Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A response to Ann Elizabeth Carson's WE ALL BECOME STORIES, Blue Denim Press, 2013

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Ann Elizabeth Carson’s WE ALL BECOME STORIES is a generous book. This recounting of journeys the author has made with a baker’s dozen of elders (she makes the thirteenth) is an intimate exploration of the eldering process—to coin a word—its various paths, its challenges and rewards, and most of all, the resilience and ampleness of a determinedly positive old age, one to which sensory memory (an especial interest of the author’s) can contribute mightily. Indeed, it is a book about memory—and its complementary function, forgetting—in older persons, not as something diminishing, but as a resource.

These are not stories of triumph over debility, disability, the losses and erosions that confront bodies that have been on earth for a while. The storytellers here face the perennial challenges of aging: the slow loss of agility, the slipping away of memory, and of keenness in the senses. Some have more serious infirmities: Meyer, a musician whose comment “When I was a kid, I’d look at a fence and hear a chord: It would actually glow” startled and delighted me, copes with “...not only physical infirmity...but also deafness.” He accepts the physical disabilities as part of the territory, but deafness for a musician is a sterner punishment.

Beatrice, a once-upon-a-time roommate of the author’s mother at U of Toronto has a serious automobile accident that leaves her physically disabled. After the accident, she has an emotional breakdown, cries all the time, can’t look after herself, loses her sense of taste–and so stops eating. Eventually she moves into a seniors’ residence, where she quickly realizes that though she can’t “see, hear, taste or walk as well” as she once could, she’s very alive inside. When asked by the author whether being old was what she expected, she replies, “...I didn’t think you’d continue to think young.” The ennui that her fellow residents at ‘The Manor’ relax into distresses her. They don’t share her interests and liveliness of mind, but she understands: “...what they need is family, and you see they don’t have family.” Beatrice does have family, family who visit and care. The 'adventures' Beatrice embarks on qualify her eminently as one determined to “burn and rage at close of day...” as Dylan Thomas prescribes. Like the other storytellers in the book, Beatrice looks to her inner resources to help infuse meaning into her life. Buy the book to discover the rest of her inspiring story!

Ann Carson encountered the twelve persons here, “all of European descent” as she tells us (perhaps aware that this may be a limitation?), in the course of over 30 years of her life journey. She met seven of them on a remote island off the coast of Maine where they all spent summer months; the rest are family friends and folks at the senior’s centre in Toronto where Carson taught memory classes. The extended conversations with the owners of these “12 aging voices” began when she was in her forties and provide a kind of longitudinal engagement. The storytellers (most of them, at any rate) share unabashedly their personal stories. Sometimes the discussions are so dense the reader gets a little lost, but that is perhaps part and parcel of any intense series of exchanges. Perhaps too Ann Elizabeth Carson might have taken more advantage of her narrative skills. Where she intervenes to describe (persons, scenes, experiences), her prose is clean, vivid, poetic, and eminently readable. There are many ‘great’ Canadian authors for whom this is far from true.

Carson’s poems add a special dimension to the text. The poems (at least one of them in large part a ‘found’ poem) return the reader to stories just told or to the storytellers, to distill into times, places and experiences for savouring again. Jennifer Kenneally’s drawings at the beginning of each tale help to convey a sense of the seven women and five men, persuading us that they are true renditions of her subjects: she doesn’t prettify them. I found them particularly appealing when the touch of her pencil was light, as in her portraits of Lev, Alice and Callum.

In a book that pulls no punches, with great empathy and a vigorous commitment to valuing and affirming aging, Carson, as an elder, engages with a community of elders and in so doing “open[s] up a world of oldness people rarely speak of.” The “memory work” of WE ALL BECOME STORIES makes for a book that is a significant contribution to conversations about aging. Indeed, the book offers freely available prescriptions as to how to nurture livity and upfullness, as Jamaicans would say, in those with the special gift of a long life.

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.

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Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.

Go to Pamela Mordecai’s Author Page