Medea (Interview on August, 09, 2021)
Medea (alias) is a member of the Atwater Library and Computer Centre since the late 2000s. Besides reading, Medea also appreciates photography, a passion that she practices through the library’s Digital Literacy Project.
Medea likes to read a great myriad of books, from fiction to nonfiction. To find new books, Medea counts on the recommendations of friends, book reviews and book webinars organized by the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York.
Medea’s favourite books are The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte (New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018) (from her own collection) and Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019) (from the Atwater Library collection).
In The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, besides telling the story of dinosaurs, Brusatte talks about how he became a paleontologist and how the community of paleontologists interacts with each other. Inspired by this book, Medea created a shadow puppet play about dinosaurs to play with her twin grandchildren. Because of this experience, the book represents a change in how she relates with her grandchildren while they are kids
In Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk gets inspiration from a poem by William Blake to write this murder mystery novel. Through the writing of this Nobel Prize winner in 2018, Medea had a unique experience, in which she felt a powerful connection with the main character and her emotions, even though they are both very different from each other. This book brings Medea to think about matters related to compassion and other ways of looking at life and other subjects.
What is your connection with the Atwater Library? How long have you been using the services of Atwater Library?
I first started using the library through the Poetry Project, which is part of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. That was maybe 2007, 2008. Something like that. So at least 13 years ago. But the main connection that I have had is through ongoing activities with Digital Literacy Project. I’ve been working with Eric Craven on a series of projects during the past five years. I also have other connections with the library. I took a course there on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a couple of years, maybe three years ago. And then some of the participants created another course, which was also held there, on decolonization, so I’ve used it for that. I’ve also been involved with CONNECT. I’ve used the services of CONNECT when I have problems with, or I want to learn something specific about digital literacy. Recently I did something interesting, which was also with the Quebec Writers Federation. It was [a workshop] called Mired 2 Moving. It is about writer’s block. I did it actually with a woman who is also an affiliate at the Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. I took it really because of her because she is so marvellous. And I enjoyed that a lot. I didn’t really have a writing project but I just wanted to see the process. So, I’ve also done some of these online things.
What kind of books do you prefer to read?
I would say I have a pretty broad spectrum of books. I put a little pile here just to show you the things [I read]. Right now, I’m reading a book about secularism in Quebec, because I really want to understand the LC 21, which I’m not very happy about. This book is in French. I got it actually not from the Atwater Library, but from the Bibliothèque Nationale. It’s a book of essays, but more political.
This is another book of essays that I’m sort of going through one at a time. It’s about photography, about literature, about music. It’s by a guy named Teju Cole, who is originally from Nigeria.
I just finished this other book, which is a novel by an Indigenous author in the US called There There. I mean, I read many different things. Fiction, nonfiction, but particularly when it’s an author I like or a subject that I am particularly interested in.
You mentioned also that you’re reading a book about photography. Is this another passion of yours?
Yeah. I make videos through the Digital Literacy Project. The most recent one I made was actually pictures I took from my window when we couldn’t go out. I took all the pictures with my phone. I had just taken snapshots basically before that. Then, I got this idea through the Digital Literacy group. Samantha Leger, who is one of the students, told me about this project and also Lea worked with us on the Digital Literacy Project. She did some photography and gave us some tips that helped me take better pictures. And Teju Cole, I was interested and everything, but his pictures are pretty weird, I don’t actually get them. I mean, it’s not technically difficult. It’s just I don’t understand the subject matter. It doesn’t resonate for me. But he has lots of interesting observations and tips on photographers.
Was photography an interest that you acquired after you started to participate in the digital literacy group?
Yes and no. Years and years ago I was really interested in photography. I had a darkroom and everything. It was in the days of film cameras and then I sort of lost interest when it wasn’t that [analog]. I went to China in 1977 and I took a film camera there and I took lots and lots and lots of slides. And strangely, there is a connection with the Atwater Library on that, because the very first project I did with the Atwater library was called the Downsizing Project, and it ended up being digitalizing our slides. So, I digitalized my slides from China and I made a tiny little video. So, photography goes way back. I haven’t been interested for years and years and years, and I just kind of got interested again.
When did you digitalize this project?
I think it was in 2016. Yeah, it was great because everybody could do it, you know, it wasn’t very complicated. But it was funny because I digitalized everything and I thought that was it and then [Eric Craven] said, “well, now what are you going to do with the slides you digitalized?” Not the slides, but digitalized versions. And that was how I ended up making that video so that’s how I went from just making copies of the slides to actually doing something with it.
