Sunday evening's event was hosted by the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, who Festival founder Neil Wilson introduced as an integral part of the Ottawa Writers Festival family, having been hosting and curating events for the Festival for the past ten years. Harewood in turn called the Festival a vital institution for the city of Ottawa, a sentiment which I resoundingly echo.
Tonight three female authors read excerpts from their novels. First to the lectern was Beth Powning, an accomplished author of historical fiction and non-fiction who resides in rural New Brunswick. Beth’s new novel, A Measure of Light, is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Dyer, a seventeenth-century Puritan who flees England for the New World and becomes one of America’s first Quakers. Beth reads a passage describing the Dyer family’s first winter in America. The imagery of the bleak and desolate landscape is at odds with the warmth of the family home and the comfort that Mary finds in her husband, William.
Second to read, from her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species, is Nina Berkhout. The author of five collections of poetry, Berkhout is a Calgary-native but now resides in Ottawa and works at the National Gallery. For this novel she drew on personal experience to write the character of Edith, who also finds work at the National Gallery. This is where she befriends Theo, an elderly cryptozoologist (someone who searches for animals whose existence lacks physical evidence or who are considered extinct). The extract that Nina reads is from the opening of her novel — Edith is on a trip with her father and sister, Viv, and believes that she catches sight of a unicorn. This sighting sparks a hope and belief in Edith – that the mythical and mystical exist.
Last to read is Obi Simic, who admirably self-published her debut novel, Getting Over Yonder. Simic grew up in Montreal but moved to Ottawa in her teens, graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in Psychology with a specialization in English Literature. Her novel follows the story of Olivia, a Nigerian-Jamaican-Canadian searching for her own identity. The excerpt that Obi reads is from Olivia’s first day at school; the young girl is petrified of roll call and the teacher being unable to pronounce her name. Obi’s tone is sharp and witty; she reads the words with just the right amount of comic effect, sending chuckles through the audience.
Leading the discussion, Adrian Harewood asks – why did they become writers? Both Beth and Nina left one passion for another; Beth was studying theater and Nina was training as a ballet dancer, they both ultimately realized that writing was their true vocation. Compared to the other two, Obi is quite new to the writing game. She knew she was onto something after taking a creative writing course in high school and getting a standing ovation after reading one of her stories aloud.
The conversation turns to the presence of the autobiographical in their writing. Nina says that you need distance to have objectivity over your work – you take the seed of truth and fictionalize it. Obi, as a new writer, says that she invested a lot of herself in the main character of her novel. She felt that she had to write from the heart to give an accurate representation though, despite some similarities, she is still far from being her character, Olivia. As her novel is based on a true story, Adrian tailored the question for Beth – when writing historical fiction, how does she decide what to fictionalize? Beth states that writing historical fiction is really a case of filling in the blanks that the history books have left out. It is then up to her as to whether she makes up something new or reimagines the past. To add authenticity to her work, Beth read women's journals from the seventeenth-century and listened to the cadence and tone of their words. She is also a fan of visiting living museums as she believes they successfully capture the realism of the period.
Ultimately, it would appear that the three female protagonists in the novels are all searching for something; whether it be a pursuit of the unattainable, a journey to discover one’s true self, or the faith to follow one’s convictions in the face of adversity. Though time, race and culture divide them, these women are all hunting one thing— their own identity.
I set out to accomplish two things as I set foot in the Christ Church Cathedral on Queen Street on Tuesday afternoon: to learn as much as I could about intelligent communities and to shake my post-major project week blues. The sun came out to play, peering through the propped basement window and immediately provided a calm and informal atmosphere-despite the construction related cacophony reverberating in the small room. I then knew that this Q&A would be just the remedy I had been looking for after finishing my last semester of college this past Friday.
New York based global Think Tank, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Chairman and Co-founder John G. Jung joined us in the small basement room to discuss his book: Brain Gain . Jung is the current CEO of the Waterloo Region’s, Canada’s Technology Triangle and is a registered urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. His work follows him across the globe: Australia, India, Brazil and Taiwan are merely a few places Jung has visited in his line of work.
