Saving the best for the last of the eight part series of New Brunswick authors, the Scribbler is pleased to have Elizabeth Copeland of Northeastern NB for our 4Q Interview. Elizabeth is an award winning author, theatre artist and the Artistic Director of KPH Theatre Productions. She writes poetry, short stories, novels as well as plays. She offers creative writing workshops through WFNB’s Writers in the Schools Program. Discover more about this talented and busy artist by visiting her website:
4Q: In Feb. of 2016, you have been invited to be a faculty member at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Please tell us how that experience came about, and what you are planning to teach.
EC: In 2014, I applied for and was given a scholarship to attend the 2015 writers’ conference in San Miguel. Though I was unable to take advantage of the opportunity, it got me hooked on the idea of going to the conference in beautiful San Miguel, and I decided I would go after a faculty position for 2016.
Looking at their list of workshops, I saw that each year they offer one workshop that is a bit outside of the box. Since I am an outside the box kind of person, I asked myself, “What could I bring to the table that is unique? What kind of learning experience could I provide that would stimulate a new way in to the experience of writing?” Hmmm…
I spent the first twenty years of my career working on the stage. A good actor knows that a great idea alone will not manifest in an outstanding performance. It must be body-centered, grounded in the physical, with a willingness to be – as Rilke said – always a beginner, always in a place of discovery. Wanting to be a better actor, I studied the technique of improv based on the work of the legendary theatre artist, Viola Spolin, and then went on to work with Second City doing improv comedy. In the early stages of my career as a writer, I found that using the techniques of the improvisational actor got me out of my mind and into my senses. When I was writing JAZZ, I spent hours in my studio, improvising the characters on my feet and out loud to fine-tune each character’s voice.
By now you might have guessed it. Yes, the workshop for San Miguel is based in improv, and is called ‘How to create characters that jump off the page’
I am more than excited about my participation in the conference – not only facilitating the workshop, but also having the opportunity to learn from and network with a host of great authors. I’ll be in great company with Canadian novelists, Elizabeth Hay, Mary Novik, Sandra Gulland, and keynote speakers, Joyce Carol Oates and Gail Sheehy. Whoo hoo!
More info on the workshop and the conference here: http://sanmiguelwritersconference.org/2016-conference/2016-faculty/elizabeth-copeland/
4Q: Your novella JAZZ won the 2013 Ken Klonsky Novella prize. Please tell us about this story as well as the excitement of being published by Quattro Books. Where is this book available?
EC: About the story: When he is forced to leave his suburban home at age seventeen, Jazz - a transgender F2M - moves into the heart of Toronto's LGBT community in hopes of finding the help he needs to begin his transition. A true hero's journey, this narrative features a cast of colourful characters, including Martine, a dope-smoking drag queen; Kimmie, a hairdresser with a heart of gold; Sister Mary Francis, a sharp-talking ex-nun, and his counselor; Kendall, who must face his own demons in order to support Jazz in his journey. With comedy and pathos, Jazz wrestles with the realities of the courage it takes to be transgendered in today's society.
I found out about the Ken Klonsky novella contest from Canadian poet, Brandon Pitts, whom I got to know in Toronto after participating at in a reading series he produced at Prana Café. After I moved east, I kept in touch with Brandon, and when I started writing JAZZ, he suggested I apply. Imagine my surprise when months later, I found out that I had won the contest, and that my prize was publication with Quattro Books! The book was launched in 2014, and is available through Amazon or Quattro Books. Here’s the link for Quattro.
JAZZ received a great review this past Feb. through Pacific Tranquility.
4Q: Please share a childhood story or anecdote.
EC: In Grade 8, I found myself with an amazing teacher. Mr. Cartmail had that rare ability to not only instill in his students zeal for learning, but to win their love and respect as well. In short order, he turned a motely group of adolescents into a lean mean learning machine. And we had fun.
After Christmas break, I came back to school to find that Mr. Cartmail had been fired. No one would say why, but by creeping around the halls and listening in at the door to the teachers lounge, I learned the truth. Mr. Cartmail had been fired because he was gay. The teacher who replaced him was a middle aged woman who, through my young eyes, had a physique and IQ of a goat. I was furious that our great teacher had been taken away.
