Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Breaking the Shell

Led by Sean Wilson, the Festival’s own Artistic Director, Breaking the Shell began with a quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Three very different, yet equally astounding, books are the topic of tonight’s discussion as well as how the three authors used the medium of the written word to explore human pain and experience.


In describing Lee Maracle’s latest novel, Celia’s Song , Sean Wilson describes a ‘full-body experience’ he had when reading a particular scene, causing him to be ‘wracked’ with emotion. Few books can affect us in this way and Maracle, a member of the Stó:l? Nation, explains the Aboriginal concept of think-feel—that we cannot think without feeling and vice-versa. Celia’s Song is rooted in a traditional Aboriginal story, though Maracle has re-interpreted it in her own way. Her biggest fear when writing the book was not being able to do her duty to her nation and do justice to the story, though apparently she needn’t have worried—she describes reading the book to her elders, her version of the story met with great appreciation. During her reading I am swept away by the forceful natural description; a storm has arrived and its angry energy is apparent in her voice as she reads aloud. Celia’s Song follows the story of Mink, a shape-shifter, who bears witness to the events of a Native Canadian community on the West coast of Vancouver Island. Celia is a seer, convinced she’s crazy by everyone else, but is called upon to help heal her community in the wake of a shocking event. This sense of community is important to Maracle; she talked about the strength of indigenous communities and how they come together to solve individual problems, when the problem gets too much for the individual to bear.


Shani Mootoo’s novel, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab is on the longlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It follows the story of Jonathan, who reconnects with his mother Sid after many years, only to find out that Sid has become Sydney, an elegant gentleman living back in his native Trinidad. Mootoo’s reading is full of evocative imagery, the lush landscape of Trinidad described in bursts of colour as Jonathan gazes out of the window of the plane as he flies from Canada to Trinidad. Believing he won’t be returning to Trinidad again, he tries to remember every small detail and we are drawn into these minute snapshots, as if seeing everything up close. Mootoo’s tone is melancholy, yet tinged with a bittersweet humour. I wonder how much of this excerpt is based on experience as Mootoo, who was born in Dublin to Trinidadian parents, grew up in Trinidad and moved to Canada at the age of 24. During the writing of her novel, Mootoo said she was concerned about capturing the right voice for the transgendered Sid, as well as for the young male character of Jonathan. Though searching for an authentic voice for Jonathan, Mootoo was adamant that she would write him her own way — she wanted him to feel and to be able to be hurt.


David Bergen is the author of a commendable eight novels including the Giller Prize-winning The Time in Between. The most light-hearted of the evening’s three novels, but no less free of human pain, Bergen’s latest literary offering, Leaving Tomorrow , had the audience chuckling out loud with its witty prose and brusque humour. Set in Alberta and Paris, Leaving Tomorrow is a coming-of-age story about Arthur, an extremely clever and curious individual, whose above-average intelligence leaves him isolated and striving to find his place in the world thus causing him to run away to France. Bergen’s reading was quick and jocular; the ingenuousness of Arthur is at odds with his intellect and his misunderstanding of human nature lends itself well to humour. This is Bergen’s first novel written in a first-person narrative and he was aware of the difficulty of this, however, he commented that his wife has said she finds him happiest when he is in the middle of writing a novel. Lee Maracle guffaws when she hears this—“I should start writing happier novels!” she exclaims.


As a first-time visitor to the Festival, I am grateful that it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers I may not have otherwise heard of or had the chance to see in person. To hear an author read from their own book is a magical experience, their voices soft with compassion as they revisit their words. These events have allowed me, and I’m sure many others as well, to discover not only new books but an impressive and vast back catalogue of Canadian literature. I know how I’ll be spending this winter — indoors, curled up with the many remarkable books the Ottawa Writers Festival has introduced me to.