Swimming Toward The Light
Swimming Toward the Light1 is a compassionate and sensitive portrait of one woman’s rites of passage, as she discovers how to survive alone and how to co-exist with others in a world of wonders. Madge Murray’s growth from childhood to middle age is recounted in a series of thirteen interconnected short stories, assembled in a chronological order, but with references back to the impressions of youth and forward to the insights of a woman who is beginning to see the random fragments of her life as having telling correspondences.
The series begins with “Luna Moths,” which is the story of the young girl’s relationship with her family, during a summer spent near a beach in Nova Scotia. Joan, Clark wrote “Luna Moths” first as an autonomous story, but as she became more interested in the character of Madge, she imagined her as an adult, and placed her on the West Coast of Canada in what is now story number nine of Swimming Toward the Light, “The Madonna Feast.”
After a hiatus of several years she wrote more Madge stories, and began to think of them all of a piece, a series of linked stories. She does not consider Swimming Toward the Light a novel: its structure is not linear. The life of the protagonist is built up in layers: each story adds another perspective, another dimension to the character, rather like a collage or, to use the central metaphor of Swimming Toward the Light, as a spectrum of bright colours, which when refracted into a unified beam constitutes a clear white light.
The narrative technique and style of Swimming Toward the Light are radically different front Joan Clark’s 1988 novel, The Victory of Geraldine Gull,2 as are the settings and characters. The novel is set in a small native community on Hudson Bay, and the protagonist, Geraldine Gull, is a native woman cast as tragic heroine. She is an aggressive, anarchic woman, who breaks the rules of white society in order to survive with a degree of pride in her ancestry and traditions, and a sense of personal integrity. The Victory of Geraldine Gull is also the story of a young white woman, who comes to the North to teach painting to the native children and discovers that she has a lot more to learn than to teach.
Joan Clark’s earlier works are children’s stories, including The Moons of Madeleine (1987), Wild Man of the Wood (1985), The Leopard and the Lily (1984), and From a High Thin Wire (1982). She still enjoys visiting classrooms to read her stories and to encourage children in their writing, showing in her own work how each story begins with an image, a memory, so that they can value what they have inside their own heads, to demystify the writing of stories, to show that there is a connection between books and themselves. According to Joan Clark, “this is what culture is, this relationship”.3
For each of her works, Joan Clark assumes a different style and tone, “switching gears” as she moves from one piece of fiction to another. Only two are similar in tone and texture: The Wild Man of the Woods and The Moons of Madeleine. She deliberately tried to write the two books in one, and then through five drafts she realized that she had two books: these stories take place at the same time, in two different places, involving two cousins. Wild Man of the Woods takes place in a lake in the mountains, and the other is set in Calgary. Joan Clark contends that this variety in structure and style is not deliberate: “she writes about what interests her, and whatever happens to come up in her life, what crosses her path. Each story has its own set of problems.”4 She admits that this is a hard way to write, however: “[shel just learns how to write something and then abandons it to start on something else.5
The style of Swimming Toward the Light resembles that of Alice Munro—understated evocation of emotions and close personal relationships in terms of place and time without editorial comment. Joan Clark greatly admires Alice Munro, considering herself lucky to live in the same country as a writer of such ability. If she is going to be influenced by any other writer, she would rather be influenced by the best.
Joan Clark has lived in many different parts of Canada, and her works are set in a diversity of locales. Like the protagonist of Swimming Toward the Light, she was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and grew up in various towns in the Maritimes. After her graduation from Acadia University, she taught biology for a year in Sussex, New Brunswick, which she greatly enjoyed because the students didn’t exercise their power. She then moved to Calgary where she took education for a year at the University of Alberta, just before the Calgary branch became an autonomous university. Several of the stories in Swimming Toward the Light were written seven years ago while she lived in Bragg Creek. Since her husband was at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, she joined him there and taught for a year at Donnelly Junior High School, and that experience nearly killed her, although she did teach again in Calgary at Tweedsmuir for a year, and at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, part—time for two years.
