Michael V. Smith [MS]
Small towns in Canada are more a local attitude than a designation determined simply by population. With over 130,000 residents, Kelowna isn’t exactly a small town, but then you factor in how the closest metropolis, Vancouver BC, is at least a four-hour drive away, in the summer, on a good day, and this place starts to feel more remote. We only had a little gay bar open here a few years ago, and it’s mostly full of young straight women trying to avoid the leery looks of dudes in the other bars. We’re surrounded by mountains and lakes, while being a major agricultural hub for the province. We grow fruit and wine grapes here, so that farm life influences the city. Everybody either drives a truck, or is asked surprisingly often why they don’t have the good sense to drive a truck. I remember when I moved here 15 years ago, a guy I met through plentyoffish.com wouldn’t go on a date with me because I owned a Yaris. So Kelowna is proof that small town is sometimes also a state of mind.
Anna Kiernan [AK]
A small town state of mind could easily be misunderstood as being small-minded, but that’s not quite it. Like you, my background isn’t exactly small town but small towns are a big part of my back story. I grew up in Wales, where boredom sparked us into various states of hedonism as teenagers.
Later, in my 20s, I went to Newfoundland and began a brief relationship with a snowboarder at Gros Morne, so moved out to St John’s for the summer. We used to go and sit on the cliff edge and watch the icebergs float by in water as bright as mouthwash.
I moved into a clapboard house on the outskirts of town and found that, among other flatmates, I was sharing with a man who was on the run from the FBI. Ron had been the driver in a getaway car in the States and had gone West after the crime but stayed put in St John’s when he fell in love with a woman who was dying of cancer who lived there. The FBI took him down. Writing that story down now, well, it sounds made up. Small town stories often do.
Yes, I don’t think smaller places mean less drama or shallower living either. There are plenty of rich stories in small places, with high stakes and deep intimacy. After having lived in Toronto and Vancouver, which offer scads of people from which I could build a social network, I noticed in Kelowna that finding my “peeps” here required me to move out of a kind of mono-culture-hanging with the artsy queers, say, or friends of a certain age, or only lefties-to adopt a much more robust variety of friends. There just aren’t as many artfags or lesbian potlucks to choose from in a smaller place, so my social network has become much more heterogenous, much more mixed and vibrant. Building a community that has a greater degree of variety also means more tension, more opportunities to share across our differing experiences, which is all deeply rewarding. Do I have to agree with the politics and opinions of everyone I hang out with? No. I think moving to Kelowna has been helpful for me to see beyond difference more easily, to look more intimately, and ultimately more compassionately, at a wider variety of experiences. This place has taught me to be gentler in my judgements, to question more, and to assume less. Perhaps some of that has to do with maturing with age, but I’m convinced that the smaller size and scope of this place has required me to be more understanding, because it’s afforded me more intimacy with difference. Closer proximity means a deeper perspective. I’m hoping some of that intimacy, and perhaps difference, translates into the pieces in this issue.
I love that idea of community building across the divide. It’s true that when I lived in London, my friends were, although strange and wonderful in their own ways, also quite homogenous, in the sense that most of us were liberal middle class humanities graduates. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up – there was a much richer mix, in terms of class, ideology, language, culture. Wales is a colonised nation and the alternative communities springing up there in the 1970s oftentimes foregrounded their own endeavours above diplomatic relations with local people. There was a kind of withholding conservatism at play too, as well as wild and wonderful experiments off-grid. All of those kinds of expressions of difference thrown together are fun to push back against in your teens.
Fast forward to my forties, and, like you, I’m much more interested in being part of conversations that build communities and celebrate diversity, with good will and good humour, and being gentler in my judgements. I felt acutely aware of the delicious paradox of small town life when I came to visit you in Kelowna earlier this year. I’ve seldom enjoyed the high standards of hospitality you extended to me and my family when we came over, picking us up from the airport, giving up your bedroom for us, welcoming us as friends though we’d never met before; it was quite different from the often obligatory-feeling hosting at city universities that I’ve worked in and reminded me of how things used to be at Falmouth, the small seaside town where I worked before coming to Exeter. At the same time, there was a stark sense of your elegant cosmopolitanism at the academic celebration we went to on the night I arrived. We both wore dresses but yours was far more chic, black, stylish and mine was paired with clod-hoppers, while you wore heels. I struggled through jetlag and mingled with your colleagues in a function room at the back of the hotel, where the air was warm and the wine was warmer, and where the uniform of seniority was, as it is everywhere, off-the-peg polyester suits.
The dichotomy of small town life is in this issue of The Lit, which comes across through the personal, intimate portraits and experiences. Identity is often viewed through a magnifying glass in small towns, because everyone knows everyone else’s business – or thinks they do. If you live somewhere beautiful, like Kelowna or Falmouth, no one ever leaves, and anonymity is a wistfully remembered luxury from your youth.
The tension within this issue is less on what a small town is, and more on what it does, how a place can make you feel. Does the individual choose the place, or does a place choose us? Read on reader, and decide for yourself.
Anna is a creative strategist, writer and publisher at The Literary Platform. She’s also co-director of the MA Creativity: Innovation and Business Strategy at the University of Exeter. Previously, Anna was a fiction editor at Simon & Schuster and co-founded the MA Publishing at Kingston University, among other things.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, performer, filmmaker, and full Professor teaching Creative Writing in the interdisciplinary department of Creative Studies at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, BC. Smith is an MFA grad from UBC’s Creative Writing program (1998). Smith’s most recent project is The Floating Man, a feature documentary in which Smith ‘bares all’ to examine his gender construction, using his visual art and performance practice to examine a lifetime of untrue stories about his body.