Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Friends Like These


Bringing together an art aficionado, a poet and a playwright, "Friends Like These" featured authors and works of fiction that breakaway from the common mold. The session was moderated by Ottawa poet Nina Jane Drystek.


“These aren’t neat little stories that tie up in a polished narrative bundle,” says Anakana Schofield, referencing her own novel, Bina: A Novel in Warnings, as well as Sara Peters’ I Become a Delight to My Enemies and Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.


“I want to present the extraordinary in the ordinary in the best literary terms I can muster,” says Schofield. “I’m not interested in conventional forms. They’re unsatisfying.” Schofield’s book profiles a woman named Bina who is fed up with life and takes to writing her story on the backs of discarded envelopes. The author says she “wanted to write a portrait of female friendship,” while grappling with difficult issues like end of life choice and suicide. Having lost friends to suicide, Schofield was inspired to delve into the difficulty those left behind face when loved ones choose to end their own lives. Bina tackles difficult philosophical questions about end of life choices, while also bearing witness to the struggles that lead people to end their own lives. 


Schofield says she was inspired by works of art like those of British painter Francis Bacon. She says Bacon’s paintings made her feel an ache in her body, and she wanted to recreate that sensation through the careful crafting of her sentences. It’s a cross-pollination of art form, as Schofield describes it, which helps the author to break free from more traditional attempts to relay narrative.


Author Sara Peters similarly drew inspiration from a variety of sources for her work of “experimental fiction,” which combines poetry and short prose vignettes. The stories in I Became a Delight to My Enemies speak of shame, fear, cruelty and transcendence of women from a place called Town. Peters says she was interested in the theme of how animals attempt to escape their predators. She had read about caribou and how they can be negatively affected by low-lying aircrafts. Such disturbances can cause a caribou herd to run until their hooves are raw. Peters became fascinated with the phenomenon and applied it to her characters’ reactions. 


“What if the animal kept running without hooves, to its knees, to a rolling pelvis?” Peters asks, “What if that animal was a woman? What would cause someone to do that?” 


To address those questions, Peters said she had to divorce herself from caring. When she did write scenes of extreme violence or cruelty, she says, she always questioned the root causes, wanting to be unsparing in a self-examination of her writing. Peters’ book is both intellectually stimulating and visually appealing. For example, the margins of the pages include short passages – what she describes as “marginalia” – spoken by ghosts to offer a summary to the main piece or undermine it entirely. The combination of marginalia, poetry and prose, as well as the use of different fonts and absence of page numbers, creates a collage effect—earning the book its “experimental” description, and offering a departure for readers about what to expect in future literary works.


Megan Gail Coles’ Giller-nominated Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a dark comedy set in the dead of winter in a St. John’s restaurant. The novel follows the lives of two women as they confront the traumas of their pasts. The book is organized into three meal-themed sections: prep, lunch and dinner.


“I was always going to write a novel that dealt with a modern Newfoundland,” says Coles, describing her work as a Gothic Newfoundlandia-style novel that delves into issues of racism and classism. Coles is a playwright and expert in her craft, and her talent shines in both her theatrical reading and the dialogue on her pages. Coles’ novel is at once harrowing and haunting, and Coles says it stays with the reader by design. At the heart of the book are two women who, although encountering so much darkness and cruelty in their lives, are still willing to give everything they’ve got to help others. 


“As much as [the book] is about darkness, it’s about the light that allows the darkness to exist in my culture,” says Coles, who was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador. One of her goals was to profile humans trying to achieve different versions of happiness. It was important for her not to vilify anyone, she acknowledges, especially given the complexities behind people’s motivations. 


Each of these books is thoughtfully written and each leaves readers with a sense of future literary art. Art doesn’t exist to placate you or help you find yourself, argues Schofield. These are novels that will stay with you – both to feed your desire for good storytelling, but also to leave you wanting more from authors who push the boundaries of literary art.