With Alice Munro's recent Nobel Prize for Literature, short fiction has received a boost in interest, and not only in Canada. Short story writing and reading is "in" – “finally”, and “high time”, as may long term aficionados are saying. I have to admit, I have come to appreciate short fiction only recently. With more time on my hands I am enjoying short fiction more and for a range of reasons. Canada is rich with diverse short fiction writers, as pointed out during the early part of the discussion at this Writers Festival event. It appears to be a genre that attracts more women than men, at least in Canada, though this contention deserves to be further explored (as I am just now thinking of short fiction by Joseph Boyden, Steven Heighton, and Alexander McLeod, to name a few, which has been showcased at the Ottawa Writers Festival in very recent years). Still, our panel members gave a range of good reasons why they are attracted to short story writing, ranging from particular topics and ideas that attract them to write a story to exploring and honing their writing skills and test out new ideas.
Lynn Coady, shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize with her collection Hellgoing , treated us to a short story that drew her back to her childhood, and many in the audience may well have compared her (fictional teacher) “Mr. Hope” with experiences in their own youth.
Journey Prizewinning author Cynthia Flood's new collection of short stories, Red Girl Rat Boy , from which she read the title story, addresses a wide range of human experiences. Nancy Richler, author of The Imposter Bride , says, "There's a rare honesty to Flood's writing. Her eye is unflinching, her language energetic and precise, her vision bracing, passionate and entirely lacking in sentimentality." Her book will certainly get onto my reading list sooner rather than later.
Kelli Deeth's new short story collection, The Other Side of Youth , is a collection of stories "about missed connections and unrequited desire, in which characters struggle internally and with each other over issues such as marriage, childlessness, adoption, adolescent longing, friendship, and death," according to the author’s website. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto. Her description of limited time available for writing every day led to a broader discussion on writing disciplines among the panel. Each author has her own approach to time and how to organize it. Lynn Coady admitted that her energy moves in waves and depends on the subjects and stories she works on. Taking the discussion further, Kate Heartfield, herself a published writer in addition to her work as a journalist, asked what many in the audience likely wanted to know: “How do you start? What makes you decide to write a story on a particular topic? Are certain subjects particularly suited for short story treatment?" Lynn Coady explained that for her, stories tend to come intuitively, often "with a jolt". Cynthia Flood added that she doesn't necessary decide on the length of a story ahead of time. It depends. Kelli Deeth also said that it is difficult to explain what makes her want to write a particular story. This brought the panel back to the question of how, for example, do you get into the mind of a ten-year old child and capture her thoughts? This led to a broader discussion of how to capture the voice and perspective of a young person or child, a challenge that all three authors had experienced. Coady, for example, took a year to work with the voice of the girl in “Mr. Hope”, the story she had read earlier. She had to dig deep into her own memories, and at some point it became easy to recreate the voice. Flood added that all our memories exist somewhere in our brain, but we have to find ways to access them to bring them alive again.
Having discussed ideas for stories and how to begin, the discussion moved to endings. How do the panelists decide that a story is finished? What makes them decide to close at a particular point? Is it more appropriate to end "with a bang" or write a more subdued ending? Obviously, the answer varies story to story but I found interesting what Lynn Coady added: There can be a point where it is "safe" to leave the story and leave the reader with his or her own imagination. Sometimes she may have an ending in mind, but then as she progresses into the story she ends it at a different point…
One challenge for any collection is the order in which the short stories are selected for the publication. Sometimes, a chronological order is the most obvious, especially when the stories are linked in some way. At other times the stories are quite diverse and a natural order doesn't impose itself on the author. All panelists related to this challenge and suggested that at times it takes a trusted outsider, a first reader or an editor, to bring order and structure. As readers we benefit from it – or do we at times mix up the story by other criteria?
I would like to leave the panelists and the moderator with a great “thank you” for a very interesting and delightful discussion.
I believe there would have been a time—now far in the distant past—when arriving twenty minutes in advance of a Writers Fest event would have left me ample time to secure a good seat. Not so for “To Thine Own Self Be True” with Michael Winter and Joseph Boyden; alack and alas, I am resigned to witnessing the grandeur of Canadian literature at somewhat of a distance.
