From Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (book):, a wonderful description of the materiality of memory, and the stories embedded in everyday objects:

“Some of the people who were children in the house in which I now live were very sorry to have it sold out of their family. I understood their feeling so well that I told them they could come back and see the house any time they wished, and I also told them that if we were ever to sell our house we would call them all, the children of the Woodworths, the grandchildren of the Woodworths, and offer to sell it to them first. We, my husband and I believe that we shall never live anyplace else, certainly if we can help it, but we can’t really tell what we will be able to help or not help, we only know that we believe we shall never live anyplace else. When the Woodworths were clearing out the house after it had been sold to us, different people took things that meant something to them. One grandchild took a bed that she had slept in when she came to visit her grandparents; someone took fireplace implements because they were unusual and because of some special memory. I do not know who took the reproduction of an engraved print depicting the Puritan legend of Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden. When we were dismantling Mrs. Woodworth’s kitchen, someone asked us to look for recipe cards that might have fallen behind her old kitchen counter; they remembered something with meringue and kept asking us if we were sure when we said we had found nothing. Someone took cuttings of Mrs. Woodworth’s roses because they had come from her mother’s garden in Maine many, many years ago. I cannot believe that my children will return to this house shortly after I am dead ( I do believe that I will leave here for the rest of a very long life) and ask the new owners … to try to retrieve the copy of Edna Lewis’s cookbook from which our family have enjoyed the recipe for corn pudding and fried chicken and biscuits; nor will they ask for the four volumes of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, in which are recipes for food our family have enjoyed, not the least being something called Summer Pudding, a dessert made of currants and stale bread, the berries foreign to me until in my adulthood I have grown them, and the bread distasteful to me, though only through the memory of my own childhood; ore the perpetually leafed-through but never actually used Mrs. Beeton’s Guide to Household Management. I cannot imagine my children will actually want to admit that they came from us and did not fall out of the plain blue sky, which is just what I used to wish when I became aware that to have me, my parents actually had sex.  Just the other day my husband overheard my daughter say to her friends as he approached and some other girls all huddled together, ‘OP, here comes my dorky dad.’ He was humiliated to hear himself referred to as a dork, and so he said to the other girls,’ Hi. No, do I look like a dork?’ and instead of saying in unison, ‘No, you are the most wonderful father we have ever had the good fortune to meet,’ all the girls simply looked at the tips of their shoes in what he interpreted to be silent agreement. But our children are still children, one is six and the other is ten. They perhaps think we will live forever, they perhaps think we will never go away, that they will never be able to be themselves without our reminding them of their own helplessness, their own dependence on us. Perhaps pies with a meringue topping and summer puddings are missed only when they can never be had in a particular and exact way again.” (22-23)

Not long after my arrival in St. John’s, I discovered two short stories by Tryphena Duley. “A Pair of Grey Socks” and “Mothers of Men,” written and published between 1916 and 1918, were designed to bolster women’s home front support for the soldiers fighting as part of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. As literary works, they’re not particularly amazing. Rather, they are conventional in form, tone and structure.

The first intertwines the stories of a young Newfoundland woman knitting socks for soldiers on the home front and an Irish soldier stationed on the battlefield next to the Newfoundland Regiment. Predictably they get married and produce two lovely children. At the end, the family is gathered around a tattered grey sock and presumably, they live happily ever after.

The second is much darker. Published sometime after Newfoundland’s stunning losses on July 1, 1916, it is the story of a mother trying to come to terms with the death of her son. As she drowns in her sorrows, she is taken to the a heavenly space where her son is happy and fulfilled. The story is about loss, despair, grief, and resignation, yes, but it is also about hope, redemption and living once more. It can’t be a coincidence that the story appeared around Easter.

