Theresa Kishkan, Euclid's Orchard

I wish I'd been at the BC Book Prizes last night, so I could have been cheering for my favourite among the nominees, even though it didn't win: Theresa Kishkan's lovely Euclid's Orchard and Other Essays.

Now, I've been reading and reviewing Kishkan's work for a long time, my first being Phantom Limb just over ten years ago, and from the beginning I've had trouble being a reviewer rather than a fan. Her writing is consistently insightful about the writer and about her surroundings, and it's consistently marked by small gems of phrasing. I trust her sense of place, I trust her sense for the people she writes about, and I appreciate that she gives me clearer access to how I think about the world by helpfully rendering it for me in her own words.

And yet I really had to sit with Euclid's Orchard after I read it.

Some of these essays I found immediately gripping ("Herakleitos on the Yalakom," for example, about her prickly father: "You. Yes, you. I'm talking to you. But typically you don't listen. Can't hear. And now you're dead" [p.11]), and some I'm not comfortable with even yet (especially "West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices," but theatre makes me anxious, so...). Kishkan has made no secret of the fact that much of the book was written at a time of sustained inspiration that derived from a significant health scare, and I do think that this heightens the book's intimacy: her family is the ideal audience for Euclid's Orchard, even more than it usually is, and my reaction to her family stories here moved beyond the usual pang of recognition into something more defamiliarized.

Once I'd sat with the book, it became clear that any discomfort was about me, and my reluctance to find myself in such a bravely intimate book, rather than about Kishkan's artistry. Euclid's Orchard repays your time with it, and there's no clearer articulation of the book's goals that those Kishkan articulated the day before the book prize winners were announced:'s a quiet book. The writing doesn't exactly ignite fireworks. I'm not apologizing. I believe that the world needs all kinds of books and I hope that the quiet ones can continue to find a place in the literary conversation. The ones that notice the plants and the birds (right now there's an orange-crowned warbler on the rugosa rose out the window!), record the dailiness of lives, ask us to remember the ordinary people who made us.
That's why I read Theresa Kishkan, and it's why I keep buying her books as gifts for other people I trust with my province. It's possible that Euclid's Orchard won't work for you, at least not right away, because this collection isn't for everyone. If I'm faced with a Kishkan novice who wants a recommendation, then depending on what I know of the person, I'd probably recommend instead either Phantom Limb or Red Laredo Boots. If you're ready for Euclid's Orchard, however, genuinely ready for it, then you're in for a treat.

If you don't want to trust me, might I suggest Kerry Clare's wise and personal review?

(A brief rant, however, which you are free to skip: The jury was right, I think, that Arthur Manuel's Reconciliation Manifesto is the year's most important nonfiction book. Still, the nonfiction category of the BC Book Prizes is fundamentally unworkable: a political manifesto about Indigenous nationhood, in competition with book-length comic journalism about marijuana, with collections of lyric essays of deep familial and natural observation? Like most annual cultural award events, it's about promotion and sales and awareness, I get that, but still: the professor and reviewer in me would rather see a clearer sense of how these books compare to similar books, rather than just to the jumble of non-verse books that don't tip over the line into being considered "fiction.")


John Pass said…
Wise and wonderful comments Richard. Of course, in full disclosure, I confess to being married to Theresa Kishkan and understandably a biased fan. But it's your point about the unworkability of the non-fiction category (the Hubert Evans Award)of the BC Book Prizes that prompts my response. The category needs at least one division, perhaps into Literary Non-fiction and Journalistic Non-fiction, to distinguish between an award for the quality of the writing in traditional literary, aesthetic terms, and the importance/value of the writing in contemporary, socio-cultural terms. Hubert Evans, interestingly enough, would likely never have won the award named after him, being of a more literary than journalistic bent. . .
richard said…
Thanks, John, and good to hear from you.

I'm not sure what the solution is about the nonfiction section of the BC Book Prizes. I agree with you that it's not unreasonable to think of dividing the category, if anyone's interested in grouping texts by formal similarity for consideration, but any such division is going to end up with boundary cases that could fit in either section. That's no reason to give up on the project, but still: nonfiction isn't a clean category in the wild, and one could argue that it's inaccurate or inadequate to reduce that messiness.

But would I rather see similar texts considered against each other? Absolutely.

As for Hubert Evans, his writing can be complicated to read now....

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