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Marina Sonkina’s “Expulsion” and “women who strive to make a difference”

expulsionIn a recent article by Jan DeGrass for the Coast Reporter, DeGrass reviews Marina Sonkina’s Expulsion alongside Bonnie Reilly Schmidt’s Silenced: The Untold Fight for Equality in the RCMP as two books about “women who strive to make a difference, to save what is good, to state what is honest”.

Beginning her review with an account of how Marina Sonkina fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s, DeGrass describes the collection as follows:

“Many of the tales in this new fiction collection…recall the women of Moscow who strive to make a living or simply to survive. There’s naïve Inna whose honest execution of her duties is not what the boss wants. And there’s a nameless wife who is lonely even though she lives in a communal apartment in Moscow with a listless husband, nasty neighbours and active bedbugs. In another story, Tanya seeks a miracle to make her wandering husband love her again, so she becomes baptized, not a politically correct activity in the Soviet Union. She pays heavily for defending another man who has also found religion. In the title story, Expulsion, young Alexandra strives to learn math and earn respect, until she meets a lewd gypsy”.

Ending her review by praising Sonkina’s story “Face”, DeGrass explains, “Sonkina’s characters inevitably gallop to surreal disaster, yet they are the backbone of her tragicomic stories”.

Expulsion & Other Stories consists of two parts: a novella followed by a group of short stories. But the main protagonists have one thing in common: they are all women coming of age in difficult times. Nobody spells out the rules of survival to the young girls and women, yet each learns to play – or pays the price, that of facing “expulsion”.

Marina Sonkina was a teacher of literature and linguistics at Moscow State University until she escaped to Canada, where she worked as a CBC producer, broadcaster, documentary film researcher, and translator. She taught humanities at Dawson and Vanier College in Montreal and now shares her time between teaching at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia as well as writing. She has published two collections of short stories and two children’s books.

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H Nigel Thomas Discusses His Inspiration for “No Safeguards”

nosafeguardsIn a recent article published in Daily Xtra, Dinah Zeldin discusses the inspiration behind H Nigel Thomas’ newest novel, No Safeguards.

Zeldin begins by explaining the basis of the novel, which follows two St. Vincentian brothers who move to Canada to join their mother, who has fled St. Vincent in order to get away from her abusive and fundamentalist Christian husband. While in Montreal, the brothers come to terms with the fact that they are gay. Zeldin states, “No Safeguards draws on Thomas’ experiences growing up as a gay man in St. Vincent, where anal sex is still punished with 10 years imprisonment. An incident recounted in the book, where a gay couple’s house is surrounded, the man beaten, and the home burned to the ground, is drawn from Thomas’ early childhood memories”.

Zeldin’s article draws on a conversation with H Nigel Thomas, in which he explains how in St. Vincent, “violence was a common occurrence and, as an effeminate boy, he was often its target. ‘Effeminacy and homosexuality were considered to be one and the same thing,’ he says. ‘People would literally hit me and say ‘Act like a man,’ or mock my voice and call me names’”.

Although H Nigel Thomas entered his first long-term relationship in the 1980s, he “did not publicly come out until a series of homophobic articles appeared in the Vincentian press in 1994”. This prompted Thomas to denounce the offending papers by writing an article in response. After its publication, Thomas found himself “dueling with the archbishop of the Windward Islands”.

Although Thomas was “criticized for his openness by Montreal’s Vincentian community”, even pointing that “following an interview with the Montreal Gazette in 2000, where he spoke about black people in the LGBT community, he received angry phone calls”, he later joined the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Association of Montreal. There, he found himself welcomed, stating “to my great astonishment, people were quite happy to have me”.

Zeldin ends the article by stating, “there is hope for the future. One bookstore on the island now sells Thomas’ books. There is a secret gay association. While local gay activists use pseudonyms, allies openly write and speak about LGBT rights”.

H. Nigel Thomas was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and has been living in Montreal since 1986. He has written three other novels, Spirits in the Dark, Behind the Face of Winter, and Return to Arcadia, along with three collections of short stories, How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow, Lives: Whole and Otherwise (translated into French as Des vies cassées), and When the Bottom Falls Out and Other Stories. He has also written a collection of poems, Moving through Darkness, and two scholarly texts.

