25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Magie Dominic

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Magie Dominic

Magie Dominic is a Newfoundland writer and artist living in New York. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications and her art has been exhibited in Toronto and New York. Magie's first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, was shortlisted for the Canadian Women?s Studies Award, ForeWord magazine?s Book of the Year Award and the Judy Grahn Award. Her latest memoir Street Angel (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) will be published on July 24.

Today, Magie speaks with Open Book about returning to her early days in Newfoundland, the importance of speaking your story and riding in a VW bus with Allen Ginsberg.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Street Angel.

Magie Dominic:

Margaret Atwood said in a 1995 lecture; ?If you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography -- but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.? At the risk of being accused of one or the other I wrote Street Angel, a memoir. Street Angel tells the story of a young girl in a Newfoundland fishing village in the 1950?s, and chronicles sixty years of a complex, secretive family.

The story begins in 1956. Patti Page and rock and roll are on the radio, and Ed Sullivan is on TV in black and white on Sunday nights. The Russians are sending dogs into space and the dogs have spacesuits and helmets. I?m eleven years old and in the back seat of my father?s blue Chevrolet, on my way to the home of my father?s brother and his wife, where I?ll care for their two baby boys for eight days.

The hamlet is the first time in my life that I?m away from what I call my mother?s affliction- her terror of darkness. My mother blocks doors with furniture, seals keyholes with face cloths, secures curtains with large safety pins, closes her eyes, places blankets over her head and lays motionless. But it?s never enough. She finds temporary solace during the day, alone in her garden, but she sees a terrifying world in the darkness. The hamlet represents my first time away from that world.

Part One chronicles the eight hamlet days and shows, through a series of flashbacks, how important those early years are in shaping who we become as we age and how time seems to speed up later on. The story touches upon the little streets we walk as a child and how those little streets are the universe. I live my life through the radio, Hollywood movies and the majesty of Newfoundland?s wilderness.

Several controversies are expressed in Street Angel including a mother?s hallucinations and schizophrenia; and the violence of the 1950s Catholic nuns towards the children who were put in their care. My mother is Scottish Presbyterian, and my father is Lebanese Catholic, making me, in the eyes of the nuns, the product of a ?mixed home? and one step away from living in sin.

The hamlet is an opportunity to think about my life for the very first time. My father?s dry goods store failed, he lost the store and our home and we were forced into the woods to survive and lived in a cabin for two years without electricity, heat, hot water, neighbours or any means of communication. During the cabin years I rode to school with the egg delivery man, in the egg truck. I spent a good deal of time roaming around in the woods, communing with wildlife. Children can quickly adapt to life?s changes, unlike adults who may struggle for years.

Part Two of Street Angel moves with quick brush-stroke chapters to the 1960s in New York with its unbelievable highs and lows, to the end of the seventies and eighties, to the end of the millennium in Toronto, to the present. Time plays a role as the story moves forward and back from the point of narration.

Street Angel chronicles sixty years of a complex, secretive family, in a story about violence, adolescence, families, solitude and forgiveness.


What prompted you to write a sequel to your first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room?


The Queen of Peace Room is very much based in the present ? a very specific detailed week at a secluded retreat house. The story is told from that vantage point, from my actual room, through flashbacks. The retreat, with twelve Catholic nuns in an isolated location, was a completely unplanned and unlikely event, but it was in that room that The Queen of Peace Room unfolded. Each room at the retreat house had its own name on a wooden plaque on the door. My room was called The Queen of Peace Room, and hence the book title.

Because The Queen of Peace Room is grounded in the present, and because I received some wonderful encouraging feedback about the book - it was nominated for three awards, I wanted to return and explore the early years in Newfoundland - the school years and home , which combined, are a child?s entire dominion. That?s our world as a child ? home and school. And the roads back and forth are the universe.

Street Angel, the sequel, is very much grounded in the 1950?s in Newfoundland. It travels to the present day but the foundation of the book is Newfoundland, 1950?s.

I believe memoir is personal knowledge of a particular time; a detailed account of specific events. If a person has enough material to work with, and has the energy and desire, I think a memoir can focus on one twenty-four hour period, one exceedingly long day with a very detailed account of how that tremendous day unfolded. Flannery O'Connor said ?Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.?