What is the book that you chose from your collection to talk about?
The one I chose for my collection is called The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by a guy called Steve Brusatte. He is a paleontologist and an evolutionary biologist. And I say this book is part of my collection, but it is only because my son loaned it to me and I never gave back. And the reason I never gave it back is because I didn’t know anything about dinosaurs. Steve Brusatte was eight years old when Jurassic Park came out. I was already in my 50s and I wasn’t a least bit interested in dinosaurs. So, I think in a way it’s kind of a new passion, the passion about dinosaurs. I mean, not new but it’s certainly recent. In the last 40 years, the general public has been interested. And my son has a very, very broad range of interests and he reads all kinds of things. So, if he thinks there’s something that I’d like [to read], then he brings it over to me.
Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018). Digital Image. Montreal, QC. 2021. Photographed by Medea (alias).
I was fascinated because [Brusatte] is a very serious scientist but he also likes to communicate as a scientist with the general public, with the layman. He tells it as a narrative, he tells his own story, how he became a paleontologist. He tells the story of the community of paleontologists, how they meet and what they do and how they exchange ideas. He tells the story of dinosaurs, and then beyond that the story is really the story of our planet. It’s a multi-level narrative and that makes it really easy to read.
But then I got even more interested in [this topic]. [In the writer’s block project I mentioned], they asked us, at the beginning, what our writing project was and I didn’t really have one. But I have been working on this play for my twin grandchildren. A shadow puppet play about the dinosaurs, inspired by the book. So, I talked about that as my writing project. After the workshop, I totally gave up on the project. I learned that if one wants to do something with their grandchildren, it’s not about delivering things. It’s about finding out where they’re at and playing. Learning from them, really. But [the project] kept me very involved in the book.
How do you find your books to read?
In many different ways. There are certain authors I like, so I look for their books. Most of my friends read, so they often recommend books. Sometimes they’re books that I pick up and sometimes I don’t. And then sometimes people just give me books. Either they loan them to me or give them to me as gifts. Those books I always read, because that’s part of our relationship. It’s something that they usually like and think that I would like. I also read reviews of books. And during the pandemic, there were some webinars that I watched from the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. They would have authors on talking about their books and I found that really interesting too.
What is your favourite book from the Atwater Library collection?
It’s called Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a very intense title, it actually comes from a poem by William Blake, who was an 18th-century poet, British poet. He was a printmaker, he was an artist and kind of a mystic, I guess, a critic of all kinds of things. But this book was written by Olga Tokarczuk. I had never heard of her before, but I started noticing her books. There would be a lot of books at Drawn & Quarterly. I live in the Plateau, and I thought, “who is this person?” There were piles and piles of these books all around and it turned out that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. She’s Polish. This book was actually written in 2009, but I guess it takes a few years for the translation and publication process in English. I must have first read it in 2018. And it was an extraordinary book for me. It’s not a narrative. I mean, there is narration but it’s not about plot. It’s totally about character, and most of it is a stream of consciousness.
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019). Digital Image. Montreal, QC. 2021. Photographed by Medea (alias).
The narrative is actually a murder mystery. I don’t even really remember what happened in the murder mystery part of it because I was so totally taken with this character and I don’t think it’s ever happened to me before with a book. I actually felt like I was her. It was just sort of erased the boundaries, which was particularly strange for me because she was a woman so unlike me. First of all, she was a total recluse. She was a great believer– well, not only a believer, she studied astrology. She spent a lot of time studying astrology. I wouldn’t even know my astrological sign if it wasn’t for a friend who did my chart. And she was just absolutely passionate about her pets. She had two pet dogs who got murdered. Or they disappeared I guess and turns out they got murdered. And somehow, she just took me into that, the sorrow and the anguish of having lost these pets, which is an experience that I’ve never had. And then she is also very learned. She works with this young guy who is a techie guy on translating Blake into Polish. She is just so multifaceted.
She is sixty, they describe her as a little old lady, which is sort of like strange for me because sixty seems really young to me now. But she’s so passionate about all of her beliefs and so individualized. Anyway, I just moved over into that space, you know, for all the time that I was reading that book. It’s an experience that I think that we have all with our relationships with people. With the things we pick up through our senses and our hearing and our smell and taste. But to know what that inner life is like. We don’t really know. And this was just, just such a rich inner life that it kind of changed how I think about people and how I appreciate them.
Is it written in first person?
