Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Girls' Club

Stacey May Fowles talks to three emerging writers about the old (male) guard, their first books and what it really means to be writing while young and female.
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The Girls' Club

Dora Borealis (ECW Press)
Daccia Bloomfield

We Could Be Like That Couple (Insomniac Press)
Sarah Steinberg

The Night Is A Mouth (Exile Editions)
Lisa Foad

"The whole 'female subject matter' thing gives me the heebie-jeebies, to be totally honest." —Daccia Bloomfield

On November 26th, Daccia Bloomfield does a short reading for a small group of book lovers at Toronto’s Press Club. She's performing as part of the newly formed Pivot Reading Series, and Pivot host Carey Toane has been consistent in booking a slew of fantastic female authors since the series' start in October. As soon as Bloomfield takes the stage it's immediately apparent that she is no exception — she has an energetic and charismatic personality and effortlessly holds the enamored crowd from the first line to the last. A born relaxed reader, she offers no disclaimers and makes no explanations — she simply reads great fiction, and any listener would be surprised to learn that Dora Borealis (ECW Press) is Bloomfield's first book. Not only that, she managed to write it in a mere six months. "I started writing the book about three years ago, but pieces of it were in process long before that," she says. "The actual sitting down to it was pretty quick, but the editing and reworking were interminable."

Bloomfield is part of a crop of emerging female authors that are currently changing the make-up of Toronto's once limiting literary fiction scene. Any quick glance at a list of Giller or Governor General nominees can tell you that the accolades tend to be reserved for those of the male persuasion, but the good news is that independent publishing is opening up to inclusivity, both in gender and subject matter. Atwood, Shields and Munro do not necessarily mean mainstream gender diversity, and while the past has been dominated by an undeniable boys' club, Toronto publishers are slowly shifting focus and finding a wealth of narratives written by young women and about young women, without the usual tokenism.

When she's asked about the boys' club of local literature and whether it hinders the success of women writers, Bloomfield admits she's felt that in the past.

I didn't really run into that with [Dora Borealis], but I felt it when I was younger. I was hesitant to read and work with local authors because I felt cowed by certain dominant aesthetic trends, which at the time I felt were somewhat male dominated. My work is heavily informed by these movements — I'm being mysterious on purpose here — but I found the communities around them somewhat religious in their rigidity, which is strange considering they've all grown out of experimental movements essentially predicated on play.

We Could Be That Couple

Sarah Steinberg, a Montreal-based writer who decided to go with a Toronto-based press for her first collection, We Could Be Like That Couple (Insomniac Press), describes how she came to publish her first book: "[Writer] Jon Paul Fiorentino approached me; he acquires books for Insomniac Press, and he said something like, 'OK, it's time you put a collection together,' and I said, 'Oh no no, I'm not ready.' And then I realized that I'd never be ready and that I'd be foolish not to publish given the opportunity, so I went for it." When Steinberg, an America's Next Top Model fan who enjoys Raymond Carver and The New Yorker, is asked if she faced any difficulties as a writer specific to being "young and female," she’s initially unconvinced. "Most of my trouble was self-made. I told myself that I was a shitty writer so many times that I started to believe it. I don't think being young and female had anything to do with that." After some thought, she adds, "Come to think of it, it probably did. Yes, it very likely did. I take that all back."

Steinberg is certainly focused on writing narratives that speak volumes to oft-neglected young female readers, whether she fully realizes it or not. "[We Could Be Like That Couple] is about young women, mostly. Miscommunication, obsession, heartbreak. Being young, confused, disoriented, mistaken. But also about being young, adventurous, brave, and about finding your voice," she says. She's also quite candid when asked about her feelings around the publication of the collection:

No misconceptions about publishing were shattered; I never thought that simply publishing a book with a small press would mean that people actually read the book or that I would become a huge star with a ton of adoring fans (as wonderful as that would be). But there were fears, certainly. I feared that anyone who read the book would tell me it was terrible, that all my reviews would be awful. The book's first review was terrible, in fact, and I braced myself for more of the same, but that didn't happen. And then one of the stories in the book was nominated for the Journey Prize and that went a long way. It felt great to be validated. Maybe I should be more confident, but I love validation. I crave it.

