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Tracing the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil

Posted by E on November 4, 2016

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Like many people, I discovered Elizabeth Bishop one evening in 2013 by scrolling through the newest offerings on Netflix, and choosing a movie called Reaching for the Moon. Unbeknownst to me, the story I watched that night would be the start of a new adventure – one that would lead me into foreign territory and transform my poetry in infinitesimal ways.

Much like Elizabeth’s own journey, in fact.

elizabeth-bishopWhen she was 40 years old, American poet Elizabeth Bishop decided it was time to leave New York. She had reached a dead end both in her personal life (after a break-up with a long-time lover) and in her stagnant creativity, which resulted in a dry spell from publishing. Also struggling with alcoholism, Elizabeth longed for a new start, some way to rejuvenate her spirit and retrigger her inspiration. Receiving a fellowship from Bryn Mawr College was a godsend, and she decided that she would travel around the world.

She telephoned the naval port and was told that the next available freighter was leaving for South America. Impulsively, she reserved a spot.

In November of 1951, Bishop boarded the Norwegian freighter S.S. Bowplate. Unbeknownst to her, the journey would change her life forever. The first port she arrived at was Santos, and what was meant to be a brief sojourn to visit with an old school chum from Vassar, Mary Morse, turned into an eighteen-year stay that would profoundly affect the rest of her life.

Toward the end of her vacation, Elizabeth fell ill from a violent allergic reaction to a cashew fruit and had to be hospitalized. While being nursed back to health, her relationship with Mary Morse’s Brazilian lover Lota deepened and grew more intense. Soon Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-taught architect from a prominent upper-class political family, broke up with Mary Morse and persuaded Elizabeth to stay in Brazil and move into Lota’s sprawling estate home at Samambaia, in the hills above Petropolis.

With Lota’s affection, Elizabeth flourished. It was there, amidst the lush jungle foliage and under Lota’s care, that Elizabeth wrote the poetry that would win her a Pulitzer prize and turn her into a world-renowned poet.

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After watching Reaching for the Moon, I was convinced that I couldn’t stand Elizabeth Bishop. Her weakness, her repeated cheating on Lota, her complete dependence on alcohol as a way to relinquish personal responsibility. But out of curiosity, I wanted to see for myself if she was all she’s cracked up to be. Soon I would discover just how inaccurate the film was, and run into interviews that revealed director Bruno Barreto’s obsession with stylistic themes over historical accuracy. Like many biographical films, truth and historical fact was sacrificed to the artistic vision of a straight male director who’d never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before he read the script.

I would also discover that Elizabeth’s characterization in the film paled in comparison to the real person, both in physique and in spirit. Bishop didn’t resemble the tall, slender, cool, passive-aggressive character played by Miranda Otto. The real Elizabeth was short (only 5’4) and stout, intensely emotional, at times difficult, with an inner fire that was apparent to all who knew her. As the years progressed, her relationship with Lota became increasingly codependent. Paradoxically, the stronger she grew, the weaker Lota became. It would all come to a tragic end after Elizabeth traveled back to the US to teach at NYU and recently hospitalized Lota (against medical advice) decided to visit her in September 1967. On her first night in New York, Lota took an overdose of tranquilizers and fell into a coma, dying a few days later.

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Lota de Macedo Soares

After Lota’s death, Elizabeth was shunned by her Brazilian friends and Lota’s relatives. She was forced to sell her Ouro Preto home and the Rio apartment bequeathed to her by Lota after Lota’s sister contested the will. Elizabeth soon realized that she had no future in Brazil without Lota and reluctantly moved back to the United States, eventually teaching at Harvard until her death in 1979.

Over the weeks and months to come, I would devour all Bishop-related material I could get my hands on. Soon I discovered that she had written much more than just poetry, and I was hooked. After Poems: North & South. A Cold Spring and Questions of Travel, I ordered her prose, correspondence, her incomplete, posthumously-published drafts and at least two biographies.

It started out as a hobby – reading all of Bishop’s writing. I spent an entire summer in my garden, reading book after book. Why? I still don’t know. Like Bishop’s feelings about Brazil, liking her didn’t come naturally. Some of her writing made me angry or befuddled me. I complained to my partner of how much I couldn’t stand Bishop-the-person, only to find myself returning to Bishop-the-writer’s work the next day.

