canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Jenny Sampirisi

by Margaret Christakos

On the subject of Sampirisi's novel is/was (Insomniac Press, 2008)

Jenny Sampirisi is simultaneously a poet, prose writer and editor. 

She is the managing editor for BookThug (a weird and wonderful press) and facilitates the online concrete poetry journal, Other Cl/utter. 

She teaches English at Ryerson University where she runs the Ryerson Reading Series which features local and national authors. 

She is also the Assistant Director of the Scream Literary Festival and writer in residence with Descant Magazine's Now Hear This program. 

Her first novel, is/was explores the flexible boundaries of language, media, and the body. Her second novelish thing has something to do with amphibians, cafes and limb deformities.

Interview conducted through Facebook, January 2009.

January 16, 2009, from 1:00 pm to 4:20 pm, using faceBook


January 16 at 1:05 pm:

Hi Jenny. As you know I've already written a little about is/was, and it’s such a delight–laced with the edginess of complicated rattlement–to go back into this novel. Every reading turns up more layers that fascinate me.

Several times the text reminds your reader about how reality is a composite of "missing parts and filled-in parts." Dismemberment and remembering are also named as key identification processes, and the whole novel, set in the early 1980s, recalls how central the newspaper, radio and television were to informing the public about what was "real."

Do you still rely on these media, yourself, and I wonder, how do they "feel" to you as news sources?


January 16 at 1:16 pm:

It's funny, here I am staring at a screen waiting for it to be filled in.


January 16 at 1:17 pm:

I'm going to include the little time register that occurs with each of our postings.


January 16 at 1:19 pm:

Thanks Margaret. It's wonderful to continue the conversation with you about the book.

I do still rely on these sources, though less so on radio now. I've also, of course, come to rely heavily on the internet. I find the "missing parts and filled-in parts" quality of news sources now to be much more complex than my memory of them in my pre-Internet childhood. What fascinates, and nauseates me, is the repetition of facts and non-facts. We never get a story once. Last night I watched the news and learned of the plane that landed in the Hudson River yesterday. It was followed by a second news story about the event from the perspective of an "off duty" reporter who had witnessed the crash from her window. There was a definite frustration beneath the telling of this story that no-one had captured the event on film or in pictures. So to replace this, we were provided with a computer simulation of the crash, including the moment the birds might have hit the plane while it was still in the air. This morning I saw a woman reading the newspaper which had a very large picture of the plane buoyed in the water. She was telling the person beside her about how her husband was following the "breaking news" of this intently all morning and that his interest in that event had caused her to miss out on news of the power outage in Toronto.

My feeling is that when there is an event we repeat it over and over until we’re satisfied that we know all there is to know. We do this multiply through all media simultaneously. And at the same time, we can only know as much as we know. There’s a frustration with only knowing parts of a story. That frustration is interesting to me. It implies that we’re entitled to know every intimate fact of events. What happens when the event happened privately? How does it become public? In is/was, it only becomes public through its narrative fragments.


January 16 at 1:27 pm

There is one segment in the novel, called "No.10," in which the mother, Eva, leaves her daughter Isabel in the car while she goes to buy film at a small store. She’s buying film so her camera will be loaded and ready while she and her daughter take part in a community search for a young girl who has gone missing, and is feared dead. This woman is an aspiring photographer, and she believes in the image; she says to the shopkeeper she has been watching the tv news on mute. You also refer to people using their remote controls to change the channels. It really was the start of virtual, prosthetic culture, in that era, wasn’t it?


January 16 at 1:32 pm:

Sorry, she doesn’t say this aloud, she confesses it would be hard to explain such a thing to the shopkeeper. She makes a fetish of keeping the tv news mute....


January 16 at 1:34 pm:

Absolutely. Everyone was beginning to extend their bodies more fully into technology. Later on I have one character remarking that her husband uses his whole arm to change the channel rather than just the remote. It’s a physical extension into this connected/plugged in devices. I’m interested in the unreliability of those mediums/media. They’re by necessity fragmentary (pictures can only take in so much).

In the 80s, it seemed to me as a kid glued (hand and eyes) to the Nintendo, that the screen was the place to be, not the mall or the park.


