Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Invaluable Lessons from My Father: Heather O'Neill


Humor, assault and class are an unlikely trio of topics for a successful evening of conversation, even at the Writers Festival. Heather O’Neill, the Montreal-born novelist best-known for her 2006 debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, somehow managed to broach all three issues with equilibrium and insight. O’Neill started the evening by reading four passages from Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father, a collection of essays based on the Canadian Literature Centre’s Kreisel Lectures. In the readings, as well as a concluding discussion with CBC journalist Joanne Chianello, O’Neill painted a portrait of a man whose deep love for his daughter was intertwined with anger at the world in which he raised her. O’Neill’s power as a writer clearly emerged from the faith placed in her by her father, as did her feeling of being an outsider in a world which all too frequently defies the rules of justice and equality.


O’Neill’s father, a sometime-janitor and occasional petty criminal, had several arbitrary rules for his daughter. The most ironic of these rules, given O’Neill’s literary talent, was “never keep a diary.” For her father, a diary was evidence which could potentially be used against the writer in a court of law. But for the young girl, the diary was a means of making sense of the world, of self-actualizing in a society which would often like to forget the existence of creative and talented working-class girls. The rules which O’Neill learned from her father simultaneously forged her loyalty to his deepest values and underscored the emerging differences between a young writer and her working-class father. (Despite making her father the focus of the conversation, O’Neill never named her father for the audience, nor clarified how long after his death the lectures were written). Another rule from O’Neill senior was “learn to play the tuba,” by which he meant, do something that no one else can do. As a girl, Heather O’Neill took her father’s mandate literally, and her description of her adolescent struggles with a series of inappropriate wind instruments was hysterically funny. It is testament to both the public education O’Neill received in Montreal and O’Neill’s growth as a writer that she has been able to both embrace her father’s idiosyncratic code and leverage his advice into growth as a writer and public figure.


The evening took a more somber tone when O’Neill revealed that her drive to write was driven at least in part by an effort to come to terms with her identity as a survivor of childhood assault and abduction. From O’Neill’s perspective, fiction is “full of more truth” than non-fiction, serving as a place where she can explore feelings and events to which she cannot yet assign non-fiction descriptors. O’Neill described childhood abuse as taking place “in the realm of silence,” and hopes that her work might give other readers the vocabulary to talk about violence. Together, O’Neill and Chianello discussed Junot Diaz’s recent New Yorker essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.”  [This event took place before the recent Diaz controversy]. For O’Neill, magical realist fiction is particularly freeing. She revealed that her attempts at memoir have been aided by the invention of a talking goose which allows her to access painful episodes in her past. In response to Chianello’s thoughtful questions, O’Neill described what makes her a writer: more than anything, it has been a conscious decision to embrace a “life of joy,” despite the challenges of daily life in an unequal world.