I wanted to write about the Newfoundland that I saw in the 1950?s - the absolute natural beauty of the island, the innocence of the people in small villages, horrific nuns who got away with murder ? figuratively speaking in my case, and my own secretive family. I wanted to write about the people who were around me at that time, people who were such a major and important part of my early years. I wanted to give voice to the vocabulary that I heard around me, and the raw magnificence of the island that was transforming and life shaping. So I guess that?s a very roundabout way of saying what prompted the sequel, Street Angel.

I have to add that the director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Brian Henderson, has been an unbelievable inspiration and source of encouragement since day one. I don?t think I could have written either book without his encouragement. So that was of paramount importance in wanting to write in the first place.


What research did you do to write your memoirs?


My research approaches to The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel were quite different.

The Queen of Peace Room unfolds at an isolated retreat house and addresses, among other concerns, issues of violence against women and children. I read a great deal about those subjects because I wanted to see how others were talking about their own experiences ? either as writers who had been subjected to violence themselves, or what people who worked with violence survivors were saying. That often gave me the courage to find my own words. The source of much of the material that finds its way into our writing is very often our own lives.

The Queen of Peace Room addresses my own experiences with incest, violence, rape and above all else ? hope and faith. Speaking the truth about violence can be transformative and I researched how that transformation manifested itself for others. I?m quoting Margaret Atwood here - ?The ability to remember the past helps us plan the future."

There is a belief that the retreat house where I wrote The Queen of Peace Room was built on a ley line. So I researched ley lines and their effects upon the physical land and the people residing on that land, and that?s an incredible subject in itself.

While researching for The Queen of Peace Room I came across frightening, dismissive statements regarding violence against women. One quote in particular stood out: ?Each time your husband beats you, think of it as an opportunity to be a little closer to God and the angels.? That was a piece of advice to women in an old Lutheran religious book.

There are two questions on the back cover of The Queen of Peace Room: ?What is memory, and where is it stored in the body? Can a room be symbolic of a lifetime??

The actual physical room, The Queen of Peace Room, was very symbolic of my life, and it was there, in that solitary room, that I dared to research my own memories - all of them, and not to condemn, but to bear witness.

Research for Street Angel took a very different approach.

Because the narrator of Street Angel is an eleven year old Newfoundland girl in the 1950?s, we see the world through her eyes - a mother?s hallucinations and violence, sadistic nuns, and a respite found in the radio, movies and wilderness.

Street Angel covers 70 years so I did quite a bit of research on world events because unlike The Queen of Peace Room which is grounded in one week in the 1990?s, Street Angel covers nearly three quarters of century.

There were pieces of music that were pivotal to me growing up, certain lines in a song that seemed to be a part of my life forever. I wanted to be accurate with that and with events as they were unfolding around me - the actual hour a murder took place in western Canada ? where would I have been at that actual moment, in Newfoundland, and in Newfoundland time.

Street Angel explores what we were being taught in school and how we were being taught in the 1950?s. I researched the history of the Catholic nuns in Newfoundland in the early forties and fifties and the accounts of violence against children who were put in their care. Conditions in orphanages were far worse than in schools, but school conditions were in many cases what would be considered criminal today. I was beaten with leather straps for over ten years, as were the other children. It?s difficult to make that real, but it was.

I researched what was happening in the hamlets along the coast and what was happening inside my home. My mother suffered from terrifying night time hallucinations. It was never treated, discussed, or acknowledged, but was something I lived with, in secret, all of my life. Many people have a fear of the dark because they fear for their personal safety, but my mother?s fears were unfounded. They didn?t exist anywhere but in her mind. She was terrified of something evil waiting outside the windows at night, or out in the hallway, or up on the roof. When my father was away I became her protector. I researched the stories of people who suffered from an irrational and severe fear of darkness, a condition called Nyctophobia. Nyctophobia is different from a fear of airplanes or clowns. Night can?t be avoided. There is always a night which follows day.

I researched early Newfoundland history and the Beothuck; how people made a living during some very difficult years ? the hungry years ? the depression. I researched music, early black and white TV programming, the 1950?s radio schedule. The radio was my lifeline as a child. I listened to everything - the news, the hit parade countdown on weekends, ?The Hour of St, Francis?, ?The Lone Ranger?, radio dramas, the shopping news and religious services on Sunday mornings. I have this memory of listening to a radio program about the 4-H Club. I searched every source I could find but I couldn?t find a shred of data supporting the memory so I had to omit it. It may have been part of an agricultural program from the mainland with a different program title.

