Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I don’t know how many of my blog posts are spawned from Twitter discussions (arguments? petty slap fights?) but let’s hope it’s less than I think.
This particular one stems from a recent Emma Watson interview where, when talking about turning thirty and being single, she described herself as being “self-partnered”.
Much like the creation of the universe had made people very angry, so it goes whenever a strong female voice expresses any independent thought or opinion and *gasp* dares suggest that she’s doing just fine being single. All manner of vermin are suddenly roused from their damp and murky dens to crawl onto social media in an attempt to remind the world of the superiority of their limp and pale appendages.
One such fellow caught my attention as I was scrolling through my feed. He chose to tweet at both Emma Watson, and at writer and current Chair of the NYC Mayor’s Fund, Chirlane McCray, who expressed support for Watson’s choice of words. And the important message he wanted to communicate to two people who accomplish more before breakfast than he does in a year, is that they don’t know the meaning of the word “partner”. Everyone, stop the presses, this man knows what a word means.
A commitment to misogyny, and a commitment is the only way to describe this person’s Twitter feed, reminiscent of the commitment shown by the rats to sinking Titanic, is difficult to break. But this person wasn’t just committed to a single line of outmoded narrow-minded thinking. This guy was also a prescriptivist. Or more accurately, he used prescriptivism as a platform for his misogyny, because let’s face it, this isn’t going to be someone who complains too much that “covfefe” is not a word.
When called out on his mansplaining, he double, triple, and quadrupled down leaving me with an image of a skinny guy at a hot dog eating competition. I was presented with a Googled dictionary definition of “partner” with the snarky comment about how that’s just English 101. Not sure which English class he’d taken where students are merely beaten with a dictionary for the entirety of the lesson, so maybe some sympathy on my part was in order.
Whatever childhood trauma causes the affliction, prescriptivists see language as a set of rigid rules that must be adhered to. Anything that does not fit into a prescriptivist’s neat definition of what language should be is chocked up to ignorance, or worse yet – innovation. You see, a prescriptivist’s mind is incapable of comprehending speech that isn’t robotically like their own.
They’re the ones who will happily, and incorrectly, remind you that “literally” has never meant “figuratively” and never will – the lowest hanging fruit of grammatical nitpickiness. In fact, it’s not even low hanging – it’s fruit that’s been on the ground so long that it has fermented and anyone who partakes of it because so inebriated that everyone around them is rendered uncomfortable and in want of more pleasant company.
Prescriptivists are the ones who are horrified at the prospect of “alot" becoming a word, even though “alright” and “already” exist. “Ain’t” is an affront to good manners and slang that isn’t so old that even grandpa has starting using it unironically at the Thanksgiving table is evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of youth these dates. Two hundred years ago, they fainted at Canadian colonists using “fix” instead of “mend” and “store” instead of “shop” and probably strongly considered dismantling the Empire just to preserve the Queen’s English. These days, they get flustered by the mere suggestion that they ought to use pronouns based on the preference of the people they’re referring to, and not their own sense of linguistic intractability.
So how did my prescriptivist dictionary-quoting English-101-invoking friend respond to a gentle reminder that English 101 fan-favourite William Shakespeare left his mark making up words or using them in novel ways? Here is where he trudged out the vague specter of philosophy – an internet argument’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife comprised entirely of corkscrews. Philosophy, in this case, required recognizing a difference between “organic” and “contrived”. When pressed again whether not to “coin” a term is a contrivance and its general acceptance is subsequently organic, the point was deftly side-stepped, Bill Shakespeare resoundingly ignored.
If you’re having trouble following the logic here, it’s because there is none. I believe the message was loud and clear – men are innovators, women are wrong. And yes, he did actually include the word “wrong” as an emphatic one-word sentence in our communications. If there was any remaining doubt who the global champion of these abhorrent opinions is, here’s the evidence you need. Who else feels like they need a shower at this point?
