10
Wednesday
Sep
2014

Something Necessary with Tim Cook

A neighbourly visit prompted Tim Cook to go searching through his cavernous, overflowing library. "You're a historian right?" the neighbour quipped. "Do you have something that I could read on the Second World War?"

 

On a weekday evening fresh off the first week of school, Tim Cook launched his first volume of Canada's involvement in what has been oft-called The Necessary War. While Cook's namesake -- he of Apple Inc. -- likely garnered more attention with the new iPhone and smartwatch this week, the room at Carelton's gleaming Riverside building gathered a full-house. It seemed to confirm Cook's assertion that "Canadians want their history." Charlotte Gray, the host for the evening, pressed Cook to reveal what prompted him to write this book; do we really need another book on possibly one of the most examined historical events of recent times? Cook candidly admitted the implicit hubris of attempting such a large feat. In fact, affirming that the best scholarship takes both intrinsic drive and a fraternal collaboration, Cook reached out to scholars and academics across the country to seek their advice, and ascertain whether anyone else were planning on embarking the same trail before setting about his work.

 

History sprouts new branches with the passing of time -- definitive records may be refuted, and certainly complemented as new source material are unearthed, and fresher perspectives emerge from new approaches. Cook admitted that there had been single volume histories of the Second World War by eminent Canadian scholars, and yet in the past fifteen years, much of the personal narratives and stories from the soldiers had yet to be synthesized into a new, cohesive narrative. Notwithstanding the fortuitous timing (this week marks the 75th anniversary of Canada's entry into the War), and the obvious desire to supplement his already acclaimed two-volume history of the Great War, Cook confessed that his endeavour had more intimate underpinnings than the prompting of a neighbour's curiosity. Writing this history was Cook's way of anchoring his period of illness with purpose.

 

Since the writing of chronological narratives generally require fastidiousness than an overweening imagination, Cook expressed the solace he derived from a methodical approach to his craft. The writing process for him was straightforward, and he showed enormous fidelity to his pre-planned outlines. Rightly so, as they have resulted in excellent tomes. Yet, with this project, his original plan of a single volume got away from him as his desires widened, and only a two-volume project would do justice to what he now wished to convey. Cook is especially beholden to the songs, letters, and personal artifacts -- the spaces that allow for a certain humanity, even humour, of people better than their circumstances to shine through.

 

Having just completed my Canadian citizenship exam earlier in the day prior to the event, I appreciated the importance of "popular history," the sort of label any self-respecting scholar is supposed to flee. As Gray cheerfully hinted, it is indeed a better fate than being an "unpopular historian," which Cook would certainly rather not be. History need not be hagiography; Cook affirmed that war exemplified "courage, cowardice and everything in between." Understanding what went before, strips us of the hubris that what we face today is comprehensively unprecedented. Alluding to this, Cook answered askance a question from the audience on the current military action against the Mesopotamian jihadi group ISIS/ISIL. Wars to safeguard Civilization are not novel, and the two world wars were certainly seen, and still are regarded, as just due to its resolute opposition to barbarism. It is likely that the current engagement has more corollaries with the Vietnam conflict of the 1970s, mixed in with the elusive telos of these asymmetrical wars against apocalyptic foes.

 

Cook bemoaned that "Canadians are bad at telling their own stories" with a reference to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The jarring realism of the movie was so indelible, Cook continued, that it displaced the significant Canadian contribution to D-Day at Juno Beach. This again underlined the necessity of a civic seeping of events of great import in order to gain a literacy, which without a healthy self-regard buffeted by a critical outlook is not even possible. Popular history matters, as Cook's own work at the Canadian War Museum attests. And for this, history needs to be more popular, whilst avoiding popularization. The most moving part of the evening was in the care that Cook took to thank all those who had helped him with his work, and for the warm friendship he received during his period of battling with cancer. His work(s) deserve the widest audience possible.

30
Wednesday
Apr
2014

Another Word for Nothing Left

It is with a cheerful and a sad feeling coming to the end of this Spring session of the Writers Fest. It was cheerful and even buoyant because it was such a successful session with fifteen hundred participants listening and discussing with 47 writers, poets, bloggers, entertainers, et al.  Sad, of course, because the festival has ended, for the time being that is. And personally, I was also sad because the hall wasn't filled to the last seat at this final event as it had done for most of them.

