Claire Tacon’s first novel, In the Field, was the winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke award. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Bronwen Wallace Award, the CBC Literary Awards and the Playboy College Fiction Contest, and has appeared in journals and anthologies such as The New Quarterly, sub-TERRAIN, and Best Canadian Short Stories. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and is a past fiction editor of PRISM international.
Claire’s new novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo (Wolsak & Wynn), explores a father’s relationship with his two grown daughters – one working to find independence while coping with Williams Syndrome, and the other facing the possibility of infertility.
Claire was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the new book.
Jeremy Luke Hill: In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo is in many ways about a father, Henry, readjusting to his new role as a parent now that his two daughters, Starr and Melanie, are adults. Your own children are fairly young yet, so what was the impetus to address that particular parenting dynamic?
Claire Tacon: The earliest seeds of this book were planted about a decade ago, long before my husband and I were thinking about kids. I’m very interested in the ways that parents can have different experiences raising the same children and the way siblings can have different experiences with the same parents. I also think the transition to adulthood is one of the trickiest times for parents and children — most parents struggle to see their children as adults and to negotiate a more equal dynamic with them.
JLH: One of the challenges that the family faces is helping their daughter Starr, who has Williams Syndrome, to achieve some degree of independence, but in less obvious ways the other young adults in the novel are also working through this question. Melanie, otherwise quite independent, looks to her parents to help fund her infertility treatments. Henry’s young co-worker, Darren, struggles with how much he wants to be a part of the family business. How deliberately did you set out to address the question of balancing independence with strong family support?
CT: To me, that’s one of the central questions of the novel. It’s the main point of conflict between Kathleen and Henry. To Kathleen, their primary job as parents is to prepare Starr for independence. To Henry, it’s to provide immediate comfort and joy. An example where these two approaches are at odds is when Starr is having a difficult time at her job — Kathleen wants her to develop the skills to work through it, but Henry just wants to swoop in and take her out for lunch. I think that most parents, regardless of their children’s needs, have to balance those twin desires of helping them become independent and also making life easier for them.
That push/pull does also spill out to other characters, Melanie in particular. Because she is typical, Henry always assumes that she can manage on her own, but Kathleen wants him to be softer towards her. Darren is really just at the cusp of independence, so that balance between family support and independence is very much in flux.
JLH: What brought you to write about Williams syndrome specifically? Were there elements of that condition that leant themselves strongly to the story you wanted to write?
CT: My first introduction to Williams syndrome was an article in the New York Times. Although there is a common genetic basis for the condition, people experience Williams syndrome in very different ways — there is a huge spectrum of individual strengths, abilities and challenges. One thing that does commonly come up, however, is an increased social drive and reduced social boundaries.
The writer interviewed a young woman who had a particularly strong desire to speak with men. To facilitate those interactions, she started reading the sports page, watching sports on TV, building up a wealth of conversation starters. It was such a smart, individual solution. I was also impressed with her parents — whatever concerns they may have had about their daughter being vulnerable to strangers, they listened to what was important to her. I am close to a family member who is disabled, and she grew up in the 1950s, when self-advocacy was rare. Too often, “what’s best for” a person with disabilities was often decided for them, without consultation.
As the book developed, I hoped it became more singularly about these characters (versus writing “about Williams syndrome”) and more about ableism than disability.
JLH: The central narrative of the novel takes Henry, Starr, Darren, and two pet turtles on a road trip to pick up an animatronic singing flamingo. Tell me there’s a personal story behind this premise.
CT: Like many children of the ‘80s, I found Chuck E Cheese a bit magical. I only went a handful of times when classmates had birthday parties, but it was a space entirely designed for a child’s id — garish colours, no sense of volume control. Kids got cups full of gold tokens to spend as they pleased, and as you played, tickets spat out of the machines, which could be cashed in for prizes. Giant stuffed animals sang catchy tunes while you ate pizza. A dream!
