My new book The Bridge: Writing Across the Binary comes out May 1, 2021.
“A vulnerable and vital memoir about the search for identity and belonging outside the restrictive masculine gender norms of 1950s America. Novelist Keith Maillard’s journey to locate himself as nonbinary in ‘a narrative of gender’ that had long excluded him is a valuable addition to literature about the lives and histories of trans and nonbinary people.”
— Rachel Giese, author of Boys: What It Means to Become a Man
“Through constellated fragments of memory, key moments in twentieth-century America, and the unfolding of an acclaimed literary life, The Bridge is the forthright, deeply moving memoir of a nonbinary writer coming of age and coming to self. Intimate and expansive in equal measure, this story speaks with particular generosity to all of us who’ve been deemed ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ in our gender expression, as much by those who loved us as by those who despised us. This is a book that will stay with you long after its final lines, in all the very best ways.”
— Daniel Heath Justice, author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter
“Keith Maillard’s engaging memoir about gender and the writing life is a tender and moving portrait of a writer’s journey towards understanding themselves and their work.”
— Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People
This memoir is an astonishing act of generosity and tenacity, exploring the profound flaws of one family’s dynamics and the resiliency of the human spirit.
— Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster
Fatherless is Keith Maillard’s haunting response to that most ancient curse: Why, father, did you desert me? How, father, should I love you?
— Clark Blaise, author of If Had a Father
Marvelous and brutally honest. — Marc Harshman, author of Woman in Red Anorak and poet laureate of West Virginia
It’s subtitled “a memoir,” but that only hints at the force and breadth of the book. — Quill and Quire
“Keith Maillard’s Twin Studies is a novel that challenges everything we think we know about family and the nature of love. Three sets of twins struggle with loss, identity, and adulthood, and in the middle of it all, Karen, a beleaguered, beautiful, and wryly intelligent mother, tries to keep everyone afloat, even as she feels her own life slipping under the weight of responsibility and confusion. Deliberately written, fiercely inventive, and unflinching, Twin Studies is a deeply satisfying novel by one of Canada’s finest authors.” — Jen Sookfong Lee, author of The Conjoined
“Maillard’s generous affection for his characters is matched by his vividly real depictions of Vancouver. His fascinating exploration of wealth, class, and gender fluidity reads like a 21st-century Canadian version of Dickens’ London novels.” — iBooks
Thank you, Rick MacDonnell from Another Book Vlog, for your perceptive review and your kind words–I really appreciate them.
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
Vancouver atypical–brilliant sun alternating with dense dank fog. near the water, walked a couple miles. misplaced my mind. the day passes.
mare’s tails in the west. rain held off. not solitary by nature, listen to runoff without reading it. walk until you can’t. old friends gone
time to mourn, to remember particulate ice, rammed quick. time’s empty as mind, sunyata, and still we must act, scattered foam on the ocean.
asking again who digs the common, we wait for you, not our children but our grandchildren. time. you know us from dreams, show us your fire.
we are as we were but are still becoming. you overlap us, our ends your beginnings, time emptiness, emptiness interleave us. sleep in peace.
bluejay tap-dancing on deck. where is the lone ant dragging the dead wasp? I looked & the cat was gone, dent in cushion where she was lying.
–Keith Maillard, July, 2017
Review Essay: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977)
This working paper will appear in Black Camera: An International Journal, 9.1, Indiana University Press, Fall 2017.
Killer of Sheep opens on a black screen with the a cappella voices of a mother and child singing a lullaby. The song fades into a disorienting close-up of an angry black man yelling at his teen-aged son, “Boy, I’ll beat you to death.” Sweaty and sick in his undershirt, the father coughs his way out of the frame and then returns to say, “You are not a child any more. You soon will be a goddamn man. Now start learning what life is about now, son.” The boy’s mother silently watches this scene, walks over, and slaps her son hard in the face without a word. Fade to black and the great Paul Robeson sings his baritone version of the same lullaby. Here, in this two-minute introduction, Burnett prepares his viewers for his slice-of-life portrait of a black family living in Watts, California, in the early 1970s.
The main characters – Stan, now a full-grown man, his unnamed wife, five-year old daughter, Angela, and teen-aged son Stan Jr. – move through a non-linear narrative of loosely connected vignettes that pull the viewer inside their world. Their neighborhood looks like a bombed-out refugee camp. We hear strains of music, “The children in the playground…. that’s America to me.” Chaotic scenes of children running away, fighting, stoning each other, plotting, watching, and waiting, are mirrored by the activities of their adult counterparts. The children have energy. The adults do not.
The film is constructed like a blues song. Visual refrains run through the scenes, themes of sadness and happiness intertwine, and nothing much happens. The daughter repeats the dressing ritual of her mother; Stan’s white undershirt references his father’s; Stan Jr.’s treatment of Angela echoes his father’s neglect of a younger sibling; the wife lays her hand on Stan’s arm in the same way that a white woman storekeeper signals her interest. Stan’s wife checks her make-up in the reflection of a cooking pot lid, then the bathroom mirror. Her seductive slow dance with Stan mirrors his sensual love for her – recalled through the touch of a warm teacup on his cheek. Boys hurling rocks re-enact the Watts riots of 1965. The gender wars are savage. Asked who makes the rain, Stan jokes, “It’s the Devil beating his wife.” Stan Jr. squeezes his little sister’s face until she cries. Dancing, singing girls in the street attack an aggressive boy on a bike. The girl who kicks the bicycle-boy is a younger version of the woman who kicks a lascivious “dirty old dog” with a bandaged head.
Everyone is injured and everyone is watchful. Stan’s wife stares out enigmatically through a screen door; her daughter’s haunting sad-clown face presses against the glass of a truck window. Watchful women and girls hang back, on fences, porches, and stairs, image after image. The most disturbing “watching” image is that of little Angela inside a grotesque Snoopy-like head-mask, swinging by one arm from a chain-link fence, sucking her thumb, and staring from large, expressive, knowing, cartoony eyes. A dandy peeps around a pillar ready to dodge thrown objects, just like the young teen who peeps around a wooden shield protecting himself from rocks. Three bored boys stand on their heads on a front porch, counting. As the camera pulls back, the image references the slaughtered sheep at Stan’s workplace, hanging upside down from hooks. Imminent danger is everywhere, creating a sense of dread and apprehension in the film viewer: skateboarders narrowly miss cars; children fly from rooftop to rooftop like birds; three kids on a bike spill to the ground near the front of a moving car; a boy lies under a stopped train with his neck on a rail while his friends try to push the train’s wheels. Nothing happens. All is in static limbo. Continue reading
In happier times the setting sun
lacquered the waves in the harbor
now below the Lions the rain
has swelled the creeks into torrents
so many days of loneliness
and now desolation and no stove fire
I’d send a letter in a fish if I could
but everywhere rivers and mountains are endless
This poem is a collaboration between me, Yen Shu (991-1055), and, because I don’t read Chinese, the translator, Red Pine (Poems of the Masters, Copper Canyon Press). Some of Red Pine’s words are included here with no change whatsoever. The image of the letter in a fish is Yen Shu’s. The personal elements that locate the poem on Vancouver’s North Shore are mine.
Dear Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,
Since I emigrated to Canada in 1970, I have been listening to CBC Radio. I listen to it in much of my down-time—while I’m cooking, doing the dishes, putting away my socks, or driving my car. I regard CBC Radio as an old reliable friend, and I am writing to you in the spirit of friendship. In recent years Q was one of my favourite shows. The host is gone, but the show continues, and that’s what I want to talk about.