Review: Tamai Kobayashi’s ‘Prairie Ostrich’

Reviewed by Clara Kumagai.

rsz_prairie_ostrich“…Egg is released into this day, this morning, like a bird that can’t quite fly.”

Tamai Kobayashi uses the metaphor of eggs, of hatching, of flying, throughout her first novel, Prairie Ostrich. Not an entirely new metaphor, perhaps, but one that is certainly apt for the story of eight-year-old Egg Murakami, whose family owns an ostrich farm.

Kobayashi places Egg and the Murakami family in a time and place where being Japanese is both odd and isolating: Bittercreek, Alberta, in 1974. “They are the only Japanese-Canadian family on the prairie… and no one else has ostriches.” Egg battles her difference every day, against the bullies in school and the prejudices of her small town.

And while the story of the Murakamis and of Egg examines and explores the idea of identity and race, it is also a study of a family fractured by tragedy. Egg’s older brother Albert, seventeen and popular and athletic, was killed in an accident, the cause of which Egg struggles to understand and slowly uncovers. Her mama drinks whiskey and her father has retreated to the barn, where he cares for the ostriches and the eggs. The only person that Egg can rely on is her older sister Kathy; tough, smart Kathy, who, Egg says, “doesn’t fit it. But she gets along alright… How does she do that?” But Kathy only seems to fit in; Egg knows that Kathy is in love with her best friend, Stacey; another difference, another cause of fear in Bittercreek.

Egg is a wonderful character, an eight year old who reads the dictionary, who believes that sacrifice is how the world works, who loves and is betrayed. Prairie Ostrich navigates the moment that a child transitions from ignorance to awareness, from a protective eggshell that denies her knowledge and which she must break. The child’s point of view is powerful in this narrative, as Egg begins to comprehend all that is unsaid in her town, in her own family and in each important person her life.

Kobayashi creates a distinct and memorable narrative voice through Egg, by turns funny and sad. “I’ve been ostrachized,” says Egg at one point, after deciding that “the Japanese part has to go.”

Told in the third person, it allows the reader to experience the dramatic irony that is so often at play between adults and children; she captures the observations and logic of a child perfectly. But Kobayashi still instills a tone of suspense and dread as Egg unravels the secrets that surround her; if this story is about hatching, then it’s also about taking one’s head out of the sand. Kobayashi’s prose is as clear as a stream, with a current that brings the reader right along with it.

Egg’s truth-seeking leads her to understand that what is true is often ugly, or dangerous, or frightening. In Kobayashi’s hands, this realization is compassionate and hopeful—even at it’s most upsetting and sorrowful. “I’d want wings even if they were ugly,” Egg tells Kathy, and herein lies the heart of Prairie Ostrich.

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CCWWP Round-Up

The lovely Jen at PRISM international's table

The lovely Jen at PRISM international’s table

 

PRISM international had a great time at CCWWP last weekend! It was fantastic to get the chance to meet some of our readers, so thanks to all who stopped by the PRISM booth.

Here are the PRISM editors’ highlights…

 

 

Nicole Boyce: Prose Editor
One of my favourite sessions was the ‘First Page Challenge’. Elizabeth Bachinsky, Sally Harding, and Nancy Lee offered honest and constructive feedback on the first pages of manuscripts submitted by anonymous conference-goers. The panel’s advice ranged from pacing tips to hiking metaphors, all of it candid and insightful. Best takeaway: know the difference between false tension and real tension, and use the real kind to hook your reader’s interest.

I also had the chance to attend three readings: Reading the Real, the Literary Magazines Reading and the Student Reading Gala. All three were excellent. It was inspiring to hear about the work and experiences of so many talented writers.

Jen Macdonald: Executive Editor, Circulation
As a new NF creative writing instructor, I was really interested in ‘Teaching the Real: Creative Non-Fiction in the University’. Led by Andrew Westoll, the panel was comprised of several NF instructors. Julia Sukys talked about the dynamic teaching methods she uses to engage students in the classroom, and Timothy Taylor discussed the challenges of teaching NF. In an aim to bring student voices into the discussion, the instructors each read a short piece from one of their students. Andrew Westoll presented a student’s work that led to an interesting discussion where the lines of fiction and creative nonfiction blur.