 

For us, who listened to the three engaging readings and the discussion, moderated by CBC journalist, TV host and community activist, Adrian Harewood, the last event was a great treat indeed. The authors, from very diverse backgrounds, were not lost for words at all and – contrary to the title – had much left to say.  Each novel had a strong political and/or social underpinning, while the stories themselves delved deeply into personal lives of the novels' characters.  From the reverberations twenty years later of the Air India fatal bombing in 1984 to growing up in Luanda, the capital of Angola, to crossing physical and emotional borders in an unnamed desert, we were introduced to accomplished wordsmiths and imaginative thinkers.

 

Nadia Bozak was born and raised in London, Ontario. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and has written novels and short stories.  El Niño is the second novel in a trilogy that is linked by theme rather than characters. Inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace , El Niño tracks the survival of one woman and a young, undocumented migrant as they journey through the no-man’s-land of a remote southwestern desert.  Borders, physical and psychological, are of central importance to the story. Borders can be defined in many ways. The people attempting to cross them, successfully or not, have stories to tell.

 

Ondjaki is an award winning fiction writer, poet, children's book author and more.  Most recently he won the prestigious José Saramago Prize (2013). He was born and raised in Angola, studied in Portugal, and lives in Luanda, the capital. Returning from Brazil he flew in the night before to join our panelists.  In the introduction, Neil Wilson expressed special thanks to Ondjaki's translator Stephen Henighan, who has brought Ondjaki to the attention of the North American reading public. Stephen is the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, based in Windsor, ON - a project that deserves the attention of all internationally curious fiction readers. Ondjaki's new novel, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret , is inspired by the stories told by author's own grandmother.  "Energetic and colourful, impish and playful, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is a charming coming-of-age story…" states the book's back cover. From listening to him read, you can tell it will be fun to explore.

 

Padma Viswanathan, born in Nelson, BC, raised in Edmonton and currently living in Arkansas, is a fiction writer and playwright. In her new (second) novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao , she imagines the devastating long term impact and aftershocks of the fatal Air India bombing on families of those who perished. Her central character is Ashwin Rao, a psychologist, whose study into "comparative grief," allows him to remain an outside observer for some time. However, this distance to the tragedy collapses as he becomes increasingly involved with one family in particular. Furthermore, his personal experience of loss pushes him to confront his own emotions leading to a deep crisis of faith.

 

Adrian led the discussion by asking each of the authors about their motivation for their novel. Padma started with an idea for a novel about a psychologist who, through external events, faces a life crisis. The Air India tragedy grew into emotional centrality as the novel developed. Adrian stressed that the most unique aspects of the novel is that it is the first time that the Air India bombing, an event that has continued to be like an open wound in the Canadian consciousness, has taken the central role in a substantial work of fiction. 

 

The questions for Ondjaki were as much to tell us more about Angola and the literary scene there as about the book itself.  Angola, he said was probably mostly in the news at the time of independence and not much since then. In contrast to Portuguese people, who gave the impression that they tended to feel sad and down, Angolans were upbeat: they loved music and dance – one of their exports – and always hoped for a better tomorrow. The literary scene is expanding and quite healthy, he explained. Young people approach him and ask for advice how to "become a writer". They don't necessarily like his answer of having to read and write a lot in the process.  Given the publishing market is not very developed, he tends to circulate his books to friends and others around him. Adrian asked about his upbringing; he felt that maybe women had a great influence on Ondjaki's upbringing. Yes, he smiled. He grew up with two sisters and both his mother and, in particular, his grandmother have influenced him greatly and still do.  The new novel centres on Granma Nineteen and he explains, among other things, the reason for her nickname.  It sounds like a very entertaining read. Ondjaki has a great sense of humour that was not diminished by him having to use English instead of Portuguese. 

 

Nadia, in response elaborated more on her theme of 'borders', real or arbitrary, and the challenges of cross-cultural encounters.  Landscapes she explained can define borders as can personal relationships.  Social and political issues are of great importance to her and fiction is also a device to explore those in a personal way.

