Bringing together an art aficionado, a poet and a playwright, "Friends Like These" featured authors and works of fiction that breakaway from the common mold. The session was moderated by Ottawa poet Nina Jane Drystek.
“These aren’t neat little stories that tie up in a polished narrative bundle,” says Anakana Schofield, referencing her own novel, Bina: A Novel in Warnings, as well as Sara Peters’ I Become a Delight to My Enemies and Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.
“I want to present the extraordinary in the ordinary in the best literary terms I can muster,” says Schofield. “I’m not interested in conventional forms. They’re unsatisfying.” Schofield’s book profiles a woman named Bina who is fed up with life and takes to writing her story on the backs of discarded envelopes. The author says she “wanted to write a portrait of female friendship,” while grappling with difficult issues like end of life choice and suicide. Having lost friends to suicide, Schofield was inspired to delve into the difficulty those left behind face when loved ones choose to end their own lives. Bina tackles difficult philosophical questions about end of life choices, while also bearing witness to the struggles that lead people to end their own lives.
Schofield says she was inspired by works of art like those of British painter Francis Bacon. She says Bacon’s paintings made her feel an ache in her body, and she wanted to recreate that sensation through the careful crafting of her sentences. It’s a cross-pollination of art form, as Schofield describes it, which helps the author to break free from more traditional attempts to relay narrative.
Author Sara Peters similarly drew inspiration from a variety of sources for her work of “experimental fiction,” which combines poetry and short prose vignettes. The stories in I Became a Delight to My Enemies speak of shame, fear, cruelty and transcendence of women from a place called Town. Peters says she was interested in the theme of how animals attempt to escape their predators. She had read about caribou and how they can be negatively affected by low-lying aircrafts. Such disturbances can cause a caribou herd to run until their hooves are raw. Peters became fascinated with the phenomenon and applied it to her characters’ reactions.
“What if the animal kept running without hooves, to its knees, to a rolling pelvis?” Peters asks, “What if that animal was a woman? What would cause someone to do that?”
To address those questions, Peters said she had to divorce herself from caring. When she did write scenes of extreme violence or cruelty, she says, she always questioned the root causes, wanting to be unsparing in a self-examination of her writing. Peters’ book is both intellectually stimulating and visually appealing. For example, the margins of the pages include short passages – what she describes as “marginalia” – spoken by ghosts to offer a summary to the main piece or undermine it entirely. The combination of marginalia, poetry and prose, as well as the use of different fonts and absence of page numbers, creates a collage effect—earning the book its “experimental” description, and offering a departure for readers about what to expect in future literary works.
Megan Gail Coles’ Giller-nominated Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a dark comedy set in the dead of winter in a St. John’s restaurant. The novel follows the lives of two women as they confront the traumas of their pasts. The book is organized into three meal-themed sections: prep, lunch and dinner.
“I was always going to write a novel that dealt with a modern Newfoundland,” says Coles, describing her work as a Gothic Newfoundlandia-style novel that delves into issues of racism and classism. Coles is a playwright and expert in her craft, and her talent shines in both her theatrical reading and the dialogue on her pages. Coles’ novel is at once harrowing and haunting, and Coles says it stays with the reader by design. At the heart of the book are two women who, although encountering so much darkness and cruelty in their lives, are still willing to give everything they’ve got to help others.
“As much as [the book] is about darkness, it’s about the light that allows the darkness to exist in my culture,” says Coles, who was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador. One of her goals was to profile humans trying to achieve different versions of happiness. It was important for her not to vilify anyone, she acknowledges, especially given the complexities behind people’s motivations.
Each of these books is thoughtfully written and each leaves readers with a sense of future literary art. Art doesn’t exist to placate you or help you find yourself, argues Schofield. These are novels that will stay with you – both to feed your desire for good storytelling, but also to leave you wanting more from authors who push the boundaries of literary art.
Family—that’s the common thread tying together the three books of fiction and their authors in this session moderated by the CBC’s Alan Neal.
In Michael Crummey’s The Innocents, a pair of young siblings become orphans and must make their way in an isolated world without adult guidance. It’s a story of hardship, survival and the bond between brother and sister, set in a geography that is strong enough to play its own character in the novel. The rocky shoreline of northern Newfoundland on the Atlantic Ocean is where the siblings call home. It’s an unpredictable setting that has robbed the pair of their other family members, including their youngest sibling. And yet the two orphans feel a sense of obligation to stay in their secluded home, indebted to those before them to maintain past traditions while growing into their own future.
