26
Wednesday
Oct

What Tomorrow Brings with M.G. Vassanji and Michael Helm

Where are we going? It’s a question often asked by authors and readers alike. The question of what the future holds in light of today’s ever-changing world was clearly on both Michael Helm and M. G. Vassanjis’ minds in writing their latest books. Michael Helm and M.G. Vassanji both expressed that in their new novels they explore something new that is a different in style from their previous works.

 

Helm’s new novel After James consists of three sections. The first could be categorized as a gothic horror, the second a detective story and the third an apocalyptic tale all wrapped up in one intriguing novel. The three stories are distinct, but also interrelated, and it is up to the reader to find the links that unite the stories.

 

Host Peter Schneider asked Helm about incorporating high and low elements in his work.  High elements have a little more substance, but low elements are likely to sell. Helm talked about how the literature market has become saturated by popular stories and he wanted to write narrative fiction. Narrative fiction either takes you out of the world, or makes you see it in a new way, he said. “I really love language that has layering to it; where there’s more than one thing that’s going on,” he said. His work is humorous, and there are elements of a good detective novel in it, but there’s always a deeper meaning to the events that are happening.

 

The conversation turned to the blurring of the lines between real and unreal. In an age with continually advancing technology things like genetic technology blur the line that used to exists between reality and fantasy. What tomorrow brings is inevitably linked to the role of technology in today’s world as man finds himself capable of things that previous generations would have called impossible. Reality itself has become increasingly fantastical as people discover they are capable of things that have only ever been possible in the imagination. 

 

“Fourteen hundred years ago the universe appeared in time, but no predictability,” said Helm. The question of the unpredictably of life is a prevalent theme within the novel. Helm quoted T. E. Home saying that man is, “organized and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” This inevitably leads to the question, what’s happening next?

 

“It’s midnight, the lion is out. . .” Vassanji read from his new novel, Nostalgia . Nostalgia is a piece of speculative fiction set in the world of the future. A patient comes to see Dr. Frank Sina with symptoms of nostalgia. “The past does not catch up with us, but sometimes it does because why had he come to see me? Dr. Sina asks himself. He begins to notice hints of his past in his own life and seeks to find out what they mean.

 

Set in Toronto, Nostalgia has striking similarities to Helm’s novel. Set in Toronto, Nostalgia takes place in a real world setting, but is mixed with elements of the fantastic. Both worlds contain elements of the fantastical, but are close enough to reality that the reader can imagine them happening in the real world.

 

 “Suppose one was able to forget the past,” said Vassanji. Would that be a good thing? Sometimes forgetting the past seems desirable. “The world would be a nicer place,” he said. In Nostalgia, Vassanji creates a world where people have overcome mortality. They always have the appearance of youth and beauty regardless of age at the cost of forgetting the past.

 

Can you go back? Is it desirable? These questions immediately bring to my mind the question I often asked myself reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, is it not the past that keeps us connected to the present and the future? As Nostalgia shows, a future that is utterly disconnected from the past is lacking something crucial.

 

Skilled storytellers as well as cultural critics, the author’s novels and conversation were extremely interesting. In the excerpt Helm read from his novel, I was particularly aware of his attention to structure as he created three distinct stories, all with an underlying theme, and the many details that bring together the work into a single work of art. For Vassanji, I was struck by his strong narrative voice. As a Canadian who was born and raised in Africa, you could hear the influence of other cultures in his writing style. Both authors weave bigger questions into the plots of their novels while retaining their own unique narrative style.

25
Tuesday
Oct

Plan 99 Poetry Cabaret

Heading over to the Manx Pub to listen to some poetry made me nervous. I had never gone before. I was worried about being underdressed, about not knowing the etiquette, and if it would be enjoyable. But I was excited to learn, and to finally experience Ottawa's poetry community.

 

The venue was a bit hidden, tucked away on the side of an apartment, like a hobbit’s home but filled with ales and poetry. Inside, the lights were shining off the copper plated tables. There were many carpets and cartoon drawings which brought you to a foreign, fun new world. It was a packed house, but the only sounds came from the poets Sue Sinclair and Matthew Sweeney. I think we all appreciated the effort the staff put into keeping the Manx pub a quiet atmosphere.

