Portals

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On the third floor of the house I grew up in were three rooms. There was my mother’s sewing room on the east side, a bathroom with a clawfoot tub next to the landing where the cedar chest stored our winter things, and a large bedroom on the west side that housed, when we were young, a series of Québecoise and foreign students, who received room and board in exchange for childcare and help around the house. There was Maude, whom my mother thought was gloomy, and Lucille, who was lively, Mila, Sachiko and Atsuko. We were to give them their privacy, so we did not go up to the third floor much. Only when invited. I remember one time Sachiko invited us up and showed us rice paper, only she did not tell us it was rice paper, only that it was paper you could eat. She made cranes out of it. We did not eat it, though I wanted to try.

My mother’s sewing room had a narrow walk-in closet where little-used items were hung in garment bags on the clothesrail — old dresses Mom did not want to get rid of, a tuxedo of my father’s, that sort of thing. If you pushed between these garment bags, you found a small door, about two feet by three. Through this you could go into a crawl space among the rafters. I must not always have known about this space because I remember the sense of wonder I felt upon finding it. And yet there was nothing to do in there except step from one rafter to the next. It could not be used for hide and seek because it was never in bounds. I wanted some day to take a candle in there and a square of plywood and a cushion and something to read, so as to be like children in books, but I never did.

It was impossible to find a door at the back of a cupboard and not think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I never thought: oh, on the other side of this door will be a whole different world. And yet to go through that doorway was to pass out of our world, if not into a new one. There was a magic in floorlessness, in unfinishedness, unlightedness.

I am teaching a course on writing fantasy, though I have never written any. I read it, though. Not exclusively, not even a ton, but enough — and with enough respect and admiration — that I think I can teach it okay. For an exercise on the first day, I had people make a list of portals they have known. Real-life portals. One of the books on the reading list is Hiromi Goto’s Half World. The portal there is a door that opens off the tunnel on the Cassiar Connector, the on-ramp to the Trans-Canada Highway off of Hastings Street, not far from where I live now. Once through the portal, the protagonist has to walk across a bridge made of crows, like the crows flying east each evening from Vancouver to Burnaby. I love that the fantastic speaks to the everyday magic of geography, of those doors in the tunnel, the strip of crows in the sky.

For a long time, when I thought about writing a fantasy, I thought I would use that attic portal in the back of the closet off my mom’s sewing room. I just could never get a vision of what the portal would lead to. It wasn’t connected to another house, like the attic in The Magician’s Nephew. It would not lead you to a forest full of pools. The ravine behind our house we didn’t need the attic to get to — you just walked down the back yard and there it was. My imagination stopped in the room itself — a sharply pitched roof-inside, evenly spaced rafters, a triangle-shaped tunnel, wooden.

This time as I did the exercise along with the students, I added other portals. The green tube that led to green undergrowth caves in the ravine. The ravine itself, I mean the stream, the sewer part that ran under Blythwood Road, before the entrances were closed off with big metal rails. The tunnel was a big concrete O inside which the shallow stream made a ribbon down the middle.  That you could go through and imagine coming out somewhere different. Even the other side of the ravine seemed transformed by the route we had accessed it, the long tunnel, dark and echo-y and thick with odour, a smell that I once described in a poem as “copper and old poo.” The park on the far side was brighter and greener after that tunnel, sweeter, more full of birdsong. Our voices were feeble. We might easily have been someplace new.

One winter we built a massive snow fort, with multiple rooms and tunnels running between them, that could have led us somewhere out of our ken.

Before it was renovated, the UBC library had these metals doors as in submarines. I remember them having rounded tops and bottoms, raised sills you had to step over, but I could be misremembering. Point is, they were notably narrow, notably portals, had notably two sides that might easily turn out to be radically different, two different worlds.

It’s not hard to find the portals. It’s finding what’s on the other side that hasn’t come clear for me yet. I think each world beyond is a metaphor, but also more than just a metaphor. A world, to be satisfying, must exist for its own sake. It doesn’t care whether it’s a metaphor. It mustn’t care that it’s a metaphor. It probably can’t even know that it’s a metaphor. But still, in the books we find most satisfying, I think it is.

Why are portals so meaningful to us? There is often something magic about them, I mean the ones in the real world. We regularly cross thresholds to the unknown, even if it is only when we go to school for the first time or enter into another person’s home. There are rules to be learned, different ways of doing things, different air, different smells. The question “What’s behind this door?” always holds an element of mystery, even if we know what is behind the door. For children, what is behind closet doors changes at night, just as what is under the bed changes.

