What is language? We use it every day, but rarely stop to consider it. Language is a critical part of life in a society, providing the ability to communicate by allowing individuals to share information, ideas and experiences across physical space and time through sounds or written forms that represent sounds. Each sound can be combined with others into recognizable patterns which we identify with words. We then combine those words into phrases to communicate more and more complex things. But all of this is based around a shared set of understood meanings that those who make dictionaries earn their livelihoods from (or used to anyway). What happens when this process of defining meaning gets undermined through the disruption of the source information or worse, through the disruption of the understanding of the individual? These are the questions that each author of Friday night’s book panel wrestled with. Yet, while each book took a similar starting point, they are all unique interpretations of the answers.
Peter Norman was the first author up. He shared three readings from his novel Emberton. Emberton is a gothic style novel, based in an old office building housing a dictionary publisher. The readings illustrated the style, and Norman used the excessive descriptive passages well to either comic effect or building tension. Norman shared later that part of the inspiration behind the structure of the office building had been from seeing the movie Titanic , where the ship was envisioned as a microcosm of society, with the captain and the upper-class people on the top of the ship, while the working class people were deep within the structure operating the motors. In Emberton, the crumbling office tower is that microcosm, with the editors in the glass penthouse and the printers buried down in the basement. Norman used the gothic elements of medieval buildings and magical elements with a threatening sense of mystery in a modern way.
Alena Graedon shared next, from her novel The Word Exchange . After hearing Emberton’s style, it was apparent that The Word Exchange was more relaxed in tone, and listening to Graedon read felt like listening to a friend share a story. Graedon read the opening section, where we meet the protagonist who is experiencing her world crumble. First, she is questioning her identity (having been working on a portfolio to apply to an MFA program for several years, but never being quite “ready”), and then losing her boyfriend (figuratively) of many years, and then her father disappears (literally). Graydon’s use of language in her writing was equally strong as Norman’s, and the “near-future” science fiction style works perfectly for this story. Her description of the world around the characters seems fully plausible yet has an element of a dystopian future to keep the audience on edge.
The third author of the evening was Ghalib Islam, who shared from his book Fire in the Unnameable Country. While the other two authors had strong reading voices, Islam unfortunately seemed uncomfortable reading out loud from his book. Initially I had thought this might be for effect, increasing the discomfort that you could sense from the text, but it eventually became clear this wasn’t the case. Much of the audience was visibly straining to hear him speak. Despite the difficulty in listening to the reading, there was no doubt in the strength of the writing, with Fire in the Unnameable Country being a dense satirical fantasy based in the world of the War on Terror, and confusion over collective and personal history from the severing of language from identity.
The host for the evening was Stephen Brockwell, a Canadian poet living in Ottawa. Brockwell had read all three books before the event and was well prepared, asking good questions of each of the authors. The questions raised varied from asking about the origin of the ideas for each of the novels, to exploring the unique forms each author used, to the transition of text from print to digital forms and how is this changing society. Each novel had an interesting origin story, and two of the three were marred with personal hardship and tragedy.
Emberton actually was based around an idea the Norman had as a young child. He was reading the dictionary and came across the page with the many names of people who contribute to the dictionary. His eight year-old mind envisioned all these people working in the same building, sitting side-by-side. During the process of writing the novel, his research found that the organizations that made dictionaries were not as fanciful as he originally imagined, encouraging the novel into further fantasy.
The idea that sparked The Word Exchange came from reading a dictionary she had received as a graduation gift upon completion of her MFA in creative writing. Shortly before finishing her MFA, she had a house fire, and all her books and everything had been burned. Her parents bought her the dictionary as a gift to replace the one she had lost in the fire. As she was reading the new dictionary she came across entries for people such as Sylvia Plath, and wondered what it would be like if one of these entries just disappeared. This idea was the starting point of her novel (where the father of the protagonist disappears from the dictionary, and from the world).
Islam’s origin story is much more difficult. He explained that he had worked for a year on a precursor to what has become Fire in the Unnameable Country, and then was hit by a drunk driver and was nearly killed. In his time in the hospital and during rehab he started revising, editing and reworking, and that process has taken its time to eventually become what is now published. As Islam shared this story, he was calm, sharing details such as seeing the photos of the accident scene where there was more blood than he could imagine coming out of his body and feeling a strong sense of fragmentation from the question of “where am I in this image”. But, Islam got visibly upset when he shared that the person who had hit him (and subsequently ran from the accident) was only charged with Drunk Driving, and not with anything more severe despite the fact that she had nearly killed him. This sense of disrupted justice has also been something that was clearly an influence on elements of his book which he alluded to, but didn’t have time to expand upon.