 

An interesting discussion developed in response to Adrian's question of the "power of narrative." For Padma it was to use narrative to develop better understanding of pain; the freedom to reorder events and timelines to tell the story in a different way. Nadia's interest is to expand the conversation on the plight of marginal people, a tool for exposure of the vulnerability of characters. In this novel, the dog/coyote mix takes a central place and while he is not anthropomorphized, he is also an object.  Finally, for Ondjaki it is the power of "playing God," the fear and pleasure to imitate life in fiction and to follow reality in a new way. 

 

The evening concluded with a pertinent, general question from the audience:  while many of the writers we have met during the Festival are of the younger generation, the majority of the audience has been of the older generations. What to do? One can only hope, the consensus of our panelists was, that when the young people reach middle age they will move to reading books. In the meantime, all three authors (as many others) either teach or are otherwise engaged with young people to motivate them to read and enjoy stories.

 

30
Wednesday
Apr
2014

Blog Out Loud

With a glass of wine in hand, Claire Fowles of Foodieprints took to the stage for her reading of Wine Wednesday – Pretentious Twaddle, one of the 11 juried selections at the 2014 Blog Out Loud. She was  probably a third of the way into her piece when I realized she wasn’t just giving a hilarious introduction to her post’s topic: wine reviews. She hadn’t glanced down at her paper once, and it didn’t occur to me that she might not be speaking extemporaneously. But then she glanced at her notes before starting a sentence, and her “introduction” never transitioned into a reading...

 

The way a well-crafted blog can roll of the tongue the em dashes and italics adding their lilt and spice — is truly incredible. With each post constrained to a single thought, the event was a little bit Pecha Kucha and a little bit monologue series.     

 

Blog Out Loud  may be a new addition to the Writers Festival, but it’s not new to the Ottawa scene. Veteran blogger Lynn Jatania from the blog Turtlehead started the local event in 2009 for those “with BlogHer attendance envy.” But unlike the big stateside conference, Blog Out Loud was free — and male friendly. Sure, there were more momblogs than manblogs represented, but each of the bloggers deserved their spot on stage.

 

After all, the blogging life is not always easy.

 

“What is it about blogging that makes people so dismissive, so quick to judge the author's use of their time?” asked blogger Tanya Snook of Spydergrrl.com in Crisis of Conscience: Why Do I Blog? You could feel the mmm hmm’s in the room as she continued: “Would you roll your eyes because someone keeps a journal and then turns it into a book? [...?!?!...?!]” <– (Why blogs read out loud are so much better.)

 

Written words weren’t the only focus of Blog Out Loud. Janet Lalonde of Cartoon-Colored Glasses was featured for Shoveling Metaphors, a pithy post of prose and pictures. Here’s a taste:

 

“I tend to see cleaning with a toddler in the house as shoveling before the snowplow comes by and pushes all the #@&$ snow back in your driveway. In this case, your 35"-tall plow circles the block alllll day long.”

 

 

As Lynn reminded the crowd at the beginning of the evening, each post itself may be relatively short and limited in scope, but the collection of a blogger’s posts reveal much about who they are as individuals.  We didn’t get that at Blog Out Loud, but having singular glimpses into each into blogger’s repertoire was like being at the Costco on a Saturday.

 

We’d better keep our little toothpicks and napkins, because we’ll be coming back for more.

 

For a full list of the featured bloggers and posts, visit Blog Out Loud

 

28
Monday
Apr
2014

Lunch with Toews in a few photographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28
Monday
Apr
2014

Where You Stumble

I entered Knox Presbyterian Church in more of a rush than I would have hoped, thanks to the perpetual lateness of buses, and was greeted by the buzz of a room filled with literature enthusiasts excited about the evening ahead. This, in turn, made me even more enthusiastic about the event. Where You Stumble brought together three fantastic Canadian authors - Miriam Toews, Jonathan Bennett and Arjun Basu - to discuss their latest novels and their work in general. I have to admit, as a badly-informed Brit, I was only familiar with Miriam Toews before deciding to attend this event but I quickly caught myself up on Bennett and Basu to fully understand how interesting the discussion would be.

