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September 15, 2017
To celebrate the winners of our inaugural writing contest in the lead up to the festival on September 24, we’ll be publishing the top three winning stories here on our website. And to really get to know the authors, we’re pairing each story with a short written interview with each of the authors.
Also, be sure to see the special showcase of the contest with all three authors reading portions of their winning stories.
First up is the third place winner, Aaron Kreuter, and his story, “Fences.”
What does diversity in writing mean to you?
To me, diversity in writing looks like a vibrant literary culture where books are written, edited, published, reviewed, and read by people of all colours, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities. Canadian literature has a long way to go to reach this point, but it has made some important movement in that direction lately. What diversity in writing means to me, likewise, is to not only people my fiction with diverse characters living diverse lives—and to do so in a way that is respectful, true, radical—but to read stories and novels and poems and essays that do the same.
What does your writing space like?
My writing space is full of books, a guitar or two, a canoe paddle, a desk that is or is not covered in notes, books, guitar strings, and concert tickets that I use as bookmarks. I do most of my writing on my computer, but have been known to print out an early draft of a story and rewrite the whole thing.
Who are your favourite writers and how have they influenced you?
The writers that loom in my life change day to day, project to project, season to season, but some of the stalwarts would include: Alice Munro, Ursula Le Guin, Karen Tei Yamashita, Sherman Alexie, and Mordecai Richler. From them I learn how to see the world, how to turn the world into fiction, how to be funny and serious, urgent and contemplative.
Describe the process of writing your winning story.
The impetus for “Fences” was a single image: fences being put up in a new suburban neighbourhood. I landed on the relationship between the narrator and his best friend Asha as a way to explore the changes the fences bring, and went from there. As often happens, the story took over soon after. The ending—what Cynthia discovers in the library—when it showed up, surprised me, but I knew right away that it was the ending the story needed, and rewrote it with that in mind.
What are you trying to achieve with your writing, if anything at all?
In general, I’d say with my writing—whether it’s fiction, poetry, or my academic work—I’m trying to explore how the middle-class North American Jewish experience (an experience I know well) maps onto the larger world, culturally, socially, aesthetically, and politically. With “Fences” in particular, I was interested in accomplishing a number of things. I wanted to explore the diversity of the Toronto suburbs, which are very, very different from the stereotypical images of American suburbs (with their white flight, gated communities, cultural homogeneity, and so on). I wanted to play with the idea of fences, with their various meanings and resonances. And finally, I wanted to encapsulate the idea that underneath the very important conversations about diversity in Canada, there’s the political reality of settler colonialism. If Canada will ever become a truly diverse society, that reality will have to be unmasked, worked through, replaced.
When the fences went up, everything changed. Neighbourhood barbecues, late-night rendezvous, the massive games of Frisbee and the even more massive water fights—those houses with the longest hoses always at a clear advantage—gone overnight, the unit of thought, of time, of play, collapsed into the backyard. After the fences went up, it didn’t take long for us to forget that it was ever any other way.
A month before the first post was punched through the grass, I left my kitchen and walked over to Asha’s. We sat in the Muskoka chairs her father had built last summer—their lawn cluttered with power tools, raw wood, weeks of whirring and hammering—and looked out over the open green space Cynthia nicknamed the Commons, enclosed by our houses’ flat rear-ends. Asha had her portable stereo, was halfway through Pearl Jam’s Vs. “Is it really going to happen?” Asha asked, halfway between resignation and disbelief.
“I hope not.” A screen door opened and shut, and before I turned my head I knew from the squeakless timbre of the door it was Jodi. Asha and I watched him saunter over. If he had gone out his front door and taken the sidewalk—up Randall, left onto Birchhead, then left onto Fairlawn, the street Asha and I lived on—it would’ve taken fifteen minutes, but through the Commons he had joined us before “Dissident” got to its first chorus.
