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Susan Musgrave:  On Writing in Canada and

On Rejecting the Labels


From early on in the interview, it becomes evident an irony is emerging.  The questions posited, seeking to understand Ms. Musgrave’s role as a Canadian writer, as a woman writer, as a rebel on the Canadian literary scene only serve to further underline her desire as an artist to work outside any rigid classification or system of labeling.  Ms. Musgrave is first and foremost an artist.  She states:  “Writing is about process.  If you love the process, just doing it will help you to persevere.”


Here are some of Ms. Musgrave’s thoughts on her experiences both past and present as one of Canada’s literary icons.  (Once again, a label she would probably be inclined to eschew).



On Writing in Canada


When Ms. Musgrave is asked whether she sees herself as a distinctly Canadian writer, she doesn’t hesitate to say that Canada is an extraordinary country and she wouldn’t want to consider any other citizenship.


Yet, there is a reluctance to simply accept the role of Canadian writer:  “I wonder if being Canadian means not fitting in, or certainly most artists and writers I know feel this way.  I don’t think about roles and labels much.  I’ve been labeled eco-feminist, anti-feminist.  I don’t label myself as anything.  The only time I feel very Canadian is when I’m abroad.”  She goes on to explain that the very Canadian archetypes that repeat in her poetry such as images of mountains and rivers, for example, do not reverberate in England the way they do here.  In Britain, a river, which Musgrave considers a symbol of considerable power, is viewed as a meandering stream, so that the poem itself is understood quite differently.


Ms. Musgrave describes the images she uses in her poetry as “elemental, First-Nations images….eagles, ravens, seaweed, rain…organic images it seems to me…what affects me.”


When asked whether, perhaps, we as Canadians spend too much time defining ourselves as such, Musgrave agrees:  “I think so.  I find it weird that my books were put in the ‘Canadiana’ section, somewhere in the back of the bookstore, instead of in the ‘Fiction’ section.”  She considers this categorizing of her work (in the early 80’s) ghettoizing.  Musgrave states that all “serendipity” is removed when your work is, in fact, lodged in a ghetto of sorts.


Is Canada an hospitable place to live and work as a poet or writer of fiction?


“Oh, I think so.  The support from the Canada Council is great.  Invaluable, really.  I lived in Ireland for two years on my first grant, for $1500. in 1970.”


She is concerned, however, that there are now too many literary awards, leading to the commercialization of the art of writing.  The book as simple commodity is something she describes as “too bad”, worrying that many talented writers are ignored, while “shortlisted” authors get the attention of the press.


She then notes the tendency in the media to preface references to a variety of things as “The great Canadian….”.  “You don’t hear the adjective “Great” in the States.  They don’t need to say it.  Let’s just drop the “great” and be what we are.”



On Being Published in Canada


Asked for her advice to the unpublished writer, Ms. Musgrave offers solid, commonsensical suggestions:  “Read as much as you can.”


She notes the importance of knowing the market, knowing what is currently being written and read.  “Know the current editor’s name when you send work to a magazine.  Editors are human.  They want you to be interested in their magazine, not just in getting your work published.”


With respect to the inevitable rejections slips, she is encouraging:  “Keep submitting.  If there is any enthusiasm shown at all (such as a suggestion to resubmit), follow up.”  Above all, “Don’t take it personally.  See it as a game, separate from the writing.”  And:  “Be loyal to yourself as a writer.”



On Beauty, Desire, Hope and Loss


As we moved away from topics strictly Canadian, Ms. Musgrave discussed some of the philosophy underpinning her writing and her life.  Asked about the beauty of the words she chooses to describe ugly and violent events in her writing, she wonders if, in fact, this isn’t a definition of modern poetry.  Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley, she notes, wrote of lovely subjects:  nightingales and daffodils, using beautiful language.


Musgrave, in contrast, attempts to “take something awful and redeem it.”  She refers to “Nietzsche and the spiritualization of cruelty” in order to explain how “the beautiful treatment of a vile subject can actually lead the reader to a state of catharsis.”  This has been her intent, though she hasn’t always been thoroughly successful in this regard.  She admits, with regret, that some of her earlier work left some readers “feeling sick”.  Though she says:  “You need to write what you have to write.”


Musgrave acknowledges the need to learn “restraint” in her writing at times.  She cites author Toni Morrison as a particularly good example of a writer who leaves much “unsaid” with very powerful results:  “Writing”, says Musgrave, “is never perfected though.  You can’t be a ‘perfect’ writer.”