Jung made it very clear from the get go; he is not a techy. This statement caught me by surprise. After all, Jung works with communities developing their information technology infrastructures. His work, however, does not focus on the minute details of broadband technology or IT; rather, it finds ways to utilize these tools to flourish growth and development in both urban and rural communities.
Jung really emphasized the versatility of the word 'community'. Communities are not necessarily bound by geographic borders, though they often are. Communities can form through media and online forums. Communities that share similar socio-economic and cultural ties can serve as important models and become catalysts for future growth and development in different urban and rural climates. Precedents set in similar locations can help urban planners and civic leaders in implementing similar design and models.
A community can be successful in developing growth utilizing many planning styles. A top-down approach may breed success in certain parts of the globe. A bottom-up approach can spark dialogue between citizens, planners and governments and be just as effective in others. Though economic stimulation is an important aspect of community growth, Jung stressed the importance of a multi-faceted approach. A community will not thrive if its members do not wish to stay-even with the prospect of a prominent economy and broadband expansion. Jung provided an interesting example of this effect. Chattanooga, Tennessee experienced rapid industrial growth after World War II ended and enjoyed a new level of prosperity. This rapid growth caused considerable environmental damage. Chattanooga became one of the dirtiest cities in the United States in the late 1960s. In order to mitigate this problem, municipal leaders began forming pollution control and regulation policies. This encouraged the population to stay and turned the city into a prime example of how efficient environmental regulations can be.
Jung shared many similar success stories; from the technological advancement in the jungles of Brazil, to the large urban centre developments in the Far East. His wealth of experience was clearly demonstrated with the list of seemingly endeless success stories. The technological advancements brought to these areas will continue to spur exponential growth all over the globe.
Though my major project week blues may still be looming--so it goes--I did still manage to check off the first goal on my list. Jung provided invaluable insight and instilled knowledge in me about a subject I had never even spent an iota of a minute pondering. The event proved to be a great distraction and I look forward to attending future events. With the help of critical thinkers like John C. Jung, the future of this festival keeps looking brighter.
“Only a community has the ability to raise a first-time novelist,” says Ottawa author James K. Moran.
Moran was speaking at the Ottawa Writers Festival about his new horror novel Town & Train . During the event, hosted by Ottawa Citizen journalist Kate Heartfield, the author took the audience on the journey that culminated in his first literary work. Heartfield was a wonderful host. Watching her and Moran on stage was like witnessing a casual conversation between friends at a coffee shop. Heartfield mentioned that she had been “enjoying the novel immensely,” before giving the stage to Moran, who read a passage from his intricately crafted work.
Moran's novel centres on the romantic appeal of small-town Cornwall, Ontario, depicting the life of 17- year-old John Daniel who is dealing with the hardships of the recession. The novel begins with the teenager awakening on the railroad tracks with no knowledge of how he came to be there. The reader is then transported to the summer when police officer David Forester is given his first introduction to the area and has difficulty establishing connections. “The train clattered and clicked,” Moran read, “the train came around passing buildings and stopping at him. ‘Hell this is Henry's city’ David had said.”
The audience applauded loudly as Moran brought his reading to a close, and the people crowding the small room were clearly excited for this new work. I was transfixed, eager to hear the motivation behind Moran’s passion to write such a book. Heartfield took charge with the first question, which surely everyone was pondering: “What is it about trains?”
Moran talked about growing up in the small town of Cornwall, living next to the train tracks. I understood his words as he described the beauty of hearing the train sound through the woods on a summer night. His words connected with my experience living in a small town next to the train tracks. “I just loved that sound,” explained Moran. “I started with the idea of the sound and its mystery”.
