It was a great pleasure and privilege to hear Nancy Huston speak at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last night.
Catherine Voyer-Léger, the director general of the organization of French Canadian editors, introduced our guest and gave those not so familiar with Nancy Huston's work a very good overview. Ms. Huston has written around 50 works of fiction, poetry, plays, essays and other non fiction. Born in Alberta, she moved to Paris at a young age and has lived there ever since, becoming an award-winning author in France, Europe as well as in Canada. In recent years, she explains later, her interest in her Canadian roots and the English language has grown substantially, due in part to her researching her family background in Alberta. She has visited northern Alberta recently, discussed with local First Nations people the impact of the oilsands on their lives and livelihood. In this context we heard that she recently sold her personal archives to the National Archives. With the funds she has established a foundation, Awinita, with the objective to assist education and training programs for First Nation women, victims of abuse and neglect. The Foundation's name is that taken from one of the characters in her latest novel, Black Dance.
To provide the audience with a taste for her writing (and reading) Nancy Huston read from her latest book, Bad Girl: Classes de littérature. While classified as a récit, which is a very broad term for what the book represents, it is probably better defined as a kind of literary fictionalized autobiography or " autofiction " - not a term the author is very fond of. In response to Catherine's question why she wrote the book in the second person, Ms. Huston explained that for her the first person voice would not have worked. Referring to, for example, Rimbaud's " Je est un autre " (I is an other), she felt that what she had written was one version of reality, that she created one possible path through it by collecting and assembling many small pebbles and stones along the way. The structure of Bad Girl matches this approach very well, as it is written in form of vignettes of varying length, with much white space on the pages. The addressee of Huston's musings is little Dorrit, the name she gives her own foetus, and that she guides from conception to birth. What emerges is part family history over several generations, part recounting of memory about her own growing up, about her mother and father and also, directly and indirectly, a select commentary on issues of the wider society over the decades she has lived through. Ms. Huston has a very expressive reading voice, so it was a great pleasure to listen to her interpretation of the text: sometimes very funny, ironic, and sometimes with a twinkle in her eyes.
In the ensuing discussion the author elaborated on her preference for the second person voice. It gives her a certain distance to the subject matter but also addresses the reader more directly. She hopes that the reader can see him/herself in little Dorrit and what she learns from the adult version of herself.
Many more topics were addressed in the conversation between Catherine Voyer-Léger and Ms. Huston, too many to reflect here. Always referring back to the author's writing, the audience was treated to more insights and reflections. Seen by many as a strong feminist, she told us that, in fact, in recent years she has been thinking and writing more about men and their issues than about women.
One topic that spoke to me personally very much was that of living a large part of your life in a different linguistic and cultural context. When Ms. Huston moved to Paris she totally absorbed herself in French and French culture. She hardly used English then. It is only in more recent years and her re-emerging interest in her background and family history that she returned to English to live parallel to French. While she referred to herself for a long time as "French" she now thinks of herself as "foreigner - étranger" and she moved to a multilingual and multicultural part of Paris. Her life changed in other ways to and she feels healthier and happier now than she has been years back. She admitted, smiling, it might also have something to do with her partner of a few years, the Swiss painter Guy Oberson. Together they have engaged in several new projects, such as her poetry collection, beautifully illustrated by him, Terrestres. This volume explores the connections between human life and the environment as well as the animal aspects of human beings and their animal behaviour.
During her stay in Canada Nancy Huston will participate in the Festival Metropolis Bleu in Montréal. She will be the recipient of the prestigious Met Bleu Grand Prix littéraire international 2015 . She is especially delighted to receive this honour because it is the only truly bilingual international literary prize.
Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
There is a black-and-white photograph of Kenneth standing in sunlight beside a prairie railway station. He is loose-limbed and smiling, happy maybe, or at least unconcerned about the journey he seems poised to take. ( The Night Stages , p. 3)
Thus began the evening with host and author Charlotte Gray, and Jane Urquhart, author of bestselling novels Away (1997) and The Stone Carvers (2010). Urquhart, reading from her newest novel, The Night Stages (2015), was composed and collected at the podium in Christ Church Cathedral Ottawa, where the first special event of the spring Writers Fest season unfurled.
Reading with a muted passion, Urquhart introduced her audience to Kenneth Lochhead, one of the central characters of The Night Stages and a fictionalized interpretation of the real-life Canadian artist (1926-2006). This Ottawa boy would grow up to paint a 72-foot-long mural in the “crossroads of the world” – the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland – titled Flight and Its Allegories. In 1958, Urquhart later explained, this airport was the hub for all airplane flights between Europe and North America for the very practical reason of refuelling. Lochhead’s colourful mural would have greeted all the weary international travellers in transit.
Such is the case for Tamara, the English protagonist of The Night Stages. Tam, having fled the west coast of Ireland for New York City, is grounded in Gander for three days due to fog. With the mural as her companion, she reflects on her past as she waits for the fog to lift in order to seek a new future. She is leaving behind a relationship and a home, in full flight from the wild landscape of County Kerry.
