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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.

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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.

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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

Detailed C-V November 2020

MITCHELL TOEWS: A big list…

 ONLINE ADDRESSES

Mitchellaneous.com
@Mitchell_Toews
Author pages on Facebook, Goodreads, and LinkedIn

 CURRICULUM-VITAE

Updated 11.11.20

EDUCATION

University of Victoria (one year)
University of Winnipeg (1974-77)
Masters Certificate in Marketing Communication Management, York University (2001)
“So You Want To Write Indigenous Characters…”, Manitoba Writers’ Guild (2019)
Coursera: Aboriginal Worldviews and Education (Newly enrolled, October 2020)

 ASSOCATIONS/MEMBERSHIPS

Member — Manitoba Writers’ Guild
Member — Victoria Writers’ Society
Professional Artist — Manitoba Arts Council
New/Early Career Artist — Canada Council for the Arts
Past Member — Winnipeg Public Library’s Prose Writing Circle, led by Winnipeg Public Library Writer in Residence Carolyn Gray (2019-2020)
Member — The Sunday Writers Group, led by Donna Besel (Lac du Bonnet, MB)
Member — WriteRamble, led by Lauren Carter, Winnipeg Public Library Writer in Residence, 2020-2021

 PUBLISHED WORKS — 81 Acceptances in total

2016:
16 short stories, 15 online, 2 paid print, 9 Canada, 6 UK, 1 US

2017: 20 short stories, all online, 4 Ca, 1 India, 7 UK, 8 US

2018: 14 short stories, 1 interview, 1 podcast, 1 paid print, 3 unpaid print, 6 Ca, 4 UK, 1 Ireland, 5 US

“I am Otter” — short story, CommuterLit (Ca)

“Fall From Grace”, short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“Of a Forest Silent” — short story, Alsina Publishing LingoBites (UK – English and Spanish)

“City Lights” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Bottom of the Sky” — short story, Fiction on the Web (UK)

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” — short story, riverbabble (US)

“Nothing to Lose” — short story, riverbabble (US)

“Shade Tree Haven” — short story, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US)

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, Blank Spaces (Ca), paid print

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, Just Words, Volume 2 Anthology (Ca), print

“Away Game” — short story, Pulp Literature (Ca), paid print

“The Doeling” — short story, Cabinet of Heed (Ireland)

“Groota Pieter” — short story, River Poets Journal, Special Themed Edition, “The Immigrants” Anthology (US), print

“Five Questions for Mitchell Toews” — interview, Mennotoba (Ca)

“The Narrowing” — short story, Scarlet Leaf Review (Ca)

“Wide Winter River” — podcast, Not Ready for Prime Time (US)

2019: 15 short stories, 1 interview, 1 CNF essay, 1 paid online, 1 paid print, 2 unpaid print, 3 Ca, 2 UK, 1 Australia, 3 Iran, 8 US

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Toboggan Run” — short story, The MOON magazine (US)

“Peacemongers” — short story, The MOON magazine: “Out of This World” Anthology The Best Short Stories from the MOON (US), Volume 1, print

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac” — short story, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 93

“Din and the Wash Bear” — short story, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 95

“Died Rich” — short story, Fabula Argentea (US), Issue #27, paid

“I am Otter” — short story, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran)

“Away Game” — short story, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran)

 “4Q Interview with Author Mitchell Toews” — interview and excerpt from WIP novel, “Mulholland and Hardbar”, South Branch Scribbler (Ca)

“Ifs and Butters” — short story, TurnPike (US)

“Concealment” — short story, Me First Magazine (US)

“Groota Pieter” — short story, Pact Press (Australia), “We Refugees” Anthology, print

“Fast and Steep” — short story, Riddle Fence (Ca), Issue 34, paid print

“Holthacka’s Quandary” — short story, Lunate Fiction (UK)

“Shade Tree Haven” — short story, (mac)ro(mic) (US)

“My Writing Day” — CNF essay, my (small press) writing day (Ca)