Both stories can tell us much about the experience of war, particularly on the home front. They open the spaces of the imagination, allowing us entry into the culture, language, thoughts, hopes and dreams of women on the home front. As I note in an article I wrote about these stories:

Jane Potter’s aptly titled Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print … expresses the idea that women experienced war vicariously and through imaginative fiction, much of which was authored by women. These works might be best understood not as literature, but as cultural artefacts (4). As Potter observes: “Novels that exploited the Great War … were part of the public’s fantasy investment in the War … there was a continuing demand for stories that brought order where there was chaos and allowed the reader vicariously to experience life as she would like it to be lived” (91). Such works not only comforted women at home, but also often functioned as propaganda designed to foster support and commitment to the war effort.

I am, at a a personal level, much more drawn to “A Pair of Grey Socks” than I am to “Mothers of Men.” Perhaps it is the hopeless romanticism, the naive belief that everything would turn out all right and that nothing would change after the war. There is an innocence in this story, and perhaps that’s the result of the wilful blindness necessary to survive the uncertainties of the wartime period, and the sorrows that were certain to follow. Happy endings were necessary – vital even – to the success of the war effort on the home front. If a happy ending wasn’t possible, then why were we fighting at all?

In one of the central scenes in “A Pair of Grey Socks,” a young woman named Mary, encouraged by a friend, places a photo of herself, together with a short verse, in one of the pairs of socks that she has knitted for the soldiers. She chooses a large pair, for “she didn’t like small men” (!). This photo finds its way to an Irish soldier stationed next to the Newfoundland Regiment, who carries the photo near his heart as he continues the battle. Mary’s smiling face and gently flirtatious words sustain him through the darkest days of the war. But they also serve to support and encourage his adherence to wartime masculinity: looking at the photo, he imagines that Mary is “just the kind of girl who would want a chap to be a man.” Of course, the two later meet and marry and in the final scene of the story we see them together with their children – a son and a daughter, natch – congregated around the tattered grey sock.

Imagine my delight, then, to see this story about a wartime message sewn into a Scottish kilt during World War I:

A secret note has been discovered hidden in the folds of a kilt destined for a soldier heading to the front in the First World War.

Economic historian Dr Helen Paul, of the University of Southampton, found the hand-written message when she was removing the packing stitches from the kilt, which has been passed down her family over decades.

The message reads: “I hope your kilt will fit you well, & in it you will look a swell. If married never mind. If single drop a line. Wish you bags of luck, & a speedy return back to Blighty.”

Underneath was the name of Helen Govan, of 49 Ardgowan Street in Glasgow.

How many young women put messages and photos in the garments they crafted for the soldiers on the front lines?  And how many soldiers carried those messages with them in the trenches? There are still so many more stories waiting to be told.

At the final banquet of the International Auto/Biography Association conference in Banff earlier this year, we were all invited to write a six word memoir. It could be about anything. Ourselves. Our research. A celebrity. Whatever. Modelling ourselves after our students, we moaned, griped and groaned, but then diligently set to work. After overthinking the project I came up with something unique, erudite, and suitably esoteric based on my doctoral research. The perfect academic’s memoir. (and, conveniently, also something that would work on, if I so desired).

Right after the dinner, however, I realized that I should have written something much simpler:

Come From Away: Newfoundlander By Choice

That about encapsulates the conundrum of living here, I think.

“Biology recapitulates geography; place becomes an island in the blood.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 23.

“We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were. My grandfather could not summon up a vision of landscape or a people which could add up to a name. And it was profoundly disturbing.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 5.

“As a mestiza I have no country…yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creating of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that which not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meaning.”
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 48-49.

“The door is not on this map. The door is on my retina.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 89.

“Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence, gap. Shouts in the kitchen. Fish an! Side a fries! Over easy! On brown! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! My foot registers more than its own imprint, starts to read the stain of memory.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 1.

“Though the hyphen is in the middle, it is not in the centre. It is a property marker, a boundary post, a borderland, a bastard, a railroad, a last spike, a stain, a cypher, a rope, a knot, a chain (link), a foreign word, a warning sign, a head tax, a bridge, a no—man’s land, a nomadic, floating magic carpet, now you see it now you don’t. The hyphen is the hybrid’s dish, the mestiza’s whole wheat tortillas (Anzaldua 194), the Metis’ apple (red on the outside, white on the inside), the happa’s egg (white out, yellow in), the mulatto’s café au lait.”
Fred Wah, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, 73

“That logic of nationality was accompanied by behaviours that have always been unbearable for me. The French nation was colonial. How could I be from a France that colonized an Algerian country when I knew that we ourselves, German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews, were other Arabs.”
Hélène Cixous, “Albums and Legends,” in Rootprints 204.

