Before Samra Zafar was married as a young woman she had dreams of pursuing her education. She had a different definition of a full life than those among her friends and family, and for years she struggled against cultural expectations to achieve these goals. In the end it meant leaving her husband and losing some of those closest to her. But she also made huge gains.
Ahead of our conversation with Samra Zafar on May 5th , Manahil Bandukwala interviewed her about why writing about her experience has been an important step in her life.
MB: Hi Samra, the theme of your event, “The River of Life,” is on finding strength, struggling for empowerment, and making defining choices. In A Good Wife, you talk about finding the strength to leave the past behind. Where do you find your strength?
SZ: I believe our strength lies within us. Strength does not mean the absence of weakness. Strength means getting up and moving forward despite the weak moments. I have always faced (and continue to face) times when I feel weak, broken and afraid. And I choose to get up one more time, and take one more step.
The other very important factor is the support system around us. Human connection creates resilience–and I always seek out and cultivate relationships, friendships and connections that I can lean on or get advice from when times get tough.
MB: You also talk about difficult choices, such as the choice to leave your husband. Can you talk about the choices you’ve made that have shaped who you are today?
SZ: I’m a strong believer in taking charge of one’s own life. Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, every single day - the choice to believe instead of give up, the choice to hope instead of despair, the choice to forgive instead of avenge, the choice to love instead of hate. I always thought if I don’t respect my dreams, no one else will. Despite a lot of opposition, I never gave up on my dreams and I kept making the choice to hope and strive. And today, I make the choice to forgive–because by occupying space in my heart with hate, anger and resentment, I leave less space for love, joy and happiness.
MB: Lots of women have reached out to you after encountering your writing or hearing you speak to talk about their own situations. What effect do you find sharing your story has?
SZ: I started sharing my story because I knew it was the story of millions of women and girls around the world who continue to suffer in silence because of fear, lack of support and other barriers. By raising my voice, I am helping others reclaim their voices. Thousands of women write to me with their stories of struggle and triumph, and how I have inspired them to save their own lives. It’s a privilege and an honour to be able to touch lives this way.
MB: In an article in The Toronto Star, you mention that your older daughter encouraged you to share your story. You started writing and publishing more, including sharing the story in Toronto Life that eventually went on to become A Good Wife. Why do you write? What pushes you to write?
SZ: Every morning, I wake up to dozens of messages on my social media from people across the world who have been impacted and inspired by my work. For example, just 2 months ago, a woman wrote to me how after hearing me speak, she went to the police to report her abuser and put the shame where it belongs. That is what keeps me going, and I will never stop.
MB: You’ve spoken at TEDx Mississauga and Amnesty International, among other places. How does your writing fits in with your public speaking? How did this influence the writing process of A Good Wife?
SZ: My writing and speaking complement each other very well. They are two avenues of amplifying my messages. The success of A Good Wife has opened up new speaking platforms where I can drill deeper into the nuances and structural roots of abuse, and how we can challenge them as a society. And stories from the lives I touch through my speaking make their way into my writing. It all goes together hand-in-hand.
MB: In addition to being a writer and speaker, you work in banking. How does this fit with your writing and advocacy work?
SZ: I now work at BMO as Director, Business Finance. I am very proud to work in an organization that advocates and takes action for gender equity and social justice. In my role, I empower women entrepreneurs across Canada in their success journey, while creating impact in our communities. The bank fully supports my speaking, writing and advocacy work as it fits in beautifully with the company values.
MB: What’s next for you?
SZ: Next is getting A Good Wife in the hands of women across the world!
MB: Do you have anything else you want to add?
SZ: With success comes responsibility. I want to encourage everyone to pay it forward, in their own ways, and reach out to offer connection. Even the smallest action, a few kind words, on our part can have a life changing impact on others.
Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty is her debut short story collection and the first in Vivek Shraya’s VS imprint with Arsenal Pulp Press. “Téa’s manuscript stood out to me for its unexpectedness,” writes Shraya. “These were coming-of-age stories, yes, butevery ending was a punch in the gut—not unlike the experience of racialized girlhood.”
Both writers will be at the 2019 Spring edition of our festival, but before we sit down to talk with them in person, Ottawa poet Manahil Bandukwala interviewed Téa Mutonji to get a glimpse into the origins of the collection and to get a feel for Mutonji’s writing style.
MB: Hi Téa, congratulations on your debut collection! Your event at the Ottawa Writers Festival involves mentorship. Can you talk about your experience working with Vivek Shraya and how it shaped your book, as well as your literary journey?
