The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Dead People Don't Sue"

by Tricia Dower

I didn't post last week because I was heavily involved in the Victoria School of Writing’s summer session. Not as the student I had been the previous two years. As a board member this time and—get this—as a guest lecturer, too. (Look, Ma!) It was fun. For an hour I stood before the approximately 50 students and faculty and spoke about using other works as inspiration: myths and fairly tales and religious writings, for example, and, in my case, Shakespeare. I got to delve into the Shakespearean connections in Silent Girl and read short excerpts from six of the stories. People came up to me afterwards to say they enjoyed it and I sold a few books, too.

Even more fun and less nerve-wracking was listening to the lectures and readings by this year’s faculty: novelists Kathy Page and Steven Galloway, poet Susan Stenson and memoir/creative nonfiction writers Curtis Gillespie and Rita Moir. They said all sorts of brilliant things and read all sorts of brilliant excerpts from their works, some of which made me laugh and some of which made me cry. And one-woman party starter Susan Stenson got us singing. I had intended to come away with detailed notes—I take my job as CWC Roving Arts Reporter seriously—but most of the events were in the ‘you had to be there’ category.

One exception was a nuts and bolts presentation about getting published by nonfiction writer Rosemary Neering who has authored more than 30 books and supports herself exclusively through writing. She doesn’t see dead people but she likes to write about them because she claims they don’t sue. A tiny, curly-haired energetic woman, she perched on a stool and spewed out as many tips as she could during the hour she was given. So for those of you who seek a career in non-fiction, I now dutifully spew out my notes:

  • Have a contract in hand before you write anything except a proposal.
  • The best reason for wanting to write a book? “I’m absolutely fascinated by this topic and the way I will write it will be just as fascinating.”
  • Think about what else writing the book can do for you: speaking engagements, teaching assignments, magazine articles.
  • Writing a proposal forces you to decide if you really want to write this book and if there really is a book there.
  • Make your proposal stand out from the very first sentence. Make sure that, among other things, it addresses: the unmet need your book satisfies; the market it serves and competing books within that market; the demographics of target readers; why you are especially qualified to write the book; the research you’ll do and the experts you’ll draw on.
  • Be concerned about the potential price of the book you propose, taking into consideration paper stock, photos and illustrations required. Expensive books don’t sell as well.
  • When shopping for a publisher (Neering has never had an agent), ask bookstores what publishers they like to work with. Do you like the look of those publishers’ books? Steer clear of academic presses because she says they’ll take your copyright and make you go through a peer review. (Note: not true for fiction. Can anyone reading this refute Neering's claim for nonfiction?)
  • Add six months to your estimate of the time it will take you to complete the book. As soon as you sign a contract, the publisher puts it in their catalogue and the pressure to deliver begins.
  • When contracting for royalties, don’t settle for less than 10% of retail book price or 15% of net receipts.
  • When beginning your research, cast your net wide. The Internet is good for leads but not for substantive research. Neering begins in the children’s section of the library because it establishes a baseline of reader knowledge of the topic at hand. She reads voraciously at first without taking notes—magazines, newspapers, books, archival records—going shallow and wide to survey her topic.
  • A final humbling thought: Neering says 10,000 new books are released in Canada every year, but it's still not easy for yours to be among them.

Notebook closed. Now, go write a proposal.

Image: cover of one of Rosemary Neering’s books about dead people.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A funny thing happened…

By Tamara Lee

Thinking about contemporary Canadian writers’ ‘story-generation’, it occurs to me that the stories we write carry echoes of the kinds of stories we grew up watching on Canadian television.

Contemporary Canadian writers, or rather, those now in their 30s and early 40s, likely grew up watching The Beachcombers, The King of Kensington, and sketch comedy, alongside some of the most well-respected documentary television in the world. Could this explain the new direction Canadian fiction seems to be taking?

