Often when a book sets out to explore the aftermath of historical events or acts of terror it tries to answer the “why.” Why did they do it? Why then? Why this way? But in exploring the 1984 Air India bombing in her new novel, All Inclusive , Farzana Doctor takes a different approach.
At the heart of Doctor’s novel are the stories of Ameera and her father Azeez who are separated the day Azeez boards Air India flight 182 on his way home to India. The chapters switch back and forth between Ameera and Azeez’s perspective; two storylines which themselves are on a crash course.
Azeez’s first few chapters trace his last days with the living.Two days before the bombing he meets Nora and engages in his first and last sexual encounter, which results in Nora's conception. The next day Azeez is too nervous to call Nora before he gets on his plan and he leaves without giving her any way to reach him.
As Azeez settles into the plane and makes friends with other passengers there is fleeting moment of hope that this might not be that Air India plane, but there is no escaping history here. Instead of the flight ending Azeez’s story however, it is only the beginning. As Azeez’s body sinks into the sea, never to be found, his spirit remains tied to earth.
"It was liberating to write about the afterlife," says Doctor. "This is an arena which allows the imagination to roam because none of us have any idea what happens next. I blended Islamic ideas (we believe in angels and some of us believe that spirits of ancestors are with us long after they pass) but I found myself 'making up' the rest and enjoying the process."
The imagination of the afterlife is one of the highlights of the novel. Azeez is granted carte blanche and is able to see and hear everything as he tries to help his family overcome his death and carry on with their lives. Azeez, as a human, was still a boy. In spiritual limbo he grows wiser, more compassionate and supportive. Azeez’s living-self pales in comparison to the ghost he becomes.
Ameera contrasts her father in this perspective. Her character is so alive that she feels like a best friend. While her father takes a spiritual journey towards self-discovery, she engages in a sexual one.
Ameera has escaped from her life in Hamilton to work as a tour operator at a resort in Huatulco, Mexico. Here she finds her true sexual identity. Deciding that it is safer to sleep with resort guest who are couples, (they are more discreet) Ameera embraces the freedom that comes with being a unicorn. The only problem: she has to keep it secret or risk putting her job and a promotion in jeopardy.
Throughout the novel, two strong stories evolve: Azeez’s driven by spiritual fulfillment and Ameera’s by sexual desire. "These are two aspects of ourselves that humans find baffling," says Doctor. "With both, we might deny, undervalue, suppress, or not question our beliefs and values. The two characters are contrasting figures with these aspects; Ameera lacks spiritual development, but allows her sexuality to be expansive, while Azeez’s process requires him to grow spiritually, while remaining an (almost) virgin."
Slowly, Azeez and Ameera find each other, Azeez with the help of his spirit guides and Ameera with the help of a lesbian couple she meets at the resort. The spiritual and the sexual journeys of the two characters complement each other, and Ameera and Azeez help the other move on to the next stage of their (after) life.
Through the relationship of the ghost and the living, Doctor emphasises the importance of looking back on our history and listening to the stories it has to tell. Instead of querying the causes of the Air India bombing, Doctors explores how we learn from the past.
The Air India bombing doesn’t feature prominently in the canon of Canadian literature, and in many ways is a ghost itself. In All Inclusive, Doctor crafts a modern ghost story that emphasises an open mind when it comes to history and a focus on its outcomes rather than its cause.
Farzana Doctor will be part of our spring festival on Friday, April 15 with Nadia Bozak and Christine Dwyer Hickey.
Saskatchewan’s Carol Daniels –writer, artist and musician–was Canada's first Aboriginal woman to anchor a national newscast. Raw and honest, her debut novel Bearskin Diary draws on her experience as a journalist and investigates what it means to find your voice and dare to speak up. With her debut, Daniels adds an important perspective to the Canadian literary landscape.
Born in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Joan Crate ’s first novel, Breathing Water , was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Award and the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her latest, Black Apple , is a dramatic and lyrical coming-of-age novel about a young Blackfoot girl who grows up in the residential school system on the Canadian prairies.
Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is a writer, spoken word artist, activist and the founder and Managing Editor of Kegedonce Press, one of only four Indigenous publishers in Canada. In The Stone Collection , she takes on complex and dangerous emotions, exploring the gamut of modern Anishinaabe experience. It is “generous, funny and dark,” and "doesn’t pull its emotional punches but it leavens its grim truths with bright humour and earthy lust,” says Eden Robinson.