It might sound crazy to most people. Why would I become inexplicably obsessed with a woman who died nearly forty years ago, a poet who was my complete antagonist? Why did I keep going down the Bishop rabbit hole instead of putting away her books? What kept me so engaged even as I complained about how weak and conflicted she was?

For all its flaws and incorrect depictions, Reaching for the Moon was a watershed moment for Bishop’s memory, leading many to look up her biography and (re)discover the small body of writing she had left behind. Until the film came out Bishop was a minor poet, largely forgotten by the masses and hardly ever studied in creative writing classes.

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Elizabeth Bishop in college

In all my writing classes over the years, Bishop’s poetry has never been covered. It’s easy to see why – shy and reticent to share the personal or make it political in an age when her compatriots (see Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton) found their stardom by turning their inner angst into poetic magic, she isn’t exactly an obvious choice for later generations, for youngsters who have been taught that the personal is political.

In contrast with the passionate, vibrant experimentation of the Beat Generation, Bishop’s classic approach to literature and her staunch avoidance to confront political and feminist discourse in her work rendered her an almost obsolete vestige of a repressed generation.

As a young poet, I was dazzled by the raw honesty of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Bukowski, swept away by Plath’s confessional brutality. Writers like Bishop and her idol, Marianne Moore, did nothing for me. I saw them as Vassar-reared, elitist upper class dilettantes who refused to address the sweeping changes of their time – they met in cafés and parlours to exchange and review each other’s couplets rather than discuss the Second World War that raged around them, the civil rights movement that brought equality to racial and sexual minorities.

Our poetic styles couldn’t be more different. I was as bold as Bishop was reticent; I challenged the establishment with the same ferocity she had retained while ignoring any criticisms of the government of her day. Her refusal to be included in feminist or women-only anthologies (underscored by the belief that it would somehow reduce her worth as a poet), her reluctance to openly come out as a lesbian even after the advent of gay liberation, all go against the grain of my own belief system.

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Lota de Macedo Soares

Only in my late thirties could I have begun to appreciate the quiet strength that resides in Bishop’s poetry. I still can’t say that I like the woman on a personal level, but there is something about her that fascinates me. I’ve read passages of her letters (as addressed to Robert Lowell) that I found incensing, even borderline racist and contemptuous toward those less privileged than her – opinions no doubt amplified by being in the company of the Brazilian elites of the day. But there is also an overwhelming defiance in her writing, interweaved in equal parts with fear, hope and childlike wonder all at the same time.

Emboldened by my connection to Bishop’s work, I wrote my first villanelle One Europe after being inspired by One Art. And as soon as I submitted it, it was accepted for publication in Canada’s oldest poetry journal, CV2 (Contemporary Verse 2). I wrote a second poem, set in Brazil, and once again it attracted attention and a mentorship with a renowned Canadian poet. Clearly, Elizabeth Bishop’s influences on my own writing had produced results.

A year later, after I’d made my way through her entire correspondence and translations, going so far as to acquire some first editions of her books (including Life World Library’s Brazil), I realized that I had become a self-taught Bishop scholar. With that realization came the knowledge that I had to confront my own feelings and try to understand what it was about Elizabeth Bishop that both attracted and still repelled me. As it often is, people who trigger strong feelings in you are actually reflections of your own self, mirroring some part of self-identity that you refuse to see.

I realized how much I was like her. All the things I hated about her work were things I hated in myself. I wished she had been stronger, that she could have come out as a feminist or lesbian poet, but it took me years to allow my own identity to seep into my writing.

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Elizabeth Bishop with Tobias the Cat in 1954

We live in an age that worships youth and carries the unspoken message that if you haven’t “made it” as a writer by your late 30s, you’re a nobody. Her success later in life, in spite of depression, personal struggles with a dark past and substance abuse, inspired and rejuvenated me in all those dark moments that come to all writers, when I felt down and hopeless.

And then came the day when I knew, more than anything, that I had to travel to Brazil.

I craved to see for myself the influences that had created the greatest phase of her career, and the years that she admitted were the happiest of her life. Brazil was where Bishop’s path took a new turn, where she produced work whose lasting power would outlive her.