It was Jodi’s father, George, who had instigated the fences. Jodi’s family was always slightly ahead of the neighbourhood: their house was the first to be built, when the rest were still gravel lots, bramble, thin birch trees that didn’t have long to live; they were the first to move in, the first to sod the lawn, the first to install a satellite dish powerful enough to reach the moon, the first to have a real back porch (until last year the Patels had to jump out of their backdoor), the red cedar ordered special from BC. And now, after a long spring and half a summer of agitating and arguing, grinding down those who were apprehensive and those—represented by Cynthia’s mom Lily—who were completely against it, Jodi’s dad was giving us fences.
“You do realize, don’t you, that thanks to your father, you won’t be able to do that anymore?” Asha asked as Jodi sat down on the grass.
“Hey, if you don’t like it, you can move.” Jodi and I used to be best friends, but since his fourteenth birthday party at Casa Loma his ego was just too big for me.
We fell silent as “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter of a Small Town” started up. As it often happened that late summer, I heard something in the song I had never heard before—the impossibility to connect across the distance of time, of the counter, of the old woman’s interior life and the man’s hidden self.
“Hearts and farts again, eh?” We all startled, sat up straight, readjusted. Cynthia. Asha turned the stereo off. Cynthia and Lily had moved onto Birchhead a year ago, instantly changed the dynamic of the neighbourhood, the elementary school, all the rote pathways of our small world. She was the one who started the waterfights, who found the waterfall and the rock paintings in the ravine behind the mall, who for a week got us all passionate about mapping the trees of the neighbourhood—the inexplicable shift from a street of oak to a street of basswood, the birchless Birchhead, our court of crimson king maples—before getting us passionate about building a fort in the woods behind the library.
“Your father’s a traitor,” she said to Jodi.
We all watched Jodi’s face. “Yeah, I know, right? The man loves his privacy.” He said privacy the British way. At the impromptu meetings held whenever enough adults were outside, Lily and George, leaders of opposing factions, had done battle. They hated each other, and it was hard to tell if Cynthia and Jodi were mirroring their parents’ behaviour.
“Let’s go to the mall,” Cynthia said. We all got up. I glanced behind me as we took the alley between the Goldblums and Patels out to Birchhead—the collected backyards of the Commons looked like one big playground, small cement patios and barbecues, the three or four swing-sets, the hulking shapes of the free-standing houses. Gilad and his brother Tal were doing karate outside their house. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were sitting on their bench, holding hands. The muffled strains of Noah’s parents fighting. A week ago we had set up tables all along the centre, had a huge neighbourhood potluck. A world disappearing.
We need fences. Fences are important. A sign our neighbourhood has fully made it. What about the kids? They love the space. Yeah! The kids! Don’t you think it’s dangerous, all that open space, all that freedom? Didn’t you hear what happened to that girl in Autumn Valley? Yeah! George’s right. And don’t forget the crime: those people in Autumn Valley, they can just walk right onto our property and take what they want. You’re a monster, George! Humans are a social species, shouldn’t we live our lives socially? Lily, Lily, Lily, you just don’t understand our needs. Privacy. Security. We need it. We’ve earned it. Yeah. You know what, I think he’s right. Oh, don’t listen to him, he’s speaking to your lowest fears. Oh, Lily, you never do what’s best for the neighbourhood. Great. It’s settled. I’ll call around, find us the best price. We’ve finally made it. A real neighbourhood.
The last day before the work began. Asha and I were outside with a Frisbee. She stood near the Johnsons’, I was back near our houses. The Commons was marked up with spray paint—incision lines, battle diagrams, a blueprint of what’s coming. We tossed the Frisbee. It soared high above the houses, landed softly in our arms.
“I guess the Frisbee league is no more,” Asha called across to me.
“What?” I yelled back, pretending not to hear.
The night before somebody had smashed all of George’s flower pots. Some thought it was kids from Autumn Valley, others that it was Lily, the only one who had not acquiesced to the coming reality of the fences. She and Jodi’s father were badmouthing each other to anybody who would listen.
I watched as behind Asha Gilad and Tal came out of their back door, wearing their karate gis. “Hey, can we join?”
