The in-between world of Jordan Tannahill

Jordan Tannahill. Photo: Alejandro Santiago

Picture this: A son is worried about his mother, who hasn’t woken up for the day. He goes to check on her and sees her still form in her bed apparently not moving. She hasn’t been well and thoughts begin to race through his mind. Has she died? Is she still breathing? In the seconds before discovering the truth of the matter, many things flow through the son’s mind.

It is in those seconds that Jordan Tannahill’s debut novel Liminal (House of Anansi) takes place.

The word, seemingly so apropos for our times, describes a place between things, such as life and death, male and female, spirituality and corporeality.

For Tannahill, the Beacon Hill boy who has found a place as an important theatre and film artist in Canada and now in London, it represents a place where he can explore issues of spirituality, love, death, personal failure and sexuality. It’s deep stuff, but the playwright in Tannahill knows all about dramatic action and this first book clips along through many adventures.

The book also works with the convention of autofiction in which the main character of the work is named Jordan Tannahill.

This interview, however, takes place with the real Jordan.

“It’s predominantly fiction but there is a patina of truth sprinkled throughout. A more apt metaphor is: There is a kind of architecture of truth. But all of the insides, the glass in the windows, all of that is fiction.

“It bears a certain resemblance to my life,” he said, “but I really use fiction to interrogate themes in a more succinct and coherent manner.”

The 29 year old Tannahill is a playwright, filmmaker, and theatre director. He’s won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for the play Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays and was shortlisted for the play Concord Floral. He’s picked up Dora Mavor Moore Awards and his films and multimedia performances have been presented at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Tribeca Film Festival. He ran, with William Ellis, the underground art space Videofag out of their home in Toronto’s Kensington Market. And his virtual reality performance Draw Me Close, a co-production between the National Theatre (UK) and the National Film Board of Canada, was at the Venice Film Festival. Tannahill is nothing but eclectic.

He has a hungry mind and he reads widely. In the interview, he cited writers such as Rebecca Solnit or Maggie Nelson as being influential in his thinking about style.

“As I began fleshing out the text, fiction was a really useful tool to dig deeper and use narrative to get under skin of these characters and ideas.”

Autofiction, he said, was a way to look at what he calls the muse of the self and the body.

This is not without a concern. “The proximity to self in this book costs a lot more to write and it kind of scares the shit out of me to be honest.”

He grew up in Ottawa’s east end. Suburban Ottawa has “ingrained itself on my soul and internalized itself in my spiritual geography. It is recurrent in my work. I am interested in how these mythic archetypes, such as spirituality, play out in a relatively featureless landscape.

“Ottawa forms me for better or worse. It really is in all my work.”

Tannahill does have a father but he’s not in the book.

“I excluded other members of my family as well. I wanted to centralize the relationship between the mother and the son in the book.” He also creates a question about fictional Jordan’s genesis. Was he a test tube baby or the product of a one night stand.

“Am I somehow the by-product of perversion?” he says rhetorically about the fictional Jordan.

The book also makes more than a passing reference to the Confessions of Saint Augustine, whose mother had the same name as the fictional mother in Tannahill’s novel.

The fourth century memoir is considered the first autobiography and follows Augustine’s life from the profane to the spiritual.

“I would say my character’s journey does mirror Augustine’s. Both mothers are named Monica. Both men leave a smaller city to go to a larger city where they find themselves drawn to the theatre and the cauldron of physicality.”

But, while Augustine rejects the profane, fictional Jordan explores passion and sensuality and life on earth.

“For me it’s about the embrace of corporality, temporality and nowness.”

As a writer, Tannahill says he is very inspired by what he calls the novel of ideas.

In the case of Liminal, a particular novel of ideas has proven to be a real starting point. The Passion According to GH. written by the Brazilian Clarice Lispector which was published in 1964.

This book also takes place in a single moment of time, Tannahill says. A middle class woman fires her maid and the next morning kills a cockroach. The novel begins when the woman looks into the cockroach’s eyes and sees  herself.

“In a sense I have recast the mother as the cockroach.”

Thus, he says, the entire novel takes place in a liminal state.

“The mother is between life and death. The novel is looking at characters who find themselves in liminal situations between youth and adulthood or between genders or between physical and metaphysical situations. Generation is a kind of liminality. That concept is threaded throughout.

“What excites me about the idea of liminality is it’s a concept that comes from science. It’s an observation about bodies in transitional physical states. Being in a liminal state is also very much a queer idea. That animates me and my work in a very specific way.”

His real mother has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and has been battling that for about three years. Tannahill says her health concern was the trigger for him to investigate these ideas. In the book she is a computer scientist. His real mother is a lawyer.

“The mother (in the novel) is very much a fictional character, but her feisty essence, her independent spirit is very much an homage to (his mother’s real self).

Tannahill’s mom has read the book and likes it and she also likes the mother.

He says the fictional mother “took on a life of her own and in many was is a composite of several women that I know.”

Tannahill says he has wanted to write a novel for several years.

“I tried and abandoned many novels until I finally managed to push through with this one.

“It began to form not long after I moved to London about year ago. I had been reading (a lot of) autofiction and hybrid works between memoir fiction and philosophy and I found it a compelling emergent genre. I just kind of took up residence in the library at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I wrote a majority of the book there.

“It did come out fairly quickly. It was shapeshifting work. I knew I wanted to contain the novel within a second. As a playwright I work with time. It’s one of my great tools as an artist and I wanted to explore how that functioned within a novel.

Speaking of time, or more accurately, timing, his novel is being launched in Toronto this week, while Tannahill is in rehearsal directing a play he was written called Declarations at the Canadian Stage Company. Opening night is Jan. 25.

He says this play investigates many of the same themes as the novel including celebrating life as it confronts death.

“It is a meditation on what makes up a life and how we account for that. It’s also a celebration of the body and corporality.”

The piece involves five performers who recite a lyrical text that involves a series of movements, some choreographed and some improvised. That means the play is never the same. It changes every night. Tannahill likes that. It means the show remains a living thing than never gets calcified.

After the show opens and the novel is launched, Tannahill will head back to London where he now lives with his partner.

“London is officially my home for the past year. I love it.

“I expected to move to London and be a bit a ship adrift. I have been fortunate. One of my plays (Late Company) was produced in the West End. It was totally unexpected. Within in a few months of being there I got email from a small indie theatre company who wanted to put on Late Company. It got great reviews and transferred to West End where it ran for a month.

“It was a thrill taking the tube in London and at every stop seeing ads for the play.”

When he gets back to London, he’ll be polishing up a work for the internationally known dancer-choreographer Akram Khan. Tannahill has written a text for a dance piece by Akram Khan called Xenos. This will be Khan’s final solo piece and it will open in February in Athens, Greece.

Tannahill has worked in dance before. This particular text, he says, is more like poetry. It is, he says, situated between theatre and dance. It is liminal.

“I was introduced to Akram by Matthew Jocelyn (the outgoing artistic director at the Canadian Stage Company).”

This is the first artistic collaboration with Khan. Tannahill has also worked with the well-known Toronto based choreographer  Christopher House in a piece that premiered in 2016 called Marienbad.

“I love dance. I love visual art too. Some pieces of mine have been done in galleries.” He likes being unbounded by convention in a liminal space.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.