My first book exploring what we now call “gender” was Two Strand River, originally published by Press Porcepic in 1976 and reissued twice.
My most recent book, Twin Studies (Freehand Books 2018), is still exploring gender forty-two years later.
The Afterword I wrote to the 1996 reissue of Two Strand River still seems to me entirely relevant today.
Afterword from the HarperCollins edition of Two Strand River, 1996.
IT’S BEEN TWENTY YEARS since Two Strand River was first published, and now, upon the occasion of its reissue by HarperCollins, I can’t resist the opportunity to say a few words about it. I’ve often been asked, “How did you come to write it?”—or, as it has sometimes been put, “How on earth did you ever write something like that?” It is, I must admit, a pretty weird book, although I suspect that it will appear far less weird now than it did in 1976.
By the time I emigrated to Canada from the United States, I’d blocked out a body of fictional work in which I planned to explore the experience of people my own age or somewhat younger—the sixties kids—and I’d already created fully developed characters and partially developed plots for what would turn out to be four out of the five books in the cycle. But there was one book I didn’t know anything about. It didn’t even have a title, and I thought of it simply as “the sex reversal novel.” The idea for it had come to me while talking to friends in a movement not yet called “feminism” but rather “women’s liberation,” and much of what the women’s liberationists were saying made sense to me personally. The dictum that has since then become commonplace—“the personal is the political”—was freshly minted, and I was trying to see everything I did as political. What could be more personal, I thought, and therefore more political, than a novel with fully embodied human beings with their problems seen from the inside? So I decided to write a novel about a girl who should have been a boy and a boy who should have been a girl.
Alan in Two Strand River is not me; in fact, he bears almost no resemblance to me. But one thing we do share is an ambiguous relationship to gender. I was raised by two women; for the first few years of my life, I had no contact other than the most superficial with men. As a small child, I didn’t know with absolute certainty what sex I was. People told me that I was a boy, but I didn’t quite believe it. I’d never seen anyone other than myself entirely naked, and I believed that one’s sex was determined by clothes and hair length—or at least I tried to believe that, but I sensed, obscurely, that there must be something more to it than that. I asked my mother how boys were different from girls. “Their bodies are different,” she said. That didn’t make any sense to me; I thought she meant the stuff bodies were made of, and I couldn’t see that I was made of anything different from what a girl is made of. I can remember staring at my hand and trying to see how it looked any different from a girl’s hand. I thought that if I grew my hair long and wore dresses, I would turn into a girl, and there were certainly times when I would have much preferred to be a girl, and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be one. I didn’t want to be a girl all the time, but then I didn’t want to be a boy all the time either; I thought it would be nice if I could decide day-to-day, depending on the mood I was in. I was well into grade school before I learned what we called “the facts of life.”
As a general model for child rearing, my childhood has hardly anything to recommend it, but it did have a positive side: it made me thoughtful and watchful—characteristics that are useful for a novelist—and it left me with a deep inner conviction that gender is something that is, or can be, quite fluid. That conviction is the central strand of Two Strand River, but there are other strands as well.
When I first came to Canada, I lived in Alert Bay—an island community with a largely native population some three hundred miles northwest of Vancouver—while I wrote about Boston in the late sixties. (Even at the time it struck me as ironic that I should be living in Alert Bay and writing about Boston.) Once I got over a monumental case of culture shock, I fell in love with the Bay and knew that I would have to write something about it, and, a few years later, I did—a novel about an American draft dodger (or “resister,” as we preferred to say) who emigrates to Canada and ends up teaching in a place that looks suspiciously like Alert Bay. I have never in my life written anything as turgid—as downright unreadable—as that wretched book; there’s no plot to speak of, and it’s built largely of internal monologues as the protagonist drinks coffee (in the morning) or beer (at night) and stares out the window (it is always raining) while asking himself a series of dark, koan-like questions: Should I have left the United States? What am I doing here? Where’s here? Who are these people? What are they doing here? Is this really Canada? What does it all mean?
I knew that I’d failed to write anything even remotely interesting about my experience in Alert Bay, and I wanted to try again. Dozens of resonant incidents floated around in my memory and wouldn’t let me go. There was, for instance, the night at a potlatch when an old man sitting next to me began to explain what was going on. He told me that the figure on the dance floor was the Bookwus, a human being who has returned to nature, gone wild. “See how he’s digging with his feet?” he said. “He’s looking for cockles on the beach.” We watched the Bookwus for a while, and then the old man said something that struck fiercely at my mind: “You know, when I was a boy, all this was real.” As I was getting ready to write Two Strand River, I thought: What if everything that old man remembered were still real? What if it had never stopped being real?