The 1990 summer heat wave in Cornwall marked the beginning of then 17-year-old Moran’s writing journey, when he began writing his book on a typewriter. “I would go over during the summer months and spend my time writing short stories” before he started his novel. By University, he had 53 pages, but lacked the creative juices to continue. When a dear friend passed away, however, he regained the motivation to complete the novel.
I was enticed by the amazing story of Moran’s journey to complete his work, writing 10 drafts until he had a final copy. The author also recounted how Town & Train has brought many wonderful events and people into his life, including his wife, Anita, who was his editor and with whom he now has a seven-year-old son.
Town & Train will be the first novel horror novel to come from a Cornwall author. Heartfield likens Moran’s work to that of Ray Bradbury, and, in his acknowledgements, Moran professes his gratitude to Stephen King and Bradbury “for showing a new writer what is possible”.
The entire night was an inspiration— particularly hearing about Moran’s drive to complete his work, even though it took years. He admitted to re-writing his entire last version on the typewriter and the laborious hours it took to complete. Moran told the audience he would write during the day and spent his weekends working at the LCBO in Ottawa. And at that point, I realized why the author looked so familiar: I had been passing through his line at the liquor store for years, never realizing the passion and skill of this novelist ringing my order through.
“Would you do the whole process over again, James?” Hearfield asked.
James responded with a smile and a chuckle... “Would I do it, or would my wife let me?”
It’s six thirty on a Monday evening and I’m weary. I’ve spent the day sitting at a desk, sending emails, writing reports, and flicking through social media. My desk is in a cubicle, so I spent all day listening to other people send emails, write reports, and probably flick through social media.
Neil Wilson started with an introduction to Close Encounters With The Natural World by speaking about the hard work Deni Béchard and Jennifer Kingsley are doing, by taking on the frontlines of nature and reporting back to the rest of us. As someone who has never left North America and who heavily relies on a hot shower to wake up every morning, I really felt like “the rest of us” throughout the course of this event.
Béchard spoke about his time working in the Congo with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. His talk mirrored the description of his book, The Last Bonobo: Journey into the Congo. It was part travelogue, part polemic, and part natural history. Béchard spoke briefly of his journey to the Congo, and he spoke in depth about the grim state of the bonobos there – how they came to be that way, what is being done, and what we can do about it.
He spent the most time, however, speaking on controversial subjects related to the Congo. Béchard denounced large NGOs and not-for-profits that make empty promises of conservation and spend their money instead on fundraising and administration. These organizations provide “simple” Western solutions in Africa and other countries without bothering to discover how the native way of life works first. These quick fixes often create conflict within native communities, lead to environmental breakdown, and unhappy and unhealthy residents.
Kingsley showed us breathtaking photos from her 1100km trip along the Back River in Nunavut, and spoke of the power nature wielded over her during the 54-day journey. Photographs of plagues of mosquitoes, rapids, and tents destroyed by windstorms painted a picture of adversity. But the same series of photos also inspired awe and wonder: endless herds of caribou that look like rocks against the tundra, water so glassy you can’t tell the sky from the river, and sunsets more vibrant than a new box of Crayolas.
Kingsley asked important questions of us, to think about in our own time: what is the significance of our encounters with nature? Are they based on our interpretation, or will they always be bigger than us? When are you ready for an encounter with nature? Who should be out there? Though the subject matter wasn’t so much about the scientific aspects of nature as I expected, both Béchard and Kingsley left me in self-reflection after the event.
Béchard talked about the importance of empathy, listening, and respecting other peoples’ ways of life. Our planet is in its current bleak state because of our refusal to change the way we relate to the natural world and each other. Béchard spoke of clear examples of how these three concepts are simple steps that will help us protect our earth. We can’t continue to harm and ignore each other when the common goal of conservation is so much bigger than us as individuals. (Deni also had me wondering how I can convince my fellow females to stop reproducing with aggressive males in order to domesticate our violent culture, but I think that was meant to be a side note from him.)
