New Literary Journal: A Canadian First!

Ottawa International Writers Festival launches its inaugural literary journal, foment, a first in the world of literary festivals

Foment features an eclectic cast of over twenty-five volunteer reviewers writing long-form reviews of the books featured at the Spring Edition of the Writers Festival – Canada’s largest independent literary festival. It also features an exclusive interview with the author Vincent Lam by the festival’s artistic director, Sean Wilson. Foment is edited by Daniel Bezalel Richardsen, a festival member and volunteer, who wanted to create a new outlet to feature thoughtful literary criticism of the books featured at the festival.

 

Martin Levin, Books Editor at The Globe & Mail, writing in his Foreword to the journal, calls it a "rich and rewarding mix," a publication which "continue[s] to care deeply about books and spread the literary gospel…unafraid too to make demands on the reader."

 

Mark Medley, Books Editor at National Post, praised the publication in his afterword, "[l]iterary festivals across Canada should take a cue from what’s happening here in Ottawa; I would love to see magazines such as this affiliated with every single one. If a healthy — and spirited — critical culture is to exist in this country, it will be partly because of publications such as this."

 

Read Foment
28
Thursday
Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

26
Tuesday
Feb

A Past That Haunts From the Ruins and From the Graves

 

We hear time and time again that the best writers write about what they know. All the better for us readers when the author happens to have lived a very interesting life, as M.G. Vassanji has. He spins a tale that draws us out of the routine of everyday life and plunges us into something beyond that of our own limited imaginations. In his latest book, The Magic of Saida , Vassanji does just that; telling a story about love, loss, the power of the past. Throughout, he masterfully weaves a hint of magic - a magic that seems plausible even to the most sceptical of his Western readers.

 

Saida relays the story of a half-Indian, half-African man, Kamal Punja, who leaves his comfortable life as a medical doctor in Edmonton to desperately seek out his childhood friend and one true love, whom he left behind in Tanzania decades before. In the process, he is faced with the reality of the country that he had also left behind. Immersed in the particularity of that physical space, he is confronted, and then haunted, by figures and events from his past. He also faces the stark realities of contemporary Tanzania and is forced into considering questions of world economics, culture, faith, magic, love, and virtue that his complacent life in Canada had allowed him to avoid.

 

Through a series of vignettes, Vassanji presents various moments in the history of Kamal and his ancestors, slowly revealing the factors that prompted his return to his hometown of Kilwa and his search for Saida. Growing up, he was the half-caste son of an African mother in an African village, but was always called “the Indian” by those around him. His days there were filled with a sensually depicted Africa – vivid in all of its sights and smells and tastes. On the brink of puberty, he was sent away to live with some of his father’s family, where he learned, painfully and slowly, to leave behind his Africanness and adopt everything that was Indian. Eventually, he worked his way to medical school, and while studying, Tanzania was shaken by a military coup that prompted his move to Canada. The long-term effects of this constant displacement are evident in Kamal’s impetus to search for some grounding in his history and traditions, a search that eventually draws him back to Kilwa.

 

Many readers will likely find themselves surprised at the abundance of moments during which they find themselves identifying closely with Kamal’s sense of rootlessness and disillusionment with the utter conventionality of his life in Edmonton. As he goes deeper in his search for that which is familiar, for somewhere where he is needed and appreciated, and for Saida and the love that he is certain that she retains for him, disappointment follows disappointment, fueling his ultimate search for Saida herself with an ever-increasing sense of desperation. At one point during his time in his hometown of Kilwa, he pauses to explain his situation to someone:

 

I am of here and these are my people, and yet I have a life and a family elsewhere. In Canada I’ve thought of myself as African – though not African Canadian or African American – attractive illusions for a while. It becomes difficult to say precisely what one is anymore. Isn’t that a common condition nowadays?

 

During his search for the mysterious Saida, Kamal finds himself thrust into contemporary Africa, full of its own contradictions and needs. This is no thinly-veiled polemic; Vassanji does not presume to suggest any “answers” or even to specify exactly what part of the reality that he describes might be called “problems.” But this book is as much about the history of a place and of a people as it is of a fictional individual. He discusses in detail the effect that the occupation of Tanzania by Germany, then later by the British, and finally by its own military, had on his own life and those around him. Directed towards a Western society that is increasingly postmodern in its thinking, Saida is both refreshing and encouraging in its acknowledgement of the essential links between history, tradition, and the present. Of Kamal’s search for his past, Vassanji writes:

 

The discovery of the truth did not follow a chronology, coming at the end of painstaking research; it did not come as an explosion of light, lux and veritas…His revelation is what he arrived at gradually, a story of Kilwa. It begins in the distant past and ends with the death of a poet.