And here lies the more insidious aspect of prescriptivism – its shameful use as a tool to denigrate linguistic minorities. If one single WASPish version of English is the correct one, then everyone else is wrong, and by extension, inferior. The destruction of language has been a favourite tool of colonists for hundreds of years and this is little different – cultural vernacular or even gender differences in word usage could be relegated to deviations from an arbitrary norm. Unprincipled application of prescriptivism allows for Shakespeare to be celebrated as a visionary and for Emma Watson, despite her successes and education, to be ridiculed for not knowing what simple words mean.
Prescriptivism has little place in society, except perhaps as a foil to the increasing speed with which language changes in the digital age. There is even less space for it in creative writing. The facetious retort to that could be that I’m advocating an abandonment of all norms to the point where meaning itself would become meaningless, but that is a cowardly attitude. What I’m advocating for is to move quickly through the first stage of “learn the rules first, then break them”. As someone who grew up with a different language, I believe I have a good window into seeing the flexibilities in English – its potential rather than its current state. This leads me to experimenting, which I love to do, and sometimes this results in misses, but other times I can offer an interesting twist on an existing word or phrase. Why limit yourself? Why not strive to be innovators?
Break down the rigid barriers of “proper writing” with your own craft, and help open doors that are being so stubbornly closed by others.
My country is currently abuzz with the news of the firing of a Canadian icon, a long-time hockey commentator by the name of Don Cherry. For my Canadian readers, this man needs no introduction, but for everyone else, I figured I’d start with a summary.
Shortly after spending two decades as a hockey player in the minor leagues, in 1974 Cherry was promoted to the head coach of the Boston Bruins, one of the oldest franchises in the National Hockey League and a very successful team in the 70s. Cherry coached the Bruins for five seasons before entering broadcasting where he soon landed a gig for his own segment during Hockey Night in Canada, the premier hockey broadcast in the country.
Cherry had kept this job for nearly four decades, despite over the years accumulating soundbites that ranged from somewhat questionable to straight-up sexist and xenophobic. His ire was an out-of-control firehouse that sprayed every demographic that didn’t fit into his anglo-white old stock conception of what Canada should be. French Canadian and European hockey players were a favourite target, but all sorts of diatribes accumulated over the years including about women reporters and Canada’s Indigenous people. These might seem tame by the standards of media personalities in other countries, but in Canada, despite his lovable bright suits and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, he stood out as a sore thumb in a country where it’s generally frowned upon to be openly hostile to one another (off the ice, that is).
Don Cherry’s inexplicable longevity came to a grinding halt this weekend. Monday was Remembrance Day in Canada, a solemn occasion to commemorate all those who sacrificed their lives to make sure we can continue to enjoy living ours. One of the associated traditions here is donating to the Royal Canadian Legion and wearing a commemorative red poppy. Cherry had taken issue with the fact that he’s observed fewer and fewer people wearing poppies over the years. But instead of directing his rant at Canadians in general, he chose to single out “you people” – specifically immigrants who come to enjoy the Canadian way of life but allegedly can’t be bothered to honour those who’ve laid down their lives for it. Interestingly, it wasn’t the worst thing Cherry has said, and his overall point was a decent one: trying to drum-up some support for veterans and to help rekindle a waning tradition. But instead, he chose to make it an “us” versus “them” problem, where “us” is an extremely specific definition evidenced by Cherry’s comments over the years.
The proverbial straw had crippled the poor exhausted camel that has been forcibly dragging Cherry’s career towards the third decade of the twenty-first century. Two days after the “you people” monologue aired, Cherry was canned.
I think before I say anything further I should mention that a small part of me is saddened by this. It is an ignoble end to a national icon, a household name, a staple of Saturday night television, and the seventh highest-voted Canadian in the 2004 “The Greatest Canadian” TV show. He’s survived so many self-inflicted verbal wounds that one simply assumed only health issues could keep him away from the broadcaster booth.
