A Show of Hands

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Reason, the ability to use tools, and opposable thumbs are, possibly, what separate us from the animals. If my cats suddenly develop any combination of these, I’ll either have fewer broken lamps or some sort of coup d’cat on my hands. That aside, how often do we think about our hands, really? Each one has nineteen bones and a network of muscles and tendons (and one opposable thumb each) which allow us, amongst a myriad of tasks, to thread a needle, write a book, play piano, and share language. Hands are remarkable products of evolution and part of the reason humankind has been able to get this far without the cats taking over.

This little diatribe leads me, by way of fingers on a keyboard, to articulate some thoughts about our most recent Morris House Reading Series guest, author Frances Itani and two of her novels. Recipient of more awards and honours than my word count will allow, she is, of course, a very fine author and was kind enough to read from two of her novels: Deafening about of a young girl who, in the years leading up to the Great War, loses her hearing, and Requiem, which, at its heart, is the story of a family coming to terms with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Now, I am compelled to mention that, as with previous Morris House author, Katrina Best, I didn’t have much time to get caught up on the material beforehand. Still, I stuck to my resolution not to get in a state about it, so I took a seat, folded my hands, and listened closely.

Itani’s chosen excerpt from Deafening was about a young girl named Grania, who, in lieu of her voice, struggles with sign language and the outsider status her difficulties involve. Itani’s reading from Requiem was about a father and son, outsiders in their own country, and a ritual of practising Beethoven on a plank of wood in lieu of a piano. What struck me about these two passages, side by side, was the intense emphasis on hands and fingers as tools of voice and tools of art. Requiem bore a particularly brutal poetry with images of fingers bearing down on dry unrelenting wood or the sharp, mending tug of needle and thread on a split thumb. Deafening’s imagery, although less harsh, was no less effective in its description of the physicality involved in shaping each letter, each word by hand:  an act of will and persistence to find a voice and be heard. Both novels share in common a raw and beautiful nerve, a tether from mind to hand to page.

Writing is a labour both mental and physical. According to Itani, Requiem alone took four years to complete. The characters in Requiem and Deafening, Itani insisted, are not based on specific people, but it’s not unfathomable that they were crafted in very personal spaces in Itani’s life: she was and is intimately acquainted with people affected by deafness and the Japanese internment.  It’s not difficult to imagine her fingers guiding a pen or dancing across a keyboard, tapping out a kind of symphony, each letter a note, each note a letter to those people, acknowledging and amplifying their voices. I’m no novelist but just writing this humble blog entry requires a reasonable effort–especially if I use jokes (more so, if they’re meant to be funny). I’m a fairly new writer, still raw, still trying to find a voice.  If I’m to say anything worthwhile and be heard, Itani reminded me I need to keep my fingers moving because some stories are relentless and demand to be told. That being the case, I may need to keep the cats and their little needle claws out of here. They’re also pretty demanding and if they can figure out this computer the next blog post may be some sort of Catnip Manifesto.

-Jeff Parent

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