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ALBERTA VIEWS, APRIL 2018
Frank O’Connor, the great Irish author, described a writer as one who sets a mirror in the roadway and then goes about describing what he or she sees reflected there. Edmonton author Jasmina Odor discerns many things in her mirror, an important one being the nature of time itself: its effects on people and the difficulty they sometimes find in moving from one life stage into another.
The 13 stories in this debut collection are set against backgrounds that range from the war-torn Balkans to cities in Europe and Canada. (Odor herself was born in Croatia and emigrated to Canada in 1993.) Many of her characters seem to lead what novelist Anne Tyler has referred to as “a slipping-down kind of life,” an aspect emphasized when characters appear in more than one story, the time between them having changed things significantly. One young woman, who leads a more or less normal life in her first story, has, by the time the second begins, had a child she is not permitted to see. We get an idea of what her life has become when she trespasses on a private lawn to eat doughnuts with a homeless couple.
In the first of a second pair of linked stories, the possibility of disgrace suddenly looms for a happy and affectionate family. In the follow-up story some years on, both mother and daughter appear to have lost all resilience, as if action is no longer a thing possible. Nothing is permanent, these stories remind us, and time and events can change people. Another overlying theme is put into words by one of the characters: “It’s funny how we suddenly become what we are without noticing it.”
Some of Odor’s characters are clear-eyed and well able to take care of themselves. Ivona, a Croat immigrant and a night hostess in a restaurant, understands what is going on when the owner seeks her out. “This dreamy look in his eyes,” she thinks, “this fake dreamy look, fake husky voice, mockery of seduction. He doesn’t even really want me.”
Variety is the spice of characterization in these stories. One young woman is prepared to break up with her boyfriend because she finds his aunt repulsive; another keeps her life in a state of crisis so the people who care about her—men mostly—will intervene. A particularly devastating story concerns an old Croat man who refuses to leave his home, even when it becomes part of the war’s front line. Odor studied writing at the University of Alberta with one of Canada’s best short story writers, Greg Hollingshead. The subtle, insightful and compassionate stories in this collection show her to be a writer worth watching.
—Merna Summers, Alberta Views
BeatRoute, October 3, 2017
As fall signals a state of change and triggers the seasonal affective defences to go on high alert, it’s important to remember just how fortunate most of us are to be faced only with cold and snow as external threats. At such times as these, it would be an act of self-love to warm up one’s cockles with a captivating piece of fresh Can-Lit from a local talent. In Jasmina Odor’s collection of stories, You Can’t Stay Here published by Thistledown Press, she presents a stark and honest perspective on emigrating from a conflict zone, alongside tales of the tribulations of navigating family and relationships.
Odor immigrated to Canada from Croatia in 1993 as a child, shortly after the outbreak of the Bosnian war. Her stories reflect an attitude toward the world cultivated by these experiences. Currently a professor at Concordia University of Edmonton as well as a finalist for the 2017 CBC Short Story Prize, Odor continues to evolve before our eyes and offer new glimpses into her past.
“Many of the stories are picking up on things that I saw or heard or lived through and much of it is about the experience of being displaced,” she explains.
Displacement is running theme, notably approached through two perspectives: first, the physical displacement of the body during times of conflict; second, the internal displacement of emotions from their origin into the moment-by-moment reality of the character’s lives. Often, characters are consumed by guilt for real or perceived injustices they have endured or, in some cases, inflicted. Much of the tension in these stories is created by the resolution of these emotions, or the lack of a resolution.
The stories in You Can’t Stay Here create a sense of being present, yet metaphorically somewhere else. Odor’s characters try to piece their worlds together and often it is youth who, with their fresh perspectives, offer the most clarity within juxtaposing situations.
“The war ending brought us not a return but a chasm between past and future,” explains the narrator of the story “Skin Like Almonds,” a young Croatian girl embroiled in a passionate summer holiday of flirtation on her native Adriatic coast after the war has ended.
The stories are also reflective of life as characters seek clarity, carve out new lives, but bring remnants of their former lives along. Odor writes the Edmonton setting with a perfect unfamiliarity; fittingly, her first impressions of her move to Edmonton after relocating from her previous city of Toronto were, “the broadness of things, the bigness of things. Just kind of the size of the streets.”