Kingsley had me thinking about the barriers in my life that are disguised as opportunities, and vice versa. She spoke about how, when she set out on her trip along the Back River, she knew there would be obstacles and challenges. But when we set out to challenge ourselves, the realm of that endeavor often takes place within a predetermined frame in our minds, and we are often wary to step outside of that conception. How often do we really challenge ourselves outside of that fixed agreement of what the challenge will be?
There were also lighthearted moments to the event, such as when Kingsley showed us a picture of all of her friends on the trip, naked and flexing toward the horizon, or when Béchard talked about how much bonobos liked the movie Field of Dreams. Béchard and Kingsley presented two very different stories of their encounters with nature that, for me at least, were hard to imagine. I know that my 35-hour weeks in the office are not preparing me for a 54-day paddling voyage into the black hole that is the Canadian Arctic. I am also skeptical of my ability to help with viral conservation in the Congo, based on my difficulty being civil with coworkers on Monday mornings. So, I’m glad people like Béchard and Kinsgley are facing these challenges and documenting them so “the rest of us” can still be a part of it.
Fans (secretly or otherwise) of The Sound of Music got a kick as host David O’Meara somewhat slyly summoned Julie Andrews and said, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” The afternoon treat, featuring a high-school group joining in, was a masterclass session with celebrated Canadian poet Don McKay who has just released his 584 page tome of his collected poems, Angular Unconformity.
McKay confessed that his social skills were of a limited quantity—owing to his introversion—and that he had mostly used it up at a previous engagement in Montreal, and asked his audience’s forgiveness in advance. The striking thing about this confession is that it conjured up Susan Cain’s Quiet. As he revealed his biography, he explained in his early days that he was “a bad poet, but eager.” This fault, was the twinned inexperience of age and the penchant of youth for self-expression. The cost being that there isn’t really all that much to express. He admitted to only start surmounting this limitation as he found other interests, such as bird-watching and geology, that took him outside his own self and to the wonders of the natural world.
While speaking in this vein, he mentioned that in the early 1960s lounging around in Montreal cafés reading Camus’ L’Étranger, he felt loneliness and instead of having Suzanne or Marianne make an appearance, he found something far more valuable – the shift to solitude. Learning about this lost art is something that is perhaps harder than it has ever been to do, with our culture affirming the cult of narcissism and where rewarded virtues are public ones, oozed by extroverts.
The mentors whom McKay pays homage to are readily recognizable poets of the English canon: Pound, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. He recommends imitation as a means to become fluent with the mazes of meaning words can conjure in order to find one’s own poetic voice. He also offers an alternative to the idea, perhaps best popularized by Northrop Frye, that literature sources its font in other books. For McKay there is some truth to this, but for him, engaging with the natural world was what provided manna for his poetic longings. He expressed that “I want to be writing rather than be done,” a sentiment that most writers wish were true if it isn’t for them.
Since the left brain is wonderful at “taxonomy,” and classifying the world, what is supremely useful in reductive science is left with “an important aesthetic problem,” of trying to use words to illumine than possess. For this, McKay would elaborate, one has to allow the right part of the brain time to allow its attentiveness to mature. Being in Newfoundland has allowed McKay to appreciate the many geological problems that craggy, beautiful island has helped unravel, and rest in its rugged allure. Some of my favourite moments of the afternoon were in seeing McKay light up in describing the flight of hawks down South through a narrow point by Lake Erie, and in his description of what an “angular unconformity” means in scientific terms.
A quote with much abiding power is one of James Hutton, the founder of modern geology whom McKay deeply admires: “We find no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end.” In opening up windows so that “infinity can pour out” through his poetry, McKay has accomplished much in his long career. It was a satisfying occasion to see the curtains pulled back on his working life for our delectation and grasp.
As National Poetry Month draws to a close, it seems only fitting that I be attending the Ottawa Writers Festival’s Poetry Cabaret. Now, I must confess; I am not usually a reader of poetry. My literary genre of choice is fiction; in particular, short stories. As he introduces this evening’s event, Neil Wilson comments that he has heard many short story writers aspire to the poetic in their work, and he believes that poetry is the very essence of literature.