In Carol Rose GoldenEagle’s Bone Black, an Indigenous woman decides to take justice into her own hands after her sister’s mysterious disappearance. Coming to the stark realization that her sister’s case is not an isolated one, the woman seeks to expose a broader crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. She does so by vowing to avenge their collective deaths and becoming a serial killer who targets the culprits in what she sees as a moral act of vigilantism.
Finally, Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain offers a view into the life of a second-generation daughter growing up in Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood. Tensions arise with her mother and grandmother as the daughter comes into her own, and the book chronicles the protagonist’s journey from childhood to adolescence while also tackling cross-generational and cross-cultural experiences.
These are all cases of family relationships under challenging conditions. However, through these intimate family portraits, each of the authors aims to share a message larger than their family characters. For Michael Crummey, the surviving siblings’ obligation to the memory of their late sister demonstrates a long-standing practice in Newfoundland and Labrador. There, where communities continue to be resettled – people moving from remote to more accessible areas in the province – it’s commonplace for descendants of these resettled communities to return annually to tend to the local graveyard. There may no longer be any other recognizable structures, but the graveyards remain intact—signaling a deep respect for family tradition. Carol Rose GoldenEagle wrote out of a desire to draw attention to the ongoing crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women in this country. She shares one of the women she had in mind as her story unfolded: Tina Fontaine, an Indigenous woman who was murdered in 2014, was found wrapped in a duvet cover in the Red River in Winnipeg. Fontaine’s case led to renewed calls for action on behalf of murdered and missing Indigenous women. And then there’s Zalika Reid-Benta, whose story went beyond family connections to personal and shared identity, race, immigration, and what it’s really like growing up as a racial minority in Canada.
When it comes to each writer’s motivation, family played an important role, though not necessarily a supportive one. Asked about her upbringing as a foster child, GoldenEagle says that although she is Cree from northern Saskatchewan, she was raised in an adoptive white family in southern Saskatchewan. She recalls having battled racism since her childhood, when neither her adoptive parents nor her teachers took her desires to write seriously. “Don’t be so stupid,” GoldenEagle recalls one adult saying. But she pursued her interests anyway, starting out in journalism before transitioning to authoring books. Meanwhile, Michael Crummey had the support of his family, but only when he finally told them he was interested in writing poetry and fiction. The news broke when Crummey won a prize in his fourth-year of university at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “All I wanted to do was write,” Crummey says. As for Reid-Benta, she credits her mother’s encouragement as a driving force in her writing. When Reid-Benta had opinions, she remembers, her mother encouraged her to put pen to paper. Family is a powerful driving force in all our lives, as each of these new novels clearly demonstrates.
A packed church cheers as Dr. Jen Gunter and the session’s moderator, Julie S. Lalonde, open their event by marching arm-in-arm down the aisle, wine glasses raised, before taking their positions below the altar at Christ Church Cathedral. Lalonde’s printed t-shirt, perfect for this occasion, reads “anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” Between the entrance, t-shirt and Gunter’s response to Lalonde’s first question, (who is this book for?), the audience is primed for a info-taining hour.
“My primary audience is anyone with a vagina and anyone vagina adjacent,” Gunter says. The Vagina Bible, first and foremost is a textbook for women, says the obstetrician-gynecologist and passionate defender of informed choice. Her “vagenda,” as she calls it, is for “every person to have facts about their body.” Her book sets the record straight on misinformation, busting myths with best-available evidence.
Myth: Smaller and tighter is better
Gunter says she often applies arguments about the uterus and vagina to the penis and scrotum to question whether certain ideas carry the same weight for men as they do women. Labiaplasty (sometimes called vaginal rejuvenation) is a form of plastic surgery to reduce the size or improve the appearance of labia. Gunter says the athleisure fashion industry is making women self-conscious about their bodies, citing the example of the dreaded “camel toe” effect of tight-fitting yoga-pants. Just imagine a man saying they want to reduce the size of their penis to look better in yoga pants. “I’ve never heard of that, have you?” Gunter asks, questioning why women ought to feel pressured into making their genitalia smaller to be more attractive. She also wants to do away with the phrase “camel toe,” replacing it with “labial cleavage.”
