Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Crime and Punishment: Too Close for Comfort

On the surface, the three novels featured for the Crime and Punishment session of Writers Festival seem to have little in common. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is a tale of four Nigerian youth who encounter a prophetic madman when they go to the river to fish. Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment is about a murder in the Kingston Penitentiary that undergoes two very different trials: one in the court of public opinion, the other through the institutional justice system. Finally, Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die is the story of eleven-year-old Will and his severely agoraphobic single mother, Diane. After a lifetime of delivered groceries, clothes and art supplies, Will dons a helmet and makes his first foray Outside.


If the novels aren’t similar, however, in some ways the authors certainly are. Following that clichéd writers’ maxim, each one writes from what they know.


Appearing in a short video clip made specifically in light of his inability to attend the Festival, Obioma said he wanted his book to “evoke the atmosphere of Africa,” reflecting the relationship between this world and the supernatural. Although he currently lives in Michigan, Obioma set The Fishermen in the Nigerian town where he was born.


MacIntyre also set his novel in a world he knows well. As a career journalist, he recounts reporting from prisons everywhere from post-genocide Rwanda to death row in Texas mere hours before an execution. He listed off the many prisons he’s visited around the world, and it was no surprise that Kingston Pen was included.


When Christie shared his personal connection to If I Fall, If I Die, there was a slight yet ubiquitous gasp from the audience. The story, he said, was modelled on his relationship with his own agoraphobic mother, who died in 2008. By writing the novel from both the son’s and the mother’s perspectives, he was attempting to better understand her—and her illness.


In further conversation with Christie and MacIntryre, this attempt to understand, explore, and even shape readers’ perceptions through literature was evident. “It’s literature that can investigate the grey area, investigate the nuance,” explained Christie. He believes that writing a criminal as a sympathetic character or showing the humanity of a person who struggles with mental illness is ultimately “a net good for society.” Still, he’s wary of writing with a “big ‘A’ agenda.”


MacIntyre agreed, though admitted his own work had almost allegorical origins. The spark was the war in Iraq, or, more specifically, how one terrible incident—September 11—led to the multi-year brutality. After a crime, he explained, people begin looking for answers to reassure themselves that their community will be okay; they want to be convinced that the threat came from without and not from within, and they are hungry to place blame accordingly. When the court of public opinion gets out of control, MacIntyre said, the outcome can be uglier than the original crime. Punishment is this narrative on a smaller scale. 


“Linden personalizes the political and individualizes institutions,” said Christie, who is a fan of the full breadth of MacIntyre’s work. “He can tell a story as wonderfully as he can tell the truth.” The admiration went both ways on the stage, albeit a bit crustier from the elder MacIntyre, who summed up his sentiments to the literary newcomer thus: “Being that age, that smart, and that great a storyteller . . . Damn you, Michael Christie!”