The theme of restoration is an inescapable one with Conrad Black. In a recent interview with Peter Scowen, Black invoked the Old Testament passage from Joel, almost as a morale-boosting incantation. It was a bit surreal to finally see Black in the flesh at the final event of the 2014 fall edition of the Festival; for his absence from the country, and relative rebuilding phase upon his return in the preceding years left a void that very few, Canadian or otherwise, can fill. The latest book that he was in Ottawa to promote is Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.
Adrian Harewood, in his introduction, has noted that Black has been "at the very centre of our national conversation, he has helped shape it, and has been a subject of it." I entered Black's orbit by picking up free copies of the National Post as a Science undergrad at the University of Waterloo in the mid-2000s. As a newcomer to Canada, the Post, while perhaps past its fast and the furious salad days of its budding years, was my initiation into the Canadian polity and helped articulate much of what I had swirling in my inchoate thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Chris Cobb's fast-paced, and widely underrated account of the start of the Post features Black as a swashbuckling, brash protagonist who managed to be both a man of letters, and a man of action. Perhaps it is no surprise that Black has particularly excelled in political biography. His choice of subjects: Duplessis, Nixon, and FDR, are as varied as they are incisive. Employing prose that is characteristically (and unashamedly) mangniloquent, his reader is often required to switch into another literary gear to match the elevated terrain.
At 70, Black is far from a spent force, having recently completed both a memoir and a strategic history of the United States. His main reason for writing a (comprehensive) history of Canada was that he felt that the sweeping narrative of the country had yet been effectively attempted, and far from being penance, it is instead a paean to the quieter and no less heroic success of Canada as a bi-cultural parliamentary democracy. Excepting Will Ferguson's throughly entertaining and excellent primer, it is hard to summon a single volume title of Canadian history (Bothwell's Penguin History of Canada seems to firmly latched itself onto libraries without making any waves in the general market.)
One of the main gripes that has been made, almost uniformly, by reviewers of his book is of Black's dismissal of Aboriginal contributions to the formation of this country. Harewood posed a challenge to this Eurocentric vision by paraphrasing a section of John Ralston Saul's A Fair Country that asserts Canada as a Métis civilization. One of the things that struck me during the evening was Black's acquiescence whenever he was challenged (in contrast to the testy exchange in a BBC interview from 2012). His basic response was that he respected Saul's expertise on Aboriginal issues but that he stuck by his position that Native culture was "terribly violent, constantly at war," and "a Stone Age culture that had not yet invented the wheel." It would be quite easy to dismiss Black as prejudiced, but he also takes to task the post-Champlain Europeans whose brutality he denounces as "outrageous." In addition, he has further been chastised for downplaying the contribution of the Canadian Corps during WWI, and not giving sufficient space to Sir Arthur Currie, arguably Canada's greatest military leader. Moreover, Black—whose criticism of the US prison sytem is well documented—is very harsh on the Harper government's law and order agenda, calling it a "disgrace," concerning itself with building "prisons to accompany Native people who shouldn't be there." He would add, "no non-violent people should be sent to prison," earning a quip from Harewood that Black sounds like Angela Y. Davis.
Black is very effusive in his praise of Champlain (making me want to move Fischer's esteemed biography higher up the reading list), and the fascinating thing about Black is his willingness to disentangle personal opinion from professional judgment. Hence his ranking of Trudeau into the top tier of leaders for facing down separatism even if, in Black's opinion, the rest of his achievements were moderate at best. Even more impressive is his praise for Chrétien, despite the incident that led to Black having to renounce his citizenship to enter the House of Lords that no doubt strained their relationship. Black is also not a Harper basher; he was effusive about his managerial competence and pointed out that Harper won four straight elections with an increasing percentage of the vote each time, a feat that not even FDR managed.
Some interesting diversions led us into a discussion of Black's teaching in prison (an experience whose fruition at the graduation ceremony for his pupils he called "the most gratifying of my life"), ideas to address inequality, and the eccentricities and brilliance of W.M. King. It is evident, like this review, Black's account leaves much unsaid, but as The Globe and Mail cited in their inclusion of the book in their Top 100 for 2014, "a project this audacious cannot be ignored."
As an adult who both reads young adult literature, and who has a dear friend who is writing a young adult novel, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s event was a natural draw for me. With little familiarity with MacDonald’s style, however, I didn’t realize how entertaining and insightful this event would be. MacDonald is truly an excellent writer and also an excellent verbal storyteller. Interestingly enough, this is MacDonald’s first time participating at the Writers Festival (although she was around for Westfest in 2006). As host Lucy CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld commented, I’m sure that once I get around to reading Adult Onset, it will have been worth the 11-year-wait since her last book was published.
