By day, staying close to the keyboard, keeping a notebook handy, showing up at cosy cafes for monthly writing meetups. At night, summoning family ghosts, asking for their stories, promising truth, and also love. I am honoured to announce that What Are You Doing Here, a 3000-word creative nonfiction essay about a slice of my small town childhood, won second prize in the 2022 PRISM International CNF Contest.
PRISM is the oldest literary magazine in western Canada, and I am thrilled that my work will appear in its pages. From the website: “PRISM has published award-winning Canadian writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Irving Layton, Evelyn Lau, and Robert Kroetsch; prominent international authors, such as Ted Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tennessee Williams; and the Nobel Prize winners Salvador Quasimodo, Vicente Aleixandre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Seamus Heaney. PRISM has also published and continues to publish many emerging writers from around the world. The work of the authors published in PRISM reach an audience of readers in over 40 nations across the world.” What? Yes. And, me.
The contest was judged by Ivan Coyote, the award-winning author of thirteen books, the creator of four short films, and they have released three albums that combine storytelling with music. Ivan is a seasoned stage performer, and over the last twenty-six years has become an audience favourite at storytelling, writer’s, film, poetry, and folk music festivals from Anchorage to Australia. I am a fan, and still coming to grips with the idea that Coyote read my words and this is what they had to say:
“In What Are You Doing Here, the writer brings us into a company-built house in a small mining town on already poisoned dirt, and drops us into a chair at a grandmother’s kitchen table. Grandpa is not wearing any pants and reeks of whiskey and worse, and the writer shuffles through memory and photos and deals us a story that speaks to the generational ripples that do not stop when an addict’s heart ceases to beat. A powerful and poetic piece.”
If you write, stay close to the page. Submit. Trust your voice. Submit again. This is the way we grow. This is the way we say a holy yes to our stories.
Here is a small excerpt from the essay, from about midway through:
“Today, broadleaf and conifer forests are re-establishing themselves along these terraces above the Columbia River that cuts through Trail B.C., but in the 1960s the hillsides looked like they belonged on a hot black moon, the hospital shimmering in the poisoned landscape like a lunar outpost.
Each time we came to Trail, my brother and I dressed up for visiting my grandparents. It was an occasion. I wore little dresses in mod colours with matching jackets, white ankle socks and black shoes with straps and buckles. My brother wore a shirt with a collar and pants with creases pressed into the middle of the legs. Shoelaces double knotted. I say we visited my grandparents, plural, because part of this circuit included a stop at Mountain View Cemetery to visit our dead Granny Laurie.
There are many photographs of my brother and I at the graveside. In them, her headstone reads: Dear to our Hearts, and we sit beside it, legs folded neatly, looking solemnly at the camera. When I look at these pictures now, I remember how uncomfortable I was. I didn’t know the correct way to feel, or how to convey that right feeling to my face for the photograph. I did not understand then why we might want to visit the dead and what was expected of us. Why did we have to wear good clothes? Dad fussed with the flowers he brought fresh every time. Depending on the season there might be tulips or lilacs from Aunty Betty’s garden, sometimes store-bought flowers—miniature pink carnations, pretty and inexpensive. As Dad arranged the flowers or fiddled with the camera, I was plagued by the very same question posed by to me by the drunken half-naked giant reeling in my grandmother’s kitchen. What was I doing here? ”
I expect the full piece to be published in Prism in 2023. Buy the magazine. Better yet, subscribe. Not just for me, for writers all over, and for you, because: READING.