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round the bay

I spent last weekend in Trinity, at a writing workshop and retreat. What a privilege and a delight it was to have 3.5 days of thinking, writing, creating, and imagining together in such a magical place.

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The retreat, hosted by Allyson Latta (who edited What the Oceans Remember), has been over two years in the making. That we were able to meet together, now, in Trinity, was the confluence of several factors: the strength of our campus autoethnography reading and research group (which brings together students and faculty members from all over the campus, from Gender Studies to Music, Education, Sociology, Community Health, Engineering, and more), the good folks at Artisan Inn (one of whom, Tineke Gow, is a Dutch ex-pat who has lived in Newfoundland for forty-plus years), a Vancouver writer’s decision to visit Newfoundland and join the retreat, and midterm break.

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Blueberry Cottage – where all the writing magic happened.

It’s been an incredibly busy fall term on the teaching and administrative front, and these 3.5 days gave us much-needed time to recharge, return, and reflect, and from there, to grow and expand our writing and thinking. Indeed, writing together is part of the magic of a retreat: sharing space and talking through ideas made all of our writing stronger and richer.

Trinity, for those who don’t know, is a small community in Trinity Bay. Surrounded on almost all sides by water, it’s a gorgeous, easily walkable town, and almost every single room is a room with a view. As a tourist we ran into one day put it, “It’s like being in a movie set.” And truly, it is.

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On the final evening, Allyson and Tineke worked together to host a pop-up pre-book launch for What the Oceans Remember. We’d thought it would be a quiet event, with seven to ten folks (our crew plus a couple more) in attendance. But Tineke spread the word and there were about 20 people in total under the cozy eaves of the Twine Loft. Some were local. Others were just visiting. Some came far (France! Israel!); others had popped in from St. John’s for a quick getaway (including a colleague from MUN). And what a wonderful audience they were: they laughed at all the right spots and asked great questions. It was, as they say in Dutch, ontzettend gezellig.

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pop-up launch in the Twine Loft, Artisan Inn. Photo by Allyson Latta
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Twine Loft. Photo by Allyson /Latta
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Signing books. Photo by Allyson Latta.

Now back home, I’ve got another busy week ahead of me. There’s teaching. There’s stack of grading waiting and another, larger stack coming later this week. There are meetings. And emails.

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Fog fingers moving and stretching

More importantly, there’s the St. John’s launch of What the Oceans Remember!. I’m thrilled that Angela Antle will host it, and equally happy to have my former student (and musician), Kate Lahey sharing her music with us. Broken Books, our local independent bookstore, will be selling books. And there will be  homemade food, a reading, a door prize, examples of archival materials, some (small) freebies, and more. I. Can’t. Wait.

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Our room with a view in Trinity.

What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is available in ebook and hardcover formats through all major booksellers (both big box and independent). It can also be ordered from WLU Press.

© Sonja Boon, 2019.

 

beginning anywhere….

Sometimes I get the opportunity to blog for other sites… and today’s post comes to you direct from the blog hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University Press :

“Begin Anywhere. Just Begin.” That’s what I saw when I stood by the checkout counter at my local arts and crafts store. I’m not usually one to notice motivational cards and posters, but this pack of cards – rendered in Mary Engelbreit’s typically cheerful colours and patterns – made me pause.

“Begin Anywhere.” I remember my master’s supervisor saying this to me when I came to him, overwhelmed by my research project on eighteenth-century Parisian salon women. It’s a piece of advice I’ve since shared with countless students of my own. There’s a hopefulness to this statement. You can’t go wrong, it says, as long as you begin. One step is all it takes, and just like that, you’ve undermined the tyranny of the blank page.

Want to read more? You can find the rest of my post here.

52 Hours in Winnipeg

This past week I got to do something I’ve never ever done before and it was a total thrill. I flew to Winnipeg to for two presentations and a radio interview for Thin Air: The Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival!

I’ve gone to literary festivals before as an audience member, but I’ve never been a real author on the festival stage.

What. A. Thrill.
That’s all I can say.

 

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Winnipeg, for those who don’t know, is smack dab in the middle of Canada. According to Google Maps, it’s 4566 km from St. John’s. Apparently, it would take 812 hours to walk there from here (Google Maps also tells me that I’d need to take a ferry, that the fastest route crosses briefly into the United States, that some roads are closed in winter, and that Winnipeg is in a different time zone).

In many ways a typical prairie city, it sprawls out from the meeting of two rivers, the Red and Assiniboine. The horizon is low; the sky is huge.