What I love about the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the opportunity to be exposed to new books, ideas and authors. This event introduced me to three new authors, and their first books. Each of these authors are clearly talented, and I’m excited about picking each of these books up to read. I love looking at philosophical questions, and the philosophy of language and its influence on individuals and society has so much room for exploration. Each author here has started with similar questions but has used their artistry and personality to create three unique books.
There are no answers to questions like these, but sometimes in the experience of thinking more deeply about the importance of something like language, we can learn how to be more mindful in our use and valuation of it as the use of language drastically keeps transforming through new technology.
Most people with severe food allergies haven’t stopped to reflect on how their ancestors’ diets and behaviours got them to the point where they can enjoy a milkshake without severe physical repercussions.
But Dr. Sharon Moalem has.
The award-winning physician and New York Times best-selling author has spent years examining how our genes are in a state of constant change, and that while you may be preprogrammed for either failure or success with respect to specific circumstances, your biological wiring doesn’t necessarily determine your fate.
At a kickoff event for the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, we had a full house to hear Dr. Moalem’s talk. While some might find it surprising that literary enthusiasts would rush to get a good seat for a speaker focusing heavily on science, that just means they aren’t familiar with Moalem’s approachable demeanour. Similar to his writing style, Moalem speaks without jargon, cracks plenty of jokes, and uses anecdotal evidence to support his studies and theories.
In short, Moalem is a university student’s dream professor.
Informative and entertaining, Moalem explained that the human genome is not as rigidly pre-set as the scientific community once thought. Mutants do not simply develop from cosmic radiation; and yet it may surprise you to learn that many of us are indeed mutants.
Make you nervous? It’s not so scary. A specific, evolutionary mutation is actually the reason why many humans can break down and digest milk into adulthood. Does that sound like you? Welcome to the club. (And no, the club is not the X-Men. If only.)
As Moalem explained from in his new book, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes , mutations, environmental factors, and lived experiences all have an impact on what kind of person we will ultimately become.
Human genes are able to support what Moalem refers to as, “annotations in the margins.” That means there is enough room for your genes to make notes about important events in your life that strongly impacted you, and to prepare you should they ever occur again.
After reading an excerpt of his book to the attendees, Moalem and event host Sean Wilson conducted a Q&A session with the audience. Among the diverse subtleties of genetics explored during the discussion, Moalem explained to the audience how traumatic events like experiencing severe bullying as a child, or a soldier developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat are currently being studied to see whether the resulting certain genetic markers, or “annotations,” can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Studies with mice have shown that traumatic events can change the way mice behave. Moalem explained a study in which baby mice that were taken away from their mother on a regular basis experienced a form of PTSD and were more timid and less exploratory than mice that matured in a more stable environment.
A basic knowledge of psychology and many societal issues would indicate that such behaviour holds true for humans as well.
What remains to be revealed, is whether humans pass down certain behaviours to their children like the mice do: subsequent generations of the affected offspring exhibited similar timid behaviours as well. However scientists were able to avoid causing apprehension in the next generation of mice by administering a neutralizing drug in time.
Scientists want to know whether this could be done for traumatized humans as well, though since the amount of time between our generations is significantly longer, we’re left on a scientific cliffhanger until the next chapter is researched and written. We may have to wait longer to find out what happens next than fans waiting on George R. R. Martin ’s next book.
With his engaging writing and personality, Moalem has created a key opportunity for those literary enthusiasts with an interest in history, physiology, and human genetics to indulge their curiosity in an accessible and entertaining way. While you may not think you look good in your genes, chances are you may not even be aware of what kind you had to begin with, or what condition they’re in today.
Genes tell the story of your life, and you are the main character. Hopefully you find it to be a great read.
The House of Anansi Poetry Bash was something special. It was hosted by David O'Meara and included presentations by Garth Martens, Sarah Lang, Anne-Marie Turza and Matthew Zapruder, all of whom had tremendous chemistry throughout the evening.
If you've ever had poetry read to you in a church, then you'll understand what Matthew Zapruder meant when he said, "All poetry should be read here until the end of time. It should be illegal to do it anywhere else."
All four writers had incredible stories to share and it felt less like a staged event and more like a reunion among friends, which is all part of the magic at the Ottawa Writers Festival. There were discussions, debates and thoughtful commentaries which arose from the conversations during the night. It is always a pleasure to hear kind words of encouragement from authors and this evening was no exception. The poets urged writers to create problems to solve, to question "what can poetry do?", and to allow an editor to completely annihilate your work.
Some highlights of the night were Garth Martens' poem, "The Bug Unit," Sara Lang's poetic advice in "For Tamara," Anne-Marie Turza's "The Veil," and the first poem in Matthew Zapruder's book, "Sunbear."
