Lauren Kirshner

I’m Not Here

I'm Not Here book cover
By 
GG
Koyama Press, 104 pages, $12.00
2017
Reviewed by 
Lauren Kirshner

While reading GG’s new graphic novel, I’m Not Here, I was reminded of a short story by Delmore Schwartz, in which the narrator goes into a cinema and, much to their amazement and dismay, finds that the film being screened is of their parents’ first meeting. Knowing the sorry end to that story, the spectator must nonetheless sit through the film as a sense of helplessness and alienation sets in.

The protagonist of I’m Not Here is also drifting between memory and waking life. She lives in the suburbs and is torn by restlessness and a sense of daughterly duty. Her immigrant parents appear in ghostly sequences, trying futilely to heal their own trauma. She is haunted by her inability to rescue or satisfy them. There’s a galactic emptiness and a profound dignity to the narrator as she shuttles through spare rooms, empty suburban streets, searching. 

What gives I’m Not Here its tension is the narrator’s struggle to find a sense of home. Throughout, the concept of home is unstable. Her adulthood apartment dissolves into her childhood home. She sees her father driving on an empty street. He treats her like a stranger and asks her for directions home. The narrator’s mother laments her own immigration: “I shouldn’t have come to this country. I gave up my old life.” In the present tense, the narrator can’t find her house keys and is effectively locked out of her own home; in a flashback to childhood that reverses the scenario, she longs for freedom and one day leaves her family home through her bedroom window. This tension between longing for freedom and longing for home runs through the entire book. The trauma of immigration and the painful passage of childhood into adulthood resonate powerfully through this metaphor of home.

The spare and superb black and white drawings radiate dreaminess and a melancholy reality. The sparse text requires the reader to become active. I’m Not Here is indeed a dance between disappearing and appearing. The narrator, a photographer who develops her own photographs, appears herself in the opening panels in progressive shades of grey, like film revealing its latent images in a chemical bath. Full of mystery, I’m Not Here asks the reader to fill in gaps. We are plunged into the very rootlessness the narrator is experiencing herself.

At the heart of I’m Not Here is a rejection of meta-narratives, of spelling out “why” we become who we are. In its place is the master narrative’s reverse: the worship for tiny things. GG gives this ephemera a royal treatment, suggesting that the stuff of everyday life is life and deserves our reverence: the vein-like structure of grape stems, the 1980s puffy font on a vending machine, the Chinese characters on a plaster bandage package. Through GG’s narrator, we get the luxury of observing the world in minute detail, an awakening experience. 

The cinematic quality of I’m Not Here is heightened by the blackout pages between sections that often arrive unexpectedly at emotional climaxes, artfully denying the reader easy resolutions. These intermissions produce the sensation of sitting in a dark cinema after a stunning movie has just ended. I’m Not Here is a starkly beautiful graphic novel about yearning, home, and escape.

Lauren Kirshner’s novel, Where We Have to Go, was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her short stories and non-fiction have appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and Carousel. She leads the Sister Writes program and is an assistant professor of English at Ryerson University.

Where it Hurts

Sarah de Leeuw Where it Hurts Cover
By 
Sarah de Leeuw
NeWest Press, 128 pages, $19.95
2017
Reviewed by 
Lauren Kirshner

In the title essay of Sarah de Leeuw’s compelling new collection, Where it Hurts, a young mother new to a northern British Columbia town is nervous when a stranger asks to hold her baby. Too polite to say no, the young mother watches as the woman—whose name is Cowboy— grabs the baby and bounces her up in the air. For a moment it seems the woman will drop the infant. But, as it turns out, the woman is imperiled herself. In a few months, she will appear in the newspaper, found murdered on the side of The Highway of Tears.  

Such fleeting, haunted connections, and a tone of aching love, run through the essays in Where it Hurts, many of which share the theme of disappeared women. These women include Cowboy, along with nameless vanquished girls—the faces on the backs of milk cartons—who were abducted, murdered, or died young, in summertime teen prime. De Leeuw makes these lives visible through soaring lines that are poetic and visceral, like teenage girls “all lanky limbed in jeans a size too small, hair . . . shining elemental with peroxide gold.” Where statistics about human tragedies can leave one numb, de Leeuw’s luminous concrete description jolts with riveting clarity and empathy. It forces your attention on that hurt, and on the spaces and unanswered questions these women’s deaths leave behind.

Some of the women come from vanishing communities: old logging towns, truck stops at the top of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway—shuttered when the resources ran dry—and post-industrial northern townships, where, as she writes, a film festival comes by every two years. De Leeuw, a human geographer, poet and non-fiction writer, connects these dwindling towns to marginalized lives, subtly showing how remote geographies can make lives more prone to erasure. De Leeuw’s writing is a hedge against these women’s lives fading, combining images of corporeal decay (“plastic bags, snagged on brambles and translucent as lungs”) with the organic and beautiful (“soft mauve lilac flowers”). While elegiac, de Leeuw’s pencil has a fiery point and her writing is a revocation of silence. “Inquiries result in findings,” she writes, “and findings can be documented and published and circulated so people pay attention and search for solutions.” 

The essays in Where It Hurts are deeply felt, original, and a moving requiem for lives extinguished too early to have left a trace. De Leeuw writes with love and conviction while also asking important questions of the reader: how do we live with the empty spaces death makes? And as the living, how do we honour, and fight for, the women these empty spaces represent? 

Lauren Kirshner’s novel Where We Have to Go (McClelland & Stewart, 2012) was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Hazlitt, Elle Canada, and The Globe and Mail. She is the founder of Sister Writes and assistant professor of English at Ryerson University.

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