TM: Thank you so much! It still hasn’t hit me yet, and I’m not too sure why! I don’t think I would have survived navigating CanLit any other way. I can’t imagine any other scenario involving me publishing without first having had the support and mentorship from Vivek. I can say with confidence that I’m an entirely different artist having now worked so closely with Vivek. A lot of what she was able to offer me was more on the personal side. Vivek has a lot of courage, strength, and trust in her work, and that’s something I’ve never really been exposed to. There is a bit of a self-deprecating culture among young Canadian writers, or perhaps the groups I’ve specifically explored. Vivek didn’t have that. Vivek redefined the relationship an artist may have with her work. And because she never shut down a single idea I had, and only encouraged me to explore it to its most raw and unexpandable form, I learned to love my own work. I think that’s the most important thing I’m taking away from this experience. I’m going to love reading these texts out loud. I’m going to love it all. I definitely didn’t have this sentiment at any point in my writing career.
MB: In an article on UofT’s website , you talk about how the inspiration for your collection was a long-form poem you wrote called “Pretty Woman.” How did the poem become the collection we have today? What was the process of translating poetry to short story like?
TM: The poem “Pretty Woman” is about a little girl realizing that because of the way she looks, she’s going to experience a particular narrative. In the end, her mother almost suggests that it’s true for every woman who looks like her (black, pretty, queerish, soft). Though I didn’t take much from this poem in terms of structure or narrative, I took this conflict between the inner self and the external self. I built this character, Loli, entirely based on this poem. The original manuscript was called Notes from a Pretty Woman, and it was a collection of short poems/maybe flash fiction prose, maybe observations on how having a fixed identity will cause certain narratives. Instead of an abstract, supposed narrative, I wrote actual, tangible, and concrete examples of what this all meant for Loli. The poem was actually my first publication, in 2014.
MB: The first line of “Women Talking” reads “The morning of my abortion, I ate a full meal.” Shut Up You’re Pretty is full of starting lines like these that just pull you in. How do you know when you have that good first line?
TM: This is from years of training under Andrew Westoll. He, as a professor, would urge us to start every story with a scene. A lot of us went for dialogue right at the top of the page. I usually went for a bald statement. I went for: “Last night I was raped and now today I’m awake.” (That’s an actual first line from a story I wrote during a class assignment.) A few other things I took away from Andrew: show don’t tell, excite don’t confuse, start at the middle. We worked on this short, final, direct writing together. I expressed really early on in my academic writing career that I didn’t like the thesis form of creative writing. I like to start at the end, perhaps. I like to start where the heartbeat has caught up.
MB: Lots of the stories in your book show snippets of the narrator’s life. Some are especially short, like “Tilapia Fish,” which is two pages long, yet I think that was my favourite story in the book. What makes a short story complete?
TM: I’m not necessarily sure what makes a short story complete. To me, it’s usually the end of a scene because I do have that ongoing format of writing stories as though they’re a scene in a very long indie film. I end every story the same way I end every poem: when I’ve said all that needed to be said. Sometimes, that means the story doesn’t end at all, but it just lingers between myself, the page, and the reader. And sometimes, I think that’s the most beautiful way to say goodbye. I think “Tilapia Fish” does that.
MB: What makes a good short story?
TM: Truth. To me, truth makes a good short story. With so much restriction, it would be such a disservice to everyone involved in the reading process (the character, the reader, myself) to have a story that lacks depth. That lacks the real juices of the human condition. Even a story entirely about robots, or flowers, or buildings has human condition. Human instincts. Human desires to feel and to unfeel.
MB: In an interview in Read Local BC, you talk about the subtleties in your story that a Congolese protagonist would notice that other people would not. Something that appears as representation is really just instinct – could you talk more about that?
TM: The question about scent was an intentional decision. I notice scent. I notice sound. I notice wrinkles, first. I had a friend in high school who once walked into my house, greeted my mother, and said, “Your house smells like Africa.” It wasn’t an insult; he definitely didn’t mean it like that. Mother and I took a big inhale and concluded that it was true. Palm oil boiling in the kitchen, fried plantain cooling in the dining room. We’re so used to so much conflicting sounds (baby crying, drama outside, cars, people walking) because of such thin walls, that we hear everything first. I don’t necessarily think I meant to say all Congolese people notice this, but I mean for sure that I personally do, and I think that’s contingent on the spaces I’ve occupied as a Congolese girl. Giving that to Loli was actually an accident. Something I’m just personally used to playing with. I love that she has that. It’s so true to her culture, in some ways.
MB: What’s next for you in terms of literary projects? What are you currently working on?
TM: Film! Well, I want to tell the tales of Loli and Jolie in a more accessible medium. I say accessible because my mother won’t read the book. English is just not her preferred way. And even if there was a French translation, she still wouldn’t read it because literature isn’t her preferred way. But she’d watch a film. Over and over again. And I love that. I want to give her that. There’s also a little (long) novel in my heart, and it’s taking up most of my time. It has a lot of love and hope in it. But in true personal fashion, I do push my characters boundaries again.
