Incognito Press

truth. knowledge. freedom. passion. courage. Promoting free-thinking, activism & rogue writing.

Archive for the ‘life’ Category

The Artist’s Basic Guide to Establishing a Social Media Presence – Part 1: Build Your Brand

Posted by E on August 22, 2015

PART 1 – Build your Brand

Social-Media-Branding social media ideas

There is so much to say about this subject that I couldn’t do it justice in a single blog piece, so I decided to break up my points into a series of articles that I will be posting over the months to come. There are literally thousands of useful articles all over the internet on the topic of social media and developing an online presence, so I will mainly tailor this series to the artistic community – writers, media artists and anyone in the arts who is interested in building and/or expanding their artistic platform.

In my mind, there is no better place to start this conversation than at the very beginning – as Maria Von Trapp would say in Do-Re-Mi, it’s a very good place to start. And when it comes to the ABC’s of social media marketing, in my view there is no place better to start than the art of establishing your personal Brand.

Most of you are already familiar with using internet search engines like Google to expand your knowledge and drive your own self-taught process – that’s how you probably stumbled onto my blog. But I write this basic guide for the people I’ve met over the years who, on various author forums, boast with confidence that there’s no need to develop their brand until their books are complete and ready for publication.

That’s what a publisher and their marketing department are about,” is a phrase I’ve heard over and over. “I’m not going to be one of those shameless self-promoting ‘indie writers’. I want to go the traditional route so that all I concern myself with is my writing – and someone else takes care of everything, i.e. the editorial work, cover design, marketing, building my website, taking care of my press releases and book tours.”

Regardless of whether you plan to publish independently or have secured a trad contract (or are a hybrid author like me) if you still believe that someone else is going to hand you a career simply because you wrote a great book – and that’s earned you a free pass to publishing stardom – you are living in a dream world.

I am here to shatter that myth – both as an independent writer and as someone who was courted by a traditional Big Five publisher. This is not the case. Unless you’re already a bestselling writer, a highly-grossing celebrity or nepotistically connected to a publisher – in which case ghostwriters will actually write your books for you – everybody is expected to perform well past the moment you type “The End” on your manuscript.

 

pink typewriterIn my meetings with the editorial and marketing department heads at Penguin Canada prior to me deciding to self-publish my memoir Race Traitor, the most recurring questions were related to my social media platform. The expectation was that I would bring my own fans and branding to the table – this wasn’t an optional thing. It was a necessity and an expectation.

Their marketing department was going to assist with arranging media interviews and that sort of thing, but they weren’t going to build me a website, a blog or anything like that – in fact, they wanted to make sure I already had those things already in place and ready to go.

So where do you start? Do you have to enroll in a college course on marketing, or hire one of the infinitesimal droves of self-described social media consultants out there in order to develop your presence? As artists, we don’t have the budget for this sort of thing and more importantly, these are skills you’re best to acquire yourself rather than pay others to do for you. Of course there will be a learning curve – isn’t there one in everything? – but the sooner you learn these basic tips, the faster will you be on your way to having your own platform.

world before social mediaThe wireless world is expanding at an exponential rate, and whatever has been taught in a social marketing course two years ago is often obsolete or replaced by a hot new medium – Periscope and Snapchat, for instance, are products of the last couple of years. Social media, in general, is all about the next great fad. It’s about buzzwords and ideas, newly revolving angles that give birth to new opportunities.

In other words, social media changes on a daily basis. Everything you knew yesterday is now wrong. That is what’s most exciting about it – having to stay on your toes. So unless you are continually learning and keeping up to date in the field, degrees in social media marketing (which cost thousands of dollars) are going to become useless rather fast.

A 2015 article featured in Business Insider titled “The 10 Most Useless Graduate Degrees” placed marketing at number 2 on their list of the most degrees one can possess. And according to a 2013 Workopolis article that included a segment titled Ten jobs that won’t exist in ten years, ‘ Social Media Expert’ topped the list. Given all the contradictory media coverage of what constitutes an “expert”, it’s easy to see where anyone could grow confused.

Social-Media-ConfusionThere is nothing inherently wrong with hiring a pro if you’re stumped about what to do next – the right publicity expert, strategist and PR firm can be worth its weight in gold. But no matter how you proceed, you owe it to yourself to acquire the basic set of skills that you’re going to need in order to maintain a public image – and this goes far beyond having a Facebook Page and an Twitter account.

You can ask questions and acquire skills just by sitting in on a #hashtag Twitter discussion or participate in a LinkedIn group. You can look up new trends on Reddit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! By doing your research online, you can develop enough expertise to navigate the turbulent waters of the ever-evolving social media world – you may not become an expert, but you can attain many of the skills needed to establish a successful platform on the world wide web.

confusionSo where do you start? Simple – buy your own name domain. If you have a common name, put your middle initial in it, or use a diminutive. But no matter what, have your own domain – this is crucial. You don’t have to build a website – but you can point the URL to your own blog, or Facebook page, or wherever you want it to redirect.

If you’re developing a brand along with your name, buy the url for that brand. Don’t just assume that you can wait until you’re ready to build a site, because good domain names are hard to come by, and even if you own a trademark patent on a term, it doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already purchased the domain.