“Our German Relative” — short story, Xmas Stories (Iran)

2020 to date: 10 short stories, 2 CNF essay, 1 interview, 6 print, 1 paid online, 2 paid print, 5 Canada, 3 UK, 4 US

“The Business of Saving Souls” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Log Boom” — short story, in “A Fork in the Road,” 2019 Special Theme Edition Anthology of River Poets Journal (US), print

“Encampment” — short story, Tiny Seed Journal (US)

“Regrets de Foie Gras”— short story, Literally Stories (UK), May 2020

“The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon” — short story, Agnes and True (Ca), paid online, Summer 2020

“My Life as a Corkscrew” — a CNF essay “On Writing” in Blank Spaces (Ca), June 2020, print

“Piece of My Heart” — short story, Pulp Literature, (Ca), paid print

“Away Game” — short story, Quail Bell Magazine, (US), paid print

Interview — Maysam Kandej Talks (Iran), https://maysam.id.ir/talks online, August 2020

“My Life as a Corkscrew” — a CNF essay “On Writing” in the Just Voices (Ca) anthology, September 2020, print

“The Sunshine Girl” — short story, Cowboy Jamboree Magazine (US), Fall 2020 (John Prine Tribute issue), print and online

“Died Rich” — short story, Fiction on the Web (UK), September 2020, online

“Baloney, Hot Mustard and Metal Filings” — short story, WordCity Monthly (Ca-Intl), September 2020, online

 CONTESTS-PRIZES-AWARDS

“So Are They All” — short story, second place in the Adult Fiction category of the Write on the Lake (Ca) contest, 2016, paid print

“Fall from Grace” — short story, Honourable Mention in The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville (US) Memoirs Contest, 2016

“The Phage Match” — short story, finalist in Broken Pencil’s (Ca) annual “Deathmatch contest, 2016, print

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac” — short story, winner in The Hayward Fault LineDoorknobs & Bodypaint Issue 93 Triannual Themed Flash contest, 2018 

“I am Otter” — short story, CommuterLit (Ca), Runner-up in for Flash Fiction Feature, 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, Nominated by Blank Spaces for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2018, print

“Piece of My Heart” — a 750-word or less flash fiction was named “Editors’ Choice” in the 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest from Pulp Literature Press, paid print

 FUNDING

Manitoba Arts Council, June 30, 2020. Financial support for the creation of a unique Manitoba artbook, ekfrastic in nature and featuring artistic photography and short fictional stories. The theme is “People, Places, and Light”. Photography by collaborator, Phil Hossack.

 READINGS

  • Voices Launch, McNally Robinson, Winnipg, MB, 2016
  • PULP Literature Issue Launch, Vancouver, BC, 2017
  • Manitoba Writers’ Guild, Artspace, Winnipeg, MB, 2019
  • Prosetry, Jessica Lake, MB, 2019
  • Driedger Readings, Winnipeg, MB, 2019
  • Victoria Writers’ Society, AGM—Open mic, 2020
  • PULP Literature Reading Series, live internet April 24, 2020
  • PULP Literature Issue 27 launch, live internet July 19, 2020
  • Mechanics’ Institute, San Francisco, Cal, COVID-19 open mic, live internet August 19, 2020
  • Just Voices Volume 4 virtual launch, recorded for September 26, 2020
  • PULP Literature Issue28 launch, live internet November 7, 2020
  • Jake Epp Public Library, Steinbach, MB, 2020 (date TBA, pending Covid restrictions)

 WORK IN PROGRESS

  • “Mulholland and Hardbar” — a novel (“Fargo, with a Mennonite accent”)
  • “People, Places, Light” — an ekphrastic Manitoba artbook including original photography and short stories (Funded in part by The Manitoba Arts Council | Le conseil des arts du Manitoba.)
  • “The Mighty Hartski” | “Downtown Diner” | “Arthur Delorme and the Craigflower Bus” | “Red Light Man” | “Fetch” | “The Three Sisters” | “Freight Trains and Jet Planes” (CNF) | “No Strings”: Short stories
  • “The Barkman Avenue Peace Accords” — a themed short story collection (proposed)
  • “Tafelburg” — a science fiction novella
  • “The Mismaloya”— a novelette screenplay adpatation