MB: Do you have anything else you want to add?
TM: Vivek is the absolute best mentor. Everyone needs to submit to her imprint or music grant. She will be there for you every step of the way and beyond. Even if there wasn’t a publication deal attached to this, I would say that very loudly. Nothing compares to developing the skills and patience you need to continuously work at your craft. Vivek gave me that. And also, now I think I can do anything. I think I can do film and write a play and travel the world. I guess I’m saying I’m not afraid of dreaming anymore.
Memoirs can take us inside the lives of people just like us or those who are completely different. They let us experience the world through someone else’s eyes and each time, they leave us changed. From May 2nd to 7th we’ll explore stories of love, peace, change and strength with our memoir writers.
Yousef Bashir – The Words of My Father
Friday, May 3rd • 6:00 pm
In The Words of My Father, Yousef Bashir describes the experience of growing up in Gaza amid the region’s complex maelstrom, and talks about being raised by his father whose message of peace now strongly resonates with him.
Kim Thuy – Secrets from my Vietnamese Kitchen
Friday, May 3rd • 7:30 pm
In her first cookbook, novelist Kim Thuy shares stories of food and family from whom she learned appreciate good cuisine.
Yasuko Thanh & Samra Zafar – The River of Life
Sunday, May 5th • 6:30 pm
It takes strength to break out from the life you have known and pursue your dreams. Sometimes those closest to you are the biggest detractors, and sometimes the biggest obstacle is yourself. Coming from two very different walks of life, Yasuko Thanh and Samra Zafar share their stories of perseverance and transformation.
Joshua M. Ferguson, Lorimer Shenher & Kristen Worley – Beyond Binaries
Sunday, May 5th • 8:30 pm
As a filmmaker, a cop, an Olympic cyclist, and writer our memoirists have excelled and pushed the boundaries, but some of the most challenging boundaries they have pushed are those dictated by gender. They share their experiences so that the next generation of transgender and non-binary folks will feel seen, heard and less alone.
Alicia Elliott & Terese Marie Mailhot – Living History
Monday, May 6th • 8:30 pm
When it comes to colonization, the impact can sometimes seem abstract but the effects are experienced in a myriad of ways, from food security to interpersonal relationships. In their memoirs, Alicia Elliott and Terese Marie Mailhot bring those experiences to the forefront.
Vivek Shraya – Death Threat
Tuesday, May 7th • 8:30 pm
It takes a lot of strength to live publicly, and sadly, sometimes, taking the chance to be open about who you are comes with hate mail and death threats. In her new graphic novel, Vivek Shraya explores the meaning of these threats and wonders if we can move beyond hate to a place where safety is a given, not a condition.
"Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."
-J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Every seven year-old knows an important secret: life is lived for exploration, for grand adventure beyond the folds of the imagination. As a child, Dave Williams had lofty dreams that stretched to the moon and back. Reading books and learning about the nascent international space program led the young Dave, by age seven, to know he wanted to be an astronaut someday.
Though children often wish upon the stars, many grow into adults and forget the enchanted explorations of their youth. They forget the power of their dreams. But even as an adult Williams never stopped dreaming. He never stopped reaching for the stars. He became a Canadian hero when in 1992 he joined the Canadian Astronaut Program, and in 1995 he became an Astronaut at NASA. He journeyed on two spaceflights and set a record of three spacewalks. How did Williams make his dreams a reality?
To find out, Library and Archives Canada, the Ottawa Public Library, and the Ottawa International Writers Festival jointly hosted Dave Williams for public event. Gathering a large audience filled with starry-eyed children at Library and Archives Canada, Williams spoke about his journey to the stars.
Charting a path wasn’t easy. Williams chose the title Defying Limits for his book because of the many challenges he faced. The first was when Williams wanted to become an astronaut as a child; his teacher said it was impossible for there was no Canadian Space program at the time. So, Williams decided to take up the next best thing, and learned to scuba dive at age 12. Williams later struggled with university while managing part-time jobs to cover costs of tuition. He didn’t get into medical school the first time he applied, so he applied a second time. Courage, as Williams told his audience, includes the bravery to embrace your failures. Brave people will allow themselves to fail again and again.
Sometime, what it takes to move through obstacles is a shift in perspective. When Williams first experienced failure, it hit him hard. Initially, he confessed, he felt badly about his grades in school. Later, he took ownership of the problem and realized his actions had a role to play in his success. Williams studied at the campus library until midnight and ended up graduating from McGill University with top awards. Then, at the zenith of his career, at age 50, Williams was hit with another big roadblock when he was diagnosed with cancer. Williams admits his first thought after the diagnosis was: I’m going to die. Then a shift happened. His next thought was: What can I do? Williams engaged with his illness, became proactive in his recovery, and at age 54, he flew into space as a cancer survivor.
