Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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3
Sunday
Mar
2013

Twisted Reality in the Roastery

Young Adult fantasy fiction tends towards the extreme – it evokes the young adult experience by creating worlds as new, vibrant and intense as the teenage inner life. Individuals with extraordinarysecrets and special identities fight against monolithic, repressive establishments and demon adults. The Hunger Games, one of the most popular young adult books in the world, features a young woman fighting against a world literally engineered to destroy her. The three authors who made up thediscussion panel at the Writers Fest event “Twisted Reality: Hiding in Plain Sight” write about teenagerswho must hide their supernatural abilities from a corrupt government, are abused and self-harming,stalked by inner demons and real adults, and are caught up in a complicated plot of identity theft.

 

When I walked into the Bridgehead Roastery on Saturday night, however, it was difficult to access thatsense of the world as a dangerous place. The authors sitting in front of a standing-room only audienceof 40 – 50 people just seemed really … nice. I was late, and could feel that a warm rapport had alreadydeveloped between the alert and interested panellists and the audience.

 

The moderator began with some questions about the degree to which the writers considered theiraudience while writing – did new technology or decrease in attention spans impact the authors? GaryBlackwood, who writes historical fiction such as “Stealing Shakespeare,” argued that teens need linearstories. Charles de Lint, whose newest series “The Wildlings” is about teens developing supernatural powers, pointed out that he thought that young adult fiction was gaining in popularity because of the enduring appeal of great stories “with action and resolution.” All the writers agreed that they did notwrite with their audience or its particular technological proficiencies in mind, but explored ideas and emotions they are passionate about and felt are authentic. Cheryl Rainfield noted that she feels veryvulnerable when she thinks about how much of herself is in her tales of troubled childhoods and abuse.

 

The moderator tried a different tack to expose the ever-mysterious creative process, by asking if writingwas directed toward some kind of pre-planned goal. The authors engaged deeply with the question:“I really feel I am trying to make a difference through my books… I am trying to increase compassion,”said Rainfield. She revealed later that she feels that writing about abuse saved her life. De Lint noddedenthusiastically. “I write about outsiders a lot – I’m trying to get people to see inside.” He laughed,“Sometimes I feel as if I’m beating people over the head with my themes.” Blackwood shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the idea of “message”… “Well, I certainly don’t begin with a message,” hesaid, “But of course, I end up writing about what is really important.”

 

The discussion turned from the authors’ work to their writing processes. The audience began to askmore questions during this portion, asking for help with their writing or with teaching their studentsto write. “How do you corral your ideas?” asked one woman, “I just have so many!” de Lint answeredwith three words he said no one would want to hear: “Just. Keep. Writing.” He said he frequentlyhits a point in every book where “I just want to write: ‘And everyone died. The End.”” Like an athlete, however, you have to push through: “Practice your finish muscle.” de Lint answered many of the questions about writing practice with snappy bon mots such as “Writing is like reading a book really slowly” - clearly all fired up for his workshop the next day. After some discussion of their various writing habits (every morning, everywhere, binge-writing and recovery periods), I reflected on how much dedication, work and discipline writing for a living involves. It is not, as I believe I pictured when I was a young adult, hanging around in an artistic and emotional ferment for the majority of the time.

 

When I read young adult books, I sink gratefully into the familiar trope of besieged specialness. Halfway through the evening, I caught myself thinking about how the best of the genre accesses that particularly teenage feeling but also widens the perspective to allow for insights into the universality of the human experience – caring for others as well as protecting yourself. Charles de Lint, Cheryl Rainfield, and Gary Blackwood were open, friendly and supremely ready to chat about their craft and body of work.They seemed to genuinely care not only about the impact of their work but also about whether or not everyone at Bridgehead got what they wanted out of the evening. I reflected that teenagers with these three leading them through their different worlds had very solid guides.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

Stretching the Art of the Possible

 

 

Tzeporah Berman is a fantastic story teller.  She is engaging, passionate, and direct.  She is able to translate ideas surrounding complicated ideas like climate politics into understandable and relatable narratives.  This Crazy Time is part autobiography, part manifesto, and part public relations campaign instructional for anyone interested in changing society.  Berman shares much of her personal story as to how she has ended up as the climate and energy co-director at Greenpeace International.  She begins at her personal awakening with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, to her work with the protests to protect Clayquot Sound, to leading protests over the logging practices of the industry as a whole, through becoming an expert on how to run an effective environmental campaign, through depression and the joys and challenges of having a family along during this trip, and finally back to a place of hope for the future of the environment in spite of the challenge of climate change.  I once heard someone describe that the basic element of a story is “a character who wants something, and overcomes conflict to get it.”[i]  Throughout this book there’s no lack of conflict for Berman to overcome, and I found myself cheering along as she fought for important things and suffered with her through the struggles that were thrown her way. 

 

Berman shares many lessons she learned throughout the experiences she details in this book.  One of my personal favourite stories is about her colleague, Karen Mahon, running into her “arch-nemesis” Linda Coady of MacMillian Bloedel, a major forestry company that Greenpeace was campaigning against for their practice of clear-cutting old-growth rainforest in British Columbia.  What made this interaction so memorable was that they were both pushing the exact same stroller; it was from this place of equality that they were able to sit down for coffee together “mom-to-mom, person-to-person, [and] they saw each other as people for the first time.”  Most of what Berman used to bring solutions to the issues she was fighting for was the experience of dealing with real people, rather than treating the other side as the enemy. 

...through all the posturing in any contentious issue every day, I begin to see, connect with and eventually listen to real people in government and industry.  It may sound simplistic, but my experience is that we are way too quick to slap a label on someone (corporate flack, government stooge, hippie environmentalist).  We allow such labels to get in the way of real learning and sometimes even solutions.  If you are not ensconced in the environmental movement, that revelation may even seem crazy to you; but in my twenties, in the circles I was working in, it was crazy for a different reason.  It was heresy.

