Share this post!

Last Modified: August 24, 2021
Feature image for Uche Umezurike's interview with Rona Altrows
Uche Umezurike Interviews Rona Altrows

Women and their bodies—a big, complicated topic. ‘I am now and have always been very pleased with my body,’ said no woman ever. We’re socialized to be dissatisfied with how we look. Advertisers count on women’s insecurity about their bodies, send messages to increase that insecurity, profit from it.” Rona Altrows

Rona Altrows is an editor, fiction writer, essayist, and playwright. She has edited several themed anthologies for the University of Alberta Press, including Shy, which she co-edited with Naomi K. Lewis (2013), and Waiting, which she co-edited with Julie Sedivy (2018), and her most recent book, You Look Good for Your Age (2021). 

Uche spoke with Altrows about You Look Good For Your Age, a luminous volume of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry about women and ageism. This book pulsates with richness and is written with compassion, candour, introspection, and humour, despite that it tackles difficult themes of loss, frailty, debility, disability, degeneration, memory, mortality, and impermanence. It also discusses failure, forgiveness, love, joy, relationship, intimacy, pleasure, and rediscovery.

You Look Good for Your Age is a great reflection on various issues affecting humanity. Satisfyingly intimate, frank, and profound. What did you find most challenging about the process of putting the book together? Were there any concerns you had during the initial process, and why? 

Thank you! It’s lovely to hear that you got so much out of the book. Even before I’d formulated the book proposal, I had such a belief in the idea for the book. My initial concern was that there would be many similar books on the market. But no, my searches revealed that there weren’t. Having that information strengthened my resolve to go ahead with a proposal. I’d had such satisfying previous publishing experiences with the University of Alberta Press, it felt right to me to present the idea to them, and sure enough, they’ve given me great support from the outset.

The biggest challenge came when it was time to set the sequence of the thirty-two pieces. I wanted to order them in such a way that each would shine on its own and also cast its light on the other pieces, to create one brilliant whole. I handwrote every title on an index card, spread the cards out on my kitchen table, and shifted them around, letting them travel as they wished. Many configurations became possible. As I saw themes occur, I switched from the index cards to different-coloured post-it notes, each colour representing a thematic section, and then it became a matter of moving pieces again to figure out the order within sections. I went through many green, yellow, pink, blue, and purple stickies, until finally the order that felt just right emerged. I trusted the manuscript to tell me how it wanted to be ordered to shine as brightly as it could.

Intimacy is a strong theme in the book, an intimacy that lays bare our body at its most vulnerable. It’s as if the writers are saying, “See, this is who we are, we are more than our bodies, aging is part of the beautiful complexity of life, and we’ve nothing to be ashamed of.” Could you speak a bit about your own sense of the corporeal?  

Women and their bodies—a big, complicated topic. “I am now and have always been very pleased with my body,” said no woman ever. We’re socialized to be dissatisfied with how we look. Advertisers count on women’s insecurity about their bodies, send messages to increase that insecurity, profit from it. You’ll find both serious and humorous treatments of that issue in You Look Good for Your Age. As we women age, we start to ask ourselves who made those mean-spirited rules about how we are supposed to feel about our bodies. Not us. We begin to look to ourselves to sort out our evolving feelings about our bodies and its parts, including the testy parts, seen and unseen. All the contributing writers in You Look Good for Your Age engage in that process, in one way or another. For me personally, working on the book has helped me to come to terms with my own aging body. We’re women, the people who contributed to this book. We do not fear intimacy. We thrive on it.

In Maureen Bush’s non-fiction piece that is included the anthology, “Who counts the years?” she says, “Death is a dance of energy, not a tragedy.” I keep asking myself: why do we resist the inevitable? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

In You Look Good for Your Age, you’ll find expressions of many thoughts on death—death of a best friend, a parent, a partner, self. Heartbreak, unfinished business, misinterpretation by others—there is exploration of those and other considerations around death. My own ruminations on death began with the unexpected death of a beloved uncle when I was four. I wondered what it was like to be dead and every night, I engaged in energetic post-bedtime-story speculation on that question. Also in early childhood, I acquired a lifelong preoccupation with fairness, which, coupled with expanding knowledge of the natural world over the years, has led me to the conclusion that dying at some point is the only fair thing for me to do, to make room for another human on a planet that can’t sustain all of us forever. But don’t worry, I don’t intend to die anytime soon. I’m busy.  