One thing in particular to note about this novel is that there is a great blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction, which is what I anticipate will be its greatest service. In the same way that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius feels like fiction when it is really real life, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s most recent work feels like real life when it is—technically—fiction.
MacDonald’s event opened with a various readings from her most recent publication, which skillfully makes indistinct the lives of Mary Rose McKinnon and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s. When talking about her process of crafting stories, MacDonald pointed out that she wrote Adult Onset from what she already had—that unlike her other works, this book didn’t require the same depth of research. Ultimately, as MacDonald happily admits, Adult Onset is a story about things that wouldn’t make the news.
For example, the first page of this novel begins with Mary Rose checking her much-neglected email on a Monday morning, an experience to which I think many of us can relate to all too well. MacDonald goes on to read another section of her novel, in which Mary Rose’s catastrophic thinking leads her to believe that a ringing phone heralds the death of not one but both of her parents. At least for myself, both of these samples prove that Ann-Marie MacDonald both knows the intimate stuff of real life and is able to articulate it on paper. She even manages to accurately capture the sound of snipping scissors—for those who are interested, that sound is “roush.”
Adult Onset takes place over the course of a week, and will give the reader a clear picture of what “the toddler trenches” are like, and what it is like to feel real anger in the midst of attempting forgiveness. Overall, this novel makes a concerted (albeit perhaps unintentional) attempt to break through the “lavender ceiling” of literature, which I think it does so quite successfully.
Ultimately, attending this event confirmed for me that, should I find myself in a Stranger Than Fiction sort of situation, I want Ann-Marie MacDonald to follow me around and narrate my life. Nonetheless, I hope we aren’t waiting another 11 years before MacDonald publishes her next novel. In the mean time, however, keep your eye out for MacDonald’s forthcoming work on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Canadian band Stars to be featured at the Stratford Festival.
Audience members were rushed in hurriedly, eyeing the best possible seats just before start of the program. Others were fidgeting in their seats i.e., pews, in the majestic sanctuary of Southminster United Church. In the lobby, tickets were flying away and purchased books exchanged hands with a sense of anticipated urgency.
John Ralston Saul’s fame extends from his Massey Lectures to his executive role as the International President of PEN International, along with a plethora of awards and other distinctions that assure his longevity. The evening’s opening segment was intiated by a surprised guest that needed no introduction if one is familiar with Aboriginal ceremonies.
The elder initiating the ceremony with smudge smoke was the petite yet tellingly powerful Annie Smith St-Georges, a niece of the legendary Algonquin chief of Willam Camanda. Elder St-Georges evoked his spirit by addressing the need to aknowledge the ferocious advoacy by Aboriginal youth in the Idle No More movement as well as commemorating Aboriginal ancestors. One could note that Elder St-Georges was cleverly redirecting the lingering Remembrance Day sentiments of the day towards a legacy of men and women of the past whose ghosts may still be haunting us. But the spiritual prelude set the tone as Saul stepped onto the stage.
And he began.
Commencing by acknowledging the unceded Algonquin land, followed by offering words of gratitute in the form of “Meeguesh” towards Elder St-Georges and finally welcoming the audience in an overly meek posture. That would be the last resemblance of timidity from Saul, as he would be a resounding tour de force of ideas for the rest of the evening.
He first began with an abridged version of his newly published The Comeback and explained the preamble for its inception. Saul’s talks are passionate a educational narration into the spaces of interdisciplinary subjects from ecology to the humanities, and again referencing everyone from Erasmus to Argentina’s Perón. All that to say, one must be prepared for Saul’s range; it’s truly a treasure.
Alternatively, Saul sought to transform feelings of impotency to a hopeful disposition; working diligently towards working alternatives for both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals going forward. The mantra of the evening seemed to be “Learning how to listen,” delivered early in his talk and mentioned repeadily. Rarely did he look down at his notes, confirming how many years advocating for Aboriginal rights has become a heartfelt calling, occupying as a repository in his mind.
As Saul had alluded during this his keynote, The Comeback was chronicling a remarkable and inevitable resurgence by Aboriginals in Canada for the past century; and more importantly his premise was to place an accent on the awakening of Canadian non-Aboriginals. Saul wasn’t demanding for mere social awareness, his appeal was for his audience members, and readers of his work to consciously engage their minds and join this Aboriginal resurgence. It was less of a militant call to action and more of a compassionate challenge to become renewed allies.