 

This lesson should seem so obvious, but this flaw clearly exists on all sides of every environmental debate.  Each side, be it politician, industry insiders, environmentalists, and even community leaders, often come in with the view that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.  Berman shares some great stories facing intractable positions.  Berman shares about her dealings with Bill Cafferata, the chief forester for MacMillian Bloedel, and large intimidating man, who in a sense was Berman’s arch-nemesis during the Clayquot Sound protests.  During a weekend retreat where several MacBlo employees as well as leaders involved in the protests of the logging, Berman and Cafferata were sent into a room with the instructions to “be the other person”, and beer was provided.  It took some time, but the opportunity to see their opponent as a real person, really changed the interaction between these two adversaries. 

 

Through negotiations, discussion and creative problem solving, Berman and her team worked with MacBlo to fundamentally change their business model in the most sustainable way – MacBlo would remain profitable, but would also greatly reduce the negative impacts of their logging on the rainforests.  These types of discussions are going to be critical as we move forward as a civilization, to determine how we can work within the existing framework of the economy, but can make positive long-term, positive change. 

 

Throughout the process I learned that there are good people everywhere who want to do the right thing.  The trick is capturing the attention of senior decision makers and convincing them to give their staff a mandate to think creatively.

 

Berman shares many challenges, but some of the most vicious she experienced were caused by other environmentalists.  Every time she held negotiations she was called a sell-out, and was even threatened by former colleagues.  What is most sad about this was that the good intentions of these other environmentalists became so twisted that they ended up fighting the very thing they were hoping to accomplish.  But, unlike her work with industry, there weren’t the happy resolutions. 

 

Sadly all too often environmental groups take positions that shut down debate or seem so far from today’s economic and social realities they don’t illuminate a solution; they simply create a fight no one can win... So how do we stretch the art of the possible as we did in the Great Bear Rainforest, while at the same time taking a position that’s politically viable and not completely out of whack?

 

We need healthy debate, from all stakeholders if we have any hope to stretch the art of the possible, to stop looking at the same answers that keep coming up drastically short.  Despite all the warnings that climate scientists continue to raise, despite the fact that we are seeing affects of climate change occurring faster than even the commonly accepted models are predicting, we continue to have intractable positions, be it governments refusing to put a price on carbon[ii], and continuing policies that have the opposite effect of encouraging further consumption of fossil fuels.  To make a meaningful change, environmentalists need to let go of the black-and-white view of the other people, to accept that politicians and business leaders actually have a legitimate perspective.  But politicians and business leaders need to realize that they have to change their business-as-usual.  This is the hard work--looking for creative solutions to very large and complicated problems, and this will only happen if we can honestly work together.  If Berman was able to fundamentally change the business model of a large company like MacMillian Bloedel, and as a consequence change the whole logging industry, surely society can find a way to fight climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions.  The problem with CO2, unlike logging, is that its cause is incredibly distributed.  The bulk of Canadian emissions result from heating; a change will require all future designs of buildings to incorporate passive-solar heating and drastically better insulation, and all existing building need to be retrofitted.  There isn’t one big company to protest, despite the focus on the oil industry; all Canadians are contributing, and the solutions need to be systemic.  But, if Governments, industry, and environmentalists can sit down and have an honest conversation about the issues, looking for real solutions, I have to believe an answer exists.  Berman is hopeful that this will happen.

 

Practically every Earth Day speech since the 1970’s has sold the dream of a future when our energy comes from wind farms, the sun and clean hydro that will power a new economy of Electric cars and zero-impact lifestyles.  Now that the future is on its way, the clean-tech sector is booming and environmentalists like me face a moment of truth.

 

This book is Berman facing that truth, and offering real and honest dialog as to what will be required to find real solutions, without pretending they are easy and that she has them all.

 

If we can raise the issues and have a positive conversation that invites people to join, if we can act from a place of openness and possibility instead of anger and fear, we’re going to create a greater dialogue and a larger movement.  If what we do and how we do it reaches only a small segment of the population, in the end we are simply having a conversation with ourselves. It’s a messier business than righteous opposition, but the alternative is to fail at history’s critical moment. 



[i] “A million Miles in a Thousand Years”, by Donald Miller

[ii] The only proven method of reducing CO2 emissions is to put a price on emissions, either though a cap-and-trade model, or through a carbon tax.  This has been extensively studied, but the most readable evidence of this is shared in Hot Air, by Jeffrey Simpson, Marc Jaccard and Nic Rivers.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

The Hope of Life

 

It was on this same day that Penny announced it was time to move beyond the short story and write a novel.  She was going to take a leave from the hospital.  The novel would be about a woman born in 1930 whose existence was both minor and major.

 

Hope was wary.  She smelled a rat.  “What do you mean, ‘major’?”

 

“She is a woman.  And what is there about the life of a woman that is worth exploring?  A woman does not fight in wars, does not invent, does not make something out of nothing, except for the exceptional woman, like Madame Curie or Jane Austen.  Most women your age had children and raised them … I haven’t figured out the major part yet, though it has to be there.  Doesn’t it?”

 

Hope Koop was born in Manitoba in 1930.  The Age of Hope tells her story, almost as if David Bergen were writing the novel that Hope’s daughter, Penny, proposed.  The novel reads more like a biography or a third person memoir, a collection of stories of Hope throughout her life.  Many of the stories are mundane, and as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was so fascinated by the life of such an ordinary person.  There is nothing special about Hope, and the style of writing does not add dramatic flair or suspense.  Yet I felt compelled to keep going to see what happens next.   Bergen somehow makes all the minor events of one life amount to something major, and in so doing, exposes for one and all to see a snapshot of Canadian history through the eyes of a woman who lived it. 

 

Hope was born and raised as a Mennonite, but never fully immersed herself in that community.  She was both an insider and an outsider in many aspects of her life: a part of her family, yet somehow disconnected from her husband and children; a part of her community, yet with few actual friends; a woman who lived an average life, yet had enough deviations from the typical script to be complicated and interesting.  Like many women of her time, Hope marries young, has children, raises them, and has hopes and dreams for them like any other parent.  Her responses to her children’s choices are similar to that of any loving mother.   Yet still she feels somehow different.

