Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Another Word for Nothing Left

It is with a cheerful and a sad feeling coming to the end of this Spring session of the Writers Fest. It was cheerful and even buoyant because it was such a successful session with fifteen hundred participants listening and discussing with 47 writers, poets, bloggers, entertainers, et al.  Sad, of course, because the festival has ended, for the time being that is. And personally, I was also sad because the hall wasn't filled to the last seat at this final event as it had done for most of them.


For us, who listened to the three engaging readings and the discussion, moderated by CBC journalist, TV host and community activist, Adrian Harewood, the last event was a great treat indeed. The authors, from very diverse backgrounds, were not lost for words at all and – contrary to the title – had much left to say.  Each novel had a strong political and/or social underpinning, while the stories themselves delved deeply into personal lives of the novels' characters.  From the reverberations twenty years later of the Air India fatal bombing in 1984 to growing up in Luanda, the capital of Angola, to crossing physical and emotional borders in an unnamed desert, we were introduced to accomplished wordsmiths and imaginative thinkers.


Nadia Bozak was born and raised in London, Ontario. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and has written novels and short stories.  El Niño is the second novel in a trilogy that is linked by theme rather than characters. Inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace , El Niño tracks the survival of one woman and a young, undocumented migrant as they journey through the no-man’s-land of a remote southwestern desert.  Borders, physical and psychological, are of central importance to the story. Borders can be defined in many ways. The people attempting to cross them, successfully or not, have stories to tell.


Ondjaki is an award winning fiction writer, poet, children's book author and more.  Most recently he won the prestigious José Saramago Prize (2013). He was born and raised in Angola, studied in Portugal, and lives in Luanda, the capital. Returning from Brazil he flew in the night before to join our panelists.  In the introduction, Neil Wilson expressed special thanks to Ondjaki's translator Stephen Henighan, who has brought Ondjaki to the attention of the North American reading public. Stephen is the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, based in Windsor, ON - a project that deserves the attention of all internationally curious fiction readers. Ondjaki's new novel, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret , is inspired by the stories told by author's own grandmother.  "Energetic and colourful, impish and playful, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is a charming coming-of-age story…" states the book's back cover. From listening to him read, you can tell it will be fun to explore.


Padma Viswanathan, born in Nelson, BC, raised in Edmonton and currently living in Arkansas, is a fiction writer and playwright. In her new (second) novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao , she imagines the devastating long term impact and aftershocks of the fatal Air India bombing on families of those who perished. Her central character is Ashwin Rao, a psychologist, whose study into "comparative grief," allows him to remain an outside observer for some time. However, this distance to the tragedy collapses as he becomes increasingly involved with one family in particular. Furthermore, his personal experience of loss pushes him to confront his own emotions leading to a deep crisis of faith.


Adrian led the discussion by asking each of the authors about their motivation for their novel. Padma started with an idea for a novel about a psychologist who, through external events, faces a life crisis. The Air India tragedy grew into emotional centrality as the novel developed. Adrian stressed that the most unique aspects of the novel is that it is the first time that the Air India bombing, an event that has continued to be like an open wound in the Canadian consciousness, has taken the central role in a substantial work of fiction. 


The questions for Ondjaki were as much to tell us more about Angola and the literary scene there as about the book itself.  Angola, he said was probably mostly in the news at the time of independence and not much since then. In contrast to Portuguese people, who gave the impression that they tended to feel sad and down, Angolans were upbeat: they loved music and dance – one of their exports – and always hoped for a better tomorrow. The literary scene is expanding and quite healthy, he explained. Young people approach him and ask for advice how to "become a writer". They don't necessarily like his answer of having to read and write a lot in the process.  Given the publishing market is not very developed, he tends to circulate his books to friends and others around him. Adrian asked about his upbringing; he felt that maybe women had a great influence on Ondjaki's upbringing. Yes, he smiled. He grew up with two sisters and both his mother and, in particular, his grandmother have influenced him greatly and still do.  The new novel centres on Granma Nineteen and he explains, among other things, the reason for her nickname.  It sounds like a very entertaining read. Ondjaki has a great sense of humour that was not diminished by him having to use English instead of Portuguese. 


Nadia, in response elaborated more on her theme of 'borders', real or arbitrary, and the challenges of cross-cultural encounters.  Landscapes she explained can define borders as can personal relationships.  Social and political issues are of great importance to her and fiction is also a device to explore those in a personal way.


An interesting discussion developed in response to Adrian's question of the "power of narrative." For Padma it was to use narrative to develop better understanding of pain; the freedom to reorder events and timelines to tell the story in a different way. Nadia's interest is to expand the conversation on the plight of marginal people, a tool for exposure of the vulnerability of characters. In this novel, the dog/coyote mix takes a central place and while he is not anthropomorphized, he is also an object.  Finally, for Ondjaki it is the power of "playing God," the fear and pleasure to imitate life in fiction and to follow reality in a new way. 


The evening concluded with a pertinent, general question from the audience:  while many of the writers we have met during the Festival are of the younger generation, the majority of the audience has been of the older generations. What to do? One can only hope, the consensus of our panelists was, that when the young people reach middle age they will move to reading books. In the meantime, all three authors (as many others) either teach or are otherwise engaged with young people to motivate them to read and enjoy stories.