Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Framing a Story

Share |

A Chanukah party held on January 2, weeks after the last night of Chanukah, after the flames of eight candles on a menorah have danced their last dance. It’s the kind of telling detail that would speak volumes about the hosts if they appeared in a play or a book: here is a couple that bucks convention and tradition, that does not bend to prevailing winds. Only Lisa and Howard are not fictitious hosts but neighbours who open their doors to the neighbourhood each year, offering food and a delicious excuse to resist the temptation to hibernate.

Lisa is a physician who has offered guidance as I begin to develop a play about a psychiatrist who has endured her own battles with depression. She suggested I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, a memoir I savoured, artfully written and searing in its honesty. Howard must be one of the few philosopher-dentists in the city. I imagine he has a low tolerance for cavities and small talk.

As you enter or leave Lisa and Howard’s house your eye is drawn toward a jacket hanging on a wooden hanger. The jacket – a man’s jacket, brown, altogether rather ordinary – does not hang in an overflowing closet you would expect in a house with two young children, or dangle from a row of hooks crowded with coats, scarves and backpacks. It hangs on a wall like a treasured piece of art, framed and protected with a sheet of glass. It is something you might see as an installation in an art gallery, a work you might not understand and likely couldn’t afford.

The framed jacket was a gift from Howard to Lisa. It belonged to Lisa’s father. When I asked her about it, she rekindled fond memories of weekend expeditions to the zoo and Centre Island in the company of her father, her primary caregiver as she grew up. She wears a replica of her father’s jacket, preferring to preserve the original. Our conversation was brief but the image of the framed jacket lingered long after I’d stepped into the bone-chilling air of a January night.

The jacket is a story, its pockets filled with tales waiting to be spun by a loving daughter. Too often we consider narratives in the traditional sense, stories with a clear and coherent beginning, middle and end. Break away from convention, from traditions – much like a couple who celebrates Chanukah in January – and you see what others overlook. You see holidays not merely as holidays but as narratives, whether they unspool in a synagogue, church or mosque. You discover that the narrative of a screenplay is not only the spoken words but the silent moments that are often more piercing or powerful as text (see the masterful ending of Big Night as two brothers wordlessly prepare a shared breakfast). Speaking of food: in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (he is best known for Everything is Illuminated), Foer writes:

“Stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable – the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet but makes us think of sweetness, the matzo is the bread of our affliction.”

Food as narrative. Politics as narrative, as in this sub-headline from John Ibbitson’s column (January 2) in The Globe and Mail: “Michael Ignatieff must craft a narrative to contrast the Tory message without alienating voters.”

Narratives, then, are everywhere: in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear, in the ebb and flow of daily politics, daily bus rides, daily rituals. Narratives are published in books, of course, and produced on stage. But they are also stored in shoeboxes and squeezed into purses. They are in the forgotten shovel-and-pail at a playground, the untouched cup of cold coffee in a boardroom. The ending might be unwritten but there is always a beginning. Even if you start in the middle. Even if you begin with nothing more – and nothing less – than a late father’s jacket.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page