Joe Davies, The Queen of Biafra and other tales

Joe Davies and I go back a way to the days of the BamBoo Club on Toronto’s Queen Street West. Restaurants are one of the few economies that tolerate the unconventional nature of artists, if meagerly, and I suspect if you go through the wreckage of most popular night spots you’ll find the shards of many a good tale and a trail of artists who have mined those tales. I worked in the office; he worked on the line in the kitchen. I can still see him behind the serving station with an industrial wok beside him, in a white apron, his wire frame glasses slightly cloudy from steam and grease. We were both introverts, but I do remember we shared a kindred beer and a cigarette or two, before those celebrated green iron gates closed for the last time.

JoeDaviesOddly enough the tornadoes of our respective lives scooped us up and spun us around, then some years later, spit us both out in Peterborough.  He had grown a beautiful family. (His 15-year-old daughter Charlotte already performs with  local indie rock band The Lonely Parade.) He had become a short story writer. A very good one.

He grew up in Toronto and comes by his creativity honestly. His mother was a prolific painter and printmaker who spent the latter part of her life in Zimbabwe, his father a successful commercial illustrator.

Every so often I run into Joe, often at the Gilmour Street yard sale, and beg him for some new stories. He kindly obliges me with a few which I take home and savour over the next few days. They stay with me.

A man with a quiet presence,  he works at home surrounded by the chaos of family – piles of books, legos, puzzles, musical instruments, computers, paintings and drawings by family and friends cover every surface. There are edges in his interior life, most of them invisible but few of them are round. He writes about small things in life, the quotidian: about a broken squash at the supermarket and getting angry at his young daughter; about a couple unable to decide on a name for their newborn child. You’ll recognize the bike trails, cafés and neighbourhoods of Peterborough, set ever so lightly off kilter. His stories pick at the scabs of men’s shame and self-doubt. The lighting is harsh but not unkind; I feel at once unsettled and safe in his literary hands.

His pacing is impeccable, unhurried and relentless, skirting the edges of devastation without ever falling in; precariously straddling the lines between dark and light, past, present and future, between truth and fiction. Davies takes the mundane and carefully unravels it to expose the irreconcilable in our inner lives.

Softspoken and modest, he probably won’t tell you that he has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize or nominated for that brass ring of short story writing, the Pushcart Prize. You can find his work in the best of the best literary rags – Queen’s Quarterly, Descant, The New Quarterly, Exile, Capilano Review, and The Antigonish Review.

Before I leave he shows me a photo of himself sent by an old friend, a portrait of the artist as a young man. Floppy blond hair in a severe part, the signature glasses, cigarette dangling from his mouth, thin legs in punkish jeans and a frank gaze that hides nothing yet gives nothing away.

You can find one of his recent works entitled Vanishing in the winter 2012 issue of The Missouri Review.

Cover photo by Charlotte Dempsey.

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