Tag Archives: reader responsibility

Bone and Bread: Eating Disorders & Making Use of Life in Fiction

*caveat – I do quite a bit of thinking out loud in this post and don’t arrive anywhere elegant*

Out for dinner recently the table got to discussing the merits of fiction and nonfiction. I was (surprise) defending fiction for its imaginative invitation to empathy; my companion argued all fiction was telling the same story and that nonfiction did far better to educate. Our two friends weighed in on both sides.  We started talking about Annabel by Kathleen Winter and the misrepresentation of intersexed people and their experiences. I suggested, naively, ‘but surely the character is meant to be a metaphor,’ to which my companion noted that surely individual lives ought not be used for literary purpose. The conversation moved elsewhere. I haven’t stopped thinking about the question.

It’s certainly a question I’ve considered in memoir and biography: what are the ethics of using  the living in stories and in fiction? Of course in the case of Annabel, or the broader question we were discussing, it’s not a particular or ‘true’ individual being used for literary purpose, so much as an identity being used. In the case of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread it’s not an identity, but an illness: anorexia.

The novel follows two orphaned sisters Sadhana and Beena as they grow up in Montreal. Sadhana’s experience with an eating disorder shapes the sisters’ relationship as much as their loss of parents. Except the part I’m trying to figure out is the eating disorder functions both as a plot and character device, but also with thematic intent: what are we starving ourselves of when we live alone? (how) does art demand the diminishment of the self? how do we respond to circumstances beyond our control? The illness is misrepresented, even as it ‘gets right’ some aspects of the disease. But does it matter what it gets right (or not) about the real life illness? It’s not meant to be an educational, nonfiction exploration of the experience of an eating disorder; it’s meant to be an exploration of sibling love, control, secrecy and the limits of care. And it uses an eating disorder as a means to explore those questions. Perhaps the better question isn’t whether such representation and use should be allowed, but questions about how effectively and to what end.

As someone who experienced an eating disorder do I get to weigh in (ha) on these questions differently? (probably not) We should question how identities and experiences are being represented in fiction. These are not neutral activities; these representations shape how we understand and interact with others and our world. Where I think I come down is that the responsibility isn’t on the novel to get it right, so much as it is on us as readers to get the reading right. We need to read attuned to the fabrication, manipulation and use that character, plot and setting are being put. We need to be prompted to read a description of an eating disordered behaviour and ask ourselves (or others! or research!) whether such a behaviour might be ‘true,’ and if so, what does that mean to us? and if not, what does that mean to us (and the novel)?

There are many, many terrible novels that are terrible because they get so much of representing life, people and their experiences so incredibly wrongBone and Bread is not one of these novels. (I suppose I should actually comment on this book!). [The novel has strong and evocative description, a Can Lit insistence on its importance and Literary Merit (and this insistence has paid off: it is a contender for Canada Reads 2016!), a compelling family-drama plot. Its characters are a bit shallow and surprising in their actions. The Can Lit insistence is grating for the first forty page until you accept what’s happening to you and move on. Or perhaps the author relaxes and eases up on the similes (questions for another day).]

So yeah. I haven’t cracked this one. The novel I’ve figured out. Not so much these questions of the liberty afforded in fiction, the responsibility of readers and the literary consequences of misusing that freedom to invent, misrepresent or attempt to capture accurately. Good thing I have a book club tomorrow with my former students to figure this one out. Or you could tell me. Let me know your thoughts (as always).

 

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All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.

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A Tale for the Time Being: You Probably Haven’t Heard Of This Book; Here’s Why You Should Read It

maxresdefaultOr maybe you have heard of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. After all, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hyped in all of the right places. All the same it slipped through my Canlit net, and seems to have for all those I’ve talked about the book with as I’ve been reading it, and so I’ll assume you haven’t heard of it either (you’re my made-up audience, so I may as well, right?).

This idea of the reader-audience and how readers make novels mean something by reading them is one of the (many) preoccupations of this fantastically rich and layered story. At one point our protagonist-cum-author notes “Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void? But apparently she had done just that, or else she was crazy. Or else… Together we’ll make magic… Who had conjured whom?” (392). The role of reader in the novel is complex: with two threaded narratives – that of Ruth, an author living on an island in British Columbia who finds a diary washed up on the beach and that of the diarist, Nao, an American-Japanese schoolgirl – that both reflect, influence and respond to one another, one of the questions the novel asks is how readers determine and impact the meaning and influence of a story. Within the novel itself this question is explored in the relationship between Ruth and Nao, but the novel expands this question with metafictional play and probity to include this reader, too. So you ought to read it because the novel presupposes its existence depends on your reading it.

You ought to read it because the philosophical questions it explores like the nature of time and quantum mechanics; the role of animals in the interconnected web of being; restitution, responsibility and war; the relationship of class and identity (and bullying); the purpose of art and art-making; – are those questions that make both for great dissertations and for great discussions (and I know you have a thesis you want to write or a book club to attend [*cough* this was a book club choice for the book club I attend]). These questions look esoteric when I write them down, and there are moments of the novel – like reading the Appendixes on Schrodinger’s Cat – that stray in that direction, but the overwhelming feeling this novel evoked for me was exhilaration: it’s simply thrilling to see a masterful exploration of questions of time, identity and the nature of meaning in life through grounded (if somewhat fantastical) story.

And you ought to read it because I say so. Okay, not that. But because it’s beautiful.  Layered with complexity and richness, yet not so dense as to be inaccessible or off-putting. And you see it and think 400 pages, really? And I say, consider the time it takes to read. No really, consider “time” and “takes”: what does it mean to “take time”? Once you’re asking that question you may as well be reading the novel because in reading you find time, time-taking, time-making – well, you might have a different feeling on the other side (which assumes you ever leave a novel once you’ve read it… another question for another time being).

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