In her opening lines, the host of Monday evening's closing event, Carleton University's Susan Birkwood interpreted the title "Just between us" as suggestive of intimacy, confidentiality, and exclusivity. In a way, she was right for mulling over the themes of identity, selfhood, and belonging is inherently a very personal, intimate affair. Nevertheless, the atmosphere the three exceptional authors thoughtfully guided by Susan created for their attentive audience was one of openness, inclusion, and curiosity.
Prefaced by authors' readings of their respective novels, the pensive discussion that ensued left me wondering: Who am I? Am I truly one of a kind? These are fundamental questions that, to a certain extent, each of the three books' main protagonists are grappling with. Inevitably, family bonds and the relationship we have with those closest to us shape and define who we become and what kind of a relationship we build with ourselves. By offering us a sneak peak into their most recent literary works, Terry, Eliza, and Michael showed us that twins, whether real or imaginary, could irreversibly disrupt the status quo of our state of mind.
In the case of Terry Fallis' newest book, One Brother Shy, unexpected reunification with an estranged twin brother pushes Alex MacAskill further outside of his comfort zone than he'd ever imagined and awakens in him a whole new world of possibilities, a side of his identity he had never knew existed. The idea of twinning is prevalent, albeit more metaphorically, in Eliza Robertson's Demi Gods, which explores a complex and mystery-infused relationship between a stepbrother, Patrick, and stepsister, Willa, mirrored against their two other siblings. Michael Redhill in Bellevue Square creates a masterfully crafted female character, Jean, whose sense of self and personal sovereignty are questioned and threatened when she is alerted to the prospect of sharing the world with a doppelgänger.
The past is ever present; it remains engraved in our personality's coat of arms; what's more, it is a red dot that flickers like a lighthouse in the night, alerting us to that which has remained unresolved and misunderstood. Ultimately, it accentuates the three protagonists' present difficulties as they confront their other I's. Alex MacAskill is haunted by the memories of a vicious bullying incident; Jean must learn to live with post partum depression; and Patrick has a dark, controlling, manipulative streak that affects his behaviour towards Willa.
Visibility is both helpful and oppressive at the same time. Surveillance is watching the other, observing oneself, and defining the self. In the end, it is up to us how much of ourselves we let on, what we choose to reveal to the outside world. Or is it? For there are instances, such as those in which Alex, Patrick, Willa, and Jean find themselves that have the power to crack through the thick surface of our identities and transform our worlds, our status quos.
Monday evening's exceptionally well-curated and free-flowing conversation between three Canadian authors who are as eloquent in person as they are on paper took us on an exploratory literary journey of the deep and complex self, interwoven with moments of genuine humour and authenticity. The latter is a simple equation consisting of just the right amount of details and corkiness (T. Fallis) and little examples from your everyday life, including habits, quirks, or pet peeves (E.R.). After all, it rings true that being authentic is being yourself.
“Maximum Canada” isn’t a phrase usually associated with our nation of frequent apologies and cold weather. Yet, as Doug Sanders asserts, Canada has sometimes undermarketed itself to the world and its own citizens. In a lively conversation with the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Saunders outlined the unexpected costs paid by all who live in this lightly-populated land. A vigorous public question-and-answer session followed the presentation, and Saunders successfully defended his thesis. We are indeed a nation limited by a certain lack of critical mass, not in land or natural resources, but in population. Canada simply lacks the mass of artists and architects, laborers, venture capitalists who make a country a viable independent whole. As a result, we are a nation of small cities, a place in which 10% of the population can be found abroad at any one time.
Saunders began his presentation by outlining the challenges faced by his Ontario ancestors, outlining a world in which devotion to the Loyalist cause, as well as fear of annexation by the United States, blinded many to the actual needs of a developing urban industrial economy. Canada, of course, is not alone in viewing itself through a distorted mirror. Many nations have idealized rural visions of their culture and economy long after the land ceased to be a practical means of support for their populations. Sadly, Canada is far from alone in resisting immigration, nor its brutal repression of native populations. But Canada is alone, Saunders counters, in its continued underestimation of the number of people required to sustain a viable, independent nation into the 22 nd century.
