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A Collection of Short Stories

Here it is… the announcement I’ve been waiting to make public since my story in grade four at Southwood School in Steinbach made it onto the classroom bulletin board.

Bigger me, bigger bulletin board.

Cheers, respectively, to teacher Miss Hildebrand and publisher Matt Joudrey.

“Pinching Zwieback” is a themed fictional account of the lives and characters in a place on the Canadian prairies called Hartplatz. It features the Zehen family and many others whose comings and goings represent events both real and imagined under the Prussian blue sky. Among them: Hart & Justy, Schmietum Jake, Pete Vogel, and Matt Zehen, whose journey is observed from childhood to later in life. Characters that really schmack!

More info as we get closer to the spring 2023 launch. Watch this space and my Facebook and Twitter pages. (LinkedIn too.)

Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

#

Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

#

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.

The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
.
“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

#

Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

Editing

Editing is difficult but rewarding.

Difficult because you are erasing what you have created. You are subtracting from or changing the very thing that got you in the publishing game! Feels risky.

Rewarding because your changes create something new, all over again. Plus, the editor is your ally and a trusted source that comes to you from a place other than the rocky mass between your (my) ears. Thank God for that.

I am preparing 24 stories for publication in the spring. Several folks are weighing in on my work and each day there’s a knot in my shoulders and that night’s dreams are peppered with flickering replays of scenes from the collection. I wake up, make notes, fall back asleep and then laugh at my scribbled nonsense in the morning.

Here is a segment, edited recently. I offer it as a fast in situ peek at the crime scene. It is from the story, “The Peacemongers” and the topic is Canadian Mennonites during the wars, WW2 in this case, who deigned to be officially named “Conscientious Objectors.” This meant they would work in labour camps in Canada rather than serving in the military.

I thought of Corky’s uncle John who worked at Loeb’s lumberyard. He wore a red vest and a plaid shirt and stood behind the counter at the lumber desk. He was a big man with very white teeth and he would stand there smiling and writing down what you wanted to buy. My dad would always order lumber from him and it always started out the same way. Dad would say, “I need some two-by-fours,” and John would say, “how many and how long do you need ’em?” Dad would reply “twenty pieces and forever!” Same joke every time. Then John would yell for one of the yard boys to come and load the order into our truck, his pencil poised above the order form, looking at my dad over his glasses. “Twelve-footers,” or whatever length he needed, was the answer, served with a slanted smile.

Dad said John had been in a C.O. camp during the war. He told my dad stories about it and how he made lifelong friends there. “Some were in the camp for other reasons, but most were there to follow the Word. That meant something to us and it was like our battle, to stay true to what we had been taught and to what we would teach our children.” I heard him talk about this to my dad and other men at the lumberyard. He stood straight up and looked into the eyes of the person he to spoke to. His voice was firm and he was not trying to convince anyone—he was just telling it. I was too young to understand everything, but thought he was telling the truth, exactly as he knew it and believed it.

.

I sometimes felt as though John and many others like him in our town believed, maybe secretly, that God was the biggest, toughest, most bad-ass Mennonite of them all. As if God would do all the fighting for us, and He would take no prisoners. I’m not sure that made our desire to live a life of pacifism any better. Possibly worse. It made God seem to me like a kind of bully—forever smiting Old Testament armies and kings that He didn’t like and constantly fighting with the Devil. Like Archie and Don, who fought almost every day after school at the corner of Hannover and Kroeker, accomplishing nothing but scuffed chins and bloody knuckles.[MT1]


 [MT1] Added 22-09-10 in a moment of random inspiration.

—Considered but not promised, for “Pinching Zwieback” At Bay Press

Prosetry 22

Simplicity.

A summer night, where the thunderheads fist-bumped and parted ways, leaving our skies more Prussian blue than ash grey. Mosquitoes too were deported, sent elsewhere to do their whining — we think they all rented tiny jet-skis and rode off across the river.

Friends arrived just as the make-shift stage (soon to be returned to its rightful duty as a dock — rather than doc. — segment) was commissioned into service and we chatted and snacked and popped open bottles and cans and congratulated ourselves on being capable of being in such a place… in space and time, on Earth, today.

The loaner mic in friend & neighbour Jack Schellenberg’s hand-crafted and skookum-engineered mic stand crackled and away we went, led with panache by author Roger Groening. Knuckleball is Roger’s novel. (The author’s legs appear above, royalty-free; they’re the stems to the right.) He read a recent WIP excerpt that had us reaching for our decades-ago-discarded DuMauriers and l-o-l-ing and giggling through his vivid description of a wry woman tasking a man in a room without solutions.