January 16 at 1:36 pm:

So was this also the era where the out of doors gained its aura of danger for children. Instead of letting them run wild, the idea of parental hyperregulation was coming in....


January 16 at 1:44 pm:

I was very young and I’d be interested to know how teens and adults felt about this at the time, but for me, out in the country, I was still interacting with both the natural world and the technological world. The fear or maybe just avoidance of the out of doors came from the reminders of danger on the one hand ("Stranger Danger" especially) and from so much disconnection from that outside world. Stranger Danger has become an ironic phrase for most 80s babies I think. It was so ingrained and maybe necessarily so, but from the perspective of a child, it was an unfounded fear that couldn’t be fully explained to us because there was this undertone of adult shame that was passing into a child’s environment.


January 16 at 1:55 pm:

You’d get taken back to the bush, was my version of it. You’d get nabbed in the city, in some nether urban space, and disappear into somewhere "wild," and since wilderness did not really exist at the fringes of even a small town, it would be more like you’d disappear into detritus, the ruinous border of nature and culture. Girls in particular were warned that male sexuality was supposed to be this terrible rampant dissatisfied appetite–freak leakage–which would find its fill among those who strayed too far away from the pack.

And of course the myth arises in stride with some real phenomena. Children were the victims of some high-profile murder-abductions in the 80s, here in Ontario. The media blew them up as almost primetime dramatic narratives one could follow daily. And feminism was asking women to inquire into their own freedoms, including sexual freedom.


January 16 at 2:06 pm:

(As you write back to me I’m contemplating the spaces between last, lest, list, lost, lust. The "is" and the "was" of each, how one might lead to the other, and "caution" as the job of the individual subject, self-surveillance.)


January 16 at 2:13 pm:

Yes! This is what I noticed in the research end of writing. That I was growing up in ground zero. The wilderness was where all those "city girls" were bound to end up. And you’ve hinted at the idea of stranger danger as a not just a real threat, but also as a useful trope for reining in sexuality in both men and girls. Male sexuality was problematized; I'm not talking about pedophiles, but all men who become the subject of a general fear. Bernardo showed us that we could *even* be afraid of good-looking men. And we started debating our notions of the "good girl" vs the "bad girl." Bad girls got less media attention (because we expected trauma to come to them?).

Now, living in the city, it’s amazing how much I find the country more threatening. Isolation and solitude have become much more suspect than crowded streets. Talking to those in the country, they feel those in the city are in constant danger. There’s a definite set of fears and expectations we’ve continued to foster about our personal space and potential violence in relation to location.


January 16 at 2:22 pm:

Inasmuch as there’s a generalized and growing fear of the Other/stranger in the novel’s overarching story of a girl gone missing, I’d like to talk a little about the nuclear family as the story’s real location.

This too is a really wrecked zone, isn’t it. Eva has just had a hysterectomy, and has a literal slash through her torso. Roland, her husband, is having an affair and living in a kind of shroud of suppressed pain; some sort of illness seems to be overtaking him, perhaps a kind of blindness. And the two children, Isabel and Andrew, seem like ciphers, unfilled-in entities not quite seen by either parent. I was noticing that the title is/was, read in reverse, is, in effect "saw/see": So tell me a little about the plague of mutual avoidance this family seems to be suffering.


January 16 at 2:25 pm:

(Fascinating. The characters are always negotiating that. I think most of us do. How do we exist as private sexual creatures, especially ones operating outside of comfortable social norms as Roland and Linda do when they engage in an affair while a sexually traumatized body is the central fixation of public attention? The tension between Loss/Lust is very frightening. Linda and Eva in particular are constantly evaluating their public bodies and are most concerned with surveillance. Maybe because they’re women and as women we’re positioned as victim and as always potentially at fault for our victimhood. At times, caution is all the characters feel they have by way of control over their bodies and selves. I’m most interested in "expectation" and how we meet or fail to meet them. Expectation is a subtle thing that we can’t pin-point but we operate under through, as you say, self-surveillance.)


January 16 at 2:33 pm:

((Okay, formally, this is really cool. While you think and work on a written reply to one comment my mind is racing ahead to an extension of the content opened up by having posed or suggested a question. And then you send me a textual brief of what you have been considering in response to the parenthetical question.