Population density limits Canada’s future in several unexpected arenas. In addition to lacking the people to fill specific empty jobs, for example, the nation suffers from the lack of the solid infrastructure a larger population could fund via a more prosperous tax base. Denser cities could foster a more vital environment for small businesses and start-ups. Such places would certainly provide the ridership for more sustainable mass transit options. A similar lack of base population limits the creation and provision of culture: smaller potential audiences mean fewer successful playwrights, musicians and performers.
Saunders’ ideas are shaped by the time he spent in the US and UK developing his own skills as a journalist; he asserts that time abroad is all but mandatory in many career fields. The private sector also suffers from its small size. Fewer venture capitalists and a nationwide aversion to experimental investment means that such profitable everyday items as the telephone and Kraft’s “American” cheese were invented and marketed by Canadians working south of the border. Indeed, Canadian demographers have noted that Canadian outmigration has exceeded in-migration in almost every year since Confederation. Human population is not static, and as Saunders reminds us, this peaceful nation of the North will have to work hard to attract and retain people to live here if it wants to remain either its global influence or its domestic comforts.
Payam Akhavan, the accomplished Iranian-born law professor and practitioner of international criminal justice, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to guide the Canadian public in transcending apathy and materialism towards a more emphatic existence. Yet that is precisely what he has achieved through his surprisingly personal Massey Lecture, In Search of a Better World.
Akhavan has been on the front lines of efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity since his time as a Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague. He has witnessed the raw materials of mass atrocity -- the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines radio station serving as the mouthpiece of the Rwandan genocide -- and understands that grave breaches of international humanitarian law are usually preceded by public campaigns of hate. For the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, but rather with words -- as Canada’s Supreme Court has affirmed. As such, the current environment of rising polarization gives pause to someone like Akhavan who has witnessed the terrifying manifestations of intolerance left unchecked.
I have not yet had the chance to read Akhavan’s work, so will not attempt a review -- suffice it to say that it calls for transformation in two spheres, firstly at the level of the individual as we learn to find empathy with another’s suffering, and secondly through an “injection of social justice” within the system of global integration, which is facing unprecedented pressure to demonstrate its vitality.
At its core, Akhavan is expanding upon a mantra of his mentor and fellow McGill Faculty of Law colleague, Irwin Cotler, who repeats the teaching of his mother that “if you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you.” We are eager to cloak ourselves in righteousness but not to take to action. There are important lessons here for journalists, who often leave people feeling powerless in the face of evil; and politicians, who have been known to compete over capacity to express remorse rather than capacity to act (he points to a partisan debate in the Canadian House of Commons about the plight of Yazidis as a particularly egregious example of mud-throwing).
Akhavan discovered empathy for human suffering as a teenager -- already quite comfortable in his new Canadian life -- while reading of the brutal murder of Mona, a Baha’i girl his own age from Shiraz. Mona was arrested and executed for the mere act of writing an essay on the persecution of her people and systematic violations of their freedom of conscience. Mona’s death “changed everything” and launched a quest to understand how evil takes shape. It was not long before Akhavan was working on the Yugoslavia tribunal, where he confronted peace advocates who feared international criminal justice would erode their efforts towards stability -- yet Akhavan continued to find evidence that post-conflict peace cannot be achieved without justice and ending impunity for the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In recent days, Akhavan’s thoughts have drifted away from sites of acute terror and towards the current status in Kim Kardashian’s North America. He identifies deep despair among American intellectuals in the age of “the orange man in the White House” and is disdainful of the ‘Davos man’ who is so eager to join celebrities at panel discussions on global challenges, but not to “connect with the reality of human suffering” and feel the injustice inherent in the shocking socioeconomic inequality that Oxfam recently documented. He suggests the following antidote to despair: help others and, in doing so, retrieve one’s own authenticity. Later he added that being “spiritually reflective” is a crucial tool for maximizing our contributions in society.