After a vicious beating in a hotel room robbery in South Africa, however, James Bartleman , Ontario’s first Native lieutenant governor, was forced to come to terms with a deepening depression. In the end, Bartleman found new meaning in life when he became the Queen’s representative in Ontario and mobilized the public to support his initiatives championing books and education for Native children.
Humans do not all live equal lives; history shows this and all sensible philosophers concede this truth. There are strong ones among us: smart, rich, powerful, cunning.
The rest, the strong considers weak, and it seems a given that most injustices perpetrated flow from the “strong” to those they consider “weak”: religious intolerance, tribal and ethnic violence, “casual” sexism, economic instability, Jim Crow. There is also within all humans a sense of justice, that we are all of us entitled to freedom, the realization of our true selves, and possibly, transcendence. It is in valuing these rights that the oppressed lash out at their oppressors. One of the more readily available and viable forms of righting societal wrongs is protest. From the protests of the citizens of Uruk against Gilgamesh’s despotism to the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution to the British abolition of slavery, the most important injustices have been met with the cries of the oppressed and the will to act against the powers that be.
Consider this: More than half the nations on the face of the earth were birthed out of protest movements; over eighty percent of sub-Saharan Africa was, as were the U.S. and Scotland. Slaves against masters, vassal states against suzerains, the weak wrestle against the strong and break their yokes and the strong either repress or relent. It is simply the world we live in.
Like Spartacus, the Martin Luther namesakes, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and the Ekitis of the old Oyo Kingdom in Western Nigeria, Micah White understands this tool and has deployed it to great effect. He is credited as a co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most visible protest movement of the last twenty-five years, and is by extension an uncle to similar uprisings elsewhere. This he has achieved alongside Kalle Lasn, a Vancouver native, using the provocative Adbusters magazine as a launching pad. White, however, considers the Occupy movement a constructive failure, and in a talk given at the Southminster United Church, Ottawa–and further explained in his new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution —he explains why he holds this opinion and the possible futures of protests in this era.
Here are a few things about Micah White. Thirty-four, he is of mixed heritage–half African-American, half Caucasian– and he speaks in a river’s rumble of a voice. He likes to keep his hair–which is more a young lion’s mane–together using a bandanna. He has been an activist since he was thirteen and in public schools, once founding an atheists’ club and eventually landing on an episode of “Politically Incorrect.” For him the visual imagery of Adbusters, combined with its rich symbolism and creativity, was what drew him to the magazine, and eventually a memo he sent out became the blueprint of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the eventual fallout between Adbusters and the Occupy movement Micah is reticent.
In Ottawa he speaks of his work with Adbusters and the e-mail that shook the world and engendered protests in at least sixty countries, and he opines that the success of all social movements come from a combination of an established social network, a contagious mood, and creative tactics. He focuses mostly on this contagious mood and in the talk, the Q&A session and his book he is enthusiastic about the role of what he calls “spirit–the inner force that grants patience, perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity.” Like the Luther-named leaders and most of his African-American predecessors, White firmly believes that a spiritual element is key to the success of all protests, and that the very act of protesting is capable of opening doors to transcendence for its participants. The absence of this element is a major critique of his for the Black Lives Matter movement, which to him has lost its way by rejecting the deep spirituality of its predecessors.
An important part of White’s work are his Four Theories of Revolution: voluntarism, which works on the premise of human action being the only way through which lasting change can come and under which most contemporary activists work; structuralism, which teaches the insignificance of human intent on the creation of lasting change and instead credits economic and natural forces for any changes; subjectivism, which teaches that outside change comes from inward change, and; theurgism, a somewhat mystical and largely forgotten theory which credits lasting change to divine intervention. White believes that all four theories are needed for effective protest, and history mostly avers. America’s Founding Fathers, actively seeking to break out from under the British monarchy, invoked divine will, called for human action against the perceived oppressiveness of the monarchy, wrote magnificent works on the “American spirit,” and provoked a British crimping of Boston’s commerce, all of which led to the American Revolutionary War. Nearly two centuries later African-American civil rights movement fought redlining and the Jim Crow economy, borrowed liturgical language from Jewish and Christian canon to state the case for equal rights, marched in the streets, and leveraged whatever economic power they had to see that they and their descendants were guaranteed equal treatment by the US government.
