Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Living History : In the Shadow of War

Living History: In the Shadow of War dealt with themes of history, memory, truth and fiction and was a poignant conversation on the ripple of conflict felt across the ages and the lasting scars of war. The host for the evening’s discussion was CBC’s Laurence Hall, who began the proceedings with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” These words took on a particularly affecting meaning after the sudden and tragic events of last week. Two soldiers killed in cold blood with little explanation left a country reeling in shock, and Wall took time to honour each soldiers’ memory, speaking their names—Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent—so that we are able to preserve them in words, their bravery in our memory. The audience stood for a moment of silence; reflecting on the sacrifice of these two men, taken before their time.


Laurence Wall then introduced each author, listing their many impressive achievements to a feeling of reverent awe from the audience. First up to the lectern was Winnipeg-native Margaret Sweatman, reading from her fifth book, Mr. Jones . Set against the tense paranoid backdrop of Cold War-era Canada, Mr. Jones follows the story of Emmett Jones, a former WWII bomber pilot who returns to his homeland changed and isolated only to come under scrutiny by the RCMP and FBI for suspected Communist affiliations. Sweatman read three excerpts, each starkly different in subject matter. The first outlined the external and political frame of the book; the stifling scrutiny that Emmett is put under following his return to Canada. The second charts a former love affair of Emmett’s wife Suzanne. The third was a conversation about life and love between Emmett and Suzanne’s five-year-old daughter and a doctor friend of the family. This last excerpt takes place in a country cottage, the natural setting described with vibrance and the open language of Emmett’s daughter a stark contrast from the clandestine tone found earlier in the novel.


Second to speak is Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the Giller Prize in 2010 for her debut novel The Sentimentalists. Her second novel, Quartet for the End of Time , was inspired by and structured around the chamber piece of the same title written by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in a German prison camp. Skibsrud spoke about the connective nature of stories, how one can lead you on to another, and how this intrigued her while writing this book. Quartet for the End of Time follows four characters across time and place; beginning with the Bonus Army riots in 1930s America when some 47,000 veterans and their supporters marched on Washington. Skibsrud reads an excerpt of the moment the Bonus Army, led by General MacArthur, arrives at their destination. The passage is alive with intense imagery—a city engulfed in gas and flame, thick choking smoke smothering the scene as people scramble to fight or to run away—you could just feel the energy and anger rising from the page as Skibsrud read.


Lastly, Ottawa’s own Frances Itani took to the stage to read from her 14th book, Tell , which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. Some familiar characters from her previous novel, Deafening, can be found here—obviously, Itani felt there was still more of their stories to be explored. She reads a letter written by Kenan, a minor character in Deafening, to his friend Hugh who is recovering from tuberculosis on Prince Edward Island. Kenan laments their experience during the First World War: “we went off to war like children who had been blindfolded for the occasion.” He constantly questions why it all happened; searching for any answer that will give him some relief, some sense of meaning. He is back in his home, back with his wife, but he is a changed man both physically and mentally. There is a fluidity and a softness to Itani’s prose and as she reads in a clear and steady voice, there is a sense of time slowing down.


Following the book readings, Laurence Hall asked how each author managed to maintain an authentic voice while writing about a difficult and distant time period. Skibsrud responded that the freedom of literature allows authors the opportunity to tell both sides of the story—the known and the unknown. Through literature, multiple stories can be brought alive, even the lesser known ones. Itani says it is a mixture of imagination and immersion that preserves the authenticity within her writing. She spent six years researching her novel Deafening , winner of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, by reading letters, journals and newspaper articles and interviewing WWI veterans. This immersion allowed her to capture the voice and language of the period. Sweatman likens writing historical fiction to trying to see and hear things that aren’t there, though she insists that they are there, for the unofficial erroneous histories are where the real ‘juice’ is for writers. The idea of mixing fact and fiction was continued as some of the authors’ work featured real-life characters from history. After all, “history is public domain” states Sweatman, you are just borrowing a character to authenticate your story, though she believes you should keep your distance. Skibsrud found it hard not to run into real-life figures, confessing that she perhaps brazenly lifted from true life stories. “But isn’t this what literature can do best?” she questioned, by strengthening the continuity between fact and fiction and bringing back ghosts from their ambiguous resting place.


As the discussion drew to a close, the audience was left with a few parting thoughts. Are we doing ourselves a disservice by trying to move on from past wars? Skibsrud believes it is important to continue the conversation in a healthy way, and literature encourages this. She also questioned if war has really changed at all in the past hundred years—the conflict, the bloodshed, the tragic waste of life, and the numerous men and women who return changed. Are we just inherently fighting the same war, over and over again? In the wake of last week, perhaps this could be closer to the truth than we've ever thought.