An afternoon with Sheree-Lee Olson

About a month ago, I went to visit Sheree-Lee Olson at her home in Toronto’s Cabbagetown to speak with her about her book, Sailor Girl. I had started working on my first critical review a few weeks before, and I suddenly realized that my analysis would benefit from the input of the novel’s author. The following is the result of our conversation that afternoon.

Sheree-Lee Olson, Sailor Girl

The time Sheree-Lee Olson spent working on the Great Lakes freighters inspired her to write her first book, Sailor Girl, photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson.

I looked down, surreptitiously double-checking the address. I thought about knocking again. The house was dark and imposing, grey and black, as I stood out on the wet brick steps leading out to the front door trying not to get dripped on by the eaves troughs above. I slipped the address back into my briefcase. This was the place. …

Sheree-Lee Olson suddenly opened the front door, welcoming me in from the rain. She gestured to the hooks by the door and asked me if I would like some tea. The house was darkly lit with exposed stairs and wooden floors. A large, thick wooden table was pushed up against the front window, where grey light poured in from outside. I was glad to put down my wet umbrella and take off my boats. Yes, I said, tea would be great.

Sheree-Lee directed me to some large couches and then began rushing about the house, turning on the lights and setting up the tea, asking me to just start asking questions right away. I quickly pulled out my notebook, my large briefcase open and slumped next to me. I flipped through the pages of my notes. Sheree-Lee was running up the stairs. I raised my voice.

“Aside from your personal connection to the boats, why did you decide to write a story about a young woman on the Great Lakes freighters? What about that situation appealed to you, as a story?”

She was in the kitchen now. The kettle was boiling.

“Well, it’s unique,” she began. As far as she knew, very little had been written before about the life of a woman on the freighters. “I wanted to document something that hadn’t been written before.”

She settled on the couch across from me. A steaming cup of tea had appeared next to my copy of Sailor Girl.

She pointed out that there is a vast amount of maritime literature, going all the way back to Homer, and yet very little of it was written about women. “At least not in Canada,” she added.

Sheree-Lee Olson

photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson

I liked thinking about the book this way, rapidly making notes in my little notebook. Sailor Girl, much like Kate, is a woman in a man’s world. Sheree-Lee delves into the male tradition of maritime writing and turns it on its head. She makes it about a woman and for women.

But it wasn’t easy being a woman on the Great Lakes freighters. Sheree-Lee remembered the frustration from her time on the boats. She wasn’t considered a real sailor because she was only a dishwasher, even though, she insisted, the work she did was just as hard as that of the deckhands. She remembered the arguments she used to have with the men. But they just said women weren’t strong enough to do the other jobs.

I nodded, remembering the archaic sexism Kate faces on the boats. “When I was reading the book,” I said, “I felt like I was sort of going back in time.”

She agreed. She said, on the boats “if you went out with a guy you belonged to him—and if you changed your mind you were a slut.”

This was something that I had picked up on in the book myself. Kate first encounters the word “slut” at a very early age. Some neighbourhood kids scrawl it in Magic Marker across her tree house when they find out that she has been fooling around with one of their friends. She doesn’t know what it means, but she knows that it’s bad. And she knows, somehow, that it is also true. By the time Kate joins the boats, the situation has not much changed. Even though Boyd is her boyfriend and he enjoys having sex with her, he often calls her a slut. Which seems wrong, doesn’t it?

“My understanding is that now you’re allowed to have a fuck buddy,” Sheree-Lee says. “‘Slut,’ ‘whore’ are used casually now, but back then any woman who had sexual agency was a slut.” She went on to add, that if you were “easy,” you were a slut. But if you were a woman who chose for herself, you were a slut then too.

I have always been interested in the words “slut” and “whore.” I’m curious to understand how they are used, how they are sharpened as weapons. When I’m out with my friends, I’ll listen to the way they use the words, trying to figure out just what about them makes them hurt so much. Sheree-Lee admitted that she has always had a very strong interest in language and etymology as well.