Given that it is Poetry Month, the bash allowed for the authors to present an abundance of styles under the poetic umbrella. There was lightness, darkness, humour, a mosquito gracing ears and a letter written to God.
A lamp gave out when the authors were on stage but that didn't stop the artists from saying two things:
One; that a poetry book is an interior world in which we should wander around in.
and Two; a true poet will forget about making you look for double meanings.
I'll take poetic advice like like that any day.
The next poetry event is the Poetry Cabaret at 8:30 PM on Saturday, April 26
Meeting and listening to Jonas Bengtsson made for a very enjoyable and interesting pre-launch event to the Spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This event was presented in association with the Royal Danish Embassy, The Canadian Nordic Society and The Danish Club of Ottawa, with the Danish Ambassador and his wife and members of the two locally based organizations in attendance. Some of them knew Bengtsson well and had, evidently came to the event having already read his book. We filled the large dining room in the Army Officers' Mess to full capacity. Most of us, at least as far as those not reading Danish in the audience were concerned, had not heard of Jonas Bengtsson and his newly translated novel, A Fairy Tale . Our guest, however, is well-known in his home country, has written two other novels and has been the winner of several Scandinavian literary prizes. I am convinced that, with A Fairy Tale , now available in Canada in English, as translated by Charlotte Barslund, through Anansi Press, his popularity will increase considerably.
Neil Wilson, Founding Director of the Writers Festival, took over as the host to step in for Laurence Wall, who was not able to attend. He jumped right into the discussion of one of the central themes of the novel: the complex relationship between father and his young son made more challenging by them "living at the margins of society." Written in the voice of a young boy, it could not have been an easy voice to maintain. How does an author succeed so brilliantly to get s into the mind of a six year old and grow with him and his voice into young adulthood? It was a privilege to listen to the stimulating exchange that followed these questions.
Jonas Bengtsson answered openly and candidly to Neil's and audience's questions. He admitted that he found writing this novel more difficult than anything he had written before. In fact, when he had started, he'd planned to write a very different novel altogether. He had never attempted anything similar before and didn't really want to write the kind of novel it turned out to become. So, what changed in the process of writing? Life, in short.
His own son, who was slightly younger than his character at the time of writing, had moved in with him more than they previous part-time arrangement they'd had, and they were spending considerable quality time together. He had to make adjustments to his routines (he writes at night usually) but that was a small price to pay for what he gained. For example, the recognition of the total trust a child has in his parent, the beauty of it, but also the realization of the profound responsibility that comes with this recognition. All of this made him reflect more deeply on his role: how would one educate their child, pass on to them knowledge, experience and social norms? How does one instill stability and routines that the child expects while also encouraging creativity and a certain amount of risk taking? How to balance the fundamental need to keep his son safe while leaving him room to grow into his own increasingly independent person? Not surprisingly, many of these reflections have found their way into his novel.
Having read the book prior to the event, I found Bengtsson's very personal connections to his novel moving. It goes without saying that he created a father figure in the novel who does not represent him. The fictitious father has other issues to deal with also and does not, or cannot, take quite such a balanced and considerate perspective on raising his son. Still, while his deep love for his son speaks from every page, here again, life has ways of interfering that make his efforts more complicated and challenging. Bengtsson also brings in an element of magic to his story – the Fairy Tale – and at least one central character, who, in addition to the father, can create a magical world for the son.
Much more could be said about the evening and the great discussions with Jonas Bengtsson but it must suffice to encourage everyone to pick-up, read and enjoy his novel. Neil Wilson reflected the view of many in his closing remarks when he expressed his hope that the successful collaboration with the Danish Embassy and the other partners can bring more Danish writers and talent to the Writers Festival in the future.
It has now been over a decade since the final full sequence of over 20,500 genes was mapped by the multi-national Human Genome Project. It is still surreal to fathom the enormity, and the seeming anti-climactic finality of this achievement. For the numerous scientists who collaborated on this project, their final aspiration was not simply the conquest of a biological puzzle per se but was rather in translating this newly compiled information into health for individuals and across populations.
The full realization of a personalized, “genomic medicine” is still very much an ongoing venture. Dr. Sharon Moalem's third book, titled Inheritance, seeks to imprint the relevance of genetic research on rare conditions to everyday life. As a practising physician and clinical researcher, Dr. Moalem's writing style is bereft of jargon, filled with anecdotes, and presumes little to no prior knowledge on the subject.
Citing the reality of over 6000 rare genetic disorders, Dr. Moalem sets up the advice of the British physician James Paget as his guide. Paget, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1882, wrote that “[n]ot one of them [rare diseases] is without meaning...[n]ot one that might not become the beginning of excellent knowledge, if we could answer the questions – why is it rare? Or being rare, why did it in this instance happen?”