Admittedly, Williams is a Type-A personality. He has big dreams but also does whatever it takes to deliver. One of the most important life lessons Williams learned was from his son, who taught him that sometimes the best goal is not to set any goals. Sometimes, Williams told the audience, the best goal in life is simply to have fun. “Cosmic time is infinite. . . My life is a speck of sand on the infinite beach of time,” Williams observed. “We should not live to leave a legacy, but instead live our legacy,” enjoying life with the ones we love.
Books and Biryani’s Dislocation: Finding Ourselves Again event was an intimate exchange of culture, connection and community. Organized by the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslin Women, the event welcomed attendees in from the freezing cold weather to a warm meal of biryani (a melange of eastern spices, rice and meat) and an atmosphere of lively conversation.
Over the course of two hours, CBC host Adrian Harewood invited attendees into a humorous and heartfelt discussion with author Djamila Ibrahim on her recently released short story collection, Things are Good Now. Their discussion focused on the role of diversity in literature, as well as the power of stories in creating connections and fostering community.
Opening the conversation, Harewood first set out to explore Ibrahim’s motivation and intention as a writer. Having been interested in reading and writing from an early age, Ibrahim relayed the challenge of consistently trying to identifying herself within the books she read. For Ibrahim, writing provides a platform to give profile to diverse voices and create stories that reflect the experiences of people from different ethnic communities and backgrounds. Ibrahim’s stories create places where readers can see themselves, relate to the experiences of the characters, or facilitate a sense of connection an understanding. The importance of being recognized, and of having access to stories and having one’s own stories known, was a timely aspect of Harewood and Ibrahim’s conversation.
Ibrahim and Harewood also explored the concept of connection. Ibrahim spoke about the transcendental nature of stories in engaging and connecting people from different backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Literature can serve as tool for transmitting understanding, she asserted. Indeed, as Ibrahim, explained, the title Things are Good Now is a reflection of the complicated feelings associated with her arrival in Canada. For Ibrahim, there was an immediate sense of relief upon emigration. Her feeling of relief was later tempered by the challenge of creating new ties, and as well as a recognition of the permanent separation from her Ethiopian origins.
The evening also explored Ibrahim’s writing process. Her ideas for writing stem from her own curiosity, as well as the stories and experiences of those around her, Ibrahim told Harewood. Ibrahim enriches the content of her narratives through extensive research, then often interweaves her research with her own experience. Leading the audience behind the curtain of Ibrahim’s creative process, she helped her listeners understand how she shapes her characters, as well as the feelings and goals which drive their actions.
Ibrahim’s short story collection also serves as a legacy for her friends and family. Through her stories, she immortalizes their stories and experiences. For example, in response to a question from a family friend, Ibrahim highlighted how his evocative description of winter was interwoven into the body of the title story of Things are Good Now. Her description captured the chill of the Canadian winter, but also the chill of Canadians. One particularly evocative line from the story reads: “I wanted to tell her how, in the deep of the long and dark Canadian winter when the suspicious looks of landlords or the disdain in strangers’ eyes clogged my soul, I longed for the warmth of our home.”
Books and Biryani is an annual salon, and this year’s edition allowed for a candid and immersive discussion on how the cultural themes of Ibrahim’s writing can transcend and impact Canadian society. The conversation between Harewood and Ibrahim also illuminated how writing can be tool for empowering people who are unseen in the current literary landscape, as well as engaging and connecting us all.
Canada is not impervious to the cultural and ethnic tensions that are emerging globally. However, this discussion and its engaged audience made me feel optimistic that a diverse group of individuals from across the Ottawa community can come together and connect over literature. It was evident that Ottawans can pursue constructive discussions on how we as society can continue to grow. This was my first “Books and Biryani” event, but I would recommend it for festivalgoers who are interested in having intimate and engaging discussions that promote self-reflection and consideration of the world.
Editor's note: this is the second installment of a two-part interview. For the first part of the interview, click here.
JN: So after the tour, will you start writing again?
IR: No, probably not, for various reasons. Number one, I’m on a one-book-every-two-years contract, so I don’t need to deliver a book next year at all. And we’re off to downsizing. We’re moving from a big house to a small apartment. So I’ve got a lot of work to do to get rid of stuff. I’ve got to get my head around that, get the house sold, move into the apartment, and then maybe—I mean, I usually write my books the first half of the year. Take this new book [In a House of Lies]: in January I had nothing. I got an idea for it in January, started writing it in February, it was delivered in June and it published in October.
JN: What kind of workdays does that make for you?