Ottawa-based poet Stephen Brockwell is tasked with facilitating the discussion between three very different, but nonetheless all wonderfully talented, poets. He wants to try a different tack this evening; he wants the discussion to be organic, loose, and natural. Rather than reading at the lectern, the poets will sit in a circle and read poems at Brockwell’s suggestion, or of their own choosing.
To introduce Marilyn Dumont, Brockwell uses words such as polyphony and hybridisation to describe the way in which she brings languages together in her work. This is apparent when she reads her poem “these are wintering words”; which describes a person of mixed race, someone of “double genetic origin”. In the poem, Dumont states that though they are of two races, they are not half and not lacking.
Marie Annharte Baker – styled by Brockwell 'the punk rock poet' – provides a comedic tone to the evening’s readings. To amused laughter she revolts against Brockwell’s suggestion of what to read and chooses her own poem – “Squaw Pussy”. This visceral and crude language depicts the speaker’s refusal to be labeled by any homogenous identity. Another of Baker’s poems, “Toulouse” uses erotic and evocative language and conjures up French imagery, like the Moulin Rouge. The last line, “my concealed weapon will be my fat”, has the audience laughing out loud raucously and applauding.
Acclaimed poet Don McKay further explores the subversion of language within poetry as he recounts growing up in a bilingual school and learning French/English obscenities in the playground. The duality of language is present in all of their work and, as McKay notes, is representative of Canada itself. My favourite poem that McKay reads is entitled “Snowball Earth”, in which he describes the past and future of the earth as a molten centre covered in ice and snow. The poem is both comical – he describes the frozen earth as “a cosmic disco ball” – and melancholy, with the “winter pre-echoing the infinite”. As I listen to McKay read, I feel that he physically embodies his poetry; the words resonating stronger through his voice than they would to be read from a page. To listen to a poet read their own work is a magical experience, the inflections in their voice heighten the musicality of the words. Dumont, who is a creative writing teacher, comments that she encourages her students to read their poetry aloud. It truly emphasises the message of the poem and brings the words to life.
The concept of comedy within poetry is addressed by a member of the audience, who asks if the poets consciously put jokes in their work. Dumont believes that comedy and silliness is all part of being human; that we are imperfect beings who need to be able to laugh at ourselves. Baker believes that the comedy within her work is rooted in her indigenous culture; that her language incorporates the whole spectrum of human emotion so that she can’t help but write that way. After listening to a few of her readings, which are both crude and hilarious in equal measure, I have likened her to a modern-day Geoffrey Chaucer.
As the evening draws to a close, I have discovered a new-found love and respect for poetry; it encompasses the full height and breadth of human experience, it is pure emotion in word form. Neil Wilson’s words come back to me – poetry is the lifeblood of literature – and I am likened to agree.
I found the prospect of this event very exciting. I’m familiar with Ann Douglas, as her book The Mother of All Baby Books was a regular reference for me when our daughter was a baby. I wasn't sure what to expect from Kristine Barnett, who was speaking about her book The Spark, although I recently heard a similar story about parenting a severely autistic child on NPR's Radiolab (episode title: Juicevose). This event was appropriately hosted by author Jonathan Bennett, who brought his own experience of raising a son with Aspergers’ syndrome.
The event opened with Douglas sharing the opening section of her new book Parenting Through the Storm, which I certainly found encouraging as I am raising a neuro-atypical child. There’s a high probability she’ll be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and likely also with ADHD within the first few years of her attending school. As parents, we’ve struggled to learn how to support our daughter through her challenges. Most parenting books have advice that seems to work for other children, but falls short when we're dealing with our own child: she's just that much more emotionally sensitive, anxious, energetic, gregarious and intense.
