Monthly Archives: January 2014

Earlier this year, life writing scholars Julie Rak and Anna Poletti published their edited collection, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online. The book examines how it is that we present ourselves in cyberspace and considers the autobiographical traces that media such as Facebook and Twitter, among others, allow individuals to leave behind. This work contributes to what Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson earlier referred to as “everyday autobiography,” the bits and pieces of selves that we leave in the most mundane places.

I was struck by this the other day as I cleared out my younger son’s backpack. Among the various bits of crumpled paper, I found this image::


When questioned, he said he and his friend wrote it when they were supposed to be doing “silent reading.” My dad helpfully pointed out that while this wasn’t necessarily the original intent of silent reading, it was most certainly reading and it was most certainly silent.

I was immediately transported to my own school days. As a teenager, I was a virtuoso note writer and sharer. I regularly had several notes, to several different classmates, on my desk and I juggled these relationships with (what I thought was) aplomb. In one instance, I carried on a conversation with someone in an entirely different class, slipping notes under the framing of the desk we shared … and I didn’t even know who this person was! Pictures. Stories. Jokes. All moved from pen to pen, desk to desk, student to student. I don’t remember the specifics of what I wrote, but I do remember spending many happy hours trying to slip this activity past my unsuspecting teachers.

Only one teacher – my grade 12 math teacher – ever confronted me about it. He stopped me one day, in mid note passing, to ask if passing notes was affecting my grade. With a 90% average in math, I could honestly say that it wasn’t affecting my marks at all (although, I suppose I could have aimed for a 95, but what’s the point of that?). He then asked my friend, who, I’m sad to say, had to admit that it was affecting her marks. That put an end to our epistolary relationship. Fortunately, however, I had two other notes on the go….

Looking back (and through the eyes of an experienced teacher), I suspect that most teachers knew but either didn’t care or decided it wasn’t the fight they wanted to pick.

And now, almost thirty years later, here I am, looking at my son’s own note passing activities. What fascinates me are the kinds of traces he (and his friend) are leaving behind. Consider, for example, the form of the exchange, which is so clearly influenced by cyber-identites. It’s not just a note passed in class: it’s a chat room, it’s texting, it’s almost like a short twitter exchange.

And then there’s the content. What a treat it is to see 8 year old minds in action: the conversations about work that eerily echo adult conversations. And the little bit about the spelling test. But even more spectacular is the political conversation in the middle.

“Did you hear about the priemier?”

“so sad.”

“hope new one’s good! :(”

“yup. :(”

It’s not something you’d expect to see in notes from a grade 3 classroom. And that, to me, speaks directly to the nature of the kids involved. As a pre-schooler, our son entertained daycare staff with the rants about our prime minister and why he had to go. He’s long been fascinated by the theatricality of the political sphere, by the drama and the gesticulations and grand statements. And we talk about politics at home on a regular basis, and we most definitely discussed the resignation of our most recent premier. So, in this sense, it comes as no surprise that he’d be able to respond to his classmate’s question. But equally fascinating to me is her own budding political identity. After all, she’s the one who brought it up. Not only was this obviously also a topic of conversation at her house, but it was interesting enough that she wanted to share it at school.

In truth, this is nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of my son’s personality, his character, his life story. But as an autobiographical trace, it’s rich with meanings. What else is he writing in his silent reading chat room? What other stories might I find in the crumpled papers of his backpack?


Earlier this week, this headline started floating through my Facebook feed: “”We must stay vigilant”: Ghost ship adrift for a year and crewed by CANNIBAL rats heading for Britain.”

The story of the Lyubov Orlova is long and complex, filled with twists and turns. Named after a Russian theatre star, the boat was built in 1976 and later fitted to undertake extreme tours. In 2010, the boat was seized in St. John’s for unpaid debts. For the next few years it languished in St. John’s harbour (where it likely became home to all the cannibal rats mentioned above). Finally, the boat was sold for scrap and everyone here breathed a sigh of relief. The boat left St. John’s for the Dominican Republic, pulled by an American tug. The story seemed to be finished, over. The boat was gone.

Or so we thought.

Within a few days, the Lyubov Orlova and tug encountered stormy weather and – gasp! – the boat snapped loose from its tow line. And in that moment, it was transformed from scrap boat destined for the junk heap, into ghost ship, terror of the Atlantic waves.

Transport Canada got involved, but once it ensured that the boat was safely out of Canadian waters and out of the way of oil rigs and shipping routes, it left the Orlova alone. Not our responsibility.

And so, since then, it’s continued to float aimlessly around the Atlantic.

In the meantime, the Lyubov Orlova has spawned numerous spoofs: you can read this blog , which also has interesting products for sale. Or you can follow it on twitter. Or get the app.

And, if you believe the recent hype, as it’s been drifting its way around the Atlantic, it’s slowly become infested with ever more carnivorous rats, who, out of desperation are engaging in a Darwinian race for survival. These cannibal rats, with their sharp teeth and red eyes, are now ready to unleash their fleshy desires on an unsuspecting European populace, innocent victims of a scourge of Newfoundland origin, sitting ducks waiting to be picked off, one by one.

