||Figures of Authority
by Irene Mock
YOU MIGHT think that for Cynthia Flood, who was born into a family of writers, it would be natural, even expected, that she become a writer herself. From an early age, she was trained to love literature, to admire it, to take pleasure in writing well. Indeed, as Flood remembers, "There was a lot of very good stuff in that household." But for her, the difficulty in becoming a serious writer had to do with gender. Even if her parents had not raised her "very definitely" to look for fulfilment in marriage, Flood learned from their example. Her father, the late historian Donald Creighton, was a prolific writer with a considerable reputation; her mother, Luella Creighton, a novelist who later penned children's stories, always put her writing second to her husband's.
"That's the way it was," says Flood, but she doesn't blame her parents. "They were prisoners of their time and place."
Still, it is evident that those years very much shaped the Vancouver writer. When asked at a workshop for the Kootenay School of Writing in Nelson, B.C., what advice she would give writers, Flood's answer was immediate and clear: "Write about what you dread. Write down what's upsetting, what's humiliating, what you don't want to see in print. You get that in a piece of fiction, it's going to drive it like a dynamo."
Flood speaks from experience, though just what she dreads, what drives her writing, is not always immediately evident. Take the title story of her recent collection My Father Took a Cake to France (Talonbooks, 1992), which earned her the prestigious journey Prize for short fiction in 1990. Reading the story, which moves back and forth over generations of family history, you sense something disturbing beneath the surface; but Flood works on the reader slowly. What emerges is a bittersweet portrait of a man very much like her father, whose presence in her life has been strong.
"I don't think it was an accident that I didn't write that story until he'd been dead six years," says Flood, relaxing over tea after the workshop. "That my father was a difficult man, not only to me, but to a great many people, was no secret. But until I wrote that story I didn't realize the degree to which he was affected by colonialism - thinking that Canada was second-rate compared with England. I didn't see that he was operating out of motives he didn't understand."
This remark reveals a basic theme that runs through Flood's writing: the individual life as illustrative of the ideology of a certain time and place. What interests her is how things play themselves out over a long period of time, how they repeat themselves in families, in generations. How are the personal and the political related?
That question occupies as central a place in Flood's fiction as in that of the three writers whose work helped her to formulate it: Margaret Laurence, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing. But these three writers came later, much later. Says Flood, now 52, "1 grew up late and came to see myself as a writer late." Her first book, The Animals in Their Elements (Talonbooks, 1987), did not appear until she was 47.
Flood found it difficult to grow up as the daughter of a wellknown Toronto literary figure. The experience is something she's still sorting out.
"It doesn't matter whether you live in a small town and you're the child of the mayor, or live in a big city. It's always difficult because there are questions of identity and being valued for yourself. I was of value insofar as I was related to this important person."
From the age of 11 until she was 13, Flood attended a boarding school in England. Here, for the first time, she became the watcher, observer, outsider, seeing herself as inferior - not for being female, but because she wasn't English. Looking back, she says she did not miss her parents, but she did miss Canada - the snow, Lake Muskoka, the Ontario landscape. "That time abroad was the beginning of a feeling that, yes, I can be on my own," she says.
Flood describes her years at university as "a script someone else provided." She graduated from the University of Toronto in 196 1, received a fellowship, and completed an M.A. in Berkeley, though she "could not get pen to go down on paper." She worked for nearly eight years in publishing, in San Francisco, New York, Toronto, and Montreal, meanwhile accumulating a drawer full of "messy, half-finished manuscripts."
In 1964, she met Maurice Flood, her future husband, an American conscientious objector, and by 1970 the couple found themselves in Vancouver, in the midst of intensive political activity. Both were active in the left; in addition, she became deeply involved in the women's movement, while he became a leader in the Canadian civilrights-for-gays movement. Here began what Flood calls her "second education" a different view of the world that did not replace the one with which she was raised, but enriched and modified it. These years were important to her training as a writer: "From my involvement with the left, the Trotskyist movement, I learned the strength of my convictions. From the women's movement, I learned how to be open to the convictions of others." Also in these years, Flood's daughters - now 19 and 16 - were born, and she began teaching in the English department at Langara College.