She now lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, with her family, and writes according to a disciplined daily schedule, going quite gladly to her work every day. Joan Clark’s writing career began only after the birth of three children, when her youngest was still an infant. She recalls taking up a pad of paper and covering it with words in a matter of hours, and being rather amazed at the discovery that she was a writer. Similarly, Madge discovers while entertaining her young children, that she has unsuspected talents—in her case, the stories are dramatised with papier mache figures.
During a conversation with Joan Clark, taped in a cathedral hall hung appropriately with multi-coloured symbolic banners, we discussed the implications of place and of time in Swimming Toward the Light.
Aurora: Swimming Toward the Light reflects the fact that you have travelled extensively across the country. It captures very well a sense of particular place, while making it accessible to the reader who may not have been there. How do these places affect the characters in your works? Are people conditioned by the places in which they live? Do their attitudes toward themselves change according to their environment? Do they attempt to find themselves in going somewhere else? In Swimming Toward the Light, the protagonist, Madge, travels from the East Coast, where she was born and grew up, to the West Coast after the dissolution of her marriage, and you very graphically indicate the differences between the East and the West Coast:
Although there are beaches in Nova Scotia where the water is as warm, if not warmer, than the one on which Madge is standing, she thinks of the Atlantic coast as cold and instructive, a place of harsh realities and unequivocal truths. The wind is raw, the coastline spare, the trees stunted; there is the sharp sting of salt in the air.
The West Coast has a soft underbelly. The winds are gentler, less demanding. The air is mild, scented with flowering trees, overgrown with salmonberry, wild broom, holly, rhododendron. Cedar and Douglas fir grow straight and tall, becoming gigantic and mysterious. This is a place where borders dissolve, where there are contradictions, talking trees, enchanted masks, mermaids. (pp. 193-194)
The journey from east to west seems to recur in Canadian writing—in The Stone Angel, for example, Hagar moves from a small town in Manitoba to Vancouver. What significance does this western migration have in Canadian literature?
Clark: Yes, it is a phenomenon in this country. There is a lot of movement back and forth, and it has certainly been true in my own life. I went from the eastern part of Canada—the Maritimes, and I moved to Alberta. But in the case of Swimming Toward the Light, I had Madge go to the West Coast because I saw her as that sort of person. I wrote the first story first—”Luna Moths,” but I didn’t write them in sequence; then I wrote “Madonna Feast” [the ninth story]. Actually, I wrote it as “Mother’s Day, West Coast.” I didn’t imagine I would be writing all these stories about the same woman when I set out, but I imagined her as an adult, and I thought she would probably end up on the West Coast of Canada. I imagined that as suiting her personality: she was like the seal, drifting along with the incoming tide. I see the West Coast as having a softness, a soft underbelly which the Atlantic doesn’t have, and I thought she was that kind of person—very sensual, softish, like the mossy trees. The air is softer on the West Coast; the West Coast is beguiling, almost erotic, but the East Coast is harsh and brutal. The culture of the West Coast tribes reflects that they lived in a more moderate climate with an abundance of fish.
Place has a very strong effect on me. I’m very impressionable. I’m overcome by places. Point no Point (on Vancouver Island) is honeycombed with paths, and if you go looking for the point, it’s not straight forward at all, which is an image which really interested me: the point was there, but you couldn’t find it. Of course, in these stories, I’m also trying to say something about writing and that comes up in “Margaret’s Story” and “The Train Family,”; and it also comes up in “Point no Point.” These stories are about being a lot of different things, so that you can be on the point, have made your point, and not really be standing on the point.
Aurora: You started with two short stories and didn’t envisage the complete series as constituting a whole. At what point did you see the possibility of an interconnected series of stories for one publication?
Clark: I wrote the majority of the stories—about eight or so—all over the place. Point no Point was about the sixth one, although I can’t be exact. And then I wrote a couple that I didn’t use in the final book. When I put them all together, I then wrote the final one, Swimming Toward the Light, when my own father died.