I was 40 years old too. I often felt hopeless and burnt out.  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I wished to touch the same spark – that intangible, luminous magic – of inspiration that had struck Bishop. Some places have that effect, you know; just like some plants only bloom in certain soil, the fertility of creation comes easier in certain spots than others.

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A view of Guanabara Bay and Flamengo Park – Lota’s vision. Taken from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.

The 2016 Rio Olympics made it easier to travel to Brazil. The visa requirement was waved for the summer, security was at its best, and by booking far ahead I was able to line up affordable accommodations both in Rio and in Ouro Preto. Ignoring the dreadful headlines about killer Zika mosquitos and roving favela gangs, I spent most of August and the first week of September in Brazil, working on various projects which included researching the life of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Needless to say, I skipped the mosquito repellant and was not bitten once.

During my Brazil sojourn I wanted to stay a few days on Copacabana beach, just to take in the atmosphere, but didn’t realize that the hotel I’d booked was literally next door to Elizabeth and Lota’s old Leme apartment. Its street address and entrance might have been on Rua Antonio Vieira 5, but the balcony actually fronts onto Avenida Atlantica.

It was an amazing coincidence. Every day I’d look outside my window onto Leme beach, I realized it was essentially the same view they’d had back then. Every evening I went downstairs to have dinner and cashew fruit caipirinhas on the patio at Jaquina’s, which is actually on the main level of the same building. Lota’s apartment was the penthouse – which you can see on the highest floor. It’s the unit with the wraparound balcony and a walk-up to the rooftop (click photos to expand).

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The view from a similar balcony at Av. Atlantica and Rua Antonio Vieira, 5.

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Copacabana beach – on the left is Leme hill, and on the right is Sugarloaf Mountain.

A few days after I arrived, I hired a driver and guide to take me up to Petropolis and the hilltops of Samambaia. Once the depressing urban jungle of Rio’s favelas gave way to mountainous vegetation, the road turned steep and narrow. I could only imagine how precarious it must have been back when Lota had to maneuver her Jaguar regularly on a winding, partially-unpaved road; now a two-hour drive, it took nearly twice as long back in the 1950s.

Here are some photos taken on that day. The actual Samambaia house is private property so we were not able to go inside, but the hilltop views reflect the fierce beauty of its surroundings. I also took photos of downtown Petropolis, Quitandinha Hotel (a Grand Hotel-type place where the millionaires, celebrities, movie stars and the elites of Petropolis congregated in the 1950s) and the Crystal Palace (click to expand photos).

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During the last week of August, I flew to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, and hired a car for the two-hour drive to Ouro Preto, which was even more spectacular, quaint and tranquil than I’d imagined. Once known as the biggest city in the New World, Ouro Preto is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and the soul of Brazil’s 1700s gold rush. Its surrounding hills are stippled with gold mines and reddish clay earth.

It’s hard not to fall in love with its timeless, rustic beauty, which (oddly enough) reminded me quite viscerally of my grandmother’s Transylvanian village, where I spent many childhood summers. Safe and friendly, it’s easy to imagine living here for an extended stretch of time and just write. If I could afford it, I would return in a heartbeat.

Ouro Preto is a quintessential village with sloping cobblestone streets and several white stone bridges connecting different parts of town – a tapestry of eighteenth-century dwellings and ornate churches standing next to simple, whitewashed colonial houses. A sprawling main square dotted with baroque buildings next to an arts-and-crafts market.

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The sunshine spills over an explosion of tropical plants sprouting prickly red flowers, then flows downwards to an abundance of purple-and-yellow wildflowers that grow in the sidewalk nooks. A smell of smoke and burning wood lingers after sunset, a dog barks in the middle of the night, the cackling rooster screeches at the crack of dawn.

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A narrow, cobbled road connects Ouro Preto to its sister city Mariana, located a fifteen-minute drive away. High up in the hills overlooking the town, Elizabeth Bishop’s former home boasts an incredible vista that overlooks lush foliage, baroque churches and coppery-red shingled rooftops. In 1960 Bishop purchased a home here, at 546 Mariana Road; she called the house Casa Mariana (click on photos to expand).

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It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Brazil, and I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been for Bishop to leave her adopted home, everything she had loved and lost here. But what made me sadder was how few people remembered Lota de Macedo Soares. Although her spirit is embedded in the beautiful Flamengo Park which circles Guanabara Bay, nobody I talked with in Brazil knew who I was speaking about.