But there was a down side, too. The couple's activism brought sexual politics into the centre of their relationship, painfully. Under this and other stresses, the marriage fractured in 1981. "It was a good example of how people are not what they appear to be," Flood says. "In the last five years of my marriage I looked fine, had two lovely children, taught parttime, conducted a vigorous political life. It looked like I was doing it all quite well, yet it was a disaster."
Flood isn't exactly sure what took her back into her writing in her late 30s and early 40s. "All I know is that I was hungry for narrative, for story, not article or leaflet. I remember feeling, I need to do this. If I don't then I'll do myself some damage."
Not surprisingly, many of the stories in The Animals in Their Elements are about people deeply engaged in radical politics. Flood's characters are either young and looking forward, or old and looking back. What they have in common is that these appearances are deceptive. Flood breaks down stereotypes, even those one might expect from a "feminist" writer. In "Imperatives," a man befriending a child is mistakenly picked up by the police as her molester. In "Tabletalk," a victim of incest admits candidly, "What has caused me so much trouble in my adult life is that quite often I enjoyed it." In "Beatrice," a boy raised by a radical aunt becomes a conservative lawyer in "one of Toronto's more prestigious firms" without sacrificing his compassion.
For the aunt's character in the latter story, Flood drew upon "a composite of the many exceptional men and women in the Trotskyist movement, individuals with courage and tenacity, whose deep commitment was unusual in their society." Indeed, the mood in many of these stories is celebratory, optimistic. In some, such as "Roses are Red," in which an insensitive husband tries to take over a prenatal class, Flood's wit is trenchant. The Vancouver Sun reviewer wrote, "The excoriating satire ... is worth the price of the book to any woman who feels she is losing the right to control her reproductive functions." These stories also reveal Flood's developing interest in handling a variety of narrative techniques - a skill that still challenges her. About an early story, "Evelyn and Rosie," which describes a 40-year friendship, Flood remarks, "I tried a number of approaches - third person, first, omniscient - and I knew none of them worked. Then one day I was walking across a room when I suddenly realized, why, they can talk to each other!" Such breakthroughs in narrative viewpoint are evident in My Father Took a Cake to France. The title story is a good example. A gifted young Canadian student in London buys a cake for his fiancee in Paris. The story is told in the present tense by their asyet-unborn daughter. In one scene, she describes how he points out a cake:
He extends his fingers before him towards the glass case and moves them back and forth in the air as if composing, or running scales on the piano.
No, resentfully, he does not play the piano, although God knows he has the hands for it, long, broad, agile, because his sister got the childhood lessons for being just that: a sister. And what did she do with her training? What? Nothing. Nothing. Fifty years later, after my father's funeral, I learn from my aunt how she bowed, and willingly, to those terrible grinding loving pressures of family, and ... diverted carefully-saved funds into the channel marked "postgraduate education of gifted elder brother."
As the Books in Canada reviewer observed about the story, Flood "manages to distil the bitterness of a lifetime, gently excavating the shifting layers of oppression - social, intellectual, sexual, material - that lie beneath it." Excavating it's an apt metaphor for the manner in which the story was written. Says Flood: "I couldn't write it first page to last, because I didn't know where I was going. I tried to imagine under what circumstances he might have bought the cake, wrote that scene, then the others. In the end I had a loose collection, bits and pieces laid out on the table, and realized it was going to be going back and forth in time."
So, is the story postmodern? Flood laughs, says no, then: "What does the author know about what she has written? My stories are always surprising me. Take my story 'The Man, The Woman, and The Witch of New Orleans' [a playful spoof on sexual boredom in marriage]. When I found myself writing that, I said, Come on, you don't write stories about witches. But it's not a story about big, terrible events. The characters go away from home, learn to see things a bit differently than before - the classic journey story."