FRIENDS, FOLLOWERS, & SUBMISSIONS

  • Twitter 5,587
  • Facebook 593
  • Goodreads 224 friends, 6 followers
  • LinkedIn 754
  • WordPress 194
  • Current active (pending) submissions to lit journals: 20
  • Submission history on Duotrope 2020 submissions to date – 79, 2019 – 104, 2018 – 50, 2017 – 84, 2016 – 106, 2015 – 2. Grand Total – 425

Piece of My Heart

I had the opportunity to read one of my flash fictions for the virtual launch of Issue 28 of PULP Literature Magazine. The video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIcbCsZCMpk&feature=youtu.be
and my segment is the first one, running from about the 2:00 minute mark to 9:30.

PULP Lit is a special lit mag. It is, like my kids and grandkids, located in B.C. and also like my kids and grandkids and my sis Char and old friends I don’t see much anymore except for Facebook, one of the many — so many — reasons I love to return and visit B.C. (Damn covid!)

Each issue of the magazine is beautiful to see and something to be absorbed, like a tincture. Curation, editing, art (!), lay-out and theme are carefully balanced and interconnected. Evocative, original, soothing, disturbing… an intellectual event. Their online launch is even more sensorial adding video, voice, imagery and the strange magical sense of flying out across the world with ZOOM wings made of a hybrid chitin of memory and syntax and imagination and hope and words spoken low and slow.

Anyway… despite appropriate Mennonite guilt, I love to read my stories and was pleased to be asked to join in. I get nervous — not a little — doing this type of thing. But somehow, reading my own stories is mostly exempt from that stage fright. It’s a part of the art, an extension I suppose, that allows me to relive the creation of it and add my own live expression, ad hoc. Plus I can enjoy the story as if detached and no longer the author but rather the presenter and part of the audience… both, at once.

~~~

I’ve been reading some wonderful academic writers lately who look at art and writing and Mennonite writing or writing that happens to be done by Mennonites, or that happens to be done by Mennonite imposters, cultural Mennonites, secular Mennonites or Mennonite moles that have tunneled — whiskers twitching — under the village walls.

Two notables have surnames that surely have been represented in Southwood School Valentine card mailings, SRSS grad class rolls, on Mennonite church Sunday School classroom doors, and as alumni of colleges where art debate, Inter-Scholastic Christian Fellowship, and curling bonspiels were all of equal importance. Schillinger! Shun! Sweep!

The two are Magdalene Redekop and Grace Kehler.

Their concepts and ideas are beautiful, complex, and written with the kind of codified care saved for those rare Sundays when the Pastor and his wife are scheduled to “drop by for Faspa!”

For me, the reading is trench warfare. That sounds disparaging but it’s not. It is high praise. I find myself pulled violently down so many rabbit-holes and stuck to the flypaper of all the many soaring ideas — two or three per page! — that I end up taking week-end side-trips that turn into year-long sabbaticals.

The confluence that I am labouriously working towards is that of Redekop, Kehler, Tolstoy (et al), Toews and “Piece of My Heart.” As I read for PULP Lit and especially after I finished, I saw for the first time some of the intricate embroidery of literary academia in my story.

“Piece of My Heart” is, in its bare-boned simplicity, an example of art that seeks to be sincere. An expression. A means of communication. A conversation. A dematerialization. Perhaps seasoned with a sad hint of Mennonite melancholia.

And though the story is austere and spare, it is also a tessellation of Mennonite chapter and verse together with many Gem pickling jars that brim with lore and insinuation. Savoury and not forgotten, packed with dill from the garden, is my autoethnographic version, albeit brief, of the Mennonite creation myth, “across the brutish North Atlantic… sod-hut sanctuaries… hymns sung with the fervour of nothing left to lose,” and more.

To use Author Redekop’s phrase, my little story claims to be “history knowing.”

