"In these tight, sexy fictions that make up One Dead Tree, David Menear’s stories and characters uncover hitherto unexplored aspects of the Canadian urban experience." Mark McCawley, Urban Graffiti

Keith Ebsary

Keith Ebsary

DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?


KE: I’m not sure that any current art or literature can be called transgressive since there’s not really anything left to transgress against. All idols and standards have been so thoroughly machine-gunned that the final refuge of the transgressive is now vulgar shock. And I don’t find that particularly artistic because the central conceit is always dull, like an idiot sitcom blasted through Marshall stacks.  


DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?


KE: Probably the Bible since it seemed so utterly antithetical to how I understood the world.


When I was a child, I also had an anthology of myths from around the world. I lost it years ago (and how I wish I could find it) but I still remember how very twisted some of the stories were, particularly the nihilistic Norse ones. They started me on the road to moral flexibility and outright amorality, which are themes that continue to interest me.

DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.


KE: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Super Masochist.

Lord Jesus that’s a crazy movie. I remember watching it in a packed movie theatre and everyone wincing in unison during the famous scene where he nails his dick to a board while some light and friendly song plays. The violence and self-torture are transgressive enough (you don’t usually expect to watch and enjoy a man torturing his terminally ill body), but the movie truly succeeds as a transgressive work by wrapping the degradation in transcendence. To me, transcendence is the very essence of art. Flanagan’s performance of self-debasement is deeply artistic because it is connected to a larger aesthetic purpose, that of a dying man trying to rise above his own impending death.


I’d like to clarify that I haven’t seen the movie in ages. No, that’s not true. I watch it with my children every Friday and we laugh and high-five before Daddy cries in the sunshine.    

DHP: Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.


I can’t really think of one since I don’t try to pattern myself after anybody.

DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.


KE: Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (and other works by Paglia)

Most people don’t understand that Paglia is an aesthetic fascist, which is something I sympathize with. I enjoy how she sometimes applies rigidly classical standards of art and beauty to high art, low art and everything in between. It takes courage to assert that there are specific, universal aesthetic standards in this endlessly mediocre age of the endlessly mediocre Me and Voice.


Glenn Duncan, I, Lucifer


This is simply vivid, funny, intensely focused writing that has eons more meaning and appeal than Leonard Cohen’s entire corpus of rectum gazing. It’s transgressive by being so good.


Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions


His writings bent reality to the point that I’m not sure it ever snapped back.

DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?


KE: Within the context of Canadian literature, I actually find my writing anti-transgressive. So much CanLit is so mind-numbingly awful, so obviously socially engineered and so thoroughly deluded about its own value that it transgresses against any real standard of art or beauty.


To be honest, I couldn’t name a single Canadian writer that I like or admire. I don’t read the journals or follow the contests because every time I do, I see yet another self-indulgent rumination on identity (as though being mixed-race, aboriginal, part-donkey, whatever, automatically makes your musings worthwhile) or else some cobbled-together, pseudo-magic-realism nonsense that no one other than fellow creative writing grads cares about.


So my writing is a response to all that. I like to think that I’m transgressing against bad art or the devitalized shit that passes for CanLit these days. I write for myself, in the way I want to write, guided by the classics.


Marion Grace Woolley

Marion Grace Woolley

DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?

MGW: That isn’t an easy question to answer.

My initial response was: something that departs from accepted norms.

But the problem then becomes ‘what is the norm?’

I was reading Jon Ronson’s So You've Been Publicly Shamed a while back. There was a neat example in there about Max Mosley’s sexual exploits largely passing with a shrug and a shake of the head, whilst a woman caught in flagrante came under much greater scrutiny. How certain social transgressions are considered de rigueur for rich, white men, whereas others face the firing squad for far less. Ronson explains it much better than I can.

But the more I think on it, the more I wonder if perhaps a better definition of transgression is: honesty.

People think and do all sorts of weird shit. From kinky sex games to fascist worldviews, suicide to narcotics, bestiality through to necromancy.

So long as you pretend you don’t have those thoughts, so long as you can think of the right response in  polite conversation, and so long as you don’t act on certain urges, then you’re not transgressing. Give in to what you really want to do, or – just as dangerously – say what you’re really thinking, be honest, and that’s where trouble starts.

I suppose, if the opposite of transgression is social acceptance, anything that doesn’t result in social acceptance is transgression in somebody’s eyes. We are always most shocked by honesty. The transgression between our brains and our mouths.

