“We should give more than we take.”
These words, spoken by award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Saturday night, illustrated one of the evening’s themes. In observance of Earth Day, the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival brought Betasamosake Simpson together with Ian Hanington and David Suzuki for an evening of storytelling, reflection, and calls to action.
It can often seem difficult in the bustle of modern living to appreciate the impact of our species on our planet, and many people struggle with connecting to the natural world. The stories shared by Betasamosake Simpson reflected upon the fundamental relationship between humanity and this sphere we call home, and the responsibility we have to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants to become actively engaged in protecting and improving it. Her reading—a mix of modern legend, traditional stories, and insightful commentary—held the audience in thrall. She used an understated yet direct approach, skilfully using her storytelling to deliver a compelling message about the responsibility of individuals to take action.
For people seeking solutions to the environmental crises facing our planet, it can be overwhelming to consider their complexity and discover ways to make a difference. Ian Hanington and David Suzuki co-wrote Just Cool It! in an effort to describe not only the current state of climate science, but also the actions that can still make a difference. When Hanington described the early days of the book, he said the goal was to make it, “at least two-thirds about solutions.” His discussion of the book, and the importance of becoming scientifically informed and taking part in the movement which is demanding change, provided a backdrop for Suzuki’s insight and passion.
It goes without saying, David Suzuki is a powerful speaker. His depth of knowledge was readily apparent, and his scientific approach, very convincing. Suzuki, too, understands the power of storytelling to motivate people to action. His stories, about meeting with business people and politicians from the other side of the divide, shed light into one of the major obstacles to the environmental movement: the force of the economy. His stance begins with fundamentals. He says that the cleanliness of the air, water, and soil along with the biodiversity that keeps food chains and natural cycles intact are the highest priorities of humanity. Yet the economy has no measure for the value of these things, and this is a crucial problem. He said, “We’re constantly asking nature to fit our constructs - to feed our economies. It’s the other way around.” His call to action involves making it clear to elected representatives that the environment is a priority, “we have to inform the leaders what we expect them to do.”
Corned beef. Shreddies. Life jackets. Pablum. Butter tarts. Zippers. Snow plows. Long johns. Whoopie cushions. Canola oil. Egg cartons. Coffee Crisps. What do these seemingly disparate items all have in common? They’re Canadian inventions.
If your feelings fall anywhere on the spectrum of “mildly surprised” to “wildly astonished” at this revelation, then you’d have fit right in to the audience at Library and Archives Canada last Tuesday night, where the His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Tom Jenkins (CEO of OpenText) launched their new book
How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier
Ottawa Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson kicked off the event by admitting his own lack of awareness regarding many of the items in the book, saying, “This book reminds me of how little we toot our own horn in this country.” However, while it may be true that Canadians are historically modest, the event that followed suffered from anything but a lack of horn tooting. Hosted by CPAC’s Catherine Clark, the evening was full of revelations about our nation’s collective cleverness. “Really? I didn’t know we invented that,” was the crowd’s continually delighted refrain. “Yes, really! We invented that!” was Johnston and Jenkins’s typical response – or in the rare case of a popular board game, “Well actually, we only invented the wooden tile used to play Scrabble.” Even the most cynical of readers would have found it difficult to walk away from this event feeling anything but pride and affection for Canada.
Johnston and Jenkins said they decided to write Ingenious because they felt that Canada was lacking a “collection of our own stories,” by which they meant stories of our country’s history of invention and innovation. They both felt that a collection of these kinds of stories was crucial to advancing the culture of innovation and pride into the future. They expressed that they want the book (which has been released in English and French simultaneously) to inspire average Canadians everywhere – and even children – to think innovatively. “Innovation comes from an attitude rather than an IQ,” said the Governor General. Throughout the evening he repeated that “It’s about looking at things from a different angle” and “being willing to collaborate.” The launch of Ingenious will be followed by a children’s version in the fall, as well as becoming integrated into elementary school curriculums.
As the conversation turned more directly towards patriotism and nation building, audience members questioned the role that contemporary immigration has to play in Canada’s culture of innovation. Jenkins cited the example of the zipper, which was invented by a Swedish immigrant in Canada, and spoke fondly of an earlier time when “anyone could come to Canada and make anything.” Johnston cited the example of barn raising from his childhood in rural Ontario to show how collaboration has a big part in the Canadian narrative. Both authors seemed to agree that a culture of openness has practical value when it comes to situating Canada ahead of the technological and industrial curve of innovation. Their hope is for Ingenious to find its way into every Canadian home, and that includes new Canadians as well.
