People who come from my background are supposed to die toothless in some cockroach infested dive with a bottle or needle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. People who come from my background are not supposed to be talented writers with an intellect.
I have written a memoir. It is tragic, sad, funny, depressing, uplifting and it is all true. Two famous people appear in this book: Anne Murray and a former Canadian pop star who is currently a sitting MP in the House of Commons. Despite the quality of my writing and its originality, the wall I face between myself and the publishers who should be handling the marketing of this story, is too thick with literary agent gate keepers. I have sent dozens and dozens of query letters over the past seven months and thus far only a handful have replied. It was clear from the content of the responses that only one agent actually read my query and two were form rejections. I am 52 now with two benign brain tumors and a lumpy breast that will probably be more than displaysia in the future. I have lived through some incredibly horrible events: the poverty and abuse of my childhood, my first husband’s battle with Schizophrenia and ultimate suicide at 38, rape and abuse, the abduction of my child, homelessness, domestic violence shelters and illegally being dragged through court by an American monster who abducted and withheld my baby and who was helped by the very system in Canada that was supposed to help us seek justice, not persecute us. Throughout I have worked for everything I have. I have never had drug problems, I don’t drink or smoke and I’m not mentally ill. I have done more than just survive, I have overcome everything, no matter how brutal or overwhelming, but this one has me stymied. I am completely dismayed at the challenge I face to have this book published.
My writing is all over the internet and in print. I have done interviews, book reviews of some repute, essays, poetry, fiction and I have a global political, arts and lit magazine online that has a very healthy readership. I have what agents and publishers require: a finished book that is highly marketable, a platform online and four more books ready to go. However, for some mysterious reason I can’t quite fathom, books written by fictional dogs discussing the meaning of life is worthy of a spot in Chapters and the seal of approval of an editor at one of the big six publishing houses.
Could it be that people like myself are still considered a bit too real and therefore distasteful? If that is so, then how can any writer overcome the incestuous class system that infests the Canadian publishing industry? I think my experience proves that you can’t, no matter how talented or good your work, they won’t let you in.
Two days ago I read a fascinating blog post by Lourdes Acevedo, a talented feminist writer. Her piece was inspired by this book: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The gist of Lourdes’ blog post was the exploration of the seeming contradiction within feminism as it relates to professional women who employ domestic workers to care for their homes and children while they fight for equal pay and build careers for themselves in white collar professions. The disparity in pay and many times working conditions alone made this a fascinating situation to discuss and consider not least because Lourdes posed a very important question mid way through her post: It makes me wonder, is feminism only for the privileged few?
Is it? Or is this simply a perception we have based on outmoded models of what power and equality actually is. Do we as a society view people only through the narrow lens of our own economic and social class; judging them based on our personal level of achievement? Whether we are feminists or not appears to be becoming increasingly irrelevant now in this era of the plugged in global village when we are discussing the state of our social and moral health. Every gender, faith, race and age is an active participant in the events of a world that is regressing socially, in the form of rioting, looting, flash mob violence and an epidemic of abuse against children. Perhaps it is time to look beyond simply our feminist perspective now, to evolve that ideology into something more embracing of all, to a higher level that will address the most persistent human flaw which is the twisted root of everything destructive: selfishness. We need to do it soon because the chasm between the rich and poor, the safe and the violated or more specifically, those with power and equality and those without is widening at an accelerated rate.
Obviously, Lourdes‘ thought provoking post was a catalyst for me to insert the notion of power and equality into the greater framework of poverty and violence and the unfair distribution of wealth on this planet, particularly in light of the economic crisis that has laid to waste many social programs that assist women, children, the disabled and the elderly. Economic hardship and the resultant behavior of the populace, makes a mockery of the political rhetoric that claims compassion and the care of our most vulnerable citizens as the cornerstone of our western society. There is nowhere to hide in this media saturated world, from the incontrovertible truth that this is a preposterous social lie designed to make us feel better about not doing the right thing for each other. It is easier to live in denial than share the wealth when it is our own. We do not demand that CEO’s end the greed because we indulge our own avarice by shopping for more food, clothing, vacations, jewelry, computers and appliances than we will ever use or need. We are swathed in guilt that feeds this mass indifference, a denial that is only being penetrated by the thoughtful discussion and problem solving that is happening in one sector of society: Feminists. This very nicely brings us back to the origin of this post, to the question Lourdes posed: It makes me wonder, is feminism only for the privileged few? The fact that a feminist is asking this question supports a notion I have, no, more than a notion; a probability that it will be the women, not science, religion or politics which will end the social and moral decline of the human race. It will be mothers, daughters and sisters, the life givers of this planet that in the end will save it. Why? Because it is a natural and yes, maternal urge that is without question the most potent force on this earth. To quote a line spoken by Jeff Goldbloom’s character in Jurassic Park: “Life will find a way.” Indeed, and who better to tell you this than women?