Next came Leslie Wakeman who brought so much: snacks, wine, a beautiful quilt, handmade cards and her story, “The Goddess Cup.” We were gradually drawn in as her character’s embarrassment grew and our appreciation for Leslie’s deft, humourous-and-so-human touch led us along.

And then it was my sister Marnie Fardoe’s turn with a reading of a diary entry she had repurposed for us, for this perfect evening. She called herself a novice but we knew better. In addition, we got the family discount as Marnie gave us a quiet and moving performance of our sister Char Toews’ powerful poem, “Schedules are subject to change without notice”

[...] If the weather's that shitty it's kind of iffy
You're better off in the air or on the land

Or living or dead, which is what my Dad did
And me with a number of things planned

Then home in May, cutting the grass that first day
Mowing and crying and thinking about worms and their dirt [...]

Vid by Bonnie Friesen: https://www.facebook.com/580948274/videos/800154487823298/
.

The perfect lead-in to Wes Friesen and his soulful playing and singing. Two beautiful Leonard Cohen songs following by a fascist-killing presentation of Deportee/Plane Wreck at Los Gatos, by Woody Guthrie.

Vid by Bonnie Friesen: https://www.facebook.com/bonnie.friesen.9/videos/1403462673497989/

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More poetry, from Winnipeg poetess Phyllis Cherrett who wowed and dazzled, showing us her calm control over word and emotion, ending with the perfectly-suited dent de lion

Phyllis Cherrett also gave a truthfully written acknowledgement of PLACE.

I offered a pair of flash fictions, “New War — Old Technology” and “Luck!”, bookending our great friend Christiane Neufeld’s spelky delivery of poet Ceinwen Haydon’s Gooseberry, a repeat-performance from Prosetry 2019.

It should be noted that Chris’ hub Hans Neufeld (aka John E. Neufeld) was present but chose not to present this year. Hans was, without doubt, the most prolific writer on the property at Prosetry 22, him being the daily author of THE MEANDERER http://themeanderer.ca/: a most profound and enjoyable gathering place, enjoyed by many online.

Two best-selling and truly masterful authors closed out the evening. MaryLou Driedger (Lost on the Prairie) offered us the first chapter of her WIP SEQUEL novel, set in 1936.

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Writer, memoirist, author, instructor and warrior-woman Donna Besel did not disappoint, giving us a thematic reading about a boathouse construction job set at nearby Brereton Lake. The story was a piece from her hit collection of short stories, “Lessons from a Nude Man.”

MaryLou Driedger as Gustave Flaubert would have seen her https://maryloudriedger.com/
Donna Besel https://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/9781926710303/donna-besel/lessons-from-a-nude-man

Through all of this, photographer Phil Hossack was doing his quiet and unobtrusive professional best, circulating among us, taking pictures that caught mood and feeling as much as light and dark.

Phil Hossack https://philhossackphoto.ca/workshops/

Cheers to local artists Janice Toews, Gale Bonin, and Allison Rink whose brushwork filled the SheShed with brightness and colour.

NEXT YEAR: Book the day, slot it in and make it sacrosanct… we want you here to read and listen, to watch the clouds part, to smell the woodsmoke and taste the wine, to read, to hear and experience. We’ll make it more of an afternoon event — we’ll start at 1 PM and make it possible to leave without rushing before the sun goes down.

For those who stay, maybe we can set the boreal ringing with this unforgettable folksong refrain:

Wes Friesen

…Goodbye to my juan, goodbye, rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, jesus y maria;

You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be “deportees”

🎶
Janice Toews
Showtime minus 90 minutes
2017 U.S. Inauguration crowd
Ruth & Roger Groening
2019 Prosetry (July 20)
MaryLou Driedger reading at Prosetry 2019
Yet more Toews
Leslie, Marnie, Bonnie
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR! “Daj Boże!”
Janice and I reside in the boreal forest just north of the Fiftieth latitude in eastern Manitoba on Treaty 1 and 3 lands. Our property is situated on Métis land: Anishinabe Waki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ  http://www.anishinabek.ca/ 

two flash collections to love

Here are two flash fiction collections to love:

“Small Shifts” edited by Shawn L. Bird (Lintusen Presshttps://lnkd.in/gRNdw659 and “This Will Only Take a Minute — 100 Canadian Flashes” edited by Bruce Meyers and Michael Mirolla (Guernica Editionshttps://lnkd.in/gp6fJVcE

Many exceptional writers with some of their best stories in two books packed tight with wisdom, pathos, and humour. Plus, the boring bits have been removed. (As flash lovers already know, this is what generally happens.)