It’s not necessary to buy every url extension you can – but if at all possible, buy the .com. Let’s face it, .com is where it’s at – it’s the oldest and most recognized domain extension you can have. I strongly encourage you to also buy your own country’s extension – for instance, as a Canadian I own both the .com and the .ca to both my name AND my blog, as well as publishing company. Why your own country extension? Well, it wouldn’t really matter to me if there was an Incognito Press in Australia, would it? But I certainly wouldn’t want to compete with another Canadian company by the same name – this could lead to my own brand’s dilution and confusion among clients.

The first step I took before I started this blog was to make sure that incognitopress.com was available for purchase. It was only after I had purchased the domain that I began to develop my blog and brand identity. I own a couple of dozen domains – both for my real name and my pseudonyms, and various businesses. It might cost me a couple hundred dollars a year, but it’s a business tax write-off and a vital part of my brand development.

Few things are more heartbreaking than to have spent years building up a brand, put in the hours to write blog posts, form connections on social media platforms, and then realize that you didn’t pony up the $10 or less to register your brand name url. Sadly, this sort of thing has been overlooked even by people with degrees in social media marketing.

I’ve seen this type of situation happen over and over – with business owners having to fork over thousands of dollars to a cybersquatter and/or lawyer in order to recover their brand. However, if you haven’t patented/trademarked a title and you are not a well-known brand (i.e. your name isn’t Disney, Coca-Cola, Michael Jordan or Kevin Spacey – who incidentally spent over $30,000 to get the rights to kevinspacey.com back) you might be out of luck.

social media  social media expert

So to sum up:

1. Educate yourself online. Make sure you have a Facebook account, a public Facebook Page (these two are actually different things, don’t confuse them), a LinkedIn profile and a Twitter account. For people trying to build a professional brand, these four things are no longer optional. Remember that most sites have built-in tutorials and Help sections, so if you can’t figure out how YouTube, Reddit, Pintrest or Instagram work, they make it easy for you.

2. Start a blog if you can. My favourite platform is WordPress, but Blogger is very reliable as well. I’ve used both, and each has a plethora of customizable templates to choose from. I’ve heard good things about Tumblr.

3. Start a website. The most idiot-proof platform I’ve found to create a speedy website – even if you haven’t a clue what HTML is – is weebly.com. I’ll discuss it at length in a future post, but suffice it to say it’s a beautiful and very affordable drag-and-drop web-builder system that will have you online in no time.

4. Buy a) your name domain, and b) your business name domain. Either of these will help people reach you. You can point them to your blog or weebly website.

5. Make your business name easy to remember – that means NO dashes. People won’t remember if you tell them “my website is Elisa-dash-the-dash-writer-dot-com”.

6. Don’t make your domain name too long or confusing to spell.

7. If people constantly misspell your domain, consider buying the misspelled domain as well. (For example, if your surname is MacDonald vs McDonald). In my case, the Romanian form of my first name is Eliza. When Romanians google my name or enter the url (I get a sizeable amount of traffic from Romania), they often type “elizahategan.com”. So guess what? I bought that url and now point it to my current website. No more confusion – and no other Eliza can steal away my name domain!

8. Don’t let your domain ownership expire! There are lots of people who wait for domains to expire and buy them up, only to resell them at outrageous prices back to business owners desperate to get their branding back. Do you really want to be at the mercy of this new owner? Worse yet, what if they take your domain name and point it to an x-rated site? What if it’s a competitor who works in the same field as you?

9. Your social media skillset should not consist of merely posting to Facebook or Tweeting about your weekend. Nor should it take the form of constant self-promotions. When all I see in my feed is an author screaming ‘BUY MY BOOK! ON SALE TODAY ONLY’ ad nauseam, I either mute them or unfollow them. Some self-promotion is obviously okay, but why should I buy your book if you’re not interested in getting to know me and my own work? We’re all trying to establish a significant presence in our field, and there are good AND bad ways of going about it. Do not risk alienating potential friends and readers by badgering them with non-stop advertising. It’s transparent, it doesn’t work, and it actually hurts your brand’s self-respect.

10. Not all marketing takes place online! Old-fashioned human interaction is still one of the best ways to sell yourself and your work. Look up your local writing circles and artist networking groups. Read the flyers pinned to billboards at hipster hangouts, go and attend poetry reading nights, have fun at street fair events.

11. But before you go to all those conventions and register for those free talks, you’ve gotta have yourself some cool merch – i.e business cards or any kind of stuff to hand out so that people remember you. And for business cards, it’s Vistaprint all the way, baby! I’m one of their early adopters. Ten years ago I started buying business cards for practically nothing – just the cost of shipping. The quality and price are unbeatable – I’ve used them for business cards, postcards of my book covers, holiday cards and everything in between.

12. If there’s nothing in your area, start your own group! When I first joined Facebook, I didn’t see any GLBT writers groups present in my area (Toronto) so I started my own group, GLBT Writers in Toronto. Now we have about 200 members, and some of us have actually met offline!

So ultimately, remember that it takes a lot of time and effort to be an ‘overnight’ success. Here are some of my social media profiles, if you want to check them out for reference – and if you are active on any of these platforms, I would love to connect with you 🙂

My Author Website

Incognito Press Website

My Facebook Page

My Twitter

My LinkedIn profile

My Instagram

My Blogger Blog 

Me on Reddit

ts-elliot-risk-quote

READ PART TWO: Crowdfunding Your Project

READ PART THREE: The Importance of Blogging

READ PART FOUR: The Author’s 10-Step Guide to Creating a Media Kit

If you enjoyed the read, please consider dropping a dollar in my Patreon donation jar 🙂

Posted in art, artist, life, perseverence, politics, press release, publishing, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became A Jew

Posted by E on August 10, 2015

Elisa Jerusalem cropped

I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.

