#653 Sinners, seekers, and sceptics
Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers
by Susan Scott (editor), with a foreword by Alison Pick
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2019
$24.95 / 9781987915938
Reviewed by Caileigh Broatch
Susan Scott skillfully curates and edits experiences across many cultures and faiths for Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. This collection of personal stories provides insight into Canadian women’s hearts and minds and presents the opportunity for women to give voice to subjects they aren’t often encouraged to speak about. The thirty women speak of finding themselves through various avenues. Their stories circulate around faith, exist within religion, and are challenged through change. The authors speak of loss, love, challenging perspectives, and shedding inherited traditions, but ultimately the stories come back to a space free from judgement: a place like home.
From the east coast to the west, the essays in this collection bridge a connection across Canada by simply being. Scott, in her introduction, writes about the transformative powers of taking risks with intimate, unvoiced stories. “In an era of deep dividedness,” she writes, “we can begin a dialogue by exchanging stories like those gathered here — earthy, generous, transgressive stories that make way for other stories.” In her foreword, poet and novelist Alison Pick urges readers to seize the chance to start anew.
The thirty narratives of Body & Soul are braided together. While each story is a separate recounting, they are also inevitably linked; their uniqueness dominates while strands connect them. Whether the authors were born here or came to Canada, they accept and embrace difference. “Canada is a great example to the world when it comes to integrating peoples with varied belief systems,” notes contributor Zarqa Nawaz.
The first essay, “Unfinished Journey,” begins a thread that is present through many that follow. Jagtar Kaur Atwal travelled around the world before settling in Canada in search of her missing piece – a piece, she concluded, left out by shame and unworthiness. Her solution ultimately was to learn to accept and trust herself. The connection between Atwal’s story and many others is the ability to grow and learn from freedom from one’s past and from outside influences.
Carleigh Baker’s “In a Canoe, Chasing my Métis Grandmother” gives strength to rebellion. On a twenty-one-day canoe trip in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, Vancouver writer Baker is left to meditate on the influences in her life. “People can (and will) reject you,” she says, “but it seemed to me that the land would probably be willing to accept me.”
We are all told from a young age where to turn in times of turbulence, but the internal safety nets change as we adapt to our place in life. Baker rebels from groupthink and from the ingrained settler habits she has inherited, and gains strength and support through solidarity. While paddling the Peel River watershed with a group of strangers, she connects nightly through campfire stories and recounts the fearlessness gained from exploring the unknown.
In “The Madonna in the Linen Closet,” Sharon Bala challenges the idea that the world is split into believers and nonbelievers. A society split in this way is meant to keep things separate. It is only reasonable, in a collection subtitled Skeptics and Seekers, to address the imaginary boundaries that seem to separate society into such a simplistic binary. Bala challenges the divide between religions and instead finds the things that complement each other and resonate for her. Breaking free from such constraints, in this story and the collection as a whole, offers room to create a more open world.
It’s hard to do justice to all the contributions to Body & Soul, but another that stands out is by Eufemia Fantetti. “Repent, Sinner” is a laundry list of Fantetti’s sins. Since birth she has been surrounded by her Catholic family; the fabric of her home is built on a religious structure that ties her family together and dictates their lives.
Fantetti’s story progresses through “sins” such as greed, spite, envy, misplaced lust, and other wrongdoings. To an outsider, these sins might appear as insignificant societal traps into many readers have fallen, but owing to Fantetti’s upbringing, they are seriously consequential for her. At the very least, “Repent, Sinner” encourages the audience to consider their own offences.
Body & Soul takes its strength from the individuality of its authors. It considers perspectives that aren’t often given space. The essays themselves are both powerful explorations of faith and beautifully written examinations of self. Even for readers who do not align with any particular religion or faith and who are not, as the authors often find themselves, on the outskirts of their communities, there is a commonality to be found in the works. Everything is not black and white — and in the greyness, the reader will find equality and perhaps even something familiar and healing.
Caileigh Broatch studies creative writing and journalism at Vancouver Island University, where she has been the feature editor of The Nav (The Navigator) since 2018, and was the managing editor of VIU’s Portal Magazine in 2018-19. Because she finds deep comfort in a love of books, she has pursued an internship with Nanaimo’s Window Seat Books. Her studies have taken her to investigate Canadian literature, gold panning, ghosts, and killer whales, among more traditional topics.
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