White also sees the current forms of protest as largely corrupted by the media and contemporary activists who prefer online rants to actual grunt work. He derides the degradation of protest into performance art, an inevitable occurrence given the way such protests are covered by media conglomerates as expressions of mostly-youthful belligerence, often with insidious racial, religious and ideological undertones. Conversely, he criticizes online activism as a form of narcissistic justification without, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “skin in the game.” He is right to put it that way, however unpleasant it may sound. The rise of hashtag activism and “spreading awareness” campaigns do little to confront actual, lived realities as much as comfort the keyboard warrior that one has played a part by “supporting” a cause, however far removed an individual’s immediate reality actually is from said cause. Awareness of a given injustice is a byproduct of the work done to right that injustice and should never be the goal nor a tool of any protest group, he argues.
Since he considers most of contemporary activism either too deeply rooted in certain ideologies to be pragmatic or just plain ineffectual, White looks to the rural areas, feminist activism, and protest-bots for the future of activism. These possible hotbeds have largely been overlooked, he says, and he is convinced that the perceptions of bourgeois and liberal urbanites of the rural communities as largely conservative and racist hotbeds are misguided. Rural communities are well aware the way the wind blows the world, he says, and because of the ineffectiveness of the urban, liberal-leaning left it will be they who will eventually decide how the world reacts to the winds of change. He also envisions a global female movement fighting for women’s rights the world over as a welcome future of protest, and he believes in the use of technological advances to further activist causes. However, the excessive presence of a thing inevitably signals its devaluation, and he argues that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has served as a double-edged sword for protest movements in these times. Protest should never be easy, he says, admitting to being scared every time he has to protest.
The key to understanding Micah White and his work lies at the intersection of the mystical and the physical realities and his reasoned understanding of the machinations of our world. While his work has shown how potent human activity can be in creating global change he is keenly aware of a spiritual input to the success of his work and in no unclear terms states that all protest is fundamentally spiritual. He is loath to completely endorse one given worldview, preferring to learn as much as he can from all and adapt as needed, chameleon-like. But perhaps the deepest truth we can glean from White’s important work, no less an unhappy truth, is that protest without backing power is limited in its possibilities. An example: the global antiwar march of February 15, 2003. In an interview with Justin Campbell of the Los Angeles Review of Books, White points out the naïve assumptions made by the protesters who assumed that large numbers of protesters corresponded to increased influence over President Bush’s decisions. The age of mass marches and public protest as the ley tools for effective change is drawing to a close, he argues, citing the failures of the People’s Climate March to achieve any meaningful results concerning climate change and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement to stem the nationwide killing of young black males in the U.S., amongst others.
It is the way of the world that the strong mostly win, and that the perceived weak are entertainment for the strong. But protest against injustice all humans must, remembering it is also the way of the world that few lions can survive repeated kicks to the head from a wildebeest’s hoof.
 Mattathias Schwartz (2011, November 28) “Pre-Occupied”. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
 Micah White (2016). The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
 Justin Campbell (2015, September 17). “The Challenge of Protest in Our Time. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved March 21, 2016
It was fitting, in a way, to gather in a church and talk about miracles—even if only the literary sort—and on Monday night, Southminster United was at capacity with nearly 600 attendees for our illustrious novelist’s appearance.
John Irving, without question one of the most influential living American fiction writers, would read from his 14th book, the freshly published Avenue of Mysteries. In conversation with CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Irving did not disappoint, with a professorial air and a measured response for each question; he addressed Ottawa with generosity and openness, inviting attendees to step into a world of his creation, to see what mysteries and miracles lay within.
And what a world it is! The depth characteristic of Irving’s work lends itself to serious discussion on such varied topics as magical realism, marginalized characters, and the line between comedy and horror. Harewood deftly steered the conversation, allowing Irving to “answer in an elliptical fashion,” as the author put it, while still directing their chat. One of the memorable moments came when Harewood attempted to segue into talking about Irving’s reputation for writing sex scenes. “I used to think I had a very vivid sexual imagination before I read you,” said Harewood, prompting delighted laughter from the audience and Irving alike.