I researched a time line spanning nearly seventy years - from 1950?s Newfoundland, to the end of the millennium in Toronto, to the present. And connecting it all, in a way, were radio, Hollywood movies and music - from Beothuck chants, to Newfoundland sea shanties, to Sinatra, Elvis and Joan Baez. There are pieces of music that will live in my mind forever. That?s probably true for most people.


Examining our memories - especially disturbing memories - can be profoundly unsettling. How do you take care of yourself while writing?


Writing can be easier if it?s broken into small pieces. I write fragments at first - a rough outline of what I want to write. I frame the story with a list of phrases. I don?t worry about the order in the beginning, I just write the phrases as they come to me, then add or delete. Combine and expand. I look at the outline, choose a section and begin to fill in the story section by section. Free writing is the easiest way to get words on paper.

I wrote a long autobiographical poem in the mid 1990?s titled notes from the cover. It was first published in ARC quarterly in Ottawa. The poem was the most difficult piece I?d ever written and I thought once I?d written the poem that?s all I?d have to say. I wanted to give voice to a story. It represented more than a half century of struggles and conflicts. Some were unpleasant, but a few were horrific.

notes from the cover was published about three months before I went on the isolated retreat and I took the quarterly with me. On one of the first afternoons, on the retreat house porch, the nuns were speaking about their missions in various parts of the world. I had the quarterly with me and one of the nuns asked me to read the poem. I?d never read the poem aloud at that point and as I got further into it, I completely lost my voice, it became less than a whisper, and I broke down. Speaking the words was physically impossible and I couldn?t continue. The nun sitting next to me reached over, gently took the book from my hand and completed the reading. The story was being voiced not only by me but by another. It was a seamless presentation and a very powerful moment. I felt as if I?d been encircled with love and protection, and by people I didn?t know, not even their last name - just Sister Mary or Sister Theresa, a number of names preceded by Sister.

It was on that day that I began writing what would become The Queen of Peace Room and the foundation unfolded itself with a furious speed, for eight days. And how that story unfolded is what the book, The Queen of Peace Room, portrays.

notes from the cover, I believe, was the unexpected precursor to both Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room. I had to write the poem before I could ever write the books. notes from the cover was the frame around both Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room. The poem represented the fragments and the list of phrases.

I advise writers who are tackling difficult stories to write small pieces at first, and then read excerpts to a few supportive people. You may not even want feed-back. You may just need to hear your own voice reading your own words. The sound of your own voice reading your own words is a powerful tool.

One summer weekend in 1965 or 1966 I was in a Volkswagen bus with Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg - Orlovsky was driving, and we were headed to a poetry festival in Pennsylvania. Ginsberg asked me along the way how often I read my poetry at readings. Whatever I answered, I can?t remember now, Ginsberg said that I had to read more. He said you can?t hear the poem on paper - if you want to understand it you have to read it out loud.

By telling our own stories we inspire others to do likewise. And conversely when we read or hear the stories of others we may understand ourselves a little more.

One summer a few years ago I gave a writing workshop in Toronto at a shelter for at-risk youth. There was one First Nation teen who refused to write. He wasn?t disruptive, he simply refused to write or participate. At the end of the session, I gave each of the teens a pen and a notebook so they could continue their writing. When I offered the pen and notebook to the boy he refused it. He said his people didn?t write stories. They spoke their stories. And he said it defiantly. I told him that I understood that, but I also knew that his people understood the importance of symbols. I told him that the pen and the paper were a gift from me but he didn?t have to use them. They were just symbols of stories and traditions. The ice melted and he began talking to the group about his very early years, his childhood experiences and his fears. He told his story in his own way, without pen and paper. That young boy had such an impact on me and I think I had an impact on him. Sometimes you just have to give a person a tool to work with. Sometimes a person just needs a symbol.

Some stories are like slaying a dragon, and slaying a dragon doesn?t come easily. Then, conclusively, a person?s story may be completely otherwise. A woman in one of my life writing workshops said, I don?t think I should be in a life writing workshop. Nothing bad ever happened to me. I told her that the very opposite was true, that the world desperately needed that story.

We each carry a lifetime of memories around with us. We don?t leave the memories behind when we enter a room. That?s what Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room are about. Those memories.


What advice do you have for writers who are trying to find a publisher?


I think there are a few essential words regarding the search for a publisher: proposal, audience, market research, and patience.

