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When Betsy Warland finds herself single and without a sense of family at the age of 60, she escapes to London. Upon discovery that she has never learned the art of camouflage, she delves into nine-year journey -- taking the name Oscar -- to tell her story as "a person of between."
What results is the fascinating narrative and format of Warland's Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas -- a personal memoir that pushes boundaries and "invents new ways to see ourselves."
Read this excerpt from Oscar of Between below, published by new literary press Dagger Editions.
– 1 –
Inexplicably entering the Imperial War Museum. London.
30.3.07. Sodden gusting air (outside). Atmospheric twilight of
Camouflage Exhibit (inside). Oscar, having quickly walked by
permanent collection (its secrets intact).
Last time travelled alone: 1992. Amsterdam. Wrote the Van
"to see so vividly & not be seen."
Now rummaging through satchel for ear-length pencil. On
scribbling quote from first display case:
"Art alone could screen men and intentions where natural
S. J. Solomon
British artist and camouflage officer
: neither man,
nor marked with natural cover.
That leaves her
– 2 –
First display case. Dumbstruck. For all her notable difference, this
one had eluded Oscar. This unidentified force. Shaping her life. Had
thought it had nothing to do — with her. Until. This moment.
: necessity of.
: lack of.
Oscar at odds.
Bewilderment exiting her body — last grains in hourglass — gasp.
Sixty years to get here.
– 10 –
1914. Camo and cubism. British military needing to get an
edge on. Two of its officers/artists invent "disruptive pattern."
Cubism inspiration for.
Announcement of war paint, agreed upon duel at dawn,
eye-catching uniforms morph into first "war of deception."
A different mindset.
– 12 –
Then there's Oscar's body.
Being not either nor neither.
Not a fitting in.
Nor misfit flaunting out.
Even the most aberrant group garrisons its norms
: its not between.
– 13 –
Waterloo Station. South Bank, Lambeth. 30.03.07.
: en route to Camouflage Exhibit.
Checks the station clock: 13.20. Decides
: I am Oscar.
Second proper name.
Seeking her out.
Betsy now also Oscar.
Began first few days in London: Oscar Wilde quote at the Tate;
the Oscar in Albee's play at Theatre Royal. Haymarket.
Began, actually, a few months prior. Former student's newborn
curled into her shoulder. Inquired about its name.
: surge of delight.
– 15 –
Camo's infiltration in today's fashion.
To "see without being seen."
Voyeurism, counter-surveillance, deception, ambush.
Undercover fantasies played out?
Post bilateral mastectomy and treatments, others' expectations.
For prostheses. That Oscar.
— pros(e)thesis —
: bra-bind if you have them,
camouflage if you don't.
– 1 –
March 2009. Oscar sipping her Emerald Silver Green morning
tea, gazes at backyard tree's Matisse-like limbs against fresh blue.
Oscar. Waiting for Oscar. Having worked on writing the final
essay for Breathing the Page all week. Oscar. Wondering, would
Oscar appear here? Here being Montreal. In all this difference
where she finds most affinity with other writers. Oscar sensing
Oscar nearing for three days now — trying to elbow out more
Across adjacent backyard, "brassiere woman" torques down
spiral staircase as Oscar tries to decipher her age. Yesterday,
Oscar noted her methodic pinning of six halter-like brassieres
on frigid clothesline. Oscar surprisingly prudish about display
of private self. Yet, admiring nonchalant quotidian self assuming
collective self. History. Others' rows of.
Oscar now recalling her mother's adamant instructions on
where to hang underpants and brassieres. Without fail. Pin
them up between bed sheets hung on adjacent lines. Prevent
view of by occupants in passing cars.
In the Midwest, no flags of femininity ever raised.
– 2 –
When adult and urban, Oscar began to realize how transparent
rural life was. The state of a farmer's fields, car, lawn, house,
garden, his and his family's clothes, livestock all on display.
During family Sunday afternoon drives to "see how the fields
are doing," her father's verbal and body language a platform
for assessing other farmers' successes and shortcomings in
management: proper living.
In the city, display becomes manipulation of impressions.
A businessman teetering on bankruptcy can still fool his
friends, the bank, even his family. Wear stylish clothes, drive an
impressive car, invent "junk stocks."
Camouflage the foundation for runaway credit.