Myth: You need to “let it breathe”
Gunter recalls learning about prevention techniques for yeast infections when she was in medical school in the 1980s. At the time, it was that women wear cotton panties to prevent infection. The recommendation puzzled Gunter. Why would those with their genitalia on the inside (women) be more likely to benefit from a fabric choice of undergarments than those with their genitalia on the outside (men). And if cotton clothing had the power to prevent a yeast infection, what could it do for other infections? Should a patient with pneumonia wear all cotton-clothing as part of a sound recovery regime? Similar arguments abounded—often passed on from mother to daughter—to opt for a night gown at bedtime rather than pajama pants to “let it breathe.” But as The Vagina Bible assures readers, vaginas don’t have lungs.
Myth: Natural remedies are safe and effective
Natural medicines or approaches are often touted as better, healthier and safer. From using garlic and yogurt to cure yeast infections; to steaming the vagina for a thorough cleaning; to eating placenta post-birth for a nutrient boost; to avoiding underwire bras as a means for the prevention of breast cancer—these are all examples of natural remedies gone awry. Not only are these purported methods or ideas ineffective or just plain wrong, they are also harmful. Gunter says one of the reasons people turn to these outlandish ideas is because medicine falls short. Medicine has gaps, she says, but the answer is not to fill those gaps with predation. She considers companies that make false claims about health as predators, given they reap rewards from playing into people’s knowledge gaps and insecurities. Gunter offers this sentiment for our consideration: “If there is a problem in the airline industry, we don’t invest in magic carpets.”
“Fuck the patriarchy,” Gunter exclaims, in what would become a common phrase throughout the session. Many of the myths are rooted in old patriarchal notions be it purity myths, which aim to maintain a view of women as virginal; notions of female genitalia as dirty and toxic, often associated with menstruation; or limited views of female sexuality as related solely to reproduction.
Bottom-line, says Gunter: it’s not ok for companies to weaponize vaginas against women. She’s fighting back with credible information, so women can make informed decisions.
“Contracting. Expanding. Contracting.” With those words, Helen Knott ends the powerful passage from her first book, In My Own Moccasins. This is the first time Knott is reading her work aloud. Softly-spoken, her words are starkly beautiful and hard-hitting. The passage Knott has chosen describes a woman contorting her body, drenched in perspiration, in and out of semi-consciousness—symptoms of withdrawal from substance abuse. The passage also speaks of a woman leaning into what she believes is her destiny—disappearance. The scene takes place in a bedroom somewhere in Edmonton, Alberta, miles away from her hometown of Fort St. John, British Columbia. Edmonton is the kind of place Knott believes she’ll meet the same fate as other murdered or missing Indigenous women.
But here is Helen Knott—a woman who once believed she should disappear—standing at the podium with a presence that captivates this sold-out room on the opening night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
“Why did you choose that passage?” moderator Jennifer Matsunaga asks Knott. Matsunaga is a University of Ottawa sociologist who studies Indigenous-settler relations. She also happens to be soft-spoken, making for an intimate conversation between author and interviewer.
“I wanted to [read] something I could do in front of people and not break,” Knott says earnestly, adding there’s “so much” in it (I gather she’s referring to “so much “of herself as well as the sensitivity of the subject). And yet, it’s likely because of that unabashed honesty Knott’s book is already a national best-seller receiving high praise from fellow authors such as Eden Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Maria Campbell, among others.
One of the central themes of the memoir is—as Knott’s reading signals—disappearance.
“Us native women know how to disappear,” Knott says. The cloak of invisibility started with the launch of the colonial project, when, according to Knott, “Indians only existed in an era of war and teepees.” Indigenous women have since learned to make themselves small—mostly for personal safety, Knott says, referencing her grandmother who averted her eyes in public places.
“I’ve learned how to make myself small,” Knott says, describing how it’s become common-practice for her to scan a room, make a personal safety calculation and ask herself questions like: Is it safe to have this conversation? It’s a learned behavior, Knott says, linked to dispossession of traditional lands. “Disappearance can’t happen without making individuals feel small,” she argues, adding once that dispossession and disappearance is internalized, a shrinking of self takes place.
Back in that bedroom in Edmonton, Knott herself was shrinking. It was through her process of remembering painful experiences like these she’s since been able to begin healing. Her memoir comes from three “spaces of remembering.” First, from sexual violence—telling her own story as well as the stories of other women who have experienced sexual assault. Second, from healing from addictions to drugs and alcohol. And third, from her experience as an Indigenous woman growing up in an era when Indigenous women routinely go missing, routinely without inquiry or consequence.