Irving invited the audience to peer through a door when answering questions concerning his writing process, which he says he approaches from knowing the ending of the story, and working his way through to it. “I need to know what I am writing toward,” he said. But he acknowledged a long gestation for his books once he understands the story’s ending, a period in which “novels wait 5 to 8 years.” The reason for this waiting: something he is avoiding writing.
“There has to be something that has been waiting, unwritten,” he explained. He said he asked himself, “What is in the story that really turns my stomach?” Without that, he said there was no point in taking the time to write the novel, because it would not have the impact on the reader. “We are drawn to what frightens us…how perverse the process of writing fiction is, how masochistic.”
One of the most eye-opening moments of the evening’s discussion revolved around the issue of gender equality. Early in the conversation, Irving revealed that he credits his empathy and propensity for creating marginalized characters to his mother, whose feminist ideals were radical and pioneering.
Toward the end of the evening, Harewood delved specifically into Irving’s reasons for writing transgender characters such as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and Flor in Avenue of Mysteries. Harewood noted that Garp, published in 1978, was ahead of its time in its portrayal of a transgender character. “Thank you for noticing!” said Irving. A lively dialogue followed, during which Irving expressed his dissatisfaction with the sexual revolution: “You think things are different? I don’t think so!” he responded, in reaction to being questioned about a new miniseries production of Garp. The material is still timely, he said, because “there are dinosaurs among us” who still do not recognize the need for true gender equality. The audience erupted in supportive applause.
Whether the attendees came for the novel or the novelist, the evening was rich with metaphor and glimpses into the miraculous. Though Irving confesses that Avenue of Mysteries is a story of children at risk, he also knows that Juan Diego, the main character and one of those children, “is in it for the real thing” – the miracles. In describing how a childhood event can seem to eclipse the adult life, and how that phenomenon informs his writing, it becomes clear that Irving is casting the coming-of-age experience as a miracle, too. Through discussion of his writing process and peeks into what makes him tick, Irving was able to show us the real wonder.
“That’s what fiction writers do. We take something that’s true and we make it more true,” Irving explained.” So he does.
It was a full house at the Centretown United Church last Thursday evening, as crime fiction aficionados gathered to hear Ian Rankin discuss his new novel, Even Dogs in the Wild . The book is his twentieth (yes, you read that correctly) novel about John Rebus, an Edinburgh police detective who Rankin says jumped into his head twenty years ago as a fully-formed character complete with an ex-wife, teenage daughter and cynical world view. Over the years, both Rankin and Rebus have matured —now in his mid-sixties, Rebus has come out of retirement to solve another crime.
The evening’s discussion was hosted by Peggy Blair, a crime writer based in Ottawa, who has Rankin to thank for helping her get her start as a writer. She began by telling the story of how the pair first became acquainted; following a chance meeting in an English pub five years ago, Rankin’s generosity led to Blair being represented by Rankin’s agent which resulted in her subsequent debut on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s hot list. After learning about Blair’s start in publishing, Rankin then discussed his beginnings as an author. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, he was supposed to be working towards his PhD in Scottish Literature. He was planning to write his thesis on Muriel Spark, whose book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , Rankin cites as one of his favourites. However, he spent most of his time writing fiction instead. Though his very first novel never saw the light of day, his second, The Flood, was published in 1986 and was followed a year later by his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses .
Rankin never planned to write a second Rebus book – he actually intended for the character to be killed at the end of the first novel – but when sales of his other books were dwindling, his publisher encouraged him to bring the detective back. Rankin never imagined himself as a crime writer —he dreamed of penning “the great Scottish novel” and was initially even surprised to see his novels in the crime section of the bookstore. However, after receiving an invitation from the Crime Writers’ Association to join them, he couldn’t deny it any longer. Over the years he has received four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, including the prestigious Diamond Dagger. Rankin and Blair discussed the concept of crime genre fiction and how literary fiction and crime fiction do not need to be mutually exclusive. Rankin raised the point that the popular Harry Potter series features many of the same tropes as crime and mystery novels; an interesting comparison considering the fact that Harry Potter also ages along with his book series, just like John Rebus.