Sheree-Lee Olson

photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson

“The word ‘slut’ was used to demean women,” she said. “It was a hate word.” It should be considered taboo, she told me, just like all the other hate words.

She told me that it was a Scandinavian word coming from “dirty” or “dirty snow.” She said it was originally applied to servants, which makes sense: what other women were available for men to access freely? All men, all men, she insisted, had more power than the servant girl. She would be used by them, and then abused. After treating another human being with such cruelty it is necessary to abuse them, to convince yourself that they are really worth less than you. They had to abuse her to justify their actions. So: slut.

Kate certainly fights against the inequity of this word in the book. She grows irritated with Boyd’s treatment of her, frustrated when he ignores her, angry when he treats her badly. When Boyd first calls her a slut, she is shocked. “What fucking century did they think it was? Fuck him. Fuck him,” she thinks (52). She insists on living on the boats by her own rules, no matter how much trouble it gets her into.

Throughout the novel, Kate is always wearing jean miniskirts. It seems that no matter what the task, how hot the day, Kate is always wearing a jean miniskirt. And it gets her in trouble right from the start. The captain of the Black River tells her to go “put something decent on … some of these poor buggers haven’t seen their wives in months” (31). But Kate isn’t the only one. Carol too dons a tight miniskirt when she is mopping the deck.

When I asked Sheree-Lee about it she said Kate’s “not hiding her sexuality, she’s wearing her sexuality with pride.” Changing the way she dresses would be admitting that the captain was right. It would be admitting that Boyd was right. It would be buying into the rules that dictate how women dress and act. And admitting that if they don’t follow those rules … well, then they get what they deserve. So Kate wears her jean miniskirt like a badge of honour.

Sheree-Lee Olson

photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson

But Sheree-Lee isn’t without hope. There are new words being invented to demean women all the time, she said. But then she asked me if I knew what virago was. Virago, from the Latin vir “man,” means a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman. But its archaic meaning is quite different, it used to mean a woman of masculine strength or spirit, a female warrior. Virago was the name of a feminist press that was incorporated in the 1970s. They also happen to have published Sheree-Lee’s favourite book, Precious Bane, by Mary Webb. So words are being reclaimed all the time. Just like Kate’s miniskirt, throughout history women have picked up those nasty phrases and pinned them proudly to their chests. “So what?” they say.

Despite Kate’s militant administering of the tight jean skirt, the best thing about Sailor Girl is that Kate is more than just a hardened caricature, a composite of feminist ideals. Kate is a real, full woman.

I had always been particularly curious about the scene when Kate has sex with Boyd for the last time. It is after she had returned from their trip out east, after she has escaped from him, barely, with a swollen black eye and his hand printed across her throat. He comes to her Parkdale apartment, crying and begging to be forgiven. And she lets him in.

When I first read it, I was aghast. I wondered how Kate could give into him again. But Kate insists that this act restores the balance of power. She has sex with him one last time to exorcise him, she says. I was doubtful. Every time Kate had sex with Boyd, it was an act of submission, of self-effacement even.

“It’s not cool!” Sheree-Lee says. “She’s a feminist. Her friends are feminists. She’s ashamed. But women do that a lot. They have goodbye sex.”

“Does Kate really achieve power over Boyd in this scene?” I asked.

Sheree-Lee pointed out that Kate was abused by Boyd, and she needs to know that he feels some sort of remorse in order to move on. She speculated that that was why abused women hold on for as long as they do: they need emotional recompense. If they just leave, if they never know that he cared, well then they are just left with that awful taste in their mouths, with that feeling of true worthlessness.

I add here, because I feel that it must be said, that it’s no wonder Kate sleeps with Boyd. The way he is described in the book, the dark beauty of him, the quiet violence, is extremely alluring.

“You don’t often hear that voice,” I said, “the voice of female sexuality.”