While the focus of Knott’s academic work is often to “educate and inform” non-Indigenous people, her memoir is for those who identify with similar experiences as her own – be it experiences of sexual assault and violence, substance use or racism and colonialism. Healing from the collective inheritance of intergenerational trauma takes considerable work, Knott adds. “It’s like a sadness you’re born with but don’t know how to deal with,” she observes, borrowing from the definition of Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. Nowadays, Knott says she takes responsibility for her own healing and she’s indebted to her family’s support, especially her mother’s. Her mother, acknowledges Knott, helped her put her life back together.
When Robyn Doolittle set out to write Had It Coming, an investigation into how police services handle sexual assault cases across the country, she had the success of a Globe and Mail Unfounded series behind her. Like the series—one of the most viewed and read stories in the newspaper’s recent history—the book profiles the results of a two-year investigation examining sexual assault cases police reclassified as “unfounded.” In other words, the assault allegations in these cases bore no basis of claim, according to police. But after investigating 54 such cases and pouring over data from 873 police jurisdictions, Doolittle uncovered systemic police mishandling.
In her exploration into the root causes of sexual assault, Doolittle took an unconventional approach—undertaking a thorough self-examination, questioning her own misperceptions about sexual assault allegations. What she found was evidence of the pervasiveness of “rape culture,” which can take many forms from victim- or slut-shaming to gender-stereotyping to buying into rape myths like false allegations.
“I wasn’t born this progressive,” the reporter shared with moderator Julie S. Lalonde, and a full house on the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s opening night. Sharing one such “bad take,” as she calls it, Doolittle discusses her initial reaction to the 2003 Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.
“What did she expect going to a hotel room with an NBA player?” she recalled asking herself at the time. Having since reviewed the case, Doolittle said she was astounded by the evidence against Bryant. (The case was dropped after the accuser refused to testify in court, but a civil suit settled in the accuser’s favour out of court). Doolittle told the audience her own “bad take” offers a broader lesson: we must grant one another the space to say the wrong thing and learn from it.
Doolittle brought particular rigour to her reporting for this book, as myths abound about sexual assault. There’s a long-standing misperception that false allegations of sexual misconduct are common, for example. And yet, Doolittle estimated that false allegations comprise roughly two to eight per cent of all cases. However, she pointed to the damage poor reporting can do to spread misperceptions. A retracted 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story, “A Rape on Campus” is often cited as the exemplar. The story profiled an alleged gang rape at a college fraternity, but as other reporters probed the case, gaps appeared in the accuser’s account of events. Although the story was pulled, the damage it did continues.
“The hardest thing I have to do is [ask myself] what if I’m wrong?” Doolittle told listeners, arguing that it’s imperative to “stress-test” your journalism, especially when handling sensitive, investigative cases. It’s likely because of that investigative rigour, Doolittle’s work is leading to positive outcomes. For example, police have recently reopened unfounded cases. Canada is also well-positioned to improve handling of sexual assault, Doolittle asserted, given that we have among the most progressive sexual assault laws in the world. For example, an accuser need not report an allegation immediately to be taken seriously in Canadian court. The national data agency, Statistics Canada, collects and reports information on sexual assault and rape. But there’s still work to be done.
“We need to unwire our brains,” Doolittle concluded. Getting to a more progressive public discourse on this subject will require more people to look in the mirror the way Doolittle did, calling out our own misperceptions about sexual assault.
“We have always been here. It’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us yet.” Samra Habib ended her talk with these powerful words, quoted from a friend. Habib’s conversation with host Anna Shah Hoque was a poignant and thoughtful discourse on identity, culture, religion, and queerness. Habib’s memoir, We Have Always Been Here also addresses each of these topics. Although I have yet to read Habib’s work, one thing was clear: her writing is a visceral, sensory, emotive, and unflinchingly honest account of her journey towards self-acceptance and understanding.
As a woman who is both queer and Muslim, Habib has spent a lifetime working to answer a difficult question: how can one reconcile one’s sexuality with one’s religion when historically, these two elements have never peacefully coexisted? Further, Habib inqured, how was she to gain a concept of herself and her place in the world when the religion that so defined her did not even acknowledge that she, a queer woman, existed? Our identities shape us and shape our experience with the world around us. Habib shared her own difficulties with defining her identity in the face of cruelness and opposition. Her path has not been an easy one, but her discussion with Hoque exposed the beauty and understanding that she discovered even in the face of adversity.