 

There were warning signs of trouble early on.  Hope liked to flirt with danger.  She would pick up hitchhikers along the highway, inviting one of them back for dinner.  There was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to go back to school.  There was a random, one-time counselling session with a local pastor.  There was lending her wedding dress to the random hitchhiker she had invited home years earlier.  There were many small moments of doubt.  And then she got pregnant again, an event which did not make her happy, and the warning signs intensified.  Hope combated the overhanging clouds of doom by forming a friendship group where she met Linda and Frank.

 

Linda waited impatiently for Frank to finish and then she said that the hardest thing in life was to accept one’s lot.  “All this nonsense about the world coming to our doorstep and destroying life as we know it is just fearful people blowing smoke up your ass.  Take control of your life.  Make smart decisions.  Realize that this is it, this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world.”  She paused and looked at Hope and for a brilliant moment Hope saw that what she was saying was absolutely true, and then the window that looked out onto that clear space slammed shut.

 

This was the tipping point. This is where the conflict and plot come in.  The Age of Hope is Hope’s quest to come to terms with this poignant statement.  While she continues to struggle and have her ups and downs (as we all do), Hope slowly figures out how to do exactly this.  Little by little, she works her way to finding her place, blundering at times, shining at others, living not so different a life from you or me.  She faces her depression and overcomes it (for the most part).  She learns to come to terms with having more than others, with the humiliation of going bankrupt and having less than others, with children who choose to live lives very different from those that she would have expected or desired for them, with life, with death, with love, and with everything in between.

 

The Age of Hope is a worthwhile read.  While not the most exciting story, it is comforting, like a conversation with Grandma.  By sharing in the life of Hope, the hope of life comes through and one walks away feeling as though one matters, no matter how big or small one is in the grand scheme of things.  As Linda so succinctly points out, “this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world,” and so you leave the book considering the life that one woman had and what your life will be that you will carve out in your own little corner of the world.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

The Sweet Girl

 

Aside from a near-forgotten experience involving twenty misplaced books at my bookstore employment, all of my feelings towards Annabel Lyon’s work are positive. I wanted to read The Golden Mean since its release in 2009, and was delighted to hear that Lyon wrote a second novel—The Sweet Girl—as well.

 

Not surprisingly, Lyon’s first novel was nominated for all three of the major Canadian fiction prizes: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s award for English language fiction, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the latter of which she won. The Golden Mean was the only Canadian novel published in 2009 to be nominated for all three of these prizes - which says much- considering it was Lyon’s first work of that form.

 

Upon finishing The Sweet Girl, I found myself feeling somewhat unsatisfied. There did not seem to be any clear moments of sadness or happiness within the novel, any moments wherein I felt justifiably angry or exuberant. Feeling this way—however negative such feelings may seem—served as an excellent tool for Lyon’s depiction of both Aristotle and his precocious young daughter Pythias. Both characters evaluated the world in a highly-calculated and logical manner, and this is entirely how Annabel Lyon coaxed the reader to travel through her book. All feelings are, or at least should be, supported by fact and science and decision.

 

As someone who loves history—especially the ancient sort—I was expecting sweeping landscapes and Shakespearean drama and complicated relationships. This, of course, would be the way I would know Aristotle and his daughter. As it turned out, however, Annabel Lyon provided a richer and more accurate understanding of the historical-fictional scholar, and his progeny than I imagined was possible. 

 

The Sweet Girl picks up relatively close to where The Golden Mean leaves off, despite skipping a number of years of little Pythias’ childhood. Aristotle has taken a former slave, Herpyllis, to be his concubine after his first wife—also called Pythias—has died. We catch up with the younger Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter to whom the novel’s title refers, in her early years as a teenager.

 

Pythias is consummately her father’s daughter. Despite her incongruence with other young women of the time, Pythias holds her own at a dinner with Aristotle’s peers:

‘Can [your daughters] read books?’ I ask. ‘Not just the household accounts. I mean real books.’

No reaction.

‘Could they?’ I ask. ‘If you tried to teach them? If an ass could read, would it be wrong to teach it?’

 

While sitting in a spot originally intended for her younger, mostly illiterate brother Nico, Pythias directly questions the men at her father’s dinner. Lyon writes Pythias to be independent, and so obviously the daughter of Aristotle. Pythias is not confined to cultural norms and wholly focused on logical discussion and facts.

 

Pythias also mimics Aristotle in her insults. She does so by telling her adopted brother Myrmex “you’re stupid and you can’t read and you might as well be a plant yourself.” A lack of reason and intelligence, of course, is the ultimate insult in Aristotle’s household.

 

Quasi-stepmother Herpyllis is certainly well-meaning, but does not jive with the household of Aristotle. She claims that “[t]hinking is unlovely on a girl,” which certainly does not fit with Aristotle’s—or Pythias’—view of the world. Herpyllis nonetheless dotes on Pythias, and is a reasonable substitute for Pythias senior.

 

Shortly before the passing of Aristotle, I came to truly appreciate Annabel Lyon’s portrait of the loving relationship between Aristotle and Pythias. They spend happy days at the beach, swimming and examining various water creatures, experiencing—according to the aging philosopher—“fun and science.” I soon discovered that, though their relationship is highly significant, that this novel intends to focus more on the journey Pythias makes after the loss of her father—the individual she modeled her thoughts and thus her life upon.

 

Nearer to the end of the novel, I began to resent the connotations of the novel’s title. Initially, The Sweet Girl truly does refer to a father's fond love for his exceptional daughter. Later in Lyon’s novel, however, such 'sweetness' (and femininity) becomes the absolute insult to Pythias; that though she would always be known as her father's daughter, she would never be able to accomplish as much as he had. Eventually, she does manage to involve herself in midwifery practices, but such work that the reader anticipates for the daughter of Aristotle does not last long.