Urquhart shared that she recently sold her own place in Kerry, a milestone that was bittersweet for her. She reminisced nostalgically on her many years spent writing in her little cottage; the first lyrical draft always in longhand. She has a passionate relationship with Ireland – the people, the landscape, and the poetry interwoven in every aspect of life and integral to understanding and appreciating the island’s rugged beauty. Ireland, she explained, “is a part of the world where people really, really care about family.”
Her love for Ireland is apparent in a number of her novels, including The Night Stages. In fact, the Irish landscape becomes itself like a character, telling its own story and influencing those who dwell within it. The second passage that Urquhart chose to read aloud illustrated this, the “marvellous, heartbreaking, toughness of the Kerry landscape.” In this passage, Kieran, the third interwoven story of the novel, has gone up into the mountains. There, along with two of three remaining mountain men, he observes “the hardness of this life, and then the beauty.”
The rugged beauty of Ireland, however, does not prevent people from leaving it. Departure is an underlying current throughout both the novel and evening at Christ Church. The Gander airport, its mural (the inspiration for the novel), Tam’s career as a pilot, Tam fleeing from Kerry, Kieran’s own story of disappearance, and the landscape slowly being depopulated – all these share in common the idea of changing place, departing for elsewhere. Urquhart’s own departure from Ireland came during the writing of this novel. This novel, she acknowledged, is a memorial of sorts. She wanted to honour the people she left behind and mourn the loss caused by leaving.
This evening with Urquhart revealed the mind behind the minds of her stories. The insights she gave into her muses for the novel and the real people who inspired several of the characters showed a woman who has few qualms about taking liberties with reality and an artist who knows herself and yet conquers anyways. Michael Kirby, a deeply respected neighbour of Urquhart’s in Kerry, for example, was also Kieran’s bicycle coach in the novel. In truth, he was a fisherman and local poet, but she took care to ensure that he held his genuine character. And in spite of a self-proclaimed “despise for sport”, she understood from near beginning that a bicycle race, the An Post Rás, (“the Irish Tour-de-France”) would play a significant role in revealing the landscape and toxic relationship between two brothers.
Urquhart may have departed from Ireland but showed this evening that she has not departed from herself. She shared that when she was writing her first novel back in the 1980s, she truly believed she was writing a prose poem. She has remained true to her lyrical cadence in her eighth story today. She still sculpts words into art and captures passion in poetic melody in order to share with her readers the significance of beauty remaining long after a leaving has taken place. “Writing,” she said when pondering the changes in her life, “is a way of making that which is fragile and fleeting permanent.”
 Urquhart, The Night Stages (McClelland & Stewart, Random House of Canada: Toronto, 2015): 159
I always love the anticipatory buzz of the events of the Writers Festival. Perhaps I begin every event review with those same words, but that is because they are true. The selection of events is diverse and fascinating, and none so much as this pre-festival event with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who is, to say the very least, a distinguished and engaging speaker.
As with many of the other events of the Writers Festival, this event took place at Centretown United Church. Often the beauty and acoustics of such old churches are merely a surfeit. On Tuesday, however, those acoustics were more important than ever due to the opening performance of traditional dance and throat singing from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut students. This was my first time hearing throat singing, which I found haunting and beautiful, and an excellent introduction and connection to Watt-Cloutier’s life and work.
As Intuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Terry Audla shared in the introduction to this event, Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has thirteen honorary doctorates, and possesses a seemingly endless list of other achievements. She is an environmental activist and educator, and is strongly connected to the Ottawa community based on how many familiar faces she pointed out at her event.
Watt-Cloutier’s first book, The Right to be Cold, may initially be perceived as a book about the environment and climate change. As Writers Festival founder Neil Wilson commented, however, The Right to be Cold is more of a love letter and memoir than an environmental treatise. Watt-Cloutier made clear that a large part of her intent behind her book The Right to be Cold was to alleviate the burden placed on the current generation because they carry so much trauma from their predecessors. There was much talk at this event about having Watt-Cloutier’s book incorporated into school curriculum, which I whole-heartedly agree with.
When speaking about the book’s content, Watt-Cloutier made sure to emphasize that putting the challenges of the Inuit people into context was important. Watt-Cloutier explained that, contrary to what many people believe, it is not just a way of life that has been taken from the Inuit communities and they aren’t able to adapt. In fact, Watt-Cloutier points out, Inuit people are highly adaptable due to the importance of hunting within Inuit culture.
People have asked Watt-Cloutier why she spends so much of her time and energy focusing on the environment when so many other social problems exist. Her consistent response is that she does not see any disconnect between environmental problems and social ones. One of the examples she provided was that of the seismic testing in Clyde River. The Clyde River community is concerned that seismic testing would harm or frighten away the marine animals upon which Clyde River residents depend upon for survival. Although the seismic testing certainly concerns the environment, Watt-Cloutier shows that there are also deep connections to the lives of people. Watt-Cloutier also mentioned of her work with Many Strong Voices, a fascinating and important initiative that works to connect Inuit communities where the ice is melting to small island nations where the land is sinking.