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David Joiner on the Beauty of Vietnam and Universal Themes in “Lotusland”

lotuslandGarry Craig Powell recently sat down with David Joiner, author of Lotusland, for an interview published by Rain Taxi. Powell begins by stating, “with its complicated cast of characters and evocative settings, Lotusland is likely the most vivid novel set in post-colonial Southeast Asia that contemporary readers will encounter”.

Powell asked Joiner a few questions about the inception of the novel, to which Joiner replies “I don’t know that a specific idea led to the inception of Lotusland, but I do remember wanting to fill a niche in U.S. literature about Vietnam. I wanted to set my novel in contemporary Vietnam, during the time that I was writing it, and have it turn the page on the war we fought there”.

The story of Lotusland hinges on the various deceits of the novel’s characters, and “the conflicts come about because there are serious issues of trust”. Joiner explains, “one needs to be rather careful there both in business relationships (as with Anthony) and romantic ones (as with Le and Huong). After all, legal protections in Vietnam hardly exist. Also, Vietnamese people in general distrust their government, the police, and others in positions of power. That distrust often filters through to everyday relationships, which play out dramatically in the novel”.

That said, Lotusland avoids giving a one-sided representation of Vietnam. Instead, as Powell emphasizes, “Lotusland is a rich and textured portrait of the country…that reveals both the worst things about it – the corruption, the poverty, and the tawdriness – and the best: the beauty, not only of its landscape and art, but often glimpses of transcendent beauty in quite ordinary scenes, as well as the humanity of the people, their present sufferings and their brave attempts to overcome the trauma of ‘The American War’”.

When asked about Joiner’s particular aesthetic approach towards writing Lotusland, he states “setting is important to my aesthetic…I’ve always been fascinated by, even moved by, both the natural and urban landscapes of Vietnam. It’s kind of a wabi-sabi ethic, where one finds beauty in the potential of things, in their imperfections. To me, no other country possesses the kind of beauty Vietnam is endowed with, and because that beauty, that aesthetic, really can’t be replicated in the West, I need to paint scenes with a certain type of brushstroke to ensconce readers in the place itself”.

Even though Lotusland focuses strongly on Vietnam, and the conflicts between the characters stem from issues with Vietnam’s social and economic conditions, Joiner maintains that “Lotusland develops certain universal themes – love is one, finding one’s place in the world is another, learning to do what is morally right is one more”.

Lotusland tells the story of Nathan Monroe, a 28-year-old American living in Saigon who falls in love with a poor but talented Vietnamese painter. After failing to protect their love from her desperate chase for a better life in America, Nathan is hired by his old friend Anthony to work at his real estate firm. Only much later does Nathan discover that Anthony has intended all along for him to take over his job and family so that he, too, can escape and start his life over in America.

David Joiner was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but has since made his home in nearly 20 different cities across the US, Japan, and Vietnam. David currently lives in Kanazawa, Japan, where he is working on a second novel set on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. His earliest experience in Vietnam was as a volunteer teacher in 1994, when he became the first American since the end of the Vietnam War to live and work in Dong Nai province. Lotusland is his first published novel.

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Ami Sands Brodoff Calls “No Safeguards” “a dense, meditative book about the wounds of history”

nosafeguardsIn a recent article published in the Montreal Review of Books entitled “Can You Go Home Again?” Ami Sands Brodoff discusses H. Nigel Thomas’ newest book, No Safeguards, which she describes as “a dense, meditative book about the wounds of history filtered through memory”. Brodoff also sits down with the author to talk about Thomas’ background and inspiration.

Brodoff begins by explaining some of the major plot points of the novel, stating, “in No Safeguards, Thomas grapples with the complex bonds and migrations of a Vincentian family, among those people often left out of conventional Canadian histories”. One of the first questions that Brodoff has for Thomas “is how closely the novel hews to his own history”. Thomas explains, “’it’s not autobiographical in any factual way,’…though he acknowledges parallels in the violence of the father and in the inspiration of a grandparent”.