Sweetheart, we may have invented a new form of interview. Instead of one ball being tossed back and forth, we could have several–some on the wing as others alight on the page... ))


January 16 at 2:40 pm:

The family is always supposed to be the safe zone and the danger is always "elsewhere." I really didn’t want to let anyone off easy in the book. The idea that society has a problem but I don’t, I think, is pretty damaging. The book begins with the family already fully engrossed by their dysfunctions. Eva has already had the surgery, Roland is already having an affair, Isabel and Andrew are already playing out a complex and problematic mimicry of the adult world. The only thing that is new in their situation is that the public space is considering trauma too.

I like that reading of the title as saw/see. The family exists peripherally, within their relationships with each other through avoidance and self-involvement, and as a social institution. I also wanted to show that violence could be quiet and subtle and complex. It’s not always a gun going off. The IS of it is the daily interactions and personal uncertainties. I’m not a parent, but I am aware that parenthood requires constant negotiation and decision making that can, at times, falter despite good intentions. Violence need not be a finality of a girl in a field. I find that much more terrifying.


January 16 at 2:50 pm:

Your portrayal of the son, Andrew, is particularly harrowing and brave, I think. I was noticing on this read what barely perceptible "strands" of connection there are between this teenaged son and his mother. In many ways, he seems like the most abandoned, and no one is looking out for or after him. (There, I just heard too the movement from a deficit of looking, of sight, to a deficit of looking our for/after, a lack of both mutual insight and parental oversight.)

And how this too, is about a deficit of speech, of voice, of how a person fills him or herself into the world through voice. It is easy to imagine him–and the story suspensefully opens up the possible reading–as a perpetrator of violence, simply because he is the male-in-formation. But what I found myself actually hungering for was for embodied dialogue to form itself in the space between Eva and Andrew, and between Roland and Andrew.


January 16 at 2:55 pm:

"Eva recoils" is one of the last noted gestures between Eva and the son, when he becomes blamed for his sister’s sudden disappearance. There is a reunion scene involving the daughter, but Andrew remains in limbo, like an axe in the air.

It strikes me it took a lot of discipline for you to allow such an unkind representation–can you talk a little about your own process as a writer dealing with familial matters? What did you find tough in the writing of this fiction?


January 16 at 3:04 pm:

I think that’s a really important absence in the book and I had to work to keep him isolated. Everyone is so fixed whether consciously or not, on Isabel. She is always the one who is in potential danger. Andrew, being in his late teens, is ignored. He is not, from a public perspective, in danger. No one is interested in him. When his father behaves badly, Andrew is always expected to look after the situation (to be the adult) rather than the child. This is true of first borns I think too, but males are often neglected in this way. He is abandoned and because of this abandonment, he is left to fall further into fantasy and depression. He is also a predator, but one who has not yet become predatory. His isolation leaves him to a lonely struggle against his desires. The presence of fear and hatred in the public about the end result of his type of sexual confusion means he is further isolated. We want Eva or Roland to come out of their own self-indulgence and see Andrew as he is, rather than as he’s expected to be.


January 16 at 3:06 pm:

((And/or I am protective of Andrew because I have a teenaged son, whose concern about me, if I had a major operation, would be serious and attentive... The affective alienation between family members in your book is as compelling as the spatial remoteness between bodies, exemplified by a child so remote she must be searched for. The retrieval of the BODY being some sort of incitation to the retrieval of the senses, and to emotional contact–. Again this took, I would wager, considerable grit on your part to portray.))


January 16 at 3:22 pm:

(Families are of course complex and some know how to speak to each other and some don’t. We’re also entering this family when each of them has had to deal with physical and emotional strain. The bodies in a way dictate more of the action, inaction and interaction than do the personalities. Eva is fixated on her own losses which are mostly physical. Roland’s illness causes an inability to see which draws him inward. Pain draws us each inward, leaving those on the outside of it unable to access us. Isabel is able to access her mother’s pain only by miming it. Andrew hasn’t found a way.)


January 16 at 3:22 pm:

Note: students are floating about and I'm simultaneously helping them and responding. No need to stop but excuse my stuttering response time.


