Megan Gail Coles’s novel teaches us that love means we #BelieveWomen

‘Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,’ is an extraordinary debut novel set on Valentine’s Day in St. John’s during a blizzard.
(House of Anansi Press)

Linda M. Morra, Bishop’s University

If there are different kinds of love, then there are different kinds of novels too — and Megan Gail Coles’s Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, shortlisted for CBC’s annual battle of books, Canada Reads 2020, is the kind that’s best read as a tough-love pre-Valentine warning.

It’s just not a feel-good, heart-warming, Eat, Pray, Love kind of book, the type some reach for when in need of romantic inspiration.

Structured around three courses served, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day at a restaurant in St. John’s, NL, this book is divided into three acts, during which time it introduces — then makes plain the logic of connection between — several characters. The book then shows how their lives slowly and painfully unravel throughout the day.

If you bear in mind that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival Lupercalia, when women were paired off with men by way of a lottery, you will be closer to the mark in terms of what Coles’s novel is about and what it attempts to achieve.

She assumes an “uncomfortable” approach to her subject, to call to attention what it means to be a disempowered subject — as a woman often is.

In my research, I’ve examined how public institutions and regulatory bodies approached the archival materials of different women writers in Canada: E. Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule and M. NourbeSe Philip, as examples. Their interactions show how early 20th-century women’s voices were often suppressed because of sexist, racist or heteronormative tendencies, and their narratives susceptible to disappearing.

And because, to be frank, it is often uncomfortable to hear what women’s lives have to say.

Read more:
Playing detective with Canada’s female literary past

Invigorating anger

Megan Gail Coles arrives on the red carpet before the Giller Awards gala ceremony in Toronto in November 2019.

Coles’s extraordinary debut novel, however, moves well past discomfort, tentative attempts at self-scrutiny and accountability, and calls for forgiveness. Forget discomfort: depending on how you identify and on your experiences, this novel could elicit either deep mortification or an invigorating anger that blazes, at moments, into real rage.

Before I explain the logic for my own emotional response, allow me also to add that this novel, a 2019 Scotiabank Giller finalist, is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who thinks their heart (or moral courage) is feeble should probably move along. Go on, find an Elizabeth Gilbert book to curl up with instead.

Or train your heart to be prepared for the emotional wreckage.

Charged blizzard

The novel’s narrative shifts from one point of view to another, revealing intersections between characters and carefully mapping the place, its social networks and divides, manifested in class, urban-rural and racialized identities that converge and then clash in the restaurant’s highly charged atmosphere.

In its evocations of Newfoundland, Coles has located herself among a vibrant tradition of writers, including Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Donna Morrissey. Each of these writers takes on the people and sense of place in unique ways, and Coles adds a dazzling new voice.

In the novel, a blizzard is also a form of pathetic fallacy. St. John’s is seen here in January 2020.

The conflict is set against a blizzard — a nod to the St. John’s climate, but also a form of pathetic fallacy, mirroring the internal strife of several characters. Their growing bitterness and trauma mean they make decisions, usually bad ones, that give rise to the novel’s mounting tensions.

The novel opens with the warning that “this might hurt a little” (thank you, Megan), but this is polite understatement. The first few pages belie the warning and read as deliciously irreverent, as if someone pushed the Maritimes’ Anne of Green Gables into a mud puddle.

Increasingly, however, the tone shifts, ultimately transforming into a thorny, visceral, unrelenting narrative, somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s writing — one that does not shirk from disclosing the brutal realities of what it means to be a vulnerable woman in contemporary western society.


Being a “vulnerable woman” in this book is a redundancy, since it really is a question of degree; however, there are women who are more vulnerable and suffer more than others.

Take Iris, the central female character. She works at the restaurant to overcome obstacles, particularly financial ones, that prevent her from pursuing her studies as an artist — but those obstacles also include familial traumas. Mulling over scientific data about “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or “ACES,” she dryly notes that she “has a pocket full” of them and later that the existing moment is “the worst hand she has ever been dealt.”

That “pocket full” does not portend a good outcome; rather, she is “snarled” by John Fisher, the chef and her boss, a predator who, “like an angry rival fisher,” “reels” her in “hand over fist over hand over fist.” His apparent emotional offerings are a pretence, just out of reach of Iris’s grasping hands.“

Coles’ compassion and scathing judgement often vie for centre stage, never quite cancelling the other out. You may wish, for example, to judge George, whose class, racialized white privilege and protective father shield her (yes, her) from those who prey on the vulnerabilities of women like Iris, and whose selfish, self-absorbed tendencies are less than charming.