 

The evening was hosted by Sandra Abma, who asked all the right questions at all the right times and often seem in awe of her interviewees, as we all would have been in her place. We were first treated to readings by the authors from their most recent works, starting with Arjun Basu whose novel Waiting for the Man is about a man who starts listening to a voice in his head (“the man”) who ends up taking him on a journey, both physically and metaphorically - as is the case with all the best literature. Next up was Jonathan Bennett who thoroughly surprised me by being Australian. Once I’d got over his accent, I was interested to learn that his latest novel – The Colonial Hotel, a loose retelling of the story of Helen of Troy, moving the tale to an unspecified developing country where Paris is a doctor for an NGO and Helen is a nurse – started life as an eighty page poem. From the excerpt he shared with us, I think poetry’s loss is definitely the novel’s gain. Finally we heard from Miriam Toews whose novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is about sisterhood, love and loss. She read from the second chapter of the book and left it on such a cliff-hanger that I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy to find out what happens next.

 

All three novels take their protagonists on journeys, and this was the focus of the discussion which followed the readings. It was interesting to hear how the novels had come into being, from idea to page, and that the story can go to places even the author wasn’t expecting. I particularly enjoyed Bennett’s comment that he sometimes learns about his own books through his readers’ personal insight something which, as a former literature student, I think gives an extra level to all those essays that are written about authors’ hidden meanings and secret agendas.

 

The discussion also explored the personal element of novel writing, especially that of Toews’ whose work has been influenced by her own family tragedies, which she spoke about in an elegant and beautiful way, unsurprisingly given the beauty and elegance of her writing. I was also tickled to hear Baru’s secret to writing: he challenges himself by writing “Twisters”; Twitter stories of exactly 140 characters. Since this isn’t something I feel I could do, I was happy to learn that there was no consensus to The Trick Of Writing A Brilliant Novel except that there really is no trick: Toews’ draws from personal experience, Bennett’s imagination is endless and Baru is indeed the king of Twitter.

 

Way back at the beginning of the evening, Miriam Toews’ reading touched on how to leave your audience feeling “happy and content” rather than “wild and restless” and I think it’s safe to say all three authors were already in on that secret. 

 

28
Monday
Apr
2014

Life, Death and Everything “In-Between”

It was standing room only in the Knox Presbyterian hall as our host, Neil Wilson read us this quote from Patricia Pearson’s book Opening Heaven’s Door to set the stage.


“The more critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion, the individual is pauperized.”  -- Carl Jung

 

Alongside her own personal experiences, it was this perspective particularly which prompted and spurred on Patricia’s research and interest in what exactly happens when we die. She noticed that especially in the last few decades, the pendulum of our shared cultural understanding of death has swung far to the side of the intellectual atheist’s -- that when you die you cease to exist. But she argues that this idea that believing in life beyond death is a serious blow to one’s credibility is blocking the general population’s ability to express their own experiences which suggest that there may be something more.

 

Through her readings of several passages in her book and recounting her own stories and those told to her by others as she compiled her research for the book, Patricia led us through many compelling stories of people making contact with a force beyond that which we can observe with our earthly senses. The stories fell into two general categories of those experiencing “Near Death Experiences” (or NDEs) and people experiencing the spiritual presence of a friend or loved-one.

 

These experiences might seem unthinkably rare, like an urban myth. Not so, says Patricia! These stories are all around us. They are so commonly recognized in hospice or long-term care facilities that the caregivers have their own vocabulary to describe them.  She tells of people bringing stories to her when they found out about the subject of her research -- close friends that she had no idea had had encounters with the other side. But her opening the topic created a welcoming place for people to share the experiences which had  been so meaningful for them. After the event, I was surprised to find that, when discussing the event with a friend, he was able to recount two separate post-death spiritual encounters within his immediate family! This taboo about open discussion on the matter is creating, in Patricia’s mind, “a real subterranean world of spiritual experiences.” All around us people are having encounters, but not feeling able to discuss them, and so many keep these experiences private, missing out on the reassurance of those who can say “me too.” Writing this book was Patricia’s first step to bridging that gap.

 

In the Near Death Experiences she heard about, the experience of the now cliche “white light” was described with stunning uniformity across all cultures. Those experiencing it describe it as “simply indescribable” above all, but the words that fit the experience best were consistently akin to a “sentient emotional light”, “profoundly comforting”, and the feeling of “dissolving into light, like a drop of water joining a sea of light.” One described it as feeling “I had been lost for centuries and found my way home.”

