No Word Without Its Company: Jay Ruzesky in Conversation with Erin Soros

Erin Soros

Malahat Review Book Reviews Editor Jay Ruzesky talks with Erin Soros, 2022 Open Season Awards contest creative nonfiction judge, about language as energy, creativity arriving through chance and accretion, and how she cares about stakes, risk, and urgency in a creative nonfiction piece.


A settler writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Erin Soros builds her projects through academic research, working-class narratives, and insight from a decade as a rape crisis counsellor and literacy coordinator within Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood where she has family roots. She has received national and international awards for her poetry and nonfiction, such as The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize and a place in Best Canadian Poetry 2020 (Biblioasis) for her long poem “Weight” as well as a 2021 National Magazine Award for the lyric piece “Cord,” which earned gold for “One of a Kind Storytelling.” Her fiction, which draws on oral history with BC loggers, has received the CBC Literary Award and the Commonwealth Award for the Short Story. This year she is a Shadbolt Fellow at Simon Fraser University, writing a collection of hybrid essays on trauma-induced psychosis and the psychiatric and police response to it. 

In your work, you are a shape-shifter, by which I mean that your poetry uses techniques of memoir, and your nonfiction uses techniques of poetry and also narrative. As a contest judge, are you looking for experimentation with form in creative nonfiction, or does the subject carry more weight? 

Oh I like shape-shifter: thank you. I don’t believe in literary genre or academic discipline, but I won’t say that here or no one will hire me.

I have never learned how to take content out of form. If anyone knows how to distinguish the texture, syntax, rhythm and shape of language from what language contains, they should contact some really interesting literary theorists and give them the news.

I think from the writers I list below you can tell my biases, so I won’t pretend I don’t have them. In fact, when I was struggling to judge another contest, trying to be more neutral or fair—ha—my friend reminded me that the very point is that they are giving me a chance to express my own aesthetic as a reader.

I will say I am not keen on clever work. I mean clever for its own sake. You know: look how smart I am and look how little all of this matters. I care about stakes, risk, urgency. The saying had to take place. I yearn to feel language carve out my insides and leave something I don’t know yet how to name.

First of all, thank you for serving as creative nonfiction judge for the Open Season Awards. You have entered and won contests, including The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize and a National Magazine Award. What does it feel like to be on the other side of a writing competition?

Ha! Terrifying! I’m a confident reader in some ways—I love to be able to respond to a text and address how it does what it does. And I have good hunches. When I read my first sentences of Gayl Jones, Erna Brodber, Dionne Brand—outside of a class, in 1990—I experienced what I call this.     Oh THIS.    Here.    Something.    A pulse, an opening, resonance.

But that immediate connection is also bound with a rising anxiety when I need to hierarchize or grade. How does such an assessment attach? And how many times do we have to learn how our oppressive histories have failed to number some texts at all?

My university education and now my own teaching take place in English-speaking, colonial centres, where there often exists so little interest—or rather so much crafted uninterest—in attending to the cultural framework and institutional history of categorizing and canons. I know my own aesthetics were trained to be colonial, reflecting and producing the colonial—and while I can read against that training, the walls may remain in place.

Picking out one work of nonfiction as a prize winner is also an absurdity. We say one text is judged the winner, yet texts signify only in relation. There is no book without its neighbours. There is no word without its company. Yet I do think it’s worthwhile absurdity. For emerging writers, a prize can be a chance. For most writers, the news can be delightful. That’s where the terrifying bit comes. I know a writer’s journey can be nudged by an award. I paid for my schooling with these kinds of gambles.

And when we win a prize, we get to spin around and feel excited about our work connecting with somone in a meaningful way. Isn’t that a wonderful day? In a time of hard days? An award for a literary work is a turn on the carousel and when you get that ride, celebrate under all the sparkly lights.

When did you “become a writer” and what kind of things were you writing (and reading) during your apprenticeship? 

I love this question and I’ve never honestly been asked it and now when I can’t sleep, I have been pondering this eclectic journey.

Again, the creativity arrived through chance—not a single shazam event, but an accretion.

One tiny example: when I was very little—talking, not yet reading—within a working-class family where stories came not in books but oral forms—there was an old woman down the hall in our apartment building and she used to babysit me. Mrs. McBride, who I called McAbide. Each time my mom went away, I had to learn to negotiate this mundane absence. I had McAbide and she had these glorious books—pop-up books—and in my memory I am lying on a bed beside McAbide and when these books opened, the paper unfolded to become three-dimensional, and not just in a paper form, but an entry to another world. Their pages are sparkling, the faeries translucently embodied: not exactly real—a difference remained between a nymph and McAbide reading beside me with her powdery, musty smell. But more than paper. When a forest path emerged within the pop-up book, I could follow it.

