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Climbing through the dark

Dark Days will be Ava Woolf’s second novel, following 2017’s paranormal mystery House of Ash, published under her former pen name Hope Cook. Woolf often finds herself writing in a spree, then falling into a recuperation period of growing into the person who will be able to give life to the rest of the story.

By Chad Feehan / Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Harbour Grace resident Ava Woolf’s work-in-progress novel Dark Days is a coming-of-age story steeped in Polish folklore.

At a glance, it tells the story of Kasia Kozek, a gay “deathworker” in 18th century Poland who is faced with the choice of fulfilling her grandmothers’ life work, or giving in to and revealing her truest inner identity.

While Dark Days is a story that will eventually make its way to the hands of readers hungry for a novel flavored with Slavic myth, it’s creation means so much more for Woolf, who is actively processing her own identity, past, and future as her words hit the page.

Woolf is of Ukrainian and Polish descent, but has had no previous connection to this heritage due to what she describes as “immigrant shame” of wanting to fit into the dominant culture by older members of her family.

“It’s really just trying to find something where there was nothing,” Woolf said. “There was this complete void of feeling any kind of connection to the culture that my people are from.”

Getting a feel for the setting of 18th century Poland was significantly harder than crafting settings that have had more time in the media spotlight, such as 19th century Britain. But as she dug through the literature regarding Slavic culture, traditions, folklore, and customs, she found a connection with the land, plants, and herbal medicines of the time.

“I did have this moment throughout where I felt like there was a deeper part of me that was connecting with something that was important to that culture, that was important to my culture,” she said. “I did feel connected to that culture.”

But the connection came with a caveat.

As a gay person, Woolf would have been rejected in the society however deeply identified she felt towards it in other ways. She described it as a “double experience” of feeling a sense of belonging yet not belonging at the same time.

“My full personality wouldn’t have been welcome in that culture because I’m queer, because I’m gay,” she said. “So much of the traditions centered around gender roles… There was just clearly no place in that cultural tradition for someone like me… It was very painful and very lonely.”

Woolf moved to Newfoundland from Edmonton some years ago after the realization she was gay upended a seven-year marriage and all other aspects of her life.
Creatively stagnant for the first few years, she started writing an atmospheric, gothic story brimming with imagery, but found herself only writing what she thought grant organizations wanted to hear. So, in reaction to this initial instinct of playing it safe, she began writing what felt true and authentic to her.

“What raged out of me was this utter pain and devastation, and what I realized was that the story that I thought was this really safe, atmospheric kind of story was actually me trying to tell the story of what it feels like when you grow up in a place and time where it is not safe to be who you are,” she said. “And it’s so not safe that you’re not even allowed to know that you don’t know who you are. You just know that there’s something wrong with you, and you don’t have language for it.”
Woolf writes exclusively about people on the edges of society such as those who work with death and the dead.

“That’s why this book is about death, because we can’t have life without death,” she said. “I’m trying to take trauma that is so severe… I’m trying to turn that into something generative and life giving that can make a path for me and for other people like me.”

Woolf received a $20,000 grant for the project from ArtsNL earlier this year and expects Dark Days to be ready for editorial critique by this summer.

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