Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Every Happy Family

The “Every Happy Family” was a full house of those eager to hear Cathy Marie Buchanan, Saleema Nawaz, and Shyam Selvadurai talks about their latest novels: The Painted Girls , Bone and Bread , and The Hungry Ghosts respectively. The night began with host Mark Medley of The National Post introducing each author, and who then read an excerpt from their respective stories. Buchanan detailed how she came to be interested in the story of Marie van Goethem. She was watching a documentary on Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer,” and as a dancer herself Buchanan became extremely interested in the sculpture and the story of the girl who posed for it.


Buchanan’s Marie is a young ballet dancer who enters the Paris Opera Ballet who must sort out issues of family, sisterhood, male suitors, and the difficulties of growing up in the underclass of 1880s Paris. The sculpture was exhibited next to a sketch of two young criminals who Buchanan then imagined to be acquaintances of Marie’s and thus the intricate and complex relationships of the story were born. At the time of the exhibit there was much speculation about the criminal physiognomy of both Marie’s sculpture and the sketch of the young men and Buchanan points out that many scholars think Degas was in fact implying that people like Marie and the young criminals were innately criminal and depraved.


Saleema Nawaz was next to take the stage - a native of Ottawa and graduate of Carleton University - her book centers on two sisters growing up in Montreal. The sisters are faced with the death of their mother and each deal with this loss in different ways, the excerpts give the audience a sense that Nawaz’s novel is a sad coming of age story punctuated by sharp wit and humour.


Shyam then introduced his own story as a novel of memory taking place over the course of one night. The main character is a gay man in his 30’s living in Toronto but he and his mother are journeying to bring his grandmother from Sri Lanka to Toronto so that she can spend her last days there with them. He spends the trip recalling his life in Sri Lanka and in particular his difficult relationship with his grandmother.


After each author had read their excerpts and given the audience some background to their stories, they all gathered as a panel to discuss the themes of their stories with Mark. Cathy gave the audience a detailed background to the origins of her novel, and Mark asked the other authors what inspired their stories of family and coming of age.

Saleema discussed how Bone and Bread began as a short story and was inspired by the very first sentence of the novel. She was struck by the idea of two sisters losing their periods at the same time, one from becoming pregnant and one from developing an eating disorder.


Shyam said that his story was inspired by the idea of the grandmother character polishing silver as she does in one of the excerpts the audience was read. He said once he started writing her character she just would not shut up. He found an instinctive voice in her but then began to panic because it was not the story he set out to write. Cathy then agreed that as she did with Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, you sometimes simply have to give the characters the voice they demand and go with them.


Mark pointed out that each story was a kind of coming of age story that all dealt with unhappy families, and the authors discussed how families are a kind of juicy subject to talk about because they are a kind of unknowable and readers are always able to relate to the kinds of struggles and relationships families have. Mark moved on to talk about how he felt that one phrase in Saleema’s novel was extremely poignant and could be applied to all three novels, one of her characters says “too much closeness keeps people apart.” Saleema said this was true of the sisters in her novel because they always lived in such close quarters and cared for one another it became a kind of marriage they did not sign up for. Cathy said the problem with the van Goethem sisters was that they simply cared too much for each other which created problems between them. Shyam said that in his novel, the grandmother loves her grandson too much and has too many expectations for him which drives them apart.


Every story dealt with coming of age and family relations and each author was able to relate to one another’s stories. It was an interesting night that truly inspired reflection on the different definitions of family and the desire to write and read about something that is both knowable and unknowable.