A black man in Halifax in the 1950s; a red-haired, grey-eyed girl in a Caribbean family; and a Japanese Canadian during the Second World War: these three very different characters were brought together on the stage of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 20 as authors Pamela Mordecai, George Elliott Clarke, and Lynne Kutsukake read from and discussed their recent novels. All three of their protagonists are born into a world in which they do not have an obvious place, and their lives provoke serious, sad reflections on identity and belonging—themes that host Adrian Harewood approached with gravitas and delicacy. Nevertheless, the authors were so obviously delighted to share their characters with the audience that it quickly became a jolly event, with laughter bouncing off the beautiful skylight in Christ Church Cathedral's hall. George Elliot Clarke's toothy grin was like extra lighting.
Clarke, currently Poet Laureate of Canada, introduced the room to Carl Black, the main character of The Motorcyclist , explaining that Carl was a modelled after Clarke's bohemian manqué father. Clarke is clearly smitten with the idea of his father, burdened by his racial identity and his family, being seduced by a glamorized 1950s lifestyle – the "swashbuckling erotic masculinity" of Ian Fleming and men's magazines. His reading of a passage in which Carl has successfully engineered a threesome took on a beat poet rhythm, as he paused to gurgle and lick his lips in delight over his best lines and repeat them - "a big ass armchair, the only kind a man should have ... A BIG! ASS! ARMCHAIR!" and "six legs, and six arms, a sextet if there ever was …. A SEXTET IF THERE EVER WAS." As the scene came to a climax, Adrian Harewood began fanning himself with his program, to everyone's delight.
It seemed like just the right setting: a down-below, warmly lit pub, tucked away from the din of the upstairs patio-lined street, where poetry enthusiasts gathered around tall tables, frothy pints in hand. It was the sort of place where one might encounter characters from the lines of Alexandra Oliver and Nick Thran: ordinary people that unwittingly manifest the “unordinary.”
As the sun set outside, the light streaming through the big skylights in the Christ Church Cathedral hall turned violet and dwindled away. The intimate mood set by the fading light was perfect for the stories told by the three memoirists chosen to read at the Saturday night Ottawa Writer’s Festival event. Inside, a hundred chairs were filled with a rapt audience. The concentric circles of the labyrinth design on the floor encircled all of them - audience, readers, and volunteers – serving as a metaphor for the way great stories draw us in, and bring us closer to the heart of what it means to be human.
After introductions, Craig Davidson was first to read. His memoir, Precious Cargo , tells the story of a year spent driving a bus for children with special needs, and the lessons he learned from their strength and innocence. Davidson was nervous at first, telling the listeners that it was his first public reading from the book. However, he quickly got a rhythm and revealed rich insight and imagery in his writing. He read with emotion, introducing the characters whose stories changed his perspective.
Following him, James Bartleman read from stories spanning 70 years of his life, Seasons of Hope . Bartleman, Ontario’s first Native Lieutenant Governor, demonstrated a long memory and his capacity for empathy, whether he was talking about the death of a friend when he was 6 or the spate of suicides happening now in Attawapiskat. Bartleman seemed unaware of his age as he delved into the past, and read and spoke clearly about his work creating programs to improve the futures for Northern youths. Bartleman has traveled extensively in the North and met with Aboriginal leaders to establish summer reading camps and mental wellness programs with the aim of preventing youth suicide and depression; none of the kids who attended these camps committed suicide, according to Bartleman. He focused on hope as a tool for helping people surmount obstacles including those in his own life, “turning disadvantages into advantages and those of others".
The third reader was Carmen Aguirre, winner of the 2012 Canada Reads Prize for her memoir Something Fierce. She read an excerpt from her new book, Mexican Hooker #1 , detailing how an acting class provided the passage through the memory of traumatic childhood sexual assault and allowed her to let it go. Her reading was infused with passion as she described the different kinds of risk she had encountered and told a tale of willpower and strength in overcoming challenges.
Each of the stories was very different, but weaving them together was the force the human spirit can show while being tested. In the Q & A following the readings, each author discussed the impact on their lives of maintaining perspective and taking positive action. Optimism, courage and hope are key in these stories, and the audience was moved to laughter and compassion. The event was a testament to the power of story; hearing and experiencing the stories around them brought meaning and strength to the lives of the authors, and in sharing them with readers, the stories are sure to change lives.