Speaking of authenticity, what made Akhavan’s presentation so engaging was his ability to weave in glimpses of his integration into -- and embrace of -- Canada. He described his astonishment that Canadian shopkeepers were unwilling to haggle over prices and admitted that he would play house music at family gatherings, his elderly relatives singing along to the course language without understanding a word.
Akhavan’s call to action is resonating with Canadians from coast to coast, and Ottawa -- despite being excluded from the Massey Lectures tour -- was no exception, with Writersfest organizers having to add extra chairs in an already packed room. The Question and Answer period revealed a thoughtful and compassionate audience. The raw materials for a more empathic society are certainly present in our community, and they stand ready to be harnessed on an urgent basis -- not necessarily through the sort of grand campaigns for justice that have formed the bulk of Akhavan’s career, but also through Mother Theresa’s “small acts with great love.”
A pub crawl.
In the aftermath of our Canada 150 celebrations, what better way to keep the spirit alive than a pub crawl with friends?
I’ll tell you one better way.
Do it with friends from Newfoundland.
That is what happened on the nights of July the 4
and 5th on Elgin Street in Ottawa, where 6 Newfoundland authors had converged to celebrate the most loveable elements of Newfoundland life, as portrayed in their stories.
First stop: The Lieutenant’s Pump.
Deep in the interior of an establishment laid out in odd but conjunctive corners, we gathered to hear Eva Crocker, author of
As a young person born into the lee side of the millennium, Eva was able to present a view of life from a youthful perspective, with all the challenges and advantages that come with it.
She read, with a sweeping poetic lilt, words that she had authored with a depth and intelligence beyond her years, but from a reservoir not unlike that of her mother’s, as we'd find out later.
A pint and some banter, and we were across the street to climb upstairs into The Cross on Elgin to listen to Edward Riche.
Edward read from his current offering,
Today I Learned It Was You
, with an account of a nearly realized bar brawl narrowly averted by some moral intervention.
Riche’s voice flowed with that rolling Newfoundland rhythm that is so entertaining to hear.
To end the night, we sauntered northward to Woody’s Pub, where Lisa Moore, mother of Eva Crocker, took the mike.
Her story for the night was not set in a pub, but concerned a common result of any productive pub crawl, an unplanned sexual encounter.
She described the tryst in forceful, explosive language from that reservoir that I described from her daughter’s reading.
It was the perfect end to a rollicking ride, with all the saucy conversation and sordid stories that a night on the town should have.
We all went home after finishing our drinks, knowing this was just the intermission and there was a second night to come.
The next evening, we reconvened at the Lieutenant’s Pub to listen to Bridget Canning read from her novel
The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes,
which is a story about an average woman facing the severance of her job only to be redeemed by an random, impulsive act of bravery.
It was amusing to listen to Wanda’s ‘hangry’ thoughts leading up to the climax, but as the action took off, not a head in the room moved, so raptly did Bridget’s voice hold our attention.
Across the street again to The Cross on Elgin, it was Robert Chafe’s turn to read. Although he was a decorated playwright, his book,
2 Man Tent
was his first work of fiction.
He read an account of a man out on the town with his girlfriend when they meet a flamboyant gay man to whom the protagonist takes an immediate and excessive dislike, although later the man is forced to face his own latent homosexual feelings.
Again, the audience was captivated by the raw emotions in the narrative and sat transfixed on Robert’s every word.
Lastly for the night, it was at Woody’s Pub again where we gathered to hear Kathleen Winter read from her book,
Freedom in American Songs.
She started with an anecdote about how she revisited shops on Bank Street here in Ottawa where she had lived as a student when she was younger, and noted how different sex shops were between here and Montreal.