 

Though nearly every organized religion has its sacred passages drawing parallels to god(s) and heaven being “pure light,” Patricia also quickly points out that this experience, for those who have had it, does not seem to be about organized religion at all. As you would imagine, being on the brink of death and discovering what lies beyond is an incredibly jarring experience, and one that takes years to fully integrate into your worldview. It takes on average twelve years, according to Patricia’s research. But she mentions that in almost every case, no matter what the subject’s initial religion, they leave the constructs of their organized religion, feeling the lack of fit with what they’ve experienced on so personal a level.

 

Is it possible that this sentient, emotional light is a glimpse of our same shared spiritual reality that is more complex than any one religion can convey? Patricia doesn’t say one way or the other, and in our short time did outline other options and explanations (as well as her reasons for finding them wanting) An oxygen starved brain? A grief hallucination? A rush of serotonin? The biochemical process of the brain shutting down? Their effects wouldn’t satisfactorily match the description given by so many she interviewed. And though Patricia notes carefully during the question period that she’s “non-declarative” on the subject of exactly what the afterlife is like, she shares something we can all take comfort in -- her belief that death is nothing to fear. Those facing their moment of death are much more likely to feel a calm and peace, than fear and isolation. Whatever that force may be is that takes us into its arms at the moment of our passing, in that moment no one dies alone. 

 

28
Monday
Apr
2014

Enlightenment 2.0 with Joseph Heath

Joseph Heath was one of the first writers I happened to see at the Writers Festival, where five years ago he came to town to speak about his then newly released book Filthy Lucre, which is still one of the best popular (i.e., non-technical) economics text to have come out post-2008. Heath has the air of an introverted wonk, but it belies his irrepressible enthusiasm when he is talking about a subject that he clearly loves: why do people believe and act the way they do?

 

After giving us a précis of his work, Heath was interviewed by Andrew Potter – a frequent host, and writer on previous occasions – to whom Heath’s newest book, Enlightenment 2.0, was dedicated to. The main premise of the book can loosely be pinpointed as a sort of paean to rationalism, particularly in the arena of politics.

 

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, the joint project in 2010 by Messrs. Stewart and Colbert were mentioned as starting points in his book. While it may now seem dated, this was an example of a time when over a quarter million people gathered on Capitol Hill for the sole purpose of extolling rationalism and calling for it be restored in public discourse. Perhaps the largest such gathering in the name of reason since the French Revolution.

 

To get to what reason is, Heath stated that it was important to have a sense of what it really means. Once defined, we’d need to then genuinely examine whether it is indeed the case that were are suffering from a deficit in politics and in the public square.

 

As Daniel Kahneman explained in his magisterial Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains prefer shortcuts as a way of increasing efficiency, and this can often lead to many irrational behaviours. If we suspend physiological factors for a moment, we can clearly see the pattern of mental shortcuts in action when it comes to addiction, and much more nakedly with respect to procrastination. Often the advice is to “think/try harder!” But this approach is rarely effective simply because operating in a rational mode is too taxing to be sustained for more than relatively short periods.

 

This is where our brains could use external aids to help us self-regulate. Heath says that the simple process of “writing things down,” gave us a huge advantage in helping us to be more efficient. This simple idea of freeing up our working memory or RAM by capturing items in a secure and trustworthy storage device like a Moleskine or digital calendar, form the very foundation of the very successful time management program by business guru David Allen. Since we are heavily dependent on our environment, it would help if we could re-structure it to suit our long-term ends.

 

Community as environment was an interesting example. Many cultural and subcultural settings have often reinforced desirable behaviours and this is largely absent in an individualized setting where the self becomes the sole and final arbiter of the right course of action and behaviour. Heath gave the example of his own marriage as mutual form of regulation within a secure commitment, and mused that perhaps this was the reason that married couples are on average happier and more financially successful than those who are not. Taxes, in Heath’s view, to encourage desirable collective action whether in the positive sense through tax credits or in the negative sense such as the Bloombergian soda tax are seen important environmental regulators. Since much of what is “common sense” has now gained currency, this may mask the fact that what may offend us at the surface may actually be the better solution, and since it can be so counter-intuitive, we need closer and deeper examination of why this is so. Yet there were instances where Heath contradicted himself on this very point. Mandatory Minimums in criminal law override the discretion of the judge, but could it not in the same sense act as a helpful external regulator that helps the often irrational mind of the human judge – however experienced – to perhaps make deliver justice more consistently?