The other day, I chatted with a new young Canadian writer of some note (I’ll call him ‘NYCW’), about how refreshing the contemporary CanLit scene has become of late. Funny, literate, and subtle. From Lee Henderson and Pasha Malla, to Lynn Coady and Miriam Toews. It’s a great era of CanLit, and I think an historical one as well.

Respectful of our CanLit history, indeed forced-fed it through mandated CanCon in schools, Canadian writers seem to have channeled all that is brilliant about the Davieses and Atwoods and Munros (hmm, that acronym would be DAM…) while being acutely aware of the other CanLit stream, the ‘kitchen sink stories’ as our Andrew Tibbetts has termed them, or as the aforementioned NYCW’s father calls them, ‘burnt toast stories’: those overwrought, angsty Canadian stories we struggled to understand in high school and our first year of college.

When I first studied Margaret Atwood, her dry sense of humour was rarely a topic for class discussion. She was ‘serious’ and ‘important.’ Somehow, ‘funny’ never entered into the equation. But the generation of writers who grew up on CanCon literature and television seems to have found a different groove. Serious needn’t be stoic; we seem to be more willing to laugh at ourselves, and are more comfortable letting our readers laugh, too.

It always seemed strange to me that as a people, Canadians often pride themselves on their distinct humour, but Canadian literature for a lot of years was often devoid of this trait. Sure, there were those flashes of it in amongst the aching truths being told (I was surprised by its subtle use in The Diviners, grateful for it in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, expected it from Duddy Kravitz), but even as a student studying CanLit in university, there seemed a dearth of humorous stories unless the course was specifically about humour. The Canadian stories we read were by authors brought up on British novels and American film, not TV and VCRs and CBC.

And now, as literature in general seems to be loosening up—a reflection of our time, a serious time of need for humour—it seems Canadian writers have a new opportunity. As Kids in the Hall did for television, perhaps Canadian writers may do for fiction. It’s maybe a bit hopeful or Pollyanna-ish. But then, I do come from the country that gave the world Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea.


(Image courtesy of Canadian Illustrated News, vol.I, no. 3, 46. Reproduced from Library and Archives Canada's website Images in the News: Canadian Illustrated News:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friends Don't Let Friends Publish Acclaimless

I was shocked when my first story was published and not one of my friends bought a copy of the issue of “This Magazine” that it appeared in. I think if I was in a play or performing in club they would have come. I know they would. I’ve performed in plays and played piano in clubs and friends do come out. It’s an event! They put it on their calendar and they come and they drink and chat. There’s something bellsless and whistleless about publishing I guess. It’s not dramatic. The magazine sits on the stand and you can pick it up at any time, so you don’t. You go by yourself to a newsstand, so you don’t. You can’t order a beer at a bookstore but you can have a coffee with your purchased item, so you don’t. I know. I’ve learned by now that nobody I love will pick up a copy and read my stories. I’ve had four and nothing’s changed.

For me, the writer, getting that first story published was one of the most dramatic moments of my life. I was so excited! The amount of work it represented, time-wise and emotion-wise was so intense. The vote of confidence that it represented towards something that was so close to my heart was so affirming. The lack of congratulatory fanfare seemed even more striking. Like I’d done a full Busby Berkley routine in the mall, with orchestra and dancing girls, and no one had given it a glance.

My latest work is a novella I’ve been working on for almost two decades. The original story about my sister’s first period was the first thing I ever wrote. I was in university. Material has gathered around this event (not a true story—I know absolutely nothing about my actual sister’s actual first period—I assume she’s had one—we are both in our forties now) from all aspects of my existence. Autobiographical bits, things I’ve imagined, things I’ve heard friends talk about, things I’ve stolen—sorry, homage-ed—from other works of art, things that have grown up organically between the bits. And now it’s this massive thing. The care I’ve lauded over one particular sentence is almost embarrassing.