Although the last thing most Canadians are thinking of at this time of year is how badly they want to be cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book will cause them to consider the cold in a different light, and to side with Watt-Cloutier with believing that we all have more in common than we think. For those curious about the specific content of the book, Naomi Klein’s review of The Right to be Cold is well worth the read.
On a rainy morning a few weeks ago, I wandered into the Metropolitain Brasserie off Sussex for the Ottawa International Writers Festival first literary luncheon of 2015. It was perhaps one of the most exciting lunches I have attended because earlier that week I had attended a Literary Café at York Street Public School that showcased the work of the grade three class we have been running a pilot project with for the last ten weeks. The desks were lined up to showcase the comic books and short stories the children had created in the workshops. The students sat before a roomful of parents and siblings ready to read their group short stories and share what they had learned.
Over the last year that I have been working for the festival and I have attended several of our in-school author visits, but our Write On! pilot project was the first time I got to see what students can produce if they are given the opportunity to let their imagination run wild and work with professional writers and artists. So, attending our literary luncheon with Andrew Morton, I was full of hope knowing this event would not only be fascinating but would help give back to Ottawa students.
When I arrived Andrew Morton was sitting at the bar talking with Development Director Neil Wilson, but their quiet chat didn’t last for long. As our lunch guests began to arrive, many of them recognised Morton and took this pre-lunch opportunity to snap a photo of themselves and the acclaimed journalist and writer. Morton was charming and looked pleased to pose with the women as they came in and to sign books.
The Morton luncheon was a sold out even and the tables were bustling with chatter. Among the guests were many members of The Monarchist League of Canada, including the head of the Ottawa Branch Mary de Toro, and acclaimed journalist Don Newman. Over salad and wine, Morton dished about his research for 17 Carnations with host Jayne Watson, as the last few guests arrived.
As the salad plates were cleared away, Morton and Watson took centre stage and launched into the story of the abdication of Edward VIII. Edward was a reluctant king, Morton explained, who probably never wanted to be king. The story behind his abdication is his poorly regarded love affair with Wallis Simpson. Simpson was an American socialite who was not only a divorcée, but still married while she was courting Edward. When Edward became king he insisted on marrying Simpson, but Parliament and the Royal Family would not hear of it. Edward was headstrong though and when he abdicated before his coronation his love for Simpson was cited as the reason.
There is no reason they could not have been together, Morton explained, if Edward had waited until after his coronation; when he could have quietly ushered Simpson into his life, as one such royal has done in recent years. A chuckle went around the crowd.
The shadowy part of this story of course, is the Nazi connection. Simpson was not simply a lover who fell into Edward’s path but a woman put in his way by Hitler. For years, Morton recounted, Hitler had been looking for ways to win the sympathies of Britain and he saw that in Edward. Simpson was sympathetic to the Nazi cause before she met Edward, having previously a member of the Nazi Party, Hitler saw her as an ideal partner to woo Edward. And Edward was wooed. After abdicating he spent time with Hitler in Germany until he was pulled out of the region by Churchill.
The story of their marriage, of their strange demands and attempts to stay in touch with Hitler make for an interesting narrative, but the most enlightening parts were when Morton shined a light on the real Edward. He recounted a visit Edward took to Canada in his late teens, before he was king. It was probably one of the only times Edward was free, Morton suggested. He didn’t have to think about his duties, or conform to expectations. Canada was in this instance an idyllic land where Edward could truly be himself. Morton also noted that Edward had been quite close to Churchill, though he did not take Churchill’s advice about Simpson, they inevitably began to grow apart.
Throughout the talk, the crowd laughed and I could tell that many of them were familiar with the history and relationships within the Royal Family. This became even more apparent during the questions and answer period where a few men in the audience chimed in to provide further insight into the goings-on of the clan.
After the chat and the meal, I was pleased to talk with one of the men who had been keen on providing such insights. I asked him what had attracted him to this event and to my surprise he hadn’t come because of the Royal Family but because of Wallis Simpson. “She knew what she was doing,” he told me, “she plotted her life and marriages out very carefully. I just find her to be a fascinating person.” And so the saying goes, behind every great man there is an equally great woman.
Everyone knows the story of The Great Escape. Forever enshrined in cinematic history, the iconic movie tells the tale of a group of prisoners-of-war digging a tunnel underneath their containment camp and escaping their German captors. But is that really the true story? History tells us a different tale.
As author Ted Barris states, “Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a good story.” The fact of the matter is that many of the key players in the true story of The Great Escape —the diggers, scroungers, forgers and stooges—were Canadian.
