She owns the night

Lisa Foad is a dark and daring new voice on Canada's literary scene.

Lisa Foad is a dark and daring new voice on Canada's literary scene

Toronto-based writer Lisa Foad's debut story collection is titled The Night Is a Mouth. ((Exile Editions))

In the final tale in Lisa Foad's stunning debut story collection, The Night Is a Mouth, an impending Armageddon is signaled not by fire and brimstone, but by the sight of words coming to life. They leap out of peoples' mouths, take flight, tumble down streets and finally emit bloodcurdling cries as they drown themselves in a river.

It's a fitting conclusion to a book where language always takes centre stage. The prose in The Night Is a Mouth is so spare and cutting it could've been crafted by a surgeon, but there's delight in it, too — the sense of an author savouring words, letting them loll about on her tongue to see how they will sound out loud. Often, Foad's fiction veers close to poetry, as in Violent Collections, Anxious Supplements, a story in which a stripper narrates, "I'm a topographical wonder. Intonation. Incantation. Intoxication."

This devotion to words and their glorious possibilities was present during a recent phone conversation I had with Foad, in which she frequently stopped herself mid-sentence, searching for just the right way to phrase things. She admits to being a compulsive reviser.

"Often I end up with 15 versions of the same sentence, and there are slight shifts in punctuation or there's a different word, so it shifts in rhythm," she says. Later, she jokingly confesses that toward the end of the four years it took her to finish her collection, her friends urged her, "'You just need to stop. You need to do something else.'"

The lengthy birthing process paid off, and The Night Is a Mouth recently netted Foad a ReLit Award for short fiction. The accolade is deserved: her stories, which carry readers from grungy diners to stained motel rooms to a dilapidated house where a chandelier weeps crystal teardrops, are startling, grotesque and fresh. In Foad's universe, it's not uncommon to see a pool of vomit morph into a pack of rats, or ghosts commingle with living characters. Many of Foad's protagonists are highly sexualized, glitter-dusted teenage girls who could easily pass for the bastard offspring of Cherie Currie and David Lynch.

"I think that what I was really interested in is that simultaneous engagement of being a sexual subject and experiencing yourself as a sexual object," Foad says of her female characters. Her heroines range from a young runaway looking for parental figures in all the wrong places to two adolescent girls who have drunken sex in a room where the wallpaper resembles millions of tiny, spying eyes. When I praise Foad for giving voice to a topic that is seldom discussed, she remarks on how important it is for her to "write girls."

(Exile Editions)

"That's exactly what I was trying to work with: that feeling when you're just coming into this idea that you have a sexuality as a teenager. And I think the thing, like with [these characters], they experience this totally f---ed up sexual experience, but they actively attempt to — and I feel like they do — make agented choices for themselves in terms of how they decide to manage it.

"It's so similar to experiences that a lot of girls I knew, and myself included, had, and especially that way that things just don't get talked about so often. There was so much that didn't ever get spoken, and it was all because of shame."

Foad is an incredibly animated interview subject, happy to share anecdotes about everything from the Nancy Drew detective tales she wrote at age eight to the time she got tongue-tied while meeting iconic feminist author Kathy Acker, one of her literary heroes. Doing away with shame is a central theme of The Night Is a Mouth, and it accounts for some the book's more taboo-busting sections, which include references to characters slumped over toilet bowls, intimations of incestuous parent-child relationships, all manner of bodily fluids and one character who pleasures herself with wooden spoons and jars pulled from the household spice rack.

But Foad isn't interested in provocation for provocation's sake. "I'm really drawn to those spaces that culturally we're told we're supposed to experience as shameful, and I don't think that they should be. And I wanted to look at what happens when there's these parts of ourselves that we don't know how to live with, or we don't know how to even love."

These ideas are pushed to the limit in the book's title story. In The Night Is a Mouth, the self-loathing of two trashy misfits named Gold and K begins to manifest itself in their decaying physical surroundings. As the story progresses, Gold and K's filthy home — filled with nattering rats, urine stench and floors littered with rotting sweet-and-sour chicken balls — starts to resemble another living character, one with "dead language for eyes," shuddering walls and growling bowels.

"What they're existing in is this emotional space of refuse, where they refuse certain needs or insecurities. You know when we're feeling those really uncomfortable feelings like desperation or insecurity, and the desire is just to pretend everything is fine, and refuse that those feelings are there? But [those feelings are] sitting in the room with us, if we're not looking at them. They're staring at us."

Foad's triumph is that she stares back, and in conversation, she is unapologetic about her dark sensibility.

"I feel like a lot of people have talked about the content being bleak, and I don't really feel like it is, and I don't consider any of the characters casualties or victims in any way."

The Night Is a Mouth is published by Exile Editions and is in stores now. Lisa Foad appears at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 30.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.