The lamentable decline in a sense of history has been cried shrilly in many countries, with Canada being no exception. For a nation admitting more newcomers per year than any other, the question of passing on the narrative of a very improbable nation is no easy task. History isn’t a science. Like a careful reading of scripture or an enduring work of literature, mining it seems to array us with a variety of new perspectives, repeatedly. More than perspective even; history (or the knowledge of it) allows us to be a part of a story that began before us – one that we hope to continue. While there is no shortage of those who enter Canada unscrupulously or for its perceived largesse, I firmly believe that most newcomers want to be part of Canada’s story.
Last Wednesday, Vincent Lam and Charles Foran sat down to discuss the lives of Maurice Richard and Tommy Douglas. The life of a Prairie preacher and a Québecois hockey player could not seem more different (and indeed it was) but the discussion demonstrated how sometimes the mythmaking, nationalistic and borderline-jingoistic history (which the Québec sovereignty movement has appropriated) needs exactly the antidote of the nuance a broader historical perspective delivers. It is commonplace in Québec patriotic circles to imagine as if everything originated in its pristine form within its borders (as indeed Daniel Poliquin pointed out). But it was Douglas’s idea of a universal health care system in Saskatchewan which found its way into the rest of Canada – Québec inclus.
Heroes, especially athletes, are often victims of being frozen in the memories of their fans. We often forget that the “morning after” can be a very disorienting time when the crowds now have others to cheer after their retirement. While Richard’s suspension in 1955, sparking the moments may have well been the watershed moment in the La Révolution Tranquille, he was largely relegated as a man who belonged to the old order of Quebeckers who were religious and subservient – thus deserving of contempt. It was also later in his life that Richard travelled Anglo-Canada outside of Canada to discover that he was a hero to British Columbians as much as Easterners. As Foran noted, Richard allowed his game on the ice to do the talking while being notoriously reticent. Perhaps athletes shouldn’t and needn’t give interviews at all.
Vincent Lam’s insights as a physician, delivered in his gentle manner, shed light into Douglas’s life and achievement. As a socialist Douglas was apparently very much to the right of the NDP spectrum at the time. Witness the 17 consecutive balanced budgets he delivered as premier. As with athletes, sometimes politicians are remembered (or punished) in their earlier incarnations. Douglas’s small stature belied his tenacious, witty quips and his boxing career: where he won consecutive Lightweight Champion of Manitoba in 1922 and 1923. Douglas was a rare politician who followed wherever his integrity seemed to lead – his most pointed vindication perhaps his labelling of Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act of 1970 as excessive.
The end of the Extraordinary Canadians Series (yes I do hold hope for some encore entries) spelt a personal feeling of warm nostalgia and cold quicksand. It was exactly at its launch over two years ago that I underwent a transmogrification; as the last phases of figuring out and assimilating into this vast land ended and a veritable Canadian anew, was. I’m not one who has a penchant for definite moments denoting personal change (preferring instead the unremitting flares which form and unform our character) but if I had to pick any to clearly point out and say “I belong to Canada and she belongs to me!” this was it. Sitting in the solemn pews of St. Brigid’s listening to Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul and Margaret MacMillan was the moulting of immigrant to citizen. This is by far my favourite series the Writer’s Fest has put up. I hope this series finds a long shelf life in many homes and libraries. Now if only they’d convince Lawrence Hill to do the biography of Oscar Peterson...
Thank god for the Extraordinary Canadians - it's nice to be reminded what makes us great and what it means to be a Canadian. Last night's Extraordinary Canadians event, marking the series' conclusion (at least for now) was a welcome counterpoint to the debate many of us endured on Tuesday night.
Such a treat to see so many people come out for a real conversation about Canada. (And to think - the Last time I met Vincent Lam, he was busking in the Market, playing beautiful music in a tux and raising cash for medical school. Pretty cool.)
I was happy to see so many notables with election related duties take the time to come to congratulate John Ralston Saul and Penguin Canada for completing one of this country's most important and most ambitious publishing ventures - a series that saw eighteen of the country's finest authors focus on twenty of history's most fascinating characters.
I was especially surprised to see Paul Dewar, who somehow managed to join us in the audience for much of the conversation, arriving just as Vincent Lam was discussing Tommy Douglas and his opposition to the War Measures Act and having to race off reluctantly just before Andrew Cohen was invited to join the conversation with a look at the amazing productivity of Lester Pearson's Minority government.
Saul - who had travelled many long hours to make it to Ottawa from the UK in time for the event - kept the conversation flowing. Vincent Lam was eloquent on Tommy Douglas and the kind of leadership he embodied. Charlie Foran's take on Rocket Richard touched on hockey's special place in our National imagination and how only Les Canadiens could bring all of Montreal together in celebration - rich, poor, English or French and how that adoration expanded to include the whole country (except, maybe, a few in Toronto).
Add a few words on Renee Levesque and his relationship with Douglas and Richard from the brilliant Daniel Poliquin and some great audience questions and you've got the recipe for a REAL debate on what it means to be Canadian, what our country is really about, and what our history can tell us about the future.
