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About the Author

Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla's first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize (Best First Book, Canada & Caribbean) and longlisted for the Giller Prize. A frequent contributor to The Walrus, the Globe and Mail and CBC radio, he is also the winner of an Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction, two National Magazine Awards for humour writing, and has twice had stories included in the Journey Prize anthology. He was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, grew up in London, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario. His most recent novel is People Park from House of Anansi.

Books by this Author

“i just wanna let all U women know, each and every special one of U, first off right now that I know how lonely U R feelin’. But B4 you start to feel like no one’s left, know I can feel U out there. And I know U can feel me 2. And that’s why I’m telling U all right now, all U women left on Planet Earth, that we’re gonna make somethin’ special 2gether again. I want each of U 2 look out at the stars 2nite and know that we’re all lookin’ at the same sky, and I want U 2 pick just one star and imagine that I’m lookin’ at it 2. And wherever U R I want that 2 B UR guidin’ star. I want it 2 B the star that brings us 2gether, that brings U 2 me. And I want U 2 follow that star as long as it takes U, all the way 2 me, cuz I’m waitin’. I’m waitin’ here 4 U, women of Planet Earth. We gotta cum 2gether. Because it’s not over. We’re not thru. Cum 2 me. We can make it. If U believe in me, 2gether we can believe in love, and I believe in U.”

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Kill the Mall

The requirements of the residency were this: 50% of the time I was meant to be “engaging the public” and the other 50% “making work.” Also, every week I was obliged to submit a Progress Report, culminating with a Final Report upon the termination of the residency, at which point the work I’d been making was also to be completed. How I was meant to be “engaging the public” was not specified. Nor was the type of “work” I was meant to be “making.” And since I’d no idea how to go about “engaging the public” or “making work,” it seemed impossible to gauge my progress, let alone craft reports on such a thing. How would it all end? In disgrace.

So on the first day of the residency a sort of pre-emptive humiliation tortured my spirits as I piloted my bicycle across town to the mall, which sprawled at the edge of the suburbs like the last standing outpost of some lost civilization. My application had been accepted via a simple one-page letter that outlined the preceding requirements and a date I was to show up and a date I was to leave. In addition to a small rucksack of clothing and hygiene equipment, this letter, tucked into my shirt pocket for safekeeping, was the only personal item I brought that morning. It was, after all, my ticket inside.

After chaining my bicycle to a conveniently located rack, I was greeted at the south entrance by the mall’s caretaker, a woman named K. Sohail, per her nametag, who wore a beige uniform, a peaked cap, a monstrous ring of keys on her hip, and a perturbed expression, as if I’d interrupted something significant, or at least habitual. It suggested that my presence was, immediately, a nuisance. With an apologetic wince I pressed my Acceptance Letter to the glass and waited for K. Sohail to give it a once-over before she unlocked the door and permitted me inside.

Following a brisk, wordless handshake, with the squeak of her sneakers and the jingle of her keys echoing down the empty halls, K. Sohail led me to a store retrofitted with a small bathroom and a sleeping nook tucked behind a screen. She gestured vaguely toward a desk at which, I assumed, I was expected to produce the alleged work that would comprise 50% of my time; “engaging the public” would apparently happen out in the mall, among the masses.

Even in the abstract, “engaging the public” was a source of distress: I’m at my best at a remove, naturally more observer than mingler, and not much for small talk. Socially, I often sense that I’m disappointing people. But now, confronted with the very spaces in which I was meant to be fraternizing, the impending mortifications were all too vivid. I could think of nothing more dreadful than stalking the mall, arresting shoppers mid-purchase to engage in that brand of casual banter which, as I understood it, confers neither complete disinterest nor alarmingly intimate confession, but a generically moderate politesse that terrifies no one, and in fact somehow promotes camaraderie and goodwill. Such a thing requires an interpersonal dexterity, and perhaps personal dexterity as well, that, then as now, I’ve never been able to achieve. So I could predict the mall’s patrons fleeing my “engagements” with disquiet—and possibly panic.

Acceptance Letter aside, it seemed unlikely that I was the right person for the job. In fact I could sense K. Sohail already sizing up my fraudulence, perhaps even forecasting the first travesty of a Progress Report she’d collect from me—and share in disbelief with her colleagues: Behold this buffoon! Did she have the power to terminate my residency? As always in moments of disgrace, in a sort of ingratiating mania I began to grovel. To not just acknowledge my inadequacies but to exploit them for pity.

I opened with some basic arithmetic.

Did the terms of the residency, I asked K. Sohail, not fail to account for time spent sleeping, eating and in the bathroom, activities that comprise about 40% of an average day, figuring eight hours for sleeping, an hour for eating and forty-five minutes for various ablutions and expulsions? Unless that 40% was meant to double as time spent “engaging the public”—if I was meant to be on display while, say, bathing—and “making work,” whatever that might entail. But if not, the residency allotted only 60% of my time to divide between “engaging the public” and “making work,” or 30%, then, each. Which was a far cry from the 50-50 split outlined in my Acceptance Letter, I told K. Sohail.

