Define Screwball Gothic: A Recap of 'In Conversation with Eden Robinson'

 Left: Cherie Dimaline with Eden Robinson to her right

Left: Cherie Dimaline with Eden Robinson to her right

This blog contribution is part of the Toronto International Festival of Author’s Delegates Program and I was asked to write up on my experiences from the festival. Enjoy! For more information visit: festivalofauthors.ca


“We’ve safely left the confines of literature,” Cherie Dimaline announced twenty minutes into the Toronto International Festival of Author’s In Conversation: With Eden Robinson. Her remark was followed by a roar of laughter from the audience. She was right: the night’s event was anything but an ordinary author’s talk. 


The punk-lit, tangential living-room confessional tête-à-tête delved into so much more than Eden Robinson’s literary accomplishments, which for this Haisla/Heiltsuk novelist includes a Writer’s Trust win and a nomination for the Giller and Governor General Award. Witnessing two incredibly talented and incredible funny Indigenous writers co-exist in one hour of programming was truly a delight.

Those who’ve been privy to the infectious laughter of Eden Robinson already understand the magical energy in the room. In essence, our moderator Governor Award winning author Cherie Dimaline held space for hilarity, erotica and complexity through Robinson’s live storytelling and we were witnesses to their electric friendship. 

Eden Robinson opened the evening with a charming and poignant reading from her latest book Trickster Drift recalling the story of the Beaver, to which Dimaline segued with the story of their time on an Erotica Panel at UNBC. “Didn’t you rub butter all over yourself?” That type of spontaneous set-up can’t be planned, and like much of the evening, the questions to follow riffed off of their rapport with one another.

 Robinson’s latest book  Trickster Drift , Knopf Canada.

Robinson’s latest book Trickster Drift, Knopf Canada.

When asked what is the coolest thing that has happened to her because of writing, Eden took us to Scotland where she was the third-choice presenter at Edenburgh Festival and a very unimpressed attendee pointed out, “you aren’t Thomas King, are you?” From there, the conversation spiralled into a whirlwind about Enlightenment amusement parks in India, a near-proposal from a Braveheart extra, teasers of a trashy Band-Council romance and plans of coordinating a Giller-calendar inspired by Burt Reynolds.

Both Robinson and Dimaline’s light-hearted almost cousinly banter, sparked an underlying deep sincerity about how awkward it can be embarking on such a profession. Robinson candidly shared the realities of being a “painfully shy” young person enthralled with Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. This self-awareness echoed in the story Robinson shared of meeting Chrystos, the brilliant two-spirit Menominee writer at University of Victoria. Young Robinson was met with generosity and patience despite the gushing and received long chats about the craft from the established author. “Then I read Not Vanishing and her characters were free to be angry,” a first, she explains immediately after, with a mindful pause.

Holding tight and tender to this thread, Dimaline guided the conversation to their first time seeing themselves in literature. She expressed her gratitude to Robinson, being groundbreaking for writing Indigenous people who “don’t have to be riding horses and seducing white women, but [they] also can be angry and can have nothing to do with ceremony and can just be a clerk at Walmart and still be Indigenous.”

And it’s with this image in mind, Robinson invited us again to laugh and love and further, contemplate the confines of Canlit while simultaneously disrupting these expectations. And that is big-picture labour. Robinson offers even more intimate struggles when she shares which book was the hardest to write: the novella ‘Contact Sports’  in her first collection Traplines. With a hushed tone, here she explained the small-picture labour on her ‘apprentice novel’. “I tried everything to make that story work, I tried and the story wouldn’t let me go…it was on and off for ten years.” 

A communal sigh reverberated across the auditorium and once more, we are reminded that this is more than an author’s talk, we are confronted with Robinson’s honesty and an unveiling of her own inner criticisms. This too is part of the process. “When it was finally cooking, that’s when I understood how writing can transport you outside of yourself. That was addictive. I really wanted to try a novel after that.”

Although there was only time for two inquires from the Q&A portion of the evening, conversation immediately splintered into tangents on Louisiana raccoons, winter vampires, touring sock puppets and N*sync. It wasn’t all just kicks and giggles — we were also productive and created a new genre that Edin Robinson appreciated. “I like to be in the category screw-ball gothic. And we can put Indigenous in there”.

The non-linear nature of storytelling complimented the kindness of vibing out with a sister-friend, inspiring evening indeed. One that alas, rarely surfaces organically at literary festivals. The moment transcended accomplished writer see adoring audience; Robinson and Dimaline gave us humour and insight, we gave laughter and attentiveness. The only regrettable thing was there simply wasn’t enough time. “We’re getting the sign already — we’re having fun out here,” Cherie Dimaline said. “I don’t know why they let us do this…”

Shazaam Poetry Slam at Holy Trinity Catholic School

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On October 4th 2018, Ms. Fortades’ class from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Etobicoke, hosted the most unique and poetry slam I’ve ever been in. Real talk. These students brought in homemade treats, there were two kinds of pie, and there was a projector with a hip art café decal on the smart board. As we were sipping our classroom water and munching on Timbits, these young poets settled in for an incredible slam.