John Elder Robison speaks forcefully, eloquently, and passionately about living with autism and his experience with an experimental treatment. Robison told his story and shared his understanding and observations on how society reacts to and treats people living with autism. And society isn’t doing very well in either realm.
Robison spoke of his inability, for most of his life, to read other people’s reactions and feelings. As to writing, he calls himself “a truck driver among writers” and “an autistic guy speaking out on behalf of our tribe”. Robison spoke about being teased as a child and feeling bad all his life.
Robison talked of “systemized discrimination” and the “institutionalized shame” of those living with autism. He also spoke of the extraordinary gifts and talents of people with autism. He believes there is a greater variation and range in people with autism than the general population. They have peaks that go higher and lows that go lower.
Almost 10 years ago Robison wrote Look Me in the Eye, a New York Times bestseller. It is currently number 6 on the non-fiction list. His latest book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening , tells of the offer to participate in a trial to use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in autism. The objective was to see if TMS would impact the ability to read others’ emotions and for Robison, he hoped TMS would make him “a little less disabled”. During his very interesting career, he spent time as a sound engineer touring with high profile musicians. He understands electromagnetic energy and decided to try TMS. He would participate in the trial. In the end, things did not turn out the way he thought they would. In some areas right after treatment TMS changed the way Robison saw the world. There were 30 experiments in all and they all elicited different responses. There were negative effects where he felt emotionally overloaded by everyday life. There were impacts in his home and work life. But the effects weren’t sustained at a high level. However it left him with an understanding and a sense that his brain built a new natural foundation.
On the matter of whether TMS is a choice for others, Robison was circumspect. It’s not clear who would benefit from TMS and what it means for people of different ages. There are benefits and there are risks to changing to one’s perception of the world after decades of living. John Elder Robison tells his story openly, honestly, with humour and at times with his self described ‘truck driver’ language. He endeared himself to the audience who could have sat and listened and asked questions much past the allotted event time.
John Elder Robison has contributed to work at the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The audience appreciated hearing how he was previously unable to work in a team of five people but with the NIH he worked with 30 people, “and they were all from government!” In working with that group he was described as a unifying voice.
There are many questions yet to be answered about the use of TMS in autism. Robison was careful to not make any blanket statements. Does someone living with autism need to be fixed? “We don’t need to be fixed, we aren’t broken”, he said.
If you weren’t at the event you missed an opportunity to hear an engaging, forthright presentation. His message is heartfelt and does a great deal to raise awareness. It wouldn’t surprise me if his new book will also make its way to the New York Times bestseller list.
Attendees at Saturday afternoon’s event Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott were studious and engaged, despite the warm spring day and the sunshine streaming through the big skylights at the Christ Church Cathedral hall. It was a diverse crowd people from all walks of life, many of whom had lives affected by brain injury. Elliott’s book, a case study of his recovery from concussion using unconventional – yet scientifically supported – therapy, could pave the way for research developing treatments to improve the lives of many. According to Elliott, over 6 million Americans have lasting injury from concussions, and “it’s worse in Canada, because of hockey.”
Although Elliott is an unassuming man, his intelligence became clear very quickly while he spoke about the injury he sustained from a minor car accident, the subsequent ongoing symptoms, and his eventual recovery. A computer scientist, professor and expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence with additional degrees in music, Elliot demonstrated a scientific approach to understanding the root cause of the symptoms and the rationale for the effectiveness of the neuro-optometric rehabilitation and cognitive restructuring, which he says led to a complete reclamation of the abilities and personality he had before the accident. He presented his experience with the aid of a slide show, helping the attendees follow along with the complex ideas. His story was moving as he described the loss and recovery of his ability to be himself after injury.
This was not light material, but the audience had their attention held by the promise inherent in Elliott’s remarkable recovery. He read some of the responses to the book he has received from fellow brain injury sufferers, and it is clear that in sharing his experience he has opened a way for many back to a better quality of life. Like Elliott, many of these people have been told, “No one ever improves.” The loss of ability, frightening and painful symptoms, and incursions into daily life by the injury such as balance problems and fatigue are thought to be a life sentence.