Thomas states that the major influence that drove him to pursue literature was his grandfather, who taught him how to read before he went to school. Thomas’ early love of literature motivated him to become an English teacher, which he achieved when he arrived in Montreal, ‘eager to experience life on a continental scale.’ After teaching English and French for a dozen years, he went on to earn his PhD and was appointed assistant professor of US Literature at Université Laval. Since 2006, he has devoted himself to writing full time”.

Brodoff praises Thomas’ writing, stating that he “evokes landscapes with a painterly brush”. Brodoff also states, “Thomas’ strengths are voice and dialogue and he has a lively sense of humour”. One example that Brodoff gives in her review refers to the character Paul from No Safeguards, whose “speech, rap music, and poetry are seasoned with wit, poignancy, and power, as he incessantly needles and confronts his older brother. There is a priceless scene in a Montreal gay club when Paul says ‘Tonight you’ll give it up, Bro. Besides, let’s face it: brothers who sin together bond better’”.

Brodoff concludes her article by discussing the novel’s portrayal of homophobia, which is a concern for the brothers Jay and Paul in No Safeguards. Jay and Paul are both gay, although they come from a region where there are “anti-homosexuality laws, gay people are tortured, imprisoned, and murdered”. Brodoff explains that these “concerns are rooted in Thomas’ own experience. He sees the themes of the novel as ‘the accommodations we must make to live in society, as well as the high cost of repression.’ In 1994, despite rampant homophobia in St. Vincent, Thomas came out publicly there. ‘This was the first time my family knew I was gay, the first time friends knew’”.

No Safeguards is the first in a trilogy of novels focusing on Jay and his brother Paul from childhood to young adulthood. The book deals with the impact of fundamentalist Christianity on their family, the ways that this becomes even more poignant when they leave their grandmother’s home in St. Vincent to join their mother in Montreal, and the further oppression that the brothers encounter when it is revealed that they are gay.

Nigel Thomas was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and has been living in Montreal since 1986. He has written three other novels, Spirits in the Dark, Behind the Face of Winter, and Return to Arcadia, along with three collections of short stories, How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow, Lives: Whole and Otherwise (translated into French as Des vies cassées), and When the Bottom Falls Out and Other Stories. He has also written a collection of poems, Moving through Darkness, and two scholarly texts.

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Anya Sivajothy Calls “Mirrors of Absence” “a powerful collection of poetry”

mirrorsofabsenceIn a recent review by Anya Sivajothy for The McGill Daily, she calls Faraj Bayrakdar’s Mirrors of Absence “a powerful collection of poetry that entangles the reader within the nebulous and peripheral existence of the speaker, which can be attributed to Bayrakdar’s own experiences of imprisonment”.

Sivajothy begins by discussing “Intro”, the first poem in Bayrakdar’s collection, which “projects vivid images of reflection into a whirlwind of thought”. For this reason, Sivajothy calls “Intro” “an apt introduction to Faraj Bayrakdar’s book of short verses which complicates ideas of identity, freedom, and imprisonment – all set within the context of a poet struggling with his identity while living under a tyrannical regime”.

Bayrakdar’s collection draws on his experiences of being “imprisoned by the Hafez al-Assad regime in 1987” for fourteen years, and each poem reflects the conditions of this captivity. Sivajothy explains that “while some longer poems are marked by a cutting violence, others are composed of short lines that impose a juxtaposition between anger and resigned sorrow. Such lines cast this sorrow toward a constrained God who is silently watching the treachery unfold”.

Bayrakdar’s poems use this constrained simplicity to draw in the reader, strongly conveying the psychological trauma experienced by the poet. Each poem becomes a different kind of mirror: “when readers come up for air, they are just as implicated in the final interpretation as the author’s original intention, reflecting their own internal state onto the poetry”. Sivajothy concludes her review by stating “much of the directness and straightforward nature of this translation can be attributed to John Mikhail Asfour”. She also points out that “as with all translation, a worry remains over the ideas that are potentially lost in translation or untranslatable. This inevitability evokes another tragic sense of absence that further adds to the layers of restrained sorrow surrounding the work”.

