Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Family Matters

Family Matters was about more than just family, and there were a lot of ‘matters’ to be discussed on October 24th, in one of Christ Church Cathedral’s halls. Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood began the evening by clarifying how we could interpret the title of the event: a couple of different ways, really. We could walk away with ‘the matters, noun’ to be discussed, or the ‘mattering’ of it all, as the word also works as a vague yet powerful verb. The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women was at the event in support, and the hosts all acknowledged the potential weight of the subjects to be discussed. Matters, indeed.


The speakers included Zoe Whittall, whose latest book The Best Kind of People has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was recently named Indigo’s best book of 2016; Katherena Vermette who was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize with her latest novel The Break ; and David Bergen, who was longlisted for the Giller Prize with his latest work Stranger . All three made for an incredibly accomplished and talented line up of writers on the stage at the event.


Each of the authors started off by reading an excerpt from their respective works. Whittall’s revealed the inciting action that would send the family of George Woodbury into disarray as a result of his sexual misconduct at a prestigious private school. Vermette brought us inside the wintry world of one of the many characters in The Break – Cheryl, a mother and grandmother, caught in the mystery and suspense of an act of despicable violence that has stricken her family. Bergen brought us along on Íso’s journey, traveling across the United States-Mexico border, with an unlikely companion to deal with during her high-stakes flight from Guatemala.


As Susan Birkwood noted, all of the readings had notes of unfamiliarity, tiredness, and an unclear version of what constituted “home.” Birkwood provided thought-provoking and in-depth questions throughout the evening, offering her own commentary and thoughts about the books and their themes.

With Whittall’s talk, it was the ‘mattering’ of it all that struck a chord with me. Whittall spoke about how she took inspiration for her book from an Ottawa support group for women who chose to remain in relationships with their spouses who had committed sexual crimes. These women are often incredibly stigmatized for the actions of their partners, and people cease to see them as human beings with choices to make, emotions to feel and consequences to face.

Additionally, in Whittall’s book, George Woodbury’s 17-year old daughter has to navigate questions of consent, as a teenager would, but to a greater degree due to her father’s actions. How do you learn trust, consent, attraction and pleasure when your own father has ruined these things for other young women?


Vermette spoke about how the concept of home and place tied into The Break. Her novel, which takes place in the North end Winnipeg, never specifically mentions the city by name, however all of the characters have names inspired by Winnipeg street names and historical figures tied to Manitoba’s capital, making the city a recognizable “everyplace.” Vermette’s novel also broaches the topic of home in a way that looks at how violence from inside and outside the home can affect a family. “Home is the best place to run away from,” Vermette mused as she talked about the family dysfunctions that can contribute, and stem from, that familiar sort of violence.


Bergen’s novel Stranger seemed to deal with the concepts of home and family more metaphorically: how can someone feel belonging when they don’t speak the same language as others around them? What if your concept of home and family is tied to one person, and that person leaves?


Stranger’s character Íso started off as an immigrant or refugee when Bergen first imagined her, but her existence became more complex as he wrote. Íso demonstrates disparities of affluence and poverty, tradition and modernity, inertia and volatility.

Throughout the event, Birkwood guided the audience through thought-provoking questions and interesting ways to connect these three standalone novels and their themes. Each of the three writers discussed the dynamics of family, but in different ways. Life events can affect our families and how we interact with them. Conversely, our family can also influence how we approach conflict, tragedy, fear or uncertainty. And at the end of the day, these dynamics do matter quite a lot.