Something happened

On the first of May we take out a window high up in the old barn. Then we wait. The day my eye catches the swoop and flick, wings like a drawn bow, body and tail the arrow, delight soars in me. Followed by the gulp of mingled grief and relief. Because I’m always afraid they might not make it back. Because barn swallows are on Canada’s Species at Risk list. Because they winter elsewhere, fly thousands of kilometres to build their nest on a collar tie in the barn everyone thought we should pull down. A friend and I spent a perilous summer jacking up a collapsing wall — and with it the roof. It’s still not a hymn to symmetry, this barn, but it shelters our sheep and is home to swallows. There are fewer and fewer such barns. There are fewer and fewer birds. Bird populations in North America have declined by three billion since 1970.

Something happened to me a couple of years ago. I was about to turn sixty. My father had died. I was watching the swallows skim the skies, my mind and heart and spirit rising with them. And then I fell back into my humanness. Into my sorrow. Into my responsibility. Suddenly I couldn’t do it any more, the two step of guilt and delight. I was tired of it and of myself. I needed to act, so that when I looked up I could say, ‘Thank you, birds. I’m doing what I can.’

A year later (and a year ago today) I woke up in a tent on a logging road, listening for the sound of heavy equipment. I lay on  lumpy ground and the dawn chorus built around me, one song then another and another. We were there on that road, the three of us, two women in their twenties and me, to block the cutting of an old forest. A forest full of nesting birds.

The birds, of course, were there for the black-flies, and the black-flies were ready for us. That first morning, we drank coffee and swatted and contemplated how better to sling our Extinction Rebellion banner across the road. I have rarely been happier.

From a letter to a friend who just joined Extinction Rebellion and is suffering full-blown climate grief.

Cup Flower or Silphium perfoliatum in my garden this morning

Yes, the grief at what is happening to the beautiful living earth is hard to bear. Actually, the only thing that has really helped me is to be able to say with all my heart to the swallows, the lichens, the sweat bees, ‘I’m doing what I can. I will do what I can.’ Not perfectly, of course, but that doesn’t matter, I think, beside an unconditional willingness. The grief becomes fuel. What I do won’t be enough but I think, together, we can. And I’m free to use all of me to do my bit — my imagination; stubbornness; intelligence; way with words; years working blue collar jobs; experience of recovery from addiction, abuse; sadness; silliness; pleasure in gaining competence. All of it. I remember 30 years ago listening to the writer Dorothy Allison speak and thinking, ‘she’s lined up with herself.’ I wasn’t, and I wanted that and now I have it. Because I’ll do what I can for what I love most deeply which is this natural world. Will I give up steak right away? Will I never get on a plane again? Will I stop driving 168 km round trip to work at Tangled Garden? No, not yet anyway, but I’ll make changes personally and, more importantly, I’ll fight for government level changes.

I think a couple of years ago I talked with you about the grief of losing the refuge of wildness, how I used to go to the big wild to relinquish the burden of my own significance. To delight in being a speck. Only then I began to realize we specks are destroying the wild. It felt hard to lose that sense of a place where my actions didn’t matter. But then one day it occurred to me that no indigenous culture ever says, our actions don’t matter. Those cultures always teach the importance of behaving properly, of respect and ceremony, of acknowledging both that we are a small part of the whole and that all our words and actions make a difference. It was a western fantasy, that untouched and untouchable, that virgin wildness. We’ve always been part of the whole. We’ve always been responsible.