January 16 at 3:29 pm:

Jenny, your novel, through its refusal of glib upbeat repartee and fast-paced wit–although I know these to be aspects of your own charming personality–allows the reader a certain permission to enter a space of grief. The bright current you bring to multi-valenced language is a source of great energy in this book I find, from which the downward tug of its more serious themes and narratives fall like an anchor.

Some people in Canadian literature talk about sombreness and seriousness as a kind of malaise we all need to shake our writing out of, beyond. As if we should get with the peppy program of churning out entertaining, bright, easily guzzleable product.

Could you tell me what’s allowed you to sustain a tone of engagement with the more difficult world of portraying ambivalence, of damaged and distraught characters?


January 16 at 3:55 pm:

On the level of the current publishing environment, I am surprised this book exists and I think it was allowed because my editor Anne Stone was invested in creating a text that was engaged with language and grief. That she and I were able to work together has really allowed this book to exist, counter to the snappy, hip-swagger and dash Can-lit.

On the level of the writing, I was very aware that this book wasn’t going to be funny. That is a scary thing to enter into, especially so in public readings. It’s risky. I knew that it wasn’t going to be A Complicated Kindness. Maybe I will write a funny book or an easy book sometime, but in this book resisted it. I love Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist which is often cited as one of his few "failed" books. I read an interview with him where he said that he wrote it as a response to critics who continually ignored his central concern in all of his books, which is the problem of language. The Body Artist is entirely focused on that problem in both story and in prose and, therefore, they could only focus on that and as they read this gorgeous book about the failure of language they wrote scathing reviews about DeLillo’s failure to make language accessible.

As a writer and a teacher and a constant student, I’m really engaged in theory. Not that the book ever became a theoretical text for me in the writing of it, but it did become a place for me to extend my thinking on theoretical texts. How we talk about public and private trauma is as much a problem as the traumas themselves and I wanted the book to sit in that nervous space of uncertainty. It couldn’t do that, for me anyway, through snappy dialogue. No one is so confident as to be clever here.


January 16 at 4:04 pm:

It seems to me you’re also really engaged in language itself, and the productive potency of the sign. You are certain enough about what to allow to go unheard, mute, to remain implicit: I think it’s an enormously resonant book which enacts private and public story simultaneously. Thanks so much for discussing some of its spaces and pulses today in our funny new form of faceBook interview, which allows for multiple time zones, just as your novel virtualizes.


January 16 at 4:12 pm:

(In response to the difficulty of writing this, it was emotionally draining yes. My personality is counter to the somberness of the text, and I often wanted to be funny and insert some relief for my own sanity. Linda became that for me a bit. She was the character who I could enter into when I needed to pull away from the heavier tones. She struggles with a lot of the things I struggled with in the writing and the thinking around the book. She too wants things to "be funny" and is the only one who attempts humour in the book.)


January 16 at 4:14 pm:

Thanks for your intelligent and considered observations M. I'm so happy to see this book take on its public life.


January 16 at 4:17 pm:

And Linda has a measure of frankness that allows for her own sadness, her own decision to want and to enact intimacy with Roland, and a physical readiness for Isabel for her brief act of surrogate mothering; She is very dimensional. I particularly like the scene where she is pushing skin into the broth, making soup, but for a moment it also seems like a writerly act, to insist on the body in the brew, to let it steep, to make its transfer into the psyche. There is that dynamic in her presence too of turning sound off and on, of being decisive about what she lets in and out.

Okay, I could talk about your novel for days, and will read and reread is/was. Many thanks.


January 16 at 4:20 pm:

Our attempts at orderly closure burble and burst through their seams. What was, is. Jenny Sampirisi, you are so welcome!!



by Margaret Christakos

Active here in the writing community for about three years, Jenny Sampirisi is already a much-beloved Toronto poet, prose writer, editor, organizer and community member. From the first moments she came to town, after completing her Masters of English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor, she has been a tireless and generous and visionary local mover and shaker. She is currently the managing editor for the literary press BookThug, and for the online visual poetry journal, Other CL/utter. She contributes her time and vision to the executive of the Scream Literary Festival. She also teaches English at Ryerson University where she runs the Ryerson Reading Series.