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My guide, a gay man who prides himself on having a history degree, announced that the park had been designed solely by Burle Marx. Even when I tried to impress upon him the significant work Lota did in the design and construction of the park, he (like others) wasn’t particularly interested in knowing about her. Even the small commemorative plaque in Aterro do Flamengo has misspelled Lota’s name and was never corrected. Sadly, in death Lota’s memory has been brushed aside and replaced with the names of powerful men who were determined (and arguably succeeded) in erasing her identity from the history of the city she loved and helped to transform.

Someday all our memories will be forgotten and lost – such is the fate of time and mortality. But I do hope that in the beauty of a blossoming garden, in the delicate verse of a poem that takes someone’s breath away, a shred of ourselves still remains.

Surely this is what Elizabeth and Lota would have wanted.

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

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Introducing My Newest Book: DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR

Posted by E on March 7, 2016

Daughters of the Air Adele coverI am happy and proud to announce the release of my newest book, Daughters of the Air – A Retelling of The Little Mermaid, a literary novel that incorporates the tragic story of Adele Hugo and involves love, madness, reincarnation and obsession across two centuries.

Incognito Press has released the novel in digital format only, but you can purchase it even if you don’t own a Kindle – just download Amazon’s free Kindle App on your iPad or iPhone and you can read it today.

You can also find it on Amazon Canada, Amazon.com and all its international affiliates.

I ask all readers, friends and supporters to consider purchasing a copy, even if this book is different from my previous non-fiction work. I really need your support, both emotional and financial (via sales) and word-of-mouth in order to continue bringing you new books in the future. Your help is absolutely crucial to my journey as a writer.

Book Description

Paris, 2015: Walking along the banks of the Seine, twenty-four year old Darya Eliade, a young woman spending the summer abroad after the death of her father, stumbles upon a photograph of Adele Hugo, the forgotten daughter of France’s greatest author.

Haunted by the sadness she sees in Adele’s eyes, Darya becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, setting in motion a journey of self-discovery into her own past as a radical political activist.

With the help of Jeanne, a mysterious Spanish journalist, Darya’s search for the root of heartbreak will track the Hugos’ movements from Paris to the Channel Islands, from spiritualist séances to the austere coastlines of Nova Scotia.

Guernsey, 1854: Eager to escape the oppressive regime of her famous father, twenty-four year old Adele Hugo begins a passionate affair with a young English lieutenant, Albert Pinson.

Over the next ten years their affair will spiral into madness and tragedy, as Adele’s idealistic pursuit of true love will stop at nothing to fulfill itself. Against a backdrop of occult and political insurgence, Adele plots how she will capture the heart of a man who despises her.

Spanning three timelines, two continents and incorporating the fairytale storyline of The Little Mermaid, Daughters of the Air is a meditation on the nature of love and all its unrestrained expressions: sacrifice, obsession, destruction and redemption. The novel brings together the concepts of reincarnation, fate and love to uncover a secret buried for two centuries.

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Protected: You’re not going to read this anyway

Posted by E on July 19, 2012

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Posted in activism, agent, anonymous, art, artist, books, canada, culture, depression, identity, literature, longing, media, news, perseverence, poetry, politics, publishing, rejection, revolution, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Enter your password to view comments.

Alice in Writerland

Posted by E on June 4, 2012

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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 »

Small Press vs. Self-Publishing in the New Millenium

Posted by E on September 25, 2011

Ten years ago, if I couldn’t sell my book to a Big Six publisher I would gladly have taken the small press route. Heck, even as far back as five years ago I’d gladly have signed on the dotted line, and bragged to all my friends that at least I got a “real” publisher. I’d have used words like “legitimate” and “prestigious”, and snubbed my nose at the yucky self-published vanity “authors” who used to lurk in the gutter alleyways of imprints like Lulu.

But now, with the possibilities offered by Amazon and Smashwords, I wonder if any small publisher can come even close to the advantages offered by self-publishing. Not that self-publishing is a radically new thing. It’s basically what writers used to do for hundreds of years before established imprints took hold in the last century. So I asked this question on Twitter: If you can’t sell your book to Big Six publishers, would you go to a smaller press and get small/no advance OR self-publish?”

