Brian Brett (1950 – 2024)
January 23rd, 2024
One of BC’s seminal poets and writers, Brian Brett (at right) died of sepsis after a long stay at the UBC Hospital’s Purdy Pavilion on January 17, 2024.
Born in East Vancouver on April 28, 1950, Brett had Kallmann Syndrome, a rare genetic condition which left him unable to produce male hormones. He was biologically androgynous, until he had a surgery at 15, and he was bullied in his early years. He studied literature at SFU from 1969 – 74 and co-founded Blackfish Press with Allan Safarik in 1970 that published a Governor General’s Award-winning book.
Brett wrote and published over 15 books of fiction, poetry and memoir including Uproar’s Your Only Music (Exile Editions, 2004) about his struggles with Kallman Syndrome, and a second memoir, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (Greystone, 2009) about his 10-acre property on Salt Spring Island that took the lucrative Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. A third memoir, the best-selling Tuco and the Scattershot World: A Life with Birds (Greystone, 2015) chronicled Brett’s special friendship with his beloved parrot Tuco, who, for over twenty years was often found perched on Brett’s shoulder.
In addition to nine major writing awards, Brett won BC’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2012, and in 2016, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded him the Matt Cohen Lifetime Award for his body of work.
Full Author Entry (from ABCBookWorld.com)
by Alan Twigg and BC BookWorld staff
Brian Brett of Salt Spring Island has been one of B.C.’s seminal literary figures ever since he co-founded Blackfish Press with Allan Safarik in 1970.
Born to a Cockney father and Italian mother in Vancouver in 1950, Brian Brett and Safarik mostly produced broadsides and fine print editions. He inaugurated Poetry in Schools workshops throughout the Lower Mainland in the early 1970s and he served as a White Rock alderman from 1980-84. Brett was Chair of the Writers Union of Canada in 2005 and he received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence from the BC Book Prizes in 2012.
His memoir Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (2009) won both the Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize and the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. But arguably Brian Brett’s most remarkable book is his confessional memoir Uproar’s Your Only Music (2004), a harrowing tale of survival that elicits both admiration and sympathy. At times it reads like a Canadian suburban equivalent of Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. Whereas Kozinski’s riveting tale of war-time privation was embellished to the realm of fiction, Brett, with the aid of Margaret Atwood as his editor, brilliantly relied upon matter-of-fact testimony. The result is a stunningly concise litany of torment ever since Brett’s birth as an androgyne in 1950.
“For most of my adult life I was under the impression that I had XXY chromosomes, instead of the ‘normal’ male XY combination,” he writes. In fact, he was born with a rare aberration called Kallman’s Syndrome so that as he approached puberty, several doctors assumed he was starting to “present” as a hermaphrodite.
Now that Brett is a hulking and articulate man, living comfortably with his family on Salt Spring Island, it’s difficult to imagine how his hypothalamus was once stunting his pituitary gland so that he didn’t have any male hormones. “When I was first diagnosed, I was told only one in four million have my syndrome… I’ve been told that with the development of modern technology for genetic testing, my kind have been placed on the ‘recommended for termination’ list, but I can understand it.”
Growing up in relative poverty in East Vancouver, Brett assumed he was a boy and dressed like one, but his body was completely hairless, even under his arms. “The current term for conditions like mine is ‘middlesex’ though I had a penis, what the medical profession tactlessly calls a micro-phallus, I guess it could have been mistaken for an enlarged clitoris… They sliced open my groin, and oddly, those six-inch scars have survived, though most of the other marks my history has given me have faded. They encountered some vestigial testicles which they yarded down, pierced, and attached by long, tight, black cords sewn cross-legged through the skin and muscles at mid-thigh…”
Uproar’s Your Only Music bravely recalls the horrendous consequences of being born a freak. “I wandered lost, and sexless through adolescence, dreaming of being a real human being, or at least a definable one.” Brett developed osteoporosis and was prone to emotional fluctuations, adopting the Chinese characters for both the deer and the dragon as his personal emblems. One of his teachers beat his hands with a leather strap 36 times in the sixth grade because he could not tolerate Brett’s penchant for inexplicably bursting into fits of weeping during class.
“It was a decade later that I learned one of the side-effects of Kallman’s Syndrome is either mental retardation or, very differently, an early-maturing mind (not necessarily a more intelligent one).”