Tonight we’re here to celebrate the publication of Jenny Sampirisi’s first novel, is/was. Published by Insomniac Press, the book has already received impressive pre-publication praise.

One of the iconic innovative poets of CanLit, Daphne Marlatt, writes, "is/was is a shattering portrait of the psychological effects on one family of sudden and inexplicable violence. Jenny Sampirisi evokes dissociated states of mind and blocked communication with impressive precision. Tuned in to the body and its almost alternate life, this narrative pulls the reader into the gradually unfolding suspense of suspended knowing."

And novelist David Chariandy says: "is/was explores loss in its immensity, but it rivets us, always, to its world of details. To the micro-rituals of conduct during periods of duress. To the concreteness of words on the page and the capillary routes of the sentence. Jenny Sampirisi is at once a marvelously fearless and disciplined writer."

To start us off, I will be offering about eight minutes of critical commentary about a book you are soon to read. This mirrors the way many of us encounter new fiction; through a review, through some form of print response. But it’s okay: I will avoid giving away plot twists. Then Jenny has agreed to read from her novel for us.

"Falling through the slashes of is/was"

Introductory Comments by Margaret Christakos on is/was, by Jenny Sampirisi

December 3, 2008 / The Cameron House, Toronto, ON


In the Canadian experimental lineage of Atom Egoyan’s film Exotica, Lynn Crosbie’s poetry Missing Children and Gail Scott’s novel Main Brides, is/was is a searing story of an average bereft family at its core searching to reunite pain’s palimpsest with its embodied healing.

Why is the average family bereft?

Perhaps it’s the gradual loss of affection between spouses raising children in the tough economy of small town Ontario in the mid-1980s. The Fitch family live a working class life, with television and radio and newspapers. There is no Internet; this alone makes the novel a work of intensely historical fiction, when we consider how far all of our daily practices, our working lives, our social memory and media technologies, have come. In 1983, Jenny Sampirisi was 2 years old; in this writing she imagines girlhood and a set of social norms that predate embodied memory of her own actual girlhood. It is speculative, in this way, for this author; an act of archival reconstruction, with research and context achieved quite possibly through digital technologies, of an era that immediately precedes an interconnected world we now take for granted.

So the Fitch family is bereft because of its pre-digital rural isolation, and its tilt on the edge of an unpredictable future.

Perhaps it’s also because of cancer, bringing the radical "solution" of a suffered hysterectomy, to a wife, Eva Fitch, who is seemingly stranded to her own recovery, in her house for weeks, while a scar agonizingly forms.

Perhaps it’s that drift into extracurricular pleasure resorted to by an equally stranded husband, Roland Fitch, a man who seems uncertain about inhabiting any kind of authoritative certainty, who turns to another married woman, Linda, at a time when he could have been noticing his own wife’s need.

Their two quiet children, Andrew who is 16, and Isabel, 8 or so, seem to float without parenting or social network, to provide their own form of surrogate intimacy to and for each other.

Like the slow insistent zzz of is/was, malaise permeates this family, and ennui and misery, and really it is all quite normal, and mainstream, unglamorous, and suffocatingly resolvable, it feels.

So the first question the book allows us to ask is why are the expected struggles of the individual to simply live in connection with familial others so remarkably bleak and harsh? At what point does "family" stop working, and what does it take to recover? Is recovery desirable?

The modern family is portrayed as itself adrift within a broader social disassemblage, and in the fall of 1983 a young girl in the community goes missing. The town mobilizes to find whatever there is to be found, still a girl or now a body, and so the novel asks us to think about how is a girl a body, and how is a dead body still a girl, and what pillages the space between girl and body. At what point, and through whose gaze?

Because of its many slippages, I’d like to spend a moment on the title of this novel, "is was."

When I say it aloud I can easily elide the presence of the punctuative slash between these two words, a slash that both separates the words, and connects them, forms them into a semantic and phonetic unit.

The title may well be respoken as "is slash was."

Perhaps, though, it’s: "is or was," for sometimes we use the slash to indicate a kind of contradiction between two simultaneous terms. Both are true in a way, or either might be seen to be, depending on point of view.