 

As laid out in Aristotle’s will (which Lyon included at the outset of this second novel), Pythias is pledged to marry to her older cousin Nicanor. After various financial struggles, as well as struggles of other sorts, Pythias ends up exactly where the culture of the time would have her: as a wife to a husband, comfortably settled at home. I found this to be a difficult reading experience, as Annabel Lyon had me hoping for some highly-fictionalized, atypical gender role developments for Pythias. That somehow, all historical evidence aside, Pythias wouldn’t marry and would find fulfillment in some sort of medical practice. My hopes were, of course, dashed—and rightly so.

 

Reading this novel was uncomfortably enjoyable. History isn’t actually all that enjoyable most of the time, but it still fascinating and important. Annabel Lyon’s second novel is an excellent means by which to forget that you’re reading fiction rather than a history textbook.

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

The Selector of Souls

 

Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel, The Selector of Souls is the story of two very different women, each standing at an important crossroad in her life. Set primarily in India in the mid-1990s, we are introduced to important aspects of Indian society at the time, seen through the eyes and experiences of the Damini and Anu, women from different generations, different class and education background. The novel is, to say the least, a very ambitious project: a rich and expansive and novel that portrays the intimate and personal worlds of the two women and their families against the background of the major themes and preoccupations in India and beyond during the nineteen nineteens' and since. In flashbacks we learn about the protagonists' background that brought them to this decisive time in their respective lives, we also take a glimpse into their future through the Epilogue, dated 2005.

 

Like in her previous work, e.g. her novel, What the Body Remembers, and collections of short stories, the author shares her intimate familiarity with the many aspects of Indian society through the thematic discussions in the book. Apart from the major political upheavals of the time, such as the struggle for influence and power of the different political groupings and their representatives, or India's provocative launch into the nuclear age, Singh Baldwin delves deeply into a wide range of social challenges and religious conflicts. Among those are the longstanding hostile encounters among the different religions, the caste system and the treatment of ethnic minorities. Crosscutting these themes is Baldwin's deep concern for the treatment of girls and women. Topics such as gender selection, birth control, etc. take prominent positions in the novel and are addressed from numerous angles.

 

Interestingly, her two protagonists epitomize a cautious shift in the religious mosaic: Damini, while brought up Hindu has been working for thirty years as a servant and "voice" companion to the mute Sikh Mem-saab and describes herself as Sikh-Hindu. Anu, also Hindu by birth, is increasingly drawn to the Christian faith and, after leaving her abusive husband, escapes to a convent in the Middle Hills north of Delhi and refers to herself as Christian-Hindu. While the two characters' lives unfold separately for some time, their sections alternating throughout the novel, it is no surprise to the reader that Damini's and Anu's lives will not only intersect but become increasingly interwoven.

 

Their difference in religious beliefs, age, caste and social standing notwithstanding, they both have the capacity to listen and to learn. What emerges as a fundamental issue in their relationship is their opposing attitude towards birth control and family planning, and by extension the treatment of children, especially girls. Can they find common middle ground? Both central characters seem to be guided by an inner voice, visually identified through a different print face. While their respective sections focus on their experiences and are written from their perspectives, one can at times sense the omniscient authorial voice explaining developments rather showing them through the protagonists' behaviour or thinking. For both the moral dilemma is evident and well depicted. Still, the discussion or elaboration of an important theme seems, at times, to push the narrative flow of the novel into the background.

 

Shauna Singh Baldwin describes her book as "[…] a meditation on creating and destroying. How can we redeem ourselves after destroying?" It is indeed a meditation on creating and destroying as it engages the many different themes of the novel.  For readers knowledgeable about or interested in India this novel will be very engaging and also providing much food for thought. As I stated above, it is an expansive and ambitious novel that readers less familiar with India will at times find challenging and they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of themes and issues being addressed. While the Canada-India connection was, according to the author, originally a major theme of the book, it felt less organic than other sections in the novel.

 

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

Is This Your First War?

 

Michael Petrou’s Is This Your First War? - Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World takes the reader through places and through states of mind that most of us, in Ottawa, will never experience in person.  Petrou has a likeable, unobtrusive presence as narrator, allowing his readers to feel that they are meeting his comrades and his interviewees for themselves.  Of all the encounters and adventures that went into this insightful and informative book, one in particular stood out to me. 

 

Petrou was on his way through Istanbul, en route to Iraq, hoping “to cover its liberation” as a freelance reporter in 2003.  At twilight, near the Blue Mosque, Petrou finds himself befriended by a man who introduces himself as “a banker from the United Arab Emirates,” and who proposes that they go for a drink together.  Less than five minutes after walking into the bar, Petrou has declined the services of a prostitute, paid an extortionate sum for two beers, and beat a retreat.  On the tram ride back, “it wasn’t until [he] saw the familiar spires of the Blue Mosque” that Petrou “realized” his new friend “was part of the shakedown from the start.”  The whole misadventure – which Petrou succinctly sums up as “getting robbed in a brothel” – is positioned at a structurally significant point, almost exactly half-way through Is This Your First War?

 

At first, I could hardly understand how Petrou could have got into such trouble; he had already backpacked through Central Asia with his friend Andrew, and reported from Afghanistan for the Ottawa Citizen in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.  Subsequently enrolled at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, as a doctoral candidate in modern history, he “never stopped reporting,” but did freelance pieces for Canadian newspapers and Maclean’s magazine on brief trips to Lebanon and Belarus, before becoming a fêted senior correspondent for Maclean’s.  Surely Petrou’s instinct for self-preservation would be too well honed to let him fall victim to such a scam? 

 

And yet, I realized, Petrou’s unhesitating openness to new experiences, his willingness to place his trust in people on short acquaintance, is precisely what makes him such an effective reporter, and the perfect narrator to guide his readers around the historically turbulent places which he visits.  If Petrou had been more cautious, he might have avoided the shakedown – but he and his friend Andrew would never have clung to the outsides of buses and jeeps to travel through the breathtaking landscapes of northern Pakistan, would never have eaten lagman noodles in the homes of Uighur peasants – would never, in short, have a story to tell. 