Elliott writes to present a possible alternative. Perhaps due to his AI expertise, he was able to understand and document the input and processing errors that were happening in his brain. When, after eight years of lasting effects, he met the therapists whose work would ultimately turn his life around, he was ready. The audience reacted with amazement as Elliott explained the therapies that were used in concert to help him recover; they were little more than specialized prescription glasses and paper-and-pencil tests! However, the tests helped him carve new pathways for cognitive processing in his brain – capitalizing on the principles of neuroplasticity to change the way the brain works. Elliott described how his spacial processing was improved by adjusting for injury in the visual-spacial processing centers with corrective eyewear; this ability is required for bringing meaning to symbolic thought and sensory interpretation. In short, these simple therapies rewired his brain to get around the injury and repair his cognitive ability and processing. Throughout the talk, the audience was filled with nodding heads and a palpable sense of hope. It is clear what a difference this therapy could mean.
Elliot’s story, though, will be a beacon of hope to many suffering from brain injury. Although he was humble and quick to point out where his knowledge falls short - he provided resources, gave credit to the doctors, and let attendees know when he was theorizing and when his statements were backed up by studies, stressing the importance of further study - his case study will change lives.
James R. Doty, neurosurgeon and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, greeted the standing-room only attendees of his Ottawa Writers’ Festival event Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart with a joke about the weather. Within a few sentences, he had won over the audience by establishing himself as approachable, self-effacing, and in possession of a robust sense of humour. These may not be exactly the traits one would imagine in a world-famous researcher and doctor, but then, Doty is not typical.
“I’m not a writer,” Doty said, waving his book in the air. Into the Magic Shop is a memoir and a guide to the principles of mindfulness and their benefit to the human body. A natural storyteller, Doty began his appearance by chronicling how the book came to be, and how it has been received since publication; it is being published in 19 languages and has blurbs on it from the likes of the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In his work with the Center for Compassion Research, he has made appearances with these and other spiritual leaders, psychologists and philosophers: Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, Amma, Paul Ekman and Pico Iver to name a few. Not the crowd you’d imagine surrounding a scientist, but studies validating the techniques Doty teaches are quickly accumulating.
At Saturday’s event, Doty read from a portion of the book that tells the tale of one of his surgeries. It was a graphic story, and he warned the audience before reading that he’s had people faint at events. However, it was also profoundly moving and almost poetically written; Doty skates on the edge of insights about the fragility and beauty of humanity throughout the scientific description. He was visibly moved while reading – the story concerns a 4-year-old boy with a brain tumour – and during pauses every exhalation of the audience was audible, their spellbound hearts slowing to anticipate the drama in the moments being described. The story outlines the importance of training the mind toward calmness, and illustrates the power of a regular practice, for it is due to this practice that Doty was able to perform a lifesaving maneuver in surgery for this little boy.
The techniques will be familiar to a student of mindfulness. Doty described the practice taught to him by an individual he encountered quite by accident in his youth: focusing the mind on the present moment, relaxing with the breath, separating from negative thoughts, practicing self-compassion and acceptance, and establishing clarity of intention before acting. He also delved lightly into the science behind this practice, describing how brain function can be shifted through regular breathing exercises and contemplative practice to habituate toward decreasing stress hormones, relaxing the body and lowering blood pressure.
Throughout his talk and in answering questions from the audience, Doty remained positive and thoughtful. He enjoyed many moments of laughter with the group and radiated evidence of living in the practice that he is preaching. His studies in his youth and as a young surgeon convinced him, “True meaning in life has to do with service to others.” The messages in the book, which is indeed very well written, and Doty’s techniques to train the mind and bring about wellness in the body are definitely a show of service.
People often throw around the word “ISIS” with a snarl and extra enunciation, to make sure their disgust for the group is clearly proclaimed. ISIS is known for its online recruitment of young people into terrorist warfare, Western journalist beheadings, foreign suicide bombers, and the general fear the organization has instilled into populations across the globe. I spent my Sunday afternoon listening to Mark Bourrie speak about ISIS: its propagandist recruitment activities, and the reasons we should be concerned about its existence – other than the obvious.