I admit that, as per usual, I arrived to review at Writers Fest with relatively little knowledge of the featured authors. To confess: I spend most of my reading hours deep in spiritual memoirs or young adult fiction. Surprisingly, Boyden mentioned that one of his upcoming projects is a young adult novel, so perhaps I am not as unschooled as I originally believed.
Also akin to my prior festival experiences, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have attended an event such as this one. As host Mark Medley, Books Editor for The National Post, pointed out, Winter and Boyden—whom he describes as two of Canada’s foremost storytellers—are “repeat offenders” at the festival. I can certainly see why.
Winter and Boyden have been speaking at various festivals across Canada for the past few months, and tonight’s event at Knox Presbyterian was apparently close to the most people Boyden and Winter have read to. At one point during the event, Boyden manifests some plastic flowers—likely on loan from a church display—to give to Michael as they near the end of their tour together. These two authors have known each other since 2001, a relationship that had early days marked by running with the bulls in Madrid.
Joseph Boyden, who spent a decade of his young life as an altar boy, crossed himself to open the evening, though by no means does he require forgiveness for his works. The same is true of Michael Winter, who deserves similar accolades for his contribution to Canada’s canon.
After both Winter and Boyden had read short selections from their most recent works, host Mark Medley began his interview of the authors. To direct the event back towards its intended theme, Medley began by asking whether there is a difference between being true to oneself as an author versus being true to oneself as a human being. Boyden testified that it is possible to remain true to both history and narrative. It all reminds me of a once upon a time theme of my English department: that the universe is made of stories, not atoms.
I felt a bit like I was eavesdropping on a regular conversation between these two; like I sat at just the right seat in a noisy pub and—by accident—heard bits of conversation. For example, Winter concludes that it is best to just be oneself, writer or otherwise: trying to be Cormac McCarthy results in being laughed at by one’s girlfriend.
Boyden is a firm believer that just because something is true, doesn’t mean it is interesting, but the truth of his relationship with Winter is indeed interesting. Winter and Boyden are an excellent match for speaking together. I lament for those who were not able to attend this event, as it was an excellent glimpse into both the journey of two excellent authors, but also into their long-time friendship.
Discussing failure openly with others is not a common thing for many people to do, let alone in public. Now imagine having failed in front of an audience of close to 35 million Canadians and then proceeding to chronicle this very open humiliation. This past Wednesday, as he has in previous events promoting his latest book, this is what Michael Ignatieff did in his presentation to a large and captive audience at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
Political memoirs, as host Craig Oliver so eloquently put, are normally mind-numbingly dull and excessively self-congratulatory. In contrast, he finds Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics to be a personal and strikingly candid account of Ignatieff's time in politics. Oliver aptly added that this memoir has "personal relevancy," and "flesh and blood." This is not a book venting complaint, Ignatieff said, but strongly insists it describes what politics and loss is like when it was happening.
Ignatieff stresses these memoirs are targeted towards young Canadians, interested in politics, who can learn from his mistakes. He explained that at every speech he made during his career as Leader, he spoke to the one person in the room that he hoped to inspire to run for any Party and make Canada a better place as he tried to do. This book is for "the young man or woman thinking, I can do that… he didn't get there but I will."
With this goal in mind, Ignatieff proceeded with a purposeful and decisive talk highlighting some important thoughts and take-aways from his book. You could immediately tell he is an experienced public speaker and enjoys engaging directly with his audience in a frank and open manner. Oliver did an excellent job in keeping Ignatieff on his toes and they both exchanged clever and witty (and often biting) banter in their talk.