Perhaps all works of literature are transgressive, because if we could come out and say half these things, we wouldn’t need to write a novel about them or grope for a nom de plume.

DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?

MGW: The first thing I read which made me think wow, this is pushing some major boundaries…  I’m not sure I have. The thing is, there isn’t an opinion I can’t believe exists. I was questioning societal norms long before I was old enough to read books of that calibre. I have had experiences in my own life which have pushed boundaries. My parents divorced when I was very young and I lived with my dad for a long time. A single man bringing up a daughter in the early 80s raised some eyebrows. Then moving to a Church of England school whilst professing to be a pagan and refusing to take communion. That opened my eyes to boundaries I never knew existed. For some reason, none of these issues ever headlined in The Village with Three Corners.

I have fond memories of Terry Pratchett. When I was nine years old, I took one of the Discworld novels, The Light Fantastic, into my primary school reading class. Not because I got what it was about, but because there was a Josh Kirby illustration on the front of a woman with large tits. My entire purpose was to shock my teacher with the cover design, then impress her with my ability to read it out loud as though I understood it (which I didn’t).

Still, that doesn’t really count.

I’ve always had the kind of mind that’s been open to new experiences. But I’d say that was curiosity, rather than any desire to be transgressive. When people condemn curiosity, perhaps because they consider it transgressive, I think that’s when curiosity pushes back, and that’s when curiosity sometimes becomes intentionally transgressive.  You take away somebody’s right to question, and they question louder. I can’t recall reading a book that’s ever made me think ‘this is transgressive – it’s outside the norm,’ because I’ve never been entirely sure what normal is.

Perhaps the first time I looked up sex in a dictionary with my friends, and the time I got caught looking at The Joy of Sex when I was a kid. Found it by accident and – curiosity again. For all the free love of the 60s and 70s, I still grew up in a society that struggled to talk openly about sex, so there was a huge sense of secrecy around it. I still remember laughing with my friends whilst looking up rude words in the dictionary, but also that real fluster of self-consciousness that came with it. That we were doing something dirty. That we might be found out. That we were transgressing. Like the first time you say ‘fuck’ and you’re not sure if you’ve got the context right. Whether someone’s going to laugh or hit you.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe I can’t remember the first proper book that I felt was transgressive, because transgression is so commonplace in adulthood.

DHP:  Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.

MGW: Again, in honesty, I struggle to consciously think ‘this is transgressive’ about anything. Things are unusual, they’re strange, intriguing, sometimes a little nauseating – but transgressive? I’m not sure.

I’ve seen a lot of things that would make me wonder if the human race as a whole is transgressive. I’ve visited refugee camps in DRC, slums in Uganda, genocide memorials in Rwanda, and been to Auschwitz. I took a post in Human Rights a couple of years back, and that can really make you question a lot.

Perhaps there is one thing that’s stuck with me in a queasy sense.

There’s a place in the Forest of Dean called Littledean Jail. It’s a museum to the most macabre things you could possibly imagine. I mean, it really goes all out. Ken dressed in a Nazi uniform, fucking Barbie in a model death camp. Letters and artwork given pride of place from infamous murderers. The most horrific news stories plastered like wallpaper everywhere you look. There’s a picture there I’ve never managed to shake, of a kid in the middle of Africa during a killer drought, sucking moisture from inside a cow’s arse in utter desperation. It just articulated something I still can’t articulate, about the very darkest parts of this world. The hopelessness, the meaninglessness and the brutality.

I suppose that’s my definition of transgression – Littledean Jail.

Because it doesn’t just go out of its way to showcase the bottom of the barrel, it actively celebrates it.

DHP:  Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.

MGW: Rosa Luxembourg comes to mind. There’s an incredible graphic biography of her life called Red Rosa by Kate Evans. She was just everything she wasn’t meant to be: an outspoken, politically-minded woman with a sex life. One of her most wonderful lines was: Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. I really couldn’t summarise her life better than Evans’s book – it’s a stunner.

But, let’s put it this way, I had to think long and hard about this because there are so very many to choose from. So many women and men throughout history who have shocked and enthralled.

Ask me to name someone who wasn’t transgressive – fuck knows.

Says it all, really.

Might as well leave an ink stain on the pages of history.

DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.

MGW: I’ve just finished reading a book called Antiartists by Ralph Pullins. I absolutely loved it, and I think most people might say it’s transgressive. It’s the honesty angle again. It talks about depression, powerlessness, self-harm, addiction, suicide and destruction. It’s more humorous than it sounds. In its own way, it is an exploration of transgression.  