One person managed to give a nearly mono-syllabic answer: “small press”, but when I questioned whether splitting my royalties with a press who doesn’t have the marketing dollars to launch me (and thus force me to do my own marketing) is even worth it, she didn’t respond.

The answer seems obvious to me. I don’t begrudge the efforts of small presses and their editorial teams, but the fact of the matter is, most books published by small presses rarely sell more than about a thousand copies. Small presses do not have the budget for premium spots in bookstores, for massive advertising, and do rely heavily on authors marketing their own books. Which is something I already do every single day. And when my earnings are so small to begin with, I’m not sure I really want to split my royalties 85-15 (or worse) with a small press. I’m just being honest here.

Some may argue that small presses add an indispensable value to one’s book by providing expert editorial services and cover design. What I’d suggest is that if a writer so wishes, they can easily hire out editorial, formatting and graphic design services for a flat rate / one-time fee, rather than entering into contract with a publisher who cannot pay you an advance higher than four figures.

I believe we are living in the gold rush age of publishing. For the last couple of years, Big Six traditional publishers have bemoaned what they call a new evolution of the Guttenberg Press, an electronic Golden Age that they hope to survive unscathed. Hatchette and Random House executives have flown (no doubt first class) to meet Steve Jobs in the hope that Apple can somehow squash the Amazon revolution that precipitated a system in which Gatekeepers are being eliminated faster than one can say “Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

 I had a little laugh when I read about it, imagining all those execs in their crisp name-brand suits and ties, oiled briefcases in hand, walking pompously through Apple’s doors, thinking they have anything to leverage their arguments on. It was all the funnier, knowing that in the next five years, those New York penthouse residents will be lining up at their local Unemployment Office. Unless they package themselves out first, as several NY top editors already have been – and starting self-publishing consulting firms. Ah, the irony.

 This new age spells the end of MFA programs ran by greedy writers of the old generation, many of them mediocre writers in their own right, but who lucked out at a time when publishers would print nearly anything legible passed up the chain through nepotism and tapped favors. I mean, who in their right mind (aside from a trust fund baby) would spend $100K to get an MFA when there is no more Random House or Doubleday?

In the future literary universe, you’ll never get a huge advance. You’ll never have publishing execs speculate over your future success over endless luncheons. No, the only thing you will have to produce is a work that is good. Translation = that sells. That audiences, rather than editors and studio execs, will love.

 No more nepotism. No more favours. Of course, if you’re rich and can afford thousands on marketing, you’ll probably still manage to launch yourself out there. But without the gatekeepers, the world becomes a much more even playing field. Any hipster with a stack of flyers and a penchant for podcasting can generate the kind of grassroots buzz that can turn a coffee-stained manuscript into a bestseller.

In the new age we are entering, the ultimate gatekeeper will be the public. Only the AUDIENCE and the power of their mighty dollars will decide if your book has a future. NOT a nail-filing twenty-five year old acquisitions editor who’s rejecting anything on her desk that isn’t vampire teen porn.

 We are in a time of golden rushes. Thousands of new writers enter the self-publishing stampede with tin pan in hand, hoping to make their fortunes. Most will fail, in the same way that most authors in bookstores will fail to earn out their advance and never get anywhere.

But a few WILL succeed. Their ideas and manuscripts WILL strike gold, and when the dust settles they will enjoy the knowledge that they did it all on their own. That their success was entirely in their hands, and the profits they earned are not going toward paying for a Big Six publishers’ Fifth Avenue office suites and expense accounts, but in their own pockets.

We need to embrace this time of revolution, rather than cower and cling to sinking ships that are too bloated to sustain anybody. We need to remember that we at least have our talents and our fresh ideas, but agents and publishers, without their 15-90% cuts, have nothing. And that it was only a matter of time, in an industry that is barely a couple hundred years old, for things to change. For the unwashed masses on the outside of the palace gates to break through, behead anyone in the way and torch the whole bloody place down.

 Allons enfants de la Patrie! Le jour de gloire est arrive!

