In-Between Days

By 
Teva Harrison
House of Anansi Press, 163 pages, $19.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

“It’s the unspoken that is most frightening,” writes Teva Harrison in the preface to her deeply personal graphic memoir, In-Between Days. By recounting the unresolved hurt of her past, and facing the uncertainty of her future, Harrison—who was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer in 2013—has found one way to reclaim power from the “bogeyman” that is her illness. 

Combining comic-book style illustrations and short essays, Harrison brings her readers into the liminal spaces she occupies between wellness and sickness, awareness and fatigue, and life and death. “Cancer thrusts you into the centre,” she writes, “while simultaneously pushing you outside.” The opening illustration depicts various angles of her hands as she ponders living on the edges of uncertain spaces—a recurring image that appears again when the side effects of cancer drugs stiffen her hands to “deformed claws.” The motif is powerful in that Harrison—who is a visual artist, writer and cartoonist—loves making things with her hands, but is denied that freedom.

Harrison’s series of black-and-white drawings evoke a primitive, sketchbook quality, while the accompanying reflections resemble personal diary entries. The memoir, composed of three sections, is divided into thematic topics, such as diagnosis and treatment, marriage and family, and hopes and fears. Unlike a diary, In-Between Days does not adhere to any chronological order, but rather a loosely structured collection of thoughts—like unraveling pockets of memories—that shine light on some aspect of Harrison’s life. 

The illustrations are heartbreakingly honest—and even strangely uncomfortable—as they open a window to different parts of Harrison’s journey. Some panels show her looking at, and talking directly to, the reader as she curls up around the bottom of a toilet to vomit; others are vignettes of the beloved women in her life who were taken in their prime by cancer. It’s a gut-churning fear that keeps Harrison awake at night, holding onto her husband for dear life, “both of which are all [she] ever wanted.”

And yet there is hope and solace in knowing that one’s legacy is much bigger than cancer. For Harrison, there is still so much beauty in the world—in her loved ones, and through drawing and writing. The memoir is a call for self-compassion, recognizing how suffering can be invisible. In the final section, Harrison writes that “sometimes magic comes in unexpected forms.” In-Between Days is one of them.

Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine.

Songs of Exile

By 
Bänoo Zan
Guernica Editions, 148 pages, $20.00
2016
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

The poems that populate Songs of Exile, Bänoo Zan’s first English collection of poetry, aren’t autobiographical; however, they reveal a deep empathy for those who face, or have faced, political or geographical exile. Zan—a poet, translator, and the founder of Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series—knows isolation and longing as a newcomer who left her beloved Iran and landed in Canada in 2010. 

Powerful in its brevity, Songs of Exile explores displacement, intimacy, and fear in short, chaotic bursts. “I’m not committed to a narrative structure,” writes Zan at the end of the collection. This is no more evident than in her poem “Toronto 2012”: “You answer my call / by calling / me / What does it mean / to mean / nothing?” she writes. Throughout the collection, these short, almost choppy lines, characterized by minimal punctuation, force readers to take pause, allowing them to easily digest Zan’s deeply affecting poems. 

In Songs of Exile, Zan commits to the use of a number of literary devices, most notably repetition, as evidenced in the collection’s third poem, “Phoenix (III)”. “Feathers are together / phoenix is alone / Phoenix loves death / Fire loves life / Phoenix is fair / beauty is foul / Phoenix fears immortality / Fire fears death,” she writes. Repeating syllables, words, and entire phrases, Zan uses repetition for emotional impact, especially in moments exploring love and death.

Songs of Exile is often allegorical, brimming with familiar faces from religion and Greek mythology, among them Plato, Athena, Moses, and Oedipus, who, of course, imposed self-exile. 

Zan juxtaposes these mythical figures against the struggles newcomers face coming to Canada today, reminding readers of the world’s long history of exile and longing for freedom. Footnotes provide readers with context and translations that are crucial to understanding these sparse, but complex, poems. 

Zan is playful with language, exploring not only words themselves, but her role as a storyteller and wordsmith. “Language / is the music / my body is playing,” she writes in “Words (III) “I was not made / for this melody / nor the one before / I am forever silent.” 

Songs of Exile is above all about longing—longing for a homeland, longing for a lover, longing for a better understanding of one’s self. “I had left my treasures to poverty / my story to those who prevail / I had left my self behind,” writes Zan in “Journey,” one of the collection’s many poems that force readers to consider the pieces newcomers leave behind in their homelands, and their ongoing struggle to recreate a place in which they feel they belong. 

Jessica Rose is a writer and editor living in Hamilton, Ontario. Since earning a degree in journalism from Carleton University, she has written for publications across Canada. When she isn’t writing, she’s organizing. She currently sits on the board of gritLIT, Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival as Director, Program Advisory.

Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas

By 
Betsy Warland
Caitlin Press (Dagger Editions), 216 pages, $21.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Dana Hansen

Betsy Warland’s latest book, one of the first titles published by Dagger Editions, Caitlin Press’s new imprint for queer women writers, is a cross-genre work of lyrical prose that explores through candid, fragmentary reflections spanning several years and geographical locations, the condition of being a “person of between.” It also, importantly, touches on the experience of being a writer whose work defies conventional categories: “What to do when there is no category? The subterranean connection between category and camouflage, without category understanding askew, even improbable: no box, no camo, no cigar.”

Her contemplations on the masking of identity and its consequences begin with a visit in 2007 to a military camouflage exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum. The revelatory experience prompts her to examine the pervasive role of camouflage in our everyday lives. Adopting the persona of Oscar, Warland wrestles, at times disjointedly, with the connection between the restrictive categories we impose on ourselves and others—related particularly to gender and sexuality—and the resulting camouflage that obscures our true identity.

Having lived her life to this point “obliged to category and its attendant allegiances . . . at the mercy of its exclusions,” Oscar recognizes the potential harm that results from dividing people according to normative binaries. “Staggering,” she notes, “when you stop to consider the implications of one category of people constantly having to apologize, give way to, another category of people. Apologizing their whole life. Category, camouflage, cruelty: the co-dependent relationship among them.”

Oscar makes clear the cruel and tragic implications of this co-dependent relationship by pointing to the many examples in the recent past of violent acts committed in the name of upholding categories and profiles: the mass shooting of young campers on an island in Norway by the “self-proclaimed Norwegian hero of the war against multiculturalism, feminists and Muslim immigrants”; the murder and dismemberment of gay immigrant student Lin Jun in Montreal; the murders of Asian female students in California by a misogynistic male student. The message inherent in all of these events, and others that Oscar relates, is, “This is it. It’s you or me.” In light of the recent Orlando massacre at a gay nightclub, this message becomes even more poignant and urgent.

Warland covers vast ground, moving swiftly and in a nonlinear fashion from intimate reflections on her most personal relationships, living arrangements, and perspectives on creativity, to matters of broader social and political consequence. A book perhaps without obvious category but not without an important place in Canadian literature, Oscar of Between is a dynamic work of startling insight.

Dana Hansen is a writer, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, Quill & Quire, The Winnipeg Review, The Toronto Review of Books, Australia’s Westerly magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario.

Gay Book Lovers Unite! An Interview with Metonymy Press

Metonymy Press is a Montreal-based press that publishes literary fiction and nonfiction by emerging writers. They try to reduce barriers to publishing for authors whose perspectives are underrepresented in order to produce quality materials relevant to queer, feminist, and social justice communities. 

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