– 3 –
Dinner with Verena. Talking about our writing projects. Verena
finishing manuscript of interviews with four elderly men and
women who left, or fled, Germany: eventually ended up in
Montreal. How three out of four of them only recently began
speaking German. All those decades of not. The shame, even
danger of it.
Ache of empty arms of language. To be held — again — in its
Oscar speaks briefly of this manuscript: about betweenness; use
of one fictive device; impact of First World War invention of
camouflage — how it has infiltrated all aspects of public and
Verena, bewildered, asks: "How?"
Oscar cites governance, how US citizens abandoned their right
to be told the truth decades ago, settled for what only sounds
Verena, an aware woman, replies: "Oh … "
Later Oscar thinks — context. How it can no longer be
assumed; how this has become a pervasive problem in the
Western world; how she needed to establish the context
for her thinking more — should have cited corporate
marketing, how it is predicated on half-truths and lies.
Cited the tampering with images using Photoshop to suit.
Cited the altering of our bodies with Botox, plastic surgery,
make-overs, ever increasing array of anti-aging and cover-up
products. Cited virtual relationships replacing actual ones.
Cited how scientific and economic data about environmental
breakdown, global market schemes, profitability of cancer are
routinely manipulated, "massaged" into camouflaged jargon.
Spins & pitches. Out-of-context stats.
The insatiable bottom line — dependent on this.
– 4 –
Unable to do it. Oscar just now hanging out her laundry. Stops.
Stares. At the final items in the basket. Her underwear.
Rationalizes. They'll dry better inside. Wonders. Is this some
kind of rare intimacy Oscar still shares with her mother?
X-pose. Oscar's hanging out of her underwear is not the same
as the other women on Plateau Mont-Royal.
Oscar's would be scrutinized.
Later, Oscar realizes that the gay guy who lives below has not
been hanging his underwear on the clothesline either.
Membership not to be assumed.
Vancouver & Berlin, 2012
– 1 –
3 a.m. deep-sleep sound-sleep impact/shock glass-shatterscatters
across floor. Oscar bolts upright — entire body
listens — entry? Shouting? Just back from Berlin. Artist's brass
cobblestones embedded in sidewalks here and there in front
of flats Jews pulled out of — name, birth date, abduction date,
camp name, extermination date inscribed — sudden intimacy
of those numbers those names that flat — taking you off guard.
Oscar up. Small flashlight in hand — circle of light searching
the floor — finds it. No note wrapped around brick but
another message. Glass splinters from framed poster for Writers
in Dialogue. A feminist literary event between Adrienne Rich
and Nicole Brossard that Oscar moderated. Toronto. 1981.
Five hundred people. Adrienne's recent death passing quietly
through the remnants of the feminist community. That brilliant,
nearly forgotten, long-broken era swept up in night.
– 2 –
Next day. Oscar strides asphalt sidewalk beside Britannia's
playing field. Pure blue overhead charms strangers into
Then. There. Centre of sidewalk — gaping yellow beak —
no other remains just mandibles' arrested shock. Glimpse of
unnerving. Oscar dismisses (can't be) doesn't break stride. Then
stops dead in her tracks. Pivots quickly.
Yellow gaping mouth on black asphalt.
A scream alights in Oscar's mind.
– 3 –
Berlin. 2012. Oscar and Ingrid enter the walled cemetery. A
short grey-haired woman appears in the lapidary doorway. Calls
them over. Ingrid speaks French, Flemish, a little German. The
caretaker speaks German. Oscar speaks none — watches in
confusion, their confusion.
Usually prepared for it, this time Oscar is not. Then Ingrid gets
it: "She thinks you're a man. You can't enter unless you wear a
Oscar notices the basket of skullcaps. "A yarmulke?"
Oscar's mind races — less trouble not to correct people (every
customs officer has addressed her as "Sir" despite "Sex/Sexe: F"
on her passport) — but here, she does not want to risk offence
— what if the caretaker later realizes and feels she's been
Body language: the urgent translation of.
Oscar enters the fray, says to Ingrid, "Can you tell her in
German I'm a woman?" Then points to her chest and says
several times: "I am a woman. I'm a woman."
The caretaker's face softens.
She waves them on.
– 4 –
Gaping yellow beak on black asphalt.
Brass letters on black marble stolen.
Pulled out like gold fillings.