I’d been doing my best to answer a set of questions much like the ones the protagonist of my rotten Alert Bay novel had asked himself, and I’d been reading Canadian history and Canadian fiction and everything I could find about the B.C. coast. I’d read Boas and Barbeau, and Guests Never Leave Hungry and I Heard the Owl Call My Name and The Curve of Time; of course I’d read Atwood’s Surfacing and Survival. The novel I was about to write, I decided, was going to be Canadian, by God. It wouldn’t have a single American in it, and it would be set in Vancouver and up the coast.
I was sharing my life then with a children’s librarian, and, if there is a profession that calls forth a more passionate—even evangelical—commitment from its practitioners than children’s librarianship, I don’t know what it is. So, naturally, I found myself reading a lot of children’s literature. My book would be, I decided, an adult fairy tale. I would model it on the variety of tale that begins: “There was once a king and he had three sons…” In these stories it’s most often the youngest son, or daughter, the one with the flaw, who successfully completes the magical tasks and wins out at the end. So my girl who should have been a boy would have two older brothers; like Cinderella’s, her mother would be dead. I’d come to see my protagonists as mirror images of each other, so the boy would have two older sisters, and his father would be dead. I began making notes, creating biographies for each of them. She would be—of course—a children’s librarian, and something boyish—an athlete, a swimmer so she could dive into the waters of the psyche. And he would be—well, why not?—a beautician. So I interviewed a swimmer and a beautician.
I was still strongly under the influence of writers I’d read back in the late sixties when I—along with innumerable other counterculture freaks—had been trying to reinvent the world. Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold had been my Bible, and I’d read Mircia Eleade on shamanism and learned that shamans in many cultures are androgynous, and I still took Carlos Castenada straight, having not yet twigged to the fact that he’s not an anthropologist but a novelist. Then, within weeks of beginning Two Strand River, I happened upon what, oddly enough, turned out to be exactly the right book at the right time: Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I’d always preferred reading realism, and, in everything I’d ever written, I’d always striven not merely for realism but for gritty, tell-it-like-it-is, forensic realism. I wasn’t sure what Murdoch was doing, but it sure as hell wasn’t realism. I’d never read anything quite like that crazy book. Oh, my God, I thought, she’ll let her characters do anything! I wondered what would happen if I let my characters do anything.
I sat down at my typewriter in the summer of 1975 ready to begin my novel. I’d named Alan and Leslie by then, and I knew in a vague, general way their back stories—or, as we would have said in the sixties, where they were coming from. I didn’t yet have much of a plot, but I planned to find that out as I went. It would, I was sure, take me at least a year to write a first draft of the book and maybe another year after that to kick it into shape. I wrote the first few pages quickly, hardly pausing to think. I kept waiting to hit the usual blockages I’d always experienced in my writing, but there didn’t seem to be any. Then, within days, my characters jumped up into full-blown reality and took over, and I realized that I’d lost control of the book—even worse, that I’d never had any control to start with. I didn’t feel like the author. I felt like somebody taking dictation.
It was the closest thing to automatic writing I’ve ever done in my life. My problem was not figuring out what was going to happen next; my problem was trying to keep up with what was already happening. I’m a fast typist; for long stretches of time, I was typing as fast as I could get my fingers to move. I typed every day from eight-thirty in the morning to four in the afternoon and left the typewriter exhausted. And then, as I lay around in the evening trying to recover, my characters wouldn’t let me alone but kept on talking to me. I fell asleep with them talking to me, and I woke up with them talking to me. I gave up any pretense of knowing where the book was going or what it was about. Every morning I thought, “What are those crazy people going to do today?”
Dozens of times during the writing of Two Strand River I had panic attacks. A great sluice of words would be pouring through me from some obscure source that didn’t feel like me at all, and I’d stop momentarily, my fingers hovering over the keys. I’d be sweating, and I’d feel my heart racing, and I’d think: oh, my God, you can’t write that! Then I’d remember Iris Murdoch, and I’d make a deal with myself: go ahead and write it; you don’t have to show it to anybody—and I’d go ahead and write it. The first draft took me six weeks. That draft, with only minor revisions, was exactly what was published by Press Porcépic in 1976.