 

Petrou writes admiringly of the photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who died in the custody of the Iranian prison system in 2003: “She wasn’t interested in politicians or other powerful people and didn’t feature them in her work.  What mattered to Kazemi were those who are often forgotten and overlooked.”  The same could be said of Petrou’s own approach in Is This Your First War?; his attention focuses on civilians obliged to live in war zones, but extends even as far as the plight of animals in brutalized societies.  This book strongly succeeds in giving Petrou’s subjects their own voices to address the reader – from Ali, a guesthouse owner in Pakistan, desperately nostalgic for the era of hippies travelling overland to India, to a young Pakistani in Afghanistan, captured while apparently fighting on the side of the Taliban.  The young prisoner asks Petrou for money for medicine, saying that since the other prisoners “are Afghans . . . they have families nearby who can help them.  My family is far away.  I have no one,” words that close a section of Petrou’s experience and haunt his readers. 

 

Michael Petrou’s gift for allowing his writing to become the conduit for other, urgent voices is particularly to the fore in his chapters on Iran.  Nasser, “a burly veteran of the Iran-Iraq war,” invites Petrou to join him and two friends at a coffee house in Esfahan, apologizes for the lack of liquor, but points out Esfahan’s lively and diverse social season; gender and religion don’t prevent sociable private parties with mixed dancing.  Nasser deprecates American interventionism, but puts his hopes in change driven by Iranian citizens.  Nasser’s uncle, Farouk, couches his protest in more cerebral terms.  He teaches Petrou a “traditional Persian nomad’s song” about the coming of spring.  In Tehran, Petrou meets a tight-knit group of extraordinarily brave dissidents; most of them have been imprisoned and maltreated, and all expect further arrests in their future.  They help him to break the story of Zahra Kazemi’s mistreatment while in Tehran’s Evin Prison. 

 

“The former prisoners were taking an enormous risk by speaking to me,” writes Petrou, “yet most insisted that, when I was safely outside Iran, I quote them by name.”  Petrou has honoured their intention, giving their names and words as an eloquent plea for a freer Iranian society.  One dissident offers the moving metaphor of a young plant fighting its way through the weight of the soil to describe the Iranian people’s struggle to “push through” into liberty, security, and democracy.

 

Petrou is consistently committed to showcasing a variety of political opinions from the countries he explores; in Israel and the West Bank, he speaks to Jewish Israelis holding pro- and anti-settlement positions, and to Muslim Palestinians with varying degrees of acceptance for the existence of the Jewish state.  His recognition of diversity within each country is intimately tied to his recognition of diversity between countries.  The author writes critically about his own title: “the ‘Islamic world’ . . . is a flawed term.  There are millions of Christians and Jews living in the countries [which feature in this book], and millions of Muslims living in countries that aren’t mentioned . . . There is no unified and homogenous collection of Muslim communities, any more than there is a Christian one . . . Islam is the common thread that runs through the places covered in this book, even if does not bind them.”

 

At the heart of his book are the experiences and accounts of the ordinary people whom he meets – “those who must live with . . . politicians’ . . . decisions.”  To contextualize their stories, Petrou concisely introduces aspects of each place’s history, from Alexander the Great’s military projects right up to the moment – including a critical account of the U.N.’s efforts to mitigate the genocide at Darfur.  One last gift of Petrou’s writing is the insight he offers into the processes of journalism itself.  He recounts his admiration of Dr. Awwad, a gifted Syrian-Indian journalist who is able to navigate the distance between domestic concerns and the dangers of war reporting with far more grace than most, notes the difference that a translator’s level of competence can make, and explains the addictive hold of war reporting. 

 

On finishing Is This Your First War?, I felt far more intimately acquainted with the people inhabiting turbulent areas in Central Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, and understood a little more about the people who bring us our news. 

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace

 

Part current events, part history and part autobiography, former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, explains the current situation in this war-torn nation and its hope for the future in The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace.

 

Alexander’s résumé, especially for someone only in their forties, is remarkable. Alexander joined the Foreign Service in the nineties, eventually becoming Minister Counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. In 2003, he took the position of Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander was offered the job of deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) in Afghanistan, which he served from 2005 until 2009. His current job – Member of Parliament for Ajax-Pickering – seems almost like a step down.

 

It is all of these positions that have given Alexander the expertise and inside knowledge to write at length about Afghanistan’s problems. However, it is all of these positions that are also the reason behind my biggest critique of The Long Way Back – Alexander’s inability to criticize anyone he has worked for.

 

The point of The Long Way Back is to explain the current situation in Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly complex and multifaceted. Alexander found that, “Afghanistan’s story since 2001 has yet to be properly told,” so he endeavored to better explain the problems that Afghanistan faces. Still, Alexander simplifies Afghanistan’s woes largely to one factor – Pakistan.

 

Alexander summarizes his point by saying, “the victims of violence over the last decade have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly, because of a misguided Pakistani policy that treats Afghanistan as a mere pawn in an ongoing battle for regional supremacy against India. Conflict will not yield to peace in Afghanistan unless and until this policy is abandoned.”

 

The critique of Pakistan is not unfounded; the Pakistani government has all too often provided sanctuary for insurgents and support to the Taliban. But in only blaming Pakistan, Alexander removes some legitimacy from The Long Way Back's diagnosis of Afghanistan's real problems. There are other factors at play.

 

I can only conjecture, but it seems to me that Alexander’s previous jobs and connections have prevented him from making any scathing critiques other than on Pakistan. Alexander is unwilling to say anything negative about Afghan President Hamid Karzai – the man he worked closely with as Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander does note that others perceive Karzai to be corrupt and unfit for the job, but he dismisses these notions as ungrounded. He also says nothing negative about UNAMA, which is unsurprising considering his prominent role in that mission. And thanks to Alexander’s current position in the Conservative Party and Canadian government, he certainly makes no ill mention of NATO military action or any Western government. He surprisingly does not even find the Soviet Union’s 1980s war in Afghanistan to be of any real significance to Afghanistan’s situation today.

