In our Writers and Music series, authors either discuss the music that has been included in their most recent novel/poems or the influence music has had on their work overall.
Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry book Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published most recently in Descant, Joyland, The Windsor Review, The Antigonish Review, Rattle Poetry, and Cellstories. She teaches creative writing at the University of Western Ontario and is the co-editor of the UWO online journal The Rusty Toque.
Onion Man is a series of linked poems, or rather a poem-novel, about an eighteen year-old girl working for the summer at a corn-canning factory in Southwestern Ontario in the late 1980s. This is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who is desperately unhappy and sees middle-class misery all around her—with her parents, her boyfriend’s parents, her friends, her co-workers. She doesn’t know what she wants out of life, but she knows she wants more than this.
I use music as way to define the characters, the location, and the time period. The factory nurse hums a Michael Jackson song while taking the narrator’s temperature, a group of middle-age secretaries sing “I Got You Babe” at Karaoke night at a local pub, the narrator’s boyfriend paints Joy Division album covers in art class, and the narrator listens to Meat is Murder on her Walkman to escape the boredom of her factory job.
The recession that started in the late-1980s made it impossible to get a job unless you had connections, which is how the narrator of Onion Man gets her position at the factory. It was also a time when unions were being dismantled. The narrator notes that she only gets paid $6.50 an hour but “anyone who/ was with/ Green Giant/ before they/ switched/ to Pillsbury/ gets twenty.”
There was a feeling of hopelessness, probably not unlike the way many young people feel today. The prosperity, opportunity, and jobs that the previous generation enjoyed, and in some ways took for granted, weren't going to be an option. In Onion Man the narrator is at a crossroads, deciding whether to take off to Vancouver with her boyfriend or finish her last year of high school.
While the book is semi-autobiographical in the time and place in which it is set (London, Ontario), the narrative is fictional. The book was written sporadically over a period of about fifteen years, and I drew heavily on my own adolescence, particularly in terms of how I felt about my life and the world. Around the time that the book is set, I was listening to bands and musicians that took a strong political and moral stance like The Clash, The Smiths, Joy Division, Billy Bragg, Jazz Butcher, Dead Kennedys, and Skinny Puppy among others.
Living in a mid-sized North American city, we weren't exposed to a lot of alternative culture in our day-to-day lives. We had to seek it out. We relied on our peers, TV, live shows, and the radio to introduce us to new music. A late night CBC radio show (which is referenced in Onion Man) called Brave New Waves, hosted by Brent Bambury and later by Patti Schmidt, was particularly influential in introducing alienated and insomniac teenagers to underground musicians, artists, and writers.
This music not only shaped my identity and my worldview—it was at this time that I started following politics and got interested in environmental concerns, which is probably what led me to becoming a writer—but it also helped me escape from what I perceived to be my bleak life. These musicians were speaking about the world and the people in it as I experienced it. I felt shitty, and it comforted me to know that someone else felt shitty in the same way. And, it still does.
There’s a line from The Smiths’ song “Nowhere Fast” that for me sums up the tone of the book in both its despair and sense of humor:
And when I’m lying in bed
I think about life
And I think about death
And neither one particularly appeals to me.