One of the excerpts that Douglas read from her book that I identified with dealt with the feelings of parenting a neuro-atypical child: “When things were at their worst, I remember feeling helpless and overwhelmed. I felt like a totally incompetent parent. I remember worrying about what would happen to each of my kids. I knew I had to do something to help, but what was that something?” These feelings are familiar to me. In addition, Douglas shared the encouraging conclusion of her book, which details the successes of her children, several of whom are adults living good lives. It was one of the times when hearing someone brag about their children felt good, like the happy ending of a movie.
Kristine Barnett took Douglas’s metaphor of the storm in a beautiful direction. She shared that her experience raising her son Jacob was about learning to accept the storm, so much so that you could dance in it. I found it powerful that Barnett was willing to flip the current educational script from helping children pass grades and tests, to simply celebrating what is great and exciting in her child. Much of what Barnett shared was about letting go of traditional definitions of learning for children who are different. She shared an example of going out late at night and watching the stars from the hood of her car while eating popsicles, how this bonding experience had no purpose other than to just be something to enjoy and celebrate, but nonetheless learning took place.
Douglas’s book is purposeful, not quite as “how-to” as some of her other books, but focused on the practical realities of parenting a neuro-atypical child. She shared critical information on everything from getting a diagnosis and dealing with treatment, to how these things will affect you, your child and your family and what to do about it. Douglas believes in taking purposeful action to support your child, because there is no “mental-health fairy godmother” who will fix everything, and our supposed universal health-care system in Canada stops short of supporting people with mental health or developmental challenges. Barnett’s book is a great companion because it is focused, albeit indirectly, on the question of “who do you want to be?” while raising a child: what kind of parent do you want to be, and what kind of impact do you want to have on your child?
It is clear to me that Barnett fully embodies courageous parenting. She experiences fears and anxieties like all parents, but has chosen not to make decisions based on these fears. Instead, Barnett's focus is on the joy that is available when children aren't limited by "challenges”. For this, I deeply admire her. Barnett deserves a lot of credit for who she has become through the journey of raising her son. Barnett’s metaphor, dancing in the storm, captured something beautiful – that she was willing to experience the vulnerability of having a different child. Because rather than focusing on the limits of her child, Barnett focuses her effort on loving her child fiercely. At one point in the presentation, she made the statement that “by dancing in the storm, you can even change the storm.” Although I’m not sure she changed the storm, but her willingness to dance in the storm has made her far more brave and resilient which is hugely helpful as she leads Jacob’s Place, an organization that serves the autism community in Indiana.
This was a fascinating presentation from both of these amazing women. Both Douglas and Barnett have great courage developed through challenging circumstances and experiences. They bravely shared what they have learned with those of us who need some extra support. I look forward to reading these two books as reference, and hopefully forming different connections with the community of parents who know how exhausting and difficult it can be to parent a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental or behavioural challenge. Douglas and Barnett each share the hopeful sentiment that if you are experiencing those same feelings and emotions, you are not alone.
I like to write, but I don’t do it much anymore. It gets crowded out, pre-empted by other commitments, the spectre of fatalism, or simple laziness. The session on Saturday night at Christ Church Cathedral called ‘Nurturing Creativity’ with David Usher (hosted by CBC’s Sandra Abma and in support of Usher’s recent book, Let the Elephants Run ) focused on how to foster creativity despite such barriers.
In discussion with Ms. Abma, Usher discussed the key points of his outlook on creativity. It is innate in all of us, rather than the realm of a chosen few. It is also, in multiple ways, a learnable skill requiring time and discipline to master. Contemporary culture demands adaptability to constant change, particularly due to the advent of the Internet, and creativity is crucial to navigate this new world. Creativity requires dreaming big (“letting the elephants run”) to generate good ideas rather than starting with what we perceive as achievable. Creativity involves an approach that, to a large degree, transcends the subject matter. Creating is “double-edged”, yielding great joys and great pains.