That event woke me up to the price we pay, as individuals and as a society, to justify and perpetuate our prejudices. In that year, I went from being the perfectly behaved student to a rabble-rouser. The firebrand in me was born.
4Q: Your bio mentions that you are the Artistic Director for KPH Theatre Productions. Can you elaborate on your connection to the theatre and what you do as writer?
EC: At the heart of all my work as an artist is the desire to use my craft as a way to challenge us all, myself included, to open our minds and hearts to the wonder of this life, to awaken our dormant potential and truly live out loud.
Just think…we live on a planet, which is hurtling around the sun at 66,000 miles per hour! Our galaxy is part of a vast universe of which we know only a smidgen!! Is that not a cause for wonder? If we could fully grok that, would we be so hell bent on consuming, of spoiling God’s creation all to be able to maintain the status quo of consumer culture all to get a deal at Walmart?
The value of art is that it can open the door of the human soul to this place of wonder, of deep curiosity, of the innovative power of the imagination with which we can undoubtedly find solutions to all of the problems – social, political, environmental, that we currently face. In my work, as a theatre artist and writer, I seek to play my small part in the unfolding of that vision.
I’ll leave you with the words of one of my favourite poets, Emily Bronte.
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in this world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equally, arming me from fear.
Excerpt from JAZZ – Nature’s Improvisation
Copyright © Quattro Books and Elizabeth Copeland 2014
There is a shadow of a girl floating around me. Gossamer. Guileless. I pretend I do not see her. She embarrasses me. Though I have tried, I cannot unlearn or forget what her life in me has given. And taken. Mostly taken.
There is a shadow of a boy walking within me. Ferocious. Fine. Though his heart breaks and mends, and breaks and mends, and breaks again, he will not be shackled. His spirit is lightning fire.
At birth, I was labeled a girl. I was named Jaswinder.
My chosen name is Jazz. Like the music, I am nature’s improvisation.
I told my mother I was a boy when I was four years old. She was standing at the counter, grinding the spices for the evening meal. Curry. Cumin. Garamasala. She stopped. Sighed. Turned and smiled at me, her mouth tense. “Don’t be foolish, Jaswinder. Now, run along and wash your hands before dinner.”
I told her again when I was twelve. We were in her sewing room. Bolts of brilliantly hued fabric were stacked neatly against one wall. Straight pins and needles stood gaily on a green satin pincushion. Thimbles, scissors, pinking sheers. All neatly in their place. A chest full of tiny drawers, each containing threads of different colour, stood beside the picture window that overlooked our backyard. I could see the branches of the willow tree. Waving at me. As they danced in the wind.
“Close the door, Jaswinder.” She began slowly. Her voice soft. Choosing her words carefully. Wanting to say just the right thing. To convince me of the sacred wonder of it all. Of womanhood. I didn’t want to interrupt her at first, to take this moment away from her. After all, I was her only daughter. Clearly she had put a lot of effort into this speech, considered deeply how much or how little to tell me about the changes my body was going through. But in the midst of her detailed explanation, I stopped her.
“Mother, I would rather die than to grow up to be a woman.”
Her back stiffened. “What foolishness is this? As if you have any choice in the matter.”
I told her again today. At my seventeenth birthday party. In front of my whole family – the aunties and uncles, the cousins, my friend, Jennie from high school, and my big brother, Sugith. After they brought out the presents and sang Happy Birthday. Just as my mother was about to cut the homemade carrot cake with cream cheese icing. My favourite. The smile falls from her face. She drops the knife on the floor. My brother looks away. Disgusted. “I always knew you were a freak.”
“Enough, Sugith.” My father struggles to keep his voice under control. “Jaswinder. Look how you have upset your mother. This is not something we joke about”
“It’s not a joke.”
Freeze frame. No one knows where to look. At my brother’s twisted face? At my mother, her eyes wide in an attempt to stop the tears that threatened? Or at my father, standing still and hard as granite?
On some unspoken cue, my aunties begin to fuss around my mother. A gaggle of hens, scratching and clucking. Picking up the knife from the floor. Cleaning the icing off the carpet. Straightening up the already tidy table.
