Searching for a rightful place

By Amy Reiswig, May 2014

The need for a nourishing habitat is a common theme in Andrea Routley’s new collection of short stories.

They say home is where the heart is. But if your heart is in turmoil, how do you feel at home, whether in your house, at work or just standing still, anywhere, in your own self? The issue of belonging, of having a safe and nurturing place to be—and to become—is one most of us have dealt with. Almost everyone has been that awkward teenager navigating a confusing social circle. Others have felt judged or, worse, condemned over sexual orientation. And anyone with a few relationships behind them knows how what starts as a partnership can quickly strand you somewhere unfamiliar—like finding myself freshly divorced in a new town living on my own for the first time at age 35.

The obstacles to a sense of belonging come in many forms, from within and without. In her debut short story collection Jane and the Whales (Caitlin Press, September 2013), UVic writing grad Andrea Routley shares the experience of a diverse group of people looking for their place to be strong. 

After Alice Munro’s Nobel award and Lynn Coady’s Giller win, short stories are getting fresh respect, and these brief dives into private lives are the perfect vehicle for Routley’s explorations. From a single dad struggling with a detaching daughter to a woman who astrally projects to the same gay bar again and again, to even the last, intimate, domestic hours of a Hale-Bopp cult’s group suicide, Routley taps into the diversity on the continuum of people’s daily reality, yet shows how everyone is connected through the theme of feeling at home—or missing that feeling.

For instance, readers meet a woman back at work three months after her 24-year-old daughter committed suicide. Trying to teach school kids about bats and their sensitive way of detecting things around them, she plays a sad game of “Bat and Moth” where, eyes closed, she calls and waits for the sound of the children to come back to her. 

In another story, a young woman, after a breakup with her girlfriend, escapes to a campground. There she enjoys—yet feels stuck in—imaginative erotic possibilities about a nearby female camper: “So much had not happened between us, and I’d only just arrived that morning.” 

And in another story, a counsellor-mandated “reflection journal” allows us to steal into the mind of a high-school girl accused of sexually harassing her male teacher and learn about what this teenager truly needs for a healthy, nourishing habitat.

I say “habitat” because animals are also important elements in the work. Two characters work at nature/wildlife-related centres and evoke resonant ideas of threatened populations. Through a fox, bats, mice, invasive bird species, even a pet guinea pig, Routley explores the idea of suitable living environments—where one’s cosy den is, where we thrive. How we make (or break) nurturing habitat for ourselves and others is key. 

“All the characters are trying to figure out how they work as a part of the world,” the soft-spoken yet passionate Routley tells me. “Even the role of animals in the book—they’re not just there to project human emotion onto. They are also in this in-between kind of place in a world in flux.” That world in flux is a place where it’s not just animal populations that are threatened but, she writes, “everything that matters.”

Routley has tremendous sensitivity to the plight of all things searching for a rightful place, even Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite. “I felt a lot of sympathy for this person,” Routley explains, describing her research. Where some might see only the group’s strangeness, she sees the common and somewhat sad human element, and her story describes how “it is quiet except for the sound of a basketball dribbling in a driveway somewhere…But the rhythmic smacking on asphalt does not sound like a drum roll. It doesn’t sound at all like anything important is about to happen.”  

Part of this sensitivity may be rooted in her own experience. Routley’s parents split up when she was six, with Routley and her two sisters raised mostly by their father in the Fort Langley, Pitt Meadows, Coquitlam area. While she also had and still has a relationship with her mom, “it wasn’t the typical scenario, especially in the 80s,” she explains. “A lot of home disruptions meant moving a lot. I always felt like a guest in someone else’s home, and I think that influenced me as I was becoming an adult. When I was a teenager, the way I grew up and being gay…” Without elaborating, it’s clear she knows what it means to feel un-at-home. But her work is an example of how, through the imaginative function of literature, what was difficult becomes a point of connection with others. 

Routley’s energies have been dedicated to creating community and safe space through writing—for herself as well.  It was well into her UVic studies, she tells me, that she read Michael V. Smith’s Journey-Prize-nominated story “What We Wanted” and realized: “I hadn’t written any stories with any queer characters at all. So I’m challenging myself to not be afraid to write the characters I want.”

And it’s getting noticed. The book is a finalist in the LGBT debut fiction category of the 26th annual Lambda Literary Awards out of Los Angeles. Their mission is to nurture and celebrate LGBT literature by honouring, promoting and encouraging emerging writers. It’s pretty much exactly Routley’s mission for Plenitude magazine, of which she is founder and managing editor. Called “your queer literary magazine,” its mission also aims to “foster a community through an exchange of ideas, opportunities, contacts, and resources.” In other words, creating a sense of belonging, a home. 

This theme was also apparent when Routley edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010). There she brought together 50 voices—men and women—on an incredibly difficult subject. Some had never before spoken about their experience, but there they all were: perhaps scared but honest because they felt safe, understood. 

Routley’s desire to create community extends outward to readers. Her reach-out in the introduction to Walk Myself Home could apply to a sense of insecurity in general: “Maybe you are like so many who feel a frustration and anguish you cannot articulate, a persistent ache that tells you there is something wrong in our world, and are seeking the words…to express it. This…is for you.” In Routley’s work, the four edges of the page become a little enclosing home where both writer and reader can seek acceptance and the freedom to be themselves.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig now feels more at home in her adopted home of Victoria than anywhere she’s lived before.