November 7, 2003
Kostash revels in residence
Program offers opportunities to new and veteran writers
Myrna Kostash says she feels "like a princess" these days.
The celebrated Alberta author is having a blast as the English department's new writer-in-residence. Long accustomed to creative solitude, joining a community of like-minded people is an experience Kostash is taking full advantage of.
"It's a wonderful gig," she says, hardly able to contain herself. "There are very few perks that Canadian writers get, but thank God for the University of Alberta and Canada Council, that they haven't dropped the writer-in-residence program. For one year out of your wretched life as a scribbler, you get this lovely chance to make some money and be surrounded by people at work."
And the benefits aren't hard to take either, she adds. "I've been a life-long freelance writer, so it's astonishing to me that I have a dental plan and vacation pay, and a professional expenses account."
Since September, Kostash has been invited to speak to a number of classes in the English department, some of them actually studying her work as part of a course. To have her particular brand of writing taken seriously (dubbed 'creative non-fiction' for want of a more accommodating term), is heartening to say the least, she says. Kostash is perhaps best known for All of Baba's Children (1978), No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987), and Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe (1993).
"There's a great deal of interest in non-fiction now," she says. "It really boggles the mind, because non-fiction has been (traditionally) very marginalized in the literary establishment. Now there are people teaching memoir, autobiography, Canadian non-fiction and women's non-fiction."
Kostash is currently hard at work on two projects, one conveniently assigned to her office space, the other unfolding at home. "It's the first time I've been able to do this, " she says. The first is A Reader's Companion to the Saskatchewan River, an anthology of texts, "some more literary than others," about the river, organized around places the reader might visit.
"The whole idea is that, in the same way people go to cities and read these literary companions, people can go to places on the river and read all about it - everything from First Nations legends of origin to poetry people are writing right now."
Her other project is called Memoirs of Byzantium (a working title, because she doesn't really "know what it is yet."). It is shaping up to be a creative, non-fiction exploration of the life and influence of the Byzantine saint, Demetrius--part personal memoir, part history, part confession, says Kostash.
"St. Demetrius was huge in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but not well known in the West at all," she says. Using the saint and his various cultural associations as a springboard, the work will also be a kind of Balkans travelogue, as well as a history of the migration of the orthodox church to Canada.
The rest of her time is spent nurturing fledgling writers. So far Kostash has seen a steady stream of hopeful writers-to-be, mostly from off campus, who drop by seeking advice. "And I've actually been impressed by most of the writing," she says. "It's not as bad as you might fear."
Her big hope is what every writer-in-residence in Canada dreams about, she says: that some unknown, unpublished writer will walk through her door and turn out to be the next star of Canadian letters. It's rare, but it's happened to her before, in the mid-90s during her residency at a library in Regina. One day a writer named Trevor Herriott handed her a manuscript; the following year Herriott's River in a Dry Land was short-listed for the Governor General's Award.
And so for this year at least, Kostash's mission is to help non-fiction writers take their kick at the can: "This is their chance to get the same kind of tender love and care that people writing poetry and fiction get."