Posted in art, artist, books, commentary, culture, freedom, innovation, literature, publishing, technology, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 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 »

Norway’s attacks – debunking the terrorist myth

Posted by E on July 23, 2011

Since September 11, 2001, most people’s image of a terrorist has been that of an extremely religious, Muslim, bearded man with a burning hatred for the West. The reality of home-grown, white extremist groups and fringe left or right-wing nutcases has been relegated to the dusty corners of our consciousness. Despite the Oklahoma City bombing, despite the skinheads who marched on the streets of Toronto and London, Molotov cocktails in hand, Swastika banners in hand, we refuse to believe that a terrorist could be one of our own – not a Muslim, not a brown-skinned immigrant, but someone born and raised here.

Today Norway struggles with a momentous tragedy in its history – the bombing of a government building in Oslo and a savage massacre that took the lives of at least 80 youths in a Labour Party youth camp. The suspect – an Aryan-looking, blond and blue-eyed killer, well-known for his links to right-wing extremists, according to AFP sources.

We continue to have a heads-under-the-sand mentality in North America – that right-wing fanaticism doesn’t exist anymore, that violent skinheads and neo-fascists have been relegated to a harmless, inactive status, merely losers on Jerry Springer who garner a few laughs with their Klan-totting robes, but not much more a threat than that. And certainly NOT the types of people who can mobilize like Al-Queda, who can recruit alienated youth and train them to hate, and to kill.

When I was sixteen years old, I experienced first-hand the recruitment tactics of such a group. I witnessed more than a sixteen-year old should witness, and I testified against some very prominent neo-Nazis in open court. When the dust cleared, it became known that the white supremacist group I was being hunted by had been co-founded by an agent provocateur of the Canadian Intelligence Security Service (CSIS), our version of the CIA.

This man was provided funds to sustain this group, many of whose members travelled to Libya to meet with Moammar Gaddafi, who was at the time in the process of connecting various terrorist groups from across the world, funding and giving them access to secret training camps in the desert.

 

The fact that a government agent would have a hand in not only establishing, but fuelling a radical white supremacist group, provoked a temporary outrage in the Canadian public, but not a lasting drive for change. Within a few years, the entire story was forgotten. The former agent provocateur was relocated to another province, given a massive house in the suburbs and a generous allowance for another three years. For what amounts to teaching violent neo-Nazis how to terrorize innocent civilians, and how to smuggle guns over the border from the US. A government report came out that basically acknowledged that Operation Governor had been compromised by an “overzealous” source who might have gone “a little too far”, but nothing was ever done to bring those responsible to justice.

In fact, when I submitted my book for publication over the past year, comments ranged from the flippant to the entirely dismissive, as in the editor from Canada’s Douglas & McIntyre, who sent this rejection note: “I just feel like the issue of white supremacy has had its day, and it would take something more current for a book on this to break out.”

Just tonight, Norway’s Prime Minister, faltering before the press, answered the question “Is right-wing extremism a problem in this country?” with a wishful self-denying “No, we don’t have a big problem with right-wing extremists.” What? That’s after 92+ people have been murdered by a neo-fascist. But in his head, like in publishers and most journalists’ minds, when a Muslim kills, it’s an organized plot. When a neo-fascist kills, it’s one lone, crazy gunman. Nothing to really worry ourselves about.

To the establishment, terrorists have to be Islamic fundamentalists. Even if a Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik pops up every few years and takes the lives of hundreds or thousands of people in the process. The fallacy of thought behind editorial boards and mass media is dismissive and shockingly small-minded. The reality is, even if a lone gunman is behind a massacre, there is an entire ideology of hatred behind him.

I suppose that soon I’ll have to list my book on Kindle, since there seem to be no interested publishers in New York who want to buy a novel based on this stuff (but they’d easily offer a million bucks to Kim Kardashian or Casey Anthony for a ghost-written memoir). I owe it to people to put this book out. I’ve received funding from Ontario and Canada arts councils for this project, and there are many of us who I believe it’s an important book since it depicts the step-by-step process of indoctrination of young people into radical terrorist groups.

But traditional publishers do not see my book as “commercial enough” (St Martins / Minotaur). Beyond the disappointment I have in the system, I genuinely wonder what Douglas & McIntyre, Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have to say tonight. I wonder if they really think a terrorist must have a Muslim face. That the subject of radical right-wingers is passé. Because if they do, they are very, very wrong. And Norway is paying the price for such a flawed assumption.

Posted in canada, commentary, crime, culture, europe, freedom, germany, literature, news, politics, press, publishing, war, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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.

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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 🙂

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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 🙂




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