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The Montréal Review, April 2012


"The Meaning Of Children" by Beverly Akerman (Exile, 2010)


"A keen, incisive vision into the hidden world of children as well as intimate knowledge of the secret spaces that exist between the everyday events of life. A work with a brilliant sense of story. Yours is a luminous talent."

--JoAnne Soper-Cook, Author and Judge, 2010 David Adams Richards Prize




I'd always thought I'd be a
writer some day. My first publication was a poem that won an honourable
mention when I was nine and a half years old, something I wrote in The
last year, in the creative nonfiction piece "Aversion Conditioning, or Why I am Somewhat Conflicted About Poetry."

Beverly Akerman
But I guess my imagination-my self confidence?-failed me because I could never seriously picture myself as a writer. So I put it aside, joked about needing to live life first in order to have something to write about (though maybe that isn't a joke), and tried to prove something (though exactly what and to whom I'm not quite sure) by distinguishing myself in math and science, the subjects everybody seemed to think were the hardest.

I'd been keen on genetics since first learning about it in high school and in grade 10, when we were offered testing for Tay Sachs disease carrier status and one of my friends tested positive, I was well and duly hooked on DNA.

I majored in biology (human genetics) at McGill and went on to graduate work in genetics, where one of my most cherished delusions was that, once I finished the residency requirement and no longer paid by the credit, I'd be able to take all the English and creative writing courses I'd always dreamt of.

Guess how much time I had for non-science courses while pursuing a research degree in genetics?

That's right: none.

By 2003, I'd been in science for over two decades, mostly in McGill-affiliated labs. I'd been fairly successful, writing or co-writing 19 papers, mostly on mutations associated with several rare diseases. I also had a life--three kids and a husband who made a career in politics. But a funny thing happened as I waltzed through the genomes: the work had started to lose its meaning.

Something was wrong, I just couldn't put my finger on what, exactly.

And then my father-in-law, Gerry Copeman, died of lung cancer.

Gerry and I didn't even get along that well, although we'd made our peace, especially after the grandchildren arrived. But when he died, it affected me deeply, beyond the sadness of losing someone so close. For the first time, I understood-emotionally, as opposed to rationally or intellectually-that my time on this earth was finite, and that I'd better use it doing something I'd always dreamed of doing.

Which turned out to be, once I spent some time trying to figure it out, writing fiction.

So I switched gears, started taking writing workshops-the Quebec Writers' Federation has been stellar in providing learning opportunities for someone like me, unsure if she wanted to go back to university (and, more importantly, not convinced it would be helpful to have roomsful of young strangers tear up her work). I've been writing and submitting like mad ever since.

My first stories were published-online and in print-in 2006.

Within a few years, I'd published more than 20 stories-in anthologies like the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2012 and Best New Writing 2011, as well as literary journals The Antigonish Review, The Binnacle, BluePrintReview, carte blanche, cellstories.net, Cliterature, The Dalhousie Review, Descant, Fog City Review, Grain, Joyland.ca, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, On the Premises, Rampike, Red Wheelbarrow, Rio Grande Review, r.kv.r.y quarterly, Staccato Fiction, The Vocabula Review, and Windsor Review-and won or placed in a slew of contests.

I began submitting a collection in 2009 or so, but it wasn't until it was rejected several times that I realized I needed a better over-riding structure to the book; that the stories had all been written by me wasn't enough.

I took a long hard look at my work, searching for a theme, and that's when I realized how many of the stories revolved around children.

I thought it over some more, culled, renamed, reorganized and came up with The Meaning Of Children. The book has three sections: 'Beginning' features 1st person stories from a child's point of view; 'Middle' is about those in the child-bearing years, and; 'End' has stories about older people, or that take the long view of life. And bingo!

Of course, life is an uncontrolled experiment, isn't it?

Exile Editions had two readers look at it over a 12-month period but were in no hurry to offer me a contract; we finally started negotiating in late 2010. In the interim, I had continued submitting the manuscript.

Still, it was like a bolt from the blue when Enfield & Wizenty told me I was one of three finalists for their 2011 Colophon Prize. all E&W finalists win publishing contracts featuring several wonderful features: hardcover publication, a national advertising campaign, $5,000 advance for the winner, $1,000 each for the other finalists.

But it was too late to back out of the first negotiation (apparently, if you say you will sign a contract, you might as well already have signed it. In which case, why bother with contracts at all? But I digress.)

E&W's grand prize winner that year was W.P. Kinsella, for his first novel in decades (Butterfly Winter). Pretty impressive company to be in.

Live and learn.I still can't seem to get any respect in Montreal (this year, once again, the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival has passed me by.).

I think part of the problem is sexism.that a book that purports to be about children is pigeon-holed as "women's fiction," as though, even if it was women's fiction-that made it less worthy.

Many writers more successful than I am have written about this, including Jodi Picoult, Lionel Shriver, and Jennifer Weiner, who were particularly incensed by the "second coming" treatment afforded Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (e.g. "I write a nasty book. And they want a girly cover on it"; "The Female Frontier"; "Don't Blame Jonathan Franzen for New York Times Sexism"). The Time Magazine cover story on Franzen and Freedom must have mentioned about 10 other writers' work, but I don't believe one of them was a woman; on Time's website, I was just sidetracked by "Top 10 Books You Were Forced to Read in School," all except one-To Kill A Mockingbird-written by men. Which means I must go nag darling daughter about what is happening in her school.

The same thing happens here in Canada when a male writer's work is extolled for its physicality, violence, and other stereotypically masculine attributes, or women's work is ignored altogether (I've written about this myself, see The Boys of Summer in The Rover, June, 2010). In any event, if I go on in this vein too long, I'll be accused of sour grapes, so I'll just stop here.

Feminism is a big theme in my book. Of course, I grew up in the 60s, with feminism's second wave becoming part of life, the belief that women should have the right to choose their paths in life, unhindered. And I think one of the unfortunate side-effects was that we sort of overshot. Young women were so desperate to exercise our new choices that we didn't have enough respect for traditional women's occupations. I worked in genetics research for 20 years, had three kids, tried to do everything, I tried to juggle everything, and you know what?

It's really difficult to juggle everything.

You get burnt out. And since I've slowed down and made myself a life in writing, I've rediscovered the respect that we should have for traditional women's occupations, motherhood, nursing, teaching. These are very important, and honouring women's work-whatever it may be-is a big part of the book, and I think it's something women, particularly, really respond to.

But I like to say the book is for anyone who's ever been a child, wanted a child, or had a child.

Readers--female and male alike--really enjoy The Meaning Of Children, which has had some great feedback, and made the Top 10 for the CBC - Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice Contest.

It's just been released on Kindle, available free to Amazon Prime members (US readers only right now, I'm afraid). And I'm working on new writing, too.

Bottom line: work hard and really, really believe in your own work.

And remember--Mother's Day is on Sunday, May 13, 2012! ;)


The Meaning Of Children (Exile, 2010) captures pivotal moments in the world of girls and women--in childhood, adolescence, parenthood, or life as a whole. Disparate decades and narrative voices are woven together by themes of sex, death, and social prejudice. And love, always love. a girl discovers a fear of heights as her parents' marriage unravels; a thirty-something venture fund manager frets over his daughter's paternity; an orphan whose hands kill whatever they touch is accused of homophobia; a mother of two can only bear to consider abortion in the second person; the wife of a retirement-aged professor finds him unconscious near his computer. The Meaning Of Children speaks to all who-though aware the world can be a very dark place-can't help but long for redemption.

You can read more about Beverly Akerman's literary work on her blog at http://beverlyakerman.blogspot.com.


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