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Trailblazing anomalies

Anne Fleming's first novel explores the nuances of gender

LONG LIVE THE OUTSIDER. Gender and societal constructions play an important role in Anne Fleming's first novel, Anomaly. In it each female character finds herself a trailblazer. Credit: Xtra West Files

Anne Fleming has just tried on a vintage blue and green striped suit at a trendy Main St clothing store. At first glance, one could easily mistake her for a handsome bookish, boyish, Buddy Holly type before realizing she’s all those things, just not a guy. It’s an observation Fleming has grown used to over the years, particularly since her recent move to Kelowna, BC to teach creative writing at the new University of British Columbia Okanagan campus.

Later on during our interview, Fleming will describe how in Vancouver she’d be referred to as “sir” once every couple of weeks, but in Kelowna she hears it at least “four or five times a day.”

“There’s one way to be female [in Kelowna] and it’s to be blonde or dyed-blonde and to have hair that’s at least shoulder-length, kinda poofy, and to wear makeup. If you don’t have that you’re not female, you’re a sir,” says Fleming in a matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental manner. She also suggests that maybe the folks who mistake her for a sir aren’t used to seeing lesbians. After all, Kelowna is certainly not the Sapphic Mecca of Commercial Drive, where she lived for almost 14 years. Nor is it the capital of vintage blue and green striped suits.

While Fleming seems upbeat about her move and the career opportunity, the initial process of becoming an out lesbian couple (along with longtime partner Cindy Holmes) with a three-year-old child must have been draining. She tells of the want to diffuse any neighborly weirdness by acknowledging their relationship right away and the relief of meeting a charming neighbourhood couple named Dottie and Gary.

But, in what must start to feel like a bit of a broken record, even daycare has its challenges. While Fleming and her partner make a point of not giving their daughter gendered choices — boy things and girl things — they can’t control the choices presented to her daughter in daycare by the other children.

It’s appropriate that much of our discussion circles back to gender and societal constructions because these same issues play an important role in her just released first novel, Anomaly (Raincoast Books). In it each female character finds herself a trailblazer; sometimes dignified, sometimes less so, but original nonetheless. Fleming deftly juggles the lives of First World War nurses, bizarre Brownie troop tragedies, albinism, lesbian coming out stories, punk rock synchronized swimming and their connection to the fictional Riggs family in 1970s Toronto.

Fleming fills the novel with the kind of quirky characters and situations that readers of her first book, the Governor General’s Award nominated Pooling Hopping and Other Stories (Raincoast), and her National Magazine Award winning story “Gay Dwarves Of America” have grown to love. It’s not every day readers encounter characters like longtime Brownie leader Miss Balls and Carol, the albino aspiring punk rocker. Nor every day that readers encounter such honest and original lesbian storylines.

Fleming’s bang-on descriptions leave you laughing to tears on one page only to be tearing to laughs on the next. Sweet bitters and bitter sweets abound.

When asked about her penchant for writing about outsiders or those with anomalies, Fleming talks about how she’s always been drawn to people who had rough childhoods, to those folks who really had to fight to become who they are today. She then goes on to describe how “a few of the girls in my childhood, who were picked on, became stoners, slutty stoners in high school. I actually had a lot of respect for the slutty stoners because they were saying ‘fuck you’ to all those people who had teased them all those years.”

Long live the outsider!

Fleming admits the setting of the book is the setting of her childhood and agrees that her growing up in a household with a strong female role model influenced her — though her mother’s belief that “women should be able to do anything they want to as long as they don’t lose their femininity” sort of backfired.

“I lost my femininity when I was four,” says Fleming.

Asked whether she’ll start writing about Vancouver now that she’s left, she smiles, nods her head, then gushes about how much she misses the Drive — the ability to walk to a corner store, Uprising Bakery, the hardware store and her ukulele group. But just when it seems like she’s yearning for the past, she informs me she wants to start a sister group called Ukelowna and I imagine her playing there in her new blue and green striped suit and everything seems good again.