After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.

Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.

It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?

The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.

Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?

The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.

“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.

I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:

“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.

I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”

 Iosif Hategan age 15 Iosif and Ana

Above: me at age 11.  Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15.  Right: My father and grandmother Ana.

We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?

I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.

After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.

By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.

defection 1994-2Hategan articleMetro Toronto

For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.

I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.

I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.

It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.

I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.

During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.

Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.

23andme EH profile  23andme EH profile2 

Part of my conversion essay:

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.

My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.

I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.

I aim to reclaim that heritage.

“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”

I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.

declaration of faith Iosif and Elisa Anna-Philip

Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father.  Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.

Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”

I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.

Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What was it like?”

I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”

Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”

“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.

We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”

There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.

“Elisheva Sarah.”

Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”

The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”

Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”

Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”

He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.

Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”

my Mikvah my mikvah2

We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”

I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”

The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.

She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.

“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”

After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!

The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.

The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.

The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.

Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.

The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.

Am I really here? Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.

I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.

After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.

I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.

Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.

I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.

An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?

My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?

The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.

Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.

I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.

“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”

I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.

Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”

Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.

She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”

I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.

I had come this far. I was ready.

It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.

I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.

No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.

Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”

I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.

When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.

I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.

“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”

I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.

And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.

And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”

My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”

As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.

I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”

I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.

The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.

Elisa and rabbis my menorah

Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony.  Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift

In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.

IMG_9298 Jerusalem arches IMG_9131

It took me a lifetime to realize that my parents had been a by-product of their time – they had suffered so immensely that they had absorbed their oppression and passed it onto others. They made others suffer because that was the only way they could relate, after the pain they had endured. They hurt me because they themselves had been hurt. And then I too, as a child of their hatred, had tried my best to keep that light of hate alive – because I’d never known another way. So many scarred, wounded people have created the world we live in today, where suffering and oppression breeds brutality.

When I was in Israel, a new understanding flooded me – that my story doesn’t end with dissecting my own family’s hatred and buried identity. It doesn’t end with me converting to Judaism. I’m also digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts in Europe, and the internalization of hatred, the transformation of victim into oppressor. We see this everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

It’s all a vicious cycle. A cycle where hatred and religion-fueled intolerance supresses the spark of divine essence, the oneness, that connects all beings. A cycle of hate and judgemental intolerance so brutal that it’s pushed me toward feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide for most of my adult life. Until I realized that the future of humankind doesn’t rest with governments and profit-driven policies but within us – that love is stronger than hate. Unity is stronger than division. Kindness reveals much more courage than brutality. That is where everyone’s G-d resides. In deeds of loving kindness. In recognizing our mistakes and showing forgiveness to those who harmed us. And in understanding that our differences are nothing in comparison to the beautiful light that shines within us all.

Elisa TelAviv sunset yad vashem vista

If you enjoyed the read, please consider dropping a dollar in my Patreon donation jar 🙂

Posted in anti-semitism, family, hate, identity, jewish, life, news, religion, romania, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

An open letter to Rita Atria

Posted by E on July 26, 2012

This is a love letter to the sister I never had.

On July 26, 2012, the twentieth anniversary of your death, I want to say that I will never forget you, Rita. I want to shout your name from the rooftops, and hope that somewhere in the echoes that bounce back, you are still there. I want to say that even though I never met you, I will always consider you a sister of my heart. You are my shadow self – a firefly in the darkest sky, a girl who never grew to be a woman.

We were born 3 months apart in the latter half of the same year, in the same part of the continent. We were both loud, vivacious, black-haired, brown-eyed girls endowed with a penchant for mischief. You were born into a small village of Mafiosos and I was a street urchin seeking out a family among a group of hateful extremists who envisioned that they would one day rule the country.

We were both seventeen years old when we saw our “family” for what it really was and tried to get out. We were both seventeen when we began to compile information on the men who we had once trusted, looked up to, even loved. We were little girls who wanted to pretend that we were soldiers in a war greater than ourselves.

In the greater scheme of things, we were little children. Disobedient children who spied on our families and turned against men who had once held us close to them and called us “daughters.” We sat in open court and pointed to such men, denouncing them for the vile criminals that they were. You testified against the Cosa Nostra, men responsible for murdering your father. I testified against the Heritage Front and helped shut down Canada’s largest white supremacist organization, bankrolled and condoned by Canada’s Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

We both betrayed the only family that had ever embraced us.

I am you, Rita, and you are me. We are no more or less than any other teenage girl who wants to make a difference in her life, who wants a better world for her unborn children. We are every girl who lives in fear today, yet holds within her heart the flicker of hope that she will one day be counted. That someday she might make a difference.

We both know the seclusion of safe-houses, the anonymity of a new haircut and a bottle of scalp-burning dye. The unfamiliar utterance of a new name in our mouths. We know what it is like to have an entire world hate us and call us traitors. We know the words grown men have spoken after us, the threats and hits that were placed on our heads. And the truth, Rita, is that we were both children. We were idealists with hardly any concept in our minds of the ugliness of the world, of the seclusion and loneliness that would come.

When you’re in hiding the sky is always starless, muffled by an oppression of perpetually-low clouds. There’s only the stillness of empty apartments, where the silence of incalculable whitewashed walls closes in on you. After a while, the danger is no longer as relevant as walking to the window to tear apart the curtains, regardless of who might be lurking below. Because all you can say to yourself is, When the gunfire erupts I will not duck, I will not retreat.

