Author Tags: Literary Criticism
Along with Sharon Esson, Bruce Serafin co-founded The Vancouver Review, a periodical mainly devoted to literary reviews and opinions. He died on June 6, 2007. Born in 1950, he worked at Canada Post for fourteen years and wrote two books, Colin's Big Thing (Ekstasis 2004) and Stardust (New Star 2007), a posthumous collection of memoirs and essays that received the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
In Stardust, Serafin praises independent writers Stan Persky and Terry Glavin with gusto and shares his ire for magazines that were not like his own. His views are similar to that of Brian Fawcett, publisher of www.dooneyscafe.com, a site the first published the majority of Serafin's writing in Stardust. "When I and some friends decided to start the Vancouver Review in 1990, one of the things that most motivated us was our irritation at the so often thoughtless complicity between the government funding agencies and the magazines that they subsidized." he wrote. "... The frustrating fact of the matter both then and now is that magazines like West Coast Line or The Malahat or Event or Prism simply don't need to be concerned about gaining an audience. These magazines won't fold if only a hundred people read them. They won't fold if only twenty people read them. And because they have no real need for readers, they are strikingly, almost bewilderingly boring."
In an essay about Michel Tremblay's writing called "A Chest of Drawers," Serafin once described his own origins as being "a pulpmill town world of screaming kids and kitchen floors dirty with Cheerios and gobs of sticky jam, a world in which my Polish dad and French-Canadian mom shouted ethnic insults at each other (they had an intense sexual love, my parents, but they were desperate, up against the wall, bitterly unhappy)."
He was hooked on literary dreams from an early age. He and his friend used to take the bus to West Vancouver at age 15 in order to read copies of David Robinson's Talon magazine, the forerunner of Talonbooks, that were sold in a West Vancouver bookstore for 30 cents each. He attended high school in North Vancouver before moving with his family to Allenby Landing, a milltown on the B.C. coast. He lived for three-and-a-half years in Houston, Texas, before returning to live in downtown Vancouver, at age nineteen, with his girlfriend, Cate. A year later, she moved out and he found a second-storey room near the Bow-Mac sign on West Broadway. "A twenty-watt bulb hung in the hallway's murk. (I can still small the cat piss impregnated in the hallway carpet when I think of that murk)." He enrolled at Simon Fraser University at age 22.
Serafin eventually gained a Master's degree, in his forties, from Simon Fraser University, and had plans to complete a Ph.D in order to escape the drudgery of his Post Office job. He enrolled to study within UBC's English department but soon discovered he felt alienated to the core. "The professors seemed unaware of what lay outside their school," he wrote. "Most of them had been so poisoned by years of being in a position of authority compared to their students that they'd become childish; and petulance, small-mindedness and a barely repressed anger at other men's ideas and achievements were the order of the day."
"He was a strange, wonderful guy," Brian Fawcett told John Burns of The Georgia Straight, "who should have published a lot more, but didn't."
[Alan Twigg photo] [BCBW 2009] "Literary Criticism"
Colin's Big Thing
The first chapters of Bruce Serafin’s Colin’s Big Thing (Ekstasis $21.95) recall his assimilation of B.C. culture—rural and urban, raw and sophisticated. He experiences the pulp mill town with its simmering violence, the elite high school in the British Properties, the remote logging camp, the hippie era of Vancouver in the Sixties, and finally the university English class. The young Serafin is creative and talented, and by his 20s he has amassed a rich store of material for the stuff of fiction. With an ear for racy speech and a talent for rendering character through dialogue, he seems to be headed towards a career as a man of letters. A conversation with his high school friend Alistair Fraser at the end of the first section predicts his future:
“Bruce,” he said, “Our road is failure.”
“Failure. It sounds bad,” I said.
“It’ll lead us to grace.”
“It’ll lead you to grace.”
“You, too. You too, man.”
Serafin concludes the exchange by noting, “It didn’t lead me to grace. It led me to the post office.” Serafin becomes a letter sorter by taking a job at the Vancouver post office where he remains for much of his working life. Serafin works on the graveyard shift, which he describes as a kind of underworld, in which armies of men and women toil in dehumanizing and degrading circumstances. Their efforts preserve a safe and clean world for those who produce letters, all the while remaining insulated from the conditions that make their world safe and clean. Thus the post office functions as a metaphor for the author’s feelings about his relationship to the literary world. Serafin’s choice of postal work can been viewed as a gesture of renunciation. What he rejects is a literary “career” characterized by competitiveness and pretentiousness, out of touch with ordinary people, and highly derivative. A literary journal for which he wrote in high school was marred by a plagiarized story, while his own story, “Sonny’s Blues,” was stolen from James Baldwin. That early sense of the writer’s derivativeness is reinforced by his later contacts with writers.