 

With a background in stand-up, I understand that rhythm, pausing and voice intonations are all necessary to get ideas across, which is why I was very excited to watch how poems were going to unfold. Sue Sinclair went deeply into the poem and gave a slower delivery, asking questions about our bodies, being alive, beauty and the purpose of art. Every one of her poems was incredibly interesting.

 

Matthew Sweeney’s poems involved mortality, guilt, horses, elephants and dogs. It had a very fun, seemingly informal style. He would add banter in between his poems and a younger man would answer back comically. Matt may have been a bit tipsy talking but it only made him more adorable and enjoyable. He would give long, detailed explanations about his youth and Ireland to give the listeners a better understanding. I was surprised that the poems were not welcomed with applause but with hums. I thought this was very interesting and added to the atmosphere. Although the event was more formal than anticipated, I did not feel out of place. Nobody noticed me; we were all so focused on the words and its subtext. I had a great time and am excited to go again.

25
Tuesday
Oct

Running for Office with John Laschinger and Noah Richler

Noah Richler, the political outsider turned New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, enters a nursing home on a sunny weekend afternoon in Toronto—St. Paul's. A women looks up at him from her wheelchair and says, “I like Harper. I’ll vote for you.” In that moment of pavement pounding in the middle of the campaign, Richler wondered why seniors with memory loss (enough to conflate former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the local NDP candidate) are able to vote while teenagers cannot.

Richler, son of Mordecai, was no ordinary candidate -- he was not content to pass from one voter interaction to another without reflecting on the process in which he was engaged. Political enthusiasts can be thankful that despite his election loss in 2015, Richler is back in front of the microphone to examine his experience -- a campaign whose autonomy, he admits, would likely not have been possible in a party with greater discipline than the NDP.

Sunday afternoon’s Writersfest programme paired up the neophyte Richler with the epitome of political backroom veterans, John Laschinger, for a discussion on their respective new books, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Campaign Confessions. John Geddes, Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief, as moderator, likened the pairing of authors to “putting unlike animals together” on the ark. And indeed there were some sparks between them -- such as when Laschinger, a campaign manager for more than four decades -- said that the characteristics and performance of an individual candidate counts for just 6% of the outcome of the election (with the remaining plurality attributed to the performance of the party leader in the final three weeks of the campaign).

Whereas Michael Ignatieff, in Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, aimed to reach young people with an interest in politics in order to encourage them not to make the same mistakes he believes he made, Richler does not appear to have a compelling agenda to advance civic engagement. His cynicism tends to overshadow all else, though he is genuine in his appreciation for the volunteers and supporters who hardly knew him and yet devoted their time and/or money to his campaign.

I found Richler to be most engaging when vividly describing the idiosyncrasies of the campaign trail, such as when he compared (in his mind, of course) his unkempt canvassers -- “they’re my gang; I’d have no other” -- to those of the Liberals, with their sunny ambitiousness and “thick hair.” He said he tried to use humour, rather than fear or negativity, to reach unengaged voters.

Laschinger, meanwhile, distills his vast campaign experience -- from Toronto to Kyrgyzstan -- to offer a few lessons for aspiring politicians, such as the importance of keeping expectations low so that the candidate may exceed them (and thus, the importance of not lowering expectations for one’s opponents such that they may wildly exceed them, as the former government did to Justin Trudeau last year.)

Laschinger is full of stories of backroom antics and colourful personalities, and yet his methods are highly quantitative. When the percentage of voters eager for change in government reaches 60%, the incumbents can pack their bags, he says. He offers a few tricks of the trade, such as the value of broadcasting negative ads against one’s own candidate in order to make him or her better known, as Laschinger did during David Miller’s mayoral campaign in Toronto. Laschinger isn’t all spin and tactics though. His work is guided by respect for each man and woman who puts their name forward as a candidate for public office. Perhaps his most important insight was that he spends the majority of his time as campaign manager listening -- “God gave me one mouth and two ears” -- to volunteers, supporters, critics, and so forth.

Richler is similarly invested in the people -- rather than the Twitter identities -- who commit themselves to a campaign and to the democratic process. As a candidate, he says, “you have to believe you can win” and you must be able to tell each volunteer sincerely that their and your collective efforts were worthwhile. Participation matters, to borrow Laschinger’s favourite phrase, and candidates play a vital role in energizing participation in Canada’s democratic process.

