The magical thing about Conundrum is that it’s all about who is doing something exciting, who is having fun with what they do, and who is trying something new, and nailing it, in Canada. My feeling is that Andy Brown isn’t worrying too much about how his writers and artists fit in to the Canadian canon as young women, or young men, or whatever … He is paying a lot of attention, however, to the work itself. That’s the beauty of Conundrum – it’s all about the work, and getting that work out into the world in its best, most authentic, most earth-shatteringly beautiful, funny, and ruthless form. Whether the world expects it that way, or not.”
“(Andy Brown) didn’t try and make my novel into something that it wasn’t in order to sell books. He made it into something way more than I ever thought it could be by forcing me to get to the point of what I was saying.”
There is a memorable scene in Douglas Coupland’s 1992 novel Shampoo Planet where the disillusioned protagonist writes out a comprehensive list of tragic character flaws. One of these perceived tragedies, written on an American dollar bill with a felt pen, is as follows:
In some ways, this is the current tragedy of Canadian publishing. It’s not difficult to suggest that a majority of Canadian publishers, both mainstream and indie, fall victim to the predictability of “go big or go home.” The machinations of star-making and award-winning tend to preclude any innovation, and an unending stock of predictable bland bestsellers line Heather’s book shelves, while unique, emerging writers fail to find footing or garner much-deserved attention.
Refreshingly, small, gentle observations are what Montreal’s Conundrum Press has spent over ten years building its catalogue on. Whether their unique literary microscope reveals the absurd, the surreal, or simply the mundane, Conundrum has somehow managed to curate what could be considered the finest roster of female writers in Canada, without intentionally being a “women’s press.” In doing so, founder Andy Brown has participated in breaking down the literary boy’s club and helped solidify the notion that young, emerging female writers can excel in the creation of some of the most dynamic, challenging and unique stories in the canon-all by setting his sights on the small and gentle. Conundrum books don’t beat you over the head with their blockbuster status-by publishing the early works of writers like Chandra Mayor, Catherine Kidd, and Julia Tausch, Andy Brown’s Conundrum Press proves repeatedly it is the gentle details that can be powerful, despite what the status quo suggests.
When I am introduced via email to a small group of female Conundrum writers, author JR Carpenter jokingly refers to herself and fellow authors as “Andy’s Angels.” I know immediately she has her tongue firmly in cheek. Even in speaking with them briefly over email it’s evident that they don’t readily think of themselves as the stereotypical Women’s Studies brand of “female authors,” nor do they believe Conundrum is particularly focused on putting out stories by women–just great books. Really, really great books.
The press’ latest offerings are a testament to the unique and beautiful expectation-bending stories Conundrum committed itself to when it started in 1996. Artist and writer JR Carpenter’s Words The Dog Knows appears on the surface to be a simple story of a country girl becoming a city woman, but the depth is in the (very fine) details. Like many of Conundrum’s books, there is a seamless, happy marriage of text and image. Carpenter’s “coming-of-age” narrative avoids all mainstream clichés and caricatures, as she brings readers a story both grounded firmly in reality, and magical in it’s affectionate rendering of human experience. Her presentation is innovative while still being wonderfully accessible; she is a genuine writer committed to telling a good story in her own way, and in doing so Carpenter proves quite easily that a story can be about a girl without simply being a “book for girls.” She effortlessly propels you through years of her protagonist’s life within only a few short pages, yet still manages to tenderly reveal the tiny, delicate details of life that we all identify with, regardless of gender.
Delicate, of course, does not necessarily mean fragile. Author and artist Emily Holton’s Dear Canada Council/Our Starland, is a beautifully designed book housing two novellas, her sparse words punctuated by gentle line drawings rendered with a careful hand, every image poetic and powerful (and quite often perverse). “I want the reader to pick it up expecting one kind of intimacy and honesty, and get another kind altogether,” she says. Holton certainly succeeds; you can open to any page and find it laden with dizzying meaning, as simplicity and complexity brutally combat each other with every turn. “I am much more aware… that my drawing style and handwriting suggest a certain adolescent, why-don’t-you-love-me zine aesthetic that can be limiting. It’s a style that has been traditionally associated with women, but that doesn’t really work anymore – I know lots of guys who write and draw that way.”
Conundrum is additionally skilled in picking books that tread waist-deep into the surreal while still remaining gritty and accessible on the surface. Maya Merrick’s critically acclaimed, multi-layered The Hole Show is one of Conundrum’s strongest examples of defying convention while maintaining an inherent readability that is so often lost with inventive text. Unlike Dear Canada Council/Our Starland and Words The Dog Knows, The Hole Show is without accompanying visual queues, and instead relies on Merrick’s unique gift for sprawling imagery and metaphor–in fact, the book is more reliant on the author’s “pictures” than any other. With obvious comparisons to Claudia Dey’s Stunt, The Hole Show reveals the city of Montreal, dark and brooding, to be a folkloric, fairytale playground, populated with multifaceted characters so real and recognizable the reader clings to them with desperation until the final page.
With every crop of new releases, Conundrum inadvertently proves that female writers have so much more to offer than predictable stock stories of traditional married motherhood, martini-laced shopping binges, or predictable boy-crazy diatribes. Andy Brown’s aim is simply putting out some of the greatest, most beautifully made books in Canada, and most of them just happen to be by women.
One can only hope that the status quo will take note.