People packed the pews at Centretown United Church, surrounded by its seasonal garlands and poinsettia, on a cold, rainy November night in Ottawa. They came to hear Lt.(Gen) (ret’d) and former Senator Romeo Dallaire share a battle story, a battle taking place far from any field.
Dallaire’s most recent book recounts his personal, 22-year struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. A story he says he wrote to raise awareness of and support for this “invisible, honourable injury,” and to inspire other military members suffering with it to come forward to access support and treatment. “I didn’t go through hell a third time [to write this book] because I enjoyed it,” he said.
CBC Ottawa’s Adrian Harewood hosted the evening and pressed Dallaire to describe, as he does in the book, the nightmares and resulting sleepless nights that inspired the title. Dallaire described graphic images, including adult soldiers facing child combatants, and working through the evening and late into the night to avoid sleep. He described post-Rwanda re-integration into his family, Defence headquarters, and Canadian society as “lonely.” He says he knows other returning service personnel to have the same experience.
Harewood invited Dallaire to try to recall himself as a young man, prior to his experience as United Nations Peacekeeping Force Commander in Rwanda in 1994. The Lieutenant-General’s (re’td) sense of humour showed itself and remained present throughout the evening. “A shit disturber,” he said. Dallaire frequently added moments of levity to an evening full of clearly distressing recollections for him.
Dallaire was born into, married into, and has raised, a family of military members. He sees a shift in how conflicts are fought, between his father’s time and that of his sons and daughter. He argues that new types of conflict will require new thinking about how to prepare the next generation of personnel psychologically, and that more remains to be learned about how to prepare them.
He believes that the more military members come forward the more medical and psychological treatment and support methods will be employed. The more they are employed, the better and more quickly they can be refined and improved. He told the audience that he hopes this will spare future generations of members the sort of solitary war he waged, which he describes as “living between the paint and the wall.”
A crowd gathered at the Library and Archives Canada to hear Ami McKay talk about her latest book, The Witches of New York. Sean Wilson welcomed McKay back to the Ottawa Writers Festival for the second time to talk about her third novel and the story behind it.
McKay’s latest novel is the story of young witches something of a sequel to her previous novel, The Virgin Cure, though the books can be read in either order. The book is a fictional story about three young witches in New York living during a time when teashops were a place for women to gather and discuss taboo topics.
McKay’s talk was full of interesting information based on her research for the book. In writing the book, McKay researched the history of Manhattan in the 1800s, the suffrage movement, women’s rights, all of which are themes that come up in the book. Naturally, she did some research on witches as well. The origin of witch was not always the disparaging term it is today, she told the audience. The word used to mean, “she who sees things others cannot.” Witches were women who understood healing and medicine as well as seers who offered people guidance.
The story was also impacted by McKay’s research into her own ancestry. When researching her genealogy, McKay found that one of her ancestors Mary Ayer Parker, lived in Salem during the late 1600s. A woman who was unafraid to speak her mind, she was accused and hung as a witch in 1692.
The talk was full of interesting factual tidbits and drew the audience into the stories of the witches of New York and the world they live in. In McKay’s words, the book contains, “little Easter eggs” hidden throughout the novel for observant readers to find.
McKay is an interesting and engaging speaker, providing the audience with just enough information to interest them in the story without giving away too much. McKay’s ability to weave historical facts, significant issues and relevant information from her personal life into her novel and her talk is truly inspiring.
“Storytellers change the world,” claims Wade Davis, a man often regarded as one of Canada’s best. Whether he is writing about Haitian vodoun or George Mallory’s ill-fated expeditions of Everest and the Great War, Davis has spent his career telling us stories of the human spirit. His impressive body of work as an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer and author has earned him admittance to the Order of Canada. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of one of our country’s highest honours.
The crowd at the Christ Church Cathedral swelled to one of the largest I’ve seen for any Writer’s Festival event, populated by a healthy mix of young and old, all eager for Davis to take the stage and tell them a new story, this time through photographs. “Photography means to write with light,” a teacher at Harvard once told him. “So go out there and find something to say.” Obviously, Davis took the advice to heart. There’s no time to talk at length about any of the one hundred and fifty photos chosen for his new book ( Wade Davis: Photographs ) but through brief anecdotes and descriptions it becomes clear that they were selected with care from many thousands more.