Ignatieff's presentation gave a strikingly candid and direct perspective of what his book has to offer in the way of demonstrating not only what politics was like for him, but what it can and should be. First, his book urges us to think about what is currently happening to our politics. Referencing a class he taught on attack ads, Ignatieff explained Canadian politics has turned opponents, or adversaries as he calls them in the book, into enemies. No compromise or understanding can occur and results in personal attacks which are hurtful and often inaccurate, Ignatieff noting that he never was "just visiting" but has always only been a Canadian citizen. Continuing in this dark vein, Ignatieff found the true battle of political life is not to write and present smart policies, but to fight for the right to speak and to be heard. He also quite strongly came out against the digital age, which he says has fragmented our attention span and led to malicious and aggressive personal attacks. Second, he hoped to explain what it is like to fail. I admired his reflection on failure teaching us the most in life. He urged others to not be afraid of failure or success, but to be fearless. Last, he aspires to show what politics can be. It's not just "show business for ugly people" but a calling and vocation to serve the Canadian public. He admires Canada's global population as well as our polite approach to life.
On the other hand, it was also quite disconcerting to hear Ignatieff explain his failure in that, when returning to Canada to run for the Liberal Party, he "didn't understand the Canada [he] was coming back to." I question if it can be as simple as a lack of understanding or the reasoning that he was under the "illusion that Canada was as it was under [Pierre] Trudeau" as it quite evidently has not been this way for a long time.
This young and politically engaged Canadian looks forward to reading the book, and greatly enjoyed the insightful and personal talk given by Ignatieff on his success and failure in politics. Having read many of his other works (I'd like to highlight True Patriot Love; Blood and Belonging; Scar Tissue; and Lesser Evil), I look forward to reading his latest, and gaining more insight into his reflections and hopes for Canadian politics. One can be glad and hopeful that, at least as an author, Michael Ignatieff is far from done.
Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
The opening of the pre-festival literary revelry featured the marquee event with a featured author who needs little introduction, even among the Tim Horton's crowd (well, sort of). Margaret Atwood is, with all due respect to Alice Munro, the grand dame of Canadian literature; and the list of awards with which she has been honoured throughout her long career as a novelist, poet, and essayist is lengthy. It was no surprise then that as I arrived to the event, I was just one among hundreds of others, all abuzz with excitement, who turned up to watch her be interviewed by CBC’s Alan Neal (host of the Radio 1 program “All In A Day”).
From the syllable, Atwood demonstrated her confidence and ease with her audience, and began things on an endearingly intimate note by pointing out that the venue, a church, merited a hymn. And so, unselfconsciously and in a somewhat shaky, childlike voice, she sang a hymn that, in her newest book MaddAddam, was sung by the 'God’s Gardeners' characters. Adding in her own sound effects as she went, she encouraged the enthusiastic audience to join her for the last note.
Never having previously experienced any of her public speaking or interviews before, this little performance struck me as incongruent with her reputation as an outspoken feminist, environmentalist, and award-laden writer. However, it meshed well with her recent comment in a New York magazine interview that at her age (73), “you’re neither an honorary man or a dishonorary woman; you’re an elder.” If such is the case, then she appeared to be relishing in the social freedom granted by her new role. She repeatedly joked about her age by introducing her anecdotes with the phrase “Once upon a time…”, and referring to people under the age of 60 as “kids.”
She selected a couple of short excerpts to read from MaddAddam , the final book in the dystopic “Oryx and Crake” trilogy, and instantly captivated the audience through the voices of her created characters and the storytelling mastery for which she is celebrated. Within minutes of beginning her interview with Neal, her ease and disarming charm provided a striking contrast with his apparent nervousness. He jumped from topic to topic and posed questions that did not leave much room for Atwood to speak about some of the larger issues that are brought up in the book or what she hopes her audience will take from it.
However, here and there, she still managed to discuss those things that are quite clearly, closest to her heart. She spoke with some degree of passion about her commitment to changing the way that we use and live in the natural environment, and bookended the evening with her thoughts and comments about the environmental damage that society is currently causing.
It is in fact, this preoccupation and passion of Atwood’s that is one of the driving forces in the plot of this trilogy, which is set in a future just beyond the world as we know it, in the age after a human-caused ecological catastrophe meets the near-elimination of the human race through a virus created in a laboratory. The themes in this trilogy are quite distinct from her first (and only other) foray into the realm of science fiction (and science fiction it is, despite her prim insistence that the trilogy not be classified as such) was with her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale , in which she describes a world where women are valued for their capacities as wives and as childbearers, but nothing more.