An expanded, more inclusive way of speaking this title might be "is and or was." Here we suddenly hear a shadow of someone asking quite officially: "Are you or have you ever been (a member of the communist party!)" Rephrase this to: "Are you or have you ever been guilty, worthy of suspicion?"

Here the title invokes several of the other major questions in a town where a child has gone missing: who is guilty, who was likely to have been brewing the violent act, what is risk, what was the sign that was missed, how could we have told in advance of violence that violence was coming?

From malaise to deep alienation: whether strangers or family, people are most connected by the likelihood of betrayal. "Is and or was" are relative knowns and unknowns; Isabel is to Eva the way many daughters are to damaged mothers: entities separated by a slash, almost mutually negating. Roland, Andrew and Linda enter in the thickened zone between Eva’s capacity to reach her own daughter Is: each name contains the word "and." If we read the slash as a line, effectively an "l" between and and or, we have an anagram of the father’s name Roland. And taking this cue, if we read the slash as the letter "el" the title can also be read as a deeply gendered phrase asking in particular about the status of she, the female subject "elle," held between the present and the past, between girlhood and dead or alive body.

Jenny Sampirisi is a marvellous fiction writer and she is also a very good poet. Phrases like sump pump get repeated so we can hear the pleasured nuanced passage between the words sump and pump. The book is made of many chapters called "Files" and here we sense the interlinked simultaneity of "medical file," "photographic evidence," "police casework," "private diary," and experiences that quite literally wear us down. An event of a boy falling and getting stuck behind a mattress in the space between wall and bed is a skilful precursor to how he will fall through other cracks and need rescue. The proximity of the family name "Fitch" to "finch" shimmers alongside the missing girl’s family name "Wren," and invokes typology and the importance of unique identifiers. Families as species of a bird world where twitch is an event and ache is an activity. Sampirisi is also an astute curator of visual and concrete poetry. She understands the multiple references of every line, every letter, every slash. The book begins with a massive slash in the mother’s abdomen where her reproductive organs have been removed, ostensibly to save her life. Andrew the son serves as a wood cutter who wields his axe into logs as if it’s his only allowed experience of touch in the world. Andrew’s young sister, so lonely and unseen by her parents, comes to her brother for contact, and the two siblings, the father surrogate of this naïve and unvalued daughter, have to somehow invent lines of appropriate contact, as if their naturally emergent sexuality is a deviation, an unmanageable excess, a suspicious surplus. So the book asks powerful and compelling questions about desire and arousal, about failed limits and punishabilities, about intimacy and exploitation. Someone’s always at stake, and it’s not always the youngest among us; sons are at stake as much as daughters are in the puzzling, ever-calibrated zone of what a subject desires and what subjects can accountably take from one another.

Pictures are something else taken in this novel. Eva, preparing supplies to join a community search for the missing girl, recuperates her old camera from storage. She will take it along in order to photograph whatever is found. She takes her daughter, Isabel, into the town’s nether fields to help find a dead girl, or is it to have a mother-daughter picnic, neither seem quite sure of why they’d ever be caught dead, or is it alive, on an afternoon in a field together. Sampirisi’s novel lets us ask ourselves what are the occasions we nurture to be alone together as women, intergenerationally. What draws us out of our houses, our silences, to join in a probe, a sweep, a cultural hunt, and for what harvest, for which pleasures, for whose affirmation?

At the same time, Roland and Andrew are building a treehouse for Isabel. Is it to give her an escape or to isolate her further? Is it to consolidate proper boundaries and separations between sister and brother, or to enact a potential camaraderie between inept, remote father and internal, intensely lost son? The novel suggests the many possible reparations that are within a hand’s grasp – those slashes which can accordion open to dense forms of contingent touch, to in-between recoveries of intimacy--which are so often instead deferred, missed, sabotaged, terrifically botched, busted open.

This novel rewards close reading, and I could go on. But I know that now is also then, the moment when you will have a book in your hand, and at that spectacular time you will be able to recall how it was for you when you heard Jenny Sampirisi read from her bravely sad, innovatively reclamative novel, is/was.

Margaret Christakos has published seven books of poetry and a Trillium-nominated novel, and runs "Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon." Her most recent collection is What Stirs, from Coach House.




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