IR: Twelve-hour days, seven days a week. [But] you know, when your story starts flying you’ve got to stick with it. But next year could be different. The first half of the year could be me selling the house and moving into an apartment. So I might not start writing until June [or] July, and two things could happen there: one, I write the next book very quickly and it’s delivered by the end of the year, or I take my time, and I’ve got a year to write the book instead of six months. I don’t know which would be better for me. We’ll see.
JN: Both your sons are young men now. Has either shown an interest in writing as a career?
IR: No. In fact, Jack has just successfully read one of my novels, at the age of twenty-six. He tried as a teenager and didn’t get on with it, [then] he read my graphic novel a few years ago and said, “It’s ok, dad, but don’t give up the day job.” And now he’s read Strip Jack, which is actually named after him, and I think he quite enjoyed it. But he’s not a crime fiction reader. [These days] young people mostly aren’t. It’s a weird thing, but crime fiction, you mostly get into it late in life. You know what I mean? It’s a genre, a way of looking at the world you only get into when you get some experience.
JN: Coming back to your novels, the relationship between Rebus and Cafferty is one of the great Faustian relationships in literature. And they’re both getting older, and they’re both finding themselves, especially Cafferty in recent years, in some bit of peril. Do you anticipate possibly weaving into that [narrative] a sort of joint intimacy, in the sense that Rebus might, for example, find himself in jeopardy and Cafferty might come to his aid, even in a deadly way?
IR: Well, they’ve both [already] done it. I forget which book it is, but in one of the Rebus novels Cafferty pulls Rebus out of a nightclub fire and saves his life. And in fact in what was meant to be the final Rebus book, Exit Music, Cafferty is in hospital and he flatlines, and Rebus tries to save him. So that’s been done. You know, I’ve never had a plan for their relationship. I start writing a book and I go, “Where are they now, what are they doing? Do they still hate each other? Are they friends? Are they foes?” It’s a mixture. I mean, every cop needs their Moriarty figure, and I don’t think either one of them can imagine a world without the other. They enjoy the sparring, they enjoy the jousting…the games of chess and mind games that they play with each other. And also now, we see them in their mid-to-late sixties, lookin’ around at a changing world that doesn’t make sense to them any more. Modern technology doesn’t make sense to them any more, and by this stage in their lives they are supposed to be retired and shuffled off the stage, and they just refuse to do it. So there’s an extraordinary empathy between them, but possible not quite friendship.
JN: We had lots more to discuss, but we were well past our allotted our time together, so I thanked Ian for making space in his already-crowded schedule. He needed a bit of down time, and I was looking forward to his talk at Christ Church Cathedral that evening, and even more, to our getting together once again, this time for a promised pint at a certain bar in Edinburgh.
Following a luncheon event hosted by the Writers Festival, Ian Rankin and Ottawa crime novelist Jim Napier retired to a Byward Market pub for a pint, where the two men renewed a friendship that stretches back over twenty years. Given all the books and all the honours that Ian has accrued since then, Jim began their talk with a facetious question. [Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part post. For the second half of the conversation, click here. ]
Jim Napier: So how does it feel to be an overnight success?
Ian Rankin: Yeah, right! You know what? I think if you work for it, it feels all the sweeter. There were a lot of times in my career when the books weren’t selling, and the publishers were getting ready to drop me because they weren’t making any money. I was doubting my own abilities, my wife was going to get a job, and we couldn’t survive from writing. You know what it did? It just galvanized me and made me work all the harder. Because it was the only thing I knew how to do, write books. But it’s been a slow build from my first Rebus novel [that] sold I think maybe five hundred copies, and the next one something like a thousand. I kept getting great reviews, so the media were on board, and I got [some] prizes, and eventually it all came good. But it took a long time. The first book was published when I was twenty-five or six, the first Rebus book was published when I was twenty-seven, [and] I was in my forties before I was making a living.
JN: We first met in 1997, when you took home the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Black and Blue, and it seemed to me that you were well on your way at that point.
IR: Not really. You know, people get this feeling that because you’re winning prizes and stuff that you must be making a lot of money, but Black and Blue didn’t hit the top ten in the UK or anywhere else. It was never a best seller. The one after that, The Hanging Garden, had one week at number ten in the UK, and still wasn’t a best seller anywhere else. I think the book after that [Dead Souls] possibly went on to number one. So [I wrote] like ten Rebus novels before I was hitting the number one slot.
JN: What made you pick crime fiction as a genre?
IR: I don’t think I did.; I think crime fiction picked me. I was trying to write about Edinburgh. It’s got quite a dark history. A lot of gothic fiction has been set there, or written by Edinburgh authors. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which as far as I know is the first serial killer novel in history, about a religious zealot who starts killing people who don’t agree with his religion.
JN: Was this basis for Bible John?