There were the expected shots made at the sitting government but brilliantly erased any sign of partisanship by detailing how previous governments in the last century have either remained numb or actively destructive in their governance of matters affecting Canadian Aborginal affairs.
“. ..Canadians have an impoverished view of ourselves ”, he continued. Saul cited this as a reason for Canadians' disregard or defensiveness on dealing with Aboriginal issues.
While also taking notes, I couldn’t help but glance onto my Twitter feed to quickly sift through the online conversation. One striking statement issued by Saul was tweeted by Indigenous educator Jaime Koebel:“The most important issue in Canada today is the #IndigenousReality”
The statement was echoed throughout the evening in different ways and it seemed to be an appropriate manner to conclude his talk and transition towards the last segment of the evening. The audience members were treated to a Q & A session with relevant voices in this resurgence movement, Suzanne Keeptwo, a multi-faceted artist and writer. Also joined by Waubgeshig Rice, a veteran CBC producer.
Keeptwo stated since Idle No More, she’s observed a soft-racism, an attitude of dismissal, and an apathy shown towards the state of Indigenous people whether its the lack of media and governmental attention given to the thousands of missing Aboriginal women or the growing incarceration rate of Aboriginal young men.
Some have hailed Saul as Canada’s national conscience. A title a bit far reaching depending on your ideological leanings and political stripes. Yet for tonight, not only with his words but his presence, he called for a reimagining of ourselves as Canadians, with a better history. A history with renewed solidarity between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Canadians as allies in the stewarding of our nation. For tonight, stewardship, at least for non-Aborignals, began with listening.
I only discovered Scott Feschuk’s writing in September. It was a fantastic article in Maclean’s that helped to get me hooked on Scott’s writing. Fast-forward two months and I am shaking his hand at the Metropolitan Brasserie, talking about In The Loop and joking about why my parents spelled my name the way they did.
Scott’s Tuesday night event was a showcase of his personality – smart, funny, and slightly irreverent.
The evening began with Tim Harper and Susan Delacourt reading segments from Chapter 4 of The Future and Why We Should Avoid It. The year is 2021, and Prime Minister Rob Ford—played on Tuesday by Tim Harper—is delivering the Speech from the Throne with Governor General Busty McKnockers, as read by Susan Delacourt. This less-than-ideal future was brought to life for Tuesday night’s crowd as Tim Harper prophetically read, “I probably shouldn’t have got so drunk at the state funeral.”
This segment was followed by another reading. Not of the book, but a reading of real comments left on one of Scott’s articles. To highlight the insanity of Internet comments, they were read as a mock debate between Scott and Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development. Jason Kenney took the Conservative position, sharing such brilliant words such as “lieberals.” Scott, meanwhile, counterpointed with the Liberal comments, eloquently calling out “Prime Minister Harptard.” Just hearing Jason Kenney utter the words “Scott Feceschuk” made the whole evening worthwhile.
The third and final segment of the evening was a musical rendition of Internet comments as performed by Ottawa a cappella group The Acafellas. “Send him to Ebolaland” almost sounds poetic when sung a cappela.
Like his writing, Scott brought a unique flavour to his Writers Festival event. The guest stars made the event a lot of fun for the seventy-or-so people in attendance. Scott’s wit was brought alive, even if he himself was barely at the mic. The event was also short enough to keep everyone’s attention span. Lasting less than an hour, Scott still managed to make the crowd laugh and give great insights into his style of writing.
You cannot deny Alan Neal’s enthusiasm for Canadian music. Watching him watch musicians is to fall instantly in love with his pure, measured delight. At the Neal-hosted musical finale of the Writersfest, I watched a stream of smartphones make their way close to the stage, capturing not the star-studded stage, but Alan, watching, in their illuminated frames.
The All in a Day Songwriter’s circle has been part of the Ottawa Writersfest for four years now, its popularity quickly moving it into the festival finale position. Alan Neal, host of the popular drive home show “All in a Day,” brings quirky themes and a rich roster of Canadian musicians to each show. The loose structure provides a great set of music as well as the opportunity for conversation between artists that do not normally appear on stage together as well as with Neal.
