It was a packed house on Friday night to see Heather O’Neill and Mary Walsh at the Christ Church Cathedral—and well worth the short wait in line.
O’Neill, known for her brain-ticklingly gorgeous writing, is a veteran of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and easily warmed up the crowd with a few anecdotes before her reading. (I’m not kidding about the brain-tickling gorgeousness, by the way. If you haven’t read her books yet, fix that immediately.) She noted that her inspiration for writing The Lonely Hearts Hotel came partly from her dad, who was one of nine (!) boys raised in Montreal single-handedly by her grandmother after his father passed away. Since those boys came of age during the Great Depression, “they, naturally, turned to crime.” Her dad was rather talented in the field of crime, as it turned out, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t pursue it as an adult. He had missed his calling, but he did have lots of bedtime stories for O’Neill that were filled with 1930s gangsters. Her novel, which is set mostly between World War I and World War II, is infused with the spirit of those bedtime stories. In fact, she noted that Rose, the female protagonist in the book, is essentially a cross between a 1930s gangster and Simone de Beauvoir.
Walsh, who has kept Canada laughing for decades, was at the Festival to promote her first novel, Crying for the Moon . Known for her characters and for creating the CBC’s This Hours Has 22 Minutes , she surprised the crowd by saying that she had actually wanted to write a novel since she was eight years old. She joked about being a month away from collecting her CPP (Canada Pension Plan), and said that she had a moment before she started writing the book when she had to ask herself, “If not now…when?”
Dr. Susan Birkwood, the moderator for the evening, led the discussion smoothly and touched on the various imagery and influences in both novels. Both O’Neill and Walsh talked about how a first novel almost inevitably includes more autobiographical details than subsequent novels—as O’Neill noted, “You have a treasure trove from your childhood, so you use it”—but both authors emphasized how much research still goes into the writing process, even if the times and places in the novel reflect some of their own experiences. “There are also themes that you get stuck on, and the novel radiates around them,” explained O’Neill as she joked about how her editor pointed out that she was once again creating motherless characters. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, I forgot to give them mothers!’” she laughed. (O’Neill was raised by her father and added that “your autobiography can come through [in your writing] from the strangest perspectives.”)
After a fascinating discussion that included comparisons between childhood and war, insights into abuse and escape, and links between oppression and language (which I will not spoil here and will instead use as a marketing ploy to encourage you to read these books!), the audience members were invited to ask questions.
Asked about how her lifetime in the performing arts had influenced her approach to writing a novel, Walsh emphasized that she needs to do it “out loud.” She prefers to write by hand, and then she reads the text to an assistant who types it up for her. “It gives me the chance to edit as I read it and hear it out loud,” she explained. “Plus, I can read [her assistant’s] face. If she pulls a face, I think ‘hmm, was that an undigested piece of potato or was that a bad line?’”
O’Neill writes mostly about Montreal, and she was asked if she thought she could ever write about another city in the same way. While she said that she could see herself writing about a different city, she knows that it wouldn’t be the same. “It wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” she explained. Given her own history there—and her family’s lengthy history there—Montreal “feels like my story to tell.” She also noted that she felt she could say things about Montreal that she wouldn’t be able to say about other cities, much in the same way that we can say things about our own families in ways that we would never tolerate coming from someone else. “I also get to move buildings,” she joked, “because in my Montreal, this street would be better off here . If I did that with another city, I’d be told that I was bad at geography.”
As the session wrapped up, I imagined a practical stampede to the book signing (I had to leave, but I heard lots of excited chatter about getting books signed as I dashed out the door), and on another night I would have been the one leading the charge. I am a huge fan of Heather O’Neill, so I will happily attend any and all future Writers Festival events that feature her, and I sincerely hope that Mary Walsh—despite the immense relief that she described upon finishing her novel—will also return for more books and more laughter.
