University of Waterloo English alumna Kathleen Venema is an Associate Professor at the University of Winnipeg. But it is her experience in UWaterloo’s English program, where she completed both an MA and a PhD that she credits with shaping her new memoir, Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces. Writes Dr. Venema “From start to finish, Bird-Bent Grass evinces critical, analytical, and creative skills and deft rhetorical shaping that honours what I learned throughout my studies at the University of Waterloo.” The press describes the work as follows:
Bird-Bent Grass chronicles an extraordinary mother–daughter relationship that spans distance, time, and, eventually, debilitating illness. Personal, familial, and political narratives unfold through the letters that Geeske Venema-de Jong and her daughter Kathleen exchanged during the late 1980s and through their weekly conversations, which started after Geeske was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease twenty years later.
In 1986, Kathleen accepted a three-year teaching assignment in Uganda, after a devastating civil war, and Geeske promised to be her daughter’s most faithful correspondent. The two women exchanged more than two hundred letters that reflected their lively interest in literature, theology, and politics, and explored ideas about identity, belonging, and home in the context of cross-cultural challenges. Two decades later, with Geeske increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s disease, Kathleen returned to the letters, where she rediscovered the evocative image of a tiny, bright meadow bird perched precariously on a blade of elephant grass. That image – of simultaneous tension, fragility, power, and resilience – sustained her over the years that she used the letters as memory prompts in a larger strategy to keep her intellectually gifted mother alive.
You can read an interview with the author here, where she talks more about the experience of writing such a book, as well as the events that inspired it. Or follow the CBC coverage here.
Were you waiting for part 2? A looong time? So long that you’d forgotten a part 1? Well, in case you need a good book for the holiday break, here’s a round-up of some of the best books our UWaterloo people have been reading in the past year.
Renée Belliveau (MA graduate)
I recently picked up The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, a Yale English graduate who sadly passed away five days after graduation, and I instantly saw myself reflected back. Her prose is fresh and puts forth a mixture of ambition and anxiety that I think a lot of us graduate students feel, or can at least remember feeling. I’ll tag on Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader to this post, for anyone looking to be reacquainted with their love for literature and the English language.
Andrew Deman (Lecturer)
ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times by Andrew MacLean. Apart from featuring a badass gender positive female protagonist, ApocalyptiGirl is just a really rare SF beast: a whimsical dystopia that doesn’t undermine its own politics. The moving, central relationship of the story is the all-encompassing love between a girl and her cat, rendered without a hint of irony. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a text as free of cynicism or pretense. It’s a joyous read.
Jennifer Harris (Associate Professor)
It has to be Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, the most original neo-slave narrative I have read in a very long time (apologies to Colson Whitehead). I’m generally not one to pick up a Young Adult novel with zombies, except this pulled me in: “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.” As an allegory about slavery and post-slavery it is stunning.
Bibi Ashyana Harricharran (MA graduate)
The Grass Dancer by Susan Power. This is a powerful novel. Power manipulates with the Gothic to her own liking to demonstrate violence, power, and subjugation. The story is told through the first person where each character gets a chapter to tell his/her own story. One of the things that stood out to me the most is when Power integrates the play, Macbeth, to project catharsis. The characters in Power’s text go through a sense of catharsis because they experience the same betrayal as Duncan. It is a difficult narrative for an author to pull off: you either fail miserably or you succeed. Power succeeds because she remains faithful to her subtle perspective.
Linda Warley (Associate Professor and Associate Dean)
The best book I have read recently is Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. It won the RBC Taylor Prize. The book tells the stories of seven Indigenous teenagers who had to leave their home communities in order to attend high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They all died. Their deaths and the handling of the cases by policing and justice services reveals much about the systemic racism in Canada that affects the lives of Indigenous people today. It is a heartbreaking book, but necessary reading.
