“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.
A review in the form of a drawing.
An audience of intrepid armchair explorers gathered to hear Bob McDonald talk about all things space, as drawn from his new book, An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space. It’s safe to say that his debut at the Ottawa Writers Festival was a roaring success, as his talk generated laughter, gasps, and lengthy applause.
McDonald has been explaining scientific findings to enraptured audiences since 1972. Most people know him from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, which he has been hosting since 1992. McDonald’s latest book is written as a series of answers to questions that young people often ask, and each chapter finishes with activities to really get their minds connected with the subject at hand. McDonald’s own childlike enthusiasm was both touching and palpable; he barely contained his smile throughout the talk. At one point he brandished a beach ball that looks like Earth, giddy at the idea of just how far our knowledge has come in the past several centuries.
As a young boy, McDonald’s imagination was sparked by a planetary science book given to him by his mother. McDonald’s latest work is inspired by the generations that come after him, and there were tears in his eyes when he claimed “if even one kid is inspired, it’ll make a difference.” Alas there were only one or two possible candidates for the Guide’s target audience of 7-14 year olds present, but as host Laurence Wall told the audience: “everyone is a young person tonight!”
If you’ve ever wondered what we’ve gotten wrong about space in the past, the answer is apparently: almost everything! Our five senses are not sufficient to really see or appreciate much of the vastness of the cosmos . As a result, many people were led to believe that the universe actually revolves around us. (I know some people who still believe this to be true in their own lives). One reason for this conclusion was because the movement of the Earth can’t be felt. Presently, we can only really see about 5% of the contents of the universe. Trivia fans were not disappointed when McDonald revealed, amongst many other things, that it would take us 100,000 years to reach the centre of our galaxy – and that’s if we were able to travel at the speed of light.
Interest in outer space couldn’t be more timely, given all the current fears about climate catastrophe on Earth. Talk turned to what civilization might do now we’re potentially facing the beginning of the end. Is there anywhere out there we can escape to? Is a mass exodus to Mars viable? Or perhaps another planet will be discovered as a new land to colonise? McDonald’s predictions for space travel in the next hundred years include the development of space tourism, hotels in space, as well as tourists and colonies on the moon and on Mars. More poignantly, he told us that instead of looking to a plan B, we need to focus on saving our planet. As he told his audience: “We live in the crown jewel of the universe. We need to move from protest to proactive… My exploration of space has made me love this planet.”
With no migration of humanity on the cards, perhaps An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space will help both children and adults alike see how good we have it here, by showing them what else is out there.
It was standing-room-only in Manx Pub, a warm and intimate setting befitting of the occasion, as lovers of poetry and spoken word gathered together on October 27th to celebrate the launch of Arc Poetry Magazine's latest issue. The camaraderie between colleagues and strangers alike was infectious as attendees waited for the event to begin, a testament to the sense of community which has evolved from the magazine and its influence on the Canadian literary scene. The murmur of the enthusiastic crowd only faded as Frances Boyle, Arc’s associate poetry editor, took the stage to open the evening and introduce "Labour and Livelihood," the 90th issue of the magazine. The new issue of Arc explores the idea of “work” in all of its many definitions and facets, Boyle explained, as well as the relationship between poetry, identity and labour.
To demonstrate how this theme is put into practice, Boyle introduced Mike Chaulk, the first of the three contributors in attendance that evening, to read his poetry and reflect on his own relationship with “work.” Reading from his series “How Long do Birds Live?”, Chaulk began by presenting his poems “The House Wren” and “The Golden Crowned Kinglet”, both of which were existential pieces that reflected upon the modern tendency towards passivity over activity. Many people could be seen nodding along as lines hit home, and the room laughed and hummed at shared experiences, which good poetry always illuminates. With his final reading of the night, Chaulk explored the question of identity and Indigenous issues, perfectly encapsulating the theme of the issue which seeks to explore how poetry and identity intersect with labour.
Next to the stage was Andrea Thompson, who presented several spoken word pieces, each of which was just as poignant as the last. In “A Brief History of Soul Speak”, Thompson reflected on the influence of black literary art on spoken word while paying homage to Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other “ancestors of verse.” Thompson also lamented that so many other stories remain unsung, and emphasized the work that still needs to be done within the literary scene to make room for these voices. As Thompson artfully delivered her poems, the audience once again collectively nodded along and met her with warm applause when the last notes faded out.
Finally, Eli Tareq Lynch got up to present several moving pieces that dealt with gender, religion, race, and climate change. Reading their poem “When I Lived on Acadie,” they reflected on how they are too busy making progress and moving forward to notice all those who only stand, and stare, and judge. Lynch demonstrated an inspiring level of dedication to the work they have chosen which struck all those in attendance. A line from their last poem “Underwater” really resounded with the evening, as they asked “how do you muster optimism when everything seems doomed?” How do we find the motivation to move forward when so much stands in our way, and progress seems impossible? How do we persevere against all this adversity? Because, as Thompson pointed out in her poem “Free Write Manifesto,” poetry is “filled with magic, healing, and connection,” all of which give us the strength to get up and get on with our work. You can find this connection with a diverse and beautiful group of writers in the latest issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, available through subscription and at your local magazine stand.