But the moment you may feel tempted to judge her too far — and she does warrant some — Coles reminds you that George too wrestles with being identified as a “pathetic childless woman” who does “the backbreaking emotional labour of two humans:” her own and her husband’s, incidentally a member of the metaphorical “local coward gun club” to which the title alludes.

These characters may be flawed, but the writing is not. The polyphony of voices is animated and remarkable. The prose is fresh, street-smart and savvy — taking clichés and even mashing these back into proper service as poetry.

Critical conversations

The narrative is timely, in view of the recent debacles and critical conversations that have surfaced in relation to the #MeToo movement, what it means to #BelieveWomen or those that inform the field of CanLit.

‘Refuse: Canlit in Ruins,’ edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak and Erin Wunker.
(Book*hug Press)

As an example, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins addresses the controversies that have animated the literary scene, and tackles gritty issues like rape culture and forms of domination and exploitation. Increasingly, we are all being invited to consider the responsibilities and connections we need to assume in the face of disclosures women make about their life stories.

One character, Olive, a young Indigenous woman, is directly asked at the novel’s outset: “So who are your relations?” Even as she comes to embody the resilience of women — their agency in times of chaos — the novel suggests readers consider that question, over and over again.

The Local Coward Gun Club fearlessly counters assumptions about sex, gender, class and racialized privilege about intersectional narratives, and demands that we look full in the face at the ways and number of times women and others have been injured; the number of times they have been disavowed when they have asked for help; the number of times they have been ignored, victimized or blamed instead of being supported.

The novel will demand that you, the reader, be accountable.The Conversation

Linda M. Morra, Full Professor of English, Bishop’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A must-read list: The enduring contributions of African American women writers

Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are on this short list of enduring must-read writers.
Left to right: Nobel Prize, U.S. Library of Congress, Yale archive

Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba

In Mules and Men (1935), anthropologist, creative writer and Harlem Renaissance upstart Zora Neale Hurston relays the evocative folktale “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” Fatigued after the work of Creation, God casts a massive bundle onto the earth. Intrigued by the mysterious object, a white Southern woman during the antebellum era asks her husband to retrieve it. Reluctant to tote the load himself, the master instructs a slave to fetch it.

Soon wearied of the task, the slave then commands his wife to shoulder the burden. She does so, excited at the prospect of exploring the contents. When she opens the package, however, what leaps out at her and Black women for all posterity is none other than hard work.

Ann Petry (right) was interviewed after she won a fiction award for ‘The Street.’
All-American news 4 / All American news IV / All-American news reel no. 4/Library of Congress

African American women writers have tackled the hard work of representing a diverse spectrum of lived and imagined experiences, including and especially their own. This labour occurs against the backdrop of centuries-long struggles with racist oppression and gender-based violence, including — but not limited to — slavery’s culture of endemic rape, forced or interrupted motherhood, infanticide, concubinage, fractured families and egregious physical and mental abuse.

Hard work as groundwork

Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalls in his 1845 slave narrative how witnessing the serial whippings of his Aunt Hester impacted him “with awful force.” He explains, “it was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.”

These ordeals also emerge in slave narratives by women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) emphasizes such travails. A target of relentless sexual harassment by her much-older master, Jacobs laments, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Once emancipated, African American women still faced staggering impediments when pursuing educational, entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Political participation meant restrictions on voting rights both as women and as people of colour. Racist caricatures impugned everything from a woman’s intelligence and moral capacity to her skin color, texture of hair and body shape. Stereotypes like the docile Mammy, the Tragic Mulatta, the clownish Topsy, the oversexed Jezebel, the greedy Welfare Queen, the amoral Hoodrat and the Mad Black Woman (still prevalent today) remain testaments to a history of disrespect and erasure.

Hurston’s tale symbolizes the enduring social struggles Black women have faced living in what feminist critic bell hooks has termed white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In addition to influential autobiographers like Maya Angelou, dramatists like Lorraine Hansberry and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, fiction writers have consistently demonstrated how imaginative art can simultaneously inform, persuade, entertain, catalyze social change and address individual as well as collective concerns.