And now, it’s out. Will you pick up a copy? The Malahat Review, Summer 2008, No. 163! I’ll be your friend.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Small Gripe

Lately, my innards pucker when I see the Microsoft Word screen. Those same old toolbars! Those shades of blue! I’ve been trying to give myself some fresh inspiration. I try to cover the damn top fifth of the screen with a still picture, but the page is still the same irritating blank white between the blue-grey sidelines and that ruler on the left and the slidebar on the right. I’ve set the page up with background colour, use strange and colourful fonts, etc… but it’s just no good. I need something completely different. I’ve been typing with Notepad but that’s gotten old too. I’ve even resorted to long hand on a legal pad but it’s too irritating compared to the cut-paste ease of word processing. Is it just me who doesn’t want to stare at the same screen everyday of his life? Will the future bring us more or less variety?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Personally, I Like Them as Door Stops

by Tricia Dower

We short story writers don’t get nearly the respect we deserve. We’re supposed to “grow up” into novel writing. Agents won’t consider us unless we come bearing novels or the name of Alice Munro. So I was interested in the responses on Diane Kidman’s site, carp(e) libris reviews, when she asked her readers to comment about their short story reading habits. Based on their answers, I think we “shorties” have been going about the promotion of our books all wrong. Rather than pushing our brilliant writing or the page-turning qualities of our prose, we should be highlighting the convenience and therapeutic value of our books. With that in mind, I herewith propose some new marketing hooks for a few collections I recommend. (The comments I lifted and twisted are here.)

Pasha Malla says: “Does your ADD kick in after only a few pages? Dude, I wrote The Withdrawal Method for you.”

“If the novel you’re working on just isn’t moving fast enough,” Charlotte Gill says, “reach for Ladykiller. My stories will slay you.”

Jim Tomlinson says: “Students! You can easily read Things Left, Things Kept Behind between classes without risking being late like you might with a novel.”

Jenn Farrell says: “You never know when you’ll have to wait at the doctor’s or for that blooming BC ferry. Sugar Bush is small enough to slip into your purse, your pocket or the glove compartment of your car.”

Xujun Eberlein says, “Stuck watching the kids run around the pool? Fight boredom with Apologies Forthcoming. If you get distracted by a little head going underwater, don’t worry. It won’t be too awful to go back and start over.”

“When your head is jumbled with other care,” Carol Windley says, “Home Schooling can be a godsend. Drink your fill in an evening on the pillows, and clear your mind for the next day. So refreshing!”

“Give me just 45 minutes a week, a month, heck even a year,” Jim Ruland says, “and I’ll take you into another world with Big Lonesome. A world of cheese and other random stuff. You won’t want to return.”

“More fun than a self-help book,” Caroline Adderson says of Pleased to Meet You. “Just one story a night will chill you out.”

Arjun Basu says, “Squishy is ten trips to the bathroom.”*

* Arjun really did say that.

Images: Basu's and Gill's really fun covers

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Versions

Once upon a time I fell in love with a whole family. Not my own. The one next door...

I have about five stories that exist in different versions. I went through a phase where I would completely recast a story to see what that did to the material.

When I was fourteen, my sister went away on exchange to Japan. Left alone with our parents, I fell for the family next door...

Shift first person to third person.

When Simon was in grade ten his sister went to do grade twelve in Japan…

Shift points of view.

When Kate’s little brother Simon was fourteen, she left him alone with their parents for year...

Shift tenses.

There goes my sister Kate, off to Japan for a year, leaving me alone with our parents...

Indulge stylistic shenanigans.

Gone. She’s gone. My sister Kate—who appears to have started all conversations in our family—is away for a year. The silence is the sound of the phone not ringing with news of her travels, mixed with the sound of what I’m not telling my parents, and what they aren’t asking…

Etc… But seriously: the entire story through a new filter! Many, many times!

This cubist reworking has never really born fruit for me. And now I have all these versions. It’s hard to pull together a proper working draft. So I start from scratch. And then I have another version! They seem to be breeding.

What a mess! I’ve learned not to do this. All of the stories I’ve published began with finding the right tone. All of those parameters—the ones my unfinished stories have played around with—were settled on from the beginning, from the first sentence. That first sentence became the ax that cracked the frozen sea and let the first draft flow. Subsequent drafts were about polishing and about structural and narrative revision, not about shading.

