Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Riptides: New Island Fiction by Richard Lemm (editor)

Shortlisted for the 2013 APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award

PEI has probably the most nationalistic sense of identity in Canada, but yet our literature has had trouble getting past that annoying little red headed girl from Avonlea. What is PEI literature? The answer to this question can be applied to the wider world of Canadian literature. PEI literature is simply writing by someone with a “connection” to the Island – be it growing up here, moving here, studying here, or spending any significant amount of time here.

The real father of contemporary PEI literature is Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet – almost everyone has at some point read or heard “I’ve Tasted My Blood.” In the decades after Acorn appeared on the scene, PEI underwent a poetry renaissance. Native born and “from-away” writers like Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, Frank Ledwell, David Helwig, Hugh MacDonald, Steve McOrmond, David Hickey, John MacKenzie, Anne Compton, Dianne Morrow, and Joseph Sherman among others have given PEI a rich, deep, and colourful  poetic canon. But, there has been a dearth of fiction from the province. Only in recent years have novels and story collections from Island writers started to take up significant shelf space.  Some of PEI’s poets and local playwrights have produced fiction, Hennessey and Lemm for instance; plus many new fiction writers have immerged – Steven Mayoff, Hilary MacLeod, Orysia Dawydiak, Finley Martin, and Valerie Compton to name a few. Riptides is an anthology of short stories from new writers on PEI, some of whom had never been published prior to this. This anthology represents a turning point in PEI literature – it is a collective cry of over 20 new fiction writers saying “there is more to our writing than Anne.”

It is very difficult to review a book with so many writers, in so many genres, and so many styles. Many stories in this book are very memorable and will give outsiders a great glimpse into Island life. There are many highlights though, so here’s a brief recap of my favorites.  “The Nothing” by Melissa Carroll is a gritty comedic story of life in small town west Prince County.  “The Candle Party” by Orysia Dawydiak, probably my favorite now looking back, is a heart-breaking story of illness complicating a marriage.  “Dust” by Shirley Limbert tells the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.  “Final Farewell” by Helen Pretulak is a reflective story of family set in Chernobyl several years after the tragedy. And, the last one I’ll point out, “Watermelon” by Island poet Beth E. Janzen, is the story of the everyday foibles of family life as seen through the eyes of a young girl at a lake side picnic. This is not an exhaustive list. I adored at least 15 of the 23 stories.

Riptides is edited by one of the elder statesmen of PEI literature, Richard Lemm. He instructed the PEI literature seminar I just completed where we read this collection. What impressed me most about this book was just how “real” the stories were. There were no pretensions, no writers trying to imitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, and no writers trying to find the mystical in the mundane (which as you all know, really pisses me off). The stories go from Alberton to Charlottetown to Toronto to Poland to Ukraine. This first anthology of “new” Island fiction is just as diverse as the “new” Prince Edward Island and is a must read for any Islander or anyone who has wondered what makes us tick.

Riptides is published by Acorn Press and can be found at most independent bookstores or online at Indigo and Amazon.

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What Really Happened is This by Dianne Hicks Morrow

Winner of the 2012 PEI Book Award for Poetry

I was initially introduced to this book in my Contemporary PEI Literature course when we read a selection of five poems. What Really Happened is This is the award winning poetry memoir, and second collection of poems, by PEI writer Dianne Hicks Morrow. I was greatly intrigued by the idea of a poetry memoir and didn’t know what to expect. These poems were, for the most part, very sad; but, I do not mean that in a negative way. Instead, I mean that Morrow has opened herself up in an incredibly close and intimate way and is bearing her soul to the world during a very personal and traumatic part of life. Being a “memoir”, one cannot separate “poet” and “speaker” – the result was a heightened emotional connection with the writing.

The poems “Belonging” and “What Really Happened Is This” get to the core of what Morrow is trying to do. Both poems are very personal and easily to take to heart. “Belonging,” a look back at Morrow’s feeling of fitting in and the difficulties that that can entail in Prince Edward Island, is very reflective and introspective. She looks back the little things that helped shape her, contemplates being an “Islander,” reflecting on the minutiae of human existence.  And ultimately, as I’m sure happens with most people, trying to figure out where one “belongs” simply leaves more questions.

The title poem, “What Really Happened Is This,” is a longer multipart poem and it is by far the highpoint of Morrow’s collection. It is absolutely heart-wrenching and will leave you pondering long after you’ve finished the book. It juxtaposes two powerful images that most people with severely ill loved ones probably go through: the person that you grew up with and love and the person who is connected to machines, surrounded by doctors, and away from home praying that they can return to who they used to be.  The whole collection, but this poem in particular, really draws the line from personal tragedy to memory to reality and back again.

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Mrs. Morrow and discuss her writing. She is very passionate about poetry and PEI writing. Her reading from this book really added a depth to the personal character of the poems. Every poem in this 73 page collection is a work of art – with the two I discussed above being the highlights. They physical book itself, published by PEI’s Acorn Press, is quite attractive and would look great on any bookshelf. What Really Happened is This is a quick, touching, accessible, and memorable read.

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