I came to SUISS in 2002 by way of a town of around 2,000 people in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, that had a Scottish name: Glencoe. There, the Fox movie theatre sat empty after closing down when I was little, and beside it was a gas station where my father worked (since closed, too). The summer I was eight years old, Dad planted me behind the cash register, to avoid being shorted on his pay for the casual thefts of cigarettes or motor oil that would occur were the kiosk unattended while he filled cars.
Across the increasingly dismal Main Street, my mother ran a knitting, sewing and crafting shop, and together with Glencoe’s miniscule business association, she helped arrange the town festival every July: Tartan Days.
Yes, like Scottish tartan. As fellow SUISSers have likely heard—perhaps after picking out their clans’ kilts in a shop on the Royal Mile, even—it may be something of an invented tradition. So, true to its forebears, my little town invented some Tartan Days traditions of its own: the Saturday night dance, for one (not a ceilidh so much as a country music-blaring drunk-up), plus the local businesses’ sidewalk sales. In recent years a tractor pull was added.
My memories, however, are of the pancake breakfast on the closed-off side street and the two competitions there.
In the thistle contest, parents and children would spend weeks sneaking fertilizer to the largest bull or Scotch variety of the weed they could find then put on thick gloves and drag it to town, where it was judged on height, fullness, etc. before a prize of maybe fifty bucks was awarded. (Never to me.)
And then there was the marquee event, the shoe-kick, in which entrants would slide their toes into a factory second from the nearby footwear manufacturing plant, rear back, and compete to propel it as far away from Main Street as possible. I never did find out what this had to do with Scottish heritage.
Tartan Days was about all I knew of international interchange before beginning high school in a larger but still small town where, for some reason, exchange students did arrive, and before meeting international students at the University of Western Ontario—students who had chosen to be thousands of miles from home for four whole years in London… Other London. In Canada.
Where the green flyer on the English department bulletin board jumped out at me.
I was nineteen years old, then, and nearing the end of my first undergraduate year. I was still commuting to class from my family home, still working my teenager job at the Canadian Kmart competitor, and still being hassled by my grandfather to take a summer position with the provincial hydro-electric company for which he’d worked his whole life.
The trip to SUISS would be my first flight; my first trip outside of North America, and other than two or three single-day visits by car to Michigan, my first departure from Canada, even. I said goodbye to my family in the Tim Hortons parking lot where the three-hour bus ride to the airport in Toronto began, and in Edinburgh, I hung a Canadian flag in a Baird House window.
Right away, I met a good 20 students from all over the United States (including fellow eventual author Michael Pogach) and climbed Arthur’s Seat in the first night’s dusk with some of them. In the next days, I met a similar-sized group all from one university in Bari, Italy—a city around the same size as Other London, it turns out, albeit with better weather. Students had also come from Norway, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and more I’m sure I’m forgetting, plus as far away as New Zealand, Japan and India.
And all had come to study literature.
Before and after attending SUISS that summer, I worked the hydro-electric gig with Grandad, and he’ll likely still tell you it was a better career than what I eventually chose (“Writer with Inevitable Day Job”). But I returned to Canada convinced that a literary life was an actual life—not just dreams of 1920s dinners at La Coupole or bon mots at the Algonquin Hotel, but something a kid like me could have.
There have been bumps in the road, sure—my eventual departure from graduate studies, for one, and a string of depressing retail and call centre jobs taken out of sheer financial despair—but when I found myself on a Toronto Island beach one sunny September day in 2009 with some things resembling stable income, home and employment finally in-hand, that nineteen-year-old paid me a long overdue visit.
What of that literary life? he asked.
I enrolled in a college night class and began writing short stories, the first of them as true as what you read above. Some are long dead and buried, (yes, there’s one about Tartan Days), and some have been published with all the facts edited out. Some others have been published just as they were.
In any event, I’ve been writing ever since—not since then, really, but since I showed up at SUISS.
Daniel Perry’s first collection of short stories, Hamburger, will be published in Canada by Thistledown Press in May, 2016, and is now available to order. His second, Nobody Looks That Young Here, is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2018. He is currently at work on a novella, when not at his day job.