“To live at the Door of No Return is to live self consciously. To be always aware of your presence as a presence outside of yourself. And to have ‘others’ constantly remark on your presence as outside of itself. If to think is to exist, then we exist doubly. An ordinary conversation is never an ordinary conversation. One cannot say the simplest thing without doubling or being doubled for the image that emerged from the doorway. At a party you remark enthusiastically that you have been away, someplace where the sun has deliciously deepened the shade of your skin, and you look up from your bronzed shoulder to bewilderment …. Every space you occupy is public space, that is, space which is definable by everyone. That is, the image which emerges from the Door of No Return is public property belonging to a public exclusive of the Black bodies which signify it. One is aware of this ownership. One is constantly refuting it, or ignoring it, or troubling it, or parodying it, or tragically reaffirming it.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 49-50.

“Between You and Me There is an I”

Between two stools
The hyphen lies
The eggs and the nest
The blind and the fold
The hinge of the city
The door and the jamb
The map and its edges
The wars I’ve not fought
The life and its lease
The rope but which end
The brink and disaster
The bank and the laughter
The spike below Chinaman’s Peak
That spot where the two rails meet

From beneath two stools
Hear the silence rise
The smoke ‘round your neck
The tongue and the dash
The cat and the cradle
The dog dead in the creek
The slash and the burn
The shadows of NAFTA
The head and the tax
Rock bluff and river
The laundry its mark
The height and the trestle
Cata and strophe
Not caboose but what’s after
Fred Wah, Is a door, 73

“The word ‘entredeux’: it is a word I used recently in Déluge to designate a true in-between – between a life which is ending and a life which is beginning. For me, an entredeux is: nothing. It is, because there is entredeux. But it is – I will go through metaphors – a moment in life where you are not entirely living, where you are almost dead. Where you are not dead. Where you are not yet in the process of reliving. These are the innumerable moments that touch us with bereavements of all sorts.. Either there is bereavement between men, violently, from the loss of a being who is a part of me – as if a piece of my body, of my house, were ruined, collapsed …. When an event arrives which evicts us from ourselves, we do not know how to ‘live.’ But we must. Thus we are launched into a space-time whose coordinates are all different from those we have always been accustomed to. In addition, these violent situations are always new. Always. At no moment can a previous bereavement serve as a model. It is, frightfully, all new: this is one of the most important experiences of our human histories. At times we are thrown into strangeness. This being abroad at home is what I call an entredeux. Wars cause entredeux in the histories of countries. But the worst war is the war where the enemy is on the inside; where the enemy is the person I love most in the world, is myself.”
Hélène Cixous, Rootprints, 9-10.

“There is a story – a tale. And I am the one who speaks it. That she, the one with the flying cheekbones that speak of yet another trace, was part Carib. Born in Arima – home of the almost-extinct Carib people. She! with the eyes of a tiger. And a skin so fine. I have no words for its colour: a genealogy of silences. The language helpless to describe our usness. To say her skin was ‘tawny’ is to stray into the Frank Yerby world of mulattos, octoroons, and quadroons. To say it was brown is to leave as much unsaid: it was also yellow and black and even red.”
M. NourbeSe Philip, “A Genealogy of Resistance,” 12

Are origins magnetic lines across an ocean
migrations of genetic spume or holds, dark
mysteries within which I carry further into the World
through blond and blue-eyed progeny father’s fathers
clan-name Wah from Canton east across the bridges
still or could it all be lateral craving hinted
in the bioplasmic cloud of simple other organism
as close as out under the apple tree?
Fred Wah, Breathin’ my name with a sigh, Talonbooks.








