We are thrilled to announce the upcoming 45.1 Ancestors issue of Room magazine!
This issue will feature commissioned work from Francesca Ekwuyasi, author of Butter Honey Pig Bread (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), shortlisted for Canada Reads, a Lambda Literary Award, a Governor General’s Award, an Amazon First Novel Award, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and an interview with Syrus Marcus Ware, a Vanier Scholar, visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth-advocate, and educator.
Below is an interview between the issue’s editors, Serena Lukas Bhandar, Jane Shi, Holly Lam, and Jessica Johns where we discuss ancestors, food, and what we’re hoping this wonderful issue will look like. Submit to the Ancestors issue before July 31st.
What inspired you to choose the theme of ancestors for this issue?
Serena Lukas Bhandar: Ancestry felt like such a rich and expansive place to begin in crafting this themed issue, and I was honestly surprised that we hadn’t done an Ancestors issue before. I’ve been doing a lot of ancestor work lately, between researching the Welsh, English, and Irish settler side of my family through written records, and investigating oral traditions on my Punjabi Sikh side, like folktales and gurbani hymns, for clues and hints of queerness or transgression. Everything that we do is an extension of what has come before, and it was important for me, especially in these difficult times, to find space to grieve, honour, and celebrate those who came before us—who live on in us.
Jane Shi: I’m really glad Serena chose this theme. It feels really timely. We are living in a moment where there’s so much unsaid, so much interrupted, so much to fight for and grieve—for both ancestors we knew and those we don’t, those whose time came too soon and those whose stories are inaccessible to us. It brings up questions of life and death, identity and agency, unravelling linear time, and reckoning with the unknown. I can’t wait to see how this issue unfolds.
Holly Lam: When Serena suggested this theme, I was excited by how many possibilities it opened up; I’m sure there are many writers with work that fits the theme, and it can also serve as an inspiration or writing prompt for new work. Personally, it fits into so many questions and thoughts I’ve been navigating for the last few years (or maybe my whole life…), so it really resonated with me.
Jessica Johns: I think about ancestors as being very present. Through blood memory, stories, pictures, and our everyday practices we speak to our ancestors and interact with them daily. I also think about future ancestors a lot—what we are leaving to them, how we are setting up the world for them. I love this theme because it opens up this kind of thinking and all the different ways we can interact with ancestors.
Being a future ancestor is a topic we discussed when deciding on this theme. What does being a good future ancestor mean to you?
SLB: Being a good future ancestor, to me, means honouring myself and my contributions to the world. It’s easy to romanticize the past, to look at our ancestors and focus on the ways they stood fast against oppression or passed down important pieces of our culture, and then turn around and assume that what we do in the present is meaningless, that we can’t change or shape the future. But one day, we too will be nothing but memory and the words we leave behind, and our family, our friends, and other descendants might look at the present with the same rose-coloured glasses. Knowing that, in my heart, makes me want to focus more on what I can do with my life, rather than obsess over what people may think about how I lived.
JS: I think it means not giving up. It means resting and fighting for the future and then resting again, especially when it’s hard. I can only hope the way I/we fight translates meaningfully across time. I often worry if my ancestors would approve of my choices, but then I think, I don’t want to control the decisions of future generations. We all deserve to be free.
HL: For me, it is about trying to take small actions that will lead to bigger change—what can I do in my daily life and my artistic work that will contribute to making a more meaningfully accessible and anti-oppressive world? What are we creating that will persist? Honestly I’ve only just begun to think about this question, and I’m excited to delve more into it with this issue of Room.
JJ: Being a future ancestor, for me, is very much tied to the present again. It means thinking about what I’m doing now to create change in the future. It’s asking myself what seeds am I planting? How am I tending to those seeds? How am I ensuring the environment is right for them to grow? This is something I think about a lot when I consider my niblings, who are very young. What kind of world do I want for them? What can I do now to create that world?
Writing about ancestors, whether biological or cultural, can be rooted in joy, but it can also be complicated and difficult. What advice would you give to writers doing this work?
JS: I try to remember that line in Rita Wong’s poem “reconnaissance” in forage: “even orphans have ancestors.”
I don’t always feel spiritually grounded. But writing lets me time-travel and speak with those who aren’t here, even when it feels like a one-way conversation. It helps to remember that every ancestor had a bodymind—they liked and didn’t like certain foods, they felt and moved through weather and water, laughed and cried, fell ill, and got better. Maybe they have the same sneeze as we do. Maybe they felt the same kinds of pains.
