Angela Pelster is the author of Limber, a collection of essays that explores the history of her home country, Canada, as well as sustainability, justice and the margins and trees. The winner of a Golden Eagle Children’s Choice award, Pelster is a 2012 graduate of UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program — where we were colleagues — and an assistant professor of English at Towson University in Baltimore. Pelster returns to Iowa City on April 3 to read at Mission Creek Festival, where her book will be released during Sarabande Books’ 20th Anniversary reading at Prairie Lights. She took some time to answer a few questions about Limber and the themes that it touches on, including violence, love and her relationship with religion.
Little Village: “What leaves should I twist in my hair to keep safe?,” the narrator asks in “Ethan Lockwood,” Limber’s fourth essay. More indirectly expressed variations of that question hover around the book from the very first page of “Les Oiseaux”—a menacingly-titled, page-and-a-half-long overture that introduces almost all of the work’s major themes: the cyclical essence of existence, sustainable consumption, [human] nature and violence against women and girls.
The beauty of the essay’s economy was notable on the first read, but, on my second read, I was struck by how thematically comprehensive it was while still remaining so subtle and brief. At what point in your drafting of Limber did you write “Les Oiseaux”? Did you realize toward the end of the process that you needed an essay to serve this purpose or was its creation more of a happy accident?
Angela Pelster: I wrote a version of “Les Oiseaux” years before I began working on Limber. The experience of watching a flock of cedar waxwings raid the backyard one winter afternoon, while also seeming to be responsible for changing the radio station, was something I wanted to record. But the first version of the essay was softer and didn’t include the part about the murdered girl—it was more of a strict meditation on the strangeness of the world. After I wrote the last essay in Limber (which came quite late in the process), I realized that I wanted to bookend the collection with short pieces that allowed for violence and magic to coexist. And then I remembered “Les Oiseaux.” It was strange to return to something I’d written so many years before and realize that I had, in essence, been working on these ideas long before I realized what they would become.
LV: In that same essay, the narrator acknowledges the limits of her understanding of the natural world—“I do not know if [trees] communicate with birds”—while also asserting that those very limits—“in a world where all manner of unimaginable things happen in places seen and unseen”—leave space for everything from the miraculously sublime to the terribly horrific to occur. Limber seems concerned with space—its internal and external contours, its properties, who thinks they can own it, etc.—and that concern seems inextricably tied to its conception and embodiment of faith. I feel like there’s something radical—still!—about a female-identified narrator choosing to “cherry-pick” her faith in an effort that seems to be, for her, “the most responsible way to live out a faith.”
AP: I have a pretty complicated relationship with the Christian church. I suspect that if there were some kind of written test about what we believed before entering, I wouldn’t be asked to join the club. I’m alright with that.
I was raised in the church, and despite the grief it sometimes brings, that is still the way I choose to interpret the force that put me here. I suspect that if I were born a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist, it would be the same thing. I am also alright with that.
I think it would help a lot of us out if Christian churches stopped preaching sermons on Sunday mornings and instead offered history lessons. We live within such a small piece of time, a dot on the long story of the evolution of faith, and mostly, we know nothing. We are guessing at the ways in which God moves in the world and how best to live that out. We are selfish and blind and power-hungry, and so, sometimes we have gotten things very wrong—First Nations residential schools, marriage equality, women’s rights, etc. But the take-away for me in the story of Christianity is love. Everything rests on love—of self, of others, all creatures, the planet—and it seems reasonable and responsible that when the institution that I associate with acts out of step with love, then it’s my job to reject that. It feels much simpler to make these choices now. When I was younger, I was afraid that I was being arrogant when I stood in opposition to what the majority was teaching, but there came a point when I realized that if I was going to be wrong about something, I’d rather be wrong about love than hate. And that was incredibly freeing and exciting and faith-sustaining.
