Writer in Residence

On Kindness, and Generosity

By Jessica Westhead

The Toronto literary community has recently lost two very bright lights, mourning the deaths of Priscila Uppal and Ann Ireland.

Though I didn’t know either Ann or Priscila all that well, I feel fortunate to have been in the orbits of both of these warm, wonderful writers, and I’m so sad that they’re gone. My heartfelt condolences go out to their family and close friends.

I had the pleasure of seeing Priscila at many literary events over the years, and she was always a radiant, joyful presence in any room she was in. She was incredibly supportive of other writers, including me. My husband Derek and I also fondly recall attending a few fantastic parties that Priscila threw at her home with poet Christopher Doda, her former long-time partner. I remember happy faces, the dining-room table heaped with delicious food, plenty of free-flowing booze, great conversation, and twinkling lights. I remember Derek and I being welcomed by Priscila and Chris and feeling immediately comfortable in their house full of strangers, who didn’t remain strangers for long because Priscila was such a thoughtful and attentive host, constantly introducing people (including many of her writing students, whom she always introduced with exuberance, genuine affection, and respect) and making all of her guests feel valued and cared-for.

I have the impression that Ann was a more private person, but she was just as cheerful, encouraging, and approachable as Priscila was. She was my neighbour, and for years before we ever really got to know each other, she always had an enormous grin for me and my family whenever we’d see her out walking, and always waved from her porch if she was lounging there when we passed by. I felt “seen” by her, and acknowledged for being a fellow writer, and that meant so much to me. I was looking forward to getting to know Ann much better, as we were going to be working at Ryerson together. It’s thanks to her and her mentorship that I’ll be starting as an instructor there. But now I miss her. This past May, my husband and daughter and I attended the launch party at Queen Books for Ann’s latest novel, Where’s Bob? The bookstore was packed with family and friends and fans and colleagues, and buzzing with positive energy. Ann stood at the centre of it all, beaming and greeting everyone, thanking them for being there. Making them feel seen, and appreciated.

Priscila and Ann were both extremely talented, accomplished writers and gifted teachers. But so many people who knew them have also been speaking about their outstanding kindness and generosity of spirit. These qualities are so important. They’re essential. We need to be kind to each other, especially now. We need to support and encourage our fellow writers—raise each other up and cheer each other on, and help each other succeed. Ann and Priscila made the world a brighter, friendlier place, and without them now, we’ll need to work that much harder at being good to each other.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jessica Westhead's short stories have appeared in major literary magazines including HazlittFive DialsRoomMaisonneuveMatrixGeistThe New Quarterly, and Indiana Review. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for a Journey Prize anthology, and nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her chapbook Those Girls was published by Greenboathouse Books in 2006. Her novel Pulpy & Midge, published by Coach House Books in 2007, was nominated for a ReLit Award. Her critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks, published by Cormorant Books in 2011, was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, a nominee for the CBC Bookie Awards and a ReLit Award, one of Kobo's Best Ebooks of 2011, and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize. CBC Books has called her one of the "10 Canadian women writers you need to read now." Jessica lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.