I wish I’d met you, Rita. I wish that I could hold your hand and call you Sister. When you climbed over that balcony and flew down to your death, broken-hearted after the Mafia assassinated your only friend, magistrate Paolo Borsellino, convinced that nothing would ever change, a part of me was there with you. A part of me has always longed to take flight too.

Every year that passes since your passing, after the great snowfalls recede and give way to the delicate beauty of new growth in spring, I think of the shadows of us two – two teenage girls who wanted to make this ugly, senseless world a better place.

You live in me, Rita. And I will never forget you.

Posted in activism, beauty, cosa nostra, csis, family, freedom, history, identity, innocence, italy, letter, life, love, mafia, media, news, paolo borsellino, politics, revolution, rita atria, truth, Uncategorized, violence, war, women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Alice in Writerland

Posted by E on June 4, 2012

Image

PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Release

June 4, 2012

Toronto, Ontario

Incognito Press announces the publication of ALICE IN WRITERLAND: A WRITER’S ADVENTURES IN THE UGLY WORLD OF PUBLISHING, written by local author Elisa Hategan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elisa Hategan is the Romanian-Canadian author of RACE TRAITOR, a debut novel based on her experiences inside a terrorist group, which won a Toronto Arts Council award, an Ontario Arts council grant, and a Canada Arts Council work-in-progress award, as well as qualified as semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

ABOUT THE BOOK

ALICE IN WRITERLAND is a heartbreaking, candid and scathing indictment of the publishing industry and the personal sacrifices involved in the pursuit of success. Much more than a shocking exposé of unprofessional behavior in the literary world, however, this is a memoir that transcends into an intense exploration of what it means to be an artist.

If you could have anything you wanted, would you sell your soul for it?

ALICE IN WRITERLAND provides a shocking inside view of a world where pompous literary agents, sleazy managers and high-priced creative writing workshops have created an industry that is less interested in pursuing talent and more concerned with ripping off hopeful writers.

If following your dreams meant giving up everything you held dear, would you still do it?

Elisa Hategan started out as a debt-ridden poet who knew absolutely nothing about the publishing industry. On a whim, she applied for and won a scholarship to a prestigious creative writing program. Within a year she had transformed from complete newbie to professional writer, winning multiple art grants and being accepted to the most prestigious MFA program in the country. Better yet, she had the perfect agent and a manuscript that caught the attention of a Big Six publisher.

And then, somewhere along the way, it all went terribly wrong.

Elisa Hategan’s Alice in Writerland: A Writer’s Adventures in the Ugly World of Publishing is the heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant story of one woman’s attempt to make it as an author, all the while trying to figure out what that really means in the 21st century.

Posted in artist, books, canada, canadian literature, culture, depression, freedom, inspiration, life, literature, manuscript, media, MFA, news, perseverence, press, press release, publishing, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Who are you, really? Where history and identity converge

Posted by E on September 23, 2011

To those of you who are fortunate enough to know your family history – you’ll never know how fortunate you are. Never, ever take that knowledge for granted.

Last week I stumbled onto an Anderson Cooper show, a program I’d never watched before (I hadn’t even realized that he had his own show). In it there were two young women who had both been abandoned in trash bins or by the side of the road, respectively, as infants. Although unrelated, both grew up under similar circumstances, and both had always wondered where they had come from. Toward the end of the show, they were given the results of DNA tests they had taken prior to the show taping by a company called 23andme. By discovering which Haplogroups they belonged to, at least they would have some answers.

One of the things that moved me most during the show was when Anderson said this: “My father died when I was ten, and for the longest time I thought he would have left me a letter to tell me more about himself.”

My own father had died around that time also – I was thirteen when he left Canada and shortly thereafter died somewhere in Bucharest. Because Romania was still a communist country and we had been forced to relinquish our citizenship as part of our emigration process, there was no way possible to obtain further information as to what happened to his remains.

 But as I got older, I realized that the absence of a grave or details about his death were only a small part of my frustration, as it compared to the questions I still had of him – and of my own self. Like Anderson, I felt that my father’s death had prompted in me a disconnection to my past, to my own history. My father took to his grave the answers to innumerable questions that will never be answered, and I am forced to live with that for the rest of my life.

My father was fifty-five years old when I was born. He had lived an entire lifetime by the time I was born – 3 wives, two careers, countless mistresses – a life in which a child was not expected or wanted. Consequently, my father kept himself apart from me, a remote man whose aloofness was further accentuated by his deafness. Even as I, as all children of deaf parents, grew up with sign language as my primary way of communication, it mattered not; my father didn’t tell me anything.

He kept all his secrets within the pages of a couple of old notebooks in which he wrote every afternoon, and which he purposefully hid from my prying eyes. Those notebooks were in his valises when he died in Bucharest. After he died, his so-called friends rummaged through his suitcases for anything of value, and discarded the rest as garbage in the alleyways behind their house.

Even today, as I walk through alleyways and backstreets, I find myself scanning the gutters and trash cans, irrationally asking myself, What if? What secrets about myself could I find there?

So many more years later some answers would come, but never the truth that I have searched for – the identity of his father, of an entire line of Hungarian relatives that I will never know because my grandmother took revenge at being abandoned with her infant son, and swore never to tell anyone their name. Even my father’s birth certificate, which I obtained from a Debrecen courthouse, yielded nothing – as she had carefully omitted the father’s name as “Unknown” and given him her own last name.