Having grown up loving the folk and fairy tales of my father’s own Irish childhood, and then later, transitioning to reading some of the literary greats of that country’s notable array of authors, poets, and playwrights, I was particularly excited for Friday’s noon hour session on “Children’s Literature from Ireland”. I was looking forward to being inspired by these three descendants of an artistic culture that is known for its knowledge of the classics, for its easy sense of familiarity with and occasional irreverence for Western tradition and culture, and for its darkly hilarious cynicism bred of a combination of enduring survival and cultural vibrance in the face of poverty, starvation, and oppression. Needless to say, I had great expectations.
The event was conducted as a conversation with three authors: Deirdre Sullivan, a YA writer and award-winning author of
, among others; Oisin McGann, an outrageously prolific YA author specializing mostly in science fiction and fantasy; and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a children’s book author and illustrator. Unique to an event profiling those who write for young people was the palpable sense of enthusiasm and desire to support and love whatever it was that these authors had to say – stemming from the widely-held belief that, in a world saturated with devices and virtual activities that compete and often win the attention of young people, whatever gets them reading books must be a good thing.
And what sorts of ideas and tactics do these particular authors deem best to draw in their young audiences?
Sullivan was asked about her book relying on the tradition of fairy tales (the pre-Disney, horror-filled, cautionary ones, that is) and responded, saying that she tries to build upon the difficulties that are actually being experienced by teens today in her writing, in the belief that sharing experiences is a key way to build empathy. And empathy, as all of the writers agreed, is a key purpose of fiction. Fitzpatrick, speaking about whether the ideas in her children’s books are conceived for the parents or the children reading them, pointed out wisely that adults reading the books can only look back and remember what it was to be a child, while children can only look forward, and thus each will perceive the books in quite different, but hopefully equally enjoyable, ways. McGann spoke about the storyline of his recent book Ancient Appetites, that in some ways, seemed to follow the entrancing horror of in-group sacrificial murder bound by complex rules made popular by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games . Speaking as he did later about writing being a craft, and imitation being the best way to perfect this craft, McGann himself would likely not resent this comparison.
Although hearing selections from each of their books was enjoyable (particularly Fitzpatrick’s wordless delight
Owl Bat Bat Owl
), when each author was then faced with the question of how they viewed their role as a contributor to forming the ideas and worldviews of young people and to cite this with one or two main points that they hoped to communicate through their work, their answers were more lacklustre than anything. Sullivan faltered a bit, and then relied on the ever-popular but culturally damaging and, not to mention outright falsehood, of saying “I write for me”, following up with a mention of hoping to nurture teens through the difficulties of their lives through her writing. Fitzpatrick admitted (perhaps disturbingly) that she hadn’t really thought about the question before, but came up with ultimately the most satisfying answer of the three by saying that in all of her books she focused on moments in which small children overcame fear and loneliness. And McGann ignored the question entirely, instead stating that in YA fiction, it was important to get rid of the parents and any other adult authority figures in order to “give children the ability to solve their own problems”, this perhaps being a reactionary overcompensation for the helicopter-parenting of today’s culture. However, pitting parents and adults as the bad guys who hold teens back from doing what needs to be done? This seems hardly healthy or logical.
“Usually when I write something I don’t think about how it will feel to read it in front of 180 people,” says Scaachi Koul before launching into an essay on oral sex and body hair from her debut book of personal essays One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. But she feigns no shyness, recounting aloud the events that led to her first knuckle-shaving attempt at age eleven (a boy from her class who was a “Hollister t-shirt personified” asked why she was so hairy) and reflecting on the politics of female body hair in 2017 (when Lena Dunham does it, it’s a rebellion, but when a woman of colour does it, it’s a mutiny). The reading set the tone for the evening - equal parts discomfort, vulnerability, and hilarity – kicking off one of the most rousing literary events I have personally ever attended.
