“Negotiating with the past” and “dealing with the past” have become common phrases when talking about personal and cultural legacies. The use of this kind of language—the language of transaction—corresponds to the sense of inheritances as the property and material assets left to us by our predecessors, but produces some tricky implications when used to address less tangible, less visible, and less intact legacies. This spring supplement of The Puritan includes works of poetry and fiction, essays, interviews, and an oral history that do not hesitate to leap into negotiations with myths, legends, heritages, lineages, traditions, and traits.
These negotiations and dealings must remain unsatisfying insofar as they are unresolveable. There is not the usual type of give-and-take between two parties reaching a fair compromise. The past, manifesting itself in our names and faces, our families and clans, insists on us accepting its terms. Its influence on our identities is consoling in that it tethers us to previous generations, and unnerving in that it places a kind of stricture on the personal autonomy that we as modern subjects value so intensely. This negotiation is not with the past, which refuses to bargain with us, and instead leaves us with its time capsules, its dusty trunks and faded papers. It could be said that the conversation is one-sided and that we are speaking to the dead, not because we want them to hear us, but perhaps because we don’t want them to have the last word. We are, in fact, bargaining with ourselves—deciding what we can part with, and what we can bear.
Writers also negotiate for autonomy when writing about legacies. Some writers position themselves as inheritors of a cultural tradition, while some struggle to throw off the influence of tastes and approaches imposed on them by well-meaning teachers and authority figures. Sugar LeFae, Doyali Islam, Emily Izack, Annick MacAskill, and Chuqiao Yang are talking back, unabashedly and playfully, to their poetic antecedents. The silences between a father and daughter speak movingly in Nicole Chin’s short story, while Napatsi Folger depicts an Inuit woman stepping between absences and presences, and Cora Siré hilariously portrays the fraught relations between diasporic Spanish writers, though the jealousy and voyeurism will be familiar to all writers who are part of a tight-knit community. Laura Kenins’s piece on the legacy of trauma and her Latvian grandparents asks how we pay debts to the past, and is also the first graphic work published in an issue of The Puritan. Terrence Abrahams addresses a troubling void in understanding transgender narratives and experiences, while Aurora Stewart de Peña, in her oral history, searches for a ghost and comes across the faint traces of her own family. Joanne Leow’s interview with Denise Chong and Madeleine Thien on the occasion of the Avie Bennett “Literature Matters” talk last spring, and Eliot Gilbert’s talk with Chad Campbell on his recent debut collection of poetry, share overlaps on the topic of literary inheritance despite their different origins.
I couldn’t believe my luck when these writers showed interest in being a part of this supplement. Pitches and first drafts led to Skype meetings, edits over Americanos, and germinating friendships. Nearly all of the writers here are new to The Puritan, and I have no doubts that you will continue to see their names on the roll-call of success. In spite of their vastly varied backgrounds and knowledges, I hope that readers will find connections and echoes between them. Their pieces invoke the sense that confronting legacies is more than an individual project, but a shared one. I was also struck by an unfinished quality in these pieces, the frayed edge of conversations still taking place. I’m reminded of how Sylvia Plath was berated by a reviewer at Cambridge for beginning a poem just like John Donne and not managing to finish like him. But when we sit down to begin talking to our predecessors, do we ever really finish?
Phoebe Wang is a poet, reviewer and teacher living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Ricepaper, Prism, and THIS Magazine. She has a chapbook appearing with The Emergency Response Unit this spring and her first collection of poetry is forthcoming with McClelland & Stewart in 2017.