Faraj Bayrakdar was born in Homs, a city north of Damascus, and spent almost 15 years in Syrian prisons. Before he was first arrested, he had already written three collections of poetry. He wrote a fourth while in prison entitled A Dove with Wings Outspread. In 1998 Bayrakdar was awarded the Hellman/Hammett award, and the American PEN Freedom-to-Write award in 1999.

John Mikhail Asfour is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent being Blindfold which speaks about his experience being blinded by a grenade in his native Lebanon at the age of 13. He was the editor and translator of the anthology, When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, which was shortlisted for the Canadian League of Poets Award. One Fish from the Rooftop was the recipient of the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize and Fields of My Blood received the Canada Council for the Arts Joseph Staufford award. John Mikhail Asfour died on November 2, 2014 while his translation of Mirrors of Absence was being edited.

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Ellen S. Jaffe’s “Skinny-Dipping with the Muse” Selected as a Finalist for Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award for Poetry

Skinny-Dipping MuseWe are very proud to announce that Ellen S. Jaffe’s collection of poetry, Skinny-Dipping with the Muse has been selected as one of three finalists for the Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award for Poetry! Congratulations Ellen! For more information, visit the Hamilton Arts Council Website here.

Skinny-Dipping with the Muse is a collection that has been described by Heidi Greco as “flowers planted to remember those who have gone before…steeped in the importance of family. This book tracks a life – its losses, discoveries and joys”. It is grouped into four sections and relates to the writer’s experience of diving “into the destructive element”, naked, vulnerable, stripping off clothes, masks, and preconceptions in a process of connecting with the ‘creative spirit’ in a way that is playful, loving, emotionally rich and wet, care-full, and spontaneous.

Ellen S. Jaffe grew up in New York, came to Canada in 1979, and lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Skinny-Dipping with the Muse is her second poetry collection. Her previous books include her book of poetry Water Children, the young adult novel Feast of Lights, and Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal. Her poetry, short fiction, and articles have appeared in journals and anthologies. Ellen currently teaches writing with “Learning/Living Through the Arts” and has received Artist-in-Education and writing grants from the Ontario Arts Council. She is Hamilton contributing editor of The Great Lakes Review.


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Elana Wolff on Collaborating and Connecting With Malca Litovitz

elana wolffmalcalitovitzIn a touching essay written by Elana Wolff as part of Brick Books’ “Celebration of Canadian Poetry”, Elana reflects on the power of collaboration and the lasting influence of her friend and poet Malca Litovitz. Elana and Malca together wrote Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologues and Rengas), which is composed of poems that are written in lines that alternate between the two authors. Malca Litovitz passed away on July 18th, 2015.

Elana begins by referring to the latest book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two, in which Shenk “discredits the idea of the atomized self and solitary genius…and extols the dyad as the primary creative unit”. Elana begins by explaining that she “saw creativity – particularly in the field of writing – as an individual pursuit; solitary and self-contained. Then came Malca Litovitz and things shifted”.

Elana continues to describe how she met Malca, stating: “Malca and I met in the fall of 2003 shortly before the release of our second poetry collections with Guernica. The attraction was fast and natural”. As soon as they met, they each became interested in collaborating with one another. One project that they aimed to achieve was a book-length “triologue” with another Guernica poet, Merle Nudelman, but these plans were put aside when Malca fell ill with metastatic cancer.

Throughout the chemotherapy, Malca remained “resolute”. Elana explains, “she returned to teaching at Seneca College, kept busy with family and friends, and continued to write and think affirmatively”. It was during this time that Elana and Malca began to create rengas together, “poems written line-by-alternating line”. Elana says the following about the challenges of this process, “Malca’s notion of freefall renga writing – sitting across from one another at the same table, passing the pen back and forth, releasing the censor, trusting the process and letting the lines ‘come in’ – was completely foreign to me. I didn’t write extemporaneously, and for me privacy was a requirement. I needed solitude – to think, deliberate, and craft the work. I couldn’t conceive of penning anything worthwhile ‘in-the-moment’, with another. And if the muse arrived, she was for me alone. Why would I give anyone else one of my inspired lines…Writing was personal, solitary, deliberative…proprietary”.