This is Ted Barris’ third time at the Ottawa Writers Festival and, as soon as he begins speaking, I can see why he has been invited to return. The energy and passion with which he talks about history—about this story in particular and the men who conspired to make it happen—is contagious. He talks about the men as if they are close family members, his voice soft with compassion as he speaks their names; Roger Bushell, Wally Floody, Gordon Kidder, Johnny Weir, Tony Pengelly, Kingsley Brown, Frank Sorenson and Don McKim—to name but a few. And he has become like family to them too; in 2011, Barris was awarded a Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Commendation, chosen and honoured by the veterans themselves.
The setting of this remarkable story is Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in Sagan, Poland. The Germans thought that housing all their worst flight-risk prisoners in one place would be a good idea, and the resulting compound was built with escape deterrence in mind. The barracks were raised up off the ground on stilts so that the patrolling Luftwaffe guards could look under the buildings to make sure the prisoners weren’t tunnelling beneath them.
Microphones were buried in the ground around the barracks so that any sounds could be detected. What the Germans didn’t take into account, however, was that by putting their most troublesome, inventive and brilliant prisoners in one place, they were forming a dream team of escape artists.
Just one year after it was built, Stalag Luft III housed 5,000 Commonwealth airmen. In the story of the Great Escape, approximately 2,000 of these men would play some part. The sheer scale of effort and hard work that went into the planning of that single night in 1944 is astounding. The men who were involved covered every detail meticulously; from the forged work permits with near-authentic stamps created by carving into wooden boot heels, to the cardboard suitcases and dyed and modified prison uniforms to make them appear like civilians.
The ingenuity of the men, and their unrelenting commitment to their cause, meant that on the night of March 24, 1944 — 71 years ago today — 80 of the prisoners crawled through one of the four tunnels they had dug, 360 foot long ‘Harry’, and were able to escape the camp. However, the ending is not happy but tragic. Upon finding out about the escape, Hitler ordered the capture and execution of every man who had fled.
In the end, because there were German POWs held by Allied Forces and the Germans feared retaliation, 50 of the 80 escapees were murdered. They were shot, cremated, and buried in a corner of the compound that they had spent so long planning to be free from.
The Great Escape is a story of teamwork, companionship, and the ability to never give up hope, even in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations. At the site of the former Stalag Luft III camp , the barracks, guard towers, and wire fencing may be gone but the memory of The Great Escape—and the men who took part in it—are commemorated by a monument often wreathed in flowers.
The previously untold stories, now forever remembered in the work of Barris. Not Hollywood, but history.
In her most recent novel Love Enough, Dionne Brand provides readers with glimpses into the daily lives of an eclectic cast of characters whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Set in Toronto, the novel explores from multiple perspectives what it means to love—and to love enough.
There is June, a middle-aged social activist discontented with her relationship with her lover. She gives temporary haven to Bedri, a young man going deeper and deeper into a life of crime with his best friend Ghost. Bedri’s choices disappoint the wishes of his immigrant father, Da’uud, a polyglot and talented economist who drives a taxi in Canada. Ghost’s sister Lia gives up the opportunity for companionship and adventure with Jasmeet, feeling tied to her irresponsible and chaotic mother Mercede.
As each of these characters navigates their lives in the largest city in Canada, they work through what it means to love those around them—lovers, mothers, sons, and strangers.
Brand writes with such easy familiarity about a city that she knows and loves deeply that readers feel instantly at home in the setting. Love Enough invites us to walk Toronto’s streets alongside the characters, to inhabit ordinary corners of a vibrant city and explore its secret haunts. The novel’s opening lines beckon with both invitation and instruction:
The best way of looking at a summer sunset in this city is in the rear-view mirror. Or better, the side mirrors of a car. So startling. All the subtlety, the outerworldliness of the sunset follows you…. If you ever travel east along Dupont Street, at that time, look back.
Brand’s lyrical language paints pictures like that throughout the book. Lake Ontario “oscillates like green-blue wet glass,” while “Toronto sits disconsolate, humid in its thick pink fibreglass insulation.” This language, rarely clichéd or expected, is one of the book’s high points—unsurprising, given that the author has won the Governor General’s Award for her poetry.
The story-lines, on the other hand, sometimes fall flat. The novel’s worst moments read like character sketches written in preparation for something else; Brand often tells us about June’s life instead of letting us watch her live it. She states conclusions rather than painting scenarios from which we could draw our own conclusions, and so June’s life often feels detached, aloof.
Bedri’s narrative acts as a counterpoint to June’s, drawing readers in with its immediacy and intensity. Having committed an awful crime, and knowing each miserable way he has failed his family, Bedri is both desperate for love and desperate to love. After a desolate encounter with his sister, he realizes that his family is afraid of him, and he decides that the best way to love them is to disappear from their lives. Yet he still longs for love. At a bus stop, “something made him hold his hand out for the people standing there to see.” The people rebuff him, not understanding, and Bedri “stood for a while, his hand still outstretched, then he turned and began running down the street with his hand extended.”