 

Conservatism originally, as exemplified by Burke and Hume, affirmed tradition against revolution or “progress” in the name of reason. Conservatism now, with a heavy dose of populism, is seen to be for “anything-but-reason” instead of tradition. This again is a false choice, that Heath didn’t explore, for it implies that there is nothing reasonable about “that’s the way it has always be done,” falling prey to the hubris of the “old fogeyism” that Heath himself cautions against.

 

While the degradation in the quality of discourse has recently been decried, Heath mentions that the 24/7 cycle and the ever constant presence of Twitter as sharing part of the blame. This is a rather simplistic approach, and both Potter and Heath agreed that there was no putting the toothpaste of the Internet back into the halcyon tube of the analogue age. The media are also seen to be complicit in certain issues as they form an interest group. This means that the merits (or drawbacks) of open access and transparency are never properly discussed. Heath mentions that many public servants simply say that “I’ve never talked on the phone so much in my life!” as a remedy to having all their e-mails be subject to public scrutiny.

 

Finally, I wish that Heath had had time to get into ethics since much of what is right may not necessarily be rational, or rational in a much more winding way that it takes a form of moral reasoning to arrive at how this is indeed the case. And to assume that rationality started with the Enlightenment is historically untrue. His strongest contribution may be in emphasizing the role of the external environment; having stable and strong institutions collectively and useful tools individually to help us make better choices.

 

27
Sunday
Apr
2014

Fiction Cabaret

This Cabaret was intellectual and fruitful in nature. It was different from the cabaret you had in mind – you know, the one where actors prance and other characters sport super glue haircuts. There was no stage or heavy lighting, just the corner of a pub with a microphone stand. Ray Robertson said he’s been here about nine times, but he may have been over exaggerating. He is a fiction writer, after all.

 

It was hot and muggy in the Manx basement, but it rained a chill outside. CBC Journalists and professors from local universities collected themselves on stools to hear what Ray Robertson and Harry Karlinsky had to read. Two polar opposite authors brought forth an abundance of kind ears, ones which encouraged laughter and scientific intrigue, all within the hour.

 

Harry Karlinsky politicized the discussion surrounding literary awards in a world where some vote themselves in or are pushed to the top by inner circles. “What about Sigmund Freud?” he questioned, and expanded on his disappointment with the history of the Nobel Prize. Curated words and a research-based novel awakens the senses of the mature intellects; luckily there were many of them. I learned that Freud philosophized by saying that it is “from air to air that one discovers truth”; a path of righteousness that few dare to travel. If Freud were still around, I’d give him props.

 

Ray Robertson read with the aura of a Beat era poet and questioned the difference between published and self-published. This let out a few warm giggles because the festival’s attendees understand this dilemma quite well. He made us consider the advantages and disadvantages of being born rich, which immediately made me think, rich or self-rich? Someone who is having an inner battle with these questions, would surely argue “Google me! I’ve got my own website and I’m only one click away” (WINK) – which is something Ray read during his performance.

 

Just before Ray sat down to devour some edible delicacies, which out of chivalry prevented me from asking him a few questions, he left a lasting impression by sharing that, “sometimes, broken hearts sound like an attractive option.”

 

I’ll ask you about that on the tenth time you’re around, Mr. Robertson, as I'm sure you'll be coming back.

 

 

27
Sunday
Apr
2014

Living History with Sean Michaels, Steven Galloway, and Eva Stachniak

The April showers didn’t stop the crowd from gathering at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening. I was one of a handful of folks purchasing books before the panel even began, so I clearly wasn’t the only one expecting a line-up afterwards! It’s always fun to hang out around the book displays once the festival is in full swing, anyway, to hear the chatter about the authors people have already seen and the ones that they’re excited to read. The chatter had already turned toward the authors we were about to see.

 

The panel kicked off with introductions from moderator Mark Medley. Each author read from his or her latest book, but Sean Michaels was the only one to put on a musical performance! His novel, Us Conductors , is inspired by the true life and loves of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen, who was also the creator of the theremin. Sean gave us a demonstration of playing the theremin, which is quite a thing so see since the theremin is controlled without physical contact by the performer. (Sadly, Steven Galloway, whose novel is inspired by the life and death of Harry Houdini, did not perform any magic tricks to go with his reading.)