The Night Is A Mouth

Lisa Foad, who launches her first collection, The Night Is A Mouth (Exile Editions), at This Is Not A Reading Series on Monday, January 19th, believes the exclusion of women in literature is a given. "Of course there's a 'boys' club' mentality within Canadian literature. Book publishing, independent or otherwise, doesn't operate outside of the socio-political structure within which we live." She also believes that women are perceived, required and expected to write in a certain way. "I do think that there exists a particular cultural expectation regarding the sorts of stories that come out of female writers – that the voice is going to be relatively polite, somewhat slushy, and largely irrational. It's more of a cultural custody, really, within which writing by women gets devalued and regarded as amateur."

Like many female writers trying to carve out a place in a male-dominated scene, Foad achieved great success in literary performance. Despite the fact that The Night Is A Mouth is her first book, she's a veteran when it comes to the stage, once one-third of the spoken word-based multi-media performance troupe, Trash & Ready. In many ways Foad (who lists creative influences and inspirations as diverse as Michel Foucault, Sweet Valley High and The Heartbreaker Hotel sign on Queen Street West) was successful at carving out her own scene when the status quo was resistant to her style of literature, so much so that she’s found acclaim and respect long before her book has even hit a bookstore shelf.

I really like performing material because it allows me to experience the text in a much more dynamic way – something I don’t get when it's just me working with the page. Performing freshens material that might be feeling stale; it helps resolve uncertainties I may be having about particular elements in a particular piece; it lets me interact with readers and potential readers, and helps me gauge what's working and what’s not.

And how does the literary world tend to view and market female writers? Badly. Foad explains: "In terms of my own experience thus far, two things stand out. One, the diminutive approach some have taken to my work – my 'little stories.' And two, the ways in which I've gotten sexualized – as a female and as a female whose writing contains a lot of sexuality in it."

When I ask Bloomfield, Steinberg and Foad about those writers and creators that inspire them, the list reveals a diversity of influence. More obvious names like Sonja Ahlers, Tamara Faith Berger, Lynn Crosbie, Sheila Heti, Elyse Gasco, Miranda July and Zoe Whittall pop up, but so do comedians like The Remainders, Shawn Hitchins and Chris Locke. In fact, Bloomfield thinks that the Toronto literary scene is simply not funny enough. "More genuinely funny work by women is really needed," she says.

Despite all these challenges, Bloomfield is hopeful that we'll see a change in what the Toronto literary scene values, making room for innovative female voices. "I think the community at large is working to change that. It was worse when I was younger and felt like a 'girlfriend' in that world, and I think that the change I see is a testament to a lot of really dedicated people working consciously to mess with that mentality." Foad sees independent presses as a venue for women that’s leading the charge: "Within the independent publishing world, there's a lot more room for, interest in and excitement about female writers."

It is Foad who leaves us with a sense of both gratitude and optimism for the future. "For me, writing is a very solitary act," she says. "That said, I rely on and am extremely grateful for the literary community within which I work. I find the Toronto literary scene itself incredibly committed to and excited by its writers."

Five songs the writers in this piece would put on repeat. Here’s the playlist:

Daccia Bloomfield:
Mr. Tough (Yo la Tengo)
Pay me my money down (Springsteen)
New Town (Vic Chestnutt)
Night in My Veins (The Pretenders)
Iko Iko (Cyndi Lauper)

Sarah Steinberg:
Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver)
Nice Train (The Donkeys)
J'aime Plus Paris (Thomas Dutronc)
Wish Someone Would Care (Irma Thomas)
That's Life (Frank Sinatra)

Lisa Foad:
“For the last few months, I’ve been listening pretty obsessively to Stevie Nicks.”

Stacey May Fowles:
Fistful of Love (Antony and The Johnsons)
Parentheses (The Blow)
These Arms of Mine (Otis Redding)
Homeboy (Adorable)
Whatever Happens, I Love You (Morrissey)

Stacey May Fowles

Stacey May Fowles currently lives in Toronto and is the publisher of Shameless Magazine. Her first novel, Be Good, was published by Tightrope Books in 2007. In fall 2008 she released an illustrated novel, Fear of Fighting, and staged a theatrical adaptation of it with Nightwood Theatre. Her writing has appeared in various magazines and has been widely anthologized in Nobody Passes: Rejecting The Rules of Gender and Conformity, First Person Queer, Yes Means Yes and I.V. Lounge Nights.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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