Canada Reads 2021 Contenders

The debates will take place March 8-11, 2021. I will attempt to read and review each book prior to the debates.

The Canada Reads 2021 shortlist has arrived! While none of the books from the longlist that I wanted to read made the cut I am excited about this year’s theme: One book to transport us. With this pandemic, it’s the perfect theme and I’m hoping for some great selections of writing and escapism from the following selected books:

The debates will take place March 8-11, 2021. I will attempt to read and review each book prior to the debates.

They will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021. 

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

Grown-ups, who are supposed to protect their children, are limited by what “best” has felt like to them, based on the circumstances they grew in and the privilege they did or did not have. The lines between grown-up and child were often blurred between me and my mom. Her “best” did not look like mine; in fact, it looked like danger. It felt like surrender.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 190 pages.
Read from January 29, 2020 to February 1, 2020.

Whoop whoop! First book into the Canada Reads 2020 and its started out with a bang. This year Canada Reads brings one collection of novellas, two memoirs, and two pieces of fiction. I started with We Have Always Been Here which is one of the two memoirs heading into the debates. We Have Always Been Here will be defended by Amanda Brugel during the debates taking place from March 16-19th.

Samra spent her childhood years growing up in Pakistan in fear of religious persecution as well as the threat of a highly patriarchal society that stifled her and her family. After being sexually assaulted by a family friend her life became even more restricted. From a young age Samra had a fire in her that couldn’t be put out no matter what was thrown at her. When violence started to escalate her family was thankfully able to pack up and flee to Canada to safety. Samra and her family found themselves in a new home where they were not as affluent as they were in Pakistan. Samra struggled as a new immigrant at school and even more so with her identity as she struggled between her conservative family values and a country with a new way of life that she found immensely appealing. Samra is married and divorced, twice, before the age of 25 and goes on an exploratory journey with her own sexuality as she realises her own queerness. Still, Samra is drawn to her religion and needs to find a new way to connect with her church and her family as she blooms into her true self.

How do you find yourself when the world tells you that you don’t exist?

Samra Habib

Samra is now an advocate for the queer Muslim community with her writing and photography to help highlight and bring light to queer Muslims who have been in her situation. Samra’s writing is frank and engaging as she details the story of her life without asking for sympathy. Her journey is an empowering one and one that I didn’t want to put down. Samra embraces her queerness, femininity, and religion with grace and strength and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her memoir.

Is this the one book to bring Canada into focus? While this is an immensely important topic we will have to wait and see what the other books bring to the table to the debates.