I have seen the book Flash From the Past: 140 Photographs from the Waterloo Region Record at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo, but had no idea that the co-author, Chris Masterman, is currently enrolled in UWaterloo as an English student, until one of her professors, Dr. Chad Wriglesworth, wrote me. Masterman, a former librarian, is interviewed here about the experience of sharing the photographs with the public.
I am thrilled to introduce the newest graduate from UWaterloo English’s PhD program, Dr. Clare Bermingham. Some of you may know her as the Director of the Writing and Communication Centre at UWaterloo; you should also know her as the author of the dissertation “Feeling Queer Together: Identity, Community, and the Work of Affect in the Pre-Stonewall Lesbian Magazine, the Ladder.”
Dr. Bermingham was supervised by Dr. Victoria Lamont, with committee members Drs. Alice Kuznair and Kevin McGuirk. Her internal/external examiner was Dr. Shannon Dea, and her external examiner was Dr. Michael Cobb.
Feeling Queer Together: Identity, Community, and the Work of Affect in the Pre-Stonewall Lesbian Magazine, the Ladder
This project examines the emergence of lesbian identity and community through the work of queer feeling, specifically as it was produced in the American magazine, the Ladder (1956-1972). The Ladder was published by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first national lesbian organization, whose politics of respectability called for lesbians to conform with and adjust to normative gender and class ideals. While such strategies of assimilation responded to the traumatic discourses of disease and deviance that framed lesbian life in the 1950s and 1960s, they further marginalized women who could not easily or legitimately occupy normative categories of gender and class. As an extension of DOB, the Ladder has been treated as a largely conformist text; however, its short fiction, poetry, and readers’ letters engaged differently with the push towards normativity by challenging ideas of value, happiness, gender, family, strangeness, and love. By examining the Ladder’s literary texts and letters for the ways in which they invoke feeling and affectively produce different ways of being and doing queerness, I explore the ways that queer feeling opens up every day spaces for lesbian possibility as good feelings of happiness, pleasure, recognition, connection, and love are bound up with feelings of trauma, erasure, and loss. In reading the Ladder as a complex affective archive of this period of early lesbian identity and community, I show how a community’s texts during critical historical moments can reveal the workings and movements of, what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feelings,” the affective currents that constitute a community’s becomings and changes before and as they coalesce into a static history.
Please do not reproduce the images in this post without contacting Dr. Bermingham for further permission information.
UWaterloo Alumna Carolyn Huizinga Mills has published her first book, The Little Boy Who Lived Down The Drain and will be signing copies at Words Worth Books, in Uptown Waterloo, Sunday Nov. 25 from 12-2pm. The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain was nominated for the 2018 Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Blue Spruce Award as well as being selected by the OneWorld Schoolhouse Foundation to be part of their Rainforest of Reading program.
Earlier this year Carolyn reflected on her English courses at UWaterloo: “One memory that still stands out to me from my university days so many years ago is sitting in a class taught by professor Eric McCormack, thinking: He’s written a book! I remember being impressed (perhaps even awed) by the fact that he was an author, a genuine, bonafide author, and he was teaching me about writing. So it seems surreal, now, to be able to call myself an author, too.” (“A Dream“)
Visit Carolyn’s author website at: http://carolynhuizingamills.ca
Dr. Emma Vossen
successfully defended her PhD in English at UWaterloo in July; now you can preview
her co-edited book, Feminism in Play
, part of the Palgrave Games in Context Series. She also contributed a chapter, “The Magic Circle and Consent in Gaming Practices.” From the press:
Feminism in Play focuses on women as they are depicted in video games, as participants in games culture, and as contributors to the games industry. This volume showcases women’s resistance to the norms of games culture, as well as women’s play and creative practices both in and around the games industry. Contributors analyze the interconnections between games and the broader societal and structural issues impeding the successful inclusion of women in games and games culture. In offering this framework, this volume provides a platform to the silenced and marginalized, offering counter-narratives to the post-racial and post-gendered fantasies that so often obscure the violent context of production and consumption of games culture.