By Bruce Cinnamon; NeWest Press; 248 pages. Cinnamon will be reading from his book at Read & Write with Pride at Audreys Books on Thu., June 13 (7 – 9 p.m.) and at the 50th Nunatak First Fiction Series Celebration at the Yellowhead Brewery on Tue., June 18 (7 – 9 p.m.)
Imagine if Edmontonians celebrated the end of winter with a city-wide event to make Pride blush—where everyone was free, at least for a day, to let go of all of their inhibitions. This is part of the premise in local author Bruce Cinnamon’s first novel The Melting Queen.
In Cinnamon’s magical realism version of Edmonton, citizens celebrate the breakup of the Saskatchewan River with Melting Day—an event that culminates with the selection of the Melting Queen. The main character begins the story with the name Adam, but adopts the new name River Runson as they embrace their genderfluid identity—a name they take on just in time to be crowned Melting Queen. Over the course of the book, River learns the position isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that they are far from the first queen to challenge the status quo.
When he started the book as an honours thesis project for his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta, Cinnamon wanted to write a novel set in Edmonton that explored some part of the city’s history.
“I was also working as a heritage interpreter at the Alberta Legislature and [was] kind of learning more about local history as well,” he says, “and I started learning about these weird, quirky stories of our local history. Like there was an elephant stampede down Jasper Avenue in 1926, or the legislature mace that we used for 50 years was made from old spare parts, including pieces from an old toilet.”
The Melting Queen incorporates some of the city’s history, though part of the magic realism in the book extends to what has shaped YEG. For instance, every year River and their friends meet at a restaurant called Café Fiume, built on the old Walterdale Bridge, which was saved from destruction by the Edmonton Civic Heritage Organization (ECHO).
Melting Day is also obviously (and, in some ways, sadly) a fabrication, but some of the Melting Queens of yore were real women who contributed to Edmonton and Cinnamon wanted to honour them. An appendix at the back of the book shares their stories.
“I have a list of all of the Melting Queens; I think about 40 of them are real, historical women, including women like [Dr.] Anne Anderson who created the first really popular English to Cree dictionary,” he says.
Cinnamon is also a big fan of magic realism as a genre and lists Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami as writers who inspire him.
One of the most important magic realism elements that he introduces to his story—aside from the eponymous Melting Queen and the related holiday—is the concept of being able to create a totem that is capable of absorbing negative energy.
“People kind of removing negativity from themselves and putting it into something else is, I think, a very normal and natural process, regardless of how that happens or what that looks like for an individual case,” Cinnamon says.
At the beginning of the novel, a lot of River’s negative feelings are toward Edmonton but, despite all they go through, their feelings toward the city gradually become more positive.
“The painful process of becoming the Melting Queen and being forced into this public role in this really uncomfortable way and having to really define and then defend an identity that’s not very well understood by most people creates the more positive feelings that River ends the book with—this sort of grudging like of Edmonton,” Cinnamon explains.
River’s exploration of their own genderfluidity coincides with the expectations put on them as Melting Queen, which they quickly learn has a lot to do with how society views and defines women. Through River’s experiences, the novel queries our understanding of gender norms and the binary, which Cinnamon says is something he has personally considered.
“I’m queer and when I started writing this book, I wasn’t confused, but I was very much thinking about ‘What does my gender identity mean to me?’ And this book was actually a really interesting process of exploring my masculinity and my femininity, so to speak,” he says. “I identify as a male, masculine person, but I’ve also been very uncomfortable, especially growing up as a queer person in the type of culture we live in. Femininity was something that I always felt like I really had to be wary of and be on guard against, because that could betray my secret, before I came out of the closet.”
Cinnamon adds that while River feels the need to escape the gender binary entirely, he’s more interested in challenging and changing the definitions of masculinity.
“I still identify as male and masculine in a way that’s maybe unconventionally male and masculine at times,” he says.
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