This year, the theme was “Namedropper,” the recent album of cover songs written by Canadian artists and performed by Toronto singer Oh Susanna. Suzy Ungerleider (Oh Susanna’s real name). Ungerleider was inspired to do the album when she realized that the music she listened to was slowly orienting itself away from “dead musicians” to people she actually knew—and was friends with! Jim Bryson, the indie pride of Ottawa and producer on the album, came up with the idea of having each artist write new material for the album. This resulted in fourteen tracks of fabulous new songs by artists such as Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith, Whitehorse, Amelia Curran and more. Amelia Curran referred to the album as Wrestlemania, Canadian Indie edition. “It was honestly just a random thought I vocalized,” Bryson remembers, “and dang me if it didn’t work out great!”
The format for the evening featured a number of songs off the Namedropper album, followed by songs by each artist. Oh Susanna performed each one with the author of the song, although she performs them solo on the record. The camaraderie between the artists grew as more and more of Canada’s indie elite appeared on the stage. “This is my chance for Jim [Bryson] and I to stare into each other’s eyes and pretend we’re lovers,” joked Ungerleider before their performance of Royal Wood’s “Goodnight.” “It pisses off my husband [her drummer].” “Is Luke here?” someone asked, referring to the second half of the husband and wife band Whitehorse, as if Luke Doucet might have just been hanging out somewhere, maybe whipping up some pancakes in the kitchen, and should come join the fun. A nifty fedora was stuck out from back stage and waggled a hello at the audience. “Oh right, there he is!”
The insight into the performers was a rare opportunity for music lovers – or anyone who loves the creative process. The musicians, unused to performing the pieces together, watched each other closely, bobbing carefully in time, breaking into that iconic musician smile-and-nod when a particular section came together. They described how they reacted when they got the call from Ungerleider, revealing intimate details about their songwriting process and habits. “Who took the longest?” asked Neal with a gossipy glint. “I would never say …..that Jim Cuddy took forever,” Ungerleider shot back.
The Songwriters Circle concept is ideal for the Writers Festival because it is a concert with words. All of us word lovers, who instinctively memorize lyrics and bore our friends with our analysis – Alan is our ally. Neal knows these lyrics. He juggles them and tosses them at the artists right and left, noting that weather appears in the majority of the songs, that Amelia Curran specializes in evoking tactility, and that Jim Bryson’s song Oregon might have special meaning for former West Coaster Suzy. “Jim, what were you describing when you said ‘the city squirms and the city screams’? Suzy, what does it mean to you?” Bryson answered with his trademark depressed bedroom burr: “Well you know. Oregon is a town. With people and streets and weather. So yeah.” Ungerleider enthused: “I love Jim’s words so much. Because…. because I DON’T know what they mean!”
Neal had more luck probing some of the other artists as to their motivations and meanings. Ron Sexsmith in particular provided magnificently melancholy insight into his beautiful song “Waiting ‘til the Sun Comes Up.” “Sometimes, with the music industry like it is, I feel as if no one cares. Like I’m making antique chairs and peddling them around town: ‘won’t anybody buy my lovely chairs? I think all of us have times where we need to remind ourselves that we’ll feel better tomorrow.”
By the end of the night, everyone in Knox Presbyterian had a sense of chummy familiarity. In comparison to music, words are a laborious way to form a connection (although Neal’s expansive hosting does help). As one, the crowd grew appreciatively silent, laughed easily and leapt to their feet after the group finale. Even Neal’s new baby, huge headphones on, dancing with the help of his mom (musician Jill Zmud) loved it. And he didn’t understand a word.
The Program quote intrigued me—Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice is this: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." The evening's introduction to the three acclaimed authors and the ensuing lively discussion among them will leave more than "a trail" in my and many other listeners' minds.
Sandra Ridley, Ottawa-based award winning poet, added her own personal touch to this session. She became very much part of the discussion. She was especially interested in exploring, with the authors, the secrets and puzzles they built into their stories. But first the introductions to the three authors and their books. All three are acclaimed, award-winning authors, currently living in Toronto.
The Search for Heinrich Schlögel by Martha Baillie is the story of a young man who has escaped the claustrophobia of small-town Germany by travelling to Canada, where he sets out on a long solo hike into the interior of Baffin Island. For some reason time begins to play tricks on him and he moves from some time in the 20th century, without realizing it himself, into the 21st. As a result Heinrich returns to the place of departure disoriented and confused. Gina Ochsner wrote that "The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is a hymn to brooding memory, the enduring need to inhabit story, and a haunting insistence upon endless possibilities within possibility. That is to say, hope.”