That whole is complex and powerful and vulnerable and capable of healing in ways we don’t know about. Which is where the most cheering book I know about comes in, the Isabella Tree ‘Wilding’ book I told you about. I look for information about resiliency. Marine areas that have been truly protected. Women in Ghana replanting traditional tree crops. I don’t watch TV. I don’t watch horrible clips of wildlife fleeing fires. I turn my mind to what we can do here. How to take the amazing UN goals for sustainable development and biodiversity and start making them come true a little, here. Because I really do not believe that late stage extraction capitalism is anything but a cancer. I don’t believe the ‘wealth’ it creates makes people as happy as living within the ecological boundaries of the planet could. Pretty much everything will have to change for us to turn things around. But that doesn’t seem so bad. All around me in rural Nova Scotia I see people who are only one generation from subsistence farming. They have a knowledge about community and looking after each other that I lack. I, on the other hand, know about things they (mostly) don’t, like what it’s like to grow up queer, what a civil war in Africa looks like, what the anonymous author of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ had to say about imperfection.

Where am I going with that?? Possibilities of communities that combine old and new, I suppose. I’ve been talking with my local county councillor, getting his support for Annapolis County council declaring a Climate Emergency and then doing something about it. There are 6 come-from-away councillors and 5 born around here. John, my councillor, was born in Kingsport, graduated high school and worked on the railroads his whole life. He thinks the born-heres will vote with him to support the motion but was feeling only 6 or 7 of us in his district of 1800 really cared about the issue. Another XR member supplied me with some good quotes and he sent them out to constituents from 14 to 87. To his surprise he got an earful of support for doing something now.

So I do have hope. It seems arrogant not to. And sort of pointless. Not that one can control the feelings of sorrow — or should. But it feels better to act. You are not alone. We are not alone.

Good News

Guernica Editions is going to publish my new novel, now called Cardinal Divide, in 2020. The contract is signed, the manuscript in the hands of their editor.

I don’t know a lot about Guernica Editions except that they’ve been around for forty years, have an interesting list and I like their covers.

Last winter I did a bit more rewriting, had no luck interesting agents in the book, then settled down to research Canadian publishers of literary fiction willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts. Turns out there are a lot of interesting small Canadian presses out there. Mostly they encourage you to read some of the books they’ve already published. Our local library was able to search by publishers so I could borrow some. Others I bought. It felt a bit random, deciding which to read, but the process did help me narrow down the list of presses. Plus I read some good writing.

I’d love to have an agent again, someone who really knows the publishing world. By the sort of serendipity that happens more often when you live in New York City (as I did once) than in rural Nova Scotia, my first novel, Where Bones Dance, caught the attention of a wonderful agent who numbered Jamaica Kincaid among her authors. She sent it to a few places, got some nibbles but no takers and told me to get on with a new book. We’d get that published first. But then she died, much too young. The novel languished in a drawer for years. Finally I set myself a goal of fifty new rejections. As I recall, I only made it to twenty-three.

My goal for Cardinal Divide was to send it to ten presses. This required cover letters tailored to each press, an exquisite form of torture. It helped to read other people’s so, for what it’s worth, here’s one version of mine:

Dear ­­­­­­­­­­_____________,
Please find attached my new novel, Cardinal Divide, a work of literary fiction set in Alberta in the year 2000.
A father comes out to his daughter as a woman. Or at least, he was once a woman. It’s complicated. Funny. Painful. Eventually joyful. Meanwhile the daughter, who was adopted, has her own identity issues. At the Aboriginal addictions treatment centre where she works, everyone assumes she is indigenous. But is she? How can she find out? Her need to know leads her down dangerous roads.
Cardinal Divide is full of voices rarely heard in fiction. It explores the hunger for certainty and the mutability of identity, whether of gender, race or sexuality. Authenticity isn’t simple. Acting as somebody else is simultaneously a way to deceive and to explore the world.  Characters who pass as male, as white, as straight, straddle the cardinal divides. And then, sometimes, passing is becoming.
This book grew out of my experiences as a new immigrant to Canada, to Edmonton specifically. I was intrigued by the number of people I met who discovered their indigenous heritage as adults, and was startled by the level of ‘drunken Indian’ racism I heard from white Canadians. I began working at an addictions treatment center created by indigenous people. Later I was hired by the Alberta Native Friendship Centre to write a paper on the situation of two spirit youth. The fluidity and sophistication of traditional indigenous concepts of gender and sexual orientation stirred my imagination.
About myself: I’m English originally, white and queer. I was born in Hong Kong and lived in Germany, Israel and Nigeria. I read English at Cambridge, won a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, was about to go back to England to do a PhD. Instead I became a carpenter, a writer and an illegal alien. After twenty years of living under the radar in the US, I came to the attention of the authorities. When the government did not recognise our marriage, my American partner and I decided to move to Canada.
My first novel, Where Bones Dance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), came out a few months after I arrived here. It won the Writers’ Guild of Alberta 2008 prize for novel. A review in the Times Literary Supplement  described the book as ‘an engaging and moving story of loss and discovery, revealed through dreamlike and delicate vignettes. Newington is an observer who retains the purity, the incomprehension and the sometimes powerful insight of a child, and this is what makes her book so memorable.’ (Lola Aragon, August 10th, 2007).
I hope you enjoy Cardinal Divide. I have submitted it to other publishers. I will let you know promptly if it is accepted elsewhere.
Yours sincerely,
Nina Newington