Two Strand River was widely reviewed and, by and large, warmly received—although not without criticism. Nearly all the reviewers—even the most sympathetic and perceptive of them—tried to read the book as realism; read that way, it simply won’t go, so I was trounced for relying too much on “coincidence.” And there were a few reviewers who loathed the book and said so. My favourite pan bore the headline, GROSS MISUSE OF WRITING TALENT, and another reviewer called the book a soap opera—a comparison accurate enough to make me wince. There were a number of my friends who didn’t like it either; one told me that he was only sorry that my first published book hadn’t been one of my serious novels, and another said that trying to read it had been “like drowning in taffeta.”
It’s easy enough to see things wrong with Two Strand River. The reviewers pointed out its flaws, and many of these had, of course, already been noticed by the author. To start with, the book is just so excessive. And why do all the major characters have to have something radically wrong with them? Couldn’t some of them be—well, just plain normal? And why are all the straight people such jerks, and why are they painted so broadly, often to the point of caricature? The obsessive attention to details of clothes and hair and makeup frequently overwhelms the story, and there are too many internal monologues, and the book is overloaded with symbols (count, for instance, the number of times mirrors are mentioned), and there are just too many references—to folklore and fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes and children’s literature, to the Tarot, to painters and artists, to North American native mythology in general and Kwakiutl mythology in particular—all of it boiled up into a great Jungian stew.
Whatever’s wrong with Two Strand River, there is also something right with it, because there have always been readers who have not merely liked the book but have loved it and responded intensely to it—and I know this because they’ve told me. Novelists (at least obscure novelists like me) don’t usually get much personal response to their work, but I’ve received letters and phone calls and private, passionate tributes offered to me after readings, and these are hardly ever about any of my other novels, are almost always about Two Strand River, and I continued to receive them for years after the book was first published, and occasionally I still receive them now. And what these people have wanted to tell me is not something about my writing but something about themselves—how the book touched them, affected them at a deep level. To such response I can only be grateful; I certainly can’t take much credit for it because I don’t feel much like the author.
I want to be clear about this. I am certainly responsible for Two Strand River. I was the one who sat there typing frantically to get it onto the page, and most people would probably argue that those voices dictating to me had to be coming from somewhere inside myself—and that’s probably true enough—but that isn’t how I experienced them. I’ve never felt that eerie sense of displacement from the center of the work—from authorship—more strongly than when General Publishing was planning to reissue Two Strand River in its New Press Canadian Classics series in 1982 and I read it again for the first time in nearly six years. Until then, I’d always thought I’d rewrite it if I had the chance, but I soon realized that if I tried to rewrite any of it, the entire construction would fall apart, and then I would have to rewrite all of it and it wouldn’t be the same book, so, even when I was tempted, I rewrote nothing. I cleaned up the spelling mistakes, tightened the punctuation, cut padding and repetition, and restored the ending—approximately the last two pages—that I had originally written. Except for this afterword and the acknowledgments, this edition is identical to the 1982 edition.
There has never, to my knowledge, been any serious critical study written of Two Strand River, but I was pleased to see it described by the editors of Magic Realism and Canadian Literature as “widely regarded as among the best works of magic realism in Canadian writing,” and I’ve heard from time to time that the book has been taught at both the high school and the university level—most recently in my own university.
Shortly after I received my first full-time appointment at U.B.C., I got a phone call in my office from a student in the English department asking if I would mind talking about my work; she was, she said, studying one of my books in a course. That gave me a moment of magic realist vertigo similar to that experienced by my characters: in one part of the university I was teaching, while in another part of the university somebody was teaching me.
No, I wouldn’t mind talking about my work, I said, but if she were in the English Department, then surely she must have heard of the intentional fallacy, and so, I suggested, she should take whatever I had to say with a grain of salt. What book was she studying? Two Strand River, she said. Of course that’s the one it would be, I thought, but I had a hard time imagining a university course with Two Strand River on its reading list. We chatted for a while, and I couldn’t help asking her what, exactly, was the title of the course she was taking.
“Marginal Literature,” she said. We finished our conversation, and, after I hung up, I laughed for ten minutes.
Even though many of the characters in Two Strand River live their real or imaginative lives on the margins of society, I have always thought that there is something in it which is not marginal at all, but central. In the early eighties, the daughter of friends of mine called me up and said she was writing a book report on Two Strand River. Could she ask me some questions about it? She was, the best I can remember, fourteen at the time.
She asked me how I came to write it, and I gave her an abbreviated account of what I’ve just said here. Then she asked me what it all meant. As helpful as I was trying to be, I didn’t have—and I’d never had—the faintest idea of what it all meant, so I threw her question back at her: “What do you think?”
She answered without a moment’s hesitation: “I think it means— whoever you are, that’s OK.”
I can’t imagine how it could be put any better.
©Keith Maillard, 1996