*I felt it was time to revisit an old blog post from September of last year. Partly because it has been getting a large number of visits but also because the federal election in my country (Canada) is only days away. It’s important for everyone during any election to keep their wits about them and to avoid being taken in by a better haircut and some trendy eye glasses. Vote for character people, NOT image.
Yesterday I was foraging in a Sterilite tub filled with family memorabilia, looking for some photos to attach to the names on my daughter’s family tree school project. As we all know, when you start digging, all sorts of long forgotten doodads pop up, things that give us pause to reflect and practice some good old fashioned introspection. During the course of the hunt, my daughter discovered one of these nifty items, rife with the taint of the past, an old photograph of my sixth grade class, circa 1973. She was quite impressed that I could recall the names of every kid, which wasn’t particularly remarkable, considering I’d spent five years with the same group, day in and day out, excluding summer vacation of course. And you know how it is when you’re a kid, your brain is like a sponge that absorbs and saves a massive amount of information; retaining it for future reference.
Click image to enlarge
When I reached the kid in the third row from the top, fourth from the left, I had a very brittle and vivid memory of a certain day specifically. It was one of those childhood events that cling, due in great part to the intense feelings they inspire in you at the time. It was during seventh grade and I was standing in the hallway outside my class, waiting for my mother to finish her chat with my teacher. This in itself was an anomaly, as my mother had never displayed the least bit of interest in my education or anything else regarding my existence for that matter. I was both elated and horrified. Elated by this new attention she was showing me and that I was starving for, but also horrified that she may say something off colour or brash to my teacher that would take the rest of the year to live down. In those days, the children went with their parents for these little academic visits from hell, and my worst fear was some sort of public humiliation that was sadly realized when my mother reappeared in the hallway, ready to go home. This time though, I was blindsided because for a change, my mother was not the direct source of the ridicule, but rather her appearance was exploited to full effect by the child I mentioned earlier: Mr. third row down fourth face from the left, Mr. Andrew Cash. My mother had worn her very white, very shaggy, very fake fur coat, a garish slash of flame red lipstick, horn rimmed glasses studded with rhinestones in all the rainbow colours and to top off this outlandish outfit that just screamed trash of the highest order, she was carrying one of her ‘suitcase’ purses which was large enough to contain two small newborns and a bear cub.
I immediately noticed the look of disgust on Andrew Cash’s face as Ma brushed past he and five other kids near the stairwell. My neck prickled with anxiety in preparation for the slam coming my way. When my mother was out of earshot he stopped me and asked “Is that your grandmother or your mother?” His “I’m better than you” sneer made me feel as bad as he was hoping. Naturally, I turned scarlet with shame, and as an added bonus he called me the one name every kid living in my welfare housing neighborhood hated, he called me a Willy. Willy was a derogatory name coined by the middle class kids to differentiate us from them and thus put us in our places. It meant everything vile, dirty, bad, and ugly connected to being poor and living in a project.
Suffice to say, Mr. Cash didn’t live in a housing project, as he was middle class and acceptable in every way. He was an altar boy, active in school plays and filled to the brim with the knowledge that he had enough food to eat, clean fashionable clothes to wear and educational opportunities, such as a tuition based Catholic high school, unavailable to those of us not as fortunate. In fact, this wasn’t the first time he’d called me this nor would it be the last. I descended the steps in search of my mother, mortified at the volley of cackles behind me, but secure in the knowledge that I was somehow defective because of where I lived and what I lacked. When I got home I cried. All kids would. Okay, lets flash forward shall we?
