— Wallflower She’s Not —
A Canadian (born 1987) graduates from the University of Victoria, comes to England in 2011 to study Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) on a scholarship, wins the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, gets short-listed for some prizes back home, and before finishing a PhD, publishes a collection of short stories. I am talking about Eliza Robertson and her book, Wallflowers, not D. W. Wilson, who took the same route ahead of her. Apart from discipline for their work and close attention to syntax, there the similarity ends.
When we talked in October, I asked Robertson her reasons for leaving Victoria in 2011 and for choosing UEA. After 23 years in Victoria, she felt it was “too comfortable.” Wanting to see more of the world, she applied to various graduate schools, and chose the one that offered her funding: University of East Anglia. As well, her friend Dave had good things to say about UEA.
Once she escaped from Victoria, she kept on going, having travelled to Barcelona, Lisbon, Toulouse, Switzerland, Ethiopia, and China. She was also a volunteer for eight weeks in 2009 in Tanzania, based in Arusha. With her mother, who took the photo at the top, she walked part of the Lycian Way in Turkey in the past year. Most recently, she went to Palestine for the Palestine Literary Festival (not in the capacity of a writer), where was able to meet “some amazing writers” and visit by bus different cities in the Occupied Territory.
What do these travel experiences have to do with her fiction? The desire for the exotic is apparent in the devastating story “Ship’s Log,” in which a boy is mounting an expedition to “The Orient” in 1919. “Roadnotes” is a U.S. road trip, told by letters, in which the narrator seeks a portrait of her mother. The story “L’Étranger,” is quite possibly the most awkward roommate story I’ve read (slugs in the sink?), set in Marseille. Is it set in Marseille? A rereading of the story finds it says little about the city nor gives a sense of the place. An interior story, a kitchen sink story.
In “Here Be Dragons” a man in mourning sees his lover (“you”) in unknown women in Lisbon, St Petersburg, Arusha. I sink into the velvet language of this story (“a dove-haired woman,” “quinces yellow and knobbed like cancerous lemons”), but as I read along, I lose sympathy for the narrator, so that by the end, I blame the man for his lover’s death: get your fingers out of her curls and fetch a doctor because people shouldn’t die of dengue fever nowadays.
There are many deaths in the background of the stories (and murder in one); of 17 stories, seven involve a character dealing with a recent death. Although the subject of the stories offer the possibility of linking them (a sibling dies in “We Walked on Water,” “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?” and “My Sister Sang”), they are not linked. They are linked, however, through imagery. Water is a common element (drownings, floods, things washed ashore, a plane ditched in a river, a beach in Stanley Park, a brother who rows). In two stories hummingbirds are caught or trapped, while slugs show up in at least two, and lemons pop up several times.
Of course I asked Robertson how living abroad affected her work. Her reply: “It’s made me appreciate it [Canada] more. Every time I come home it is quite literally a breath of fresh air. I’ve written more about B.C. as a place in the backdrop while living in England than I had when I was living in Canada.”
I found the stories set in Canada stronger than those that aren’t, even the tricky story that is presented back to front, “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?” The young protagonist, Natalie, accompanies her uncle to a potlatch on the Mahatta River (Quatsino Sound, North Vancouver Island). There, from her new friend Milton, she learns the stories of Hilatusala the Transformer and others. Stories that help her grieve the loss of her mother and brother.
I asked Robertson if she’d been concerned about cultural appropriation while writing the story. “Absolutely. That is one reason why I made the narrator or the point of view character someone more similar to me — she’s white, first of all, and she’s from a city. I didn’t want to come across as me appropriating that culture. Rather it’s being fed through her own interest and fascination with that culture, which is a fascination of my own. I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a First Nations character as that character, through that lens. But I think it would be sad, frankly, if writers didn’t feel comfortable writing about First Nations culture in their own work if they are touched by it simply because they aren’t First Nations themselves. Because it is a part of Canada. I think to deny that would be even worse. So I am nervous about that story because I think there’s a danger of over romanticizing it. But then she is a young girl and she is romanticizing it. She’s finding stories from Milton, the friend who is from that village, more moving than stories from her uncle, who is the Christian pastor. ”
In the story, the girl finds a dugout canoe in a pine tree, and inside it, a girl’s skeleton and toys. Natalie gets in — that is, she invades a burial place. The story is vivid, and sympathetic to both Natalie and Milton, but each one does something of which the reader might not approve.
Like a good comedian, Robertson makes the reader uncomfortable before she makes you — not laugh — draw in a breath. Given that many of the stories deal with loss, you may be moved by sadness. Or surprised. Or amazed.
Another example of discomfiting the reader is the story “Who Will Water the Wallflowers?” which opens with “The day before the flood…” So no surprise in what’s coming. The tension lies in what happens before it comes. The nameless girl is housesitting, and very soon the reader is feeling uncomfortable because the girl seems unaware of the interest of the married man across the road, Mr Bradley, whose intrusions culminate in his entering the house. She lets him in although she wears only “Ms. Feliz’s tortoiseshell housecoat.” And lets him out again. Robertson is playing with myths here: the lemon-sucking virgin goddess who unleashes nature against her predator, the tortoise that holds up the earth and thus protects her from the flood. She crams the story with water imagery, from the water-loving Irises in the “photosynthetic bathroom” to the name of the suburb (Copper Waters), her jar of lemon water, “water spiders in his eyebrows”, rain that is “Fat toads from the sky,” all to menace the reader with the flood. Her syntax imitates the situation: short choppy sentences during the intrusion giving way to the single fluid sentence for the flood itself.
Robertson also takes risks with her use of language for description, her imagery, delivering little slaps in the face to the reader, such as “a pint of unpeeled eggs,” “an eye of dust,” and “the air smells of itch and sawdust.” I asked if this risk taking was deliberate.
“I suppose every writer takes a risk if they are following their own style and not thinking about what the easiest ways would be to convey information to the reader. So that’s just how I write, to be honest. I’m not consciously trying to do anything special, I don’t really think about it when I am doing it. It’s how I write.”
“In some ways Canadian culture is more similar to British culture than it is to American, as far as being a bit more reserved.”
-Eliza Robertson, 15 October 2015 by Skype.
Prizes for Robertson
- Malahat Review‘s 2009 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction for “Ship’s Log.”
- Prism International‘s 2010 Fiction Contest for “Roadnotes.” Follow-up interview here.
- Read the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013 winning story “We Walked on Water.”
- This isn’t a prize, but it is special, a commissioned war story in The Globe and Mail, “Friends Wanted for Lonely Soldiers.”
Other Reviews and Interviews
- Quill and Quire review of Wallflowers and Q&Q compares book covers.
- Globe review of Wallflowers by Emily Keeler (29 August 2014) and interview (5 September 2014)
- Natalie Serber’s review of Wallflowers in the Robertson Sunday Times (31 October 2014)
- Arielle Yarwood reviews Wallflowers in The Masters Review.
- Interview in Room Magazine , in advance of publication of a story, and in which she answers some of the same questions in more detail.