Like Bedri, Love Enough’s other characters are often more concerned with receiving love than giving it. Lia focuses on her mother’s failures. June is preoccupied with the ways in which her lover, Sydney, disappoints her, and this preoccupation “bounces and bounces like a pendulum” in her head.
As the novel progresses, however, they learn to give love in small and imperfect ways, coming to understand that “there is nothing universal or timeless about this love business… It is hard if you really want to do it right.” Ghost fathers a child, and when he’s at home, “the baby crawls onto him and plays with the scar on his chest and he feels as if the baby’s hand is sinking past the scar and into his heart.” Sydney tells June that June collects sadness, and this single sentence of understanding, of knowing, fills June up.
The novel opens with that shimmering sunset on Dupont Street, a street that Brand describes as grim and ugly, filled with car-wrecking shops and taxi sheds, desolate diners and hardware stores. Ethereal beauty juxtaposed with the grim, concrete realities of the city. “A sunset is in the perfect location here,” Brand says. “Needed.” As though the simple, subtle beauty of a single sunset is love enough.
In many ways, this opening scene stands as a metaphor for every other moment in the book. As Brand takes us through the small and large catastrophes of each individual life, we see the characters’ baggage and their flaws, out on display like wares of a pawnshop or greasy car parts in a mechanic shop. Yet we also see moments of love, beautiful not because they are perfect, but because they are needed.
Dionne Brand’s novel is a flawed but beautiful homage to our broken, seeking humanity. It’s not perfect love. But it’s love enough.
At just 26, Francis Wray, the protagonist of Sarah Waters’ latest novel, has already let life slip through her fingers. Burdened by her late father’s debts, her life seems as drab as the postwar London suburb in which she lives with her widowed mother. In a house absent of servants, it is left to Francis to fill the role of housemaid and cook but even these efforts are not enough to maintain their once-grand house. In a moment of considered desperation, the Wray women place an advertisement for lodgers .
As the novel opens we see how their reduced circumstance s bring them into strange intimacy with the Barbers – the titular “paying guests” – who rent the advertised rooms and transform them to their image:
It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs. The lovely pier-glass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl … the wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on papier-m â ch é perch .
The young couple and their invited intrusion quickly upend Francis’ orderly life, “She simply hadn’t prepared herself for the oddness of the sound and the sight of the couple going about from room to room as if the rooms belong to them. When Mr. Barber, for example, headed back upstairs after a visit to the yard, she heard him pause in the hall. Wondering what could be delaying him, she ventured a look along the passage and saw him gazing at the pictures on the walls like a man in a gallery. Leaning in for a better look at a steel engraving of Ripon Cathedral he put his fingers to his pocket and brought out a matchstick, with which he began idly picking his teeth.”
Yet Francis is not simply an observer, she finds herself the observed as well: “He [Mr. Barber] seemed to enjoy watching her work. His blue gaze travelled over her and she felt him taking her all in: her apron, her steam-frizzed hair, her rolled-up sleeves, her scarlet knuckles.” The first to poke fun at her own poverty, his unsaid observations nevertheless rankle Francis while interactions with Mrs. Barber are similarly fraught, but for altogether different reasons. For a time, however, a balance is struck , however uneasy , and while longtime fans of Waters will not be shocked by the turn of events, those new to her work may be surprised by how the plot unfolds.
A Man Booker Finalist for Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009) the first of which centered on the Victorian era and the latter two on the 1940s, Waters has turned to the 1920s for inspiration for her sixth novel. Far removed from the jazz and gin that characterizes so many novels set in during the “roaring twenties,” The Paying Guests instead focuses on those s hifting social and economic relationships that shook families like the Wrays and elevated persons like the Barbers. Issues of class, gender, love and desire, and courage and cowardice underpin the novel and it is largely the setting that allows for such themes to develop.
For a s much as anything, this is a story about a house. Once, we are told, it was a “fine old house,” fringed by spacious gardens, set on a leafy street on Champion Hill , surrounded by other stately homes. Indeed, despite its location, set firmly in the suburbs of London , the house brings to mind those grand country homes that seem to populate so much of the British literary landscape – from Thornfield and Wuthering Heights to Atonement ’s Tallis House and The Little Stranger ’s Hundreds Hall, as featured in Waters’ 2009 offering.
These houses, with their twisting corridors and darkened corne rs, create the ideal set ting for whispered secrets and longing glances, making them the ideal setting to explore forbidden attraction. Yet the house is also a testament to a bygone era, serving as a sort of crumbling mausoleum for a way of life that has been lost in the trenches along with a generation of young men. Indeed, the house is so central to creating tension in the plot that when the characters move outside , the novel at times seems to sag. This is in large part because of the character of Francis; privy only to her thoughts and motivations, which provides a sense of intrigue for the reader, her self-imposed exile and subservience to the house means that her movements outside of it read as somewhat false. For while she may feel t rapped by the house, this sense of captivity gives her power and energy as a character.