LV: Word. Because I think the narrator’s assertion that she is “still only interested in hearing about love” is not a sign of some poorly considered, Pollyanna-ish construction of reality. Limber devotes a lot of space to thinking about the ways in which human beings—as white colonialist settlers, as capitalist energy companies, as parents, as predators, as corporeal extensions of systems of structural oppression—consistently harm each other and this planet. One of the first questions I jotted down on my first reading of the text, when I got to page six, was “How does one protect women and girls in a world that is mind-bogglingly dangerous, in all sorts of ways from micro-aggressive to fatal, while still giving them the space to grow and be fearless and strong?” I think what prompted that was the juxtaposition of your dedication (to your mom), the radio broadcast in “Les Oiseaux” (“the mutilated remains of a 10-year-old-girl have been found in a park today”), and the narrator’s remembrances of her childhood (“I spent my summers building tree forts in [the forests] with my cousin who lived down the road”). It made me think of your daughter teaching me how to climb a tree in your backyard, by example, and of the concerns that must come when, as you put it in “Rot,” “nature lurks [and] the possibility of chaos flutters around the edges of home.”
AP: In many ways this is a lot of what drove my writing of Limber—though I didn’t phrase it as how to protect, but how to exist in a world of such violence. I still don’t know the answer to it, probably because I’m not sure there is such a thing as protecting. Protecting seems connected to hope, and I wanted to try to stay away from the idea of hope in the book, because I do not know that there is hope for humanity on a large scale, only at the individual level, and that is where I wanted to write. As a species, we seem destined for self-extinction. And yet life is still heart-breakingly gorgeous. How can this be? How can we bear it?
LV: Mothers and mothering—which could, more broadly, be described as “care-taking”—form the core of the relationships described in Limber, with the nurturing and dissolution of families mirroring the same [mis]treatment of nature. I really appreciated that there are no saints in Limber, that being a mother is shown to not automatically elevate women into self-sacrificing saints [“Saskatoons”]. Everything and everyone has the capacity for revisionism and fallibility—memories, newspaper articles, tree rings, professional demeanors, mines, wells, and our physical bodies right down to our cells.
AP: I am drawn to imperfection and inconsistencies and the elevation of the broken. If there actually is any hope to be found, I think it might be in that. One of the essays in Limber is about the evolution of trees from the first algae life forms into what they are now. What amazed me the most as I did the research, was the way in which the essence of evolution seemed to take on a personality—like a kid wanting to find out what happens if you do this to that. Trees as they are now, are not an end point, they are not the glorious conclusion of what they were meant to be, they are just this moment’s version of what a tree is. In 100 million years, they will be something else. It is inevitable.
LV: In “Portrait of a Mango,” you retell the story of the Buddha’s incarnation as King Mahajanaka, during which he decides to “become a tree without fruit” because of the “troubles [bearing fruit brought] to this life.” Within your own conception of faith, as expressed primarily in “Temple,” do you think that this state of being is achievable or even possible for female-identified people? Especially the feminine-presenting sort? If so, what would that look like? There seems to be, not for the narrator, but within the context she came from, an idea that femininity and holiness can only co-exist in a very narrow number of ways. Like, women are supposed to be “Limber pines” who shrug about shimmying mountains and “bend in the harsh winds and crow in curves around it.” The resilience and adaptability is admirable, but it feels like the burden of bending rests unfairly on women in this text.
AP: Hildegard of Bingen was a mystic who lived in the 12th century. She was tithed to a convent by her family at a very young age, and yet she somehow managed to create her own definition of holiness: She was a poet, a composer, a scientist, a healer, an essayist, a lecturer, a painter, a traveller and a writer. She might be the closest example I can think of to a “tree without fruit.” But most female-identified people in history were not as fortunate as Hildegard, and they labored inside someone else’s narrow definition of feminine holiness—usually as the self-sacrificing mother or wife—and they accepted it or they fought it, but had to live through it regardless. And yet, as seen in Hildegard’s life, broader versions of feminine holiness have always existed. It’s not surprising that Hildegard’s life has been mostly forgotten—how many others have disappeared completely? But it’s the same in faith as it is in all things, the arts especially—nothing interesting is happening at the center, you have to travel out to the periphery for anything that matters.