Koul is known for her wit and her outspokenness, usually online and usually on matters of race and feminism. Depending on who you are, this makes her either a hero or a villain. In person, she’s as admirably antagonistic, smart, and clever as she is online, giving CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld a run for her money when it came to the interview portion of the evening. When Oldenbarneveld asked her how she made her book relatable to a wide audience, for instance, Koul was quick to point out that this question is typically only asked of non-white people and women. She also admitted that she had not given relatability much thought when writing, that her book was primarily for “brown girls”, and that if other people liked it too, that was fine. While some interviewers may have gotten defensive at a moment like this, Oldenbarneveld was as good humoured as ever. She retorted, “Well I mean, I read this book and liked it and I’m not young and cool like you,” to which Koul laughed, “I’m not cool. This is my bedtime.”
Though Oldenbarneveld and Koul covered a wide range of topics, the theme of the night seemed to be anger. Take Scaachi’s relationship with her parents (“I get my anger from my dad…the immigrant experience creates pathways of anxiety”), or her writing process (“this book was written on rage”), or even her online persona (“there’s this sense of women having less of a right to be angry about men”). Naturally, this led to a discussion of the one major time in Koul’s life that anger wasn’t enough to protect her. She made headlines last year when, as Buzzfeed Canada’s senior editor, she tweeted a request for pitches from only women of colour, drawing the ire of online trolls led by Ezra Levant, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ottawa’s own Scott Gilmour (who accused Koul of committing a human rights violation). When the trolls finally went as far as to threaten her life and her family, she removed herself from social media for a period of two weeks. Speaking emotionally to Oldenbarneveld, she said the experience felt like a loss of safety and access: “I can’t play on the Internet like I used to.” She says now she never posts pictures of her family online, never has location services turned on, and only picks fights that “seem fun.”
Ultimately the evening was fun and full of laughs, but Koul and Oldenbarneveld also did an exemplary job of discussing uncomfortable topics like race, gender, and sex openly and honestly in public. There was a refreshing, no bullsh*t air about the entire event that more literary panels and journalists, especially in Canada, would do well to take note of.
The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off on Thursday night, ushering the city ’ s beloved celebration of storytelling into its twentieth year. Despite its popularity, the festival ’ s anniversary huddles in the shadow of a more vexing historical milestone: that is, one-hundred-and-fifty years of Canadian confederacy. In her introductory remarks to the evening ’ s first panel, “ A Woman ’ s Work, ” director of media and communications for the Nobel Women ’ s Initiative, Rachel Vincent, commented on the role our public intellectuals play in ensuring that the “ Canadian future [is] better than the Canadian present. ” How fitting, then, to open the festival with a glimpse at the risks and possibilities that arise when those touted as the bearers of national futurity refuse to reproduce its dominant narratives.
Indeed, while the panelists offered very different reflections on their relationship with Canadian-ness, each woman testified to the profound influence of ‘ private ’ familial histories on her public advocacy. Sandra Perron, a self-professed “ army brat, ” grew up in a military family before joining the Canadian Infantry ’ s 22nd Regiment as its first female officer. Her new book, Out Standing in the Field , details her twenty-five year journey to speak out against the unrelenting sexual harassment and abuse that she suffered within the armed forces: an institution for which she still feels much “ love and loyalty. ” In lieu of addressing her memoir ’ s more uncomfortable truths about white-masculinist supremacy and nation-building, Perron delivered an optimistic message of solidarity that imagined no contradiction in the pursuit of both military advancement and gender equity. Notwithstanding her efforts to amplify those voices that have been smothered by patriarchal violence, Perron ’ s talk left one audience member wondering, “W here, ” exactly, “ is the place for anger? ”
Offering one partial, provisional answer was Monia Mazigh, a local author born and raised in a politically active Tunisian household. Mazigh ’ s name first entered public consciousness in 2002, when her husband Maher Arar was detained in Syria based on unsubstantiated RCMP evidence of terrorist ties. Her passionate campaigns for her husband ’ s release are narrativized in her first book Hope and Despair ; however, in her new novel, Hope Has Two Daughters, Mazigh explores the legacy of two revolutionary women: Nadia, a member of Tunisia ’ s increasingly poor middle class who flees to Canada during the 1984 Bread Riots, and her daughter Lila, who, when sent to Tunis to explore her maternal history, gets caught up in the furor of the Arab Spring. As Mazigh pointed out, the English title of her book comes from a quote by St. Augustine: “ Hope has two daughters: one is anger, and the other is courage. ” Well acquainted with the dangers of being the “ angry Muslim woman ” in a society that hears “ about Muslim women rather than from them, ” Mazigh nonetheless testified to the importance of anger and dissent in forwarding more equitable futures. While Western nations are know for “ exoticizing ” the struggles of those they have colonized, Mazigh noted, there is nothing so fragrant or “ delicate ” about the pursuit of political freedom.