But beyond the begrudging respect for somebody who obviously loves our country very much, my sympathy for Don Cherry is in short supply. He should have been fired a long time ago. Instead of being propped up and forgiven in the name of ratings, his employers should have pulled his national platform for sharing his bilious opinions. He had made Canada a less welcoming place.
To understand where my own feelings about Don Cherry stem from, you have to remember that I moved from Russia to Canada when I was thirteen years old, and spent most of my teenage years struggling into my new identity. Many tears had been shed over the question of whether I could ever be able to consider myself “Canadian”. And a recurring casual reminder of my otherness was the man in the silly suits yelling at me from the TV every Saturday.
Cherry had always worn his attitude towards Russians on his sleeve. This clip from the 1996 Hockey World Cup is a particularly fiery example. Coincidentally, I was present at that game, in my Pavel Bure Vancouver Canucks jersey, unequivocally a fan of Team Russia. It was a couple of months before my parents formed the intention to immigrate and three years before Don Cherry assumed a supporting role in my ensuing identity crisis.
You can see from the clip that it wasn’t enough for Cherry to comment on the quality of Canadian hockey versus Russian hockey. Russian hockey accomplishments were completely demolished and the Russians were accused of having no heart. The problem with Cherry’s brand of patriotism is that it’s not only based on building Canada up, but tearing everyone else down.
And that is how it felt – as I built up my confidence in my “Canadianness” Cherry’s routine commentary would tear pieces of it down. Russians are cowards. Russians are sneaks. Russians have no heart. Never sticking to a specific incident, always these sweeping strokes as if Cherry was pointing his accusatory finger right into my soul.
The low point in this journey came for me in Grade 10, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Probably in part because I stubbornly held onto to some pride for my mother country, I was anointed the class scapegoat for the entirety of the Russian Olympic team. Russian ice hockey team losing? French figure skating judge helping Russians win? Russian skiers caught doping? I was called to answer for every one of these sins.
So while I literally had my back against the wall as several of my classmates jeered about Russian cheating, what did Don have to say about all this?
"I’ve been trying to tell you for so long about the Russians. What kind of people they are and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism."
You see, his comments didn’t just stop at hinting at systemic Russian doping, a stance that would be vindicated years later; he had to take it a step further. This was all about what kind of people these Russians really are, and that tolerance of these people is a negative consequence of multiculturalism. Here was a beloved Canadian basically telling me that I was unwelcome here. While I struggled to feel like I belonged, Don shamelessly reminded me that I didn’t and fanned the flames of ridicule that I was subjected to.
Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, and I look back at that period of my life as an unfortunate but essential part of a young immigrant’s struggle. I know what I am and it would take more than the careless words of a TV personality to shake my identity as a Canadian. But the hurt had never fully healed, especially while Cherry was still given the time of day to make others feel the way I did, or worse.
At the end of the day, Don Cherry is not necessarily a bad man, but he is an ignorant man, and the narrowness of his mind does not leave a lot of room for people who are not like him. This to me has always been antithetical to my vision of Canada – a nation that strives to the best of its ability to be inclusive and welcoming.
So thank you, Don, for your service, but it’s time for everyone to move on.
I find that I don’t talk enough about the stuff I read. Other than the review of my 2018 reading list in January, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it much, even though I have repeatedly said how important I think reading is to being an effective writer. So I thought I would therefore take a moment and talk about a novel I recently finished and that had more profound effect on me than I had expected.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, and acts as a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I’m about to delve into some heavy spoilers for Jane Eyre so consider this your fair warning.
I had read Jane Eyre when I was undergrad, and recall not particularly enjoying it. I much preferred the works of Jane Austen, and didn’t much care for the gloominess of Jane Eyre, though I suppose that was kind of the point of the genre. In any case, I knew what I was reading was good, but it wasn’t my thing.