‘All in the Family: Writing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Aspects of Family in Novels and Memoir’ proved to be an exciting panel. With memoirists David Chariandy, Joseph Kertes and Priscila Uppal reading excerpts from their memoirs, the complexity of family dynamics and generational secrets were revealed. The emotional content and honest disclosure from these authors was startling, and I particularly enjoyed Priscila’s account of meeting her estranged mother in Brazil.

Clara Kumagai: Executive Editor, Promotions
My favourite panel was one called ‘Dancing with the Other Arts’, and was a discussion about how working with another artistic form can inspire and sustain writing and teaching. It gave an insight into the creative process  of five different writers: Alison Acheson’s flamenco dancing, Richard Scrimger’s choral singing, Cathleen With’s journals, Nancy’s Lee’s photography and Michelle Superle’s horse-riding. This was such an interesting, dynamic panel–and was so inspiring that I have a new resolution to take up photography!

Rob Taylor: Poetry Editor
My favourite panel was the Literary Magazine Reading on Friday afternoon. As anticipated PRISM’s reader, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, was fantastic. So too were Elise Partridge, andrea bennett and Doretta Lau. The pleasant surprise of the afternoon, though, was the reading by Jeff Steudel, who represented subTerrain Magazine and drew me right into his poems even though I had no prior familiarity with his work. It was a great end to Day One!

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Going Down Swinging: An Interview with Hettie Jones

We’re putting the international into PRISM international and teaming up with Australian literary magazine Going Down Swinging!

One of Australia’s oldest and strangest literary publishers, Going Down Swinging was conceived in 1979. It now produces print anthologies, audio recordings, multimedia publications, live events and a very busy website.

We’re happy to be able to team up with Going Down Swinging and introduce Australian writers to our PRISMers–and vice versa. We’ll be swapping articles and interviews once a month, so keep an eye out!

To kick it off, we have Megan Anderson’s interview with Hettie Jones, writer and veteran Beat gal. Enjoy!

Hettie Jones: Writing Behind Beats & Bars

HettieJonesonCooperSquarebyColleenMc540x

Last year I wrote a fan letter to poet, writer, teacher and Beat chick Hettie Jones. I’d just finished reading her 1990 memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, and was overwhelmed with joy to find that, yes, there were women kicking ass in the boys-club Beat scene of the late fifties – even if they had to fit their ass-kicking around a full-time job, young children, and the ironically conservative demands of their Beat husbands.

It was my second fan letter. My first was to the Spice Girls. I was nine and I’d laboured over the composition for hours with coloured pencils and glitter pens. Four months later I found a glossy card wedged in the depths of the mailbox with a few snails chewing away at the filmy offering. The remains of the card invited me to join the Official Spice Girls Fan Club. At the bottom were five scanned signatures.

So you can imagine my delight when, a few weeks after hitting ‘send’ on my Hettie Jones adoration letter, I spied a hand-typed reply snuggled into my Gmail account, thanking me for my kind words.

Ten months later, I completely pushed my luck and begged for an interview on behalf of Going Down Swinging.

* * *

“Ask me anything you want to and if you have erroneous information I will certainly correct it,” Hettie tells me during our scheduled phone interview. I smother my anxiety in nervous laughter and try to talk smooth.

The night before, she’d spoken alongside Lou Reed, Anne Waldman and other co-conspirators at a second-hand bookshop to commemorate her late friend Allen Ginsberg on the re-issue of his debut vinyl album, First Blues (1983).

There’s a nice video of the launch on YouTube, where Hettie has the towering microphone dragged down to match her slight stature. In an unexpectedly big, rolling voice, she recites the anecdote of her first meeting with Ginsberg and reads his ‘Broken Bone Blues’ to the bubbling crowd.

Hettie was 24, newly married and “slightly pregnant” when she first met Ginsberg in 1958. After stirring things up in her conservative Jewish family by marrying African American poet LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Hettie not only co-founded Totem Press and the literary journal Yugen (both of which published big Beat names like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder), but also worked full-time to support her husband’s writing. LeRoi had suggested she meet up with the Ginsberg to recite the Jewish liturgy for a poem he was writing – what was later to become ‘Kaddish’.

Hettie says last night’s launch was a success. “I came home very happy and it gave me a lot of energy, so that all day yesterday I cleaned the house.”

Hettie was especially pleased at her housecleaning triumph because it’s something that, even at 78, she has very little time for these days.