And to think - had we not been at the Festival, we'd have had to make do with the french leaders' debate!
Here's a nice shot by Jowan Gauthier taken just after the book signing:
It was fitting that the prologue to the prodigious Etgar Keret’s discussion on his life and literature began with the screening of his 2007 film Jellyfish (Meduzot as transliterated in Hebrew). Fitting because it softened you to listen to the man who had a hand in making a wondrous pastiche of very intimate and beguiling scenes, and even more so because a pang of envy can’t help sticking out of your throat when finally confronted with a self-deprecating (humble, even)yet versatile artist at the top of his craft.
Jellyfish was a film in danger of not being made. With the screenplay written by Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen, it wandered from director to director in Israel - not unlike the characters in the film - before boomeranging back to the couple who decided that they were the ones they’d been searching for. The way Keret tells it, it is almost as if he reluctantly decided to co-direct it. The rumples of less than strong acting are ironed out by a masterful camera work which breathes in an air of heightened meaning in banality. After watching it, you get a sense of gratitude that Keret and Geffen took matters into their own hands. Wonder as well in realising that it was their inaugural effort.
Keret began by reading both his first and last short stories. Much of the strength of his reputation lies in his being the Alice Munro of Israel. Easygoing Hebrew slang is exchanged in his prose and his characters are often very ordinary. Keret stated that he doesn’t assume that he is smarter than his reader, so he leaves the exhortations out of his fiction. “Fiction is a realm of ambiguity. I’m politically active and I can go to a demonstration and write a petition or even an essay. But when it comes to writing fiction and it has a bottom line, I write the bottom line – I don’t need fiction for it.”
The interview really benefitted from the preparation of host Adrian Harewood (in my opinion, his best interview yet) who delved into the family background of Keret. As a questioner from the audience would later probe, Keret’s characters in both his film and books exude friction in their personal relationships. Friction implies contact. Close contact. Where do the people who populate his art originate? Having an anarchist older brother who was convicted of paganism to an ultraorthodox sister who has not and cannot read his writings heightens one’s curiosity as to what their Seders might look like. This ability to “make something out of something” viz. using day to day experiences as fodder made me want to be a lot more observant of my own quotidian life to see the fecund confusion lurking underneath the sense of order and civilization.
For a writer and filmmaker seemingly taciturn about infusing purport into his oeuvre, he does so anyway. And seemingly effortlessly too.
The best thing about our pre-festival events, at least for me, is that there's more time to get to know the visiting authors. Often during the Festival there's just too much going on to spend much quality time with the Writers. So it was really wonderful having Etgar Keret here yesterday and having a chance to spend time with him throughout the day. We've been trying to get Etgar to Ottawa for at least two years now, and the timing finally worked out. (Huge thanks to the Embassy of Israel for getting him here!)
All I can say is: it was worth the wait.
The event itself was wonderful. Adrian Harewood brought his A game to the on-stage conversation, moving effortlessly between the personal and the political and Etgar was generous and open in his answers. His reading, like his writing, was unforgettable. It was the kind of night that reminds me why we do this.
I was struck especially with what he had to say about the dangers of writing with an agenda. Of writing to achieve something tangible, some political or social change or to convince people of some cause or truth. Over on rob mclennan's blog, where he participated in rob's wonderful 12 or 20 Questions series, he wrote: "When you write you celebrate your individuality . Every person writes from a different place and for a different purpose. So it is strange for me to speak about some rigid writer's "role". If anything, a writer's role is to share a part of his mind and soul with the reader, and minds and souls come in all different shapes and colors."
And that came through vividly during his event and during our conversations earlier in the day. By writing from such a personal and honest place, he has shared more with us about the politics and the larger culture of Israel than he could have by setting out with that goal in mind. The personal is the only place we can find the universal.
Interestingly that same theme was echoed by Mike Carey in his 12 or 20 questions interview. It would be hard to find two more different writers than Etgar and Mike. But even so, there are some fundamental correlations between their approaches to writing. Both (and this is especially evident in Mike's current creator-owned series The Unwritten ) are drawn to the fundamental nature of stories as living things. Stories as living worlds where readers are connected to one another through time and space via the author's imagination.
Mike says: "I think stories tell us what we are, both as individuals and as a culture. We use stories as buoys marking little bits of reality or little bits of ourselves. We use them to orient ourselves.... Whatever’s in people’s minds, whatever’s being seen or talked about, all the acknowledged and unacknowledged obsessions of the moment, will make it into fictions and surface there in different forms. Fiction is a talking cure. It’s where we lay all our sick shit out on the table."
From comic books, to fantasy, from historical epics to surreal microfiction - whatever the genre or subject or theme - there's no better way to explore the world than through the singular imagination of a gifted author. I'm hugely grateful to Etgar Keret for showing us, once again, how important and electrifying great writing can be.
Plus - Etgar, whose son is also five, introduced Aidan to the Inspector Gadget iPhone game. And anyone who brings that much joy is welcome back to the Festival anytime.