Interview with Creative Non-Fiction Writing Contest Judge, Sarah de Leeuw!

Room magazine's writing contest is officially open! Submission deadline is July 15th 2014. To kick things off, we spoke to our Creative Non-Fiction writing contest judge, Sarah de Leeuw about a few of her writing habits and tips for aspiring applicants

Women’s Words: An Anthology

Women’s Words: An Anthology Cover
By 
Ed. by Shirley A. Serviss and Janice Williamson
University of Alberta Faculty of Extension, 204 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by 
Carrie Schmidt
For the past twenty years, the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension has offered summer writing workshops for women. This anthology is an astonishingly apt representation of work produced through those workshops; it captures the spirit of a workshop environment: the pieces (poetry, non-fiction, fiction) are brief and the content is varied in tone, subject matter, and quality. The editors of this collection were deft and thorough.
 
The work of over seventy-five women is represented here; providing a fair review of a work featuring so many diverse voices is difficult. There are pieces that made me immediately note the author’s name so I could search for more of her work. There was one piece I described in great, excited detail over the phone to my mother during a conversation about birth and loss: the words in this anthology are about sparking conversation, continuing a dialogue—telling a story. Telling many stories. And, inevitably, there was work that made my eyes glaze over—I am not keen on writing about writing and there are several pieces in here about writing. 
 
But even within those were wise words; a crisp essay by Eunice Scarfe summarizes the spirit of these workshops and the act of writing in general: “To write does not depend on education, occupation, age, gender or intellect. It depends on choice. You choose to write, or choose not to write.” 
 
This is, ultimately, an inspirational text. And I don’t mean inspirational in that you can update your Facebook status with a pithy quote, or put it on a magnet on your fridge while murmuring “how true.” Well, you can if you like, of course. It’s inspirational in that once upon a time, these stories and poems didn’t exist, but now they do—these women put pens to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and this anthology is the tangible proof of “doing” rather than thinking “hmm, maybe I should write.” Whether through quick stolen moments or hours of anguished toil/fevered bliss, these writers wrote, and that is the inspiration. Some of the writers whose work is fea-tured here have names that are instantly recognizable as solid contributors to modern Canadian literature; others may one day be recognized, and perhaps for others this is the only time they will see their names in print. And there’s something kind of fantastic about that. 

Little Cat

Little Cat
By 
Tamara Faith Berger
Coach House Books, 218 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by 
Nico Mara-McKay

Following the success of Maidenhead, which won The Believer Book Award in 2012, was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award in 2013, and was the most reviewed book of 2012 according to the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts Count, Coach House Books has released revised versions of Berger’s two earlier novels, Lie With Me (1999) and The Way of the Whore (2001), in a single volume titled Little Cat.

Lie With Me opens with a young woman’s unapologetic acknowledgment of desire and how her needs don’t fit the narrative assigned to her. When men experience sexual pleasure, she feels it’s localized, but for women, she finds it easier to become disconnected from the sensation; she says that a woman “can get lost trying to know herself” (p.8). Then later on the same page she continues with this same line of thought: “[b]eing a slut kind of implies getting lost, going astray.” In this rambling confession, she desperately seeks affirmation or at least acknowledgement that her desire, her want, is as valid as a man’s, yet remains afraid of the label, slut, and what it might imply. 

The unnamed woman regularly goes to a bar, gets drunk, and picks up strange men. They’re usually surprised at her aggressive sexuality, that a woman would want this as much, or even more, than they would. She takes them back to her apartment, nondescript beyond the filth and stench of it, which worsen as the novel progresses. The results are graphic and hardcore, first told from her perspective, then from a rotating circle of men. These numbered  but otherwise anonymous men take over the narrative, though guided by the young woman, as she explores her desire, learns control, and how to express her wants. There is no clear narrative or plot—the story progresses in pornographic scenes, and what we’re left with doesn’t quite add up to a whole.

The Way of the Whore is centred on Mira, a young Jewish woman, and her introductions to sex—as a child with her cousin and other boys, as a fifteen year old seduced by an older man, the appeal of sex work, her seduction of an older stripper, and a man far more dangerous than any she’s ever known. Mira reflects back what men want to see: Ezrah, sexual exploration within the confines of middle class values; John, seducing an underage virgin, telling her what he wants her to want; Gio, with his religious allegories, viewing her as the Whore of Babylon with a redeeming purity; and the countless nameless and faceless men she transacts with. She’s present with each of these, but in a clearly secondary role. In seducing her stripping mentor, Adi, she enters a position of dominance, which Mira associates with the male role—she feels “like a man.

Both these novellas are extremely hot and challenging to read. Not just for their graphic sex scenes, but for the raw needs of these young women, both physically and emotionally. They maintain a complex relationship with shame and social (especially male) expectation and desire. 

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