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  • A Family Affair
  • Joan Givner (bio)

From early childhood my daughter Emily suffered from asthma and allergies, and had many close calls with death. The last one happened on July 5th, 2004, when she suffered a violent allergic reaction from which it was too [End Page 435] late to save her. She had spent two of the previous four years teaching—first in Korea and then in Poland. After she returned from Poland, she settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to work exclusively on her writing. The last twenty months of her life were highly productive, when she experienced a great surge of creativity. When she died, five days after her thirty-eighth birthday, she left a legacy of unpublished material—short stories, novellas, dramatic pieces, and poetry. Some of the stories were finished to her satisfaction, others remained in progress; all bore the imprint of an assured and distinctive style and a coherent artistic vision.

Her overarching theme is the exploration of how an artist might survive in our time. Often she uses cross-cultural love affairs as prisms through which to compare the lives of artists in different societies. She sets the old-world sensibility and formal manners of Eastern European musicians against the brash competitiveness of North American filmmakers. The conclusion emerges that in North America, the artist has two options: remain a beggar or go commercial. Yet the comfortable middle-class life, achieved by gainful work, is death to an artist. Some stories might be read as a gloss on Katherine Anne Porter’s words: “What I find most dreadful among the young artists is this tendency towards middle-classness.”

Reading those stories today, I begin to see how profoundly Porter influenced my daughter. Emily was a passionate reader; in later years she was engrossed by Asian and European writers—Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, and Czeslaw Milosz (whom she often saw surrounded by his disciples in the café she frequented in Krakow). But her reading of Porter was different. It was a bred-in-the-bone familiarity, absorbed like mother’s milk. When she was growing up, I was working on my biography of Porter; my subject had become a member of the family, no less vivid a presence for being absent. We absorbed her phrases, bandying them about as we did the eccentric locutions of my own mother, whose distinctive idiom was a mix of Lancashire folk speech, biblical echoes, malapropisms, and her own delicate euphemisms. Their sayings became part of our family parlance, and part of Emily’s mother tongue, no longer bracketed by the words as Katherine Anne would say.

Later, in our copious exchange of letters, Emily and I frequently evoked Porter’s sayings. When I quoted her remark that “every mind plays its own set of tricks on its unfortunate owner,” Emily responded with her own corollary, “narrative is a trick of the mind.” She spoke excitedly of discovering other Porter enthusiasts, such as the poet she met who happened to be carrying a copy of The Collected Short Stories. She wrote that Charles Baxter, whom she greatly admired, had cited Porter as an important influence. I opened a book recently and a postcard from Emily fell out, bearing this message, “I just read that kap essay entitled, ‘No plot, my dear, no story” and loved it. Her essay on marriage I found less enthralling.”

In one letter she asked my advice about embarking on a love affair that seemed doomed from the start. I replied, not only quoting Porter’s words [End Page 436] when she gave advice on a similar subject to her nephew, but falling into her tone of voice:

This is a long rambling answer to your question about Romantic Love and I don’t know whether it will be helpful at all to you. Perhaps between KAP and me you’ll be able to derive some grain of reason that might help. But alas we all learn by trial and error, and pain and grief, and get a little wiser with time if we’re lucky, but also a little battle scarred and cynical. And no doubt you will too, and I hope come out of it...


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pp. 435-442
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