The reason rare genetic disorders occur so infrequently is that complex, multicellular animals operate under the principle of “biological totalitarianism.” This is the mechanism that, when functioning as it should, “promotes cellular obedience at all costs, an obedience enforced by receptors on the surface of any potentially misbehaving cells.” Yet the paradox is that our DNA – our hereditary material and biological instruction manual – is susceptible to change through individual actions, and stimuli from the environment. The remarkable fact is that even a a very small change in genetic code has a significant transformation in its expression. Dr. Moalem recounts the story of a young boy in Lahore, Pakistan who had a small mutation in the SCN9A gene leading to his accidental death as he jumped off a roof on a dare, as he was completely devoid of feeling any pain.
There are various points in the book where the reader is encouraged to have their exome (partial) or whole genome sequenced as it has become relatively cheaper to do so. While this is true – in 2000, $10 million could barely sequence 1 person while the same amount, accounting for inflation, can sequence up to 400 people – there is still stubborn bottlenecks due to the complexities involved in computing and interpreting this genetic data. The practicality of access continues to be restricted due to these barriers, and are far more in abeyance in developing countries for the same reasons, amplified.
Dysmorphology is using careful observation of the physical appearance of the patient to deduce the probability of different genetic disorders. While this harkens discomfiting thoughts of a phrenologists' fingers tracing the contours of one's skull, Dr. Moalem outlines how noting certain features of the patient's face can yield useful medical clues aplenty. In fact, just last month, Dr. Moalem and his team won a hackathon event at MIT for developing a smartphone app that can help identify “predispositions to certain diseases based on facial structure.”
The possession of such intimate knowledge raises a slew of other issues. At a time when truly private spheres continue to diminish in a world of prevalent social media and connectivity, privacy concerns are inescapable. Dr. Moalem raises the thorny issue of “genetic discrimination” where someone could be turned down disability or life insurance based on their profile. Perhaps even the prospect of a romantic relationship becomes contingent on genetic capability; the possibilities for exclusion abound. The practise of gender-selective abortion is prevalent in China, and this is inadvertently abetted by the ultrasound technology that enables parents to identify the sex of the foetus. The case of Ethan, who does not even have the a trace of a Y chromosome, who was still born male is a caveat against eugenics of this kind. The personal ebullience of Dr. Moalem shines through in the passages where he praises the courage and patience of his patients with rare conditions, sincerely expressing how much they have to teach us, not just in biology, but in being human.
Availability of genetic data need not always be so irredeemably filled with pitfalls. Parents Amy Garland and Paul Crummey were placed under surveillance in the UK under suspicion of abuse when their infant son had numerous broken bones. It was only much later that the source was diagnosed as a symptom of osteogenesis imperfecta or OI, a genetic disorder which impairs the quality of collagen that constitutes healthy bones. The acknowledgement of the physiological fixity of transgender traits – whether they be kathoeys in Thailand or hijras in the Indian Subcontinent – have helped usher in increased social tolerance in very conservative societies.
Personalized genomic medicine seems like a panacea to rigid rules, and holds the promise of maximal individual care. In this way, genetic abnormalities can nullify many behaviours that are deemed harmless and even recommended. Having Hereditary Fructose Intolerance means that most fruits and vegetables could be toxic. A mutation of the CYP1A2 gene could make caffeine consumption dangerously raise blood pressure. Genetic variation on the MTHFR gene could mean that mothers would need much more than the recommended dose of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in their babies, while also contending with the elevated levels of folic acid masking a deficiency in Vitamin B12. An interesting conundrum to explore would be whether an overly individualized approach to medicine could erode any authoritative clinical directive? Evidence exists that cigarettes' causation of lung cancer varies along the probability scale based on personal genetic make-up. Would tobacco or junk food companies now be exempt from blame if they can shift it to someone's genes rather than their unhealthy product?
While much of the prose is straightforward and plain, Dr. Moalem occasionally slips into sublimity:
Like shadows behind a rice-paper screen, we do occasionally catch glimpses of our inner workings. We feel our pulse race when we're excited. We notice a but scab over, then slowly disappear altogether. Through it all we are oblivious to the hundreds if not thousands of genes being continually expressed and repressed to make it all happen seamlessly until the inevitable happens.
The inevitable, mortality, happens to us all. Much of the advances gained, and the many more still to come that alleviate pain as illustrated by Dr. Moalem, are no doubt welcome. Yet in all the manic fear and control exhibited in seeking to be a “previvor” (a preventative survivor) there is a great unease in facing death and suffering. Perhaps not all of us can wrestle and attain the grace attained by Tolstoy's Ivan Illyich. But it would be a greater tragedy to not try at all.