We move from Nietzsche to Buddhist thought.  When asked why “desire” is a recurrent theme in her writing, Ms. Musgrave grows almost wistful.  She speaks of the Buddhist conception of “desirelessness” as the ideal state, and admits that in Western culture, this state of total acceptance of things “as they are” is a difficult concept to understand, and even more difficult to achieve.  “I wish I’d grown up in an Eastern way,” she says, noting that the inability to accept things as they are leads to “sadness and loss – not an ideal state.”



On Rebelling – Telling It Like It Is


What compels you to speak about the unspeakable?


“The fact that it’s unspeakable.  Nothing should be unspeakable.  We tend to erect safety nets, but if things aren’t spoken, they fester.”


Musgrave explains the paradox surrounding her reputation for “revealing all”.  She notes how “we’re good at hiding from things,” and that often she talks about what most people won’t in order to avoid speaking her own unspoken truths.  She offers as an example her guardedness and protective feelings toward her parents and her children, noting that she has created a “mythology” around them in her writing that is quite different from her innermost feelings.



On Feminism


Ms. Musgrave prefers to remain outside the box when it comes to describing her own brand of feminist thought.  She considers herself “outside genders”, maintaining a few times that “gender isn’t a big thing for me.”


She is uncomfortable with the portrayal of men today as “shallow” or “weak”.  She feels that women’s magazine articles professing “How to Keep Your Man Happy” or Bianca Jagger’s claim that “a blow job on the way out the door” is enough to satisfy the average guy, are belittling to men.


Reaching back in time, she remembers when she first started writing in Canada three decades ago when most of her fellow writers were male, and she was a young and pretty poet:  “I thought they loved my mind.  I loved my mind.  That’s what was important.”


On a Sequel to Cargo of Orchids and More


When I reviewed Cargo of Orchids for Surface and Symbol last year I wondered whether Ms. Musgrave’s seductively beautiful prose was a device used to reflect the addictive/seductive lifestyles in the novel.  Here was an opportunity to find out:  “Not consciously, but when you’re writing a novel you get caught up in that world.  You’re seduced.  If that was conveyed, that’s good, because I was deep in my novel’s world.”


She then explains that just as she completed the first draft of the novel, she came in from her office to find her husband had robbed a bank.  “When you’re writing, you have an exciting life going on in your head.  You want calm in your domestic life.”


Asked about the conclusion of Cargo of Orchids, Ms. Musgrave offers some exciting news:  “There’s a sequel!”  She runs through several details of the book she is currently writing, almost thinking aloud, seeming to brainstorm as she speaks:    “Is her protagonist dead or alive?  And what of  baby Angel’s fate?  If life stops at death, does death stop too,” she asks herself?


As our interview closes, Ms. Musgrave responds to a question about her current projects.  Citing her novel as the main one, she mentions a column she writes for Focus on Women, where she writes humourous, creative, non-fiction.  She is also interviewing Canadians about their working lives, editing-on-line with high school students, editing a young adult series for teenage girls, and quite recently at her home in the Queen Charlotte’s, she wrote a poem, musing that it “felt great.  It’s a luxury to write poetry.”


A Toronto Star article reported recently that the average income of a writer in Canada today is $7,000.  Though Ms. Musgrave doesn’t fit this description, it nevertheless serves to illustrate that a life in the arts is rarely one of affluence.  Ms. Musgrave’s commitment to the writing life is just that:  a dedication to her art.  And we, as her readers, the fortunate beneficiaries of her “love for the process of writing.”

                                                                                                      Surface and Symbol

                                                                                   Scarborough Arts Council

                                                                                                      March, 2004

‘Mum's Fine, just fine’

Whenever anyone inquired after my mother’s health, the answer was always the same:  “Fine, just fine.”

Mum was what we fondly refer to as a “Depression baby”.  She grew up in Cabbagetown in the 1930’s (long before the three-storey Victorian homes there were so widely sought after).  In fact, she found it hilarious when the broken-down places of her youth sky-rocketed in value, often remarking that no amount of renovating could possibly move the happy cockroach families from their long-time abodes.

One of nine children, living on welfare, often spreading her bread with ‘drippings’ because butter was too ‘dear’, Mum learned to cherish her good health.  Thus, “fine, just fine” was stated proudly, with dignity.  And, yes, maybe even a little defiance hovered there.  You see, despite a diet lacking in proper nourishment, clothing that barely stood up to biting winters, and despite competing with all those siblings for the odd parental stroke of approval, Mum had survived.  She was ‘fine, just fine’, thank you.