Here is a short list of pivotal texts by African American women from the past century. These writers are but a small sample of the artists and intellectuals whose output resisted the force of what contemporary feminist critic Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir, or the corrosive fusion of anti-Blackness and misogyny prevalent in popular culture today. These women have completed the groundwork — and hard work — of envisioning a more just, inclusive society going forward.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

These novellas follow mixed-race women whose uneasy status on the colour line (including the lure of passing as white) complicates their lives in dangerous, even fatal ways. Passing is revolutionary for its depiction of homoerotic tension between two upper-middle-class Black women. Quicksand offers insight into the exoticization of African American women abroad and the contest between art and domesticity as viable avenues for a fulfilling life.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

This story is the lyrical account of thrice-married Janie Crawford who finds a mature vision of love and fulfillment amid incessant gossip and a difficult family history. The all-Black township of Eatonville, Fla., and the rich “muck” of the Everglades contribute to a portrait of community health, daily striving and resolute self-awareness.

The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

This social realist novel follows single mother Lutie Johnson as she attempts to make a life for her young son in a predatory urban space. Weathering sexism, racism, classism, poverty and intense personal frustration, Lutie attempts to resist the brutality of the environment that gives the novel its loaded name.

The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

This book is a searing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age and eventual undoing in the years following the Great Depression. Tumultuous family dynamics, psychological trauma and incest, the quest for compassion and self-love, and the toxic myth of Black ugliness coalesce in this first novel by the Nobel Laureate and author of neo-slave narrative Beloved (1987).

Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler

Oscillating between the 1970s and the early 19th century, this science fiction odyssey (re)connects a contemporary Black woman writer and her white husband with her ancestors on a Maryland plantation. The novel is buoyed up by the dramatic tension of time travel and the juxtaposition of the pre-civil War Antebellum-era with Civil Rights-era racial attitudes, including those about interracial love and allyship.

The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Structured like a narrative quilt, these interconnected experiences of seven women span different generations, professions, class backgrounds and understandings of their place in the world. The eroded apartment complex that links them is the backdrop for unbearable pain as well as the promise of transformation and reconciliation.

The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

A tale of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, this novel constellates their love and longing via letters and imagined conversations across the Atlantic. Unsparing in its critique of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, yet tender in its treatment of various human weaknesses, the novel underscores Black women’s need for self-regard and mutual care. Not only are these acts revolutionary, but they also offer a glimpse of the divine.The Conversation

Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Feminisms and Gender-Based Violence, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America’s postwar fling with romance comics

With over 100 issues, ‘Young Love’ was one of the longest running romance comics series.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Michael C. Weisenburg, University of South Carolina

Last year, comic book enthusiast Gary Watson donated his massive personal collection to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

As the reference and instruction librarian, I’m tasked with getting to know the collection so I can exhibit parts of it and use the materials for teaching. One of the great pleasures of assessing and cataloging Watson’s collection has been learning about how comic books have changed over time. Sifting through Watson’s vast collection of 140,000-plus comics, I’m able to see the genre’s entire trajectory.

Before World War II, superheroes were all the rage. Reflecting anxieties over the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the march to war, readers yearned for mythical figures who would defend the disenfranchised and uphold liberal democratic ideals.

Once the war ended, the content of comic books started to change. Superheroes gradually fell out of fashion and a proliferation of genres emerged. Some, such as Westerns, offered readers a nostalgic fantasy of a pre-industrial America. Others, like true crime and horror, hooked readers with their lurid tales, while science fiction comics appealed to the wonders of technological advancement and trepidation about where it might lead us.

But there was also a brief period when the medium was dominated by the romance genre.

Grounded in artistic and narrative realism, romance comics were remarkably different from their superhero and sci-fi peers. While the post-war popularity of romance comics only lasted a few years, these love stories ended up actually having a strong influence on other genres.

Romance comics’ origin story

Though today they are most famous for creating “Captain America,” the creative duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launched the romance comic book genre in 1947 with the publication of a series called “Young Romance.”

Teen comedy series like “Archie” had been around for a few years and occasionally had romantic story lines and subplots. Romance pulps and true confession magazines had been around for decades.

But a comic dedicated to telling romantic stories hadn’t been done before. With the phrase “Designed for the More Adult Readers of Comics” printed on the cover, Simon and Kirby signaled a deliberate shift in expectations of what a comic could be.

