'Oscar of Between' pushes boundaries of identity, language and form

Warland creates a new style of personal narrative that evokes a change in the way we see ourselves

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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.


                                          Part 1

                                     London, 2007

– 1 –

Oscar.

 

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).

 

Oscar.

Last time travelled alone: 1992. Amsterdam. Wrote the Van

Gogh suite:

           "to see so vividly &                 not be seen."

 

Oscar.

 

Now rummaging through satchel for ear-length pencil. On

exhibition ticket

scribbling quote from first display case:

 

"Art alone could screen men and intentions where natural

cover failed."

 

S. J. Solomon

British artist and camouflage officer

 

Oscar

: neither man,

nor marked with natural cover.

 

That leaves her

with art.

 

– 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.

 

Camouflage

: necessity of.

 

Oscar

: 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."

Camouflage.

 

A different mindset.

 

Utterly.

 

– 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.

 

Oscar

: 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.

                                                                  "Oscar."

Upon hearing

: surge of delight.

 

– 15 –

 

Camo's infiltration in today's fashion.

 

The aim?

Of camouflage?

 

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 —

 

Absurdity of

: bra-bind if you have them,

camouflage if you don't.

 

Not logical.

Logistical.

 

                                           Part 12

                                      Montreal, 2009

 

– 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

space.

 

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

tender embrace.

 

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

private life.

 

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

believable.

 

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.

 

 

 

                                           Part 18

                              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

exchanging smiles.

 

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

Yarmulke."

 

Oscar notices the basket of skullcaps. "A yarmulke?"

 

"Yes."

 

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

Duped?

 

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.

Jewish cemetery.

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:

                                                        FREAKS

 

                                                    Part 33

                                                Toronto, 2013

 

– 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

off !"

 

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

US.

 

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.

 

 

 

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