Bat Invasion: Tanisha Khan in Conversation with Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes won the 2019 Constance Rooke CNF Prize contest with her essay, "Bat Reign," set to appear in The Malahat Review's winter 2019 Issue #209. She discusses lyric essays, stories as social survival, and using humour to bring levity and balance to painful writing subjects in her Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer Tanisha Khan.


Jeanette Lynes is the author of two novels and seven collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, The Small Things That End The World, won the Muslims for Peace and Justice Fiction Award at the 2019 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Her most recent book of poetry, Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems won the 2015 Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Award. Jeanette's Personal Essay, "Mull," received third place in Event Magazine's recent non-fiction contest. Jeanette directs the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. [photo credit: Matt Braden Photography]

Congratulations on your Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize win! “Bat Reign” discusses the difficulty of life beyond marriage as someone newly single. Final judge Yasuko Thanh said, “I find the issues so relatable: questions about how to go on, move forward as someone new, […] how to live while suffering a wild pain.” What led you to choose the bat as the overarching metaphor in the essay?

The bat was not a metaphor in the first instance; it was literal, real, and terrifying – an obstruction to living a regular life. I only began to see the bats more metaphorically as the essay developed. I began to think of things the bat could represent – menace, invasion, an alien presence, a kind of pestilence – and these elements began to accrue a wider significance with respect to other things going on in my life. But this association was not immediate to me, and came with time, and further immersion in the writing. In the first instance my response to the bats was visceral and not metaphorical. I was trying to navigate everyday life which, as for most of us, held challenges both professional and personal.

This essay touches on social survival and comments on the approach we, as a society, have to the failure of others—how we’re perversely drawn towards it. For fear of being seen as a “failure,” there is this need for performativity, to conduct ourselves socially as though we are not pained or affected by our past, and to be able to tell entertaining stories about it, to make light of it, to be more socially acceptable. Could you talk a bit more about this idea?

This is a great question. Performativity in the social world has, of course, been theorized for many years in Sociology and in literature, famously, in Shakespeare’s work. All the world is, indeed, a stage. There is a stigma around depression; this is gendered and situated within a generational demographic. Women were expected to be cheerful, sunny, entertaining, and that socialization took a deep hold in many of us. Stories are, as you allude to in your question, a form of social survival. Also in play is the fear of rejection and social isolation – if you’re a “downer,” people may shun you. I rarely spoke of my divorce during the two and a half years of its proceedings, in social situations. There was my sense of shame but I also did not want to bring people down. So, oddly, the topic of divorce began to emerge through the bat invasion though, as mentioned above, not until deeper into the writing process. And I suppose in a narcissistic, vain sort of way, having the currency of the bat story lent me a sense of agency that was lacking in other areas of my life. The bats might not listen to me but other people might [laughs].

In your essay, you write about a time in life that is emotionally difficult, and you do so with humour:
“You became the ancient mariner—compelled to grind out your woeful tale to whoever would listen. And the echoes returned to you—more bat yarns. These did not make you feel better. Your story was special, worse. […] You’d worked hard to build a home and it was torn down, wing by wing. In retrospect, you find it sad that you told bat stories as a form of social survival. But you had to concede there was something to bats; they proved the only topic that never seemed to bore people or send their eyes hand-ward to check their phones. Those little animal-bird hybrid bastards commanded attention.”
When writing “Bat Reign,” how did you approach this balancing act of humour and pain? What advice would you give to readers who are trying to do the same in their work?

Writing about painful topics in a “straight-up” way is not something I do well. The writing quickly becomes heavy, flat, lugubrious. Humour brings oxygen, relief. The term “comic relief” wasn’t coined for nothing. There are different ways to leaven heavy material that do not necessarily rely on humour – figurative language, lyricism, vivid description, sonics, for example. It just so happens that humour has been my default tool. But even that is somewhat of a distortion because often, humour is not “engineered” into the piece but rather discovered through word play or some kind of linguistic surprise – a pun, for instance, like “reign” and “rain” in the essay. It’s not hilarious but word play is engaging and as humans we find pleasure in it. So my advice, with respect to balancing humour and pain is to deep-dive into language and remain open to the surprises and idiosyncrasies that cracking words apart may offer. Syntax and sentence length can also go a considerable way in helping to achieve balance. Short punchy sentences have a different affective currency than expansive sentences with subordinate clauses. So what I’m suggesting is the balance may well reside within the structure of the individual sentence.

You’re an award-winning author of novels, essays, and books of poetry. When sitting down to write a creative nonfiction essay such as this one, what elements of writing do you borrow from fiction and poetry?

In writing a non-fiction essay, I borrow more elements from poetry than from fiction. The non-fiction essays I’ve written so far tend to be relatively short, which means that they do not contain many full-blown scenes but rather “micro-scenes” or “moments.” Incorporating more fully-fleshed-out scenes into a non-fiction essay is something I’d like to develop because I enjoy reading them in personal essays I read. I am still finding my wings (pardon the bad bat joke!) in creative non-fiction. At this point in my non-fiction writing trajectory I rely heavily on poetry in areas such as voice/persona, compression, sentences that are sculpted and torqued, fragmented elements. I am partial to interiority, too, so that feeling of privacy a poem affords has been important in my non-fiction. My personal essays have more of a private signature; they are more nervous, more angst-y.  In contrast, fiction, to be effective, needs to be more brazen, more dramatic, direct. I am fond of the lyric essay which feels like a hybrid that unites elements of poetry and prose in often startling, wonderful ways.



Tanisha Khan

Tanisha Khan

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