While most scholars have argued that romance comics tend to reinforce conservative values – making marriage the ultimate goal for women and placing family and middle-class stability on a pedestal – the real pleasure of reading these books came from the mildly scandalous behavior of their characters and the untoward plots that the narratives were ostensibly warning against. With titles like “I Was a Pick-Up!,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “The Plight of the Suspicious Bridegroom,” “Young Romance” and its sister titles quickly sold out of their original print runs and began outselling other comics genres.

Issue #1 of ‘Teen-Age Romances’ (St. John, 1949).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Other publishers noticed the popularity of the genre and followed suit with their own romance titles, most of which closely followed Simon and Kirby’s style and structure. By 1950, about 1 in 5 of all comic books were romance comics, with almost 150 romance titles being sold by over 20 publishers.

The rage for all things romance was so sudden that publishers eager to take advantage of the new market altered titles and even content in order to save on second-class postage permits. Second-class or periodical postage is a reduced rate that publishers can use to save on the cost of mailing to recipients. Rather than apply for new permits every time they tested a new title, comics publishers would simply alter a failing title while retaining the issue numbering in order to keep using the preexisting permit. To comics historians, this is a telltale sign that the industry is undergoing a sudden change.

One striking example of this is when comics publisher Fawcett ended its failing superhero comic “Captain Midnight” in 1948 with issue #67 and launched its new title, “Sweethearts,” in issue #68. In this case, the death of a superhero comic became the birth of a romance comic.

Issue #3 of ‘Bride’s Romances’ (Quality Comics, 1953).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

With so many new titles flooding newsstands and department stores, the bubble was bound to burst. In what comic book historian Michelle Nolan has dubbed “the love glut,” 1950 and 1951 witnessed a rapid boom and bust of the romance genre. Many romance titles were canceled by the mid-1950s, even as stalwarts of the genre, such as “Young Romance,” remained in print into the mid-1970s.

There was the brief popularity of the sub-genre of gothic romance comics in the 1970s – series with names like “The Sinister House of Secret Love” and “The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.” But romance comics would never approach their brief, postwar peak.

Gothic romances – like this issue of ‘The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love’ – had a brief run in the 1970s.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

A brief boom, an enduring influence

Among collectors, issues of romance comics are less sought after than those of other genres. For this reason, they tend to go under the radar.

Romance comics, however, featured work by pioneering artists like Lily Renée and Matt Baker, both of whom worked on first issue of “Teen-Age Romances” in 1949.

Baker is the first-known black artist to work in the comic book industry and Renée was one of comics’ first female artists. Prior to working on “Teen-Age Romances,” they both drew “good girl art” – a set of artistic tropes borrowed from pinups and pulp magazines – for several titles. Their work in both genres exemplifies how earlier pulp magazine themes of desire and seduction could readily be applied to newer genres.

‘But He’s the Boy I Love’ was one of the few romance comic to feature black characters.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

After the “love glut,” sub-genre mashups nonetheless emerged. For example, cowboy romances were briefly popular. Later, in response to the civil rights movement, Marvel published the 1970 story “But He’s the Boy I Love,” which was the first story in a romance comic to feature African-American characters since Fawcett’s three-issue run of “Negro Romance” in 1950.

Even after romance comics largely fell out of fashion, the genre’s visual tropes and narrative themes became more prevalent during what’s known as the “Silver Age,” a superhero revival that lasted from 1956 to 1970. Titles such as “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane” often borrowed heavily from romance for their plots to generate intrigue and tension in the hopes of driving up sales.

Issue 89, in which Lois marries Bruce Wayne, is a prime example of such marketing techniques. Issues such as these were often situated as “what if” narratives that offered readers speculative story lines, such as “What if Lois Lane married Bruce Wayne?” Though they’re generally thought of as separate from the superhero canon, these love stories show that comic book writers had internalized the main narrative techniques of romance comics even if the genre itself was in decline.

But other comics didn’t merely use romantic themes for the occasional gimmick issue. Instead, they made the love lives of their characters a central plot point and a fundamental aspect of their characters’ identities. Comics such as the “Fantastic Four” and the “X-Men” rely heavily on the heated emotions and jealousies found in group dynamics and love triangles.

Take Wolverine. Presumably tough and stoic, he’s so enamored of Jean Grey – and so envious of her love interest, Scott Summers – that you could argue that unrequited love is one of his primary motivations throughout the series.

Thanks to romance comics, even stoic superheroes got bitten by the love bug.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]The Conversation

Michael C. Weisenburg, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.