It was well below zero outside and dark, and my breath, quickly turning to cloud, seeks its forebears in the heavens above. But even though walking in this landscape makes me at times fancy myself a walker in our mythic North, straddling alongside “the Dorset giants who drove the Vikings back to their long ships,” Bank Street, however cool, is still an incredible stretch of the imagination away from Al Purdy’s North, or the tundra of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Perhaps owing to that dissimilarity, I don’t carry food in my backpack, but instead a small copy of notes from the journals of Thoreau—that inimitable man, that Harvard graduate who gave up human boundaries to make himself at home in the woods. And I think I have Gary Snyder—the poet laureate of Deep Ecology—in there too, somewhere.
That Beat of a poet,
that bead-wearing monk
of a Zazen poet
Part mountain ranger,
Later, sitting in one of the front pews in Southminster United Church, the time at least 5 minutes past 7, I wonder why J.B. Mackinnon hasn't taken the stage yet. But, having come to a talk on nature, perhaps I had someone the likes of John Muir or Edward Abbey in my head, and am a bit surprised when Neil Wilson, the director of the Writers’ Festival, introduces J.B. and a young looking fellow in a plaid shirt steps onto the stage.
Mackinnon has just recently released his book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be . As the title might suggest, it is a work of historical ecology, or the history of nature, today and into the future. The bookseller blurbs say that “The Once and Future World began in the moment J.B. MacKinnon realized the grassland he grew up on was not the pristine wilderness he had always believed it to be.” I feel however that it has its genesis a bit before that; before he realized that the wilderness he had seen in his childhood was far from “pristine” and closer to an illusion. When James once returned to his home in the interior grasslands of B.C., he discovered that the land had been turned into a housing development. It was this personal encounter with a memory hijacked by development that led him to his research, only to realize that what he remembered was in itself artificial.
In his childhood, he had seen the Red Fox as the biggest beast on the land, but when he started looking into the matter, he found out that the Fox wasn’t even a native species, and was instead introduced to the grasslands in the 1700s. In fact, it was the Grizzly Bear that was the biggest native animal.
How many of us have been fortunate enough to see a whale…in the wild? Mackinnon says that 150 years ago, the whale population was thriving, and the Great Whale used to swim into Vancouver waters. But by 1908, the abundant whale population had been hunted into obscurity. And by now, our present time, the disappearance is normal, as if this is the way it has always been. But, Mackinnon says, “if we are aware of their presence in the past, then their absence would seem abnormal.”
As he expands his research, Mackinnon finds that this capacity to readily forget is characterized by the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” a term that was initially coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. Pauly describes the syndrome thus: “Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species…"
Generation after generation our reference points slip, and we accept compromises for reality. “We excuse, permit, adapt — and forget” writes Mackinnon. What we need, he says, is a process of Re-wilding, reacquainting ourselves with the natural world. While the idea is not at all new—Thoreau firmly believed that in wildness lay the salvation of the world—Mackinnon applies it on a large scale, perhaps knowing full well that the human species, for the first time in its history, has become an inhabitant of cities—homo urbanus—as the majority of the world’s population now lives and dies far from the woods of Thoreau and Emerson.
Diana Beresford-Kroeger has come to speak about her latest book The Sweetness of a Simple Life and one thing she says early on in her talk holds my attention. “I’m not a very wealthy person,” she says, “nor do I intend to be.” This reminds me of Thoreau’s words in his Journals: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his tend toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, published in 1973,is in the same vein of thought—voluntary simplicity and frugality—as Beresford-Kroeger’s thought and challenges our progress-based economics and the myth that happiness is purchased through higher levels of consumption. She belongs to an ancient family in Ireland, part of the Druidic tradition, and has long committed herself to the protection of the world’s forests, as can be seen from her earlier work. She now tells us a story about her search for the sacred tree of the First Nations People. The Red Cedar tree, also known as the Tree of Life for its diverse benefits, was almost completely wiped out of existence—like the whales and the grizzlies of B.C.—as a result of European and post-European contact. While it might be difficult for us to imagine the significance and sacredness of a tree, some would say that that sense of sacredness and meaning can be evinced through the portrayal of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s film Avatar.
The subtitle of Beresford-Kroeger’s book reads “Tips for Healthier, Happier, and Kinder Living Gleaned from the Wisdom and Science of Nature,” and that might by itself paint a portrait of the lady on stage. She speaks with the wizened air of a grandmother, doling out advice to her eager-to-run-around child, advice that though might seem silly and naïve, contains truth nonetheless.