My advice is to first get the manuscript as tight as possible. If it?s an especially long piece I?d ask two or three friends to read the complete manuscript and to be extremely honest with input. You want honest, constructive advice. Fine tune what they say and incorporate what seems applicable. The point is to make the manuscript as tight and seamless as possible before submitting it. And make sure the manuscript is formatted properly. There are guides to manuscript formatting available on line.

A good book proposal is paramount. Few publishers will read a manuscript without first reading a book proposal and no agent will read a manuscript without first reading a book proposal. Some agents want a chapter-by-chapter outline as well. If possible, have everything ready before you query.

Define your audience - who will be reading your book. Know this in advance because you will be asked multiple times.

Research which publishers are publishing books of your genre. Research sources with good information ?Writers Market, The Writers? Union of Canada, Poets and Writers.

After you?ve submitted the manuscript be prepared to wait. It may take five or six months to just receive a reply. You?ll also have to decide if you?re going to wait until you find an agent, or go it alone. Don't give up and don't take rejection personally. If an excerpt stands on its own, submit it for publication with a magazine or quarterly. See how the story looks.

An important factor today, which didn?t exist 10 years ago, is the acceptance of email submissions. It saves an enormous amount of postage and paper. When I wrote The Queen of Peace Room I didn?t own a printer or have access to one. And I need to edit on a hard copy. I want to have the physical pages in my hand. I need to hear the sound of the pencil. So I?d go to a public library and print out a chapter a day. It wasn?t possible to print more than twenty pages, and even that amount was frowned upon. But each chapter in The Queen of Peace Room is under 20 pages so it worked out perfectly. Sometimes I?d go to two different libraries in one day and print a chapter at each branch and in one week I?d have a complete manuscript.

If you believe in your story don?t let anything stop you. I received rejection letters for three years before The Queen of Peace Room was accepted, but I was especially lucky because I was accepted by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. All the waiting paid off. Finding the right publisher is like striking gold. Wilfrid Laurier University Press is that gold.


What are you working on now?


I?m thinking now about a window of time between 1960 ? 1969. I touch on those years in Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room but I?d like to expand on the dichotomy. I?d like to expand on the ten years that I saw - the people and stories; the violence and creativity; the enormous joys and unbelievable tragedies; the amazing people I worked with and read with and experienced.

I was completely naïve when I left Newfoundland and went from the nuns, to Pittsburgh art school, to New York City in the explosive 1960?s, to stage managing Bette Midler and working with Bernadette Peters; from poetry readings with Peter Orlovsky and Moondog, riding in a VW bus with Allen Ginsberg, working with Tom Eyen, Sam Shepherd, Lanford Wilson, Joe Cino, John Guare and an endless list of people at a small caffe theater called The Caffe Cino. The Cino shaped who I am. No one had money; we pooled what we had or did without.

Those years for me were combined with the antiwar movement, with readings and demonstrations and conversations with Moondog, Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Diane do Prima, Andy Warhol and so many others; peace demonstrations, civil-rights marches, political poetry and walking beside thousands of men who looked like Jesus Himself. Vietnam. People had liquid codeine in one hand and brown rice in the other. I was an impostor for the television show, To Tell the Truth. I received the Langston Hughes Award for poetry, and saw people die on the street from heroin overdoses. Somewhere in there I worked for Air Canada and for an interior design showroom. I saw people out of their minds - barefoot on sidewalks. Howl came to life in front of me. I walked through the lines of Howl every day of my life, for years. I worked at the Lighthouse for the Blind and worked with blind children.

To look back on it now it seems like complete science-fiction ? except I have photo documentation! There?s a line in The Queen of Peace Room ? ?The sixties were like the wild wooly west. Anyone who denies it simply wasn't there?. It?s true, it was the Wild West. Anything was possible. Half a million people chanted peace in a field in upstate New York. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated. Anything that could possibly happen, happened. A man walked on the moon! I have to put my hands on top of my head when I think of the sixties, because if I don?t my head may explode. I?d like to write about that decade. About what I saw. That?s what I?m thinking about.

Magie Dominic, Newfoundland writer and artist, has long been active in the peace movement. Her essays and poetry have been published in over fifty anthologies and journals in Canada, the United States, Italy and India. Her artwork has been exhibited in Toronto and New York, including a presentation at the United Nations.

For more information about Street Angel please visit the Wilfrid Laurier University Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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