I find short stories fit in with where you are, in a way that novels do not. They take you right out of your life as you live it today. The last one I wrote was Train Family. When I had them all together, I began to look at’ them in that way. I juggled the manuscript to eliminate the repetitions. But I didn’t think of it as a novel, and didn’t want to rewrite it as a novel. I write from instinct and a sense of discovery. I’m not the least bit intellectual.
Aurora: In Swimming Toward the Light, the protagonist’s attitudes to herself, to her family, to her marriage, mirror very clearly the attitudes and assumptions of women born in the 1940s who have had to adjust to radical changes in attitudes towards the role of women in society. They assumed the roles of wife and mother without much thought, put their talents and personal goals on hold, until they were jolted into a re-evaluation. They lived in a condition of darkness, like Madge, who “becomes a nocturnal beast” as a young mother. Motherhood swallows her whole. Do you see Madge as “typical” or extraordinary in the way that she copes, or does not cope, with her young family and marriage?
Clark: Certainly the story entitled “Dicken’s Wife” has been repeated over and over. Madge had lots of company. I saw it often, and it still goes on. She had no support. She got lost in a quagmire.
Aurora: Are Madge’s assumptions about marriage and motherhood, that both will provide her with the emotional security she needs, wrong-headed? It seems that she only begins to realize her potential when she finally learns to fend for herself, and to enjoy being alone so that she can pursue her own vocation. Is this what Swimming Toward the Light suggests—that the light is the light of self-realization?
Clark: Madge was a very dependent person and only stumbles toward a degree of independence, almost accidently discovering her potential for creativity, with her papier mache sculpture for her children. I prefer to use the term “discovery” rather than “self-realization.”
Aurora: Many of the stories in Swimming Toward the Light are about the relationships of the protagonist with men. Yet these relationships seem almost doomed from the beginning. Is there a suggestion that although Madge’s experiences are bound up with the lives of men, eventually she must “swim” solo? In the series of vignettes which constitute “Colour Wheel,” for example, there is a man in a train, whom she couples with out of a sense of “contrariness and anger,” and a man she picks up in her car and feels a certain affinity with, a relationship which she almost wills, “such was her need for a man, even a perfect stranger.”
Clark: Much of her life is bound up with her relationships with men, and she recognized her dependence on them. After the breakup of her marriage, almost anybody would do. But then she learns how to live more on her own terms, not only in terms of relationships.
Aurora: Early in the book, Madge’s father is portrayed as inscrutably male—as a child she sees him as inaccessible. And this inaccessibility seems to characterize all the males in the book—they live in their own separate worlds, and the women can only rarely, if ever, glimpse that world. Are women and men “two solitudes,” in Swimming Toward the Light?
Clark: There has always been that distance. And she never really knows her husband. She marries him without being aware of even being asked.
Aurora: Yet, it is Madge’s father who counsels her to “swim toward the light” when she became panic-stricken while swimming in a river at night. And it is her lover, Stan, who takes her to see the beauty of a dome of many-coloured glass in a church he has discovered on his travels, and who enables her to swim freely beneath the water when they make love in the woods. Is the implication in these stories that the protagonist’s life is inextricably bound up with others—particularly with men, and that she will never realize her dream of swimming free?
Clark: In Swimming Toward the Light there is continually a tension between the need for solitude and independence, and the dependence on others in our lives. You can be too independent and build a wall around yourself, so as not to take the risks involved in a relationship. But you also miss a lot if you’re too independent. This is something that I’ll write about again, I’m sure.
Aurora: How important are her relationships with other women?
Clark: Of course, they are very important. But she doesn’t want to be like her aunt Margaret, who makes a profession of aloneness. She has her marriage, her children. There is always this tension between dependence and independence for women.