IR: Well, maybe. Who knows if Bible John actually existed? There’s some controversy these days about that. But I like to write about Edinburgh, I like to write about Scotland, I like to write about social issues [and] I found that crime fiction is a good way of doing it. [At that point] I hadn’t actually written a crime novel. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was meant to be Jekyll and Hyde updated, but nobody realized that. As far as they were concerned it was a crime novel. You know, I hadn’t read [any] crime fiction. I was a Ph.D. student doing Scottish literature. I was going to be a professor of English. I didn’t want to be a crime writer!
JN: I think most Rebus fans are happy you didn’t stick with that plan! If I had to guess, I’d say you don’t really buy into the distinction between literary and genre fiction.
IR: I really don’t. And specifically, these days I think a lot of younger writers are writing genre who a generation ago would have wanted to be “literary novelists,” and they don’t see a distinction.
JN: Is that more more true over on your side of the water than here?
IR: I dunno. I think the UK and the States, and maybe Canada, were slow to pick up on the fact that commercial fiction could also be quality fiction. Whereas in other countries like France, for example, they always took the crime novel seriously. They saw it as being an extension of the existential novel. These detectives, these loner maverick detectives, were existential heroes, making their own rules and living [by them]. In the UK and in America, not so much. [But] I think the change is definitely happening, and now in the UK, you can study crime fiction in creative writing classes at university, and in high schools in Scotland you can study my books. So crime fiction is starting to be taken seriously.
JN: Between the writing and the book tours, you have a very busy schedule. Are you able to carve out some quality family time these days?
IR: At the moment, no. The big UK tour (for In a House of Lies, which will be released in Canada next month) means I got home Saturday morning…and came to Canada Monday morning. So I had basically under two days at home with the family. I’m out here for a week, I go back and I get maybe ten days and then I’m back on the road again. The UK tour starts again, and takes me through until Christmas, I get Christmas and New Year off, and then I go to the States January and February. So I cannae start to see daylight again until mid-February.
As testament to his popularity, Rick Mercer’s “Final Report” at the Writers Festival had to be moved from a downtown venue to the much larger Centrepointe Theatre. Nearly 1,000 fans showed up to hear their favourite television comic perform in front of a live audience. Host Alan Neal of the CBC created a warm, relaxed atmosphere, but the evening had the pacing of a stand-up show. Mercer keeping the rapt audience laughing through most of the evening. As Neal explained, Rick Mercer – Final Report is a collection of the best rants from the fifteen-year run of the Rick Mercer Report. The book is also interspersed with behind the scenes memories and an homage to the show’s crew and production staff. Listening Mercer’s stories from the road, it was easy to understand how Mercer would build camaraderie among the entire Final Report team.
In taking his readers and the OIWF audience behind the scenes of The Rick Mercer Report, Mercer shared some of the challenges which occurred while filming in more than five hundred different locations. Mercer is a public figure with a very private life. As he told his audience, he has sometimes found it intrusive when he has been asked to describe his home, or the model of the car he drives. However, Mercer eventually opened up aspects of his private life for discussion. Mercer discussed the process of making his own sexuality more public with a rant focussed on the 2011 suicide of Ottawa teenager Jamie Hubley. Mercer also expressed his own sense of responsibility to be a role model along with other gay adults in public life.
Mercer is nothing if not fair, indulging as Neal pointed out in “equal opportunity skewering,” which includes easily laughing at himself. He shared a hysterical story of a conversation with director Norman Jewison, in which Mercer somehow sent a compromising photo of himself to his mother, rather than to Jewison. Mercer’s comic delivery and timing was perfect throughout the performance. Reading the rants and the stories in Final Report, it would be hard not to have his voice in your head.
Mercer told the audience that his reason for bringing the Rick Mercer Report to an end was based on his desire to protect the legacy of the show. Clearly, Final Report is part of that legacy. Mercer’s pride in the Report was evident throughout his performance, especially regarding the Report’s character as one of the last real ‘family shows’ on network television. Mercer had made the decision after the first season when letters were received from parents that nothing should be included in the show that couldn’t be watched by a family with children. It was in this first season, however, that Canadians saw Pierre Berton roll a joint on national television, a story that Mercer told over continuous laughter from the audience.
Mercer’s respect and admiration for Canada’s great icons was evident, as well as his love for, and commitment to our country. As with the show, politics was the theme of the evening. Mercer lamented the lack of the giant figures of yesteryear, demonstrated so clearly during question period in the House of Commons, where Mercer deplored the ongoing lack of decorum. Unsurprisingly, when asked about a quality he would like to see in a Prime Minister, Mercer said “honesty.” However, he made it very clear that politics are not on his horizon. His rants, Mercer pointed out, in his direct and self-deprecating way, do not offer solutions. Mercer encouraged younger members of the audience to dip their toe into the political waters. “You don’t have to have it figured out, he told them “just volunteer and it will be the most exciting thing you have ever done.”