Our ancestors saw a world that may have been significantly different than the one we live in. They may have seen the same events we did, but from a different perspective. Just as we have boundaries and conflicts with the living, we have boundaries and conflicts with the dead. Give yourself compassion when doing this work feels agonizing and out of reach. There isn’t one right way to have a conversation with another human being, even when they’re no longer here or we may have never known them. “Would they like me?” I wonder if they’re wondering the same thing.
Everyone deserves time to have these conversations and ask difficult questions they’re afraid of asking. Sometimes these conversations are what everyone else has been afraid of having, too. What conversations do we need to have with our ancestors, collectively? Whatever they are, we always have more to learn. That’s exciting to me.
SLB: This work, of finding or reconnecting with or contextualizing your ancestors, can be so hard. In editing this issue, and writing about my ancestors in general, I am reminded often of the apparent contradictions and oxymorons of my mixed ancestry. Knowing that my ancestors were both those who colonized and those who were colonized is tricky, especially when my Punjabi family came to Turtle Island later fleeing violence and seeking opportunities on land that they may or may not have realized wasn’t theirs. When I feel engulfed in the bittersweet and strange homesickness of diaspora, I look to the work that my family has done to build community amidst racism and other oppressions, and I think about the love I’ve felt from my grandparents and aunties because of who I am, not in spite of it, and I feel motivated to keep going.
HL: To be true to yourself and your experience or perspective. I think especially for BIPOC, there are certain types of stories that are typically valued in literature—certain types of immigrant stories, certain types of Indigenous stories—but I don’t think we should feel like we need to fit into whatever the existing narratives around ancestry are. All of our perspectives are legitimate and valuable, and worthy of being expressed.
JJ: My advice would be what I imagine my kokum and grandmother would say to me: take care of yourself; drink water; eat; take breaks.
What kind of writing are you hoping to receive for this issue?
SLB: When I was first thinking about themes for this issue, the other idea that came to my mind, besides ancestry, was apocalypse. We are living and writing in times that isolate us and destabilize our health and our communities. Even though we decided to focus on ancestors for this issue, I still want to see submissions that are able to acknowledge the context of the world in which they are written, whether that includes naming the pandemic, or recognizing the role that colonization has played in the lives of our ancestors and in our own. When we embrace all parts of a story’s truth (even and especially in fiction), rather than omit that which challenges us, we lead ourselves to write and live more fully.
I want to see writing and art that resonates and sticks in my mind long after I’ve closed my laptop, and like the many pieces of advice I’ve received from older women and other folks in my life, is unexpected but always welcome.
HL: I’m looking forward to seeing the different ways writers might approach this theme. I’m hoping people will interpret it widely: I want to read submissions that aren’t necessarily directly about ancestors, but that incorporate the theme in strange ways, that are disguised as something else, that challenge assumptions and shed light on what the theme means to that writer, that disrupt my own notions of what ancestry and connecting to ancestors and being an ancestor is, that ask questions we as the editorial team didn’t think of. And of course, pieces that are well written, filled with compelling narratives or images, and have a strong voice.
JS: I want to read pieces that make me cry and laugh; feel like I’m in a different dimension; be startled, surprised, humbled; and learn something new. Take me on a rollercoaster ride, a jolt from the first word to last (no actual rides for me though!). Pieces that I know aren’t for me, wisdom that isn’t here to educate me, and nonetheless offer a world (a love) that deserves respect and protection.
I want to read writing that scathes and burns, tickles and hungers, has its own internal logic or method for uncovering larger truths. Writing that starts small—a relationship, an emotion, a moment, a cherished object, a wordplay—then rolls into a big tangled yarn ball of detritus that somehow forces me to remember something I lost from childhood, and then offers me acceptance or ambivalence or an invented feeling.
“Come inside, the landlord doesn’t allow overnight guests but for you, audience, I make an exception.”
What kind of creative writing genre is personally exciting for you?
HL: I’m excited by fiction that has a strong, but not necessarily obvious, conflict and tension, characters and dialogue that feel real but heightened, stories that have a satisfying ending, that have subtle or understated humour, and that provide representation of identities and issues important to the writer.