Elana and Malca wrote their final renga together on Friday July 8, 2005 at The Toronto Hospital, “sitting side by side, passing the paper back and forth”. Before Malca passed, she described these rengas as “her ‘lifeline’”. Elana states, “This was more than metaphorical. On the day of her funeral, her husband told me that Malca was ‘first and foremost a writer’”.

Wolff concludes her essay by reflecting on her collaboration with Malca in terms of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “six essential stages” that he presents in Power of Two. Of these, the last is “Interruption”. Elana says the following, “death, of course, is the big interruption…On one of my last visits to Malca at Baycrest Hospital, I sat by her bedside as she addressed me indirectly through her doctor. ‘I have no renga line for Elana today,’ she told him. The doctor answered for me, ‘I don’t think Elana minds that you don’t have a line’”.

Malca Litovitz was a full-time teacher of English literature and creative writing for 25 years, in addition to being an editor, critic, performer, mentor, and award-winning poet. She was the author of At the Moonbeam Café and To Light, To Water, which won the 2000 Jewish National Book Award. An endowment for the Malca Litovitz Prize in creative writing has been established at Seneca-College Toronto. A copy of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness is included in the award.

Elana Wolff has published four collections of poetry with Guernica Editions, including You Speak to Me in Trees, awarded the F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of Implicate Me, a collection of essays on contemporary poems, and co-editor with Julie Roorda of Poet to Poet: Poems written to poets and the stories that inspired them. A bilingual edition of her selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation (translator: Stéphanie Roesler). Elana has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her professional time between writing, editing, and designing and facilitating therapeutic community art courses.

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Irwin Block: “That Summer in Provincetown” is “a reminder of how complex the lives of refugees can be.”

that summer in provincetownIrwin Block calls Caroline Vu’s That Summer in Provincetown “a reminder of how complex the lives of refugees can be”. Block reviews Vu’s novel in a recent article for The Senior Times, which he calls “the story of her extended family as told in fictionalized biography form”.

Block explains that That Summer in Provincetown, which “takes place in Vietnam, before, during, and after what we call the Vietnam War, and they call the American War”, is about secrecy. This is especially the case with the narrator’s brother’s contraction of HIV, which is an affliction that “is swept under the rug, as is so much behind the veil of appearances that are lifted in Vu’s narrative: forced marriages, rebellion, infidelity, and behind it all, the overpowering grandmother who passes on myths, fantasies and prejudices to the family even as she keeps it from falling apart”.

In addition to secrecy, Block states that Vu’s novel deeply reflects the political upheaval of the Vietnam war, especially the conflicting attitudes of the Vietnamese towards America. According to Block, That Summer in Provincetown “is a remarkable story of traditions and the pressures and influences of politics and shifting colonial patterns, as the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from big-power oppression and domination, even as they learn and adapt. The history of Vietnam is woven into the narrative, starting from the 1954 ‘partition’ of the country as a result of the Geneva Agreement following the collapse of French colonialism.”

Block concludes his review by stating “[That Summer in Provincetown] is an inside look at the upheavals in traditional Vietnamese society [and] will deepen our understanding of it. Having spent three years in Southeast Asia much of the time alongside Vietnamese expats, it reminded me of the turmoil of displacement, the desperation of those seeking refuge…Caroline Vu has done a remarkable job in bringing her family’s complex story to life, using pseudonyms of course, and placing it in the historical and political context that serves as a reminder of how political turmoil creates tragic situations, and how a huge, wealthy, and generally welcoming society like Canada’s can make the world a better place by opening its doors to those seeking refuge”.

Caroline Vu was born in Vietnam and left her native country at the age of 11. After spending several years in a small New England town, she moved to Montreal where she works as a family physician at a community health center. That Summer in Provincetown is her second novel. Her first novel, Palawan Story, was shortlisted for the Concordia University First Book Prize.