Now, you may be asking, what does this pity party of Val’s, taken directly from the annals of her woebegone childhood, possibly have to do with Politicians? Well, actually it has everything to do with politics, as well as a few other pertinent matters. You see, Mr. Andrew Cash grew up to become a rather famous pop star who at one time was signed to Island Records, the original label that signed U2 no less! Not only does he have the distinction of having been in such illustrious artistic and famous company professionally, but due to his connection to Island records he was one of the acts to play in “A Concert for Berlin” three days after the fall of the Berlin wall. Hell, he has even won a Juno for his solo album work. In addition, he has become known as a sort of social commentator in print, as a journalist in both Catholic publications and secular, espousing his big wide open love-the-underdog ideology. In fact, he has uttered so many virtuous sentiments for the poor and downtrodden of society, it is hard to believe I ever knew him at all, he is that unrecognizable. Currently, I have discovered, he has had still another metamorphosis, this time as a political candidate in Toronto. He is campaigning to become an MP for the NDP party, which is the big time babies, the federal government. Yes, that’s right, big time politics and power. His platform is quite eyebrow raising for me, one of the five poor ghetto kids who attended the above mentioned Catholic school with Mr. Cash. How about we let you take a gander for yourselves, it will save us all time and you get to see his mug now that he’s had a complete makeover, most likely courtesy of a public relations spinner.
Note the “Affordable Housing” and the “Urban Workers” on this promotional poster? Why yes my dear scribes, I too was aghast. but what truly irked me and was a serious crust on the pie of decency, was his cavalier tossing around of phrases like this: marginalized, single moms, young families who can’t afford daycare, no employment benefits etc. Yes, it would appear he has had a change of not only heart, but personality too. Hmmm… or has he? Update: Mr. Cash has taken his original campaign poster and altered it, as is shown below. Now it says nothing about marginalized single moms or affordable housing. Apparently diesel trains are more important to him now. It would seem that Mr. Cash doesn’t deem women and children living in poverty a worthy cause to take to Ottawa with him. Nothing like a good internet cleansing and a flip flop on the issues to get a guy elected.
I find it morbidly fascinating that the people we elect, the people to whom we give our dollars and sense, (yes that misspelling was intentional) are nothing more than flimflam men and women who dabble in a number of narcissist friendly professions, before they at last decide to take the fast track to our wallets by selling us fraudulent personas in return for an X on a ballot. We make mythic saviors of human beings who offer us nothing more than doctored reputations and glib tongues (Obama is a perfect case in point). Our obsession with the cult of personality over substance still astonishes and sickens this mother, feminist and advocate for victims of violence and poverty. It should sicken everyone enough to initiate an overhaul of not only our governing bodies on this planet but also the flaw that breeds in the darkness of our collective and willing ignorance. We have a social and economic crisis on this planet such as we’ve never seen before and unless we solve it from the bottom up, one person at a time, we are heading for serious destruction.
This is the point I was getting to all the way back there at the beginning. My discovery of this one class photo, reminded me to remind my daughter that it isn’t what people say that is the dynamic of their soul, it’s what they do and are. I know I still possess the same morals and sensibilities I had at thirteen, just a few more dings, but the same kid who survived project living. I suspect that Mr. Cash is no different either, and I’ll wager he still doesn’t have any friends in the ghetto. Hopefully he never will, at least not politically in the form of a vote. Although I do strongly encourage him to visit the Crips in my old neighborhood, Bay Mills, AKA Da Milz and get familiar with want and pain. However, I won’t hold my ghetto breath, because that place is full of Willies and I painfully recall how Andrew Cash feels about them/us, Politics be damned.
On August 1, 2001 I became a statistic. I was officially homeless. My daughter was thrown in a truck, I was beaten and left there to figure it out. I owned nothing except a suitcase fiilled with photographs of my daughter, as many of her clothes as I could pack, two pairs of underwear and a T shirt for myself. I felt I could survive with just the clothes on my back and actually, I didn’t really care, I was just too traumatized and absorbed in the search for my child as well as the monumental task of staying alive. I will admit to being exceptionally grateful to be out of the filthy rat infested shack my daughter and I had been forced to live in for five years of our lives. I would be sleeping in a house with a roof overhead that wasn’t full of holes and that in itself was a marvel. I didn’t expect my child and I to get out of there alive and my ability to write about all things related to this period in time is miraculous indeed.
I have to fight each and every day to focus and concentrate because the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that clings to me like a hungry alligator is a constant companion and foe that challenges my every attempt to function and write. So far, I’ve endured. At the time of these events in my life, I lived in a state of urgency and the present, with no thought of tomorrow being a viable truth. When the shelter system spit me out with the rest of the women and children who’d used up their sixty days, I had no idea what to do but my survival instincts kicked into high gear pretty damn quick. Living on the street is not something anyone can write with cogency, unless they’ve spent time in that particular gutter, isolated and desperate.
