By Betsy Warland
223 pages, $22
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Betsy Warland’s Oscar of Between is a pleasure to read. Her impressionistic method, her musical writing, her generous tone and her unflinching gaze invite not only one’s attention but one’s whole being.
In this, her 12th book and second prose memoir, Warland returns to the lyric style of her previous memoir, 2000’s Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss. Oscar of Between weaves intimate personal stories with public and cultural ones, inhabiting the tension between the pressures of public life and the embrace of the private: "Its tango concertina’s repeated squeezing in (intimate) then pulling out (public) — squeezing in pulling out squeezing in extending out in a kind of grace."
The persona of Oscar, a departure for Warland, facilitates the narrative. When she acknowledges herself "Betsy now also Oscar," she is able to say "things she’s not said out loud before: that she’s naming and has rarely used names in all her previous books. To name is a radical act for Oscar. Her ‘fictive’ name has freed her to inscribe the actual names of people, places, events, times — which in turn has enabled her to tell her person-of-between stories."
Among these person-of-between stories is the injustice of her marginalization in the writing community: "This this, that is of little interest to those who insist this this does not exist. The literary seen. For decades Oscar within but not: a knot cinched tight." Warland returns to this exclusion from different angles throughout Oscar of Between: She considers the way her writing defies genre categorization; her poetic lineage, which differs from other Canadian women writers; her lesbianism; her gender.
Indeed, Warland’s visible androgyny, especially apparent post-mastectomy but also clear in her choice of clothing and her ineptitude with various female-coded forms of camouflage, mark her "being not either nor neither."
Camouflage and misrecognition suffuse the text. The fear and wounding occasioned by misrecognition, though, invite the transformation of Oscar’s recognition — either by herself or by another: "Her deepest wound is that of not being heard. This, in turn, fuels her desire to inquire and listen deeply to others — as much as she’s able — as it’s often enlightening. It does strike her that it’s rare for the other person to ask her deeper questions in return. That is a precious encounter."
Precious, too, and exciting, is the way in which Warland’s Oscar sees herself in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the two personas between genders and eras, recognizing each other "Between! Between! Between!" Warland invites this encouter from the opening pages, wherein she recounts a trip to London and inquires, in the first section, into the confluence of camouflage, violence, modernity and gender.
The other person-of-between stories that occupy Warland’s attention are the violence done to women, to immigrants, to indigenous peoples. There is great compassion in the way Warland refuses to look away from these events, in the way she is attuned to the reverberations of real-life violence and of the way the increasing proliferation of violent entertainment dissociates us from the ever-intensifying reality of its effects: "When will the officials stop calling these ‘isolated incidents’? [. . . .] ‘Theatre of war’ normalized into ‘theatre of public’ thinking. Violence-based entertainment and narratives our bread and butter."
Warland’s Oscar of Between is an astonishing book by a truly luminous writer. Intellectually and emotionally brave, there isn’t a word that doesn’t ring deeply, deeply true.
Melanie Brannagan Frederiksenis a Winnipeg writer and critic.
By Betsy Warland
223 pages, $22
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