Bios & the Quest Writer’s Conference

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You know the deal. There’s one on this site. “Anne Fleming is the author of…” or “Anne Fleming grew up in…” or “Anne Fleming’s latest book…”

This is my problem: I’ve been asked to participate in this really fantastic-looking event, the Quest Writer’s Conference, June 21-28. I was supposed to send a bio, like, three weeks ago. I could have hauled out my most recent boilerplate from a file I keep and add to like a pile of old soap ends called Bio.doc. It includes a lot of variations on the same thing. I am tired, now, of claiming that GG nomination back in 1999, and a little embarrassed — still hauling out that old chestnut? have you nothing newer to go on? am I till the end of my life going to claim one old, minor and unlooked-for honour? Need this question always be a needle under my skin?

The truly famous can say things like, “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” (Does she? Really? Where?) “Margaret Atwood’s most recent collection of non-fiction, Moving Targets, was released in September.” But if I say, “Anne Fleming’s most recent book is Gay Dwarves of America,” well, I am not saying much and I am not selling the book or the conference and it seems churlish, I think, to the organizers of the event. It’s fine for a magazine contributor’s page (which, to be fair, is where I lifted the Atwood and Carson bios). But it’s not enough for an event that hopes to inform its paying customers what they will be getting.

My favourite of my own bios is the one on which there were restraints put. Jake Kennedy and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff have long organized a beautiful, cacophonous, anti-reverent event called Word Ruckus. One year, they required the lot of us to include particular words in our bios. In the end, it is so much better than Anne Fleming is the author of.

Anne Fleming tans blotchily, like Alice B. Toklas, and worships homemade cassettes. Her poetic sensibilities are founded on “The Large Dark Aardvark song.”

But jokey bios, too, pall after a while. (Not that one. For me. Not yet.)

I keep opening the document and restarting (“Okay, not ‘Anne Fleming blah blah blah,’ but ‘Blah, blah, blah, Anne Fleming’!), leaving out the GG nomination, the Ethel Wilson Shortlist, the National Magazine Awards, or summarizing them wryly (“whose writing has been nominated for many nice awards and has even won one or two”), putting them back in, asking myself what matters to me and how do I phrase accurately anything at all.

But it must be sent in the end, and will be sent, and will not be much different from the last one though I hem and haw and waste time and this is sad because so terribly representative of the hideous hesitation and doubt of the kind of writing that really wants to be done. I need some sort of jolt of oblivion, I need to not care, and pump things out, and it’ll all be better than I thought it was, and more than that it will be DONE and so the next thing can be done and the next, and so here is my mail-off:

Anne Fleming is the author of Gay Dwarves of America, a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the novel, Anomaly, and Pool-Hopping and Other Stories, shortlisted for a BC Book Prize and the Governor-General’s award. Her writing has been described as stellar, harrowing, savagely funny, inventive, heartbreaking, deceptively beautiful, audacious and real. She teaches creative writing at UBC’s Okanagan Campus, which hosts for the first time this summer the Woodhaven Summer Writing Intensive.

Again I lag, no steady chapter-a-day, alas. But herewith, a long chapter: The Ship.

Chapter XVI: The Ship

Queequeg, for unexplained reasons, wants Ishmael to pick a ship for the both of them. Ishmael settles on the Pequod. This is one of those rare long chapters. Here we are introduced to the two ship owners, Peleg and Bildad, good cop and bad cop, who offer a very low portion of the proceeds of the trip as payment or a ridiculous tiny portion of the proceeds of the trip as payment. Ishmael asks after the ship’s captain, Ahab, and learns that he is sick, or rather, not sick, but disturbed of mind, closeted away from the world, agitated…and that he has lost a leg. “Young man, come nearer to me: it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!” There’s talk of how Ahab is named for a Biblical king, and a nasty one at that. A native woman has said that his name is prophetic. Peleg calls him “a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man,” only he’s been moody since he lost his leg.

Chapter XV: Chowder

Ishmael sees portents of doom en route to the inn in Nantucket where he and Queequeg will stay. There they are served excellent chowder, cod or clam, night and day.

Chapter XIV: Nantucket

“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.” It’s a sliver of a sand in the middle of the sea. It is all about the sea. All people who have ever lived in Nantucket are bound up in the sea.

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