Serafin’s admiration for a group of Vancouver poets is soured by the exclusiveness of their small circle, and by their slavish imitation of ideas and forms imported from elsewhere. His resistance to the literary world is his way of achieving a state of grace. Eventually Serafin finds peace in his work. His depiction of the interaction of the wide range of eccentric, alienated and heroic characters in the post office is the most compelling part of the book.
Serafin locates one possibility for honest artistic expression in the production of the alternative comic book—a medium that is minimalist, stripped of metaphor, and more visual than verbal. He was alerted to the possibilities of the comic book as art by high school friend Alistair Fraser, a photographer, who absorbed people’s stories and combined the pictures and stories into a comic strip about Mrs. Nemo, a welfare mom with five kids. Fraser’s promise as an artist ended when he died at the age of 21 in a car driven by a drunken friend. Fraser’s life and work foreshadows that of the eponymous Colin Upton whom Serafin meets later in life. Upton articulates his artistic credo in the following words:
“The material in mainstream American comics is so fatuous, so lacking in any real story, that you have to work hard to keep up your interest. Most of the independents I know are into storytelling—they don’t have the flashy effects. I think that this has a lot to do with the influence of punk rock in Vancouver. Its influence has been huge here. With alternative comics, like alternative music, you have to SAY something. This makes it more relevant to Generation X and younger people. There’s a desire for less ambiguity—so many things in modern society disguise their real message. So younger people now, their idea is, ‘If you want to say something, TELL ME, don’t hide it in metaphors or incomprehensible imagery that I can’t understand.’ I don’t think this means people are ignorant. It’s just that their knowledge is not about Keats.”
One evening, Serafin, unobserved, spots Colin moving alone through a crowded street. He seems to personify the zeitgeist of the Vancouver Serafin knew as a young man, a “distillate of the fantastic city that I see in my dreams, a kind of compound of fog and rain and grey and darker grey clouds.” At the same time Serafin is reminded of Alistair Fraser’s presence in that fantastic city, walking through it as “ragged nobleman, with an expression of pitying contempt on his face.” Gradually during his years at the post office, Serafin’s urge to publish reasserts itself. His essays and reviews appear in journals and newspapers, and from 1990 to 1997 he edits and publishes the Vancouver Review. Finally he produces this memoir, his first book. Its aim is one expressed by Colin Upton who said, “I want to produce a record of the Vancouver I know before it disappears forever.” Serafin amply fulfills that goal. 1-894800-26-5
--by Joan Givner
[BCBW 2004] "Biography"
Bruce Serafin wins 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
Press Release (2009)
WATERLOO – Editor and essayist Bruce Serafin has been posthumously awarded the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for Stardust, a collection of essays by the author published in June 2007.
Serafin’s award will be celebrated at an event hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University and Serafin’s publisher New Star Books. The event will take place Friday, April 24, 2009 at Pulpfiction Books, 2422 Main St., in the author’s hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I’m very honoured to accept this award on Bruce’s behalf,” said Sharon Esson, Serafin’s wife. “Creative non-fiction is a special type of writing and there’s no doubt that Bruce was good at it, but he always felt his writing needed to make its own way in the world. I know this recognition would mean so much to him; he
worked very hard to finish this book before he passed away.”
Esson plans to use the $10,000 award to prepare for publishing another book that Serafin was working on at the time of his death.
The essays in Stardust range from the author’s experiences as a post office employee to commentary on literary and intellectual luminaries such as Roland Barthes and Northrop Frye. The title essay, “Stardust,” offers a personal perspective on the late 1960s student counterculture.
“This eclectic collection of essays, ranging from the literary to the personal to the contemplative, never ceases to inform with the understated rhetoric of a natural teacher and astute observer,” said Laurier English professor Dr. Tanis MacDonald, a member of the judging panel which also included well-known members of Canada’s literary community Russell Smith and Arlene Perly Rae.
“Serafin’s narrative voice has the quiet confidence and an analytical acumen of someone who respects the effort of writing and the value of storytelling.”
Best known for founding and running the arts and culture magazine Vancouver Review, Serafin most
recently taught substantive editing at Douglas College in New Westminster, Britsh Columbia. He is also the author of Colin’s Big Thing, a memoir that the Globe and Mail named one of the 100 best books of 2004.
The short list for the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction also included: Baptism of Fire:The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915 by Nathan M. Greenfield; French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec by Chantal Hébert, and; The Red Wall: A Woman in the RCMP by Jane Hall.
The Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction is supported by an endowment established by
author and award-winning journalist Edna Staebler, who died in 2006 at the age of 100. The award was established 17 years ago to recognize a beginning Canadian writer publishing a book with a Canadian subject or location. It is administered by Wilfrid Laurier University, the only university in Canada to bestow a nationally recognized literary award.