#flashfiction

Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction Contest

Thanks, danke seea, to the Humber Literary Review and the Creative Nonfiction Collective for placing my story, “The Mighty Hartski” on the longlist for this year’s contest. A blintering, stellar array of writers and me, happy to be in this stacked stack.

Shortlist in early June. The winner will be announced at the CNFC annual conference. Bonne Chance to all the finalists.

“Rommedriewe!”

Books for Sale!

I have a story in a funky little anthology that’s coming out on July 2.

“Small Shifts: Short Stories of Fantastical Transformation” is a collection of ten fantasy stories from Lintusen Press (Shawn L. Bird). My contribution is “I am Otter,” a short story about a distraught Jessica Lake otter and the social unrest encountered by a congregation of “Otterites.”

Life presents particular mortifications when your alternate form is a dung beetle or a bumblebee. Featuring stories by Chris McMahen, Finnian Burnett, Mitchell Toews, Shawn L. Bird, Jarrod K. Williams, Lee F. Patrick, Patricia Lloyd, Jessica DeLand, Batya Guarisma, Philip Mann, and Andrew G. Cooper”

Pre-orders (e-books) are open for business, print expected July 2.

https://books2read.com/Prose-by-Toews


E-books $4.99 USD. Print $9.99 USD, 6″X9″ 122 pages. 

#shapeshifters #collection #ebooks #prosebytoews

Flyway- A Captivating Family Story That Will Have You Asking Hard Questions

There are many great books about the various disruptive Mennonite experiences. People and place stories. Trauma stories. Healing stories. MaryLou’s descriptive review makes me want to read this one.

What Next?

In her beautiful book Flyway Sarah Ens tells her Mennonite grandmother Anni’s story in the form of a long poem. We begin in Ukraine during the period between 1929 and 1945. Anni’s little sister dies, the churches close and Anni’s father is arrested and taken away. Famine comes.

Hunger taught us to wake slowly, to lift, as if from water.
If you did not starve, hunger taught you

to watch and wait. If you did not starve,
the stone of your stomach turned traitor.

Anni does housework and childcare for her younger siblings while attending school and then graduates just as the Germans invade Ukraine. Amid the war Anni’s brother Peter drowns.

Where is God my mother said.
I saw his body blue beneath a smooth skin of water

After a time of German occupation the Red Army approaches and

evacuees crawled the road……..
35,000 stumbling through the murk. You…

View original post 433 more words

Dappled Thoughts

Image: James Farl Powers, 1917-1999

Dappled Things has announced the finalists for its 2022 J.F. Powers Prize for Fiction, and I am one of the 28 authors selected.

“Well, now,” I said to myself, “I sometimes do interviews with other writers. Why not do one with me? An auto-interview?”

So here it is, with inspiration from interview subjects near and far, young and old, Catholic and Mennonite…

What drew you to this contest?

That is an excellent question. You are not only handsome but wise. Okay, here’s what Dappled Things say about the content they seek for the periodical.

“People fascinate us; sin bores us. Beauty amazes us; surface concerns leave us cold. Experience intoxicates us; world-weariness makes us yawn.”

That appealed to my sense of loftiness. Of aiming high. So that’s what I did — with the story and with the submission.

Were you, a Mennonite, concerned by the fact that the publication and the J.F. Powers contest are sponsored by an organization that is “Wholeheartedly Catholic?” Did this fact change your approach to the story?

Not concerned, as much as intrigued. In my experience in South Eastern Manitoba where disparate small towns dot the farmland, there are many predominantly Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, and Ukrainian places. Despite coming from distinctly homogenous communities, each with its own dominant religion, people somehow always end up mingling. Whether it is through work, play, school or — inevitably — romance, intersections are created and blending results. Not right away, but over time. I saw this many times in my own family and beyond.

In this way, my story about a mixed Catholic and Mennonite family with a close sibling relationship between two of the children seemed to be a natural fit for the ethos of Dappled Things and the J.F. Powers Prize.

Did it change my approach? No. In fact, the merging of two, I would say, strong faiths, plus the fact that the early “Mennists” grew out of the Catholic religion makes the religious undercurrent in the story a strengthening factor and one that adds an interesting complexity.

Does religion play a major role in your story?

