Why John Elizabeth Stintzi used their debut novel to explore the nature of gender, identity and memory
This interview originally aired on Sept. 12, 2020.
CBC Books named John Elizabeth Stintzi a 2020 writer to watch and the non-binary writer from northwestern Ontario had a busy year in 2020.
The Kansas City, Mo.-based novelist, poet, teacher and visual artist won the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the Malahat Review's 2019 Long Poem Prize for their work Selections From Junebat. The complete poetry collection, Junebat, was published in spring 2020.
This year also saw the release of Stintzi's debut novel Vanishing Monuments, about Alani Baum, a non-binary photographer who travels back home to Winnipeg to see their estranged mother who is suffering from dementia.
Stintzi spoke with Shelagh Rogers about exploring gender, identity and the nature of memory with Vanishing Monuments.
The middle of nowhere
"I was always a creative kid. Living out in the middle of nowhere in Ontario, you need to have a creative life in order to survive. We were like working in the field — when you're driving around a tractor for eight hours in circles in a field, you have to have an inner life in order to survive.
Living out in the middle of nowhere in Ontario, you need to have a creative life in order to survive.
"My mom was a journalist. I was reading before I was supposed to be able to read. I was always interested in stories and stuff. I didn't really consider writing probably until I was in high school."
Wondering in Winnipeg
"I went to undergrad at the University of Manitoba. That was the first time I lived away from home for an extended period of time. I had a lot of experiences in Winnipeg, positive and then less positive. There's a long history of people like 'love hating' on Winnipeg.
I had a lot of experiences in Winnipeg, positive and then less positive. There's a long history of people like 'love hating' on Winnipeg.
"It's a very irritating city, very caustic in certain ways. But it's beautiful. I love the texture and the reality of that. It feels very on the surface in a way that I appreciate."
Their name is Alani
"The character Alani in the novel was always genderqueer and non-binary, but I didn't understand myself very well at that point. I was just interested in this character for some reason.
"I was writing it, I learned more about myself. I was reading more trans literature and all that sort of stuff. I thought that the distance between me and Alani was much further when I started. And at the end, it felt much closer."
I thought that the distance between me and Alani was much further when I started. And at the end, it felt much closer.
"I think partway through writing the novel, I came to that understanding — and then the closeness really helped sort of bring it into its best form."
A memory palace
"A memory palace is a mnemonic device coined by Cicero, who is a Roman orator back in the ancient times. He would use them to remember really long speeches. He would take all the rhetorical points he wanted to hit, and, in order to talk without a script, he would imagine each of those points in certain rooms of this mansion.
He would be able to imagine himself walking through the mansion and would be able to associate a rhetorical point with a specific memory. It's an effective way to actually remember things.
Room to room, they are seeing all these different things, but it's much less controlled and clean as Cicero might have imagined.
"Alani takes that idea and uses their mother's house to house all of these memories from their life. Room to room, they are seeing all these different things, but it's much less controlled and clean as Cicero might have imagined."
What Alani taught me
"So much of the novel is about identity and the ways in which memory intersects with that. It's about the instability of identity and the instability of memory, clashing heads. They are the main pillars of the book. Alani is looking at their life and seeing the ways in which the bad memories are things that are important to the way that they sort of view themselves.
"Before writing this book, I didn't understand myself and my relationship to gender. And early on, it was much more sort of stark, rather than a sort of fluid way that it moves now. So it was like learning a lot about myself and thinking about gender and realizing that I wasn't portraying it in a way that felt real.
So much of the novel is about identity and the ways in which memory intersects with that.
"It was a long process of thinking about myself and finding the ways to be generous with the way that Alani moves through the world and make that realistic. Alani is very much in these sort of liminal spaces where they don't understand themselves, and they don't quite have a name for who they are — but they're just acting as they must act."
John Elizabeth Stintzi's comments have been edited for length and clarity.