In his position as Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic (a happy oxymoron), Davis tells us he tried his best not to exoticize the other, acknowledging that every culture has something to say. “Other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being you,” he tells the crowd. He set out instead to create a relationship with his photographic subjects, and to listen. The pictures on display behind him are evidence of his success in that regard. They are often striking in their simplicity, and unlike the well-intentioned photographs plastered on social media of voluntourism, there is a sense of equality to them, between the subject and both the photographer and the viewer.
When the time came for audience questions, Wade was asked to explain his inherent optimism. He quickly told the crowd that despair is an insult to the imagination, adding that his Buddhist faith teaches that negative things are a part of life, and his focus has always been to help, not lose hope. Another audience member asked if Davis saw a way back from colonization, to which he responded that there is no way back, but there is a way forward.
The last question came from a reader of Davis’s book Into the Silence , who asked him how he had separated himself and his voice so successfully from the lengthy narrative. Davis thanked him for the compliment and told the audience that he never set out to be a writer. He received his first book deal on somewhat of a whim and had to teach himself along the way. He claims he didn’t realize it at the time, but he wrote Into the Silence for his grandfather and the men like him, men who went to war, who fought and died or lived and went on to climb mountains, real or imaginary. “We’ll never know men like our grandfathers again.” It was an answer so perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been a set up, due to the proximity to Remembrance Day. But it was simply a display of Davis’s skill as a storyteller. A well-earned standing ovation followed, from an audience perhaps remembering the grandfathers and grandmothers they once knew.
Despite the poor weather, the room at Christ Church Cathedral was full when I arrived for the discussion about the Easter Rising of 1916. Unfortunately, Dr. Dermot Keogh couldn’t be in attendance due to a family health matter, but his son Neil stepped in and did a fantastic job. What followed was an engaging look into the Easter Rising and its place in history 100 years later.
To start off, Neil Wilson made an introductory speech before introducing Mr. Keogh. He remarked on the Easter Rising’s importance, not just in Ireland, but here in Canada as well. He noted its impact on our own country and how it fuelled an increased hope for Canadian autonomy from the British empire.
Neil Keogh then began his talk with an unexpected but welcome reference to Blackadder, and promised to fill his father’s shoes to the best of his ability. He took the audience through a broad overview of the history of the Easter Rising and its aftermath. According to his analysis, the rising itself was a total failure but the British overreaction swayed public opinion in favour of Irish independence. He painted a clear picture of the conditions of the time that led to the rising, and eventually, Ireland’s independence. Being at a Writers Festival, he spoke on the fact that most of the signatories of the proclamation and those involved in the Rising were in fact writers and poets.
After Keogh spoke, the session turned over to discussion and questions from the audience. Someone asked for his thoughts on the decision in Ireland to commemorate all the deaths in the Easter Rising and not just those of the rebels. I thought the answer he gave was the most interesting one of the night, and definitely, the most thought provoking.
Immediately, he said it was “about time”. Paraphrasing his response, Keogh said that it showed Ireland’s maturity as a nation state. They are now in a place to step back and examine the “complexities and contradictions” of the Easter Rising from an objective standpoint. As Neil pointed out, forty of the one hundred British soldiers who were killed were actually Irish, and the forty children who died in the Rising had never been memorialised before. To me, this highlighted the human loss of the Easter Rising, which, as Keogh observe, wasn’t possible on its 50th or 75th anniversary.
It was an engrossing discussion that could have easily gone three hours instead of just one. Neil Keogh was knowledgeable and charismatic. He held the attention of the audience from start to finish. In summation, it was an interesting look into the politics, history, and literary aspects of the Easter Rising.
Madeleine Thien was surprised at the crowd that greeted her at Centretown United Church on Sunday evening. In her introduction, CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld told the inter-generational audience of close to 300 that Thien thought there might be “about 20 people” who would show up to discuss her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (It recently won the Governor General’s Literary Award, was a Man Booker Prize finalist, and has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, among others.)
Indeed, Thien seems reticent about her ascent to fame. She is petite and soft-spoken, yet her words display deep emotion and insight into the human condition. After reading two carefully selected passages from Do Not Say We Have Nothing, she sat down for a discussion with van Oldenbarneveld.