K. Sohail scratched her arm, glanced over her shoulder, straightened her belt.

Wasn’t it, I continued, gesticulating madly, a concern that I would be spending more time performing unsanctioned activities than either of the two requirements of the residency? What if this sort of lawless behaviour were grounds for disqualification, I proposed to K. Sohail. It was an invitation to admit that the entire arrangement was a farce, but also an appeal to her humanity: No, I hoped she’d say, don’t be silly, you’ll be fine; you are fine.

Instead she showed me her watch.

The mall opened at nine.

It was quarter to.

Then, in what could have been an act of obligatory hospitality or a slyly cruel attempt at further humiliation, exposing me to every inch of the corridors that I would imminently debase, K. Sohail offered to let me tag along on her morning rounds.

What to do but obey?

Her sneakers proclaiming authority with each squeak, my own loafers pattering wretchedly behind, we passed shuttered shops yet to open for the day’s trade: a jeweller; a plus-size clothier; a shoe store; a hairdresser replete with tri-colour pole. (Blood and bandages, I thought grimly.) In the centre of the mall was a handless clock that towered over a dried-up fountain; beyond it was the food court, but this we skirted to escalate to the mall’s second level. At the top of the escalators was a vitrine dominated by sunflowers pressing their fat heads to the glass—like prisoners watching us pass.

K. Sohail took me down a narrow corridor to her office, a closet-sized room with a desk and a chair and a sink and some cleaning supplies, including a mop standing upright in its bucket, and an entire wall of closed-circuit TVs. On one of these TVs was the space assigned to me for the residency. The view scanned left to right and back again. I’d not noticed a camera previously. As I watched, the image crackled and fizzed. K. Sohail rapped the set with her knuckles. For a moment, a strange, weblike threading drizzled over the screen, as if a spider were casting its net over the camera lens. But then the picture jumped and cleared, and my living quarters returned, static and empty.

I sensed the caretaker waiting. The tour appeared to be wrapping up. Yet the way she lingered suggested that something remained unfinished. A formal expression of gratitude? A blood oath? Payment? I’d brought no cash, only plastic. Would she “take a card”?

But then a new horror dawned on me: what if the appropriate closure to the tour, with the two of us packed into that snug little room, bodies close, was a bout of lovemaking? Perhaps right there, on the floor of K. Sohail’s office—“sealing the deal.”

I turned from the monitors, dreading that I might discover K. Sohail unfolding a cot in the corner of the room, unbuckling her belt, preparing to have me.

But she was already gone, squeaking down the hall to the service elevator.

I joined her as the car arrived with a bang. Using a leather strap, she hauled open the doors, which parted top to bottom like a mandible. In we climbed and descended. I noticed, apart from two buttons conventionally marked 2 (for the second floor) and G (for ground), a third button with no corresponding symbol, blank as a lozenge stuck to the steel panelling. Before I could ask K. Sohail where it led, she was heaving open the doors and leading me past a room heaped with garbage into the main thoroughfare, where the first few patrons were filtering in from outside.

The mall was open for business.

My residency had begun.

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People Park

People Park

also available: Paperback
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To Sweep the Light

To Sweep the Light

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The Journey Prize Stories 22