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, tells the story of one momentous day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician. When he refuses to back down from a contrarian but principled stand regarding the West Bank settlements, his political opponents expose his affair with a mistress decades his junior. He and the fierce young Leora flee the scandal for Yalta, where he comes face to face with the former friend who denounced him to the KGB almost forty years earlier. In a mere twenty-four hours, Kotler must face the ultimate reckoning, both with those who have betrayed him and with those whom he has betrayed.
Love Enough by poet, essayist and novelist Dionne Brand, draws us into the intersecting stories of characters caught in the middle of choices, apprehensions and fears. Each of the tales here opens a different window on the city they all live in, mostly in parallel, but occasionally, delicately, touching and crossing one another. Each story radiates other stories. In these pages, the urban landscape cannot be untangled from the emotional one; they mingle, shift and cleave to one another.
Sandra Ridley opened the discussion by reflecting on the common themes or elements in the novels despite the very different central characters and their circumstances: how did the authors move through the paths of puzzles and secrets? It seemed to Sandra that as she progressed through each novel she was discovering ever more secrets. What is the truth of someone's story? What traces do leave people behind?
Martha's story begins with a picture that motivates a researcher to find information about Heinrich, the central character. Martha is interested in the conflict between generations, but also the shifting landscapes over time. Another interest is Canadian history, especially in the North and the different perspectives on that history that we have lived with. Dionne is interested in exploring how paths of individuals cross and leave impressions. Often we don't realize when we cross them until afterwards. What is going on when paths cross? She described her writing here as operating on three planes: they can run in parallel or they can suddenly take a different turn and cross in surprising ways. David's novel centers on two men where one betrays the other. He started with writing the novel from one person's voice only, but while writing changed his mind. Betrayal becomes a central theme. As does the question of identity. Both characters have to ask themselves who they are. Both had to reassess themselves because of politics, painful changes as a result of how the country had changed. Martha explained her postcard project, the Schlögel Archive. Close to finalizing her novel, she had the sense that something was missing. So she embarked on a project writing parts of the novel onto hundreds of postcards, with old and new, but relevant images, and sent them to friends far and wide. What happened since is a fascinating story that you can read here.
Another theme engaged the authors and the host: what is the difference between being a witness to being a voyeur? Is it relevant in a historical context? Is being a witness important? In contrast to the other two novels, Dionne's central character is not interested in the past of the people she meets, nor is she revealing her own past. She lives (and loves) in the present and refuses to explain why.
How do authors transfer ideas to the page? For Dionne the story could go one way or the other. She loves the side stories, collecting bits and bringing them together. Martha adds that she often finds herself "stealing" bits of information or observation that she weaves into the story. David compares his writing to putting together fragments. He knew from the beginning where his story was going to end. But, like watching through Google maps, you can only get close to a certain point. Then there are barriers. His story's source is based in real people. His interest is the moral question. He is concerned about Israel as a country and its future.
The discussion left the audience at Knox Church in attentive silence. There is much more to say, much more to explore with the three novels. They may not all be as familiar to us as one or the other, but all three promise to be an intellectual and emotional feast.
At this year’s Ottawa Writers Festival’s Lament for a Nation featured a duo of prolific intellectuals in Dr. Anthony Stewart and David Austin on a Sunday evening tête-à-tête moderated by the magnetic presence of CBC Ottawa’s own Adrian Harewood.
It has become an outright expectation at functions attempting to discuss race that inflamatory emotions run high and sensationalist voices dominate. En revanche, the subject of identity politics can be merely treated in an "objective" fashion, akin to a cerebral exercise amongst an elite group. In short, my past experiences in these spaces lead me to forecast an indimidating, uninviting milieu mired in liberal-progressive speak.
Sunday evening happily proved me wrong.
Harewood as the poised, probing inquirer, created an ethos of comraderie with the standing room audience. This rapport lended a forumla of ease as Stewart, Austin and Harewood were gregarious in their interaction with each other, with the air of a reunion of old friends over a meal.
Both Stewart and Austin were promoting literary projects that complimented one another in stunning ways yet also offered distinct approaches on the subject of race and identity politics. For Stewart, the evening was an elated homecoming with Visitor: My Life in Canada, which payed homage and offered a stern critique to the city (and country) of his birth. Unfortunately for Stewart, the old adage "a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country" is apropos consideringVisitor is a prophetic polemic deconstructing Canada’s national image as a liberal and tolerant society.