~~~

As you’ll see in the video, after the story, Editor JM Landels asks me about my WIP novel, “Mulholland and Hardbar.” Here’s some WIP blurbage about the book:

Logline 1: “Fargo, with a Mennonite accent.”

Logline 2: “A journey through the four seasons of the boreal: friendship, deceit, loyalty, and violence.”

Blurb: Set in the Manitoba boreal forest, Mulholland and Hardbar is a unique and moving story about an odd pairing of young men, their complex and dangerous relationship, and their need to learn how to face difficulty with courage and the absence of malice.”


Statement of Location: The author and his wife reside in the boreal forest just north of the fiftieth latitude in eastern Manitoba. Their home — like the Penrose cabin in the novel, “Mulholland and Hardbar” — is situated on Métis land: Anishinabe Waki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ

Print Catalogue

As this rabid cannibal of a year winds down, I wonder about my writerly struggle and the artistic return on investment for me as a writer, 2015-2020.

ROI, baby.

Aside from all the “hard work is its own reward,” kind of sentiment, to which I subscribe and to whose driving power I owe one of the best periods of my redheaded life (apart from the baby powder tinged, little league coaching, proud dad/granddad parts), I wondered about how much of an imprint I’ve been given/achieved so far.

What is my gravitas quotient, or lack of same?

Am I #futility or do I stand a chance? There’s no punter (in the UK slang sense) who knows how to handicap me, there’s no Vegas line on my puny literary squirming, like the last water bug of the season making a tiny ripple that no one else notices.

An editor commented recently that I had a unique voice worth publishing. I fought back the urge to argue with her, and in that moment of cessation, found a glimmer. A glimmer not of hope — that sworl of Van Gogh luminant turbulence is still light years away — but a lifeline thrown out to me in the cold, deep water by a compassionate friend.

When I look at my C-V, I see a lot of online acceptances, a lot of out-of-province markets, and several repeat markets. This is telling of the state of the world of fiction, my preferences, my ability, my relative reputation in a world of water bugs, and my inclination to spend the years on the far side of three score with friends and heroes, not the miserable and the banal.

Anyway… I noticed that the attention of the curator for a certain specific geschichte writer list is focused solely on PRINT. I accept that. There’s so much online writing that it makes sense to begin your list with those in print. Not that I’m not proud (and more than a little) of many of my online publications, but, you know — I get it.

So here fellow water bugs, punters, friends, heroes, banal high-horsers out for a romp among the plebs… is my 2015-2020 Print Catalogue, based on about 100 distinct flash fictions and short stories sent out in over 400 submissions all over the English language literary world.

Ca — “A Fisherman’s Story” Rhubarb Magazine Issue 39 2016
Ca — “So Are They All” Voices Vol 16 No.2 2016 Anthology
India — “I am Otter” The Machinery – A Literary Collection 2017
UK — “Nothing to Lose” The Best of Fiction on the Web 1996-2017 2017 Anthology
Ca — “Sweet Caporal at Dawn” Blank Spaces Magazine Vol 2 Issue 4 2018 Pushcart Prize Nomination
Ca — “Away Game” Pulp Literature Issue 20 2018
Ca — “Sweet Caporal at Dawn” Just Words, Volume 2 2018 Anthology
US — “Groota Pieter” River Poets Journal Special Themed Edition: “The Immigrants” 2018 Anthology
US — “Peacemongers” The MOON magazine: “Out of This World” The Best Short Stories from the MOON Volume 1 2019 Anthology
Australia/US — “Groota Pieter” Pact Press “We Refugees” 2019 Anthology
Ca — “Fast and Steep” Riddle Fence Issue 34 2019
US — “The Log Boom” River Poets Journal Special Themed Edition: “A Fork in the Road” 2020 Anthology
Ca — “My Life as a Corkscrew” (CNF) Blank Spaces Magazine 2020
Ca — Piece of My Heart” Pulp Literature Issue 27 2020 Winner of the Editors’ Choice in the 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest
US — “Away Game” Quail Bell Magazine 2020
Ca — “My Life as a Corkscrew” (CNF) Just Words Volume 4 2020 Anthology
US — “The Sunshine Girl” Cowboy Jamboree Magazine John Prine Tribute Issue 2020

A few of these are printed on a rolling basis and so may not be out in the wild yet.

