Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"I Don't Know How You Can Sit There and Watch It": Between the Pages

Every year, the Scotiabank Giller Prize brings together writers and readers alike to explore a series of important questions: what does it mean to write, to read, to be inspired, to be Canadian? The prize is one of the largest and most prestigious awards in the nation. In 2019, as in so many other years past, the Writers Festival partners with the sponsors of the Giller Prize to bring these questions to the forefront in an event called Between the Pages. The public event is an opportunity for readers to listen to the six prize finalists in their own words. 

 

It is also, as host Jael Richardson noted in her opening, a chance to consider which stories land in mainstream culture, and to think about how we can honour “the stories that were lost, the stories that were taken too soon, the stories we will never hear.” It is a necessary reminder: literary awards are about merit, yes, but are also very much a gamble, a game of chance. Each of the Giller nominees represents excellence in Canadian literature, but the group by no means represents the only excellence in Canadian literature. 

 

All the same, this year’s lineup presents six stunning books: Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis; Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles; The Innocents by Michael Crummey; Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin; Lampedusa by Steven Price, and Reproduction by Ian Williams.

 

The Ottawa audience was the first to hear the nominees read from their works as a group, on the first stop of their national Giller tour, and the first to listen raptly to the authors explain just what, exactly, it’s like to be nominated for Canada’s biggest literary award—starting with where they were when they heard they had made the shortlist:

 

“I was in synagogue,” David Bezmozgis laughed as he recalled the moment the foundation had placed their call to him. “It was Rosh Hashanah, and my phone was locked in my glove box. I had no idea, for probably twelve hours.”

 

Alix Ohlin was making lunch for her first-grader and listening to the CBC Radio coverage. “I told him, ‘Mommy was just nominated for a prize, isn’t that cool?’” she laughed. “And he just said, ‘Hurry up, I want to get to school early so I can trade my Pokémon cards.”

 

Michael Crummey just shook his head at the idea of answering the question — the announcement is too nerve-wracking, he said, so he tries to forget about it entirely. “I don’t know how you can sit there and watch it,” he grinned. 

 

As entertaining as it is to hear writers dive behind the scenes—it turns out both Crummey and Price are at least a little disappointed with the titles of their novels—the best part of the evening was listening to the authors read from their novels. Megan Gail Coles held the audience particularly rapt with a long section from Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, belying her artistic roots in poetry and theatre — a performance something like the tales a grandmother tells by firelight after nightfall wraps the house in darkness. Ian Williams read from Reproduction entrancingly and comfortingly— channeling the voice of an older brother or a favourite professor, who loves you but expects you, unerringly, to be able to keep up. 

 

All six of the readings twined together in a way that could not be planned, could not be expected, and yet remained breathtaking—six sections from six very different books that nonetheless return the reader and the listener to the things that focus us, anchor us, provide the pinion point for centrifugal force to tear us apart. What is the importance of a shoe, a phone bill, a car door unhooked from its door? What can be gleaned, like a sense memory, from a child’s drawing, a digestive biscuit, a twisted piece of coral?

 

“It is a dead thing, and yet it will outlive me” ponders a character in Steven Price’s Lampedusa. As Price read, his audience considered the ramifications of this idea. After all, aren’t books the same? They are lifeless objects, and yet somehow take on a life of their own. These words will outlive their writers, their audiences, their literary prizes — bringing together lovers of the written word and narrative force for years to come, just as they did in this evening of reading, passion, and literary celebration.