In the style and tradition of Cecil Foster and Dany Laferrière before him, Stewart was not reserved in his reflection as a visible minority in the Northern Lights country and the unsuing dilemmas it brings to racialized groups. In addition, Visitor picks up where Stewart left off in his masterfully titled You must be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in University. The most striking episode inVisitor, which Stewart made a point to emphasize in his lecture was outlining the motivation that led to his transition from Dalhousie University to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennslyvania. Stewart testifies that his departure from a high profile adjuct position on the Faculty of English at the prestigious Halifax institution was a form of protest against the racial anathema he and many others continue to face in Canada regarldess of status, relative achievement and especially in light of thefaux-narrative Canadians uphold of a post-racial society. Though the audience was left to ponder Stewart’s contradictory decision for departing to a nearby nation still haunted by its own racial history, it was either an intended or unintentional marketing tactic which led many racing to purchase his book by event’s end.
Meanwhile, David Austin was invited to re-introduce the festival’s audience to his chef-d’oeuvre from 2013 titled Fear of a Black Nation. Austin offered the festival audience an expanded findings from his research while plunging into the germane topics du jour in the racial discourse; either from the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to the chasm between President Barack Obama’s policies and the marginal impact it has on the lives African-Americans.
Austin recounted the period of the 1960s Montreal overarched by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution but also at the height of the potent Black Power movement around the world. Austin also explained the meaning of the black politic within a Canadian context, which was cultivated at the Congress of Black Writers in 1968 at McGill University which gathered illustrious Black thinkers and activists from across the world in C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, and Rocky Jones. Unbeknownst to many, Montreal had become the place for Afro-Canadian self-determination but unfortunately it led to severe concern from the state apparatus to which Austin suggests continues until this day.
In Lament for a Nation, both authors sought to communicate a the sense disenchatment and loss for an interreptation of Canadian history. A version of Canada which was once deemed as the mythicalCanaan for many escaped African-American slaves finding refuge north of the 49th parallel; but today from Afro-Canadians, South Asians, Aboriginals and many other minority groups, many are excluded from Canada’s social contract and often omited from Canada’s grand narrative.
And yet, Austin and Stewart would be quick to remind us that the arduous problem of race in Canada is not to be solved like a mathematical equation rather it is to be wrestled through with intellectual vigour and integrity because only there lies the hope that lingers when the lament recedes. One can only hope that conversations like these lead Canadians to aspire to become the mosaic our society founded to be.
Led by Sean Wilson, the Festival’s own Artistic Director, Breaking the Shell began with a quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Three very different, yet equally astounding, books are the topic of tonight’s discussion as well as how the three authors used the medium of the written word to explore human pain and experience.
In describing Lee Maracle’s latest novel, Celia’s Song , Sean Wilson describes a ‘full-body experience’ he had when reading a particular scene, causing him to be ‘wracked’ with emotion. Few books can affect us in this way and Maracle, a member of the Stó:l? Nation, explains the Aboriginal concept of think-feel—that we cannot think without feeling and vice-versa. Celia’s Song is rooted in a traditional Aboriginal story, though Maracle has re-interpreted it in her own way. Her biggest fear when writing the book was not being able to do her duty to her nation and do justice to the story, though apparently she needn’t have worried—she describes reading the book to her elders, her version of the story met with great appreciation. During her reading I am swept away by the forceful natural description; a storm has arrived and its angry energy is apparent in her voice as she reads aloud. Celia’s Song follows the story of Mink, a shape-shifter, who bears witness to the events of a Native Canadian community on the West coast of Vancouver Island. Celia is a seer, convinced she’s crazy by everyone else, but is called upon to help heal her community in the wake of a shocking event. This sense of community is important to Maracle; she talked about the strength of indigenous communities and how they come together to solve individual problems, when the problem gets too much for the individual to bear.
Shani Mootoo’s novel, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab is on the longlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It follows the story of Jonathan, who reconnects with his mother Sid after many years, only to find out that Sid has become Sydney, an elegant gentleman living back in his native Trinidad. Mootoo’s reading is full of evocative imagery, the lush landscape of Trinidad described in bursts of colour as Jonathan gazes out of the window of the plane as he flies from Canada to Trinidad. Believing he won’t be returning to Trinidad again, he tries to remember every small detail and we are drawn into these minute snapshots, as if seeing everything up close. Mootoo’s tone is melancholy, yet tinged with a bittersweet humour. I wonder how much of this excerpt is based on experience as Mootoo, who was born in Dublin to Trinidadian parents, grew up in Trinidad and moved to Canada at the age of 24. During the writing of her novel, Mootoo said she was concerned about capturing the right voice for the transgendered Sid, as well as for the young male character of Jonathan. Though searching for an authentic voice for Jonathan, Mootoo was adamant that she would write him her own way — she wanted him to feel and to be able to be hurt.