 

One of the bravest, smartest, fun-loving group you’ll every meet, Ms. Fortades’ grade eight class wrote remarkable poems that reflected of themselves and their experiences. We had some stand-out characters and a class slogan “tears are strength” and we needed that reminder. Our emotions were high.

 

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With my partner in crime (for the third time now) Ebti Nabag leading photography facilitator, I held it down the spoken word part of the lessons. Students dazzled us poems about pizza, secret admirers, war, anxiety and lost loved ones, exploring both written and visual arts so students could express their fullest selves.

The Shazaam! program is a unique spoken word and photography initiative within schools through Lakeshore Arts which allows professional arts to work with students and teachers to examine identity in visual and performance arts. Lakeshore Arts really hosts incredible workshops for the community.

 

 These tender youth made me a thank you card for our last day of class. My heart!

These tender youth made me a thank you card for our last day of class. My heart!

It was an honour to be the host and our judges were blown away by the sheer talent. Some of the writing from our winners include:

 

“How do the waves of noises

of sounds

of words

come together to make something inexplainable,

something of beauty

something of grace that unites

race by race, colour by colour, shade by shade?”

 

— Ella

 


“Yeah some people don’t want us to be free

but honestly

that doesn’t matter to me.

We’ve come too far to be

pushed back to the bottom again

just because they don’t like our culture

they don’t like our style

they don’t like us.”

 

— Natasha


 

“I can’t look at myself straight in the mirror

without thinking I’m strange

looking in the mirror”

 

— Jessica

 


 “she is a 13 year old girl

who criticizes herself any chance she gets

she is a 13 year old girl who puts an act

on for her peers but when she gets home

she breaks down.”

 

— Jenna

 

Congratulations to our slam winners: Ella, Jenna, Natasha and Jessica.

 Left to right: Jessica, Ella, Jenna, Natasha and Frenchie. The ladies brought home the trophy!

Left to right: Jessica, Ella, Jenna, Natasha and Frenchie. The ladies brought home the trophy!

Special mention to: Tyler, Lebron and Gabriel

 Left to Right: Frenchie, Lebron, Gabriel and Tyler. Dream team right here!

Left to Right: Frenchie, Lebron, Gabriel and Tyler. Dream team right here!

 At the end of the day, these kids weren’t just students in a classroom, fulfilling what is required for a grade, they were a mini family (some with very elaborate backstories). Honestly, in my many years of facilitating, I rarely see a group of young people who support one another, encourage one another, and truly look out for each other in a deep, sincere and authentic way. These youth are the future, yo!

Big thanks to Alessandra, Thom Amanda and the whole Lakeshore Arts crew. So much love to the one and only Ebti, merci beaucoup to Arren for supporting us and taking these incredible photos and thanks to all the judges, gratitudes and admiration to the brilliant and inspiring teacher extraordinary Mr. Fortades. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Last but not least, bravo to all the grade eight students in Ms. Fortades’ class. May your final year in elementary school shine bright and may you take over high school with your best foot forward. Frenchie believes in you.


If you are a teacher or principal interested in have a Whitney French Writes workshop in your school, book a workshop HERE. Or, if you are interested in the Shazaam program, check them out at www.lakeshorearts.ca

I'm the Venom and the Antidote (June Newsletter 2018)

Please note that this is an excerpt from my full Whitney French Writes newsletter. You can read the full newsletter HERE or subscribe to my monthly newsletter HERE to receive these messages directly in your inbox.

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DRIVEN :: FOCUS :: FLYING

I do not know where to begin. I was going to begin with a powerful metaphor that would relate to the experiences that are happening in my life. And I love doing that  (a tree, a ripple in the lake, a volcano) but I’m going to give it to you straight because I love you all, every single person reading my newsletter. Imma come correct.

I am gay.

I haven’t told my family. I haven’t told my friends. But I’m here telling you all. I foresee people unsubscribing to my newsletter. I foresee losing clients. If that is the case, I will be sad but I’ll welcome it knowing that they were not really here for my growth, my business and my personhood. If you’re still reading, thank you for still reading. 

There is something especially queer about being vulnerable with community, with chosen-family, with an intimate group of people who have your back and are riding with you. So Happy Pride y’all. I want to talk about what it means to be my full self in my community, in my business and in my life.

I am mad driven.

I have so much drive right now and I am grateful that I’ve arrived at this place where my purpose is so undeniably clear and crystallized and true. I have days I don’t want to get out of bed, I have days when I feel like an imposter, but I always have days that are just days. And I am driven to make the very most out of them. That doesn’t always have to be producing things (like writing, or events or tasks) but it can be learning something new, listening to my roommate, understanding something new about myself.