What did leave a big impression on me was how much I despised Rochester, the main love interest and the man Jane ends up with in the end. I couldn’t stand the archetypal brooding dark male lead, essentially the human equivalent of a wang-shaped monument to 19th century British patriarchy. And the cherry on top was that he kept his mentally ill wife Bertha locked up in the attic, which given the state of mental facilities in England at the time may or may not have been a mercy, but that’s besides the point. Mr. Darcy he definitely was not.
So what Jean Rhys gave us in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the back story of Bertha (nee Antoinette) and a whole pile of reasons to hate Rochester even more. The novel follows Antoinette’s story – her childhood and adolescence in Jamaica, eventual marriage to Rochester and her precipitous decline into the mental state we witness in Jane Eyre.
Antoinette is presented as someone who is able to rise above tragedy – her family estate is burned down (the colonial aspects of this book are problematic, but it was written in the sixties, after all), her developmentally delayed brother dies in the fire, her mother suffers a break and then dies alone as Antoinette is raised in a convent. Now into her adulthood, she’s ready to reconcile all that has happened her and make the best of her life in Jamaica along with her remaining friends and servants (there’s that colonialism poking its ugly head out again).
But then comes Rochester, here presented as a younger brother who’s unlikely to get a sniff of the family fortune so he’s shipped off to the West Indies to marry rich. It is exceedingly easy to dislike Rochester from the get go. He is whiny, he is suspicious, he is racist, he will literally complain about anything including that the plants are too green. He marries Antoinette, somewhat reluctantly, and shockingly he never once complains about the fat dowry, though his endgame remains largely unclear.
Here’s where I start going into some spoilers, so even though the end of the novel is a foregone conclusion, if you want to maintain some mystery, you can skip to the last three paragraphs of this entry.
Though Antoinette also had her own major reservations about the marriage, she approaches it with her usual attitude of making the best out of her lemons, and she develops what appear to be genuine feelings for Rochester. Her husband, a suspicious man who thinks even the wilderness is out to get him, in turn eats with a spoon any vile rumor he hears about his wife and becomes convinced he’s been given “tainted goods”. Considering he never truly treats Antoinette as a human, this is a disturbing but apt description of his thoughts.
Despite the already less-than-flattering portrait the novel had painted of Rochester, there was still room for more outrage. In fact, at one point I had to set the book in my lap and stare out the bus window before I could regroup and tackle the conclusion of the novel. Rochester fully embraces believing nothing but the worst about his wife, and channels all his feelings into vindictive rage.
He basically attempts to write the textbook on gaslighting, choosing to call her “Bertha”, also one of her given names but one she does like using. He just flat-out states she’s more like a Bertha, and her opinion on the subject of how others should refer to her doesn’t matter. A theme that seems to resonate quite loudly in modern times as well. Oh, and did I not mention that he also sleeps with one of the servants while across a thin partition from his ailing wife, and then basically chocks up anything she does in response as an overreaction. Yeah, he’s swell.
Rochester’s completely demented obsession to hurt Antoinette can be summarized with the following quote: “She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.” That has to send a chill down your spine. Not laugh in the sun again? This paints Rochester’s motivations to lock her up in the attic as a direct attempt to destroy her humanity, to deprive her of simple joy because he can and because he feels justified.
I know Brontë did not intend for him to have such a dark backstory, but Rhys’ version of the character fitted in so perfectly with my own abysmally low opinion of Rochester, that the two have been inexorably linked in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, this is Rochester.
Wide Sargasso Sea is also a perfect illustration of the importance of the public domain. While something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is awesomely creative, its mostly a vehicle for light entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m a strong proponent that there is little distinction between entertaining art and “arty” art) and doesn’t necessarily transform the original work. But in this case, it’s such a meaningful expansion of the story – bringing to light a character shrouded in darkness and casting into darkness a character that was supposed to provide the heroine with light.
I’m glad I picked up Wide Sargasso Sea and I would recommend it to anyone who’s read Jane Eyre, especially Rochester-haters like myself.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.