Monday, July 3, 2017

Oscar of Between, a Memoir of Identity and Ideas by Betsy Warland

This genre-bending work moves from vulnerable personal reflections to thoughts on the state of the world. In 2007, a camouflage exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum inspired Oscar. In 2015, the New York Times reported, "'young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.'" Meanwhile, Warland wonders wearily at the "endless categories in which one individual or group must unfailingly be subservient to another."

Lightening dark moments with linguistic luminescence, the author wonders poignantly "if there is any greater violence than story-cide." She evokes "the unexpected ecstasy" of air rushing between cars of a moving train. And, in Oscar's sudden memory of riding her wounded Spitfire as it "gyres to the sea," she reveals trans-generational hauntings and the sense of WWII in our DNA.

In Montreal, she carves out writing space by occupying the apartment of a fellow writer who has temporarily exchanged his space for hers in Vancouver. Seeing a neighbour's drying brassieres pinned on "a frigid line" evokes memories of childhood, the realization of "how transparent rural life was." Oscar hangs out her other clothing, but still cannot bring herself to dry her underwear out of doors. Nor, she notices, does the guy who lives downstairs. Camouflage again.

Reading Oscar, I suddenly recalled a line from Carolyn Heilbrun about the social pressure to follow the established "paths laid down for the young." How to survive if you are one who cannot or chooses not to follow these social strictures? Oscar of Between reveals some answers to this conundrum. Before reading this remarkable book, I had given little thought to the practical decisions and challenges faced on a daily basis by those who occupy the space between sexes. Astonishingly, one of the hierarchies in which Betsy Warland's work is lowered is the world of feminist poetry. There, she is quietly, heartbreakingly dropped, both from readings and from opportunities to be anthologized.

For me, this book was an emotional roller coaster, showing me flashes of how another writer of my generation reacted to life events within and without. The astonishing possibility of "Military manoeuvres" on Hornby Island. How "within a few months Netflix wipes out...video stores on the Drive, where "Oscar talked film with the staff," ending these conversations.

On the macro level, Warland reveals camouflage as "the foundation for runaway credit" and feels that "US citizens abandoned their right to be told the truth decades ago, settled for what only sounds believable." She admires writer friends from different backgrounds who tell their stories, "knowing what's at stake and not backing away from it."

The childhood gun vignette struck me with familiarity and surprise. The .22 her father gives her for Christmas, despite her mother's fears about what the neighbours will think. The smile exchanged by father and daughter, her relieved conclusion that he had seen her "as she was." When I was about the same age, Dad gave my brother a .22 and took him for target practice. We were inseparable playmates, but I'd already accepted that as a girl, I couldn't expect to be invited along. I didn't want a gun of my own, yet at that moment, I knew my real self was invisible to my father, had already doomed myself to the acceptance that he was incapable of seeing me "as I was."

Humans are social and tribal animals. Yet in the end, the hard social and tribal categories go nowhere. Our commonalities are so much greater than our differences. If our race is to survive and thrive, we humans must face that reality, rather than turning from it in fear.

Uncompromised and uncamouflaged, Betsy Warland belongs unequivocally to one tribe. She is a writer. I highly recommend Breathing the Page, an illuminating series of essays on the writing process, published while she was still head of The Writer's Studio she envisioned and established at SFU. These days, she teaches and does manuscript consults for other writers.

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