25
Tuesday
Oct

“She’s still with us.” — On the Life and Legacy of Jane Jacobs

Nearly a quarter-century since the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs, an adoptive Torontonian, remains relevant as ever. This is particularly the case as urbanization has continued apace the world over. At a packed room on a dreary Saturday afternoon, the Writers Fest hosted Robert Kanigel and Nathan Storring in conversation with CBC Ottawa’s Joanne Chianello. Kanigel’s latest is a fresh biography of Jane entitled Eyes on the Street, and Storring is the c0-editor of a new volume of unpublished shorter works of Jane, Vital Little Plans. Much like her nineteenth century namesake, Jacobs is readily recognizable by her given name. 

Kanigel, who has published a well-regarded biography of the prodigious Indian mathematician Ramanujan, recounted reading a review of his latest book where the verdict was that a reader could learn more about Jane from reading Death and Life. He added with sincerity that he takes “no umbrage” at this judgment. His hope is that others will be spurred to turn to Jane’s primary works, as she still possesses a voice that is striking for its fearless clarity, and a prose that is “a pleasure to read.” While much of Jane’s ideas have the currency of fashion today, Kanigel stressed how novel they seemed in an era where the automobile was king (we haven’t moved the needle much farther, still). It was Jane’s dichotomy of ‘foot people’ and ‘car people’ that helped her analyze the ills of city planning bereft of boots on the ground.

Storring took the podium and spoke about the life of Jane following 1961, and shed a lot of light on her personal challenges as she often felt activism took her away from writing. I especially found convincing, Storring’s detailed deficiencies of “big plans.” When it comes to urban landscapes, they are inherently wrong-headed. It also has the double fault of being denuded of grace, glazing the eyes with its “visual boredom.” Jane, rightly we can argue, made the case of little plans over big ones; subsidiarity over centralization. We get parts of this in Soviet era architecture—during a recent visit to Poland, I found the baroque beauty of Kraków far more alluring than the remnants of the forgettable Communist years.

Chianello deftly handled the conversation with both Kanigel and Storring, who having just met before their festival slot had started, had natural chemistry in talking about their favourite subject. It was encouraging to hear of the struggles of the bullish young Jane in school (she turned out quite alright!) Jane was no accident (nor a slouch). She learnt her craft in the world of niche journalism. One of her previous roles saw her act as propogandist for the American government. She wrote about various features of American life. It was interesting to hear of her having written a piece on slums—an act of self-critical truth-telling that would have been verboten in U.S.S.R., and itself demonstrating liberties that only existed outside totalitarianism. It was clear from the conversation that Jane saw a hidden order of things and was able to meticulously record how things were.

I kept thinking of the fact that in an era where we are once again flirting with rising violent crime in a few of our continent’s metropolises (see: Chicago), Jacobs voice is needed. Despite being the bane of urban life since the industrial era, reaching an illustrative apogee perhaps in 1960s-80s New York, Jacobs’ vision and endurance proves that lawlessness need not be the salient feature of city life. She was able, to paraphrase Kanigel, to show that “city life can be a good life.” Different from a rustic or suburban setting, but endued with a vitality that is inimitable anyplace else. The final charm was the evident love that both men had for their protagonist, to the point of their wives’ accommodation of Jane, “the other woman.” Following the afternoon, it was easy to predict that Jane Jacobs will continue to be relevant to our concerns for a very long time yet.

25
Tuesday
Oct

Profoundly Human Characters

Intriguing, funny and sometimes morally questionable characters can bring a book from good to great. Authors Jowita Bydlowska, Mary Morrissy and David Szalay are all prime examples of this notion. The October 22nd Character Studies evening at Christ Church Cathedral gave audiences an insightful peek into these authors’ creative processes for writing interesting characters that are sure to captivate readers.

Mary Morrissy’s reading unveiled two characters whose inner monologues were beyond charming in their humanness. Her refreshing and funny insight into the anxieties and thoughts of her characters reminded audiences of their own awkward and anxious feelings when running into an old lover or friend. Morrissy captures the mind of us all in quaint but intuitive stories about suburban life.

Jowita Bydlowska’s character Guy is without empathy and has great potential to be hated; nevertheless, this draws audiences into Guy’s web of emotional atrocities in a desperate need to know if he will get what’s coming to him or learn a valuable life lesson. Bydlowska writes a character that readers will love to hate.