David Bergen is the author of a commendable eight novels including the Giller Prize-winning The Time in Between. The most light-hearted of the evening’s three novels, but no less free of human pain, Bergen’s latest literary offering, Leaving Tomorrow , had the audience chuckling out loud with its witty prose and brusque humour. Set in Alberta and Paris, Leaving Tomorrow is a coming-of-age story about Arthur, an extremely clever and curious individual, whose above-average intelligence leaves him isolated and striving to find his place in the world thus causing him to run away to France. Bergen’s reading was quick and jocular; the ingenuousness of Arthur is at odds with his intellect and his misunderstanding of human nature lends itself well to humour. This is Bergen’s first novel written in a first-person narrative and he was aware of the difficulty of this, however, he commented that his wife has said she finds him happiest when he is in the middle of writing a novel. Lee Maracle guffaws when she hears this—“I should start writing happier novels!” she exclaims.
As a first-time visitor to the Festival, I am grateful that it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers I may not have otherwise heard of or had the chance to see in person. To hear an author read from their own book is a magical experience, their voices soft with compassion as they revisit their words. These events have allowed me, and I’m sure many others as well, to discover not only new books but an impressive and vast back catalogue of Canadian literature. I know how I’ll be spending this winter — indoors, curled up with the many remarkable books the Ottawa Writers Festival has introduced me to.
Catherine Gildiner, Alison Pick, and Donna Thomson, are remarkable memoirists. They wowed the crowd last night with their unique insights into the craft of memoir writing and mesmerised us with their enchanting prose. They exchanged with the audience their vast knowledge on evoking memories from our past that would making meaningful contributions to the stories of each of our lives, and we heard some excerpts from a few of their newest books.
Gildiner’s latest book, Coming Ashore, is the final of a trilogy that taps into the vast experiences of her life. She shares anecdotes with the crowd of her life with Roy, her adventures as a young woman who found herself without anywhere to go early in the morning and her belongings on the street, and her experiences a student. Her book takes place in three different places. Just a glimpse of this memoir makes the avid reader anxious to delve into the beguiling prose. A highly educated woman, Gildiner studied at Oxford and is a former practising clinical psychologist. She also has been published in, The Globe and Mail.
Host with the most, Phil Jenkins, was a real crowd pleaser, and tapped into the authors’ minds with insightful, thought provoking questions. When introducing Alison Pick, Jenkins’ says, “I was fascinated as I moved through this book of the honesty and level of self-assessment that was there, but (Pick), also maintained her poetic sense.”
“ Between Gods, tells the story of coming back to my family’s Judaism,” says Pick, who adds that it also talks about depression. “It’s hard to write a book that is so honest and vulnerable,” Pick says. But she has done it, and I applaud her for that accomplishment. Pick read from her memoir, Between Gods. Her prose is compelling, incredibly detailed and it is entrancing. As her lips move and the words come out, you can picture the scene in your mind until she speaks the very last word of the segment.
Pick discloses to the avid memoirist, as well as to the novice, that you can use character names for the people in your life when writing a memoir, that not everyone is going to agree with you no matter what you do. “It speaks to the fact that you can never make everyone happy,” she says. In the process of completing her memoir, Pick showed it to the people she had included in her prose before it went to publication. She says it was really surprising to her that the things she thought they would be bothered by were non-issues, and that a lot of smaller details were very easy to edit.
Donna Thomson, author of, The Four Walls of My Freedom, says she never intended to write a memoir. Through a conversation with someone, a question was posed that she later reflected on and asked of herself, “How can we have a life we value? How can community and our country help us to do that?” She shared from her memoir an excerpt in learning to be alone as a caregiver.
Thomson says she is interested in ideas on the concept of care, and says she wants people to reflect on their own experiences of giving and receiving care. Her hope is that in reading the book people will ask of themselves what this concept means to them. If you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, Thomson says, “I think what people like are the things that remind them of themselves. They want to say that they remember similarities to the author’s content.”
