Two outstanding Canadian literary journals have collaborated on separate issues consisting of work from each other’s patch. This issue of Malahat, based in British Columbia (B.C.), features “Essential East Coast Writing” in collaboration with Fiddlehead, published in New Brunswick. Alternately, Fiddlehead published a West Coast issue. Malahat Editor John Barton traces the idea to a 2010 residency at University of New Brunswick and conversations with Fiddlehead Editor Ross Leckie. The result, at least by reading the Mahalat half, is a celebration of artistic vibrancy on both coasts.
The issue of regionalism has to come up in any such project. Barton meets it head-on in a short introductory note, in which he acknowledges that “last year, 40% of our contributors and 30% of our subscribers were from B.C. in comparison to 10% and 6% respectively from Atlantic Canada.” Barton hopes the collaboration alerts readers to “the windsock of cross currents” between the two regions.
It includes one of the finest pieces of short nonfiction I have read, ever: Robert Finley’s “The Approaches.” The author, who grew up in Halifax and teaches at Memorial University, is one of a four-person crew sailing at night and early morning into a fog-shrouded harbor. It is a journey from a place where humans mean virtually nothing to a place where the most mundane human activities give meaning to life.
Of night sailing far out, Finley writes: “None of it has anything to do with us, except for the few things we have brought with us: the faint outline of the sails against a starless sky, the contours of the hull where wave foam inscribes it, the compass with its lick of flame, like a locket opened.” Later, nearing land: “This is where the place names start with their stories of panic or of plenty: Portuguese Cove, Bear Cove, Halibut Bay, Hangman’s Beach, Neverfail . . . And with them the first small sounds, with their pressing intimacy, are carried out to us through the sound-amplifying fog.” Finally, in the sounds of human voices, he gives us a Whitmanesque catalog of people known to the sailors: “the soft-voiced cook, the nurse, the social worker, three sisters who made their own way; also the novice who threw his books in the sea and suffered a sea change; the school principal struck down by a street car . . . “ and many more. In its detail and reach, its language both technical and poetic, this essay transforms a place into a universe for the human spirit. Don’t miss it.
Other favorites from this fine issue include Kris Bertin’s short story, “Your #1 Killer & Extra Hands,” in which the narrator finds her deeply troubled son growing up at last—but not in a way she anticipated, not in a way that is comfortable.
Chris Donahoe’s memoir is of being a young man from Nova Scotia working in the rough Alberta oilfields. And among a generous serving of good poetry, Steve McCormond’s “They” is a portrait of a generation of masters of the universe:
They perfected the machine-human interface.
They left their footprints in the dust of other worlds.
They didn’t know what they didn’t
know. They disabled the fail-safes.
They reverse-engineered the Big Bang.
They reintroduced the wolves.
They mea culpaed toward the door.
And they loved to dance.
For me, the collaboration between the two magazines helps to clarify the distinction between a literature limited by its regionalism and one brought alive by its sense of place. This issue of Malahat is definitely alive.