Looking at the letter now, I can’t imagine why composing it took so much time and gnashing of teeth, but it did. Whatever pep talks I give myself, submitting work feels like exposing my belly to a boot.

That being the case, it’s worth trying to improve the odds whatever way I can. Seeing that Guernica was running a prize competition when I was ready to submit the manuscript, I decided to cough up the $50 fee. In theory they would have looked at my work anyway but I figured somebody would have to read at least the first few pages of every prize entry. As it turned out, my book was long-listed but didn’t make the short-list. A couple of days after I’d stopped muttering and whimpering, I got an email saying they’d been impressed enough by the book to want to publish it. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face for several days.




I finished writing two books this winter, a memoir called Undocumented: A Different Story and a novel called Nunatak. The nub of the novel came to me ten years ago. The memoir has been in the works for twelve years. So five or six years a book. This raises some questions. Lifetime earnings from writing? Don’t go there. How many more books can I hope to write, assuming I live to a ripe and alert old age? Can I write faster? Spend less time making a living?

Not so fast. Are they really finished? Already an agent who might be interested in the memoir indicated cutting would be in order. I didn’t think, ‘No, every word is necessary.’ It was more like looking down and seeing a soup stain on your shirt. The outfit looked fine in the mirror at home. Good enough, anyway. But out here, the light is different. I mean, she could be wrong. It could be perfect. But I’m remembering cutting 40,000 words from the first book I got published. It was a better book by the end.

So it’s not finished. But it needs to be. It’s about living illegally in the US for twenty-two years then deciding to move to Canada. That was in 2006. Suddenly the undocumented are a hot topic. But Trump won’t be president for ever. (Or if he is, I’ll have bigger problems to fret about.) I need to get it published. A good editor would lick it into shape. But years of reading acknowledgements pages suggests that, these days, only authors with multi-book contracts have editors to thank. There are exceptions, I know, but my own non-bestseller writing experience bears this out. No editor in sight for my second book and only the publisher’s suggestion for the first: Cut a lot. 125,000 word maximum.

I’ve been rereading George Saunder’s lovely essay in the Guardian, What writers really do when they write.

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she has already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. He describes revision as a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference […] The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

I love this description. It is exactly what I do. But the optometrist doesn’t keep you in the chair for years. When is enough, enough? What is good enough? When I read the last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I thought, there’s not a single word I would change. But what did she think when she put down her pen? (She didn’t save her file one last time. The book came out in 1980.) Perfect? Or good enough? As good as I can get it right now?

Has word processing made it too easy to keep revising? Often with painters – I’m thinking specifically of an exhibition of Berthe Morisot’s work – I love the sketches. I admire the finished painting but the sketches have a looseness and life that gets lost. In the course of revising one can sand down the grain of the writing.