Van Oldenbarneveld was a superb host and demonstrated her skill in drawing out various themes in Thien’s writing. They talked about the role of music in the book as well as in Thien’s own life. Through their exchange, the audience learned that Thien’s inspiration for the book came during a vulnerable moment in her life, in 2011, when she was reflecting on her previous book, Dogs at the Perimeter (on the Cambodian genocide), and struggling with feelings of having “failed” to do the subject matter justice. While walking in Berlin, Thien was listening to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg variations, which led her through various emotional landscapes: “joy, sorrow and everything in between.” Through that experience, Thien came up with the structure of Do Not Say We Have Nothing: the key was to start simple, and then introduce a recurring theme in increasingly complex variations.
When probed further about what music represented for the book’s characters, Thien said that after writing for 20 years, she came to realize the failure of language to fully capture sentiments or emotions at times. For Thien’s characters, music “expresses a very private self” that is “in flux and cannot be pinned down.” In contrast, they live outwardly in Mao’s era, where the revolutionary dogma is loud and shrill, and the emphasis is on using the correct political slogans.
The audience was interested to know about Thien’s writing habits and how she sees herself as a writer. In Thien’s ideal world, she would sit at a coffee shop from 7am to noon, people-watch, listen to music, and write. She sees herself not so much as a “political writer,” but a writer who is “interested in how we live” and is not afraid of political themes.
Given that she is situated in Canada, Thien recognizes that she has a lot of freedom available to her. While commenting that it is “unpredictable” to gauge whether change is possible under the current Chinese government (which, according to Thien, has gone to extremes to censor words such as “today,” “tomorrow,” “yesterday” and “remember” during past Tiananmen anniversaries), she remains hopeful because there has always been a place in ancient Chinese tradition for the dissenting scholar/intellectual, whose self-appointed role is to critique the government.
Clearly, Thien sees herself as a mouthpiece for speaking truth to power. Her open letter to her alma mater, the University of British Columbia, regarding the allegations against Steven Galloway, was brought up by someone in the audience, who thanked her for her honesty and courage.
Van Oldenbarneveld’s last question was about the inscription that one of the book’s characters finds at the Conservatory, from a Bach cantata: “Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise.” This prompted some soul-searching on Thien’s part, which ended with a few eloquent words on the current state we all find ourselves: “We all want this just society… but we’re not in agreement on what the cost is.”
Development Director Neil Wilson introduced Gregory Scofield, Sandra Ridley and Stuart Ross for the Poetry Cabaret. He warmly thanked all festival volunteers, staff members and those involved with the festival for the work they put into this year’s festival.
Stephen Brockwell was also going to be on the panel for the evening to read from his recent collection of poetry,
All of Us Reticent Here Together
. Regretfully, he was unable to make it to the event.
The evening began with a reading by Gregory Scofield whose sound poetry is influenced by Cree literary traditions.” Scofield has been actively involved in fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people, especially regarding investigation into cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Having lost an aunt and a cousin to racism and violence, Scofield’s poems also come from a personal place.
Scofield read a poem called, “Muskrat Woman,” from his latest collection of poetry
Witness, I Am. When the world becomes new she will write their names on birchbark, Scofield read. The significance of naming and identity is a prevalent theme in poem. Lines such as, my name is Muskrat Woman. . . my husband will not trap me also speak of feminine strength and power. Scofield skillfully weaves Cree traditions as well as themes relevant to a modern audience into the poem.
Ridley’s poems are full of natural images appropriate to the title of her recent poetry book
Silvija. The word Silvija is related to the words sylvan, which relates to woods, or Silvia, a name derived from the Latin word for forest.
Ridley’s poetry is fragmented in its structure. She often spoke a single word, leaving it hanging in the air for a moment before jumping into the next line. Many of Ridley’s poems are inspired by difficult events such as a friend who died of a brain tumor. Lines such as, “only you are present when the heart stops,” or, “are you laughing now, weeping?” do you understand?” touch on themes of mortality and loss.
Ross read from his latest work A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent
, which was launched last spring. Ross’s poems are at often humorous and strange, yet at times serious, dealing with loss and grief. “A sparrow came down resplendent from a bunch of clouds,” he read from the opening lines of “A Doxology.” The sparrow opens its beak and white string comes out, ending up in the gullet of a fireman. Similarly unusual images colour Ross’s poems making them entertaining and engaging.