Riayah Patel, a seventh-grade student at Hadley-Philemon Wright High School and activist for indigenous rights, rounded out the panel. During her impassioned speech on the plight of indigenous children ’ s education, Patel acknowledged that she was schooled in the ethical necessity of activist work from an early age. Her father, a survivor of South African apartheid, and her mother, an immigrant from Lebanon, encouraged their daughter to heed the words of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who argued that “ power concedes nothing without a demand. ” Though much of the evening ’ s conversation was directed towards Mazigh and Perron, Patel spoke eloquently on the Canadian government ’ s amnesiac approach to indigenous children ’ s welfare and on her own indebtedness to the legacy of Shannen Koostachin, a fifteen-year-old activist from Attawapiskat First Nation who died tragically in a car accident in 2010. Patel ’ s self-deprecating jokes about her social media obsession aside, hers was a crucial commentary on the privilege of ignorance and the responsibilities that the young bear for their ancestors ’ traumatic and violent histories.
As the festivities of July 1st, 2017 approach, the stories of Perron, Mazigh, and Patel challenge us to move beyond empty ceremony. Diversity — in national narratives and in the politics of everyday life — is more than just a buzzword: it is an enduring labour. And, like a woman ’ s work, it is never quite finished.
No matter who you are taking out – a friend, family member, partner or someone new – date night calls for tasty food, a good drink, and conversation that brings you together. With delicious dinners served up by
Mike Beck of Dash Mobile Cookery
, local beers from Bicycle Brewery, delicious wines, Bridgehead snacks, and more, our festival is the perfect place for your next evening out. Want to treat yourself? Forget about taking a book with you – you are sure to make a new friend in our Festival Café. Here are five festival pairings to help you plan your next date night out in Ottawa.
4. Spice Up Your Monday with the Art of Seduction
Does your date consider tantric sex research? Are you exploring polyamory for the first time? Bisexuality? Curious?
Let award winning novelist
and the personal and sexual exploration that went on behind writing this titillating new novel. Too hot under the collar? Don’t worry –
watery caves and
keen eye for human interaction will balance the evening and add a few laughs. If you are planning on joining us for dinner, well then we have to recommend the grilled vegetable pasta salad with artichoke dressing, and a bottle of Steam Whistle or a glass of our light white wine so that you and your date (or just yourself) are ready to go home and unwind.
5. Tuesday Night Politics Punch Close to Home
Does your date follow Question Period daily? Are they consumed by the NDP and Conservative leadership races? Can’t get them to stop talking about Macron and Le Pen? We take a look at
the rise of the radical right in Canada
with Conservative Party insider, and former Mulroney Cabinet Minister,
with the aim of answering the question: Can it happen here? It will take more than a spoonful of sugar to wash down these truths that hit a bit too close to home, so we recommend our favourite local brew, Bicycle Brewery’s Velocipede IPA, and a mouthful of Dash Mobile’s signature Walnut Flax Burger. To take the edge-off
escape with some fiction as
take us around the world
through the beautiful and the absurd.
So grab a different date for every night of our festival, or bring yourself and come meet someone new. Treat yourself with some good food and a new book at the our festival from April 27 - May 2. Our Festival Café is open at 5PM every day and our events are always serving up something new.