In the end, we must remember the beginning, and all that has passed since. We need a process of “active remembering,” to keep alive the wisdom of the ages, and not be deluded into accepting our own present-day reality as the absolute truth. Those who have spoken about the need for a simpler existence, unfettered by modern day contrivances which sell on account of their plastic packaged purpose of “simplicity” and “happiness,” these speakers are chastised for propagating a return to the stone-age. But this accusation itself is based on what Mackinnon has spoken of as the shifting baseline and totally abnegates the past. The now-as-it-is becomes the norm. But “when we talk about a ‘norm,’” says Gary Snyder, “we’re talking about the grain of things in the larger picture. Living close to earth, living more simply, living more responsibly, are all quite literally in the grain of things… I will stress, and keep stressing, these things, because one of the messages I feel I have to convey—not as a preaching but as a demonstration hidden within poetry—is of deeper harmonies and deeper simplicities, which are essentially sanities, even though they appear irrelevant, impossible, behind us, ahead of us, or right now."
“Right now” is an illusion, too.” Snyder’s point connects the thought and purpose of Beresford-Kroeger and Mackinnon: we need to remember that we once lived simpler lives, and that was better for all of us. And that no matter how outrageous it might seem now, given especially our proclivity for social amnesia, it is still possible to live that way.
Lynn Coady's award-winning book, Hellgoing , brings together nine self-contained stories that take a realistic and thought-provoking look at a wide range of human relationships in today's world. We are pushed or pulled into something like a voyeur's role, observing in close-up fragments of ongoing or evolving relationships between an array of distinct characters; be they as couples, with family or friends, or crossing paths in professional or casual encounters. Reading these stories can at times be a bit of a rough ride, rarely smooth, easy or pleasant. While they might leave us with a sense of unease they also stimulate us to consider more deeply the underlying questions and issues that the author raises. Are they a reflection of contemporary reality or, at minimum, of certain aspects of it? Among the comments on the book's back cover the National Post's quote reflects my own experience closely: "...There is a searing honesty here about humankind's inability or unwillingness, to make an effort at connection, but the author's own humanity rescues her vision from descending into despair or nihilism." I couldn't state my reaction any better.
At the recent Ottawa International Writers' Festival Lynn Coady participated in an in depth discussion on short story writing. The story from the collection that she read that evening, "Mr. Hope", has remained etched in my mind more than any of the others. It is written from the perspective of a young female teacher, returning now to her first school, who is reliving her childhood memories, her experiences in school and her first encounters with her teacher, Mr. Hope. Coady exquisitely captures the feelings of a young girl. Interweaving the vividly reimagined child's perception with that of the hindsight of the adult looking back, the author tells a story that not only conveys narrative tension and inner drama, she convincingly brings out the girl's emotional confusion and conflicts in a way that will, in some way or another, sound familiar to most readers.
Among the other stories, some characters stand out for me more than others, such as the nun in a hospital who uses her counselling to get an anorexic girl with a religious obsession to take "some food." The title story tackles another important and well-known subject: deep and lasting family tensions going back to the protagonist's childhood. A "reunion" brings them to the fore as if the decades in between had been non-existent. Events, however, demand a different response so many years later. While all stories are written from the distance of a third person narrator, they do often cut through the surface of the characters' 'normalcy' and expose what lies underneath.
Coady's stories focus more on the women's mental state of mind than that of their male counterparts. There is, for example, Erin who has discovered that "twenty-something" sex is no longer adequate (or never was) and her new partner is a willing if somewhat reluctant participant in the new excitements. Coady pinpoints many of the ambitions and anxieties that younger women experience, be they a publicity assistant whose constant texting might interfere with more important news, or a young author participating in a writers' retreat. While romantic love is totally absent from Coady's story collection, however, she is an astute observer of people and scenarios and her depiction of her central characters is not without a sense of humour or irony.
There was a lot of excited chatter in the church before the event began—then lots of applause when Sean Wilson, OIWF Artistic Director, introduced Ian Rankin. The funds raised are used to support the OIWF's literacy programs across Ottawa, and Sean Wilson noted that 500 students will benefit from the program next year—thanks to Ian Rankin (and to everyone else who'd attended!)
Host Alan Neal, who has interviewed Rankin several times, started a very natural conversation about Rankin's well-known character, John Rebus. "We're more alike than we've ever been," noted Rankin, adding that he was young, unmarried, and without children when he wrote the first Rebus novel. Today, however, he is noticing that the years are catching up with him. In one of the books, Rankin explained, another character essentially calls Rebus a vinyl guy in a digital world, and he feels that way himself sometimes. "I can be more empathetic [toward Rebus now] than was previously the case," he said.
Much to the audience's delight, it became quite clear that Alan Neal has a bit of a crush on one of Rankin's other characters, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. Although it pained him, Neal had to ask why John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke have never jumped into bed together. Aside from the fact that their relationship is more "avuncular", Rankin was quick to point out that "it would be a terrible experience for both of them—especially her." Rankin also explained that he would rather not write those scenes. When his editor asked him to remove a sex scene in his third book, Rankin was relieved. "I'm not keen on following Rebus into the bedroom, either," he admitted.