I submitted my book manuscript last week. Such a simple sentence. Seven words arranged in a line. I could have written that I brushed my teeth last night. Or I shopped for groceries on Saturday. Or even, I mowed the lawn on Saturday because it was sunny. Simple, straightforward sentences.  And yet. There is so much more percolating under the surface.

The manuscript represents four years of thinking, reading, researching and writing. Annual research trips to Lausanne (I know, someone’s got to do it); many, many hours playing in the archives; lots of pain au chocolat and gruyère (not at the same time) and many long walks along the shores of Lake Geneva. It represents lots and lots of reading and writing. Many, many hours of thinking. More concept maps than I can count. 10 notebooks of archival writing and summarizing, every page marked up with colour, underlining, stars and arrows. Three fat binders of transcriptions and lists. More interlibrary loans than I can count. Lots of late nights. Gnashed teeth. Bliss. Joy. Tears. Frustration. Wonder. And also much laughter. Wouldn’t you laugh, too, if you read that someone’s seizures had been preceded by an “abuse of sweet pastries”?

The final two weeks before submission were devoted entirely to editing, probably the most painful and least creative work that exists: formatting footnotes, ensuring the bibliography was complete, going through the manuscript three times with a fine tooth comb for spelling and other errors. Incredibly,  I rearranged part of Chapter 4 completely three days before submitting, and rethought aspects of Chapter 6 a short while later. By the end, I couldn’t see straight. And I certainly couldn’t look at the manuscript anymore. And so… I saved it. I printed it. I wrote an email to the editor at the university press. And I hit send.

And then I sat with myself in disbelief.

Sending it off was both terrifying and exhilarating. Those were the exact words that I wrote to the editor. It was monumentous. A huge amount of work and it had finally taken shape. But the final stages of any project are always filled with doubt. My letters and I had journeyed so far together. We had come to know each other so well. Or so I believe. Does the story we have created together – for research is always a journey shaped by both researcher and participants – make sense?

Terrifying and exhilarating. An untameable energy that resembles, in so many ways, the feelings I used to have before a really important musical performance: a major competition, a concerto with orchestra, a live radio broadcast. Wonder and doubt. Bliss and struggle. Certainty, rightness, peace …. and fear, nerves and trembling.

Terrifying and exhilarating.

Imagine my surprise when I came across these exact words just last night, in Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro writes with grace and wisdom about the practice of writing; of writing as an essential element not only of one’s work, but of one’s self. Peace. Struggle. Vulnerability. Endless patience. And underneath it all, an enduring commitment to writing as creative practice. It’s a wonderful book and I’d recommend it to anyone. In fact, I many well make it required reading for my graduate students, words they can draw on when the going gets tough.

In a chapter (are they chapters, really?) entitled, “Break,” about finishing a project, she writes

If beginnings require fortitude, and middles stamina – if, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, your work is a lion in a cage in your study, a wild thing you must visit every day in order to reassert your mastery over it – endings ask of you only that you take a step back. A day off? Two? Three? A long walk? A drive in the country? A bath? A few stiff drinks with a friend? All of the above? Go for it, I say. Take a break if you need one. Turn down that noisy mind and come back to the page later. That wild animal has taken a nap and is sitting contentedly in a corner of your study, chewing on the rug. You will finish. You have fashioned a world. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. If you have a pulse, this is exactly how you should feel. (196-7)

Terrifying and exhilarating.

Just a few days after I sent off the book manuscript, this came in the mail:


Terrifying and exhilarating on a whole new level.


More on my quest to return to a more handwritten world (and yes, as I type this post, I am feeling the irony….). Here’s a short piece about what happened when a woman decided to send all her text messages in handwritten form:

I decided to blend a newfound interest in calligraphy with my lifelong passion for written correspondence to create a new kind of text messaging. The idea: I wanted to message friends using calligraphic texts for one week. The average 18-to-24-year-old sends and gets something like 4,000 messages a month, which includes sending more than 500 texts a week, according to Experian. The week of my experiment, I only sent 100. (I was 24 at the time.)

I think differently when I write by hand. I think in words, ideas, images. On a keyboard, I think in strokes… individual letters and the rhythms they produce when they are brought together.

Where might your handwriting take you?


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