Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Femme Rebels

Currently Reading: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An Academic Finding…

Some regular readers may know that when I’m not book blogging, I’m a PhD student, studying social work and critical animal studies. I came across an open access academic article this week while conducting a literature search on decolonial animal studies that I would be remiss not to share here. Although I haven’t written much about erotica here on the blog, obviously it’s a huge area of literature, and something I do write about a lot is spooky books… and who doesn’t love a good monster, right? Well, if monster erotica is up your alley, you should definitely check out this 2017 academic article from the journal Humanimalities, called How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in Ebook Erotica. Although I couldn’t find much about the author, Dagmar Van Engen, online, they seem to be non-binary, and have taught in the English department at the University of Southern California. If you’re out there, Dagmar, give me a wave, so I can credit you properly! This article is rad. Dear readers: you’re welcome.

Artwork by Kayla Shaggy, a Dine/Annishinabe woman of color that draws and creates comic books.

If you like the artwork featured above, you can support see more on Kayla’s portfolio site, read her comics, or support her Patreon!

Femme Rebels in my #2019Reading

I only started tracking my reading in a real way a couple of years ago, back when the 50 Book Pledge was separate from Goodreads, and I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as like, book culture. One of the things that I really like about tracking my reading is that as I read more, themes start to pop up in the titles I’ve picked, without my even expecting them to. One of the unintentional themes that’s come up in my reading this year, especially in the YA that I’ve been drawn to pick up, has been rebel girls.

Real talk: I would vastly prefer if I was finding loads of books with representation from a spectrum of gender identities, because the “rebel girl” trope for me feels a little binary and tired. However, if I’m going to read something from the plethora of books that are out there about binary identified characters, I’m at least glad that books are challenging gender stereotypes in so many ways, and that femme characters are fierce, queer, and forming complex friendships to take down the patriarchy.

There are three books that have really stood out for me this year in terms of this theme cropping up, and they’re all 2019 titles. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia came out in February; A Dress for the Wicked, by Autumn Krause, just dropped a few days ago; and The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, hits shelves in October – just in time for spooky season! I also read two books earlier this year that fit nicely into this theme: Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow, which I reviewed earlier this year, and The Hollow Girl, by Hillary Monahan, which is a backlist title, released in 2017.

The Hollow Girl: Horrific Revenge Fantasy

I’m going to write briefly about The Hollow Girl, because it is backlist, and because I read it really early on in 2019, but I haven’t written about it on this blog before. I actually read it in one sitting on a plane ride. It was at a time this year when I was filled with frustration about many things, but in particular about one of my partners’ ongoing divorces from an abusive and manipulative ex, who was treating everyone involved in her life with my partner terribly. It was triggering a lot of things in me to go through that experience – memories of my own past with my long-term abusive ex not least among them, as well as memories of the rape I experienced in my early 20’s.

The Hollow Girl was the revenge fantasy I needed, and it was incredibly cathartic to read. This book is a rad horror story about feminine rage in the face of sexual assault, with excellent, positive Welsh Roma representation. CW for violence, murder, and gore. Welsh Roma representation. It’s a heartwrenching book, and not an easy one to stomach, especially on a plane surrounded by strangers and stale air, but it’s also a book filled with dark magic and creepy grandmother mentors. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I would recommend this book to any femme who can stomach it.

Rebel Girls

The other three books that I wanted to look at more closely are not horror titles, although some of the content in these YA dystopian titles is uncanny enough so as to be chilling. All of these books are stories of oppressive societies with polarized upper and lower classes, and the feminine characters that use their individual privilege in an effort to reject social norms and resist structural forces that marginalized the vulnerable members of their societies.

I’m going to come out and say this early on, and loudly, as someone for whom Margaret Atwood’s writing was very formative in my own education about activism and injustice: Since Margaret Atwood’s disappointing, apologist behaviour in the face of the sexual assault and harassment issues that came up in the CanLit community in 2018 (eloquently detailed by Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People in the Walrus), I no longer recommend her books or media based on them to my customers at the book shop. I am happy to say that any of these YA titles would make a great alternative read or curriculum replacement for The Handmaid’s Tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire is the first book in a trilogy that was released earlier this year, with the second volume coming in February of 2020. The author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, is queer and Latinx, and the book is a powerful #OwnVoices coming of age story set on the fictional island of Medio, featuring an undocumented MC who is learning how to be an activist and a rebel while living her life under the enemy’s roof.