The novel is divided into three sectio ns and while Part One is eminently readable, ending delicately and perfectly about 200 pages in, the rest of the novel lacks the tautness that propels the first section. It is not that the plot meanders, but rather the direction it takes seems a bit predictable. There are some overly convenient twists and turns toward the end of the novel and the final pages, unfortunately, read as rather anticlimactic if true to the characters. Yet , Waters’ characteristic eye for detail makes the novel worth reading. She does not overwhelm her characters with stuffy period dialogue nor does she transport modern characters into the past. Rather she creates believable characters trapped by the expectations of the time in which they live.
There is a cartoon on the web showing a stick figure sitting at a computer, thinking to himself:
An x64 processor is screaming along at billions of cycles per second to run the XNU kernel, which is frantically working through all the POSIX-specified abstraction to create the Darwin system underlying OS X, which in turn is straining itself to run Firefox and its Gecko renderer, which creates a Flash object which renders dozens of video frames every second.
Because I wanted to see a cat jump into a box and fall over.
I am a god.
Divine status conferred by the viewing of cat videos; it is an image very much in line with Douglas Coupland’s project in Kitten Clone. On a journey through the multinational IT company Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland explores the phenomenon of the Internet at a point where its growing adoption and burgeoning speed are significantly impacting how humans do things and even relate to one another. His hope is that conversations with a technology giant responsible for building many of the physical components comprising the Internet will illuminate these effects and serve as “a stepping stone into a larger meditation…about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species.”
Kitten Clone is divide into four parts: a fictional scene in French Alsace in 1871, followed by descriptions of visits to global Alcatel-Lucent offices to explore the past, present, and future of the Internet. The past is examined at Bell Labs (New Jersey, USA), where much of the basic research underlying modern telecommunications was done starting in the mid-twentieth century; the present at facilities in France (Paris, Calais) and Canada (Ottawa); and the future at operations in China (Pudong, Shanghai). The book “has a “surfy” feel to it”: 87 of 176 pages are photos by photographer Olivia Arthur, the format intends to mimic web pages and thus how we see and use information on the Internet. At each stage, Coupland gives his thoughts and reflections on Internet technology, the industry creating it, and its impact.
The book has some successes. A range of themes are examined that are relevant to a society where information technology is increasingly pervasive: the simultaneous bewilderment and awe felt by lay people towards technology and those who produce it; the rapid and widespread adoption of high-speed Internet; the underfunding of long-term scientific research, even when focussed on technological (and thus industrial/business) ends; the growing view that fast Internet connectivity is a utility akin to the power grid; and the removal of class distinctions through Internet use and availability. Arising from these themes are a host of good questions. Is “technological determinism” true, the idea that “humans exist only to propagate ever-newer technologies”? What have we learned about ourselves via the Internet that we didn’t already know? And what will all of this bandwidth do to us? Interacting with the people who build the Internet (rather than Internet users, web designers, or cultural critics) also provides an unusual perspective on these questions.
Coupland achieves the “surfy” feel that he sought; Kitten Clone really is reminiscent of a web page. Too much so. Each stage of the book visits a new place, scans it, makes some observations, asks some questions, and quickly flits to the next location and collection of images; the forms of the web are mimicked without redeeming their failings, much of the discussion floating on the surface of subjects of great depth. Coupled with that, and all too fitting, the prose is too often and too obviously overdone. Describing the Head of Bell Labs Research, Markus Hoffman, Coupland writes that
[he] looks like a school principal who’d discipline you without resorting to corporal punishment, and his eyes tell me that, at any given moment he’s probably figuring out the natural logarithm of his Visa card number or what his lunch might look like connected by strings into the fifth and/or sixth dimensions.
This is trying too hard to be clever without advancing the book’s project at all.
Coupland’s questions and pool of interviewees are mismatched as well. Being a telecommunications engineer myself, and knowing many others, this is no surprise. Most of my peers in the technical disciplines would readily admit to having no good answer for the question of what the Internet is doing to us, for the simple reason that they don’t see it as their role to address such topics. Coupland is quite right that technically trained voices have a place in the conversation, but few will have the tools or interest to engage it; in terms of their training, their perspective, and the demands of their work, it is just not on their radar.
What technical people tend to do instead is acquiesce to common narratives about technology and our relationship to it, and Coupland does the same. One striking example is his discussion of narrative itself:
The now-fading notion that our lives should be stories is a psychological inevitability imbued in readers by the logic of the book and fiction as a medium: focus; sequencing; emotional through-lines; morals; structure; climax; denouement. One can look back on the print era and witness true poignancy: readers the world over were determined to see their lives as stories, when, in fact, books are a specific invention that creates a specific mindset.