As a writer and a creator, Habib’s passion for creative expression and connecting with others through art was a dominant topic throughout the night, and I suspect, her memoir as well. For Habib, art, memory, and the senses are intricately intertwined and inform one another deeply. Scent is a powerful sense for Habib, in particular. For her, scent is tied strongly to her memories, her family, and her connection with her culture and the South Asian diaspora. It is through the evocation of sensory experience and the honest conveyance of memory that Habib is able to connect with her readers and her community as a whole. Sense, she says, is key to storytelling in any capacity. It is what roots us and allows us to create those tactile and universal connections with others, uniting us in common experience.
Photography and the visual experience is also central to Habib’s creative expression and her way of understanding and defining herself and her world. Hoque and Habib discussed the fact that publications about the South Asian diaspora and the LGBTQIA community are often written by outsiders, creating a conversation that is inaccessible to many of those who do identify with these communities. Photography and memoir are democratic ways of offering these personal and salient stories to those outside of scholarly writing, creating meaningful dialogue external to academia and enabling a wider audience access to this collective experience. Photography enables one to connect and comprehend the difficult and honest emotions dealt with in self-discovery when language and written communication fails. Habib is passionate about sharing her story with others who may have not seen themselves or their stories in writing or art previously. She conveyed her hope that she might be able to provide comfort through her truthfulness about her own experience of being queer and being Muslim. “There’s a lot of joy in being queer,” Habib concluded. Above all else, Habib’s inspirational words brought forth her desire to provide strength and hope to others simply by being honest about herself.
Adam Gopnik claims that he loves sentences more than anything in the world: aphoristic, pregnant, comic sentences. He may have noted other adjectives, but my pen could not scribble as quickly as he could articulate his ideas. Gopnik is a charismatic, if speedy, speaker, and his conversation with Peter Schneider revealed his distinctive mastery of language, history and political nuance. Gopnik, who also joined Schneider in conversation at the 2017 Writers Festival, spoke with candour and humour, demonstrating an intimate and versatile knowledge of the many historical and political issues raised by challenges to liberal democracy around the world. Gopnik also made a strong case for kindness and compassion.
Gopnik and Schneider opened the conversation by talking about Gopnik’s new book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. Gopnik had quickly decided that the book would be a short explanation of liberalism, as seen from both supporting and opposing views. Like Shakespeare, Gopnik hoped to understand and empathize with perspectives different from his own.
Gopnik and Schneider then segued into a variety of intriguing topics, including the paradox of social media; Mordechai Richler’s disdain for empty pieties; Gopnik’s tour of Canada during the 2011 CBC Massey lectures; his mother-in-law’s work with the National Film Board; Mario Vargas Llosa’s portrayals of people slowly compromising their principles; the remarkable tradition of coexistence in Canada and the ways in which that coexistence has been translated into pluralist institutions; and finally, President Trump’s recent reception at the World Series in Washington DC. Gopnik explained that the baseball fans’ response to Trump was almost inevitable: a radical government will create radical opposition. But Trumpism cannot be defeated by the left or progressive factions if they set out to create an “other Trumpism,” Gopnik argued. Instead, he claimed the crowd should have chanted “lock him up, well, not really, but we want to turn the tables on you, and we want to do it with a certain amount of rhetorical irony...” acknowledging, that of course, such complex phrasing would have been difficult for a crowd to negotiate.
As the audience laughed, Gopnik also claimed that in order to be effective, liberal democracies must allow for constant intrusions on their collective conscience. They must, he argued, avoid amnesia about the negative aspects of their inheritance. With respect to Canada, Gopnik noted the mandatory land acknowledgement before Canadian cultural events, reasoning that this practice could be viewed as a kind of forced morality. Land acknowledgements may be something we say to feel better about ourselves, or they might prove that our collective conscience is alive. Either way, it is an important practice, because as citizens of liberal democracies, we need to constantly examine our capacity for doing wrong.
In the end, Gopnik made a strong case for the protection of liberal values and institutions. While a liberal perspective is challenging and requires grappling with inequities and “capitalist colonial cruelties,” it is in the end, Gopnik reasoned, responsible for the most pluralistic, open way of living the world has ever witnessed.