Rankin lamented the publishing industry of twenty years ago, before the rise of e-publishing and social media. He said that he is completely unfamiliar with the current concept of e-publishing, it is not the world he knows, and that if anyone were to ask him for advice on how to get started as an author now he wouldn’t have a clue. I found these comments particularly interesting as I completed an MA in Publishing in 2013, and a number of my classes were focused on the digital presence of the author and how the Internet has allowed writers to reach readers in increasingly new and different ways. I think it is important for newer writers to curate an online presence in order to market themselves; however, this is something Rankin need not worry about. With many years of successful novels behind him, now the strength of his name alone sells books around the world.
Monday night’s post-festival event at Southminster United Church was unsurprisingly a full house. Some attendees might argue the event’s appeal was extensive talk of sexbots (and the vast irony of such talk occurring in a church), but instead, all attention was on one of Canada’s foremost and most beloved authors, the inimitable Margaret Atwood. As host Alan Neal emoted more than once in the opening moments of the event, Monday’s event was certainly a welcome to the mind of Margaret Atwood, as sexbot-oriented as it may be.
Much of the evening’s discussion between Neal and Atwood focused on Atwood’s overall writing process, much to the delight of the budding writers in the crowd. More specifically, however, Atwood shared about the process by which her most recent publication, The Heart Goes Last, transformed from an online serial publication to a regular novel.
One of the questions Alan Neal asked during the course of the evening how Atwood went about finding or developing her characters for The Heart Goes Last. Her response? She doesn’t find characters sitting on a shelf somewhere; they grow out of the story that she tells. Despite what plenty of people may believe about the work of writers, Atwood intimated that her characters emerge during the process of creating a story; those characters don’t pre-exist. Certainly, new developments emerged for the characters of The Heart Goes Last when it transformed into a novel, but Atwood seems to imply that those character transformations were organic.
When asked about her writing process, Atwood shared that, once upon a time, she attempted to write in a calculated, formulaic way: this, Atwood said, was the Post-It note style. Specifically, Atwood shared that she tried this particular writing tactic in 1968 by using a series of filing cards and creating a formula of characters and sections. Colour coding was even involved, which sets my mildly obsessive-compulsive heart aglow, but those notes and codes certainly didn’t please Atwood.
After going through the aforementioned process, Atwood commented that she knew a lot about those characters, but absolutely nothing had happened. In the same vein, she shared advice that she gave to a friend writing a murder mystery: in the most Atwood-way possible, she suggested that this friend move the dead body closer to the front. Ultimately, Atwood shared that the writing process is akin to that of a rat searching for cheese in a maze: sometimes, you just have to throw it all out and start all over again.
One of my favourite moments of the evening (and one of a few times during which I laughed out loud) was Atwood’s recalling the helpful feature of the Microsoft Word of days gone by, wherein a small box would appear, commenting that “you seem to be trying to write a letter; would you like some help?” Atwood was, however, quick to clarify that this she was referring to a little, advice-giving box, and not the googly-eyed paperclip, the latter of which she strongly disliked. (After some quick research, I’ve discovered the aforementioned square and paperclip are more professionally referred to as office assistants. Go figure.)
One of the night’s most interesting pieces of information was that Atwood has attended ComicCon. In short, she was one of a few authors commissioned to compose an anthology in honour of Ray Bradbury. Sadly, before Atwood and her co-authors could present the publication to Bradbury at ComicCon, he passed away. (Atwood has a beautiful, long form piece about Bradbury in The Guardian for those who are interested.) Atwood and her fellow writers opted to show up in Bradbury’s honour at ComicCon anyway. Atwood shared further tales of comic-con, commented about receiving a Hobbit tote bag with which she would not part. Additionally, she shared about a connection with some Iranian filmmakers and her subsequent poster cameo in the recent cult film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
If her Twitter relationship with Rob Delaney, her political engagement or her deep love of birds weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m certain that Monday’s event will have attendees tip the scales in Atwood’s favour toward national treasure, peculiar as she may be.
Torrential rain and broken umbrellas didn't stop the excited audience from filling up the pews in the cozy and brightly lit Centretown United Church. This was an event that no one wanted to miss and it didn't disappoint.