– 5 –
Berlin. As with most old cities, the headstones are cheek by
jowl. Limbed, tall deciduous trees canopy black, polished
marble headstones with empty drill holes (like reverse braille)
where brass lettering once was. Re. Move. All. Oscar having
read that morning that the Nazis chiselled off names of
German Jewish soldiers on historical military monuments.
Here and there, vandalized headstones are a-tumble. Ivy covers
headstones and ground in various areas of the cemetery and
creates an eerie impression of figures sitting up in bed under
green blankets. Many plain stone markers so worn away by
"ravages of time" inscription eroded away.
No survivors are left to tend these graves.
As they walk toward the main gate to leave, Ingrid and Oscar
notice an agitated exchange between caretaker and a man
while his two women companions look on. Nearing their
clutch, Ingrid understands enough German to realize he's
refusing to wear a yarmulke.
Refusing, also, to leave. Insult; assault. Continues.
Outside the cemetery walls, Oscar's eyes are magnetized by an
English word spray-painted in three-foot-high white block
letters on building abutting wall of cemetery:
– 1 –
Toronto. Rush hour beginning. Oscar on Bloor Street — steely
cumulus clouds compacting air — rain soon to pelt down.
Oscar walking for past couple of hours searching for postal
outlet and looking for a weekly gift she sends in EXPRESS
ENVELOPE to her son. Oscar. Aching to find her way into
Oscar of Between: images, phrases, ideas, pulsating words have
been circling in her head for past few days. Oscar. Eager to
cross the threshold but there's always the question of how to?
Must be discovered each time. Impatient with herself for taking
so long yet reminding herself that she just finished the Margento
essay and that, unlike being in Denis' flat near Plateau Mont-
Royal, in Toronto she's having to learn a new neighbourhood.
Then. It happens!
Having found the postal outlet, purchased EXPRESS
ENVELOPE, she's walking back to the apartment amidst rushhour-
pedestrians push while trying to insert a five-dollar bill
into her change purse when coins and TTC tokens spray out
across sidewalk. An approaching young man with baseball cap
askew shouts to girlfriend at his side:
"Hey. Watch out! This is the latest scam! Don't help him! It was
on the news last night!"
Oscar. Squats to pick up coins and tokens, glances up at him
as he stops to watch. Quick assessment. He decides. Crouches
down and helps as people stream by on either side but
continues on to his girlfriend:
"If you put your bag down to help them, they grab it and take
Toronto. Bloor at Ossington. 5:13 p.m. It happens! Torturing
array of images, words, ideas begin to connect.
Oscar crosses the threshold.
– 3 –
Curious. Oscar's taken for a man more frequently in Toronto
than in Vancouver, but with a difference — initial responses are
more power-dynamic-infused, edgy. If someone becomes aware
she's a woman, no apology is issued (frequently is in Vancouver),
which is a relief.
She ponders this as she stands in line waiting for her bank's
ATM and notices how similar ATM machines are to urinals —
how men stand with their legs apart as if at. Watches how both
genders use their bodies to shield their passwords as they would
if their private parts were suddenly exposed in public. Muses on
how stiff bills stick out from the slot into our readied hands.
– 4 –
Toronto. Oscar's approximation of "going back home." Toronto.
Where Oscar "grew up" as a feminist, writer, lesbian. Traces of
what had passed for her sense of home have all but faded in the
Toronto. Cheryl and Oscar now standing in line for three hours
in mid-October full-moon-two-nights-away night. The queue
is amicable with anticipation of entering Kill Joy's Kastle: A
Lesbian Feminist Haunted House. It's performance artist Allyson
Mitchell's crowd-source-funded collaboration with twentyfive
other lesbian-feminist and queer-fear-fighting artists — a
celebratory send-up. As the cold seeps in from the sidewalk,
the entrance is finally in sight but still forty-five minutes to
go. Oscar jokes that there should be an "Old Gals Fast Lane."
Cheryl and Oscar on average thirty plus years older than most
others in line.
Halfway through the Haunted House, they turn a corner
and there are four lesbians on the floor and one standing. All
covered in white cloth except their vaginas, which they display
and stroke (one has jewels inside of hers, the one standing
uses a mirror). They move their bodies hypnotically, erotically,
and some speak, but Oscar is too mesmerized to listen. Too
amazed that it has taken her sixty-six years to experience
what boys experience and continue to experience throughout
their manhood: frequent group displays of their genitals. The
bonding in this. Shared intrigue.
Public erotic joy surges through Oscar for the first time.
Thank you for reading this story...
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