I also have 64 stories in various online publications in the US, the UK, and Canada.

“The Sunshine Girl”

Here’s a link to a new online communication tool I am testing. It’s a 90-second animation that offers a summary for a newly-published short story and a link to the publication where the piece can be read.

https://app.animaker.com/animo/v6OZzq8Il7uDImPO/

It’s the FREE version and it’s new, so… It seems to work well on laptops but might get a little grouchy on your android phone. Check it and see.

Let me know and, if you haven’t already, take a look at my story and all the other ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT STUFF that can be found on the Cowboy Jamboree Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue, a John Prine Commemorative!

It’s pretty sweet.

The Tree of Life- Poems by Sarah Klassen

Sitting and drinking coffee just after sunrise. I’m watching a kingfisher in the branches above the shallow water near the shore. Mary Lou Driedger’s thoughtful observations of Sarah Klassen’s new book of poetry–many of the poet’s verses a loving look at the natural world–make the perfect complement to my morning and add another book to my buy list.

The Tree of Life (Turnstone Press)

What Next?

 In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry The Tree of Life published by Turnstone Press 

Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.  

Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”

Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen…

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Gregg Norman — Interview & Novel Excerpts

A writer whom I’ve connected with often on the internet — but not yet in person — is Gregg Norman. He’s an interesting guy and like me, comes to fiction as more of a “second act” but in Gregg’s case he absolutely hit the prose trail running hard and fast, lean and loping.

Gregg and wife Jenine reside in western Manitoba and like Janice and I, they spend a lot of time staring out at open water, or seasonally adjusted, an expanse of snow-covered ice.

I invited him to answer a couple of questions and provide writing from his recent work. Here goes:

MJT — “What has shaped and influenced your writing? Life experiences, places, reading, movies, people?”

Gregg —

I was a bookish type as a child though I grew up in a virtually bookless home. I credit my love of the written word to a wonderful librarian in my hometown and some inspirational English teachers and professors in high school and at university. I read voraciously and eclectically. Beyond all that the biggest influence on me as a writer is my wife, Jenine, who is intimately involved in many aspects of the creation of my novels and who believes in what I do (which puts her at the top of my list of morale supporters).

MJT — “In reading your work, I get a sense of Elmore Leonard’s idea that the ‘writing should disappear.’ Is this intentional or is that just a part of your natural style? Would you care to illustrate with an excerpt?”

Gregg —

Elmore Leonard was a wise man. He said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I think that is good advice. A writer needs to know when and how to stay out of his own way. The idea is for the writer to be hidden in the background, out of sight. Tell the story, paint the picture, but keep out of it. My style is fairly spartan, I think. I try to resist the urge to write run on or complex sentences or to use too many adjectives.

Excerpt from “A Gift of Scars”

The line of pot-beaters advanced quickly to close the gate. They cast aside their sticks and tin and took up bats and clubs and ax handles. One man carried a knobbed shillelagh, another a golf club, while others wielded hoes or shovels. They entered the pen, spread themselves out among the carpet of rabbits and started killing. The killers were tentative at first, feinting this way and that at the moving mass of animals. Then they swung their weapons with deliberate aim, encouraged by the skulls crushed, backs broken, eyes popped and guts oozing out between legs still kicking. They settled to their work quickly enough, killing methodically and with grim satisfaction.

One man swung a piece of lumber studded through with nails to which the rabbits became impaled, the better to confirm his kills as he flung them away and counted them aloud. Another man was stomping and crushing rabbits with both booted feet while swinging an ax handle in each hand, his arms and legs jerking wildly like the dancing of some mad marionette.

Excerpt from “Oz Destiny”

          Keeping her eyes downcast, she slowly removed her hat and leaned to set it on the ground. Then, with movements slow and easy, she toed off her boots and slipped out of her horsehide jacket and trousers. She wore a man’s undershirt and drawers and she removed these too. She stood naked with her head down, eyes averted. The stallion arched his neck and took a step toward her. By inches she turned away from him, lowered herself to her hands and knees, and bent her head to the ground, presenting herself to him.

          Jesus, Rat rasped, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

          Neither can I, Oz said in a hoarse whisper.

          I’m not sure I want to see what might happen next.

          Then quit watching.

          I can’t, dammit!

          The stallion came forward haltingly, a few paces at a time, snorting and skittering in sidelong steps. At a distance of ten yards, he lowered his head, sniffed and blew twin clouds of dust below his muzzle. He lifted one front hoof as if he might advance further, but then abruptly whirled and charged off at a gallop to harry his mares into flight away down the valley until they were just dust and the dying sound of hoofbeats.

          While they watched her dress and begin to climb back toward them, Oz and Rat shared an uneasy silence until Rat finally said, She’s completely gone in the head.

          I’m not so sure of that, Oz said thoughtfully.

          All I can say is it’s a helluva way to try to catch a wild horse.

          She wasn’t trying to catch one.

          No?

          She was trying to be one.

~ ~ ~

Follow Gregg Norman Author on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gregg.norman.5015

on WordPress: https://greggnormanauthor.com/

on goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19130607.Gregg_Norman

Tweet from Charlie Fish (@FishCharlie)

Charlie Fish (@FishCharlie) Tweeted: In Mennonite Manitoba, hard-up teenager Diedrich Deutsch is getting bullied at school, and tries his hand at basketball. Read Mitchell Toews at https://t.co/dO9tFIbTVq https://t.co/Sgx6bczYGX https://twitter.com/FishCharlie/status/1309550748854878209?s=20

The School of Forgiveness

One of the joys of writing is meeting and connecting with other writers. It’s interesting in a capitalist context to see us buzzing together like communist bees to build a plenary body of literary work: Fiction, Essay, Journalism, Criticism, Opinion, Poetry, Theater, and so on. All done in what are often intensely personal moments of recollection, self-awareness and exploration.

We band together in critique groups, associations and guilds, in events, readings, book launches and on the internet.

Since March 2020, a LOT of internet.

A pleasure and a point of professional courtesy that (no surprise) pays off as much for the giver as the receiver is to read and review work in progress. I’ve been both beneficiary and provider in this regard—giving an increasing amount of effort to reading and less to being read. (Those who regularly get my feckless Momma’s boy pleadings for them to read a story and report back may disagree… You know who you are. But in my defense, we built a loft on the water just to bribe you, so, you know, soldier on.)

Here is a fresh-voiced realist who walks the streets of Every Damn Day Another THING and knows how to tell it on the mountain. I’m pleased to give you one of her stories, below. A pick-up truck with a rose-hued patina on the outside powered by a Boeing jet engine and driven by a hot-rod pilot with one elbow poking casually out the window, even around the bends.

The School of Forgiveness

by Ramona Jones

Electives or required courses? Forgiveness and Patience, two subjects failed time and time again, reappearing and taken until I get them right. I wouldn’t have to study these if I had majored in something quantifiable. Forgiveness paired with betrayal…Do I have to sit here until the class is over? Ramona, pull your head out of the emotion and recount the facts. I don’t like going to hard places in my head without good reason, because those subjects are really tough.

I understand why people block out memories and shore them up behind facades and alcohol. I just forget, or replay parts, over and over until they wear out. Maybe this time I can turn a few off.

In 1981, I lived in a house in Vancouver with my boyfriend, a medical student, and four other students, paying ridiculously low rent. So low in fact that Ron and I saved enough money for a road trip to San Francisco. Two days before departure the phone rang, connecting me to my unpleasant family life in Toronto.

