In Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies (BookThug) Margaret Christakos blends multiple genres to tackle the big subjects — family, sex, parenthood, divorce, and more. The book, written in ten sections, comes together as a love letter to Christakos' own mother and daughter, encompassing the contradictory, powerful, and sometimes bizarre experiences of life as a woman. Her Paraphernalia has been called "an honest, beautifully written read about love, loss, familial relationships and everything in between".
We're pleased to welcome Margaret to the site today to talk about Her Paraphernalia as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we ask seven questions about a writer's latest book, writing process, and more.
Margaret tells us about how writing the book guided her through a series of personal losses, schools us on the evolution of the selfie, and digs into the root of the word "paraphernalia", proving why it's such a slyly clever title.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
As a poet, for many years I’d been interested in private and public address, and in the confessional poetics of feminist disclosure. After nine books of poetry and a novel, I wanted to turn back toward non-fiction. I think I needed the form of prose narrative to help make my way through a number of private losses: In 2012, my father had died, my marriage was ending, my three children were entering their later teens and I was having a hot flash about every two hours. My mom suffered a stroke and lost much of her language capacity, so we began to communicate with touch and facial expressions a lot more. This made me consider our physical, umbilical connection and the sense I’d lacked of a primary continuity among my own body and the women of my “motherlines.”
Turning fifty meant sensing some of those caregiving sandwich pressures and sexual invisibilities women talk about at midlife, as well as examining this stage of my life as a woman artist. At the same time my daughter was turning fifteen, and social media was bursting with the selfie. It seemed a narcissistic mania! But snooping on the profile pages of some of the young women I knew, I began to see that some of these girls weren’t full of themselves or collapsing under the weight of their peers’ judgement. Quite the contrary: Some of them were becoming sophisticated photographers enacting something like Cindy Sherman’s photo practice: they were loosening away from the rigor mortis of needing to appear only one perfect way in public, developing a sense of humour, costume, irony and a much more diversified personality in their appearances.
I considered the self-awareness of my own grandmothers, who at the age of about 15 had each arrived in northern Ontario with only a handful of photographs of themselves — one of them a “picture bride.” I wanted to comprehend more of their inner worlds, and their mothers’ worlds, as they became women who each encountered a fair bit of reproductive loss. Enabled by a Chalmers grant, I took an extended research trip to the villages where they’d each been born, one in Kyparissi, on the eastern coast of the Greek Pelopennese, and one in Radstock in the Somersetshire area of England. Some of the new book comprises writing I did while on these two months of solo travel, but it rollicks against the travelogue genre.
So, numerous midlife shifts and losses were converging, and offered me time to focus upon creative memoir. Her Paraphernalia has ten distinct sections, some prose about my mother’s body, some poetry about digital-serf-girl Siri, thoughts on midlife sex and online dating, reflections on my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ lives, and memories of blood — giving birth to my twins, having miscarriages, witnessing my kids’ minor injuries and the last periods I had. It also contains some of my own cellphone selfies (cellphies!) as well as other images that act as visual poems, where I explore the reproductive continuities and discontinuities among women in my family using digital image layering and recombining.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
As a woman, the question became “Am I fifteen or fifty?” When your parents pass, you also confront your basic attitudes about mortality. So deeper questions arose, like “Do I exist?”, and “How do I exist?” For me what composes existence is writing, above all, and so creating a book at this juncture seemed like a way to move toward the future.
I’d always thought “paraphernalia” referred to nameless jumble of junk, but it turns out the root word is the Greek parapherna, meaning “property apart from a dowry.” As someone helpless before puns and anagrams, I found the presence of the word “her” inside this notion a real engine of asking very closely what I could consider my own, in the world, in my self, distinct from patriarchal frames.
I also found I was asking how to touch the other women I have descended from and to carry their meanings and stories through to my daughter and future generations. The question became “What connects us?” I was trying to find the materiality of matrilineal touch through which a kind of umbilical imagery could become solidly internalized in my own experience.
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
Five years. Many of my books have taken about five years, often overlapping. This one was unusual though, in how it defied summing up or steering. Along the way I read Greek tragedy and thought about mothers needing to rescue their abducted daughters. I was also exposed to the northern Ontario health care machine with its immense lack of resources for people with brain injury and severe paraphasia, a reality that simply must change. Because life feeds art, my relationship to language and the idea of foreign speech was incredibly stimulated, and over the course of writing this book I also produced a book of poetry called Multitudes (Coach House, 2013) in which I worked with folding units of speech inside out and generating multidirectional poem series. I also played with Facebook status updates, face recognition surveillance, and plurality across poetics communities.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need silence and activity at the same time. Some form of wind is the best instrument for me. Plus pads of paper, pens, a laptop, a library, and a cellphone. I also need an income, like all writers, and the juggle to both write and do other forms of work is challenging. This fall and winter I will be Canada Council Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario, so for eight months I have the great luxury of a writing context that will be remarkably supportive.
What do you do if you’re feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Sometimes it’s uphill, yes, but I face the same sort of thing on a bike. I’m terrible staying on the saddle on an incline. I get off and walk the bike up to the next level, hop on the seat, and resume pedalling. During the writing of Her Paraphernalia there was a rather long stretch where I couldn’t write at all due to intense grief, and I tried to get through it by writing about the impossibility of writing. It seemed to move me up to the next plateau.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I have a love and intense interest in how words can migrate on the page, and between pages, and how texts can encompass pauses and silences. I like the interlacing of history and identity, and visual design elements that make me move across a book’s parts. M. NourbeSe Philip‘s Zong, Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found are three poetry books that I think are great: sparse yet full, brilliant, deeply political and personal and multidirectional. I go back to them all the time, entering them at many different points.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on flowing from life writing back into fiction. It’s a novel called L’s Wake, about a bereaved construction worker who wants to remain erect long enough to cause his own death. I’m writing it as a continuous walking narrative, and it requires me to move through real city spaces to find the fictional map he makes for himself while his spouse’s voice flits through his walking. I love meandering so it gets my writing outside too.
Canadian writer Margaret Christakos has published nine collections of poetry, including Multitudes (2013), Welling (2010; A Globe100 book), Sooner (2005; a Pat Lowther Memorial Award nominee), and Excessive Love Prostheses (2002; winner of a ReLit Award), as well as a novel, Charisma (2000; a Trillium Book Award nominee). Christakos designed and facilitated Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon from 2006 to 2012 and was Canada Council Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor (2004–05).
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.