One reason I wanted to write this post, is that in my travels around the internet, I’ve come across two separate items about homelessness. Each one was written by people who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about and it is insulting to those who do. One is about exploiting the poor for money under the guise of helping them overcome their plight and it is a scam and utter bullshit. The other is written as observational poetry by someone who’s work is mediocre at best and ridiculous at the worst. This particular poem was bending down the ridiculous end like spaghetti until it snaps. I had an enormous “How dare you!” moment, I admit it and after reading this crap, I sat and cried. Yep, I did. I sobbed a tissue soaker, because here I am, with a million stories to tell, stories about real people with the authenticity that comes from suffering and guess what? No one wants them. I won’t delve into my submission history, but it appears, if I write fluff for print magazines and take a few cutesy photos, an editor will lap it up like a cat does cream. However, if I produce something real and valuable, with my heart bleeding on every word, they won’t even give me a glance. I’ve been having some serious doubts recently about whether I should continue with what appears to become a fruitless endeavor that is completely related to the corruption and politics that is inherent in the publishing industry. I want to be proven wrong about this, to be given the opportunity to give someone a memoir that would make us all a lot of money, but no takers. I clearly don’t know the right person/people, or possess the degree necessary to make me palatable to those who can give my words to the world.
As it stands, I have two books in various stages of development and a third is completed, although I’m tweaking it and polishing it, (thank you Bryan, your input was very important to me and priceless.) It will be ready to submit this week and I’m facing the prospect of that inevitable editorial boot in the face, with such despair and trepidation it is crushing my soul. I’ve survived so much and I made a promise to some very broken people, to write this book and sell it. I’ve written it, but the selling it isn’t up to me and once again, just like those days spent in hell, living on the streets of Bellingham Washington, I am at someone else’s mercy. It isn’t a good place to be because in my experience, there isn’t a surplus of mercy among the rich and powerful. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it over the next little while and if there happens to be, by some quirk of fate, an editor or agent cruising by this blog, I have this to say to you: I have a best seller in my hands, it’s entitled, The glass Tulips. please, email me and request partials, full, a proposal, whatever, just ask for it and it’s yours. Of course, I won’t hold my breath because this glass is not only half empty, it’s been drained.
Okay, off to do the usual grind, be good to yourselves and have a Happy and safe July 4th to everyone south of the border.
What was that jazz you told me?
about that house
where you used to live
the place with the porch near the subway station
the one you hated to leave
because of all the forget-me-nots in the yard
that some kid planted years before you got there
punctuating the patch and scratch brown lawn
with sapphire expressions
starlight questions in the middle of the day
when a robust uniform
tacked a paper to the door
and your old man went into a frenzy
for all of ten minutes
until he found that half empty bottle of soothing five star
and your mother said
courage is a maker
get out those garbage bag suitcases
we’ve got some serious packing to do
Yeah that’s what you told me.
Didn’t you forget the cat that time too?
I guess they don’t evict cats
On a chair
three legs sturdy
sits a girl
eyes scanning the tenement kitchen
scratching bed bug bites
and watching the cockroaches
crawling like babies
across the last slice of white bread
she counts eleven
then imagines one hundred elevens
because ma says there are many times more than what you see
but she knows there is only one slice of bread
and no milk
ma deliberates over whether to chase away the roaches
and divide the bread equally to fill a small square space of hunger
toss it out the window to the rats and birds in the alley
After she takes a draw on her cigarette, she flings the bread into the bare window sky
the six year old girl watches the smoke curl around the counter where the bread used to be
she doesn’t deliberate as the remaining cockroaches scatter
she will put this in her scribbler
when her printing is as neat as the words in her Mr. Whiskers grade one reader
But she makes a mental note to leave out the fucks and goddamns that are now drifting flippantly from her mother’s newly painted course lips
because Mr. Whiskers doesn’t swear
I’m lost in a time warp of my own making and I’m going to be in 1971 for a bit longer. I’ve been nine again and it’s been illuminating, shocking, soulful, morbidly fascinating and one wild ass ride through one summer of my life. Where is all this happening? Wilson Park of course. 😉 Yeah, I’m back in that project with everybody else and we are reliving some nasty things so I can shape it with some brazen cool and tell it like it was. When I’m done, it won’t just be a novel my dear scribes, it’s gonna be a shameless epic. So if I’m not here posting my one, two and three minute poems WITHOUT revision (Ms. Jessie) 😉 I’ll be back there, so when I’m finished I can take you there.
Just to get you into my frame of mind and feeling, here is one song that opens the gates for me every damn time I sit down to write the glorious trashy prose that was Wilson Park. Staples Singers, take them there will ya…