“Mom’s had a stroke.” I could hear the tearful catch in my brother’s voice. There was no choice but to go. No time to do anything but book a hotel. I could not stay with my father, where my strength would be drained to construct mental defences and avoid, whatever.

Clint told me to come quick, this was very serious. I took a cab from the Toronto airport, straight to Saint Michael’s Hospital where my mom lay fresh from surgery. The smell hit me first, alcohol fumes rising through the air to my nose. The next thing—the visual—reminded me of Egypt. Her head was swathed in bandages, a lot of white bandages in a turban. In the peripheral view, tubes entered and exited her body.

I don’t remember the last time I spent conscious time with my mom before that day. My memories of commonplace days with my family of origin blur and soften. That day I only had love. I reached for her hand because she could not see me.

“Mom, it’s me.” I held a swollen hand. It had to be the right hand, because her left hand remained paralyzed  for the rest of her life. She squeezed me back, releasing some of my numbness.

My dad was very upset that I would not stay with him and my brother, but Jacqueline—my dad’s cousin, a school counsellor living in BC—supported my decision to go solo. The hotel offered refuge and calm space at night, while part days were spent shopping and walking on Yonge Street, waiting to see if my mom would make it. Saint Michael’s is downtown, 30 Bond Street, to be exact. I had access to record stores and the Hudson’s Bay bargain floor. I bought a size 10 navy skirt, a red sweater and brown shoes, with gracefully thin straps and low but stylishly flared heels, perfect for my job in a Vancouver government office. I wanted badly to go home, to work, as soon as possible.

I scold myself for being so self-centered. No thought of Clint or my aunts and cousins, who are just as upset, maybe more, as me. Two of my mom’s sisters flew from Manitoba to be there. Neither travelled much—living pure, simple lives in the country, but they came, like me, knowing we were all near death in Toronto.

Only, it didn’t happen. I have a comforting memory of sitting with a nun at the Catholic hospital. She never preached or told me anything about God, just offered me a mug of hot chocolate. So sweet, in the midst of everything. I found out more about what they did and thought about my mom’s cerebral aneurysm after I got home. Dr. Howard, who is my cousin, and is renowned in his specialty, Geriatric Medicine, told me afterwards that he arranged for my mom’s stay in Riverdale Hospital. In her situation, with inadequate support at home, she lived in rehab for an entire year.

I used to think, Eva, my mom, was a bit of a chicken—always anxious, always evading the direct questions I would fire at her from my position as her dependent but selfish child. The stroke threw back the covers, exposing her truth. My mom worked so hard in rehab, she became the bravest woman I ever met. She learned to walk again.

Every challenge was met with a search for a personal solution, not complaining or blaming. With her new outlook, she went shopping, once a week to a mall, travelling by a bus for handicapped people, for treasured time outside of the house.

She never took another drink and assumed a mental independence she never had before, returning home where she relished every minute until the day she died, 26 years later.

My brother had a huge part in her story, but not mine. He told me he prayed hard, hours on end, begging God not to let her die. There is more to what he told God, but that is not mine to share. Clint told me Mom had a dream before the stroke. Jesus appeared to her. He told her, “Eva, Life is going to get very hard for you, but you are going to be alright.”

What did I make of that? This: Forgiveness does heal. My mom showed me how it is done but I am still working to graduate from that course. Patience? If you saw what I felt, watching Mom navigate from a wheel chair, in a walking world, you might not have enough either.

British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry has nailed this now, in Covid context, but my mom learned it, miles back:

Be calm, be kind, stay safe.

~ ~ ~

Thanks, Ramona!


Imposterism and Perspective

A quick ramble through the blackberries: I write about my Mennonite and my secular experiences–what I love and what I disrespect–as it occurs to me and in roughly equal measure. As a non-baptised cultural Mennonite, and a self-named Mennonite imposter, I am outside of the permission loop that may constrain others who write about the same topics.