Humour recurs throughout much of the writing by the contributors, even when they tackle issues about life, debility, loss, and grief. I’d expected the book would feel quite moody, but its bits of humour surprised me. Were you also surprised by the humour in the book?

Not really. I find excellent writing by women is often infused with humour. Generally, that is because the humour arises spontaneously. It’s not like the contributing writers to You Look Good for Your Age have set up jokes. They are naturally funny. Also, a sense of humour comes in handy when we have to, as aging women, deal with the senseless negativism that is thrown our way. And then there is satire, especially useful when you take on social issues like sexism and ageism. 

You Look Good for Your Age shows that, despite the openness and inclusivity society seems to advocate, ageism, mainly directed at women, is still a strong sentiment among many people across different genders. We’re still very much an age-hating society. What is your hope for this book? 

I hope people stop making unfounded and ridiculous assumptions about aging women. I hope people realize we aging women are here, and we contribute, and each of us is gloriously individual. We have creative brains and tons of lived experience so it’s a good idea to pay attention to us—proper, close, respectful attention. I have other hopes too. I hope readers have a deeply satisfying read, one that leaves them with questions, ideas, hopes, and aspirations of their own as they age, no matter what their present age or stage of life.

As an editor of several anthologies, what do you look for in a contribution, and how do you decide that it aptly fits the scope of your project? What insights have these different projects Shy, Waiting, and You Look Good for Your Age offered you?

For Shy, I worked as a co-editor with Naomi K. Lewis. For Waiting, I worked with Julie Sedivy. For me those experiences were great. Naomi and Julie are both excellent editors and I feel lucky to have worked with each of them. I’d say it is critical, when co-editing an anthology, to share a vision, to have frequent meetings, to split the workload fairly, to communicate honestly with each other and with the publisher. As far as selection goes, the co-editors must agree on every piece. If there is a difference of opinion on a piece, it has to go. It is essential that contributing writers be paid. We pulled off all those things with both Shy and Waiting. With You Look for Your Age, I had a clear vision for the main theme, and I described that main theme to every writer I invited to submit. (There was not an open submission process for You Look Good for Your Age. There are several ways to bring in submissions.) I left it up entirely to individual writers how they wanted to interpret and work with the main theme. Acceptance was not automatic. I went with my own judgment and sometimes that was hard emotionally because I liked the writer, but the submission did not fit, so I had to decline it. It was probably hard on those writers too to receive the bad news, as if writers don’t get enough of that. The thing is, as editor, I needed to do what was right for the book. The only part I don’t like about anthology-making is saying no to writers. As a writer myself, I know how that can sting. But it has to be done.

I like that you ended You Look Good for Your Age with the poem by Joyce Harries, “One More Word.” The last line is an excellent way to wrap up the contributions: embrace the day. Finally, should we be looking out for another theme-based anthology from you anytime soon? 

Now 93, Joyce Harries is our oldest and probably wisest contributor. Through the index-cards-followed-by-coloured-stickies process I have described, her poem surfaced as the natural place to end the book. Enough with ageism, yes, and bring on the beauty. What I’d like to say is that editing an anthology and contributing to one are both, in my opinion, good ways of building community. Writers in Canada have received discouraging news recently. We need solidarity and it is also enjoyable to be in solidarity. We need to talk to one another more. Building an anthology can help with that. Yes, I’m afraid I would like to make trouble again with a new anthology. It would have a one-word title, and I am intrigued by the possibilities of the theme I have in mind. But I have two books of my own to finish writing, and an editing practice, and other projects on the go, so when can I try for that next anthology? I’m not sure. Not soon. On the other hand, I’m pretty old, so it can’t wait forever. 

Uche Peter Umezurike holds a PhD from the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada, where he is an Assistant Lecturer. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), he is a co-editor of Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems. His children’s book Wish Maker and collection of short stories Double Wahala Double Trouble are forthcoming from Masobe Books, Nigeria and Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada, in fall 2021.

You Look Good for Your Age: An Anthology

Published: May 03, 2021 by University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772125320
Waiting: An Anthology of Essays

Published: Aug 20, 2018 by University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772123838
Shy: An Anthology

Published: Sep 16, 2013 by University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9780888646705