It was an enjoyable evening, with a good and encouraging vibe. It was refreshing to hear time and again that creativity is in and for everyone, innate and waiting to be unlocked. It’s a cliché, but Usher’s example of watching children play does make it hard to deny. It rang true that creating requires lots and lots of hard work, much of it uninspiring in itself, and that this labour must be accepted to pan out the creative gold. And it raised a host of great questions. Does Usher want to argue that, since creativity is innate, everyone is capable of being equally creative? He referred at one point to creativity as one’s “competitive advantage”; does he view it primarily as a means to an economic end, or as valuable in itself? I’m sufficiently interested to see him unpack such questions that I bought the book; we’ll see how he does. Really, given the vastness of the subject, the event was all too brief.
There were some things worthy of critique too. Given the limited time, performing four songs seemed excessive. I understand that the author is a rock star, but the evening was purportedly about the creative process rather than showcasing the talent of an established artist (I confess though, I thoroughly enjoyed the acoustic version of ‘Push’). Usher was also short on detail, and lacked some clarity in his presentation. Was this because he refused to take an algorithmic, “how-to” approach or (asks my inner cynic) because there were books to be sold? I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; but again, time was short. The host struck me as underprepared as well, and might have better led the discussion (particularly given Usher’s admitted lack of focus after a night on the town!).
Still: few flies, fragrant and interesting ointment. The scent of which will, I hope, entice me to write something beyond this blog entry.
“So, take us back to 1914,” stated Adrian Harewood.
“I wasn’t there, Adrian!” quipped Olive Senior to peals of laughter from the packed audience who had already been primed to Senior taking mock umbrage at Harewood’s suggestion that her project began “decades” ago.
Senior, was aptly described by Harewood as a “decathlete” of writing; having prodigiously started at age 19 at Jamaica’s venerable institution The Gleaner, she is the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, plays and works of non-fiction. The Festival Café was brimming with those eager to explore the narrative she weaves in her beautifully produced Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. It is an untold story of how tens of thousands of emigrants from the various mostly English-speaking Caribbean nations, along with Martinique, played a significant role in building up one of the great engineering marvels that is the Panama Canal, which just celebrated its centenary last year.
I recall vividly the reverent tones in which my father, my uncles, and their assorted friends discussed the dominant West Indian cricket team during the 1970s and 1980s during my childhood in India. It was only much later that I came to realize that the West Indies as such comprised not of a political entity but a deeper cultural unit that may well have had its beginnings leading up to the influx into Panama in the early twentieth century. Speaking of which, Harewood pointed out that the great George Headley, considered one of the best batsmen to ever suit up, was born in Colón, Panama.
The seed for the book was planted in Senior when she was just four and was visiting her mother’s side of the family, which had an uncle who plied his trade in Panama. She recalls seeing colourful stamps embossing the envelopes of letters sent by relations with money and wistful longing. Her research for the project began a few decades ago but went dormant following the theft of her many cassette tapes that contained the oral catalogue of the many who had been a part of that experience. While pursuing other endeavours, she was constantly reminded of “your-Panama-book-when-is-it-out?” best exemplified by the pertinacious pleading of a fan who reminded Senior of the 2014 centenary, prompting her to dust off the cobwebs and bring it to fruition.
Senior held her audience in rapt attention with her delectable patois lilt, and her sagacious charm. Some of the facts she described were astounding: the fact that the lock canal system created a lake that was larger than the island of Barbados, or the fact that St. Lucia lost nearly 10% of its total population to Panama. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire did not improve the day to day realities of the predominantly black population of the Caribbean, and many, forced by poverty and lack of opportunity, decided to leave for other opportunities overseas. What began with the construction of the Panamanian railroad in the 1850s reached its zenith when the Americans took over the failure of the French to build a canal that would link the Atlantic and the Pacific.