While The Handmaid’s Tale also describes a dystopic world, the reasons that Atwood chooses to use for the eventual and total breakdown of society as we know it are very different from those that she chooses in MaddAddam. Although still using her fiction as a mouthpiece for causes about which she is passionate, Atwood switches gears slightly from a strong focus on feminist issues to things like corruption within the corporate structure, environmentalism and increasing moral ambiguity in scientific research.
I must admit that I have yet to read the book MaddAddam. However, if it is anywhere near as delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking as its author revealed herself to be during her interview, then I look forward to the experience immensely.
Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
Having been rebuffed from his original trip from just outside of Boston to the fall 2012 edition of the Writers Fest by nothing short of Hurricane Sandy (cue Sean Wilson’s suggested “the tweet that wrote itself”: #whenbadweatherhappenstogoodrabbis), Ottawa was treated to Rabbi Kushner this spring. The author of numerous titles, but perhaps consigned to eternal recognition of his thoughtful treatise on suffering, ‘ When Bad Things Happen To Good People .’
After his introduction by CBC’s Laurence Wall, the good rabbi intoned that he didn’t suspect that the problem of suffering would have solved itself. A resident of a suburb in Boston for several decades, the audience still had very fresh shock from the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsaernev brothers. And Rabbi Kushner had a grandson who was barely a mile away from the bomb site at the time of detonation. Horrible as it is, the Rabbi Kushner’s original witticism rings true; no matter when or where, we would hardly have to search far or in vain for a maddening, inexplicable atrocity. Having lost a young son to the disease of progeria (a rare disease that causes rapid aging), Rabbi Kushner confessed that suffering is a something that “continues to oppress me.”
The book of Job in the Hebrew Bible is one of the oldest books in the scriptural canon, and indeed of literature, and according to Rabbi Kushner is “the only serious theological book on the nature of God [in Jewish scripture].” While this may perhaps be an overreach (the minor prophets of Hosea, Jonah, and Habakkuk all deal with the nature of God in a bold, heterodox way), there is great deal of truth in the special resonance of Job. He approaches the book in the manner of Rabbi Heschel, who wrote that “the Bible is not Man’s theology but God’s anthropology, less about who God is and more about who human beings ought to be.”
A great translator of the Hebrew scripture, Robert Alter, writes that
The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon…Its astounding poetry eclipses all other…
Rabbi Kushner likened it to a hybrid of a serious work of philosophy and a Shakespearean tragedy. To get a sense of the unsettling verse, here is a small sample from Chapter 3 in Alter’s ringing translation:
3 Annul the day that I was born
and the night that said, “A man is conceived.”
4 That day let it be darkness.
Let God above not seek it out,
nor brightness shine upon it.
9 Let its twilight stars go dark.
Let it hope for day in vain,
And let it not see the eyelids of dawn.
Those are the forlorn words of Job, an innocent man whose is afflicted with suffering from a wager that God makes with Satan to test whether Job’s righteousness can remain steadfast when he suffers unbearable lost and torment.
Rabbi Kushner makes a fairly astonishing judgement on the Book of Job as a Conservative rabbi – he asks readers to completely discount the first two and the final chapters in Job. While scholars dispute the unity of the book, the difference in tone is evident even to the observant lay reader. The core of the book, Rabbi Kushner terms as “Poem” with the aforementioned jettisoned portions are called “Fable.”
Two forces present in the world are identified. One is Behemoth, and the other Leviathan.
Behemoth is said to be the “id” that consists of lust and desire, chiefly responsible for the misery in the world. Yet this is also seen as necessary. A selfless world would be a world without loyalty or interests or a choice to do good. Rabbit Kushner illustrates this idea succinctly with a Talmudic tale.