I will say that I have an Atari cocktail table Asteroids game in my basement, which was lovingly rescued from a dump in the early ‘90s. One day we will finally get it fixed up.
JLH: Is there a sense that Henry purchasing these animatronic musicians for his daughter symbolizes the process of finding support for disabled persons, where people are forced to almost absurd lengths to find the resources their disabled loved ones need?
CT: To me, the animatronics are pure joy. But I do hope the novel offers a glimpse into the gap between public policy that supports inclusion in theory and the lack of practical supports and follow-through needed to make it a reality.
We do a terrible job providing support for people with disabilities, especially after they age out of high school. There are thousands of people on the waitlist for Passport funding (which helps cover the costs of training, support workers and independent living). Wait times of three or four years are not uncommon. These are not frivolous services — they are vital supports that people need to achieve their full potential and to be part of their community. Other statistics are just as dismal. For adults with intellectual disabilities, there is a 25% employment rate, compared with about 80% in the general population.
There is also a tremendous amount of bureaucracy that individuals and families need to navigate. One parent I spoke with said there were so many forms and assessments associated with her daughter’s Individual Education Plan, that there weren’t enough resources or time to fulfill it.
JLH: The narrative voice of the novel shifts between chapters, so at different times we get the perspectives of Henry, Starr, Melanie, and Darren. As you take on these several voices, especially those of a middle-aged man, a young woman with Williams syndrome, and a young Asian man, what do you do to avoid falling into appropriation?
CT: In writing characters that were further from my experience, I felt like I had to meet three requirements. One, I had to know what I was talking about. This book involved a lot of research in many areas, but I’m particularly grateful to the Canadian Association for Williams Syndrome (CAWS) who put me in touch with a number of families in their membership. Those families and individuals who spoke with me were hugely generous with their expertise.
Two, I wanted to be accountable to the communities I was representing. Again, this encompasses a lot of actions. For instance, before the book came out, I asked some contacts at CAWS what speaking points they’d like me to mention as I promote this book. Accountability can also mean being open to criticism. There may be members of the communities I depicted who do not think my writing is accurate. Those critics have a right to voice their opinions.
Three, I need to look at how writers from within those communities have been ignored. Only 2% of published writers in Canada identify as having disabilities, compared with 20% of the general population. The percentage of published writers in Canada who identify as having an intellectual disability is almost non-existent. There are a number of writers working to make CanLit more inclusive and accessible and these include (but are not limited to) Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Bronwyn Berg, Amanda Leduc, and Adam Pottle. There is also a new monthly literary prize by Rahim Ladha to help correct this underrepresentation.
Whitney French had a wonderful article in Quill and Quire last summer where she discussed her definition of appropriation. To her, writing a character that is different from the author is not necessarily an act of appropriation. Telling stories particular to a marginalized group without context or consent is.
JLH: As a more or less stay at home father myself, I appreciate a “domestic story” of this kind being told from the perspective of a caregiving man, but it interests me that Henry’s wife, Kathleen, never has her voice directly represented in one of the chapters. What was the reason for this decision?
CT: Those four characters got picked because they are the ones with the narrative arcs. Henry is grappling with the book’s largest questions, but I hope that the reader can see a point of change in each of the four characters’ trajectories. Kathleen didn’t really need a point of change so I didn’t give her a first-person section.
JLH: This book was about seven years coming after In the Field. Is that the pace you feel comfortable working, or can we look forward to your next book a little sooner? Do you have something you’re working on for your next project?
CT: Right now I juggle being the primary care giver for my children, teaching part time, and writing. As my youngest ages into the school system, I hope my writing process can speed up.
JLH: Well, I look forward to seeing whatever project you take on next. Thanks for your time.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press in Guelph, Ontario. He has written a collection of poetry and short prose called Island Pieces, along with several chapbooks and broadsheets. His writing has appeared in The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Free Fall, The Goose, HA&L, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.