Back in the early nineties, not long after the Berlin Wall had come down, I had a conversation with an engineer in Poland. During the communist years he had worked in a factory and was now enjoying the freedom of having his own business as an importer of televisions. He became agitated when speaking of the old days when he spent all his time “pretending to work,” bound by the communist ideology of full employment. There was a vitality to Wojciech: he had an unbridled enthusiasm for life, his world view marked by hope, possibility. This chance for a fresh start was something for a man in his mid-forties with a wife and two teenage daughters after decades of a demoralizing existence.
In the course of our conversation, his face turned sour as he spoke of his brother-in-law, a medical doctor who was woeful, full of regret for what the free-market economy had rolled out for him. He had lost his stability, the strictures by which he lived. His entire life had been spent under communist rule, and though presumably he could see that things were better—the new freedoms must have counted for something—he had lost his historical footing. Despite the fact that he was working in a profession with guaranteed security, the uncertainty that came with the changes left him anxious, bereft. “He wants to crawl back into the cage of communism,” my friend railed, making no effort to conceal his disgust.
For most, the idea of being caged evokes fears of punishment, though some consider caging a form of protection. It is usually the ones holding the key who argue this point, but there are also those who have become accustomed to incarceration, evidenced by situations in which victims have become sympathetic to their captors. To run away from a difficult situation is not always possible; the desire to run free set against the courage to do so can be a monumental fork in the road. Would that we could all run from the mundane, the painful, the aimless periods in which we live. The question is, would we be better or worse off?
Amongst those in this issue who run away is a celebrated classical musician in Ellen Keith’s “Thin Ice” who long ago abandoned the farm for a music career. In Alice Zorn’s “With Deepest Regards” artists are forced to make the decision to flee or submit to Hitler’s ideology. Coming of age stories are often populated with young people wanting to run away, but Shannon Alberta’s “Why Can’t You Not Just Glide Over the Snow Also” illustrates a quirky yet affecting form of escape, that of becoming someone else in the face of a more popular girl. Hal Niedzviecki brings us a teenage girl trying to escape her home life who ends up befriending a Sasquatch hunter. Jen Amos’s “On Bridges” introduces us to two young sisters in search of a treasure, if only to secure the return of their mother who abandoned them to their grandmother. In Lauren Carter’s “Empty Nest,” Lara, a young woman, runs away after her brother goes missing, and her friend feels the need to build a cage around their friendship to keep it safe.
Rea Tarvydas has written a story about oppressive regimes and cultural censorship in “A Lucky Man,” while Mahak Jain makes her debut with “The Museum of Wooden Hearts,” a story in which a young woman discovers that her relatives from India are coming to her family’s home to die, one by one.
We are also featuring the honourable mentions from the 2014 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Contest. Susan Sanford Blades’s “Dad, Offstage” is a tale of two sisters coping with their mother’s new boyfriend and the receipt of a postcard from their father long since run off. In Fiona Osborne’s “Challenger” the explosion of the spacecraft and the famed race of Secretariat are a backdrop to the life of a teenage boy whose mother works at the local horse ranch.
This issue’s poetry selections feature Michael Crummey, who brings us a “Falling In Love With Poetry” essay along with six poems of adolescensce; an honourable mention from the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse contest, Terry Burns’s delightful “Staring at a Map of Owen Sound;” as well as a trio of poems by Sarah Tolmie. We’re also welcoming Kirsteen MacLeod back to our pages with one of her latest poems. When poet Sonnet L’Abbé agreed to judge the In-House Edna (see below) we thought it would be interesting to find out more about her work, so we enlisted Tanis MacDonald to interview Sonnet. In non-fiction we have the honourable mentions from the 2014 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Julia Zarankin strives to learn the language of her grandmother, while Royston Tester has a unique gathering—short essays on unrelated events; their only commonality is that they took place on the same day, and in one form or another deal with the notion of being held captive. In Leona Theis’s “Pathologies of the Heart,” she relays the anxious journey of a mother and her young son, and another journey of a young girl traveling alone, negotiating the perplexing advances of a man on the train. Michelle Kaiser’s “A Dozen Cups of the Dead” is an essay about dying and funeral rituals in which she makes the claim that, in general, death is concealed as it is “too wild and predictable to be left out in the open. It has to be caged, like some zoo lion.”
One person who would not be caged was Edna Staebler, a woman of remarkable talent and generosity. In the spirit for which the intrepid local writer was well-known, a portion of her bequest to The New Quarterly also goes toward our “In-House Edna” in which we ask a writer, in this case the Wilfrid Laurier University’s current Edna Staebler Writer-in-Residence, Sonnet L’Abbé, to judge the best of our non-fiction from the past year. This year’s winner is Ayelet Tsabari, who is firing on all cylinders these days and who, despite a particularly rich gathering of essays from which to choose, came out on top. Congratulations, Ayelet!
This issue is populated with those who have run away, and those who have chosen to stay. We hope you’ll stick around to enjoy the lot of them.