In 1992, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, her response was pretty much as expected.  With little to-do about the matter, she announced she’d be heading over to the hospital for her lumpectomy.  No matter, really.  A simple operation, to be followed with radiation.  Nothing for her daughters to be concerned about.  No need to visit.  That would be silly, travelling all that way, when she’d be home the following day.

Mum’s determination convinced everyone, really.  Hers was the only message anyone wanted to hear.  That all would be ‘fine, just fine’, as it always had been.  After all, had anyone ever witnessed an illness that had kept Mum down?  The answer was a resounding, No.  And surely enough, only days after her surgery, she was up and about, her energetic self, regaling each and all with her “Fine, just fine”, even in the face of this most frightening disease.

Mum took on cancer, and she won.  And she was gracious in her win.  Never alluding to the fear that must have overwhelmed her, somewhere inside.  Rarely complaining about the uncomfortable side effects of tomoxiphin, the anti-cancer drug she was to take for the remainder of her life.  You see, to admit that the disease might have rocked her in any way, was to concede defeat.  And Mum hadn't battled her way out of Cabbagetown slums, only to be taken down by her own body’s weaknesses.  At all costs, whomever inquired, she was ‘fine, just fine’.  And so we all believed.

It was four and a half years later when Mum sat across from me at the kitchen table, and casually pointed to a stubborn bruise on her right arm that just didn’t seem to want to fade.  No alarm bells sounded, declaring the return of the dreaded ‘C’ word.  I just as casually suggested she mention it at her next doctor’s appointment, all the while thinking it had something to do with the natural aging process.  Slow to heal, all that.

Her general practitioner saw little reason for concern.  He told her not to worry.  Everything would be ‘fine, just fine’.  Unfortunately, the specialists who she regularly visited at Princess Margaret Hospital didn’t agree with our optimistic diagnosis.  Mum’s cancer had reappeared in her lymph nodes, and her liver.

And so, on a brilliant April day in 1998, we arrived at the hospital, for all intense and purposes, somewhat baffled.  You see, each of us knew that Mum’s cancer had travelled, like a spreading stain throughout her entire body.  Each of us knew that Mum’s time with us was probably limited to a few days, a week at most.  Each of us knew how important it was that we find her a bed in the palliative unit, where no invasive measures would be taken to prolong her needless suffering.  Each of us knew all this.

But within the family, was an unspoken pact.  And that silent agreement stated that:  Mum, who had battled her way to this point, proud of her hardiness and her determined ability to carry on, would be ‘fine, just fine’.  Even when Mum could no longer speak to us, this is the message she sent with her determined gaze as she lay helpless on a gurney in the Emergency department for seven long hours before a bed could be found for her upstairs on the palliative unit.

Denial, we are told, is a pernicious thing.  Yet, it is this very denial of ill health that my mother insisted on.  Needed in fact, to die with dignity.  If given the choice Mum’s last words to us all might have been ‘fine, just fine’.  And that would have suited her.  And so we gathered around her gurney in the Emergency department, chatting about the everyday, telling the odd joke, fetching a glass of water, or a warm blanket, or anything else that offered us the illusion we might provide her with some much needed physical comfort.

And then the spell was broken.  In strode the medical professional whose signature was to ensure Mum a bed on the palliative ward.  Advising the family that admittance to his ward required the patient’s acknowledgement of their imminent death, he stood by my mother's side and proceeded to list one by one, the organs within her body that had been invaded by her cancer.  The cancer had first presented in the breast, spread to the lymph system and then to the liver.  From there to the lungs and into the bones.  My mother’s body was laid bare, exposed to everyone in the room.  His ‘policy’ required this open discussion, you see.  Surely we all understood.

My mother didn’t expire at that very moment, but something inside all of us surely did.  Mum’s right to die a dignified death was taken from her.  Found to be less important than hospital policy.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the doctor whose approach it is to fully discuss his dying patients’ state in the presence of the entire family, sincerely believes his way to be the right one.  But I know as surely that it isn’t.  It wasn’t for my mother.  And it wasn’t for my family.  And if I may be so bold as to ask:  Is it really possible to conceive of a blanket policy that takes into account the needs of all dying patients and their families, without accounting for individual difference?  I think not.

                                                                                                Maclean's Magazine

                                                                                                 June, 2001

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