In response, I threw the Frisbee fast and low to Tal. He jumped in the air as he caught it, sent it hard to Gilad who was running down the grass.
“Should we get a game going?” he called out, throwing the disc to Asha. Before there was time for her to catch it, Dory Patel burst out from between her house and the Freemans’, plucked it out of the air, almost crashed into a swing-set, kept running.
Asha jogged over to Jodi’s, banged on the back door with her open palm, ran away. I looked up, saw Jodi’s father standing at his bedroom window, scowling, his bald head lost in shadows. A minute later Jodi was outside, shoeless. “Me, Asha, and Dory take on you three!”
Using the fence lines as end-zones, we played. After I dove for the disc and landed in the end-zone, my team cheering, I looked towards Cynthia’s house. She hadn’t been around much since Lily lost to George and she got all interested in the history of our suburbs, had been spending all of her time at the library. We couldn’t keep up with her: there she was, her head deep in books, which suddenly seemed like the cool, mature thing to do. And here we were, running around like children. Oh well, I thought: once the fences go up I’ll join Cynthia with the books. Until then, though—I threw the Frisbee as hard and as wild as I could. It floated over Jodi’s house and disappeared. We stood there, momentarily at a loss.
The workers arrive in two pickup trucks with open-gate trailers. They blast through the grass, fit in the posts, mix cement, pour it in. The slats of wood piled like ominous burial mounds on the grass. Jodi’s father watching smugly all afternoon from his porch, half his face in satellite-dish shadow. Asha’s father chatting about material and technique with the workers. Lily putting on a show, bringing them lemonade, glaring at the skeleton fences as if she wanted to tear them down with just the force of her disapproval, smirking at Jodi’s father as she chatted with a wide-faced worker.
At the last minute, Asha and I had convinced our parents to not erect a fence between our two yards. Asha threatened a hunger strike, blasted The Clash and Wu-Tang at full volume until they caved. The Goldblums and the Chu twins don’t fare as well as us, but they were going to get a gate.
We watch, our world changing.
A week after it was finished, Asha and I sat on the fence behind our houses. It was like the Commons never existed; the fences already made sense, were everyday. Though, in some ways, it wasn’t as bad as we had thought: we could still cut through the backyards, but now we just had to scramble over one, two, four fences. Asha and I were the only ones with a double-wide backyard. It gave us a new social prestige.
As it turned out, a much bigger change than the fences was Cynthia. She returned from her sojourn at the library a different person, even more serious, which I hadn’t thought was possible. She seemed fully an adult now; it was obvious that overnight she had outgrown the kids games and adventures she herself had led us on during the short blissful time she had been with us in the neighbourhood. She also came back with a story to tell. A terrifying story, cruel and shocking and ongoing. It made the drama of the fences—our entire world that summer—seem small.
Two additional things happened that September. First, up early one morning after a bad dream, I looked out my bathroom window and saw Lily and George kissing passionately in Lily’s backyard. I understood but also didn’t understand. And then, one Sunday, the leaves just beginning to change, we woke to the shock of vandalism. On the fences, on the grass, on the Johnsons’ bench, on George’s prized red cedar porch, the same short phrase repeated in careful white spray paint. It was George who alerted us to the graffiti—he was having a fit, screaming and yelling as the other parents apprehensively approached their kitchen doors. The adults were quick to blame the kids from Autumn Valley, but Asha and I, we knew better.
It’s funny really. The fences seemed to mean one thing, but then—like that—that meaning shifted, mutated, darkened. The spray-painted sentence, that almost gave George his first heart-attack, that once the sandblasters and painters did their work was quickly forgotten by almost everyone, stayed with me long after I left the neighbourhood, after I lost touch with Asha, with Jodi, with Cynthia. I repeat it to myself even now. This land does not belong to us.
This land does not belong to us.
Aaron Kreuter writes, works, and lives in Toronto. He is the author of the poetry collection Arguments For Lawn Chairs, and the forthcoming short story collection You and Me, Belonging.