 

Once the readings were complete and everyone was settled on stage, Mark Medley started the discussion by asking why the authors chose to write about the historical figures that they did. The range of answers on the panel was quite interesting—and, as my husband pointed out when we were on our way home, the seating order of the authors was also intriguing. Eva Stachniak, who was sitting next to the moderator, is likely the only one of the authors who writes “old school” historical fiction (in terms of genre, but also technique). On the other end of the panel was Sean Michaels, who said that his work is not like Eva’s: he used the story of these real-life characters as a silhouette and “filled it with fictions to let the silhouette convey things I was grappling with.” Steven Galloway, who was right smack in the middle (seating-wise), also seemed to fit somewhere between what Eva and Sean were doing with their historical characters, albeit with closer leanings to Sean.

 

Their answers, then, ranged from Eva’s fascination with Catherine the Great (“I want to imagine myself in this world; I want to stand by and watch her live”) to Steven’s simple answer about his interest in Houdini (“I think Houdini is neat, but I wanted to use a magician, and if Houdini didn’t work, I would have found someone else”) to Sean’s rather eloquent take on a writer’s inspiration (“Writers walk around with bulging pockets; you pick up bits and pieces that interest you or that you’re curious about—and Lev’s story was one of those bits that I had tucked away”).

 

The discussion then turned to invention in historical fiction, and Steven made the interesting point that the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction is the agreement with the reader that the novel in their hands is a work of fiction. It isn’t a biography, so they should be prepared to suspend their disbelief. In other words, there should be room for invention. Eva, who tries not to invent details, brilliantly compared her own (more traditional historical fiction) work to that of a sonnet writer: the form is already there (i.e., the historical figures, events, and facts), but she can write whatever she wants within that form. The motivations of characters and their thoughts are what she invented, but she had done so much research ahead of time that she is “confident in that world.”

 

All of the authors did quite a bit of research to write their books, actually. Mark mentioned the shelf full of books about Houdini in Steven’s office, and Steven explained that he didn’t reference the books while he was writing, but doing the research ahead of time makes things easier. He could have made up how Houdini did his tricks, or he could look it up. “There’s quite a lot to make up already,” he explained. He also went on to joke about the (disappointed) reactions he gets when someone asks him if a scene was real or made up. “It’s way harder to make it up!” he laughed.

 

Sean’s father built his theremin for him as part of his research, but he also travelled to Russia. “The main thing a writer does is conjure a continuous dream,” he said. “The vividness and continuousness of that dream takes [lots of writing] practice.” He said that his trip to Russia was a subtler aspect of research, one that helped him with the vividness and continuousness that he was seeking in his writing. He noted that he could have looked up famous landmarks and other photos in books or online, but “to describe the sunset or how it feels on the streets, I wanted [to go to Russia myself] to be able to trust my own instincts in writing this.”

 

Before things wrapped up and the floor was open to the audience for questions, Mark asked the panel how they would want to be fictionalized by another writer, possibly decades or hundreds of years from now. All of the authors would be happy to be fictionalized themselves. Eva made the point that by writing, you give that character another chance at life—who wouldn’t want that?—and that there might be something in your own story that you might not even realize is important. Sean would be perfectly happy with a completely fictional version of himself gracing the pages of a future book. “If a made-up version sings an interesting song, then that’s fine,” he said. Steven joked that the real version wouldn’t be very interesting (“guy goes into room alone and types for years on end”), so he declared that his fictionalized self should be “taller, handsomer, funnier, and more dramatic.”

 

I like the way they think.

 

Overall, this panel was put together quite well and the discussion gave me a lot to chew on about the relationship between history and fiction and where the author’s responsibility lies. It’s a topic that I’d like to see come up at future festival panels, too, because it can be a fascinating discussion. Each author was charismatic, and I’d be happy to see any one of them again, as well. Now, on to delve into their books…

 

27
Sunday
Apr
2014

Tragedy In The Commons

With recent debates over the Prime Minister’s powers to prorogue parliament, Senators’ accountability, and the “Fair ” Elections Act galvanizing public conscience, one could forgive Canadians for holding a jaded view of Parliament and the people ‘we’ elect — or ‘they’ appoint — to operate within its musty chambers. But I think many of us would be surprised to learn that departing Members of Parliament (MPs) — regardless of gender, party, or status within their party — would espouse similar skepticism, and at times even apathy, when reflecting on their years on the Hill. Yet that is just what Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of Samara have uncovered by interviewing 80 former MPs; 35 of whom had held cabinet positions.

