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Moving essays map pain of personal wounds

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/4/2017 (1151 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sarah de Leeuw, who teaches in the faculty of medicine at the University of Northern British Columbia, has won accolades for her poetry and for her essays, including prizes for a number of the essays in her most recent book Where it Hurts. The essays in this collection, set mostly in the interior of British Columbia, explore the "hurt in places you didn’t know pain could exist."

Given that de Leeuw is a human geographer, it should be no surprise that she approaches people and memories through the space they inhabit. Take, for example, the penultimate essay in the collection, Charting the Finite, wherein she explores her Oma’s absence through the home she adopted in Duncan: "To remember you is to place you, memory mapping, place becoming experience becoming you; although you are lost (people are sorry for my loss) I am still with you, emplaced." To remember is to place, to understand is to place: this is the thread that binds together the essays in Where it Hurts.

While the first essay sketches the territorial boundaries of the collection, it is esthetically the weakest in the collection. Disproportionately long relative to the others, this titular essay meanders through several vignettes that don’t quite coalesce.

Beginning with an account of a game played among friends at a dinner party, the essay moves from place to place, from story to story, without ever really opening to any of them. Furthermore, when in this essay she repeats encounters and stories with an unspecified person, she directly addresses her as "you."

These are uncomfortable encounters to read because the "you" who cannot — or will not — laugh about "things beyond (her) imagination" and the "you" who tells an old story about a racist encounter with an indigenous woman that she doesn’t understand don’t have a chance to speak for themselves.

This discomfort persists even though de Leeuw takes pains to place each of these people’s experiences in the most generous possible of lights.

Soft Shoulder, which brings together the Highway of Tears and shoulder dystocia — the latter the term describing a difficult birth because the baby’s shoulders are wider than the hole in the mother’s pelvic bone — is perhaps the most exceptional and unsettling essay in the collection: "We tell mothers that their babies will not remember that excruciating pain... It’s enough to make a person cry. With relief." While this sort of difficult birth, however much it hurts, has a name, "No name is given to a child born to vanish."

The baby’s broken shoulder from the start of the essay and the highway’s shoulder lead seamlessly to all the soft-shouldered people — those women who have disappeared along Highway 16 and those who have not, those people who will never see that stretch of road: "Now think of that highway once again and hold your breath and contemplate all the soft shoulders you have touched. Close your eyes and feel the softest slope in the world, the slope at the top of a baby’s arm, curve up to the neck. The landscape of your lover’s clavicle bone."

Like Soft Shoulder, the rest of the essays in Where it Hurts are tremendously moving. Beyond merely inviting empathy, they invite us to consider the wounds we don’t know are there.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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