margaret atwood

Sarah Feldbloom

A few years ago, I was hired to deliver media and visual arts programming to the youth in a Cree community by James Bay. After that contract, I stayed to teach at the local high school and began dating one of the managers at the Northern store—an import too, from rural Nova Scotia. I’d brought stacks of books with me, so in my private life I had those to turn to, but in my public life my students and I had access to only a small school library in which cookbooks and car magazines got the most reads. Inside of my relationship, when I shared my writing ambitions or the poems I was working on with my smart boyfriend, he would tell me his love extended to my work but that for the most part, what I was developing belonged to a universe far away from his. Mine was considered exclusionary and unimportant by most. He was writing as well—crime and detective fiction—and when we’d talk about our respective projects, he’d look at me with a bit of pity in his eyes, and apologetically remind me that if we both “made it,” the books I’d publish wouldn’t speak to the world the way his would, that most people just wouldn’t care about them. “Maybe you could be a Margaret Atwood, or someone like that,” he said, “But I could be a Stephen King.”

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In 2011, I worked for Journalists for Human Rights in Malawi. I went questing to learn everything I could about the literary industry of that country. The academics and writers I interviewed confirmed that it was nothing like the one I knew in North America. Malawi has the lowest GDP per capita of any nation in the world. The only “books” that get printed there are NGO pamphlets. You can imagine that there are major difficulties in providing education and supporting traditional literacy development. At the time that I lived there, the average class size was 155 students. Commuting to the radio station, I’d walk past some chickens and maize fields on the way to my mini-bus stop and just as I’d get to the top of the hill I’d see a neighbourhood elementary school over the crest. There was one teacher waving one textbook in front of a tremendously large group of cross-legged children under a tree.

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Sometimes I think I live a small life, sheltered in ways from the bigness of the world—from pop culture and mainstream everything. The primary drive that has always called me to read is wondering about the people beyond their pages, imagining and articulating different possibilities than those that have occurred to me.

‘Maybe you could be a Margaret Atwood, or someone like that,’ he said, ‘But I could be a Stephen King.’

What words might these people use that I don’t know and what could they mean? What pictures could be drawn by these forces in my head? What new colours could they get me to see, and what energies could they help me feel?

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I’d never thought too much about “commercial literature” until I became a teacher. I had never even heard the term. I’d always supposed that the big books, the classics, were the ones that were commercial—you know, like1984, every Charles Dickens title, and Ulysses. To be honest, the phrase “literary fiction” wasn’t a part of my lexicon either until I started a Creative Writing MFA just over a year ago.

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At times, I wonder if there’s room for someone like me who doesn’t fit easily into commercial or literary bindings.

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Right now, I’m writing a book of linked coming-of-age stories featuring characters from every province and territory in Canada. It’s about what it means to be young in the country I live in. I don’t think it’s pretentious or niche; to me it feels necessary.

Sometimes I think I live a small life, sheltered in ways from the bigness of the world—from pop culture and mainstream everything.

I wish I could have read about young people in Iqaluit and Banff when I was a teen, to have been invited to compare and contrast what I was experiencing with others in different but connected environments riding a similar thrust of life. I’d like to read more about how the feeling of coming into oneself is for people in the nooks and crannies around my country presently because I’m still going through that process.

Sarah Feldbloom is a writer, audio producer, community media artist and teacher, currently completing an MFA at the University of Guelph. You can find her work in various publications including Carousel Magazine, Incongruous Quarterly, Metatron’s ÖMËGÄ Blog, the Toronto Star’s “Africa Without Maps” blog, and Shameless Magazine.

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