 

And finally, there is the curious centrality of magic in this story. With each vignette, Vassanji chips away a little more at our modern, Western worship of facts and reason that insists that any hint of the supernatural be rejected as backwards and ignorant. Kamal clings desperately to this materialist maxim, but as he immerses himself more fully in his past, he is forced to surrender his long and proudly-held atheistic skepticism for something else. His life in Canada is rational – rational but empty. He travels through the places and the memories of his childhood and is reminded of a time when there was a constant interaction between the spiritual world and the physical one. As the story progresses, the links that existed in his past between literature, history, magic and God begin to emerge once again. He seeks his own roots, which are closely intertwined with those of Saida’s grandfather, the great national poet, who wrote under the inspiration of a djinn and composed his magnum opus, The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age, in the form of an epic poem. This blending of the material and spiritual worlds, and of fact and fiction, prefigures Kamal’s own search for the missing facts from his own life history that increasingly demands that he address the emotional and spiritual voids in his life.

 

Vassanji’s The Magic of Saida is a page-turner, from first to last. While greater themes of colonialism, displacement and belonging are all essential to the story, it cannot be called a story of colonialism. Rather, it is a story of Kamal Punja, and his search for his childhood sweetheart, Saida. The story is told in Vassanji’s brilliant style, and was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking book that I couldn’t put down, nor easily stop thinking about. Kamal opens his story by stating that, “The past haunted from the ruins and graves”. What follows, the story of Kamal’s past, left me feeling haunted by a sense of loss and the undeniable frailty of human life.

31
Wednesday
Oct

Cosmo Lava Bridge

I took my seat for Cosmo Lava Bridge—the second-to-last event of this autumn’s Writers Festival—and was treated to a bizarre and diverse bit of fiction. From Spencer Gordon’s glimpse into Leonard Cohen’s emails about sandwiches, to Anton Piatigorsky’s imagined lives of teenage dictators, to Barry Webster’s honey-sweating pubescent narrator, this was a night to remember.

 

Spencer Gordon opened the evening with selected readings from Cosmo , each of which was in the form of an email. The stories Gordon shared with tonight’s audience were written by Canada’s ever-beloved Leonard Cohen about Subway, consumerism, and facing one’s mortality. As strange as these subjects were, I found myself wishing that someone would send me similar emails; messages filled with passionate details of sandwiches, or public transportation. The world needs a greater appreciation of life’s minutia.

 

As it turns out, sandwiches now feel a lot holier to me, and are fully fit for the halls of Knox Presbyterian.

 

Anton Piatigorsky, whose work The Iron Bridge brings us alongside six historical dictators in their teenage years, shared a brief glimpse into the life of Rafael Trujillo from the Dominican Republic. As made clear in his reading, Piatigorsky does an excellent job of making some of the world’s worst into highly believable human beings. Trujillo, for example, is obsessive-compulsive, and sees his brother’s desecration of orderly bottle caps as a bad omen. Piatigorsky, unlike Gordon, obviously read from historical fiction: this was conveyed even within the calm, methodical tone of his spoken voice.

 

Both Gordon and Piatigorsky’s stories—though unique—were what I would consider reasonable, contemporary fiction. Barry Webster, however, does not write reasonable fiction. Webster’s readings from The Lava in My Bones were—to say the very least—fascinating, but likely largely inaccessible to a wider audience. That being said, Webster wrote and read with great effectiveness: it is quite possible that, as a result of Webster’s narrators, I will have nightmares about sweating honey, or about being followed around by a set of eyes.

 

In short, I’m glad my puberty experience did not involve bees.

 

During the Q&A portion of Cosmo Lava Bridge, it became apparent that one of these authors was not like the other. To be clear: Gordon, Piatigorsky and Webster are all excellent Canadian authors who most certainly deserve our patronage. Piatigorsky, however, approached his particular selection of reading (and thus his writing process) in much different manner than the other two. This is reasonable, considering the subject matter, and provided an interesting contrast to the sometimes-extreme surrealism of Gordon and Webster.

 

Webster received a question regarding the somewhat obvious influence of fairy tale on his work, and reminded the audience that writing through a non-realistic medium can make not oft’ discussed obsessions or subconscious ideas more real than so-called “realism” would. Later, Gordon sarcastically referred to realism as “that crusty horrible word,” a statement revelatory of his writing inclinations. All told, the Q&A portion of the evening served as a vibrant if somewhat predictable discussion of the details of the writing process.

 

It is events such as Cosmo Lava Bridge that make me wish the Ottawa Writers Festival could be a monthly occurrence.

31
Wednesday
Oct

The Unfinished Revolution: The Global Fight for Women’s Rights

It’s a time of change in the world, with dictators toppling and new opportunities rising, but any revolution that doesn’t create equality for women will be incomplete. The time has come to realize the full potential of half the world’s population.

— Christiane Amanpour, from the foreword to The Unfinished Revolution

 

This quote rang true throughout Minky Worden’s discussion on the global fight for women and girl’s rights. She opened by reading an excerpt she had writtten to introduce the book. The first sentence was hopeful as it summarized the gains of the women’s rights movement, such as recognizing the value of women’s work. However, what followed depicted a different story.  She spoke of how much we still need to overcome, as girls are still being married at very young ages, trafficked into forced labour and sold as sex slaves.