While the overall tenor of the evening was laughter, Mercer shared several important messages, including a plea to the audience, as consumers of media not to settle for brief stories on Snapchat. Mercer reminded the audience to seek out more in-depth news stories, underlining that anything that happens in the US could happen here. “Anyone thinks otherwise is wrong,” he warned. Mercer’s cautionary message made for a sobering end to a hugely successful evening. The perfect blend of seriousness and humour in his last statement captured the essence of Rick Mercer, His show will be missed, but the spirit of the Final Report will last a long time.
The Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien is one of few politicians who can credibly claim that he has retired to spend more time with his family. Chrétien, who left the public stage after four decades in politics, has successfully transformed himself into a master raconteur. In conversation with Daniel Poliquin at Southminster United Church, Chrétien presented himself as a kind of national grandfather, ready to sit by the fireside filling his audience’s ears with stories. For readers who attended the event on November 1st, Chrétien’s colorful anecdotes told the story of a man who is willing to try almost anything in name of politics. The comfortable conversation between Chrétien and Poliquin also revealed how a multi-lingual nation had been bound together by a jovial, heavily-accented man from Shawinigan.
Chrétien knows how to pull the best lessons out of each of his carefully-selected tales. The art of storytelling and the art of politics are intertwined, and Chrétien has been honing both for years. Pitching his new book, My Stories, My Times, is clearly a pleasant new agenda for the retired prime minister. [Chrétien has previously published two autobiographical works; his new memoir is a more informal collection of stories than Straight from the Heart (1985) and My Years as Prime Minister (2007).] Ever the politician, he quickly deploys a joke to boost interest in the new book. Library and Archives Canada, he confides to Poliquin, had recently pressured him for the promised book manuscript. “Why?” asks Poliquin, amplifying the audience’s curiosity about any salacious details which might be included in My Stories, My Times. “Because they claim I will be the last one to write with a pen!” Chrétien shot back. Working in neat longhand, Jean Chrétien may indeed have been the last prime minister deposit a hand-written manuscript at LAC. Yet Canadian audiences will still want to read the printed pages of Chrétien’s vivid collection of anecdotes.
Largely drawn from My Stories, My Times, the memories which Chrétien shared in in conversation with Poliquin each offered insights into Canadian culture and leadership. Chrétien’s remarks held an underlying reminder not to take oneself too seriously, to accept one’s own imperfections and to keep focused on a few selected values through life’s unpredictable journey. Some of the most amusing stories involved Chrétien’s interactions with the British royal family. He related a story of flying on a small plane with Queen Elizabeth. “The Queen was always speaking in French at me,” confided Chrétien to Poliquin, “You know why?” [He paused for a beat]. “She could not stand my English!” On the same trip, Chrétien admitted, he found himself singing a solo of “O Canada” in French to a crowd of non-Francophones. The scheduled Anglophone singer had cancelled at the last minute, and Chrétien, who was then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, had yet to learn the English lyrics to the national anthem. The royal family, he reported, has never forgotten the trip. Most of the audience laughed at the anecdote, but it was carefully chosen: in politics, and in life, never forget to get out there and sing as the occasion might demand. This lesson still holds even if you’re sweating profusely, can’t carry a tune and don’t know the words to the song in question. Chrétien’s narrative, as well as his career trajectory, have made it clear that Canada is a better place when we can forgive each other our accents, inflections and mistakes.
Chrétien reminisced about the highs and lows of his career, including the personal attacks he weathered during the Quebec referendum crisis of 1995. Throughout the years, Chrétien has advanced by keeping his eyes on the prize, acknowledging his opposition, and refusing to be derailed by dissent. He advocated for so-called retail politics, stressing the significance of shaking hands with as much of the electorate as possible during his own campaigns. He also seemed very much at peace with his own observance that “when the nation is happy, the people are not [all] necessarily happy.” Over the years, Chrétien has found support and respite in his family life, as well as enjoying the benefits of sleep and “a bit of exercise.”
Family, exercise and nationhood were all interwoven in one of Chrétien’s final anecdotes of the evening. Earlier this year, a few of Chrétien’s children and grandchildren had set up a ski lesson for the retired prime minister and his great-grandson William. Coasting slowly with young William between his knees, Chrétien felt a deep pleasure in fate, grateful that he was healthy enough to teach a third generation of his family how to master a national sports. A few yards down the bunny slope, Chrétien released the boy, who continued along, pulled by on his own momentum and gravity. At the end of the outing, he told young William: “Never forget that you skied for the first time with your great-grandfather!” The boy immediately rebuked Chrétien: “No! I did it alone!” Chrétien beamed as he relayed the boy’s words to the audience: “chip of the old block!” With forty years of elected office under his belt, Jean Chrétien knows when to take credit for a transformative experience, when to give credit to others, and how to spin the whole episode into a usable, charming and funny story. Chrétien’s life to date, as he told Poliquin and the rapt audience, holds no misgivings. “I have done my best,” he concluded, fittingly, “No regrets!”
