the future and past in her frequent asides. The result is a cluster of stories that use gentle humour to negotiate family ties, religion, race, and cultural difference.

While food doesn’t feature prominently in every story, it often functions to highlight and bridge the characters’ cultural divides. In one story, a grown-up Jane dreads hosting her overbearing Auntie Li-Ting and her smelly medicinal bandages. Jane resigns herself to her aunt’s presence with the appealing prospect of a Chinese cooking lesson, but Li-Ting subverts Jane’s expectations with an entirely different meal. In another story, Jane begins to reconcile her fraught relationship to religion and language by recalling the commensal experience of a feast at the Chinese United Church.

Linked short stories present a unique challenge. While the format frees Chow from the narrative cohesion required by novels, the irregular structure works against her collection as well. While we get fairly rounded portraits of Jane, Lizzie, and their parents, the scant exploration of the other characters feel less like strategic omissions and more like lost opportunities. Yet by homing in on the domestic eccentricities of the Lee family, Chow manages to tell a rich story, however uneven, through small moments. With unique humour and style, Paper Teeth introduces us to a fresh voice in Canadian short fiction.

Alissa McArthur is a member of the Room editorial board. She holds an MA in English literature from UBC and lives and writes in Toronto.

40.1 Food: Interview with Terri Brandmueller Part 2

Terri Brandmueller Room poetry submissions

Terri Brandmueller is Room’s former poetry submissions co-ordinator, and a great lover of food. A skilled baker, Terri has written about food for Women's Day, Fresh Ideas Magazine, and Eating Well. Her family is equally passionate about all things culinary—her father is a baker and chef, and her kids work in the restaurant industry. To celebrate the launch of Room 40.1 Food, Terri spoke to Room's Alissa McArthur about her life in food and writing. 

Bearskin Diary

By 
Carol Daniels
Nightwood Editions, 253 pages, $21.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Alissa McArthur

From the 1960s to the late ’80s, the Canadian government forcibly removed over twenty thousand Indigenous children from their families, sending them to be fostered or adopted by white middle-class families. As with the residential school tragedy, the children taken in the “Sixties Scoop” grew up severed from their Indigenous families and culture. In Carol Daniels’s debut novel, Bearskin Diary, Sandy Pelly, a survivor of the Scoop, embarks on a career as a news reporter in 1980s Saskatchewan. As she connects to local Indigenous people through her reporting, Sandy begins to yearn for a deeper connection to her Cree heritage.

Daniels, a former journalist and Canada’s first Indigenous national news anchor (as Carol Morin), portrays the broadcasting world as a noxious environment for a young Cree woman. But Sandy’s fierce desire to tell stories draws her closer to the Indigenous communities she was cut off from as a child. Daniels convincingly conveys Sandy’s struggle to cover stories about Indigenous people with compassion while battling racism from coworkers and her own internalized prejudices. Thrust into the role of cultural mediator in a largely white newsroom, Sandy finds herself being treated as a “cigar-store Indian, here for show but expected to stay silent.” When Sandy meets an elder named Joe, who encourages her both to investigate the disappearance of local Indigenous women and to explore her own cultural identity, she finally begins to meaningfully engage with her community.

However, most of the novel’s characters aside from Sandy are flat, especially the antagonists, who are portrayed as irredeemable villains. And though Daniels juggles many intriguing storylines, she grants a lot of space to a melodramatic love story that ultimately fizzles. As a result, some of the novel’s most engrossing aspects—such as Sandy’s reunion with her family and her investigation into the missing women—are given somewhat short shrift.

As well, the novel is hampered by Daniels’s decision to write extensively in the present tense. While it lends a sense of immediacy, the use of the present tense clutters the narrative with ponderous details of the characters’ daily lives. Furthermore, the frequent shifts from the present to Sandy’s memories in the past tense are clunky and become tedious to read.

Still, Daniels has created a compelling character in Sandy, and does not shy away from depicting her weaknesses. Though the writing doesn’t always support the many narrative threads Daniels explores, Bearskin Diary is a humane, unflinching portrayal of a woman asserting her voice and claiming space in an often hostile nation.

50 Books Written By 50 Canadian Women of Colour

More often than not, when Roomies gather, we talk about books. Books we can't put down, books we couldn't put up with, and books that make us talk. For this reading list, eleven of us got together and discussed novels, short story collections, poetry, memoirs, and comics that we have read and loved which happen to be written by Canadian Women of Colour. A few of these are well-known classics, a few are upcoming releases. There are stories set locally and abroad, and also include one in dystopian Toronto. Writing from the Women of Colour perspective is not a genre, but instead a multitude of voices, stories, and experiences coming together. And even though we are honoured to feature a handful of these writers are in our upcoming anthology, we know that this is just a starting point, and by no means a comprehensive list of books written by Canadian WOCs. At Room, we recognize that there is work to do, and we are already working on a part two.

Pages

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 41.4, Emergence
    Edited by Alissa McArthur

    In this issue:

    Tharuna Abbu, Farah Ali, Kristin Bjornerud, Michelle Chen, Nomi Chi, Morgan Christie, Kim Fu, Hannah Graff, nancy viva davis halifax, Ceilidh Isadore, Liz Kellebrew, Jo Lee, Kris Ly, Melanie Mah, Sara Mang, Katie McGarry, Estlin McPhee, Triin Paja, Loghan Paylor, Nagmeh Phelan, Oubah Osman, Lisa Rawn, Yvonne Robertson, Erika Thorkelson, Cara Waterfall

    .

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