That is, the use of narrative to express meaning is an outgrowth of the printed word that is being lost in the Internet Age. To see such a contentious thesis offered without supporting evidence is actually stunning, particularly when one reflects that tribes of the Amazon basin, playwrights of antiquity, and present-day technological determinists are united in being incorrigible storytellers. Asking how our tools of communication, such as broadband Internet, affect the stories we tell and how we tell them is very much to the point; rejecting narrative as such is not. Another example is his discussion of technological determinism. To Coupland’s credit, he poses the question of whether or not we shall be ruled by the Almighty Bit, but he does little to explore that question or what alternatives might exist. Indeed, when we read early on that “[l]ooking at human history and the history of technology, there’s a certain sort of inevitability to its parade,” one suspects that the fix is in.
And it is. Coupland offers an answer to his key question in the end. In a closing mini-narrative depicting a future where kittens are cloned and synthesized in mere moments but are eaten as soon as their presence becomes inconvenient, we learn our fate: we shall have unimaginable technological power, and be monsters. The Internet will rewire and reprogram us, causing us to forget much and learn little about ourselves and our world. The meditation ends not with a bang but a fatalistic whimper. We shall be slaves, with hardly a shot fired.
There is something both familiar and recognizably heart-wrenching in the story of a person who is pulled into the position of caring for someone who has become, either suddenly or over a long duration, completely dependent. We see this tale played out regularly by those with aging parents needing help with daily tasks, and perhaps we know or have heard of those caring for victims of accidents or degenerative conditions. Almost always in these stories, there is a sense that something is being, and has been, lost by the caregiver. A loss of freedom, a loss of financial resources, a loss of leisure—in short, the implication that the caregiver is bound without benefit to the one who requires help.
Donna Thomson, in her memoir The Four Walls of My Freedom, shifts this narrative, and shifts it intentionally and unapologetically. Throughout her book about her life spent caring for her son, Nicholas, who is affected by cerebral palsy, she states again and again how much her son, and others like him with major disabilities, has to offer the world around him. Her refrain enters our Canadian social consciousness at a timely moment, as we (at the moment of this writing) sift through the ethical questions surrounding physician-assisted suicide, and as further debate regarding euthanasia catches fire in the public sphere. She addresses many of the questions of this debate explicitly in her autobiographical tale of her life with her son: What role can suffering have in human life? How do we value lives that do not only ever contribute economically to our system, but that even require additional resources from us? Who is responsible for caring for the sick, disabled, and elderly? What does it mean to be a citizen and to have rights, and what, if any, changes should be made in the case of the disabled?
Thomson’s book is at once a story of her family, and a story of disabilities activism. She illuminates the world of raising a child with severe disabilities in Canada as one of facing constant battles with healthcare providers, funding and support associations, governments, and the general public. Throughout her book, she points to the central issue being one of public perception of the rights of people with disabilities versus those of people without disabilities, and how and why they do and should differ. She argues, through introducing her reader on a personal level to her son and revealing the intensity of love and dynamism present in him and his life with his family, that people with disabilities are exactly that: people, and citizens, and as such, deserve the same rights as other citizens of our country.
This seems like a simple statement, but she develops the idea further with each chapter, filling out the different facets of her argument in an essay-like form. Without quite realizing it, Thomson is forced into a position of not only have to defend the value of a vulnerable person’s life, but also of trying to convince a public audience that seems to have largely ignored or forgotten any sort of existing definition at all of what it means to be a human person. Our system is one that tends to privilege economic success and contribution over any other activity, and mistakes the possession of wealth for an end rather than simply a means of attaining freedom and happiness. As a result, it becomes altogether too easy, and in fact, intuitive, to base a person’s worth on his or her abilities rather than nature. Drawing from various theologians and philosophers, Thomson rejects any definition of human worth that is based in abilities, capacities, or relationships. Rather, she states that worth is intrinsic, that dignity is part and parcel of being human, and that as such, it cannot be added to or taken away.
Threaded throughout Thomson’s narrative are instances of frustration with the way in which Canada has set up care, education, and treatment for children with disabilities. She paints her move towards disability activism as the logical outcome for any parent faced with the inefficiencies and injustices she faced. She states simply that, “activism was and continues to be a core part of my sense of being a good mother.” As an activist, she has brought her vision of citizen rights for people with disabilities to the forefront of discussions surrounding funding, accessibility, and care. She emphasizes the rights of parents in particular to not be forced into providing 24-hour, lifelong care for their child with disabilities, but to still be able to maintain an active role in their child’s life without relinquishing custody or any parental rights to the state. Describing the numerous challenges that parents of children with disabilities face, Thomson seeks to convince her readers of the necessity for change, and of the need for the support from those outside of the disabilities community.
One would assume that the title of her book is a way of describing Nicholas’ life, confined as he is now as an adult to his bed, unable to move without assistance and intense pain. Thomson instead describes to the reader how the title—taken from a line of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography—was actually chosen as a way of describing her own life. She describes the loneliness that is faced by most parents of children with disabilities, and the very real experience that she and many others have had of letting go completely of their own desires, ambitions, and dreams for their futures. She describes this process as painful, strengthening, and finally, life-giving. She realizes that giving up a cornerstone virtue of our modern society, freedom of choice, was key to her survival and happiness. In submitting to her role as caregiver, and in choosing to love her son Nicholas, “normal” things like going back to work, going out with friends for a carefree evening, and traveling, among others, were simply no longer options. She suggests that mourning these losses is what seems to be expected of her by those who would hear her story. But a state of mourning is no way to live life. She again draws her reader back to the ways in which she insists that her life has become more beautiful and full as a result of caring for Nicholas, and of all of the ways in which he is a gift to that world around him that so quickly moves to pity and then dismiss him.