No. Religion is there, the same way the Manitoba prairie is there, to offer context and grounding. In fact, I can’t see how the story could have “got out of its own way” if religion would have been the central theme. I wanted the characters’ inner humanity and the always present tension between our selfish desires and our innate generosity and compassion towards others to be the core conflict. Describing where that generosity comes from is not part of my authorial responsibility. I’m just there to tell a clear story and let the reader find in it what they may.

So… you have a chance?

Nah. Like a platter of Niejoahsch’kuake1 in the church basement on Christmas Eve, I will be long gone after the first wave. The writers in this prize are the Iowa Writers’ Workshop types, The Paris Review essayists, the ones who put the “Masters” in MFA.

And yet?

Yes, and yet if I read my story, I know there is always hope.

1 New Year fritters. Deep-fried, dusted with icing sugar, sinfully good.

Interview: Brian Hughes

Brian (white shirt, 3rd from R) with the Write Clicks, August 2021.

One of the true pleasures of being an everyday struggling writer—emerging, submerging, and maybe even re-emerging—is meeting others who are in the battle with you.

One such person is Brian Hughes of Winnipeg. I first encountered Brian during one of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild open mic critique sessions. I liked his stories and his slightly offbeat delivery, which I thought added a lot. (Hint: Faulkner is in the house!)

Brian and I ended up in the same writing group, the “Write Clicks,” with members from Winnipeg (some alumni from Carolyn Gray’s WPL Critique group) and Lac du Bonnet, with ex-pats from Donna Besel’s former group. I enjoy his readings and his succinct critiques.

Here’s the interview:

How, when, and why did you start writing?

I stole a typewriter out of a garage at a vacant house when I was twelve and I mark the start of my moral descent from there. The stories from that time have a certain naively tentative eroticism and an undercurrent of self-pity. I never showed them to anyone. When I was fifteen and a little drunk I declared that I wanted to be a seminal genius. I was mocked unmercifully for that and I’ve been hesitant to proclaim my ambitions ever since. I started writing stories with a view to public consumption when I was in my early twenties. There are stories from that time that I’m not ashamed of now.

Can you speak both broadly and specifically about influences?

I was passionate about movies and novels from early on. I read 1984 and tried to read Joyce’s Ulysses at thirteen and read Lolita at fifteen. I would take a novelist I found resonant and try to read all their works, including Nabokov, Joyce Cary, V.S. Naipaul, L.P. Hartley, Margaret Laurence and Joseph Conrad.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories recently. William Maxwell, William Trevor, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett and others.

Cinema 3 in Winnipeg showed a lot of new wave movies, in my teens I was addicted to them. Nous Doux, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alfie, Satyricon, 8 1/2, and The Go-Between all stand out in my memory.

Lately, I’m becoming addicted to Netflix. I find the works of the Coen brothers and Vince Gilligan really resonates and their storytelling techniques seem to keep showing up in my writing.

What drives you to write?

One of my favourite quotes is from The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown – “Do you have a hole in your self-esteem that can only be filled with applause?” – that is part of it and also striving for importance and immortality; to have built a platform that others will stand on to build theirs.

In what other ways do you create?

I studied drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture. I still try to keep my hand in it.

I’ve taken to building furniture. I’ve always had a strong desire to be self-reliant and I like to take a tree, mill the wood and build a table.

What kinds of writing do you focus on and why?

I seek resonance more than anything else. It can’t be defined but I know when it’s there.

What artistic challenges do you face?

Other people, which is to be expected if you think that others should come to you instead of you reaching out to them. It’s like Greek tragedy; hubris leads to downfall. Ultimately it is my own delusions that I fight with.

Brian Hughes was born in South Africa and came to Canada with his family as a young child. He has lived in Manitoba ever since.

Thinking About Infinity

Big Zeus of a wind. Surface-frozen skim of slush on top of the ice, bright sun. Blue and blue and blue. Hauling ass at 40Kph with my iffy knee suggesting discretion on the port tack and my young blood–so it claims, drunk on endorphins or some other pop science–saying, “screw that!”

I am of the privileged few.

Plus, summer’s coming. A whole new set of physical laws. Wet, bumpy, sticky until you’re planing and the foil lifts you clear of the surface and the volume goes to mute and ravens tumble from above in comical one-upping nose dives.

In my black wetsuit, I must look like an extremely odd, hideous relative. Flightless, except for the clumsy board and sail. Enormous. No feathers and only a dusting of white hair. White, not black. WTF? I’d mock me too, if I was a master flier and fearless freep with a sharp, pointy beak.

Thinking about infinity in a place where it’s always windy.