Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon

This morning I’m busy reminding myself that I’m an optimist. An anxious, cautious one, but an optimist all the same. I went to bed before the result were in, having avoided social media all evening, and then woke with nonspecific anxiety (mine are usually very specific). I guess I knew he’d won. Last night I’d thought it would be close, but that the US would reject, if only by a narrow margin, a narcissist demagogue whose only real platform was hatred.

My 17-year-old daughter came to me while I was reading through the news and reaction early this morning and still sorting through my own shock. For those of us with children, our most important job today will be to guide. Start by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Right now. A choked up Anthony Van Jones wondered what he’d tell his children. “You tell your kids don’t be a bully, you tell your kids don’t be a bigot… and then you have this outcome…This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s where the pain comes.”

It’s painful but necessary to recognize that bigotry and racism are alive and well, not only in North America but worldwide. It’s horrifying but instructive to watch the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis and the misogynists gloat and claim victory. It’s also the clearest of signs that the glass ceiling is still fucking hard to break. The job isn’t finished. We aren’t done. It isn’t over.

Last month I had the chance to see Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon at the American History Museum in Washington, DC. If was a tangible reminder of how far we’ve come (it’s just over one hundred years old), it can also be a weapon against despair. Look at it. That humble recommissioned milk wagon helped change the face of North American politics.

The US came within spitting distance of electing the first female president—and they did, by popular vote. Maybe this time the electoral college will do something unexpected in December. Or maybe the US wasn’t ready for a woman to lead them—not yet.

This is not the time to concede defeat to the bigots and the racists and the anti-Semites and the misogynists. This is the time to get up again and again and again and keep working to create a world of tolerance and fairness and equality. It’s time to redouble our efforts. It’s time to guide and mobilize our kids to keep fighting, and to fight harder. The middle-aged white guys who turned out in droves won’t live forever.

I’m going to keep the words painted on Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon close to mind and heart, and make sure my kids see them too.





Occasional artist series, No. 2: Joseph Beuys



Infiltration-homogen für Cello (Homogenous Infiltration for Cello)
Joseph Beuys
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa





Beuys made several of these for musician and performance artist Charlotte Moorman.

This piece developed out of a work in which Beuys wrapped a grand piano in felt. “In a normal sense a piano is an instrument used to produce sounds,” he said. “When not in use it is silent, but still has sound potential. Here, no sound is possible and the piano is condemned to silence.”




Authors for Indies 2016

I never worked in a bookstore, but when I was fourteen the Kitchener Public Library opened a branch in my suburb. I couldn’t get there fast enough. It was raining and I slipped, ass over teakettle, on the wet floor. They hired me anyway.

I’m sure I held the record for slothful shelving. I could take up to two hours to return with the empty book trolley, and NO ONE CARED. I read my way through the stacks indiscriminately: three pages of Jean Auel, half of a Danielle Steel, the juicy bits of Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, obviously. It was the best job going.

Fast forward a few (ahem) years. I have a book of my own out now, and for the second year in a row, I’ll play bookseller for a day. Janie Chang’s excellent stewardship has made Authors for Indies the best book party going. Last year I pressed Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, Alissa York’s Effigy, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox into readers’ hands.

I have a new list of favourites this year.  Maybe they’ll let me work the cash register. One can dream.


page from my notebook



Text: Madeleine Thien, from her Avie Bennett lecture at University of Toronto, March 3, 2016 (The Field of Sound: JS Bach, China, and the Possibilities of Personhood)

Photograph: New York Armories, December 2014, Hélène Grimaud/Douglas Gordon’s tears become… streams become…

Connect better



Human relationship is full of disconnection. We misunderstand, we miss opportunities, we misjudge. “Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps,” wrote Elena Ferrante, “and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them.”[1] This reality, in part, drives writers. In spite of the frequent experience of disconnection, or maybe because of it, we strive to connect through stories.

Last week I received some thrilling news. A short story that was published last year in The Austin Review, “Salt,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I’m still processing the honour that this represents. When things are intense, I write to try to dissipate that energy, or repackage it somehow. When I don’t understand, I write in an attempt to make sense. When I feel misunderstood, I write to be understood.

“When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world,” wrote Zadie Smith, in her essay Fail Better. “That’s what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.” In that struggle to express the truth of my way of being in the world, I’m feel I’m connected to her and all writers in an unbroken chain that reaches through history and around the world.

Ferrante famously eschews the cult of celebrity by refusing public appearances, and has argued that this decision was not only freeing for her but also created the conditions for more intimate connection with the work. As a creative writing teacher, I’ve taught stories that acquainted my students with writers I love via stories about a chance meeting in Yalta[2], an imagined future in coastal Ireland[3], a stolen wallet in New York[4], and a struggle for power in a steam bath in Mexico City[5]. It’s no small thrill to connect with American readers I will never meet via a story I wrote about a night drive in southern Ontario.

Which brings me back to The Pushcart Prize. Pushcart Press is one of the last surviving co-ops from the 1960s-70s. It began and continues to be a paean to the written word without regard for commerce. It’s sustained by endowments and an army of unpaid volunteers and has been recognized many times over as a distinguished and influential contributor to arts and letters in America.

In this past year, through this story and my debut novel, I’ve come to know some of the publishers and editors and volunteers who helped my words find their readers, here in Canada and in the US. It has been a truly humbling experience to discover the scores of tireless and passionate people who sustain the literary arts with their presses, granting programs, reading series and festivals, literary journals, competitions, and the enormous gift of their enthusiasm and engagement.

So this note is also my thanks for the tireless efforts and acts of faith that went into establishing a new journal that promotes new voices. That effort connects Michael Barrett, Tatiana Ryckman, Vincent Scarpa, and Peter McCrady at The Austin Review in Austin, Texas to founding Pushcart editors Bill Henderson, Joyce Carol Oates and Ralph Elison in Yonkers, NY, where that press began. Their efforts sustain, nourish, and connect us all.


[1] The Story of the Lost Child

[2] “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekov

[3] “Ox Mountain Death Song” by Kevin Barry

[4] “Found Objects” by Jennifer Egan

[5] “Mexican Manifesto” by Roberto Bolaño