Somehow you have to keep faith with the life of the story. It didn’t ask to be born to make you look good. It wants to become itself. In this version, revision is removing one’s pretensions. One’s vanities. How often I’ve thought, ‘Now that’s a nice sentence.’ I think it every time I read it until the day I see that the sentence stands out because it doesn’t belong.

Murder your darlings, Grace Paley advised. Yes, but what about wholesale slaughter? 40,000 out of 170,000? Perhaps I have to believe the book is finished. Only then, the umbilical cord severed, and after a proper interval, can I turn, look, think, ‘It’s alive. But what is all that goop? The poor thing can hardly breathe. Somebody, clean it up.’

This writing life

This writing life

Stories saved my life. They go on saving my life. As a gay teenager obsessed with suicide, the stories in books saved me, though only just. Booze saved me too, though later it would start to kill me. Then the stories told by other addicts saved me. Terrible, tragic, funny stories, stories that make you laugh inordinately at inappropriate moments. The sort of laughter that makes people think you’re crazy or drunk. The sort of stories where you find yourself even though you have nothing at all in common with the teller except your souls.

I grew up telling lies. It was a family tradition. It got harder and harder to keep track of what was true and what wasn’t. After a while I couldn’t tell. That’s a lie. I wanted not to be able to tell. But my body knew. So I lived in my head. My head was good at writing papers and taking tests. The rest of me was good at getting drunk.

One day, in a moment of unaccountable clarity, I knew that what I wanted most in all the world was to write stories. I couldn’t write those stories with my head. I tore up my PhD applications and became a carpenter. In New York City. I took a writing class with Gloria Anzaldúa. We meditated and then we wrote. Stories came out whole. As if they’d been waiting in some other part of the house for me to open the door. I understood there was a life inside me I knew nothing about. I understood that nothing mattered to me as much as writing those stories. Except, possibly, getting drunk.

One day I wrote a story about rational me heading down a street in Little Italy. All I wanted was to get to the bar at the end of the street but a mad, poet, child voice in a doorway intercepted me. I had to make sense of the fragments she chanted. Slowly the story came together. We came together. I read the story, very drunk, at the W.O.W. café in the East Village. Afterwards we went back to a friend’s apartment and somehow my friend’s lover and I got to talking about sexual abuse. How you could never tell if it had happened to you because people forget. As far as I knew, nothing like that had ever happened to me. The friend’s lover told a story about a woman who had never come to terms with the incest she experienced when she was six or seven. Until one day she walked past a churchyard full of children that same age and she stopped and she looked at them and she said, ‘Oh my God, it wasn’t my fault.’ When I heard those words, it was as if I had been electrocuted. All the hairs on my body stood up. I opened my mouth and I said, “I’m an alcoholic and I can’t stop drinking.” I listened to those words. It wasn’t anything I’d intended to say. After another moment I said.  “Perhaps I’m just being dramatic.”
“Do you say that kind of thing often?”
“No.” I didn’t want to seem like some drama queen lush.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that day and I’ve gone on writing. The first book I wrote came to me when I had the chance to write every day for two months. I was at an artist’s colony in Cummington, Massachusetts. I thought I would write all day every day but I found out I write best in the mornings and I need a couple of days off a week. Then the colony hired me to manage the buildings and grounds. They could only afford to pay me for two days a week in the winter so that began a pattern I follow to this day: I write five mornings a week from the end of November till the middle of April. Being self-employed, first as a carpenter then designing and planting gardens for people, made this possible.

I’ve had two books published, Where Bones Dance, a novel set in Nigeria, and a memoir published under a pseudonym for legal reasons. I spent years on a novel I finally abandoned. Recently I finished two books I’m happy with. One is a novel, Nunatak, set in Alberta, the other a memoir, Undocumented:A Different Story, about the twenty-two years I lived illegally in the US and the decision my wife and I made to move to Canada. Now to find a publisher…