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A writer can gain inspiration in many ways—some better than others. Contributors to the new essay collection Against Death: 35 Essays on Living (Anvil Press) earned their places in the book the hard way. Each has had a close encounter with death, either their own or a loved one’s. Essayists include novelist Aislinn Hunter, writers Jennifer Van Evra and Becky Blake, poet and author Fiona Tinwei Lam, poet and filmmaker Susan Cormier and Vancouver artist Joe Average. They and other contributors will be among the attendees at the official launch Wednesday from 6-8 PM at Hood 29 on South Main.
To say that the book was the brainchild of writer Elee Kraljii Gardiner is hitting a little close to home. At age 41, Kraljii Gardiner tore the lining of an artery, resulting in a blood clot in her brainstem.
“It tilted my world,” she recalls. “I was stuck on the couch for a year, unable to put my head below my heart. As I healed I took notes for the project that would eventually become ‘Trauma Head,’ a memoir in experimental poetry that tries to explain what I was going through.”
But there was another book waiting to be born from the experience. “They say ‘write the book you need,’ and I needed a community of people who knew what it was like to be so close to mortality,” Kraljii Gardiner says. “I needed to know how people lived while they were pressed up against death, even as they were rejecting death. What was getting them through? I wanted to hear about a range of experiences, from genetics to suicide, addiction, disaster, accident, difficulty and chance and see if we had any commonalities. What I learned is there is always time to be in connection with people. Without that, we have nothing.”
Thanks to some life-threatening allergies Jennifer Van Evra has shaken hands with the Grim Reaper more than once. Her essay, “Unlucky Luck,” recounts a couple of experiences including an incident when at age 22 she was stung by a wasp while on a boat. She had one adrenaline shot, good for 20 minutes, but the boat was more than 20 minutes from shore. If it sounds like an exciting movie plot, the non-fiction version was less of a thrill. “My first thought was, ‘I’m going to die,’” Van Evra says. “My second thought was, ‘I’m OK with that.’ I felt eerily calm about it. In my experience, things like bad cuts and broken bones have been way more upsetting. When I was literally ‘against death,’ I just kind of accepted it. It’s not that I wanted to die; it just felt inevitable.”
Spoiler alert: she made it, barely, with lots of help and a bit of luck.
Lam almost drowned while vacationing with family in Hawaii. In her essay “Waves,” she writes: “It was my very own ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Jimmy Stewart moment without any visitations by angels in training or a soaring orchestra. I suddenly knew the necessity of my existence as part of the fabric that sustained the lives of others around me, as if we were all part of a massive unseen tapestry. Everyone had a part, held space for one another.”
A 1992 car accident left Susan Cormier with about twenty broken bones, second degree burns on forty percent of her skin, various internal organ injuries, and a brain injury that left her semi-comatose. “Elee’s call for submissions hit hard,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to finally bring together and finish all my frustrated, half-baked attempts to discuss the subject in writing, but the actual writing put me through an emotional wringer.”
Van Evra says she learned a lot from reading the other essays. “What’s most incredible to me is that all of the authors have had drastically different experiences,” Van Evra says. “One had a stroke in her 40s, one contracted HIV, one went through cancer with her husband, one accidentally picked up a land mine as a child — and yet there are common threads that run through nearly all of them. I also really appreciated people’s stark honesty. Often people who have almost died are told things like ‘You’re so strong’ or ‘You’re the toughest person I know,’ so they don’t feel like they can say, ‘Actually, I was really scared.’ But in these essays they could, and did.”
“The other thing that’s really struck me,” she adds, “is how much humour runs through many of their stories. It’s a book about death, but I’ve laughed a lot.”
“Among all these widely-varying accounts, one theme keeps reappearing,” Cormier says: “The sense of ‘wow’, an almost childlike wonderment, at one’s own strength and endurance. It’s almost religious, this wide-eyed recognition of there being some aspect of our lives that is slightly beyond the understanding of science.”
Everyone is welcome to the launch of Against Death Wednesday evening —and depending on your means of transport, please wear a seat belt, helmet, and/or life jacket. BYOEP (Bring your own EpiPen.)
Against Death: 35 Essays on Living Book Launch
Wednesday, September 25, 6pm-9pm
Hood 29, 4470 Main Street