Moderated by Susan Birkwood of Carleton University, True North was a Sunday evening discussion with two Indigenous authors: Waubgeshig Rice and Eden Robinson. Coincidentally, CBC broadcasts two podcasts, Unreserved and Reclaimed, both of which feature Indigenous voices and emerging music, on Sunday evenings. I listened to both as I drove home. A quick listen to each show reveals the depth and breadth of talent in Canada’s Indigenous communities, as well as passion, humour, and verve. I hope Sunday night does not become an Indigenous programming ghetto. The sold-out crowd which responded gleefully to Rice and Robinson’s banter and reflection indicated that a wide audience for such programming certainly exists.
Waubgeshig Rice, a writer and CBC journalist from the Wasauksing First Nation, opened with a reading from his new novel Moon of Crusted Snow. The novel is a post-apocalyptic tale about a prolonged power outage at a northern reserve. The narrative includes the appearance of an unwelcome white guest who seeks refuge from conditions further south. In the passage Rice read aloud, an elder reflects that there is no word for “apocalypse” in Ojibway. The elder describes the Ojibway world ending over and over – first through being people forced off the land, then through losing their children to residential schools. “We’ve been through ‘apocalypse’ after ‘apocalypse,’ but we survive,” the elder observes.
Eden Robinson, who is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, has won multiple awards for her writing, including a place on the short-list for the Giller prize. Her reading pulled the audience from an atmospheric Northern scene right into the heart of everyday life: a teenage boy dreaming of his girlfriend smoking joints, dying her hair, looking at her phone. It’s a loving scene of normalcy. Trickster Drift, however, is a story of the supernatural infusing life – the boy, Jared, is stalked by his witch mother’s psychotic ex-husband, and is confronted by the supernatural everywhere he turns. As the son of the Trickster, he must come to terms with his true nature to address the forces at work in his life.
Moderator Susan Birkwood began the evening by asking Waubgeshig Rice about his book tour. Rice shifted uncomfortably and said touring was, “You know, fine. A bit of a grind.” He paused, then continued, “But it can be fun - a fun grind.” Eden Robinson cut through the tension with a cackle and a waggle of her eyebrows. “A ‘fun grind,’ eh??” The audience joined in her laughter and Birkwood scrambled to bring the talk back on track.
Rice tended towards darker reflection, describing how a white person recently told him that during the Ottawa tornado he had considered “going to the res” for shelter, not unlike the events in Rice’s Moon of Crusted Snow. Rice observed “He thought he would what – be welcomed? That he was entitled to be there?” Birkwood observed that the white character in Rice’s novel is “a bit of a Windigo” (an evil spirit in Algonquin-speaking people’s mythology). Rice agreed, noting that the “Windigo represents the worst of humanity – he arrives when people are at their weakest.” Rice intended his main character to be an “homage to some honourable men I knew,” pointing out that the band council in the story is also composed of admirable, capable men to combat stereotypes of reservation governments. Robinson jumped in “but he’s (Rice’s main character) got this trouble with his wife, right?” “Right,” Rice acknowledged, “there’s a few ‘rez’ characteristics in there too.”
Though Eden Robinson has written pieces with more specifically political messages – one of her short stories imagines a more extreme Indian Act with violent consequences – she would not let the night be dominated entirely by serious subjects. Bubbling with ribald jokes, Robinson peopled her reflections with loving and hilarious stories of her extended family. Her works are a maniacal mish-mash of worlds. In many of Rice’s stories, the supernatural world reflects indigenous mythology as well as science fiction. Jared is the son of a witch and the Haisla Trickster, while later in the book a ghost in a bathrobe appears and introduces himself as Arthur Dent, the main character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Birkwood wondered if Robinson’s Dr. Who references were intended to invite comparison with Indigenous mythology – a 900-year-old time lord is nothing in an indigenous timeline! Robinson laughed, however, and said that she included them “more for my amusement” than for any specific purpose.
The evening allowed festival-goers to experience two delightfully different authors and works conveying varying aspects of the Indigenous experience, from a northern reservation community to an Indigenous boy finding his way alone in Vancouver. Themes of colonialism, Indigenous identity, and intergenerational trauma emerge organically in distinct stories and characters. Listening to more Indigenous artistic expression on the way home, I reflected on how the large the space is for Indigenous art, the more varied, nuanced and individual voices can be shared - and the richer Canada’s cultural world is for it.