One day in a certain village, they captured the yetzer ha-ra (selfishness) and imprisoned it. They said, From now on, our world will be Paradise. No one will ever do anything wrong. The next day, we are told, no one opened his store for business, no one bought or sold anything, no marriages were arranged, and no babies were conceived. All those activities, it turns out, contain an element of selfishness, without which the world could not function. (pg. 75)
Leviathan on the other hand, is the “spirit of chaos” that acts in sync with the natural world. For according to Rabbi Kushner, “God is moral, Nature is not.” For all the dismissal of theology as mere “intellectual Sudoku,” there is still a yearning for God that is at the root of Rabbi Kushner’s message.
After Job hears God address/respond to him, he says
By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eye has seen You.
Therefore do I recant,
And I repent in dust and ashes.
The reason why this is the key portion of this whole book is that it affirms the fact that in spite of all that ails us with and during our mortal coils, the presence of God alone suffices. Rabbi Kushner essentially paraphrases this passage to mean “Now mine eyes have seen You, and I withdraw my complaints. Vulnerable mortal that I am, I am comforted.”
Mark Noll, in reviewing Luhrmann’s ‘When God Talks Back’ in The New Republic , made the following observation:
And how can believers keep on believing when they pray to a supposedly generous God for children to be healed and yet they die, for marriages to survive and yet they fall apart, for careers to take shape and they never do? It is because for those who have come to practice the presence of God, it is not what the presence offers, but the presence itself, that has become most important.
There remained many questions – and how could there not be? – on the place of miracles, the interpretation of scriptural texts, and the reality that this is fundamentally a mystery. Rabbi Kushner mentions C.S. Lewis as a person who went through a transformation from his The Problem of Pain , a largely apologetic work, to A Grief Observed , when he is faced with the profound loss of a belated love barely held for a few happy years. That we will experience pain and be indelibly marked by it is certain. Rabbi Kushner reaffirms that there is a benevolent, transcendent God, who offers us Himself. Often no more, and just as often, no less.
Crime night at this year’s writers festival did not follow the standard crime night format, but then again, no good crime novel is predictable so why should the event be? Usually the authors begin by reading from their most recent novel, then join in the question and answer session for a discussion. This year’s readings did not go quite according to that plan.
Gail Bowen started the evening off with a bang by reading, not from her most recent release, but from her upcoming August novel titled The Gifted. This being the debut of her new material, Bowen was not as polished as one might expect from such a veteran novelist, but the prose was simple, yet somehow illuminating, giving the listener the sense of being present for the events about to unfold. The book will certainly be worth a read when it is released.
Second up was author Inger Ash Wolfe, who in the second twist of the night, turns out to be Michael Redhill. Despite the twist in author's identity, this reading was the most straight-forward as far as content. The story had a great sense of humour and the listener was left with a sense of who the heroine was and a desire to see her situation through to the finish. When asked why he would write under a pseudonym yet reveal his identity, Michael described Inger as a character he “becomes” and through whom he writes his novels. He revealed his identity in order to champion his books and be able to bring them to a wider audience (by doing things such as appearing at a festival such as this).
Perhaps the most fascinating story told this particular evening was Peggy Blair, who did not read from a novel at all. Blair chose not to read from her novel because set in Cuba, she could not possibly get the voices down right to leave the reader the right impression. Instead she regaled the audience with her tale of how she managed to finally get published after meeting Ian Rankin in a bar by chance, bringing the audience along through all the ups and downs of the writing process, the scores of rejections after rejections before lucking out. It turns out that Ian Rankin allowed her to drop his name to his agent, a kind gesture for a complete stranger, and a move which ended up changing her life.
After this rather unusual introduction to the authors and their books, the question and answer session did proceed as usual. The questions asked were thoughtful and the responses provided by the authors were enlightening. Topics covered included social justice issues as all three authors incorporate this to some extent as well as the reasoning behind why all three authors remain true to their Canadian roots. Perhaps most profound of the evening were some of the questions raised by the authors. I will leave you to ponder their answers as the unsolved mystery of this year’s annual crime night.
Michael Redhill asked, “What happens when a place that needs to be small doesn’t remain small?” Gail Bowen asked, “What would push somebody over the edge (and into crime)?” If you can answer those two questions, you might just have yourself a novel.