 

This is not to suggest that Afghanistan’s problems can be traced more accurately to Karzai or Western countries. But to ignore some of these factors completely is to not do justice to the complexity of Afghanistan’s situation. Pakistan, no matter how immoral, uncooperative and ill intended, is not the lone factor causing Afghanistan’s instability. Considering how much attention Alexander devoted to Afghanistan’s history, he should be well aware of this.

 

Alexander does not bother to rationalize Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan; rather, he assumes that it is in Canadians’ interests to continue the war. This can be debated, but does not actually detract from the book. One assumption that does detract, however, is the belief that the Taliban will not come back once the military mission in Afghanistan is over. Alexander does not address this crucial point, and simply assumes that the Taliban can be completely wiped out for good. It is far from guaranteed that the Taliban can be permanently eliminated. The Taliban is more about a set of beliefs than a group of people, and ideas cannot be killed with a military invasion. Once NATO troops return home, all of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan is in danger of being reversed as the Taliban will no longer be facing any military opposition.

 

Moreover, Alexander makes no real distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, going so far as to say that the “Taliban brain trust...brought down the Twin Towers.” The Taliban harboured al Qaeda and the two groups have cooperated in the past, but they are not one and the same. It is a misleading premise, and one that does not do justice to the why of Western military engagement in Afghanistan.

 

Overall, The Long Way Back is well written and full of many fascinating insights into Afghan history that only Alexander would be able to provide. Alexander’s role as ambassador to Afghanistan and deputy head of UNAMA have given readers an insider’s look at the stories and circumstances that have come to shape Afghanistan today.

 

The book is interesting and timely; however, it falls short in a couple of different respects. First, The Long Way Back has a bit of an identity crisis, as it is part autobiography, part history and part current events. Alexander could have written an excellent autobiography that followed his experiences in such interesting regions of the world. Instead, Alexander focused more on diagnosing Afghanistan’s main problems, which was much too ambitious for a 250-page book. This leads to The Long Way Back’s second main problem, which is that its ultimate diagnosis – Pakistan – is simplistic and ultimately leaves the reader wondering why – if Pakistan is to blame for most of Afghanistan’s instability – Canadian troops are fighting a war inside the Afghan borders. And though it is meant to be hopeful for Afghanistan’s future, the book is ultimately short on real solutions and future prospects for the country.

 

These criticisms should not dissuade readers from giving The Long Way Back a read. Ultimately, the book is a unique view into a country’s situation that too many of us are uninformed about. Too many of us have also given up on Afghanistan, discouraged by an apparently lack of progress. But Alexander makes note that Afghanistan has changed, and that these changes have “laid the groundwork for functioning institutions and a national economy.” These changes have also “sustained hopes in the face of waves of violence.”

27
Wednesday
Feb
2013

Sleeping Funny

 

Though it may be too obvious to use the word dreamlike when describing a book entitled Sleeping Funny, Hamilton-based Miranda Hill’s debut collection of short stories seems to warrant it. Indeed, even those few stories set in what appear to be a more grounded realism have a touch of the surreal about them. Take the opening novella-length story, “The Variance,” set within the familiar tableaux of upscale suburbanites, which opens with a tongue-in-cheek account of a common childhood infestation: “The lice moved through the neighbourhood with the precision of a military campaign. An infrared map of Glenmount Crescent would have shown a pattern so complete that even the houses that were spared seemed part of the strategy.” Lice, however, soon becomes a secondary concern as attention shifts to the new family on the block and an altogether new campaign, one intent on maintaining the status quo of the street, unfolds. At first glance it appears to be another suburban send-up, populated with requisite harried mothers who juggle parenthood and career within the plush confines of a gentrified neighbourhood. Yet as the story progresses there are moments when characters experience a sort of dreamlike wonder and as allegiances shift and fall away, the neighbourhood itself physically changes “so that it would seem that there was an identical street running parallel to the crescent.”

 

While most stories in Sleeping Funny share a sense of a world slightly off-kilter, all nine stories within this volume are pleasingly distinct, veering from historical (“Rise: A Requiem”; “Digging for Thomas”) to contemporary, and span a range of perspectives, from children to old men. Like “The Variance,” suburbia and gentrification are touched on again in “6:19,” but this story, which centers on an office worker’s daily commute, takes on an almost Twilight Zone sensibility as Nathan, the main character, finds himself being pulled seemingly inevitably toward an alternate future and way of living. “Precious,” meanwhile, a story about a beautiful child born to unremarkable parents, is constructed like a modern fairy tale. The baby girl, Kristi-Anne, is anointed like royalty with the girls of the neighbourhood acting as “miniature ladies-in-waiting” while “[t]he banker’s wife and the wife of the school principal groomed their sons as possible suitors for a grown-up Kristi-Anne, who might distribute among their grandchildren her petal cheeks, her doll-like eyes, her thin and graceful fingers.” Yet the repeated refrain of “Careful. Careful, Kristin-Anne” throughout the story builds to a shocking and unexpected ending that turns the genre on its head, making the tale the most memorable of the lot.

 

Other stories are elevated by unique touches of humour, like the bizarre and amusing “Apple,” in which a teenage girl and her classmates must deal with the unintended consequences of a sex-ed class. “Because of Geraldine” similarly explores life from the perspective of young female characters but from a drastically different perspective, focusing instead on familial obsession. This fascination centres on their father’s first love, a singer named Geraldine. As Hill writes, “The face that took up the whole cover of It’s Too Late Now, was different from any I’d ever seen in person or in pictures. She had hair the colour of red granite, but thick and cascading, and her face was a palette – deep blue eyeshadow, thick mascara, flushed cheeks – a style I would emulate all my teenage years. Lib pushed up close beside me now. ‘I knew she’d look like that,’ she said, and what she meant was, like someone from somewhere else, like she was a star.” Perhaps the most realistically staged piece, “Because of Geraldine” effectively showcases the author’s insight into the complications of the human heart.