ALISSA YORK: There’s so much to say about the jurying process. It was an intense, immersive experience, reading and evaluating all those diverse narratives; at times my mind swam with characters and settings, images and events. In the end, though, I believe we all zeroed in on those stories that really stayed with us – the ones that not only moved into our hearts and minds, but stuck around to unpack.
JOAN THOMAS: When you think about it, all we read was the equivalent in pages of two or three novels – and yet there were all those separate imagined worlds to enter. The writer of a short story has so few pages to set up the rules of the game and then play it out. I found I had to do my reading in short sessions to really savour the concentrated force of each story.
PASHA MALLA: One thing I think we were all looking for was to be surprised. And I hope readers of this anthology will find surprises – whether in language, structure, voice, emotional oomph, or in the unexpected twists and turns of a well-told story.
AY: Absolutely – good fiction surprises us the way life does, which is odd, given how easily a story can fail by sticking to “what really happened.” I find the sweetest surprises are often the small ones, such as the moment in Lynne Kutsukake’s  “Mating” when the protagonist focuses on the whorl of greying hair at the crown of his wife’s head and feels “an inexplicable tenderness for this secret spot, a sudden urge to protect it with the palm of his hand.” Nothing like getting swept up in a character’s unexpected rush of love.
JT: It was remarkable to see what different stories two writers could produce on similar subjects – in the case of “Mating” and Carolyn Black’s “Serial Love,” a subject as specific as speed dating. “Mating” beautifully juxtaposes traditional Japanese cultural attitudes with contemporary dating practices, and “Serial Love” listens in on a first encounter between a man and woman and reveals menace in every word and gesture. It’s a story of such precisely balanced ambiguity that its possibilities surprise you with every reading.
PM: And then there were those stories that grab you by the throat from the first line. From their cracking openings on, every sentence of Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Laud We the Gods” and Mike Spry’s “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren” is visceral, unsettling, uncompromising, and astonishing. Both are told in the sort of voice that needles its way into your brain and stays with you long after the story is over.
JT: I’ve come around to thinking that point of view is everything, how fully you inhabit it. Devon Code’s “Uncle Oscar,” for example, pleased me with every detail that fell under the alert eye of the thirteen-year-old protagonist: the upsidedown milk crate that served as a footstool in the basement tv room, a Sepultura T-shirt and an Ibanez guitar, the smell of the unbathed uncle (“a sweet smell like brown bananas”) – it’s Leo’s eye on ordinary stuff that aligns us entirely with his experience.
AY: Yes, and those same details often serve as evidence of an original mind at work. Among others, I’m thinking here of “The Dead Dad Game” by Laura Boudreau and “Ship’s Log” by Eliza Robertson, both of which deliver fresh, even startling, takes on the popular theme of childhood loss and grief.
PM: I think that sort of originality is what really set these twelve stories apart from the rest of the pack – which is saying something, as I don’t think there was a single one of the seventy-four submissions that wasn’t a solid, well-crafted piece of writing.
AY: I love the fact that the search for the “best writing” led us to such diverse styles: the mad aria of “Laud We the Gods” at one end of the spectrum; the haunting plainsong of Andrew Boden’s “Confluence of Spoors” at the other. So different from one another and so perfectly themselves.
JT: And, of course, to diverse worlds – it’s always a small miracle to find a world created whole within a short story. I was especially struck by writers who used settings we know and managed to disorient us by peeling back that sense of the familiar. “Confluence of Spoors” did it in a stroke, as a hunter follows a trail of blood into Vancouver’s East Side. Danielle Egan’s “Publicity” did it too, giving us a barely futuristic and surreal Vancouver.
PM: “Confluence of Spoors” is a good example of a story, too, that deserves and benefits from repeat readings. To me that’s the mark of a truly strong piece of short fiction: something that engages on the surface, but then, when you go back to it a second (and third) time, gets richer, more nuanced and layered. I feel the same way about “Ship’s Log,” which is immediately captivating and charming, but sneaks up on you emotionally; you finish, gutted, and want to go back and figure out what was really going on the whole time.
JT: Then of course there was our conversation the day the jury met to discuss the stories, which opened up all sorts of new meanings in the stories. “When in the Field with Her at His Back” is one of the stories that I thought especially rewards a second look. You’re aware of the buried past as a diplomat returns to postwar Eastern Croatia to look for an old lover. Revisiting this story, I realized how skilfully Ben Lof had knit his characters’ lives together through the image of unexploded landmines.
AY: I agree, the landmines worked beautifully – a perfect underlying symbol for a story about the fragmented, dissociative state so many suffer in the wake of war. I’m fascinated by the power of well-chosen objects in many of these narratives: the soggy picture of Marilyn Monroe in Andrew MacDonald’s coming-of-age piece, “Eat Fist!” (“I find her pulpy corpse floating in the drinking fountain.”); the perfectly creepy Curious George poster in “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren.” And Pasha, I remember you brought up the impact of the tights-as-tourniquet in “The Longitude of Okay” by Krista Foss – devastating!
PM: Yeah, and also, in the same story, the belt used to secure the classroom door – there’s such power in the dramatic repurposing of everyday objects, imbuing them with sudden, unexpected narrative and emotional resonance. That sort of thing always sticks with me, and maybe speaks more broadly to what I often love in fiction: seeing the familiar cast in a new light.
JT: What moved me most about “The Longitude of Okay” were Krista Foss’s characters. This story, about a school shooting, could so easily have been contained and prescribed by its subject, but it became instead an insightful exploration of the teacher’s self-doubt. And the students are deftly drawn in a few strokes. They’re so real.
PM: The last thing I wanted to mention, and which we haven’t touched on, was humour. Being funny is so hard to do well, as it relies so much on surprising the reader, and “Uncle Oscar” and “Serial Love” have some killer lines that totally cracked me up. Devon Code’s thirteen-year-old narrator imagining cocaine to “feel like taking 500 dumps all at once” is so perfectly hilarious, and I laughed out loud a number of times at Carolyn Black’s wonderfully dry descriptions of speed dating.
AY: So often those moments that make us laugh (or cry, for that matter) occur when the writer has hit the nail on the head, getting a character’s voice, thought, or action exactly right. It’s perhaps the fundamental challenge of writing convincing, compelling fiction, this business of spinning people out of the air – a challenge that the contributors to this year’s edition of The Journey Prize Stories meet and exceed with style.

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