 It took even more digging and scouring through rumours in the old East European villages of his past to realize that his ancestry involved Jewish roots that everyone from my grandmother to my own mother sought to keep from me. It disturbs me that so many of my relatives have chosen to die with secrets on their lips than to consider the emptiness that their offspring might experience. And furthermore, it saddens me that I may have to rely on an internet-bought $99 DNA test to discover things about my history and lineage that my own family should have shared with me.

But nothing that I can gain from spitting into a test tube would even marginally account for the profound loss of my own history – which, because of shame and selfishness and thoughtlessness, will be inaccessible to me forever. No matter how painful or shameful a secret may be, no matter how much anger still festers, one should never deny one’s children the ability to access their own legacy and history.

Posted in family, history, identity, letter, life, longing | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The girl in the picture is me

Posted by E on August 19, 2011

The girl in this picture is me. Or rather, it was me. The me I was between age 16-18. The me I lost when I left Toronto, after testifying against a bunch of neo-Nazi leaders who led an organization co-founded by a CSIS agent. Founded, and funded, by our own Canadian government.

Nobody knows what it is like to live in the underground. It’s been romanticized, glamorized, but unless somebody’s actually lived it, nobody can imagine the toll this life can take on you.

Nameless cities, countless names, and through it all, you just ask yourself, Why do I bother? Why not just let them find me – the ones who kept tracking me down, phoning me in the night with threats like “we’re coming to get you,” and “rats end up in the sewers.”

By writing this entry, I’m coming out. Not as gay (that happened a long time ago!), but as a poser. A faker. An impostor.

This is an open letter to all my friends who will be reading this, whether via this blog or through my Facebook account link. Friends I’ve made in different cities and different countries. Friends near and far who have all called me by different names. I’m here to tell you that no, I wasn’t going through eccentric, creative phases whenever I changed cities and switched names.

 There was a reason for it. At least at the time. But as the years went by, I found myself repeating a pattern that was no longer necessary, yet I didn’t know how to stop – lying. Lying had become part of my identity. Lying about my past, my family, my name. All of it as easy as a knee-jerk reflex. Because when you discard identities like you do clothing, sometimes you don’t know how to relate to others without exposing yourself. Even when the threat has long ended.

So for all those who called me Emma in Nova Scotia or Kat in Ottawa or Elisa in the GTA, or the countless little monikers I’ve worn between one place and the next, this entry should provide the answers to some of the questions you’ve always been too polite to ask.

Why am I “coming out” now? Some of you know about my novel Race Traitor, which is loosely based on my own story. You probably didn’t realize there was a connection. What you’ve been told is that it’s a cool little thriller I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. What you don’t know is that it’s full of demons. Not of the supernatural kind, because those can be vanquished easier than those who come to you in the night, through nightmares and flashbacks and terrors that leave you shaking and wondering what the hell’s the point of going forward.  These demons are real people, and they are out there in the world. Seducing and recruiting young, impressionable people, into movements that rob them of their minds and souls. And you owe it to this world, and to all of those lost youth, to understand what happened to me. And what forced me to write this book.

The irony is, this fall my memoir was going to come out with Penguin. I turned them down, because they wanted me to expose myself and offered me nothing to compensate for the threat to my life and that of my loved ones. So instead of telling my secrets, I turned the memoir into a novel, and wrote new secrets for a new character. I’ll never regret this decision. It led me to create an updated story that will reach far more readers than the decade-old story of a girl who disappeared in 1993.

I paid the price for my privacy. I had to publish it myself. Sure, it came close to being bought several times, but ultimately rejected with comments like “this isn’t pertinent to our society anymore. The heyday of right-wing extremists is over.”

Then the shootings and bombing in Norway happened. It was a wake up call for me. Ultimately I had to fire my agent, take my career back into my own hands, and publish the book myself. Incurring, of course, the silent disapproval of nearly all my writer friends who were horrified that I’d subject myself, and my manuscript, to the ghettos of the “Indie” world. Regardless of the quality of my writing, no respectable newspaper or magazine would review my work now. I’d effectively committed career suicide.

So where does this leave me? Yeah, I guess I could go around peddling my wares on writers’ forums now. Bombarding everybody with tweets and emails begging them to buy my book. But I won’t bother to do that. I won’t plead, beg, or steal you attention with requests that you buy it.

All I wanted to do is to tell you the truth about me, and the truth behind my book. If you don’t like the subject matter or don’t want to waste five bucks on something that took me over a year to write and a lifetime to escape, I don’t give a shit. Really.

 I don’t really give a damn about anything anymore.

Posted in books, canada, commentary, crime, freedom, germany, history, letter, life, literature, news, politics, press, publishing, thoughts, toronto, writer | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The freedom to dream, the courage to belong

Posted by E on July 13, 2011

 

I guess you can chalk me up as an aspiring, unpublished hack. You know, like 99% of artists out there reading this post 😉 A hack who’s part of this ever-changing world we live in, and who knows more than my fair share about the business. So having said all that, you know what kills me? I’ve accepted that I’m never going to be the next hot new bestselling writer out there. That I’m not going to make much more than minimal wage, and that’s taking into account the artist bursaries I may occasionally win. But the thing that kills me, more than the non-existent fame and fortune all of us writers secretly hope to stumble into, more than anything, is the knowledge that I will never be able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on a shelf.