Her shameless and candid story was the perfect moodsetter for her story about a farmer in Newfoundland who, usually quiet and shy, becomes much more outspoken after some drinks at an intimate get-together. Her narrative was full of everything I love about Newfoundland writing, where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, the strong sense of community woven into every paragraph like a family that one can never escape.
Tom McMillan didn’t have an easy trip to the Ottawa Writers Festival. As he took the mic to talk about his first book, Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories, from Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper, he told the audience about a series of travel hiccups that occurred on the way from Boston to Ottawa, including accidentally striking up a conversation with a person who did not share his views on the current Conservative Party of Canada.
The audience laughed, and we were off to the races for a fascinating evening.
McMillan is nothing short of an expert on the history of the Tories in Canada. His 500+ page book with very small font and almost non-existent margins (an observation made several times by the author himself) wouldn’t suggest otherwise. He explained that the Party was founded in 1850 – before Canada was even a country – and was created to found, birth, and create, this country (in essence, to make Canada possible).
While he certainly had all the facts and figures, McMillan also displayed an undeniable personal passion for conservative politics in Canada.
One of McMillan’s key points was that the 2003 merger of the Progressive Conservatives Party and the Canadian Alliance Party has stripped the current Conservative Party of its fundamental values and priorities. Political correctness was thrown out the window when he called the merger “an earthquake,” and added that the Party has been “hijacked” by a bunch of “wackos.”
His book is part memoir and part manifesto. Host John Geddes focused on the memoir aspect and asked McMillan about his family’s influence on his involvement and commitment to the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada. McMillan spoke beautifully about his father’s belief in community service, and how one’s own salvation is tied to serving others. He extended this idea to the appeal of the Conservative Party’s historical commitment to activism and unity.
Geddes also asked McMillan about the process of writing such a detailed and dense history. He answered that he immersed himself in documents of every sort: correspondence, memos, letters, and even his own personal material. It was undeniably evident that for McMillan, writing this book had not only been a deeply fulfilling venture, but it had been a labour of love.
As the evening wrapped up with a few thoughtful questions from the audience, it occurred to me that Not My Party is not a personal memoir or Party manifesto; rather, it is a love letter to Canada. McMillan was clear that he is not pessimistic about the future. Instead, he sees our current moment as a time ripe for change, growth, and restoration.
“It’s easy to go to war,” Tim Cook told a full house at the launch of his new book,
Vimy: The Battle and the Legend,
“…it’s much harder to stop war
and pick up the pieces afterwards.”
Yet Cook has been doing precisely the hard work of making sense of war’s aftermath through much of his tenure as a historian at the Canadian War Museum. The result of that work is a book which chronicles the long history of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, from the actual events of 1917 to the much longer and more complex history of Vimy as a story Canadians have used to define their nation. In addition to summarizing the main argument of his new book, Cook also spoke about his work process; he completed the manuscript while maintaining a soldierly pace of 1,000 words a day through childrearing and chemotherapy. True to his reputation as an excellent public historian, Cook’s narrative was intelligent, timely and accessible.
Cook had the good fortune to be interviewed by Charlotte Gray (whose own book
The Promise of Canada
launched at last fall’s festival). Both authors commiserated about the occasionally-challenging task of being a historian in a determinedly forward-looking country. Led by Gray, Cook opened up about the relationship between his museum job and his after-hours job as a prolific historian, and the complex set of cultural and historical issues which began as a military conflict on a ridge between Lille and Amiens. Vimy has not always played a prominent role in Canadian history, Cook pointed out. Indeed, between the close of the Second World War and the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, Vimy was not particularly visible on the landscape of Canadian public history. Somehow, even Walter Allward’s massive monument, which had drawn 6,000 Canadians to France for its unveiling in 1936, failed to attract visitors during this period; the more than 10,000 casualties of the terrible four-day battle all but forgotten. Perhaps the horrors of the Second World War had overshadowed the heroism of the Great War. Perhaps everyday Canadians had other concerns.