The only thing that truly disappointed me about this book is that from the prologue and the lore of Medio, I was really excited for this author to dig into the radical storytelling potential of the world that she had created where triads, rather than couples, were the norm as heads of household. Even though this was presented as an oppressive, faith-based, polygamist structure, as a consensually non-monogamous person, I was curious where the author would take that. There are so few works of fiction where non-monogamy is portrayed in a non-toxic way, and I was curious if that would be explored at all in this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Fortunately, the book is super queer, and although I’m not a huge romance person, I was glad for that.

I loved that the author sprinkled Latinx culture and language throughout *We Set the Dark on Fire*, but I was surprised at how quickly it felt to me like a novel about a literal war, rather than a symbolic or internal struggle. The pacing of the story really picked up near the end of this volume, though, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. CWs for physical violence and war-like conflict, alcohol use, sexual harassment.

I would describe A Dress for the Wicked as Project Runway meets The Hunger Games. There are lots of things that I loved about this book, which is a classic country-mouse-turns-city-mouse tale about a rural girl who gets a chance to compete in a high-profile fashion competition in a dystopian society where fashion is everything. As someone with a vivid visual imagination, the writing was a perfect level of poetic and descriptive, and the ending was emotionally satisfying for me as a reader. Although it’s described as romance, that’s not the focus of this book. I actually found it to be a bit queer bait-y, since there is no LGBTQ2S+ representation, but the plot centres on several richly portrayed feminine characters, who have a lot of depth and mystery. The lack of queer rep felt like a bit of a missed opportunity here.

In a lot of ways, I would have been more interested in A Dress for the Wicked if the heterosexual love interests hadn’t been introduced at all, since the relationships that were most important to the narrative and most interesting to me were the nuanced friendships between the women. The other things that I loved about this book are that there really aren’t any CWs necessary, it stands alone, and it has a hopeful ending. I often joke that I’ll consume any media as long as there’s pretty dresses… well, if this is you, you want this book, because it’s one that you can feel good about on multiple axes.

The one note that I should make here, because I read an advance copy of this book, and I’m not sure if it was changed for the final edition, is that there was one moment in this book that made me raise a serious eyebrow. In chapter 7, the author includes a line that is a real dig about consent culture around kissing (“If there is anything less romantic than being asked if someone may kiss you, I don’t know what it is.”). It’s hugely problematic, and completely unnecessary. I hope that it was revised before the final version was released? If you are a reader and you got your hands on the published version – fire me a message from my Contact page, and let me know!

Last but not least is The Grace Year, which is an Indie Next pick for Fall 2019. Unlike A Dress for the Wicked, this book does get dark fast, and there should be a big CW for physical violence, as well as a trigger warning for anyone who’s #Exvangelical or who has endured abuse in religious contexts. One of my goals this year was to read more fiction and non-fiction about religious right extremism, and I will probably feature this book in a blog post specifically about that at some point. That said, I could not put this book down – and I’m not the only one. The book has already been optioned for film, even though it hasn’t hit shelves yet.

I read this one on a plane, too (2019 has involved a lot of travel for me), and I tore through it. The Grace Year has a bit of a gender-bent Lord of the Flies feel that’s a commentary on the Christian religious right in a dystopian setting. Especially for educators, this book addresses so many of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, only they’re updated for a 2019 context, and as far as I know, the author hasn’t recently defended rape culture, which is a plus. This book has some queer representation, and a super empowering ending that made me bawl my eyes out. In public. On a plane. And contrary to We Set the Dark on Fire, even though this book isn’t literally about consensual non-monogamy, it did give me warm and fuzzy compersion feels.

Of course, I would be remiss to review four books in one blog post – five if you flipped back to read what I previously wrote about Little Apocalypse – and not to say that the one thing that stands out in common among all of them to me is that despite the fact that they are all books about resistance, struggle, fighting social norms, overcoming oppression… they are all stories that are essentially devoid of any non-binary content. It’s great to see queer content trickling into some of these titles, but it would be so cool to see non-binary and/or trans MCs in some of these rebel titles! I’d have even taken a genderfluid best friend, or a trans girl sidekick… this is a great opportunity for an author to get in and fill this niche. Although these books are fabulous, I’m ready for the book about the trans rebel who leads us to progressive revolution.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.