Living History: In the Shadow of War dealt with themes of history, memory, truth and fiction and was a poignant conversation on the ripple of conflict felt across the ages and the lasting scars of war. The host for the evening’s discussion was CBC’s Laurence Hall, who began the proceedings with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” These words took on a particularly affecting meaning after the sudden and tragic events of last week. Two soldiers killed in cold blood with little explanation left a country reeling in shock, and Wall took time to honour each soldiers’ memory, speaking their names—Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent—so that we are able to preserve them in words, their bravery in our memory. The audience stood for a moment of silence; reflecting on the sacrifice of these two men, taken before their time.
Laurence Wall then introduced each author, listing their many impressive achievements to a feeling of reverent awe from the audience. First up to the lectern was Winnipeg-native Margaret Sweatman, reading from her fifth book, Mr. Jones . Set against the tense paranoid backdrop of Cold War-era Canada, Mr. Jones follows the story of Emmett Jones, a former WWII bomber pilot who returns to his homeland changed and isolated only to come under scrutiny by the RCMP and FBI for suspected Communist affiliations. Sweatman read three excerpts, each starkly different in subject matter. The first outlined the external and political frame of the book; the stifling scrutiny that Emmett is put under following his return to Canada. The second charts a former love affair of Emmett’s wife Suzanne. The third was a conversation about life and love between Emmett and Suzanne’s five-year-old daughter and a doctor friend of the family. This last excerpt takes place in a country cottage, the natural setting described with vibrance and the open language of Emmett’s daughter a stark contrast from the clandestine tone found earlier in the novel.
Second to speak is Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the Giller Prize in 2010 for her debut novel The Sentimentalists. Her second novel, Quartet for the End of Time , was inspired by and structured around the chamber piece of the same title written by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in a German prison camp. Skibsrud spoke about the connective nature of stories, how one can lead you on to another, and how this intrigued her while writing this book. Quartet for the End of Time follows four characters across time and place; beginning with the Bonus Army riots in 1930s America when some 47,000 veterans and their supporters marched on Washington. Skibsrud reads an excerpt of the moment the Bonus Army, led by General MacArthur, arrives at their destination. The passage is alive with intense imagery—a city engulfed in gas and flame, thick choking smoke smothering the scene as people scramble to fight or to run away—you could just feel the energy and anger rising from the page as Skibsrud read.
Lastly, Ottawa’s own Frances Itani took to the stage to read from her 14th book, Tell , which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. Some familiar characters from her previous novel, Deafening, can be found here—obviously, Itani felt there was still more of their stories to be explored. She reads a letter written by Kenan, a minor character in Deafening, to his friend Hugh who is recovering from tuberculosis on Prince Edward Island. Kenan laments their experience during the First World War: “we went off to war like children who had been blindfolded for the occasion.” He constantly questions why it all happened; searching for any answer that will give him some relief, some sense of meaning. He is back in his home, back with his wife, but he is a changed man both physically and mentally. There is a fluidity and a softness to Itani’s prose and as she reads in a clear and steady voice, there is a sense of time slowing down.
Following the book readings, Laurence Hall asked how each author managed to maintain an authentic voice while writing about a difficult and distant time period. Skibsrud responded that the freedom of literature allows authors the opportunity to tell both sides of the story—the known and the unknown. Through literature, multiple stories can be brought alive, even the lesser known ones. Itani says it is a mixture of imagination and immersion that preserves the authenticity within her writing. She spent six years researching her novel Deafening , winner of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, by reading letters, journals and newspaper articles and interviewing WWI veterans. This immersion allowed her to capture the voice and language of the period. Sweatman likens writing historical fiction to trying to see and hear things that aren’t there, though she insists that they are there, for the unofficial erroneous histories are where the real ‘juice’ is for writers. The idea of mixing fact and fiction was continued as some of the authors’ work featured real-life characters from history. After all, “history is public domain” states Sweatman, you are just borrowing a character to authenticate your story, though she believes you should keep your distance. Skibsrud found it hard not to run into real-life figures, confessing that she perhaps brazenly lifted from true life stories. “But isn’t this what literature can do best?” she questioned, by strengthening the continuity between fact and fiction and bringing back ghosts from their ambiguous resting place.
As the discussion drew to a close, the audience was left with a few parting thoughts. Are we doing ourselves a disservice by trying to move on from past wars? Skibsrud believes it is important to continue the conversation in a healthy way, and literature encourages this. She also questioned if war has really changed at all in the past hundred years—the conflict, the bloodshed, the tragic waste of life, and the numerous men and women who return changed. Are we just inherently fighting the same war, over and over again? In the wake of last week, perhaps this could be closer to the truth than we've ever thought.