As the discussion turned to some of the fundamental elements that make up Rebus's character, Neal asked if Rankin shares Rebus's hunger for truth. Rebus needs to know the truth for his own satisfaction so that he can move on to the next thing, but Rankin said that he actually likes loose ends. He mentioned Caledonian Antisyzygy (a term he highly recommends for playing Scrabble, even though you likely won't find enough tiles with the letter "y") and that it's something that he likes to explore. Often, he'll read the newspaper or an article in a magazine, picking away at it by considering what it "says about us as humans, as Scottish society," and he will work through some of those themes and contradictions in his work.
For his most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rankin was inspired by some stories and anecdotes of retired cops who worked during the 1970s and 80s. He is often invited to police retirement parties and joked that he has to run to the washroom to jot down notes on toilet paper when a retiree's story sparks an idea. Overall, though, the stories made him think about Rebus and how he would have been as a much younger man. Was there a time when he was more idealistic? Did something happen? The new novel delves into some of Rebus's past, so Rankin said that he scrolled through all the (microfilm) issues of The Scotsman from 1983 and picked out things that he thought would catch Rebus's eye. "I was looking at Rebus's 1983," he emphasized, "not mine." (Nobody could picture Rebus dancing to Spandau Ballet, as it turned out...)
As a special treat, Neal invited Laura Smith on stage as she had won a contest to have her name as a character in Saints of the Shadow Bible . To earn that honour, Smith contributed to a fundraiser contest for the Ottawa-based Shepherds of Good Hope—which is happening again this year! Neal pointed out that the "Laura Smith" in the novel is a significant character (a crime reporter, in fact) and she actually gets to challenge Rebus. Rankin and Smith read a scene aloud that involved an interaction between "Laura Smith" and Rebus—and then the real Laura Smith quipped that her parents had likely purchased every copy of Saints of the Shadow Bible in Calgary since her name is in it.
Finally, the discussion turned to Rankin's writing habits. "I'm murder to live with when I'm writing a book," he said. He doesn't work with notes or even do much pre-planning, so he is working everything out (the main plot, all the sub-plots, character interactions, and how everything fits) as he writes the first draft, which he writes quickly so that he doesn't forget anything. "If you don't know who the killer is when you write the book, chances are good that the reader doesn't either," he said with a laugh. He also joked about a time when he was finishing the first draft of a book and still hadn't figured out who the killer would be. There were four or five characters, he said, "and I thought: Well, it could be any one of you..."
It may be encouraging (or not!) for aspiring writers to know that even with a solid body of work completed, Rankin still doesn't feel like a master novelist. "I really thought it would get easier, [but] it gets harder," he explained. "Every time I start, it's like I have to learn all over again. It's why I don't teach creative writing—I don't know how to write creatively!"
After some questions from CBC's All in a Day listeners and a couple from the live audience, there were more rapturous applause before everyone leapt out of their seats to form the line for Rankin's book signing. Neal was an excellent host, Rankin was a fantastic guest—and after we got home (and my husband had had some single malt in Rankin's honour), we agreed that it was a great night and that we would definitely encourage people to attend the event if Rankin comes back to Ottawa with his next book.
"Good things happen from good things," Joseph Boyden said during the luncheon that brought one hundred people together on a Sunday morning in Ottawa. The main attraction? Prominent and popular author Joseph Boyden, there to discuss his new book, The Orenda . Besides serving as an enjoyable get-together, complete with a copy of Boyden’s book for each participant, this event was also a fund raiser for the Writers Festival School Literacy Program. “The impact of this program has been phenomenal,” explained Sean Wilson, Artistic Director of the Writers Festival. The luncheon raised enough money for the program to enable 500 more students to experience an encounter with a "life" author, to have a hands-on session with one of Canada's best writers.
Our separate room in the Metropolitain Brasserie was packed and the buzz of the conversations suggested that everybody had a great time chatting with each other and with the author, who tried to meet as many people as possible. During the main course, all eyes focused on Boyden and Wilson as they embarked on a lively discussion that later expanded into a Q&A session. We could have stayed much longer, but there was a book signing and another event scheduled for the afternoon. Even then, Boyden took time to chat while signing his book and was a willing subject for the many photos taken by fans.
Photo credit: Friederike Knabe
Boyden's new book, The Orenda, was the subject matter of the majority of questions and comments. The conversation revealed the author’s personal insights into the writing and the background for the new novel: it was his conviction that this was a book he had to write. For those who had heard him before, or had already read The Orenda, his answers provided more depth and context and increased our appreciation for his writing and his choice of themes.