I am focused.

As I write this I’m nervous that my focus will wane but in this moment, I am aware of not just what I want, but how to get it. I also know that there are so many unknowns. Countless possible endings that I must surrender to. My new found definition of focus isn’t about rigid concentration but maintaining intention around something that really matters to me. My writing is that focus. Even when I get distracted. Even when I’m not “writing” on the page. My writing captivates my intention and my intention is to captivate my energy towards my writing.

I am flying.

My personal life (see proclamation above) my business life and my writing life has taken a huge shift post-Nemaska. It’s more than just “look at all the good things happening” revelation. I can no longer take anything for grated. The blessings are very obvious these days and I know when I am in a darker place in future these blessings will be much more subtle. But they will still be there. So that is enough of a reason to fly.

Wherever you are in life, your business or your practice, know that Frenchie has got you in her heart. That she’s rooting for you to be liberated from societal expectations, and she anticipates your arrival to your fullest self. I am a work-in-progress. Frenchie-Today, Past-Frenchie and Future-Frenchie co-exist. There’s no competition who’s the best version. I am grateful to be all of the above.

Until next time faithful readers!

Flying Through February, Embrace the Cold (February Newsletter 2018)

Please note that this is an excerpt from my full Whitney French Writes newsletter. You can read the full newsletter HERE or subscribe to my monthly newsletter HERE to receive these messages directly in your inbox.

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I don't like the cold. At all.

But with all the events and workshops and other things that keep me busier than usual, this frigid weather offers a type of quite that is really inviting.

I went for a walk in the snow, bundled up tight and tried to...embrace the cold. And it was actually beautiful hearing only the crunching snow beneath my boot. It was magical being greeted by the sun. Slowing down my pace whenever I can restores balance in my life. As a tree climber and forest walker, I have to at least be a little bit open to winter strolls.

And I'm glad I'm doing it.

That's all I got for February, feel free to send me your happenings! I wanna know how youwarm up in this cold weather.

Please note, there will be no newsletter for March 2018. I am trying to be gentle with myself: March I will be traveling to a Northern Cree community, and I'll be packing up my apartment and I'll be rushing to complete the manuscript for "Black Writing Matters". Needless to say, my plate is beyond full for that month. Thanks in advance for understanding. Catch you in April!

Embracing the Cold and Knowing One's Value (January Newsletter 2018)

Please note that this is an excerpt from my full Whitney French Writes newsletter. You can read the full newsletter HERE or subscribe to my monthly newsletter HERE to receive these messages directly in your inbox.

 A cut and paste mobile hanging from my office. Original illustration by Lido Pimento.

A cut and paste mobile hanging from my office. Original illustration by Lido Pimento.

"I enjoy making money by providing a valuable service"

Much of 2017 was convincing myself, my family and friends and clients that I have value. For artistic types, we know how challenging it is to articulate the value of our work to the world. Dentists, plumbers, chefs and bankers get paid but for some reason artists get paid 'sometimes'. I didn't get into writing for the money. But I also believe that the service I provide and the quality of my work is valuable. I believe this, but I forget this sometimes. 

Most of 2017 was maintaining a level of integrity around my pricing, maintaining the quality of my services and maintaining a consistent clientel. The end of 2017 I realized that this maintenance can come at a price. For the first time in almost two years I've had to take up a part-time gig. 

And I felt shame around this.

It was as if I was moving backwards. I'd worked hard to make writing, workshopping and performances my bread and butter and now, I'm only a part-time writer. I actually hid this reality from even the closest people in my life. And although I enjoy my part-time gig and it offers financial stability, it is exhausting. There is way less time to do this work. Building my readership, develop new services, improve current services and of course, less time to write.

But I am feeling less shame these days. I am recognizing that taking up this gig is actually a smart business move. If I continued on my stubborn "must-write-full-time-or-bust" ways, there may not be a Whitney French Writes anymore. Also, I am HUNGRY for doing WFW work because the time is so precious. I don't have the "luxury" as I once did to work on my personal business every day. Time will tell how this will ultimately shape things, but I am attempting to embrace change and remind myself to express, unapologetically, my value.


There is nothing wrong with an artist wanting to make money. The starving artist stereotype is one I wish to leave behind. But the hustle-hard full-time writer is also a character that may not fit either. I do not have the answer but I'm trying to find a balance that feels authentic.

Journalling helps remind me that it's a process, it's a part of a larger journey. Last year I blogged about simply beginning Whitney French Writes as a business and the hiccups and success that come about, and this reflection work grounds me, it reminds me there's more to come. 

Hope y'all keep reading and continue to follow me for the 'more to come'. Until next time, Happy New Year to you and yours and I hope you find your value, and find your balance.