I have a confession to make: I was already a huge fan of Amanda Jetté Knox before she appeared at Writers Fest.
I stumbled across her blog just a few short months before her middle child came out back in 2014, and I followed along as she introduced the world to her daughter – and then to her wife. Jetté Knox truly leads with love, and I was delighted to find that she is just as warm, witty, and wise in person as she is online.
Jetté Knox was the first panelist of the evening to read from her book. She chose to read the passage about the night that she and her spouse received a life-changing e-mail from their 11-year-old, telling them who she really was, and how they put aside their shock to love their daughter unconditionally.
Holy schnikes, folks.
I already knew the story. Like I said, I read the blog post ages ago. I’ve also heard Jetté Knox on the radio and seen the local CBC coverage of her family.
And yet, there I was, sitting in the back row and fighting off the Ugly Cry. (I wasn’t the only one, right?!)
Rick Prashaw also read selections from his book, choosing to highlight his late son Adam’s voice through social media posts. (I was lulled into a false sense of security when my eyes didn’t prickle at first – but Prashaw certainly got me when he later spoke of Adam’s death and organ donation, noting that Adam’s heart continues to beat in another man’s chest).
During the ensuing discussion, both Jetté Knox and Prashaw talked about why they chose to tell their families’ stories. Back in 2014, Jetté Knox’s daughter had searched for positive examples of other young people coming out as trans—but she mostly found stories about kids being utterly rejected by their families. On a similar note, in a blog post way back when, Jetté Knox mentioned that she also searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition when her spouse came out – but she, too, was left empty-handed. Part of her family’s intention with the book has been to fill the narrative gap and to provide a window for people wanting to learn more about gender transition.
Prashaw, in telling his story as a parent, also wanted to talk about the steep learning curve he faced. “I had to be honest. I confessed all the mistakes I was making,” he noted. “But listening, learning, and loving worked well for us as a family – and I highly recommend it.”
Jetté Knox agreed. “Love isn’t perfect. We are going to make mistakes when we learn new things, even when it involves people you love unconditionally.”
But, my goodness, does that love ever triumph.
“My family members bring out the best in me,” Jetté Knox continued, beaming. “The authenticity with which they’re living their lives…They have the strength, hope, and determination to show the world that this can be a very happy and beautiful situation.”
In fact, one of Adam Prashaw’s friends contacted Rick Prashaw after reading Soar, Adam, Soar. The friend summed it up perfectly: “Thank you for writing this love story.”
A common denominator of humour kept the audience laughing at the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, while the rain came down on a dreary Sunday afternoon. Laurie Gelman has recently released her second book You’ve Been Volunteered, part of her Class Mom series. The book takes a humourous look at the trials and tribulations of being a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Class Mom volunteer. Dave Hill’s most recent book, Parking the Moose: One American’s Epic Quest to Uncover His Incredible Canadian Roots, was written by the author as he tried to find out why his grandfather had always claimed that Canada was better than the United States.
Gelman has a strong Ottawa connection, having attended both Vincent Massey Public School and Carleton University. After a successful career in radio and television on both sides of the border, Gelman decided to stay home with her two children for a few years. When she turned 50, Gelman decided she would write about her experiences as a parent volunteer in her children’s school. “Women in the US turn the PTA into their own fiefdom,” observed Gelman. “You have a Mom who left her job as one of the Fortune 500 company presidents to raise her kids, and then decides to put her energy into the PTA in their child’s school.”
People can relate to the social scene in You’ve Been Volunteered because it is the same anywhere you have a diverse group of people who are working towards something together, Gelman added. The PTA experience can be found anywhere, in a church group, or even a book club, said Gelman. People are often telling her stories of their own experiences, and Gelman said she has enough material to go into a third book for this series.
Dave Hill’s experience was that of an American who had always heard tales of Canadian exceptionalism from his grandfather. He then decided to come and find out for himself what his Northern neighbor was really like. In the course of researching Parking the Moose, Hill travelled to Montreal, Moosejaw, Regina, Winnipeg, Merrickville, as well as Clinton, Ontario, the birthplace of his grandfather.
Growing up in the US, Hill observed, everyone is taught to believe that their country is the best, and not many Americans are curious to explore their neighbor to the North. “I’ve never met an American who’s been to Saskatchewan, and I don’t think I ever will,” said Hill. He chose the places he travelled to in Canada, because of a particular connection, said Hill. For instance, he went to Winnipeg, since his Grandfather had worked in a clothing factory there. Along the way, Hill had many Canadian experiences, including stopping a sled dog team in mid-ride to let two dogs “get it on” on a trip in Quebec. He tried his hand at axe-throwing in Halifax and made a point to attend NHL games whenever he could.
Both writers said they really liked coming to Canada, especially with the current political scene in America. Hill admitted that that he lives in New York, which he considers an oasis from the political scene. Still, he observed, “Coming to Canada is nice, because you don’t have to see or hear Donald Trump, every minute of every day.”