 

There was talk about how women are at the front of the revolution, speaking out for their rights while living in areas where such behaviour could find you imprisoned, tortured, or killed. How one young girl took a stand against a rights violation, only to meet with a short surge of support, then to taper off and nearly be forgotten in the media. While listening to Minky passionately talk about these violations and how women across the world are taking a stand for their rights, it made me feel proud of being a woman and encouraged me to do take on a similar fight in Canada.

 

After a brief discussion of the book, one audience member asked whether the access to technology has been helping the movement. The answer was a little bitter-sweet. The short answer is, yes, it has been very helpful because people are able to send messages so quickly and affordably in order to inform the world about the current situations and violations that are ongoing. Support can be raised, people can organized, and in the minute updates can be given. But there is another side that not many think about. Minky gave the example of China and how the government can use technology to become like a ‘Big Brother’ by monitoring their citizens in order to squash any possibility of an uprising.  

 

As I looked around the room, I couldn’t help but notice how many women were present, giving me a strong sense of being in solidarity while fighting for woman’s rights. However, I had wished that there were more men in attendance as this important message needs to be heard by them if sustainable change is to occur.

 

After listening to this discussion I brought back with me two key points, the fight for women’s rights is still raging, and making myself aware of the violations against women is the the start of joining the fight for global women’s rights.

30
Tuesday
Oct

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid of Sufficient Conclusions

Two authors, one clad in red boots, the other in a red sweater, lit up the stage with their rich tales of fiction, engaging the audience, and bringing us who escaped the strong winds and swirling leaves outdoors, into their worlds. The weather, no doubt the reverberations of the super-storm Sandy, also kept the third author Ayad Akhtar along with the earlier slotted Rabbi Harold Kushner.

 

The evening began with a reading by Shani  Boianjiu ,  a young Israeli-author, new to the scene of professional art literature. Her novel titled  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid depicts the stories of three young Israeli women and their experiences while fulfilling the mandatory two-year national army service required of all Israelis. The reading focused upon Avishag, a sarcastic, defiant, yet insecure character.  Boianjiu  wowed the audience with the manner in which she brought Avishag to life.

 

Following Boianjiu’s reading, author Sarah Dearing took the podium, and read excerpts from her novel,  The Art of Sufficient Conclusions . Beginning with a dramatic scene, Dearing took the audience into the life of her protagonist, Abigail, sharing with us her quirky obsessions as well as her wit, fears and insecurities. Dearing embraced the audience with her reading, demonstrating her storytelling capacity.

 

Following the readings, event host Sandra Abma of the CBC, began a discussion with  Boianjiu  and  Dearing,  delving into the meaning of identity and the role it maintains in their novels.

 

To begin, Abma asked the authors, what they were trying to accomplish in the writing of their respective novels.

 

In response,  Boianjiu  expressed her desire to paint a picture of life as an 18-year-old female. She stated that her goal was not to write about the army itself; rather, she sought to bring meaning and art to the army experience. To do this gives a voice to people who often do not get one - including border guards, and Sudanese refugees. Importantly,  Boianjiu  also speaks of her intention to bring to life the difficulties of balancing female teenage life with the responsibilities of being a soldier.

 

Dearing suggested that her novel began as a journey about discovery. Discovery of truth- about her father and his origins, and manner in which she could decrypt the story she discovered in a meaningful way. Dearing also spoke to her desire to highlight the important role a father maintains in his children’s lives - even in death.

 

Writing fiction from fact, is common to both  Boianjiu  and  Dearing’s  novels .  When asked about the process of creating fiction from fact, both authors admitted that they struggled.  Boianjiu  and Dearing expressed that they had struggled to work through what they wanted to include from real life, what they wanted to embellish, and what they wanted to leave out in favour of a tale born from their imagination. Dearing suggested that fictionalizing herself was challenging (her protagonist is loosely based off of her journey to understand her father’s past), and  Boianjiu  commented that it was difficult to determine which of her personal stories best suited the personalities she established for her characters.

 

As the evening came to an end, Abma asked the two authors about the role of humour in their novels. In response, both agreed that humour was an important element of their works. “After all”, she said, she had to make her character “more [screwed] up than she herself.”

 

Boianjiu’s novel is currently being translated from English to her mother tongue, Hebrew. She anticipates the reaction of Israeli readers. Boainjiu's decision to write in English was more a pragmatic decision than a calculated one; she took creative writing classes while at Harvard, and thus had to write in English. Writing in a second language compelled her to be more thoughtful with her words, and Boianjiu felt that it also resulted in unique style and voice.

 

The discussion concluded with thoughtful questions, and a hearty applause from the audience - expressing their thanks for an entertaining evening, and respect for these two dynamic authors.