While The Four Walls of My Freedom is a book that provides a well-written and heartfelt appeal to those within and outside of the disabilities community to consider more deeply the ethics of rights of the vulnerable, it could more correctly, and perhaps usefully, be read as a collection of essays. Thomson’s penchant for repeating parts of her narrative, reusing anecdotes in different contexts, and citing the same research or scholarly opinions in different chapters means that by about the halfway point, the circularity can begin to leave the reader a little confused. After another few instances of the same, that confusion develops into a touch of frustration. It appears that the book, which begins very much as an autobiographical narrative, interspersed with some helpful references and contextual information from experts and scholars, is rather a collection of essays that uses Thomson’s story as a jumping off point from which to tackle larger issues of disability rights, discussions of the definition of the human person and of citizenship, and the injustices present in a system that fails to recognize the vulnerable as entitled to care. These are important messages to share, of course, but might be more effectively communicated with some help from an editor.
Despite the organizational weaknesses of the book, The Four Walls of My Freedom remains an excellent resource that introduces and familiarizes the reader to the issues that are most relevant for those who care for vulnerable people in our society, whether they are people with disabilities, the elderly, or the sick. One cannot help but be drawn into the story of her life in all of its difficulties and joys, and to sympathize deeply with the arguments about ethics that is prevalent throughout her tale.
Something big was going to happen that night—that much I knew. Growing up in a nationalist household in Québec as a child of the 80s, I was all too aware of the gravity of that night’s referendum on sovereignty—a difficult word at that age. I had seen my mother’s distraught look as revered Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard announced his improbable diagnosis of flesh-eating disease; I had heard extended family members debating the colour of their future passports; and I had watched, past my bedtime, as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made a last-ditch appeal for reason. Very little of it made sense to me at the time, and answers to my innocent questions remained vague and convoluted—but something was about to happen, I knew it. Only what, no one could tell me.
Twenty years later, it turns out that answers are still hard to come by. While much ink has been spent chronicling the campaign and its aftermath, very little remains known about either camp’s intentions should voters have tilted the scale the other way. Would a narrow Oui vote have been enough for a unilateral declaration of independence, or would it have led to a redistribution of powers within a federal system? What were the leaders really planning behind the double-entendres and political euphemisms? Still, no one could tell me.
In comes The Morning After, star political columnist Chantal Hébert’s hard-hitting account of the day that almost was. With the help—and personal contacts—of former federal politician Jean Lapierre, Hébert set out to interview the key actors at the centre of the referendum saga in a bid to understand what would have happened in the event of a Yes vote. Leaders, cabinet ministers, and aides all opened up—some requiring more prodding than others—and unpacked their version of events as Hébert’s recorder blinked on. Page by page, one could sense the tension in the interview room as painful memories finally saw the light of day, two decades after the fact.
The resulting revelations are perplexing, even to a veteran of the political arena like Hébert. As both sovereignists and federalists detail the events leading up to that fateful night, the reader is left with only one logical—if frustrating—conclusion: that neither side had seriously prepared for the possibility of a Yes vote. In fact, silent chaos seemed to dominate political war rooms even as votes were being counted, with the country on the brink of breakdown. On the Oui side, Hébert reveals, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau and star campaigner Lucien Bouchard were no longer on speaking terms over their disagreement on the meaning of a Yes vote (Parizeau favoured outright independence, while Bouchard remained more cautious). Meanwhile on the Non side, Chrétien had admittedly not entertained the possibility of a Yes vote, leaving his team scrambling for a plan as polls surged in favour of independence later in the game. At times, it feels as if the whole ordeal had been lifted from a bad satire: our political leaders had all been peddling a vision that even they had not yet worked out.
Hébert is ostensibly aghast at these juicy revelations—and the book is chock-full of them—but refrains from overt judgement or scrutiny. And therein might lie the one shortcoming in this work: while it is evidently a must-read for political junkies and well-informed citizens alike, The Morning After reads like well-presented interview notes peppered with historical context, and little more. This was, it seems, Hébert’s goal all along—to record this untold part of history for others to analyze—and she has certainly achieved it. However, readers seeking Hébert’s trademark analysis will be left fending for themselves, for the most part. One could hardly be faulted for wanting just a little more of a great thing.
Something big indeed almost happened, that day in 1995—that much I still know now. Only what, it appears no one ever knew. As is often the case in Canadian politics, it took Chantal Hébert to find the answers to this decades-old mystery, however baffling and unsatisfying they may be.