Joanne Vannicola is a skilled narrator; her lifetime of acting, advocacy, and screenwriting are testament to that. Born and raised in Montreal, she takes to writing her own story with the same passion and dedication she brings to her roles on-screen, and with the added dimension of portraying her home landscape.

It was instinctive, my response to perceived physical threats by men, which triggered everything in me, reminded me of my father. Every nerve in my body was hard-wired to expect danger. This protective internal beast often kept me safe, but it sometimes created more trouble than I could manage.

There is a reason why landscape is so pivotal in literary works that investigate trauma, particularly within queerness/queer identity (think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and the representations of the hard, but deeply traumatized, people of Georgia); landscape is a place that either amplifies or smothers queer existence (Brandon Teena in the plains of Nebraska, or Langston Hughes in Harlem). Vannicola’s memoir is no different. Following her life as a child of two extraordinarily abusive parents, she weaves together her own fragmented story using her mother as both the beginning and the ending, a method that is highly intuitive to trauma, particularly that of traumatized children. What skill and mastery Vannicola employs, particularly in the face of her most brutal moments, which others may not have survived.

It is additionally complicated to tell a story of caring for an abuser in the last days of their life (see Ariel Gore’s masterful memoir, The End of Eve. And yet, for Vannicola, this appears to be a part of her reclamation process; in helping her mother pass out of this world and perhaps into another, she frees her own body, liberation and salvation in the wake of confinement and damnation.

To tell a story and archive an experience in the face of horror, one could argue, is the very legacy that queer people, especially queer artists, have been left with. It allows others to take refuge and find themselves inside said stories, which empowers them to then tell their own. Vannicola, whose most redemptive moments come in the form of lesbian bars and the salvation of other women’s bodies, does this work with grace, skill and grit, which makes this novel truly one of a time when it is most needed.

 

All We Knew But Couldn’t Say
by Joanne Vannicola
Dundurn, Toronto Ontario
Paperback, 9781459744226, 264 pp.
June 2019



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