 

Loat and MacMillan joined an enthusiastic, full house at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to discuss, along with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen, the process of writing Tragedy in the Commons , a book which weaves together the findings from these interviews.

 

Although the MPs were mostly frank and forthcoming, the interviews are equally fascinating when one considers what topics were not raised. Relationships with the public service, and with the media? Although always of interest to the Ottawa audience, most of the MPs did not discuss these issues. Nor did any particularly imaginative recommendations for improving the health of our political system emerge from the interviews.

 

But let’s get to what the MPs did say. And do keep in mind that all except Jay Hill, a Reform Party MP who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House Leader from 2008-2010, spoke to Loat and MacMillan on the record. Here are some golden nuggets straight from the MPs-turned-pensioners:

 

A majority of interviewees acknowledged that most Canadians have an unfavourable view of politicians, and quickly sought to distance themselves from the ‘typical MP.’ For instance, many claimed to have ‘stumbled into politics’ or even been ‘dragged’ into the political arena from careers as social workers, educators, lawyers, and community activists.  Many said that nothing in their pre-political careers prepared them to succeed in Ottawa. Furthermore, once they arrived on Parliament Hill — following a gruelling nomination process and campaign — a large number noted they felt unsupported, and even that some of their caucus colleagues were hesitant to point them in the right direction, not wanting to position the rookie to outshine him or her within the party.

 

In spite of the fact that Canadian MPs vote in line with their party positions the vast majority of the time, most of the interviewees were quick to elaborate on the instances in which they fundamentally disagreed with their parties. That ‘whipping votes’ is effectively silencing elected officials is well established as the current status quo. A number of MPs criticized their parties’ “opaque” and “black box” processes, and many had some unpleasant things to say about their experience obtaining the nomination in their riding to run as a candidate — and these were the voices of the winners of those intra-party contests!

 

When asked if they had any advice to offer future parliamentarians, many MPs suggested that they try to become experts in ‘something,’ so that when their issue comes up on the agenda, they will be their party’s ‘go-to.’ Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan’s expertise in environmental science comes to mind. Yet Loat and MacMillan are right to question how this modus operandi might challenge traditional views of the role of the MP as a faithful representative of, or trustee for, constituents and their policy preferences.

 

I’m a theatre person myself, so I was interested that the authors described MPs as ‘playing a role’ in a piece of parliamentary theatre, rather than being the scriptwriter and director of their own career. At the extreme end of this tension was an MP who said, “I didn’t leave my wife and children and move across the country to Ottawa to be told what to do,” presumably by ‘teenage PMO staffers in short pants,’ as the saying goes.

 

Many MPs claim the ‘real work’ takes place not in the House of Commons, but in parliamentary committees. Yet they point out that the thoughtfulness of committee work vanishes as soon as the agenda becomes tinted in partisanship and the media rushes in. As Loat and MacMillan wonder, why is it that MPs are on their worst behaviour in front of the cameras, and their most constructive behaviour when left to their own deliberations?

 

Though they themselves had few ideas for improving parliamentary processes and practises (except for electronic voting to speed things up in the House of Commons), a number of MPs from all parties expressed support for ‘dissident’ MP and former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Chong’s private members bill, which would give caucuses the ability to demand leadership reviews, and would erode the discretion of party leaders in local nomination contests. 

 

Tragedy in the Commons is a riff of Garrett Hardin’s economic theory “tragedy of the commons,” which examines the short-run incentive to exploit common resources, such as common grazing fields, in spite of the long-run, collective advantages of prudence and moderation. Indeed many of the MPs expressed frustration over the extent to which the Canadian political machine forced them to sacrifice the long-run social good for short-term partisan gains. It would certainly be interesting to compare perspectives by interviewing retired MPs in various other Westminster parliaments, especially New Zealand and Australia.

 

For Loat and MacMillan — whose day jobs see them dreaming up ways to increase public participation in political affairs during the years between elections — the key question raised in Tragedy in the Commons is as follows: how can we expect Canadians, particularly young people, to be energized about participating in politics if their own departing MPs offer such a sour and stagnant view of the very system they devoted their lives to navigating?