I tell stories

by Sameer Vasta

Snail mail boy living in an email world. Over-user of the discretionary comma.

Read this first


There will come a time in a conversation with a stranger or a new friend when they will ask me why my work has taken me to so many different countries, why I never stayed in place for too long. The answer I always give, somewhat cheekily, somewhat accurately, is that “I get antsy after more than three years in one city.”

It has been five years since I last moved back to Toronto. Before that, for more than a decade, I jumped from city to city every two or three years, always looking for the next new thing, looking for a new adventure or challenge or just a change of pace and scenery.

About a year after moving back to Toronto, a former friend once laughed and called me a transient, a drifter. He chuckled as he said, in jest and in good nature, that if I had been born a few decades earlier, I would have been among those that rode the freight trains, jumping off in a new town and setting...

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Small ball, long rope.

In third grade, I entered a speech competition in which we were encouraged to use “visual aids” during our presentation. At that time, I was a bit of a budding astronomer, and would pore over books about astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, so I knew my speech would have something to do with the cosmos.

(Aside: I once told an adult at another speech competition that I wanted to be a cosmologist when I grew up; that adult tried to correct me and say that the right word was “cosmetologist” and that it was really interesting that I wanted to work with make-up. I tried to correct that adult in the most tactful way I could, telling him that cosmology and cosmetology were completely different things, but he refused to acknowledge that cosmology was an actual scientific pursuit.)

For that speech in third grade with visual aids, I decided to talk about the relationship between planet size,...

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Canada’s racist problem.

A cultural system that values a white voice more than a black one is a problematic system that must be fixed by those same white voices. This argument is masterfully made by Andray Domise, in White Supremacy is Not a Black Problem:

We’re still living in societies that rationalize why black people occupy a lower caste status, are still being disenfranchised, still struggle to receive justice. To be black in North America is to know that our skin negates our expectation of safety, and that any manner of white violence against our bodies will be isolated, explained, and often excused. To be black in North America is to speak out against that white violence done to our bodies, and brace for the retort that “black on black violence” is a more important conversation to have. It is to know that our identities—our art, music, food, and colourful vernacular, and even our skin and hair—only...

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I revisit the books I love regularly; re-reading books, like re-watching movies and television shows, helps me appreciate the style and structure more than I could upon first re-read, when the plot drives my impression.

Starting a few months ago, I began writing reviews of the books I read. (This review of Station Eleven is a good place to start, if you’re interested in checking them out.) Those reviews are mostly based on a single read of the text; I wonder how they would change if I were to write them again, after reading each book for a second or third time.

I read Reading Is Forgetting in the New York Review of Books three times. My first read-through was to grasp the overall message of the article; the second and third readings were more revealing of how Tim Parks structured his essay and of his careful choice of language. He captured, quite well, this dichotomy of wanting to be...

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Diversions: June

A selection of essays, articles, and blog posts that inspired me this month.

Mow the lawn
There is a certain happiness I find in the mundane, in the tasks I must do and sometimes put off because I forget the joy that comes from not just the grand gestures but also in the small, everyday moments of our lives.

Revisiting Jurassic Park’s Tangled Bookish Roots
Lots of interesting facts about how Jurassic Park began as a screenplay turned novel turned screenplay turned cinema franchise. Here’s an interesting one about The Lost World: Crichton didn’t originally want to write a sequel, but Spielberg convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

Some really interesting thoughts here about the difference between technology and “tech” — one of them leading to transformation and skill-development, the other leading to comfort and ease.

Hello, let’s talk about a park
Naming a...

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Train travel, part one.

There are seven children under the age of six years old on this car of the train, car 4, on the way to Ottawa from Toronto. Five of them are boys, and they are all seated a few rows away; I do not get to really get to know them or their mannerisms as they spend their time mostly in their seats, spending the majority of the trip staring into iPad screens either watching videos or playing games. When they do talk, they talk loudly, but do not scream or whine. They are well-behaved children.

There is one young girl, perhaps five years old, in the row behind me, and her behavior can be considered saintly even among a train car full of well-behaved children. She barely speaks the entire ride, instead staring intently at the contents of the stack of books she brought with her in her backpack. Between naps and reading, it is almost possible to forget she is there: I hear her only when she...

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Hot Pink

The main reason I enjoy reading short fiction is because it is a genre that lends itself to experimentation. Unlike longer pieces of fiction, short stories provide a format that allows for play, exploration, and trial and error; it is easier to try something new and crazy in a short story because successes and failures both end after a few pages. The writer quickly moves on, and so do we, as readers.

In Hot Pink, Adam Levin experiments freely and isn’t afraid to fall flat. (He rarely does fall, in this collection.) Mr. Levin’s tinkering with form and style is akin to the rapid prototyping done by the father character in the opening story, Frankenwittgenstein: needs and appetites of the public change quickly, and Mr. Levin is doing his best to keep ahead of the changing reader expectations.

Frankenwittgenstein, like every other short story in the collection, does not end in any kind of...

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Not Quite What I Was Planning / It All Changed In An Instant

How would you describe your life in six words? Writing a six-word story is hard enough; the difficulty of encapsulating a whole life in a few dozen characters feels almost impossible.

Thousands of people have tackled this daunting task, and the folks at online storytelling magazine SMITH decided to collect the best ones and publish them in a multitude of collections. The first two collections, Not Quite What I Was Planning and It All Changed In An Instant, are easy to consume in a short sitting; I devoured the hundreds of six-word memoirs in both collections while lying in the hammock after lunch on a sunny afternoon. The first collection is much more powerful than the second, probably as a function of putting the best submissions in the first book without realizing that there would be enough for many more publications, but both have standout inclusions that either had me laughing,...

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The first thing I do when I walk into any new building is to look straight up. My eyes are drawn to the ceiling immediately, and I often stand there, just inside a doorway, transfixed by the textures and patterns in the solid above me.

I have been accused, once in a while, of having my head in the clouds, of not noticing what is directly in front of me or below my feet. I trip on cracks in the sidewalk more often than I should, and have done my fair share of walking into mailboxes. The accusation, however, is inaccurate — instead, my head is in the ceiling, in the tops of the built environment around us. Even when I am outdoors, I am admiring the structures on the street, wondering what they would look like if I was standing inside them and looking straight up at the sky.

The decision to move into our current home in Cabbagetown was made for a multitude of reasons, but part of it was...

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Give a little.

There’s a board game I owned about a decade ago that included a box full of cards; on each card was a deep, philosophical question. They were questions that challenged the player to think deeply and widely at the same time, and to answer in a way that reflected not just our answer to the question, but how we came to that answer in the first place.

It was an exercise in philosophy, disguised as a board game.

I don’t remember the name of the game, but I do remember that it was targeted at adults. At the time, I never questioned that targeting, but recently I’ve been wondering: why couldn’t those same questions be asked of children?

Brila, a charitable organization based in Montreal but with programs across the country, has been wondering that same thing for several years, now. The premise behind Brila is simple: young people have the capacity to think deeply and articulate those...

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