Cook argues that the rebirth of Vimy in the popular imagination began in the mid-1960s, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson was among those seeking a powerful defining moment to serve as the “birth” of a new, modern Canada. The symbolic power of Vimy might easily have easily died after 1967, Cook pointed out. The fact that this single battle has endured as a symbol of Canada is perhaps the most interesting question raised by Cook’s research. Vimy brought the nation together, both symbolically and, in a military sense quite literally: it was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. Yet Vimy could easily have come to stand only for senseless loss; for many in Quebec, the term “Vimy” is synonymous with conscription. The battle now seen as a crucial moment in binding Canada together nearly tore the country apart before bringing it together.
Saima S. Hussain. Ferrukh Faruqui. Munirah Maclean. Hanan Abdulmalik. What do all of these women have in common? They are all inspirational women who are unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically Canadian.
Gracefully poised across a stage, these women gathered in front of a crowded audience on Sunday to share their journeys of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Canada. They reflected on the stereotypes Muslim woman face on a day-to-day basis and the need for recognition of the diversity found within the group. For example, some Muslim women choose to be professionals, while others choose to be homemakers. Some Muslim women wear jeans, while others choose to don the abaya. Some have roots in East Asia, others hail from North Africa.
Claiming their personal narrative, each of these Muslimahs shared their story of how they have grown up to be very much Muslim and very much Canadian. Hanan reflected on the "perceived" versus "imposed" identity of being a Muslimah and the identity politics she faced navigating different spaces as a Black, Muslim-Canadian. Munirah spoke of her spiritual journey as a British-born convert who moved to Canada after meeting the love of her life. Ferrukh spoke about how Islam is reflected in her profession as a medical doctor.
The diversity of these Muslim women, and the stories of many more women profiled in the collection The Muslimah who fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women (edited by Saima S Hussain), is very much reflective of the diversity found within the mosaic of Canada’s population. To the attendees of this panel discussion, nothing seemed more quintessentially Canadian than an event with a group of Muslims being warmly hosted in the heart of Christ Church Cathedral; how wonderfully and unapologetically Canadian.
I could scarce believe that Anita Desai, that enduring titan of letters, would be in Ottawa. I wasn’t alone; festival founder Neil Wilson confessed to being jittery about whether Desai—roped in from Montreal where she was in attendance as the Blue Met Grand Prix laureate—would actually arrive and speak to us. She was a tender presence, and her soft register as she read a selection from her novella
The Artist of Disappearance,
transported me to my childhood in India where my Malayalee patti (Tamil for grandmother) whispered stories as I fell asleep.
I’ve never read any of Desai’s books (a situation I’m bent on remedying immediately), but when my fiction book club was in its early, amorphous days six years ago, one of our books was Kiran Desai’s (Anita Desai’s daughter)
The Inheritance of Loss,
winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Its prose was so beguiling and self-assured that Desai the younger seemed immediately to join the ranks of bright young stars such as Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali. Within our intimate group of four, The Inheritance of Loss opened up new avenues of vulnerability and friendship and indelibly convinced me that a reading life without fiction is a thoroughly impoverished one. It formed part of my own early journey of falling in love with and discovering literature like a rustic Danish diner sampling Babette’s feast.
So I came to the evening thinking, “I wonder what Kiran’s mother is like.”
Peter Schneider of the Canada Council for the Arts, was our mediator. Schneider did a stand-up job with David Mitchell last fall, and his steady demeanour exudes both his mirth and moral seriousness towards literature, reminiscent of the respected critic James Wood. Even as they began after Desai’s brief reading tapered off, the first thing that struck me was their mutual self-restraint and maturity: it added a certain elegant dignity that only comes with time and apprenticeship to reading and writing.