Gopnik concluded that although the liberal person will forever be embattled, she or he should heed the liberal credo, which goes something like this: “we will fight, but not violently, using political and non-political institutions to develop social trust and make the world slightly better, and in small increments, through change over generations...” As Gopnik said, never has an anthem been less inspiring or more awkwardly sung, but its flag must be raised high.
The tone for the evening is set when Mona Eltahawy opens with a declaration of her statement of faith: “f**k the patriarchy.” She explains the concept of patriarchy as an ideology with the body of an octopus: its head is misogyny, and its tentacles are systems of oppression and institutions that privilege male dominance. Despite the name, these are not systems that benefit men. According to Eltahawy, patriarchy is not about men, nor is it for them.
Eltahawy’s book, Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, is a how-to guide for anyone who identifies as female to recover the power of the ‘sins’ they are so frequently taught to avoid. Eltahawy identifies these ‘sins’ as anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. Gender binaries are constructs we’re socialized into and these binaries benefit the patriarchy. If you don’t fall into gender norms, you’re punished accordingly. Women, Eltahawy states, often struggle to identify what they want because they are taught that it exists within parameters. “We’re not raised to be, or to do,” she observes. Similarly, the revolution of owning your body and your sexuality frees you from the patriarchy.
As Eltahawy talks her audience through each sin, the depth of its repression becomes clearer. Anger for white American women, she claims, began with the election of Trump. Anger is the fuel for the engine that will destroy the patriarchy. Yet anger is often misdirected: it is turned inwards, where it becomes depression and self-hatred. Only rarely is anger expressed outwardly, towards those who have provoked it.
As someone who has had the mouth of a sailor since an early age, I must say I rather enjoyed Eltahawy’s liberal use of the word f**k. Her use of profanity derives from her exploration into profanity itself. Politeness is used against women, she reminds the audience: we’re taught to shrink ourselves, to be quiet and invisible. Cursing, she says, is verbal disobedience against patriarchy. (All this time I was a warrior with my words, and I had no idea!)
Indeed, the question of identity, - of ‘who do you think you are?’ - ties in with the book’s commentary on ambition and attention. These questions are frequently used against women, who are taught to believe that we should be modest and unassuming. To declare that your ideas are worthy of attention, and to have the chutzpah to forge a path in realizing or sharing those ideas is often not encouraged. Eltahawy rephrases her logic: “Am I arrogant? Who cares? I f**king earned it!”
Earning one’s place in the world is personal power, and not something the patriarchy wants unless it exists in a certain paradigm. Power is subjective; not everyone wants to be a millionaire or a CEO. Power that dismantles the patriarchy is important.
Nothing seems to foster community like shared trauma. As Eltahawy delved into her evidence, it was as though the collective female audience bristled, recalling with and through her injustices we have all suffered on our own journeys. Inevitably it would seem, the conversation turned to men. How can we teach boys to fuck the patriarchy? Eltahawy has an answer:
“My mission is to emancipate women and girls. Fuck the boys! My mission is greater than equality. Men aren’t free, I don’t want to be them. Men should raise boys to fuck the patriarchy. Mothers raise boys in the eco system of patriarchy. If we’re saving ourselves, and also men, boys and girls…we’d need to be like Kali, the goddess with multiple arms!”
It was an image that embodied the way in which women are often left to carry the emotional labour for everyone. We must somehow save ourselves, and everyone else. In the spirit of Mona Eltahawy herself: “f**ck that.”
Last Tuesday, two powerful Indigenous writers took to the stage to discuss land, legend and spirit with host Shelagh Rogers. Rogers could barely contain her excitement at introducing Karen McBride, whose first novel Crow Winter tells the tale of protagonist Hazel Ellis and her relationship with Algonquin demigod Nanabush. Cherie Dimaline, whose latest book Empire of Wild is inspired by the Metis story of Rogarou, received an equally positive introduction.
Karen McBride’s journey towards writing Crow Winter began in January 2013, when she lost her father to lung disease. Turning to writing for solace and emotional release, McBride used the evolving manuscript as a path of escape into a fictional world. McBride’s began to conceive Empire of Wild while passing time on an airplane journey. Inspired to pick up a magazine by the “hot Jesus” gracing the front cover, Dimaline read an article about Christian missionaries who were bringing people off the land, away from their heritage and their stories. Her reaction to that piece spurred the creation of Empire of the Wild.