Yes. It’s just her thoughts. She doesn’t particularly like a certain kind of man. She does have a crush on her neighbour, but she doesn’t like hunters, anybody who is a hunter. She really doesn’t like them. She describes them, they all have mustaches, and they all smell of alcohol, tobacco and wet clothes. So, it’s not something you say, but she can write down what her senses are, what her perceptions are. And she thinks the whole idea of giving people names is ridiculous, her name is actually Janina, which she hates. She thinks that she’s a Medea. And she gives everybody she meets names. So, her neighbour, the one she has a crush on, she calls him Oddball, and the neighbour who got murdered, she calls him Bigfoot. And another woman, a young woman who she just finds really delightful she calls her Good News. So, it’s all [about] what’s happening inside. What’s happening on the surface is very iceberg like, you realize that we only know that this little bit of people. Underneath there’s so much more.
The protagonist, Jenina Duszejko, is fueled by Anger which she values since it “restores the gift of clarity of vision.” “…the truth is that anyone who feels Anger, and does not take action, merely spreads the infection. So says William Blake.”
But the book is also very funny, often a kind of black humour. She lives in a cottage near the Polish border with the Czech Republic. Only three people live there year-round: Mrs. Duszejko and her two neighbours, Oddball, and Big Foot, which are the names she uses to refer to them in her internal monologue. On a winter night, Oddball arrives to tell her their neighbour Big Foot is dead. Oddball lets us know that Big Foot wasn’t much loved. “He was a wretched little bastard, but so what?”
Here is her stream of consciousness description of dealing with the body:
We fully abandoned ourselves to the thankless task of squeezing Big Foot into the coffee-coloured suit and placing him in a dignified position. It was a long time since I had touched anyone else’s body, never mind a dead one. I could feel the inertia rapidly flowing into it as it grew more rigid by the minute; that was why we were in such haste. And by the time Big Foot was lying there in his Sunday best, his face had finally lost all human expression— now he was a corpse, without a doubt. Only his right index finger refused to submit the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upward as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts. “Now pay attention!” said the finger. “Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention. Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time, in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, aging human Beings.”
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019). Digital Image. Montreal, QC. 2021. Photographed by Medea (alias).
How did this book change your life?
I discovered Olga Tokarczuk, that changed my life, period. I have all her books to read now. But it also changed that sense of… you always wonder, what is compassion? What it is that you really feel? Not to feel, but to understand. I mean, I can’t say that I feel it but I totally understand another perspective. Another way of looking at things through her. I understand that it’s possible.
And what about the first book you mentioned, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs?
I would say it will change how I relate to my grandchildren because it led me to this course on writer’s block, which led me to this insight of what it is to relate to young children.
This is a funny thing about books. Sometimes, they make an impact in our life that is kept in our subconscious, and we don’t realize this until something specific happens.
I think it depends also of what you do with it. I probably would not have revisited The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs if it hadn’t been for this course that I had to come up with a writing project. It’s very serendipitous. And in the same sense, I mean, even Olga Tokarczuk’s book. I’ve been revisiting it in order to talk to you. I mean, I’ve been looking at Blake. Every chapter starts with a little quote from Blake and I’ve been looking up his poems and the proverbs of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. So, the combination of reading and talking to people in your life, they can all intertwine and reappear in strange ways. It has to do with how you relate to people. A book is not just something you do when you are on your couch, in the dark, alone, and it’s finished. It’s a kind of living thing in your life.
 “Digital Literacy,” Atwater Library, https://www.atwaterlibrary.ca/computer-services/digital-literacy-project/
 “CONNECT: Connecting People to a Digital Lifestyle,” Atwater Library, https://www.atwaterlibrary.ca/computer-services/digital-literacy-project/connect-project/
 “Mired 2 Moving: Getting Unstuck in Your Writing,” Quebec Writers’ Federation https://qwf.org/activity/mired-2-moving-getting-unstuck-in-your-writing/
 Normand Baillargeon et Jean-Marc Piotte, Le Québec en Quête de Laïcité (Montréal: Ecosociété, 2011).
 LC 21 (or Quebec’s Bill 21), is legislation that prohibits teachers, police officers, judges and lawyers in Quebec from wearing religious symbols or clothing at work in the name of promoting state secularism and laicity.
 Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2016).
 Tommy Orange, There There (New York: Knopf, 2018).
 Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018).
 Community Bookstore, https://www.communitybookstore.net/
 Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019).
 A Montreal bookstore
 Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, 55.
 Ibid, 12.
 William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.