Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Adrienne Fitzpatrick, The Earth Remembers Everything


It's a gem, Adrienne Fitzpatrick's The Earth Remembers Everything: what Eat Prey, Pray, Love might have been if its author had been more interested in the style of prose than the style of clothes, in social justice than social climbing.

From Auschwitz to Stuart Lake, Vietnam to Haida Gwaii, The Earth Remembers Everything brings together a lot of stories, and a lot of moments in Fitzpatrick's life. Basically, she's spent several years living and travelling away from her home in British Columbia, and during those years she's made a point of visiting and learning about historic sites of great violence -- including similar sites in British Columbia, in the years near European contact with First Nations here. This book is about those visits and those places, exploring the question of whether and how places remember the violence done there: "a phenomenological experience of place," as the introduction puts it.

The movement between places and stories and periods gets complicated, and Fitzpatrick doesn't give you much help. There are place-based titles for the different sections ("Vietnam"; "Chinlac"; "Poland"), and the occasional references to different years and durations, but my own experience of the book was that "adrift" seems both a good way to feel during the reading and a reasonable description of Fitzpatrick's emotional life during these years. The "Dene" and "Chinlac" sequences, too, might seem to follow each other in sequence, but they don't, and they're not about the same places. Similarly, the Haida Gwaii sections were narrated a bit like dream sequences, so all things considered, it's not a bad idea just to surrender to the flow of prose.

Fitzpatrick seems here precisely as uncomfortable as she should be with these topics and places, aware of being unable to escape finally either the colonial perspective that defines her life in Canada, or the touristic perspective that colours her time elsewhere. Settler Canadians don't have an absolute home, in this kind of language, though I don't say this self-pityingly (and neither would Fitzpatrick, I don't think): Yankee no longer has another home to go to, that's all. Really, she's taking us touring with her, including to places in British Columbia that form part of her own deep backstory, and asking us to look at the impacts that especially dark moments in human history have had on these places.

Last week, Anne Michaels was explaining to a number of English dept folks here at UVic that the strength of her classic Fugitive Pieces comes from her ability to prevent the story from being about her: the story is only about the story, because the Holocaust exceeds all attempts to understand or otherwise capture it. (Undoubtedly a caricature of her elegant remark, but never mind that right now.) I was thinking about The Earth Remembers Everything as Michaels spoke, because Fitzpatrick has taken the opposite approach. Instead, it's precisely because the Holocaust -- as well as more localized, less absolute massacres -- exceeds our understanding that Fitzpatrick so insistently inserts herself into our experiences of those stories, of her story about those stories.

Far be it from me to doubt Anne Michaels, whose novel has inspired such veneration since its publication, but I'm with Fitzpatrick on this one. Universalism is a fiction: we're always speaking for and about ourselves, but this doesn't mean we can't say something useful (maybe even true!) about something other than ourselves.

It's a terrific book, poetic and thoughtful: highly recommended!

(Mind you, I should say that Adrienne Fitzpatrick has always been cooler than me. I dated one of her friends as an undergrad, and the same friend and I were then married and divorced: it's been more than 15 years since Adrienne and I have talked, but I was seriously happy to hear about and to see this book. Well, except for the fact that it proves she has been cooler me than me on a daily basis for most of the last two decades. Not cool, Adrienne. Not cool.)

(Also, in relation to the 1745 massacre at Chunlac, what the heck is THIS, exactly, and how should I feel about this sort of weirdness?)

2 comments:

writeradriennef said...

Richard - thank you for your thorough and generous review. I'm really grateful and happy that you took the time to do it. And as for this coolness factor you're talking about, I disagree. I remember you as one cool dude and I'm sure fifteen years (or more) hasn't changed you that much.

richard said...

Hey, you're welcome, even if your memory's letting you down a little.

Not sure if you saw the tweet, but I decided to include this book on my syllabus in the fall for my section of English 456, Literature of British Columbia. Keep me updated about your planning with Rita, and I'll tag on to bring you to Victoria, if that's okay with you.