The evening began with a goose bump-inducing reading of In Flanders Fields as read by Leonard Cohen. In the moment the recording played, every single person was connected and held captive by the powerful words, which continue to hold profound meaning for Canadians.
Lt. -Gen. Roméo Dallaire read a passage from In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance (the anthology that all three speakers collaborated on) and provided the audience with the unexplored and emotional perspective of a commander who is responsible for other people's lives. He spoke about how the poem never hit home until the day he had to give orders to soldiers who ultimately died under his command. "The poem wasn't a poem anymore ... it was living ... the experience that this poem articulates is a responsibility for Captains. It's a responsibility to prepare soldiers to be effective and survive and a responsibility to carry the fact that those who don't come back are because of your orders." This poignant final sentence followed the tone set by Leonard Cohen's reading and added depth to the poem's meaning and our understanding of it.
Then Tim Cook began with a light-hearted anecdote about how In Flanders Fields was the only poem he had ever memorized but he noted although the poem always mattered to him, he had never thought about the man behind it until now. Cook humanized John McCrae. He was no longer simply the poet or the historical figure but "a leading young man in every sense." He was the healer who desperately wanted to go to war, the asthmatic who excelled in sports, and the humorous man who sang in a lunatic asylum "where the audience is not disposed to be particularly critical." However, he also carried the weight of the war with him and the "torch" of his poem resonates with grieving families who return to McCrae's words to soothe their scars and light the way forward.
Mary Janigan approached the poem in a different way—one that not many would think of. She spoke of the effect In Flanders Fields had on the 1917 election. Janigan admitted she initially, didn't see the connection until she read the last six lines of the poem. These lines were quoted to rally support for Sir Robert Borden who pushed for conscription.
However, the "poem was sent into battle and the enemy was Sir Wilfrid Laurier [who opposed conscription]." The resonance of the poem played a huge role in how the country almost broke up, illustrating how this poem can have many meanings across space and time.
The evening ended with a brief Question and Answer session where Dallaire, Cook, and Janigan spoke about the impact and meaning of World War I and why it's more memorable than World War II: "it affects every town and city in the country ... it's an Armageddon we can't get over that. It's the war that shook us. It changed us, it almost tore us apart ... it's the war we can't forget." Those final words bring us back to the chilling reading, which started the event and remind us of its call for remembrance and responsibility.
This evening, which was filled with different perspectives of a beloved poem, showed the audience that In Flanders Fields has many unexplored meanings. With every experience and every reading, new meanings may arise (I know I'll be reading it again with a new set of eyes). Ultimately, this poem will continue to resonate with us.
It’s miserable outside. The remnants of hurricane Patricia have thoroughly drenched Ottawa. Everything feels damp, especially the Centretown United Church. As I walk down the red-carpeted aisle looking for a seat I realize how full it is. Most of the 12 rows of wooden pews are occupied and I have to ask a group of people to move so I can squeeze past. I put down my coffee and umbrella, and settle myself into the uncomfortable wooden seat. I’m here to listen to Gwynne Dyer discuss his book Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East with host, Adrian Harewood from the CBC.
Harewood’s introduction includes a lengthy, laundry list of Dyer’s credentials; Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history, a member of the order of Canada, the list goes on. If the full house wasn’t enough of a clue, such an introduction shows that this man knows what he is talking about and people want to hear him.
Dyer and Harewood take a seat at the front of the church; behind them are stained glass pictures of crosses and large organ pipes that reach up to the ceiling. The discussion begins with the title of the book: don’t panic. Harewood questions whether it is truly reasonable for there to be no concern regarding ISIS, but Dyer is happy to clarify: “Well if we were in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Syria, yes panic,” extending his arms out and addressing the audience, “I mean you don’t panic!” He points out the 8,000 kilometres that separate Canada and Syria is a more than comforting barrier.
The conversation, guided by Harewood, discusses the history of ISIS, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, and how the West fits into everything. How a record of discontent between the treatment of Shias and Sunnis, and Western influence in the Middle East helped create the monster we know today as ISIS. It’s eye opening to see how ill prepared the West was. Entering Iraq with thousands of soldiers, but a handful of people who could speak Arabic. Rounding up everyone who looked suspicious, which according to Dyer was everyone male and under 60. This tactic gave many extremists the opportunity to network and recruit.
