Tanis MacDonald is a poet, writer, and professor. She won the Bliss Carman Poetry Prize in 2003 and was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in 2013 for her book The Daughter’s Way. Her other work includes the poetry collections Mobile and Arguments with the Lake and the book Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City. Originally from Winnipeg, she lives near Ose’kowáhne in southwestern Ontario as a grateful guest on traditional Haudenosaunee territory.

Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female

Published by Wolsak and Wynn Publishers

Tanis MacDonald

I hope that readers begin to challenge their assumptions about the spaces they pass through and how they do it: who is allowed, who is safe, and who might be “locomoting” differently than themselves.

How did you come to write Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female?  What inspired you to write about how walking impacts people’s lives?

There are a lot of books out there about walking, and I’ve been intrigued for a long time in the paradoxes of being encouraged to walk for one’s health, for understanding of the place in which you live, for a way to reset your brain, and being warned that women (and other vulnerable people) must walk in certain ways, in certain spaces, and under certain conditions. I wanted to explore the nuances of these contradictions, and question how they work in my own life, as someone who is aging, who is intermittently disabled by degenerative disk disease, and who has experienced violence, yet still wants to walk or even needs to walk. How can we justify in our bodies these experiences of profound peace and connection with threats (and sometimes experiences) of violence? And the standards of walking also interest me: in what ways is walking for everybody except that expert hikers “do it better”? Should we be thinking in those terms at all? In Straggle, I hold a microscope up to these questions among others.

Which essay in your collection was the most fun to write?

Lol, I love this question. I was pretty gleeful writing most of this book. Of the shorter pieces, I’d have to go with “Birdwatching for Beginners: an incomplete quiz” because I laughed the most when writing it in the form of a magazine quiz. I’m a firm believer that birding is truly a practice anyone can pursue: you don’t need expensive equipment, you don’t need a green space, you don’t even need to go outside. But birding has just begun to discuss inclusivity and remains a bit snooty about its practices, so this quiz was my chance to reveal and embrace those misidentifications as joyful, funny moments that encourage people to keep looking rather than discourage them from engaging with wild birds because of experts’ “birdshaming.”

Of the longer essays, I had the most fun writing “Falling: A Reckoning” because it felt so delightfully subversive, especially as a woman who has heard the patriarchal admonition to be graceful, no matter what, for nearly all my life. Admitting to falling felt like I was breaking a taboo, and the more I wrote about it, the freer I felt. All kinds of terrific writers and performers have written about falling, so the research into falling became a gold mine of confidence in my awkwardness, if that makes sense. I am especially fond of Amy Sharrocks’s assertion of “the right to be ungainly.”  I’d like that on a T-shirt.

The essays included in this book don’t seem to be organized chronologically. How did you determine which essays to include in this collection and where in the book they should appear?

Designing a collection – making those choices about what to include and where – is always a challenge but it’s also part of the joy of it. With Straggle, a chronological presentation didn’t appeal to me. Because walking is constant, everyday, and for the purposes of this book, non-directed and non-competitive, imposing a chronology seemed counter-intuitive, an organizational principle that wouldn’t serve the kinds of subjects I examine in the book. I wanted to address the joys of moving through space and practicing the fine art of being here alongside issues of sexism, colonialism, violence against women, mental health, and body-shaming. All these concerns would not bend easily to a timeline: that is, they occupy space in the past and very much in the present. This is where the editor’s eye comes in, and Noelle Allen of Wolsak and Wynn was instrumental in suggesting an order for the pieces.

Have you taken any memorable walks lately?

Not too long ago, I was out on a “prescribed walk” – that is, implementing my doctor’s orders to walk away from the house for twenty minutes and then back for twenty minutes. I took my usual route around my suburban neighbourhood and wasn’t expecting to observe much that was different from the walk the previous day, but just a few houses from mine, a big lanky fox was stretched out on my neighbour’s driveway, grooming herself. No one else was around. It was just me and the fox, who didn’t seem too concerned about me. I approached very slowly and kept about four metres between us. She went back to grooming and I was able to take several photos of her. We spent about fifteen genial minutes like this until someone came by walking a dog and she scooted away. It was reminder to me that a “known” space is relative, and can change in an instant.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book? 

I hope that readers begin to challenge their assumptions about the spaces they pass through and how they do it: who is allowed, who is safe, and who might be “locomoting” differently than themselves.

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