David Szalay’s reading of his oldest character captures the discouraging frailty of age, which so many of his readers may experience or fear. Szalay understands the frustrations of aging, bringing the difficulty of everyday tasks to the forefront of the story. What was once so easy and natural is now filled with fear and caution.

All three authors are “masters of character” said the evening’s host Rhonda Douglas. While these characters may not be the most likeable or moral, an issue none of the authors concerned themselves with, they are interesting. Morrissy, Bydlowska and Szalay all agreed that they write not for likeability, but for truth of character. They write books they themselves would like to read. Such stories have a way of building naturally around good characters.

Douglas made the observation that all three books require the reader to actively participate. The audience and Douglas agreed that this is an indication of a well-written story. The author’s question panel discussed the challenges of writing uncensored characters and the backlash that could be projected onto the author. However, the evening concluded with the idea that an author must do the character justice despite the nature of that character. To censor a character would be unjust to both the character and the reader.  Morrissy, Bodlowska and Szalay skilfully unveil their characters while allowing the readers to bring their own faults to the story, thus allowing readers to find kinship despite moral faults. Douglas summed up the three works well by noting that the characters in each story are “profoundly moving in surprising ways.” 

25
Tuesday
Oct

Sharp Wits and Busy Pens

With the publication of Sharp Wits & Busy Pens: The Role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Over the Years, we're all a little wiser to the storied history of Canada's national press gallery. Written and edited as a volunteer effort of the gallery as a whole, the book marks the sesquicentennial of the journalists' arrival on the Hill, back when the new Parliament Buildings were being used for official "Province of Canada" business. 

 

Journalists and book contributors Josh Wingrove, Manon Cornellier and Hélène Buzzetti, in conversation with Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey, shared an honest look at the organization's boozy, boys'-club history and reflected on the positive changes over the years.

 

1. Journalists were basically embedded in Centre Block

 

According to Josh, in the early days the government and press were "hand in glove." The press gallery takes its name from the prime viewing area allotted journalists in the House of Commons, but the journalists' original working room, called the "hot room," was also in Centre Block. This in itself didn't pose a problem, but journalists also working as government staff sure did. When an opposition party member complained about the practice, John A. Macdonald defended it as a way to support the newspapers that supported the government. 

 

Journalists also had unprecedented access. Whereas Stephen Harper was able to circumvent journalists by announcing his cabinet lineup on Twitter, early journalists on the Hill would demand an audience with the Prime Minister at practically any time and not be refused. 

 

2. Bro culture extended far past the hot room

 

The press gallery has been a boys club for most of its history. Despite having some female members (who fought hard to be there) the Press Gallery dinner was only opened to women for Canada's centennial in 1967, but this didn't last. In his address, the press gallery president made it clear that this was the first -- and last -- time he'd be welcoming ladies and gentlemen. Today, Hélène and Manon have both had a chance to make their own presidential remarks at the dinner.

 

In a special contribution to the book, Kim Campbell shared what it was like to be covered by the gallery as a woman. It wasn't pretty. She was told she didn't look or sound like a Prime Minister. At the same time, reporters outside the Ottawa bubble were much more open. This was a mere 23 years ago. 

 

3. They knew the lethal effects of booze and baseball

 

By now it's local Ottawa lore that booze flowed like ink in the hot room, even during Ontario's extended prohibition. The "blind pig," or undercover bar, only closed in 1999. The reporters would work late nights, filing stories over the din of senators, ministers and MPs who congregated to drink in the back. The fire marshal only ignored the atrocious overcrowding in the room because of the scotch with his name on it every time he came by. Adding to the lore, former blind-pig stable Dow beer went out of business after 20 people (no press or politicians that we know of) died from high levels of cobalt sulphate in the Quebec brew. 

 

You can't mention booze without baseball, and the historic camaraderie between press and politicians extends to sports leagues. Today the official games continue, but a 20-year hiatus occurred when MP Lionel Conacher died on the field. He was hit in the head with a ball in the second inning and dropped dead in the sixth. His family mercifully declared the cause of death a heart attack, not wanting to burden the player who threw the ball. 

 

If Sharp Wits & Busy Pens is anywhere as lively as the journalists behind it, it's a 150 year history not to be missed. 

24
Monday
Oct

Paranormal Prose

Host and science fiction/fantasy literature author Marie Bilodeau welcomed the speakers Nathan Alder, Kristi Charish and Kelley Armstrong to talk about their latest novels. Each of the authors read an excerpt from their books, telling stories of monsters, zombies and other strange creatures.