There were many hardships for these new workers. They faced segregation in churches for the first time – instituted by the Americans who imported Jim Crow from the South— and in other sectors of society as well. Wages for blacks were fixed at a fraction of what whites earned, coupled with no prospect for improvement. It was an unforgiving landscape with poor sanitation, rampant malaria, and many deadly Panamanian fauna populating the rivers and lush jungles. Yet, Senior’s story is not just a tale of woe, but also one of accomplishment. These West Indians built a strong civic life, faithfully sent remittances (despite their lower salary) back home for the most part, maintained racehorses, and intermarried with those from other islands forming a larger West Indian identity for perhaps the first time. Most men left without organized recruitment or documentation, where in those days—much like Marlon Brando’s world of stevedores in On The Waterfront —one just boarded a ship and left, just like that. What is even more remarkable is the amount of women who left of their own volition in search of a better life. Some of the comical features occurred when these emigrés returned home. The mischievous Colón man, which many in the audience sang along the words to with Senior, is a representation of the paradoxical realities and characters which accompanied this cross-pollination.
There was a question from the audience as to how to make this history better known, and Senior mentioned that there may be a children’s edition in the form of a graphic novel that is in the works. By reminding us that history comes alive when we start to have curiosity about our forefathers’ and foremothers’ times, aspirations, meanderings, struggles and accomplishments, Senior modelled how good history can and ought to be done.
In just over an hour last Saturday night, four Canadian short story writers tackled some big literary questions. What draws us to the short story and how do we define it? Steered by CBC's Sandra Abma, Mark Anthony Jarman, Steven Hayward, Heather O'Neill and Guy Vanderhaeghe gave brief readings then got into dissecting the art form.
Steven read from the introduction to his collection which tried to explain the particular pull he felt to write short fiction. He likened it to the temptation of a bacon breakfast sandwich, because just like his doctor told him to avoid the sandwich, his publisher suggested he avoid the short story if he wanted to live. For there is no future in the short story and certainly no money, but still authors succumb.
Heather O’Neill, known previously for her novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night , chimed in with the advice to the audience that editors are not asking for anything unless it’s cookbooks and books by celebrities, so everyone might as well write what they want.
The evening was full of tidbits for aspiring short story writers, including how to pick the right section to read at an event, how to know when you’ve finished a short story, and what makes a group of short stories a collection. Good short story collections often have a thread that ties the stories together. Mark’s first version of his new collection, Knife Party at Hotel Europa , contained stories that were not part of the Italian theme, which were then taken out and replaced by others to flesh out the concept. Heather’s collection Daydreams of Angels is less gritty than her novels, and explores origin stories and fables mixed with her own family’s lore. It’s this room for experimentation that is part of the thrill. A good short story does not drag the reptilian tail of the novel it could have been behind it, but short fiction can be a playground. For example, the voice in one of the short stories included in Steven’s collection, To Dance the Beginning of the World , became the central character in his novel Don’t Be Afraid . F or Heather, her novels were set across the street from each other on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Laurent in Montreal, while her short stories are sometimes fanciful and now she says she has found the confidence to write a historical novel.
Writers don’t have to agonize over short fiction in the same way as a novel before getting into the writing. Guy said this means he doesn’t have to ask himself: is this the short story for me? Instead, he can just try it out. For him, short stories start with a voice and a good story is always channeled through one consciousness. Often for him that means a first person narrative, his understanding perhaps stemming from his first experiences with stories told by his father around the kitchen table. This understanding growing as he read in the Western tradition, which holds an epiphany moment in the final lines when the emotional impact sets in.
So how do you know when you’ve written a good short story? When you are sick of it. When you feel that if you tinker any more you are going to break it. When it is better than the last story you wrote. According to Guy, stories are like parallel parking. At some point you just need to say, that’s good enough.
It’s false to say there is such a thing as short story perfection. The authors attest that they are always revising, even as they read aloud at such events as the Ottawa Writers Festival. But for readers there is something nearly perfect about the promise short fiction offers, the promise of not being interrupted. Good fiction is like a dream from which you do not want to wake up.