Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"Living History" with Denise Chong and Charlotte Gray

The sold-out event featuring authors Denise Chong and Charlotte Gray and hosted by CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld was the second entirely local event within the fall 2013 Ottawa International Writers Festival.   Both authors have international reputations and have published a number of works in the past.  


Denise Chong spoke about her latest book Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance.  It focuses on a time during the mid-twentieth century when families emigrated from China to Canada and specifically to the Ottawa Valley area.   She talked of the political backdrop to families leaving China during the 1940’s and later. The families were rebels, in a way, for they chose to settle away from the Chinese communities in Toronto, Vancouver and New York.  She was interested as to why the families moved to the Ottawa Valley and she wanted to bring into “sharp relief” the experiences of the Chinese immigrant. Through her research, which includes conversations with family members, Denise searches to “reveal the precise moment when a life changes”.  


Denise read some excerpts from her book and described several other portions.  She told of the shock of settling in a new country and of the isolation the families faced.  One young woman and her mother, in planning a move to Canada, had 12 new dresses made and bought 12 new pairs of high heels.  When they arrived in Ottawa they were driven to Carp where they ended up pumping gas for a living.  The dresses and shoes were of little use.


Denise had attended another Writers Festival Event earlier in the week and she heard author Michael Winter speak about writing about people’s lives.  Michael’s words resonated with Denise.  He said ‘life is messy, it is chaos and doesn’t have structure”.  Denise tries to take people’s messy lives and give them structure.  Charlotte agreed we all have unstructured lives.  


Charlotte Gray’s latest book The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country is a departure from her previous work as the focus of this book is a true crime.  A domestic servant working in the house of the famous Toronto Massey family murdered her boss.  Eighteen-year-old Carrie shot Bert Massey in cold blood as he walked up the steps to his home in January 1915.  Charlotte was interested in not only the crime itself but also how the circumstances within Canada at the time may have impacted the trial.  It was early in WWI, women were demanding the vote and immigrants were arriving from places other than the British Isles.  These factors had a role in the trial and the verdict.  


The discussion that took place after the book readings was very interesting, frank and open.  I found hearing about each author’s experience in research to be fascinating.  Charlotte’s leads for a story, at times, come from a chance meeting when she is out walking her dog in Ottawa.  Denise spoke of hearing about family history from people in their 80’s and 90’s who have never told anyone of such events before.  They realize that if they don’t tell now, the event will go to the grave with them.  


Both women are very interested in exploring the human side of their subjects.  They feel some of what those they interview have felt.  And if it is a painful, emotional story they “weep” with those they are interviewing but at the same time a part of them is thinking “this is really good stuff”.


Denise Chung and Charlotte Gray are our local “really good stuff”.  My hope is that you will read their books and discover for yourself.