First assaulted at age 13 for his feminine features, Brett took LSD for the first time at age 15 and embraced the counter-cultural zeitgeist. “I fell into the Sixties like a fly into shit.” At 20, he realized he had anosmia–no sense of smell. Finally he was treated with testosterone. “The initial shot was so strong my tiny organ developed an erection that lasted eight days.” At 20, he was only 5’7″ and weighed 114 pounds, but with the injections he reached 6′ by age 30. With his lifelong diet of testosterone, Brett has now ballooned to 230 pounds.
Having survived the mean streets of Vancouver, among drugs and prostitutes and psychiatric wards, Brett somehow managed to start a publishing enterprise with Allan Safarik “in that brash, typical way of young hothead students” until they quarrelled and Safarik became the mainstay of Blackfish Press. Brett has provided this recollection of his unorthodox introduction to printing books and broadsides:
“The only thing I can remember doing at Joe Ritter’s print shop on the King George Highway in Whalley was Allan [Safarik] and him doing Mock Java on his multilith or AB Dick. He did the printing and I arranged the type with Allan for On Flower Wreath Hill by Kenneth Rexroth which Joe printed pretty badly on his letterpress. He blamed the print problems on bad typesetting by Vancouver Typesetters. After that, I decided to do it myself and bought the multilith and installed it in the bathroom next to Leonard’s painting studio at 15523 Columbia Avenue in White Rock. It was kind of crowded but we printed our earliest broadsides and books there. My dog (a husky cross) kept going into heat so I kept her with me in the press room. One time a horny little chihuahua jumped through the bathroom window and then got stuck in the bathtub and bloodied it all up before I could tend to the poor little thing.
“Then when I bought the Chandler and Price letterpress we moved it and the multilith to the back of Carl Casey’s Compass Printing shop off 152nd Street. It drove the baliffs nuts because they could never shut Compass down and lock its doors due to Carl often falling far behind on his bills. We had a sublease for the room at the back and they had to give us open access. Those were the days. I once asked Carl why he kited bad cheques to nice people, and he said he could never refuse a man water in a desert, and he didn’t seem to get it that an empty water jug wasn’t much good. Sigh. I miss Carl. He was the sweetest man, but dangerous with a cheque…
“I’m sure he could tell more than a few far-fetched stories of our antics at the back of the shop with Blackfish Press. I think I printed our pretty little pamphlet, Green Light, Stones, Rivers, Trees (or whatever we called the danged thing which I had to hand sew later) while stoned on Acid. I was a dangerous man in those days. That’s around the time I shot my finger off.
Compass Printing on 152nd near Thrift Road was where I ran my fingers through the multilith while printing the cover for the GG- [Governor General] winning F.R Scott selected translations from the Quebecois. There’s a very unique red on the cover. It’ll have my DNA because my blood flowed into the ink.”
In 1980, living in White Rock, Brett wrote a fiery broadside against developers, enjoyed a meteoric rise as a local hero, and found himself surprisingly elected as an alderman. Disdainful of his fellow aldermen who he assumed were toadies to commercialism, he was re-elected for a second term, only to appear on election night, “drunk as a skunk, enraged,” before the television cameras, berating the electorate for their stupidity. One of the local papers launched a stream of sustained invective and he failed by 11 votes to gain a third term. He sued for libel–and won.
After paying his lawyer and assorted debts, Brett bought a parrot named Tuco. Twenty years later Tuco was still living with Brett and his partner Sharon on their small, organic, mixed farm on Salt Spring Island. “The way I see it, I’m a lucky creature — it’s been a feast. A kaleidoscope… Bitter moments can’t be denied, the nights crying into my whiskey — until I go to bed and it starts again. Every warm-hearted dawn impresses me, every day is an adventure and an absurdity, and then the gaudy sunset leads to the magic that arrives with the night.”
The title of Brett’s first memoir was derived from a line by John Keats. “There’s nothing stable in the world: uproar’s your only music.” That’s a tad obtuse, and the cover photo of a fiery burning man tower also fails to adequately convey the subject matter. The back jacket of the memoir has two photos of Brett, one as the beautiful almost girlish youth, the other as a Jethro-like character near a woodpile, and that duplicity better reflects the cruel nature of his brave journey. Brett’s philosophical view of it all is endearing, and probably wise. “Like Teresias, I’ve seen glimpses of the female and the male in one body — and the intersex, the middlesex, the hermaphrodite, or whatever you want to call it. They are astonishing. And although I don’t believe these glimpses gave me any more wit or intelligence or prophecy, they did give me a varied perspective.”