After publishing her first book six years after her divorce with LeRoi in 1965 – who left her and their children to pursue the demands of his increasingly activist poetry and politics – Hettie has had a remarkable publishing output. She’s released over 23 books for adults and children, including her award-winning debut poetry collection, Drive, her Beat-era memoir, and her co-authorship of Rita Marley’s memoir, No Woman No Cry – in addition to her regular work teaching at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center and in the Graduate Writing Program of The New School in New York.

At the moment she’s polishing up a collection of letters, written over forty years between herself and long-time friend Helene Dorn who, in the fifties, was similarly young, married to a poet, raising his children, and feeling the difficulties of maintaining one’s own voice under the circumstances.

“It was a long long time ago, so there wasn’t really very much room for a woman to do her own work, and so we mainly supported each other through writing to each other,” says Hettie.

“It was very very important, the correspondence, because it kept me writing […] At the end of the day, if I could sit down and write to a friend in an intimate way, it was very freeing.”

Perhaps it’s because of these letters that Hettie is such a determined advocate for any type of writing at all.

“Any kind of writing that you do – especially at the end of the day to rehash the day or whatever – is very good. It keeps you in the habit of expressing yourself.”

How to write under restricted or difficult circumstances is also something Hettie is passionate about teaching.

“The idea of self-expression, through words, is very freeing,” she stresses. “It makes people more assertive than they might be, and it’s good for you.”

After her first stint teaching creative writing to inmates at New York’s Sing Sing prison, Hettie initiated and ran a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills from 1981 to the end of 2001. She also published an anthology of work by her students, Aliens at the Border, and took on the role of (former) chair of the PEN Prison Writing Committee.

“I did it for twelve years and I had a wonderful class of people,” says Hettie of the Bedford Hills workshops. “They always used to say that coming to the class was like getting out of prison for a couple of hours.”

She says all her writing students need – no matter the background or situation – is a little guidance. The hard part is how difficult the prison system makes receiving such help.

“The contrast between those people that I teach on the outside and the people I generally meet in prison affords me a chance to see that […] all you need is instruction, because it’s a class difference here for the most part,” explains Hettie. “The only people in prison are lower class people who haven’t been able to make a living otherwise. The United States imprisons more people than any other place in the world and we’re all ashamed of it.”

No wonder Hettie sees the rise of slam poetry as playing such a key role in freeing up people with words – and it’s something that takes its roots in the Beat movement.

“When I was in college you never heard anyone reciting poetry as a means of entertainment,” she tells me. “People didn’t have poetry readings just for fun, to go listen to like a concert, and the only people I ever heard on recordings were old English authors like T.S. Eliot, and his voice was so boring.

“And then, when I came to New York right after college, I fell in with the Beats and some other people who were beginning to promote what we now call the spoken word, and they were dedicated to giving readings aloud. Gradually this just went all over the United States and all over the world, and now the whole idea of going to a poetry reading is something people do usually, the way they would go to a musical concert.”

Keeping with the popularisation of spoken word and the mad poetry all-nighters the Beats made so famous, Hettie sees the rise of slam poetry as an exciting and inspiring move, particularly in terms of it being a sounding board for everyone, no matter the background or colour, sex or religion.

“[Poetry slam] started here maybe around twenty years ago, and it caught on, and the best part about it was that it involved a lot of young black people as well as young white people.”

Hettie says poetry slam was also a much-needed reaction to the sexism inherent in popular hip hop lyrics.

“Some of the subject matter which comes from hip hop music got a little too sexist for people to really stomach. The people who do the poetry slams are far more political and reacting to the sexist material the hip hop artists put out, like with a lot of ‘bitches’ in it and whatever.

“But that’s really very boring. After all, how many names can you call a woman?”

For Hettie, girl power isn’t about image – it’s about expressing yourself, working hard, and finding your own voice. And writing is imperative to all this.

“Writing is very very important to me and makes me feel like I’ve done what I’ve set out to do in this life. I would rather write than see a bad movie, for example, or watch a stupid television show.

“The act of writing, it’s good. It keeps you involved with words and that will take you far.”

By Megan Anderson

Photo by Colleen McKay


 

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Prompt: I’ll Google It!

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 13.04.27It’s assumed that most writers nowadays work on computers rather than with ink and paper. I certainly do, and for all its convenience there is one major flaw: a computer’s ability to connect to the internet, and therefore to billions of distractions. Most of us have fallen down the black hole of a Google search at some stage, so here is a prompt that is designed to turn procrastination into poetry (or prose).