“Come with me.” Auntie Nazneen hisses in my ear. “NOW!” She pulls me from the room. Through the French doors, and onto the deck. “Go to your mother. Apologize at once!”
“What did you say?”
We wait until everyone leaves. Which doesn’t take long. Amazing how fast you can clear a room with a simple announcement.
The door is shut and bolted. The window shades drawn. Auntie Nazneen and my mother scuttle from the room. I am left alone with my father. He is standing by the window with his hands clasped behind his back. Looking out. Seeing nothing. A storm is coming. But there is no escaping it. It is time. Deep breath in. Just relax. I can do this.
“What is the meaning of this behaviour?”
My mother peeks out from the kitchen. Quietly shakes her head. Mouths the word no. I stop. The air around me crackles. A warning light goes on in my brain. A flashing sign. No more pretending. No more pretending. I swallow hard. Remember the words. Words I have learned from books, from thousands of hours of research on the Internet. Words that have helped me sew myself together. Like Peter Pan and his shadow, except I do not have a Wendy to help me. No going back after this. My hand on the lever, I pause. Check my anger. Remember. A reasonable approach will elicit a reasonable response. I open the gates of the dam to say aloud the words I have been practicing for years. The words flood out.
“Father. Mother. Today is a reason to both mourn and celebrate. To mourn the loss of a daughter. And to celebrate that you have another son.” It sounded so good in rehearsal. In my bedroom. In front of the mirror. Now it sounds forced, lame, stupid. The blood drains from my mother’s face. Her jaw hangs open. She looks older by years than she did just an hour ago. My father turns his head. Regards me from the corner of his eye. No longer is there kindness. Infinite patience. The dry humour that could send me into both paroxysms of laughter. “So let me understand this. You are gay. A lesbian.”
“No father, I am...” The words. The words. Where are the words? “I am...transgendered. I am a man.”
He looks at me. Sees a stranger. Laughs bitterly. “You are no more a man than I am a fish.” A flash of lightening. Of understanding. It’s not working. The ground is shifting under my feet. I repeat the mantra in my head. A reasonable approach will elicit a reasonable response.
Then. Riding to the rescue comes take charge, Nazneen. Commanding. Demanding compliance. “Chemim. Amarjit. Jaswinder. Come into the kitchen. We will have tea. We will talk as a family. We will work this out.” My father does not move.
“Amarjit, please.” My mother’s voice. Broken. “She is your daughter.”
“I no longer have a daughter.” Crash of thunder.
“Brother, not so fast.” Said sweetly. Auntie Nazneen. The mediator. Calming the waters. “I agree it is shocking. But it is just a phase that she will grow out of.”
Thunder cracks. The lowering sky opens. “Enough, Nazneen!” Silence hangs heavy in the air. Then a sound. Terrifying in its vulnerability. My father is weeping.
Synapses firing at lightening speed, I scroll down, scanning in my head through the articles, through the lists of topics, the headings, searching for the answer to the question, What to do if your parents disown you. I walk towards my father. Wanting to offer comfort. My feet are leaden. Dragging an anvil out to sea. “No father. Not lost.”
“Not lost,” my mother echoes.
He turns on her. “Tell your daughter to end this nonsense, or tell her to leave this house forever!” Winds like a monsoon blow a torrent of rain. I am betrayed! Betrayed by the words that promised my salvation. The room is airless. No one moves from their frozen tableau.
Blow winds. Blow. Drop the sails. Turn the bow into the wind, shouting, “This is how I was born. I cannot change that.”
“This is NOT how you were born.” My father, in a rare fit of temper picks up an antique vase that has been in the family for hundreds of years. Aims. Hurls it to the floor at my feet where it shatters into tiny pieces. We all wait. For the storm to pass over. For someone to save the ship from dashing on the rocks. My mother makes her move. Chooses her side. “You must go, Jaswinder.”
End of excerpt – JAZZ
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your thoughts on the Scribbler as well as the excerpt.
Next week on the Scribbler, we are happy to have Brandon Kidd of Guelph, Ontario as our Guest Author.