The theme of being tied to the land is important to both McBride and Dimaline in their work. Rogers asked each writer to define ‘home.’ Dimaline recalled her grandmother’s role as a story keeper, which brought with it the responsibility of defining the idea of home. The safest way to keep home, guarded against the ravages that “civilization” might wreak upon physical land, was to put it into a story. Stories can be important as a means of protection, she told the audience. Some stories are maps through time and geography. Others are teaching stories, which illustrate different kinds of dangers. Dimaline concluded: “home is something you pick up and run with.” McBride agreed that home is something you carry with you, wherever you are: “home is medicine. It can heal you, but it may not taste nice. It’s community. It’s political; reclamation of land. Stories are inside of you, and can’t be taken away.” The mythical figure Nanabush became a source of strength for her, and a sign that she was not alone. She would be reminded of him whenever she saw a crow… and of course, they are everywhere!
The idea of being seen in stories was also a point of contemplation during the conversation. Rogers asked both McBride and Dimaline whether they had seen themselves in books before beginning to write their own work. McBride says she grew up “living” in stories by writers like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, but only really found herself recently when she read Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Through her own work she hopes to make Indigenous readers see that “our own stories are just as cool, if not cooler” than many of the stories which are already in print. Dimaline confessed that whilst she was inspired by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman, she had really only seen herself in her grandmother Maria Campbell’s work Halfbreed.
Finally, Rogers posed a question from the American singer Tina Turner: “what’s love got to do with it?” Cherie Dimaline left us with a heart-warming notion: "The ancestors loved us. They held onto our language, our stories, our tricksters, so we could have them. They knew we would be here. They guarded things with their lives. Heroic, beautiful. Telling our stories increases our capacity for love."
What’s not to love about that?
On Monday evening, we journeyed into the heart of fear. Three writers led us into a world of anxieties evoked by motherhood, friendships, sisterhood and caregiving, as well as the fear of madness itself. Jessica Westhead, Lynn Coady, and Naben Ruthnum (who writes as Nathan Ripley) took their audience on a thrilling exploration of fear in its diverse forms.
The event was Jessica Westhead’s first OIWF appearance, and she presented her new thriller Worry, which blends her love of cottage life, her terror of wilderness and her own maternal worries. An anxious parent herself, Westhead used her protagonist as a vehicle for exploring her many fears. The character of Ruth is a ‘helicopter’ mother, overly protective of her four-year old daughter Fern. As Ruth and Fern are enjoying their time with a friend and her family, they meet Marvin, who plays the role of ‘boogeyman’ in the story. Marvin will remind you of the times your parents told you to be wary of strangers. Westhead goes beyond the anxiety a stranger may invoke in us and explores his humanity, the side that may be worthy of our trust. But of course, trust and verify.
In Watching You Without Me, Lynn Coady translates her own experience with caregiving into a chilling tale about Karen, a woman in her forties, who, after the sudden death of her mother, goes to take care of her developmentally disabled sister Kelli. Having been estranged from her family for a long time, Karen is faced with familial guilt. Ultimately, her anxieties, fears, and worries are funneled into a metaphor that materializes as the character of Trevor, a gaslighter and manipulator, another kind of ‘boogeyman.’ Trevor is Kelli’s professional caregiver and had been an integral part of her family’s life for some time. Not wanting Karen to understand her own mother, he sells her a bad, skewed version of her. With Watching You Without Me, Coady stepped out of the grounds of her “meandering novels” into the arena of page turners. Her new book will make you want to keep on reading until the early morning hours.
In Your Life is Mine, Nathan Ripley explores the aftermath of violence. Initially, the book seems to be about the life of notorious killer and cult leader Chuck Varner, who committed suicide after going on a killing spree. The tale turns out to be more about the aftermath his death, the dynamics of the family left behind, of the wife subsumed by the philosophy of her demented husband and the daughter who wished for nothing else but to distance herself from her father in every imaginable way. To her dismay, Blanche, Chuck’s daughter, is forced to face the traumas of her family’s past when she learns of her mother’s murder, possibly at the hands of her father’s former cult her father.
Regardless of whether you have read these thrillers or not, if you spent your Monday evening in the company of these three talented Canadian writers you would undoubtedly be pondering how fear and nuance go hand in hand, as well as how distrust and worry can easily become next door neighbours. The ghosts of the past tend to catch up with the present.