 

Nathan Alder, a member of the Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, began by recording of himself chanting the words for monster and story in the language of the Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation people. He played the recording while he read from his debut novel Wrist, creating an eerie effect perfect for an indigenous ghost story. “Sometimes there isn’t much of a difference between magic and staying alive,” Adler read. Chilling and powerful, Adler’s novel is about dinosaur hunters, monsters, and dark family secrets and demonstrates the authors fearlessness to explore the darker side of life.

 

Before she was a novelist, Kristi Charish was a scientist. With a PhD in zoology from the University of British Columbia, Charish  “I’m the kind of person who should not have become an author, yet that’s the direction I went,” she said. She read from her novel, The Voodoo Killings. Kincaid Strange, a twenty-seven year old voodoo practitioner who picks up the phone ready to hang up on another kid wanting her to grow them a zombie, and is surprised to hear the voice of a man claiming to be the real thing. Suddenly she’s no longer running séances for university students, she’s chasing real live zombies. If the novel says one thing, it’s to except the unexpected, however ordinary a rainy day in Seattle may seem.

 

Number one New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong took the stage to read from her short story The Orange Cat, inspired by “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allen Poe. Her latest novel Betrayals is the fourth book in her Cainsville series. Not wanting to give anything away for those who hadn’t finished the first three books, Armstrong read from her short story, The Orange Cat, inspired by “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allen Poe. The story begins with a man comes into a lawyer’s office asking about killing his cat with it’s “one yellow eye, staring at me all the time.” The story examines the nature of guilt with dialogue and imagery that do indeed remind the reader of Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting gothic stories such as “The Tell Tale Heart.”

 

During the question and answer period, the authors discussed the kinds of worlds they created in their novels. The three authors all have something in common: real world settings with otherworld creatures. Urban fantasy is different from high fantasy because it’s set in the modern world, Adler explained. For Charish, her science background influences her style. Everything works in terms of cost and benefit, you’ve got to work with the rules that are there, she said. Similarly, Armstrong said that her novels are based in the real world, but with something extra.

 

The authors also discussed the influence of folklore and traditional tales in their work. There’s a lot of folklore in Cainsville, the story has very Welsh roots, Armstong said. She gave the example of the folk story of Matilda, the story of a woman who loved to hunt but was told she would be forbidden to do so after her upcoming marriage. The night before her wedding she goes out for a last hunt against the wishes of her intended husband. After that she is forced to lead a wild hunt forever.

 

Adler said that a lot of traditional stories influenced his book. Wrist was greatly influenced by Aboriginal monster stories his grandmother told him. Charish stated that one of the things she wanted to do with her novel was to bring back the idea of voodoo zombies. There’s a lot of viral zombies out there, she said, people sometimes forget that traditionally stories were about voodoo zombies.

 

An audience member posed a writing question: what comes first, character or plot devices such as the influence of folklore? Charish said the characters are especially important for her as she needs play things out in her head when she is writing. Adler said he mixes it up. Armstrong said she uses both, and the important thing is that the story doesn’t lean too far one way or theory other.

 

The event was a place for readers and writers alike as the novelists offered advice on writing and also entertained the audience with stories that feel real, yet also involve the mysterious and unexpected from other realms. “What kind of ghost lives in Seattle,” Charish asks. One must read on to find out.

24
Monday
Oct

Guy Gavriel Kay: Children of Earth and Sky

One could be forgiven for thinking that Guy Gavriel Kay, author of thirteen works of historical fiction and fantasy, has his feet firmly rooted in the past. After all, his writing has long been lauded as eminently well researched, a meticulously crafted blend of the real and the fantastical. But when hearing him speak it becomes clear that though Kay has an intimate relationship with the past, it is his ability to use history as a lens to tell universal stories that sets him apart as one of Canada’s greatest writers.

An eager crowd awaited him on Friday evening, despite the unrelenting rain and gloom. The audience buzzed with excitement. Which was your first? they asked one another. Tigana , some replied. Or Ysabel. Or Sailing to Sarantium. His titles were whispered and passed around like some form of communion among his devoted fans, perhaps fitting as we sat in a church.