 

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Looking up at the glorious blue sky. Provencher bridge. Winnipeg
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sky. just because. just look at it.
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Red River
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A memorial in honour of Manitoba’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

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As friends reminded me while I was there, Winnipeg had its heyday in the early twentieth century. Located as it is in the middle of a continent, it was ideally placed for the growth and development of industry, especially once the railway was completed. Everything had to pass through Winnipeg on its way west or east. Tall warehouse towers followed, and Winnipeg became known as the Chicago of the North. The population exploded. But this newfound wealth was fleeting; the completion of the Panama Canal, in 1914, transformed transportation networks, and soon Winnipeg’s glory faded. Today, the warehouses still stand. Some have been repurposed; others remain vacant. On their walls, the shadows of histories past remain in the form of ghost signs.

 

 

Today, Winnipeg is probably best known (to other Canadians, at least) for its cold winters (Winterpeg is accurate…) and its mosquito-filled summers. Some, thinking back to their school years, may remember the six-week General Strike of 1919. Others will recall Métis leader, Louis Riel.

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Louis Riel’s grave in St. Boniface.
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St. Boniface Cathedral ruin

 

Others of artistic frames of mind, will know that Winnipeg hosts a renowned contemporary music festival in the depths of winter, and that it is home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

 

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It’s also home to Thin Air, a writers’ and readers’ festival now over twenty years old. Thin Air brings writers from across the country into conversation with readers from Winnipeg and environs. There’s something for everyone: evening mainstage events with international literary stars, Voices in the Circle events featuring Indigenous writers, events in French for francophones, school events, university events, and more. It’s a jam-packed week of activities and I’m sorry I was only able to be there for such a short time.

I participated in two events: an afternoon Big Ideas event (for non-fiction books), and a university event at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba (together with Montreal-based but prairie-raised Guyanese-Canadian writer Kaie Kellough). Kaie and I also did an interview for UMFM, the University of Manitoba radio station.

 

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In mid-thought (picture by Candida Rifkind)

 

What was it all like? So much fun!

 

I was treated royally by all festival organizers and volunteers who were always there to pick me up, drop me off, answer any questions, and smile, and was totally tickled to see my name on the festival bag, among so many others whose work I have loved.

 

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swag bag!

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The audiences were welcoming and enthusiastic, with interested and thoughtful questions, and I really enjoyed getting to know them in conversations after the events. I met some writers (and bought their books, of course), and discovered shared interests in a range of themes. As a bonus, I got to poke around a bit of Winnipeg and St. Boniface and also managed to spend some time with old friends.

Sadly, even though both Michelle Obama and Jagmeet Singh were in town at the same time as I was, neither of them came to my readings (the nerve…)

Would I do this again, if asked? Absolutely.

My deepest thanks to Thin Air and to WLU Press for making this possible. What an absolute treat.

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Millennium Library, Winnipeg, where the Big Ideas events took place.

 

© Sonja Boon, 2019.

 

 

 

 

marinating the past

I’ve been cleaning out my office in preparation for a new academic year (which starts today! I’m not ready….) and came across an essay by Aritha van Herk, first recommended to me by a good friend who recently relocated to Calgary (cue very sad face).

“Brisebois Drive” was originally published in The Walrus in 2009. In some ways, it is about Ephrem Brisebois, “the first French-Canadian officer in the North West Mounted Police,” and a murky figure in the history of Calgary. But really the essay is about history itself, about the stories we tell and about those we don’t, about how stories shift and change, and about how we use those stories to shore up our own.

As van Herk writes, “We would prefer the past to reassure us, and so enter into a false exchange with its fragments. Hardest of all for us to imagine is history as a dynamic space that hindsight cannot stop shape-shifting. So we read backwards, hunting for those turning points  that impinge on who we have become.”

Later in the essay, after piecing together the fragments of Brisebois’ life, she looks at the gaps between, trying to figure who Brisebois was, and in relation this, why she is drawn to his story. There is little that is particularly appealing about this man, and those who worked under him complained about his leadership. For van Herk, many questions remain. But are those questions about Brisebois, or are they about van Herk herself?