I feel like I should say I love fiction that plays with form and style (and I do!), but what I’m most drawn to is fiction with a somewhat conventional beginning-middle-and-end narrative, that uses that structure so naturally it’s invisible. At the moment, I’m also really fascinated by very short stories that still encompass a complete narrative, as I think it’s such a hard thing to pull off!
SLB: I’m honestly most excited to read submissions that bend or remix genre and form, that aren’t beholden to unnecessary constraints or limits just because that’s what creative non-fiction or poetry is expected to be. I’m imagining pieces that hybridize or combine features of seemingly disparate creative traditions, that reinterpret oral stories in the print landscape, or that imagine what it would be like to interview your great-great-grandmother today.
Some of the most incredible things I’ve read over recently on this theme have been more speculative or experimental—I’m thinking of the anthologies Octavia’s Brood and Love after the End, as well as Kama La Mackerel’s moving collection ZOM-FAM. I can’t wait to see what this theme sparks in people’s submissions.
JS: I want to read creative non-fiction that plays with form and collages facts with history with fiction and alternative realities. I want my sense of reality and time and what is human to be unmoored.
I love poetry that reminds readers that we have a body and that bodies are vessels through which we read and write. I love works that angers rules, snubs conventions, rips up grammar, teaches us new ways to be with one another through language, and asks us to read differently and to pay attention, including to our own hearts.
Stories with unreliable narrators but the twist is the world’s unreliable. 2021 interpretations of old genres. Accidental sci-fi. Youtube mashup poem of reality TV and fantasy. A sonnet that’s also a TikTok on the page. A wok that simmers satire. Sestinas that are also slams that are also visual that are also lyric. Genre’s a hologram, sandbox, dream.
JJ: I LOVE horror in all genres. I love body horror, gore, ghosts, ghouls, mythical creatures, the horror of the everyday, and anything haunted (bodies, houses, souls, minds). I’m reading mostly fiction for fun at the moment, but I love poetry and creative non-fiction, and anything in between and outside of these.
What food would you make for your ancestors? What food would they make you?
JJ: I would love to make all my ancestors two things: a loaf of sourdough bread and a bottle of kombucha. These are two things that I make often now, and that have become a ritualistic practice in my life, and I’d love to share that with my kin.
My kokum, Eileen Cardinal Smith, would probably make me cereal or mac and cheese. She wasn’t much of a cook (lol). But her mom, my great kokum Mary-Jane Cardinal, always fed us smoked dry meat dipped in a big brick of butter or lard when we visited her. My grandma, Donna Smith, was a big baker and made the best breakfasts. I think she’d make me some of her famous bread buns.
HL: I think I’d like my ancestors to make me whatever they ate on a daily basis, or what they ate on special occasions, just to get that insight into their life. My being a vegetarian might be a problem in some cases, but that’s my answer hypothetically! On my Irish-Scottish side, I’m not convinced I’d like the food they would make me, based on my mom’s stories of growing up… but I’d be prepared to try it and be pleasantly surprised.
On my Chinese side, I’ve been so grateful to learn some recipes from my grandmother, so I’d make my ancestors some dumplings to see how they measure up. I think it would also be funny to make a stir-fry or other dish using today’s store-bought products like black bean sauce or hoisin sauce. I’m picturing a YouTube challenge: Ancestors React to Pre-made Foods.
SLB: Just thinking about ancestral food makes my mouth water. I have such a sweet tooth, and I’d love to make them one of my favourite brownie recipes, and then ask them for help making kaju katli with rose petals and silver foil—every time I’ve tried it myself, it comes out lumpy. And then maybe we’d have a picnic and I could show them all the hilarious baking videos I’ve saved on my phone. Regardless of if we were successful with the katli, I’m sure it would be an amazing and heart-warming time.
JS: I would definitely want to make them strawberry dumplings and some of my other dumpling recipes. Since my ancestors used big woks, I would want to experiment and find a similarly large wok to fry them on just to see if it tastes different, or has textures that they would be more familiar with.
My ancestors would make me some chicken, crab, and fish dishes, for sure. My late grandparents used to give me bayberries dipped and preserved in wine, and they used to grow corn and watermelons on the farm. One time I bought a box of bayberries from a Chinatown grocer for $15 dollars because they reminded me of home. If I could I would preserve them to eat some time in the winter, too!
Submit to the Ancestors issue now. Deadline for submissions is July 31, 2021.