You could sense this self-restraint and maturity in Desai’s confession that she hardly reads her earlier work. She described how she found her voice in Fire on the Mountain and this development was her true starting point. I could hear the inbreathed sighs from the audience at this display of humility. Desai mentioned how she was aware of a community of established Indian writers in mid-twentienth century, post-colonial India. These included luminaries such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and N.C. Chaudhri. Yet, Indian publishers were not keen to give a young Indian writer a chance, preferring the stable sales of textbooks and established writers, usually from Great Britain and America.
Desai would say, “We didn’t have writers festivals, and one rarely met other writers.” But there was a rare exception - a neighbour in Old Delhi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (as trivia would have it, the only person to have won both a Booker and an Oscar). Jhabvala was a German who had married an Indian architect, and Desai had a German mother, so it was their shared roots that drew them to each other. Desai recalls, “We discovered that we both wrote, and I remember Ruth putting her first published novel [To Whom She Will] in my hands, and I thought…it would be possible.”
Desai also gave credit to younger writers such as Salman Rushdie (she wrote the foreword in the Everyman edition to Midnight’s Children) and the brilliant observations of her peer, V.S. Naipaul in his Indian trilogy. In many ways, a colonial heritage has now become wholly adopted to Indian ends, as English is as Indian a language as any.
One of the special highlights of the evening was to hear Desai speak with tenderness towards her daughter Kiran, whose The Inheritance of Loss she termed “a profound book.” Desai also mentioned working for the inimitable Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, where Desai had been penning essays since the early 1990s.
There’s only so much a meagre review like this can capture and convey. But I know many years later I’ll recall with special fondness the evening where I sat and gave my attention to this thoughtful, warm woman whose “lifetime of habit” will be one that will endure.
“Do you think there's any truth to the idea that a writer tends to revisit the same question again and again in all their stories?” host Rhonda Douglas asked the featured authors on Monday night's fiction panel, "What You Want". It's an idea I'd heard before, and one that Lori McNulty, Elise Levine and Karen Connelly seemed largely to reject in their responses. How vaguely would one have to define a central question for that rule to hold, after all?
The thought stayed with me, though, in thinking about the three featured books: though apparently divergent in terms of subject matter and tone, there was a certain hard-to-place common ground that let them fit meaningfully alongside one another.
I was excited to hear Lori McNulty's reading. Her short stories selected for The Journey Prize Stories in recent years have been wonderful, and my hopes were high. I wasn't disappointed. McNulty's stage presence was self-effacing and warm. She opened by asking her listeners to share thoughts on places they loved to travel, before explaining that writing was, for her, the activity that came closest to the freedom of travelling.
McNulty then read an excerpt from one of the short stories in her debut collection, Life on Mars, introducing a man who, once a week, and unbeknownst to his family, dons a disguise and panhandles among the poorer downtown residents of his city. The colour of McNulty's writing, along with her compassionate, unsentimental portrayal of oddballs and outcasts, translated vividly to a live reading.
Quite a bit darker in tone was Elise Levine's reading from her most recent novel, Blue Field. The scenes she read, following two scuba divers and soon-to-be-lovers, were as dream-like as they were intense. Though it's possible it was the title's power of suggestion, I had the impression of seeing the scenes (one underwater, the next in a motel bedroom) as if through a blue-green filter – a hypnotic and oddly sinister effect.
Levine later explained that an early draft of this novel was over 600 pages long. Now, in its published form, it's quite a slender volume. Whatever distillation process she used to get to the final product, it has left her with highly concentrated, high-impact imagery demanding slow, thoughtful digestion.
The evening took another turn, tonally speaking, with Karen Connelly's reading from her new novel, The Change Room, which deals with a married woman having an affair with a female sex worker she first meets at a swimming pool. Before reading, Connelly told us there was a significant element of fantasy-fulfillment in this novel, and that the protagonist was like her in a lot of ways. I was surprised to hear her say so as readers' tendency to imagine any equivalence between author and protagonist usually seems to frustrate writers. Connelly apparently had no issue with it, in this case.