Aurora: Several of the characters in the stories, Madge, her father Laddie, her aunt Margaret, attempt to deal with reality by telling stories. Madge makes sculptures out of papier mache which dramatise little incidents, her father and her aunt tell or write stories out of their own experience. And this is what the book does too—collecting what appear to be random events and impressions, just like Madge as a young girl:
She didn’t recognize anything as significant until she had rolled past it. She was like a large ball made of soft material such as felt or brushed wool, the kind of surface bits and pieces stuck to as she rolled down hallways and around corners, into bedrooms and places she had no business entering. These bits and pieces clung to her haphazardly.. There was no pattern to their arrangement; nothing useful could be made of this gathering; it was nothing more than an acquisition habit. (p.38)
Do you perceive this as the narrative technique in Swimming Toward the Light?
Clark: Not consciously at first. So much of writing is unconscious.
Aurora: There are many wonderful little “epiphanies” in Swimming Toward the Light, little revelations which defy explanations, but which somehow throw some light on the joys of living, if only we can see them—Madge’s discovery of the luna moths, for example, which appear on her home like an other-worldly visitation—fragile, beautiful, unexpected, and which leave with the sun when their wings have dried; and her discovery on returning to her home from the beach as a child that the backyard has undergone a “transformation”:
Round and round she walked, thinking about these transformations, about the fact that while she had been somewhere else, this fantastic growth had taken place. (p. 16)
Is the implication that discoveries are usually made by accident, a confluence of events over which the character has no control?
Clark: That’s right. She is not consciously aware that something has taken place, but she knows something has changed.
Aurora: Yet at the end of the last story in the book, entitled Swimming Toward the Light, Madge seems to feel that there are no answers to her questions. Even words mislead or confuse, and stories are lies we tell to conceal the truth. Is story-telling an evasion, or an attempt to impose a pattern on experience, when experience confounds any attempt to see in it a pattern or significance? It seems to me very significant that Madge volunteers no answers at school.
Clark: She is talking about the shortcomings of words. They can misdirect and mislead. I try to be very honest about what words can and cannot do. But when words cannot adequately define the goal, there is always the light, and that is sufficient in itself:
She walked slowly, gingerly. It was well before midnight, between ten and ten-thirty. Here and there inside a house, there was a flicker of light in the darkness where a candle was burning. Madge thought of the blackouts during the war, when streetlights were turned out and blinds were drawn. She had always been in bed during blackouts. She thought this must have been what the streets looked like from outside, rows of dark houses you could barely make out. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Madge began to separate one house from another. She could see which house had a car parked in the driveway, which houses had garages. She passed the rectangular expanse she recognized as the tennis courts, the tall, white courthouse whose columns gleamed faintly in starlight. Madge looked up through the branched intricacies of the elms, toward the stars. The clouds had gone and the sky was clear. The stars shone cold and bright from distant galaxies. Madge thought about the light, the distance it travelled, the years it took to reach Earth. She thought about the names of galaxies, the Andromeda Spiral and the Milky Way. She thought about the names of stars, Altair and Vega. Giving names, putting words to stars, was a kind of taming, an attempt to establish outposts, connections. But the main connection with stars wasn’t words, with their misdirections and limitations, their predilection to confuse and misguide. The language of the universe was light. It was light that people who had died and come back to life claimed to see. In all that darkness, they claimed to see the light. (p. 235)
Aurora: The recurring image of light in your work is seen as a beacon of hope and as a goal, but also in terms of the colours into which the light may be refracted, like Shelley’s dome of many-coloured glass:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity, Until Death tramples it to fragments.
In the story, “Colour Wheel,” the protagonist’s experiences constitute the different colours of the spectrum. Is she swimming towards an integration of the colours, or is this an impossibility? Is the light just the hope of understanding, or making sense of it all? Or is the suggestion that in life, we go through light and shade, good and bad, without any apparent reason?
Clark: I didn’t think of Shelley’s poem when I was writing “Colour Wheel.” It must be twenty-five years since I’ve read that, but it is very lovely. Colours are very important to me. They make a very strong impression on me—the colours that people wear, for example. I think a lot in images. Stories often come to me in images. I do tend to express myself in terms of images: that’s where I see the truth lying. I don’t think I’m that good at abstract thought.
Aurora: Swimming is portrayed as a positive act in Swimming Toward the Light—a survival mechanism. Those who cannot swim, drown—those who lack the strength or the will. What does “swimming” mean?