“And the relative absence of people. I remember walking and driving and thinking… ‘Is there a reason why nobody [is] on the streets today?’” she recalls.
This is a typical Edmonton experience for many, yet intimidating and initially bleak.
Jasmina Odor’s writing style is a pleasure to read. The stories are narrated with attentive intelligence, a voice mellifluous with bright wisdom, but not overly decorative or ornamental. The relationships between characters are conceived with a hand flush with experience, and her sense of metaphor is playful in its perceptiveness, harking back to her Slavic roots.
— Michael Podgurney, BeatRoute
Edmonton Journal, October 26, 2017
Yearning fuels Jasmina Odor’s beautiful debut short story collection
That the Edmonton author is navigating a move from one home to another as her book You Can’t Stay Here launches Thursday at Audreys has a lyrical poignancy.
Each time the Edmonton author has relocated, she nods, it’s been monumental. This includes first coming to Canada from Croatia with her family in 1993 — the Bosnian war burning in the rear-view mirror.
“Every move has been huge,” the 37-year-old notes at her future home in Highlands. “Any sort of change of place is slightly traumatic.
“The town I’m from, Vinkovci, was under quite heavy attack for a while — especially in the fall of ’91. It had one of the finest libraries in the country — it was bombed, a big loss there.
“We went to the capital, fairly safe, and there was a lot of moving around. That’s probably where my dislike of moving comes from: (living) with this family member, then with this friend, then with these strangers. It was all weird, not great.
“We returned to the town before coming to Canada and there was lots of damage there and lives lost. That part of eastern Slovenia was quite an intense front line. Terrible things. We could have stayed, but . . .”
“That sense of being in limbo or being in between has been definitive of my own experience of the world, to put it really broadly. All kinds of things (in the collection) are of course invented. But it is drawing on my life. You’re always a little bit off.”
Throughout the anthology — including the war tale His, which won the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story and silver at the Alberta Magazine Awards — conflict simmers quietly, each narrative having something do to with at least one character shaped in some way by war.
In “The Lesser Animal,” quite directly, Toma is haunted by a lack of heroism in his past — though the story’s action takes place in Edmonton, as he tries to hold together a relationship.
From story to story, women and men look over the fences of their own partnerships, sometimes falling into passionless flings which solve little. Where there’s cynicism, it comes from experience, damage.
The aforementioned His, though set in a Slavonian village, has an almost Cormac McCarthy frontier setting. But most take place in either Toronto or Edmonton. One of the great questions of the book, to quote David Byrne, is “how did I get here?”
Odor has spent about 65 per cent of her life in Canada, going to high school in Toronto. Though being taught English from Grade 4 on, she recalls, “The first year I came I was silent, almost mute. English seemed complex and strange — partly because Croatian is a phonetic language. There are still times when I have to say three vowels in a row and I just kind of flub them.”
During her undergrad, from which the earliest stories in You Can’t Stay Here were rescued, she studied at University of Alberta under Greg Hollingshead — thanked in the acknowledgments. “I remember him once saying, ‘The impulse to control others is the root of all evil.’ I was almost stumped by that — but now it seems obvious.”
Odor is now a professor at Concordia University, and a finalist for the 2017 CBC Short Story Prize.
Her writing is skilled, direct and alluring, as dystopian as she writes about suburban walk-ups in our waterless Edmonton winter as it is enticing, dangerously driving up unlit roads along the Dalmatian coast.
You Can’t Stay Here as a title magically fits every story in the book. But then I noticed something interesting: the phrase actually fits almost any story, from To Kill a Mockingbird to the adventures of Luke Skywalker.
“It emerged as really the only title for the book,” she explains, “because it seems just apt on every level. And it wasn’t intentional the collection should be that way — I was just writing stories. You know: eventually I’ll collect them, there will be enough for a book.
“But everything is about not being comfortable where you are, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically — or being driven out of where you are by outside circumstances.
“The central struggle to me is where can you stay — where do you get to stay? It becomes existential. We really don’t get to stay anywhere.
“And then,” she laughs, “you die.”
— Fish Griwkowsky, Edmonton Journal