Past Date Ideas
1. Thursday Night: Smash the Patriarchy with White Wine and a Rueben
Your date was part of the Women’s March earlier this year, attended The Ghomeshi Effect in January, or keeps talking about feminism. If this sounds like the one you want to take out on Thursday night then you have two fierce memoirs to choose from. At 6:30PM we host Canada’s first female infantry officer Sandra Perron whose stark and honest memoir details her experiences and the reality of many women in the military. From verbal abuse, to physical harassment and sexual assault, Perron exposes the threads of one of our most patriarchal systems. During the break grab a hearty veggie Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut, swiss and special sauce, then order a glass of Angel’s Gate Riesling and get ready to smash the patriarchy with Scaachi Koul. With wit, sarcasm and irony, Koul’s essays cut close the bone as she discusses everything from family to friendship, racism to feminism, Indian weddings to Twitter trolls, because one day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter – but these issues matter to us all today.
2. A Saturday Swim through Science and Conciousness
Do discussions about the universe, conciousness and our existence fill your time together? Come with open hearts, minds and bellies on Saturday night as science and philosophy collide when we sit down with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll to talk about the origins and meaning of the universe and life itself(!). An event that is sure to leave you craving sustenance, grab a Chickpea and rice burrito with curry crema and coleslaw, and a glass of our Malivoire before the event or chow down in the cafe once it'd over.
3. Sunday: Snack on Some Food for Thought
For those who prefer a mid-afternoon date and are eternally curious, Sunday is for you. Canadian science writer and Discovery Channel host Jay Ingram is back in Ottawa exploring The Science of Why. This event is for people of all ages who want to learn more about the natural – from cats to campfire smoke – and unnatural worlds – including subliminal messaging and bigfoot. Grab a coffee and some fresh tasty treats from Bridgehead or samosas from Rinag, and stick around for a conversation about theatre from the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas with Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi.
Check out our full festival schedule for more great date ideas.
“We should give more than we take.”
These words, spoken by award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Saturday night, illustrated one of the evening’s themes. In observance of Earth Day, the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival brought Betasamosake Simpson together with Ian Hanington and David Suzuki for an evening of storytelling, reflection, and calls to action.
It can often seem difficult in the bustle of modern living to appreciate the impact of our species on our planet, and many people struggle with connecting to the natural world. The stories shared by Betasamosake Simpson reflected upon the fundamental relationship between humanity and this sphere we call home, and the responsibility we have to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants to become actively engaged in protecting and improving it. Her reading—a mix of modern legend, traditional stories, and insightful commentary—held the audience in thrall. She used an understated yet direct approach, skilfully using her storytelling to deliver a compelling message about the responsibility of individuals to take action.
For people seeking solutions to the environmental crises facing our planet, it can be overwhelming to consider their complexity and discover ways to make a difference. Ian Hanington and David Suzuki co-wrote Just Cool It! in an effort to describe not only the current state of climate science, but also the actions that can still make a difference. When Hanington described the early days of the book, he said the goal was to make it, “at least two-thirds about solutions.” His discussion of the book, and the importance of becoming scientifically informed and taking part in the movement which is demanding change, provided a backdrop for Suzuki’s insight and passion.
It goes without saying, David Suzuki is a powerful speaker. His depth of knowledge was readily apparent, and his scientific approach, very convincing. Suzuki, too, understands the power of storytelling to motivate people to action. His stories, about meeting with business people and politicians from the other side of the divide, shed light into one of the major obstacles to the environmental movement: the force of the economy. His stance begins with fundamentals. He says that the cleanliness of the air, water, and soil along with the biodiversity that keeps food chains and natural cycles intact are the highest priorities of humanity. Yet the economy has no measure for the value of these things, and this is a crucial problem. He said, “We’re constantly asking nature to fit our constructs - to feed our economies. It’s the other way around.” His call to action involves making it clear to elected representatives that the environment is a priority, “we have to inform the leaders what we expect them to do.”