 

Not every story is fresh and engaging. Surprisingly Hill’s 2011 Journey Prize-winning story “Petitions to St. Chronic” falls short. The premise – three strangers in a hospital vigil for someone none of them know – is too thin and much of the subsequent redemption arc seems to fulfil some trope about downtrodden female characters that has been seen many times before. Still, like the rest of the stories in this collection, the writing is of fine calibre and there is little doubt that Miranda Hill is a new Can-Lit writer to watch.

 

It seems fitting that the collection ends with the eponymous “Sleeping Funny,” in which a single mother returns to her hometown to sort through her father’s house after his death. As she reluctantly reconnects with her past, Clea struggles to sleep in the home she once shared with her parents. Partway through the story, she awakes from a restless sleep feeling as though “it was as if, in her sleep, she had been up to something. Something physically demanding that in her waking hours would be completely beyond her. The way, as a child, she had dreamed she was flying, and awoken with a certainty that she could do it again.” It is this sensibility that seems to inform much of Hill’s writing; this hazy, half-remembered state where anything is possible, even a child taking flight, and in this way she has crafted a unique and memorable debut.

26
Tuesday
Feb
2013

Wrestling with Texts, Striving with God: Rabbi Kushner on Job

 

‘You’re not ready to write that,’ a doctoral supervisor at Jewish Theological Seminary told the young assistant rabbi Harold Kushner about his research proposal in the mid-1960s. The suggested topic, prompted by his early experience consoling grieving congregants, was the biblical portrayal of God’s role in the midst of human tragedy.

 

While the project was formally shelved, the unavoidable question was soon acutely felt when Kushner and his wife learned that their young son suffered from the rare disease progeria. From age three, the boy aged rapidly until a shockingly early death not long after his bar mitzvah. In facing such a harrowing ordeal, Kushner read all he could, from information on the affliction itself to coping with a child’s death. The endeavour led him irresistibly to the book of Job.

 

In contrast to frequently insipid synopses—such as that Job is an example of ‘patience under suffering’—Kushner found the book’s candour deeply affecting in the midst of his own grief and anger. In particular, he came to recognize Job’s early riposte to his would-be comforters as one of the most liberating verses of scripture, paraphrasing the line as, ‘if God is as great and as devoted to truth as we like to think He is, then I believe He will prefer my honesty to your flattery.’ Drawing out the implications of these words, which too seldom inform approaches to God, religious or otherwise, Kushner states that, ‘you cannot love someone wholeheartedly (“with all your heart”) unless you feel free to be angry at that person when circumstances warrant.’ Nearly fifty years after having been deemed unready, Kushner’s publication ventures such honest love, borne of suffering. 

 

The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person is the latest title in the Schocken / Nextbook Jewish Encounters series, edited by Jonathan Rosen. Kushner’s volume is a significant representative of the series in not only treating a major literary work, but doing so through a characteristically Jewish approach to texts as a primary locus through which we encounter others and, ultimately, God. Readers of Foment will appreciate how such an interpretive community can model gathering around shared writings while simultaneously fostering, qua community, vigorous independence of mind. Rather than posturing as a lone guru, Kushner’s interaction with Job via interpreters from Maimonides to Martin Buber enriches both his congruent readings and his dissent.

 

As many of us have become inured to the appalling senselessness of tragedy through hasty, repetitive media coverage, addressing the question of suffering requires sustained attention to more enduring sources. The first welcome aspect of Kushner’s invigoratingly rabbinic book, then, is his skilled habit of wrestling with texts. While some of his other writings have been classed as self-help, here Kushner braves close commentary on an ancient, sophisticated, passionate, convoluted scriptural text.

 

Though drawing on his academic studies in the Tanakh and a lifetime of rabbinic meditation, Kushner seeks to give the reader her own direct encounter with Job, often filling the page with extended citations. In laying bare the text, he does not shy from naming text critical problems, such as when he exposes suspected scribal emendations that soften the force of Job’s accusation against God. Moreover, when he comes upon a portion of seemingly incoherent, fragmented Hebrew, rather than quickly citing faulty transmission he considers it a possible portrayal of how trauma can impede speech, or how dialogue can break down at an argument’s impasse.  

 

While Kushner’s persistence with the book is admirable, there are times I wish he would press further. He has obvious impatience with the Fable that frames the book in chapters 1-2 & 42, particularly given that its diffident piety is the primary basis for ‘modern retellings’ such as the recent film A Serious Man .  While his compensatory emphasis is rightly on the Poem that spans the central 40 chapters, he oversteps in claiming that, ‘the author of the poem totally leaves the Fable behind,’ later dismissing its conclusion as ‘simpleminded.’ While critical scholarship does indeed recognize that a neat folk tale has been combined with an unruly poem, scholars have also suggested that the poetic co-optation of the former is hardly uninspired. Indeed, the use of unprecedented lists of superlatives to describe Job’s righteousness, or the incredible depictions of religious observance such as pre-emptive sacrifice for his children, suggest the presence of subversion, even parody, within the Fable itself. Recognizing an artistic coherence between the adaptation of the Fable and the Poem that does not merely repeat the former’s hagiography but undermines it through ironic excess would actually strengthen Kushner’s case.

 

Eventually, Kushner’s wrestling with the book of Job and its interpreters not only exposes the text, but also the reader. At one point, Kushner recalls a humanities midterm exam in college, which consisted of an uncomfortably probing pair of questions: ‘[1] Of all the books we have read this semester, which one did you enjoy least? [2] To what limitation in yourself do you attribute this inability to appreciate an acknowledged classic?’ Taking his cue from such reverse scrutiny, Kushner makes a compelling case for reading that recognizes those books ‘meant not just to divert us or enhance our earning capacity but to change us as we read them.’

 

Such anticipated transformation draws on the ancient story of Jacob wrestling the stranger, in which he was wounded, renamed, and blessed. Kushner’s allusion to this story directs us to the encounter at the centre of the Job narrative, and so of any close commentary: the call to wrestle with God. That Kushner is willing to speak in such frankly theological terms is particularly significant given the surge in extremist violence in the divine name and the oppositional stridency of so-called new atheism, neither of which dare the more courageous and vulnerable protest of love rendered in the Job poem.

