Letter from the Pile O' Bones

Guest author Ibi Kaslik, whose second novel, The Angel Riots will be launched at This Is Not A Reading Series on April 1, 2008, checks in from her gig as Writer-in-Residence at the Regina Public Library, Saskatchewan.

When I found out in November 2007 that for the next year I would be the Regina library Writer-in-Residence, I used it to test my Toronto friends’ Canadian geographical knowledge. Maps of the true north were pulled out. Jokes about female genitalia ensued. Eventually, the reality of the situation—that I would spend a year in Saskatchewan—settled on my friends, as did the inevitable question: “Why Regina, dude?”

I’d shrug and explain that I would receive a salary to write. I would be part of a cultural community. I would have an office in the library with my name on the door—every writer’s wet dream. I could make a moat of books and retreat to my castle of manuscripts and sticky-notes when the minus-fifty temperatures hit: and, for the first time in my life, I’d be able to exclusively devote myself to THE CRAFT.

Regina is the murder and chlamydia capital of Canada. It’s creepy yet endearing nickname, “Pile of Bones”, is based on one of the city's founding myths that explorer John Palliser found a huge stack of bison bones in 1859 near what is now known as Wascana creek, which demarcates central and south Regina and runs into the city’s manufactured Wascana lake (tales of the lake are worthy of another essay entirely). “Wascana” is a murky Cree translation of the aboriginal name for bone pile. Downtown Queen’s city is also where Louis Riel was tried and executed, which explains the abundance of Louis Riel graffiti around town. The city also houses the RCMP academy—there are always marked cars filled with cadets cruising around day and night.

Despite the federal police presence, every day I see blood on the streets: visceral reminders that this sleepy town has a reckless violent streak with few witnesses and many victims. Though the city has bad-ass historical associations, on a grey day, Regina feels like a stark shabby town with little visible history and too many pick-up trucks. The excessive proclivity for football (Go Riders!) and Coors Light has a nullifying effect on the city’s cultural potential.

But on a bright day, Regina is the kindest place in the world: the sun is a fearless augur that punctures the infinite sky, the hoarfrost on every tree branch is something out of Narnia’s Arctic pageantry and the tap water tastes like a natural alpine spring. The prairie people are open and unhurried; everybody has time for a chat and a nibble on a nut-and-cheese ball. Here, there’s no rush to get on to the next appointment/meeting/party/whatever, as in Toronto. Speaking of whatever, the lack of pretentiousness and irony is also refreshing, if a little disarming, for an Easterner like me who has spent the last twenty years of her life with a sneer firmly affixed to her face.

The role of writer-in-residence is multi-faceted: sometimes I feel like a busy bartender or a casual shrink with a degree from a matchbook university. The more difficult aspect of the job is when I play critic and have to inform someone that rhyming couplets about the impending apocalypse is not exactly the hippest medium these days, that there’s a reason these particular poems have been locked in a drawer for twenty years. The job involves playing teacher, social worker, and guidance counselor, depending on the person or situation but mostly I just try to provide people with an audience, and make some helpful suggestions about bird metaphors, lightening up on the personification, and how to use Microsoft Word.

One of my library regulars is a guy called Bailey who has changed his name twice since I met him—once to “Man” and then to “Mr. Fish”. He is a tall gentleman with lots of living and partying behind him. Intelligent, rambling, if a little unkempt, Bailey-Man-Fish hangs out in the library reading Günter Grass and sends me weekly missives with reviews about Humphrey Bogart movies and late-night musings about Conrad Black’s misdeeds. Usually folded into bank envelopes, Fish’s epistolary bijoux are on legal sized paper in

his rather dignified handwriting, which is completely unreadable and contrary to the submission guidelines. So far, Mr. Fish still has a very small syndicate audience (me, when I have the patience to read his handwriting) but we’re both hoping for a larger following.

With the help of an occupational therapist named Mac, I also lead a writing workshop for people with acquired brain injuries. The idea is to get people writing about their trauma: the workshops function like art therapy sessions, except, obviously, the sessions are for people who are text-oriented. Always emotional, the workshops are contrary to every single writing workshop I’ve ever been a part of: they are supportive and loving, if a little bananas. Mac describes the two hours as “trying to walk up the stairs with a box of kittens”, and that’s probably the best description I’ve heard for any kind of writing workshop, ever.

Right above Montana, in the middle of Canada, where the clock never springs forward or back but remains as stable as a farmer’s schedule, nearly every night, there is a flashy pink and orange sunset that can be conveniently observed from the DQ parking lot behind my house. Just outside the city, oil pumps dip into the land like sandpipers scratching for seed. Mythical oil money drips into the city as does the province’s rarified light. In the land of the living skies, there is crime and loss and art and poetry and greed, just like everywhere else on the map. Only, like the weather, living is a little more extreme here, in the middle of nowhere. — Ibi Kaslik, March 2008

Ibi Kaslik is a novelist and freelance writer whose work appears in North American magazines and newspapers. Her debut novel, Skinny, published by HarperCollins Canada (2004), was shortlisted for the Best First Novel Award (Amazon 2004), Best Young Adult Novel (Canadian Library Association, May 2005), and the Borders Original Voice Award (2006). Skinny has been published in Australia and America and is forthcoming in Israel, Russia, France, and the Netherlands. Kaslik's second novel, The Angel Riots, will be published by Penguin Canada in March 2008. From Toronto, Kaslik is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Regina Public Library, Saskatchewan.

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