Once at a Writers Union meeting, Brett was berated by some female writers for daring to say he could understand their problems. Audrey Thomas reportedly retorted, “Brian, you can never know what it’s like to suffer the way women have.” He replied, “You might be surprised,” much to the annoyance of Thomas and others. “Give me a break,” Thomas told him. But Brian Brett didn’t defend himself and found himself being booed by a strident faction of the Writers Union. “I was a hair away from launching into my abused story right there on stage.”
Eventually Brian Brett let the cat out of the bag in 2004, in the same year he became First Vice-Chair of the Writers Union of Canada, rising to the position of Chair of the national organization in 2005.
In 2003, Brett had released a CD entitled Night Directions for the Lost: The Talking Songs of Brian Brett and a novel called Coyote.
In Brett’s West Coast mystery and ethical thriller Coyote, Inspector Janwar Singh and Constable Kirsten Crosby investigate the disappearance of a woman linked to “America’s first eco-terrorist.” The key character is an retired environmental warrior, or urban guerrilla, nicknamed Coyote, who has retreated to Artemis Island to live in a tree-house with a propane stove. Having blown up bridges to clearcut logging sites, torched shopping malls and “liberated” zoos in the 1970s, the reclusive and meditative Coyote (aka Charlie Baker) is disturbed at the outset of the novel by a visit from a crazed younger man named Brian, posing as a writer, who purportedly wants to unlock some of the secrets in Coyote’s past. This unwanted visitor also has a narrative voice in the story. “Yes, it’s Brian again–as he was twenty years ago. This is my story, I’m telling it, so why can’t I make myself a character?” A former lover of Coyote’s named Rita Norman connects Brian, Coyote and Inspector Singh. The range of styles in this novel–conventional police procedural, post modern narrative, and distillation of West Coast manners–makes Coyote into an original concoction, complete with fembos, magic mushrooms, mackinaws, Tai Chi, a New Age retreat called The Last Resort and a talking parrot named Congo. The “wildness” of the Gulf Island locale and emphasis on the enduring importance of kookiness and idealism could seem exotic or even unrealistic to some readers, but the blend is more realistic than might be imagined.
“All speeches by Congo, except three or four, are courtesy of the parrot I’ve lived with for twenty years–my companion, Tuco,” writes Brett in an afterword, “Though the character of Congo is different and not nearly as clever, he couldn’t have existed without Tuco, who is an endless source of inspiration, and orders me to work every morning. And that’s no story.”
Brian Brett is also the author of several poetry books and a novella about termites, The Fungus Garden, an allegory about the survival of artistic sensibility in a totalitarian world without exits.
The title of Brett’s 2015 memoir, Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World, is derived from the aforementioned. In a jumbled fashion, it revisits much of the material in Uproar’s Your Only Music, a book that is no longer widely available. The book won the 2016 Hubert Evans non-fiction prize.
In his seventh decade, Brian Brett was thinking about mortality as evidenced by his last collection of poems, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Exile, 2022). The title, taken from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, references the afterlife but many of Brett’s new poems are about looking back to celebrate a life lived to its fullest. His advice to others is full of vigour and passion: “…I write these words / only for those who know that going too far / is not going far enough.”
Brian Brett died of sepsis on January 17, 2024 after a long stay at the UBC Hospital’s Purdy Pavilion.
Fossil Ground At Phantom Creek (Blackfish, 1976)
Smoke Without Exit (Sono Nis, 1984)
Evolution in Every Direction (Thistledown, 1987)
The Fungus Garden (Thistledown, 1988)
Tanganyika (Thistledown, 1991)
Allegories of Love and Disaster (Exile Editions, 1993)
Poems New and Selected (Sono Nis, 1993)
The Colour of Bones in a Stream (Sono Nis, 1998)
Coyote (Thistledown, 2003) $21.95 1894345535
Uproar’s Your Only Music (Exile Editions, 2004) $22.95 1550966073
Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (Greystone, 2009) $19.95 9781553654742
The Wind River Variations (Oolichan, 2012) $22.95 9780889822696. Photography by Fritz Mueller.
Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World (Greystone, 2015) $32.95 9781771640633
To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Exile Editions, 2022) $24.95 9781550968897