The street food freeze is over. After an interregnum of nearly two decades, the food truck permit freeze in Ottawa was lifted last fall; the fruition of which manifested in the exciting new rollout of new food trucks this past week. James Cunningham, funnyman and erstwhile performer at Yuk Yuk's in its former location at Albert St., was on hand to both mark Ottawa's street food inauguration and to promote his new book Eat St .
Regaling the audience with the restless delivery of a globetrotter finally come home, Cunningham spoke of the creation of his popular TV show and of his love for the magic of food in its most primal transaction: through food trucks and carts. It was serendipitous circumstances that allowed a comedian to end up hosting a food show. Cunningham's experience of how his pilot episode of an inchoate script actually became the first episode of the first season of a show in its fourth season, is a testament to the importance of timing.
What lent credence to his presence was Ottawa's own exciting influx of food trucks. As Cunningham noted, the recession of 2008 saw a great number of talented chefs and cooks lose their positions in established restaurants. These kitchen artists, in turn, saw a great opportunity in the mobility and independence of operating a food truck or cart. Pop, ice cream, burgers and hot dogs have been mainstays from time immemorial (or so it seems), and yet despite the affection that these familiar outlets engendered in us, there remained a distinct feeling of "is this all there is?" Ottawa, with a population of over a million when including our sister city of Gatineau, is only home to about 45 trucks. The 14 new food trucks and carts were vetted and selected from over 60 applicants with mind to "the proposed menu, business plan, level of vendor experience and the overall contribution to Ottawa’s street food scene."
While the spearheading of this effort took applause-worthy political will from the likes of Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Mark Taylor (who was on hand at the event to give opening remarks) it is precisely the combination of sceptical nannyishness that has kept Canada so far behind when it comes to abundant and creative street food. As Adam Davidson bemoans in the current New York Times Magazine, this ill grips even the Big Apple. Marie-Claude Lotrie of La Presse has a charming expression to describe street food, as "urban acupuncture, injecting vitality into city life." In a country bequeathed with harsh winter climes, getting into the street food business is a labour of love in a country like Canada, where said business, like motorcycle riding, is seasonal. (Also a reason why Vancouver's street food scene is currently the vanguard of the nation). But weather alone cannot account for the astonishing range of street food in places like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. Overregulation of these ventures can act as disincentives rendering it prohibitive to start. Montreal, a city rightly known for its cuisine, seems to tread softly on the dreams of street food: the pre-determined outcome having already been fore-judged; somewhat harshly in VICE and more affably in the Financial Post.
Yet, who am I to despise small beginnings? If Ottawa avoids the worse-off aspects of the forays of other Canadian cities, and moves forward, albeit slowly, in the direction of greater street food, we have a great potential to showing the country how its done. We have a wonderful chronicler, Shawna Wagman, in her City Bites column in Ottawa Magazine and we even have a fledgling Ottawa street food Twitter feed to keep us in the know. There is a definite sense of excitement that was felt at the event for an Ottawa summer filled with innovative and health street food, and I for one cannot wait to sample them all.
Our worlds are increasingly filtered, shaped, and experienced by means of digital technology. Terms like online, email, text, tweet, surf, download, upload, blog, and digitial have become familiar and have frequently been redefined in an Internet era. Douglas Rushkoff had much to say about that on Tuesday night to a packed house at Knox Presbyterian Church.
He began by speaking at length about his idea that digital technology, co-opted by capitalism, has collapsed time to the extent that there is increasingly only a constant present for people; “present shock” describes the human reaction to this world of instantaneous feedback and increasing abstraction. This present shock is characterized by narrative collapse, the undermining of guiding human stories by life focused intensively on the present; digiphrenia, a fragmenting of self fostered by the maintenance of multiple digital identities; overwinding, the result of making time a generic, absolute quantity; fractalonia, the mistaking of self-similarity for real congruence; and apocalypto, the belief that human history has a definite endpoint. The host (Ottawa Citizen Managing Editor Andrew Potter) then asked a number of questions touching on politics, the role of institutions, and the locavore movement before taking questions from the audience.
