Tea & lattes with Marta Chudolinska

It was my great pleasure to meet with Marta Chudolinska last week to talk about her wordless novel, Back+Forth. Wanderlust, a wordless novel by Megan Speers, was actually one of the first books I ever read by the Porcupine’s Quill. After reading Wanderlust, it was pretty clear to me that I had to read Back+Forth. Both books explore our obsession with place, but they do so in different ways. You can have a look at my review of the books here to read more. Read on to find out more about my conversation with Marta Chudolinska.

We had planned to meet at the Dark Horse Espresso Bar at Queen and Spadina since Marta works nearby. I arrived early and settled down with a latte at one of the large tables. The hot afternoon sun poured in through the tall windows and a pair of wilting orchids sat on the table in front of me. Marta arrived not long after; she rode her bike to the cafe, bright red skirt tied up and away from the gears. After exchanging pleasantries (Marta had just moved and has been painting every room in her new apartment—an incredible feat.), Marta fetched herself a tea and we settled down to talk.

But what to talk about? Back+Forth is such an incredible, unconventional novel, it is difficult to know where to begin. So I decided we’d start at the very beginning.

Back+Forth is a unique story told in an unconventional way. Where did you get the idea for Back+Forth and why did you decide it had to be a novel?”

“I wrote from what I know,” Marta told me, “as I think most people do when they’re starting out, to make it feel real…. That sense of loneliness and relationships, closeness and distance at the same time is something that happened to me.”

When it came time to go away to school, Marta went far away, all the way to Vancouver away. The choice was a hard one, but it had been deliberate. Growing up in an over-protective environment, Marta never felt she had much room to change. She was starting to feel that she was defined by what her family and friends thought of her, and she was curious to know who should would—or could—be without them. So she left.

But once Marta was in Vancouver, new problems emerged. The idea for the novel actually first occurred to her when she was on a plane, travelling between Vancouver and Toronto. Having left her hometown and found a new identity for herself on the West Coast, Marta was starting to feel like she had become bi-coastal. She was one person in Ontario and another in British Columbia. “I started to realize that I would always be split if it remained that way,” she told me. So the idea for the novel came from the sense she felt as a young woman, the sense that she was divided between two places, between two selves.

The idea for the setting, Marta told me, came from Douglas Coupland. While in Vancouver, Marta had been reading books by Coupland set in the city around her. There are so many iconic cities where stories are conventionally set—New York, Chicago, Boston, DC—but rarely Vancouver. Reading Coupland as she discovered her new city expanded her understanding and appreciation of the place. It was as if “ghosts” from the novels were all around her.

“Imaginary settings can do a lot for real places,” she said.

Marta wanted to create such an imaginary setting for Toronto. Toronto has not always been beloved by the rest of Canada, and Marta feels that the flak Torontonians get from the rest of the country can make them reluctant to feel any sort of pride for their city. But Toronto is a great place, Marta told me, full of culture and community. She wanted to write a book that would show off Toronto, but also pay homage to Vancouver, a place that had come to mean a great deal to her.

It’s clear that place is the main focus of the narrative. Marta wanted to exhibit two Canadian cities that had strongly influenced her, but she also uses place to represent her protagonist’s faltering sense of self. Often in the frame, her heroine is small in her surroundings, overpowered by the Vancouver mountains and Toronto skyline.

I wanted the frame to “represent her awareness,” Marta said. When the protagonist is waking up, for example, Marta always uses a closeup on the protagonist’s face. As the protagonist begins to take in more of her surroundings, the frame opens up to include more of her environment. “For most of the novel, she’s in her own head,” Marta says. The protagonist spends most of her time walking around Vancouver and Toronto. “When you’re being introspective,” Marta told me, “it’s easy to forget your body … to lose yourself in your landscape.”

And that’s exactly what her protagonist does. She is so keen to find a place to belong that she looks for identity everywhere. In her ongoing search, the protagonist succeeds in fragmenting herself further as she loses herself more and more in her surroundings.

“So how do you fix it?” I asked. “How does your protagonists reconcile her two selves? How did you reconcile your two selves?”

Marta laughed, taking a sip from her tea, “Well I’m here aren’t I?” she said. Though Marta decided not to stay in Vancouver, she brought the lessons she learned there back with her to Toronto. You have to stop “trying to find solutions outside of yourself,” Marta says. Instead, she advocates trusting yourself, accepting yourself, and taking care of yourself. While moving away might be a good way to break out of a bad cycle, you can’t let yourself be defined by where you live. Growing up is all about knowing and accepting who you are—no matter where you are, or who your with.

“I’ve heard Back+Forth called a feminist text,” I said. “Would you consider yourself a feminist, and what does that word mean to you?”

“Yes.” Marta had started before I even finished the question. “Yes,” she repeated when I was done. Marta explained that to her, the word means the basic belief in equal rights for all people, regardless of gender or orientation. She confessed that she was actually actively on a quest to convince certain people in her life that they were feminists too, even though they denied it. It you believe in equal rights for people regardless of their gender, you’re a feminist, she explained.

“We need feminism today more than ever,” Marta told me.

For example, she said, in her first serious relationship, the one she drew on in Back+Forth, she learned that she may not have been as progressive as she thought she was. Marta had always thought of herself as a forward thinker when it came to gender roles, but when she found herself in a relationship with a man, she discovered that she had a lot of gendered beliefs.

“All these gendered stereotypes were coming up that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

I agreed that gendered stereotypes could be very subtle, which is perhaps a reason why it is still important to talk about feminism today.

The family Marta came from, she told me, had very clear-cut gender roles. “The men do the building and the women do the cooking,” she said. “And the women are drinking the Kool-Aid. They say they like cooking, they wouldn’t want to build stuff.” But when Marta was growing up, it seemed so unfair to her that her mother had to cook every single day for her family. It wasn’t what she wanted for herself.

In fact, Marta attributes her rebelliousness to her mother. She was always “speaking out of place,” Marta said. She had strong opinions and she wouldn’t keep them to herself.

“So,” I asked, “This book took a lot of time to make and was a lot of hard work. What was the most fun part of creating Back+Forth?”

“All of it?” Marta said. It was all fun, she told me, but perhaps the greatest highlight of all was working with George A Walker. “He is so passionate about what he does, and he shares his passion with everyone around him.” Creating Back+Forth was an incredible amount of work, but Marta attributes her success to her teacher, George. He made her feel like such a project was possible.

And indeed it was. If you have a copy of the book yourself, you know that Marta’s inkling of an idea, conceived on an airplane somewhere in the Canadian skies, is now very real. Her book tackles a topic that is difficult to articulate: that awkward, confusing feeling of placelessness we all feel when we are growing up.

Many thanks to Marta Chudolinska for agreeing to speak with me last week. Until next time … Porcupette out!

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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.