Marital infidelity aside, The Change Room is no Anna Karenina. While host Rhonda Douglas had warned the audience this was a sexy piece of writing, I didn't realize the reading would have most of the audience laughing out loud. Connelly later pitched her book as being “as consumable as a cinnamon bun,” and let us know that it was something she'd started writing mainly to make herself happy.
More than once during the discussion following the reading, the panel addressed the fact that the three featured books didn't necessarily have a lot of obvious overlap. One recurrent theme Douglas proposed was that each story dealt with moments of irrevocable character transformation – moments after which “nothing would ever be the same.” While it's undoubtedly true, it struck me that this could be said of almost all stories published, and that, for many writers and their readers, this more or less determines whether a story is worth telling. Regardless, the differences between the books weren't jarring, in my opinion – and perhaps even more could have been made of all three authors' command of evocative and poetic language, a shared feature that definitely stood out during the readings.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening came when Rhonda Douglas asked the panel to share their thoughts on writing about sex. Following Connelly's enthusiastic response and Levine's thoughtful take on using sex scenes to manifest characters' deeper conflicts, Lori McNulty confessed to feeling a bit awkward talking about the subject on a live panel, and joked that she wished she'd had some wine first. Moments later, festival artistic director Sean Wilson bounded up to the stage with a glass of wine, leading her to remark, above the audience's laughter, “This is why I come to Ottawa!”
Jan Andrews’s performance on Saturday was divided into two parts, the first being a short story, “Seal Skin”, from Sarah Maitland’s collection Angel Maker, and the second part being largely autobiographical. Coming from a theatre background, I was expecting more visual cues and physicality, perhaps a little movement, some audio or lighting cues, an acting out of a memory or experience. Initially, I have to admit, I was disappointed, but then soon adapted to the simplicity of stories being shared solely through spoken words. Andrews’s performance definitely provoked a desire to shut my eyes and just listen.
“Seal Skin” was a fictional, parable-like story of gender exploration and identity. It slowly drew the audience into a created world and into the mind of someone experiencing the limitations of their own body. Brilliantly presented as someone not only transforming their gender, but also becoming a seal (or at least that’s what I understood), it captured my imagination quite vividly. The language was poetic, all the while presented in a soothing manner Andrews. Explicitly sexual and very intimate content not usually shared aloud in a public setting quickly quieted the minds of those listening so as to hang on every word spoken. “The fear is pleasing and desire.” The switching of pronouns for the primary character from “he” to “she”, and then back again to “he” by its conclusion, was smooth and poignant. This transition was accepted with ease, without having any visuals to confirm or deny what was being communicated. This is the power of storytelling at work. “Later, he does not know if he is a man.”
The use of this short story before hearing Andrews’s story was an inventive way to warm the audience up to the relatable themes, and to better understand the nuanced and complex details of Andrews’s own journey. The honesty and vulnerability in which she took us back in time into “the secret reaches of the night” to share with us personal desires, thoughts, fears, and memories, made it easy to empathize and appreciate what was shared even more.
Andrews has a knack for rhythm, and both the personal narrative and the short story seemed to have a similar flow and certainly blended well together. The consistent use of repetition and alliteration throughout heightened my enjoyment of listening. Andrews’s use of imagery and specific examples from her youth captured a feeling that otherwise would be difficult to explain. She often repeated the phrase “safe and settled” throughout, but almost to communicate the opposite feeling. Gender questioning seemed to be a repeating theme of Andrews’s personal story, but it was not presented in a cerebral or academic way. Rather, it was accessible for anyone of any gender, with the definition of being one gender captured well by the line “It meant doing those things and enjoying them.”
The ending of the performance remained rather open ended, which I liked, not neatly wrapping up with an answer or conclusion, but rather posing more questions, honestly sharing a search for identity and gender and wondering how things would be different from a different generation, a different time and place, and with different knowledge, opportunities, and experiences. Andrews concluded, quite appropriately, “I am not a literary construct,” but rather a real person and a work in progress, like all of us. It was a refreshing perspective and a story bravely told.