 

Readers who have tired of trite theodicies will appreciate Kushner’s high standards for any answer to the problem of good people suffering in a world under God’s control. This includes the ability for it to address a Holocaust survivor with due deference. ‘Finally, and personally,’ Kushner presses, ‘I deem unacceptable any explanation of God’s role in our suffering that leaves people thinking less well of God than they did before.’ That this book revises the conclusions of his 1981 bestseller on the same theme because some readers had just this response is a testament to Kushner’s integrity.

 

As unready as we are to probe the depths of another’s suffering, much less the divine, Rabbi Kushner invites a practice of fellow reading that reminds us we are not alone in the questions. Along with taking courage from such solidarity, the book of Job’s character as scripture might lead us to further reflect on how God is closer to our all-too-human words of protest than we think.

26
Tuesday
Feb
2013

Faith, Family, and Longing

 

A title like “Sweet Jesus” evokes a variety of responses, some of them strong.  Perhaps a dismissive snort from the sceptic who assumes it to be a soft-headed work of religious devotion.  Perhaps a sigh of frustration from the Christian who assumes that any novel so titled must inevitably deride faith as mouth-foaming fanaticism.  Perhaps neither even picks it up, wishing to avoid engagement with the perceived target audience.  For this book, such reactions are part of the point.

 

The novel tells the story of three siblings from an evangelical Christian family with a host of cracks and pitfalls.  Connie is a well-heeled mother of three, and committed Christian whose worldly security suddenly disappears. Hannah is a free spirit by turns sceptical, and open; frustrated in her desire for a family of her own.  Adopted and much younger Zeus (short for Jésus) is a recently bereaved hospital clown whose relationship with his adoptive family has been complicated by his being gay.  Connie and Hannah decide to visit a mega-church in Kansas where their mother Rose had a profound religious experience years before.  Zeus accepts their offer of a ride part way south as he seeks his birth parents.  All three struggle with profound loss and deep longing; all three hit the road looking for something.

 

A primary theme of the book is spiritual and religious faith, and the interaction between those who have it and those who do not.  Each sibling has different struggles with it, and these are explored against the backdrop of a trip through middle America to a church representing a spiritual, social, and political voice with which each traveller has an uncertain relationship.  Pountney handles this topic very well, taking faith and religious experience seriously while communicating the ambiguities of seeking God where there is both “ugliness and an appetite for the divine.”  This deft treatment is nowhere more evident than at the point where Connie and Hannah both seek prophetic ministry while Zeus, having concluded that “[t]his is bullshit,” and left the building, meets a young evangelical uncertain about his sexuality.  For Connie, there is a sense of coherence and insight, of God speaking.  Hannah is moved but has little clarity or sense of connection, less authenticity.  Zeus is tempted to confront a Christian culture that seems bent on making being gay so hard.  Is each simply seeing and hearing what he or she wants or needs or expects to hear?  Is God in one experience, or another, or all, or none?  Why do some receive confirming experiences of faith or spirituality or the divine and not others?  Pountney asks such questions without insisting on a particular answer, rather inviting her reader to wrestle with them.

 

Her achievement is greatly enhanced by addressing faith within the context of family.  The countless laughs and irritations and pleasures and woundings come through in spades, such as when Rose has suggested that Connie and Hannah visit the church in Kansas and we read that

…Connie didn’t enjoy hurting her mother.  It made her feel awful, but she couldn’t banish her own cruelty and impatience.  Why are you always trying to fix everyone? she said.  Why can’t you just support me without shoving your opinions in my face?

 

I’m not trying to fix anyone, Con, that’s not what I’m saying.  Rose looked so injured.  This is just something I thought would be really good for you.  Something I wanted us to share.

 

Connie pulled her hair back away from her face.

 

You don’t have to go – Rose took another quick suck on the little snorkel of her inhaler – it was just a suggestion.

 

Clumsy, unintentional scraping across old wounds, and inflicting new ones, even in a heartfelt effort to help and succour; for many, such experiences are indivisible from family.  Add disagreements over spiritual beliefs and the associated risk of hard words or even a break in relationship and you have a potent brew indeed.  Pountney handles the combination with tremendous skill, allowing her characters to be themselves rather than anyone's bullhorn.  This is helped by description and imagery that is vivid without being overwritten, for example her account of a worship service where “[t]he music gradually faded and the congregation, exhausted, subsided into their seats, like a wave sinking into the sand.” Pountney’s journey through this country rings true.

 

That said, the book isn't a home run.  The depiction of Connie's faith feels thin; here is an orthodox Christian who virtually never reads her Bible or prays outside liturgical formulas (and I speak as someone who loves liturgy).  Taking the perspective of Harlan, Norm, and Rose didn't seem to advance the story much, with the possible exception of Rose.  Perhaps most significantly, it is difficult to identify ways in which the characters changed, grew, or developed.  This might be thought unfair; part of Pountney’s apparent purpose is to show conversation about faith and family that is neither proselytization nor condemnation (in any direction), and “development” in this space easily becomes polemic on the author's part.  Still, there is an unsatisfying notion in the book that “we are all becoming more of who we are,” as if who we are is independent of our responses and reactions, as if interacting with those who differ from us can or even ought to be completely free of polemic.  As if the arcing that occurs between different and often conflicting narratives were that tidy.

 

The novel is more about Zeus than the others.  His journey sparks those of his sisters, and continues after theirs end. As he approaches his childhood home, he indeed moves into more of what he has known, more “newness and change, and loss.”  Is this all that is given him?  Will he find home, family, faith?  As the book concludes, such questions are as palpable as Zeus’ longing to see them answered, not intellectually, but in tears and an offered embrace.  That questioning and longing are ours too; we all have holy names that others have shortened for us.  Pountney beckons her reader into reflection and conversation about that.  She is to be thanked for the artful invitation.