Dyer also discusses his support of Justin Trudeau’s stance to pull out of Syria. That the risk of ISIS capturing a Canadian fighter and publicizing some horrific torture over the Internet would not outweigh the minimal impact we’re currently making.
With the closing of Dyer’s remarks, Harewood opens up the floor to questions. Arms shoot into the air, many people eager to ask Dyer his thoughts. It’s remarkable to see the wide variety of topics people are interested in and how they are tied into Middle Eastern issues. The first to receive the microphone is a man seated in the first row. He quickly states he is more panicked now than he was before the talk, to which Dyer jovially tells him to relax. The next girl is a young lady who’s more interested in sharing how the Iraq war impacted her rather than asking a question. Another gentleman points how climate change in the Gulf has furthered tensions by moving people into urban centers and increasing unemployment. Others are concerned with the refugee crisis. The variety of questions demonstrated the complexity of the issue.
Stepping out into the puddle spotted sidewalk, I couldn’t help sharing the sentiment of the man in the front row. There was no resolution, no easy answer. I left with lots of questions and thoughts bubbling in my mind. I also left with a copy of Don’t Panic, I’m not entirely convinced the contents will be as persuasive as the title, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Watching the man on stage, his bright eyes and engaging smile make it difficult to imagine him as a child soldier. This image develops, however, as he recounts his childhood in the Congo when, as a five-year-old boy, he was abducted from a soccer field into a life of war. As I look over the faces of the audience I am evidently not the only one spellbound by Michel's tale. Nor could I be the only one wondering how he came to stand in front of the packed gallery today.
Michel Chikwanine, a charming and eloquent speaker, holds the crowd's rapt attention while his mother and two sisters sit beaming. The focus of his talk, though, is not on his personal tragedy, but on his inspirational message. This remarkable positivity shines through the pages of his book Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War , a beautifully illustrated graphic novel detailing his capture and grisly initiation into a rebel militia.
With the unfolding of his story, I notice a creeping mosaic of feelings likely familiar to many westerners hearing tales of third-world plight. The first is the guilt that comes from realizing that a tragic reality I had pushed to my mind's periphery now stands before me. The next is a feeling of awe, that something so profoundly difficult could be this heroically overcome. Then comes a hot indignation that such horrors are still present today, with over 250,000 child soldiers currently spread across the world. Daunting as this picture is, the one feeling I don't experience is despair. Perhaps Michel's enthusiasm is contagious. Or maybe it's hearing about the awful trials he surmounted. Whatever the cause of my optimism, the expressions of the crowd tell me I am in good company.
In all honesty, I had envisioned a dour occasion, but almost immediately I could sense that his was not a tale of horror but a story of hope. As in his book, the fabric of Chikwanine’s speech is woven together by two equal themes: courage and knowledge. Clearly he has adopted these traits from his parents; his mother's strength emanates from the audience, his father's presence is almost palpable on the stage.
Michel's father, a human rights lawyer, made many enemies speaking up against abuses by the corrupt Congolese government. The young Michel, catching wind of the threats against his father, once asked if he was afraid. His father replied that everyone dies, what matters is the legacy we pass on to our family and to the world.
Following his father's assassination, Michel moved with his family to Canada, seeking opportunity and safety. So improved was his situation that Michel recalls feeling baffled listening to children complain about their lunch food and cell phones. Today's youth can view the scale of global problems with a helpless cynicism; the question "what can I do?" becoming almost rhetorical. Michel's first-hand experiences gives him a unique capability to offer an answer.
Michel proclaims what Africa needs above all else is a restructuring of the education system. He explains that the current model is nearly an empty vessel, with many schools still using history textbooks written by British colonialists in the 1950s. Humanitarian aid must be refocused away from creating a culture of dependence and towards educational programs helping communities empower themselves.
While all human beings share an equal capacity for courage, Michel believes that Western peoples have prospered because we are equipped with knowledge. In particular, he points to the skills of critical thinking and entrepreneurialism, referring to them as the West's most desperately needed export. The aim, he says, is not to import a foreign culture, but for Africa to complement its historical identity with 21st century dignity. Michel believes that only through the alleviation of ignorance can we eliminate poverty, and with it, the tragic phenomena of child soldiers.