Bourrie started off the event by mentioning that his book, The Killing Game, is not a call to arms against the terrorist faction, or a display of good versus evil. Bourrie stressed that, like so many before us, the people involved in ISIS are simply in pursuit of higher meaning and fulfillment in a world they may feel has wronged them. In a society that is so highly connected online, but so fragmented in our face-to-face and community interactions, ISIS has sprung up as a response to socio-economic underperformance, inequality, and cultures that are fractured in many different ways.
Throughout the event, Bourrie accentuated the relationship between ISIS and Western media. Journalists have a duty to report what is important to its audiences, such as the gruesome killings and territorial warfare that ISIS carries out in the Middle East. But, when ISIS thrives on the fear and glory that is magnified with publicity, where should the media draw the line between public information and spreading propaganda? Further still, when the media chooses not to disseminate knowledge of horrific violent acts, is this censorship?
The discussion at the event turned political at times, with Bourrie reminding us that the United States is successful at killing ISIS figureheads and fighters within the group who are the most useful as recruiters of young men in the West. However, stomping out members of ISIS also comes at the cost of civilian life. In sealing a Saudi Arms deal, the Canadian government has also opened up the opportunity for weaponry to fall into the hands of ISIS, due to their financial connections to Saudi royalty. Where do we draw the line? And do the ends – wiping out a terrorist faction – justify the means – loss of civilian life?
Though the subject matter of the afternoon was dark and often uncomfortable, Bourrie took a series of questions from the audience after the event that presented a somewhat positive outlook for the future. At an audience member’s suggestion, Bourrie spoke about the importance of engaging youth at a young age. By integrating young people into the welcoming communities that come with activities like sports, outdoor adventure, working with our hands, and improvisational theatre, we lower the chances of young people, especially second-generation Canadians, feeling disenfranchised from a country that might not always meet their expectations.
“What is your background?”
“Where are you from?”
“What are your origins?”
How incredibly common these questions are in our daily human interactions!
On the opening night of the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, three authors of markedly different origins came together in an intimate space within Christ Church Cathedral to discuss place, identity, and belonging in their own works of fiction. Paul Lynch, Abdourahman Waberi, and Carol Daniels each read a passage from one of their novels in turn. Each author’s appearance and presence was as distinct as the style and voice of their writing. Yet, as the evening progressed, the traces of a common impetus emerged between the three artists and their works.
First to read was Paul Lynch, from his much acclaimed novel The Black Snow. In a steady and captivating rhythm, he delivered potent, eloquent, and cleanly crafted prose. In the story of Irish emigrant Barnabas Kane, Lynch has woven what he hopes will be a myth for the current generation; a myth through which readers may come to sympathize with a common crisis of our time: the need to leave one’s mother county. Lynch also explores the unique experience of returning to your place of origin only to find you no longer belong, to be regarded as a “local stranger” by those who once knew you.
Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa is a radically different novel, but Waberi too is seeking to affect the reader’s perspective. Waberi, though raised in Djibouti, was a denizen of France for much of his life. As years passed, Waberi grew tired of people failing to see past the image of an African immigrant (even – he claims –when he started saying he was from Normandy). He fondly describes his novel as a work of philosophy which evolved, at least in part, in reaction to these attitudes. Spritely and satirical, his philosophical fiction reverses the fortunes of Africa and the Western World to create “a whole new geography; a whole new world view” (as our host Neil Wilson so wonderfully put it). Waberi intentionally uses the language of story-telling to invite readers into this new world view; he believes people respond to stories better than they do preaching.
Just as Lynch and Waberi provide unique lenses for readers, Carol Daniels is no exception with her novel Bearskin Diary. Daniels hopes her novel will afford readers a glimpse at common experiences in the lives of many indigenous peoples. Daniels, of Cree and Chipewyan descent, intimately understands how our sense of belonging can be dramatically affected by society’s perceptions of our origins (origins that extend beyond where we are born to whom we are descended from). With edge and honesty Bearskin Diary tells the story of Sandy, “the only First Nations child in a town of white people1”.
