Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"Written in the Body" by Jan Andrews: a poetically soothing exploration of gender

Jan Andrews’s performance on Saturday was divided into two parts, the first being a short story, “Seal Skin”, from Sarah Maitland’s collection Angel Maker, and the second part being largely autobiographical. Coming from a theatre background, I was expecting more visual cues and physicality, perhaps a little movement, some audio or lighting cues, an acting out of a memory or experience. Initially, I have to admit, I was disappointed, but then soon adapted to the simplicity of stories being shared solely through spoken words. Andrews’s performance definitely provoked a desire to shut my eyes and just listen.

“Seal Skin” was a fictional, parable-like story of gender exploration and identity. It slowly drew the audience into a created world and into the mind of someone experiencing the limitations of their own body. Brilliantly presented as someone not only transforming their gender, but also becoming a seal (or at least that’s what I understood), it captured my imagination quite vividly. The language was poetic, all the while presented in a soothing manner Andrews. Explicitly sexual and very intimate content not usually shared aloud in a public setting quickly quieted the minds of those listening so as to hang on every word spoken. “The fear is pleasing and desire.” The switching of pronouns for the primary character from “he” to “she”, and then back again to “he” by its conclusion, was smooth and poignant. This transition was accepted with ease, without having any visuals to confirm or deny what was being communicated. This is the power of storytelling at work. “Later, he does not know if he is a man.”

The use of this short story before hearing Andrews’s story was an inventive way to warm the audience up to the relatable themes, and to better understand the nuanced and complex details of Andrews’s own journey. The honesty and vulnerability in which she took us back in time into “the secret reaches of the night” to share with us personal desires, thoughts, fears, and memories, made it easy to empathize and appreciate what was shared even more.

Andrews has a knack for rhythm, and both the personal narrative and the short story seemed to have a similar flow and certainly blended well together. The consistent use of repetition and alliteration throughout heightened my enjoyment of listening. Andrews’s use of imagery and specific examples from her youth captured a feeling that otherwise would be difficult to explain. She often repeated the phrase “safe and settled” throughout, but almost to communicate the opposite feeling. Gender questioning seemed to be a repeating theme of Andrews’s personal story, but it was not presented in a cerebral or academic way. Rather, it was accessible for anyone of any gender, with the definition of being one gender captured well by the line “It meant doing those things and enjoying them.”

The ending of the performance remained rather open ended, which I liked, not neatly wrapping up with an answer or conclusion, but rather posing more questions, honestly sharing a search for identity and gender and wondering how things would be different from a different generation, a different time and place, and with different knowledge, opportunities, and experiences. Andrews concluded, quite appropriately, “I am not a literary construct,” but rather a real person and a work in progress, like all of us. It was a refreshing perspective and a story bravely told.