Alchemists of the Atlantic

Writers transforming hardship into humour.

 

I am one generation removed from the kind of poverty and strife that has long been woven into the fabric of Atlantic Canadian literature. My mother was born and raised in a Cape Breton mining town, one of eleven kids, and many details of her life are not out of the ordinary, given the time and place. Abusive alcoholic father who worked in the perilous mines? Check. Unspeakably cruel Catholic school? Check. Not enough food for thirteen people in a three-bedroom house that didn’t have an indoor toilet for much of her childhood? Check. 

When I set out to write my novel, Crow—about a dying woman returning to her struggling homeland, in a family full of hard luck “lunatics and criminals”—I had all the inspiration I needed to write one doozy of a depressing book. What emerged, however, was something different: a darkly themed story that might make you snort tea out of your nose if you’re not careful. 

I didn’t set out to write a funny novel. It kind of just happened because that’s the culture I’ve been steeped in my whole life. The place and the people I come from have long been adept at “hanging on by the skin of our teeth” and finding the funny side of… well, anything. Whether it be stories about “Potatoes and Point” for supper, or my mother and her sisters fighting over who’d get to sleep next to the family bed-wetter in the hopes of some fleeting warmth on cold nights, or the laughter that ensued when the ashes of my cranky great aunt blew back in the minister’s face as he opened the urn at her waterfront memorial service, the message was clear: find light in the darkness. 

For many writers with roots in Atlantic Canada’s mining and fishing towns, or other rural communities, such comically skewed views of the world help us transform the hardships of “home” into storytelling gold. 

The title of Newfoundland author Tracey Waddleton’s debut short story collection (Send More Tourists…The Last Ones Were Delicious from Breakwater Books, July 2019) is itself a nod to the kind of surprising, subversive humour that often shows up in her work, and in Atlantic Canadian literature. “Dark humour naturally sneaks into my writing as a kind of lubricant for difficult topics,” Waddleton says. “It’s easier to consume reality when you’re already laughing.” 

Indeed, there’s no shortage of difficult topics, given the socio-economic reality of many Atlantic Canadian communities—historically and currently. “There’s so much trauma in rural communities, it reaches a kind of surreal pitch: the weather, the isolation, the lack of infrastructure and economic stability, abuse and alcoholism, the dangers inherent in fishing on the wild North Atlantic,” Waddleton says. “At some point, all you can do is joke about it. It’s a coping mechanism. A distraction. A means to survival when everything seems bleak.” 

Finding ways to laugh in the face of tough circumstances and long-standing struggle demands a certain perspective, but not the kind that discounts, diminishes or ignores reality. Rather, the kind that seeks to see both beyond and deeper into it. Prince Edward Island poet Chris Bailey—who launched his debut collection What Your Hands Have Done (Nightwood Editions) last fall—draws on his experience as a fisherman, and themes of loss, heartbreak, violence, death and “the malaise of existing” surface in his work alongside an on-point reference to The Simpsons, and a healthy dose of swearing. “When experiencing any hardship, it’s so easy to be myopic,” Bailey says. “You can’t see beyond yourself, your own problems. But if you can laugh about it, then there’s a light that gets in and you see a little further, even if it’s only a brief glimpse.” 

So what is it that we see, when we turn to humour despite—or because of—hardship? In the context of writers and artists in Atlantic Canada, Tracey Waddleton says, “It’s a kind of anti-shame that results in brasher, bolder work. We can showcase the incidents that tear apart lives and communities without alienating our audience, thus passing on important layers of our culture that might normally have been swept under the rug.” It can also have a more personal impact, and as Chris Bailey notes, “There’s less taken for granted when you’re given something after going without, or with so little, for so long.”  Humour can show us the place where absurdity meets adversity. It can intensify the flashes of joy that pierce the haze of grief. For me, writing about death, poverty and familial dysfunction in Crow brought into clearer focus the strength, resilience and sense of community that pulls us through things that might otherwise trick us into thinking that we’re weak, defeated and alone.

By embracing the blurry lines between “serious” and “funny” writing, and working from a sense of honesty, bravery and love for the people, places and stories that shape us, we strengthen an important creative cultural narrative of our region. Legendary Cape Breton author Alistair MacLeod concluded his novel, No Great Mischief, with the profoundly true phrase, “All of us are better when we’re loved.” It seems just as profoundly true that all of us are better when we’ve laughed. ■

 

Written By

Cape Breton-born and raised, Amy Spurway is the author of Crow and has written for Today’s Parent, Toronto Star, Babble and Elephant Journal. She’s currently at work on her next novel.

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Alchemists of the Atlantic

Writers transforming hardship into humour.
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