In other journeys in this collection, people discover that they have been wrong about who they thought they were. In "Gold, Silver, Ivory, Slate and Wood," Ray, an aging shoe salesman whose wife has multiple sclerosis, thinks he's always been the strong one, but on a retirement trip he learns how he leans on her. In "Bodies of Water," Charlie, a divorced father whose emotional life centres on his child, thinks he's been operating only out of love. When the boy takes his own name, Charlie feels a kind of "freeing up," realizing he and his son need to be separate, autonomous beings.
This story is one of Flood's favourites, since she feels strongly that the value children have for their parents is not talked about enough. "We're often redeemed by our children, she says, "in spite of what we've done." Often, but not always. At least two stories in the collection address this theme, with contrasting outcomes.
In "The Skein" a mother, obsessed by disturbing dreams and guilt because of hurts she may have unwittingly inflicted on her children, feels hopeful walking with her daughter, hand in hand, to create their own story. Yet in "A Life," Willa, to all appearances normal, repeatedly abuses her infant daughter, despite her parents' efforts to stop her.
Why? Flood shrugs. "You couldn't have a more wellmeaning and affectionate pair of parents. They raise that daughter according to every tenet of good parenting they know about. And it's all wrong. Willa's essentially a human Barbie Doll, and she goes nuts."
"A Life" is the book's most overtly political story. It is also the most tragic in the collection, striking a resounding note of pessimism and despair: does political activism change anything? This question underlies "Winter into Spring," whose protagonist, an aging activist-turned-academic named Deborah, most closely resembles Flood herself.
Flood comments: "Like Deborah, I don't want to consider the possibility that 25 years in the women's movement haven't made much of a difference. But I've teamed the importance of irony. I think it's as important as gravity. You have to look at the thought that what you've given your life to may not have achieved anything, but you go on doing it anyway."
Flood herself has found the balance between political activism and writing difficult. Although she says she has become "one of those people who give money instead of time," she doesn't know "how you ever stop being engaged." She was intensely involved in the protest against the Gulf War.
Flood's work has appeared in 10 anthologies, most recently in Streets of Attitude (winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 1991) and in Canadian Short Stories: Fifth Series, edited by Robert Weaver. Her fiction has been read on CBC Radio, and one story became part of the feature film Martha, Ruth and Edie, directed by Deepa Mehta in 1988.
Winning the journey Prize in 1990, Flood says, was a momentous event that threw her off balance. "I didn't know how to handle the sudden scrutiny of my life." She credits her partner of eight years, Dean Sinnett, a CBC Radio technician, with helping her to regain her steadiness. Thanks to the prize money she was able to "journey outside of North America for the first time in 30 years," travelling with Dean to Russia and Ireland.
Her current project - begun in 1990 - is a book of stories that come out of the years she spent in England as a child. She's not entirely sure of where she's going with the book, but with one child grown and the other nearly ready to leave home, a whole period of her life is coming to an end. In a way, she finds that thought quite liberating. Things will be possible that weren't before - not that, if she could do her life over, she would change anything.
"People often ask me," she says, "'Don't you think it's a shame that you wasted so much time in political activity and didn't start to write when you were younger?' and I want to tell them, it's not the kind of writer I am. I did those things for 15 years, and I really can't say that time was wasted."
Saying this, she reflects on her current project. "If this book comes to be - and I'm not sure yet how - it will explore a parallel between the imperial control of parents and other authority figures over children, and the colonial relationship between Britain and both Ireland and Canada." Sound like a huge undertaking? Flood sighs. "Yes, it's a big one, all swimming around in my mind." But the analogy feels important.
She says, "We live our individual lives, which are different from the lives of everyone around us, but we are also washed in the dominant ideology." Wryly, she adds, "The way clothes are washed in a washing machine."