There is a common motivation in these artists’ works I am sure you have noted. Lynch, I think, best expressed the reason for it. Writers, he believes, often live with a sense of not belonging, of feeling that their perspectives and opinions do not quite match those of their families, their communities, or their cultures. Yet, when you sit down to write, you inevitably find that your family, your culture, your local context, are all undeniably part of you. Embracing this, each author draws inspiration from his or her own origins and belonging, welcoming readers to immerse themselves in a differing perspective, to understand someone else’s origins, to further explore experiences of belonging and identity.
Origins are very often touchstones for our reading of another person’s identity. Everyone has a beginning, and beginnings are not all the same, so our individual origins become a basis for comparison. From our differences as well as our similarities we seek to discern the foundational palettes, the base colours of each other’s character. Individually, in the daily babble and flow of our interior lives, the questions What are my origins? and Where do I belong? may surface separately, but we will find that the answer to one rather reliably has bearing on the other.
1 From Harbour publishing’s book description of Bearskin Diary.
A church whose roots reach back to the early 19th century seems a more than appropriate setting for a discussion of historical writing. It is a blessedly mild Saturday evening in April, and a large crowd is eager to hear from three of Canada’s most esteemed writers of fiction, to learn about what the concept of time has meant to their writing.
Stephen Brockwell presents us with an introduction to the historical novel, a genre that goes back to The Iliad. He wonders why we as readers are so interested with the past, musing on a few possible answers. For him, historical fiction may represent an illusion of the so-called golden age, serve as a way for us to reflect on the past, or lastly, provide a vessel for us to criticize what we have come from. The answer is likely to be a combination of all three.
Each guest is introduced briefly, a daunting task considering their combined honours. First we meet Katherine Govier, a much-lauded author and chair of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Her latest novel, The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel takes place in early twentieth-century Banff, a setting rife with interesting characters, or as she describes it, a ‘novel begging to happen.’ Katherine is brief, explaining that she tends to frame her historical works with beginnings and endings that are grounded in the present. The excerpt she chooses to read is equal parts charming and atmospheric. She captures the voice of her main character, a poacher-turned-trail guide, with expert precision.
Next is Daniel Poliquin, a novelist, translator and recipient of the Order of Canada. His latest novel, The Angel’s Jig, tells a story set in New Brunswick in a time long after the abolishment of slavery when orphans and the elderly poor could be auctioned off into indentured servitude. He goes into greater detail regarding his process, explaining that he views his works not as histories, but as stories. He cautions that writers must be careful to avoid anachronisms in their historical writing, especially when it comes to language. Language hides ideology, he warns, citing Hollywood’s tendency to push American ideology on otherwise historical settings. His excerpt is brief and light, despite the subject matter. His main character Fidèle appears somewhat ambivalent towards his servitude, and has a wry but simple sense of humour. Fidèle’s voice, more than anything else, effectively transports the reader to an entirely foreign time and place.
Lastly, the audience is introduced to writer Alissa York, a Giller Prize nominee for her 2007 novel Effigy. She speaks the least, offering up only that her books require an exhaustive amount of research. She explains that she must be fascinated with a subject matter before deciding to write about it. Her latest novel, The Naturalist, is set in the Amazon partly because of Alissa’s deep interest in the river. What she lacks in introduction is more than made up for when Alissa reads her excerpt. It is a scene in which her characters are winding their way along the vast river to collect live specimens. Alissa creates a world that breathes and comes to life. With a narration the borders on omniscient, the specific voice of her characters is harder to pinpoint, but it isn’t necessary, the audience is spellbound regardless.
Stephen Brockwell returns to the stage to lead a round of questions, which range from each authors representation of time to each authors use of nature as a framework. He is a practiced interviewer, building upon previous queries to dig deeper and elicit a more layered response.
By the end of the night, three authors of history occupy the stage, representing a collection of stories that span centuries. Each has deftly given a voice to the past and brought to life the dead and forgotten for a new audience. T.S. Eliot wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.” It isn’t hard to see our authors as commanders of all three.
The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.
To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl re-named Rose-Marie by the system.
After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.
The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.
In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.