Writings / Reviews

Creative Non-fiction Review

Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Creative Nonfiction

by Luanne Armstrong and Zoë Landale eds.
Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2011
402 pp., $29

Creative nonfiction or CNF is the focus of this innovative anthology, which involves the interweaving of real life events with a strong subjective narrative voice.  Luanne Armstrong and Zoë Landale, themselves teachers of this genre, have a clear project:  to put forth the boundaries of CNF, while at the same time allowing the fluidity of the chosen pieces to speak for themselves.  They delineate CNF by the presence of “an implicit understanding between the writer and the reader.  Because the writer is using his or her own name, and the names of other people, the reader assumes that the story is ‘true,’ or at least as true as the writer can make it.”  It is within this “dualistic viewpoint” of writer as both subject and object that the emotional power of these stories lies.  The benefits of this tightrope walk between imagination and reality abound. As the editors point out in the preface, the readers are treated to the effect “of being dropped into someone else’s life.  They get to live that life vicariously, to learn from the writer’s mistakes, or rejoice in their triumphs, with no risk, but with both entertainment and understanding as a result.”

The editors settled on a classification system of categorizing the works according to main ideas.  The hybridization of pieces they called “fringes.”  Ultimately, the main tone of the work determines its category, but, as we read in the introduction, editorial choices is balanced on hybridity.  I found myself returning to this introduction as I went through the stories to read the characteristics of each category, in particular the attention the editors drew to fringe qualities of individual stories. For example, Marjorie Doyle’s “Bridging Troubled Waters,” is an examination of the cultural links between Cuba and Canada and straddles the physical present of Cuba and the writer’s past enough to be deemed travel writing with memoir fringes.  I was intrigued by the various elements that the writers uses to create fringes, and how their pieces could be classified (or not).  Rather than producing a stilted effect, the crafted, chimerical quality of the works only added to their vividness.

Memoir was by far the largest category, and expressed the unique voices of the narrators as both characters in and authors of their own personal tales.   In “Chucarachas,” Madeline Sonik’s teenage narrator navigates boundaries:  hometown and rough city, best friend and self, “right now” and “back then.”  Time is strangely morphed as the past revisited on the page is suffused with the bitter knowledge of the future.  “I will not know the notoriety of this neighbourhood, considered troubled since the early ‘70s, nor that thirty years from now The Toronto Sun will publish a set of articles about gangs, drugs and guns in this neighbourhood,” Sonik’s protagonist states of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area.  “But in 1975 I am fourteen years old and have no understanding of what a ‘social problem’ is.”  Both J. Jill Robinson’s “Out With the Old” and Fiona Tinwei Lam’s “Play” portray the relationships between grown children dealing with the helplessness of their young selves at the hands of their parents and the reality of their aging mothers and fathers.   Lam’s narrator, in re-learning to play the piano for enjoyment rather than as a forced routine, finds a way “in face of my mother’s cognitive absence and the erasure of her memory…[to] restore what has been lost, if on my own terms.”  These pieces are balanced by the more humourous tone of Shelley A. Leedahl’s “Tits” and Melody Hessing’s “Post-Op:  A Hipster’s Guide to Surviving Surgery,” both which use the female body to articulate experiences of joy and physical vulnerability.

The other categories collected in the anthology move steadily outward with more stylistic variation from the personal viewpoint of the memoir.  In Lorna Crozier’s “Dark Water,” we see the personal essay, and a more detached but equally vivid navigation of the past.  We are told that “the advantage always lies with the person who tells the story” and, in contemplating her mother’s wedding dress, Crozier’s narrator outlines the true dichotomy of creative nonfiction:  “I saw my mother’s dress through a young girl’s eyes, not a grown woman’s, but I think I’ve described it as truly as I can.”  Mark Kingwell’s “On the Ausable,” presents the historical and metaphorical nuances of standing and falling, all through the lens of the narrator’s precarious fall into the Ausable River.  The centrality of the narrator’s physical experience of the river resolves the see-saw between philosophy (does the road exist?) and reality (“The road I was on existed, though I couldn’t tell you how long it measured, except maybe in the numbers of the pain scale and even they are no help”).

Of particular note are the pieces which take stylistic risks.  Wayne Grady’s “Getting Somewhere,” a literary journalistic weaving together of the stories of three women and their discovery of freedom in travel, is held together by strong themes and structure.   Susan Olding’s “A Rake’s Progress” uses the malleability of the lyric essay to delightful effect.  And Jane Silcott’s “Natty Man,” a postcard memoir, creates an imagistic pull that subverts the traditional memoir.

What is apparent in this anthology is the individualistic nature of creative nonfiction.  Despite this, one does not feel that the works are disjointed.  Instead, the strong narrative voice in each of the pieces engages the reader so fully, and the editorial choices are so well thought out, that we are each time left to carefully unfold each story as if it were a new map of a terrain we thought we knew.

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