It may be true in visual art that you begin with the main objects and do the shading afterwards, but I’ve found in my writing, that it’s the shading that has to come first!

Driving me home from trombone lessons, my mother rounds the corner of our lane, gets a glimpse of the greenhouse my father nailed together from old doors and windows, closes her eyes, shakes her head and moans, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we’re the shame of the neighbourhood," like she’s done every drive home since he built the monstrosity at the end of summer, but with today’s freezing rain, she loses control of the car and smashes into a hydro pole in front of the Zych’s house...

Much better! I can hear the voice of the story at last and we're off. The sentence may not survive the whole process, but it’s doing it’s job for now.

However, while this old story is back on the drafting table, the more recent story about my father is now firmly between worlds, awaiting the proper shade in which to incarnate, awaiting it's voice, awaiting it's true version; it's progress, limboed.

(Shading drawing from, a really great site for learning art techniques!)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Workshop notes: Epilogue - Stalling

By Tamara Lee

After completing the Master Fiction Workshop this past spring, I felt rather like an inspired mess. All the information, all the ideas, and all the encouragement, not to mention all the writing I’d done: I was on spin cycle. And if you were ever to meet my old apartment-sized washing machine, you'd know what happens next. Once through the spin cycle, the whole building becomes familiar with the indubitable thud.

The thud I experienced seemed more like a burnout, if I want to be generous with myself. But it was stalling, pure and clean. I knew what would come next. The hard part. The part that meant I needed to live up to all the encouragement; do right by my stories, which had begun to excite me, as well as some of my fellow workshoppers. It seemed as though a step back would be a good idea. But that quickly translated into a stoppage.

Why some writers do this is an often-visited theme amongst our kind. We have all kinds of answers/excuses/theories. It doesn’t really matter why, though, does it? Does knowing the answer prevent us from doing it?

Since the end of April, I have written one story, written some notes for several other projects in other genres, started taking a photography course, immersed myself in growing my freelance business, and otherwise ignored the two pieces that were dubbed ‘almost ready’ by the instructor. That is, one draft away. Instead of merrily getting down to it, I folded like a cheap poly-blend.

But today, out on my newly tidied balcony I revisited those stories; certain I’d been misleading myself into thinking there remained a fair amount of work. Well, I can say that I wasn’t wrong: there is a good deal of work to do. So after two hours of notes and prep-work, I got up and cleaned the house.

Walk into a writer’s clean home and know that that is a writer who’s dated Procrastination, who's folded his laundry, done his dishes, even ironed his shirts and shined the thankless cad's shoes.

Now, if I could just train Procrastination to do windows, we might have something.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Support Your Local Bookstore

by Tricia Dower

I have a new favourite local bookstore. One that’s nice to me. Trouble is, it’s not quite as local as I’d like it to be. It’s a half-hour drive away in a town called Sidney, population just under 12,000.

“Sidney By The Sea,” the sign says, and it’s a lovely spot, an old port that hosts a marina with fancy boats. Busy in the summer when boaters and others alight to take in the scenery, the beaches, the galleries, gift stores, restaurants and…bookstores. Nine of them, all within spitting distance of each other. It’s deliberate, part of Sidney’s marketing of itself as Canada’s “Booktown.” Each store has a different focus – adult, children’s, used, antiquarian, military, and so forth – so they don’t compete with each other except for disposable dollars, of course.

Anyway, my favourite of the nine stores is Tanner’s because, first of all, they carry my book and, secondly, because the owner Cliff McNeil-Smith seems to actually like local authors. I went into the store last Friday to sign the two copies of my book on hand and Cliff apologized for not knowing I lived in Victoria. (Such a nice guy, how would he have known?) He makes a point of profiling local books, he said. When I left, Silent Girl was face out on a shelf with bright little autograph stickers and Cliff had ordered two more books. He also took the time to tell me which regional publications to try to get a mention in and confirmed what I already knew: “Books with the biggest advertising dollars are the ones that sell.”

Well, I don’t have big advertising dollars, but I have grit, determination and email. I generated orders from three bookstores and a university library last week through my own little “Write to a Stranger Today” campaign. Over the past few weeks I’ve sent out hundreds of emails to bookstores and Shakespeare aficionados and I’m getting ready to start on professors. Some of them might delete me unread but I’m sure I’ll get through to a few.

It’s not as efficient as big-money advertising in reaching great numbers of people, but you can’t beat the intimacy of chatting with Wanda at Bookland in Kamloops, Sandi at A Room of One’s Own bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin; Jennifer at the UVic bookstore; Lynn at Blackbond in Surrey; Alex at Duthie Books in Vancouver; Joseph at Blackberry Books on Granville Island; Scott at Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe in Edmonton and -- also in Edmonton -- Steve at Audrey’s Books. Not to mention Cliff at Tanner's. If you live in their towns, seek out their stores and buy a book, even if it isn’t mine.

Photo: Outside Tanner’s with a woman who can’t seem to turn the page on the book she’s reading.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When Authors Become Adjectified

By Andrew Tibbetts

Lately, I’ve been so caught up in writing stylish prose that I’ve lost sight of what I want to write about. There’s more to a writer than the kinds of sentences they craft. A writer has a particular set of themes, a milieu perhaps, a distinctive vision of the world. Writers I admire (William Gass, Barbara Gowdy) are often very skilled with language but writers I love (Kafka, Dickens) are like a country I itch to visit- the people, the places, the music, the sights, the smells, the local customs, the kind of things that typically happen there.

Here’s a thought experiment for you: which would feel more “Shakespearian”, a modern language version of “Hamlet” or a version of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” done in Elizabethan, iambic pentameter?

To Moscow on the morrow sisters, ho!
(aside) And yet methinks somehow we’ll never go.

(Anton, William, gentle readers, forgive me; that was truly terrible!)

Do I have a distinctive vision of the world? In a way, that’s a moot point; everyone has a distinctive vision of the world. That’s what lies at the heart of our unique personalities and actions.

Do I have a compelling way of turning that vision into literature? Well, of course, not yet! I’m just starting out.

But is that even a valid aim? Should I be aiming to compile a body of work that will give birth to a sensibility someone might call Tibbettsian? Hey did you see the new Soderberg film? It was really Tibbettsian! Cool! And speaking of Tibbettsian, you should have seen Stratford’s “MacBeth” last season! Almost as good as that final episode of the Simpsons- now THAT was Tibbettsian! (I’m going to have to change my name, aren’t I, gentle readers, if I want to father a sensibility?)

I look out my office window for a minute and a dozen Torontonians pass by. Only a couple stick in my mind though. A literal couple. A young redheaded man and a young blonde woman. Twenty-somethings. He had an all-over brush cut, i.e. his beard was the same length as the close-cropped hair on his head. And she had a kind of curly Shirley Temple mop-top. They were holding hands. Adorable. And they had masks on. Those paper ones on elastic straps. His strap clearly visible across the rusty bristles at the back of his head; hers, lost in sunny curls.

Some other writer looking out the window might have noticed different passers-by. But, something in what that couple stirred up in me, a combination of horror at the devastation of the world (sunny, smoggy, beautiful, toxic Toronto) and the resilience of love in the face of that horror, something about holding hands in hell, something about matching eco-protection kits, something about the intersection of what changes and what’s eternal, something about practicality- there’s something in that couple that speaks to my vision of the world. That’s the sort of thing that, maybe, if I can consistently conjure it up and effectively deploy it through the mesh of action and poetry that is a story, will signal the Tibbettsian in my writing.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Some of you have been here, some haven’t. I’m lucky enough to be a Canadian who gets to call the island of Hawaii home. Hawaii is an amazing place to live and work. It’s also a place unto itself, with unique cultural trappings that separate it from the rest of the USA and the rest of the world. I’ve compiled a quick list of quirks that make Hawaii unique for me.