Rushkoff argued at multiple points that contemporary culture was faced with a choice: there was an opportunity to “restore human-centric agency to culture,” but that there was also the risk of giving in to the pulse and rhythm of present shock. To avoid the latter would involve a much more distributed approach to governance and institutions (à la the Occupy movement) as well as a focus on sharing, developing networks, and filling needs locally.
There were points where I wanted to know more about Rushkoff’s thesis and standpoint. Some thoughts seemed to hang together uneasily (e.g., apocalyto side by side with narrative collapse), and his use of networking as a metaphor for community suggested (at least to me) a strong underlying individualism. And there was a certain irony in hearing him argue for greater mutual attention and relationship in the sort of frenetic, rapid-fire manner that typifies contemporary media interaction.
But this is to quibble; to call the event a success and enjoyable would be a powerful understatement. Rushkoff himself was frank, open, extremely articulate, and keen to encourage his audience to pursue real, in-person, local relationships without a wholesale rejection of digital technology. (This was particularly encouraging for me: I’m a telecomms engineer by trade, and have a special stake in this being possible). So many fascinating ideas came in such a short span that I had trouble falling asleep that night, and reminded me yet again why I love good books.
Just a half hour after listening to the well-honed and comforting words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the Writerfest audience was confronted with a real and relevant illustration of “when bad things happen to good people,” to borrow from Rabbi Kushner’s famous book. We encountered three novels about the suffering of children in Africa. But these novels and their authors – like Rabbi Kushner – are seeking to explore not merely suffering on its own, but rather the miraculous ability of humans to be resilient in the face of mass repression.
Host Steven Hayward – author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke – told us we were in for an “amazing night” and then suggested a unifying theme for the discussion: to imagine the future, we must reimagine the idea of the child.
Meanwhile, I had not read the three featured novels nor had I previously encountered these authors (to my own embarrassment). Fortunately, they read selected passages and then engaged in a dynamic discussion.
First, Emmanuel Dongala read from Johnny Mad Dog (an English translation from the original Johnny Chien Méchant ). Dongala, a chemist and academic who fled Congo in the late 1990’s, writes of gross inhumanity – expressed through the rampages of a militiaman – and, in the same stroke, of the kindness of humanity. We begin to sense the fog of war, the chaotic clashes between White soldiers and indigenous rebels, and the sense of abandonment felt by locals when these soldiers save elites and their puppies, but leave innocent civilians – babies among them – to die. The second excerpt centers around the interaction between a refugee and a foreign journalist. We sense the refugee holding onto her hope of escaping the country that killed her father and raped her, and we come to terms with the preference of the international media for stories about Africa that display maximal gore. She reflects, “I don’t know if [my interview] was good television.” Overshadowing this uncomfortable exchange between foreigner and sufferer is the empathy evoked by Dongala, who explained that every human has the capacity to understand another’s pain if we so choose.
Secondly, Kenneth Bonert read from The Lion Seeker, his debut novel about a Jewish family in South Africa during the apartheid years. The community where the Helger family lives is multi-ethnic, with a large Jewish population – mostly Lithuanians who fled the Nazis. Here, in a profound refutation of the system of separateness and official racism, languages are intermixed; Yiddish and Afrikaans are tossed into the vernacular. The Lion Seeker, the object of considerable buzz in the literary circuit, is told through the perspective of a young Jewish immigrant, Isaac. As someone who is Jewish as well, and fascinated by Jewish life in South Africa, this is a novel I look forward to reading.
Finally, a jetlagged Mia Couto – in his first English-language live reading – read from The Tuner of Silences , the story of an eleven-year-old boy from Mozambique, Mwanito, who has a “talent for perfecting silences.” He recounts growing up in an isolated enclave named “Jezoosalem” by his father, who has “forsaken civilization,” as Couto put it. The English translation of the book is so evocative, and I imagine the original Portuguese is even more engaging for those who speak the language.