That was one of the reasons why I liked the book so much, because Kate seemed to see the world similar to the way I do. Sheree-Lee’s Sailor Girl is tantalizing and richly sexual. Through Kate’s eyes we see Boyd’s dramatic eyelashes and warm, rich skin. See his grace and elegance in the machine room, “like a dancer,” Kate says (58). We see, and feel, the obscene beauty of him.

Sheree-Lee Olson

photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson

Sheree-Lee thought about this. “When men restrict a woman’s sexuality,” she said, as if just realizing it at that moment, “they cut themselves off from real love, real sexual happiness.” She laughed and leaned back into the couch. “It’s a epiphany!” she said.

And Kate is a real women, full of feminism and sexual politics, but also in need of affection and love. When I asked Sheree-Lee if she thought Kate was a slut she responded, “No! She’s a young woman with brains and passion. She’s a whole woman, not the stereotype of a woman, who are only partial human beings.”

Sailor Girl is full of whole women, as Sheree-Lee calls them. Before Kate leaves for the boats she feels confused and out of place. She is tired of her mother asking why she can’t be more like her sister Jenna. There are very few models of femininity available to Kate at home, and none of them are acceptable. So she leaves.

On the boats there are more options. There is Hazel, the old cook; and May, the sidekick; and even Carol, the older, sexual adventuress. All of these women are subject to tragic pasts. Hazel with her illegitimate son (more of a tragic present, really), May with her deadbeat partner, and Carol with her troublesome ex-husband. “They all bought into it,” Sheree-Lee said. These women were young in the 50s and 60s, she said, getting married is what everyone did. Leaving their marriages, joining up with the boats, is “breaking out as much as possible” for them. And through them Kate is able to learn a lot, about being a woman, about being tough, and about being both at the same time.

Though, I added sheepishly, there was one model of femininity in the book that we hadn’t talked about yet: Princess Diana. Diana shows up on the periphery a few times in the story. Even though she is on the margins, her presence is huge.

When I asked about it Sheree-Lee nodded, “Yes,” she said, “that was very deliberate.”

Diana appears throughout the book, silent but ubiquitous: “Lady’s Diana’s face was on every cover: the new patron saint of virgin brides” (10). Kate’s sister Jenna idolizes her; she has the Lady Di haircut and a Laura Ashley sundress. She frowns at Kate, and crosses her arms like their mother. Jenna has bought into a completely different type of femininity, and it is a type that Kate doesn’t trust at all.

“It’s a bullshit fantasy!” Sheree-Lee said. With her haircut and her dress, Jenna actually thinks that she’s a princess, and if she follows all the rules of society she will get her prince. But only, Sheree-Lee pointed out, if she is nice.

“It’s a myth, meant for social control,” she said. “Diana should be a saint. Her life tells the truth.”

Because of course, Lady Diana’s life was a nightmare. She was anorexic, she was a neglected wife, she screwed around, she was extremely unhappy, and she died tragically. Kate was right to distrust that.

It’s disconcerting, Sheree-Lee told me, to see that all that symbolism still exists.

But by this point our time was running out. I had a class to get to at Ryerson, and it was with great reluctance that I packed up my notebook and pens and put everything back into my big briefcase. But before I left, Sheree-Lee told me an amusing story.

“I applied to be a grave digger once,” she told me. I looked up. She was smiling. “And I was turned down.” She had apparently been told, in no uncertain terms, that she could not do the job. “But I’m strong!” she had protested in vain.

So with the inequality of the sexes on the Great Lakes freighters cracked wide open, perhaps grave digging is next. My sincere thanks to Sheree-Lee for speaking with me. Until next time … Porcupette out!

Sheree-Lee Olson

A young Sheree-Lee, photo courtesy of Sheree-Lee Olson

Olson, Sheree-Lee. Sailor Girl. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2008.

Most of the photos in this post were taken by Sheree-Lee herself, courtesy of

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.