Ottawa Citizen journalist and fantasy author Kate Heartfield delivered a brief introduction before Kay took the stage to a hearty round of applause. He began by introducing his practiced formula of crafting fictional worlds out of real historical events, a process he described as “rich historically and ethically,” as it allows him to write freely without the uncomfortable assumption that he’s occupying the minds of real people. His latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a world that resembles 16th century Croatia and the collapse of Constantinople. The passage he read was from a female perspective and drew the audience in, despite the awkward interruption due to audio difficulties.

For the question period, Kay had his hosts do something unique: paper was passed around for those with questions to write them down, rather than have people line up for a microphone. His theory was that sometimes the best questions are missed when people don’t wish to stand up in front of a crowd, and instead ask them later when getting their books signed. His social experiment was a success; host Kate Heartfield had more questions than time, and it gave her an opportunity to weed out redundant questions or those that would spoil the plotlines of Kay’s books.

The discussion between host and author was rich and interesting. Heartfield, being an author herself, was keen to ask questions about the craft of writing, which can sometimes bore an audience of readers, but Kay knows how to make a story out of even the most potentially mundane topics. He touched on how his goal as a storyteller is to avoid writing about the power players of history and instead focus on the people who were trying to get on with their lives. He spoke of how historical fantasy writing can be a commentary on contemporary times, and how the past fascinates him both because of the different worldviews of people in other times and the similar fears and desires that unite humans all throughout history.

A highlight of the evening was when Kay asked the audience to give a round of applause for the absent Ursula Le Guin on her 87th birthday, acknowledging the work she did and the path she forged for all the fantasy writers who came after her.

A question about the state of publishing fantasy did not elicit what could have been a wholly negative response from Kay, who implored writers to simply “write as well as you can,” claiming that the climate of the publishing industry is not as dire as others would have us believe. The barrier between genre and literary works is thinning as the next generation of writers and publishers grew up on Star Wars/Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They also grew up on the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, as evidenced by the audience before him. Perhaps he will be for our generation what Le Guin was for his: a seminal figure whose body of work helped to lay down a path for those who came after him. Fittingly, only time will tell.

 

23
Sunday
Oct

Stories About Canada with Jane Urquhart

Rarely is a book so well suited to its launch venue as Jane Urquhart’s A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects was to the event space at Library and Archives Canada. After a decade of closed doors, being permitted into the second floor room felt like being allowed back into history, a perfect segue to Urquhart’s first book of non-fiction.

On its face, the project behind A Number of Things was both immense and contained: In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, Urquhart would tell a story of this country through 50 objects of her choosing. “Our story is here, in at least some of its forms,” Urquhart said, by way of explaining that her book is not the history of the country, but rather one look at our collective story.

Flanked by large TV screens showing slides, Urquhart’s presentation was the kind of generous, open look at a writer’s life and process that attendees at book launches dream of. Opening with a black and white photo of her young, pre-child parents sitting on the steps of a farmhouse, Urquhart told the story of how they travelled to northern Ontario — where she and her siblings would be born and raised — and of the dreams and objects they took with them.

A small, intricately painted and delicate sugar pot — already passed down through multiple generations before being carefully packed up and brought north; a pair of moccasins Urquhart was given as an infant from the chief of the Anishnawbe across the lake; a small Inuit carving of geese her father brought her from a trip farther north — Urquhart’s personal objects both inform and are completely separate from the ones she chose to include the book.

The refrain “This isn’t in the book” became a kind of running joke as Urquhart presentation veered increasingly into the personal, feeling at times like a glimpse at a family slideshow. “I think this is the last one,” Urquhart said about numerous slides, each time finding that, no, there was another — Urquhart as a young girl, afraid of horses (“A horse is one of the objects in the book,” she said), a Japanese sword guard, given to her at the launch for her 2001 novel The Stone Carvers , and many photos of her cottage in Ireland.

Of course, some of the photos lined up with the book. Many of the objects she wrote about have no connection to her, but Urquhart said she did find herself and her “pioneer” upbringing creeping into the essays.

One of the objects, Tent, was very particular for Urquhart. Although she left many of the objects mysterious or merely hinted at them — “You’ll have to buy the book,” she winked — she read the short essay she wrote for Tent in full. It is a story that starts with Irish immigrants working to build Maple Leaf Gardens. Among that crew is a man named Danny Henry who, after making his way to the mining towns in northern Ontario, would become her father’s best friend and her godfather. The titular Tent, Urquhart says, is really Henry’s prospector’s tent, the only real home he owned for nearly 40 years. But, tents have a much longer history in Canada, and Urquhart’s essay folds in a beautiful passage about the “skin tent” used by First Nations, detailing its construction, utility and portability.