Having been offered a teaser of the three writers’ unique styles, the discussion period proved fascinating. Most resonant for me was the (albeit unresolved and mostly implicit) notion that those writing about Africa have some sort of a moral responsibility to represent the society and ‘values’ of the region with a measure of accuracy in order to combat the terrible insensitivities of the mass media in their depictions of African conflict and poverty. Yet this is of course a large burden to place on a novelist, and indeed these writers seem most concerned with remaining true to their characters’ journeys. Dongala emphasized that today’s African youth are tech-savvy and very much aware of current events. They are – like all of us – bombarded with information, but a lack of education leaves many unable to analyze and decode reality from fiction – video game violence from normative behaviour. (Here I was surprised to see Dongala make some sweeping generalizations about young people across an entire continent).
Through their awareness and connectivity, African youth are embracing the 21st century, however structural difficulties, including poverty, limit their participation in globalized networks. These tensions conjure intriguing characters, as youth negotiate so many influences and possibilities. The child suffers at times, but is also full of life, kindness, and happiness, as Couto sought to emphasize (and which Rabbi Kushner might explain as an indication of God’s presence – that is, the ability of the child to emerge from the horrors of tribal violence and maintain their will to meaning). Wise words to end a riveting conversation with three remarkable and unique novelists.
The Fourth Stage of the NAC was a full house as Canadian poet and Carleton University’s Armand Garnet Ruffo took to the stage to introduce his dear friend Richard Van Camp. He talked about the many accomplishments of the writer including his phenomenal novel The Lesser Blessed , now a film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the many awards and accomplishments Van Camp has achieved through his writing. Ruffo recounts a recent conversation with Van Camp in which he said that he likes words that he can feel, stories that stir his blood which is exactly how Armand Garnet Ruffo introduces the radio play the audience is about to be a part of.
Host Shelagh Rogers of CBC Radio then took to the stage to discuss her recent time spent observing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where she learned exactly how important it is to hear Aboriginal stories from Aboriginal writers themselves which is part of the reason that Van Camp’s work is such a staple of CBC’s The Next Chapter, aside from it’s sheer brilliance. The radio play was an incredible journey, the only way I can think to describe it, the audience was taken on by actors Craig Lauzon, Chris Cound, Russell Bull, and Leela Gilday. A phenomenal cast who were able to bring the vivid images of the story to life, along with the help of the woman who adapted the story for radio, Reneltta Arluk. The central character of the story, Flinch, is a Dogrib man who has found himself caught up in a drug dealing gang and on one of his drops he encounters two men who lead him to a community of Aboriginal people who call themselves “The Not Even Counted.” When he meets these people he comes to realize that the path he’s been on has lead him to this moment and it is through them that he discovers his true power and his destiny that will lead his people home.
After the play ended, Van Camp and Rogers took the stage together to discuss channeling, storytelling, and hardening nipples. Van Camp describes the way in which the story was brought to life on paper, he united the ideas of all the horrible gang killings that were taking place while he lived in B.C. With a story from his home town newspaper about a man he knew all his life who narrowly avoided being incinerated by lightning. The reason he felt it would be amazing to turn into a radio play is, he says, that radio is what connects Canada, more than television can. His characters, like Flinch just come to him and he channels all their thoughts, emotions, feelings and ultimately ends up with a story. They key, Van Camp says, is trusting what it is that his characters want to do.
When asked about the theme of transformation in his work, Van Camp tells the audience the Dogrib creation story, and a story of his own encounter with one of the last shifters. But something that really struck him during the time he was writing the short story that the play is based on, was something a friend of his said concerning ninjas. Van Camp has a fascination with them, and his friend was asking why, and then reveals that she knows her own secret about ninjas. Van Camp asks what this secret is, and he hears her say “you have to die first before you can become one,” something his friend tells him she never said. It was in this moment of channeling that he found a kind of transformation that lies behind the story. Flinch must die in order to gain all of his powers and the life he envisions for himself with his wife and children. In an extremely poetic ending to the night, Van Camp told Rogers that he felt it was his job to braid heaven and earth and to bring peace to people’s lives through his writing. Which is exactly how the audience felt after having watched his incredible story of transformation performed as a lice radio play.