These were years before school. Throughout elementary school and high school, through more serious moments of loss, I found recourse through books. I read books with a flashlight while my Nana said the rosary in the top bunk and that was a nightly security. I wrote my own poems and stories, from grade one to grade twelve. A way to exist. Independent creative writing stopped almost completely in university: instead, I learned to sneak story and poetry into my undergraduate essays—I soon did that always, in various ways. And then I read Chrystos: Aruna Srivastava, my chance teacher, recommended I read Chrystos. The encounter wasn’t one of recognition or collapse of difference. But it was something. Chrystos can write that? A rush forward of my own language as energy, to the page, propulsion, as if my own poems had to shout hello across the street.

Could you point us to some creative nonfiction you’ve read recently that you’ve been excited by?

Damn this question is so hard because I want you to read all the things! The power!

Okay, some short pieces first, some recent, some not. I am a loyal re-reader. And again—chance here, today: these writers, in no particular order, and these samples. You might find your own this.

Keguro Machira, “On Quitting”

Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Fatal Naming Rituals”

Liz Harmer, “Catalogue for a Coming of Age”

Canisia Lubrin, “53 Acts of Living”

Isabella Wang, "Eleven Stops Until I'm Half Way Home"

Tara McQuire, “I Can Feel Him Breathing”

Jen Sookfong Lee, “Once That Girl”

A.M. Reaume, “I Wrote 100,000 Words in a Month or When Productivity is Really Crip Grief”

Domink Parisien, “In Good Faith”

Anne Stone, “Writing-Not-Writing”

Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek, “Words, worlds and the possibility of an us”

Christina Sharpe, “Lose your Kin”

Bethany Hindmarsh, “On Choosing”

Dionne Brand, On Narrative, Reckoning and the Calculus of Living and Dying

Rowan McCandless, “Found Objects” (not available online)
Issue 206 table of contents:

And I was so pleased to have free access to the National Magazine Award winners this year. Of these, I’d especially recommend:

Joshua Whitehead, “Who Names the Rez Dog Rez?”

Alicia Elliott, “Still Up in the Air”

Ish Aderomnu, “They Called Me Prisoner 183645”

Daniel Allen Cox, “The Glow of Electrum”

As for books: I’m re-reading Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, and Jenny Heijun Wills' Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related. I loved Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life and want to re-read that one.

Also reading for the first time: Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Anne Boyer’s The Undying and Maymoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief.

I am pausing on buying books until I’ve signed a lease. I have Jordan Abel’s NISHGA on hold at the library.

Your academic work blending psychoanalytic theory with linguistic expression is fascinating to me, and I think this is the first time I’ve read someone’s postdoctoral research notes and thought “I can’t wait to read this!” Could you tell us a little about pushing boundaries in the academic world (compared to the literary world)? 

I think you are the only person in the world who has read my postdoctoral research notes. I’m not even sure I’ve read my postdoctoral research notes.

I find the humanities spaces compelling from an anthropological perspective: we are well trained to embrace in a book what we often reject in life. If Christopher Marlowe tried to get a job at the UBC English Department, would he get hired? If a Black student walked around talking about things this student could see and others could not—claiming to possess the bluest eyes, for example—would a professor extend care or would he call the police? I'm referencing Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. We are much better at addressing forces of oppression and trauma that underlie madness *when presented in a novel,* and thinking with compassion and respect about the very meaning behind what might be called a character's symptom, than we are individually or collectively at responding with humanity to those who express similarly unusual states when walking across a university campus. 

I don’t think I’m really pushing boundaries in the university. I publish well-edited phrases in peer-reviewed articles and win fellowships to tip my hat at Cornell. To really push boundaries would be to organize others to stop demanding that all students participate through spontaneous speech while maintaining eye-contact in rapt stillness—if that form of embodiment is not how all students learn. To really push boundaries would be to ask repeatedly, and without white civility and its financial, corporeal protections, why UBC builds condos for the wealthy instead of addressing what the land acknowledgements might really mean. To really push boundaries would be to recruit tenured professors in nation-wide walkouts to stop the ongoing exploitive precarity of adjunct staff. To really push boundaries would be to bring the classroom to the Downtown Eastside and to think with people of multiple ages and abilities: to theorize and question and imagine together—in tension, in dialogue—what it means to learn and to live and how our words can make a future.


Jay Ruzesky

Jay Ruzesky