This image has haunted me since I was a little girl. It has propelled and encouraged me to take my dreams of writing stories and make them unfold from hunches, intermittent thoughts, stray words, into something that takes a life of its own. It’s this dream, this vision of my books on a shelf or on a store display under the Staff Picks section, that hurts the most to let go. To know that everything I have done in my life, all the hard work I’ve put into creating these manuscripts, means nothing at all.

Yes, bad writers self-publish all the time. Breathtakingly mediocre manuscripts get uploaded onto Kindle at every hour of every day. That was my assumption when I first encountered the notion of self-publishing, when I secretly dismissed self-published authors as untalented hacks who couldn’t earn their stripes in the real literary world.

Yes, I was a snob. WAS. But that was before I started downloading self-pubbed books on my Kindle, and realized just how many amazing, incredibly-talented people have been forced by this screwed-up industry to take this route.

There is no karmic justice in this industry. Truth of the matter is this:
1) Bad writers DO get book deals. I’ve met a few in my day, people who either never wrote more than a chapter of a book and still managed to make it onto bestseller lists. Terrible writers also manage – through nepotism, inside connections and affiliations with college writing programs – to land publishing deals for their inferior magnus opuses. I’ve seen it happen. Half of them are out teaching creative writing programs. I can’t name names, but trust me. It happens more often than you think.

2) Good writers DO fall through the cracks. On the brink of extinction, the established literary industry operate like a flock of piranhas – editors concern themselves more with keeping their jobs and minimizing the risk it takes to take on unknown writers. Often they will adopt an unspoken policy of not showing interest in something unless other editors show interest. Simply put = nobody wants to take risks anymore. And nobody wants to edit.

3) Gone are the days when a diamond in the rough could be scooped from the slush pile and whittled into brilliance. Editors, for the most part, are lazy. There – I’ve said it. Not all, because I’d hate to generalize, but a HUGE majority of large publishing house acquiring editors prefer to do just that – acquire. Not edit. Not even bother trying, actually. If the manuscript in their inbox is not pitch-perfect in terms of what they’re looking for, they’d rather reject than invite a revision.

4) Publishing houses are going extinct because of bad financial practices. Case in point:
a. At the last Book Expo America, Random House rented an ENORMOUS booth to show off how much money they had. They spared no expense in putting off the image that they are doing peachy

b. Publishers will spend a million dollars for an advance to buy on a single manuscript (again, see the bidding war piranha frenzy I mentioned earlier), and add another 500K in marketing costs to justify their gamble on one person, while the money could be spent on acquiring ten talented writers (at $100K advance each). You don’t have to have a degree in investing to see how screwed up this is.

c. A reluctance to adapt to new publishing models, save for continuous attempts to unashamedly and brutally screw over inexperienced, first-time authors over their already-meagre royalties. Example: You sell your soul if you spend a year or more on a book only to find out that you’ll make fifty cents per every ebook. But if they didn’t do that, how could they afford the huge salaries of top executives, those travel expenses to international fairs, those roomy booths at Book Expo America?

So by now you’re either cheering me on, or you’ve already written me off as a bitter industry loser. As in, I didn’t win the lottery jackpot and got a book deal yet – because this is what this really is about – LUCK. Not talent so much as sheer, unadulterated luck: the RIGHT editor, the RIGHT submission, at the RIGHT time.
FACT: the vast majority of published authors out there only received one offer. That’s right: ONE offer. There was no bidding war. No hundred grand advance. Just ONE editor who had an empty slot in next fall’s line-up. THAT alone is what separates the unwashed masses like me from the “respectable” folks in the Chapters-Indigos and Barnes & Nobles of the world.

But if it was up to the industry, that’s not where I’m headed, or where most of us younger writers trying to put our work out there are headed. By misfortune of being born in this generation, at the cusp of the extinction of the bricks-and-mortal bookstores (may be another 10-20 years, but they’re going), we are being shut out of that dream we’ve all harboured: the vision of walking into over to that store display and seeing your baby in print, ready to captivate the world.

It doesn’t mean we can’t make a name for ourselves, or serious money. People have been so successful through Kindle, it would be insane not to consider it. But what I’m taking about is your work being out on the bookshelves of a hundred stores, reaching a mainstream audience that is kept away from you by virtue of the gate-keepers.

I’ve done everything right. I’ve played by the rules. I’ve gained a few prizes here and there, won substantial artist grants, gotten my name out there. I was even accepted by the most prestigious MFA program in Canada this spring, but because I have no money whatsoever, I’ve had to defer my spot.

I’ve had not one, but two literary agents. The first was more lazy than money-hungry and spent his entire day on Twitter playing the role of big agent man but not making any sales. At all. So I fired him and started fresh. The second agent seemed more promising. I listened to him, for a while, when he told me to add more violence, more of a 24 (the TV show) plotline and more “dirty lesbo sex” to my novel so it would sell – and I did all this out of fear that he would not submit my book to publishers. Until I couldn’t take it anymore and told him I was finished. With the power struggle, and with the proposed changes. Really finished.

For the last two years I’ve allowed myself be bullied by this industry – by agents, by writer forums where self-aggrandizing, arrogant assholes who published mid-list books pull rank on new writers, by editorial rumours of what sells, by everything. And at the end of the day, what did I get?