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Ian McGillis Calls “No Safeguards” “a work that addresses social and political issues…while retaining a compelling human drama at its heart.”

H. Nigel ThomasWriting for the Montreal Gazette, Ian McGillis recently reviewed H. Nigel ThomasNo Safeguards and sat down with the author. Clips from the interview are available on the Montreal Gazette website.

McGillis begins by stating, “Thomas has created a work that addresses social and political issues with complete candour while retaining a compelling human drama at its heart”. He points out that the book is the first installment in a projected trilogy, but is structured so that it can stand alone. McGillis later points out that in comparison to Thomas’ earlier works, such as Return to Arcadia, Thomas’ “new novel is more intimate in its concerns, particularly with regard to sexuality”.

McGillis’ article draws on a conversation with Thomas where he discusses his development as a writer. Thomas explains that his literary interests began because of the influence of his maternal grandfather, “an avid reader who encouraged his grandson’s intellectual inclinations in a place where church and social norms often did the opposite”. Thomas eventually came to Montreal at the age of 21, where he began studying nursing at Douglas Hospital. Thomas eventually earned a Master’s in education and taught high school English at LaSalle High. McGillis states, “of his focus in those years, he said ‘I simply wanted to be an excellent teacher. But I was shocked at the attitudes of some of my colleagues. I could not believe that someone who had gone through university and had teacher training could be overtly racist. Then I saw it with my own eyes and had to say, “Yes, it’s possible.”’”

Thomas later began to focus on writing when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1994. Thomas states, “it was not going to be cured; it could only be controlled. If I were lucky, according to the research, I might live up to 13 years. So I said to myself, ‘Well now, Nigel, what would you like to do?’ The answer was clear: ‘Write. Whatever you have left of your time, enjoy it’”.

McGillis also asks Thomas about the degree to which being a black writer has hindered his writing success. Thomas answers, “that’s a question I really don’t know how to answer…It’s very complex. Writing is such a nebulous thing – you write a book and it goes off into the ether. So how do you get any attention? Agents say that publishers tell them books by black authors don’t sell. And you can’t get your manuscripts to the major publishers without an agent. Hence we are fated to a sort of substratum in the literary world.”

No Safeguards is the first in a trilogy of novels focusing on Jay and his brother Paul from childhood to young adulthood. The book deals with the impact of fundamentalist Christianity on their family, their journey to join their mother in Montreal from their grandmother’s home in St. Vincent, and the oppression that the brothers encounter when it is revealed that they are gay.

Nigel Thomas was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and has been living in Montreal since 1986. He has written three other novels, Spirits in the Dark, Behind the Face of Winter, and Return to Arcadia, along with three collections of short stories, How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow, Lives: Whole and Otherwise (translated into French as Des vies cassées), and When the Bottom Falls Out and Other Stories. He has also written a collection of poems, Moving through Darkness, and two scholarly texts.

No Safeguards will have its Montreal launch (along with Farida by Naim Kattan, translated by Norman Cornett and Antonio D’Alfonso) on Thursday November 12th at 6PM. The launch will take place at Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College Avenue.

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Remembering Robert Flanagan

robertflanaganRobert Flanagan, husband, father, brother, and poet passed away last Thursday, October 29th. “Bob” leaves behind his wife Eleanor, children Nick and Sarah, and siblings Lynette, Bernie, Cathy, Ed, Jim, Elizabeth, Patricia, and Mary Ellen.

Robert Flanagan was an accomplished poet, with many publications under his belt. Margaret Atwood described Flanagan’s poetry by stating, “Flanagan penetrates his own or our condition like a spy or shape-changer, investigating with a view to demolition”. His early poetry included the titles Canada First, Incisions, Gravity, and On the Ground. In 2000, Flanagan released The Great Light Cage with Guernica Editions. The Great Light Cage was followed by Strong Conviction, An Ayako Ellen Anderson Book and A Place in the World, published by Guernica in 2009. Robert Flanagan’s literary papers were acquired by the National Library in 1999. He will be missed.

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