Celebrating its thirty-fifth volume of publication, Room is an achievement in many ways, starting with the quality of its writing and cumulating in its mission. Room is Canada’s oldest literary journal by and about women and is independent of an educational institution. With many operational and editorial aspects managed by volunteers, there remains in the spirit of the journal a deliberate emphasis on the collective. As editor Clélie Rich quips in a retrospective (of sorts) “Roomies,” Virginia Woolf has a room of her own and a house full of servants, “Consider us, the collective, as those servants.”
Clélie Rich notes that it is Room’s “Journey Issue.” Her analysis matches mine; these are stories, essays and poems about journeys metaphorical and direct, personal and practical. But these stories, essays and poems are also translation exercises, literary creations that allow women to transpose messages and confessions into something that ties all of us together: reader, writer, and all of those parties similarly situated who are otherwise unspoken for. As literature does at its best, this collection provides an opportunity to exhume truths, provides a cognitive room, as the journal’s unofficial spokeswoman might say, of one’s own.
For example, let’s take Barbara Parker’s work of short fiction that opens the journal. In “Losing the Word for World,” Parker creates a translation of a daughter’s experience coming to visit and care for her father for four days; he is ailing of a neurodegenerative disease. In parallel, Parker weaves in the story of an anthropologist who is studying the native Malaysian Penan people and their forty words for sago palm. The transposition is elegant—Parker’s capture of the anthropologist’s terror as the ecosystem is ravaged and the culture decimated by logging companies is balanced against the father ravaged by disease where his language is under biological attack. But there is a third timbre, and that is the daughter’s relationship with her father, a relationship also under attack; she is late to see him and leaves promptly at the end of the fourth day. Every time I reach for that pulse of personal suffering that one might expect when one’s father is ill, she zooms back to the thread of the anthropologist. In this way, Parker is brilliantly restrained, and it keeps the story grounded. We know the speaker is experiencing a strong feeling, but it is transposed, locked up like a box of contraceptives, a braid of love and science.
Another transposition is Marilyn Moriarty’s essay, “Naked Italian,” whereby the essayist employs her translations of Frederick II and myths of the conqueror Robert Guiscard to illuminate her outlook and voyage to study Italian language in Otranto, Italy. The spine of the story is a woman’s journey for illumination through language, but the personal actualization is executed on a perfect pitch of translated passages framing and promulgating meaning that correspond to the essayist’s outlook. In this way, Moriarty captures the classical in a contemporary mode.
All of the journey stories can be framed as transposition stories, since the two are similar in some regards. Even Taryn Thomson’s short story “The Game” is a transposition story: a teenage game of flirtation is transposed to sexual activity and self-worth, ending in a line that foreshadows the future. “I lean into the pebbled wall of the school, gently smooth my hair . . . smear cherry lip gloss across my lips, and wait.” And like the Moriarty essay, this short story is so classical—the story of innocence on the cusp of its loss—that you glide through the tale with all of its tight weaving movements, and you also wait, having picked sides, as the school bell tolls.
I approach the poetry with a different brush and am very excited that Room had obtained some of Evelyn Lau’s poetry. Vancouver’s current Poet Laureate provided three poems on voyages and three on internal voyages or personal change. I found her lines in “Las Vegas” to transcend my expectations of the afternoon.
Ghost of smoke in the hallways.
Sour stench in the woodwork, behind the gleam
of renovation, the bamboo wallpaper,
gilt mirrors, the bed sealed in its envelope
of laundered linens. A dubious history.
Lau is a kind modern poet; she gives you enough of the story to survive (and enjoy) the ride, piecing together the stain glass fragments of her vision from the masterful whole. And while she provides architectural support, you are free enough from the design to make the song play on an octave in a range that you can hear, a melody with which you can eke out solidarity, fellowship.