A manuscript that has been so twisted it seems foreign to me, but meets the vision of what the industry seems to want. And sure enough, it has received several generous editorial compliments over the past month, yet it keeps getting rejected. The rejections, of course, are all over the map – editor X will praise this and complain about that, and not a day later, editor Z will complain about this, and praise that which someone else had taken issues with. But nobody wants to take a chance on me.
Nobody.

The truth is, the literary world these days is a shitty, soul-wrenching crapshoot in which only the lucky and the well-connected will find a spot to land in. And if you are like me, if the only thing you ever had to cling to in your life was writing, you’ll keep on struggling, crying, and creating.

You belong. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.

If you enjoyed the read or found it useful, please consider dropping a dollar in my Patreon donation jar 🙂

Posted in agent, art, artist, belonging, books, bullshit, commentary, freedom, life, literature, manuscript, news, perseverence, poetry, press, publishing, rejection, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

In which the author goes bananas

Posted by E on May 4, 2011

In contrast to the intensity of some of my previous entries, this post might seem downright silly.  But I have happy news, and when I’m happy I get somewhat giddy: I’m tremendously excited to hear from my agent that my manuscript will be going on submissions imminently.

I’ve walked a long road with this book, from its previous incarnation as a memoir, to entering discussions with a very prestigious press (among the top 3 largest publishers, which is why I won’t mention their name), and with me making the decision to turn back at the last minute and forfeit the memoir altogether.

There are many reasons I walked away from the memoir, but I don’t regret it for a moment. If anything, the only thing I regret is not being able to work with the non-fiction editor who had expressed interest in my book, because she – along with all the others I’d met at their head office – was so exceptionally wonderful and encouraging during the times we met that it broke my heart to tell her I’d changed my mind about the non-fiction angle. And since she only acquired non-fiction, there was nothing else we could do but part ways – although in a personal email she did indicate that turning the memoir into a novel was certainly a good possibility for me.

The decision I made last fall, as scary as it was, allowed me the creative license to create a work that pushed my boundaries as a writer and forced me to sculpt out an engrossing, visceral novel that goes well beyond anything I ever thought I could accomplish. It goes so far past the memoir it could have been that it has a pulsating life of its own and bears no resemblance to its predecessor. It is now a unique tale, with a new cast of characters. Yet it also reaches a broader spectrum of audience, and it’s more of a universal tale that isn’t dated or constrained by facts and annotations.

But enough of the plugging 🙂 The point is, I’m still not sure which publishing houses the manuscript is being sent to, but I should hear back soon from my agent in regards to the sub list. Not that I can talk about it here, nor would I feel that comfortable sharing those kind of specifics until something concrete happens, but I thought I’d share the happy news with you. It’s such a great step forward.

I’ve been feeling up and down a lot lately (honestly more down than up) so this is a very encouraging turn of events. Part of me still can’t believe I’ll be going on submissions, and the other part is thrilled beyond measure. Thanks for all of your support, I really do appreciate it. Hopefully we’ll soon be breaking out the cherry brandy and celebrating some good news 🙂

Posted in books, life, literature, manuscript, news, publishing, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I got into UBC!

Posted by E on December 15, 2010

On Friday morning (Dec. 10) I received an email from the UBC Creative Writing department informing me that I had been ACCEPTED into their MFA program! The news was so thrilling, considering that: 1) I had convinced myself I wasn’t going to get in, since they have such a low acceptance rate, and 2) the program is the oldest and most reputable in Canada, widely-regarded as the Iowa of Canada.

Yesterday I wrote them back and officially accepted their invitation to the 2011 low-residency session. I’m still glowing, as you can possibly glean from this uber excitable post:) I chose UBC (University of British Columbia) over other schools because when I graduate, I will have a diploma identical to those who attend the full-residency program, and from one of the top 3 universities in Canada and among the top 35 in the world.

Unlike other MFA programs/diploma mills that have recently started being offered in this country, the UBC one is a legitimate, prestigious and most of all, REAL university graduate studies program. If anyone wants to know more about what I mean by that (and which new programs are unfortunately less legitimate than others and in my opinion should be avoided), feel free to contact me in private.

Unfortunately, with the increased popularity of MFA, particularly south of the border, any community college or private institution can spring up and offer diplomas at often exorbitant fees. If you do wish to pursue this route, do yourself a favour – look not only at the faculty, but ask yourself who is behind the program. How long has it been around? What is its reputation both at home and abroad? You owe it to yourself to make sure you only apply to time-tested, authentic programs – that way you won’t regret it down the line. I know it seems like common sense, but I’ve read of too many eager young artists who accept the first offer that comes their way.

Anyway, I’m so beyond excited and can’t wait to see Vancouver for the first time next summer! If anything, this acceptance is a boost in my morale and it’s definitely a great motivator for me to get back to work on my new novel. But no worries, I’m not actually moving to Vancouver – this is a long-distance program in which I only have to go up to BC once a year, for a couple of weeks during the summer. Have I mentioned how I really, really cannot wait? I’m so, so happy 🙂




Posted in life, literature, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In memory of Nadia, in memory of myself

Posted by E on June 23, 2010

Now that I think about it, it was about two springs ago, around that time of the year when the ice thaws out and winter dissolves into spring, that I was watching the news and a missing person alert flashed over the airwaves. The haunting photos of a beautiful brown-haired girl proclaimed her disappearance from Carleton University in my old alma mater town of Ottawa. Her name was Nadia Kajouji, and this June she would have turned twenty-one years old.