It’s a great story. It has all the elements: blood. cannibals. savagery. the high seas. ghosts and hauntings. It’s even got an apocalyptic flair. Zombie rats take over the world! It’s almost as good as Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, and indeed, I wonder what Dav Pilkey would make of this (can you tell I’ve had 7 year olds in the house?)

The only problem is that it’s not true.

I know. It’s a sad thing. I was looking forward to seeing nightly news footage of Canadian cannibal rats running rampant through the streets of London. Just think of the ratings possibilities!

But actually we have no idea where the Lyubov Orlova is or where it will go next. We also have no idea if it’s actually infested with rats. And the cannibal rats? Well, apparently rats are social creatures who are highly unlikely to resort to cannibalism.

But I do wonder if one could read this story through colonial eyes. From what I can tell, the story “broke” in the Daily Mail, that esteemed news rag filled with information about Hollywood’s best bikini bodies, Prince Harry’s shenanigans and Kate Middleton’s post-partum fashion sense. Around the same time, it got picked up by other British-based news agencies. And then, between 12-24 hours later, North American media were on the case.

The story assumes different proportions when viewed from the perspective of those soon to be overcome by the horror of the cannibal rats than it does from the perspective of those who gladly got rid of said rats.

What if the rats were really disgruntled colonists, come to seek their revenge on the motherland?  After all, England’s colonies were, if texts from the active imperialist period were to be believed, filled with savages and with the dregs of British society. Impoverished farmers. Criminals sent away to penal colonies. Dirty, dark slaves toiling away in the heat. And heathen Indians. It was, no doubt, a toxic mess best kept far away from Mother England’s shores. Best to keep singing Rule Britannia.

But now, here were those rats – St. John’s born and bred – ready to enact their revenge. In the English imaginary, perhaps they aren’t rats at all…perhaps they are rodent metaphors for the toxic zombie colonists…Colonists unhappy with the scourge of British imperialism and ready to take over, ready to consume the flesh of the colonizers, zombie colonists ready to contaminate Britain, undead colonists of contagion.

Perhaps it’s not Britannia that rules the waves, but the cannibal rats in the silent ghost ship…

Another reading, which draws on the boat’s Eastern European origins, casts contagion differently: here we might imagine it instead as the dangerous influx of Russian propaganda in advance of the Sochi Olympics.  This version of the story is haunted by the spectre of the Cold War…. Consider this gem from The Mirror’s reportage: “The 300ft vessel, built 40 years ago in the Soviet Union, has nothing aboard but packs of disease-ridden rodents who are forced to prey on one another to survive.” That reference to the ship’s 1976 birth situates it right smack dab in the middle of the Cold War. Since then, the Soviet Union collapsed and everyone rejoiced (or so the accepted western narrative claims), but now there’s Putin’s rhetoric on the Eastern horizon and his cannibal rats on the western horizon.

In the face of these apocalyptic visions, there’s only one logical response:


But seriously, the narrative of the ghost ship overrun by cannibals does deserve a far deeper examination. It’s hilarious. But there’s also lots going on under the surface. Any takers?

In reading the letters to Tissot, I am continually confronted by the limitations of my own bodily lenses, at least in terms of how such lenses might allow me to access and interrogate the bodily worlds inhabited by Tissot’s correspondents. While their stories are sometimes surprisingly familiar (thus lulling me into a false complacency), more often than not, they take me into realms I could never have imagined. Their bodily fears, their emotional investments, the stories they tell…so many seem absolutely and utterly foreign.

What to do with the the four trembling siblings, who started shaking one after the other after the other? What to do with the man whose emotional distress, at witnessing a friend’s epileptic seizure, transposes itself into extreme bodily disorder? What to do with the young man whose first epileptic seizure occurred after an overindulgence in sweet pastries? Or the one who seems to go into convulsions at church?

These are stories that make me stop and think. Stories that force me to slow down, retrace my steps, pause in a courtyard, think a bit further… eighteenth-century embodiment never seems more remote than when I’m lost in the letters.

Which is why I was so struck by this headline: “Martin Routh, born in 1755, caught on camera at Magdalen College.”

Wait. What?

I checked the date. It wasn’t April 1.

But how could this be?

How could it be that this foreign world and my own are actually so close together, united by shared technology? How could this eighteenth-century body and mine both be captured in a photograph?

How is that even possible?

As a  musician friend wrote yesterday: “He lived during all of Mozart’s life! He was born just after Bach died!!!!”

Reading on, we learn that Routh was blessed with extreme longevity. Born in 1755, he died in 1854. The photo was taken during the early days of photography and shows Routh wearing a somewhat anachronistic (for that period of the C19) horsehair wig.

Could Mr. Routh, hunched in his chair, possibly have known, way back then, that the photograph would become such a ubiquitous element of contemporary self-fashioning that “selfie” would be proclaimed 2013 word of the year by the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and that Instagram would become a common mode of conversation and discussion?

I don’t know about you, but I’m never going to look at the eighteenth century the same way again. And that’s significant, given how much time I’ve spent there over the last twenty years.

P.S. If you want to see Mr. Routh’s venerable wig, click here.