Clark: Yes. Swimming is surviving. Madge learns to swim in the Mersey River in New Brunswick, with all those rocks, and tries to swim towards those rocks where the water is over her head, at night, in the dark, with only the flashlight of her Uncle Dillon to guide her.
Aurora: The image of Madge as a mermaid also recurs:
Madge has her own places. She closes her eyes and imagines herself slipping into the water, growing a long, seductive tail, swimming out to sea. She swims far out, away from land, entering an endless, watery clearing where there are no boundaries or enclosures, where the horizon is a shimmering filament overhead. She swims through the strange buzzing silence, moving weightlessly, kicking her powerful tail, her body undulating beneath the waves. If she stayed out here long enough, she would never go back. She’s enchanted by her own muteness, by the flowing gestures of the mime, the soft, filtered light. She doesn’t think about the children who once slid from her womb. She doesn’t wonder where they are, whether they have swum away to other oceans, other lands. She doesn’t wonder where Stan is, or her father. The point is, when she’s swimming like this, none of this matters, none of this matters any more. (p. 206)
What is suggested by this? Is it escapism, or a way of surviving?
Clark: Madge is like a seal. There is something very passive about her. She drifts around, but she is a lot tougher than she knows.
Aurora: Is this also a book about Canada? About what constitutes Canadians? Madge’s parents come from Irish and Scottish ancestry, and their families are portrayed in terms of their “old world” habits and attitudes. Madge thinks of herself as more Irish than Scottish—”unlucky and unfortunate, doomed to attract trouble”—whereas her sister has inherited her father’s Scottish nature-ambitious, independent, organized and methodical:
Early on, Madge and Ardith had lined themselves up on what they saw as opposite sides of the family: Ardith on her father’s side, Madge on their mother’s. They saw it as something that bore significance, that marked their futures in some inevitable, relentless way.(p. 42)
Even though they learn later that their ancestry is much more complicated-as “untidy scribble” rather than parallel lines—in the last story, which is about the death of Madge’s father, there is again an attempt to realize the self in terms of origins, and an attempt to pass on this sense of family to her own daughter. Is the process of self-realization—both individual and national—necessarily a rediscovery of origins, or a discovery that we fabricate our past, create a history which will provide some explanations for ourselves?
Clark: One of the preoccupations in Swimming Toward the Light is with parents. What are they? Who are they? Where do they come from? I’ve been fascinated by my parents. When I was a little girl I loved to watch my mother breath. These stories are a lot about trying to find parents and what makes them tick, and you never can. I’m also’ interested in how we become parents to our parents, if they live long enough. Then our children become parents to us.
1. Swimming Toward the Light: Short Stories by Joan Clark, Toronto: Macmillan, 1990.
2. The Victory of Geraldine Gull, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.
3. From an interview with Brian Dunsmore on "Between the Covers", ACCESS Radio CKUA, May 15, 1990.
4. "From an interview with Anne Nothof, May 8, 1990.
Eiriksdottir: A Tale of Dreams and Luck: A Novel, Penguin 1995
From a High Thin Wire. NeWest Press, 1982
Swimming Toward the Light: Short Stories, Macmillan of Canada, 1990
The Victory of Geraldine Gull: A Novel, Cormorant Books, 1988For Children
The Dream Carvers. Toronto, Viking, 1995
Girl of the Rockies. Ryerson Press, 1968
The Hand of Robin Squires. Stoddart, 1994
The Leopard & the Lilly. Oolichan Books, 1984
The Moons of Madeleine. Puffin Books, 1987
Thomasina and the Trout Tree. Tundra Books, 1971
Wild Man of the Woods. Puffin Books, 1985
Writer's Union Website
Joan Clark's latest book, Latitude's of Melt, Knopf Canada was published in 2000 and for children, The Word for Home, Penguin Books (2002) .
Updated March 2013
Nothof, Anne (2001). Swimming Toward The Light: An Interview With Canadian Author, Joan Clark. Aurora Online: