McCandless’ mosaic memoir is on rented shortlist – Winnipeg Free Press
Rowan McCandless, a writer from Treaty 1 territory, continually pushes the boundaries of creative nonfiction. In 2021, Rare Machines, an imprint of Dundurn Press, published McCandless’ mosaic memoir The Children of Persephone: A Life in Fragments, a collection of essays about leaving a long-term abusive relationship. One year later, Persephone’s Children was shortlisted for one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, the Governor General’s Literary Award, in the non-fiction category. The winners are to be announced on Wednesday.
Free Press: What did you hope to accomplish with Persephone’s Children, and do you think you achieved your goal?
Rowan McCandless: When writing Persephone’s Children, I kept my audience in mind. I wanted to reach out to people who needed to read a story of coming out of domestic violence and the recovery that follows – to know that they weren’t alone. I also hoped to demonstrate a different way of telling stories of intergenerational and personal trauma. This new way of looking at trauma was essential for me because I believe we all have stories to share, but not all fit into a traditional, linear narrative. Some stories dip and swirl and rush like waves. I also hoped to inspire people to discover their voice. After the book was launched, I asked readers to tell me how Persephone’s Children resonated with them. People were fascinated by the structure of the book and saw it as an invitation to write with hybrid forms. All the fantastic comments from readers let me know that I had achieved my goals.
FP: What themes do you always seem to come back to in your writing, and why are you drawn to those themes?
RM: Many themes are woven into Persephone’s Children. I am particularly drawn to five topics in my writing: identity, race, belonging, voice, and family heritage. As a black and biracial woman, I often felt like I was straddling worlds, occupying a space of transition carved out of necessity. I wondered what it meant to be an insider or an outsider, and I wondered who the guardians in charge were. Culturally, I’m interested in who needs to be heard and why, and which voices are silenced. Growing up in a secret house, a family request for silence impacted my voice. However, the long-term abusive relationship I left nearly six years ago obstructed what I could or could not say, to the point that I physically lost my voice. Writing helped me find my voice and saved my life.
FP: The Children of Persephone are told in a collection of essays in many different forms. You talked about how you like the relationship between form and content. Where do you see gaps in writers playing with form and content, and how do you plan to keep pushing those boundaries?
RM: As a non-fiction creative editor for a literary journal, most submissions follow traditional formatting, which is great because I admire and connect with these works as well. I’m seeing more experimental forays being passed on my way, which makes me very excited about the genre. I think it’s only a matter of time before more writers play with form and content. It’s a matter of exposure rather than fit. I plan to continue to push these boundaries by leading workshops and attending readings and panels dealing with these new forms. Additionally, I will trust my intuition and continue to write memoirs and essays that push boundaries by experimenting with literary structures and storytelling.
FP: If you had to choose a favorite essay in your book, which one would it be and why?
RM: It’s hard to choose, but I think Blood Tithes: An Introduction would be my favorite essay. I like the alphabet structure, the lyricism and the immersion in family history, including family photographs and historical documents.
FP: How did your experience align (or not) with the expectations you had for the release of Children of Persephone?
RM: Apart from being published, I had no expectations regarding Persephone’s Children. I hoped it would be well received, but I had no idea of the rewards. On the contrary, it was my writer friends who firmly believed that my book would attract attention. Being a non-fiction finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards is a “pinch me, I must be dreaming” moment, especially since it follows co-winning the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best Debut book at the Manitoba Book Prize. I’m grateful and honored to be in the company of so many great books and great writers.
FP: How does being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award mean to you?
RM: I started writing five years ago when my eldest daughter challenged me and her sisters. She said: “We have all this creativity in our family, but none of us use it. We should use our creativity. Wanting to be a good role model for my children, I picked up the pen and started writing. I had no idea what trajectory my writing would take. One year to the day when Persephone’s Children was launched for the first time, I received an email notification that I was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in the non-fiction category. What a way to close the loop! This appointment means a lot to me. It validated my voice and my identity as a divergent thinker and writer. It legitimized mosaic memories and the hybridity of forms, and demonstrated that there is room for such books in Canadian non-fiction. Perhaps this signals the beginnings of a new literary canon.
FP: What are you writing at the moment? What are you reading right now?
RM: Right now I’m working on a series of essays and finishing a collection of short stories called The Mausoleum of Lost Souls. This book takes a quirky and sincere look at people relegated to the margins, made on the cusp of life-changing decisions, in haunting, humorous and sometimes heartbreaking situations. Regarding my reading, I’m digesting Human heartbeat detected by Chelsey Clammer.
Alyssa Sherlock is a writer from Winnipeg.
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