Many of the poems would seem disconnected from one another except that the sets of questionnaires that link them together. Three sets of questionnaires pose questions such as, “which type of cloud do you like best, did you enjoy reading as a child, where did you get that nice sweater? How do you select produce? The answers to the question are often cryptic such as when the question “Why did you never marry?” to which the answer is simply, “yes.” At first, the questions and answers seem almost arbitrary in relation to the poetry, but to the attentive listener they provide links between the poems and the questions that are part of the fun of the poems. I found Ross’s use of questionnaires to be an interesting technique that unified the poems in a unique way.
His final poem was an entertaining piece dedicated to Oscar Williams. He joked, “Once upon a time Oscar Wiliams edited every poetry volume in existence.” Evidently Williams also haunted Ross as a poet. Why did you let that guy in mom? he inquires, only to be told he is hallucinating. The poem ended the reading on a light, humorous note.
Each of the poets had a different style of writing and reciting poetry. Scofield’s poems were more narrative, and flowed smoothly, Ridley’s were more disjointed, allowing the reader to fill in unspoken words to create the scene and Ross’s read like a collection of scattered thoughts united by the questionnaires.
Listening to the three poets read their poems was a marvelous conclusion to the Writers Festival week.
For the last evening of Ottawa Writers Festival week, host Peter Schneider introduced a unique group of Canadian-born authors who have spend most of their lives outside of Canada. The influence of other cultures colours the writing style of each of the writers. Schneider described them as, “a well-balanced and complimentary suite of authors.”
Stephen Henighan has published a number of novels about other cultures. In his latest,
The Path of the Jaguar, he tells the story of Amparo, a Guatemalan woman living in the late 1990s to early 2000s in the wake of 36 years of civil war. Ann Y.K. Choi’s
Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety,
is her first novel, and is heavily influenced by her experiences growing up as a Korean girl in Canada, working in her parents’ variety store. Author and playwright Anosh Irani’s fourth novel,
, takes the reader into the life of a prostitute in India who has worked in the red light district.
Schneider noted that each of the novels contains strong female characters, and asked them what experiences drew them to write these characters. Irani said he grew up 150 metres from the red-light district in Bombay (now Mumbai), which made him think about how different the lives of the women there were from the women in his family.
Choi talked about growing up in a very traditional Korean family and the ways that that impacted her view of herself, and women in general, as a child. “One of the messages I didn’t realize I had internalized was that one of the ways women gained credibility was to have initials at the end of their name,” she said. She also talked about how her dream since high school was always to marry a rich white man. As a Korean girl growing up in Canada, she was heavily influenced by Western culture and felt embarrassed about speaking her own language and retaining her Korean cultural identity.
Henighan talked about his experiences in Guatemala in general, and how they influenced his desire to write about a woman. He had been planning on writing a traditional novel about a decaying bourgeoisie marriage, but it ended up not working and he wrote The Path of the Jaguar instead.
I found Henighan and Irani’s portrayal of gender interesting. Henighan writes from a female point of view of view, portraying a Guatemalan woman who is going through pregnancy and birth, and facing family tension as her husband has become mistrustful and her sister makes worrying choices. Irani writes from the perspective of Madhu, a person who identifies as a person of a third gender, neither male nor female. Irani depicts the lives of people like Madhu who feel as though they are not at home in their own body. He gets fearlessly close those whom circumstances bring to places like the one 150 metres from his childhood home. Like in Choi's novel, gender is a significant aspect of both of their books, and both male authors are able to create compelling female characters based on their observations and experiences.
Each of the authors is also a teacher. Henighan and Irani agreed that teaching and writing are separate crafts. Ann Y.K. Choi said that her students inspire her. She told an entertaining story about how she was trying to motivate a student to come to class by asking him what he wanted to do. The student threw the question back at her and she said she wanted to write a novel. Realizing that she wasn’t doing what she wanted, she signed up for creative writing classes and brought him the receipt. The student then came to class.
Given their different cultural backgrounds, Schneider asked the authors whether they have ever tried writing in other languages. For Irani, he said sometimes dialogue comes to him in Hindi and he translates it into English. Henighan said he has published in Spanish and French, though the French requires careful editing by a French editor. Choi stated that one of her biggest regrets was losing Korean. One of the biggest ways to lose your cultural identity is to forget the language, she said. One of her long-term goals is to regain Korean well enough to write in it.
For all three authors, their novels draw the reader into the distinct cultural perspective of each of the characters and the challenges they face in relation to culture, gender and society.