It had been approx. five years since I’d graduated and moved away, first to teach English in South Korea, then to find better opportunities for employment back in the Toronto area. But Ottawa has always been the one Canadian city closest to my heart. Some of my happiest memories involve the long walks I used to take by the leafy Rideau Canal, or writing poetry under the shade of a tree on a hill overlooking Major Hill’s Park and the turbulent waves of the Ottawa river.

Although I had gone to Ottawa u., I was quite familiar with the Carleton campus, particularly with the gymnasium where I used to practice fencing with their varsity team. As I now watched Nadia Kajouji’s parents plead for information about their daughter’s disappearance, my mind replayed my winding walks across the Carleton grounds – from the bus stop where the inter-university shuttle spat me off, past the flock of tall concrete buildings that formed the campus residences, and down the steps that led to that all-too-familiar girls changing room, which always smelled like chalk, cedar bleachers and dusty corners, and resounded with the sound of combination locks clanging hollowly against locker doors.

As soon as the newscasters told of how Nadia had left her radio playing and her wallet on the counter of her dorm room, taking only a pair of skates with her on that terrible evening, I knew what she had done. While I was her age, all those terrible winters ago, I’d also walked across the Macdonald Bridge and looked down into that endless sheet of ice, wishing badly that I wasn’t such a coward.


Throughout my fourth year of school, I fantasized about dying, wrote letters and feverish entries in my journals, packed my things neatly into boxes, and stocked up on pills and online how-to tips. I knew precisely how I was going to do it, and no Ottawa U prof or concerned friend knew how to broach my change in personality.

And yet, so many friends and classmates undoubtedly had noticed my dark eyes, my lack of sleep, my A-average grades slipping down and down and down…..I didn’t care, I was already dead inside. I’d come out of a psychologically-abusive relationship with someone who couldn’t care less about me, who broke every promise made and shattered my heart into a million pieces. And I thought that without this person’s love I was nothing, that I was totally worthless.

Finally, a close friend who was doing her masters in a medical-related field, insisted that I go see an MD. Not a counselor, but someone who could actually prescribe me something. “There’s no difference between what is going on with you,” she said, “and someone suffering from a physical ailment. There’s only stigma. But if you’d fallen and broken your leg, would you not go to a doctor to mend it? You just have a deficiency in serotonin, and a MAO-inhibitor would help you get back up.”

But guess what? Unlike what I’d learned in my psychology classes, awareness doesn’t mean that Poof! everything magically goes away. I knew without a doubt that I was clinically depressed, and it still didn’t stop me from wanting to put my plans into action. Within a month of being on Prozac, I felt amazing. Able to concentrate, to read again, a pleasure I thought I’d lost forever – and with all that newfound energy, I was invincible. I could finally put my energy to use, and complete the plan I’d set in motion months earlier. I emptied all the sleeping pill packages I’d hidden in my bedroom and woke up in the hospital hours later, having been found by my landlady’s daughter. After that attempt, I saw a counselor twice a week and my dosage was increased. It was another couple of months before the self-destructive thoughts receded.

As I now watched the news and learned with the rest of the world that Nadia’s depression had escalated so visibly, yet nobody had taken measures to assist her, I was certain that it was only a matter of time before the Rideau river thawed and her body would be found. Her poor, poor parents, I thought, looking at their photos on the Facebook group that had been created to publicize her disappearance. Having grown up in an abusive home and the foster care system, I’d never had any parents of my own to turn to; to think, Nadia did have a supportive family. And still, this happened to her.

And sure enough, the day when they found Nadia came six weeks later, just as the birds were returning from their southern burrows and new leaf buds were bursting through the trees. As her grieving family was laying her to rest back in the Toronto area, police began to launch an investigation, prompted by information that was seized from her computer records.

As it turned out, not only had nobody stepped in to help Nadia at her most vulnerable time, but someone she had been chatting with online in a support forum had encouraged her to take her own life. This person turned out to be a pudgy, middle-aged man in Minnesota with a perverse fetish for watching attractive young people hang themselves via webcam. He posed as a young girl while talking to Nadia, expressing a similar desire for suicide, and urged Nadia on and on toward her inevitable demise.

It took more than a year of inquiries, along with a Fifth Estate documentary investigation that determined that the pudgy middle-aged man, whose name is William Melchert-Dinkel and who is a registered nurse no less, had had a virtual hand in the suicides of scores of other desperate people all over the world, including a 32-year old British man by the name of Mark Drybrough. Apparently he had used some of the knowledge of his profession to assist suicides via the Internet and posed as various individuals in order to coax people into taking their own lives via suicide pacts. He is also estimated to have personally helped at least five others kill themselves.

At the end of this month we will find out if William Melchert-Dinkel is going to be convicted and serve the maximum thirty-year sentence that he’s facing. But no matter what happens to this sadistic, pathetic excuse for a human being, nothing will bring Nadia or Mark back. As I mourn the loss of a girl I never knew personally, yet shared so much with, I am reminded of the wise words uttered by sixteenth-century English reformer John Bradford: “There but for the grace of God go I.

Any of us – our friends, siblings, children – could suffer from depression. It’s not something to turn the other cheek to. If you suspect that someone you know is chronically affected by this, don’t act polite. Don’t “give them space” and assume that they’re going to be fine. Talk to them. Go along with them to a clinic. Keep them close, in heart, in mind, in spirit – or you might lose them forever.

Posted in death, depression, life, love, media, murder, news, ottawa, suicide, uk | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »