The Freedom in American Songs, by Kathleen Winter, Biblioasis
If, like many of us, you’ve been tagged in a certain Facebook meme, you’ve recently agonized over a list of ten books that have “stayed with you.” Articulating why some books resonate while others don’t isn’t easy. For me, the ones that do aren’t necessarily the technically perfect, but those with a certain stark and haunting beauty, those that grant access to a deeper emotional register working away beneath the surface-level narrative.
Kathleen Winter is a writer who knows how to tap into this register. Her work gets under your skin and sticks with you. Back in 2010, when anyone asked about the best book I’d read recently, Winter’s debut novel Annabel would immediately spring to mind. The tale of an intersex child growing up in a remote part of Labrador, Annabel became a national bestseller and was shortlisted for a slew of major literary awards.
After such a resounding success, readers might expect another novel from Winter. But two summers ago, serving as a juror for a short fiction prize inspired her to write four new stories of her own. Editor John Metcalf liked them so much, he commissioned Winter to write a new collection to mark the tenth anniversary of Biblioasis, a Canadian literary press known for its celebration of the short story. The result is The Freedom in American Songs.
The stories are populated by an intriguing cast of fantastically sketched minor characters, including a homeless flamenco dancer, a Mexican butcher, a Zamboni mechanic, a dog named Dentelle who’s forced to wear a chastity belt, and a “drunken scoundrel” whose lap proves “irresistible.” Yet the emotional core of the stories lies with main characters who lack distinctive identity markers yet are unified in their loneliness, their difficulty relating to those around them, and their tendency toward introspection. Like the narrator of the story “You Seem a Little Bit Sad,” many seem, well, a little bit sad. They are outsiders, people who, for one reason or another, don’t fit in with their surroundings.
As in Winter’s previous work, these surroundings play an important role in the narrative. The exquisite attention paid to landscape, whether in Newfoundland, Florida, or Montreal, lends a rich lyricism. “Landscape,” Winter explains, “is active, not passive, for me. It is alive, and it acts as an agent, and performs or creates.” This is very much in evidence in her work. Take this line, from “A Plume of White Smoke,” for example: “Moon-edged clouds tilted and collided over the swaying trees—the whole outdoors slid and crashed and moved.” Seeing this, Marianne, the main character, “had to go out in it.”
Already known for her haunting depictions of rural landscapes, Winter proves herself a master of the urban environment, with stories set, for example, in her adopted home of Montreal, a city that “had balconies for everyone, not just the lucky few.” The type of landscape that surrounds her doesn’t matter. “I just move through it and mimic it,” says Winter. Her keen eye easily turns from nature to people. As she explains:
“In Montreal I’ve recently moved to the neighbourhood of Verdun, near the riverbank of the St. Lawrence, and most days I spend a lot of time down there with the reeds and water and migratory birds and sumac trees and poplars – there’s a lot of noise: wind rushing through leaves, crickets, water. Then, a couple of streets away, there’s another landscape: a city intersection where madwomen rant and church bells clang and there’s a piano on the sidewalk for any passerby to play, and there’s traffic and homeless people and the sound of espresso machines and sirens.”
Details such as a woman with a “famished uterus and beetle-hard manicure,” a man “large as life with a rum gut and a set of groomed whiskers,” and a woman whose eyes were “bright for battle” show that Winter’s devotion to such observation has paid off, giving her characters an extra layer of complexity. While writing these stories, she also read writers’ diaries and letters, and she “devours” non-fiction, especially social histories and stories of wilderness expeditions and biographies. “I guess I’m people-watching even while I’m reading,” she says. “I like finding out true things.”
The title story comes closest to the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity explored in Annabel. In a beautiful, moving, and ultimately sad portrait, a teenaged boy, Kerry, struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, which tells him that “to be homosexual meant a person was certain to be left behind on the day of the Rapture.” His conservative community is unlikely to look kindly on his crush on the “joyful and carefree” Xavier Boland. It is only in music that Kerry is able to find any sense of freedom.
This desire for freedom stirs throughout the collection, as various characters search for some form of release. Perhaps this is inevitable. For Winter, the act of writing a story is itself a kind of release. A story begins “with some event or character that creates a pressurized build-up of feeling in me – something for which I have no words, only a gasp, or a gut reaction, or some sort of tension.” She isn’t conscious of where she’s going: “It’s important for me to retain a kind of headlong rush into the unknown,” she says. It’s that rush, that probing of the unconscious, that gives these stories their raw power.
Reading a collection of stories can be more mentally exhausting than reading a novel. With each story, you must absorb a new set of characters, a new setting, perhaps even a new style. Just when you get drawn into a plot or a character, the story ends. You turn the page and begin again. Yet when I got to the last page of The Freedom in American Songs, I wished I could keep reading.
Watch the Mot/town video of Kathleen Winter reading from Freedom in American Songs here.
Lesley Trites lives and writes in Montreal. Her fiction will appear in the forthcoming anthology Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec.
PHOTO: Aris Gionis, Flkr Media Commons