It would be nearly impossible to report on the wealth of reflections that were shared in this discussion. For me, there are several memorable aspects of Joseph Boyden's message regarding The Orenda and its importance as a novel on our pre-Canada history, as follows.
History matters. Yet the past doesn't mean much to our life today unless it is connected to the present in a meaningful way. For example, Boyden sees an important link between the past as captured in The Orenda and the Idle No More movement today. As a child Boyden learned to view history as boring. Many young people feel that today. Our interest in history only changes when we can bring immediacy to the past and make relevant connections. Boyden admitted that he is fascinated by the past and how it links to the present and the future. For example, the last line in The Orenda makes that vision very clear: it brings the past, the present, and the future together. Or in the words of one reviewer, "The Orenda is much more than a timely novel. It is a timeless one; born a classic."
In response to a question on whether the novel contains a political message, Boyden answered that his preoccupation is first and foremost to tell a good story. To him, good story telling brings a message to life. Characters and narrative work closely together. For example, in this novel he introduced three diverse individuals: Bird, a respected Huron (Wendat) warrior chief; Christophe, a Jesuit priest (locally referred to as Crow); and a young Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) girl, Snow Falls, who was captured and adopted by Bird after a raid that brutally killed many of her people including her parents. Why did he choose three characters? He was fascinated by triangular relationships. Also, it was appropriate to do so in the novel, as each represent their specific culture. There is no black and white, there are no bad guys. Crow is not simplistic; he learns slowly and he appreciates the different world visions and spiritual belief systems. That being said, he is also unaware of many things—for example, the fact that it was he who brought disease to the indigenous population.
Joseph Boyden felt very strongly that he wanted to demonstrate that before the Canada of 1867, complex societies had lived on the land for a very long time. He says, “In the sixteen hundreds these were as populous as European societies." Before first contact with non-indigenous peoples, there was a balance between the different indigenous societies. The Huron and the Iroquois were agricultural with sophisticated social structures. The appearance of the Europeans threw off the traditional balance in many ways.
Many in the audience were curious about the girl, Snow Falls. How did she come into the story? Well, he said, "She walked out of the mist into the story and talked to me.” He admitted, smiling, that characters do things he does not always expect, especially in the case of Snow Falls. She often did things that Boyden wasn't planning to write, but she insisted and he could only argue with her and try to find a solution that would help him write her out of trouble. In general, though, with seven older sisters, the author said he has no problems getting into the mind of a girl; instead, he found writing the male characters much more challenging.
In closing, the author said much research went into The Orenda, but in the end, the dialogue is more important to him than where the research takes him. Above all, Boyden’s first priority is to tell a good story. And when reading this new novel, it is easy to see that he accomplishes that goal.
The room was packed by the time I made my way to the Writers Festival venue. As a typical university student, I arrived five minutes before it started, but I should have known this would be a popular event. I took the only seat available which happened to be next to our special guests for the evening. As I settled in, I heard the three authors talking and laughing together, no doubt bonding over their love of writing.
It’s been said that all emotions stem from love and fear. These two emotions, though vastly different, can be expressed strangely similar ways. Rupert Thompson, Wayne Grady and David Gilmour are well acquainted with love and fear, and each drew from these emotions as they penned the works slated for the evening’s discussion.
Thompson, a first-timer to The Writers Festival, read from his book Secrecy . The scene described the first meeting between a boy and girl in 1690s Italy. It held all the emotions of first-time butterflies but held a hint of mystery. His smooth English accent captivated the audience (myself included), and took us back in time.
Up next was Grady, a regular to the festival, who shared from his first novel Emancipation Day . This short reading impressed me. It gave a small taste of Nova Scotia and provided a first encounter between unlikely lovers. The excitement lingered in the air as Grady read about characters’ tension in meeting for the first time in a blues club.
Last, but certainly not least, David Gilmour approached the podium to share from his book Extraordinary . The book focuses on the fear of death and the fear of lost relationships. He shared the opening pages where a brother describes his estranged relationship with his sister and sets the stage for the night to come.
The audience was filled with wonder as each author transported us to a new place and time. The discussion gave us a glimpse into the mind of an author, something that has always been a mystery to me. The main topic of discussion was the amount of background research involved in putting these characters and stories together. From research, the conversation transitioned to focus on the life of each man, the personal connection to the characters they wrote.
Gilmour especially intrigued me, and one thing he said has stayed with me since that night: “You can get over a woman by turning her into literature but I think the same can be said about trauma.” His book was based on the death of his sister and this was a way for him to approach his feelings and work through them. This got me thinking, what if we all began to write through our feelings? How much would that change our perspective on a situation?
As the event came to a close, it was time for the audience to leave, but we were left with a gift: a small bit of the life of a writer and the inspiration to pursue what seems difficult.