That push-pull between the objects of immigrants and those of Canada’s First Nations is a ribbon throughout the book, and a theme to which Urquhart returned throughout her talk, as well as during the discussion with CBC’s Sandra Abma. It didn’t matter what object she was focusing on, Urquhart said, all the research came back to Canada’s Indigenous people and what has happened to them.

In part, Urquhart told Abma, that is why the book opens with the Beothuk legging. For Urquhart it is the most resonant object in the book, but more than that, she wanted it front and centre, where it could not be ignored.

Throughout the evening, Urquhart was warm, open and generous in both her presentation and, later, the way she answered audience questions. Surely one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Urquhart is a respected poet, novelist and, with A Number of Things, has now taken the plunge into non-fiction. That breadth of experience makes Urquhart a perfect author to headline a night that was also a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards — an award Urquhart won in 1997 for her novel The Underpainter . Books, of course, are objects too, and if “material culture” tells us what we value (as Urquhart asserted), then what better book to usher us toward both a celebration of our country’s 150th birthday and our longest running appreciation of the literature created here.


 

 

19
Wednesday
Oct

The Promise of Canada



Charlotte Gray once got into trouble for referring to Library and Archives Canada as “a morgue,” but on October 17th, the scene at the LAC was most definitely alive. After being introduced by Festival director Sean Wilson and LAC director Guy Berthiaume, Gray asserted that the past is where Canadians must look if they are to find a coherent present. It is precisely in the archives, she argued, where we will find both our current identity and our future together. Gray’s newest book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country is a deliberately open-ended story of a nation whose story is still evolving. Structured as a series of nine short biographies, The Promise of Canada portrays the country as the product of its citizenry. The choice of which individuals to include is obviously subjective, and Gray acknowledges that the presence of neither prime ministers nor hockey players will undoubtedly be a shock to some readers. Instead, the better- and lesser-known figures included in Gray’s book portray a country where stereotypes fall apart on closer inspection, where the act of inclusion – whether in publishing, legislation or storytelling is an act of nation-building. Gray presents The Promise of Canada is an immigrant’s sesquicentennial gift to her new home country. That gift is not just the story of the nine figures profiled in The Promise of Canada, but the start of a new conversation about what it means to tell the story of a nation.    
 

Gray began her presentation with some of the highlights from her research: phenomenal images by painter Emily Carr; political intrigue and scandal-worthy gossip about George-Etienne Cartier and the moving life story of Elijah Harper, who rose to prominence as an Aboriginal leader in the Manitoba legislature in the 1990s. Gray tied each individual’s story neatly to her main themes of Canadian national identity: a commitment to federalism; an evolving dialogue of inclusion and multi-culturalism; the on-going human relationship with Canada’s vast and unforgiving natural landscape. The themes of immigration and outsider status also work their way through the Gray’s project, as does the recognition of a certain national tendency towards pragmatism and away from heroics. (Why, Gray asked, do so many Canadian narratives feature the lone survivor as a protagonist, as if public attention was merited only by the accident of survival from disaster?) Humorously conceding that her book is a reflection of her own interests and experiences, Gray invites readers to make their own lists of influential people and ideas. The Promise of Canada is a lively remedy for what Gray sees as a public tendency to disengage with Canadian history.

For the second half of the evening, the OIWF invited Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella to converse with Gray about her writing process. Abella, whose own impressive biography would probably merit inclusion in a sequel volume, led Gray and the audience through a series of thoughtful questions which could hardly be answered in a single night. This reviewer is still thinking of new answers for Abella’s questions, which included: “What holds Canada together?” and “Who helped embed Canadian qualities, whatever they might be, in the national psyche?” Gray responded with a distinct awareness of her role as a biographer, as well as great clarity about her own perspective as a British immigrant to Canada. Gray, who arrived in Canada during a “wobbly moment” of national identity in the late 1970s, has had time to think deeply about the role of individuals in creating a nation. Yet the story of Canada, like that of any other vibrant nation, is never complete. Each generation, Gray and Abella agreed, write their own story of their homeland, be it native or adopted.