I got to do something very cool last December. The Newfoundland Quarterly launched its Winter 2013 issue in Toronto, and I was asked to introduce Wayne Johnston, the featured reader at the launch. I picked up a copy of Johnston’s new book, The Son of a Certain Woman, and read it (I’d been meaning to do this anyway – it’s kind of my job to try to keep up with these things), and thought about his other books, and how his writing has shaped my thinking over the years. Then I sat down and wrote the following introduction:
If you are interested in Newfoundland and in contemporary fiction, you probably already know Wayne Johnston as the author of many best-selling and award-winning books, among them The Divine Ryans, The Navigator of New York, Baltimore’s Mansion, and this year’s The Son of a Certain Woman.
My first encounter with Johnston’s writing was hardly unusual: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. When I read it, I was struck twice over. One: it’s a bravura narrative performance, big and complex and compelling, almost neo-Victorian in scope. Two: it’s a densely woven text that explores in literary language things I had sensed but had not, before, been able to speak. In Newfoundland’s case, the well-worn line about the past being a foreign country takes on literal reality; here was a text delving deep into just what that might mean. To be raised by immigrants who never went anywhere, the mother country simultaneously surrounding us and impossibly beyond reach: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams explains this spiritual diaspora, this simultaneous estrangement and belonging. In the very last sentence of Colony, though, there is a turn from history and memory and images, a turn to vital fluid: “We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.”
But blood is a strange thing. Whose blood roars in my veins? Well, it is my mother’s blood, blood that flowed across a placenta and into me. So the motherland of bog and barren and sea-seeking river is also a literal motherland. So patriotism is a form of mother-love in disguise.
The Son of a Certain Woman is not chasing the ghost of nationalism. But it is very much a novel about mother-love and about the interweaving of people and place. In fact, The Son of a Certain Woman is obsessed with mother-love, and Percy Joyce, our adolescent narrator, dispenses with deferrals and abstractions and substitutions: he wants the real thing. The novel can be read as a kind of a tragi-comic meditation on this familiar lyric: as loved our fathers so we love, where once they stood we stand.
But the past remains a foreign country, even if The Son of a Certain Woman is set after Confederation, in the 1950s and 1960s. The St. John’s it depicts is at once immediately familiar and utterly strange territory, a menacing priest-choked theocracy where child abuse is normalized, where homosexuality is both mental illness and crime. Yet it is also unmistakably the place I know best, a gnarled city grown on thin soil, laden with queer fruit. St. John’s has a hundred names in this book. It exists as a holy city like Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, another “city upon a hill.” St. John’s is “the Anemopolis, the city of wind,” “the city from which no traveller returns,” “the city of Eros and erosion.” It is an entire world, this city, a jumbled, incestuous, fucked-up tangle of humanity, as urban as lower Manhattan, we’re told, but a thousand kilometres of barren bog and killing ocean from any other urban place. Percy’s father abandoned St. John’s before Percy’s birth and it really doesn’t matter if he is still alive or dead. In this book, to be off the island is to be beyond the boundaries of the universe.
Very early in The Son of a Certain Woman, Penelope, Percy’s mother, and her lover, Medina, literally give him St. John’s on his birthday, which is also St. John’s day, mythical day of the city’s founding. This is Percy Joyce’s City, even as the Joyces stand in opposition to the oppressive powers that control it. Percy Joyce, misshapen, straining with lust for his mother, is marked from birth, literally stained, as an outsider, yet, simultaneously, he is also the very centre, the omphalos, of St. John’s, this queer city of contradictions.
Please join me in welcoming Wayne Johnston.