Not fictional, but perhaps one of the most transgressive works that I always keep a copy of is Emergency Sex: True Stories from a War Zone. This did the rounds when I first came to Africa. Fellow volunteers would put their name down on the list to receive the single copy we had. It’s the story of three civilians who joined the UN in the early 90s, when a whole lot of awful was going on: Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia. Again – honesty. It took apart the bureaucracy, the ineffectuality and the disconnect of global powers in relation to human experience on the ground. One of the contributors, Andrew Thomson, was considered to have transgressed so far in his honesty, that he was fired from the UN.

I currently teach fiction in Rwanda, and the publishing industry here is just starting out. I recently received a piece by one of my students which was the first time I’d read a lesbian and an asexual character in local fiction. I’ve also got an anthology by local writers called Versus. Whilst reading it, there were a few things where I felt myself thinking: That’s brave. A few things which are transgressive in the current context, but common themes in western literature. Departing from traditional storytelling and moral folktales to embrace real, gritty, modern life and the struggle for personal identity within strict conformist structures.

DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?

MGW: I’m not. I never try to be transgressive, it just seems I transgress what some people think is acceptable at times. I’ve written about rape, LSD, murder, underage sex, sexuality, suicide, generally weird shit – and I swear a lot. But that’s never really disturbed me, so I’m always interested to discover it disturbs other people. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve found publishers who helped me take my stories far enough to find readers. Does that mean there are transgressive publishers out there, or that I’m not actually transgressive? I’ll try not to lose sleep over it.

What does disturb me is when people suggest I shouldn’t have written something, or that it was somehow wrong of me to do so. In the words of Philip Pullman, when challenged by a Christian over The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: “No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book,” and, the bottom line: “No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read.”  I’ve always felt that way when people get offended about films or television – if you don’t like it, and you don’t have a gun to your head, switch the channel.

I have never set out to write a story thinking I really want to shock people, or I hope this is transgressive. A story is independent of forethought. It tells itself however it wants to, and I feel blessed each time I sit down to type and something comes out.

If somebody finds what I write transgressive, I’ll take that as a compliment. To me, that’s better than forgettable, or run-of-the-mill, or mainstream.   

Marion Grace-Woolley

Marion is the author of Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, published by Ghostwoods Books. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Rwanda, where she teaches fiction and attempts to build pianos.






David Menear

David Menear

DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?

DM:  You can drive straight down the middle of the road or you can crash, roll, spin, flip, and amused, watch yourself fly off into the ditch and burn.


DHP:  What was the first text you read that made you question accepted

societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?

DM: The bible.


DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was

transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre,

graphic novels or something else.

DM: The film “A clockwork Orange” startled me as a pre-ad. The raw sexual violence was horrifying even as I was gripped and lashed in my place with my eyes and ears pegged open by the majesty of the music and the endlessly stunning visuals. For me, it sure did break the boundaries of Disney & Love Story. It was like heroin for the masses that screamed no.


DHP:  Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about

this person.

DM: Henry the eighth I am. I am.


DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.

DM: Myra Breckinridge, Last Exit To Brooklyn, Painted Bird, Beautiful Losers…


DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is

transgressive according to your definition?

DM I am in no way trying to create or publish work that is transgressive. I must agree with Lynn Crosbie, in that, you can’t try to write in a transgressive way. You do, or you don’t. If you lie or cheat, you will be caught and hung.


David Menear


Menear is most often described as an edgy, urgent, gritty and sometimes ‘transgressive’ short story writer with a soft heart and a sense of humour. You find him at that place where Salinger meets Cormac McCarthy for tea and cookies.


In his first two years of writing, Menear has had stories published in several respected Canadian literary magazines. His short story collection "One Dead Tree" was published by DevilHouse in 2014 and sold out in a few short months. “Fern Leaves Unfurling In The Dark Green Shade” was published in "Canadian Noir" (Exile Editions, Year, 2015). Reviews are positive.


David, a father of four, has spent most of his life between Toronto and Montreal, but has also lived in London, England, and quaint village France. He studied art & design in New York City. David has won numerous international advertising awards for his creativity. He returned to Toronto for two years at ‘The Beach’, writing hard and playing tennis with terrifying enthusiasm and some certain mediocrity. In August David moved again, and is now somewhere on Vancouver Island or presumed missing back in the Toronto 'Beaches' again.

rob mclennan

rob mclennan

DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?


rm: Something that exists outside the norm. Something different enough that it threatens the concept of form, subject or genre.


DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?


rm: A good question. During my late teens and into my twenties there were multiple texts that affected me in different ways: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept; Matt Cohen’s The Expatriate; Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter; Timothy Findlay’s Stones; George Bowering’s Delayed Mercy; Barry McKinnon’s Pulp/log and Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. In each example, they presented to me alternate ways to see how the world worked, and the possibilities of what writing could be. I don’t know how to explain any more precisely without taking up pages.


I found a copy of Irving Layton’s For My Brother, Jesus in my high school library (the fact that it was there still baffles); contemporary to this, my eventual ex-wife presented me with Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 and Eli Mandel’s anthology Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970. All three titles presented me with a world and worldview far more expansive than the more conservative bubble I’d been living in, in my corner of the Ottawa Valley.


While some titles on this list might seem rather straightforward now, each of these books presented me with varying degrees of freedom, opening up a series of options I didn’t even know were possible.


DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.


rm: I worry my considerations of “transgressive” are fairly tame: I liked what Seinfeld did with the form of the sitcom; after watching two decades of sitcoms, I’d become bored with the form. His was the first to feature characters that weren’t “likeable.” Drew Carey did some interesting things as well, shifting away from the standard of the baseline narrative returning to zero at the end of every episode. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Simpsons very much play with this standard “return to zero” in different ways. Whitney Cummings’ short-lived sitcom was fantastic, and deserved far more credit; on the surface, it felt like any other sitcom centred around a particular actor/comedian, but then each episode would veer hard right, and handle some rather dark and serious material.


There is a short story on perspective by Alan Moore that I read when I was very young, via a neighbour’s comic book collection, that has stuck with me: a story of two blue giants moving at a far slower speed than the microscopic civilization at their feet. The civilization rose and self-destructed quite literally before the giants could blink.


My thoughts on composing poems has shifted enormously over the past decade or so through reading works by Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Pattie McCarthy, Julie Carr, Stephen Collis, Christine Leclerc, Eric Baus and Jordan Abel, among others. My thoughts on composing prose, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, has shifted thanks to Elizabeth Hay’s first three published works, as well as through a variety of titles by Ken Sparling, Sheila Heti, Etgar Keret, Dany Laferrière, Diane Schoemperlen, Susan Howe, Lorrie Moore, Sarah Manguso, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Jean McKay and Lydia Davis. Reading Milan Kundera was very important to me in my twenties, and I have yet to wrap my head around what he accomplished in his novels, blending the intimate and the personal with the political. I might have to return there.


Transgressive is such an odd term. When used in terms of creating art, what does it mean to transgress? It doesn’t necessary exist in opposition, but it certainly does exist as a challenge, forcing a shift in expectation and/or perception. For years, people paid attention to the work of the late London, Ontario visual artist Greg Curnoe because they didn’t know what he was going to do next. There are a few around that one can say the same about, from Michael Turner and Lynn Crosbie throughout the 1990s, to Christian Bök. bpNichol was a great writer, according to something jwcurry once said, not because everything he did was great, but that he was willing to try everything. Part of the appeal of works by any of these artists is in the mutability of their work, and the daring. Where will they go? The entire purpose of art, one could argue, is to challenge ideas and perception.


DHP. Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.


rm: Transgressive: to live in a way that makes no sense to anyone around until years pass, and suddenly, everything is incredibly clear. Examples? Perhaps too many to mention.


DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.


rm: Ken Sparling, Book; Sheila Heti, How Should A Person Be?; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Sarah Manguso, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape; Jean McKay, The Dragonfly Fling; Susan Howe, That this; Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door; Anne Stone, jacks; Dany Laferrière, Why must a black man write about sex?; Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert; Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You; Richard Brautigan, The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966; Elizabeth Hay, Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York.


I’m currently reading Yanara Friedland’s Uncountry: a mythology and am amazed.


DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?


rm: Well, I’d think if I’m transgressive in any way, I’m rather on the shallow end of it, far away from so many authors producing far more radical works. How am I transgressive? These days: my poems fragment, shift and eddy, writing out flavours of an ongoing domestic; my prose explores moments and characters via the dense lyric, while setting aside wordy description or dialogue.


In my prose, I care little for extraneous detail: I write out the bare bones.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to Open Book and both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com


Photo credit: Matthew Holmes




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