Pick your favourite search engine, ie. Google, and perform a search on a random word—it’s best to choose a word that does not have particular importance to you. I’ve found that nouns work best here. Read through the first two pages that come up in the search engine. Pick two sentences and write a poem or story incorporating those sentences. The good thing about this prompt is that it also throws up more detailed information that can allow you to build a story, like articles and forum discussions. An images search will provide some great visual prompts, too, so you can try to use one image and one sentence in this exercise instead.

So if you can write a piece every time you Google something, you should be able to produce a full manuscript in about a week.

Good luck!

 

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Jenny Boychuk’s photos of Peru’s Sacred Valley

Jenny Boychuk’s essay “Notes on Breath,” which appears in PRISM’s spring issue, is a stirring meditation on love, betrayal, and survival. Breathing, our most basic and necessary human act, provides the central motif of the piece. As Boychuk points out, most of the time we take breathing for granted. “Notes on Breath” explores those life changing moments when we become aware of the tenuous rhythms of our bodies and face the reality our own weakness and mortality.

In one of the piece’s central scene, Boychuk struggles to catch her breath while on a high altitude trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Boychuk took these stunning pictures on her trip, which show both the landscape’s otherworldly beauty and its extreme isolation. Boychuk 4

Boychuk, 2

Boychuk, 5

Make sure to pick up PRISM 52.3 to read “Notes on Breath” in its entirety.

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Espresso at the Pacific Theatre

espressoby Clara Kumagai

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.” Those not acquainted with the Song of Solomon might be surprised to learn that this line is taken from the Old Testament. As Rosa (Lucia Frangione) says as way of explanation: “it’s guilt-free erotica that you’ll never hear from a priest.” The Song weaves in and out of Espresso, a lyrical counterpoint that—in its most literal reading—is a lovers’ hymn. Espresso centres, however, around three women: Rosa, the protagonist, her grandmother Nona and her father’s wife Cinzella. Gathered together around the hospital bed of Rosa’s father, Vito, the play focuses on the loves, hates and secrets of these Italian-Canadian women.

Playwright Lucia Frangione also plays Rosa, and it is testimony to her skill that she portrays all three women so vividly. Frangione breathes life into her own characters, shifting between elderly Nona, the passionate Cinzella, and back to Rosa, lost and adrift in her own life. Amante (Robert Salvador) plays members of Rosa’s family, a grief counselor and the beloved of Solomon’s Song; an incarnation of God.

The production is assured, sustained by the dynamic between Frangione and Salvador. Stancil Campbell’s set and lighting suited the tone of the play, with its diaphanous curtains echoing both boudoir and hospital bed, and the evocative sight and sound of the set’s rain-spattered window serves as a backdrop.

The play’s movement is fluid, transitioning between the real world and the spiritual one, and while provides a dreamy rhythm to the play, it occasionally verges into confusion—perhaps inevitable with the cast of characters the two actors portray. Amante in particular is difficult to pin down at moments, leaping between characters and between the real and the imagined.

The themes of love, family and redemption are fully realised in Espresso, but with such a dense script there are some threads of the story that could have been pulled tighter. Rosa’s ex-fiancé Tony rarely steps out of the shadow of a plot device, and the layers of history and exposition were occasionally amorphous.

While a significant element of the play deals with the relationship between these women and their religion, what was perhaps not articulated was the particular significance of this sensuous God to all three. Amante operates within the story as an entity without explanation, the Song of Solomon only tenuously linked to the action of the plotThe interactions between Amante and Frangione’s women play out their attitudes to both religion and to the men in their lives, but there are times when I wondered if it was fitting that he should articulate both; times when he obscured what these women were outside of the context of Catholicism and marriage.

The takeaway of the play hits home, though, and it lies at the heart of this story. Nano denies Rosa’s request for cream and sugar with her espresso, saying, “The espresso—she’s life. Quick, black, bitter in the mouth. Don’t expect sweet.” And yet what we learn from the seduction of Solomon comforts and contradicts: “Your lips, my bride, drip like the honeycomb. Honey and milk are under your tongue.” At its best, Espresso seeks to capture both.

Espresso runs at the Pacific Theatre until June 14th.

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