FIRST

Elle (Canada) - - Story Board -

Heather O’Neill re­calls the first time she was pub­lished.

In 1983, I was liv­ing on the third floor of a build­ing in a tiny apart­ment with my dad and my two sis­ters. My mother had left us with my dad, who was lower class and worked odd jobs, to raise us on his own. When I went to play with other kids, I saw that they were bet­ter dressed than I was and had much big­ger homes. I was vaguely be­com­ing aware of class is­sues, al­though I cer­tainly couldn’t ar­tic­u­late them. Back then, I con­sid­ered my­self a very or­di­nary kid who wore snow pants with patches and a toque with the em­blem of the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens on it and who hur­ried home to watch The Mup­pet Show on time.

Then one day in Grade 5, the teacher asked us to write a short story. I loved read­ing, so it seemed mo­men­tous, like I was en­gag­ing in some­thing of great im­port. I worked on it ev­ery day for a week, crum­pling up sheets of paper neu­rot­i­cally as I started it over again and again, con­vinced that it was ter­ri­ble. Be­cause I was work­ing so hard at it and feel­ing so mis­er­able about it, I as­sumed this meant that the story was re­ally bad. But the day af­ter I handed it in, the teacher told me that it was ex­cel­lent. I couldn’t be­lieve that I had done some­thing wor­thy of praise. It seemed so un­like me. I fig­ured that I was just a scruffy kid who never did any­thing spe­cial and was meant to live in the back­ground and just get by while the kids from bet­ter fam­i­lies stood

Each month, we ask a Cana­dian writer to pen a story about a sig­nif­i­cant “first”

in his or her life. This es­say is from Heather O’Neill, whose sec­ond novel,

The Girl Who Was Satur­day Night,

was re­leased in May.

out. And then, two months later, the teacher told me that my story had been selected for the school board’s city-wide mag­a­zine. What an hon­our that was! When I went home that day, my fam­ily treated me as if I had won the No­bel Prize.

It was the first time I’d ever been pub­lished. What was the story about? I don’t have the mag­a­zine any­more, but what I re­mem­ber about the plot is that I shrank one day and en­coun­tered a cock­roach. If I had writ­ten it lately, I would say that Franz Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis was an in­flu­ence. But back then, real cock­roaches were a ter­ri­ble pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for me. You could not turn on the kitchen light in our apart­ment at night with­out see­ing at least one scur­ry­ing across the counter. What would that story be like if I were to write it to­day with the same ba­sic premise? I’ll give it a shot.

One morn­ing I was stand­ing in the kitchen, when, to my hor­ror, I found that I’d mys­te­ri­ously shrunk. I tried to yell up for my fam­ily to help me, but they mis­took me for a bug and tried to stomp on me. Ter­ri­fied, I fled into a crack in the wall.

As I wan­dered around be­hind the wall, I saw a strange crea­ture. It took me sev­eral sec­onds to dis­cern that it was a cock­roach. He was sit­ting on a chair that he had fash­ioned out of a bot­tle cap. His head was lean­ing back. He had made him­self a tiny skin-tight suit out of a piece of news­pa­per. h

He had a rub­ber band wrapped around his waist, func­tion­ing as a corset, which made him much skin­nier than he ac­tu­ally was.

“Hello,” said the cock­roach. “I’m a cricket.”

“I don’t think so,” I re­sponded. “You are plainly a cock­roach.”

“So I am,” sighed the roach. “The only one around here too. That ex­ter­mi­na­tor’s last visit re­ally did the job, you know. There were bod­ies every­where. I’m ter­ri­fied to go out there. Ini­tially, I thought that I would dis­guise my­self as a cricket in or­der to es­cape this build­ing. I wanted to get out of the city. No­body crushes crick­ets. Per­haps a child would put me in a jar with holes in the lid and it would be like liv­ing in a pent­house. I even made my­self a vi­o­lin.”

The cock­roach held up his sin­gu­lar cre­ation for me to see. He had made him­self a tiny vi­o­lin out of a matchbox and some elec­tri­cal wire. He had a safety pin with den­tal floss wrapped around it as a bow. “Did you get very far?” I asked. “I headed out across the side­walk, but then I thought, ‘Who I am kid­ding—me in the coun­try?’ I like cities. I like fast-food restaurants and down­town. It’s true. The city is, in part, who I am. Wher­ever there is squalor or dis­or­der, fel­lows like me thrive. I am a metaphor, my dear friend.” “Why are you still in dis­guise?” “Well, the one thing that has come out of this whole sub­terfuge is that I found out I quite like play­ing the vi­o­lin. I’m re­ally fo­cus­ing on my art now. What can you do in the face of overwhelming tragedy ex­cept try to com­pre­hend it through art?”

He played a tune. It was more com­pli­cated than the dit­ties that crick­ets usu­ally play. He wasn’t born with any abil­ity; he re­ally laboured over it. He had to com­pose much more in­ter­est­ing scores in or­der to make up for the fact that he hadn’t come by it nat­u­rally.

And whereas a cricket’s tune puts one in mind of open fields and lakes, the cock­roach’s tune cap­tured within its notes the hol­low sounds of pipes at night, the noises of tele­vi­sion shows play­ing through the wall, the scur­ry­ing that takes place af­ter the sud­den and un­ex­pected turn­ing on of an elec­tric light. It il­lu­mi­nated a world that had nei­ther sun nor moon but was lit by the faint glow of the street­lights out­side and the oc­ca­sional pulse of lights from a mar­quee. It cap­tured the trick of dain­tily lean­ing off the faucet for a sip of wa­ter. He had turned his ugly life into some­thing funny and pi­caresque and sym­pa­thetic.

For a brief mo­ment, I felt for the plight of cock­roaches, whereas hither­to I had wanted noth­ing more than to squash them. The abil­ity to brand yourself as unique when ev­ery­body else in the whole world thinks that you are noth­ing but a prob­lem­atic statistic is a beau­ti­ful thing. This was a cock­roach that was giv­ing a voice to those who had fallen through the cracks.

The orig­i­nal story ended with me go­ing back to my pre­vi­ous size. Chil­dren’s sto­ries so of­ten re­sort to the deus ex machina ef­fect! But some­time later along the line, I, like the cock­roach, de­cided that it didn’t mat­ter where in the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy I had been born; I would play the songs the crick­ets play. I de­cided when I was very young that I would be a writer and that I would sing songs about my own child­hood. I would write about the people who had lived in the build­ings where I grew up and faced the prob­lems that I had faced. And al­though it might sound clunky and the sub­ject mat­ter might be odd and I would of­ten hit a false note and some­times what I said might be in­cred­i­bly jar­ring, I would ex­press my­self and ex­press my­self and ex­press my­self un­til my tiny voice might be heard. n

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