Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Hell is Other People

Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, Hosted by Michael Blouin

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The crowd was near capacity in the church’s main hall—an ominous sign given the title of the evening’s event.  Helen Oyeyemi didn’t help matters by beginning her reading with a grisly Old English fairy tale involving a stack of bloodied bodies, leaving audience members exchanging nervous glances.  As the reader-writers went on, however, their accounts of communication braved in spite of obstacles—from the fallout from severed relations to the barrier of language—took us away from tortured images of isolation. 


Oyeyemi moved from the fairy tale, a source narrative for her recent novel Mr. Fox , to a feisty epistolary exchange between writers that had showed their tender awkwardness.  Miriam Toews vigorously read a portion of Irma Voth where a passage is negotiated from an airport layover to the beach, revealing the vulnerability and resilience of her characters with touches of wicked humour.  Johanna Skibsrud then read an entire short story from her recent collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain where two characters persist in confronting “a mutual understanding of the perfect falsity of language.”


Michael Blouin was the host, and he kept his questions both thoughtful and crisp.  While interviewers who also happen to be writers can be obtrusive in speaking of their own work, Blouin showed humility and skill in how he kept the feature on the evening’s guests.  A few questions were somewhat predictable, although they had the virtue of allowing the writers maximal freedom in their response.  In other instances he nicely sidestepped the usual suspect to take an unexpected angle on a familiar question.  Rather than ask why they each became a writer, for instance, he asked instead why they continued writing.  The question surprised Oyeyemi such that she told him he’d have to come back to her as she really didn’t know.


Blouin was not the only one asking questions tonight, though.  After Toews responded to the first question on planning conflict between her characters, Oyeyemi quickly followed up by asking her, “do you like writing fights?”  Her vivacious curiosity extended to the interviewer himself at one point when she asked him if he missed his characters when he was done with them.  Blouin’s grace as an interviewer and Oyeyemi’s unpretentious eagerness to learn her fellow writers went a long way in leaving behind Sartre’s dark observation on the company of others. 


Later, Blouin observed the obvious commonality of the three writers’ recent works: they had each written about the process of telling stories.  Skibsrud referenced her collection’s title, stating that they shared an interest in what it took to overcome the limits of communication.  Her act of writing was itself a way “to confront that limit and overcome it through text.”  Proving her desire, she took a step back and confessed to sounding too “academic” just then.  Although having used an extended Roland Barthes quote in her reading’s epigraph and having been introduced as currently pursuing a PhD along with her next creative project, she clearly sought to speak with broad intelligibility herself. 


Oyeyemi next filled in the vivid background to her recent novel, speaking about the accumulation of news stories of women who had been murdered.  She recounted that she’d turned to fairy tales, reading them concurrently to try to find a way of responding to this harrowing reality.  It was the political interest of the Old English fairy tell she read at the outset, with its chilling depiction of Mr. Fox, that drew her to explore how language can be used to overwhelm and control another’s experience.  Hell indeed.


The authors were winsome and generously open about their writing processes—from preferred tools to eBook contracts.  When asked if writing required a touch of craziness, they nicely built on their colleagues’ answers.  Skibsrud began by talking about how “not being able to shut up” showed a certain delusion of the effectiveness of the craft in bringing about change.  Toews responded that a writer couldn’t really be crazy with the tremendous discipline involved, to which Oyeyemi suggested that the discipline itself could be a kind of mania.  Yes and no, in other words.


While the exchange was generally warm and open, Blouin himself met the limits of communication when he started angling for a preview of upcoming work.  Oyeyemi only revealed that hers was “a novel about disappointment.”  Toews: “about three women.” 


It took until the penultimate question from the crowd that a woman finally asked about Sartre’s statement on the infernal character of relationships.  At this point I, and I suspect the better part of the room, had forgotten the event’s stark title in relation to this friendly exchange.  Toews linked it to a question of Dorothy Parker’s—“what fresh hell is this?”—that she recalls being particularly useful in having kids around.  Skibsrud admitted the difficulty in people coming together, but affirmed the potential for “intense and meaningful understanding.”  Oyeyemi spoke about her novel as essentially a love story for the socially awkward, a call to arms that the attempt is worth it.  With that, these three skilled authors affirmed our deep-seated and persistent relational nature, consequent pains be damned.