But I’m not immune to restraint and inhibition just because I don’t surf the hemlock pews on Sunday morning. (Another one of those surf-slash-theological and pinophytically-correct metaphors, dudes.) Externality, it could be argued or at least considered, gives me and those like me the freedom to be hyper-critical.

In fact, I am rigorously beholden to all of my personal relationships, long held and cherished, with those who DO “surf the hemlock.” Seriously, a perceived outsider (or imposter) has internal motivation–not church-imposed–when speaking out. An equivalent influence? Sometimes jo, sometimes nay.

So… audible inhalation… I would like to and should make it my professional beeswax to know what has gone on in various church groups, conferences, etc. in the history of Mennonite writing. I need to understand those who held or now hold formal rank and wield the power of censure or absolution. The fact that those bodies-politic were, or still are, all-male and seem as intellectually homegenous as those identical rows of psuedotsuga benches upon which they, uhh, ‘hang ten’ bugs me not a little and diminishes their validity in my view. But still.

So, yeah… I’ll work to enhance my knowledge of the history of “insider” writing in the Mennonite fiction canon. It will enhance my POV even as I see my externality as an equally worthy, and perhaps in the final analysis, less incumbered point of origin. My lifetime of personal experiences continue to kick me “right in the back pocket” and won’t allow me to ignore their painful presence. Plus, considering the depth and context of my personal Mennonite experience–with both a Russian delegate and a shunning in my antecedents–and my 50-years in one of the central milieus and eras of Mennonite evoloution… I feel I should tell the stories I have lived.

Flash Fiction and The Group of Seven

Winnipeg blogger and author MaryLou Driedger (“What Next?”) had this interesting post on her site recently: Flash Fiction and The Group of Seven. I’ve re-blogged it here partly because she mentions me in her post.

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She has pointed out that photographic artist Phil Hossack and I will draw from people and places in Manitoba to create an ekphrastic prose-filled artbook. The photography will offer one interpretation and prose another.

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MaryLou accurately points out some similarities between our concept and the excellent new book, The Group of Seven Reimagined published by Heritage House in Victoria and edited by Karen Schauber.

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Like the Group of Seven book and other artbooks that combine visual art and the written word, we too will be called upon to create an aesthetic that is worthy of the subject matter. Our “design charette” has paid attention to the design on the printed page. Some benchmarks: Unity & Variety; Balance; Emphasis & Subordination; Directional Forces (visual flow of pages, spreads, covers, bleeds, etc.); Contrast; Repetition & Rhythm; Scale & Proportion.

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Leading our design… the recurrent themes or stepping stones will be People, Places, and Light. Phil and I are excited, eager to begin, but we’ll wait for the all-clear Covid siren to sound before we hit the road.

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Below: One of Phil’s evocative images, Roseisle artist Stephen Jackson near the Sourisford Linear Burial Mounds. This photo provides a possible example of how People, Place, and Light might combine to suggest a fictional narrative with a distinctive Manitoba inflection.

Roseisle artist Stephen Jackson soaks up the lush landscape at the Souris Ford Mounds, a National Historic site in the far south west corner of Manitoba.

This project, with the working title, “People, Places, and Light — a Manitoba journey” is assisted by a “Create” grant from MAC | CAM.

What Next?

The Fire Ranger by Franz Johnston -1921- National Gallery of Canada

A man guides his plane over the burning forest, scanning the horizon for a place he might land. As he does so he tries to comfort the little girl who is his passenger. 

Little Island by Alfred J. Casson -1965- McMichael Canadian Art Collection

A young woman becomes so engrossed by a painting at the art gallery that she is oblivious to the man accompanying her, a man she connected with on a dating app. 

Lake O Hara by J.E.H. MacDonald -1928-McMichael Art Collection

A woman who has been travelling the universe in her spaceship finally arrives at a place she can call home. 

Those are just a few plotlines from the short stories featured in a new book called The Group of Seven Reimagined published by Heritage House in Victoria.  

Cove by Emily Carr- Collection of the…

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