Ho brah, if go Hawaii, pidgin is da kine. Drop some letters. Drop some prepositions. Add in some Hawaiian words and phrases, and you’ve got pidgin. I love it. Pidgin has its own accent, grammar and syntax. Pidgin is just mo bettah. Google it if you’re interested, because hearing it is the only way to get an idea of the glory that is pidgin.

Flip flops

Or slippahs as they’re called here. You can pick up a pair of slippahs for $3.99 or get fancy ones for $20 if you want to go for that “dressy” look. Wear them anywhere: weddings, funerals, job interviews; that first meeting with an important client. No occasion is too formal for slippahs - I made the mistake of showing up to a meeting wearing shoes and socks…we almost didn’t get the job.

Cooler Luggage

Forget Samsonite. Igloo dominates the luggage market in Hawaii. Wait for your luggage at any Hawaiian airport and you’re guaranteed to spot coolers inching around the carousel. Taped up, slapped with “inspected” stickers, stinking of fish. And no one, no Hawaiian anyways, bats an eye. If a state could have an object instead of a flower or bird, Hawaii’s state object would be the cooler.

Big Trucks

No, not big like Canadian farm truck big, I’m talking big like frickin’ huge, like you need a stepladder to get into it big. If big trucks could have a paradise, it would be Hawaii. In fact, I think I saw Gravedigger on the road just the other day.


Recent studies show that our perception of time is truly relative and dependent on task and mood. We all knew this anyways, that’s why that last hour on Friday takes forever, while the last few hours of Sunday night fly by. In Hawaii, everyone and everything is on Hawaiian time. Need something in a hurry? Good luck. Disregard for time must be one of the main reasons people are so happy here. I can’t imagine going back to the hectic pace of mainland life.


In my line of work we use a lot of consultants. The criteria used for their selection is different in Hawaii than it is on the mainland. Do they return phone calls? Check. Will they respond to an email? Check. Hired! Don’t bother with quality of work, meeting deadlines, etc. “What you after here, brah? No can work like that.” And in case you were wondering, the surf being up is a valid reason for missing a meeting. I have to admit it’s an infectious way of doing business. Who knows what I’ll be like after 10 years?


There’s a ton of things that make Hawaii unique, but Hawaii wouldn’t be Hawaii without the locals. Their openness to outsiders and welcoming nature are as much what Hawaii is as the beautiful beaches and cascading waterfalls. The scenery is what draws people in, but Hawaii’s people make it the land of Aloha. So a big shout out to all my Hawaiian braddahs.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Is it really Global Warming, or something else?

Speaking of which, I predict the cars we know and love today won’t be around in twenty years time. We won’t need to move from place to place because we’ll all be nourished on pellets that’ll fall out of fake clouds. No moving around = no sex, because we’ll be living in domes. No variance in temperature, no need for clothing according to the weather, no boutiques = no sex. We’ll all be rail-thin, our poop like mouse droppings, and we’ll be getting older and older, until finally, we’ll all be senile and eating our own poop thinking it’s pellets of nourishment fallen out of the sky. When aliens do finally come back, all they’ll think to say is gross! Freaking humans! They’ll smash the domes and put up a sign. Keep out for at least 500 million years!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Introducing Ms. J (or how the QWF got kissed, got wild and got a life)

I had been meaning to post a list of all the reasons why I thought it would be best for everyone involved if I just took the summer off from blogging (strawberries, bike rides, beaches, etc.), but then I found out about this blog. How could I pass up on an opportunity to spread the word about Ms. Julie, the sexy librarian who now champions the cause of Quebec’s English-language literature? Especially since she bears such a striking resemblance to both Tina Fey and a certain Ms. Adriana, who has been seen from time to time here at the CWC. (We love it when she stops by. We wish Tina would consider joining her.)

As luck would have it, I recently acquired two of the books our tireless Ms. J is promoting: Asa Boxer’s The Mechanical Bird and Andrew Hood’s Pardon Our Monsters. Perhaps she would be interested in reading them with me? We could form some kind of online book club. I would provide the drinks. And the munchies. All she’d need was a reliable supply of red lipstick.

p.s. My review of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Kuzhali Manickavel

Hurray! Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, is out from Blaft Publications Private Limited.

You might remember Kuzhali’s story “Hoodoos” which placed first in our Canadian Travel Stories Contest in 2007. If you are new to Kuzhali’s work, you are in for a treat. If you know her work already, you are probably, like me, on hold to India right now trying to order the book.

Here’s what Miranda July has to say about the collection:

"Not merely lyrical and strange, but also deadpan funny. I can’t shake the feeling that I know this woman, personally -- like we hung out at a party or something. But I don’t, and we didn’t. She’s just that good."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Global Watch Update: Ala kachuu

by Tricia Dower

There was one boy Kyal fantasized might carry her off to his rich America. But in cultural anthropology class one day he said her country was turning into a tacky theme park. "Yurt World," he called it and everyone laughed, filling her with shame.
-- "Kesh Kumay"

Three years ago, I completed a story that drew upon the phenomenon of bride kidnapping, or ala kachuu, in Kyrgyzstan. That story, “Kesh Kumay,” part of the Silent Girl collection, was ignited by Petr Lom’s moving documentary "Kidnapped Brides" on CBC’s Passionate Eye in 2004. At the time, I had no idea that women were kidnapped into marriage in Kyrgyzstan. How many women, Lom didn’t know. In this interview, he said, "there are almost no scholarly studies on the subject, and the international human rights community has given the subject almost no attention.”

As a woman, I was horrified by what the documentary revealed. As a writer, I was excited. I had been looking for a modern counterpart to Shakespeare’s Kate (The Taming of the Shrew). When one woman tells Lom, “After the kidnapping, you've no choice —you start loving, even if you don't want to, you have to build a life,” I knew I had found my Kate in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

It took me many months to write that story as I needed to research life in Kyrgyzstan as well as the history and practice of ala kachuu. My research led me to conclude that women had fared better under the Soviets when it came to human rights. It was the Soviets that had made ala kachuu illegal as far back as 1927. It is still against the law, but ever since Kyrgyzstan became an independent republic in 2001, incidents of ala kachuu have become more frequent and the police seem to look the other way. As this 2004 article in Women’s News relates, the status of women fell in many areas following independence.

Recently I came across the name of Dr. Russell Kleinbach, professor of sociology at Philadelphia University. He was a Fulbright Lecturer at Osh State University in Kyrgyzstan from 1998-1999 and has made bride kidnapping one of his scholarly pursuits. (Apparently Petr Lom did not know about Kleinbach’s work with Sarah Amsler, instructor of Sociology at American University in Kyrgyzstan.) I wrote to Kleinbach and inquired about the current situation.

“I can say small progress is being made on the ala kachuu problem,” he wrote back. “For the first time, there are now crime statistics on kidnapping.”

He sent me a table of those statistics for 2006. Out of 73 cases that were registered with law enforcement agencies, 53 were dismissed and 16 were treated as criminal. It’s hard to say how many cases go unreported. Articles I had come across during my research indicated that as many as a third of Kyrgyz marriages result from non-consensual kidnappings (as opposed to consensual elopement type kidnappings). Kidnapped women are pressured by their parents to accept the marriage so that they won’t be “cursed.” Often the marriage is consummated by force, leaving the woman “spoiled” and unlikely to attract another husband.

Dr. Kleinbach also wrote, “We have done enough research to know a lot about non-consensual kidnapping, including that it is not an ancient Kyrgyz tradition, in addition to being illegal and not allowed in Islam. While the practice continues with tragic consequences, it is sometimes successfully resisted. This summer we plan to begin a one year study to test the effectiveness of our anti kidnapping educational program.”

Image of yurts beside Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.