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ruminating on the life of my great-great-grandmother, Joorayee Radha

“In truth,” writes van Herk,

the temptation of history is rooted in its instability. Even though the past is presumably complete, its rich contingency is evidenced by our revisiting stories, shaping them into a tale or a dish to tempt contemporary palates. We are treated to another book on Napoleon, on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on crinolines and creosote, new details previously overlooked. History does its turn on the cultural boards, then retreats, a shabby coat in the back of the winter closet, shoved there on a spring day wanting to be done with the weight of wool. There it hangs, a scarecrow with aphasia, holding the rag and bone shop of experience but unable to transmit that to a constant audience. And so I marinate and barbecue Brisebois, give him ulterior motives and base desires, try to make him more interesting than the ineffectual or dreaming busboy he doubtless was.

Which stories do we marinate? Which stories do we discard? How do we build our own stories in the gaps that remain?

 

What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is now available for pre-order and you can order it via AmazonIndigo, Powell’s Books, Waterstones, and Blackwell’s, among others! 

© Sonja Boon, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

cornstarch; or, eating a bath bomb

One of the great benefits of doing archival research in a place with family  is, well, precisely that: family. Family you can catch up with after a long day in the archives, family you can chat with, reminisce with, laugh with, and commune with. And family that you can eat with, and that know the kinds of things that you like best.

So it was that when I arrived in Suriname in 2015 for the first time in over forty years, there was a whole basket of stuff waiting for me – all delivered to my apartment hotel by my aunt earlier in the evening.

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In addition to homemade guava jelly and a mango from her tree, my aunt had also left a tub of maizena koekjes, a traditional Surinamese cookie made with corn starch (no picture, because I forgot and then I ate them!).

I hadn’t had maizena koekjes in years, likely not since spending a summer with that aunt and uncle, then living in Barbados, when I was 11. The cookies were both oddly familiar – as though I’d just had one the day before – and curiously new at the same time.

I’m not sure where maizena koekjes come from and why or how they developed in Suriname, of all places. They do share some similarities with other butter cookies, including shortbread, but the cornstarch makes them something altogether different.

In any event, last week I decided it was time to bake up a batch.

“Gluten free!” a friend with a celiac partner wrote, when she saw the recipe I posted online. “I’m bookmarking this one for sure.”

The recipe is super simple; really, it looks similar to my go-to shortbread recipe (highly recommended, by the way), but for the cornstarch and the egg. Butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and cornstarch.

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product placement. We heart no-name. We don’t get any cash for sharing this, though.

Whip it all up until it makes a sticky ball. Roll into tiny balls. Use a fork to flatten them and then sprinkle with rainbow sprinkles. Toss in the oven for 15 minutes and you’re ready to go.

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round white balls….
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Is it possible to sprinkle sprinkles and not get them all over? Asking for a friend…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the cornstarch, the texture of the cookie dough is like a firmer version of goop, that fun cornstarch and water kid science trick that’s both solid and liquid at the same time. (We once thought about doing it in large scale for a kid birthday party – doesn’t it look like a blast?)

The teenagers were not entirely convinced by the recipe itself (cornstarch? no flour? this was dubious), but they’re usually game to try anything that has the word ‘cookie’ in it, so they were already hovering around the stove before the cookies were finished baking. It took some effort on their part to wait until they were cool enough.

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Very lightly browned, the recipe said.

“These are strange,” said teenager the elder, even as helped himself to a second cookie. By cookie #4, he’d changed his tune: “It’s not that I don’t like them, I do; they’re just weird.”

“They’re like cornstarch bombs,” said teenager the younger, reaching for his third cookie, “You take a bite and everything explodes and cakes itself around the inside of your mouth.”

By cookie #4, face scrunched up: “It’s an interesting experience. It’s like what I would think eating a bath bomb would be like.”

Cookie #5: “They taste so good, but I can’t eat another one at all.” (for the record, cookie #6 followed about ten minutes later).

Strangely addictive they definitely are. The texture is both comforting and alien, the melting experience simultaneously seductive and strange. There’s really no way to stop at one, or even, at two (or, if you’re my kids, at five or six), which is too bad because really, they’re better after a day or two.

My verdict? In the end, I’d say they turned out alright, especially for a first go. I didn’t have butter, which I imagine affected not only flavour but also texture. I suspect that I added too much cornstarch (the recipe says that the dough should be plakkerig– sticky – but not too plakkerig). I also didn’t quite bake them long enough. Although the recipe asks people to watch out that they don’t get too brown, mine were not quite brown enough, and lacked a bit of crispness. They aren’t as good as the ones I had four years ago, but I’ll get there. I know what to do next time, and given the kids’ responses, that will likely be soon!

 

What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is now available for pre-order and you can order it via AmazonIndigo, Powell’s Books, Waterstones, and Blackwell’s, among others! 

© Sonja Boon, 2019.