Deeper than the scars of war are the marks left by his loving parents. Michel's book is an uplifting portrayal of his hard-won lessons. It concludes with a roadmap to the future and to the renewal of a continent. Watching Michel accept an enthusiastic applause I can't help but believe in the possibilities he described, and in the human ability to transform adversity into real world change.
“Well this is the strangest pairing!” Camilla Gibb laughed gently. The audience at the Writers Festival event Only Interpretations with AJ Somerset and Camilla Gibb tittered ruefully. Camilla Gibb has written five books, each most likely featured in book clubs across the country, mostly centering around female protagonists on an emotional journey. Her latest, This is Happy, features Gibb herself at the centre of an absorbing memoir about being abandoned by her wife at eight months pregnant and rebuilding her life by gathering a makeshift family of similarly broken people under her roof. Sarah Polley’s quotation follows the book through review after review: “This Is Happy broke me, lifted me up, and filled me. I can't remember the last time I read something so honest, tender, brutal and kind.” AJ Somerset’s second book, Arms , is a spittingly angry treatise on gun culture and its history in Canada and the United States. Judging from the lack of people with both books to be signed at the end of the performance, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the readers.
Listening to Somerset, I reflected on how marginal he is: a literary gun enthusiast who hates gun culture. Somerset is a former gunnery instructor with the Canadian army and sports shooter who has permanent tinnitus from the sound of his shotgun going off while trapshooting. And yet, as a thoughtful sports journalist with left-wing values, he is enraged by the airtight identity that is assumed along with gun ownership, “And of course you are also assumed to hold a set of shared beliefs on any number of subjects completely unrelated to guns – on partisan politics and government and climate change and environmental regulations and religion and whether the war in Iraq was a good idea – as if your gun had come with a free, bonus ideological Family Pack.”
Somerset’s quest is not to problematize this identity from his unique position but rather to expound upon his hatred of gun culture with increasing frenzy. The audience was left riddled with stories of insane opinions about gun control, easily preventable tragedies and, most distressingly, the twisting of feminist ideology in support of female ownership of guns. Quoting Margaret Atwood (quoting Gavin Becker): “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Somerset went on to describe the twisted logic that women need guns for protection from men combined with the sexualisation of women with guns. He spat out “pictures of perky blonds with pink-trimmed camouflage tank tops” with the distaste of someone taking an accidental sip of rubbing alcohol. Somerset began the evening as a pleasant, well-spoken guest and finished his lengthy reading as a wild-eyed ideologue. Devoting such energy to, as he describes it, “gurgling idiocy,” will do that to a person. Somerset noted that to further dialogue over gun control we “have to stop flinging monkey shit at each other, to come down from the treetops, and conduct ourselves like adults,” but I had the distinct impression that he had taken us into the mud and rubbed our faces into it.
Camilla Gibb does not have the luxury of such anger. Her enemy, if I can, is not a social force, but the person closest to her: her wife of ten years who somewhat scandalously left her eight months pregnant, telling her that she was no longer attracted to her. The book begins with this catalyst, but then leaves it firmly behind, only present as Gibb’s enduring sadness as she begins again. In her quest to rebuild her life, Gibb picks up people who are equally broken, drawn (I imagine) to her steadfast progress, step after labouring step, towards the home and family she wanted to have. The story is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Gibb holds up her experience as if in the palm of her hand, unornamented by judgement, blame, or literary pyrotechnics. She noted, “I was like a train driving at a wall. There was no poetry. Sometimes you search endlessly for the right metaphor, and then you can just use the word. It surprised me how simple it could be.”
Gibb’s quiet, grounded openness left a huge space for the audience to feel close to her. She chatted conspiratorially about the people who figure in the book who contacted her afterwards, revealing, as if to a close friend, that her ex-boyfriend’s father had texted her recently. She answered each question with simple warmth, prising off the awkwardness around overly-enthusiastic questions to reveal the simple exchange at their heart. I wondered how much therapy she had to go through to be able to face clumsy audiences with such generosity. For her short reading, she recounted a harrowing childhood experience with her mentally unstable father and reflected, “You know, I wasn’t sure how we were going to make a link. But then I realized…” she flashed the room audience a brilliant smile, “my story has a gun in it, too!”